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Escape Pod 712: When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis

Show Notes

East St. Louis was built on top of an ancient indigenous city called Cahokia. The people who lived there a thousand years ago were big fans of birds.


When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis

by Annalee Newitz

It was time to start the weekly circuit. Robot leapt vertically into the air from its perch atop the History Museum in Forest Park, rotors humming and limbs withdrawn into the smooth oval of its chassis. From a distance, it was a pale blue flying egg, slightly scuffed, with a propeller beanie on top. Two animated eyes glowed from the front end of its smooth carapace like emotive headlights. When it landed, all four legs and head extended from portals in its protective shell, the drone was more like a strangely symmetrical poodle or a cartoon turtle. Mounted on an actuator, its full face was revealed, headlight eyes situated above a short, soft snout whose purple mouth was built for smiling, grimacing, and a range of other, more subtle expressions.

The Centers for Disease Control team back in Atlanta designed Robot to be cute, to earn people’s trust immediately. To catch epidemics before they started, Robot flew from building to building, talking to people about how they felt. Nobody wanted to chat with an ugly box. Robot behaved like a cheery little buddy, checking for sick people. That’s how Robot’s admin Bey taught Robot to say it: “Checking for sick people.” Bey’s job was to program Robot with the social skills necessary to avoid calling it health surveillance.

Robot liked to start with the Loop. Maybe “like” was the wrong word. It was an urge that came from Robot’s mapping system, which webbed the St. Louis metropolitan area in a grid where 0,0 was at Center and Washington. The intersection was nested at the center of the U-shaped streets that local humans called the Loop. A gated community next to Washington University, the Loop was full of smart mansions and autonomous cars that pinged Robot listlessly. Though it was late summer, Robot was on high alert for infectious disease outbreaks. Flu season got longer every year, especially in high-density sprawls like St. Louis, where so many people spread their tiny airborne globs of viruses.

Flying in low, Robot followed the curving streets, glancing into windows to track how many humans were eating dinner and whether that number matched previous scans. Wild rabbits dashed across lawns and fireflies signaled to their mates using pheromones and photons. Robot chose a doorway at random, initiating a face-to-face check with humans. In this neighborhood, they were used to it.

(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 708: Into the Paddock


Into the Paddock

by Nathan Susnik

I.

“We need a shitload of Bunnies®. How fast can you get me a shitload of Bunnies®?” says Schneider, walking into my office.

Sort of.

Okay, fine. I don’t have an office, and Schneider is calling on ShareSpace™ over the ol’ intercerebral implant, so she’s not walking.

I’m in The Orchard scraping gum off of my shoe and watching a bunch of kids pluck ripe apples from plastic trees. A kid throws an apple at The Barn. It goes wide. I laugh. Another one hits the side (plunk), and then (ping) Schneider just sort of appears. She hovers in the air all ghostly for a while until I pinch her down on the Dirt Path and answer the call. That’s when she says the Bunnies® thing.

Schneider has three moods:

  1. Depressive
  2. Belligerent
  3. Depressive/belligerent

She’s belligerent ninety percent of the time, so I throw on VulgaBlock™.

“What happened to the Bunnies®?” I say.

She shrugs. “They died.”

“How?”

“Do I look like a [fornicating] veterinarian?”

“It’s Friday,” I say.

She shrugs again. “So?”

“I get off in an hour. De novo Bunnies® will take at least two.”

“So?”

“I have plans.”

Schneider laughs. “Good one,” she says. “Look, we need Bunnies®. If we don’t have Bunnies®, our billable animal count decreases for the whole weekend. If our billable animal count decreases, our ticket prices drop on VacationApp™, which means that we lose money on every visit, which means you lose money on your paycheck. Also, people write angry reviews, especially people whose children have been disappointed because we don’t have any Bunnies®. Angry reviews are bad for our stats, and you know how Rick feels about our stats.”

(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 704: Failsafe


Failsafe

by Tim Chawaga

When the machines finally decided to replace Liv, they broke her heart.

Her desk was tiny and wedged in between two massive automatons: The Vial Dispenser, which Liv called DJ, and the Vial Accepter, which Liv called Alvin. Above the desk were a couple of dusty posters that she had hung years ago and the big red button. The security camera that was pointed at her was broken, and she knew that it would probably not be fixed. There were no windows.

Liv had worked at Autagro for almost twenty years. She had spent countless hours crocheting little koozies to cover DJ and Alvin’s valves, which burned so hot with efficiency that they would melt the plastic parts around them. Countless mornings making up songs and raps to the rhythm of their whirs and clicks, which had become so fast that she had started doing vocal warm-ups on the bus ride in to loosen her lips.

Liv’s job consisted solely of grabbing the vials of extremely concentrated pesticide that DJ held out with its tiny arm, just inches away from Alvin, and pushing them through Alvin’s receptacle slot. The instant she removed a vial, DJ would retract its arm and shoot it out again faster than Liv could blink, holding another vial with a stillness that Liv couldn’t help but interpret as impatience. No matter how fast she moved, she would never be as fast as DJ, but she was a Failsafe. Her speed wasn’t supposed to matter.

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 702: Inheritance


Inheritance

By Elise Stephens

Carmen would have expected a gold necklace or tarnished antique, maybe some money or a secret family recipe card, but she’d never dreamed her grandmother would try to immortalize herself through an inheritance like this.

The attorney was holding a velvet-covered box in his open palms as he explained, “Maria Elena had these memory grafts discreetly extracted prior to her death. She chose not to inform the family beforehand. I believe she felt her memories could safely be left to the care of the third generation, that is, the three of you.”

Carmen was relieved to see that both her siblings were likewise surprised by the news.

Mr. Hoffman tapped the box with his thumbs. “As you may know, memory grafts are a practical-application variety of memory extraction. They’re a refined amalgamation of all memories and experiences related to specific fields or areas of expertise.”

“So there’s no real estate or stocks. It’s just her memories,” Mario said, eyebrows raised.

“She was never rich to begin with,” Daniela said. “Living in that tiny place after Grandpa died. Unless she was secretly saving up, how did she afford an extraction?”

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 699: A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide (Flashback Friday)


A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide

By Sarah Pinsker

Andy tattooed his left forearm with Lori’s name on a drunken night in his seventeenth year. “Lori & Andy Forever and Ever” was the full text, all in capital letters, done by his best friend Susan with her homemade tattoo rig. Susan was proud as anything of that machine. She’d made it out of nine-volt batteries and some parts pulled from an old DVD player and a ballpoint pen. The tattoo was ugly and hurt like hell, and it turned out Lori didn’t appreciate it at all. She dumped him two weeks later, just before she headed off to university.

Four years later, Andy’s other arm was the one that got mangled in the combine. The entire arm, up to and including his shoulder and right collarbone and everything attached. His parents made the decision while he was still unconscious. He woke in a hospital room in Saskatoon with a robot arm and an implant in his head.

“Brain-Computer Interface,” his mother said, as if that explained everything. She used the same voice she had used when he was five to tell him where the cattle went when they were loaded onto trucks. She stood at the side of his hospital bed, her arms crossed and her fingers tapping her strong biceps as if she were impatient to get back to the farm. The lines in her forehead and the set of her jaw told Andy she was concerned, even if her words hid it.

“They put electrodes and a chip in your motor cortex,” she continued. “You’re bionic.” (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 696: The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts


The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts

by Kara Lee

0. Confession

If you are reading this, your Loved One has died. We are sorry for your loss.

If you are reading this, then you stumbled onto an archived thread on a lost forum saying that supposedly, it is possible to bring back the dead using their electronic ghosts, and that the Homunculi, whoever they are, know how it is done. And then you searched and searched in a blur of grief and desperation and nearly killed yourself with illegal thaumaturgical network protocols before you found our servers.

And now you want to know whether you really can bring your Loved One back from the dead.

The answer is mostly yes, with one exception.

But you must know that this is not a resurrection. It is a trade. Your Loved One may return to the land of the living in exchange for your life, body, humanity, and most of your soul. In other words, you will have to condemn yourself to being one of us for the rest of eternity.

We will not lie and say that there is much to our existence.

But there is hope. We, the Homunculi, would know. Because hope is why we wrote this guide.

For you see, we cling to a deep-down, bitter, shameful hope that we will one day be saved by someone who loves us. And we hope against hope that the someone will be you.

We know it is a terrible thing to hope for. We know better than anyone what awaits those who make the trade.

And so we apologize for our selfishness. But we do not ask for forgiveness. We only ask that you remember what it is to hope for something impossible.

(Continue Reading…)