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EP379: Concussion

By David Glen Larson
Read by Mat Weller

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For a list of all Escape Pod stories by this author or narrator, visit our sortable Wikipedia page

Rated 13+ for mild language

Special thanks to users costaipsa, iankath, mario1298 and DJ Chronos at FreeSound.org who created and/or recorded the sound effects used in this episode!

Concussion
By David Glen Larson

He scrambled from the fire that was snaking through the corridor when another explosion jolted the ship, and just like that he was dead again. A moment later he was someone else, gazing down with another’s eyes at the mangled green body he’d left behind.

Never before had Tyler experienced such terror. Sure, he’d been afraid—afraid his knee would give out again, sidelining him for the big game; afraid he’d let down his teammates and make a fool of himself—but he’d never been terrified of being incinerated in an alien system countless light-years from the home world he was forced to flee. Not until now.

Staring up at the night sky, the stars were dim under the glare of the stadium lights. Which star was theirs? He caught himself and shook his aching head. It was only a dream, after all. The frog people weren’t real.

The doctor shined a penlight into each pupil. “Any headache, nausea, or dizziness?”

“What do you think? I was just hit by a freight train.” Good old Number 32—the biggest, meanest linebacker in the NFL.

“You may have a concussion.”

Coach Landis spit tobacco juice on the grass only inches from Tyler’s head. “We’re down 22-27 in the fourth quarter with under a minute to go. Montoya’s out, Casper’s out, and now you’re saying I’m out my third string too? Uh-uh, Doc. I need Harden in the game.”

“If he takes another hit—”

“A few aches and pains go with the territory,” said the coach.

“Forget aches and pains. I’m talking stroke or death. Those go with the territory?”

“Ordinarily no, but this is the Super Bowl and I’m out of quarterbacks.”

“I can play, Coach.” Tyler rolled onto his knees and wobbled to his feet with a groan. Lights flashed and popped behind his eyes, some internal wiring knocked loose, but he didn’t let on. “I’m fine.”

Tyler teetered backward, but the coach steadied him, pretending to pat him on the back.

“That a boy. See, Doc? It was just a tap.”

“All right, but I’ll need to check his cognitive function after every play.”

“Whatever you say,” said the coach.

“I’m going to ask you to remember a list of five words. If you can’t repeat them back to me, you’re a NO-GO.”

“Apple, wrench, sombrero, parrot, porcupine,” Tyler said with confidence.

“But I didn’t give you the words yet.”

“Sure you did. Last season against the Colts. It was the only time I played. Number 24 clocked me from behind on our 15.”

“Well I’m glad to see your long-term memory isn’t impaired, but it’s your short-term memory that concerns me.”

“Fine, but make it quick. I have a qweetah to win.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“I said, make it quick. I have a game to win.”

#

The clock was frozen with 54 seconds to go, a lifetime on the field.

“This is it, Fellas. Whole country’s watching us. Hell, the whole world. Presidents, kings, grandmothers, your own mothers and kids, and God. Every one of ‘em watching to see if we have what it takes to dig deep and pull out a victory. Let’s not disappoint them.”

They broke with a clap and toed the line of scrimmage, growling, snorting like racehorses waiting to spring from the gate. But the other side showed blitz.

Even if there had been time for the coach to call a new play, they’d been having trouble with the headsets. The broadcast booth had complained about it all night. Something about atmospheric distortion. That left Tyler with only one option. He had to call an audible.

But running through the plays in his head was like slogging through quicksand. He still heard the screams, the frog-peoples’ cries for help. Jagged lightning stabbed into his brain, and he clamped his eyes shut, trying to push them all away. He needed a play. And then he had it—Omaha 22.

He bellowed the call, “Omaha nah-owa-toh-nah. Hut!

The confused center snapped the ball by instinct, restarting the clock, and the two sides clashed.

Tyler stepped back and looked for Rawlins in the end zone, but he wasn’t there. Then the freight train hit again, old number 32, sacking him to the ground for the second time.

#

The engine room was engulfed in flames as he dashed inside, this time wearing the black and silver uniform of the officers corps. Tyler wasn’t sure how he knew it was the engine room, but he did. He knew all sorts of things, like his mate’s name—Oleania, and his position, 3rd in command of the Star Traveler.

The flames were spreading through the ship, but the heat that had singed his sleeves in the corridor was nothing compared to the molten air radiating through the transparent shields in the next chamber—the compartment that housed the main reactor. The core was in meltdown.

The chief engineer and his crew were battling to contain the ferocious blaze, but even with level four protective gear, they’d be dead in minutes. Yet with each minute, they bought the captain the precious time he needed to save the one hundred thousand refugee souls massed aboard.

“They’re going to die. We have to do something.” Tyler sat up, his head spinning. He’d been dreaming again.

“You remember the words?” asked the doctor.

“Lamp, cherry, phone, bell, atoh-eenach.”

“Jesus Christ.” The coach tore off his hat and ran his fingers through graying hair. “We’re sunk.”

“One more time,” said the doctor.

“Lamp, cherry, eraika, nuinach, atoh-eenach.

Everyone was peering down at him like he’d lost his mind.

“Why are you all looking at me that way?”

“With a concussion, brain cells can depolarize and fire their neurotransmitters all at once in a cascade of damage. Aphasia, the inability to use language coherently, isn’t common with concussion, but it’s not unheard of either.”

Tyler’s headache was getting worse. When he squeezed his eyes shut, he was on the ship again, flames all around.

“Well he can still throw a ball, can’t he?”

“It’s so hot in here,” said Tyler, tugging at his collar. “Terrah, where are you? Terrah.”

“I’m not even sure he knows where he is,” said the doctor.

He opened his eyes. Of course he knew where he was. He was in Miami. At the Super Bowl, and they were going to pull him if he didn’t get his ass off the field.

“Gotcha!” he said, and sprung to his feet with a forced laugh. “I’m fine. Sure had you guys going though. Now let’s get out there and put this thing to bed.”

Before the doctor could mount a protest, Coach Landis handed Tyler his helmet.

“Like he said, Doc. He’s fine. But you sorry sons o’ bitches,” he said to the offensive line, “you better do your job this time.”

#

Tyler rubbed the back of his neck at the line of scrimmage. The voices were getting louder. Were they still up there? He closed his eyes, and was back on the Star Traveler, huddled in a tent city, one of dozens set up in the ship’s cargo holds. His name was Nawa, and when he glanced around, saw that the green faces surrounding him were as frightened as he was, but it wasn’t death he feared. What frightened him was that he and his life-mate Anjoo might never see their son Una again. The captain had called for volunteers to combat the fires, and Una was the first to stand. He’d always been a brave boy.

“Don’t let him be the first to die,” Tyler muttered.

“Say what?”

The voice sounded like Rawlins, and when Tyler opened his eyes, his teammates were watching him with concern.

“Nothing,” he said. “Let’s do this.” He took his position behind the center and tried to shut out the world. “3 … 15 … 3 … 15—”

There was a loud explosion in the corner of the cargo hold, and a great howl of wind as the air emptied into space. Men ran with metal bracing toward the buckled hull, but they were too late.

Tyler and Nawa made the forbidden sign of the old ones, dabbing second finger to forehead and making the circle. The priests’ missiles may have claimed his body, but his spirit would be free.

#

“We’ve lost pressurization in cargo hold four, Captain.”

“How many lost?” The frog man hadn’t opened his wide, flat mouth to speak, Tyler realized. They’d all been speaking with their minds.

“A thousand at last count,” replied the 1st officer, “minus the volunteers, who are still fighting the fires.”

A thousand dead, and how many more to come? But none of it was real, it couldn’t have been. It was the concussion, that’s all.

“Propulsion and maneuvering aren’t responding, Captain. Life support is failing.”

“Has our signal reached them? Do they understand?”

“For Christ’s sake,” screamed the center. “Get your head out of your ass.”

“Hut,” Tyler yelled, and the center snapped the ball into his waiting hands.

He looked downfield and saw Rawlins weaving through traffic.

Come on, damn it, get clear.

To the right, old number 32 broke tackle and steamed toward him, but this time Tyler sidestepped and launched the ball downfield.

Though it seemed to hover in the air for hours, it was only a second or two before the missile dropped toward the sideline, only yards from the promised land.

But he’d overthrown it. It was sailing out of bounds. No, Rawlins reached out and caught it with one hand, then floated along the sideline like a tightrope walker. The running back leapt for the goal line, football stretched out in front of him, but safety Derek Jones slammed into him like a charging bull, knocking the running back out of bounds with only inches to go, stopping the clock.

Once the ball was snapped, he’d only have two seconds to get it off.

“Increase the signal.”

“Yes, Captain.”

Shards of electricity stabbed into Tyler’s brain.

“What do you want from me?” he shouted, gripping his head. “Owan-a tay? Eh-oh wan-a tay?”

“We’re getting feedback, Sir. Very faint.”

The voice was piercing, and this time he had no doubt that it was real. He lifted his gaze to the night sky and stared up at the pinholes of light. Somewhere up there people were dying.

“More power.”

“Captain, we’re already overloading the array.”

“We’re running out of time.” Tyler couldn’t even tell who was speaking anymore—someone on the field or in his head.

“They must be made to understand.”

This time the pain drove him to his knees.

“Can you hear us?” asked the captain. “Please respond.”

Tyler couldn’t unclench his jaw to speak. Stop, he pleaded in his mind. It’s too much.

“You must understand. You must act.”

I can’t. “Eh-o-wa, arahee-toh quee-tak.”

There was a long silence, and when the captain spoke again, his inner voice was clear and commanding. “Evacuate,” he ordered. “Evacuate.”

It sounded like the captain was going to evacuate the ship. Maybe he was asking Tyler to mount a rescue mission, but that was impossible. Wasn’t it?

“Time.” His mouth had blurted out the word before his brain had a chance to catch up, and he was already jogging off the field when the referee blew his whistle to signal time-out.

#

“They’re gone, Una. There’s nothing more you can do.”

“No,” Tyler screamed, then remembered the television cameras following his every move. They’re not dead. Una’s four-fingered hands were clawing at the door of cargo hold four, but it wouldn’t budge.

“We must think of the others in danger.”

Una pleaded with the stars to spare his parents, but he knew it was already too late. Their voices, never absent from his mind, were silent now.

His mother and father, everyone from his village, were dead, suffocated and frozen in the vacuum of space while others aboard burned. There was no sense in it.

Why had they ever left their world? He still didn’t understand. His people didn’t start the war. They were victims, always victims, even here at the edge of the universe.

He cursed the Diadum priests, wished they would burn like the millions they’d burned on the pyres. Because of them, he was alone near a world that could never be his own.

“Son, why on Earth did you burn our last time-out?”

“They’re dying up there, Coach. People. Alien people. There was a missile strike in the Goma system. They barely got clear, jumped here, and now they need our help.”

Coach Landis cleared his throat and led Tyler away from prying ears.

“Now you listen to me, Son. I don’t know what you’re playing at, but I’ve already announced my retirement, so this is my last shot at a championship. Now do you think I’m going out as a three-time Super Bowl loser?”

“No, Sir.”

“So what you’re going to do is get your head screwed on straight, march back onto that field, and win this god damned game, or so help me you’ll be lucky to find a job coaching girl’s junior varsity in Fargo.”

#

“You got this,” said the center, smacking Tyler’s helmet. “Bring it home.”

“Full power to forward shields.”

“Hut.” Tyler took the ball from between the center’s legs and the two teams collided, plastic against plastic, muscle against muscle. Tyler threw himself over the hill of fallen bodies, the pigskin cradled to his chest, and held onto it until he heard the whistle blow. He lifted his head and watched as the back judge signaled touchdown.

The hurricane roar of the crowd was drowned out by the myriad voices ringing in his ears, all of them crying out at once.

“He doesn’t understand yet.”

“But Captain, we don’t know what the signal might do to his species—”

“It’s too late for that. They must understand.”

There was no pain this time. His mind simply ruptured, and when his ebullient teammates lifted him onto their shoulders, chanting his name, he was already inside the captain’s head.

“See with my eyes,” said the captain, and Tyler watched the holographic viewscreen as the Star Traveler pierced the atmosphere of a beautiful blue planet, caught in its gravity with no propulsion or steering. He recognized the landmass directly ahead. North America. Then the image zoomed onto the city of Miami, and farther in to reveal lights and people, so many people crowded into a stadium.

“Evacuate,” said the captain. “You must evacuate.”

The message hadn’t been a plea for help. It had been a warning.

With his awareness back in the world, he shouted for his teammates’ attention, but the hoarse cry was slurred and meaningless. He tried to signal someone, anyone, but the right side of his body wouldn’t listen to his desperate pleas. Then he heard the boom in the sky, and looked up as a shadow in the darkness devoured the stars over the stadium.

Tyler made the sign of the old ones again, dabbing the second finger of his left hand to his forehead and making the circle. The priests had killed him too, but Una, at least, would be safe.

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