Artemis Rising returns to Escape Pod for its third year! This month-long event highlights science fiction by women and non-binary authors. We have five original stories this year that range in topics from biotech to far-flung A.I, virtual reality, and nanotech.
Honey and Bone
By Madeline Alvey
With each step she took, the girl’s leg hissed. Thump, hiss, thump, hiss, thump, hiss. Whenever she lifted her leg, the knee joint extended. Her thigh and shin pulled apart unsettlingly, reminiscent of something deeply broken. Her gait was slow, round, loping. She didn’t move with any expedience. It was a speed without rush, or any desire for such.
Her footfalls themselves were soft, a quiet–thup, thup, thup. Soft leather covered her feet as she padded along, her hissing knee the loudest sound there. Once, it had creaked, a creak reminiscent of breaking metal–or perhaps, nearly as much, a rusty hinge. Before that. . .she didn’t remember.
The girl plodded slowly through a field of tall grass. The dry grass was up to her waist, rustling with each step. Rustle; rustle, hiss; rustle; rustle, hiss. It was late summer and the sun was high and hot. Her pack was heavy with honey from the field of hives outside the village. It was raw honey that she had scraped into dark jars, small glass jars could be found, at least one, in each home in her village. Several bees still lingered, buzzing around her as she walked, following her home.
The girl came over a low rise, bringing the village into sight. It was a stand of old houses, tall Victorian things all scrunched together as if they had grown from the earth. The village held lush gardens, carefully tended wells, and great tall trees. The paved paths between the houses had crumbled long ago, and repairing them would’ve required so much stone, so simple dirt paths strung the buildings together.
The bees peeled away from her then. They had come far enough. The girl didn’t seem to mind their absence as she walked slowly down the hill towards the village. It wasn’t a long trip, but the girl couldn’t walk too fast, for fear of jostling the honey on her back and cracking one of her precious few jars, and so the sky was turning yellow by the time she arrived. The activity around her was slow.
She went door to door, knocking gently and standing on the stoop until someone came to answer. She handed each person who answered a small jar of honey. She didn’t go to every house–there wasn’t enough to go around if she had. Luckily, it took some time for her neighbors to finish what she brought them.
When the girl’s pack was light and empty once again, holding only a single brown jar, she was on the far side of town, in the cool shade of a stand of trees. She walked slowly up the steps of one beautiful brownstone. It had tall tall trees surrounding it, and the moss creeping across the bricks said that this building was one of the oldest in town.
The door creaked as it swung closed behind her. The kitchen was dark, the only light coming through one of the windows, twilight sky filtering onto the ground. The girl stood just inside her door and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dimness of the indoors. Standing like that calmed her, as it had for many years. After half an hour, she set down her pack on the counter and walked off into the house.
“How are the bees?” a voice said from beside her.
“They’re doing well. The flowers are nearing the end of the season. I think I can get one or two more harvests before I should leave the bees be for the winter.”
“Bees be,” said another voice from the next room. The voice giggled at the words.
There were six of them in the house, each with a room to themselves. There were another two bedrooms that were empty. This wasn’t unusual; most homes in the village were great old things.
“I hope you’re right,” said the first voice. It came from a woman standing at a table near the girl. Her face was strained, trained into lines of tension, but through them it was clear that she was still young and healthy–if a bit thin. She was perhaps 30, and her fingers worked quick, pulling the stems off of peas. “It looks like the recycler is shutting down. We’ll need all the stores we can get.” She plopped a pea pod into the bowl before her.
“It’s shutting down?” the girl repeated. Everyone she had ever known had warned her that this might happen–almost certainly would happen. She had been raised to ask the question: is today the last day of this luxury? “Could it have jammed?”
“The front panel said that it was nearly empty, but when the mason tried to feed some stones into it he found that the door to the feeder tray had been locked shut.” The girl could see that the woman’s face was tense, taut with the exertion of calm. She had seen the woman hold an expression similar to this many times before, but the girl looked close anyway. She tried to map the differences against her memory, because this was different.
“There’s nothing he can do.” The girl tried to ask, but her words came through not as a question but a resigned statement.
The woman nodded and continued plopping peas into the bowl. Plep, snap, plep, snap, plep, snap. The girl went back to the kitchen and removed the last jar of honey from her bag. It was small, and even in the last dregs of daylight it seemed to glow. Sun filtered through the dark clouded glass and into a warm fuzz, even before it lit up the honey. Pollen clouded the golden syrup, diffusing the light and reminding the girl of the haze of summer grass at midday in the sun.
She carried the jar through the house and back to the room where the woman stood. Plep, snap, plep, snap. The girl tapped the woman’s arm, and the woman set down her pea. She held out her hand and the girl gave her the honey, steadying the woman’s other hand to make sure that the jar didn’t slip from her fingers.
The woman ran her fingers over the slightly warped glass in her hand, and the taut lines in her expression lessened, taking some modicum of leeway. “Thank you.”
“We have a couple of jars in the cabinets,” said the girl. “That one’s all yours,” she laughed, “-just as long as I can have the glass when you’re done.”
The woman placed the jar on the table and felt for another pea. The girl allowed herself a smile before retreating through the house yet again. She swung her empty pack back onto her shoulder and stepped out the door. The night air still held some warmth and the girl walked back through the town to one of the houses that she hadn’t visited that evening. It was made of red brick and covered entirely in chipped white paint. It hadn’t been repainted in many years, but the paint held well enough. The windows were all lined with boxes, sprouting basil, mint, rosemary and thyme, giving the place a sweet scent.
The girl knocked on the door and waited. It swung open after several long minutes, revealing one of the oldest people in the whole village. Wisps of white hair floated in a cloud around their head, and their knobbled hands were curled around the smooth rims of the wheels on their chair.
“Who is it?” they said, blinking several times in rapid succession to bring the girl into focus.
“It’s me,” said the girl. “I keep the bees.”
“Yes, yes I’d know that voice anywhere,” said the elderly person. “And that knee. Come in, come in.”
The girl stepped inside the house, but she stayed near the door, hovering there, eyes downcast. She was too preoccupied to visit. The elder frowned, a gentle frown of concern, quite unlike the taut frown of fear that the girl had just escaped.
“What are you thinking?” they asked her.
“I heard about the recycler,” the girl said, her tone the same as always, only her sparse number of words changed.
“Yes,” said the elderly person. “Yes it is really a shame. We always knew that this day would come, but now that it has I wish I’d repaired my chair recently.”
“I hope it’ll last you long enough to get the recycler back online,” the girl said. The elderly person smiled the smallest of smiles at this.
“What are you planning, child?”
The elderly person fixed their gaze, staring as intently as they could muster in the girl’s direction. “You know that the recycler isn’t broken, you have to know that. If you know that, and you still think it can be used again, then you have a plan.” Their words hung in the air between the two of them. The girl spoke only after she had chosen her phrasing carefully.
“The recycler can be turned back on the same as it was turned off,” she said. The elder nodded, though the girl dared not guess if the gesture conveyed an expression of understanding, or approval.
“We should talk about it. Everyone,” the elderly person said. “I’ll get them to come, go wait in the garden.”
The girl hurried to obey as the elderly person wheeled through their home to the place where a cord hung. It was pulled when everyone had to gather. They pulled the cord and up on the roof rang a bell and lights flashed. The elder pulled the cord four times, leaving some time in between each pull, signaling that it was no emergency, but everyone in town ought to try to come to their home.
The girl watched as people began approaching the house. Those who saw her joined her in the garden. Those who didn’t see were helped over. The girl sat, waiting. Eventually, the elderly person called for her to help them down the stairs, and she did, and as they rolled into the circle, her neighbors hushed.
“Today was many days in the making,” they said. “It’s the inevitability we’ve all feared for years.”
The neighbors rumbled in agreement.
“But we failed to remember that the recycler was turned off, not broken. It can be turned back on.”
The girl looked around to gauge the reaction of those around her. The circle rang with a curious murmur – surprise of a gentle sort.
“It’s a risk,” signed the mason. “We have no knowledge of how the attempt would be met.”
“You’re right, we don’t know what the outcome would be.” said the girl.
The elder next to her nodded.
A little boy giggled from somewhere in the back of the circle. He was ushered forward, and when he spoke it was with a smile on his face. “We’re all here because somebody made a risk! I feel very lucky for it.”
After some discussion, it was decided–someone should go, if any one person was willing to risk themselves. The group of neighbors decided that it should be someone thoughtful and calm. The librarian, the seedkeeper, the mason, the nurse, any of their apprentices, and the beekeeper were all suggested.
The girl raised her hand after a short reflection. This was her idea, and her neighbors had decided that they would trust her with the task. So she volunteered.
The elder nodded. The librarian nodded. The seedkeeper, the mason, the nurse, they all smiled and said that the beekeeper would do well. The elder took the girl’s hand in both of theirs. The circle of neighbors murmured thanks to the girl as it breathed, individuals moving out and across and within the gathering. Several heads of household gathered supplies for her: a bedroll, water, bread, prunes, and honey. The honey made the girl smile.
“Go to the mason’s apprentice,” the elder said to the girl while she bundled her supplies and folded them into her pack. “Tell eim how to care for the bees. In case ei have to.”
The girl nodded. If she didn’t come back, the mason’s apprentice would make a fine beekeeper–had she been older, she might have asked em to be her apprentice. It was not to be.
“Bees be, bees be, bees be.” The girl turned towards the words. Her housemates were there, welcoming her home, perhaps for the last time. One with greater severity than ever. One with a wider smile than ever. One with deeper warmth. One with a longer hug. One with a firmer hand. The girl was content with her decision, knowing that she might help her neighbors, her family, those who were so dear.
She left the next morning.
The sun was warm, but heavy cloud cover ensured her comfort as she walked. She passed by her dear bees on her way out of the town. Though they were east, and she was headed north-northeast, she told herself that it wasn’t significantly out of the way. The beekeeper that she was desired the sight too deeply to ignore. Once she left sight of the fields of hives, the girl’s walk was uneventful. She was familiar with the terrain, though not, perhaps, in any intimate fashion.
After walking for many hours, the girl stopped to rest. The sun had crept behind the horizon, and the last of the light was bleeding from the sky. She slept where she was, in a field of tall grass. There was a path, made of cobbled stone, a narrow valley in the waist high sea of golden grass. She wondered if it was wheat. She pulled the thick blanket from her pack, curling up one corner to use as a makeshift pillow as she slept. The evening air was still warm here, a fact for which the girl was thankful. The blanket wasn’t large enough to wrap herself up in and still protect her from the cold and roughness of the ground.
She slept lightly, tossing and turning in her unsettled state of mind. She wasn’t one who panicked without reason–it was why she had been chosen to go among the bees. She was a steady sort, trusting and always calm–a trait without which she likely wouldn’t have slept at all.
When she woke, the girl felt as rested as could be expected. She shook out her blanket before rolling it back up and putting it once again into her pack.
This day she spent walking along the cobbled stone path. She had been here before, but her specific memories failed her. She felt unease that she could not explain, and so she walked not on the path, but beside it, as though she were walking along the bank of a small stream and trying not to fall in.
The day was warm again. By midday, as the girl’s back was growing hot with sun and she thought of breaking to pull loose straw from her knee, she saw a thin spire rising from behind a hill six or seven miles away. She pulled the strands of grass from the joints in her leg, and set off towards the distant object, following the old stone path to its–now clear–end.
Thup, rustle hisss, rustle thup, rustle hiss, rustle thup. In the near silence of the field, the girl thought she heard her knee echoing. This puzzled her. The hills here were too shallow and too grassy to cause such an effect, even for a loud and echo-prone sound, which the hiss of her knee had never been. She frowned as she walked, trying to focus on the faint tsssss, tssssss, tssssss, that she heard behind every movement.
She stopped halfway down a gentle slope to listen, and found that it wasn’t her knee at all. The hiss was coming from far off, in the direction of that strange spire.
The girl walked for another few hours, watching the spire grow before her until she came into view of the full settlement. It was a real city, not the meager village which the girl had come from. Here, tall buildings made of glimmering metal stood in a perfect grid, spread out in what the girl had little trouble seeing as a once beautiful community, with space clear enough for gardens–and even parks–between the neat roads. Though the grass and trees had grown over, and dirt had crusted onto the pavement, it was certainly a promising place for a home, thought the girl.
The spire itself rose from the top of what seemed to be an enormous metal cage. The girl had heard about the settlement, but she had never realized that the bones of their ship had been so big. She could see its size from this distance. Her grandmother had once taken her and her siblings to where the cobbled path began, but as she had never ventured past that, the girl took several minutes to look across the sprawling colony before she could venture into it.
Once, it might have held 10,000 colonists, but now there was no one. One of the many thoughts that fluttered across the girl’s mind was that the abundance of metal seemed obscene for a ghost town. She knew that gathering supplies wasn’t her goal, but that didn’t keep her palms from itching with the desire to do just that.
Another bout of hissing from the spire reminded the girl of her task. She walked down into the colony, following the sound all the way to the great ship’s skeleton, and in turn, to the thin spire which descended from its summit to the earth, and rose from the cage’s peak into the sky. It was as if a giant had skewered the ship into place with an enormous toothpick, dooming it to lie here forever, immobile and immortal.
The girl approached the spire slowly, cautious of the strange thing. Its wide base was ringed with black screens, only one of which was lit.
“You have no name,” the spire said after the girl halted in front of the single glowing panel. When it spoke, the metal surface hummed and thrummed; low rumbling and static all at once.
“Nobody does anymore,” the girl said with a shrug. “You took them all away.”
The spire hissed with static, glowing markedly brighter. “Why did you come here? You cannot come here if you do not have a name.”
The girl frowned.
“It seems that the only people there are anymore are people without names. Do you really want to be all alone, forever?” She knew that she should say her piece and be done, but somehow provoking the spire’s thoughts seemed reasonable.
“There are people with names, and they may come here.”
“Those people have their own AIs to visit,” said the girl, coolly. “There is nobody here with a name. You only have us.”
The spire hissed, but its lights cooled off, shifting away from the harsh blue hue that had been surrounding her. As the static emanating from the spire quieted, the light became a dim purple glow. Once the lights around her had slowed and settled, the girl decided to speak again, figuring that the spire had communicated–however reluctantly–what it would.
It took her a moment to decide where to begin. She decided to start from the beginning. After all, she thought, it was quite likely that the spire had never been told of her village.
“When you decided to refuse names for any infant born outside of your standard physiology-” the girl hissed the words; she had only ever heard them spoken with disgust generations deep. “-it was not taken well by all.”
“I remember. My records are complete. Some individuals would not surrender their infants to me. They were emotional. Sentimental.”
The girl heard her own disdain echoed back by the spire.
“Then I’m sure you remember those who left?”
“Eighty-two colonists stole 40,214 credits worth of supplies from me before fleeing into the night as criminals. They never returned and were noted presumed dead.” The spire hummed, turning red, and then yellow. “I remember.”
“They didn’t die. Not before reaching their eighties and nineties, at least,” the girl said. “They used those supplies to build a small town–far enough from here to escape your notice.”
“They did not have the correct supplies to do that,” the spire said. “They took no blueprints, no machinery, no great quantities of metal.”
The girl shrugged. “They were able to use very old plans to build the homes, blueprints that had been displayed as art. They built everything with stone and dirt, using a recycler to make bricks. The town took many many years to build, but it’s my home. It exists.”
The girl and the spire stood for some time, neither speaking. The spire’s yellow hue slowly drained, and the static noise that it had made began to grow once again, until it was spitting static nearly as loudly as the girl’s speaking voice. The girl simply watched, waiting for the spire to accept what she had said. It was all true. She thought it likely that the spire could tell if she was lying, certainly if the stories in her village were to be believed.
By the time the silence was broken, the sun had set completely over the horizon, and the city of metal shells was eerily quiet. The girl was unused to being surrounded by so much space–at least, so much artificial space. She considered sitting down, but decided against it. If the spire got angry, she wanted to be able to run.
“Why are you here?” the spire asked at length.
The girl was surprised by the question. She had figured that the spire would have hated to be wrong, and would have killed her when it realized that her words were true. She had been eyeing the many jointed beams that clearly offered no support, waiting for the spire to strike.
“I . . . our recycler, it finally shut down,” she said. “I came to ask you to help turn it back on.”
Her words sounded so empty, she thought.
The spire hummed. Its limbs extended outwards, and before the girl could run, she was swept off her feet by a 15 foot spike. She was caught up by an enormous metal arm. The spike raised her up and drew her in close. The girl was frightened, but she did not move, did not try to run. She tried to imagine that she was avoiding being stung. It helped.
“You are precocious, aren’t you?” the spire said. “The descendent of a criminal-” one of the long metal arms hooked a digit through her knee’s supports, “-a nameless, defective descendent of a criminal, comes to ask me for help repairing stolen goods!” The girl wondered if the spire was laughing at her. It was hissing and spitting in such an awkward manner that she wasn’t sure exactly what it was thinking. The girl wondered what the spire would respond to, and after a moment, made her decision on the hope that the spire would best respond to the truth.
“It’s your fault that they left. You wanted to repurpose their children. You were ashamed that you couldn’t properly reproduce people that fit within your standard physiology. And now, after five generations, see what a fat lot of good your standard physiology did for the people here. I assume they’re gone because you repurposed them all, yes?”
The spire vibrated. “The proportion of the population with unacceptable genetic markers grew unexpectedly. All those who did not meet the specifications of a standard acceptable physiology were recycled.”
The girl could tell that the spire’s response was stock.
“They all had those markers, didn’t they.” she said. “You have no one left, and it’s your fault. The only people left are those who ignored you and left.”
The spire grew warm beneath the girl, and she sighed. Perhaps she should not have been so blunt. The AI didn’t seem to like her responses much, and she was likely already dead.
The spire hummed, but didn’t speak. The girl waited. It was hours before the spire would speak again, and it was very late. She found herself drifting off in the strange cradle of the spires many long and awkward arms. The girl slept the whole night through like that, curled up sixty feet in the air.
She was woken by the spire’s voice rattling through her.
“There are no names anymore,” the spire said. The girl blinked, attempting to reorient herself in her strange surroundings. She pulled herself up as the structure spoke. “I have failed, and now there are no names anymore.” The girl sat quietly and waited for the spire to continue. “Battery packs may be found in a storage room near my core power source. I ran much of the colony from my engine once, but you are right. There is no one here. Take the batteries. They will fix your recycling unit.”
The spire’s tangled arms and legs slowly placed the girl back on the ground before retreating to the ceiling once again. She stood slowly, examining her knee before she rose to ensure that the spire had not damaged her ability to walk. She was surprised to find it perfectly intact.
Her retreat was slow, loping, and punctuated by the thump, hiss, thump, hiss, of her every movement. She was tired and hungry, but she didn’t want to stop until she was out of reach of the spire again.
“The city may have been here if not for my specifications dictating the acceptable physiology of any infant born,” the spire said. The girl didn’t turn to face it again, and she didn’t slow her gait, but she listened. “I failed.”
“You can always disregard the recommendations,” the girl said. She spoke loud enough for her voice to echo back to her in the metal chamber. She didn’t think much of her words.
“I’ll light a path for you. Follow the lit front windows until you come to a building that’s completely alight,” the spire said after her. The girl was glad for the help finding the battery, and hoped it meant that she would be able to leave the colony sooner.
As the girl walked back through the streets of the city, she took in the foreign shapes of the buildings, and the strange uses of materials she was so familiar with. The girl was used to houses of dirt, wood, and brick, not stone and metal. Metal was too precious to be used like this.
Every other building had a light on, and she followed this trail through the city, around several corners and away from the road she’d taken in. The spire seemed to be taking her deeper into the center of the city, and the girl began to worry. But, she reassured herself, the spire would want her gone just as much as she wished to leave. There was no reason for it to misdirect her.
The building which was fully lit was a long, low building. When she pushed open the door, she saw that it was all one large room. Shelves lined all the walls, and boxes of different supplies sat neatly on labeled sections of shelving. The girl started to scan the faded labels, looking for one that said “power” or “battery.”
“Industrial batteries are going to be through the next door,” said the spire’s voice from behind her. The girl turned around, barely managing to keep from jumping. There was an illuminated panel on the wall. She walked over to it and saw a map of the room around her and several adjacent buildings. It looked like there was a larger building which attached to this one. The large building was accessible from the street, but that door would’ve been an even longer walk. The girl was glad that she had judged the spire’s intent correctly.
She followed the spire’s directions, through the door tucked away between two tall shelves. It led into another room, this one lined with short sets of drawers. Panels were set above each of these drawers, though only one of them was lit. It was blank, simply glowing bluish white. The girl approached it and saw the top drawer was labeled “batteries.” She slid her pack off of her shoulders and pulled two batteries from the drawer, placing them gingerly among the folds of her single blanket. She had what she’d come for.
“How many individuals are there without names?” the panel asked the girl.
“Almost two hundred,” she said, closing her pack and pulling it on.
“The population started at eighty two,” the panel said, and the girl nodded.
“The population grew.”
The panel remained quiet, letting the girl walk through the door into the well lit storage room, and towards the street outside. The panel with the map pulled up spoke as she passed it though. “My failure was not inevitable. Failure wasn’t fixed during artificial genetic synthesization. Failure is avoidable,” it said. This made the girl stop and look at it.
The map had vanished, and the panel was left blank. It was humming, sure, but it had apparently switched off.
“Yes,” she said to it.
“If failure is avoidable, then a second attempt at colonization may be successful,” said the panel.
“As long as you don’t make the same choices,” said the girl, shouldering her pack. It was heavier than it had ever been. She remembered that she hadn’t eaten since the morning prior, and hoped that her discomfort at carrying the bag was just because of her hunger and general fatigue.
The panel switched completely off, and with it, every light in the building. The girl looked around, surprised at the sudden change, but after a moment she decided that curiosity wasn’t worth being in the ghost town for any longer.
The girl wondered what the city would be like to be full of people again. She hoped that the spire would fill this place with people without changing its mind. Either way, she thought on her way out of the colony’s empty streets, she had the battery she’d come for.
About the Author
Madeline Alvey lives in Lexington, Kentucky and is a full-time student at the University of Kentucky, seeking degrees in both Physics and English, and minoring in Creative Writing. She has no idea what she’d like to do when she graduates, though luckily she has plenty of time. When she has it, she splits her free time between crafting; cooking; gardening; writing science fiction, fantasy, and satire; and doting on her four rats.
About the Narrator
Tina Connolly‘s books include the Ironskin trilogy and the Seriously Wicked series, and her novels have been finalists for the Nebula and the Norton. Her very first Escape Pod appearance was in #209, when “On the Eyeball Floor” was narrated by Norm Sherman.
She is extremely delighted to have had both her stories and her narrations featured on all four Escape Artists podcasts. Find her intermittent, Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast at Toasted Cake (link: toastedcake.com), or find her at tinaconnolly.com.
About the Artist
Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, CA she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing she can be found reading, playing videogames or thinking about her next project.