EP533: 2016 Flash Fiction Contest Winners

June 26th, 2016 by Posted in 13 and Up, Podcasts

 

about the authors…

author Ben Hallert

author Ben Hallert

Ben Hallert: I live in Oregon with my wife, two children, a plane, and a reach that regularly exceeds my grasp.

author Laura Davy

author Laura Davy

Laura Davy lives in California with her husband and two cats. She wrote her first story when she was in elementary school and, despite the fact that the plot didn’t make sense, she kept on writing. She is a Viable Paradise 19 graduate and has been previously published in Apex Magazine, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Stupefying Stories Showcase. You can learn more about her at www.lauradavy.com.

author Brian Trent

author Brian Trent

Brian Trent: Work of mine has appeared in Escape Pod, Pseudopod, ANALOG, Fantasy & Science Fiction, AE, Galaxy’s Edge, Daily Science Fiction, and more.

about the narrators…

narrator Trendane Sparks

Trendane Sparks

Trendane Sparks: Originally born in Texas, Tren eventually escaped and wound his way through a mystical series of jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has worked as a software QA Tester for both graphics drivers and video games, a freelance mascot performer, and several jobs on a PBS kids’ show. For most of his life, people have told him that his voice is a pleasure to listen to. But since being a werewolf phone sex operator can get boring, he decided to use his powers to entertain a broader audience.

narrator Nicholas Camm

Nicholas Camm

Nicholas Camm is a British actor, audio-book narrator and voice overer. He is just about to begin recording the 7th book in the Eddie Malloy Mystery series, a set of thrillers set in the world of horse racing. He has acted with, in his humble opinion, some notable luminaries, including Derek Jacobi, Ray Winstone and ex Doctor Who, Matt Smith, and has apparently been on the big screen in Times Square, although he wasn’t there to see it. He was recently a holographic mad professor in an experimental theatre piece, and has just finished filming an advert with a famous German footballer (that’ll be soccer for you Yanks!). Nick still ranks the time when Peter Watts emailed him to say, “You f*#~king nailed it”, about his narration of Pete’s story ‘Malak’ for StarShipSofa, as one of his giddiest moments. One day Nick will stop procrastinating and write a sci-fi novel. Until then there’s hoovering to be done.

narrator Adam Pracht

Adam Pracht

Adam Pracht lives in Kansas, but asks that you not hold that against him. He works full-time as the public relations coordinator at McPherson College, where he also received his master’s in higher education administration in spring 2016. He’s excited to get his life back. He was the 2002 college recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy award for writing about the disadvantaged and has published a disappointingly slim volume of short stories called “Frame Story: Seven Stories of Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Horror & Humor” which is available from Amazon as an e-Book or in paperback. He’s been working on his second volume – “Schrödinger’s Zombie: Seven Weird and Wonderful Tales of the Undead” – since 2012 and successfully finished the first story. He hopes to complete it before he’s cremated and takes up permanent residence in an urn.

EP532: Saints, Beasts and Zombies

June 7th, 2016 by Posted in 13 and Up, Podcasts

by Gary Kloster
narrated by Roberto Suarez

author Gary Kloster

author Gary Kloster

about the author…

I’ve always loved speculative fiction.  That’s the fancy name for stories that involve lasers, or swords, or in the very best stories, laser-swords.  So as a kid, I decided to try writing it.  And it went really badly.

A few decades later, after a short stint as a science reference librarian, I’m a stay-at-home dad who answers urgent questions like ‘When’s lunch?’ and ‘Can you find my stuff for me?’  It’s not really much different then helping the undergrads back at the University, but it can wear thin at times.  In an effort to save my sanity, and avoid housework, I’ve returned to writing.

I think it’s going better, this time.

narrator Roberto Suarez

narrator Roberto Suarez

about the narrator…

Roberto lives in Portland, Oregon. By day he works as a community college student advocate and recruiter. By night he geeks out on all things fantasy and science fiction, comic books and board games. He produces and co-hosts “A Pod of Casts: The Game of Thrones Podcast” ( http://apodofcasts.com/ ) and is a proud monthly supporter of all “Escape Artists” productions. Roberto is a father of four younglings being raised in The Ways of The Force and is married to Barbara, his Sun and Stars. Personal Website: robertosuarez.me

Saints, Beasts, and Zombies
By Gary Kloster

The kids ambushed me on the west side of the camp, near a line of abandoned latrines. Every time they hit me I gasped for breath, and sucked in the reek of old shit.

“Worthless. Everything you got.” A kick thumped into my ribs, driven by lazy contempt, not bone-cracking rage. “Why do you only bring toys here, gringo? You want the little girls to play with you? Or do you like the little boys better?”

The boy bared his teeth at me, lips twisted by an old scar, and his gang laughed. A dozen dirty little scarecrows, the youngest maybe ten, the oldest maybe fifteen. Gangs like this crept around the edges of the Minchin Refugee Camp like feral dogs, fearful, curious.

Vicious.

I’d watched them, boys choking on machismo and desperation, making fun of the peacekeepers as they passed. Listened to them taunt the girls. I’d hated seeing how this place wasted them, turned them small and stupid and angry.

Now, face down and hurting in the dirt far from the center of the camp and the protection of the peacekeepers, I just hated them.

“You come back, you better bring something better than toys. Or we won’t be so nice.” One more kick, and I managed to roll enough so that it caught me on the shoulder and not the head.

They walked away, laughing. They had my coat, my cell phone, and my satchel full of Qbooks. The phone was a burner, with less than an hour left to it. The coat was cheap, but I’d miss it on the walk back through the Andean night. The Qbooks, though…

Their loss hurt me more than the kicks to the ribs.

Maybe one of them would keep one. Stare at the tablet’s cheap screen and wonder about the symbols that danced across it. He might listen to it, play with it, and learn. Learn to read and write, learn math, science, languages. Maybe he would learn enough to escape this place and grow into a man wise enough to change the world, and end the need for camps like this once and for all.

“Or maybe you should get yourself checked for brain damage, Raul,” I muttered as I slowly pushed myself up out of the dust. “Because I think you’re starting to hallucinate.”

#

“What the hell happened to you?”

“Twelve stitches and a tetanus booster.” I sat at my desk, counting out the ibuprofens the clinic had given me, setting up for an uncomfortable night.

“Before that, Raul.” Grace shifted, leaning back and frowning. The motion made my eyes flick to the glowing image of her face centered in our chat window. She’d cut her dark hair, going back to the short style that she’d favored before she married Mark. A style I’d always preferred, but Mark had liked it long.

Marriage counseling must not be going well.

“Got rolled by some kids. No big deal.” I tapped at my keyboard, opening up the status windows on my Qbooks. Numbers danced, charts flowed, colorful distractions from her face.

“How many stitches does it take to make a big deal?”

“Christ, Grace, I got mugged.” My head still pounded, despite the clinics drugs, and I wasn’t feeling very diplomatic. “It happens, third world or first. Why don’t you stop pretending to be my– my mother and tell me why you called?”

Grace stared at me, dark eyes unreadable, and I wondered if she knew the word that I had swallowed. Probably. I stared at my columns of numbers and tried to lose myself in their familiar misery.

“I’m calling about the email you left yesterday. The one asking me for money.”

“Shit,” I muttered and straightened up in my chair, looked at her and tried to smile. Wished that I had changed my shirt into something more formal, less stained with dirt and blood. “Yes. I was-”

“Wanting money,” Grace cut me off. She ran a hand through that short hair, staring off into the darkness of her study. For the first time, I noticed the boxes stacked up behind her, the shadows that filled her empty shelves instead of books. Noticed too the absence of rings on her fingers. “I can’t do it, Raul. Not now. I asked Mark for a divorce two days ago.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, almost a whisper.

“No you’re not,” she said back, her voice just as quiet.

I looked from the screen, avoiding the image of her eyes, stared down at my filthy hands until my computer chimed quietly. A text chat request, and my fingers slid across my touch pad to kill it. Then I noticed the name, beast696.

Everything always comes at once, I thought, and tapped the window open.

beast696- Santo Raul! Heard you almost got yourself martyred today!

The Beast, after almost two weeks of silence. My fingers tapped the keys, just as Grace began to speak again.

“That isn’t what this is about. The money. It’s just, with the divorce coming, my lawyer-” she trailed off, her hand scrubbing through her hair again, as if searching for the length she had lost. “I just can’t do it.”

Raul@FindingGenius- No martyrdom for me. Just

a little banged up. Where you been?

“Your lawyer said no?” I said. I flipped through screens until I’d pulled up the tracking program I’d paid a hacker friend of mine to create, after it had become obvious that my security chops were too meager to capture Beast. “Why?”

“She seems to think that if I send large amounts of money to an ex-boyfriend in the middle of my divorce, it might look bad.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

beast696- Busy, Santo, busy.

Raul@FindingGenius- Did you look at those math lectures I sent you?

Beast696- Some. Got distracted though by something else on that site.

Raul@FindingGenius- Let me guess. The crypto?

“You’re giving to a charity, Grace. Not a person.” I activated the tracker and it started to bounce through the net, hunting for the Qbook that Beast was using, trying to grab its locational data. The little computers were meant to be easy to find, hard to tamper with, but Beast had hacked his into submission.

“You are that stupid charity, Raul. Finding Genius is you, a camper van, a crate of Qbooks, and a martyr complex.”

beast696- Crypto is cool, Santo. Very money.

Raul@FindingGenius- Money’s not everything, Beast.

beast696- I thought you were fighting ignorance, Santo. Not promoting it.

“Martyr complex?” The ghosts of a thousand old arguments drifted through those words, waiting. “Is that what you think this is? These kids need me.”

“They need you, Raul?” Grace leaned back from her camera, became a silhouette against the gray Seattle skies that filled the windows of her study. “They don’t know you. You’re just another interfering anglo trying to tell them how to run their lives.”

“I’m not-”

“Don’t give me that bullshit, Raul. You’re not from there. You’re grandma left Bolivia when she was five. The only thing you know about those people is what you read on Wikipedia.”

“I’ve been here two years, Grace. I know them now.”

“Christ, has it been two years?” she said. “Right. You left right before the wedding.”

Raul@FindingGenius- Don’t go black hat on me, Beast.

That’s not the world you belong in.

696- So what is? Your shitty school in La Paz?

“That’s not why I left.”

Grace stared at me, silent.

“It wasn’t. That company-”

“You mean the one we started?”

“It was a mistake.” I rubbed a finger across the stitches sewn neatly over my eyebrow and winced. “Using the Qbooks to haul kids in for the highest bidder isn’t right. That company turned us into zombies, Grace. Ransacking the world, looking for big fat brains to eat.”

“We’re saving kids, Raul. Finding them in the slums and bringing them in, giving them the best education money can buy. They’ll change the world. That’s what you said, what you wanted.”

“What I wanted.” Had I ever known what I wanted? “We were, you are, snatching kids out of the places their genius is needed most and selling them off to corporations for exploitation. Saving kids. Damn it, you wrote those awful contracts that we tricked those kids into signing. Zombie pimps, trafficking IQ’s instead of ass.”

“Jesus, why do I even try?” Grace said. “Finding Genius was your idea to start with. That’s why you got to keep the damn name.”

“Yeah, my idea. But you and Mark made it profitable.”

“Mark, I– Shit, now I can’t even keep you straight, you both piss me off so much.” Her eyes flashed at me, dagger sharp even over the link. So beautiful, and part of me wanted so much to say sorry. It felt years too late for that, though.

“So. No money.”

Grace stared at me, and the anger in her eyes dulled to exhausted pain. “No Raul. No more money. No more time. No more me.”

The chat window went black, her face gone, just an afterimage when I shut my eyes.

“God damn,” I whispered into the silence. Then the tracking program beeped, and I opened my eyes.

beast696- I don’t need school, Santo Raul. I need

money.

beast696- It might not be everything, but it’s enough

to get me out of here.

beast696- Santo?

The tracking program had opened up a map and dropped a pin into the location it had found.

“Shit,” I said dully, staring at it.

Raul@FindingGenius- Sorry. I’m here.

beast696- Your tracker done?

Raul@FindingGenius- Yes.

beast696- So where am I?

Raul@FindingGenius- Saskatchewan.

beast696- Where’s that?

Raul@FindingGenius- Canada. You didn’t do the geography lessons.

beast696- Too busy learning security protocols.

Raul@FindingGenius- You’re too smart for this place, Beast. Let me help you. The school in La Paz is a good place. Why won’t you let me help you?

beast696- Because you’re asking too much for something I don’t want, Santo.

beast696- Stay away from those bad boys and stay safe. Okay?

#

Two weeks later, I sat at my desk in suit coat and dress shirt, tie and fleece pants, hoping to hell my shivering didn’t show over the link.

“So far, Finding Genius has distributed almost a thousand Qbooks through the villages and refugee camps of southwestern Bolivia. Each of those tablets is a chance for a child to learn, and a chance for us to find children who might someday change the world. Already, we’ve located a number of children who might become the next Galileo, Curie, or Einstein.”

“A number.”

I kept a smile on my face, resisted the impulse to scratch at the maddening itch of my almost healed stitches. “Well, we’ve had some successes–”

“Three.” The man from the Gates Foundation leaned back in his chair, frowning at me. “I see three children that have been sent to La Paz by your program in two years.”

“Well, genius isn’t something–”

“Two of them have returned to the camps already.”

I gave up and swiped a sleeve across my forehead, scratching my itch. “They’re children. They missed their parents. I’m sure–”

“Uh-huh.” The man sighed, turned in his chair. “There’s already a UN program that uses tablets for rural education.”

“Qbooks are better,” I said. “And that program makes no effort to search out gifted students.”

“No. I hear there are private entities that do that.”

I shut my teeth on a retort, knowing it wouldn’t help. “Look, I know there are other worthy causes. But this area needs our help right now. The lithium war between Bolivia and Chile may have only lasted a week, but the armistice after has run for over three years. These people have been driven from their homes just so we can have batteries. We owe them something.”

“We owe everyone we can help whatever we can give, Mr. Hastings. But the Gates foundation is committed to giving where it can do the most good. And I’m afraid your program just hasn’t proven itself. I’m sorry. Best of luck elsewhere.” The window winked to black.

Elsewhere. I jerked my tie off and cursed. All my elsewheres had been used up long ago, and now—

My computer chimed.

“I’m really not in the mood for your shit today, Beast,” I said, looking at the text request. My finger hovered over the screen, ready to tap the window closed. “Damn it,” I muttered, and tapped it open instead.

beast696- santo you there ineed

Raul@FindingGenius- Beast, I’m here. What

beast696- get me please, come here, now, i

A new window flashed open on my screen, the tracking program suddenly springing to life. Trumpets rolled through the speakers, and a bulls-eye drew itself over a satellite image. Camp Minchin, cinderblock buildings and trailers and tents and shacks made of plastic sheeting and scrap. In the middle of it a red pin fell, marking a trailer half-overgrown with blue tarp.

The Beast’s lair, at last, right here, so close.

Raul@FindingGenius- Beast, are you in trouble?

Raul@FindingGenius- Beast?

Raul@FindingGenius- I’m coming.

#

The trailer door, dented and peeling, shuddered under my hand.

I pulled my new coat closed, trying to block the wind coming down from the mountains, but my shaking had nothing to do with the cold. What the hell was I sticking my neck into, here, alone? What the hell was I going to do if no one answered my knock? What the hell was I going to do if they did?

I should have talked to the peacekeepers. They wouldn’t have wanted to come out into the cold night, looking for a boy whose name I didn’t even know, but I should have—

The door jerked open.

A woman, sharp bones wrapped in wrinkles, eyes of cutting glass, glared at me. “What?” The word, Quechua, not Spanish, was spat out like acid.

“Child. Book. Where?” I stumbled over the language, gave up and switched to Spanish. “I’m looking for a boy with one of these.” I held up a Qbook. “Have you…”

The woman glared at me silently, then shut the door.

I stared at the blank metal and cursed, raised my hand and pounded on it, the noise echoing over the low growl of radios and the low moan of the wind. I pounded until the door jerked suddenly open again, then I stumbled back, almost falling.

The boy stepped out, red eyes flashing at me over a mouth twisted into a sneer by his scar. He wore my old coat, and in his hand he held a Qbook, worn with use, painted with markers. “You gave her this.”

A set up. An ambush. I shook, afraid and angry and tired, but my voice came out steady. “Who?”

The boy took a step closer, his too-big eyes feral with rage. “My sister. The Beast.” The boy stared down at the Qbook in his hand, his face stone except for the scar.

“Grandmother hated her, always playing with this. Wanted her to do real work.” His hands clenched on the thin tablet. “She took it away from her, when she sold her.”

“Sold her?”

“To be a maid in El Alto, that’s what those men said.” The boy stared at me, eyes burning. “That’s a fucking lie, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Traffickers. I stared at the bright flowers and crude faces that covered the Qbook. They hit the camp, sometimes, looking for girls to run to… anywhere. “Goddamn it. The peacekeepers—”

“Let them in.”

Bribed, and damn it the boy was probably right and I’d have no idea who was in on it, but what the hell was I going to do? My hand spasmed around my phone. “Did you see the car they took?”

“A truck.”

“Did you get—”

The boy held out the Qbook. On its rain spattered screen, a series of letters and numbers glowed. A license.

“Can you get her, Santos? Can you save her?” His eyes searched mine, and I could finally see the despair hiding behind all that rage.

“I’m going to try.”

“You’d better,” the boy whispered, his words barely breaking the sound of the rain. “You’d better.”

#

“Raul.” Grace, in her office, and there were boxes there too, crowding the desk around her. “I told you. No more—”

“I’m sending you something,” I interrupted. My fingers flew across the keyboard, dumping Beast’s file to her. Her eyes scanned her computer’s screen, started to come back to me, then stopped.

“How old is he? She?”

“She’s twelve, thirteen, I’m not sure. All I really know is that she maxed out the Qbooks intellect profiles. She’s the best I’ve ever found, Grace, and she’s obsessed with computers.”

Grace’s eyes narrowed, hard focused. “So why haven’t you scooped her up?”

“She’s been dodging me, until today. When her grandmother sold her to some traffickers.”

“Wait. Shit, what?” Grace’s eyes flashed at me. “Why the hell are you calling me about this?”

“Our– Your company.” I stared at the boxes around her, then focused on her face. “You and Mark. I know you’ve arranged extractions, gotten kids out of bad situations before. You have money, contacts. I told you to stay out of Bolivia, but–”

“We have contacts in that area,” she said, and we stared at each other, silent.

“Call them,” I said.

“Raul. Christ.” She stared down at her boxes. “I just told Mark I was quitting. Told him your idiocy had gotten to me. Now you want me to—” She broke off, sighed. “Twelve. Shit.” She stared at me, eyes small and sharp on my screen.

“I’ll talk to him. But there’ll be a price, Raul.”

“I’ll pay it.”

“No you won’t,” she said. “Your Beast will.”

My hands clenched over the keys. “I—”

“Have nothing Mark wants. Not anymore.”

Damn her. Damn me. My hands opened. “Whatever. Just help me save her.”

#

The road to El Alto was rutted and worn. That made it easy to angle my van across it, looking like it was stuck axel deep in a pothole.

“They’re coming,” a voice rumbled in my ear, Spanish brutalized by a thick Australian accent. I had no idea where Grace had dug up this merry little band of mercenaries, and didn’t want to. The fact that she could do it so quickly was a clear signal that the company had spun to a whole new level of insanity after I had left. Damn me though, it was useful now.

“You sure it’s them?”

“Right time and place, according to the info we bought. You’ll have to check the plate.”

“Okay,” I muttered into the headset, listening to a truck engine getting closer. I watched headlights swing around a curve, stared blind into them and waved my hands, stepping out of the way. With a lurch, the truck slid to a stop and I stepped forward, trying to see through the light.

“You hang that piece of junk?”

“Yeah,” I said, forcing myself to walk closer, blocking their headlights with a hand. “Can you give me a pull? I’ve got a chain.”

“Yeah, but do you have cash?”

Another voice, and laughter, and I was close enough to see the license now.

“It’s them,” I whispered in English, and the driver’s door was opening, a dark figure stepping out.

“What?” the truck driver asked, then he shifted, head turning toward the sound of boots crunching through the dust, and there was a pop.

With a strangled grunt, the driver fell. He thrashed in the dust, a black taser dart clinging to his chest like a vicious electric tick. Then the truck lurched at me.

I jerked myself to the side, barely dodging the rusty bumper, stopped myself from diving away and grabbed instead at the door that was flopping open as the truck bounced forward.

In the cab, the other man twisted, trying to get himself centered behind the wheel while he pulled something up off the seat beside him.

I ducked without thinking, heard a crack like fireworks and suddenly glass was falling, the broken shards of the window tapping like hail down on me. Almost lost in the echoes of the gunshot came another neat pop.

Big hands grabbed me and shoved me away from the door. The Australian blasted by and jerked the twitching man out of the truck and slid in, stopping it. The rest of his squad was there then, slipping out of the darkness like ghosts. They surrounded the truck, opening doors and flashing guns, and wrenched another man out of the back, zip tying his hands behind him.

Behind the last trafficker, five girls straggled out into the night, silent and shaking.

I reached into my coat and pulled out the Qbook, the bright colors marked on it glowing in the headlights. “Beast?”

She wore a Yankees t-shirt, dirty jeans, and in her face I could see a dim echo of her brothers.

“Santo,” she said, and took her computer from my hand and curled around it, clutching it close.

#

When I finally turned my computer back on, Grace was waiting for me.

“Raul, goddamit, where are you?”

She glared out of the screen at me, looking almost as rough as I did, and no one had been shooting at her.

Maybe I should have answered my phone.

“La Paz. Safe.”

“Safe,” she said. “You couldn’t have texted me that hours ago?”

“Your Australian did.”

“My Australian told me that the job was done, and that you had driven off with a van full of girls. That’s all I’ve known,” she eyes slipped, checking her computers clock, “for three hours.”

Three hours. For a second, I wondered what the mercenaries had done with the traffickers, than I decided I didn’t care. “I had to drive here and find Maria and get the girls settled.”

“Who the hell’s Maria?”

“Social worker from the school I work with.” And a damned good one. I’d rousted her from a date and settled five girls on her, and she’d had them showered, dressed, fed and settled around her apartment before I had time to stammer out my story.

“Okay,” Grace sighed. “That wasn’t completely idiotic. You still there?”

“I’m in my van, parked outside. I—” Laughter echoed somewhere on the street, people going home from the bars, and I trembled, still feeling the aftershocks of adrenalin. “I’m not sure what to do.”

“So what’s new?”

I looked away, stared out at the city night and caught sight of a skinny wraith hunched over something on the steps that lead up to Maria’s building. I popped open the door and called out, “Beast.”

She looked up, stood and walked to the van. Short and scrawny, she barely looked the thirteen she claimed.

“What are you doing?”

“That woman told me to sleep. I don’t want to.” She clutched her Qbook to her chest, defiant.

“Get in,” I said, picked up my phone and snapped a quick text to Maria. On my screen, Grace tilted her head, tracking the girl’s movement past the camera.

“Is that—”

“Grace, Beast.” I repeated the introduction in Spanish, but the girl ignored me, settling into my narrow cot with her computer.

She had refused to give me any other name.

Grace focused again on me. “Have you talked to her yet?”

“No.”

“Do it. We need her to sign a contract, and we need permission from her guardians. Will that be a problem?”

I thought of that old woman, the angry eyes of her grandson. Sold her. “No. Not with a little money.”

“Good. We need to get her out before any of this shit gets noticed.” Over the speakers came the click of her fingers, dancing across keys. “I’m sending you all the papers you’ll need, including her contract.”

The computer pinged, the file popping into existence, but I was watching Grace. “I thought you were quitting.”

“I was. Because of you. But Mark…” She stopped typing and looked past her computer, past me. “I promised him another six months. So we could manage the transition better.”

“So he could convince you to stay,” I said.

“Yes.”

“That was part of his price, wasn’t it? For tonight?”

“Yes,” she said again, running a hand through her short hair, and it was my turn to look away.

“You used to be together,” Beast said, curled on my bed.

“A long time ago.”

“Mmmm.” The girl held up her tablet, turned its screen to me. “Is this the contract she wants me to sign?”

Beast had gotten the file from some watchdog group’s expose on the company I had started and its practices. I could see logo at the top of the screen, the familiar first lines. “Looks like.”

She flipped the screen back towards her and danced her fingers across it. “Not so money. Twenty-first century slavery, that’s what all the comments say.” She stared at me through her ragged hair. “Am I going to get sold again, Santos? Twice in one day?”

“No.” What would it cost me? Would Mark demand I come back and work off what I owed the company for this? I felt the phosphors of Grace’s face, burning behind me.

No. He wouldn’t want me back.

It didn’t matter. I’d figure out a way. I wasn’t going to make the Beast pay for her life. “You don’t have to sign that. You can stay—”

“Stay? Here? Or with my family?” Her eyes looked just like her brothers, when they were filled with rage. “I don’t want to go back to them, Santo. Or that shithole camp. I want to go to the world you come from, with things and money and choice.” She tapped her Qbook’s screen. “I want this deal, without being screwed.”

“What’s she saying?”

Grace’s question pulled the Beast’s eyes off me, to the screen. When she spoke, her transition from Spanish to English was almost flawless. “What I’m saying is that your contract is shit. I want something money.”

“Whoa, young lady.” Grace waved her hand. “I can’t—”

“Don’t talk to me about it,” Beast said. “Talk to my agent.”

I blinked at her. “What?”

“The football boys, from the camps. They get agents, when the scouts from Europe come. Why not me?”

Her head dropped, her fingers flashing across her screen. Behind me, my computer chimed, and in the window beside Grace’s face the girl’s words appeared.

beast696- Do you really want to help me, Santos?

“Yes.”

beast696- Then why don’t you ever listen to me? Why haven’t you ever tried to find out what I want?

“I—“ I started, then stopped. I’d never asked her what she wanted, yes, but… “You’re thirteen.”

She didn’t bother to look up as she typed.

beast696- I’m me. This is my life, not yours. So who’s life are you trying to save, anyway?

I stared at the skinny girl, the stickered, battered, markered Qbook cradled in her hands, and my stomach lurched. “Yours,” I said, and for maybe the first damned time I thought about what that might mean. “Okay. Just one thing. Can you call me your advocate, instead of agent?”

Her eyes flicked up, gleaming with reflected light. “You work for me, Santos, really work for me, and I’ll call you whatever you want.”

“Raul, what the hell is this?”

Grace’s voice carried the lawyerly grate of whetstone on steel, but that didn’t shake me. I’d dropped into this country two years ago, nursing my wounded pride, convinced I could save these kids, save the world, just by showing up. But I’d never asked Beast what she wanted, never asked any of the kids that. I’d never really considered that, not when I was the brain eating zombie, and not when I was trying to play the saint.

“This?” I said. I turned back to my computer, fingers tapping keys, and I pulled up a copy of Grace’s contract onto my screen. “This is round one. First thing, citizenship. Or a green card, maybe a visa, if it’s good enough, but something besides that revocable piece of crap that you hold over these kids heads.”

“Christ, you’re serious, aren’t you?” Grace was pissed, and goddamn it felt good to see her looking at me with something besides disappointed resignation.

“Damn right,” I said, skimming the contract, tapping out notes. “You better wake up Mark, he’s going to have to be in on this.”

“Perfect,” Grace snapped. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Raul?”

I stopped typing and stared into the camera. “Same thing I’ve been doing ever since we met.” I pointed behind me, at the scrawny girl curled around her tablet. “Trying to save the world. One genius at a time.”

EP531: Bend Back the Shadows

May 26th, 2016 by Posted in 10 and Up, Podcasts

by Michael Reid
narrated by Summer Brooks

about the author…

I am a 2015 graduate of the Clarion Workshop, but I have no other publication credits.

about the narrator…

Summer is a bit of a television addict, and enjoys putting her scifi media geek skills to good use in interviewing guests for Slice of SciFi as a co-host from 2005-2009. She was previously the co-host for The Babylon Podcast and host of Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas, before returning to Slice of SciFi as host in August 2014.

She is an avid reader and writer of scifi, fantasy and thrillers, with a handful of publishing and voiceover credits to her name. Next on her agenda is writing an urban fantasy tale, and a B-movie monster extravaganza.

Currently, Summer designs and maintains websites for clients and for fun in addition to the Slice of SciFi websites, does voiceover & narrations for StarShipSofaTales to TerrifyFar Fetched Fables, and Crime City Central, among others.

 

Bend Back the Shadows
By Michael Reid

Month 669, Day 10

When I was a little girl, Grandma used to tell me scary stories about the day the lights went out on Earth. Back then, she said, there were lots of people on our station. People would come and go from Earth all the time in little gray capsules. And then, one day, the capsules had stopped coming. Soon after that, the messages had stopped coming on the radio. Everyone on the station had hovered by the windows like ghosts, watching day after day as plumes of smoke erupted from the hearts of the cities, their trails snaking across the continents.

“But that wasn’t the worst of it,” Grandma would tell me. “Not by a long shot.”

“What was worse?” I asked her once, between lessons on medicine and aquaponics.

Grandma looked away when she spoke. “The worst part was watching the night sweep across the Earth and seeing that the darkness was empty. No more lights. Just shadows.”

Grandma used to live down on Earth, a long time ago. She was a doctor–a brain doctor. She said that one of the reasons she came up to the station was to see Earth from space with her own eyes. She loved the day side with its browns and greens and blues, but I think she loved the lights on the night side even more. I’ve seen pictures from back then, back when the whole Earth was covered with cities that glowed yellow at night. The pictures reminded me of the diagrams of neurons Grandma used to show me on her slate: nuclear cities connected to dendritic suburbs, all bound together by axonal highways. Then the end had come. Night after night, the web of neurons had disintegrated, like a brain consumed by Alzheimer’s. Grandma and the others had watched it all happen, watched each city flare brightly for a few seconds, then disappear forever.

Our station orbits Earth once every four hours: two hours over the day side and two hours over the night. Grandma said that, every time the station caught up to the night, she would go to a window and pray that there would still be lights. One orbit, she had gone to the windows and there had been only one light left on the whole dark side of the planet. One tiny light, smack in the middle of the big continent–Africa, it was called, when there were still people on it. Orbit after orbit, she watched for that spot, prayed the whole time it was in daylight that it would still be there when the night returned. She would wish on it like an ember, praying for it to spark and spread. But one day, less than a year after the last capsule had come to the station, darkness swept over the place where the light had been and the light was gone.

Grandma said that was the single worst day of her life. Worse than leaving Grandpa behind on Earth. Worse than watching the city where he lived go dark. Worse than watching all those plumes of smoke circling the planet. She said watching that last light be engulfed by the shadows was more fearful than losing all of the rest combined. “But it won’t always be this way,” she told me. “Someday those lights are going to come back. Someday you’ll see just the tiniest flicker down there, but that one tiny flicker will spread and soon it will bend back all those shadows.”

EP530: City in the Wound

May 11th, 2016 by Posted in 13 and Up, Podcasts

by Michael Buckley
narrated by Barry Haworth

author Michael Buckley

author Michael Buckley

about the author…

Mike Buckley’s fiction has appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2003The Southern California Review, and numerous times in The Alaska Quarterly Review.  His science fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld (in a story read by Cast of Wonders’ Marguerite Kenner), Pravic, and is forthcoming from Abyss and Apex. He is currently working on a Transhumanist murder mystery novel.  He has been nominated for various awards, and his debut short story collection, Miniature Men,was released in 2011.   He is a practicing Creative Futurist, using science fiction storytelling to improve corporate and government policy.  He is also an instructor with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and regularly teaches workshops on science fiction and short story.

about the narrator…

Barry Haworth is from Australia and he last narrated for Escape Pod in episode 428. This is his third appearance after offering to narrate as a way to contribute to one of his favorite shows.

 

City in the Wound
By Michael Buckley

In the middle of the night Eztli decides to burn The Mothers. He’s a block down and they’re visible through a sliver of space between two corners, drapes of light kelping back and forth slow in the darkness.

Eztli runs, safe for the moment ‘cause it’s his street, Da is watching, but then off his block, out into the middle of the road.

A brick flies past him. He hears shouting in the rooms above The Mothers, but their boys and girls don’t make it out in time. Now it’s just him standing in front of The Mothers. There’s three in a row, their dresses shimmering and lovely, and they stare down at him, so kind and gentle. The one in front is actually crying as Eztli sprays stolen gasoline in a wide arc across them. Eztli hates her for it. He could burn her a thousand times.

The lit match hits the wall and The Mothers go up. The children scream from the second floor. Feet bang on the stairs. Eztli runs, the warmth of the fire behind him, listening to the other screams, the ones coming from beneath the flames.

That night he sleeps next to Da, the composites moving about slowly behind him, lulling. And he doesn’t dream at all.

Da wakes him the next day. The composites reach finger-like to brush his cheek. Feels like lizard skin, or what he’s heard of The Native’s hide.

“Wakee,” Da says. His voice makes Eztli’s lips go cold. “Wakee. Food for the others. At the farthest pit.”

Eztli stands in the morning light. The street is dead quiet and Da behind him moves across the wall, ticking and groaning and hissing.

“You slept close to Da last night for burning The Mothers,” Da says.

Eztli gets it: But today you gotta work.

EP529: Of Blessed Servitude

May 3rd, 2016 by Posted in 17 and Up, Podcasts

by A. Merc Rustad
narrated by Trendane Sparks

author A. Merc Rustad

author A. Merc Rustad

about the author…

Hello and welcome! My name is Merc Rustad and I’m a queer non-binary writer and filmmaker who likes dinosaurs, robots, monsters, and cookies. My fiction has appeared in nifty places like ScigentasyDaily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. (More at the Published Fiction tab at the top of the page.)

I’m mostly found on Twitter @Merc_Rustad and occasionally playing in cardboard boxes. The site is updated with publication announcements, completed short films, and occasional blog-like essays. (For more semi-regular blogging, I hang out on LJ and DW.)

narrator Trending Sparks

narrator Trendane Sparks

about the narrator…

Originally born in Texas, Tren eventually escaped and wound his way through a mystical series of jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area where he has worked as a software QA Tester for both graphics drivers and video games, a freelance mascot performer, and several jobs on a PBS kids’ show. For most of his life, people have told him that his voice is a pleasure to listen to. But since being a werewolf phone sex operator can get boring, he decided to use his powers to entertain a broader audience.

OF BLESSED SERVITUDE
A. Merc Rustad

The sacrificial cross threw a long shadow across the road at Bishop’s dust-caked boots. He halted sharp at the sight of it. Wind hummed through wildseed bushes strung along the ditch, yellow buds as bright as radiation seals. Bishop clenched his jaw and looked along the shadow to the cross itself. It gleamed in the sunset, a steel post with a fused crossbeam, packed dirt the color of old blood at its base. And the cross wasn’t empty.

_Well, shit. _

The offering was a pretty one—young, work-muscled body, a day’s stubble scuffing his jaw. He’d been shackled naked to the cross, arms spread against the top beam. The dusty wind tugged unkempt hair across his eyes.

Bishop slapped the film of red dirt from his duster, his shoulders tense, and checked his knives from habit. He knew he shouldn’t have traveled past Providence Circle. If chokevine hadn’t overrun the only bridge across Unrepentant’s Canyon, he’d never have come near this territory. He’d never have come within sight of the town of Blessed Servitude.

He hadn’t been home in ten years.

“You should get off the road, stranger.”

“Mighty courteous of you to warn a man,” Bishop said. He shouldn’t look at the man chained against steel, shouldn’t stir up old memories. He never saved the offerings, and he didn’t try.

EP528: Divided By Zero

April 24th, 2016 by Posted in 13 and Up, Podcasts

by Samantha Murray
narrated by Ibba Armancas

author Samantha Murrayabout the author…

Samantha Murray is a writer, actor, mathematician and mother.  Not particularly in that order.

She lives in Western Australia in a household of unruly boys.

narrator Ibba Armancas

narrator Ibba Armancas

about the narrator…

Raised by swordfighters and eastern European freedom fighters, Ibba Armancas is a writer-director currently based in Los Angeles. Her darkly comedic genre sensibilities are showcased in two webseries and a feature film forthcoming later this year. One day she will find time to make a website, but in the mean time you can follow her projects and adventures on twitter or instagram.

 

Divided By Zero
by Samantha Murray

As a child I already knew that there were different kinds of infinity.

When I asked my mother whom she loved the most–me or my brother–she would pause and then say she loved the both of us.

How much did she love us? I wanted to know. And she’d say she loved me an infinite amount and my brother an infinite amount too.

From this I knew implicitly that two infinities did not have to be the same size.

As a child I knew this although I had no words for it. It was what drove me to ask the question. I knew also that I was waiting for her not to pause.

She always did. Every time.

Secure in his answer, my brother never asked the question. I was the lesser infinity; that of whole numbers perhaps, while his was of real and irrational numbers, which could be complex, and transcendental.

My brother won awards and prizes, was tall and athletic while I could not use my legs, but this is not why his infinity was infinitely bigger and infinitely better than mine. I’m sure people wondered how anyone could fail to love my brother when he was so brave and shining–but I think they have the causality backwards. Everybody loved him and he took all of that love inside himself until he could not help but glow like a nebula pinpricked with stars.

#

My lover indicates the space between our two bodies. She moves so that the space is gone, my skin flush against hers, no gaps. “Is this not enough for you?”

I let her words fall away into silence, receding from us, shifting into red.

She knows, as I know, that it is not.

#

EP527: Plural

April 17th, 2016 by Posted in 17 and Up, Podcasts, Uncategorized

by Lia Swope Mitchell
narrated by Amanda Ching

author Lia Swope Mitchell

author Lia Swope Mitchell

about the author…

Lia Ardith Swope Mitchell is a writer of literary fiction. Sometimes speculative, sometimes not. Real world with a twist, let’s say. She has lived in Minneapolis all her life, except for a couple years in Wisconsin and France.

Lia is also a PhD candidate in French literature at the University of Minnesota. Her dissertation is currently titled Scientific Marvelous: Technologized Experience and Speculative Fiction in the Third Republic. Someday, she swears, she will finish it.

narrator Amanda Ching

narrator Amanda Ching

about the narrator…

Amanda Ching is a freelance editor and writer. Her work has appeared in WordRiot, Candlemark & Gleam’s Alice: (re)Visions, and every bathroom stall on I-80 from Pittsburgh to Indianapolis. She tweets @cerebralcutlass and blogs at http://amandaching.wordpress.com.

Plural
by Lia Swope Mitchell

The aliens come in peace, as they always do, bearing gifts and a banner printed with hopeful messages. Universal understanding, sharing and collaboration, the usual thing: three-hundred-year-old language cribbed from the Bebo time capsule. We install them in the quarantine tank and let them alone. We’re still processing the previous group.

The predecessors were large, their plump thigh muscles well marbled with fat. We’re dressing them in herbs and slow-roasting them, and the flavor is good, rich and unctuous, the fibers softened by their long voyage in low-G. The rest we’re making into sausage, confit, and stock. We’ve been lucky this year, with three groups since spring. Sometimes we go a long time without meat; at least real meat, better than the crawlers and birds, tiny dust-flavored things full of bones.

These new ones aren’t impressive, as aliens go. Maybe reptilian: small and sweet-fleshed. Ten forlorn figures in blue smocks, they sit on the sterile-sheeted beds and do not speak or gesture much, exchange only occasional glances. From this we conclude that they communicate telepathically. After a few hours, though, one falls ill, probably from some unfamiliar bacteria. Greenish saliva drips from its mouth onto a pillow. Soon enough they might all be infected, and already this is no great harvest.

The first gift is plants, miniature trees bearing sour marble-sized drupes. Alien plants are rarely hardy enough, although we try. Under our red-eyed sun they wither quickly, and even within the shade and cool of the Complex they give too little in exchange for the water required. Our own plants have adapted to heat and dust. They stand tough and proud in bristling rows, radiating out into the dustplains. Most years they’re enough, as long as our numbers are controlled. But any supplements that arrive, while they last, are welcome.

They brought another gift, too: squares of a glass-like material, several thin layers pressed together around dull silvery skins, about ten centimeters across. Close examination reveals no obvious function, but they’re not particularly decorative, either. The inner material is metallic but not metal, not a mineral at all. Normally we refrain from extended communication with aliens, but given the possibility of new technology, we decide to see what information they can offer.

After some discussion, Reception selects an ambassador. Sub-engineer Tres is the smallest Reception tech, physically unthreatening even to these small aliens. We dress her in a white robe and place metal circlets around her waist, throat and wrists, a tiara on her head. Worthless old-world trinkets, but aliens often interpret them as signs of importance. She looks right. A good-enough representative for us, the collective remainders of the human race.

*

Bring Back the Middle Ground

April 11th, 2016 by Posted in Rambling

If you haven’t heard the hubbub surrounding Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, then you must be living under a rock. The commercials aired for months; the press junkets were full of moments like Sad Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill saying stupid things. And then the film came out on March 25, and the public neatly divided into three groups:

  1. “IT WAS AWESOME I LOVED EVERY SECOND OF IT!”
  2. “Eh, I’ll see it when it comes out on Netflix.”
  3. “IT WAS HORRIBLE I HATED EVERY SECOND OF IT!”

Yes, I’m exaggerating a little… but not much.

EP: Metacast 0416

April 4th, 2016 by Posted in 10 and Up, Meta, Podcasts

EscapePod

We wanted to give you a quick update of the goings-on at Escape Pod. It’s the first of what we expect to be many positive developments in 2016, so hold onto your socks!

EP526: The Hunter Captain

March 29th, 2016 by Posted in 10 and Up, Podcasts

by David John Baker
narrated by Mat Weller

author David John Baker

author David John Baker

about the author… Aside from my philosophical essays, I also write short science fiction stories.  Some of these have been published in anthologies.

The Hunter Captain
by David John Baker

“The sign for the survivor’s species is ‘human,'” said Kyber, “although I am unsure of the exact pronunciation.”

Hunter Captain Sra examined the data feed, zooming in on an image of the human’s brain. “Have you discovered anything in her nervous system that might function as a seat of consciousness?” said Sra.

“There is one promising organ. An intersection here, between the two hemispheres of the brain. But we’ve found such things before, in highly developed animals. I see no particular reason for optimism.”

Although he knew it was naive, Sra was optimistic. For once his hunter’s skills might not be needed–if the human was in fact a sentient alien being. Although it meant Explorer Captain Kyber would retain command of the ship, the prospect of true first contact spoke to a dream Sra had cultivated since his infancy.

Sra was old enough to recall an earlier age, when no one believed that the Nampranth were alone. A time before their race journeyed outside the home system–before they found a galaxy infested with intelligent animals and bereft of sentient life.

Already this mission seemed different. Sra had never heard of a more auspicious contact. They’d found the alien ship alone, disabled–apparently by a freak collision with a cosmic string. Its single passenger was recovered still unconscious, its computer’s artificial animal dormant but intact. The animal’s architecture had so far resisted interface with Nampranth computers, but Kyber’s explorers had already learned much from the ship’s markings. It was a perfect opportunity for slow, cautious study before beginning the delicate process of contact.

“When do you plan to revive the human?” Sra said.

“Perhaps very soon. We can’t learn much more from noninvasive scans, especially given the number of cybernetic devices operating within her brain.”