Category: EP Original

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EP370 The Care and Feeding of Mammalian Bipeds, v. 2.1

By M. Darusha Wehm
Read by Christiana Ellis
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An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by M. Darusha Wehm
All stories read by Christiana Ellis
Rated 13 and up for language

The Care and Feeding of Mammalian Bipeds, v. 2.1
by M. Darusha Wehm

The first day I meet my human herd they are so well-behaved that I wonder if they really need me at all. I arrive at their dwelling, and am greeted by the largest one of their group. I access the manual with which I have been programmed and skip to Section 3: Verbal and Physical Clues for Sexing Humans. I can tell by the shape and outer garments that this human is a male, and I make a note of this data. He brings me into the main area of their living space, and as we move deeper into the dwelling, he asks me to call him Taylor, so immediately I do. He makes a noise deep in his throat, then introduces me to the rest of the herd.

He puts his forelimb around the next largest one, who he introduces as Madison. The Madison bares its teeth at me in a manner that Section 14: Advanced Non-Verbal Communication suggests is a gesture indicating happiness, approval, cheerfulness, or amusement, but which may belie insincerity, boredom or hostility. The Madison says, “Welcome to the family, Rosie.”

“Thank you, Madison,” I respond, as suggested by the manual in Section 2: Introductions: Getting To Know Your Humans. “I am looking forward to serving you and your family.” The manual indicates that human herds designate each individual with a name, and that most will bestow a similar designation on their caregiver. Section 0: A Brief Overview of Current Anthropological Theories states that the predominant view is that humans believe we are a new addition to the herd, and the best thing to do is to go along with this idea so as not to confuse them. The Taylor and the Madison appear to have chosen to refer to me by the name Rosie, and I set my monitoring routine to key on the sound of that word.

“These here are Agatha and Frederick,” the Taylor says, pushing two smaller humans toward me. I am unable to tell by looking whether or not they are male or female — they are about the same height as each other, with shoulder-length glossy fur. Their outer coverings are very similar, shapeless and dark coloured except with colourful designs in the upper section. One of them bares its teeth at me, in a manner similar to the Madison’s earlier display, but the other looks away. “Kids,” the Taylor says, his voice growing deeper, “say hi to the new robot.”

“Hi, Rosie,” the toothy one says, “I’m Frederick, and this is my sister, Aggie.” The Frederick pulls on the forelimb of the other one, who looks through its fur at me.

“This is so stupid,” it says, pulling its arm out of its sibling’s grip. “I don’t have to say hi to the dishwasher or the school bus, why do I have to pretend to be nice to this thing?”

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EP368: Springtime for Deathtraps

By Marjorie James
Read by Dr. John Cmar
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An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Marjorie James — including EP007– The Trouble With Death Traps and EP224– The Ghost In The Death Trap.
All stories read by John Cmar
Rated 13 and up for language

Springtime for Deathtraps
By Marjorie James

The building sat in a small clearing in the jungle, its stone walls
radiating solidity and the midday heat. Giant statues of warrior-gods
crushing skulls beneath their feet flanked the doorway. Xnab looked
from the ornately carved keyhole to his customer and back again.

“And the key is where, exactly?” he asked.

“In the treasure chamber,” the big man said in a small voice. “We had
just finished putting everything away and, well, it had been a long
day. I think I must have put the key down on the altar or something.
The problem is, the place locks automatically, and our entire fortune
is in there. We had a few locksmiths out to work on it, but they
didn’t get very far.”
Xnab nodded. He had already noticed the blood spatter around the keyhole.

“So that’s why we called you. Everyone said that if anybody could get
in there, it would be you.”

Xnab accepted that, not as a compliment, but a statement of fact. He
was a specialist the design and construction of booby traps, deadfalls
and other, largely fatal, security options. He was a small man, thin
and wiry, his shaved head still smooth and unwrinkled despite years of
working in the sun. Despite making a very good living, he wore a plain
tunic and no adornments at all. In his business, he considered it a
bad idea to have anything extra hanging around, and he was very good
at his business. In fact, anyone who knew anything considered Xnab the
best death trap designer alive.

Which typically would have been reason enough to turn down a job like
this, but in this case it was actually why he was there.

“How long have you owned the temple?” he asked the man, who had
introduced himself as Tuak.

“Just a couple of months, actually,” Tuak admitted. “It’s not really a
temple. I think the statues of the gods are just there for show. The
family who used to have it used it to store their treasures and they
spared no expense on the security.” He sighed heavily and stared up at
the tiers of stone vanishing into the jungle. “It seemed like a good
idea when we bought it.”

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EP357: Connoisseurs of the Eccentric

By Jetse de Vries
Read by Nathan Lowell
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An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Jetse de Vries
All stories read by Nathan Lowell
Rated 15 and up for language

Connoisseurs of the Eccentric
by Jetse de Vries

Salvador Dalí took his pet ocelot to a New York restaurant, where a woman protested that wild animals were being allowed in. Dalí replied it was only a cat he’d painted in op-art style. The woman looked closer: “Now I can see it’s a cat,” she said. “At first, I thought it was an ocelot.”

Seated near the swimming pool in the artist’s retreat in Port Lligat, a BBC interviewer said that he had “heared that Dalí was unkind to animals. Was that true?”

“Dalí cruel to ze animal?” The artist exclaimed, “Nevair!” After which he picked up his pet ocelot and hurled it into the swimming pool.

—Eccentric anecdotes;

I SEE HER arriving in her private vacuum zeppelin, flying over the rewilded mountains of the Nagasaki peninsula, while I’m tending the extreme bonsai wine garden on top of my farmscraper. Expertly manoeuvering through the photovoltaic city forest, the zep berthes at the telescopic docking station. It gives me time to change from my gardening attire into something more formal.

Originally, she found me through my hyperdense pinot noir à la bonsaïe, almost two decades ago. Back then, I proudly showed her my grotto garden, but she quickly decided that she liked my ecological acumen better than my micro bonsai specimen. Today, for the second time only, she comes unnanounced.

I come prepared, but even my Icho’s ‘the power of light and shadow’ complemented with a pair of Peron & Peron’s is no match for the way Afri Kamari makes an off-the-shelf, demure business suit look like haute couture. Above ebony cheekbones: deep brown eyes that see straight through you. Under a head of long, thick, fine curls: a brain that never shifts from top gear. Inside a very conservative skirtsuit: an animated sensuality that puts any anime girl to shame.

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EP355: Grandmother

By Cat Rambo
Read by The Word Whore of Air Out My Shorts
Guest Host: The Word Whore
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An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Cat Rambo
All stories read by The Word Whore
Rated 13 and up for language

Grandmother
by Cat Rambo

Most people called her Phoenix. Her former crew used “Captain” before that and “Sir” afterward. Ruby and Ada respectively called her “mother” and “g’ma.” Her hair was silver – not white, but genuine, metallic silver, a long fall against her pale blue skin, the color of a shadow on a piece of willow ware, that made her seems ageless despite the century and more that lay upon her, not to mention all those decades of pirating.

They said she’d been the best slideboard rider of her time, and perhaps the best battleship pilot of all time, back before her parents and sister were killed and she turned rogue.

They said she had done terrible things in her pirate days.

They said she’d been ruthless in her rise to power, moving up the chain from god knows where, an origin she’d never, ever spoken of to anyone, not even her own daughter. She’d killed some captains, slept with others, called in favors and maneuvered and betrayed and seized power with a brutal efficiency that still underlay what now seemed a calm and orderly, rules-bound government that she and Mukopadhyay had created.

They said she had killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people — sometimes at a distance, sometimes up close, with knife or fist. They said she’d killed a crew member when the shuttle she was in needed its mass reduced and the man hadn’t even argued, just nodded and stepped into the airlock, never said a word as the door closed and the lock cycled, staring in at his captain as she stared back.

They said time had mellowed her.
 They said working with Mukopadhyay, even though he was crazy as a spiral comet, had mellowed her.

They said helping colonize a whole planet, setting up its government, the rich and intricate power structure that now encompassed the whole solar system called Shiva, had mellowed her.

Not to mention motherhood, they said, a change which no pregnant woman escapes. It alters the hormones in your body. Softens you. Makes you less rash, less harsh. Takes away even the sharpest edge, not to mention the hormonal craziness, which some women never recover from, after all.

Sure, changes you in a good way, they were quick to say. 
But definitely softer.

They said she’d never do those sorts of things now.

#


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EP352: Food for Thought

By Laura Lee McArdle
Read by Christiana Ellis
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An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Laura Lee McArdle
All stories read by Christiana Ellis
Rated 15 and up for explicit language

Food for Thought
By Laura Lee McArdle

He didn’t look much like the humans I knew—their eyes squinting out of wind-burnt faces from atop the backs of their rude horses. This one had a face like butter, not a wrinkle to be seen. And he didn’t arrive on a horse, rude or otherwise, just popped out of thin air and started talking to me. Not at me. To me.

“Slow down,” I said flicking a fly off my broad backside. “Wilfred, right? You are responsible for the fence posts?”

“Yeah sure,” said Wilfred. “Now listen to me. I just need a thirty second vignette when I say ‘action’. Can you do that for me?

“Sure,” I said. I love to talk about myself.

“You heard the animal,” he shouted to no one I could see. “Food For Thought, take one. Action!”

“Uh, Bess here. Folks call me the conspiracy theorist.  And I laugh.  But honestly if you don’t spend some time speculating out here what are you going to do?  Me, I walk the fence, count the posts and calculate trigonometric functions.  And I am convinced there is a way to get my 1200 lb bulk past these 4000 odd posts and reams of barbed wire.

By the way, I’ve come pretty far with the weight issue, thank you very much. The secret is small frequent meals, so I pretty much eat a little bit all the time when I’m not counting posts.  The other trick, that I don’t think any of my sisters have clocked on to, is to just not use stomachs three and four. Sure it takes practice, even surgery for lesser minds, but if you don’t have a project out here you will simply go mad.

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EP351: 113 Feet

By Josh Roseman
Read by Mur Lafferty
Discuss on our forums.
An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Josh Roseman
All stories read by Mur Lafferty
Rated 15 and up for explicit language

113 Feet
By Josh Roseman

“This is a really bad idea, Elle,” Barry says.

“You didn’t have to come.”

“Don’t be stupid,” he snaps. “Phil would kill me if I didn’t come with you.”

Barry is fiftyish, portly and gray-haired. Seeing him take off his shirt is an experience I wish I’d never had.

“I have friends with certifications,” I say. “It’s not like I couldn’t have asked one of them.”

“How many of them have actually been down there?” It’s almost a growl, and I’m actually cowed a little. “That’s what I thought.”

I sit on the hard bench, wood planks covered in thin, all-weather carpet, and fiddle with my regulator.

“How far away do you think we are?” he asks.

“Don’t know. Ask the captain.”

Barry looks up at the bridge, where Al — the captain — stands, driving the boat. Al is even older than Barry, narrow and hard and tanned almost leathery with decades of exposure to the sun. Instead of going up to talk to him, though, Barry goes around the cabin to stand by the bow, leaving me bouncing up and down on the bench as the boat zips across the water. The light chop makes the horizon rise and fall faster than is comfortable. I can take it, though, and if I get sick enough to throw up, at least I know enough to do it over the side.

My guess is that we’re ten minutes from the dive site. Maybe fifteen.

After waiting seven years to get my answers, fifteen minutes isn’t much of a wait at all.

#

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EP348: Nemesis

By Nathaniel Lee
Read by Mat Weller
Guest host: Dave Thompson of PodCastle
Discuss on our forums.
An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Nathaniel Lee
All stories read by Mat Weller
Rated 13 and up for violence

Nemesis
by Nathaniel Lee

It was the middle of second-period Spanish when I felt my cell phone go off in my pocket. Three pulses, then two. That meant one of my alerts had hit paydirt. I’ve got newsfeeds filtered for keywords, pairing “emergency” and the names of every local school and business I could think of, plus I got Kenny from sixth period computer Science to cobble together a kind of hack on the actual first responders’ radio channels. If my phone had gone off, then there was trouble.

If there was trouble, then the city needed Atom Boy.

So where was he?

Well, if I was in Spanish, then he was in History. No, wait, he’d dropped the AP course. Did he have some kind of math now instead? Crud. I had no idea. I’d lost our hero.

“Miss Ramsey?”

“Ahem!”

“Uh, um, I mean, uh, Señora Ramsey?”

” Sí, Quentin?”

“Yo, uh, yo poder uso el baño?”

“Puedo. Y sí, se puede. Andale.”

I clapped a hand over my pocket to keep my phone-bulge hidden and ran out of the classroom, careful to turn to the right as if I were heading for the boy’s room. A couple of months ago, that wouldn’t have been a bad idea; I’d discovered Adam’s secret when I walked in on him trying to get out of his tights at the end of fourth period. Which he’d missed, by the way, and I’d had to cover for him and pretend like I’d gotten a text from his mom about an emergency dental appointment.

Nowadays, I made him use the locked room in the old elementary school building, next door to the art room. I had a key because Mr. Adelaide trusted me to use it only to work on my project. I felt bad about abusing that trust, but I figure helping a superhero save the world every week counts as some sort of civic duty. I checked there first.

Adam was sitting at one of the old desks, his feet sticking out about a mile because it was designed for five-year-olds. He had his suit half on. His pale chest was bare, exposing those three wispy little curls that he was so proud of. He didn’t look up when I came in.

“Adam? What’s wrong?”

“I’ve lost my powers.” His voice was dull, his eyes unfocused. He sounded grim and deadly serious.

“Oh, for crying out loud, Adam, we’ve been over this. Remember, last month? You thought it was some kind of lingering effect from the Recluse’s poison bite, but it was all psychosoma-whosit.” I ran in and snatched up his backpack, rummaging for his pill-box. “Have you been taking your Paxil?”

“It made me gassy. I’m on a new one now. Starts with an ‘s,’ I think.”

“Well, whatever it is, have you been taking it?”

“No! I want to be me, not what some drug makes me.”

I resisted the urge to punch him. It would be like hitting a steel wall, anyway. Instead, I found the box and opened it. The previous week’s pills were all still in their slots. White pills, red pills, blue pills. Patriotic. “Which one is it?”

Adam shrugged.

“Argh!” I pulled out one of each, thought about it, then made it two of each. He had superpowers. He could take it. “Here. Take these and get a move on.”

Adam picked the pills up. “I told you, I lost my powers.”

“You did not.”

“Did so.”

I glared at him. This called for drastic measures. I turned, picked up a wooden dowel from the supply table, closed my eyes, and whacked him over the head. I used my right hand this time; my left is my drawing hand, and I didn’t want to lose it for two weeks. The actinic flash was blinding even through my eyelids, and I felt myself hurled backwards and into the pile of paper rolls. Better than the chairs, at least. I opened my eyes to see Adam standing, fists raised over his head and crackling with azure energy. His eyes glowed, too, and his hair stood on end and shimmered blue like it was made of fiber optic cables.

“Ha ha!” he shouted. “I’m back. I’m back!” He turned to me and his face fell. “Oh, geez, Q. I’m sorry.”

I glanced at my right hand. My fingertips were blackened, and soot from the incinerated rod reached up to my elbow. I didn’t even feel anything yet. I tried to move my fingers. Oops. Bad idea.

“I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine,” I said, gritting my teeth. I waved him on. “Just go get whatever it is.” I heard footsteps approaching. “Hurry!”

Adam nodded and took off out the window, leaving a trail of sky-blue sparkles that faded gradually. I hauled myself upright and smacked my lips. His backwash tastes like Blue Razzberry slushie. I wonder if he knows.

Someone was rattling the doorknob. Not Mr. Adelaide, then, at least. I’d hate for him to be the one to discover me ruining his secret room. I decided I’d tell them I was messing around with fireworks and burned my hand. As long as the nurse didn’t have a Geiger counter, they’d never know the difference.

I took a moment to look out the window. Adam was already out of sight, his trail hardly visible against the deeper blue of the sky. I turned and looked at my half-finished sculpture for Honors Art. I called it “Heroism.” I’d miss working on it.

I went to open the door.

#

That evening, I decided to go to the fort. I had to wait for Mom and Dad to go to sleep; I was grounded for a month in addition to the three-day suspension I caught for creating a fire hazard, and the only reason it wasn’t worse was because I’d managed to convince everyone I’d wanted to use the fireworks as part of an art project and not just as a prank. Not a bad idea, actually. I wish I’d thought of it before. At any rate, it’s a good thing Adam didn’t get superpowers until after I was already known as a “good kid.” We’d both have been expelled by now if I didn’t have that reputation to draw on. Even so, I was already on the last threads of trust with most of my teachers.

It was dark out in the woods. We’d had candles and flashlights and stuff stashed here for ages, though, and ever since I started taking Art class seriously, I’ve made sure I also had a good bright lamp and spare batteries. The fort itself was basically falling apart now. It had been falling apart when it was new, for that matter, just a couple of planks leaned together. We had a tent set up, though, and waterproof camping bags with all kinds of useful things. I know Adam kept his spare costume out here, for instance. And his porn stash.

My hand was all covered in ointment and bandaged up. They’d had to send me to the actual hospital because the nurse’s office didn’t have the right supplies. I still don’t think it was that bad. It just stung, was all. I could have gotten worse at a regular old campfire. It’s not like Adam hit me directly with one of his energy beams or something. I used my forearm to balance my sketchbook and kept my palm turned away. It itched, but I knew better than to try and scratch it. Being Adam’s friend meant knowing a lot about burns.

The first few pages of my sketchbook had some abortive landscape drawings and a first attempt at a still life for last month’s assignment. In the corners and the margins, though, were my anatomy studies. Mostly Adam, at least the recognizable ones. Adam laughing, Adam with his hair all glowy, Adam taking off from the barbecue pit at his house.

The others were all Belinda.

I never drew her in full. An eye, or a hand, or a shoulder; never enough that someone could recognize her. The stuff with Adam I could pass off as imagination, but when someone stole my sketchbook – and let’s face it, in high school, that’s a “when,” not an “if” – I emphatically did not want them to be able to figure out I had a pathetic geek crush on Linda. She goes by Linda now; she used to prefer Bella, when we were all little, but she hates those stupid vampire books and says they ruined the name for her. For all I care, she could call herself Snot-Hog the Uglinator and I’d still draw her in my sketchbook. I’d broken my rule, now that we were coming up to Winter Break, and started work on a full portrait of her. I wanted to give it to her as a present, but I also wanted to be able to disappear for two weeks right afterward if it didn’t go over well.

I’d been drawing it for over a week, working on getting everything just right. It was hard to work mostly from memory, but it wasn’t like I didn’t know what she looked like. She stared up at me from the page, her eyes dark and a hint of a smile playing around her lips. The background wasn’t filled in yet; that was what I’d come out here to work on. I’d decided on a vaguely Classical theme, so I started on the rough pencils for a set of columns and some curling vines. Maybe a fountain in the background. It was a relief to lose myself in my work for a while, like diving into a pool on a hot summer day, letting the stress and fatigue and pain drizzle away and leave me in peace. I decided my ego was bruised enough that I was allowed to indulge in a little fantasy, so I sketched myself in as a companion for Linda, off to one side. Very lightly, so I could erase it afterward; that would be more than a little presumptuous to give as a gift. It was only when I came to the face that I realized I’d drawn it wrong. This shape was tall, athletic, with a strong chin and pale hair.

I’d drawn Adam out of sheer habit.

Suddenly I didn’t feel like drawing anymore.

With a buzz and a rush of air, Atom Boy landed in front of me. “Hey, Q!”

“Hey, stranger,” I replied. “So what happened? The official news isn’t too helpful.”

“Oh, it was the Lizardtron again,” Adam said breezily. “Marcus thinks that the Genegineer is back, but I recognized that hydraulic work; I think it’s got to be Doktor Tektonic.”

“Who’s Marcus?” I turned off my lamp then closed my sketchbook and tucked it by my side.

“Huh?” Adam’s hair faded back to its normal blond hue, and stopped waving around like an anemone. “Oh, didn’t I tell you about him? He’s this old guy, I think he used to be Mentat, but now he’s a professor at some school for ‘special’ kids, if you know what I mean. He’s been coaching me. You know, mentally.” Adam tapped his head. “It’s cool. I checked his story out, and the Dean of Admissions said they’d offer me a place if I wanted it.”

“You’re leaving? Before graduation?”

“Well, I didn’t accept yet. I have to think about it, you know?”

I hesitated. This was a minefield. “You… haven’t mentioned any of this.”

“Oh, man, bro, it’s just been so busy. Like, the Underground attacked, and then there was that whole trip to the alternate Earth, and Marcus’ voice stopped when I went on that new medicine and I thought maybe it was all a hallucination and it was only today that he got through again. And then I lost my powers or I thought I did and you totally saved the day on that one, Q, Marcus said to tell you that you were cool about that with the thinking fast and stuff.”

“Did he actually say that?”

“No, he said something about a ‘level-headed young individual’ and stuff, he talks like he’s a hundred or something, but he would’ve said ‘cool’ if he knew any words later than like eighteen-twelve or whatever, and I think you gave me a little too much because I feel way hyper, do I seem hyper to you? Mom said it’s a side effect and it’s worse than farting in class but I can’t really tell what do you think?”

“Your mom’s usually right.”

“Dude, I am not getting back on the fart pills. That was awful.”

I managed a smile. “Oh, hey, I got your homework for tonight. I finished most of it, but I’m not in French so I couldn’t do that part.” I pulled the sheaf of papers out of my backpack and stood, careful of my burned hand.

“Q! You are the man, I swear to God.” Adam plucked the papers out and leafed through them.

“I even got a few wrong so they won’t figure out you didn’t do it yourself.”

Adam punched me lightly on the arm. It kind of hurt. “You doof.” Unexpectedly, he grabbed me and pulled me into a rib-cracking hug. “Man, I don’t know what I would do without you. You are my best friend, Q; I mean that.”

“It’s okay, Adam,” I squeaked, barely able to breathe. “You’d do the same for me if you could. You saved my mom from that giant centipede, remember?”

“Yeah, but that’s different.” Adam released me and ducked into the tent to change out of his costume. It’s amazing the difference clothing makes. No one’s ever even commented how much Adam Baum looks like Atom Boy. Probably the glowing blue hair helps. It’s really distracting. “Anyway, I have to get home. You want a ride?”

“Nah. You make everything taste blue for a week when you do that.”

Adam laughed. “You’re such a weirdo, Q. What does that even mean?”

“I’m serious! Have any supervillains ever complained about it?”

“Shut up. Oh, hey, by the way, be careful ’cause if it is Doktor Tektonic, then he knows my real identity and he might come around and cause trouble. Don’t touch anything shiny that ticks, okay?”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

And then he was gone, and the little clearing in the woods where we’d played together as little kids was suddenly darker and full of shadows.

#

The problem was that Adam really was such a nice guy. If he’d been arrogant about it, or if he’d expected me to do all this stuff for him and made a big deal about how busy he was with important stuff elsewhere, or if he’d rubbed my face in my nothing-specialness, I could have been resentful and angry and gotten it out of my system. Adam wasn’t like that. He was honestly surprised whenever I did things to help him out, and he never tried to exclude me or lie to me. He forgot stuff, but that was Adam. He was like a giant, super-powered puppy, happy and cheerful and endlessly loyal. Completely unselfconscious. And completely thoughtless. As in literally without thought. It just never occurred to him that his powers were anything but awesome or that there were any other lives that could be lived, and if he’d had any idea that the sheer rotten unfairness of the whole situation upset me, he’d be even more miserable than I was.

I couldn’t hate Adam for being Adam. All I could do was bottle it up, swallowing my resentment like a slimy toad that crouched in my gut, cold and clammy and undying. Every day, the toad would try to climb up and get out, to force my mouth open and croak bile at Adam and Mom and Dad and Mr. Adelaide and everyone, and my job was to keep him locked away. The toad was my nemesis, my own personal supervillain, and at least I could beat him if I couldn’t beat anyone else. That was how I tried to think of it, anyway. It helped, a little.

I started skipping school to hide out at the fort and work on my drawings. Forged a note about strep throat; all that imitating Adam’s handwriting meant I had lots of practice at that kind of thing. Why should I go? Adam was gone most days, and I hated every class except Art, which I couldn’t enjoy anymore because Mr. Adelaide was mad at me for “abusing his trust,” and what could I tell him? “I had to do it to help a superhero fight a giant robot dragon”?

What could I tell anyone, really? That I was mad at no one because my friend had superpowers and I was afraid to talk to a girl I liked because I didn’t? Everyone around here tried to pretend like superheroes didn’t exist and harrumphed about them whenever they showed up on TV. They’d sure as heck never believe that it was Adam the screwup, the “Baum kid, isn’t it a shame,” who’d saved the city all these times. And I didn’t want to reveal Adam’s secret; they’d make him stop if they knew who he was, make him get licensed and registered by the government and probably sent out to the Middle East or something. I’d promised to protect his identity, and I would keep that promise.

Adam wasn’t around, though. He was off hunting for that person who’d rebuilt Lizardtron and doing stuff for that jerk Marcus and his stupid superhero school. Some kind of test or something. He said he’d found Doktor Tektonic, but even though the Doktor was defeated, the “Prismatic Matrix,” whatever that was, was still missing. Adam didn’t go into much detail, and what little he did say was kind of Adam-ish and therefore mostly unhelpful. I didn’t pressure him. He’d tell me if he wanted to.

Or if his big new friends let him.

So I was alone. Some days I could see the flash and hear the distant rumble of Adam fighting some new monster, but mostly I saw and drew and tried to lose myself for a while. I finished the picture of Linda, but I didn’t give it to her. I tried, once. Went to school and everything, but when I saw her, she was getting into some guy’s car with a bunch of friends and they were all laughing and talking and basically every single person in that car was light-years out of my league, attractiveness-wise. So I left and swallowed the toad back down and went to the woods. I drew studies of everything in the clearing, one tree at a time.

That was how I found the artifact. It was buried in the ground, deep, as if it had impacted with a lot of force after traveling from far away. It glinted in the morning sun, and I had to dig for twenty minutes to get it out. When I did, I found that it was a little handle, like a set of brass knuckles. On the front, where there’d normally be the actual, you know, brass knuckles, there was just a glittery gem-looking thing. It was obviously superhero stuff. I should have called Adam immediately and had him or Marcus or whoever come and get it and contain it and make sure it was safe or whatever, but I felt the toad clawing up my throat and I didn’t.

I put it on my hand instead.

The gem flashed, and the whole thing made a whirring, clattering sound and folded out in some way my eyes couldn’t follow, and suddenly I was wearing a little gauntlet with all kinds of buttons and sliders on it. I tried to pull it off, but it wouldn’t come. I figured it had to be turned off first, so I started trying the buttons and switches one at a time. I’m not an idiot; I kept the business end pointed off into the woods. The fourth switch I tried – a little slider thing at the wrist – made the whole gizmo retract back to its little handheld form. The third button I tried, though, the big green-and-purple one on top, made the gem in front flash and send out some kind of beam that turned a two-foot-thick tree into crystal and shattered it to dust.

I stood there for a while, holding the gizmo and looking at that pile of glittering shards. I felt my lips curl into a smile, and it seemed like they stretched wider and wider until my mouth must have looked like a toad’s.

#

For the rest of that week and the weekend, I tinkered with the gizmo. I figured out how to do lots of things. It had dozens of different weapons, and a couple of them looked like they were means specifically to take on Adam, based on what I knew of his weaknesses. He can’t deal with this one kind of alien crystal stuff – something about the molecular structure – that looked a lot like what the tree turned into, and his power gets borked if you can set up a feedback loop, which is hard because the stuff he puts out is kind of electrical and kind of laser-y at the same time. The glove could do it, though. It also had a force field, a couple of stealth modes, and – my personal favorite – it could fly, at least for a little bit. There’s nothing like the feeling of wind in your face without tasting sour-sweet fizz for hours afterward. I figured out flight on Sunday.

I went back to school the next day. It is really amazing, the feeling you get from walking around with a weapon of mass destruction in the bottom of your backpack. I definitely recommend it if you’re having self-esteem issues. I saw Dave and Deke, who used to take my lunch money every day when I was in third grade, and I waved like we were old friends. They looked at each other, confused, but something in the way I was walking must have told them it would be a bad idea to mess with me. My teachers were all angry about me being absent, especially when I told them I hadn’t even checked on the website what the homework was. I got a lecture every period, but I just smiled and nodded and thought about how I could use my gizmo to destroy the whole school if I wanted.

Linda was there, too. I saw her talking with Adam in homeroom. When had he decided to come back to earth? They were laughing about something. The toad kicked hard at my diaphragm, and I turned my wince into a smile.

“Hey, guys!” I said, leaning in. They both glanced up at me and went quiet. “How’s it going?” I asked. I winked at Adam, and he grinned his goofy Adam-grin, thinking everything was cool.

“It’s great. My big project is almost done.” Adam would make a terrible spy. Thank God he doesn’t take Drama.

“Cool. So… I didn’t know you and Linda still hung out.” I kept my voice casual, icy-calm. I thought about the gizmo.

“Yeah. She’s, uh, helping me with my French homework,” said Adam, blushing a bit. I clenched my teeth.

“Jeez, Adam, you make it sound dirty,” Linda rolled her eyes. “Just because I let you copy my papers doesn’t mean we’re dating or something.”

“No, not like that. It’s just… not really helping… if I don’t… um…” Adam’s blush deepened.

“It’s cool. I just hadn’t seen much of either of you lately. Other than, you know, like, Pre-Calc. I haven’t talked to you since like last year, Linda.”

“I tried to call you the other day,” said Linda, not meeting my eyes. “Your mom said you were grounded. Did you really try to burn down the school?”

“You’ll have to ask Adam about that one.” I was smiling so hard it hurt my cheeks.

“I thought you went home early that day?” Linda asked Adam.

“Uh…”

See, this is why he needs me. His secret identity would be toast in a half-second if it was up to him. “Nah, Adam’s just a total pyro. He burns things down like once a year at least. Hey, Linda, I need to talk to you. It’s about Art. Do you mind?”

“I gotta go anyway,” said Adam, looking grateful to escape. “See you around.” He left as fast as I’ve ever seen him move without leaving those stupid blue sparkles behind.

“What’s up?” asked Linda. She was biting her lip. Was I making her nervous? Maybe I was wound a little tight. I tried to remember that I was in control and totally all-powerful if I wanted to be. I forced myself to relax.

“I’ve been working on a secret art thing. You know, for the final project? It’s out in the woods right now. I thought maybe you could come and, y’know, give me pointers and stuff? I want it to be awesome because Mister Adelaide is kinda peeved.” There. That sounded totally natural.

Linda looked skeptical. “You mean out in that silly ‘secret fort’ you and Adam had in grade school?”

“Uh, yeah.” Think about the gizmo, I told myself. You’ve got the power. “Yeah, out there. I know it’s dumb, but it’s a big secret and I can’t reveal it until it’s ready, you know?” I licked my lips. “Please? It really would mean a lot to me to have your opinion.”

She met my eyes for the first name. I’d forgotten how blue they were. “Okay. Tomorrow, though, all right? I have cheer practice tonight. Around four?”

“Sure. It’s not due until Friday. I can make changes if I have to, still.” I stood up again. “Thank you.”

“Sure,” she said. When I glanced over my shoulder, she had her head down, staring at her notebook.

#

I spent Tuesday wavering between feeling like I was flying with the sun on my face and feeling like I was in the bottom of a muddy well. I tried to chase the toad away by focusing on warm and happy things like the gizmo and Linda’s expression when she realized what I could do, but the toad kept coming back. Finally, I just resigned myself to the cycle. I have no idea what anyone said in any of my classes. The gizmo sat at the bottom of my backpack, and it was as if I could see it through my desk and the plastic and canvas, glowing like a tiny second sun, just for me.

After school, I ran to the woods and waited. What would I say to Linda? I tried playing out several scenarios while I waited for her to arrive. Maybe I’d just be hovering overhead when she got in and I’d call out and she’d look up, all dramatic and stuff. On second thought… flying with the gizmo is kind of awkward, and I didn’t want her to see me looking like I was hanging from invisible monkey bars. Maybe I’d just casually activate it and shoot a tree. Except she might just get scared and run. But I could catch her, and then… yeah, okay, bad idea. I wished Linda smoked because I knew how to get a really thin little laser and I could be all, “Need a light?” But she didn’t. I couldn’t decide, and I got restless. I paced for a while, but then I started wondering why Linda wasn’t here yet and maybe she got lost or maybe she wasn’t coming at all. I felt vaguely nauseated. I sat down. I checked the time. Half past three. How was I going to kill a half-hour?

I pulled out my sketchbook and tried to clear my head. A charcoal pencil is like Pepto-Bismol for the soul. I drew a leaf. I drew my hand, encased in the gauntlet. I doodled a little stick-figure Adam and then drew a beam from the gauntlet that traveled across the page and scribbled him out, like I used to do when I was little and mad at someone.

Idly, I flipped the pages backwards and saw the drawing I’d finished, the portrait of Linda. Because I knew what to look for, I could just make out the remnants of the empty-faced Adam shape I’d drawn when what I wanted was to put myself in the picture. I imagined myself there now, with my gauntleted hand resting on Linda’s shoulder. Would her expression still have that faint wryness to it? Or would she be biting her lip and glancing away to the side, towards where Adam had been until I erased him?

“Quentin?”

I glanced up, startled. Linda stood on the edge of the clearing, opposite the tent.

“What are you working on? Where’s your art project?”

I didn’t know what to say. I handed her my sketchbook. Her cheeks went pink. “That’s beautiful,” she said. “I wish I actually had a dress that nice. You should be a fashion designer.”

My voice came back, but I used it like a moron. “I stole it from a magazine. The look of the dress, I mean.”

She nodded, her eyes still on the picture. I hadn’t really captured her, not properly. The liveliness of her eyes, the tiny crinkling at the corners of her eyes…

“Is this for me? Is this what you asked me out here to show me?” She looked up, and our eyes met again. I felt something flip-flop inside me that didn’t feel toad-like at all.

“Yes. No. I mean, um. That’s you. Yours. That picture is- I made it for you. But I…” I froze. Linda was looking at me, expectant. I couldn’t think what to say. She was here, she was back out at the fort like when we were kids, and I hadn’t talked to her in so long and she didn’t know why, maybe she thought I didn’t like her anymore but I did and… and…

“Adam is Atom Boy,” I blurted.

The words hung in the air for a moment. Then Linda laughed. Not a disbelieving laugh, but real belly-shaking hilarity. She doubled over and laughed until she was out of breath.

“It’s true! I’m not kidding! It’s why-”

“No, no, I believe you,” Linda waved a hand, not looking up. “God, no, it makes so much sense now. Of course he is. He thought that up himself, didn’t he? Probably thought it was hilarious. Adam Boy!” She glanced up and burst into peals of laughter again. “Oh, God, no wonder he didn’t want to come to the pizza party, if he’s a superhero on the weekends.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and hiccupped, then looked up at me. “What about you?”

“Me?” I slipped my hand into my pocket and gripped the gizmo. “I’m nothing special. I’m just a normal kid.” My other hand shook a little. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and clasped both hands together in front of me.

“No, no, I mean do you want to come to the party on Saturday? It’s a holiday thing. Everyone from school is going to Gallagio’s. Pizza and stuff.”

“I, um…” I felt my cheeks burning.

Linda coughed and chuckled again, as if a laugh got stuck in her throat. “So why tell me about Adam? Did he ask you to tell me? Is he trying to impress me?”

“No, I just… I thought you should know. If you were going to hang out with him.” I stared carefully into the distance over her left shoulder.

“‘Hang out’?” Linda looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh. Oh! Quinnie, you are so silly sometimes, you know that?” She walked forward, still holding my sketchpad. “Adam’s a sweetheart, but he’s… he’s kind of Adam. I don’t think he’s even noticed girls yet, honestly.”

She was close enough to touch, close enough that I smelled her perfume. There was a moment of silence.

“Do you remember what you got for me for my eleventh birthday?” she asked abruptly.

I responded instantly: “A pink Power Ranger zord and all the accessories.”

She smiled. “I still have her, you know. She’s on my dresser, right in front of the mirror. I see her there every morning. Sometimes my mom leaves notes for me in her hands, like she’s waving a sign at a parade or something.”

A high-tension wire was twanging in my innards. I felt like I should be paying attention, but I wasn’t sure to what. “Why do you bring it up?”

“No reason.” Linda leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. She pulled back, looked me in the eyes, and then kissed me again. On the lips, longer and deeper. By the time my brain caught up to what was happening, my body had already reacted, my hands coming up to rest on her back, my mouth opening, my eyes closing. She breathed out, I breathed in. There was no one else in the world. Somewhere far inside me, in the place where my thoughts ran dark and cold, something slick and green hopped in and disappeared without a ripple.

Then Linda pulled away. “So I’ll see you on Saturday,” she said, and it was a promise and a question all at once.

“Yeah…”

She handed me my sketchbook. “Keep my picture safe until I can find a frame for it, okay?”

“Okay.” I felt as though I had just come out of a coma, a long lapse that left me blinking in a strange new day.

“Will you need a ride?”

“Yeah, probably.” I thought of something else. “Um, I’ll have to sneak out, so meet me down at the corner, okay? I’ll be grounded still.”

“Won’t you get in more trouble?”

I shrugged. “It’ll be worth it.”

Linda smiled again, and the sun shone inside me. She began to walk away. “Oh,” she said, turning back, “should I keep Adam’s secret identity, um, secret?”

“Yeah,” I said, rubbing at the back of my neck. “You, uh, probably shouldn’t say anything to him either until I figure out how to warn him.”

She giggled again. “Okay. I can’t believe I didn’t figure it out already. God, it is so obvious in retrospect.” Her eyes twinkled. “You were a good secret-keeper up until just now. I never would have suspected you were involved. You’re so respectable sometimes.”

“Linda, I-” I blushed. I had no words left. I’d forgotten how to talk.

“Shh,” Linda held up a finger. “Take your time. You’ll figure it out eventually. I always said you were the smart one.”

I watched her leave. I slipped my hand into my pocket and pulled out the gizmo. I could give it to Adam. One of his superhero friends or mentors would know what to do with it. I could keep it secret in my backpack for emergencies, just to know it was there. Or I could learn to use it better, maybe wait for Adam to need some help, a sidekick or a superhero partner, the start of a new team. I could do anything I wanted with it, really.

But I didn’t need it anymore.

I found the hole where I’d unburied it weeks ago and dropped it in. I covered the hole with dirt and dragged a log over it to hide the scuffmarks. Adam would find it, eventually. Or he wouldn’t. Maybe that was part of the test, to see if Atom Boy was worth inducting into the ranks of the real superheroes. I wondered if Adam would pass. I hoped he would; it’s all he’s ever really wanted.

“Good luck, Atom Boy,” I said aloud. “And thank you.”

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EP347: Next Time, Scales

By John Moran
Read by Josh Roseman
Discuss on our forums.
An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by John Moran
All stories read by Josh Roseman
Rated 13 and up for violence

Next Time, Scales
by John Moran

“You’re too restless,” the lizard whispered into my brain.

“And you’ve been at the reactor fuel again.”

Marla slapped her prehensile tail onto the table, cracking its surface with her paralysing stinger and rattling the chess pieces. The blow echoed through the control room.

“I hate it when you do that, Steven.”

“Do what?”

“Think you can read me.”

I smiled. “Your underarm scales are pale, which means a supercharged diet or zero-gravity. As we haven’t been off-planet, it must be the
food. Plus, your breath stinks of sulphur and your claws have white rings.”

Marla pointed one crimson eye at the table, but kept the other on me.

“Your move,” she said.

“Give me time. Why do you think I’m restless?”

“Because you’ve spent the last three weeks researching Loris, and done each patrol fully armed.”

I glanced through the window, as if by chance I might catch our thief creeping up in plain view, but all I saw were two huge moons glowering over the ruined planet, its civilisation long-dead, part-excavated and full of secrets.

I couldn’t let Marla know the site had me spooked, though. Her people had been hunters for a thousand years, and, through a quirk of fate, she believed in me.

“Right.” I said. “Let’s patrol.” I got most of the way to the door before I realised what the click behind me had meant. “And you can put that piece back.”

“Damn,” Marla said.

The night was darker than usual, but I left off my flashlight and navigated by the excavation’s amber glow. After two months I’d learned
the drill pretty well: walk three steps from the door before turning right, drop down through the first causeway, crunch my way over rubble and calcified ferns, pass beside three thousand year old shop windows, then into what people said were the temples of the spider-creatures that had once ruled Artemis.

As I walked, Marla leapt from one wall to another like a shooting star. She looked beautiful, her scales shining like jewels.

“Why you care so much about an urban legend?” she asked.

“Because he’s a mystery. For two hundred years, Loris has been stealing artifacts, leaving only the letter L engraved onto the wall. Who wouldn’t be interested?”

“He’s only human, Steven.”

“I’m not sure. We didn’t have the technology to grow new bodies two centuries ago, so if he’s human, how has he lived so long?”

Marla was silent for a while, then she said, “however good he is, I bet you’re better.”

I walked away, unhappy with false praise. Instead, I ducked through the first arch, and stepped out below the huge, half-buried alien
machine. Next to it, the laboratories and excavating machines looked forlorn and tiny. Forty archaeologists worked here in Artemis’ summer, but none had yet figured out what the machine did.

“Perhaps you regret our melding?” Marla whispered, her voice quavering.

“Not for a moment.”

“Then why do you seek out complications?”

“What do you mean?”

“Loris, for instance. He’s just another hunt. So —”

“— Marla?”

“Yes?”

“The machine’s active.”

She appeared at my shoulder, scuttled up to the machine and crouched, eyes twitching in different directions. What had previously been a
mountain of dark metal now held a tiny panel that shimmered like oil on water. As we watched, it faded to black.

“Intriguing,” Marla said.

“Still think Loris is a myth?”

“I think we need to be careful.”

She left in a blur, dancing up the wall. I crept after her, gun ready, but stopped at the end of the avenue, just as the city opened into a plaza capped by a broken tower.

“What’s up?” Marla asked.

I sent my mind back through memories of other patrols, and compared them to the present. Some people have a photographic memory; I have video recall. It’s rare, but it has saved my life more than once.

“The shadows are wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

I ran through the images again, spotting a nearby lamp that had been smashed to put an area several metres square into darkness. Something was lying there, dark and still in the shadows, covered in thick cloth. Even as I dragged it into the light, I knew it was a body: an old man, sallow and grey, with slash marks down his face and a stab wound in his chest. His blood had not yet congealed.

“Loris is here,” I said.

Marla appeared at my shoulder. “So who’s that?”

“An accomplice, maybe?”

Her eyes swiveled upwards. “Steven?”

“What?”

“The lights are going out.”

I stood. Segment by segment, darkness was falling over the excavations.

“He must be in the base,” I said.

“About time we found something to hunt.”

Marla’s thoughts murmured low, then turned into alien chanting as she skipped ahead along the darkening walls. I chased after her, the sound of her death song filling my mind. It scared me when she was like this. She was too eager, too ready to put herself at risk.

When we reached the base I saw that the door had been forced, revealing two entrance corridors in a Y, their lights off.

“I’ll go right,” Marla said, her voice full of excitement.

“What if he’s in my side?”

She laughed. “Then keep some for me.”

She shivered and curled her tail like a scorpion, before speeding into the darkness. I gripped my weapon and followed.

“Corridor one clear,” Marla said while I was only part-way down my own, my footsteps clanging along the metal floor despite my efforts to be silent. Every step threw moon-shadows crazing over the walls. When I reached the end, the connecting door opened itself.

“Why remove lights but not the power?”

“Beats me. Reception room one clear, by the way.”

My heart beat hard as I stepped into an echoing dome of titanium and plastic, turned on my light and scanned the walls. Our base was a
hundred years old and built for far more spartan times. Now it echoed hollowly and something scraped in the distance.

“Sickbay clear,” Marla said, though she seemed to be hurrying too much. Despite her confidence, I’d seen her get hurt before. Then I noticed something else.

“The floor’s vibrating,” I said, moving to the wall and activating the readout.

“What with?”

“The reactor’s been set to self-destruct.”

Disbelief filled her voice. “How is that even possible? What about fail-safes?”

“It was designed to stop other races getting our technology.”

“You mean it’s deliberate? What sort of idiot culture builds a bomb into a science base?”

“Who cares? Right now I have to shut it off.”

“You know, if we hadn’t melded, I’d still be hunting on Targol.”

“You nearly died on Targol.”

“Everybody dies, Steven. The aim is to make it glorious. There’s nothing glorious about a bomb.”

“There’s nothing glorious about being stupid, either. Please be careful.”

Gun held high, I slid into the reactor room with my back to the wall.

I didn’t think there was anything wonderful about dying in any manner.

That was why I’d joined the Explorer’s Service a hundred years earlier, to get the new bodies they’d offered. Old, young, male, female — I’d tried them all. Little had I known I’d end up having humanity’s first contact with the Lizards.

I swept my flashlight from left to right, trying to be systematic.

Given the number of alcoves and chest-high machines, the room could have been full of people and I wouldn’t have known. The reactor terminal stood exposed in the centre, but it was the only way to stop the countdown. Or to start it, I realised, which meant the intruder was probably in my side of the building.

I kept low, and began to relax only when I reached the terminal and managed to end the countdown. Then something skittered along the floor behind me. I tried to turn, but was far too late.

Ten years earlier I’d been late, too. I was still in the Service because of my rapport with the Lizards, and had been partnered with one on her first hunt. It was sold as a getting-to-know-you mission, but tradition said it should be done without technology. After showing lizard after lizard my fingernails, they’d finally allowed me one small knife.

Targol was hot that month, entering the nearest phase of its eccentric orbit, and after being in the jungle for three days I was glad I’d been argued down over body armour. Then my companion found the first traces of our prey and her naive eagerness took over. She sped after it, leaving me alone amongst the thin green trees and ankle-deep water, naked except for a knife pouch.

When the screaming began, I panicked and fled, only to find myself in the heart of the action regardless.

Someone was screaming when I woke this time, too, face-down on a cracked floor-tile in the flickering darkness of the reactor room. My head ached, pain between my shoulder blades prevented me breathing fully, and my throat burned with vomit. I heard a skittering noise, then more screaming.

I rolled over and saw it. Facing the wall, dark red scales shining, and eight legs skittering over the reactor room floor was a creature I’d only previously seen in drawings on the alien machine.

Although its front two legs looked adapted to tool-use and it carried a green bracelet high on one of them, it drew breath instead, and used some internal force to blow a stream of fine grit onto the wall, completing the letter L it had been etching.

Two thoughts filled my brain: first, that this couldn’t be the same Loris who had left footprints on Beta-4. Second: was Marla okay?

She arrived in a blur, skipping off two walls and landing on the creature’s back before plunging her stinger into its chitinous armour. Incredibly, she failed to penetrate, and instead the creature turned, grabbed and hurled her with such force that she snapped against the far wall and left a dint in the metal. She fell and did not get up.

The creature advanced, raising one of its second-row legs, tipped with barbs, for a killing blow.

“No,” I shouted, grabbing a back leg — and immediately it turned and skittered towards me like an onrushing asteroid. Now I understood why the arches round the dig had been so broad. The spider was as high as my shoulder, but wider than three humans.

I kicked backwards along the floor, waving my hands to show I had no hostile intent.

“There’s no need for violence. Take what you want.”

It stopped, and its mouth clicked sideways before speaking. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you tell anyone about me.” As the sentence progressed, I made out an Earth accent and realised how Loris had lived so long. Nowadays we use enormous hospital ships around the moons of Jupiter, but there’s really no reason an alien couldn’t make the technology smaller. A bracelet, for example.

“Was it the machine we’ve been excavating?” I asked, walking closer.

“Yes,” Loris said. “Damn gene-banks. I turned it on thinking it was a technology store, but ended up bringing one of them to life, instead.”

“You thought quickly, body-swapping like that.”

“I am rather proud of myself, but, if you’ll excuse me, I have to destroy the witnesses.”

I ducked, and he caught me high on one shoulder, my arm splintering in a flash of blood and pain that took me back to that fateful day in the jungle years earlier. This time I remained conscious, and as he lifted my impaled body off the floor, I groped for the alien bracelet, flipped back the cover and hit its only button.

I expected to wake looking at my own body through spider-eyes. I was even going to be gentle with Loris, take him into custody and confiscate the bracelet.

None of that happened.

Instead, I ended on my back, staring at the ceiling with my left side aching. When I tried to stand, I found it difficult because I now had legs where arms should have been. Also, I was seeing images in two places at once. Crazy, confused images, that —

— I focused both eyes to the front. Ahead, the alien spider threw my limp body at a wall before turning to face me. I was a half-metre off the floor, dark-green, and, something told me, possessed of a strong prehensile tail with a stinger at its end. Even if I lived, I had no idea if Marla would, as she was now trapped in my dying body. To save her, I would have to press the bracelet again, but it was still on the spider.

The spider charged, so I leapt for the wall like I’d seen Marla do. Pads miraculously flowered upon my fingers as I ran over the surface just ahead of its onrushing blows. They cracked nearer and nearer, so I leapt to the ceiling, re-oriented my eyes, and ran over its bellowing body.

The door yawned in front of me as I realised I was faster than it was. I could leave, and live to fight another day. The Service medics would raise an eyebrow but give me another body eventually.

That wouldn’t save Marla, though. Reluctantly, tiny heart beating faster than I could believe, I turned back to face the thing. Behind it, I saw my body get up, try to follow, then fall over and throw up.

A scream that sounded terribly like Marla hit the air and my mind simultaneously.

“I’m sorry,” I thought back to her. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

The spider didn’t seem to notice as it attacked me at full speed, legs whipping and jaw wide. I spun off the door jamb, backflipped from the ceiling and scuttled down the corridor as the whisper of its barbs skimmed me. This body was amazing. Now I knew how Marla’s people hunted so well, I didn’t feel so bad about being poor in comparison.

“Come on,” I shouted. “I can take you,” but the noise came out as a series of clicks. Whatever magic Marla used to speak mind to mind remained a mystery. Ahead, my body rose, then collapsed.

“Steven,” Marla’s thoughts echoed. “If this is pain, make it stop.”

Ten years earlier I’d turned the corner and ran headlong into a ghoul-like creature holding Marla down and throttling her. More by luck than judgement I’d plunged in my blade and saved her life. Though its dying blows had mortally shattered my ribcage, I’d won the fight and upheld the honour of humanity.

Now in this body, I knew I’d failed Marla when it mattered most, and anger drove me forwards. I felt exhilarated, too, and wanted only to leap for its face and take it on directly. Even if I died, this creature would pay for hurting her. As I feinted left, a barbed leg whipped past the spot I would have stood upon, but it was so hard emotionally to give ground.

It’s endorphins, I thought, suddenly realising just how much this body was pumped up for battle. No wonder Marla was so active, if she went through this each time we hunted.

Though it felt wrong, I forced myself to retreat, skipping from wall to wall and trying to think like a human — and as I dodged, I ran through the fight in my mind, searching for a weakness.

At last I remembered a spot between its plates that had opened up when it struck my human form. I turned, waited, and ducked down as the spider’s leg whistled over my back, ending up underneath the thing. I twisted my eyes frantically, feeling nauseous from the spinning images, but finally found the gap — struck hard, and, in the biggest surprise of the day, had something like an orgasm as poison pumped out of my stinger.

A minute later, and still quivering with excitement, I struggled out from Loris’ still form, retrieved the transfer bracelet and went looking for Marla.

She lay in a pool of blood, and my heart trembled to see her spirit inside my dying eyes. Something white fell from her mouth; a tooth, perhaps.

“I never realised it was like this, being you,” she said, in part mind-speak, part whisper.

As I held up the transfer bracelet, I finally realised something I’d refused to notice in the five years since she’d saved my life on Targol: whatever strange, wayward, naive spirit inhabited her, it was one I loved. Although I was going to die, I felt happy, knowing I could swap back and save her.

I pressed the switch. At first the pain was immense, but then, through some unexpected grace, I fell into utter blackness. When I woke I was completely numb and unable to move. I opened my eyes to find eight images of Marla dancing before me, all smiling in that slow lizard way of hers.

“Welcome back, idiot,” she said, her voice gentler than I’d ever heard it before.

“What happened?” I asked, finding words so hard to form I ended up just thinking them.

“I saved your life, as you would have done, had you thought it through.”

My mind flicked back to that day in the jungle when a young lizard had made the decision to save my life by sharing her own life-force the only way she could, leaving us exquisitely and uniquely connected.

“By melding with me again?”

“We can only perform the mating ritual once, I’m afraid.”

“Then what?”

She raised her tail and showed me the stinger. “This isn’t lethal poison.”

I looked down and saw my new body, already feeling the numbness recede. Eight jointed spider legs ran from the edge of my vision to the floor. Lost in wonder, I raised a long barbed leg and stared. “Loris?” I asked at last.

She looked away. “I put him in your body, Steven. I’m sorry I couldn’t make his death glorious.”

I extended one leg, then another; skittered sideways before levelling myself.

Marla spoke again. “Steven. When I was dying, you had certain … thoughts about me.”

“I’m sorry. I —”

Her skin paled in a ripple from her nose to the tip of her tail. “—I’d just like to say that it’s about time.”

I stared at her for a long time, then found myself saying, “I know.” Later, as we walked down the long corridor to the outside world together, the Spider and the Lizard, I was already wondering what to tell the Service about how I ended up in my current shape. And I had no idea at all what they were going to make of my next request for a body.–>

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EP331: Devour

By Ferrett Steinmetz
Read by Dave Thompson
Discuss on our forums.
An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Ferrett Steinmetz
All stories read by Dave Thompson
Rated 15 and up for language, brief sexual imagery, brief violent imagery

Devour
By Ferrett Steinmetz

“I want some water,” Sergio says.  The bicycle chains clank as he strains to
put his feet on the floor.

Sergio designed his own restraints.  He had at least fifteen plumbers on his
payroll who could have installed the chains – but Sergio’s never trusted
anything he didn’t build with his own hands.  So he deep-drilled gear mounts
into our guest room’s floral wallpaper, leaving me to string greased roller
chains through the cast-iron curlicues of the canopy bed.

“You’re doing well, Bruce,” he lied, trying to smile – but his lips were
already desiccated, pulled too tight at the edges.  Not his lips at all.

I slowed him down; I had soft lawyer’s hands, more used to keyboards than
Allen wrenches.  Yet we both knew it would be the last time we could touch
each other.  So I asked for help I didn’t need, and he took my hands in his
to guide the chains through what he referred to as “the marionette mounts.”