about the author… Helena Bell is a poet and writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina where she is an MFAcandidate in Fiction at NC State University. She has a BA, another MFA, a JD, and an LLMin Taxation which fulfills her lifelong ambition of having more letters follow her name than are actually in it. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Workshop and her fiction and poetry have appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Electric Velocipede, the Indiana Review, Margie Review, Pedestal Magazine and Rattle. Her story “Robot” was a nominee for the 2012 Nebula Award for Best Short Story, and her website is www.helbell.com.
about the narrator… Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas with her husband of twenty-five years and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming and gardening. She has a self-published novel entitled An Unproductive Woman, has published a at Escape Pod and has a story upcoming in the An Alphabet of Embers anthology, STRAEON 3, and Diabolical Plots. Khaalidah is the Assistant Editor at Podcastle. She is on a mission to encourage more women to submit SFF stories.
Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth.
You can catch her posts at her website, www.khaalidah.com, and you can follow her on twitter, @khaalidah.
by Helena Bell
The last part of himself my husband will lose to his ghost will be his teeth. There will be a graying out, a glint of silver as the calcium is absorbed, repurposed. A few may be pushed out to fall onto his pillow like pale, rotten splinters. The process will take days or only hours depending on the molecular compatibility between the human and Sentin. My husband has excellent compatibility, they tell me. We are so lucky.
When my husband and his ghost sleep, I lift the corners of his mouth and peer inside him with a dim flashlight. Incisor, cuspid, molar. I count the line of them and wonder at what age each came in. I think of his older brothers tying one end of a string around one of his baby teeth, the other to a brick to be thrown from a second floor balcony. I think of the first apple he ever tried to eat, of pulling back to find a tiny bump of white against the red skin. Sometimes I count his teeth twice, itching to run my finger along his gums to feel for the metal threads racing through his body. The doctors tell me we have decades left, but they have been wrong before.
My husband’s ghost began as a silver fist clenched at the center of his spleen. A team of technicians placed it there, a tangle of wires and other bits which they claimed would absorb and reconstitute his damaged tissue. Sentin is not self-aware, they said; it is not alive in the usual sense. It can neither feel nor understand, merely mimic the thing which came before. When it senses potential failure, it stretches its roots like a weed, eliminating the weak and buttressing the strong.
We each held the ball of putty in our hands, pulling and stretching it to see if we could break it. We marveled at how it snapped back to its original, perfect shape each time.
Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and at 23 now writes from Edmonton, Alberta. His speculative fiction received the 2014 Dell Award and 2012 Rannu Prize for Writers of Speculative Fiction, and has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon Prize, while his literary short work has been nominated for both the Pushcart and Journey Prize. He was a semifinalist for the 2013 Norman Mailer Poetry Prize, and in 2011 his novel Devolution was a finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Alongside writing, he enjoys soccer, basketball, foreign languages, travel, sketching, and pool..
about the narrator…
Nathaniel Lee is Escape Pod’s assistant editor and sometime contributor. His writing can be found at various online venues, including Daily Science Fiction, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and all of the EA podcasts. He lives somewhat unwillingly in North Carolina with his wife and son and their obligatory authorial cats.
This story, like teenagers, contains copious amounts of profanity.
Mexican by birth, Canadian by inclination. Silvia’s debut novel, Signal to Noise, about music, magic and Mexico City, was released in 2015 by Solaris.
Silvia’s first collection, This Strange Way of Dying, was released in 2013 and was a finalist for The Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her stories have also been collected in Love & Other Poisons. She was a finalist for the Manchester Fiction Prize and a winner of the Vanderbilt/Exile Short Fiction Competition.She has edited several anthologies, including She Walks in Shadows, Sword & Mythos, Fungi. Dead North and Fractured.Silvia is the publisher of Innsmouth Free Press, a Canadian micro-publishing venture specializing in horror and dark speculative fiction.To contact Silvia e-mail her at silvia AT silviamoreno-garcia DOT com. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.
Silvia is represented by Eddie Schneider at the JABberwocky Literary Agency.
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.
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Leonardo says that the Americans are going to fire some rockets and free us from the tyranny of the aliens and I say: who gives a shit. Lemme tell you something: It wasn’t super-awesome around here before the aliens. At least we get three meals every day now.
I used to live in a cardboard house with a tin roof and collected garbage for a living. They called my home a ‘lost city’ but they should’ve called it ‘fucked city.’
Leonardo talks about regaining our freedom, ‘bout fighting and shit. What damn freedom? You think I had freedom in the slums? Leonardo can talk freedom out his ass because he had money before this thing started and he saw too many American movies where they kill the monsters with big guns.
I’m not an idiot. The cops used to do their little “operations” in our neighborhood. They’d come in and arrest everyone, take everything. They weren’t Hollywood heroes out to help people. They were fucking assholes and I don’t see why they would have changed. As for American soldiers saving the day: You think they give a rat’s ass ‘bout Mexico City? You think they’re going to fly here in their helicopters and save us?
I say fuck that shit. I never had no freedom. Leonardo can go piss himself. (Continue Reading…)
I’m fascinated by how people put amazingness together. Or awfulness (Let’s not pretend schadenfreude doesn’t happen). What field’s doing the assembly changes quite frequently. Sometimes I even try putting together some of it myself. I refuse to comment on which end of the A to A spectrum that falls on.
by Jason Kimble
My favorite part about skimming is that I’m not broken when I do it. It doesn’t matter that I don’t have levels, that I’m on or off, because that’s how everything’s supposed to be when you’re in the hypernet. Even if I’m not supposed to be in the hypernet.
I’m only able to skim because Kaipo left my interface node on. That was the day he told me I could call him Kaipo instead of Dr. Singh. His eyes are different than mine, but that’s not because of the Skew, and even if it is I wouldn’t care, because they’re pretty and dark and they twinkle a little bit when he smiles. We’d had sex twice when he told me I could call him Kaipo if we’re alone. Sex is almost as good as skimming, only it doesn’t last as long, and sometimes I’m stinky afterwards, which I’m not a fan of. Sometimes Kaipo smells like pumpkin, which I’m totally a fan of.
“Hi, Heady,” I say, rolling onto my side on the bed to look at her. I frown, which I know because the muscles at my jawbone ache a little when I frown. “Did you hear all that?”
Heady raises an eyebrow and purses her lips. Heady’s my big sister. Like, really big. Eight and a half feet big. That’s what the Skew did to her, blew her up bigger than life, but I think it suits her. She’s not as tough as she looks to most people, though. She’s totally as tough as she looks to me right now.
“Sorry,” I say, sitting up. “Sometimes I get confused about outside and inside my head.” That’s what the Skew did to me: broke my head. You can see that when I cut my hair or trim my beard, because the hairs change colors each time. Other people tell me it’s silly, but I like it. I can never decide if I like red or blue or green or purple or yellow more, and this way I get to have them all, and all’s better than some.
“Don’t worry, Sy,” she says, because Sy’s my name. “You never have to apologize to me.”
She smiles, and the muscles in my cheeks tense up so I know I’m smiling, too. She’s a good big sister, Heady. Even if she’s not real. (Continue Reading…)
That would be me. Michael J. DeLuca. Writer, reader, dreamer, designer, brewer, baker, photographer, philosopher. Would-be ecoterrorist. False prophet. Liberal.
I’m a freelance web designer/developer as well. I have an undergraduate CS degree nobody knows about from a middlingly prestigious east coast university. I’ve been doing this for awhile (10+ years now), I’m not bad at it, and I usually can use more of it to do. Without it, I wouldn’t have enough money to keep myself alive, let alone keep writing (which not unlike crime, doesn’t really pay (me) (see that? nested parenthesis, that’s how you know I’m really a programmer)).
about the narrator…
Paul Cram grew up performing on stage and in more recent years traveling the United States working on independent films.
Paul’s voice is newer to the world of audio than it is to other acting forms. Fans of his voice will hopefully be excited to hear that he has two full-length audio books that came out this year: Zombie apocalypse novel FLIRTING WITH DEATH, and Sci-fi thriller THE FACE STEALER (think X Files or BBC’s Torchwood & Dr. Who.)Cram was most recently seen on set for the feature film WILSON opposite Woody Harrelson, and ANNIVERSARY shot in Maine, USA by movie director Jim Cole.
When not on a movie set or in a recording booth, Paul can be found deep-frying chicken wings with his sister in her kitchen, or quarreling about pop-culture with his little brother around one the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota.
Morning flooded the transparent womb of the ob room. Knuckling his aching skull, Hector twitched the opacity up to a tolerable level and set down his tea, then took the pod out over the ag. The fight with Mela the night before had not been pleasant, but work, he was perpetually astonished to discover, never failed to cheer him.
The conduit was a brilliant white spear overhead, broken by ribs of fair-weather cloud. The ag spread into haze in every direction, curving gently upward with the concavity of the Hypatia’s hull: chessboard squares of rippling corn, glittering rice paddies, apple plots flowering white. Here and there, a skeletal hulk loomed indistinct–some remnant structure of the ship’s propulsion systems, long-dismantled; shade crops grew among latticed shadows.
The crowd of Workers waited below, lens-tipped appendages craned upward. He smiled, in spite of the headache and the persistent awareness that no matter how he chose to rationalize it, everything Mela had said was true. He called up the log feeds. Foreman, they were saying. Foreman, we need your understanding.
He brought the ob room down among them. A grand menagerie they made, his subjects, each finely adapted to its task: delicate pollinators, long-limbed harvesters, knob-treaded aerators, juggernaut ploughs. “You don’t need me,” he said. “Your designers gave you all the understanding you need. But I’m here, ready to listen. I’ll help if I can.”
The oldest of the ploughs rolled forward. Your understanding grants us insight into the will of our designers.
The Workers appreciated repetition. They were simple beings, the product of their design. They believed in an infallible, benevolent humanity the way humanity once believed in angels, the way so many Relics now believed in their inscrutable alien creator, the Ix. And Hector was their ambassador, though he’d only held this job a month and the designers were fifty generations dead.
H1703 has had a dream, said the plough.
The Workers’ reactions flooded the feeds with the euphemistic, agricultural info-speak they used among themselves, too much to decipher. Excitement, urgency. They didn’t know what to think. (Continue Reading…)
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
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. (Continue Reading…)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, Fireside, Stupefying Stories, and PULP Literature, and in anthologies including Long Hidden, Fierce 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.
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 Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, Asimov’s, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Subterranean, 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).
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.
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.