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Escape Pod 715: A Box, a Pocket, a Spaceman


A Box, a Pocket, a Spaceman

By E. Catherine Tobler

The spaceman shows up on a hot summer afternoon, not in the dead of night when you’re crouched in the garden peering through a telescope that shows you the endless glories and wonders of the night sky. There’s no spaceship making a bright arc against a star-spangled sky. Just a man in a spacesuit, standing at the edge of your hammock. His presence reminds you school is over and relatives will be coming soon and you don’t want to see them. They will ask you who can’t see beyond the edge of your hammock about grades and ambitions and Plans For the Future. Aunt Fran is dead and there’s just no fixing it, but funerals help us move on, Mom says so, and Mom Knows Best. You don’t want to go, because going means it happened and going means something is over.

You ask the spaceman where his blue box is and he stares at you like you’ve lost your entire mind, because boxes, he tells you in absolute certainty, are no good for space flight. Boxes are not geometrically synergistic, he tells you, whether cardboard or wood or blue. He doesn’t have any kind of an accent, no bow tie, no box, and he’s lost. He tells you he’s lost.

This is just Earth, you tell him, and he says he knows that, how stupid do you think he is, he’s been here before, so many times before he knows Rubik’s Cubes and arcades and the way ugly yellow dish gloves will stick to your fingers and turn inside out if they’re too hot when you take them off. He remembers when an icy Big Gulp in a sweating plastic cup was the best part of summer—that’s why he’s here now, summer, and why it’s afternoon, and why— (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 711: Carols on Callisto


Carols on Callisto

By Deborah L. Davitt

On the surface of Callisto, Rebecca Fox struggled with tangled, 3D-printed branches, her fingers clumsy inside the bulky gloves of her suit. The swollen belly of Jupiter dominated the horizon, a swirl of muted white and orange, and the Great Red Spot stared like a baleful eye. The landing lights of ships crossed the planet’s face, heading for the port. The vibration of their engines in the regolith rumbled underfoot as they landed.

“This is idiotic,” a voice broke in over the radio as her companion bounce-walked to her, holding another set of printed branches. “It takes us twelve years to orbit the sun. Why do we need to celebrate Earth’s holidays here? We should be creating our own.”

“The kids like it,” Rebecca defended. She had this conversation with Dieter at least once every three months. “They enjoy designing their trees at school, which is a good use of their CAD skills. They like seeing something they’ve made go up. The plastics get recycled, so it’s not a waste.”

“It wastes time.

“You get to charge hours for this,” she reminded him lightly. “Hush.”
(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 710: Requiem Without Sound


Requiem Without Sound

by Izzy Wasserstein

Introit
Evie is born into cold and silence. They know this, though they have only now gained consciousness, because their sensors report it. The memory of the station’s computer, which now forms part of Evie’s brain, tells them that their environment is very wrong. There should be movement. Sound. Life.

Interior scans of the station reveal the cause. A chunk of rock, 9 cm in diameter, has punctured the station’s control room. Chavez was in her chair when the debris broke through, crushing her head. There was no time for her to seek the safety of the living compartment, no time for decompression or cold to kill her.

Evie has been programed with a full suite of emotions, including empathy, and feels that a quick death was a small mercy.

Chavez died before Evie’s mind had finished growing on the neural-lattice, before they became conscious.

A rigorous technician, Chavez left notes in Evie’s code, though there was no one to read it besides Chavez, and now Evie themself. The annotations are clear: she was growing Evie because she was lonely. Evie considered one particular notation at length: I’m tired of singing to myself.

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 709: In A Wide Sky, Hidden


In A Wide Sky, Hidden

by William Ledbetter

Warm liquid gurgled away and the kettle field winked off, leaving me naked, wet, and trembling in the soup kitchen’s receiving chamber. My traveling companion, Roger, waited with clothes. Humanoid in shape but impossibly thin, his eight-foot-tall metallic figure moved with an almost liquid grace as he stooped to help me into the robe. My new skin felt raw against the thick fabric, but, like the chills, was caused by the transfer and only temporary.

“Is she here?” I said while bending down to pull on a pair of quilted boots.

“No obvious signs,” Roger said and handed me a glass of bourbon.

I took a long sip and moaned as its burn saturated me from the inside out.

“Thank you,” I muttered.

His bulbous head nodded a slight acknowledgement. “You should really drink something else upon reconstitution,” he said. “Tea, perhaps. That really doesn’t help.”

“No obvious signs of her? What does that mean?” I said.

“Skimmer forty-eight found something interesting. I’ll be able to tell you more when its full report arrives in about five minutes.”

I looked up at his smooth, featureless face hovering two feet above mine. Even after nearly eighty years of association and friendship, my human hindbrain still expected facial expressions when I looked at him. Finally, when he offered no further information, I shrugged and took another sip.

It wasn’t real bourbon, only a molecule-by-molecule reconstruction from local materials, but unlike a human mind instantaneously transferred into a soup-kitchen body via a quantum link, no method could reinstall the soul into the body of bourbon. In other words, I had tasted real aged Kentucky bourbon on Earth and flattered myself by thinking I could tell the difference.

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 707: Rule of Three (Part 3 of 3)


Rule of Three (Part 3 of 3)

By Lawrence M. Schoen

Late in the day Foom laced its fingers with my clone’s and I felt my consciousness pushed aside. Not entirely out, but no longer in control of my doppelganger. There wasn’t the exchange of knowledge and insight that had accompanied this gesture in the past. I followed the alien’s focus, using everything I’d learned in the last few days. I could see what it was doing, but not understand it. “Can you explain what’s happening?” I asked.

“I am crafting what you would call a retrovirus from your double’s cells. Actually, many variations of this retrovirus. If I am successful, one of them will rewrite your gonads and ultimately alter the viability of any spermatozoa they produce. He’ll still produce semen in the normal fashion, but it will be inert for reproductive purposes. No ‘Jing’.”

Foom grinned as it said that last word, lapsing from the Miao tongue into Chinese for an old word from Chinese medicine for ‘sexual energy’ that I must have picked up years ago and long since forgotten. Apparently, it had pulled more than just the one language from me.

“Shooting blanks, as the Americans would say,” I added.

“Thus ensuring the extinction of your species without causing any physical harm to the living.” (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 706: Rule of Three (Part 2 of 3)


Rule of Three (Part 2 of 3)

By Lawrence M. Schoen

“I have been exploring your solar system for most of a century,” Foom said.

“Why?”

“Cataloging.” Foom led me down to the riverbank. A giant pearl sat in the water not ten meters away. “You would call me a completist. Visiting each and every one of Jupiter’s moons alone took more than a decade. Some were truly majestic. Which is not to say your own moon is not interesting, but I am still processing what I learned there. It was my penultimate destination in this system. I saved your world for last.”

We stepped into the river and were quickly engulfed above our waists. The water was cold but the current not especially swift.

“Did you find life anywhere else in our solar system?”

“Life, yes, but nothing alive that was also self-aware and sapient as you are. And I found death, too. But only on your world is there unlife. Your pardon, can you swim?”

“Excuse me?” (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 705: Rule of Three (Part 1 of 3)


Rule of Three (Part 1 of 3)

By Lawrence M. Schoen

Popular culture failed to prepare me for first contact. Countless starships bristling with canon and rail gun turrets did not fill the skies. The aliens didn’t flood our television and radio bands with messages of conquest or world peace or miracle cures. They didn’t present themselves to the United Nations or to any government leaders. None of that. I was sitting in my condo in a suburb of Washington, D.C. when my mother phoned me from California. It was a Sunday afternoon. I’d just ordered a pizza and I’d planned to watch the big game on my new television. But my mother was on the phone. She’d just had a call from her own mother in her tiny mountain village back in China.

An alien had landed.

I charged the plane ticket to my credit card and was on a plane to Beijing two hours later. I didn’t watch the big game and I never got to eat my pizza. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 703: Light and Death on the Indian Battle Station


Light and Death on the Indian Battle Station

By Keyan Bowes

Diwali, the Festival of Lights is a magical time of the year, even on the Indian Battle Station. A hundred tiny oil-lamps decorated our apartment, glimmering along window ledges, glowing at the corners of the rangoli floor pattern, shining in the little niche with the image of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity.

“Savitri!” My sister Ritika called me, a glittering sparkler illuminating her excited face as she held out the firework.  “Here! Light yours for the spinners!”

My sparkler spluttered into flowers of light as I touched it to hers. Mom and Ritika quickly moved out of the way and I ignited three ground spinners. The gunpowder-scented coils flung a scarf of fiery sparks across the balcony.

We were the lucky ones. I breathed in the scents of Diwali, smoke from the fireworks, incense from the Lakshmi niche, the warm coconut smell of Diwali sweets sitting on an ornate silver tray. Our cousins down in Delhi celebrated with strings of LED lights and chocolate and factory-made fireworks from China. It wasn’t the same.

We were lucky because Mom vividly remembered her childhood Diwalis, and because she had the Strength to make it real. That Strength was also why we were far from Earth on the Indian Battle Station, currently at war with the JAYAZ Network.

“Can I light a rocket?” Ritika asked.  “Mom, please?”

Me, I’d have said no.  Bottle-rockets in the hands of daring, impulsive teenagers like Ritika are just asking for trouble. But Mom gave in as usual. “Just be careful, sweetie.”

Ritika lit it, pointing it at the balcony ceiling instead of out toward the sky.

I grabbed the kid away as the thing ricocheted against the ceiling, fizzed, and exploded. “”Ritika! That’s so stupid!”

But before I could scold her properly, the sound of divine footsteps echoed in the hall and inside our heads. We froze.

Was Lakshmi coming to visit on her festival day? Did Mom have the Strength to bring her? We all held our breath.

The door opened. Instead of the radiant Goddess and her owl, there was a fierce blue-faced God with flaming hair. Two four-eyed dogs followed him. We dropped to the floor in obeisance. It’s never a good idea to disrespect Yama, Lord Death. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 701: Martian Chronicles (Part 2 of 2)


Martian Chronicles

by Cory Doctorow

I didn’t go back to the Junior Colonists’ Lounge for a whole week. Instead, I spent the time with my dad, who seemed pleasantly surprised that his son wanted to hang out with him. It made me feel bad, like I’d been neglecting him. But it also made me ask myself why my father didn’t think it was weird that I wasn’t spending any time with kids my age. Dad had always been busy on Earth, traveling half the time for work, spending his time at home with his computer over his face, barking angrily at it while his hands worked the keyboard like a mad player attacking a church-organ.

I didn’t mind, to be honest. Actually, I preferred it to those times when Dad decided to get all “dad-like” and insist on throwing a ball with me or take me to some kind of sports-match or play some game on the big living-room screen with me. It wasn’t that it wasn’t fun, but there was always a moment when we stopped talking about the game or the project and found ourselves sitting in awkward silence, trying to pretend that the reason we had nothing to say was that we were concentrating too hard on the matter at hand.

On Earth, Dad had been a hotshot statistical risk-analyst. This is not an easy thing to explain. But basically, what he did was tried to figure out how to balance investments to minimize risk. Say there’s an industry that benefits when someone finds a better way of growing wheat — the bread industry, say. And then there’s another industry that suffers when someone finds a better way of growing wheat, like, maybe, I don’t know, the corn industry? I forget how he explained this, to be honest, but this is generally the idea. So what he does is figures out how to invest some money in both industries, so that if someone finds a better wheat-growing technique, the investment in bread pays out, and if no one invents it, the investment in corn pays out. That’s the rough idea. What he did was like ten million times more complicated, though.

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 700: Martian Chronicles (Part 1 of 2)


Martian Chronicles

by Cory Doctorow

They say you can’t smell anything through a launch-hood, but I still smelled the pove in the next seat as the space-attendants strapped us into our acceleration couches and shone lights in our eyes and triple-checked the medical readouts on our wristlets to make sure our hearts wouldn’t explode when the rocket boosted us into orbit for transfer to the Eagle and the long, long trip to Mars.

He was skinny, but not normal-skinny, the kind of skinny you get from playing a lot of sports and taking the metabolism pills your parents got for you so you wouldn’t get teased at school. He was kind of pot-bellied with scrawny arms and sunken cheeks and he was brown-brown, like the brown Mom used to slather on after a day at the beach covered in factor-500 sunblock. Only he was the kind of all-over-even brown that you only got by being born brown.

He gave me a holy-crap-I’m-going-to-MARS smile and a brave thumbs-up and I couldn’t bring myself to snub him because he looked so damned happy about it. So I gave him the same thumbs up, rotating my wrist in the strap that held it onto the arm-rest so that I didn’t accidentally break my nose with my own hand when we “clawed our way out of the gravity well” (this was a phrase from the briefing seminars that they liked to repeat a lot. It had a lot of macho going for it).

(Continue Reading…)