Archive for 13 and Up

EP358: Like a Hawk in its Gyre

By Philip Brewer
Read by Tim Crist
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Originally appeared in Redstone Science Fiction (2011)
All stories by Philip Brewer
All stories read by Tim Crist
Rated 15 and up for language

Like a Hawk in Its Gyre
by Philip Brewer

The bicycle noticed someone was following before Kurt did. Watching for a tail was a habit he’d finally broken himself of, but not before the bicycle’s impressionable brain had picked it up. Its low warning hum sent a thrill of adrenalin through him, giving power to the part of his brain that wanted him to sprint away.

Kurt glanced back down the single track. The trees were already beginning to turn fall colors around the edges of the forest, but here along the narrow trail the foliage was green and thick. Resisting the urge to pick up the pace, he continued on, looking back when he could take his eyes off the trail, and after a few moments caught sight of what the bicycle had seen.

“It’s just another cyclist,” Kurt said, reaching down to pat the bicycle’s yellow-and-black, hornet-striped frame. The bicycle didn’t understand–its brain was small and lacked the regions for understanding speech–but Kurt’s tone of voice calmed it and the warning hum grew softer and less anxious.

The end of the trail, a scenic overlook above the Vermillion River, was not far ahead, but the overtaking bicyclist was approaching even faster. The polite thing to do would be to find a place to pull off the trail and let the cyclist past. But there were no surveillance devices in the forest, and Kurt couldn’t face meeting someone out of sight of some sort of watching eyes. At just the thought of it, his adrenaline surged again.

Letting his brain chemistry have its way with him, Kurt leaned low over his handlebars and pedaled hard. (Continue Reading…)

EP357: Connoisseurs of the Eccentric

By Jetse de Vries
Read by Nathan Lowell
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An Escape Pod Original!
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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. (Continue Reading…)

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

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.

 (Continue Reading…)

EP354: The Caretaker

By Ken Liu
Read by Tom Rockwell
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First appeared in Digital Science Fiction Volume 1 (2011)
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Rated 13 and up

The Caretaker
by Ken Liu

Motors whining, the machine squats down next to the bed, holding its arms out parallel to the ground. The metal fingers ball up into fist-shaped handholds. The robot has transformed into something like a wheelchair with treads, its lap the seat where my backside is supposed to fit.

A swiveling, flexible metal neck rises over the back of the chair, at the end of which are a pair of camera lenses with lens hood flaps on top like tilted eyebrows. There’s a speaker below the cameras, covered by metal lips. The effect is a cartoonish imitation of a face.

“It’s ugly,” I say. I try to come up with more, but that’s the only thing I can think of.

Lying on the bed with my back and neck propped up by all these pillows reminds me of long-ago Saturday mornings, when I used to sit up like this in bed, trying to catch up on grading while Peggy was still asleep next to me. Suddenly, Tom and Ellen would burst through the bedroom door without knocking and jump into the bed, landing on top of us in a heap, smelling of warm blankets and clamoring for breakfast.

Except now my left leg is a useless weight, anchoring me to the mattress. The space next to me is empty. And Tom and Ellen, standing behind the robot, have children of their own.

“It’s reliable,” Tom says. Then he seems to have run out of things to say, too. My son is like me, awkward with words when the emotions get complicated.

After a few seconds of silence, his sister steps forward and stands next to the robot. Gently, she bends down to put a hand on my shoulder. “Dad, Tom is running out of vacation days. And I can’t take any more time off either because I need to be with my husband and kids. We think this is best. It’s a lot cheaper than a live-in aide.” (Continue Reading…)

EP353: Talking to the Enemy

By Don Webb
Read by John Mierau
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An Escape Pod Original!
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Rated 13 and up

Talking to the Enemy

By Don Webb

We knew a little, but we knew the Free Machines knew more. We hoped our adversary, the Belatrin, knew less; but since they were such creatures of dream and nightmare even at the late parts of the War, we suspected they knew everything.

The Peace Conference hadn’t happened in the first six months of our being here. Everyone talked about it. Breakthroughs were rumored everyday. The only hard facts are that we had grown more efficient at killing Belatrin and they us.

The “peace planet” was named Mrs. Roger Fishbaum III. Roger Fishbaum had paid currency to name a star after his wife in the International Star Registry a thousand years before. The Siirians had a name for it that had too many clicks and whistles, the Free Machines a binary designation, and for all we knew the Belatrin used telepathy. The planet stank of vinegar and moldy bread. I always assumed that its atmosphere contained some needful compound for our enemies’ breathing, but maybe the Free Machines choose it to annoy us, or them.

Siirian merchants made the most of our discomfort. They sold ineffective air shields that released some herbal concoction. I was buying one when I made my ironic remark about the peace talks. The merchant polished its carapace with two of its legs and whistled out a message that my implant made into, “Honored customer, do you think you will be the chief negotiator for the peace talks?”

I set my translator for ironic mode, and said, “Most certainly. My lowly position as a Viscount of the Instrumentality qualifies me far better than the Dukes of Diplomacy.” (Continue Reading…)

EP352: Food for Thought

By Laura Lee McArdle
Read by Christiana Ellis
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An Escape Pod Original!
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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. (Continue Reading…)

EP351: 113 Feet

By Josh Roseman
Read by Mur Lafferty
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An Escape Pod Original!
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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.

# (Continue Reading…)

EP349: Origin

By Ari Goelman
Read by Veronica Giguere
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Originally appeared in Strange Horizons
All stories by Ari Goelman
All stories read by Veronica Giguere
Rated 13 and up for language

By Ari Goelman

This is how I find out that I’m pregnant:

I wake up to find Carter standing next to my bed. The fire escape door is open behind him, so the rising sun silhouettes his body. A human silhouette, albeit a little crisper than it should be, as his body bends the light towards him, powering up. Always powering up.

“You’re pregnant,” he says. No particular emphasis on the words, which is as per usual, his voice being run through vocal cords that are not human, formed by lips that have blown hurricanes off course. It’s not that he doesn’t feel emotion, he tells me and anyone else who’ll listen. It’s just that he doesn’t have the same biologically hardwired ways of showing it. Usually I believe him.

“What?” I rub my eyes, push up on one elbow. “That’s not possible.”

He leans over me, and touches my stomach. “I was flying by your apartment, thinking about you. I heard the heartbeat.”

“You told me that was impossible,” I say.

He frowns and asks, “I told you it was impossible for me to hear the . . .”

“Conceiving, Carter,” I say. “You told me it was impossible for us to conceive.”

“I thought it was. I was wrong.” His frown deepens. “I could take care of it for you right now if you want.”

I push Carter away from me and sit up. “For me, Carter?! You mean for us, right?”

“Right. That’s what I meant.” A pause, then. “You’re freezing the bed, Margaret.”

I glance down. Damn it. I’ve covered myself and the bed with a thin layer of ice. I take a deep breath and try to calm down before I do any permanent damage to my bed.

It strikes me that this whole thing smells of Dr. U. “Any idea where Dr. U is these days?” I say.

Carter shakes his head. “Ambrosius is reformed. This isn’t one of his plots, Margaret. You—we—have to decide what we’re going to do.” He winces. “Shoot. Bank robbery in Chicago. I have to go.”

He’s gone before I can respond.

“I should never date other supers,” I say, not for the first time. I put my hand on my stomach. Crap. I can barely keep a spider plant alive. There’s no way I’m ready to be a mother.

I look back at the bed and wave my hand at it, heating the molecules surrounding it until the sheets are dry and warm. Then I call in sick to my norm-identity job at the advertising firm, and get back into bed. Of course I can’t sleep.

After an hour of lying in bed, I get up and spend what’s left of the morning surfing the Internet for information on pregnancy. My Battalion cell phone rings a few times, but I don’t pick up. A few minutes before noon, I hear a tap on the window behind me and find Carter is hovering outside. “Come on in,” I say.

A blur as he detours through the fire escape door in my bedroom and into my apartment. I know. It’s weird—he lets himself in while I’m asleep, but if I’m awake, he’ll always wait until I invite him in.

He runs his hands through his hair. “Why weren’t you answering the phone?”

I roll my eyes. If he wants, Carter can fly faster than the signal on a phone. “What, did the bank robbery in Chicago hold you up?”

“It’s a tough conversation. I thought it might be easier for you to have it from a distance.”

“Easier for me?” I briefly consider incinerating Carter’s costume. I’m pretty sure I could keep the heat contained, but if I’m wrong I’ll end up having to evacuate the building and pay the fire damages. Again. Still, I’m thinking it might be worth the risk.

“Margaret . . .”

“You told me it was impossible.”

“It is. I mean I thought it was. All the dimensions I’ve been through. I mean, for crying out loud, we’re different species.”

“You’re telling me.”

Carter frowns, but for once doesn’t launch into his “Humanity is a matter of action” speech. “Neither of us want it,” he says. “Right? I could take care of it right now.” He looks at my stomach, and before I think about what I’m doing, I’ve thrown a wall of green ice between us, green being the color that stops Carter’s nebulon rays.

My hardwood floors groan with the weight of the ice, not to mention the stress of having all the moisture sucked out of them. If Carter was anyone else he’d be shivering, as all the ambient heat in the room flows into me.

Instead he looks at me in that way. Even now, his eyes make me catch my breath. No iris, no pupil, just blue. As best I remember biology class, there’s no way he should be able to see. Still, when Carter looks at you, you feel him look. I wonder if our child will get his eyes.

And that—that moment—is when I realize that I’m going to have the baby. Whatever Carter thinks, I’m going to have the baby. The thought makes me feel nauseous. Like my body is just catching up with the situation.

“You’re not thinking of keeping it?” he says. Typical Carter. He can hear the faintest heartbeat of an embryo, but a wall of green ice and he has only the vaguest hint of my emotional state. He doesn’t stay to hear my answer. A blur of motion, and he’s gone. Which I’m tempted to say is also typical Carter. But it’s not. Usually when we have an argument, he’ll ignore anything short of a full scale alien invasion—and I don’t just mean a few aliens, but the whole fleet / superpowered honor guard / mad empress deal. This time, though, he leaves me alone with the melting ice. But not really alone, I guess. I touch my stomach.

A few minutes later, I call Angie—my favorite teammate in the Battalion—to find out who delivers babies for people like us. She gives me the number, and I call and make an appointment for the following day. I don’t say much to Angie, but she shows up on my fire escape a few minutes later with some Chinese takeout and a lot of chocolate.

The next morning I again wake up to find Carter standing over me. “Hi,” I say.

“Hey.” He sits on the edge of the bed, takes my hand between his. “You know. I’ve been giving the whole baby thing a lot of thought.” He pauses, and for a moment I am flooded by affection for him. Then, he keeps talking. “It’s not responsible of us. We risk our lives every day. What if we die?”

I roll away from him, pulling my hand from his. I stare at the wall, but that’s no better. There’s a framed picture of me and Carter kissing—the cover from last year’s Valentine’s Day issue of People. I close my eyes before responding. “Norms die all the time, Carter. They still have babies.”

“I mean. Sure, I’d like to have a child,” Carter says. Something in the way he’s talking makes me think he’s practiced this speech several times before trying it on me. “But it’s selfish. What if one of my enemies—one of our enemies—tries to hurt us through the child?”

The thought makes me bolt upright in the bed, fists clenched. I feel myself absorbing heat, and I take a deep breath and release it. “If anyone tried that, we would kill them. I would kill them. And then I would incinerate their ashes. And then I would incinerate their ashes’ ashes. . . .”

“Exactly,” Carter says. “So what does that say—we don’t kill mass murderers in Sudan—those people we leave to the international justice system—but we destroy anyone who threatens our child? Where’s the morality there?”

He shakes his head. “The truth is we’re not ready for this.”

You’re not ready.”

“And you are?”

“I don’t know.” I swing my legs out of bed and stand up. “I just don’t know if I’ll ever be more ready. I don’t think you can plan these things out.”

“Of course you can. The ability to put off childbirth . . .”

“Enough, Carter.” It’s not that I can’t think of arguments. It’s just that they don’t matter. I want Carter to want the baby as much as me and he doesn’t.

I walk away from Carter, go into the bathroom to wash up. When I leave the bathroom, Carter is gone. I sigh and call for a Battalion transporter. Looks like I’ll be going to the doctor by myself.

The doctor’s office is on the top floor of a midtown skyscraper. There’s an entrance from the roof, a clear sign that he’s used to dealing with supers, and the exam room is the nicest room I’ve ever seen in a doctor’s office. It’s about twice the size of my apartment’s bedroom, and has a spotless white leather couch facing a huge flat screen television. The only sign of the room’s purpose is an examination table off to one side.

The doctor comes in a few minutes later. He’s tall, with salt and pepper hair and an even, expensive-looking grin. “Ice and Fire,” he says, extending his hand. “I’m Dr. Frank. Let me say what a big fan I am. You can be confident that I am fully qualified to deal with your particular—”

A baritone voice interrupts him. “Please, Doctor. All due respect, but you’re not qualified to take the lady’s temperature, let alone deliver her baby.”

Dr. Frank looks at something behind me, and his eyes widen. His mouth works but no sound comes out.

“Now, Margaret,” the voice says to me. “Hear me out. Please. That’s all I ask.”

I don’t have to look to know what’s behind me. Sure enough, when I turn around, I find that a shimmering green portal has appeared a few inches from the wall, and there, outlined in the bright green light, is Dr. Ambrosius Urbinski. Dr. U. As though I wasn’t already having a crappy day.

He looks the same as usual—white linen suit, shoulder-length red hair. Bushy red eyebrows obscuring his beady little eyes.

Judging by the portal, he’s got his damn E-Machine up and running again. He steps through the portal into the exam room, holding a stethoscope towards me like a peace offering.

“Give me one reason not to fry you, Ambrosius. And give it before you take another step towards me.”

He freezes in mid-step, which I have to admit I like. “I’m here to help you, Margaret. You need a doctor.”

I look at Dr. Frank, who has backed up until his back is against the door to the exam room.

“Seriously,” Dr. U chuckles. Not his usual evil laugh, but just a normal chuckle. It creeps me out to hear it coming from him. “I mean a real doctor.” He waves his hand at Dr. Frank. “Please. We need some privacy.” Dr. Frank turns and lunges through the door, almost tripping himself in his desperation to get out of the room.

Dr. U steps closer, takes my hand, and puts the stethoscope on my wrist. “How are you feeling?”

I jerk my hand out of his grip, and set the soles of his loafers on fire.

He grimaces and does a little two-step. “Please. Think of what the fumes will do to your embryo.” I hold my breath, but don’t put out the fire. “Margaret. I’m reformed. The president forgave my crimes. Why can’t you?”

I just glare.

He holds up his hands palms out, wide-eyed with sincerity. Or as wide-eyed as that squinty little bastard could ever get. “Look. I don’t blame you for not trusting me. I know I’ve hurt your feelings in the past.”

“Ambrosius, you didn’t hurt my feelings. You . . . you. Shit. Where do I start? You built a robot imitation of me to try to turn Carter against me. You tried brainwashing me into believing I had lost my powers. You animated the freaking Statue of Liberty and had her trash my apartm—”

“Margaret,” he interrupts. “Holding onto your anger doesn’t help anyone, including yourself. Trust me—I’ve learned the hard way. Forgiveness is the only path to recovery.”


“I’m a recovering supervillain. I forgive you and I want you to forgive me. I want us to move on.”

“And I want you to get the hell away from me before I fry you like a frigging French fry,” I say. Part of what’s creeping me out is how convincing he is. I think he genuinely believes what he’s saying.

“Hmm. About frying me. Or anyone else. Has anyone told you how using your powers will affect your embryo?”

I don’t say anything and he says, “Even if they did, it doesn’t much matter. Because no one knows but ME!” He roars with evil laughter, then quickly sobers, looking embarrassed. “Sorry. Um. Old reflex. What I meant to say was look—” He snaps his fingers, and a screen appears in the air next to him. There’s a picture of a smiling pregnant woman with blue and red arrows surrounding her.

“Cold is fine, but unusual heat anywhere near your body is another story.” The woman on the screen puts her hands to her cheeks and looks distressed. “The reverse entropy mechanism through which your bodily tissues produce heat may be extremely harmful to the embryo’s replication, a problem which will be exacerbated by the elevated blood pressure that—”

“No extreme heat,” I say. “I get it.” Speaking of heat, his clothes must be coated with some kind of fire retardant, because it’s taken me a few seconds to get them smoldering, too.

He edges back towards the E-portal. “All right. I’m going. But just think about it. We both know I’m the smartest man in the world. And even if you don’t believe I’ve turned a new leaf—you know I don’t break my word.”

I’m about to let him cower back to his secret fortress. I think about how mad Carter will be when he finds out that Dr. U approached me. I think about how much angrier he’d be if I said yes.

“Screw it,” I say. I cool off Dr. U’s shoes. “Say it all, Ambrosius, and you have a deal.”

It’s true, by the way. Dr. U never breaks his word. That’s how Carter used to stop his plots. They were usually too complicated for us to understand, let alone undo. Instead, Carter would just find Dr. U and dangle him upside down until Dr. U promised to undo whatever his latest scheme was and go to jail. Don’t ask me why Carter never made him promise to stay in jail. The two of them have that classic “old friends/college roommates turned archenemies” dynamic. Not-so-submerged homoerotic if you ask me.

Dr. U puts his hand over his heart, like a six-year-old saying the Pledge of Allegiance. “I swear that I’ll do no harm through action or inaction to you or your embryo or Carter.”

“And no cloning my tissue or the embryo’s tissue without my permission.”

He hesitates. “Okay. Fair enough. No cloning. But you promise to leave me alone. No more setting my clothes on fire to make a point.”

Now it’s my turn to hesitate. I know he won’t break his word, but I still feel like I’m missing something. “Okay. But the deal lasts until I say it does, and I can break it at any time.”

“Five minutes’ warning,” he says. “Give me a chance to get away.”

“Two minutes.” I put out my hand.

He takes it. “Deal. You won’t be sorry.”

I’m already sorry. Still, I have to admit, after we shake, it’s just like any other doctor’s appointment. Well, like any other doctor’s appointment that takes place in another doctor’s commandeered office. He takes my pulse, and my blood pressure. Then he puts the stethoscope on my stomach. I start to ask him if he hears anything, and he shushes me. Then shakes his head. “Nothing. Don’t worry. You’re probably still a few weeks away from a heartbeat.”

“Carter already heard one.”

“No he didn’t.” Dr. U shakes his head wearily. “I published an article in Nature two years ago that made it crystal clear that Carter’s whole super hearing/super vision thing is crap. It’s clairvoyance, plain and simple. But psychic powers are too effeminate for your boyfriend’s brand. No wonder he used to get so mad when I tested his abilities.”

“Like when you blew up your dorm room when he was asleep?”

Dr. U pulls out a vial for a urine sample and hands it to me. “I feel really bad about that. You can tell Carter that.”

The whole appointment is like that. Dr. U talking about how guilty he feels about everything. By the end of it, I almost miss the unreformed Dr. U. At least he wasn’t so stinking boring.

A few days later a small chrome box shows up in my mailbox. I press a button and it projects a small hologram of what looks like a fish. A slip of paper emerges from one side of the box. “Embryo week 6, magnified 100 times. Test results all looking good. Drink a lot of fluids. Step away from the projection device (not yet patented). —U.” I step away from the projection device and it dissolves into green flames.

And that’s how it goes. I see Dr. U every few weeks. I take a leave of absence from the Battalion so I won’t be tempted to use my powers. Of course, this also means I don’t have to see Carter every day. I hear about him on the news, of course, although he’s taking a pretty low profile, too. Early in my second trimester he makes a brief appearance to destroy an asteroid headed towards the Earth.

A few weeks later, Angie is over for dinner, and tells me that no one in the Battalion has seen Carter since the asteroid incident.

“Any idea where he might be?” she asks.

I hesitate. I swore never to tell anyone about his hideaway on the moon. I’m mad at Carter, but a secret’s a secret.

Before I can decide, Angie says, “I’ve already checked his little moon fort.” Angie sees my surprise and rolls her eyes. “Puh-leeze. You thought you were the first girl Mr. Perfect took to the moon? The Huntress spent a month there with Carter when you were still in grade school. Anyway, check this out.” She has to squirm to get her Battalion cell phone out of the tight leather pants she’s wearing. Angie is wearing what passes for her street clothes: black leather pants and a matching tank top, cut to allow a hint of cleavage in the front, and a wide range of motion for her wings in the back.

She shows me the screen. “Tell me this isn’t weird even for Carter.”

The pictures aren’t great, but I get a sense that the whole place—previously a sort of super-charged bachelor pad, all big-screen televisions, hologram projectors, and trophies from various super battles—has been totally destroyed.

“What is that?” I say. “What’s the blue stuff everywhere?” I’m thinking it’s an alien species of some kind, but I can’t get a good look on the little cell phone screen.

“Weird, eh?” Angela says. “The whole place is covered—floor, ceiling, walls. It’s like being inside a blueberry.”

“But what is it?”

Angela shrugs and slips the cell phone back in her pocket. “The big brains don’t have any idea. It could be an alien symbiote, could be an interdimensional extrusion.” She eyes me. “It could be a plot by your new doctor friend.”

I shrug, then turn back to my dinner. I’m almost as hungry as Angie these days. Flying takes lots of calories, but so does pregnancy. I talk around a mouthful of barbeque chicken. “Thing is, Ambrosius couldn’t resist bragging about it if it was him. Trust me. He talks so much, it’s a wonder he had time to be a supervillain.”

Angie leans back in her chair, resting her hands on her stomach, which I can’t help but notice is about one quarter the size of mine. “I’d be happier if Carter were around, that’s all.”

“You and me both,” I say. Figures. Like the pregnancy wasn’t bad enough, I have to worry about Carter now, too.

Aside from that, the second trimester is better than the first. The morning sickness goes away, and I get my energy back. For the first time since I’ve had my norm-identity job, I even go a few weeks without missing any work.

Near the end of the second trimester I’m meeting Dr. U in a small house in Westchester for a regular checkup. It’s a cold day for June—which is wonderful after sweltering in the city heat for days. We’re sitting in the backyard with a hologram of the fetus floating in the air beneath the elm tree where I’m sitting. I have to admit it makes me a little teary. The fetus looks like a baby now. The body is finally the right size for the head, and you can see the fingers and toes and even traces of its tiny fingernails.

Dr. U is muttering measurements—either to himself or to a recorder—as he moves the sonogram tool over my distended belly. “Note to self—BPD of 73 millimeters, femoral leg length of 53. Note to self—fetal proportions appear to tend towards Earth norm rather than PM. Note to self—in modifying PM sperm’s genetic footprint, I may have moved too far towards human norm. In follow-up experiment—”

“What?” I say. “What did you just say?”

He freezes, and I know.

“PM stands for Power Man. You did this, didn’t you?” I say. “You somehow instigated this pregnancy.”

His squint becomes so pronounced his bushy eyebrows entirely obscure his beady little eyes. “Now, Margaret. Let’s not get into a blame game. Anyway, how could I be responsible for your pregnancy?”

“Huh.” I force myself to smile. There are some tricks that never get old. In some ways Dr. U is pretty stupid. “You’re right. It’s impossible. There’s no way to knock up a girl—especially a superheroine—without touching her.”

“Exactly. It would be absolutely impossible.” He tries to keep his mouth shut, but he just can’t resist. “Or at least it would seem so. Of course, for someone as smart as me, it was trivial. I just inserted some modified sperm into your Carter’s testes when I last had him in my power. This was before my recovery, of course.”

“Whose sperm?” I’m almost afraid to ask. The thought of carrying Dr. U’s baby literally sickens me.

“His own. It would have to be his own or his body would reject it.” He flushes a little. “As it happened, I—um—had harvested his seed previously.”

“You ‘harvested’ Carter’s ‘seed’? You were gay!” I say. “I knew it. I knew it. Angie and I—”

“Are completely wrong,” Dr. U blushes a little darker. “Not that I wasn’t open to experimenting, but God forbid Carter touch another man. Have you ever seen him as much as hug a male friend? Him and Captain Planet and their handshakes.” He shrugs. “I took the tissue out of the garbage when we were roommates.”

“You swore no cloning.” I hope he did break his word. It would be such a pleasure to freeze him where he stands. Just a few degrees of cold can incapacitate almost any norm.

“I haven’t cloned a thing since we made our agreement,” Dr. U says primly. Averting his eyes, he mutters, “Our agreement said nothing about using the embryo’s excess stem cells to help create a new class of killer robots that can regenerate and recombine with one another at will. A man has a right to his hobbies.”

“What have you done with Carter?”

“What?! Nothing!” Dr. U says. “I’ve been looking for him for months to ask his forgiveness. I figured he was ignoring me.” I stare at him and he meets my eyes. Still, he only promised that Carter would be safe from him, he didn’t say anything about capturing him or stealing his memory or any of the rest of his usual crap.

“Okay,” I say. “You have two minutes. Run.”

“Why? I’m telling you I haven’t touched Carter. And haven’t I been a great doctor?”

“One hundred seconds,” I say. “I’d run if I were you.”

Dr. U just stands there. “Margaret, you’re being really unfair.” He glances down at his wrist communicator, and touches a few buttons. One of them activates a force field. “You’re also making it really hard for me to maintain a caring and empathetic doctor/patient relationship.”

I glance at my watch. “Seventy seconds.”

“Margaret. I hear that you’re feeling angry.”

I nod. “Sixty seconds.”

Dr. U swallows. He touches another switch on his wrist, and an E-portal appears behind him. He doesn’t turn, though. Instead he closes his eyes and hums. Then, eyes still closed, he says, “I don’t have to fight. I have everything I need to be happy already inside me.” He hums again.

“Thirty seconds.”

His eyes snap open. “Fine.” He spins and climbs through the E-portal, muttering. “It’s not evil if it’s self-defense.” The E-portal dwindles and disappears.

I close my eyes and take a deep breath and wait. In about five minutes I hear the distant whirring sounds I’m expecting. Without opening my eyes, I feel the little centers of heat approaching as Dr. U’s robot fleet flies closer to me. I suck the heat of the engines right through the pathetic little heat shields that Dr. U has inserted around them. I’m careful not to let the heat come too close to me, funneling it right back towards the robots, melting their propellers away. I hear the far-off thuds as the robots hit the ground a few blocks away. A few seconds later, I hear the whirring resume.

I sigh and open my eyes in time to see about a hundred robots streaming over the horizon, no doubt using some secondary energy source that doesn’t generate heat. Usually at this point, I would throw up a few walls of flame and ice to slow them down. Instead I focus on taking deep breaths, relaxing and looking vulnerable. As pregnant as I am, it’s not hard.

In past encounters, I’ve been too busy destroying them to appreciate Dr. U’s handiwork, but this time I just watch them approach. I have to admit it—his robots are beautiful. They are sleek and multicolored—silver and gold inlay shining from the green and gold siding. It’s as though a fleet of luxury sports cars have sprouted weapons and learned to fly.

The robots are just a few dozen yards away, when a killer breeze seems to move through them, leaving a debris of robot limbs and hands in its wake. When it settles, Carter is standing there, giving me an angry look. “Why would you call off the truce now?” he says. “It was totally irresponsible, when you can’t even fight.”

Another robot approaches him from behind and without turning, Carter backhands it, breaking it into dozens of titanium pieces. Behind him, I watch all the pieces from the shattered robots begin to recombine.

“How else was I going to flush you out?” I say. “Where the hell have you been? And what happened to your moon fort?”

Carter looks blank.

“The blue stuff?” I prompt him.

“Child proofing,” he says like it should have been obvious. “That place was all hard corners.”

Once the robot is complete it brings its hands together and points at Carter. Carter casually uses his silver cape to deflect the energy beam the robot shoots at him. “I want you to know,” Carter says, “that I still have a lot of doubts.”

He casts a quick glance behind him and sighs as another nine giant robots fly over the horizon. He looks more tired than I’ve ever seen him.

“Where have you been?” I say again, this time a little softer.

“Working,” he says. “Almost forty million babies have been born since we found out we were pregnant. I was protecting them. Trying to protect them.”

The nine robots combine with the first one to make a staggeringly immense robot, the size of a medium-rise apartment building. Its face bears an eerie resemblance to Dr. U.

“Carter, that’s impossible.” I say. “Even for you.”

He rubs his eyes. “I know,” he says. “I know. Do you know that 3 out of every 1,000 infants die in the crib? No one knows why. It just happens.”

“You can reduce the probability by half if you sleep them on their back.” Dr. U’s voice booms from the robot’s mouth. The robot lurches towards us. “And, by the way, I view this as self-defense. Margaret’s attitude was posing a real threat to my recovery process.”

Carter catches the robot’s giant foot as it approaches us. He flexes and—though this should be impossible given Carter’s mass relative to the robot—the robot flies upwards further than I can see. “The point is,” Carter says, “there’s nothing you can do about it. It just happens. Likewise autism, allergy to wasp stings. Whatever. Even a flu can be deadly to an infant.

“Do you know—200 major banks have been robbed since I stopped caring about crime? Several large insurance companies are suing me for negligence. Our pregnancy has single-handedly sparked the largest run on banks since the 1930s.”

Our pregnancy?” I say. “Did I see you puking every morning for three months? Did I even see you anywhere nearby?”

Carter starts to answer, then glances up. His eyes widen. A few seconds later, I see the robot approaching. Very fast. “Damn it,” Carter says. “I hope the fetus is okay with loud noises.” He leaps into the air straight towards the robot. They collide, and it’s like someone has struck a giant bell right next to my ear.

It turns out that the fetus is most emphatically not okay with loud noises. It feels like it’s trying to kick its way out of my uterus, as it flails around in response to the still echoing sound of the collision. “Shh,” I say, stroking my stomach. “It’s okay. It’s okay.” I take a deep breath. “Don’t . . . get . . . mad,” I say to myself. The effort of not going supernova is giving me a headache. “Shh.” I say again, as much to myself as to the fetus.

Carter lands a few feet away. “Are you okay?” he says.

“No . . . more . . . loud . . . noises,” I say.

“Right,” Carter says. “Sorry.” He glances up. “Uh-oh.”

The robot has split into hundreds of pieces. All of which are headed straight for us, moving very quickly. “Carter, why didn’t you just tell me where you were?”

“Look,” Carter says. “Forty million babies. I . . .” His voice tapers off. “I’m really sorry. No excuse.”

He moves too fast for me to see, but I can feel the friction of his body moving through the air as he shreds the robots. As fast as he shreds them, though, they recombine into other forms, working their way closer and closer to me. And the baby.

I sigh. Do I have to do every stinking thing in this pregnancy? Fine. I drop the temperature around us to as close to absolute zero as possible. Then I expand the bubble of coldness until it covers every robot, while still creating little bubbles of warmth for the trees, squirrel and sparrows that happen to be within that sphere.

It makes my head hurt more, but at these temperatures the robots can’t recombine fast enough. Carter is still moving too fast for me to see, but in a few seconds it’s over. When he slows, he’s shredded the robots into a kind of silvery dust except for a few frozen fragments—the base of a head here, a gauntlet there.

Carter grinds his heel on one of the fragments, and then looks at me full on. Oh, that gaze, I think. “I won’t be able to protect her,” he tells me. “Not totally and completely. Things will happen to her that I can’t control.”

One of the robot’s speakers is still working, although Dr. U’s voice sounds a little tinnier than it did. “Welcome to fatherhood,” he says. “Good lu—”

I pull some of the leftover friction heat into the speaker, and hear the satisfying pop of nano-transistors overheating and breaking as the speaker falls silent.

Carter sits down next to me. It always surprises me how small he is. When he stops moving, Carter is just a few inches taller than me, and no broader than an athletic norm. “She will get hurt, and I won’t be able to help.”

Her, I think, but I don’t say anything. After a second he tries to put his arm around me. After another second, I let him.


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?”


“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?”


“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.–>

EP346: Hawksbill Station

By Robert Silverberg
Read by Paul Tevis
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Galaxy Magazine
All stories by Robert Silverberg
All stories read by Paul Tevis
Rated 15 and up

Hawksbill Station
by Robert Silverberg

Barrett was the uncrowned King of Hawksbill Station. He had been there the longest; he had suffered the most; he had the deepest inner resources of strength. Before his accident, he had been able to whip any man in the place. Now he was a cripple, but he still had that aura of power that gave him command. When there were problems at the Station, they were brought to Barrett. That was axiomatic. He was the king.

He ruled over quite a kingdom, too. In effect it was the whole world, pole to pole, meridian to meridian. For what it was worth. It wasn’t worth very much.

Now it was raining again. Barrett shrugged himself to his feet in the quick, easy gesture that cost him an infinite amount of carefully concealed agony, and shuffled to the door of his hut. Rain made him impatient:. the pounding of those great greasy drops against the corrugated tin roof was enough even to drive a Jim Barrett loony. He nudged the door open. Standing in the doorway, Barrett looked out over his kingdom.

Barren rock, nearly to the horizon. A shield of raw dolomite going on and on. Raindrops danced and bounced on that continental slab of rock. No trees. No grass. Behind Barrett’s hut lay the sea, gray and vast. The sky was gray too, even when it wasn’t raining.

He hobbled out into the rain. Manipulating his crutch was getting to be a simple matter for him now. He leaned comfortably, letting his crushed left foot dangle. A rockslide had pinned him last year during a trip to the edge of the Inland Sea. Back home, Barrett would have been fitted with prosthetics and that would have been the end of it: a new ankle, a new instep, refurbished ligaments and tendons. But home was a billion years away, and home there’s no returning. (Continue Reading…)