Tag: "aliens"

EP576: Karma Among the Cloud Kings

AUTHOR: Brian Trent

NARRATOR: Ellora Sen-Gupta

HOST: Mur Lafferty

about the author…
Brian Trent’s speculative fiction appears in Escape Pod, Pseudopod, ANALOG, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Great Jones Street, Daily Science Fiction, Apex (winning the Story of the Year Reader’s Poll), COSMOS, Galaxy’s Edge, Nature, and numerous year’s best anthologies. The author of the historical fantasy series RAHOTEP, he is also a 2015 Baen Fantasy Adventure Award finalist and Writers of the Future winner. Trent lives in New England, where he works as a novelist, screenwriter, and poet.

 

 

about the narrator…Displaying Ellora_Sen-Gupta_portraitByDanBullman.jpg

Ellora Sen-Gupta is a (currently Boston-based) biomedical engineer who often disguises herself as a voice over narrator and photographer among other roles. She has a great love of animals, miniatures, miniature animals, books and comics, exploring, tv cartoons, etc. Ellora is happiest when she is traveling the world with her family or friends but can also be delighted to sit home with her pets and some arts and crafts and/or Netflix.

Karma Among the Cloud Kings

By Brian Trent

I.

Fifty thousand feet above Tempest’s highest clouds, Antarag Vel-heth invites me to sit beside him in the lobby of Lindorm Refueling Station. It’s a desolate, littered expanse of tables, party-streamers, and plastic people with unceasingly flapping jaws.

What… what are they doing?” I whisper, sweating despite the room’s merciless air conditioner.

Eating,” Antarag winks. “Talking.” His pitted skin stretches like a weather-beaten tarp across a knobby skeleton and skull of aquiline protrusions.

The plastic people have no food that I can see. One of them leaps up from its chair, arms raised in silent declaration while the others applaud with rubbery hands. Discolored mouths swing open and shut on cheap hinges.

Antarag grins at me with pained, frank interest—I wonder when the last time he’s had a real, flesh-and-blood female visitor up here with him. He knows I’m from Bellcap 51. He knows we’re all Jains there, with our shaved heads, monastic robes, and vows of celibacy. Still, my eyes dart nervously to his holstered pistol.

I ask, “What are they eating?”

He taps his forearm gauntlet. Menu options unfurl in neon petals. “That one’s eating steak and potato pancakes,” he says, pointing to one guest whose plastic body appears to have been assembled Frankenstein-style from at least six different modular components. ”Those two girls are eating sushi—” he motions to a pair of androgynous mannequins who are miming the use of chopsticks, bringing invisible morsels to their skeleton jaws. “We’ve got blihabi caviar, fresh raspberries, Osirian felsacs, comet cakes, beef stroganoff, flame-roasted marrow. Name it, I’ve got it. Ten million foods from across the galaxy.”

Antarg has lent me a spare visor; I fit it over my eyes and ears. The plastic people disappear and I now see them as they see each other: a revelry of beautiful men and women. The men are square-jawed and chiseled. The women are elegant and buxom; my eyes stray to the jewelry sparkling at their throats and fingers. Thudding music weaves among the sudden babble of voices.

A pretty girl like you, Preema, should have jewelry like that,” Antarag says, following my stare. He has changed, too: the sickly-looking Ladder Controlman is now a muscular brute in a diamond-studded suit. No longer balding, his scalp has grown a lustrous mane like a cobra’s hood.

I lift the visor; the beautiful people vanish back into plastic monstrosities. One falls out of its chair, and the others erupt into silent apoplexies of laughter, clutching their plastic bellies, tilting their heads back like a nightmare of howling skeletons.

We do not wear jewelry,” I say, feeling dampness hatch across my shaved scalp.

And you don’t eat meat, right?” he presses me, rotating his chair, legs splayed in a crude invite.

We do not eat meat. We do not eat physical food at all.”

He nods, eyes prowling over my shapeless robe as if he can see straight to my lean, brown, twenty-two-year-old body. “No food, huh? So where do you get your sustenance from?”

The sun.”

Photosynthesis? Shouldn’t your skin be green, then?”

I make the green receptors flush into visibility on my face and hands. Each one displays itself in radiant Sanskrit. Each curve and loop signifies a Jain value: Peace. Nonviolence. Knowledge. Truth.

His grin widens a millimeter. “Do those things appear all over your body, Preema?”

Ignoring this unwelcome lechery, I say, “Their real bodies are in orbit, waiting for their ships to refuel. Would they not prefer real food, then?”

Illusion is more satisfying, girl.”

But even if it looks like real food, how do you convince them that it has taste and substance?”

Antarag draws his arm around my shoulders, wires dangling like weeds off his neurocast suit. “Most of it is just vibration,” he says proudly. “The neurocast suit vibrates at key frequencies along the jawline. It creates whatever parameters of resistance a meal should have. The shrimp is crisp, the steak rare, the felsac pops between your teeth.”

But the taste of the food…”

Are you craving something? You are, aren’t you?” His fingers tickle the gauntlet holodisplay. “How about glass noodles? That’s an ancient Buddhist delight, you know.”

We are Jains, not Buddhists.”

You’re a flesh-and-blood woman with a real body beneath that robe,” he counters. “Put on one of these suits and you can try anything you like—any sensory delight—without breaking your damn vows. And not just food.” Antarag points to a dusty sofa, where two grinning mannequins thrust and grind against each other, a mirthless war of attrition that has produced the stress fractures I’ve observed on many-a-pelvis here. “I don’t understand how you all hang out in Bellcap 51, guys and gals together, and no one does anything.”

It is one of our oaths,” I explain, and drinking in the view of the nightmarish party, think: does this man have any oaths whatsoever? What are his values?

A third voice intrudes into our conversation—I’d almost forgotten that Indrani had accompanied me up the space elevator. She is Bellcap 51’s matronly, middle-aged supervisor and my direct commanding officer.

Antarag?” Indrani asks. “If Preema were to wear your visor, would she look like you to the guests?”

The Ladder Controlman barely acknowledges the older woman’s presence; his eyes are locked on me. “Yes. Everyone here can be anything they want, even me.”

Indrani’s eyes shimmer purposefully in her aged face. “Borrowing someone’s karma. Interesting. Don’t you agree, Preema?”

Antarag rubs his chin thoughtfully. “As I recall, one of your sacred oaths is to always tell the truth.”

To never tell a lie,” I correct him, motioning for his visor. “May I?”

He absently hands me his visor. “I’d like to ask you something, Preema. And I expect you to tell me the truth.”

The tone in his voice tells me something’s wrong. I stiffen, realizing too late that he’s known all along, that he’s been playing us, drawing us into a comfortable web. I lick my dry lips and say, as calmly as my galloping heart will allow, “Yes?”

He raises an eyebrow and his pitted skin flushes to a deep scarlet; it’s like looking at raw meat. “Why did you come up here today, Preema? What’s the real reason you people stopped by for a visit?”

And just then, the security alarm goes off.

II.

We had fled a paradise planet to come to Tempest.

Two years ago I was a twenty-year-old girl tending the gardens of a Jain village on Midsummer’s Dream. Now I toiled in a hydrogen-collecting station among the clouds of a bitter, lonely world. Tempest is Shakespeare System’s only gas giant. It supplies planets, moons, and space stations with fuel. It’s clouds are dotted with atmoprocessing stations—the Bellcaps—tethered like flowers along the metal vines that trail off Lindorm Refueling Station, fifty thousand feet above us.

My job on Midsummer’s Dream: grow vegetables.

My job on Tempest: climb into a tight-fitting biosuit and walk vertically along the Bellcap spires to keep them clean of debris. Tempest’s atmosphere is littered with scraps of bygone processor stations, built in haste by colonists who didn’t appreciate what relentless winds could do to man’s handiwork. Each spire is a three kilometer-long lance through Tempest’s cobalt-hued clouds. Each collects planetary hydrogen day and night, pumping the gas straight up to Lindorm Refueling Station where ships from across the solar system come to refuel. A gas pump for spacefaring society.

Walking the spires, cleaning them of the constant debris flurries, is dangerous work.

It would be easier to take the lift.

And this is why we never take the lift,” Komal explained over my headset, the day before I met Antarag Vel-heth and his party of plastic people.

I looked to his boots, gaping at the easy way he was balanced on only one foot, the other paused mid-stride just inches from a slug clinging to the spire like an oversized raspberry. It’s one thing to know that our magfiber boots form a molecular bond with the spire. It’s quite another to be this sure-footed while walking it. Glowing debris whipped through the air like confetti, bursting as they touched the electrified bristles which lined the spire like thorns on a rose-stem.

Think of all the slugs crushed by the lift before we arrived,” Komal explained, his bearded mouth frowning behind his faceplate. He bent to cradle the specimen in his hands. It flattened its rubbery body in fear, and Komal petted its striated flank reassuringly, saying, “Thousands, maybe millions, of undocumented murders. They are safe now that we are here.”

No harm to any living thing, that was the Jain oath of Ahimsa.

I forgive all living beings,” whispered Komal, uttering our sacred prayer, “and may all living beings forgive me. All living beings are my friends. I have malice towards none. I—”

BOOM!

The shockwave twisted me and for an instant, I thought my boots had lost contact with the spire. I screamed and fell forward on the vertical spire, striking my hands out at the last second so my gloves, arms, and knees would bond with the nanosteel. My stomach almost emptied the water I had swallowed an hour ago. In that moment, I imagined the report that would reach my old friends on Midsummer’s Dream: Preema Goswami, 22, fell thousands of feet to her death. Tempest’s Jains made her walk outside in a storm out of fear for stepping on a slug…

Komal finally tossed the specimen into the wind. It snapped open its frills and, like an umbrella, caught an updraft to vanish into the debris-strewn clouds. Only then did he turn his sensitive eyes on me; his was a worn, deeply-lined countenance set in that bushy beard. “Are you all right, Preema?”

I harnessed my anger. “Yes, Komal. Nice of you to notice that I almost—”

BOOM!

As I lay glued to the nanosteel, I turned my head south. An immense debris strand had become coiled around the end of the spire. Blind luck, really, that it had missed the electrified bristles. It made me think of the ancient custom of tying a string around one’s finger to never forget. Its two ends undulated like a pair of waving arms, unfolding and twisting in mindless, wind-driven merriment.

I rose carefully to my feet. The fiery ribbon danced, its arms snapping in bullwhip-like gyrations with enough kinetic energy to—

BOOM!

It looks alive, doesn’t it?” Komal asked behind me.

A little,” I admitted, steadying my feet. The ribbon’s contortions suggested the jiva of life. But I knew—everyone knew—that Tempest’s pollution was ajiva: nonliving, artificial matter. The only living creatures on Tempest were slugs, and they were immune to the electrified bristles, so no harm was being perpetrated.

Malice towards none.

Across three kilometers, Supervising Officer Indrani spoke through my helmet radio: “Preema? Ladar is showing a large piece of debris stuck on the spire.”

I am looking right at it,” I replied. “I shall remove it.”

Good.” A hesitation. “Are you okay, Preema? We heard you cry out…”

I almost fell.”

A very long pause. Finally, Indrani found her voice and said, “It wasn’t your karma to fall. But please be careful. Ladar measures this scrap at six meters. That could whip you off the spire if you’re reckless.”

I unclipped the extendable clawhand from my tool-bet belt and advanced on the dancing red strand. “I am never reckless, Indrani. Proceeding now to remove the—”

A second piece of debris smashed into me from behind, snagged around my waist, and tore me off the spire into the endless blue.

Komal was sixty years old and he rarely did anything to challenge that fact, but as I tumbled off the spire into the clouds he must have found a reserve of youthful reflex. His hand clamped around my ankle. I screamed again, dangling like a caught fish. The clawhand dropped, bounced off the spire, and spun into the cobalt troposphere below me.

Komal struggled to lower me to the spire; my suit’s magfibers latched on and secured me once more. Heart pounding, I stared at what had struck me: Another long strand of debris, this one a brilliant sapphire blue. It seemed to hover in the storm, weaving in and out of the wind like a stubborn eel fighting an ocean’s undertow.

Komal!” I shouted. “Are you seeing this?”

At that moment, the scarlet ribbon unraveled from its perch. Despite the way it had been knotted, it untangled itself and flew down towards the blue one.

Jiva!” cried Komal.

The strands intertwined. Red, blue, melted into one another to achieve a fierce, throbbing violet. They braided, like two phosphorescent serpents wrapping around each other. The bonding shivered in the wind, undulating to keep position, to avoid being driven off into the gulf of sky.

And then, before our astonished eyes, the double-strand began to climb through the storm. It threaded in and out of the wind, and once more adopt its knotted perch at the spire’s end. It wrapped itself securely around the spire like a sentient ribbon preparing itself into a bow.

Jiva,” I whispered in agreement.

The debris was alive.

III.

What happened out there?” Indrani demanded, once we had returned to the Bellcap. She folded her arms like a scornful schoolteacher, her brown face drawn in sharp lines and plateaus, black hair buzzed into a fuzzy stubble like little magfibers of their own. The entire Jain occupancy of Bellcap 51 sported the same haircut. Genderless solidarity through depilation.

We were still stripping of our biosuits, and it was bad form for Indrani to intrude in our half-naked state, especially with Komal there. It wasn’t the antiquated Jain prohibition about men and women seeing each other naked that bothered me, but the urgency in her voice, which suggested high emotion, which upset tranquility, which violated Aparigraha, the oath of detachment from physical concerns.

Which reminded me of my own terror out there on the spire. I could still taste the bitter tang of adrenaline in the back of my throat.

Rather than cover up his partial nudity, though, Komal dressed without haste. True Aparigraha was not to hide from anything; Buddhists were fond of the parable in which two monks encounter the name of Buddha scrawled in the dirt, and while one tries to avoid stepping on his name, the other trudges right over it, footprint marring the word as he goes. Why? Because attachment to a word is still attachment.

The two strands combined,” I said, donning my standard white monastic garment.

You were reckless,” Indrani declared. “You weren’t watching your surroundings.”

I was watching,” I insisted.

You could have died, Preema.”

Then I guess that would have been my karma,” I snapped.

Indrani’s scowl deepened until her face looked like an iron mask bolted over high pressure. “You didn’t complete your mission. You left two large pieces of debris out there on the spire. They might clog the filter.”

They are not debris,” I countered. “They are jiva.”

My superior officer sighed. “The debris are polyresin fragments left over from the last generation of processing stations.” She was practically quoting verbatim from Lindorm’s technical manual; she was also upset, I could tell, because she became more animated and careless in her choice of words when gripped by high emotion. “If unattended, they’ll clog up the filters. Our job is to keep the spires running efficiently.” Indrani turned her displeasure on Komal. “Preema is not alone in failing her duties. You too turned your back on those strands. Why?”

Our bearded companion offered no reaction to her question. Without his suit helmet, Komal looked like a figure of sandstone, his messy tangle of gray beard burying the lower half of his face. Jains do not lie. Lying is a terrible crime, attracting negative karma around the soul. But neither are we compelled to incriminate ourselves. Silence has many uses.

Indrani seemed to glide over to the intercom. ”Geeta, Parul, suit up and proceed to the airlock.”

Those strands are alive,” Komal said finally. “They are not mere pollution. We have been lied to.”

Indrani released the intercom button and shook her head. “They are pieces of string in the wind. They are scraps of older stations, built in haste by colonists who didn’t appreciate how strong Tempest’s storms could be. Everyone knows that.”

The two strands willfully went after each other.”

Coincidence. The wind drove them together.”

They combined for a purpose,” he insisted.

Your belly lint also combines. Does that have jiva, too?”

Komal regarded her stolidly. “Belly lint contains bacteria. So yes, jiva is present and you should know better.”

One of the walls slid open and Geeta and Parul entered the chamber. Geeta was as old as Komal; I remembered that on Midsummer’s Dream, they had been married before our small community decided on total commitment to Jain vows. I remembered them walking together, hand-in-hand, in the grassy, sun-lit fields of that vibrant world. Now they stood beside each other without emotion, a pair of mahogany chess pieces which, as the universe often forgets, was an Indian invention.

Parul was the only non-Indian among us; a blue-skinned Jain immigrant from the nearby world of Winter’s Tale, a mean distance of just 700 million miles away.

Be at peace,” Parul said, sensing the tension. “What has happened?”

Komal and Preema disobeyed an order,” Indrani explained. She touched the wall and it dissolved into a viewscreen. The spire appeared, coiled by the purple twine whipping and snapping in the storm.

Proceed with the removal,” she said. They suited up and went through the airlock, clawhands jingling at their belts.

Indrani began to climb up into the dining module. “Komal, I want you on ladar duty. Preema, follow me.”

I complied.

It was time to eat sunlight.

IV.

I recalled the nastiness, the hypocrisy, of trying to reconcile the Jain principle of Ahimsa— doing no harm to any living thing— with the biological necessity of consuming physical food. To clamp one’s teeth down on a living creature, tearing and chewing, swallowing it in a froth of saliva. To drop a once-living thing into that acid-pit of the stomach. To feel the extra, foreign weight inside my belly, a bitter mockery of growing a child in the womb. To willfully steal jiva and, in doing so, drive oneself further from salvation with each bite.

I remembered the Great Hunts on Midsummer’s Dream. The orgiastic revelry of an entire village melting into savagery. The Jain children with meat stuck in their teeth!

It was the reason we had fled Midsummer’s Dream. Midsummerans were a throwback culture eschewing most modern technologies; they lived in simple farming villages. We had believed it to be a good place for us, to form our own community away from persecution.

We had been wrong.

Midsummer’s Dream was a throwback world, yes, but to rampant bacchanalias, bloody hunts, and primitivism. At first they were welcoming to us. Slowly, the cruel whispers began. The pranks and abuses. The slain animals left on our doorstep or strung up in my garden.

But it was the Great Hunt which proved the final straw. A gruesome twice-per-year holiday in which Midsummerans gathered in the woods and hills, with their musical instruments and most depraved appetites. They would light huge bonfires. They would round up animals of all breeds, whipping them into a desperate stampede, and drive them through a gauntlet of human bodies while stabbing, tearing, biting, and devouring them.

As Jains, we did not participate in the horror. Two years ago, our doors shut against one of these grim bacchanalias, we awoke to discover that four of our youngest children had done what children do best: snuck out of their homes in quiet conspiracy to spy the secret rituals from a hilltop.

Except they hadn’t stayed on the hilltop.

Maybe it had been the music which lured them down to the festivities. Maybe a dare to get closer, and closer. Maybe something worse, a primeval impulse incited by the drums and chants and smell of blood in the air.

I had been the one to find them the next morning, with meat in their teeth and blood on their hands. Visceral trophies hanging around their necks, animal eyes and teeth and paws strung through with tendons like garlands from hell.

After that night of horror, we had fled Midsummer’s Dream. We had retreated to the orbital Jain Temple clinic where we submitted to the biogeneering necessary to make us complete Jains. The final physical step to true commitment.

We became autotrophs.

In the dining module atop the Bellcap, Indrani and I climbed into a pair of glowing coffers to absorb a raw solar meal. The blue light of Shakespeare, largest star for 200 light years, bathed a system of seven planets in a wash of energy that provided our daily nutrients. The light came around us like hot wax as I waited for Indrani’s scathing review of my spire-walk.

Less than a minute into feeding, she provided it.

You failed out there today,” she said, eyes closed as she soaked the energy. Her chloroplasts flushed green across her face, hands, and neck, displaying Jain values.

You were not there, Indrani. And Komal agreed with me.”

Komal is not the commanding officer of Bellcap 51. If we fail our duty here, we shall be homeless once more. What world will take us next? What world is so ideally suited to the cleansing of karma?”

I am sorry,” I grunted.

You disobeyed my orders. If that debris interrupts the hydrogen harvest, Lindorm will want to know why. If they ask, I will have to tell them the truth.”

I must have made my resentment audible, because Indrani’s eyes snapped open to regard me with studious disapproval.

I will have to,” she repeated. “As Jains we have sworn an oath to never tell a lie. We do not break our oaths.”
“Even if it means that I alone would be expelled?” I demanded, searching her face for any sign of the woman I had known on Midsummer for the first twenty years of my life. The blue light gave her a truly androgynous appearance, scorching away any feminine aspects. A brief memory arose— Indrani and I crawling through the grass to approach a jade butterfly. I remembered her smile, then. Remembered how she would tuck me in each night with a hug and kiss.

The intercom rang a single, chime-like note.

What is it, Komal?” Indrani asked. “Have Geeta and Parul completed the mission?”

Call up the external view of Spire 4,” he said.

Indrani touched the wall. We were suddenly looking out on Geeta and Parul. They were sitting vertically on the spire, a startling picture of two beings on the edge of karmic oblivion.

A huge purple flower had blossomed at the termination point. It had grown out of the double-strand and was unfurling ghostly, semi-transparent petals even as we watched.

Jiva,” Komal insisted.

From the screen, our coworkers chanted in unison, “Jiva. It is jiva!

Within the blossoming creature, new structures were forming before our eyes. I gasped as the quivering petals began to split and sprout, bizarre cilia-like tendrils shivering into existence from the flower’s edges. The cilia grew before our eyes and began to whip into the wind, as if trying to produce sonic booms, but lacking the length— at least for now— to succeed. I thought: It’s trying to communicate!

I turned to Indrani in triumph. “The debris is alive!”

But we were told—”

A lie,” I interrupted.

Indrani pulled herself out of the coffer and dropped to her knees before the screen. Her eyes were wet.

V.

The ride up the Ladder took eight hours, during which Tempest’s atmosphere made a full super-rotation of the planet. Komal, Indrani, and I rode the elevator together; the rest of our group stayed behind to study the flower. Geeta supplied us regular updates by radio, and by the sixth hour she had a significant update indeed: a third fragment of debris, also blue, had tried to join the purple flower, but it brushed against the spire bristles and was fried. It now hung like a burnt prayer-flag. A dead thing flapping in the wind.

Deactivate the bristles,” Indrani ordered, and she fixed us with a solemn, quietly suffering expression. “What are they?”

Komal sat lotus-style in the lift’s corner, gazing thoughtfully at the on-wall image of the exotic organism. “A life form,” he said flatly.

I added, “The gametes of a developing organism, maybe. Reproduction through broadcast fission.”

Over the radio, Geeta added, “And it is still developing. We can see what looks like the start of a neocortical column. And a rim of parallel structures are reacting to the sunlight as the clouds pass by. I believe they are clusters of photoreceptor cells.”

Eyes?” Indrani asked helplessly.

Primitive eyes, yes.”

It is clearly waiting for more debris,” I insisted. “It is even calling to the other pieces.” And I told her about the sonic booms.

My superior officer settled into a pained, contemplative meditation, while I allowed myself a tiny pleasure: my newfound sense of purpose. When had I ever been a decider in my life?

I continued, “The debris coalesces into a gestalt organism. Instead of needing a sperm and egg, it develops out of this fragmentary material. This material that we have been systematically destroying and disposing of.”

And I thought: What are the parents? Was there some bizarre garden of alien flowers down on the Tempestan surface, thrusting stamens out into the wind to shake loose this bioluminescent pollen? But that was impossible: planetary ladar, ultrasonics, and Doppler would have pinged back something that large.

I turned to Komal. “You suspected this all along.”

He gave me an inscrutable look from the floor. “I’ve been thinking about it since we arrived two years ago. I didn’t believe the polyresin explanation.”

Indrani was breathing heavily; panic squirmed in her neck. “We’ve broken the first vow, the law of Ahimsa.”

We did not know,” I protested.

But she only repeated in her crystalline voice, “Ignorance does not excuse the damage we have done. We went from one Great Hunt to another.”

I thought of the Jain holy words: I forgive all living beings. May all living beings forgive us. All living beings are our friends. We have malice towards none.

For two years we had been collecting and destroying the debris in Tempest’s atmosphere. For thirty years before that, others had done the same. We had been interfering with the life cycle of an indigenous species!

Something on Tempest is trying to breed,” I repeated. “And someone wants to prevent that from happening. Why?”

Komal shook his head. “I think they are already extinct. The debris are all that remain of them, like the pollen of a long-deceased flower. Whatever produced them is dead.”

And that is why we must confront our employers,” I declared, snapping open the elevator shutter. The skies outside were black; we were seventy miles up now, in the highest reaches of Tempest’s atmosphere. My bones felt as light as young bamboo.

We shall find out what’s been happening here,” I said. “We will put a stop to it once and for…”

I caught my fellow Jains’ expressions in the glass.

What?” I asked, confused.

Preema, how will confronting our employers help?” Indrani asked.

And Komal added, “Exactly. What do you think this confrontation will accomplish?”

I stared disbelievingly at them. “It will stop this cycle of evil!”

But he only said, “Great secrets have been covered by great expense and effort. Only great power can change that, and what power do we have?”

We have—”

We abandoned the horror of power when we left Midsummer.”

Then why the hell are we climbing the Ladder?” I demanded.

He winced at my vulgarity. “It was your suggestion.”

And Indrani added, “You were bent on riding the Ladder, Preema. We did not want you

doing it alone.”

I suggested it because we need to do something. Bellcap 51 is one of eighty different processing stations. We need to go to the source!” I hesitated. “If you disagreed with this course of action, why let me go at all?”

Let you go?” Komal frowned, and he and Indrani exchanged a look. “How would we stop you? All living things must go their own way. You decided on this course of action.”

I shouted, “But I am only a kid!”

You are an adult,” Indrani chastised. “We attempted to convince you that this was the wrong course of action. I explained that you’d be disobeying another order of mine. You disagreed with our reasoning.”

Your reasons,” I countered hotly, “were for us to do nothing! You did not even think to deactivate the bristles until that third ribbon was murdered! You have not decided anything!”

We decided to watch the flower grow,” she said. “See what it becomes to—”

Watch the flower grow?!” My outrage boiled up and over the rigid walls of my Jain training, and now that it was out, uncaged and unchained, I clearly understood why the rest of the universe laughed at us. Why we were so readily the butt of jokes. How ineffectual we were even in the face of genocide! I even understood the perverse pleasure the Midsummerans must have enjoyed, seeing our youngest members falling straight down the evolutionary ladder with them into the barbarism they argued was the natural state of mankind. After all, wasn’t it barbarism—and audacity—that had propelled humanity to the stars? What audacity had we ever shown? We hadn’t fought for the living creatures of Midsummer’s Dream; we had abandoned them, their planet, and fled into the clouds.

Indrani regarded me with piteous, tortured eyes. “The Ladder Controlman is named Antarag Vel-Heth. He is the one you will be dealing with.”

My stomach sank. “Who I will be dealing with?”

This is your decision.” Indrani hesitated. “Perhaps it is your karma to do this, Preema.”

How do we distinguish karma from pure foolishness?”

Following one’s karma opens the right path.”

What do I say to him?”

What do you want of him?”

To stop killing the debris! To find out why this policy of murder was first enacted!”

Then it seems,” Komal said, rising, “That you do know what to say. Follow your karma, honor your oaths. It is all we have left, Preema.”

The elevator car closed in on Lindorm Refueling Station.

VI.

Ladder Controlman Antarag Vel-Heth did not greet us at the airlock. He did not greet us in the hallway leading to the controller room. It was only when we entered the heart of his domain that he swiveled around in his chair to offer a brisk, welcoming salute

He was surrounded by a macabre dance of plastic people.

Ships refueling in Tempest orbit perch carefully above the station to receive their hydrogen. That period of refueling takes time. You don’t cross hundreds of millions of miles for a quick drink at the watering hole; you fill your tanks to bursting. Tempest has multiple ships in orbit at any time, guzzling away from the Ladder’s trans-atmospheric tethers. This means that the crews have time to kill. Time to socialize. To meet and greet the visitors from other worlds.

The thing about Tempest, however, is that it’s dangerous to take a shuttle down to the Ladder’s Control Station for a multiworld shindig. The gravity-well itself would burn up a lot of fuel, but that’s the least concern. There are storms here that are older than human civilization. Storms which, back when humankind was first learning to press wisdom into clay tablets on the birthworld, were already fomenting here on Tempest, gathering moisture and energy, churning in maelstroms now amber with the wrath of millennia. We had names for these storms; they were Tempest’s curious celebrities, and to enter the planet’s atmosphere was like feeding oneself to terrible alien gods.

The safer route was to neurocast into remote-controlled, fake bodies to pass the long hours.

Antarag rushed over to us, wires dangling from his head. He vigorously shook our hands in turn. “What occasion is this? Bellcap 51 honors me with a visit! Come in! The never-ending party’s in full-swing!”

Indrani and Komal bowed but made no effort to accept his invitation.

We had met Antarag two years ago, upon our immigration from Midsummer’s Dream to accept jobs manning Bellcap 51. He’d seemed a sweaty, ragged shell of a man then. The phrase “strung-out” had occurred to me, and now I saw this was truer than I’d realized. He was an emaciated thing. Unhealthy and unshaven, unshowered and unkempt.

It was difficult to concentrate on him, however, with the nightmare party of plastic people behind him.

Antarag saw my fascination. “Preema, was it? Here, try this!” He handed me a weighty visor. “This will let you see and hear what they do.” He noticed Indrani and Komal’s reluctance to get too close. Strangely, this seemed to amuse rather than offend him. “You guys don’t mind if Preema has a look, do you?”

We each make our own decisions,” Indrani stated evenly.

The mannequins were terrible creations; they reminded me of holographic cutaways I’d seen of the human body. Jaws flapped, arms waved, bodies waltzed drunkenly and strolled with each other, rubbery fingers entwined as couples lurched off to private corners.

What… what are they doing?” I gasped.

Antarag looked immensely pleased. “Eating. Talking.”

What are they eating?”

Chuckling, he rattled off a lengthy list of foodstuffs.  Steak and potato pancakes. Sundaes, raspberry tarts, and a litany of meat and dairy meals. Things stolen from other bodies.

Except in this case, the foods weren’t real. Nothing was being stolen.

Except life, I thought. The lives of those creatures on Tempest.

Indrani finally piped up from the doorway. “Antarag? If Preema were to wear your visor, would she look like you to the guests?”

The Controlman didn’t look away from me – I blushed under his hot stare. “Yes. Everyone here can be anything they want, even me.”

Indrani nodded. “Borrowing someone’s karma. Interesting. Don’t you agree, Preema?” She looked expectantly at me, and I suddenly understood:

Karma opens the right path.

Antarag rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “As I recall, Preema, one of your sacred oaths is to always tell the truth.”

To never tell a lie,” I corrected him, and I motioned for his own visor. “May I?”

He handed me the visor. “I’d like to ask you something, Preema. And I expect you to tell me the truth.”

Yes?”

Why did you come up here today? What’s the real reason you people stopped by for a visit?”

And just then, the security alarm went off.

VII.

Antarag Vel-Heth leaps up, cursing, wires trailing, and dashes down the hall to where the alarm was triggered. His pistol is in his hand and I almost scream, thinking of Komal—my grandfather— in danger.

“Now’s your chance,” Indrani whispers, looking stricken. “Quickly, Preema!”

I affix the heavy visor to my face.

I become Antarag.

Not the real Antarag, of course, but his idealized avatar – the bulging, muscular specimen of crude masculinity from a high gravity planet. The plastic people are replaced once more by beautiful illusions.

When I speak through the headset microphone it is not my voice, nor his, but a gruff baritone from his preferred play-list:

How are you enjoying yourselves?” I ask them.

The crowd barely hears me. Only the nearest man, Captain Jason Finch of Winter’s Tale according to the ID bubble floating near his head, stirs drunkenly, a glass of liquor in one hand and a sultry, supple female clinging to neck. “Everything’s great, Antarag, as usual.”

Good.” I hesitate. “Ever visit the Bellcaps?”

He squints at me. “The Bellcaps?”

At this, the girl around his neck jerks to attention. “Oh yes! Let’s hear more gossip! I love that last story you told about Bellcap 17! How can it be that none of them know Fenton is sleeping with Jezebel and Sinaga? I mean, they’re sisters! Don’t they ever talk?”

I do not know,” I say truthfully. “Actually, I was wondering if there was any gossip about Bellcap 51?”

You mean the freaks?” Captain Finch asks.

The woman’s eyes brighten. “Yes, the freaks of 51!” She laughs wickedly and grabs a fistful of grapes from a silver platter. I try not to think about her rubbery framework pawing at empty air.

Finch shrugs. “What about them? They’re like monks or something, aren’t they?”

My mind scrambles to respond. “Well… um… they are down there disposing of all that debris, and they, um, don’t even know what the debris is.”

I’m gambling, and my heart stops as I behold their puzzled expressions. I had been counting on the idea that they knew about the debris. Someone here must know!

Antarg,” the captain starts, “What do you think they’d do if we told them? Pray hard in our direction?”

Told them what?”

About the jellies!” the woman shouts. “They talk about it on the bridge sometimes. Were they really that dangerous?”

Captain Finch strokes her hair absently. “It took fifty years and an entire armada to subdue them. So yeah, they were pretty fucking dangerous, Darlene.”

Treading carefully even as my stomach knots, I try a further prompt. “Did you see it these jellies for yourself, Finch?”

He gives me a sharper, more perplexed look. “What are you talking about? Are you drunk? Truly drunk? You hoarding the real stuff down there in your prison?”

I am not drunk.”
“Then you know perfectly well how we killed them together, my friend!”

Oh,” I say, and then quickly, truthfully, add, “I’d like to hear you tell the story. I’m guessing Darlene would as well.”

He sits straighter in his chair, looking uncomfortable. “Antarag and I were part of the armada, Darlene. We didn’t have an armada at first. It started with exploratory ships dropping into orbit when we first got into this system. Those early captains must have shit themselves when they saw how many jellies were floating in Tempest’s atmosphere! There were millions! Huge, floating gasbags!”

And you popped them!” the woman giggles. “Popped them like balloons!”

The man hesitates; the grim intensity on his face is no illusion, and I think about how the neurocast transmitter must be accurately portraying his real face from whichever ship his body is in. “No,” he mutters, “Not as easy as popping balloons. When the first ships arrived, there was no fighting because those jellies were merely curious about us.”

They were intelligent?” I cry.

Fucking brilliant. When they realized our intention was to take the planet’s hydrogen, they began a systematic opposition. Started harassing the building crews. So we took to building in space, where the jellies couldn’t get at us. But once we eased the Bellcaps into place, the jellies would dismantle them. Pried them apart at the seams and threw them down to the planetary surface.” He motions for something more to drink.

I can’t get him a new drink; I didn’t have Antarag’s holodisplay menu gauntlet.

A drink!” Finch demands. “Antarag?”

Thinking fast, I lean forward and pluck a half-filled glass that is already on the table and hand it to him. He imbibes the clear fluid, makes a face. “You know I drink cognac! Get me some!”

Finish the story,” I say. “I really, really want to hear this. So does she.”

Yes,” Darlene encourages, flinging another grape from her fist into the air and catching it with her teeth. “Didn’t you tell me they shot lightning out of their bodies?”

Plasma,” the captain corrects her. “Bright, hot plasma that turned our equipment into fireworks and flaming wrecks. We tried all kinds of defensive measures. After some 17 trillion tradenotes wasted on that shit, we petitioned the IPC Congress for an attack fleet to subdue the natives.” He shakes his head in disgust. “Bunch of weak-kneed elitist philosophers! We needed the hydrogen! Do you have any idea how the economy would collapse without it? But the IPC was content to sit on their asses, whining about genocide. Genocide applies to people, not gasbags.”

I can’t help myself. The words blurt out of their own accord. “But they were intelligent, you said! Brilliant.”

Brilliant and deadly.”

How did you kill them off?”

Captain Finch is silent for a while. He’s forgotten his request for cognac. “Had to go behind the IPC’s back. Got together thirty mercenary ships, costly as hell. Then…” His eyes focus on some faraway point in space and memory.

Then?” I prompt, feeling sick.

Then we showed up in high orbit and started blasting the things to smithereens. Practically set the atmosphere on fire doing it.”

Darlene applauds, grapes flying from her hands.

I wasn’t finished!” the captain’s eyes are hard. “Even with all those ships, the gasbags put up a hell of a fight! They split up into roving bands and shot at us with plasma. Took down half our fleet! We had to park further and further out from Tempest, staying out of range. Practically had to squint to see what we were shooting at.”

But you cleared them out,” Darlene says, confused by his anger. “So all was fine!”

All was not fine! It took years to kill them all off, do you hear me? We started calling them the Cloud Kings, because ‘jellies’ didn’t do justice to their cunning, their sense of purpose. A king defends his kingdom, right? And these things had a world to defend. When we finally cleared them out… there was debris. Pieces of them everywhere. And that’s when we discovered those pieces could reunite! They would reconstitute with the memories of dozens of outraged predecessors! And they remembered! Remembered our tactics and weapons! They started the fucking war all over, again, only now we had fewer ships, and the fucking IPC was setting up a local system office. We barely put the jellies down again. The bristles…” He nods, satisfied, though I imagine that his real body in its high-orbital ship is shivering and sweating as he relives the sweaty hell of old days. “The bristles keep them dead.”

For a long moment he says nothing more. People get up and skip off to private corners for secret intimacies. Even Darlene soon tires of his silence, and she leaves for entertainment elsewhere.

Finally, Finch scowls at me. “You’re an asshole, Antarag. You know I can’t stand remembering those days! You think you’re something special, maneuvering yourself into this king-shit post, but look at you! You’re a glorified maitre d’!” He stands and hurls his empty glass to the floor. Fragments shower our feet and instantly dissolve into pixels. At the same time, a replacement glass appears on the table, but by then Captain Finch has already vanished too, abandoning the party altogether like a discontented spirit fleeing newly consecrated land.

I’m sliding the visor off my face when crude hands wrestle me out of the chair.

VIII.

Controlman Vel-Heth stands me up and shoves me into the midst of Indrani and Komal. He waves the pistol with menace, his eyes clouded in a rage that seems entirely out of proportion to the alarm. Here’s a man not used to being challenged or deceived, I think.

“What were you doing?” he demands of my grandfather. “Tell me straight! What were you doing in the storeroom, Komal?”

Weapons are not necessary. We are pacifists. We will not fight you.”

Then answer me, old man!”

Komal sighs in his beard. “I was distracting you,” he says.

Antarag’s eyes sharpen. “From what, you bastard!”

Komal remains silent. The Controlman closes one eye and draws a bead on Komal’s knee, and I crazily think: he’ll never walk with grandmother again.

“Stop!” I cry. “Komal was distracting you from what I was doing!”

Antarag nods vigorously. “I figured that much. What were you doing, you little bitch?”

“It was my idea to come up here, and that is the truth. I…”

I thought of all the creatures which had been murdered. A genocide over decades . An entire species driven into oblivion.

Controlman Vel-Heth roars, “Tell me!”

“I wanted to…” I stammer, looking guiltily to the plastic people with a pained expression. “You know.”

Silence has many uses.

Komal turns away in disgust and marches back towards the elevator. Indrani shakes her head sadly and mutters, “Oh Preema!”

But Antarag’s eyes bulge in astonishment. A grin cracks his knobby face and he throws his head back with a hideous laugh.

“You wanted to get your rocks off?!” he shouts in his high-pitched cackle. “The good little Jain girl wanted to sow some wild oats! Ha!”

I hang my head in shame. Not any shame that I feel. The shame that we all deserve, all those who participated—willingly or not—in the murder of an entire planet.

Antarag stomps around in a circle, holding his stomach with his pistol-hand. “Oh! You little lying whore! Haha! The perfect little people of the perfect little faith!” He rushes over to me and grasps my shoulders. “Did you eat steak? Or was it a different kind of meat you wanted to put in you?”

Indrani cuts in and takes my hand. “We are done here,” she snaps, leading me away from room, towards the elevator. I catch a glint of pride, not anger, in her eyes. She squeezes my hand in a rare allowance of emotion.

Thank you, mother,” I whisper.

“Thank you, daughter,” she whispers back.

And from behind us, Antarag cries out, “You people made my day!”

Strange, I think, how utterly genuine he sounds as he says it. Even madmen can, from time to time, speak the truth.

IX.

Eight months pass.

Twelve more teams of Jains immigrate from Midsummer’s Dream, replacing Bellcap teams who are only too happy to abandon their tedious, low-paying posts. Once they’re settled in in their own Bellcaps, Komal pays them personal visits and explains what has been happening. He tells them of the genocide on Tempest. And they are only too happy, after hearing the tale, to deactivate the spire bristles.

The jellies—the Cloud Kings— have been growing and multiplying, as a result.

They are truly immense creatures, and yet I know it’s unlikely they’ve attained the full girth of adulthood in only eight months. Already they are half as large as the Bellcap stations. They grow out of the debris which continues to accumulate here in greater and greater numbers. Piece by piece, the ancient race is putting itself back together.

Intelligent? Yes indeed. Indrani and Parul devised a rudimentary system of communication involving pulses of colored light. The Cloud Kings gather around the Bellcaps now like friendly balloons. They allow the airborne slugs to alight on them, as must have been the pattern long ago. They don’t tell us much, but we have managed to convey our intentions. In return, they have expressed their thanks. They have promised not to hurt us.
Us.

As in, the ones who helped them. As in, the ones who stopped the genocide and allowed them to come back from the dead.

Now, I stand outside on the atmoprocessor spire with Komal and Indrani and Parul and Geeta, watching the Cloud Kings depart. They fill the sky above us like fiery halos ascending towards heaven.

What triggered their flight?” I ask. “Where are they going?”

They did not tell us,” Komal mutters. “The ladar showed them moving off in an unexpected migration. We asked them what they were doing, but they did not respond.”
My stomach knots and I swallow down a welling of emotions I do not care to identify. “They have all changed to the same color,” I observe as they ascend out of sight, converging like tiny fires on Lindorm Refueling Station. “They have been blue or green or violet for months. Now they are all red.”

My grandfather nods. “The colors derive from their emotional state. Blue and green are closest to friendly curiosity. Violet appears to be a state of equanimity.”

“And what are they feeling now?”

Rage,” my grandfather says, his voice tinny in my headset. “Every last one of them is filled with rage…”

EP574: Yosemite

AUTHOR: D. S. McNab

NARRATOR: Erik Luke

HOST: Divya Breed

about the author…

D. S. McNab, who previously worked in the creatively challenged world of finance, is a lover of all writing genres. However, sci-fi and fantasy hold a special place in her heart. When she’s not writing about magic and aliens, she’s working as a freelance editor or cuddling with her husband and two dogs in sunny Florida. Her work has appeared in Youth Imagination Magazine.

 

 

 

 

about the narrator…Displaying Portrait.jpg

Eric Luke is the screenwriter of the Joe Dante film EXPLORERS, which is currently in development as a remake, the comic books GHOST and WONDER WOMAN, and wrote and directed the NOT QUITE HUMAN films for Disney TV.  His current project INTERFERENCE, a meta horror audiobook about an audiobook… that kills, is a Best Seller on Audible.com

Yosemite

By D.S. McNab

Have you ever wondered why park rangers are so deliriously happy with their job despite the crap pay? The easy answer is that they just really dig nature. But pull back that mossy curtain, and you’ll find a slightly less pleasant explanation. Here’s a hint: It has a tentacle tongue, about three feet on Shaq, and sometimes leads to the early and unfortunate demise of hikers.

Okay, you might need a more terrestrial hint for this one, so in the words of my idol, John Muir: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” You see, during a trip I took to Yosemite National Park in my mid-twenties, I discovered that the opposite also holds true—that the forest wilderness is the clearest way out of the Universe. So let me pick up where my boy Muir left off and tell you exactly what I came to find out about the forest and its rangers on that fateful trip.

EP572: Nothing to See Here

AUTHOR: Arthur Doweyko

NARRATOR: Patrick Bazile

HOST: Alasdair Stuart

about the author…Picture

As a scientist, Arthur has authored over 100 publications, invented novel 3D drug design software, and shares the 2008 Thomas Alva Edison Patent Award for the discovery of Sprycel, a new anti-cancer drug. He writes hard science fiction, fantasy and horror. His debut novel, Algorithm, is a story about DNA and the purpose of humanity. It garnered a 2010 Royal Palm Literary Award (RPLA) and was published by E-Lit Books in 2014. Angela’s Apple won 1st place as best pre-published science fiction novel of 2014 (RPLA) and will be published by Red Adept Publications (July 19, 2016) as As Wings Unfurl. His short stories, P’sall Senji, The Last, and Nothing to See Here garnered Honorable Mentions in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. He lives in Florida with his wife Lidia, teaches college chemistry and happily wanders the beaches when not jousting with aliens.

about the narrator…

Patrick is an American Actor/Voice Over Talent born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Patrick has voiced everything from PSAs to major product brands, with a deep, commanding voice often referred to as “The Voice of God.”

Nothing to See Here

By Arthur Doweyko

There is a comfort in the strength of love;
‘Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would overset the brain, or break the heart.

William Wordsworth

I heard a squawk—kind of like the goose call that comes out of a police cruiser. Blinking red and blue lights danced on the window shade, so I figured they must have nabbed somebody. The trouble was, they were behind my house, in my cornfield.

I peeled back the shade, and what did I see but a crap-load of state police parked sort of in a big circle. The ground mist was so thick, I barely made out the cut corn stalks. The rows led to the police who looked like scarecrows poking up out of the fog—all facing in, staring at the same something. Whoever they got cornered was out-of-luck, that’s for sure.

Funny thing though—nobody was moving. They just stood at their cruisers. My eye drifted back over the rows. Something itched up the back of my mind, and then the sun peeped up over the tree line on the far side.

EP564: Trusted Messenger

AUTHOR: Kevin Wabaunsee

NARRATOR: Phillip Lanos

HOST: Norm Sherman

about the author…

Kevin Wabaunsee is a speculative fiction writer living in Chicago. A former newspaper reporter on the health and medical beat, he is currently an editor and communications director for a large medical school. He is a Prairie Band Potawatomi.

 

 

 

 

about the narrator…Displaying Profile-Pic.png

Phillip Lanos is Los Angeles born, hyper-active and yet pensive. An Actor, Singer-Songwriter and currently the host and editor of the Ajax Union Digital Marketing Podcast. Television appearances include MTV’s “Copycat” & “Parental Control” and Telemundo’s “Yo Soy El Artista.
Trusted Messenger

By Kevin Wabaunsee

Dr. Thaddeus Begay had been expecting a dying child in the exam room, but no one had said anything about a woman half-dead from starvation. He stepped inside and muscled the door shut – like the rest of the clinic, it was made from metal reclaimed from the original dropship, and like everything else in the colony, it didn’t quite fit right.

“Good morning,” Thad said.

“Hello there,” the woman said. Her tone was probably meant to be cheerful, but to Thad, it sounded like it took significant effort.

Thad frowned. His nurse must have made a mistake. A woman had burst into the clinic without an appointment, the nurse had said, demanding help for her sick child.

But the woman sitting on the examination table with her child was thin to the point of starvation. Cheeks deeply sunken; the outline of her ribs and collarbone sharp through her tank top. Her hair, like her shirt, was thin and plastered against her flesh with sweat. On her lap sat a little boy of about a year and a half, had jet-black hair and deep brown eyes, and cheeks that were flushed with a painful crimson rash. Still, he looked healthier than his mother.

Thad dragged a stool over to her. It squealed across the faint outlines of the struts and tie-downs and internal dividing walls that had once honeycombed the massive storage container that now served as the colony’s clinic.

He glanced back at the chart – her name was Suzanne Buenaventura. He glanced at her vitals, and nearly gagged when he saw her records from the colony ship. She’d been more than 215 pounds when the dropships had landed. Sitting on the exam table, she didn’t look like she’d top 110. “And what seems to be the problem this morning, Mrs. Buenaventura?”

EP555: Monstrance of Sky

AUTHOR: Christopher Mark Rose

NARRATOR: Alethea Kontis

HOST: Norm Sherman

about the author…

Christopher Mark Rose is a fledgling writer of speculative fiction. His story “A Thousand Solomons” won first place in the 2015 BSFS Amateur Writing Contest. He participates in the Baltimore Science Fiction Society Critique Circle, and has finished a first draft of a novel. He hopes to write stories that are affecting, humane, and concerned with big questions. His day job is in the JHU Applied Physics Laboratory, where he designs flight firmware for NASA missions. His work is flying now in NASA’s Van Allen Probes, and will be in the soon-to-be-launched Solar Probe Plus spacecraft.

about the narrator…dcon-parade-2014

Alethea Kontis is a princess, author, fairy godmother, and geek. Author of over fifteen books and contributor to over twenty-five more, her award-winning writing has been published for multiple age groups, across all genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, humor, contemporary romance, poetry, graphic novels, Twitter serials, non-fiction…the works.

A former child actress, Alethea hosted over 55 episodes of “Princess Alethea’s Fairy Tale Rants” on YouTube, and continues to host Princess Alethea’s Traveling Sideshow every year at Dragon Con. She enjoys audiobook and podcast narration, speaking at middle schools across the country (in costume, of course), and one day hopes to make a few more movies with her friends. Alethea currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie.

 

Monstrance of Sky

By Christopher Mark Rose

Aerbello — the shape one sees in the movement of wheat, blown by wind. The shape of wind, written in sheaves.

 

I left me, without really leaving. Well, not I myself, but Eva. She told me she was leaving me, as we made love in our bedroom. It was clear she didn’t mean immediately.

 

Cova — any place a crow could be. A crow-sized void, unoccupied by an actual crow.

 

She said we weren’t good for each other, we weren’t helping each other to grow. She said my God obsession had gotten to be too much. She said her presence in my life was redundant.

 

“Please don’t go,” I said. “If you go, my heart will be a cova.”  I couldn’t understand, and it hurt me. It felt as though I had swallowed a razor blade, without realizing.

 

Monstrance — a vessel, in Catholic tradition, in which the consecrated Host is placed, to be exposed for the adoration of the faithful.

 

Without knowing why, I had started making a list of words that meant God, or related to worship, or words I thought could describe God. I found I was transcribing large portions of dictionaries, encyclopedias. I couldn’t explain it, I just felt compelled. I was probably obsessed. I wasn’t a believer but neither an unbeliever then.

EP554: Captain Drake Learns His Lines

AUTHORS: Amy Sisson & Kate Suratt

NARRATOR: Christopher Cornell

HOST: Alasdair Stuart

  • Captain Drake Learns His Lines is an Escape Pod original. It is the first story in the short story series The Misadventures of Captain Drake.
  • Discuss on our forums. 
  • For a list of all Escape Pod stories, authors and narrators, visit our Wikia
  • Thank you for visiting us on Facebook and Twitter

about the authors…Author photo. Copyright 2004 by Wendy Sisson

Amy is a writer, reviewer, librarian, and crazy cat lady. Her work – including the “Mr. Featherbottom” series – has appeared in numerous anthologies and publications, including Abyss & Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Toasted Cake, and Podcastle.

Kate Suratt

Kate Suratt is a flash fiction author, novelist, and NASA program analyst. Her short fiction has appeared in Splickety Prime magazine.

about the narrator…_sdc_hs

Christopher Cornell is a writer, musician (no, not that one) and software developer in Northern California. He is also the producer and co-host of the Unreliable Narrators podcast and creator of the upcoming audio drama series, E’ville. Also a film buff, foxhound wrangler and occasional editor. Skeptical of real estate shysters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Captain Drake Learns His Lines

By Amy Sisson and Kate Suratt

So I was sitting there minding my own business and trying to choke down the rotgut Rick passes off as whiskey, when who should come sailing through the door but Jeanne Bixby –- yes, the Jeanne Bixby, the biggest telewave starlet this side of the galaxy. She’d covered that famous red-gold hair with a gauzy green scarf and wore sunglasses, but she had to take them off because the bar was so dim she nearly tripped over the Candalubian dozing on the floor just inside the doorway.

Candalubians can sleep anywhere.

Anyway, I knew it was her the minute she took the glasses off, but I couldn’t figure out what the hell she was doing in Rick’s Bar. She didn’t even have her contingent of red-carpet bodyguards with her, just a single H’Rak’tin wearing brass knuckles on all four hands.

On second thought, maybe that was enough. H’Raks are famous for what they can do with brass knuckles.

EP540: The Right Answer

AUTHOR: James Miller
NARRATOR: Adam Pracht
HOST: Alasdair Stuart

about the author…

During the day, James A. Miller works on Milking Robots in the Madison Wisconsin area. At night, he spends time with his family and does his best to come up with fun and creative fiction. He is a first reader for Allegory e-zine and member of the Codex writer’s group. He has two cats but will resist the urge to say anything cute about them here.

narrator Adam Pracht

narrator Adam Pracht

about the narrator…

Adam Pracht lives in Kansas, but asks that you not hold that against him. He works full-time as the public relations coordinator at McPherson College, where he also received his master’s in higher education administration in spring 2016. He’s excited to get his life back. He was the 2002 college recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy award for writing about the disadvantaged and has published a disappointingly slim volume of short stories called “Frame Story: Seven Stories of Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Horror & Humor” which is available from Amazon as an e-Book or in paperback. He’s been working on his second volume – “Schrödinger’s Zombie: Seven Weird and Wonderful Tales of the Undead” – since 2012 and successfully finished the first story. He hopes to complete it before he’s cremated and takes up permanent residence in an urn.

The Right Answer
by James Miller

While I certainly didn’t plan on an alien encounter, my life had been in such a downward spiral that I had gotten used to expecting the unexpected.

Cheryl, my wife, and Ryan, my friend and boss, had been spending some extra time together without me – nights mostly. I handled this by 1) punching Ryan in the mouth, twice, then 2) spending the rest of the day drinking lunch, and 3) picking up dinner at the liquor store. On the way home, my car expired on the freeway, by spewing steam and smoke then finally bursting into flames. I did, however, manage to rescue my bottle of dinner vodka before its fiery demise, but somehow forgot my personal laptop was in the back seat. I eventually reached home only to find Cheryl had gone. Judging by the amount of stuff she had taken with her, it was for good.

I surveyed what little remained in the house. In the living room there was carpeting with clean spots where the furniture had been, and a TV stand with no TV. In the kitchen I was left with one red plastic cup, an unopened box of flexible drinking straws, and a bag of pretzels. In the bedroom I saw a bed frame with no mattress or sheets, wire hangers, and a torn Sports Illustrated. I grabbed the pretzels from the kitchen and made my way out onto the patio to get away from the heavy absence of my material items. I was considering which lawn chair I might sleep in, when I noticed a little green creature standing in my back yard. It took a while for my senses to come into agreement; I was looking at Fonzie. Yes, Fonzie, the character played by Henry Winkler on Happy Days.

He didn’t look at all like Fonzie in the face, or even his body type. In that regard he was as stereotypically expected: green, about four feet tall, three long fingers on each hand, comically big eyes, with no nose to speak of, and a very tiny mouth. It was the leather jacket, pinch rolled jeans and perfectly greased jet black hair that gave the general appearance of the Fonz.

The creature leaned coolly against my fence, holding one finger of each hand in the air. I assumed those were the closest thing he had to thumbs.

“Aaaaaaaayyyy.”

EP534: Joolie & Irdl

by Sandy Parsons
narrated by Nicola Seaton-Clark

about the author… My fiction has been published in Nth Degree, Amazing Journeys, the anthology Unparalleled Journeys, Tabard Inn, State of Imagination, The World of Myth, and Everyday Fiction. Thank you for considering my work. I have degrees in physics, molecular biophysics and medical science and I work as anesthetist. I am a female, and have been acutely aware of that my entire professional life, including attempts at writing hard science fiction.

about the narrator… Nicola Seaton-Clark has worked professionally as an actress for over fifteen years in TV, film and radio. She started her career as a jazz singer and later a singer in a rock band. Her voice-over experience includes TV and radio advertising, singing jingles, film dubbing and synchronization, training videos, corporate films, animation, and Interactive Voice Response for telephone menus. She is also a qualified TEFL teacher and has extensive experience as a vocal coach specializing in South African, Australian and New Zealand accents. http://www.offstimme.com/

Joolie and Irdl
By Sandy Parsons

The first time Irdl heard Joolie sing his pollinators stiffened under their leathery sheath. He’d had to switch from his walking legs to his squatters to remain upright. She was oblivious as he fell in behind her. She sang a human song, logical enough, being a human. He recognized the words, even though she added extra syllables, as if she’d sucked the words down her windpipe and divided them into their component parts before sending them back on achingly sweet vibrations formed from her full lips. As she sang, she plucked dry bits of moss from the grassy wall and disappeared around a corner.

He began to look for her after that. He’d catch sight of her hair first, because it rose above her. She carried a basket and a small set of silver tools, tweezers and scissors and a scoop, and he soon realized that he was jealous of them, for they were caressed by her dark fingers. He did a little searching and discovered that her job was to maintain the moss that kept the station’s gas balance in check. He petitioned Pung to let him change his lunch hour so that he might better align his schedule with hers. She didn’t always sing as she clipped and tugged and sprayed the furry walls, but the damage had been done. Irdl was smitten.

He squeezed in behind her on a gyro-shuttle. The shuttle was full, so the usual rules about personal space could be forgiven a little. He let one of his overhanging appendages rest so that the tip floated amongst her crown of wiry ringlets. She turned around, more inquisitive than annoyed.

“Excuse me.” He intoned the words with as much human inflection as his mandibles allowed, and retracted the arm. She nodded as if mollified and started to turn back. He added, hastily, “Your dreadlocks are lovely.”

“I don’t have dreadlocks.”

“Pl- Please forgive me. What do you call them, then? I am unfamiliar.” He winced inwardly at playing the alien card, at least so soon. He usually waited until he got them back to his hammock.

“It’s just my hair.” She gave her mane a little shake, and the flesh of her arms and the swell of her breasts shook where they were not confined by her cleensoot. She must have seen something in his gaze, although he couldn’t be sure what, or even hope, but she said, “You can touch it if you want.”

EP526: The Hunter Captain

by David John Baker
narrated by Mat Weller

author David John Baker

author David John Baker

about the author… Aside from my philosophical essays, I also write short science fiction stories.  Some of these have been published in anthologies.

The Hunter Captain
by David John Baker

“The sign for the survivor’s species is ‘human,'” said Kyber, “although I am unsure of the exact pronunciation.”

Hunter Captain Sra examined the data feed, zooming in on an image of the human’s brain. “Have you discovered anything in her nervous system that might function as a seat of consciousness?” said Sra.

“There is one promising organ. An intersection here, between the two hemispheres of the brain. But we’ve found such things before, in highly developed animals. I see no particular reason for optimism.”

Although he knew it was naive, Sra was optimistic. For once his hunter’s skills might not be needed–if the human was in fact a sentient alien being. Although it meant Explorer Captain Kyber would retain command of the ship, the prospect of true first contact spoke to a dream Sra had cultivated since his infancy.

Sra was old enough to recall an earlier age, when no one believed that the Nampranth were alone. A time before their race journeyed outside the home system–before they found a galaxy infested with intelligent animals and bereft of sentient life.

Already this mission seemed different. Sra had never heard of a more auspicious contact. They’d found the alien ship alone, disabled–apparently by a freak collision with a cosmic string. Its single passenger was recovered still unconscious, its computer’s artificial animal dormant but intact. The animal’s architecture had so far resisted interface with Nampranth computers, but Kyber’s explorers had already learned much from the ship’s markings. It was a perfect opportunity for slow, cautious study before beginning the delicate process of contact.

“When do you plan to revive the human?” Sra said.

“Perhaps very soon. We can’t learn much more from noninvasive scans, especially given the number of cybernetic devices operating within her brain.”

EP520: Artemis Rising – Singing to the Stars

by Alanna McFall
narrated by Amanda Fitzwater
with guest host Amy H. Sturgis

Welcome to the 2nd Annual Artemis Rising

a celebration of women and non-binary authors
author Alanna McFall

author Alanna McFall

about the author…

Alanna is an upcoming science fiction and fantasy writer. She has worked in a variety of mediums, from short stories to novels to audio scripts, and across a range of locations, stretching the span of the country from New York to Minnesota to her current location in the Bay Area of California. She is always looking for ways to expand her repertoire and get involved in her next project.

Follow her work on Twitter at @AlannaMcFall, or on her website, alannamcfall.wordpress.com. And keep an eye out for her upcoming short stories with Mad Scientist Journal (http://madscientistjournal.org/), starting in May 2016.

narrator Amanda Fitzwater

narrator Amanda Fitzwater

about the narrator…

Amanda Fitzwater is a dragon wearing a human meat suit from Christchurch, New Zealand. A graduate of Clarion 2014, she’s had short fiction published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Crossed Genres Magazine, and other venues of repute. Look out for upcoming stories in Shimmer Magazine and The Future Fire. She has done narrations across all Escape Artist podcasts, as well as Redstone SF, Interzone, and Wily Writers. She tweets as @AJFitzwater
Singing to the Stars
by Alanna McFall

Aisha sighed and stared down the pile completely obscuring her in-tray. Maybe if she glared at it long enough, it would shrink under the full power of her frustration. She could see scraps of different alphabets scrawled across the pages, everything from the swooping curves of Arabic to the dots and jagged spikes of Ortaxaben. A small cube on the top of the pile was a form written in three-dimensional Kem script, and would take over an hour to get into English. If she had to translate it into Sssstip it could take all day, taking concepts with a million shades of grey built into the letters themselves and synthesizing it into a language with less than two hundred words.

It was days like these that she dreaded even coming into the office. Everyone had told her that she was crazy to take a job at the Extraterrestrial Community Outreach and Legal Assistance Bureau, had told her that she could get a much better job somewhere else, but had she listened? No, she had been all starry eyed, almost literally, about helping the visitors to Earth and representing her planet. Five years later, she was tempted to shove everything that wasn’t strictly confidential in a box, take it home, and do her work in her pajamas while eating cereal. She hadn’t entirely ruled out that option for the day. But for the moment she was here, and there was nothing else to it but to buckle down and get to work.

Near the top of the pile there was a notice on a Shess Global Languages refresher course being held in two weeks; Aisha rubbed her temples. She couldn’t really complain, when being even just familiar in SGLs would guarantee her bills were always paid. But the reason almost no other translators bothered with them, the reason there were such frequent refresher courses, was that the languages changed on an almost daily basis. In a sentient, advanced species with a lifespan of little more than a decade, the Shess youth learned fast and made their own indelible marks on the dialects in the few years it took them to reach adolescence. Dialects shifted and melted together and moved apart, slang came into and went out of style before it could be studied, and at best estimation, the SGL set contained at least four hundred different languages. Aisha could just barely claim fluency in the three most spoken on Earth, and it was a fight to keep up.

But she knew it was an important fight. So many of the cases she was brought in to translate for were a complete mess. Humans gouging Shess at every turn because they knew the legal proceedings could drag out over years. Why charge your Shess tenants a fair rent when they could literally grow old and die in the time it took to cut through the legal jargon of the alien amnesty laws? Anything that could make matters go faster was a godsend to the legal aids.

Aisha just did not want to think about this today: about unfair practices and abuses and the mundane worsts that any species could offer. She looked at the pile of paper and all she saw was a mess of trouble, waiting for her to start to untangle it. Even if she wasn’t the one to deal with the next steps, even if she would be handing it over to the social workers and paralegals once it was translated, it still tired her. She was so, so tired.