Tag: "Alasdair Stuart"

EP505: Falling Leaves

by Liz Argall
read by Emily Hickson

about the author…

from the author’s website:

Liz often writes speculative fiction and interstitial work that explore spaces between genres. She is especially fond of gritty urban fantasy, thought provoking science fiction and fantastical literary fiction.

Liz carves out a diverse career as a freelance writer, working with organisations to build communities and running workshops. Liz has run creative workshops for a range of organisations, including the National Museum of Australia, Conflux and the Young Music Society. She works with organisations to prepare and acquit grants, and to build physical and online communities. She has worked on and off as an Artists’ Model for ten years. Before she became a freelancer she worked as researcher, union organiser, refuge worker, circus manager and provided consulting and support to the community sector.

Liz’s comics have been published in an array of publications, including Meanjin, The Girl’s Guide to Guy Stuff, Eat Comics, Something Wicked and her collection Songs, Dreams and Nightmares. Her anthology, Dreams of Tomorrow, won a Bronze Ledger Award for Small Press of the Year. In January 2009 her musical Comic Book Opera, written with composer Michael Sollis, was performed for the first time. Two of her short stories have been staged as plays.

She splits her life between Australia and America – some day she hopes to live in other parts of the alphabet. After serving as a Non Skating Official with the Rat City Rollergirls for three seasons she has transformed into skater and announcer. When she’s on the track you can call her Betsy Nails, when you hear her over the mic she’s Ichabod ‘splain.

about the narrator…

Emily Hickson is a newcomer in the voice acting world, an Australian student studying Fine Art and Illustration. Her techniques and past research endeavours include printmaking, sculpture, digging up dead languages and solving old codes. She once illustrated a book about Alfred Tennyson meeting the Kraken, and has always counted on sci-fi to inspire her when artist’s block attacks. Past works and future declarations can be found at thegrangerchronicles.blogspot.com.au

Falling Leaves
by Liz Argall

Charlotte and Nessa met in Year Eight of Narrabri High School. Charlotte’s family were licensed refugees from the burning lands and the flooded coast, not quite landed, but a step apart from refugees that didn’t have dog tags.

Charlotte sat on the roof, dangled her legs off the edge and gazed at the wounded horizon, as she did every lunchtime. Nessa, recognizing the posture of a fellow animal in pain, climbed up to see what she could do. The mica in the concrete glittered and scoured her palms as she braced herself between an imitation tree and the wall and shimmied her way up.

She had to be careful not to break the tree, a cheap recycled–plastic genericus — who’d waste water on a decorative tree for children? The plastic bark squished beneath Nessa’s sneakers, smelling of paint thinner and the tired elastic of granny underpants.

Nessa tried to act casual once she got to the top, banging her knee hard as she hauled herself over the ledge and ripping a fresh hole in her cargos. She took a deep breath, wiped her sweaty hands, and sat down next to Charlotte.

“‘Sup?” said Nessa.

“Go away.” Charlotte kicked her feet against the wall and pressed her waxy lips together.

“You gonna jump?”

“No. I’m not an attention seeking whore like you,” said Charlotte.

Nessa shrugged her shoulders, as if that could roll away the sting. Rolling with the punches was what she did. “You look sad.”

Charlotte bared her teeth. “I said, I’m not like you. Leave me alone.”

Nessa wanted to say, “Fuck you,” but she didn’t. Nessa wanted to find magic words to fix Charlotte in an impatient flurry. She couldn’t. Nessa scratched her scars for a while and felt like puking, but she didn’t think that would help either. Neither would hitting Charlotte’s head against a wall and cracking Charlotte’s head into happiness, although Nessa could imagine it so violently and brightly it felt like she’d done it. Nessa had banged her own head against walls to get the pain out of her head and chest, but it never worked — or rather it never worked for long enough, leading to a worse, moreish pain.

Nessa didn’t know what to do, so she just sat there, feeling chicken shit, until the bell summoned them into class.

EP504: End of the World Community College

by Sandra McDonald
read by Joel Kenyon

author Sandra McDonald

author Sandra McDonald

about the author…

from the author’s website:

  • Writer, speaker, instructor
  • Lambda Literary Award for Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories
  • Booklist Editor’s Choice, ALA Over the Rainbow book, and Rainbow Award win for Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories
  • Silver Moonbeam Award for Mystery of the Tempest
  • Former commissioned officer, USN
Narrator Joel Kenyon

Joel Kenyon

about the narrator…

Joel Kenyon is a veteran podcaster, writer, musician and artist. He’s currently a member of the 4 man comedy show, The Undercover Unitards and he also has a weekly independant music show called The Sunshine Happy Kpants Hour. When he’s not recording, he writes a movie review blog, occasionally draws an online comic, paints pictures, writes stories and attempts to make music with friends. Joel is not a fan, however, of writing in the third person perspective, so writing this bio was painful for him.

End of the World Community College
by Sandra McDonald

The End of the World Community College (EWCC) strives to assist the residents of Port Clinton and surrounding areas with all of their educational needs, including farming, construction trades, radiation decontamination, emergency medicine, fine arts, and artisanal bread-making. Dean Hendershot’s parents once owned a bakery. He treasures the sourdough starter that has been passed down through his family for three generations. Students who complete their courses of study are automatically gifted with a delicious loaf of fresh bread. Unless, of course, your name is Abdul Howard.

Paper currency is useless, but the Registrar gladly accepts silver coins, diamond jewelry, gold teeth, and unexpired medicine. Fresh food, canned food, charged batteries, ammunition, livestock, and freeze-dried coffee are also welcomed with open arms. EWCC does not offer financial aid. Despite these desperate times, please do not attempt to rob the Registrar. He and his assistants carry pistols and mace at all times.

Your professors will gladly barter for additional lessons. Professor Shawl constantly needs cat food, Professor Ohara manages a yarn bank, and Professor Pfister collects pornographic material. In the old days Dean Hendershot would not have hired Pfister, but it is hard to find good math teachers and Pfister generously loans out his magazines upon request. Colonel Fisher, our ROTC director, trades exclusively for knives. The sharper the better. He does not read Professor Pfister’s porn.

Enrollment dates are ongoing. Please apply in person at the Registrar’s Office during regular business hours Monday through Friday. Refrain from appearing late at night at the Registrar’s house and pounding on his door in a drunken stupor, lamenting the loss of the old world and all its convenient ways. In his former life, the Registrar managed a hardware store in Sandusky, providing the very best bait, groceries, and ammunition to tourists on Lake Erie. He is an excellent shot.

Regular attendance is highly encouraged, but some obstacles are unavoidable. Rotting zombies often block the road near the Ottawa County Historical Museum. Aliens from Planet X lurk under the Port Clinton Bridge. You never know when a malfunctioning robot might show up in your front yard, demanding oil for its rusty red joints. Sustained ringing bells from our campus chapel indicate a solar flare forecast; please take cover. Expired sunscreen will not suffice. Do not just throw yourself on the ground with your arms over your head, June Li. In case of catastrophic snowfall, we expect to see you after you dig out or whenever spring arrives. If spring arrives.

Medical concerns are always paramount. We require students suffering from superflu or other communicable diseases to stay at home and not spread your filthy germs everywhere. The Registrar may be called to remove you permanently; he considers this a necessary if unpleasant part of the job. The old Marblehead Ferry site was long ago converted into a convenient mass grave.

College is a commitment and an opportunity that should not be taken lightly. In the old days, many students drifted in from high school with a lack of direction and atrocious study habits. They texted or surfed while their overworked professors strived to impart knowledge. They smoked illegal drugs and drank while underage. They focused on romantic hookups, frequent and brief and poorly thought out, with no consideration of sexually transmitted diseases or unanticipated pregnancies. Professor Shawl’s own daughter Allison trusted the wrong boys and look what happened to her. Professor Shawl only has cats now, and a quiet house near the water that rattles in the wind.

Of course, not all of our students were impulsive or immature teenagers making questionable decisions. Many of them came to our halls as adults who had spent several years away from formal education. Struggling in low-wage jobs or left adrift by divorce and single parenthood, they showed bitter awareness of how arbitrary fortune can be. They also possessed many practical real-world skills such as how to fix an engine, nurse a sick child, loot a pharmacy, or defend a home from armed robbers. Statistically, they survived in greater numbers than teenagers after Yellowstone blew and poisoned the atmosphere with a thousand cubic kilometers of ash. Speaking of statistics, how likely was it that just twelve hours later, those brown cliffs in the Canary Islands would sheer off and send that mega-tsunami roaring toward the U.S. coast? The 8.2 earthquake that split California into two states was almost anticlimactic by comparison.

Whatever your age, gender, military status, or previous life experience, the Code of Conduct (see below) requires students to maintain proper decorum at all times. This ensures a respectful and healthy community. As Dean Hendershot reminds us, the good of the many outweighs the Constitution. Constitution Day will still be observed annually, however, and attendance is mandatory.

Course Offerings
Our catalog changes frequently, but we offer several popular classes on an ongoing basis.

Construction Trades: Colonel Fisher was a Seabee for twenty years. More than anyone in Northern Ohio, he knows his pipes, wires, beams, and hoses. After that EMP pulse knocked out the world grid we all learned to live without electricity, but that does not mean you should suffer undue hardship. He will teach you to make an indoor light out of soda bottles and bleach, or a refrigerator from wet sand and clay garden pots. Whether you are building a new home or rehabbing an abandoned one, you’ll be able to keep it weatherproof, sanitary, and safe from plague-spreading bats. Colonel Fisher also leads our campus safety patrols for students who desire escorts at night. We have never had dormitories, but the RV trailers in the former faculty parking lot provide safe, affordable housing for students unable to find lodging after fire burned down half of town.

Apocalyptic Fashion: Certainly clothing is in no shortage these days. You can stroll into any former “supercenter” and pluck from bountiful piles of rotting goods. Armed with a willingness to scrub out the mold, ash, and insect feces, you can buy back into a dream of mass consumerism that no longer exists. Or, with the assistance of manual sewing machines that Professor Ohara salvaged from Rose’s Antique Nook, you can learn to make your own coats, baby blankets, wedding dresses, and burial shrouds. Professor Ohara also teaches knitting, embroidery, lacemaking, and lingerie design. The end of the world does not have to mean the end of feeling good about your wardrobe.

Astronomy for Optimists: Professor Ohara also teaches astronomy. On clear nights, she and her students climb to the roof of the auditorium and peer through old telescopes at whatever constellations still penetrate the ash and haze. How foolish, we tell her. She risks breaking an ankle or cracking her skull for the sake of a starscape beyond our reach. What is left to see since that rogue comet shattered the moon? More comets, she says. Like emissaries of heaven, bringing light and wonder to the huddled masses.

We know that Professor Ohara sometimes invites to the roof those sad, green aliens living under the bridge. She doesn’t blame them for the disastrous invasion of Earth. Her husband died in an overseas war long ago, and she understands that soldiers frequently pay a dire price for the follies of their political leaders. From the roof the aliens can maybe see a faint glimmer of whatever star they call home. They will never be able to return.

Arithmetic: Before the apocalypse, our students usually needed remedial courses in algebra. Whatever they learned in high school, it certainly did not include polynomials. They could only perform long division with the assistance of smartphones, and were unable to calculate basic interest rates on their exorbitant student loans. Sometimes it was better not to know. The select few who advanced to statistics and calculus were mostly taught by computer programs that engaged them in exciting video games or cartoon simulations. Math teachers like Professor Pfister bemoaned such technological coddling, but the software was cost-effective for the administration. We in administration liked to give ourselves salary increases each year.

These days, math exercises begin with correctly measuring wooden planks to nail over your windows and doors. Nothing says “amateur” more than mismatched boards. We calculate the effective ratio of water purification tablets to rainwater and convert prescription medicine into milligrams based on a patient’s body weight. Abdul Howard was expelled for sharing the formula and calculations for fertilizer explosives, but until then he was one of our sharpest students.

What we cannot teach you is how to formulate hope. We have no ways to measure fortitude, resolution, compassion, or any of the other qualities necessary for the rebuilding of civilization. We cannot number the dead. We can only educate the survivors.

Self-Defense: Speaking of survival, each of our professors can teach you a thing or two about defending yourself against rabid dogs, drunk neighbors, marauding raiders, wild zoo animals, and shotgun weddings. Our faculty was once much larger. Only the toughest and most resourceful made it through the tenure process. Job applicants these days are required to disassemble and reassemble a pistol, pass a marksmanship test, display proficiency in jujutsu or other martial arts, and do well on the obstacle course in Colonel Fisher’s backyard. Our faculty leads by example.

Music: Professor Shawl grew up in a household of pianists, violinists, and ukulele players. She no longer plays any instrument herself, but she knows by heart an impressive amount of folk music. She can teach you how to hit the high note in the former national anthem or bang Copland’s Appalachian Spring on empty oil drums. The student band’s handbell rendition of I’ll Be Home for Christmas had many of us in tears last Yuletide. Huddled around the town bonfire, watching the last municipal tax records burn, we sipped more of Professor Pfister’s moonshine and watched a golden comet blaze overheard. Some of us fired holiday bullets at it. Colonel Fisher bemoaned the waste of good ammunition but Secret Santa brought him an ivory-handled machete that made him smile.

Meanwhile, every spring Professor Shawl offers a class in making phonograph players out of recycled parts. Old vinyl records have proved surprisingly resilient to time. Come summer, the sweet scratch of music drifts from wedding parties, barn raisings, and very small family reunions. Sometimes you might see a malfunctioning robot alone in a barren field, clanking and swaying to Patsy Cline. You never see them in pairs. Mechanical people lead lonely lives.

Women’s Health and Midwifery: Students are often surprised to learn that Dean Hendershot teaches these classes himself. Even in these unusual days, we feel more comfortable with women as our guides to operating a vagina. Professor Shawl is extremely modest, however, and Professor Ohara is showing signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Some days she can barely remember her name or the name of the alien she is hiding in her basement. (Its name is Oooo4ooo. It’s handsome in its own tentacled sort of way.)

The most frequent medical complaint among female faculty and students is the common yeast infection. Dean Hendershot knows much about yeast. Not only the kind that ferments in his bread but also its cousin, Candida, which can so messily overrun a woman’s pelvis. If prompted correctly, he can lecture for hours on the resilience and history of organisms, including yeasts, molds, fungi, and mushrooms. For home treatment of Candida infections, he usually recommends application of vinegar, yogurt, or garlic. Female students, please do not allow Professor Pfister to show you how to insert the garlic.

Dean Hendershot also knows a great deal about babies. He and his wife Katherine have had three of them since our local nuclear power plant started leaking. He cradled each beautiful infant’s head as he or she debuted in the world and carefully tied off each pasty-white umbilical cord. Each child was swaddled and nurtured, their breaths counted as blessings until the blessings came no more.

Little John, the youngest, is still with us. He comes to school every day with his father, quiet and solemn in his stroller. You barely notice his hands. Any day now he will start speaking. The other infants are buried in Dean Hendershot’s yard, the tiny crosses visible from the kitchen window.

Dean Hendershot also teaches grave-digging. The secret, he says, is always go deeper than you think you need to. A proper depth keeps the wild animals from tearing things up, and dead things from climbing out of the dark, irradiated soil.

Code of Conduct
Students shall refrain from promoting, endorsing, or advocating for cannibalism. This means you, Avery Unger. Other students and faculty are discomfited by your graphic retelling of how you survived last winter, and no one believes your parents “accidentally” killed themselves with that emergency generator. You were a mean little kid to begin with and multiple disasters have not improved you at all.
Students shall refrain from publicly promoting religion. Certainly you can privately thank any deity you choose for your ongoing survival. Say grace in the school cafeteria if you wish, and a little pleading to the divine about your midterm grades would not hurt either. No one is going to make you take off the crosses around your neck, Angie Sawyer, but it is not kosher to bully Bob Gerstein about his yarmulke. Keep in mind that many of us harbor vehement feelings toward any Creator who either brought down so many disasters into this world or otherwise failed to stop them. We are surprised that locusts have not arrived yet, and we are waiting for forty days and night of rain.
Students shall not try to institute their own civics classes to promote the study of democratic ideals. We hope you are listening, Abdul Howard. The fact that your grandparents immigrated to the United States decades ago in search of democracy does not make you an expert. If you want a representative government of, by, and for the people, you are welcome to scoot on down to Columbus and see what’s left there. You think they didn’t have to make hard decisions, just like we did? You think they sit around every day contemplating portraits of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson instead of fighting for scarce food and other necessities? Maybe you should hike your way down to our new national capital in Houston. If you can make it past the barricades without being shot, perhaps you will find a kindly old judge with nothing better to do than discuss constitutional law. Until then, there is no mayor here in Port Clinton, no city council, no open town meetings. There is only the college, and we are in charge.
Students shall dress appropriately: we do not permit thongs, flip-flops, strapless bras, low-hanging pants or other symptoms of a youth culture run amuck. Do not make us put a sweater on you again, June Li. Refrain from any garb that promotes hate speech. Bulletproof vests, weapons belts, and helmets are welcome but rarely necessary. That incident last spring during Career Day was an anomaly: usually our barbed wire fences do a better job keeping out starving golems.
EWCC does not allow any discrimination based on gender, orientation, or sexual proclivities. Surely Professor Shawl was once a man. She wears scarves around her throat every day and her hands are abnormally large. We think she is beautiful. Colonel Fisher lives with our town dentist, Dr. Slater, in a charming colonial they remodeled themselves. Dr. Slater is the only man for a hundred miles who can fill a cavity, extract a tooth, or fix your dentures. We don’t care what he and Colonel Fisher do together as long as we get our annual cleanings. The Registrar keeps a trunk in his bedroom filled with lacy red nightgowns. Students watching his window from below have seen him strap on a garter belt and silk stockings. Does this make him any less qualified to protect the assets of the college? Certainly not. As Professor Pfister often insists, creative exploration is a healthy part of the human sexual experience.

Bookstore: Our campus bookstore carries EWCC mugs, T-shirts, and key chains, along with a limited number of textbooks salvaged from libraries and houses and the Book Barn before it flooded. Otherwise we expect students to furnish their own supplies: pipe and solder for plumbing workshop; seeds and dung for fieldwork; flour and yeast for bread-making; scalpels, bone saws and strong stomachs for the required lab on flesh-eating bacteria. You will need paper of any kind for your cursive-writing classes. Sometimes we teach calligraphy. It’s a dying art, but what isn’t?

Refunds: Tuition is nonrefundable. The learning you acquire within our hallowed halls will last you a lifetime. Even you, Abdul. When Dean Hendershot found you, you were a muddy teenager starving in a ditch. He gave you a bed in his attic and food from his table and tried to channel that anger inside you into something productive or useful. You repaid him by fomenting discontent and rebellion. You wanted elections. You demanded a voice. What you failed to get, you decided to take. He had no choice but to send you away. Isn’t exile a finer fate than a midnight walk with the Registrar from which only one of you would return?

Campus Alert: Astronomy students would like to inform the community that based on their latest observations, Jupiter has recently shifted its orbit. According to Oooo4ooo, the most likely cause is a traveling black hole skirting the Kuiper Belt and pulling the outer planets toward infinity like a pizza pie stretched too thin by overeager hands. This would also explain the number of comets hurtling overhead these days.

We hesitate to bring it up, as the death of our world is not necessarily imminent. The supermassive collapsed star may zoom by quickly, with only fractional effect on the inner solar system. Or it might hurl itself toward Earth so quickly that we will barely feel our own deaths as the planet rips apart beneath us. Who can say? Rest assured that there is nothing anyone can do against a black hole. You cannot shoot it, blow it up, set it on fire, fill it with cement, or board up your windows against it. Still, it always pays to be prepared. Hug your children tight tonight. Make love to a person or robot or alien, if it will make you happy.

Final note: Dean Hendershot appreciates your concern about the rumored death of his sourdough starter. Just before this brochure went to press, he trudged home from a hard day’s work to find the lamps unlit, the nanny distracted by her boyfriend, and his wife Katherine still huddled in the bed she rarely leaves these days. Young John had managed to free himself from his playpen, climb up onto the kitchen counter, and break open the large glass jar that Dean Hendershot’s grandmother kept in her own kitchen for so many decades. The pale and watery starter was everywhere–the sink, the floor, the walls, Little John’s hair. It was dirty and sad, utterly unsalvageable.

But Dean Hendershot didn’t despair. Any dean of a post-apocalyptic community college must be resourceful and strong. He fired the nanny, cleaned up the kitchen, and fed Little John his supper before tucking him in bed with his mother. Then he walked on over to the Registrar’s house. He was surprised to find Professor Shawl there, her cheeks flushed and neck scarf loose, but did not worry much about it. More important to him was the small plastic bag that the Registrar had stored in his pantry since summertime. Dean Hendershot thanked him profusely and cradled the treasure all the way home.

Alone in his clean kitchen, he added flour and water to the dried starter in a new glass jar. He wrapped the jar in a battery-powered heating pad and carefully carried it upstairs to where Katherine and Little John lay sleeping in the darkness. He kissed them both. Katherine’s sad eyes fluttered open.

“It’s all right,” he told her. “Everything’s going to be just fine.”

All night long he sat in a rocking chair, the jar warm and secure in his lap. Through the window he could see the white perimeter lights of the campus and hear the occasional shots as security guards warned off zombies. A comet burned a bright arc across the sky. Dean Hendershot thought about the doula class he would teach in the morning, and how to nurture life despite the grueling odds against survival. He was glad to be a teacher. He felt strangely lucky. He wished he could feed the whole world with fresh and sour bread.

EP501: Imma Gonna Finish You Off

by Marina J. Lostetter
read by Alasdair Stuart

author Marina J. Lostetter

author Marina J. Lostetter

about the author…

Marina is the author of award-winning original stories such as Master Belladino’s Mask, Sojourn for Ephah, and Balance.  She has written tie-in work for the Star Citizen and Sargasso Legacy universes. When not writing, Marina can be found reading speculative fiction (of all types for all ages), drawing, exploring the outdoors, or gaming it up.  She loves exploring new cultures and travels as often as she can.

about the narrator…

I’m a writer. I’m a podcaster. I’m a not-quite-trainee anymore martial artist. I’m a nurse’s kid and a teacher’s kid. I’m a former bouncer. I’m a huge movie nerd. I’m sort of what Abed and Jeff from Community’s kid would be like if he was spliced with the DNA of Helo from Battlestar Galactica. I’m learning.

Alasdair Stuart

narrator Alasdair Stuart

Imma Gonna Finish You Off
By Marina J. Lostetter

On the examining table lounged a body.  It was an unremarkable body–rather wrinkly, with an inordinate amount of hair in all the wrong places and too few clothes for most people’s liking, but otherwise nothing to write your congressman about.  The only thing special about the body was that it was dead–a problem that Detective Harry Sordido hoped would resolve itself quite soon.

“Will he just get on with the coming back to life already?” Harry huffed, checking the glowing numbers embedded in his left wrist.  With his right hand, he patted his ample, middle-aged girth.  “He’s not the only victim I’ve got to question today.”

“I’m not sure what’s the matter with him,” said the medical examiner, lifting the dead man’s wrist between two thin fingers.  “He should have let out a nice scream-of-life by now.”  He let the limb flop back to the sanitary paper.

“What do you think it was?” asked the detective, “Accidental? Experimental? Purposeful?  What do you think he died of?”

“You’ll have to ask him to be sure.  He was found out on the sidewalk.  No indications of violence or a struggle, but he does look a tad flaccid.”

“Ah, disgruntled lover, then.”

“No, I mean on the whole.  Like he’s been wrung out.”

They both stared at the body for a long while.

“You don’t think he’s really–?” began Detective Sordido.

“It is starting to seem a bit permanent.”

“That’s impossible! No one’s really died for damned near a millennium.”

The examiner shrugged.  “There’s a first time for every eventuality.”

“What was his name again?”

“Mr. X is what it says on his bio-tat.  Here, I’ll show you.”  The two men moved to the once-ambulatory end of the body, and the examiner held a black light over the pad of X’s right foot.

EP497: A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide

by Sarah Pinsker
read by David White

author Sarah Pinsker

author Sarah Pinsker

about the author…

Sarah Pinsker  is the author of the novelette “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,” Sturgeon Award winner 2014 and Nebula finalist 2013. Her fiction has been published in magazines including Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, the Journal of Unlikely Cartography, FiresideStupefying Stories, and PULP Literature, and in anthologies including Long HiddenFierce Family, and The Future Embodied.

She is also a singer/songwriter with three albums on various independent labels (the third with her rock band, the Stalking Horses) and a fourth forthcoming. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland and can be found online at sarahpinsker.com and twitter.com/sarahpinsker.


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.”
“What does that mean?” he asked. He tried to move his right hand to touch his head, but the hand didn’t respond. He used his left and encountered bandages.
His father spoke from a chair by the window, flat-brimmed John Deere cap obscuring his eyes. “It means you’ve got a prototype arm and a whole lot of people interested in how it turns out. Could help a lot of folks.”
Andy looked down at where his arm had been. Bandages obscured the points where flesh met prosthetic; beyond the bandages, the shine of new metal and matte-black wire. The new arm looked like their big irrigation rig, all spines and ridges and hoses. It ended in a pincer, fused fingers and a thumb. He tried to remember the details of his right hand: the freckles on the back, the rope-burn scar around his knuckles, the calluses on the palm. What had they done with it? Was it in a garbage can somewhere, marked as medical waste? It must have been pretty chewed up or they would have tried to reattach it.
He looked at the other arm. An IV was stuck in the “Forever” of his tattoo. He thought something far away was hurting, but he didn’t feel much. Maybe the IV explained that. He tried again to lift his right arm. It still didn’t budge, but this time it did hurt, deep in his chest.
“Can’t prosthetics look like arms these days?” he asked.
His practical mother spoke again. “Those ones aren’t half as useful. You can replace this hand with a more realistic one later if you want, but to get full use of the arm they said to go with the brain interface. No nerves left to send the impulses to a hand otherwise, no matter how fancy.”
He understood. “How do I use it?”
“You don’t, not for a while. But they were able to attach it right away. Used to be they’d wait for the stump to heal before fitting you, but this they said they had to go ahead and put in.”
“You don’t have a stump, anyway.” His father chopped at his own shoulder as an indicator. “You’re lucky you still have a head.”
He wondered what the other options had been, if there had been any. It made sense that his parents would choose this. Theirs had always been the first farm in Saskatchewan for every new technology. His parents believed in automation. They liked working the land with machines, gridding it with spreadsheets and databases, tilling the fields from the comfort of the office.
He was the throwback. He liked the sun on his face. He kept a team of Shires for plowing and used their manure for fertilizer. He had his father’s old diesel combine for harvest time, his biggest concession to speed and efficiency. And now it had taken his arm. He didn’t know if that was an argument for his horses and tractors or his parents’ self-guided machines. The machines would take out your fence if you programmed the coordinates wrong, but unless your math was really off they probably wouldn’t make it into your office. On the other hand – now a pincer – it had been his own stupid fault he had reached into the stuck header.


Andy’s world shrank to the size of the hospital room. He stood by the window and read the weather and fought the urge to call his parents, who were taking care of his small farm next to theirs in his absence. Had they finished harvesting before the frost? Had they moved the chicken run closer to the house? He had to trust them.
The doctor weaned him off the pain medications quickly. “You’re a healthy guy,” she said. “Better to cope than get hooked on opiates.” Andy nodded, figuring he could handle it. He knew the aches of physical labor, of days when you worked until you were barely standing, and then a Shire shifted his weight and broke your foot, and you still had to get up and work again the next day.
Now his body communicated a whole new dialect of pain: aches wrapped in aches, throbbing in parts that didn’t exist anymore. He learned to articulate the difference between stinging and stabbing pains, between soreness and tenderness. When the worst of it had broken over him, an endless prairie storm, the doctor gave the go-ahead for him to start using his arm.
“You’re a fast learner, buddy,” his occupational therapist told him when he had mastered closing the hand around a toothbrush. Brad was a big Assiniboine guy, only a couple of years older than Andy and relentlessly enthusiastic. “Tomorrow you can try dressing yourself.”
“Fast is relative.” Andy put the toothbrush down, then tried to pick it up again. He knocked it off the table.
Brad smiled but didn’t make a move for the fallen toothbrush. “It’s a process, eh? Your muscles have new roles to learn. Besides, once you get through these things, the real fun begins with that rig.”
The real fun would be interesting, if he ever got there. The special features. He would have to learn to interpret the signal from the camera on the wrist, feeding straight to his head. There were flashlights and body telemetry readings to turn off and on. He looked forward to the real tests for those features: seeing into the dark corners of an engine, turning a breach calf. Those were lessons worth sticking around for. Andy bent down and concentrated on closing his hand on the toothbrush handle.


Just before he was due to go home, an infection sank its teeth in under his armpit. The doctor gave him antibiotics and drained the fluid. That night, awash in fever, he dreamed his arm was a highway. The feeling stuck with him when he woke.
Andy had never wanted much. He had wanted Lori to love him, forever and ever, but she didn’t and that was that. As a child, he’d asked for the calf with the blue eyes, Maisie, and he kept her until she was big enough to be sold, and that was that. He’d never considered doing anything except working his own land next to his parents’ and taking over theirs when they retired. There was no point in wanting much else.
Now he wanted to be a road, or his right arm did. It wanted with a fierceness that left him baffled, a wordless yearning that came from inside him and outside him at once. No, more than that. It didn’t just want to be a road. It knew it was one. Specifically, a stretch of asphalt two lanes wide, ninety-seven kilometers long, in eastern Colorado. A stretch that could see all the way to the mountains, but was content not to reach them. Cattleguards on either side, barbed wire, grassland.
Andy had never been to Colorado. He’d never been out of Saskatchewan, not even to Calgary or Winnipeg. He’d never seen a mountain. The fact that he was able to describe the contours of the mountains in the distance, and the tag numbers in the ears of the bald-faced cows, told him he wasn’t imagining things. He was himself and he was also a road.
“Ready to get back to work, buddy? How’s it feeling?” Brad asked him.
Andy shrugged. He knew he should tell Brad about the road, but he didn’t want to stay in the hospital any longer. Bad enough that his parents had been forced to finish his harvest, grumbling the whole time about his archaic machinery. There was no way he would risk a delay.
“Infection’s gone, but it’s talking a lot. Still takes some getting used to,” he said, which was true. It fed him the temperature, the levels of different pollutants in the air. It warned him when he was pushing himself too hard on the treadmill. And then there was the road thing.
Brad tapped his own forehead. “You remember how to dial back the input if it gets too much?”
“Yeah. I’m good.”
Brad smiled and reached for a cooler he had brought with him. “Great, man. In that case, today you’re going to work on eggs.”
“You’re a farmer, right? You have to pick up eggs without cracking them. And then you have to make lunch. Believe me, this is expert level. Harder than any of that fancy stuff. You master eggs with that hand, you graduate.”


Brad and the doctors finally gave him permission to leave a week later.
“You want to drive?” asked his father, holding out the keys to Andy’s truck.
Andy shook his head and walked around to the passenger side. “I’m not sure I could shove into second gear. Might need to trade this in for an automatic.”
His father gave him a once-over. “Maybe so. Or just practice a bit around the farm?”
“I’m not scared. Just careful.”
“Fair enough, fair enough.” His father started the truck.
He wasn’t scared, but it was more than being careful. At first, the joy of being in his own house eclipsed the weird feeling. The road feeling. He kept up the exercises he had learned in physical therapy. They had retaught him how to shave and cook and bathe, and he retaught himself how to groom and tack the horses. He met up with his buddies from his old hockey team at the bar in town, to try to prove that everything was normal.
Gradually, the aches grew wider. How could you be a road, in a particular place, and yet not be in that place? Nothing felt right. He had always loved to eat, but now food was tasteless. He forced himself to cook, to chew, to swallow. He set goals for the number of bites he had to take before stopping.
He had lost muscle in the hospital, but now he grew thinner. His new body was wiry instead of solid. Never much of a mirror person, he started making himself look. Motivation, maybe. A way to try to communicate with his own brain. He counted his ribs. The synthetic sleeving that smoothed the transition from pectorals to artificial arm gapped a little because of his lost mass. If anything was worth notifying the doctors about, it was that. Gaps led to chafing, they had said, then down the slippery slope to irritation and abrasion and infection. You don’t work a horse with a harness sore.
In the mirror, he saw his gaunt face, his narrowed shoulder, the sleeve. His left arm, with its jagged love letter. On the right side, he saw road. A trick of the mind. A glitch in the software. Shoulder, road. He knew it was all there: the pincer hand, the metal bones, the wire sinew. He opened and closed the hand. It was still there, but it was gone at the same time.
He scooped grain for the horses with his road hand, ran his left over their shaggy winter coats. He oiled machinery with his road hand. Tossed hay bales and bags of grain with both arms working together. Worked on his truck in the garage. Other trucks made their slow way down a snowy highway in Colorado that was attached to him by wire, by electrode, by artificial pathways that had somehow found their way from his brain to his heart. He lay down on his frozen driveway, arms at his sides, and felt the trucks rumble through.


The thaw came late to both of Andy’s places, the farm and the highway. He had hoped the bustle of spring might bring relief, but instead he felt even more divided.
He tried to explain the feeling to Susan over a beer on her tiny screen porch. She had moved back to town while he was in the hospital, rented a tiny apartment on top of the tattoo parlor. A big-bellied stove took up most of the porch, letting her wear tank tops even this early in the season. Her arms were timelines, a progression of someone else’s skill; her own progression must be on other arms, back in Vancouver. She had gone right after high school, to apprentice herself to some tattoo bigshot. Andy couldn’t figure out why she had returned, but here she was, back again.
The sleeves of his jacket hid his own arms. Not that he was hiding anything. He held the beer in his left hand now only because his right hand dreamed of asphalt and tumbleweeds. He didn’t want to bother it.
“Maybe it’s recycled,” Susan said. “Maybe it used to belong to some Colorado rancher.”
Andy shook his head. “It isn’t in the past, and it isn’t a person on the road.”
“The software, then? Maybe that’s the recycled part, and the chip was meant for one of those new smart roads near Toronto, the ones that drive your car for you.”
“Maybe.” He drained the beer, then dropped the can to the porch and crushed it with the heel of his workboot. He traced his scars with his fingertips: first the scalp, then across and down his chest, where metal joined to flesh.
“Are you going to tell anybody else?” Susan asked.
He listened to the crickets, the undertones of frog. He knew Susan was hearing those, too. He didn’t think she heard the road thrumming in his arm. “Nah. Not for now.”


Andy’s arm was more in Colorado every day. He struggled to communicate with it. It worked fine; it was just elsewhere. Being a road wasn’t so bad, once he got used to it. People say a road goes to and from places, but it doesn’t. A road is where it is every moment of the day.
He thought about driving south, riding around until he could prove whether or not the place actually existed, but he couldn’t justify leaving after all that time in the hospital. Fields needed to be tilled and turned and seeded. Animals needed to be fed and watered. He had no time for road trips, no matter how important the trip or the road.
Susan dragged him to a bonfire out at the Oakley farm. He didn’t want to go, hadn’t been to a party since he had bought his own land, but she was persuasive. “I need to reconnect with my client base and I don’t feel like getting hit on the whole time,” she said. He hung his robot arm out the window to catch the wind as she drove. Wind twenty-one kilometers per hour, it told him. Twelve degrees Celsius. In the other place, five centimeters of rain had fallen in the last two hours, and three vehicles had driven through.
The bonfire was already going in a clearing by the barn, a crowd around it, shivering. Doug Oakley was a year older than Andy, Hugh still in high school. They both lived with their parents, which meant this was a parents-out-of-town party. Most of the parties Andy had ever been to were like this, except he had been on the younger side of the group then instead of the older side. There’s a point at which you’re the cool older guy, and then after that you’re the weird older guy who shouldn’t be hanging with high school kids anymore. He was pretty sure he had crossed that line.
Susan had bought a case of Molson to make friends and influence people. She hoisted it out of the backseat now and emptied the beers into a cooler in the grass. She took one for herself and tossed one to him, but it bounced off his new hand. He glanced around to see if anybody had noticed. He shoved that can deep into the ice and freed another one from the cooler. He held it in the pincer and popped the top with his left, then drained half of it in one chug. The beer was cold and the air was cold and he wished he had brought a heavier jacket. At least he could hold the drink in his metal hand. His own insulator.
The high school girls all congregated by the porch. Most of them had plastic cups instead of cans, for mixing Clamato with their beer. Susan looked at them and snorted. “If I live to be two hundred, I will never understand that combination.”
They walked toward the fire. It blazed high, but its heat didn’t reach far beyond the first circle of people knotted around it. Andy shifted from foot to foot, trying to get warm, breathing in woodsmoke. He looked at the faces, recognizing most of them. The Oakley boys, of course, and their girlfriends. They always had girlfriends. Doug had been engaged at one point and now he wasn’t. Andy tried to remember details. His mother would know.
He realized that the girl on Doug’s arm now was Lori. Nothing wrong with that – Doug was a nice guy – but Lori had always talked about university. Andy had soothed his broken heart by saying she deserved more than a farmer’s life. It hurt him a little to see her standing in the glow of the flame, her hands in her armpits. He didn’t mind that he was still here, but he didn’t think she ought to be. Or maybe she was just leaning against Doug for warmth? It wasn’t his business anymore, he supposed.
Lori slipped from under Doug’s arm and into the crowd. She appeared next to Susan a moment later.
“Hey,” she said, raising a hand in greeting, then slipping it back under her armpit, either out of awkwardness or cold. She looked embarrassed.
“Hey,” he replied, nodding his beer toward her with the robot hand. He tried to make it a casual movement. Only a little beer sloshed out of the can.
“I heard about your arm, Andy. I felt terrible. Sorry I didn’t call, but the semester got busy…” she trailed off.
It was a lousy excuse, but his smile was genuine. “It’s cool. I understand. You’re still in university?”
“Yeah. Winnipeg. I’ve got one more semester. ”
“What are you majoring in?” Susan asked.
“Physics, but I’ll be going to grad school for meteorology. Climate science.”
“Awesome. You know what would make a cool tattoo for a climate scientist?”
Andy excused himself to get another beer. When he came back, Susan was drawing a barometer on the back of Lori’s hand. She and Lori had never been close, but they had gotten on okay. Susan had liked that Lori had ambition, and Lori had liked dating a guy whose best friend was a girl, which she said was pretty unusual. If they had moved to the same city, CTV could have made some cheesy buddy comedy about them, the small town valedictorian and the small town lesbian punk in the big city. He would make a one-time appearance as the guy who had stayed behind.
After his fifth beer he couldn’t feel anything but the road in his sleeve. The air in Colorado smelled like ozone, like maybe a storm was about to hit. That night, after Susan had drawn marker tattoos onto several of their former classmates and invited them to stop at her shop, after promises of email were exchanged with Lori, after the hazy drive home, he dreamed the highway had taken him over entirely. In the nightmare, the road crept up past his arm, past his shoulder. It paved his heart, flattened his limbs, tarred his mouth and eyes, so that he woke gasping before dawn.


He set up an appointment with a therapist. Dr. Bird’s broad face was young, but her hair was completely silver-white. She nodded sympathetically as she listened.
“I’m not really here to give my opinion, but I think maybe you were rushed into this BCI thing. You didn’t have a part in the decision. You didn’t have any time to get used to the idea of having no arm.”
“Did I need to get used to that?”
“Some people do. Some people don’t have a choice, because their bodies need to heal before regular prosthetics can be fitted.”
What she said made sense, but it didn’t explain anything. It would have explained phantom pains, or dreams that his arm was choking him. He had read about those things. But a road? None of her theories jibed. He drove home on flat prairie highway, then flat prairie two-lane, between fallow fields and grazing land. The road to his parents’ farm, and his own parcel of land in back of theirs, was dirt. His new truck had lousy shock absorbers, and every rut jolted him on the bench.
He had lived here his whole life, but his arm was convinced it belonged someplace else. On the way home it spoke to him without words. It pulled him. Turn around, it said. South, south, west. I am here and I am not here, he thought, or maybe it thought. I love my home, he tried to tell it. Even as he said it, he longed for the completion of being where he was, both Saskatchewan and Colorado. This was not a safe way to be. Nobody could live in two places at once. It was a dilemma. He couldn’t leave his farm, not unless he sold it, and the only part of him that agreed with that plan was not really part of him at all.
That night he dreamed he was driving the combine through his canola field when it jammed. He climbed down to fix it, and this time it took his prosthetic. It chewed the metal and the wire and he found himself hoping it would just rip the whole thing from his body, clear up to his brain, so he could start afresh. But then it did keep going. It didn’t stop with the arm. It tore and ripped, and he felt a tug in his head that turned into throbbing, then a sharp and sharp and sharper pain.
The pain didn’t go away when he woke. He thought it was a hangover, but no hangover had ever felt like that. He made it to the bathroom to throw up, then crawled back to his cellphone by the bed to call his mother. The last thing he thought of before he passed out was that Brad had never taught him how to crawl on the prosthetic. It worked pretty well.


He woke in the hospital again. He checked his hands first. Left still there, right still robot. With the left, he felt along the familiar edges of the prosthetic and the sleeve. Everything was still there. His hand went up to his head, where it encountered bandages. He tried to lift the prosthetic, but it didn’t move.
A nurse entered the room. “You’re awake!” she said with a West Indian lilt. “Your parents went home but they’ll be back after feeding time, they said.”
“What happened?” he asked.
“Pretty bad infection around the chip in your head, so they took it out. The good news is that the electrodes all scanned fine. They’ll give you a new chip when the swelling goes down, and you’ll be using that fine bit of machinery again in no time.”
She opened the window shade. From the bed, all Andy saw was sky, blue and serene. The best sky to work under. He looked down at the metal arm again, and realized that for the first time in months, he saw the arm, and not Colorado. He could still bring the road – his road – to mind, but he was no longer there. He felt a pang of loss. That was that, then.
When the swelling went down, a new chip was installed in his head. He waited for this one to assert itself, to tell him his arm was a speedboat or a satellite or an elephant’s trunk, but he was alone in his head again. His hand followed his directions, hand-like. Open, close. No cows, no dust, no road.
He asked Susan to get him from the hospital. Partly so his parents wouldn’t have to disrupt their schedules again, and partly because he had something to ask her.
In her car, driving home, he rolled up his left sleeve. “Remember this?” he asked.
She glanced at it and flushed. “How could I forget? I’m sorry, Andy. Nobody should go through life with a tattoo that awful.”
“It’s okay. I was just wondering, well, if you’d maybe fix it. Change it.”
“God, I’d love to! You’re the worst advertisement my business could have. Do you have anything in mind?”
He did. He looked at the jagged letters. The “I” of “LORI” could easily be turned into an A, the whole name disappeared into COLORADO. It was up to him to remember. Somewhere, in some medical waste bin back in Saskatoon, there was a computer chip that knew it was a road. A chip that was an arm that was Andy who was a stretch of asphalt two lanes wide, ninety-seven kilometers long, in eastern Colorado. A stretch that could see all the way to the mountains, but was content not to reach them. Forever and ever.

EP494: The Retgun

by Tim Pratt
read by Rachael Jones

author Tim Pratt

author Tim Pratt

about the author…

Tim Pratt lives in Berkeley, California, with his wife, Heather Shaw and their son River. His fiction and poetry have appeared in The Best American Short StoriesThe Year’s Best Fantasy and HorrorThe Mammoth Book of Best New HorrorStrange HorizonsRealms of FantasyAsimov’sLady Churchill’s Rosebud WristletSubterranean, and Tor.com, among many other places (for complete details, see his bibliography).

His debut collection Little Gods was published in November of 2003. His second collection, Hart & Boot & Other Stories, appeared in January 2007, and was a World Fantasy Award finalist. Third collection Antiquities and Tangibles and Other Stories appeared in 2013.

First novel The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl was published in late 2005. It was nominated for the Mythopoeic Award, and won a Romantic Times Critic’s Choice Award for best Modern Fantasy, and an Emperor Norton Award (which has the coolest trophy ever: a bust of Joshua Norton).

narrator Rachael K. Jones

narrator Rachael K. Jones

about the narrator…

Rachael K. Jones is a science fiction and fantasy author, and the co-editor of Podcastle. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, PodCastle, the Drabblecast, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Crossed Genres, Daily Science Fiction, and Penumbra. She has a degree in English and is currently pursuing a second degree in Speech-Language Pathology. She lives in Athens, GA with her husband and perpetual alpha reader, Jason.

You can follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

The Retgun
by Tim Pratt

If you find yourself squatting over a pit toilet while wearing stiletto heels, you’ve made a few bad choices at some point during the evening. I could have taken off my shoes, but then I’d be barefoot, in the woods, in the half-light of a lantern dangling from a tree branch, standing in whatever you can expect to find on the ground around an artisanal hand-excavated poop hole.

Apparently there was a fashion for high-and-low cultural juxtapositions in this particular dimensional node, hence a full fancy-dress party being held in and around a homemade earth-and-sod house lit only by torches. The hors d’oeuvres were processed cheese foam sprayed on mass-produced crackers, served on silver platters passed around by leggy supermodels dressed in hair shirts and stinking rags, plus prune-wine brewed in a ramshackle still and passed around in crystal goblets. Let me tell you something: prune wine goes right through you, so I didn’t even have to pretend I needed to use the facilities when the time came to get in position.

The pit toilet was well back in the woods, some distance behind the sod house, but it nevertheless came equipped with a scrupulously polite bathroom attendant–he was standing on the lowest branch of a nearby tree–dressed in a green velvet tuxedo and prepared to offer towels, breath mints, and cocaine on demand. Interdimensional travel is often way more boring than you’d expect, but this was not one of the boring times.

Earlier, when I was mingling among the partygoers–the worst human beings this node had to offer–a guy wearing a moth mask had lunged over to me drunkenly, tried to touch my cheek and slurred, “Your skin . . . so beautiful . . . like porcelain . . .”

I’d knocked his hand aside and said, “My skin is like the stuff toilets are made out of?” Proving that I’d had a way overly optimistic idea about the quality of the local toilets.

EP492: The Silent Ones

by Erica Satifka
read by Angela Davis

author Erica Satifka

author Erica Satifka

about the author…

Hello, my name is Erica and I hate writing introductions. But hey, when in Rome. I have published over a dozen short stories in such venues as ShimmerClarkesworld MagazineDaily Science FictionLady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and PodCastle. If you want to read some of my fiction, check out the “Stuff I’ve Written” tab. I am an active member of SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) and am a member of the Codex Writers Group. I am currently at work on a novel for which I will be seeking representation. I work as a freelance editor, and teach classes on SF/F writing at Portland Community College.

I used to live in Pittsburgh, then in Baltimore, and now, Portland (Oregon)! I have three cats and a spouse named Rob, who writes the review blog Panel Patter. When I’m not writing/editing/teaching, I enjoy riding my bicycle, knitting, playing outdated computer games from the early aughts, and adding to my collection of tattoos.Twitter: @ericasatifka
E-mail: satifka at gmail dot com

narrator Angela Davisabout the narrator…

I am an American voice talent living in Norway. When not admiring mountains, I can be found recording for a variety of projects at home.

The Silent Ones
by Erica L. Satifka

The year travel opens up between alternate Earths is the first year you fall in love, with a strapping farm boy from one of the rural worlds named Paul. He takes you to a barn dance thrown by his people, where you learn to smoke a corncob pipe. His sister, a tiny girl with saucer eyes and dirty hair, steals your purse. You’re too hammered to mind.
You get drunk on apple wine and fuck Paul behind a haystack while a band of his cousins screeches on their fiddles and moans in that unintelligible alternate-world dialect of theirs. At the pale green Formica kitchen table, Paul gives you a stick-and-poke tattoo of his initials inside a heart.
But when your six days are up, it’s back through the travel gate with you, and no more Paul. You mope for weeks, watching but not performing the calisthenics exercises on television, alternating handfuls of candy and amphetamines. Finally, your two best girl friends drag you from your home – “Don’t be such a drag!” – and bring you to the club.
And that’s when you see your first silent one. With the robes and everything. Shit. He’s sipping a martini, looking totally out of place, bopping his head to a spastic electroclash beat. Club soda rises up your nose, coming close to spilling out.
“Hey, get a load of that,” Sydney says, poking you in the ribs.
You laugh. It’s pretty hilarious.
“Rocks pretty hard for someone who dresses like a Druid.”
“Shut up,” you say. “He’ll hear you.” But when you look over again, he’s already left the bar area, his martini abandoned.
“Beam me up, Scotty,” Sydney jeers through gulps of rum and Coke.
You’re disappointed. You wanted to watch him more; it’s a new thing to you. But already you can tell that the band’s as weak as the club soda. No wonder he left. Bum scene.
“Hey, I’m out of here. Tell Randa.” You escape Sydney’s talons and light up in the parking lot. Thirty yards away a glowing red orb that pulses like your cigarette’s tip hangs at crop duster level. You turn away, vaguely ashamed. It’s like when you were seven and accidentally spilled milk into the aquarium, becoming an instant murderer. Your parents didn’t really care, but you did.
Not everything happens all the time, everywhere.
That’s the first line on every bit of literature dealing with the alternate worlds. Want to visit a world where the triple World Wars never happened? You can. Want to see a place where computers run on steam power and even the horses wear corsets? Go for it.
Or you can just muck about in a world full of beautiful hillbillies or debauched Atlanteans. That’s more your personal speed, anyway.
Most of the planes open for travel aren’t that different from your world. The atmosphere has to be breathable, at least, and it’s helpful if the inhabitants are roughly human, and mostly your size. Nothing will destroy a plane’s Yelp rating quite like a tourist crushed by forty-foot-tall giants.
Nobody stays in an alternate world for long. The languages aren’t remotely learnable, and the social structures are often even denser. But it sure beats a week at Grand Cayman!
You keep the glossy travel brochures in your nightstand. Sometimes you fan them out, a little universe. And only fifteen days of vacation a year, you think wistfully.
The following autumn the government finally decides to do something about the widespread cultural cross-contamination propounded mostly by visitors from the more religiously-inclined planes. Cops catch saffron-robed adherents of a syncretic faith wheatpasting suras onto the sides of subway cars; a Ming vase with a detailed depiction of the Crucifixion shows up in the Smithsonian. Big deal, you think. Histories are made to be broken.
You are given the opportunity for a sabbatical, but you can only afford to go to one of those really crappy Central American commune worlds that don’t even have bathrooms, so you postpone it. You think of Paul every morning when you layer foundation over your tattoo. His sister took out a credit card in your name that first month. It was a bitch to cancel; you’re glad he’s gone.
Sydney and Randa take you to the beach instead, and you lose two weeks’ salary in a slot machine. A little peeved, you lounge on the pier in your sheerest camisole, watching the red lighted orbs dart and scatter along the darkened shore.
They’ve been showing up more frequently now, eliciting a minor amount of concern by the tinfoil hat crowd. On the beach below, teenagers lob beer cans at the orbs, which scuttle away, only to be herded back to a central location. You watch as a baker’s dozen of red lights are forced into congregation, then look back at the teenagers on the sanded ground.
“Blast-off!” yells a jock in a white cap. A firecracker shoots from a puny metal stand, and you remember, yeah, it’s Independence Day. The orbs flicker wildly and scatter like birds at a shot. One falls, and another teenager rushes to intercept.
“Ow, fuck! It’s hot! My hand!”
“Serves you right, idiot,” you say, loud enough for everyone on the beach below to hear you. It’s not loud enough to reach the teenagers, who have already dispersed to pick on a tribe of old people foolishly walking the beach after dusk.
A deaf man hands you a card with three globes and a squiggly line printed on it.
“Sorry, I don’t have any money.” As if your camisole had pockets or something.
But as you look at him, really see, you realize it’s a silent one convincingly dressed as a beachcomber, in a rumpled tee shirt, red visor pulled low over his eyes. His eyes are a light purple that just doesn’t exist in your world’s genetics.
“Well, what do you know.” Except for the eyes he’s not a bad-looking guy, a bit flabby around the middle, fitting in better than the one in the club a year ago. You hold up the card. “So what does this mean, hmm?”
He smiles with all his teeth, points up.
“You’re from space, is that it? You come from those red things?” He shakes his head no. “Okay, I give up. What are you doing here?”
Another grin, and a sound from his throat that sounds like a grinding gear. He flaps his hands frantically and spins in a close circle.
“You want me to buy you a drink? Hey, I’ve got some friends with me, how about we all go out for some drinks, big guy?” You’re taunting him, and it makes you feel sick, like you’re no better than those teenagers on the beach. But the guy’s almost asking for it. You cock a finger. “This way.”
He follows like an eager puppy, his pointless visor attracting attention. There’s no real code of etiquette for the silent ones, but you have the feeling that what you’re doing is so totally wrong. They’ll serve him, of course. But this kind of thing just isn’t done. You halt, and he collides with you.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was doing. Stay here.” His eyes glisten, quizzical. “Don’t follow me in.”
He understands. He starts to pace away, but then breaks into a full run, diving off the pier onto the beach, the weirdo. Only a few people have gathered at the edge. You look down and there is nothing there.
You are cold in your camisole.
That autumn, a red lighted orb runs for Congress on a write-in campaign. It doesn’t win, but it’s a step forward. So say the major television commentators, anyway.
Randa takes a long weekend in an orgy world and never comes back. Rumors spread that travel between planes is being severely restricted. You wire Paul, no response. It’s hard not to think of the alternates as being fake worlds, their inhabitants somehow lesser. You wonder if maybe that’s the reason you slept with Paul.
At the grocery store, you wait in line behind an orb with two small satellites circling it. Children? You think you should know more about these things. After all, you’ll be working for them next week; they bought the firm. But what do you do? Tap it on the shoulder and say hello?
You feel, for a moment, hunted. Like something small, furry, and endangered.
It passes.
In the parking lot you spy a hooded woman kneeling next to your car. She is siphoning the gas with a black hose.
“Get out of here!”
But she just watches you, blank-faced, the siphon hanging out of the side of her mouth like a piece of black licorice. With a gulp she swallows a mouthful of Texas tea, then reaches into her pocket, hands you a card.
One word, scrawled in ballpoint pen by a childish hand: GO.
“This is my car, psycho.” You take her by the shoulder and pull her to her feet, rough. Her thousand-yard stare is directed at the grocery store. Looking behind you, you see the family of red lights, the small planetoids of children spinning around their mother. You look back to your car. The silent woman opens her mouth wide, as if screaming. Her face glows with rage. You realize that she is screaming.
The silent woman takes the opportunity to wrest herself from your grip. She uncaps the bottle of gas and launches it at the largest of the red lights, the mother. Within five seconds, she’s removed a match from her pocket and struck it. You slap her wrist.
Her face droops in disappointment. Shaking her head, she walks behind your car, of course disappearing as soon as you think to follow her. The orb family drifts away, gasoline dripping from them with a pat-pat-pat.
A family of red lights moves in across the street. It keeps you up with its constant glowing, like a burning brand.
Be more tolerant, you tell yourself. It’s how they communicate. Or, so it would seem. What other reason?
You keep the two index cards gathered from the silent ones, the card labeled GO and the card filled with chickenscratch, in your wallet. You don’t know why. Maybe they are the last silent ones you will ever see. You haven’t seen a single one since that hooded woman attempted to burn the family a month ago.
I should have let her do it. The thought comes unbidden, unwanted, and you hate yourself for it. An alien species comes to Earth for the first time ever, and you want to kill it. Some shining example of humanity you are.
Still, as the light on your cigarette’s tip reflects in the curve of your wineglass shaped like a woman’s torso, you think about a dead culture inhabiting some shitty South Pacific island, stringing broken beads around their conquerors’ necks, not realizing that it was too late to do anything until it was, in fact, too late.
Slowly, your neighborhood becomes a red light district.
As the red lights move in, the city is remade. Doors are widened, then dropped altogether, in favor of three-sided buildings open to the elements. It’s November and you freeze in two layers of clothing and three scarves. When you ask the super why she’s done this terrible thing, she just shrugs.
But thank the heavens above, television still exists. You flip through the three hundred entertainment options until you find some news, any news, you don’t care about the slant.
It’s a Presidential press conference. In the three-walled White House, the President stands bundled in four coats behind a thicket of fungus-like microphones. Behind him, the White House dog roasts on a spit.
Well, that’s weird, you think, until you see how gaunt the President is. No surprise there. You haven’t had a decent meal yourself in a week.
He opens his mouth for a hearty my-fellow-Americans, but nothing comes out. He grins sheepishly and shrugs. You throw a stiletto heel at the television, expecting it to crack, but it doesn’t even make it halfway there.
You attempt a test. Leaving your house you turn to the sky and scream. “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you! Get off our planet!” Nothing comes out at all.
Well, that settles it. You go back inside. The president warms his hands over a burning pile of papers. Enough of this. You pack. You prepare. You wait.
You’ve Amtraked it to a travel gate they haven’t yet shut down, somewhere in a Dakota, similar to Paul’s version of Earth. You didn’t know places like this still existed, cut away like this. All the houses here still have four walls.
You touch your stick-and-poke tattoo, and smile.
Standing on a street corner, you take out the small pile of cards you assembled on the train ride. Writing them was difficult. You can still speak your name and the phrase “Here’s my ticket,” but when someone asks you what you’re doing here, even that is glued over.
No matter. You have the cards. And some of them are even legible.
There must be Earths they haven’t yet reached, planes still untouched. You remember what the glossy travel brochures said about the alternate worlds when they were first discovered: not everything happens all the time, everywhere.
In another place, people are free. All you have to do is get to the gate. Just get to the gate. It’s a golden half-moon, like a giant dull penny sticking out of the prairie. Just get to the gate.
The attendants, clad in super-serious black and silver uniforms, aren’t saying much either. As you go down the line, into the barely-used travel gate, you hand each of them a card.
FIGHT, you say to the man with cornrows who hands you the ticket.
FIGHT, you say to the old woman who punches it, her lips puckered tight like a coin purse.
FIGHT, you say to the young woman who hands you a sack lunch. Not all alternate worlds have food that you can digest.
Almost as an afterthought, you raise the hood on your parka, shielding your face from detection. It’s not as good as a robe, but maybe you’ll get that in the next world, if it’s still untouched by the invaders.
The gate’s set to random, and that’s just the way you want it. You feel the familiar slicing sensation, like a cheese grater being taken to your skin, and then another plane of another Earth opens up before you like a vista on a transcontinental flight after you’ve broken through the clouds. There’s a street, and a bus stop, and an orange sky, and not much else.
The people here will mock your stolen voice, sure, and the way you act and the clothes you wear, but enough will pay attention. You’ll devise new ways of communicating without writing or speech. Sidelong glances and interesting smells, perhaps.
This time, this world, it has to be different. You shoulder your bag, ruffle the cards in your pocket, and start walking.

EP490: Flowers for Algernon

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.

EP488: In Another Life

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?

EP478: People of the Shell

by Brian Trent
read by Jeff Ronner


author Brian Trent

author Brian Trent

about the author…

I am a novelist, screenwriter, producer, poet, actor, and freethinker who supports both imagination and rationalism. I am an advocate for film and the written word and possibility.

I am a recent (2013) winner in the Writers of the Future contest and have since had work accepted in Escape Pod (“The Nightmare Lights of Mars”), Daily Science Fiction, Apex (winning the 2013 Story of the Year Reader’s Poll), Clarkesworld, COSMOS, Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, Penumbra, and Electric Velocipede.

narrator Jeff Ronner

narrator Jeff Ronner

about the narrator…

Jeff Ronner is a voice actor, audio engineer, and sound designer. His work has appeared in radio and TV spots, non-commercial narrations, and on those annoying in-store supermarket PA systems. Cleverly disguised as a mild-mannered hospital IT manager during the day, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Jeff last read for us in EP439: Cradle and Ume


People of the Shell
by Brian Trent

Egypt’s rolling ice-dunes were suddenly peppered by a new ashstorm, as if a bowl of soot had overturned in the heavens. King Cyrus held up his fist and the war drummer ceased his rhythmic pounding, the oarsmen relaxed, and the sandship ground to a halt in the slush. The ash sprinkled Cyrus’ cloak and collected in his beard. He leaned against the deck rails and stared.

“Do you see that?” Cyrus asked his daughter, lowering his facemask around his smile. “Look!”

The girl squinted. “Are those the pyramids, father?”

“As I promised you.”

Three fires danced high in the darkness. In a world of never-ending night, the Egyptians alone had devised a brilliant defiance. The Giza pyramids were like magical lighthouses, capstones removed, their vast bodies filled with pitch, and red fires lit to smolder like desperate offerings to the vanished sun.

Standing on the sandship deck alongside his king, the Magus Jamshid said, “May they welcome us warmly. We are in no condition to fight.”

“I did not need a fight to take Babylon,” Cyrus reminded him.

“That was before the Hammerstrike, my lord.”

But the king waved his hand dismissively. “I will go to them and look in their eyes, and speak to them as friends, and trust that generosity has not perished with the trees.”

The withered magus grunted derisively. He was bearded and ancient, his skin like the patina of old scrolls. Jamshid wore a dark blue turban, facemask, and a scintillating black robe the same color as his pitched eyebrows. His gaze smoked like hot iron.

The royal sandship stood at the head of the royal Persian fleet. It sounded majestic, Cyrus thought, but only four sandships – with a meager two hundred starving Persians – remained. The men resembled skeletons in their rags. Their leather armor was reduced to chewed twines that the men fisted in their hands, to nibble on in want of food. When the last of the leather was eaten, little trace would remain that animals had ever existed on the Earth.

Cyrus turned to their dirtied ranks. “I give you Egypt!” he bellowed. “It is still here, as I promised!”

Hunger, not hope, blazed in their eyes as they beheld the pyramid fires.

Jamshid touched his arm. “Sire! The runner is returning!”

Cyrus followed the magus’ gnarled brown hand. He saw only falling ash and smoky miasma curling from the ice.

A moment later, the scout emerged into the fleet’s amber lamplight. The man saw the royal sandship and dug his spiked boots into the ice to stop hard. The archers relaxed their bows.

“Sandship, my lord!” the young man cried. “Approaching dark and fast from the southeast!”

“Banner?” Cyrus asked.

“I have not set eyes on it. They run dark.”

“They have seen our lamps,” the magus guessed.

Cyrus stooped to his daughter. She was such a tiny thing, like a miniature of his wife, with an oval brown face and her hair pulled back in the royal style. “Go into the cabin, my dear.”

She nodded and bit her lip. “Are you going to kill people, father?”

“I hope not.”

“Are they going to kill us?”

“Not while I live.”

The Season

It’s a new year!  Celebrations and congratulations all around, as we have successfully survived, both as a species and as individuals (presuming you are reading this text from a computer and not, like, Valhalla).  That means, however, a new awards season is coming.  If you want to support Escape Pod, then please, feel free to nominate us for awards such as the Hugos, the Nebulas, or the Parsecs.  Escape Pod publishes both text and audio, so that gives some flexibility in how you nominate us.  For example, with the Hugos we are eligible for Best Fancast and Best Semi-Pro-Zine.

We’d also love to see some of the authors we publish see their own work highlighted.  The stories are, after all, the whole point of the exercise.  With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the award-eligible fiction we ran in 2014.

The following short stories were originally published in EscapePod in 2014:

That Other Sea,” by William Ledbetter

Kumara,” by Seth Dickinson

An Understanding,” by Holly Heisey

To Waste,” by Luke Pebler

Rockwork,” by R. M. Graves

The Sky is Blue, and Bright, and Full of Stars,” by Edward Ashton

Checkmate,” by Brian Trent

Trash,” by Marie Vibbert

Inseparable,” by Liz Heldmann

Shared Faces,” by Anaea Lay

The Mercy of Theseus,” by Rachael K. Jones

Soft Currency,” by Seth Gordon

The Golden Glass” by Gary Kloster

The following stories were originally published somewhere else in 2014, but reprinted in Escape Pod that same year. (If you want to nominate any of these, please do so naming the original venue, even if you heard them first with us.):

The Transdimensional Horsemaster Rabbis of Mpumalanga Province,” by Sarah Pinsker, originally published in Asimov’s

A Struggle Between Rivals Ends Surprisingly,” by Oliver Buckram, originally published in F&SF

Repo,” by Aaron Gallagher, originally published in Analog

Enjoy the Moment,” by Jack McDevitt, originally published in the anthology “The End is Nigh

This is as I Wish to Be Restored” by Christie Yant, originally published in Analog

Hat tip to datameister David Steffen of Diabolical Plots for volunteering to help put this list together!