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Escape Pod 632: Lucky Shot (Part 1)


Lucky Shot

By Gerri Leen

Lieutenant Sirella Nacleth breathes in green dust and tries not to cough. Her feet feel too heavy to move, but she forces herself to walk on, ignoring the heat that blasts down and around her, heat carried by winds that do nothing to cool the air from the sun above. This planet is a harrowing furnace, and she is bound here for the rest of her life—or until her people find her.

Or until her enemy’s people do. She glances back and sees that the Vermayan has finished filling in the deep grave he put his crewmates’ bodies in. She’s assuming the Vermayan is a he. It’s hard to tell from where she stands, and she doesn’t intend to get very close if she can help it.

If their ships hadn’t crashed almost on top of each other, she might not have seen him for days, if at all. But their ships did land nearly twisted together, and the bodies of the crews are strewn all over. She has to get closer to him than she likes just to retrieve her dead.

She’s the only one on her ship who survived the crash. Her left arm is broken, and her right ankle wrenched. Her back feels strained and her head hurts. But she’s alive. She’s alive and burying her dead, shoveling one handed and pulling her crewmates behind her as she limps from body to hole, body to hole.

The Vermayan is way ahead of her. There are no rust-colored bodies strewn over the plain anymore, while so many of her own dead still lie waiting for her to reach them. The green sand blows over the bodies as the blazing wind lifts stinging grit and flings it at her, making her eyes hurt and her lips crack. She will help her friends; she will give them rest. But not soon. She’s only one person. And she’s tired. So tired.

The Vermayan has sat down. He’s watching her as she limps toward the next body, which is halfway between where she’s dug her hole and where he’s resting. Glancing at his rank, she sees he’s the Vermayan equivalent of lieutenant. He’s taken his weapon out of its holster and is playing with it—no, he’s checking it. She laughs bitterly. If it’s built as poorly as hers, it will be clogged with the fine green grit of this damned world. And since his ship didn’t perform any better than hers, why should his gun?

“It won’t work,” she says, unsure why she bothers. He won’t understand her and talking will only make the dryness in her throat worse.

He gets up, closes the weapon, and aims at the ground. The gun sort of clicks as he pulls the trigger, but it doesn’t fire.

“Nothing like fine Vermayan craftsmanship,” she says, laughing as he drops the weapon on the ground. Obviously, the Vermayans went with the lowest bidder, too. She’s sorry she laughed when her throat begins to itch. Soon she’s coughing, and she imagines her lungs are filling up with green dust.

He stares at her, and she stares back at him as soon as she gets the coughing under control, wondering if she should challenge him to a hand-to-hand duel. They are enemies: the Revirian Confederation is at war with the Vermayan Union. Surely they should fight? (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 629: An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition

Show Notes

Author’s Notes:

For more on consciousness as compression, see:

Maguire, Phil, et al. “Is Consciousness Computable? Quantifying Integrated Information Using Algorithmic Information Theory.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1405.0126 (2014) (available at http://arxiv.org/pdf/1405.0126).

For more on natural nuclear reactor piles, see:

Teper, Igor. “Inconstants of Nature”, Nautilus, January 23, 2014 (available at http://nautil.us/issue/9/time/inconstants-of-nature).

Davis, E. D., C. R. Gould, and E. I. Sharapov. “Oklo reactors and implications for nuclear science.” International Journal of Modern Physics E 23.04 (2014) (available at http://arxiv.org/pdf/1404.4948).

For more on SETI and the Sun’s gravitational lens, see:

Maccone, Claudio. “Interstellar radio links enhanced by exploiting the Sun as a gravitational lens.” Acta Astronautica 68.1 (2011): 76–84 (available at http://www.snolab.ca/public/JournalClub/alex1.pdf).]


An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition

By Ken Liu

My darling, my child, my connoisseur of sesquipedalian words and convoluted ideas and meandering sentences and baroque images, while the sun is asleep and the moon somnambulant, while the stars bathe us in their glow from eons ago and light-years away, while you are comfortably nestled in your blankets and I am hunched over in my chair by your bed, while we are warm and safe and still for the moment in this bubble of incandescent light cast by the pearl held up by the mermaid lamp, you and I, on this planet spinning and hurtling through the frigid darkness of space at dozens of miles per second, let’s read. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 628: The Endangered Camp


The Endangered Camp

By Ann Leckie

After the terrible push to be free of the Earth was past, we could stand again. In a while, the engineers had said, everything would float, but for now we were still accelerating. We were eight in the small, round room, though there were others on the sky-boat–engineers, and nest-guardians examining the eggs we had brought to see how many had been lost in the crushing, upward flight. But we eight stood watching the world recede.

The floor and walls of the room were of smooth, gold metal. Around the low ceiling was a pattern of cycad fronds and under this scenes from the histories. There was the first mother, ancestor of us all, who broke the shell of the original egg. The picture showed the egg, a single claw of the mother piercing that boundary between Inside and Outside. With her was the tiny figure of her mate. If you are from the mountains, you know that he ventured forth and fed on the carcass of the world-beast, slain by the mother, and in due time found the mother and mated with her. If you are a lowlander, he waited in the shell until she brought the liver to him, giving him the strength to come out into the open. Neither was pictured–the building of the sky-boat had taken the resources of both mountains and lowlands.

On another panel was Strong Claw, her sharp-toothed snout open in a triumphant call. She stood tall on powerful legs, each foot with its arced killing claw, sharp and deadly. Her arms stretched out before her, claws spread, and her long, stiff tail stretched behind. The artists had worked with such skill that every feather could be distinguished. Behind her was the great tree that had carried her across the sea, and in the water were pictured its inhabitants: coiled ammonites, hungry sharks, and a giant mososaur, huge-mouthed enough to swallow a person down at a gulp. Before Strong Claw was forested land, full of food for the hunting, new territory for her and her daughters yet unhatched.

A third panel showed the first sky-boat departing for the moon that had turned out to be farther away than our ancestors ever imagined. That voyage had been a triumph–the sky-boat (designed, all were ceaselessly told, by lowlander engineers) had achieved a seemingly impossible goal. But it had also been a disaster–as the mountain engineers had predicted, and the lowlanders refused to believe until the last, irrefutable moment, there had been no air on the moon. But as we had now set our sights on Mars, the artist had left off the end of the tale, to avoid ill-omen.

The engineers had used mirrors to cast an image of the Earth on the last, blank panel of the curved wall. It was this that held our attention.

As we watched, disaster struck. A sudden, brilliant flash whited out the image for an instant, and after that an expanding ring began to spread across the face of the world, as though a pebble had been dropped into a pond. Almost instantly a ball of fire rose up from the center of the ripple and expanded outward, obscuring it. I blinked, slowly, deliberately, sure that my vision was at fault. Still the fire grew until finally it dissipated, leaving a slowly-expanding veil of smoke.

There was silence in the sky-boat for some time. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 627: Humans Die, Stars Fade


Humans Die, Stars Fade

By Charles Payseur

They come to study. Not me. Not really. No, they come for Aerik—what he’s become. What I suppose we both will become when the slow swell of time and gravity finally draw us together wholly. After everything, all the years with only the brush of winds, then this slow draining death, it’s almost something to look forward to. Even if he’s not there anymore.

But the aliens. The humans. The UEF Intrepid. They’re here to study, ship space-worn and eager, scanning like a bird poking at a pool of water with its bill, unaware of what might lurk beneath. They don’t know the gravitational anomalies of the area, the way that Aerik sometimes surges as if reaching for me, as if he can jump back from the annihilation that claimed our planets, his life, and our love. There is little I can do for them. For anyone. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 626: Fire Rode the Cold Wind


Fire Rode the Cold Wind

By Aimee Ogden

The brown woman came to Vrau from the sky, without a name of her own.

Piarcu knew that she was nameless, even though the women of his family only whispered it when they thought no one else could hear. It was they who had cared for her when her metal cage crashed down into the ice, they who had peeled her out of her prison and stripped her out of her strange silver suit and dressed her wounds. It was they who had seen her flesh bare of fur or wool, and noted the lack of name marked there.

Not that they would have dared to read that name, if their eyes had fallen on it. They were practiced in the healing arts, and healers did not linger on their patients’ most intimate matters. They took from her empty cups of spineweed tea and used bandages, not her privacy. Piarcu’s mind lingered there, though. He found himself thinking of the stranger’s unmarked skin, more often than he should: found himself distracted at land, at sea, stripped down to his leggings in preparation for a shellstar dive and seized with the notion that he might be the one to press his needleknife to her flesh and offer her the gift of a true name.

For her part, she did not seem concerned about her lack of name. When Piarcu visited her shelter, erected with ice in the lee of her shattered cage and lined with furs and blankets offered by the generous Vrauam, she only ever laughed and said, “My name is Isro Bascardan! That’s name enough for anyone, don’t you think?” And he did not know how to make her see that a use-name was not enough to have, no more than a man could say he had a coat and so had no need of his skin. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 618: All Profound and Logical Minds (Artemis Rising)


All Profound and Logical Minds

By Bennett North

The space station was silent in the way that a black hole is black; it was more than just an absence of noise. There was something physical to the silence, a force pulling in all sound and eating it. Hannah anchored her boots to the floor of the atrium, feeling the reassuring click as the magnets engaged. Emergency lights washed the atrium floor with a watery red light.

Taking a deep breath of her tepid suit air, Hannah unzipped her bag. An insulated thermos floated out. She left it slowly rotating next to her elbow while she rummaged around to find her keychain. It was a cheap one, made of injection-molded nickel, in the shape of a caffeine molecule. Stupid and gimmicky, yes, but she needed a symbol of her faith and as an atheist, it worked. Bethany had come up with the idea of doing the ritual as an exorcism. A real Catholic exorcism would take much longer, but the clients liked the concept, and Hannah’s abbreviated version worked.

A faint click in Hannah’s ear warned her a second before she heard her sister’s voice over the radio. “Ship to Missionary. Come in, Missionary.” Bethany’s voice was thin and staticky, more white noise than words, but it was like tasting cream after having nothing but water.

Hannah closed her eyes for a second, savoring the soft hiss, and then opened them again, shifting a glance to the heads-up display to trigger the radio to pick up her response. “This is Missionary. I’m in position in the atrium.”

“How’s it looking in there?”

Hannah looked toward the starboard side of the atrium. Six or seven bodies had collected in the awning of a cafe like a lost handful of balloons. They were dressed casually as if they’d been strolling through the park at the time that the station vented.

“Quiet,” said Hannah.

“Good.” Bethany’s voice had a laugh in it. “The longer it stays quiet, the better.” (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 617: A Cure for Homesickness (Artemis Rising)


A Cure for Homesickness

By S. L. Scott

Krem was dead.

Well, not exactly, yet, but he knew death when he saw it, and the scavenger holding a plasma shotgun three feet from his face sure looked like death. The Torqu might have exoskeletons strong enough to keep hardened steel from piercing, but that wouldn’t stop the ensuing explosions from ripping him apart. They’d just be nice big chunks instead of tiny pieces. Not that Krem was surprised he’d go this way. He’d signed up for glory and adventure traveling the galaxy, and what that really meant was boring travel time followed by constant near-death experiences. The former he’d learned to live with; the latter, it seemed, would be harder to ignore.

At least he’d finished his mission. They’d been hired to recover passengers from a crashed ship, but the scavengers and slavers had all gotten there at the same time. By now, the last group of survivors should be close to the final checkpoint, where the captain could get them to the safety of their ship.

“Del,” he whispered into his com. “Make sure they sing for at least two hours at my funeral. If I’m going to die a hero, I think I deserve it.”

Krem wanted to go out shooting and kill his own killer in one of those “showdowns” he’d seen when Max, their human crewmate, picked the entertainment. There was a certain appeal to two people facing each other over the fate of the universe. Krem was decidedly more practical though. He knew one drone like him wouldn’t matter any more than the one scavenger about to kill him. He’d done his part, and now he would come to an end for the betterment of the mission. That was how the Torqu thought of heroics, after all.

The scavenger raised his gun slightly—better to hit Krem in the neck between his more protected thorax and skull plates—and promptly exploded. A shower of sticky blue internal juices and meat splashed Krem’s entire front and dripped into his gasping mouth. The scavenger tasted rather sweet, he noted, as little else seemed to make it through his shock-addled brain. There, behind the scavenger and just as covered in corpse debris, stood Max.

“Why’d you come back?” he asked slowly and with as little understanding of the human as he ever managed. Max had taken the second group. There was no reason for her to be there.

Max, wiry as a bridge cable, wiped the blue blood from the visor protecting her eyes and spit a bit or two of scavenger from her mouth. Apparently, humans didn’t find it as appetizing. Once able to see again, she reached out a hand to hook his claw and yanked him to his feet. “We’ve got a saying back on Earth: never leave a man behind.” (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 612: The Sixes, the Wisdom, and the Wasp


The Sixes, the Wisdom, and the Wasp

By E J Delaney

Fereshteh Nemati was scared.

She knew she was gripping her bow too tightly. She knew she should never ever aim at another person. But it wasn’t bad technique she was thinking of, or breaking her father’s golden rule. It wasn’t even the sight of poor Mr. Heke lying unmoving by his desk.

What bothered Fereshteh most of all was the girl on the opposite side of the classroom: the one standing with arrow notched and back elbow held high, staring at her across the small wooden desks and half-open tidy trays.

That’s me. I’m shooting at me! (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 611: When We Fall


When We Fall

by Kameron Hurley

I don’t remember the first time I was abandoned and forgotten, but I have told the story of the second time so often that when the memory boils up it feels hot and gummy, like the air that day.

Whoever cared for me – and I can’t be certain they were legal guardians, let alone relatives – took me with them to beg at the crossroads just outside the interplanetary port. I don’t know how long they had me, but I know they were not the first. I remember being hungry. I remember a tall woman with dark hair pulling me close and saying, “Stay here Aisha.” She gave me a length of sugarcane and a mango. Her skirt was red. I still think of the red skirt when I think of home.

The people I saw as I sat out there, day after day, were all engineered for different worlds. The world I was on then, there was something about the sky… bloody red most of the day; stars the rest of the day, and a night filled with blue light. People were tailored to fit where they were from, or the place they’d chosen as home, whether that was a world or the deep black between the stars. Some were tall and fat, short and squat, or spindly; willowy as leaves of grass. Gills, webbed toes, ears that jutted out sharply from faces with eyes the size of jack bolts… many had tails; a few had four arms or more. Many wore respirators; teeth gleaming purple behind translucent masks or fuzzy full-bodied filters or suits that clung to their bodies like a second skin.

Even then, sitting alone on the mat with my mango and sugarcane, I couldn’t imagine that none of these people wanted me. I used to pretend, sitting at every port then and later, that somebody would come up and recognize me, or see me and just want me, not for some gain of theirs, but out of pure, unadulterated love. I was skinny and long-fingered, with squinty eyes and tawny skin covered in fine hair. I had a high forehead and a bright shock of white hair that stood straight up. I still wear it that way, long after I figured out the tricks for taming it, because I never did like being tamed. I suppose it never occurred to me to ask why none of them looked like me, because none of them even looked much like each other. I heard once that there’s a test you can take to find out what system your people are most likely in, but I can’t afford the test, and sure couldn’t afford to go back. And who’s to say they’d want me now, when they didn’t before?

It’s difficult to reconcile this memory, still, with what I’m told about our society, about how our people are supposed to be. I see close-knit families and communities embracing one another in media stories. Every audio play and flickering drama squirming at the corner of my vision tells me we care for one another deeply, because we are all only as healthy, happy, and prosperous as our least fortunate member. There is no war, no disease that cannot be overcome, and every child is guaranteed a life of security and love.

But the grand narrative of societies often forgets people like me. They forget the people who fall between the seams of things. They don’t like to talk about what happens below the surface.

I went through a series of homes – waystations, temporary shelters – is probably more accurate. When this story drips out now, to engineers or star hustlers or bounty hunters at whatever watering hole I’m drunk at, most insist I had to be part of some community foster system organized by one government or another.

I wasn’t. I’ve made my own way around, getting work in junk ports and on dying organic ships. I’ve done salvage of old trawlers, rotting on the edge of the shipping lanes, half consumed by some star.

I spent my life with ships.

But I never expected a single ship to change my life. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 610: The Sweetness at the End


The Sweetness at the End

By Jenny Rae Rappaport

This is how it happens:

Tony and Ma are in their seats in the skimmer, strapped in and grinning at us. Daddy and I kiss them good bye; take a photo of them in their spacesuits for posterity, and wave at them. We stay behind at the Kennedy Space Center–there’s a viewing room that has live GPS tracking available for suborbital flights.

This is a huge thing for Ma. Positively, absolutely huge. She’s wanted to go to space since she was a little girl, and watched that old space shuttle explode on TV. The one with the teacher and all. Way before I got here, of course.

No one takes you to space when you’re old. Or if you take a medicine or two, here and there, because again–old. Old rules you out of almost everything fun. Money can overrule some of the old, but we don’t have that much money.

But then, Tony got his suborbital license. And no one regulates who you take up in a SubOrb plane; as long as you file your flight plan in advance, the government can’t really say anything. So Ma was going to get to go up as far as they would let her, all without having to pay anything to the expensive SubOrb tour companies. Tony had managed to snag the use of a plane from a guy he knew from training; otherwise, it would have still been way too expensive.

So there we are, Daddy and I, bumming around the viewing room. I’ve got one of those new sodas that are dispensed in round bubbles made of stiffened sugar; you can literally eat the can after you’re done with them. Beats the hell out of recycling it, any day. Daddy is tapping his fingers, as he stares at the GPS screen.

“They’ll be over Europe soon,” he says.

“Yeah,” I say.

We watch together, as they cross the Atlantic, swooping northeast, their flight path tracked in gold on the map in front of us. We’re one of the only flights today–Christmas is not a popular SubOrb day–so we have the viewing center mostly to ourselves. The fat couple to the left are clutching hands and praying, as a purple line streaks south over India. To my right, there’s a little old man, a cane across his lap, and his eyes fixed on the red line that’s near Australia.

I’m getting to the bottom of my soda bubble, almost to the part I love best, when I can eat the crunchy outside. I start slurping, ignoring Daddy’s silent looks; I never did have very good manners.

And then, our line stops moving over Spain. It hangs on the map, a golden thread from here to there, suspended in time. We stare at it, willing it to keep moving, to keep doing the grand jete it’s making over the rest of the continent.

But we know. You always know. (Continue Reading…)