EP491: Heaven’s Touch

May 1st, 2015 by Posted in 10 and Up, Podcasts

by Jason Sanford
read by Marguerite Kenner

author Jason Sanford

author Jason Sanford

about the author…

Jason Sanford is the award-winning author of a number of short stories, essays, and articles, and an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Born and raised in the American South, he currently lives in the Midwestern U.S. with his wife and sons. His life’s adventures include work as an archeologist and as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Jason has published more than a dozen of his short stories in the British SF magazine Interzone, which once devoted a special issue to his fiction. His fiction has also been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Tales of the Unanticipated, The Mississippi Review, Diagram, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Pindeldyboz, and other places. Book anthologies containing his stories include Year’s Best SF 14Bless Your Mechanical Heart, and Beyond the Sun.

A collection of Jason’s short stories, titled Never Never Stories, was published by a small press in 2011.

Jason’s awards and honors include being a finalist for the 2009 Nebula Award for Best Novella, winning both the 2008 and 2009 Interzone Readers’ Polls for best story of the year (and being a co-winner of the 2010 Poll), receiving a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship, being nominated for the BSFA Award, and being longlisted for the British Fantasy Award. His stories have also been named to the 2012 and 2013 Locus Recommended Reading Lists along with being translated into a number of languages including Chinese, French, Russian, Polish, and Czech.

Jason co-founded the literary journal storySouth, through which he ran the annual Million Writers Award for best online fiction. His critical essays and book reviews have been published in a number of places including SF Signal, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and The Pedestal Magazine. He also writes a regular column for the Czech SF magazine XB-1.

narrator Marguerite Kenner

narrator Marguerite Kenner

about the narrator…

Marguerite is a native Californian who has forsaken sunny paradise to be with her true love and live in Merrye Olde England. She frequently wears so many hats that she needs two heads. When she’s not grappling with legal conundrums as a trainee solicitor or editing Cast of Wonders, she can be found narrating audio fiction, studying popular culture (i.e. going to movies and playing video games) with her partner Alasdair Stuart, or curling up with a really good book. You can follow her at her personal blog, Project Valkyrie, or on Twitter via @LegalValkyrie.

Heaven’s Touch
by Jason Sanford

As the Tonatiuh arcs through the sparkling coma of Heaven’s Touch, Parda’s holographic proxy wraps herself around my spacesuit and kisses my visor. “Please let Sister Dusty live,” the proxy prays in fervent devotion, defying the actions of the real Parda, who at this moment is piloting our ship on a collision course with the comet.

But I’m too busy for either Parda or her proxy. After topping off my suit’s air, I crank open the exterior airlock door until whiteness swirls before me, my fatigue-addled mind turning the ice and dust to ghosts. Countless comet ghosts. Icy haunts begging me to embrace my destiny.

“If you jump now, you’re dead,” the proxy whispers seductively in my ear. “All the prayer in the universe won’t save you. Wait until we’re closer to the surface.”

I nod, almost forgetting this isn’t the real Parda. Instead, the autonomous AI program is a near-perfect imitation of my best friend–the proxy’s programmed intelligence infesting my spacesuit, my visor’s holographic projectors creating the illusion of her body. The proxy appears to wear a white dress as she stands barefoot before the open airlock door, as if Parda and I were once again in Florida running along white-sand beaches.

To my eyes, this is Parda.

As if knowing my thoughts, this simulated Parda suddenly pirouettes and, without a care on the lack of gravity, dances out the open airlock door into the coma. The proxy’s green eyes gaze at me as she shimmies and spins through the ice and dust, her slender brown hands clasped firmly together in prayer.

“Stop that!” the real Parda hisses over the radio, her voice mixing to the cockpit’s proximity alarms and computer warnings. I should have known Parda would be monitoring her proxy’s actions. Chagrined, the proxy appears to skulk back into the airlock, eyes downcast as if ashamed to express frivolity in such a serious moment.

“You should join me in prayer, Sister Dusty,” the real Parda broadcasts to me. Without waiting for my response, she begins: “Blessed be those who embrace their destiny, for they shall see heaven. Blessed be God’s one true destiny, for it carries humanity to paradise.”

Her words run ice through my spacesuit. That’s the martyr’s prayer, uttered by Seekers prepared to die in attainment of their destiny.

“She doesn’t mean it,” the proxy whispers. “She loves you, Dusty. Your death is merely an undesirable aspect of achieving her destiny.”

I don’t answer, even though I want to curse and scream. Perhaps this intelligent program believes her words prove her love for me. Perhaps she believes her AI-generated prayers can spark miracles, just as religious fervor led Parda’s real self down the path of martyrdom.

Knowing I’m out of time, I edge closer to the open airlock door. Before me, the comet’s dirty surface reaches for the Tonatiuh. Parda has piloted our ship into a near horizontal approach to Heaven’s Touch, closing on the ice at only 10 meters a second. But that’s still too fast for our delicate ship to handle.

Parda repeats the martyr’s prayer twice more before sighing, disappointed I didn’t join in. “Don’t forget,” she says. “I’ll always be your friend, my sweet. That’s God’s only truth.”

The proxy’s holographic face nods her own agreement, looking so like the real Parda I want to punch her for her progenitor’s deeds.

“Don’t worry, Dusty,” the proxy says excitedly as the comet’s black surface races toward us. “I know God heard me. You’re going to make it. You’ll finish building your ice ship and see the universe!”

I don’t answer. We’re mere seconds from crashing. All I have to do is stay in the airlock and my death will be quick. If I jump I’ll probably only prolong my life for a few days.

I mutter how I didn’t want to die like this. Not alone. Not knowing I was betrayed by my closest friend.

“You aren’t alone, Dusty,” the proxy says with a loving sigh. “I’m there for you. Always.”

I nod my head. Parda is with me. Always.

I jump into the coma.

#

Perhaps the proxy was Parda’s way of comforting me. Perhaps gifting me with the intelligent program proves Parda still cared–that even as my friend piloted the Tonatiuh toward its impact with Heaven’s Touch, some part of her still needed to reassure and look after me.

Not that it worked. Parda had trapped me in the main airlock after I’d left the ship for routine maintenance on our antenna. Naturally, I didn’t seen the betrayal coming. Instead, as Parda helped me into my space suit, she’d grinned happily and promised to cook a big dinner upon my return. I’d laughed at her lame joke–there was no cooking involved in heating packets of synthetic food–but as the airlock door closed her grin turned horribly serious. I thought she was merely worried about my safety, but when I finished the space walk I discovered the inner airlock door jammed shut and a suddenly religious Parda proclaiming her destiny.

“I’m sorry, Dusty,” she’d said sadly. “It doesn’t matter to wish things different. We can’t go against God’s will.”

I cursed her to no end. Back on Earth, our company’s director begged Parda to reconsider. When that didn’t work, the company reluctantly turned control over to NASA, allowing Johnie Acaba and the other astronauts I’d once worked with to broadcast soothing words at Parda. None of it made a difference. With me trapped and Johnie and everyone else so far away, there was nothing to stop Parda’s dream of martyrdom.

But she did share her proxy with me.

Perhaps, in the end, that means something.

#

After jumping from the Tonatiuh, I shoot high in the weak gravity and waste most of my suit’s emergency jets reaching the surface. The proxy had been correct–if I’d jumped earlier I wouldn’t have made it.

The ship hits the coal-black surface a few moments after I land. I watch the Tonatiuh rend and twist as automatic lines and spurs shoot out, anchoring the ship even as it breaks apart. Our precious foil-wrapped cargo bay breaks away, The cockpit explodes in a burst of decompression. I imagine Parda screaming as tears boil from her eyes.

When outgassing finally hides the crash site, I gaze with despair at Heaven’s Touch. We’ve crashed on the comet’s dark side, meaning I won’t immediately bake to death or be outvented into space. As I stumble across the black surface–scraping or punching through to the volatiles below with each step I take–I leave behind a dingy trail of smoking pearls. Above, the comet’s misty coma wraps the sky in a glittering gauze.

Heaven’s Touch is a sungrazer twenty kilometers in diameter. Our mission had been to anchor the Tonatiuh to the comet and siphon enough water to build an ice ship. While the timing had been tight–we’d have only had a few weeks before the comet was too close to the sun to safely work–the potential payoff was so exciting Parda and I eagerly agreed to the mission.

But obviously Parda had hidden her true plans.

The crash site outgasses for almost an hour before dying down enough to again see the ship. The Tonatiuh looks relatively intact even though her right angles of struts and interconnected modules have partially collapsed. I bound over to discover large rips in the ship’s mirror-reflective skin. Through a hole in the main cabin I see my zero-gee sleeping bag fluttering as the main oxygen tank vents. The airlock I’d been trapped in is also destroyed.

The only good news is the auxiliary airlock still works. I crank the airlock open and step inside. The space is tiny, barely big enough for me and my suit. Still, its emergency batteries function and the backup air supply means I can top off my suit for at least a week. If I wanted to waste the air, I could even pressurize the airlock and take off my helmet.

Not that it matters. Unless I escape this comet, an extra week’s air will mean very little.

I leap carefully to the top of the Tonatiuh–not wanting to hurl myself too high in the low gravity–and scan the wreckage. My visor’s holographic interface lights up with rainbowed notations showing coded supplies of food, gear, and other survival items. I ask the system to locate additional air supplies, but there are none.

Then, in an urgent starburst of red vital signs and flashing arrows, the visor points me to Parda’s body.

Needing to see her one last time, I hike toward the ship’s cockpit, which broke off and rests dozens of meters from the rest of the wreckage. Parda is strapped in her control seat and wears a white Seeker gown, which blurs to the comet’s mists. She must have cut the gown from her sleeping bag’s lining, with the gown’s whiteness indicating she attained her life’s destiny.

“God’s only truth?” I mutter. I kick her already frozen body. I would cry except there’s no way to wipe tears in a spacesuit.

As I look at our shattered ship, I naively believe Parda’s goal has been to stop our mission. To keep us from creating the first long-term spacecraft in human history.

I am wrong.

#

As usual, Johnie Acaba breaks the bad news.

“Here’s the problem, Dusty,” he broadcasts from a space station in low-Earth orbit, his voice mixed to static from crossing so many millions of kilometers. “She rammed the blipper.”

He means the tiny nuclear device NASA launched a year earlier and attached to the comet. While Heaven’s Touch easily missed Earth this go around, its close approach to the sun would change its orbit. When it comes back around two decades from now there’s a high chance of a devastating impact. NASA designed the blipper to explode at the comet’s closest approach around the sun, changing its orbital path by a few millimeters. While that wouldn’t matter much in the short term, over the next two decades the effect would grow until the comet missed Earth by a safe distance.

“Where’s the blipper?” I ask, waiting the long seconds for our broadcasts to cross space.

“On a quick drop toward the sun. Parda jumped it like a cue ball off an icy pool table.”

I grimace at Johnie’s silly analogy, even if it’s accurate. This is bad. While my mission was privately funding, our company had subcontracted with NASA to remotely inspect the blipper and make sure it was still functional. But as I watch oxygen and other gases venting from the Tonatiuh, I realize this no longer concerns me. I won’t be alive in a few weeks–let alone twenty years–unless I escape Heaven’s Touch. Still, it explains what Parda had been up to.

“The Seekers are going crazy down here,” Johnie says. “They’re proclaiming the comet to be God’s will. Saying unless people repent Heaven’s Touch will destroy the world.”

“That’s what you get for subcontracting out important work,” I joke, instantly regretting the words because I know they’ll be misunderstood by too many people back on Earth. I don’t ask if NASA can launch another blipper at the comet–I already know the answer. Thanks to anti-tech religions like the Seekers, NASA barely has the funding for a single blipper. Hence subcontracted players like me.

Besides, the timing is off. The easiest way to change the path of a large comet is to affect it at perihelion. With the blipper gone, that opportunity is lost. By the time the comet heads back to Earth two decades from now, it’ll be extremely difficult to change its course.

“I’d hate to be in your shoes right now,” I say, imagining the panic and finger-pointing unfolding on Earth over this debacle.

“It’s worse than you know,” Johnie says. “Parda uploaded something into the Tonatiuh’s systems before she crashed the ship. This, uh, thing, kept us from remotely accessing the ship’s controls.”

Despite Johnie’s vagueness, I know he’s referring to Parda’s proxy. I’ve been so busy trying to survive I’d forgotten about the AI program. If the proxy had access to my suit before I jumped, it is a safe bet it’s still hiding somewhere in my systems.

“Are you there, Parda?” I ask. For a moment the radio static giggles. Johnie asks me to repeat my statement so I explain that the proxy has already infested my suit. His silence tells me all I need to know about what this means for my chances at survival.

I glance at the shimmering white sky. I stand on a comet with only a weak suit radio to contact Earth, more alone than any other person now living. If this proxy really did help Parda crash the Tonatiuh, then it isn’t as benevolent as I originally thought. It might even be able to take control of my space suit. All it has to do is shut down my heat exchangers or air system and I’ll die.

“Sucks to be me, huh?” I mutter. “Although it might suck to be you in twenty years.”

To his credit, Johnie doesn’t disagree. “Worry about yourself, Dusty,” he says. “Maybe the comet won’t hit Earth. And twenty years is a long time.”

I nod. A long time. Much longer than I have.

#

After securing as many supplies as I can, I recharge my suit’s oxygen and sleep a few hours in the airlock, closing the outer doors but staying in my suit. My stomach snaps and begs–I’ve now gone almost two days with only a single high-energy protein bar to eat, which is all the food we normally keep in a space suit. To eat anything else I’d have to pressurize the airlock and remove my helmet. But I refuse to waste air on a grumbling stomach.

As I fall through a fitful sleep, Heaven’s Touch shimmers and vents. Each vibration hums the airlock’s darkness, reminding me of the violence the sun throws my way. If the lack of air doesn’t kill me I’ll eventually be baked alive or exploded off the surface by outventing.

Lovely thoughts. Perfect for meditating on while falling asleep.

Eventually I do sleep, only to dream of meeting Parda two years back at our company’s training facility near Cape Canaveral. During our training and the time we spent on the Tonatiuh, I felt like I’d discovered the sister I’d never had. We were the perfect team, knowing each other’s needs before our own.

Once, during an EVA, my space suit snagged on the communications array. I kept quiet, figuring I could free myself, only to see Parda floating beside me with a cutting tool. Somehow she’d figured out the situation without a word from me.

After slicing off the metal snagging my suit, she’d pushed me back to the airlock with a giggle. “Dusty,” she’d said, “I don’t know what you’d do without me.”

I wake from my dream as the airlock shakes from an extremely violent outgassing. My breathing echoes in my helmet as I hear Parda’s voice whispering. Apologizing. Saying she is still my friend.

I tell her to go to hell as I fall back to sleep.

#

When I finally open the airlock door–feeling even more tired, hungry, and angry–I walk to the Tonatiuh’s cargo bay, which appears intact. I open the bay using the manual release. Inside, the mechanical spiders are undamaged, as is the massive package containing the ice ship’s fabric shell.

Despite everything Parda has done, there’s no reason I can’t still build our ice ship and use it to escape from Heaven’s Touch. Everything I need to melt the ice and fill the giant fabric shell is in this cargo bay. Even the arm-sized solid-fuel rockets to lift the completed ship from the surface have survived.

But my hopes die when I look at the collapsed solar sail–during the crash one of the ship’s structural beams impaled it. I run my gloved fingers across the sail’s silver sheen. The sail had always been the most delicate part of our mission. Even if everything else works, without the sail the ship can’t be propelled back to Earth. It’ll drift on a long-term orbit just like this comet, and I’ll die the same as if I’d never left Heaven’s Touch.

I curse as I grab my anchor gun, used for bolting items to the ice. I hike to the destroyed cockpit and cut out Parda’s stiff body. Her frozen, holier-than-thou gaze pours through my visor. I bolt her hands and feet to the ice with the anchoring gun and ram one final bolt through her heart. I hope her ghost screams at the insult. I hope she’s gone straight to the devil for betraying me.

Panting at the exertion, and angry at wasting my limited time and air on such stupidity, I try to decide what to do. I could still build the ice ship but I’d only drift inside it until my food supplies ran out. Far better to die here. Simply shoot the anchoring gun through my suit and be done with it.

But as my hand absently taps the gun, Parda appears. She stands barefoot on the frigid surface, her white gown sparkling to the soft rain of ice crystals I’ve stirred up.

“Hello, Dusty,” she says, her beautiful lips puckering as if to kiss my facemask.

I jump–literally, rising dozens of meters in the air. My emergency jets kick on and return me to the comet’s surface.

I land beside Parda’s bolt-impaled body, her white gown speckled with black dust. I kick her leg and feel her frozen flesh crack.

“Hello again,” Parda says.

I spin to see Parda again standing before me. She laughs the irritatingly happy grin she’s always flashed when she knows the answer before I do. Even though I understand this is the proxy, I still reach for her. My gloved hand passes through her body.

“You’re not real,” I say, more to myself than to Parda.

“Real as you, perhaps.”

I curse, remembering what Johnie said about this proxy helping Parda crash the ship. I radio him and wait for several long minutes, far longer than he’d need to respond. Nothing.

“Johnie won’t be talking anymore,” Parda finally says, her brown skin glowing against the whiteness of her gown and the outventing mists. “I didn’t like what he said about me, so it’s now just the two of us.”

I stare at the proxy, which looks so like the real Parda I fight the urge to hug her for being alive–or punch her for what she’s done. Our company had built detailed proxies of all its astronauts so the AI personality programs could be quickly run through mission scenarios. I assume Parda somehow copied her proxy and brought the program with us.

I try overriding my suit’s communication controls, which projects her holographic image onto my facemask, but I’m locked out. The proxy obviously wants no one else to talk to me–and to leave me no choice but to listen to her.

“So what are you doing, Dusty?” Parda asks as she stares at the black ice and the remains of our ship.

I grip the bolt gun tight. I could still end it all. Take the quick way out. But seeing Parda’s proxy standing there reminds me how angry I am at her. I refuse to let her or this Seeker nonsense be the death of me.

I holster the bolt gun and smile at the proxy. “I’m building an ice ship. You want to help?”

#

“I admire your will to survive,” Parda says, appearing to sit on the ice as she makes a snowman. “Not that I’m surprised. Your destiny’s among the stars.”

I ignore the proxy as I power up the spiders in the cargo bay. The spiders look like giant insects and are the perfect companions on construction projects, with a wondrously strong yet delicate touch.

As I test one spider, Parda throws a dirty snowball at me. I duck, my instincts forgetting she and everything she does are only holographic projections on my suit’s visor. I’ve already run a diagnostic and, as I’d suspected, the proxy is deeply embedded in my suit’s systems. But as long as the proxy only wants to harass me with words and images, instead of harming my suit’s critical systems, I’ll be okay.

Using the spiders, I pull the steamer out of the cargo bin, leaving a long, outventing scar in the black surface of Heaven’s Touch. I set up the small reactor several hundred meters from the crash. The steamer immediately snakes pipes into the comet’s surface to melt water for the ice ship.

“Going nuclear, huh?” Parda asks as she inspects the steamer. “Not very green of you.”

I laugh. The proxy perfectly mimics Parda’s lame sense of humor. “Not much green out here,” I say. “Which is, of course, why you’re frozen stiff.”

Parda glances at her body, which is still bolted to the ice. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“You didn’t have to crash our ship.”

“But I did. It was my–her–destiny. Come on, surely you suspected something. Didn’t you ever wonder why we became such close friends?”

I nod, forgetting I’m only talking to an intelligent program. I can see I’ll have to be careful–the more exhausted I become, the harder it’ll be to remember I’m not seeing and hearing a real person.

Still, the proxy is right. I’d long suspected Parda of being a Seeker from the little things she said. The words and motions only someone who’d grown up in that tech-hating religion would notice. How she seemed a little too convinced of her destiny in life.

I knew these things because I’d also grown up a Seeker, even though I’d never been a very good one. Instead I was always reading that cursed science fiction, and I loved fighter jets and space ships a little too much for a good God-fearing, anti-tech girl.

I never mentioned my suspicions about Parda because I remembered the obstacles I’d encountered as a lapsed Seeker in the space program. NASA had kicked me out when it learned about my Seeker background, and I’d only been able to find work as an astronaut for private companies. I figured Parda was the same–trying to escape her past. And we were friends. Best friends.

Obviously I’d been wrong.

“Why are you here?” I ask. “You reached your destiny. You destroyed the blipper, ensuring this comet will hit Earth.”

Parda giggles as she flops a snow angel in the comet’s ice. “Maybe I don’t trust you. Maybe I think you’ll find a way to disturb the destiny I died for.”

Obviously this proxy either doesn’t truly understand the situation I’m in, or is lying. “Are you going to kill me?” I ask.

Parda looks at me with wide, innocent eyes. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, do you plan to finish what Parda started? If so, perhaps you should just do it.”

Parda gazes at me as her face beams purest love and caring. But while her projected image doesn’t waver, my suit does, the environmental controls suddenly flickering as the heat exchangers stop pumping. “Might be interesting,” Parda whispers. A wave of nervous warmth flashes through me. I can already imagine the temperature rising in my suit.

But then the heat exchangers start pumping again. I shiver, but not from the chilled air once again blowing against my body.

“I could kill you,” Parda says softly. “It’d be easy. But I’m not that Parda. Just please don’t mess up my destiny.”

I frown, trying to understand how a copy of a dead person’s personality and memories could have a destiny. Or if she’s simply referring to the real Parda’s destiny? Either way, I mutter that I won’t muck it up.

“You promise?” she asks.

“God’s truth,” I say between gritted teeth.

You know you’re in rough shape when you to lie to a computer program.

#

I work on the ice ship for three days straight with no food and little sleep. I drink my suit’s recycled water until the system can’t purge the taste of urine. My backup air supply in the airlock drains lower and lower while the ice under my feet continually shakes as the sun’s energy causes violent outventing on the other side of Heaven’s Touch.

Still, the ice ship comes together quickly. The spiders clear a flat area near the Tonatiuh and unfold the torus while I assemble the insulated pipes to carry water from the steamer to the ice ship’s fabric.

The nuclear steamer is, as expected, temperamental–pump in too much water and the pipes shoot off, the explosion of spray freezing on everything and making reconnection difficult. Still, I manage, and the ice ship’s reinforced canvas quickly fills.

The canvas is designed to be filled with water until it creates a ring torus 100 meters in diameter. When full the canvas will look like those old science fiction dreams of a rotating space station. Running along the middle of this torus–shielded by ice walls 5 meters thick–will be more living space than all the space ships and stations built across the last century. More than a hundred people could live for decades inside the ship’s bulk.

Nuclear engineer Anthony Zuppero first proposed creating an ice spaceship back in the 20th century. My company updated his design with a carbon nanotube mesh reaching between the outer walls to strengthen the torus. Once water freezes through the mesh the walls are strong enough to rotate and create an artificial gravity. The thick ice is also the perfect shield against all the nasty radiation space throws at us flimsy little humans.

I glance again at the sparkling coma framing Heaven’s Touch–already the comet’s slow rotation has brought closer the bright lines of sunlight slicing through those cloudy mists. With the comet quickly nearing the sun, the ice ship will soon be a great place to be.

#

On the fourth day I sleep again, pitifully collapsing from exhaustion in the airlock. Hunger dull-aches my body while my mind spins to the thousand things I need to do before launching the ice ship. I also gag on my suit’s recycled funk, wishing I could waste the air to pressurize the lock.

“Are you asleep?” Parda asks.

“I’m trying,” I say, uncertain if I’m asleep and dreaming of the real Parda, or awake while her proxy messes with me.

“I hope you know it wasn’t about you,” Parda says. “My destiny, I mean.”

“That makes it better? You betrayed me. Betrayed everyone. God’s truth.”

Parda sits silently beside me, her white robe flapping to breezes which don’t blow on Heaven’s Touch. “I thought you’d understand.”

Tears run my eyes. I want to hug Parda. To tell her everything is alright. That everything is forgiven.

Parda arches an eyebrow, the same mischievous look she’d flashed so often when she was alive. “Remember that beach trip?” she asks. “When that shark swam up behind Johnie?”

I grin at the memory. While I’ve been friends with Johnie for years, he is such an astronaut’s astronaut–with a chiseled face, perfect crew-cut hair, and big muscles from long hours of working out–that he often drives me crazy. But on that beach trip his macho image totally broke down. We’d been swimming a dozen meters offshore when a small sandbar shark swam by. Johnie had freaked and run from the waves while Parda and I howled in laughter.

Wishing I could go back to those happy days, I grab at Parda’s holographic hand and dream of playing yet again under the blue Florida sky.

“God’s truth,” Parda says. “If I’d wanted to kill you I could have let the real Parda crash the ship into the blipper at full speed. I convinced her that doing so risked missing the target. Do you know how difficult it was to crash into the comet without destroying the ship? I did that so you’d have a chance at survival.”

As I stare into Parda’s face, I want so badly to believe her. But did this proxy save my life, or had the real Parda done that while her programmed double now merely lies? It’s impossible to know the truth.

Suddenly the airlock shakes to another outventing and I shoot forward, smacking my helmet on the closed airlock door. I curse and kick like an angry child, wanting to be back in Florida where I’d known who my friends were.

“I’ll always be there,” Parda whispers in the dark. “Always.”

#

By the fifth day the ice ship’s torus is filled and frozen solid. I connect the steamer to the ship’s spare water bag–which will hang in the center of the torus like a big balloon–and use the spiders to attach the solar panel fabric to power the ship’s systems.

As I stand before the torus’ reflective skin, checking my suit for any possible damage, Parda speaks. “It’s all vanity,” she says

“What’s vanity?”

“The fact that you’re attempting to deny your God-given destiny.”

My body shakes from hunger as I glance again at Parda’s real body. She’s dead. But as I stare across the blackened landscape–and especially at the distant ring of ice fingers created by millennia of melting and freezing–I realize this is the perfect place for a ghost. A ghost-haunted comet.

“What do you know of my destiny?” I ask.

“You’re destined to reach for the stars.”

“So you’ve said. Well, guess what? I’m here.”

“No. To truly reach the stars you must ride Heaven’s Touch around the sun before heading further out than any human has ever gone.”

I laugh. “Is that what you want? To stay on this comet with me? Return to Earth and destroy the sinners? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Not really,” Parda mutters sadly. “But the real Parda once told me that was your destiny.”

I want to spit. Parda believed her destiny was to send this comet slamming into Earth, so of course she thought my destiny was to be dead and cold and tagging along for the ride. “If that’s what you believe, why did you save my life?”

“Because I wasn’t sure if Parda told the truth,” the proxy says. “Perhaps she was wrong about your destiny.”

“I guess we’ll soon find out,” I say, not sure where the proxy is taking this conversation.

“Exactly!” the proxy says, clapping her hands in excitement. “You understand! The only way to discover God’s true plan for you is to see if you survive!”

I start to tell the proxy to shut up–that at this point it isn’t God’s destiny that will save me but my own hard work. But before I can argue, my suit’s controls indicate that the steamer’s pumps have shut down, likely clogged yet again with slushy ice crystals. As I bound over to fix the problem, I mistime my landing and fall in slow-motion, banging my facemask on the ice. I curse as I flop over, trying to stand up.

Parda appears beside me. Holding me. Comforting me. Like she did during those long months alone in our ship. “You should sleep. Eat something.”

I push her away, only to fall forward as my hand shoots through what I’d thought was her body. I’m getting punch-crazy from exhaustion and hunger, but I don’t care. I stumble to the steamer, intending to clear the clogged pipe before taking a break.

I glance at the steamer’s control panel and see that the pump has shut down automatically. Leaning over the steamer, I unclamp the pipe, which jumps from my gloves as a blast of water explodes against my space suit. Parda shrieks in happiness as the explosion shoots me up in the weak gravity, spinning me end over end as my suit’s nearly depleted jets try to compensate.

After a few weak spurts, the jets die.

“I’m sorry, but I have to know,” Parda says softly, her image in my facemask shedding tears which dance around her face. “Now we’ll learn whether God truly wants you alive, or if you’re destined to perish here.”

“Leave me alone!” I yell, trying to focus on saving myself. Parda bows slightly and disappears.

I quickly assess the situation. While the jets have slowed my climb I’m still rising. Two hundred meters. Four hundred. The comet’s surface fades to white from the coma mists roiling around me. If I’m not careful, I’ll lose my sense of direction.

Before me, the sunlight burns a bright line through the coma. When I cross out of the comet’s shadow, my suit’s heat exchangers will struggle to keep me alive.

I am dead. I’ll die alone, floating endlessly through these white mists.

“If it be Thy will, please let Sister Dusty live,” Parda whispers.

Nodding agreement, I reach for my anchor gun and turn it to full power. I shoot a bolt into space, then another, only three bolts left. Two. One.

The bolts slow my accent, maybe even push me back the way I’d come. But in the mists I can’t tell if I’m now falling or still rising. I fling my gun away to give me a final grab at momentum before relaxing. There’s nothing more I can do.

Parda giggles nervously before reappearing, her body appearing to hug my suit. She is still praying, begging God to save my life, just as the proxy did before the ship crashed. I float in a sea of milk as tiny ice motes swim by, my addled mind again turning them into ghosts.

My suit’s clock counts twenty minutes before the mists clear and I can see the comet’s dirty surface approaching. Without my jets I land hard, rolling across the ice as I pray my suit doesn’t break.

When I look up–bruised, but safe and alive–Parda stands before me. She smiles as she leans over and kisses my helmet.

“I’m glad you made it,” she says. “And now, Sister Dusty, we know the truth. God intends you to live.”

#

After checking the steamer, I realize what Parda did. She’d projected a false image of the steamer controls onto my facemask. The pipe hadn’t jammed and it hadn’t been shut off by automatic controls. When I’d opened the valve, instant liquid explosion.

Even though I have very little air left, I need rest and food. Going for broke, I climb into the airlock and pressurize it. I twist off my helmet, removing Parda’s ability to interact with me. I drink fresh water and eat packet after packet of food–not caring what flavor it pretends to be–and fall into the best sleep I’ve ever known.

The airlock controls wake me ten hours later. I place extra food and clean water pouches in my suit and twist on my helmet.

Parda is waiting. “You don’t have much time,” she says urgently. “Only twelve hours of air left. You must hurry.”

“So what are you going to do? Support me or stop me?”

“I’m your friend. And now that we’ve determined God’s destiny is for you to live, I’ll do anything I can to help.”

This proxy is as crazy as the real Parda. I’m about to say that when suddenly Parda disappears, replaced by a holographic diagram showing detailed blueprints of the ice ship. But the blueprints have been modified, with the water bag in the center of the torus now connected to the steamer.

“Even if you launch the ship,” Parda says, “without the solar sail you’ll never reach Earth. But if you hook up the steamer to the spare water container, you could use spurts of steam to slow your orbit. My calculations show we could get close enough to Earth for NASA to mount a rescue.”

I scan through Parda’s diagrams and numbers, which seem to add up. “It might work.”

“I thought of the idea after the steamer blasted you off the comet,” Parda says, grinning wickedly.

The proxy is obviously playing with me because those are exactly the wrong words to make me trust her. Still, her plan is solid. And if the proxy’s now convinced it’s my destiny to escape Heaven’s Touch, perhaps she won’t get in my way. “Do I have your word on this plan?” I ask, remembering how this proxy once made me promise not to mess up the awful destiny the real Parda died for.

“Would it matter?” she asks. “Stopping you isn’t my destiny, is it?”

“No, it isn’t,” I say as I open the airlock and return to work.

#

Parda sees herself as a true believer. I wonder if the proxy should instead call herself insane.

After all, proxies are only meant for simulations, not real life. Whether utilized by NASA or a private space company or the latest high-tech startup, you plug proxies through simulation after simulation and they are none the worse for wear. But real life–who knows what that does to them.

No matter how closely they’re molded around our minds, memories, and personalities, the proxies aren’t us. Parda’s proxy obviously inherited the love Parda showed me before her betrayal. But Parda also somehow hid her true memories and belief in martyrdom from our company, or else they would never would have let her become an astronaut. So when Parda copied this proxy, she copied an inexact replica of herself. And when she hacked the proxy into doing her bidding, she moved the program even further from what my friend had once been.

I can’t trust this version of Parda any more than I could trust the real Parda.

But I also don’t want to die alone. And right now this Parda is all I have.

#

With the spiders I install the ice ship’s main airlocks and finish moving the heavy equipment inside. According to the original mission plan, at this point Parda and I would have used the tiny rockets attached to the ice ship to lift it from the surface. After rendezvousing with the ice ship, we’d have brought the internal systems online and used the solar sail to guide the ship into Earth orbit.

Obviously I don’t have that last option. But if Parda’s plan works, perhaps it won’t matter.

With the ice ship hooked up to the steamer I have enough power to run the systems until I unbolt the ship from its anchors. I plug the final hose into the ice ship and set the steamer to both pumping in and heating up the ship’s atmosphere. It’ll be cold in there when my suit’s air runs out, but at least I’ll be able to live.

One final time I finger the solar sail’s collapsed sheen. The sail’s mirror-like gossamer would have been a beautiful sight, stretching for kilometers through space after it unfolded. But with the sail damaged there’s no way it can propel the ship. I order several of the spiders to drag it away. The other spiders continue carrying supplies to the ice ship, and hooking up the steamer to the massive ice bag in the center of the ship’s torus.

By the time the ship has a breathable atmosphere, I have less than an hour of air left in my suit. I cycle through the ice ship’s airlock and stand inside the massive, curved hallway. Dim glow lights light the space. After a career in the cramped quarters of space stations and tiny spaceships, my eyes tear at the size of this ship.

“You should be here,” I tell Parda. “This is the start of humanity’s real exploration of space.”

“I am here.”

I start to argue. To tell the proxy that no, the person she’d been modeled after was dead on the ice, her body waiting to be exploded by outventing and baked by the sun.

Instead, I remove my helmet and breathe deep of the chilled air.

“I knew you could do it,” Parda says, her voice a whisper from the helmet in my hands. “Do you think they’ll be able to rescue us in time?”

“Maybe. If not, I’ll be embracing that starry destiny you mentioned.”

Parda laughs in happiness.

I also laugh, attempting to sound relaxed. Because this proxy is so smart, I don’t want to risk her discovering the last part of my plan. “Parda, can you run a final check of the launch sequence?” I ask. “The maneuvering rockets weren’t designed to lift both the ship and the steamer. We don’t want something going wrong.”

“I’ve already analyzed all possible outcomes. Do you want me to do this again?”

“Please.”

The proxy almost purrs with satisfaction as she dives into her deep analysis. With Parda distracted, and while still cradling my helmet in my arm, I turn the helmet slightly so its sensors can’t monitor my hands. So the proxy won’t see what I’m about to program the spiders to do.

I’ll take most of the spiders with me. They’ll unbolt the ice ship and hang on as the maneuvering rockets lift us from the surface. But I have a special mission for the spiders I’m leaving behind. I’m tempted to tell Parda my plan. But as I’ve learned, I can’t trust her too much.

A minute later, Parda says her calculations show everything is still a go for launch. “Now what do we do?” she asks.

“Test my destiny,” I say. “See if it’s still God’s will that I survive.”

Parda giggles like a little girl receiving a gift. I put my helmet back on and walk through the entire torus, showing Parda the ship we’ve built. She seems impressed, her voice chuckling over every square meter of open space.

“Do you forgive me?” she asks. “Maybe we can both embrace our destinies?”

“Maybe,” I say as the spiders unbolt the ship and the rockets kick us into space.

#

Five months. Five months of the ice ship spinning blindly.

At first Parda is so happy to escape the comet she lets me speak to Johnie and everyone else back home so they’ll know I’m alive. So they can mount a rescue mission. Using the spiders, I also finish hooking up the steamer to the spare water bag in the middle of the torus. With the steamer functioning as a simplified steam engine, I slow the ice ship enough to give a rescue ship from Earth a shot at reaching us.

Parda’s excitement lasts until we receive telemetry that Heaven’s Touch has changed course. Johnie and everyone back on Earth are baffled, so I finally admit ordering the spare spiders to unfold the solar sail across ten square kilometers of the comet’s surface. As Heaven’s Touch neared its closest approach to the sun, the sail reflected back so much energy that the projected outventing greatly decreased. The comet’s trajectory changed far more than the blipper could ever have achieved. Heaven’s Touch would never again threaten Earth.

Naturally, Parda is furious. In a burst of un-God-like rage, the proxy crashes the ice ship’s communication and sensor systems and refuses to speak to me for a week. Still, I know NASA is coming. It’s just a matter of whether they reach me before my food supply runs out.

But it’s a long, lonely, hungry wait.

#

“Today’s the day,” Parda says as I wake. I’m in the ice ship’s cockpit. It’s cold in here–I’ve never been able to activate all of the ship’s solar-heating systems–but my spacesuit’s insulation keeps me warm enough. Because the suit long ago ran out of air, I now wear it with my helmet cracked open so I can breathe the ice ship’s atmosphere. But aside from that, the suit feels much like it did on Heaven’s Touch.

This has the added benefit of allowing Parda to keep me company. To keep me from being the loneliest person in the solar system. To ensure this, Parda always reminds me to recharge the suit using the ship’s power, and as the suit’s main systems crashed she rerouted the controls so the holo displays continue to show her to my eyes.

At the sound of Parda’s voice I try to sit up but fall back to the deck. My food ran out weeks ago. The other day I asked Parda if I was going to end up a ghost like her, but she hadn’t answered. She hates it when I’m morbid.

I sip my suit’s water as I watch Parda sit on the control panel, her flowing robe as sparkling white as ever. When she’d first learned I’d destroyed the real Parda’s destiny she’d been angry. But over time she’s forgiven me like only true friends can do.

“You said yesterday was the day,” I whisper weakly, “but no one arrived.” I stare out the cockpit windows. Without communications or telemetry, staring into space is the best I can do. Parda still apologizes every day for crashing those systems, but at this point there’s nothing to be done about it.

“Today it will happen,” she says in a cheerful voice. “Today they will arrive.”

I grin and reach for Parda’s hand, forgetting for the millionth time I can’t touch her. She and I both know the orbital mechanics. There’s a narrow window when a ship from Earth can reach us. We’re almost at the end of that time frame.

I then fall back asleep and dream of food–rice and beer and chicken and spices and pies, a feast I’d give anything to eat. Each time I wake I listen to Parda prattle on about what we’ll do when we’re rescued. She’s afraid they won’t keep us together. That everything will change between us. Before I fall back asleep, I reassure her that nothing could ever change.

I wake a final time to silence and the sensation of the ice ship shaking slightly. Only a small shimmy, but enough to know something is happening.

“What’s going on?” I ask. Several of the cockpits controls flash rainbow colors, but I’m too weak to sit up and read them.

“Parda?” I whisper. “Are you there?”

“Are we still friends?” her tiny voice asks. For the first time since I’d known the proxy she sounds nervous. Afraid.

“We’ll always be friends.”

“Do you really mean that?” she says. She stands in front of the control panel and twists her white robe back and forth. She stares fearfully at the cockpit door.

“Yes,” I say as Johnie and another astronaut step before me. They shout my name and twist my helmet off, vanishing Parda in a burst of light. Johnie holds a food bulb before my face and squirts soupy protein between my lips. I swallow greedily.

“Parda!” I yell, hoping she can still hear me. “Don’t worry. You’ll always be my friend.”

You know you’re in rough shape when you lie to a computer program.

EP490: Flowers for Algernon

April 20th, 2015 by Posted in 13 and Up, Podcasts

by Daniel Keyes
read by Dave Thompson

Flowers for Alfernonabout the author…

from Wikipedia: Flowers for Algernon is a science fiction short story and subsequent novel written by Daniel Keyes. The short story, written in 1958 and first published in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. The novel was published in 1966 and was joint winner of that year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel (with Babel-17).

Keyes was born in New York City, New York.[2] He attended New York University briefly before joining the United States Maritime Service at 17, working as a ship’s purser on oil tankers.[2] Afterward he returned to New York and in 1950 received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brooklyn College.[2]

A month after graduation, Keyes joined publisher Martin Goodman‘s magazine company, Magazine Management.[2] He eventually became editor of their pulp magazine Marvel Science Stories (cover-dated Nov. 1950 – May 1952) after editor Robert O. Erisman,[3] and began writing for the company’s comic-book lines Atlas Comics, the 1950s precursors of Marvel Comics. After Goodman ceased publishing pulps in favor of paperback books and men’s adventure magazines, Keyes became an associate editor of Atlas[1] under editor-in-chief and art director Stan Lee. Circa 1952, Keyes was one of several staff writers, officially titled editors, who wrote for such horror and science fiction comics as Journey into Unknown Worlds, for which Keyes wrote two stories with artist Basil Wolverton.[4]

As Keyes recalled, Goodman offered him a job under Lee after Marvel Science Stories ceased publication:

Since my $17.25-a-month rent was almost due, I accepted what I considered a detour on my journey toward a literary career. Stan Lee … let his editors deal with the scriptwriters, cartoonists, and lettering crew. Writers turned in plot synopses, Stan read them, and as a matter of course, would accept one or two from each of the regulars he referred to as his “stable.” As one of his front men, I would pass along comments and criticism. … Because of my experience editing Marvel and because I’d sold a few science fiction stories by then, Stan allowed me to specialize in the horror, fantasy, suspense, and science fiction comic books. Naturally, I began submitting story ideas, getting freelance assignment, and supplementing my salary by writing scripts on my own time.[5]

One story idea Keyes wrote but did not submit to Lee was called “Brainstorm”, the paragraph-long synopsis that would evolve into Flowers for Algernon. It begins: “The first guy in the test to raise the I.Q. from a low normal 90 to genius level … He goes through the experience and then is thrown back to what was.” Keyes recalled, “[S]omething told me it should be more than a comic book script.”[5]

From 1955 to 1956, Keyes wrote for EC Comics, including its titles Shock Illustrated and Confessions Illustrated, under both his own name and the pseudonyms Kris Daniels and A.D. Locke.

 

narrator Dave Thompson

narrator Dave Thompson

about the narrator…

Dave Thompson is the California King and the Easter Werewolf, and is the host and co-editor of PodCastle. He has narrated audiobooks (by Tim Pratt, Greg van Eekhout, and James Maxey), written short stories (published in or forthcoming from Apex, Drabblecast, Pseudopod, and Escape Pod), and lost NaNoWriMo twice. He lives outside Los Angeles with his wife and three children.

EP489: Uncanny

April 8th, 2015 by Posted in 13 and Up, Podcasts

by James Patrick Kelly
read by Dani Cutler

author James Partick Kelly

author James Partick Kelly

about the author…

James Patrick Kelly is an American science fiction writer born April 11, 1951, in Mineola, New York. He began selling science fiction professionally in the mid-1970s, and has subsequently become one of the field’s leading writers of short fiction.

He has won the Hugo Award twice, for his 1995 novelette “Think Like A Dinosaur” and for his 1999 novelette “Ten to the Sixteenth to One.” His 2005 novella “Burn” won the Nebula Award. His novels include Freedom Beach (1986, with John Kessel), Look Into the Sun (1989), and Wildlife (1994). Also with John Kessel, he co-edited the anthologies Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (2006), Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology (2007), and The Secret History of Science Fiction (2009).

A prolific teacher, Kelly has taught at most of the major science-fiction writing workshops, including Clarion, Clarion West, Viable Paradise, and Odyssey. Since 1998, he has served on the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts; he chaired the council in 2004. He is the Vice Chair of the Clarion Foundation, which oversees the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop; he has served on the Board of Directors of the New England Foundation for the Arts; and he is currently on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. He also writes a column about SF on the internet for Asimov’s SF.

 

narrator Dani Cutler

narrator Dani Cutler

about the narrator…

Dani Cutler last narrated for EP in 454: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One. She has been part of the podcasting community since 2006, hosting and producing her own podcast through 2013. She currently works for KWSS independent radio in Phoenix as their midday announcer, and also organizes a technology conference each year for Phoenix residents to connect with others in the podcast, video, and online community.

 

Uncanny
by James Patrick Kelly

A month after I broke up with Jonathan, or Mr. Wrong, as my mother liked to call him, she announced that she’d bought me a machine to love. She found it on eBay, paid the Buy It Now price and had it shipped to me the next day. I’m not sure where she got the idea that I needed a machine or how she picked it out or what she thought it would do for me. My mother never asked advice or permission. I dreaded finding the heavy, flat box that UPS left propped against my front door.

I called her. “It’s here. So what does it do?”

“Whatever you want.”

“I don’t want anything.”

“You always say that, but it’s never true. We all want something.” I hated it when she was being patient with me. “Just give it a chance, honey. They’re more complicated than men,” she said, “but cleaner.”

I muscled it into the foyer. I retrieved the box cutter from Jonathan’s neurotically tidy toolbox and sliced carefully through the packing tape. I decided that I’d try it, but I also intended to send the thing back, so I saved the bubble wrap and styrofoam.

There was no manual. The assembly instructions were in twelve pictographs printed on either side of a glossy sheet of paper. They showed a stick figure woman with a black circle for a head building the machine. Black was just how I felt as I attached the arms and headlights, fit the wheels and drawers into place. It stood five feet, eleven and three quarter inches tall; I measured. I had to give Mom credit; she knew quality when she saw it. The shiny parts were real chrome and there was no flex to the titanium chassis, which was painted glossy blue, the exact blue of Jonathan’s eyes. It smelled like the inside of a new car. I realized too late that I should have assembled it closer to the wall, I had to plug the charger into an extension cord. The power light flashed red; the last pictograph showed the stick figure woman staring at a twenty-four hour clock, impatience squiggles leaping from her round, black head.

I didn’t sleep well that night. My bed seemed very big, filled with Jonathan’s absence. I had a nightmare about the dishwasher overflowing and then I was dancing with the vacuum cleaner in a warm flood of soapy water.

When I came home from work the next day the machine was fully charged and was puttering about the apartment with my dusting wand, which I never used. It had loaded the dishes into the dishwasher and run it. There were vacuum tracks on the living room rug. I found the packing materials it had come with bundled into the trash; it had broken down its cardboard box for recycling. At dinner time, it settled at the other end of the kitchen table, dimmed its headlights and waited while I ate my Weight Watchers Chicken Mesquite microwave dinner. Later we watched The Big Bang Theory together. I thought it wanted to follow me into the bedroom when I was ready to go to sleep, but I turned at the door and pointed at the hall closet. It flashed its brights and rolled obediently away.

EP488: In Another Life

April 4th, 2015 by Posted in 13 and Up, Podcasts

by Kelly Sandoval
read by Carla Doak

author Kelly Sandoval

author Kelly Sandoval

about the author…

I live, work, and write in Seattle, Washington. Gray sky days, abundant restaurant choices, and distant mountains are my idea of paradise.

In 2013 I abandoned my cat, tortoise, and boyfriend to spend six weeks studying writing at Clarion West. The experience taught me to commit myself and do the work, which is a lot less fun than just thinking about writing. It also introduced me to some of the best friends I’ve ever had. If you’re a writer considering whether you should apply, I’m happy to share my take on things. It’s not for everyone. But if it’s right for you, it’s worth it.

My tastes run to modern fantasy with a lyrical edge, though I’ve been writing science fiction, lately. If you’re looking for funny stories with happy endings, I fear you’ve come to the wrong place. I can’t seem to write anything without a dash of heartbreak.

 

narrator Carla Doak

narrator Carla Doak

about the narrator…

I talk for a living, and push buttons – some literal, some metaphorical. I get to play music (and for the most part, choose what I get to play!), talk to folks from all walks of life, give away awesome things and generally make people smile.

I search the world (often via the internet) for strange, wonderful, thought-provoking, conversation-invoking things and relay that information to hundreds and thousands, with my voice and with written word.

I listen to new music, old music, new music that sounds like old music, old music that could be new music and music that should never hear the light of day. I share this music with others, willingly and volun-told-ally.

I share my happiness, my sorrow, my anger, my passion, my wisdom, my ignorance. I wear my heart on my sleeve, in a pocket that is buttoned. There’s a small hole in that pocket, near the bottom, slightly frayed.

 

In Another Life
by Kelly Sandoval

Waking after a night spent slipping, I reach for Louisa automatically, rolling into the empty space where she belongs. I lick the memory of her from my lips, languid with sex. The alarm shrieks from my bedside table but I’ve gotten good at ignoring it.

We went skating. Louisa wore a purple sweater and, giggling and unsteady, clung to my arm. We kissed on the ice and she pressed herself against me, her frozen fingers sneaking under my coat to stroke my back. It’s her laughter I cling to. These days, I only hear her low, honeyed laugh when I’m slipping. I miss the warmth of it.

But it fades. Even the taste of her fades.

I tell myself it’s all right. That it’s necessary. I’ve got an appointment with my therapist at noon. If I’m still clinging to the night’s slip, he’ll know I haven’t been taking my medication.

No help for it. I drag myself out of bed and hit the alarm. My head pounds and the world blurs along the edges. I’ve slipped for three nights straight and ice skating with Louisa is nothing like sleeping. If I don’t take a day off soon, it’ll start to get dangerous.

My therapist would say it’s already dangerous. But he doesn’t understand what I’ve lost.

I’ve got four houses to show before my appointment, and a lot of coffee to drink to be ready for them. He’ll make a thing of it, if I’m late. He always does.

The hours dribble past, hazy and distant. It’s like I left a shard of myself in my alter and can’t quite get back in step with my timeline. When the charming young couple at house two asks me about financing I try to answer, only to be distracted by the ghost of a red-headed boy rushing past in pursuit of a large gray bunny. The woman selling the house wears her red curls pulled back in a tight bun. She’s childless, though abandoned rabbit hutches sit moldering in the back yard, lowering her property values.

Does she slip, stealing moments with this laughing, clumsy boy?

EP487: New Folks’ Home

March 28th, 2015 by Posted in 10 and Up, Podcasts

by Clifford Simak
narrated by Norm Sherman

 

about the author…

author Clifford Simak

(source: wikipedia) “Clifford Donald Simak (August 3, 1904 – April 25, 1988) was an American science fiction writer. He was honored by fans with three Hugo Awards and by colleagues with one Nebula Award. The Science Fiction Writers of America made him its third SFWA Grand Master and the Horror Writers Association made him one of three inaugural winners of the Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Simak was born in Millville, Wisconsin in 1904, son of John Lewis and Margaret (Wiseman) Simak. He married Agnes Kuchenberg on April 13, 1929 and they had two children, Richard (Dick) Scott (d. 2012) and Shelley Ellen. Simak attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison and later worked at various newspapers in the Midwest. He began a lifelong association with the Minneapolis Star and Tribune (inMinneapolis, Minnesota) in 1939, which continued until his retirement in 1976. He became Minneapolis Star’s news editor in 1949 and coordinator of Minneapolis Tribune’s Science Reading Series in 1961. In a blurb in Time and Again he wrote, “I have been happily married to the same woman for thirty three years and have two children. My favorite recreation is fishing (the lazy way, lying in a boat and letting them come to me). Hobbies: Chess, stamp collecting, growing roses.” He dedicated the book to his wife Kay, “without whom I’d never have written a line”. He was well liked by many of his science fiction cohorts, especially Isaac Asimov. He died in Minneapolis in 1988.

Simak became interested in science fiction after reading the works of H. G. Wells as a child. His first contribution to the literature was “The World of the Red Sun”, published by Hugo Gernsback in the December 1931 issue of Wonder Stories with one opening illustration by Frank R. Paul. Within a year he placed three more stories in Gernsback’s pulp magazines and one in Astounding Stories, then edited by Harry Bates. But his only science fiction publication between 1932 and 1938 was The Creator (Marvel Tales #4, March–April 1935), a notable story with religious implications, which was then rare in the genre.

Once John W. Campbell, at the helm of Astounding from October 1937, began redefining the field, Simak returned and was a regular contributor to Astounding Science Fiction (as it was renamed in 1938) throughout the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1938–1950). At first, as in the 1939 serial novel Cosmic Engineers, he wrote in the tradition of the earlier “superscience” subgenre that E. E. “Doc” Smith perfected, but he soon developed his own style, which is usually described as gentle and pastoral. During this period, Simak also published a number of war and western stories in pulp magazines. His best-known novel may be City, a collection of short stories with a common theme of mankind’s eventual exodus from Earth.

Simak continued to produce award-nominated novels throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Aided by a friend, he continued writing and publishing science fiction and, later, fantasy, into his 80s. He believed that science fiction not rooted in scientific fact was responsible for the failure of the genre to be taken seriously, and stated his aim was to make the genre a part of what he called “realistic fiction.”

EP486: Blight

March 17th, 2015 by Posted in 10 and Up, Podcasts

by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
read by Christiana Ellis

author Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

author Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

about the author…

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s fiction and poetry has appeared in magazines such as ClarkesworldLightspeedStrange HorizonsHobart, and Goblin Fruit.

She lives in Texas with her partner and two literarily-named cats – Gimli and Don Quixote. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program.

She also created and coordinates the annual Art & Words Collaborative Show in Fort Worth, Texas.

 

about the narrator…

Christiana Ellis is an award-winning writer and podcaster, currently living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her podcast novel, Nina Kimberly the Merciless was both an inaugural nominee for the 2006 Parsec Award for Best Speculative Fiction: Long Form, as well as a finalist for a 2006 Podcast Peer Award. Nina Kimberly the Merciless is available in print from Dragon Moon Press. Christiana is also the writer, producer and star of Space Casey, a 10-part audiodrama miniseries which won the Gold Mark Time Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Production by the American Society for Science Fiction Audio and the 2008 Parsec Award for Best Science Fiction Audio Drama. In between major projects, Christiana is also the creator and talent of many other podcast productions including Talking About Survivor, Hey, Want to Watch a Movie? and Christiana’s Shallow Thoughts.

narrator Christiana Ellis

narrator Christiana Ellis

 

Blight
by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

There are three thousand people in the world, and we are all the same.

I don’t mean equal, for The Book makes clear we are not in any way equal. Some of us are blessed, others unblessed, as some live in the temple and others live on the charred black surface. And I do not mean we are similar, like sheep – the term once used, I believe, for a world of people with different genetic coding but the same ideas. No, we are not “sheep.” We are the same, from our hair to our DNA.

The Book tells us that once there was The First, long ago, before the war. It tells us that She was not strong but lucky. Hospitalized for a broken leg before the bombs were released, all at once, across the world, or so The Book proclaims. The hospital was underground, hidden from the fallout’s worst. Most of the building caved in with the force of incessant blasts, everything destroyed but one wing: Hers. Our temple.

Inside the room with Her, Her sister Marna had been visiting. Sister Marna, a scientist skilled in genetic replication, was older than The First, who had seen only twenty years. Sister Marna nursed The First back to health in that room, mended Her wounded bones. They ate Jello from sealed plastic containers and cans of beans and the petals of roses left by loved ones they learned to forget. They did not know they were the last.

But they knew they should not leave the hospital wing, for the one time Sister Marna pushed open the door to the surface, she found the way blocked by rubble, saw a hazy light falling from the cracked concrete above. She and The First remained inside until the food ran out.

Film Review: Cinderella

March 16th, 2015 by Posted in Blog, Reviews

This review contains spoilers for the original fairy tale version of Cinderella, as well as the 1950 Disney animated version. It also contains minor spoilers for the short film Frozen Fever.

As both Honest Trailers and CinemaSins have recently shown, there are some problems with Disney’s retelling of the Cinderella story. But it’s such a huge part of the Disney empire that we were bound to get a new one at some point.

Welp, we certainly did.

EP485: Supply Limited, Act Now

March 10th, 2015 by Posted in 17 and Up, Podcasts

by Helen Marshall
read by Graeme Dunlop

author Helen Marshall

author Helen Marshall

about the author…

Helen Marshall is an award-winning Canadian author, editor, and doctor of medieval studies. Her poetry and fiction have been published in The ChiaroscuroAbyss & ApexLady Churchill’s Rosebud WristletTor.com and have been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies. Her debut collection of short stories Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications, 2012) was named one of the top ten books of 2012 by January Magazine. It won the 2013 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and was short-listed for an 2013 Aurora Award by the Canadian Society of Science Fiction and Fantasy.

 

about the narrator…

Graeme is a Software Solution Architect and Voice Actor living in Melbourne Australia. He is the sound producer for the horror podcast Pseudopod, and former host of the YA podcast Cast of Wonders. You can find him on Google+ and he occasionally tweets as @kibitzer on Twitter.

narrator Graeme Dunlop

narrator Graeme Dunlop

 

Supply Limited, Act Now
by Helen Marshall

Because Larry said it would never work, we knew we had to try.

Because Larry said he didn’t want any part of it, we knew we had to try it out on him first.

That was the way it was with Larry. That’s how it had always been between us. The four of us knew it. No one questioned it. We could all see the slightly sick look come over Larry’s face as he realized. We could see him turning pale. Pushing at his taped-up glasses and starting to scramble.

He tried to say something.

Marvin grabbed the shrink ray.

Marvin pressed the button.

And the world popped and crackled around us.

*

That’s how it started.

Maybe it wouldn’t have been like that if Larry had never said anything. But when Larry had followed the instructions last time it had been a disaster.

“FRIENDS,” the ad had said. “HERE’S HOW TO GET at almost NO COST YOUR NEW, Real, Live MINIATURE DOG!”

“Supply Limited,” the ad said. “ACT NOW!!”

“Please let me come home with you,” the miniature dog begged in a giant speech bubble.

The dog was black, with long, floppy ears, cartoonishly wide eyes and a white-speckled snout. Larry, on the other hand, was skinny as a beanpole with a face full of acne. His elbows and knees were huge and knobbly. They stuck out like the knots in the ropes we had to climb for gym class. And if there was any boy who ever was in need of a dog it was him.

And so Larry sent in his coupons and waited at the door for the mailman every day.

He waited the way he had every day for the past year; while those other times it had been with terror, this time it was with stupid, fearless joy.

You see, the thing you need to know about Larry is that his brother Joe had joined the Air Force last September.

“GEE!! I WISH I WERE A MAN!” said the ad.

“Come to the UNITED STATES AIR FORCE Recruiting Station,” it said.

We all wished we could be men—of course we did!—but only Larry’s brother Joe was old enough. So he’d signed up just like it said to. They’d sent him to Honolulu for a while and then after that he had been moved to Seoul where he wrote back letters every once in a while about how hot it was and how many of the shovelheads he had killed and how much he missed his kid brother.

EP484: That Tear Problem

March 3rd, 2015 by Posted in 13 and Up, EP Original, Podcasts, Uncategorized

by Natalia Thodoridou
read by Hugo Jackson
guest host Rachael Jones

author Natalia Theodoridou

author Natalia Theodoridou

about the author…

Natalia Theodoridou is a media & theatre scholar based in the UK. Her writing has appeared in Clarkesworld, Crossed Genres, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. Find out more at www.natalia-theodoridou.com, or just say hi @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

 

about the narrator…

Hugo Jackson is an author with Inspired Quill; his first fantasy novel, ‘Legacy’ is available from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He has acted and performed stage combat for years, having appeared in various film, theatre and TV productions, including The Young Victoria, Diamond Swords at Warwick Castle, Cyrano de Bergerac (Chichester Festival Theatre, 2009)  Romeo and Juliet (Arundel Festival, 2005), The Worst Jobs In History, and Ancient Megastructures: Chartres Cathedral. See him at www.hugorjackson.com

narrator Hugo Jackson

narrator Hugo Jackson

 

That Tear Problem
by Natalia Theodoridou

“Now flex your arm,” the controller said. Her voice sounded dry and mechanical through the speakers.

“The real one or the other one?” I asked and immediately received a neuro-ping: You are real.

“Both your arms are real, soldier,” she said.

I always thought of her as a woman, but really it was just a voice. There was no way to tell gender.

Focus.

“Right. Which one do you want me to flex?”

“The left one.”

I flexed my left arm. It’s one of the limbs they rebuilt after the accident. The Neuropage pinged me again, just in case: You are real. All this is real. I wondered if they figured out I had found the glitch. Was that what prompted this ping? But it couldn’t be; the pager was supposed to be entirely incorporated into the nervous system. No outside access available.

Unless that was a lie, too.

“Now the other one,” the voice said.

“How much longer is this going to take?” I asked, flexing my right arm. I could feel my legs getting fidgety. They always did that when I was strapped down for long chunks of time. Ever since the accident. Fidget fidget fidget. Even while I slept, the legs fidgeted. I would much rather sleep floating around, but that set off the security alarm. I had found that out the hard way, on my second day at the space station.

“The muscle-tone examination is complete,” the controller said. “Now on to the neural routine.”

“The neural routine. Of course.”

If she caught the irony in my voice, she didn’t show it.

“Attach the red electrode to your left arm. Good. Now let me know if you experience any pain.”

A moment passed, but nothing happened. “I don’t feel anything,” I said.

“OK. How about now?”

I waited. My eyes started to tear up. I felt the moisture form into little beads around my eyeballs.

“I don’t feel anything in my arm, but my eyes sting like hell. It’s that tear problem again,” I said.

Tears, apparently, don’t flow in microgravity. The little fuckers just stick to your eyes like liquid balls, refusing to let go before they get to be the size of small nuts. Bottom line is, you can’t cry in space. They always get that one wrong in the movies. Who would have known?

“You are reacting to an imaginary stimulus,” the voice said. “Your brain thinks you should be hurting, so your eyes tear up. Hold still. You can wipe them in a minute.”

Maybe the controller was a man, after all. Maybe it wasn’t a person at all at the other end, just a machine.

I waited for a ping, but got nothing.

“All done. You can unstrap yourself, soldier,” the voice said. “Same time tomorrow. Do not be late.”

“The Neuropage will make sure of that,” I muttered, but she had already signed off. She, it, whatever.

The first thing I did was dry my eyes. Then I freed my legs and stretched.

Time to eat, the Neuropage said. One of the scheduled pings. I ignored it and propelled myself towards my compartment. It would ping me again every few minutes. I knew it would get on my nerves–a pun? really?–and I’d have to eat, eventually, but it felt good to ignore it for a while. It was my small fuck you very much to the system. Harry would have tut-tutted at my attempt to play the rebel, he always did, but I think he secretly liked it.

Harry. Right.

I had to do this. I had to test the glitch.

#

EP483: Boris’s Bar

March 2nd, 2015 by Posted in 13 and Up, EP Original, Podcasts

by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali
read by Kaitie Radel

author Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

author Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

about the author…

I was raised in New Haven, Con­necti­cut.  I attended the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut for a cou­ple of years but left to marry my hus­band of more than twenty years.  I have three beau­ti­ful chil­dren, who like most chil­dren these days, far out­strip their par­ents in intel­li­gence and cre­ativ­ity.
My days, my con­crete life, are spent car­ing for breast oncol­ogy patients as a reg­is­tered nurse.  I love work­ing as an oncol­ogy nurse.  It keeps me grounded and forces me to remem­ber the tran­sient beauty of life, and the impor­tance of doing what one loves while one can.  It also keeps God fore­most in my mind as I jour­ney through this brief life, that my choices might be accord­ing to His will.
My less ordered life (Don’t we all live mul­ti­ple sep­a­rate lives?) is spent mostly in my head.  I am always attempt­ing to order the mul­ti­tude of ideas that rise unbid­den in my mind when I least expect them.  To some peo­ple this makes me look deeply spir­i­tual and wise, to oth­ers I look angry.  I assure, I am nei­ther.  Some­times the voices of half-formed char­ac­ters speak to me, beg­ging to be recorded for pos­ter­ity, that we might learn from them, or them from us.  Some­times the voice I hear is my own, remind­ing me of my oblig­a­tion to this life.  Unfor­tu­nately, I rarely have time for any of the voices cre­at­ing the chaotic din in my head.
narrator Kaitie Radel

narrator Kaitie Radel

about the narrator…

Kaitie Radel is a music education student and aspiring voice actress, has been voice acting as a hobby for two years.  In addition to this project, she has participated as both a VA and administrator in several fan projects such as The Homestuck Musical Project and Ava’s Melodies.  She can be contacted at kaitlynradel@mail.usf.edu.

 

Boris’s Bar
by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

 

“Orani, tell Boris what is wrong.”    

I told Boris about Enoch and our shared dreams, about how he abandoned me.

“He said I was frigid,” I confided, my head on Boris’s shoulder, his hand stroking my back.

Boris nodded, “What else?”

“He said that for all the credits in the system, I would never learn how to love.”

I’d been drowning in loneliness when I contracted Boris to help me recover from losing Enoch. After two years of long distance communication, Enoch had traveled from Earth to be with me, only to later decide it was a mistake. “You’re not the human being I thought you were,” he said, which was rich because he wasn’t a human being at all.

When I was spent of energy and tears, Boris lifted me into his arms, like steel support beams, and carried me to the bathroom. He undressed and washed me. He kissed my tearful eyes. He rubbed my skin with oil. With Boris I finally felt warm and safe.

“Orani, you are worthy and lovable. I want you to know this,” he murmured to me as he carried me back to bed. “I want you to feel like a little baby.”

“I don’t remember what that’s like,” I told him.

#