Audio production note: Christopher Cornell has done an amazing and creative job of adapting the visual and formatting elements of Lonely Robot on a Rocket Ship in Space to the audio medium.
That said, there are simply some elements that do not lend themselves to a one-to-one equivalent.
I strongly encourage Escape Pod listeners, then, to not only listen, but also to see the full written story on our website.
In the text, I have changed the section breaks from a hashtag (#) to our logo icon and have taken out the paragraph indents to match our style. Otherwise, however, I have left the unique font and visual elements as A. Merc Rustad sent them to us.
Keep in mind, however, that because this is the Internet, your particular browser may interpret that formatting in myriad ways.
TL;DR: Read the text, too. Your mileage may vary.
-Adam Pracht, Escape Pod audio producer
Lonely Robot on a Rocket Ship in Space
By A. Merc Rustad
Byron scribbled crib notes on his wrist the night before he planned to come out to his dads.
He’d told all his friends he was sick so he would have an excuse to stay home Friday night. It wasn’t like he was lying. His stomach was so knotted he thought he’d puke. But he couldn’t sleep, either. The words burned like he’d used acid instead of a Sharpie.
I’m not scared or confused. It’s who I am.
In the tiniest he could write legibly, he added, Please don’t be mad.
Saturday morning breakfast in the Santiago household was always one step shy of complete chaos.
Carlos flipped pancakes and stirred eggs while Akhil oversaw the six-year-old twins, Delilah and Jasmine, as they put away last night’s dishes. Someone had turned the local country-rock station up way too loud.
Byron leaned against the kitchen doorway, hands shoved deep in his pockets. He wished he had a stealth field dampener so he could sneak in unnoticed.
“Hey, By, how you feeling?” Akhil said.
Byron shrugged. “Okay.” Not. So, so not.
“Did you throw up?” Delilah asked. “Jazz said you did.”
“I did not!” Jasmine jabbed a plastic My Little Pony mug at her twin. “You did!”
Byron sighed. “No.”
He’d once told his dads that his sisters should totally go to medical school, what with the amount of time they devoted to interrogating him on his health and bodily functions. Carlos had agreed, while the twins protested that they were going to be veterinarians and possibly fighter jet pilots in their spare time.
Carlos spun around, a plate loaded with pancakes in one hand and a bowl of scrambled eggs in the other. “Food’s on!”
“Daddy,” Jasmine shrieked. “DeeDee splashed water on me!”
Akhil took the sponge away from Delilah shooed both girls toward the table. Already he and Carlos were planning the lunch menu, bantering in Spanish. Weekends were foodtastic, as both his dads loved to cook.
Byron slouched to the table and slumped down on a chair.
Akhil sat down and scooted his chair closer to Byron. “You want me to make you something else?”
The smell of ink filled Byron’s nose. “Not hungry. Sorry.”
“Look!” Delilah said. “There’s those robots on TV again!”
Byron glanced up as the family turned to the flatscreen on the wall. He stared, mouth dry.
Carlos clicked up the TV’s volume and switched off the radio.
“. . . this marks the first successful upload of human consciousness into a machine structure,” the reporter was saying. “Angelica Davenport was the first person to volunteer for the phase three of the highly controversial transition into what some scientists are calling the upgrading of humanity . . .”
A photo of a middle-aged Latinx person appeared in the top of the screen as the camera focused on the android—pristine silver plastic chassis, metallic joints, a startling facial likeness to the photo.
“. . . there has been extensive backlash from religious communities . . .”
The android—Angelica—moved slowly in front of a crowd that was cordoned off by electronic barriers and police. E waved at the camera and smiled. Eir expression looked as natural on eir plastic face as it did in the photograph.
Byron’s throat closed. Even when he’d hit puberty, he’d never been attracted to girls or boys, and his parents had assured him it was no big deal. He’d discover who he was attracted to when he was ready, and they’d support him all the way. When he stared at the screen, Angelica was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
“. . . the procedure remains unavailable to the general public, but some experts say that could change rapidly within the next few years . . .”
Akhil shook his head. “Amazing what technology can do.”
Carlos scoffed. “That’s just weird.”
Byron pushed his chair away from the table. He didn’t think he could tell his dads right now that he wanted to be like Angelica.
Byron eased the door shut on his closet so the only light came from his cellphone screen. He pinged his best friend Allosaur. As a kid, Allosaur never let anyone use her full name: Elizabeth Delores Rachelle Rees-Smith. People kept calling her Lizard. She responded by informing everyone she would be referred to only as Allosaur.
byronator_t1000: u there?
Lizsaurus77: Hi! What’s up? You feeling any better? Dominique and I totally missed you at Riley’s party last night!
byronator_t1000: i didn’t tell them
byronator_t1000: my dads i mean
Lizsaurus77: Aww, why not?
byronator_t1000: we were watching tv
Lizsaurus77: I was just going to ask if you saw the news! That is so awesome!!!
byronator_t1000: i guess
Lizsaurus77: Aren’t you excited? You can totally do that too!
byronator_t1000: they’ll hate me
Lizsaurus77: They’re your parents, they’ll totally understand
byronator_t1000: how do u know?
Lizsaurus77: Dude, you have so got to let me facetime with you. I am rolling my eyes SO HARD
Lizsaurus77: And like what is with these analog text IMs, we should be vidchatting lol
Lizsaurus77: Seriously, Byby, if I can tell my mom I’m dating girls, you can totally tell your dads what you need. Want me to come over? Moral support?
byronator_t1000: no thx
byronator_t1000: i should go
Lizsaurus77: I will kick your ass on Monday if you chicken out again, I swear to god
Lizsaurus77: Then I will dress in glitter tights and come over there and wave pompons outside your window
byronator_t1000: u would not
Lizsaurus77: WATCH ME, poet bot
byronator_t1000: okay, allosaur, i’ll do it tomorrow
Lizsaurus77: LOL. Love you, Byron
Lizsaurus77: You can do this 🙂 (remember! pompons!)
Byron had told Allosaur he wanted to be a robot a month ago.
They’d barricaded themselves in his basement living room with snacks and the PS4. They were playing Star Wars: Episode VII in multiplayer mode, and like always, she chose a human female smuggler character, and he picked a cyborg.
“So what’re you planning to do your future career analysis on for class?” Allosaur asked as they tackled the Coruscant rescue level.
Byron shrugged. He knew Allosaur would ace the assignment. She was one of the few people who always seemed to know exactly what she wanted in life. He focused on the feel of the words in his mouth. Allosaur didn’t care if he typed at her on his phone instead of struggling to verbalize, but he didn’t want to keep pausing the game. “Robotics . . . engineer. I guess.”
Allosaur mashed buttons as thugs in the undercity attacked her character. “You guess? We’re fourteen, By! Seriously. You should have more than a guess.”
“Like . . . you?”
Allosaur grinned and shoved a handful of popcorn in her mouth while her smuggler tossed a grenade. “I’ve known I’m gonna be a game designer since I was, like, ten.”
Byron rolled his eyes. He grabbed his phone and typed: u designed all the games when we were kids, so it’s earlier than that, then showed Allosaur the screen.
She laughed. “Okay, but you have to know something.”
Byron stared at his controller. i do know things.
“So?” Allosaur passed him the popcorn bowl. “C’mon, spill.”
Byron nudged the bowl away with his knee. Carlos hates popcorn seeds in the couch cushions.
Allosaur arched her eyebrows. She’d long ago claimed she could beat Spock cold in an eyebrow contest, and Byron had to admit she was probably right.
He flipped to his armor selection menu and scrolled through it without really paying attention to his items. i can’t think abt the future when i don’t even know if i can get that far.
“Whoa.” Allosaur scooted around, her legs tucked up under her so she faced him across the popcorn bowl. “Serious faces on, kids.” She set her controller aside. “What’s wrong?”
Byron hated his skin, the way it blushed and broke out in acne no matter how many products he tried or what food he did or didn’t eat. He hated the feel of his body, the soft squishiness of his stomach and his wimpy arm muscles. He’d always been scrawny—he’d met Allosaur in first grade when, the biggest girl there, she’d driven off some bullies by threatening to suck their minds out their ears and trap them in a virtual reality of their worst nightmare for the rest of their vegetative lives. Allosaur had just gotten bigger as she grew up, but he hadn’t been blessed with the teenage male growth spurt his dads assured him was coming. He didn’t want that any more than he wanted hair or flesh or glands or nerve endings or gross bodily functions or chemical responses in his brain that made no sense.
Byron focused on the controller abandoned in his lap. i don’t feel right like this.
“Like a boy?” Allosaur asked.
Byron shook his head. sort of but it’s not, like, a gender thing?
Allosaur just nodded and waited.
Byron sucked in a breath and typed as fast as he could. i don’t feel right being organic. i want to be like that. He pointed at his side of the screen. a cyborg. a robot. you know. not like this.
Allosaur frowned. “Human?”
His hands shook. i don’t want to be a different person, i just–this isn’t my body. not really.
Allosaur stared at him and Byron wanted to jam himself down the back of the overstuffed sofa and vanish like a penny or Lego blocks.
When he watched movies that had those sexless robots with smooth lines, articulated faces, skilled hands and androgynous frames, it thrilled him because he felt like he was looking at himself. The real Byron Santiago.
But movies ended, and then he got stuck in this world again where he knew they were actors in motion capture suits and super-skilled animators bringing CGI to life.
“Hey.” Allosaur leaned over, not touching him, but too close for him to ignore her. “Byron?”
He sniffed and glanced sideways.
Allosaur smiled. “If you’re actually a robot, I think that is so fricking awesome.”
Byron’s breath choked. “You . . . do?”
She was grinning—that happy, all-teeth-showing grin she used when she had exciting news, like when she told him she was going on her first date with Dominique. “Yup. And I’ve totally got your back one thousand percent, okay?”
Byron rubbed his nose with his sleeve. “Okay.”
“Hey, you were the first one I told I was a lesbian, you know? We have so got this coming out thing covered.”
Byron had nodded. The huge weight in his chest lost a few pounds. “Thanks.”
Allosaur had given him two thumbs up. “Come on, Byronator, I know we can totally beat this level in one go.”
At lunch on Sunday—gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and homemade vegetable soup, the twins’ favorite—Byron focused on shoveling food into his mouth and ignoring the table chatter. The meal was just a power-up for his true robot form.
While the girls argued about whose turn it was to load the dishwasher, Byron mopped up table crumbs with a sponge and braced himself. He could do this. Correction: he could do this and not puke in the process.
“Hey . . . dad?”
Carlos and Akhil turned from rinsing the soup pan and cleaning the griddle.
“What’s up?” Carlos asked.
“I’d like to . . . talk to you . . . guys.” Byron felt something damp on his sleeve and realized he’d squeezed the sponge into a crumpled wad. He glanced at his sisters. “It’s . . . um, kind of private.”
“Girls, we’ll finish up.” Akhil took the detergent cube from Jasmine and the half-rinsed plate from Delilah. “You can go play for a bit.”
Delilah whooped and dashed from the kitchen, yelling that she got to pick the game and got to use the purple controller, while Jasmine rolled her eyes and followed with exaggerated casualness.
Byron set the sponge down to re-constitute in the sink and sat down at the table. With a glance at each other, his dads sat across from him.
“What’s up?” Akhil said.
Byron tugged down his sleeves to hide the crib-notes on his wrists. He’d used permanent marker so they wouldn’t wash off right away in the shower. He breathed deep, trying to keep the first stanza from the Jedi code, about no emotion, only peace, to help him focus. No emotion would make this so, so much easier. He focused on the words. “I need . . . to tell you something.”
His parents waited.
“I think—” No. Too much hedging. He didn’t just think, he knew. “I mean, I am . . . I’m not a . . .” Words kept getting clogged under his tongue.
Akhil smiled, encouraging. “Would it be easier to write it?”
Byron nodded and grabbed his phone. He tried to picture Allosaur standing out on the front porch with glittering pompoms. It boosted his courage stats enough that he typed: i’m actually a robot and i just have the wrong body right now.
Carlos set his glasses down, pinched the bridge of his nose, and shook his head slowly. “You think you’re what?”
“A robot,” Byron said. He wished it he could boldly tell his parents he needed their support to get the same procedure Angelica Davenport had undergone. But he didn’t have question and response options to select like he did in-game, when all it took was a button click to make his cyborg speak. He could feel his communications circuitry failing on him.
Carlos rubbed his eyes and put his glasses back on. “A robot.”
Byron jerked his head in a half-nod.
Akhil toyed with the ends of his dreadlocks, watching Carlos sidelong. “Is this because of what’s been on the news?”
Byron shrugged. Yes. Of course it was. The broadcast had been like an electric jolt—one of hope.
“What’s wrong, Byron?” Carlos asked. “You’ve been feeling unwell lately; do we need to see a doctor?”
Byron’s throat tightened. Vocalizer failing. Nothing is wrong with me. He shook his head.
Akhil’s eyebrows furrowed. “Okay. Then what’s going on?”
i told you, Byron said.
“You’re not a robot,” Carlos snapped. “People are not robots.”
Byron sank lower in his chair and wished a chute would open under him and drop him in a garbage crusher like in Episode IV.
“Carlos . . .” Akhil laid a hand on his husband’s arm. He stretched his other hand to Byron, palm up. “Byron, listen. Whatever you need to tell us, you have nothing to be afraid of.”
Byron stared at his dads. His stomach seemed to disappear into an alternate universe. He couldn’t feel anything besides the sudden numbness spreading through his systems like a virus. He’d just told them.
And they didn’t believe him.
Byron shoved his chair back. He was going to self-implode or break down in tears if he stayed in there another second. So he bolted.
“Byron,” Akhil called. “Wait!”
Byron ran into his room and slammed the door.
byronator_t1000: hi can i come over
Lizsaurus77: OMG are you actually wanting to spend facetime with your best friend in the whole universe? XD
byronator_t1000: can i plz
Lizsaurus77: Dude, of course you can. It’s just me right now. Mom’s shopping and Dominique’s visiting her gp’s in New York (so lucky!!!!)
byronator_t1000: ok. thnx.
Lizsaurus77: Hey Byron, is everything alright?
Allosaur only lived three blocks away.
Byron grabbed his art bag and snuck out the back door. He stared at the sidewalk, gray to match the sky, and wished that if there was going to be an alien invasion of earth, it would happen right now.
“Good God, did you walk without a jacket?” Allosaur yelled as soon as he reached the driveway.
Byron glanced up. He hadn’t noticed he’d forgotten it. He was cold and shivering in the gray November afternoon. Allosaur grabbed his arm and hustled him inside. She shoved him down on the couch, wrapped a thick knit blanket around him, and ordered him to stay put while she made them hot cocoa.
Over piles of slowly melting marshmallows, Byron texted Allosaur what happened. She studied her phone and not his face as he told her everything.
“I’m sorry, Byron.” Allosaur scraped the last marshmallow residue off her mug with a finger. She stared at her hand, then wiped it clean on her skirt. “I really thought they’d take it better than that.”
Byron shrugged. me too.
When his dads had the whole birds/bees talk when Byron was ten, Akhil had told him that if he ever needed to talk, they would both be there for him. No matter what it was. Byron had really believed it, too.
“What are you going to do now?” Allosaur asked.
If his parents didn’t believe him, there was no chance in hell they’d agree to get him the help he needed.
Allosaur scooted closer, making the couch creak. She handed him his art bag from where he’d dropped it by the coffee table.
Byron pulled out his sketch pad and pencils. He’d always liked art, but was too embarrassed by his lack of skill to pursue it openly, or tell many people about his work. Allosaur knew, of course, and he’d shown his dads some of his comics, which were always about robots. Robots falling in love, or exploring space, or taking over the world.
He only drew when upset. The tactile feel of graphite or charcoal or ink on paper offered a distraction for his hands and his brain. He’d gotten a Wacom tablet for Christmas last year, but he found himself deleting more work than he saved.
“Did I ever tell you Dominique came out to her family by composing a music video and making them watch it on YouTube?” Allosaur laughed. “Her granddad—you know, the one who lives here in town?—he was so shocked he thought it was a hoax! He refused to believe her until we went over and kissed on his front porch. It was great.”
Byron stared at his sketchbook. It hit him like a blast from an ion cannon. He wasn’t good at verbalization. That obviously hadn’t worked. So he needed a different way to get his dads to understand. that’s what i’ll do.
“You want to kiss my girlfriend?” Allosaur grinned. “I’ll fight you.”
Byron shook his head and flipped to a blank sheet. no, i mean they didn’t listen to me.
“Honestly, I think adults just zone out of reality sometimes.” Allosaur rolled her eyes. “Like, hello, earth to parents! Trying to initiate first contact here.”
Byron started drawing, each line precise and careful. Black and white and gray.
He finished, scanned it with his phone, used the Photoshop app to assemble each piece, and uploaded it to his Facebook. Then he shared it on his dads’ timelines before he chickened out.
He didn’t know what else to do except turn his phone off and curl up under the blankets so the world went away for a while.
Panel 1: Lonely Robot stands in the right foreground, surrounded by a bubble of space. Lonely Robot is a simple android, faceplate blank except for big eyes. In the left background, a group of humans clump together and shout in blocky thought-balloons: WE DON’T BELIEVE YOU.
Panel 2: Lonely Robot’s whole body slumps in dejection, walking toward the right edge of the panel. Behind Lonely Robot, the group of humans continues the thought-balloon: GO AWAY UNTIL YOU’RE NOT A ROBOT.
Panel 3: Lonely Robot finds a rocket ship in the center of the panel. Lonely Robot looks up at the rocket ship. The rocket ship’s name is NOT REAL.
Panel 4: The rocket ship flies through space, which is all dark except for a few white stars. Lonely Robot stares out a window on the rocket ship.
Panel 5: A circular window takes up most of the frame, and Lonely Robot stares out into the blackness of space.
Panel 6: Lonely Robot lies on a bed underneath the window, centered in the panel but smaller for perspective. Above Lonely Robot’s head is a big button mounted on the wall that says SELF DESTRUCT. Lonely Robot stares at the button.
Panel 7: The rocket ship points nose downward and hurtles toward a small planet. Flames shoot from the back of the rocket ship. Lonely Robot is not in the window.
Panel 8: The rocket ship stands upright on the new planet on the right side of the panel. Lonely Robot has stepped out of the rocket and stares around. Lonely Robot is all alone.
Panel 9: In the left foreground of the panel there’s a group of robots that look just like Lonely Robot. The robots are smiling and hold out their arms. Their thought-balloon says: WELCOME. Lonely Robot’s faceplate has a smile for the first time as Lonely Robot walks toward the other robots.
Byron always thought it weird that Allosaur’s family still had a landline. It rang too loud, a harsh jangle-shriek, jerking him awake.
Allosaur walked over and handed him the receiver. “It’s for you.”
Byron rubbed his face. He didn’t know how long he’d been asleep, but it was dark out, and the streetlights had popped on outside Allosaur’s window. He squinted at the phone, then at Allosaur.
“It’s your dad, Akhil,” she told him. “He said you aren’t answering texts.”
Byron didn’t want to get shouted at.
“Can you turn your voice on?” Allosaur asked.
Byron shook his head.
“Okay.” Allosaur put the receiver to her ear. “Hey, Akhil. Byron doesn’t want to talk, but I can put you on speaker if you have something to say. But you better be nice.”
She frowned, nodded once to herself, and laid the receiver on her palm so Byron could hear without touching the phone.
“Hi Byron. Allosaur texted me and told me where you are.” Akhil paused. “We saw your comic.”
Byron swallowed. Oh.
“I’d like you to come home, By. We need to talk to you.”
Byron ripped a sheet of paper off his notebook and jabbed a response, which Allosaur read. you guys already said everything. Byron didn’t know where the end-call button was. He didn’t want to smash Allosaur’s phone because it wasn’t his property. And it wasn’t the phone’s fault. i’m staying over at Allosaur’s tonight. He’d left enough random clothes at Allosaur’s house over the years that he’d have an outfit for school tomorrow.
“Okay,” his dad said finally. “I love you, Byron. Nothing’s going to change that.”
Byron pulled the blankets over his head as Allosaur hung up.
Byron Santiago has uploaded a photo.
Byron considered skipping school in the morning. The prospect of dealing with anyone made his head throb even worse. He popped a couple aspirin and listened to Allosaur singing in the shower.
He turned on his phone. His notifications had exploded with activity. Up at the top of the list was a request that made no sense:
Angelica Davenport has sent you a friend request.
Byron stared. The only Angelica he knew about was the one on the news—the android—and he didn’t know eir, or how e would know about him.
He clicked ACCEPT and sat down on the end of Allosaur’s bed. What the hell was going on?
Allosaur burst from the bathroom in her favorite purple sweatshirt with the BioWare logo and blue jeans. “Byby!” She grinned and plopped down next to him. “How’re you feeling?”
Byron showed her the phone.
Allosaur’s eyes widened. “Whoa. Legit?”
His Facebook app pinged again.
Angelica Davenport has posted on your timeline.
Hi Byron, I saw your comic via some other friends. I know you don’t know me yet. I’ve just transitioned—you might have seen the news? But I’ve been where you are (I was for thirty-two years) and I know it’s hard. Hang in there, okay? We’re not alone.
There was a chat bubble from his dads—he recognized Akhil’s proper spelling and grammar, even posted under Carlos’s name, since Akhil rarely used his own account.
Byron, Carlos and I are sorry we overreacted and didn’t believe you. We are proud you felt able to tell us who you are. Please come home and we’ll talk. Okay?
Byron took a deep breath and messaged okay back.
His dads sat on the couch, the twins on either side of them. Byron perched on an armchair across from his family, wiping his hands on his jeans.
The silence stretched like a force field between them.
Carlos took a deep breath and leaned his elbows on his knees. “Look, son . . .”
Byron clenched his fists. He couldn’t find any more words. His sweatshirt sleeves rode up on his arms, and he stared at the smudged ink left on his skin.
Byron stood. His knees wobbled, but he walked through that unseen force field and held out his hand to show his dads the words.
Carlos pulled him close and hugged him. “It’s okay,” Carlos said. “I can’t promise I get it yet, but that doesn’t matter. I love you. We all do.”
Akhil and Jasmine and Delilah joined the hug. Byron sagged in relief against his dad.
He was safe and not alone.
byronator_t1000: guess what 🙂
byronator_t1000: dads said i can be on the waiting list
byronator_t1000: and they r going to help me pay 4 transition
Lizsaurus77: 😀 booyah! I’m so happy for you!
byronator_t1000: i cant do it til im 18 tho, legal recs
Lizsaurus77: Can you wait that long?
byronator_t1000: i think so. it’s hard but i can do it. my family will help. and i know i can count on u 2
Lizsaurus77: Always. 🙂
byronator_t1000: u want 2 come over tonight? we can totally beat the next level
Lizsaurus77: You bet! See you soon, robot!
About the Author
A. Merc Rustad is a queer non-binary writer who lives in the Midwest United States. Favorite things include: robots, dinosaurs, monsters, and tea. Their stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside Fiction, Apex, Escape Pod, Shimmer, Cicada, with reprints included in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, Wilde Stories 2016, and Transcendent 2016. Merc likes to play video games, watch movies, read comics, and wear awesome hats.
About the Narrator
Christopher Cornell is a writer, musician (no, not that one) and software developer in Northern California. He is also the producer and co-host of the Unreliable Narrators podcast and creator of the audio drama series, E’ville. Also a film buff, foxhound wrangler and occasional editor. Skeptical of real estate shysters.