An urgent update on the status of Escape Artists, its three podcasts, our plans for the future and why we desperately need your help getting there.
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About the Author…
from Amazon.com… A screenwriter, novelist, and the award-winning author of over one hundred short stories, Matt spent a decade traveling the western hemisphere as a professional wrestler and combat instructor before retiring to write full-time. He now resides in Los Angeles and bleeds exclusively on the blank page.
He has no actual knowledge of the answer to life, the universe, and everything. But he makes sure to ask every demon he meets, just in case.
by Matt Wallace
A grey pallor hung heavy over the landscape. Heaven’s fire had long gone out, leaving the sky a cold hearth. The ashen soot that covered it might once have been the burning ember of eons, but now its livid color irradiated the early dawn. It soaked every molecule of air like a pale leaden necrosis, existing independently of the season, fostering neither cold nor heat.
A caravan of old cars rambled through the grey morning, balding tires rolling over the broken disrepair of State Highway 24. Chrysler Imperials and winged hatchback Newports, Chevy Chevelles and Novas and flatbed El Caminos, Dodge Darts and Coronets, Ford Fairlanes and Falcons, Lincoln Comets and Continentals, Olds Eighty-Eights and Cutlass Supremes; early 1960’s vintages, all. They traveled toward Oneonta, the Northern New York town whose name was taken from the Iroquois word for a place of meeting.
The Earth’s reclamation of its wilderness in post-nuclear North America continued. Lush foliage blurred as the cars headed deep into the rural upstate, creating rich green wraiths in their murky windows that danced and swooped and curved. The lead car, a Dodge Charger that outshined the rest by miles, would reach Gilboa around breakfast time.
There the wind blew warm through the world’s oldest forest. There they’d been called.
There they’d find the Answer.
About the Author…Lois McMaster Bujold was born 2 November 1949 in Columbus, Ohio. She attended Ohio State University from 1968 to 1972, but didn’t graduate. She describes her real education as reading five books a week for ten years from the Ohio State University stacks, reading enormous amounts of SF as a teenager, and listening to her father, an engineer. She discovered fandom in 1969, and married fellow fan John Fredric Bujold in 1971 (now recently divorced); they have one son and one daughter.She started writing in 1982, and sold her first story to Twilight Zone in 1985. Then in one glorious moment, Baen bought all three of the novels she had already written. All three were published in 1986.She has won four Hugo awards in the Novel category, more than any other writer except for Robert A Heinlein, (excluding his Retro Hugo) and yet many SF readers have never heard of her!Lois was on the Locus Recommended Reading list with Falling Free, Brothers In Arms, Mountains of Mourning, Labyrinth, Barrayar and Mirror Dance. She won the Locus Award for Barrayar, Mirror Dance and Paladin of Souls.She won the Nebula Award for Falling Free and The Mountains of Mourning. She won the Hugo Award for The Vor Game, Barrayar, Mirror Dance, Paladin of Soulsand The Mountains of Mourning. She was nominated for the John W Campbell Award in 1987.
About the Narrator…Aside from producing, Mat is also a graphic designer, an amateur voice actor, an amateur father, a forum agitator and a professional fat guy who has been trying desperately to take up jogging. You can follow him as he does all of these things at matweller.com.
For a list of all Escape Pod stories by this author or narrator, visit our sortable Wikipedia page
Rated 13+ for mild language
By David Glen Larson
He scrambled from the fire that was snaking through the corridor when another explosion jolted the ship, and just like that he was dead again. A moment later he was someone else, gazing down with another’s eyes at the mangled green body he’d left behind.
Never before had Tyler experienced such terror. Sure, he’d been afraid—afraid his knee would give out again, sidelining him for the big game; afraid he’d let down his teammates and make a fool of himself—but he’d never been terrified of being incinerated in an alien system countless light-years from the home world he was forced to flee. Not until now.
Staring up at the night sky, the stars were dim under the glare of the stadium lights. Which star was theirs? He caught himself and shook his aching head. It was only a dream, after all. The frog people weren’t real.
The doctor shined a penlight into each pupil. “Any headache, nausea, or dizziness?”
“What do you think? I was just hit by a freight train.” Good old Number 32—the biggest, meanest linebacker in the NFL.
“You may have a concussion.”
Coach Landis spit tobacco juice on the grass only inches from Tyler’s head. “We’re down 22-27 in the fourth quarter with under a minute to go. Montoya’s out, Casper’s out, and now you’re saying I’m out my third string too? Uh-uh, Doc. I need Harden in the game.”
“If he takes another hit—”
“A few aches and pains go with the territory,” said the coach.
“Forget aches and pains. I’m talking stroke or death. Those go with the territory?”
“Ordinarily no, but this is the Super Bowl and I’m out of quarterbacks.”
“I can play, Coach.” Tyler rolled onto his knees and wobbled to his feet with a groan. Lights flashed and popped behind his eyes, some internal wiring knocked loose, but he didn’t let on. “I’m fine.”
Tyler teetered backward, but the coach steadied him, pretending to pat him on the back.
“That a boy. See, Doc? It was just a tap.”
“All right, but I’ll need to check his cognitive function after every play.”
“Whatever you say,” said the coach.
“I’m going to ask you to remember a list of five words. If you can’t repeat them back to me, you’re a NO-GO.”
“Apple, wrench, sombrero, parrot, porcupine,” Tyler said with confidence.
“But I didn’t give you the words yet.”
“Sure you did. Last season against the Colts. It was the only time I played. Number 24 clocked me from behind on our 15.”
“Well I’m glad to see your long-term memory isn’t impaired, but it’s your short-term memory that concerns me.”
“Fine, but make it quick. I have a qweetah to win.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“I said, make it quick. I have a game to win.”
By Jay Caselberg
Read by Mat Weller
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Electric Velocipede (2007)
All stories by Jay Caselberg
All stories read by Mat Weller
Rated 17 and up for sexual situations
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Bosch drew deeply on his cigarette and exhaled slowly, watching the smoke paint clouds of tissue paper across the chill moon. If his hard-boned mouth had been capable of smiling, it would have. He’d tried to mimic the gesture often enough. He took one last drag at the cigarette, then flicked it out in a wide arc to scatter sparks against the broad stone steps. It was funny how compelling these human habits could be, even the ones they frowned upon. There was no risk for Bosch, but the humans seemed to like the fact that he had adopted one of their vices. It showed them he had his personal weakness.
Compelling. It was less compulsion than convenient subterfuge, but they weren’t to know that. Smoking, and alcohol, and sex — particularly sex; the examples went on and on.
“Ambassador Bosch, come to escape the crowd?” It was Davy, his shadow, his cultural liaison, assigned to keep him on the straight and narrow.
Bosch turned his head to make eye contact. These humans liked eye contact. He whistled once and snapped his mouth, forgetting for a moment for the hundredth time that Davy could not understand. Quickly, he followed it with a series of signs using his three long fingers. Davy nodded and waited while Bosch withdrew his pad from inside his clothes, slipped the stylus from the carry case and tapped at the screen. Davy craned over Bosch’s shoulder to read, then glanced down at the still-smouldering cigarette end lying on the steps below.
“Yes, I needed some fresh air as well. I think it’s going well, don’t you?” Bosch tapped at the pad once. As well as it could be, he thought, but Davy seemed satisfied.
The smooth, dark-haired human leaned his head back and looked up at the stars. “Yes, a good night for it,” he said.
A good night for what? Often, these little expressions eluded Bosch. Expressions, cultural behaviours, so many things.
by Scott W. Baker
Sebastian’s organs squeezed into his pelvis as he accelerated past point-one. He had a good feeling this time. This catch was going to be his.
He could see his objective ahead of him, the enormous Drifter-class colony ship Calypso barreling through space on her inertial journey from Earth to Terra III. Since she carried no fuel for deceleration, Calypso would travel through space forever without Chasers like Sebastian. It was the job of a Chaser to run down Drifters and fill their tanks. The job had sounded easy when he signed with Mulligan Mining eight months ago. But despite nine arrivals since then, Sebastian has not made one catch.
Calypso was a slow Drifter at a mere point-13 c. Surely he could catch that. His Skeeter was designed to reach point-2, faster and more maneuverable than any other company’s ships. Yet what advantages Skeeters held in speed and agility they sacrificed in capacity. Even if he caught the Drifter, it took a total of three Skeeters to fill her.
Sebastian ran a scan of Calypso. Leonard was already docked. That was too fast for him to have waited for the Drifter’s beacon; he must have taken his Skeeter out without confirmation a Drifter was coming in. Lucky. Blind patrols were expensive gambles, especially on a Chaser’s budget. The exorbitant price of fuel on Earth was the primary reason Drifter-class colonizers dominated the colonization market, and a booming fuel industry made Terra III the most popular destination. Like most things, it boiled down to money.
By Nathaniel Lee
Read by Mat Weller
Guest host: Dave Thompson of PodCastle
Discuss on our forums.
An Escape Pod Original!
All stories by Nathaniel Lee
All stories read by Mat Weller
Rated 13 and up for violence
by Nathaniel Lee
It was the middle of second-period Spanish when I felt my cell phone go off in my pocket. Three pulses, then two. That meant one of my alerts had hit paydirt. I’ve got newsfeeds filtered for keywords, pairing “emergency” and the names of every local school and business I could think of, plus I got Kenny from sixth period computer Science to cobble together a kind of hack on the actual first responders’ radio channels. If my phone had gone off, then there was trouble.
If there was trouble, then the city needed Atom Boy.
So where was he?
Well, if I was in Spanish, then he was in History. No, wait, he’d dropped the AP course. Did he have some kind of math now instead? Crud. I had no idea. I’d lost our hero.
“Uh, um, I mean, uh, Señora Ramsey?”
” Sí, Quentin?”
“Yo, uh, yo poder uso el baño?”
“Puedo. Y sí, se puede. Andale.”
I clapped a hand over my pocket to keep my phone-bulge hidden and ran out of the classroom, careful to turn to the right as if I were heading for the boy’s room. A couple of months ago, that wouldn’t have been a bad idea; I’d discovered Adam’s secret when I walked in on him trying to get out of his tights at the end of fourth period. Which he’d missed, by the way, and I’d had to cover for him and pretend like I’d gotten a text from his mom about an emergency dental appointment.
Nowadays, I made him use the locked room in the old elementary school building, next door to the art room. I had a key because Mr. Adelaide trusted me to use it only to work on my project. I felt bad about abusing that trust, but I figure helping a superhero save the world every week counts as some sort of civic duty. I checked there first.
Adam was sitting at one of the old desks, his feet sticking out about a mile because it was designed for five-year-olds. He had his suit half on. His pale chest was bare, exposing those three wispy little curls that he was so proud of. He didn’t look up when I came in.
“Adam? What’s wrong?”
“I’ve lost my powers.” His voice was dull, his eyes unfocused. He sounded grim and deadly serious.
“Oh, for crying out loud, Adam, we’ve been over this. Remember, last month? You thought it was some kind of lingering effect from the Recluse’s poison bite, but it was all psychosoma-whosit.” I ran in and snatched up his backpack, rummaging for his pill-box. “Have you been taking your Paxil?”
“It made me gassy. I’m on a new one now. Starts with an ‘s,’ I think.”
“Well, whatever it is, have you been taking it?”
“No! I want to be me, not what some drug makes me.”
I resisted the urge to punch him. It would be like hitting a steel wall, anyway. Instead, I found the box and opened it. The previous week’s pills were all still in their slots. White pills, red pills, blue pills. Patriotic. “Which one is it?”
“Argh!” I pulled out one of each, thought about it, then made it two of each. He had superpowers. He could take it. “Here. Take these and get a move on.”
Adam picked the pills up. “I told you, I lost my powers.”
“You did not.”
I glared at him. This called for drastic measures. I turned, picked up a wooden dowel from the supply table, closed my eyes, and whacked him over the head. I used my right hand this time; my left is my drawing hand, and I didn’t want to lose it for two weeks. The actinic flash was blinding even through my eyelids, and I felt myself hurled backwards and into the pile of paper rolls. Better than the chairs, at least. I opened my eyes to see Adam standing, fists raised over his head and crackling with azure energy. His eyes glowed, too, and his hair stood on end and shimmered blue like it was made of fiber optic cables.
“Ha ha!” he shouted. “I’m back. I’m back!” He turned to me and his face fell. “Oh, geez, Q. I’m sorry.”
I glanced at my right hand. My fingertips were blackened, and soot from the incinerated rod reached up to my elbow. I didn’t even feel anything yet. I tried to move my fingers. Oops. Bad idea.
“I’ll be fine, I’ll be fine,” I said, gritting my teeth. I waved him on. “Just go get whatever it is.” I heard footsteps approaching. “Hurry!”
Adam nodded and took off out the window, leaving a trail of sky-blue sparkles that faded gradually. I hauled myself upright and smacked my lips. His backwash tastes like Blue Razzberry slushie. I wonder if he knows.
Someone was rattling the doorknob. Not Mr. Adelaide, then, at least. I’d hate for him to be the one to discover me ruining his secret room. I decided I’d tell them I was messing around with fireworks and burned my hand. As long as the nurse didn’t have a Geiger counter, they’d never know the difference.
I took a moment to look out the window. Adam was already out of sight, his trail hardly visible against the deeper blue of the sky. I turned and looked at my half-finished sculpture for Honors Art. I called it “Heroism.” I’d miss working on it.
I went to open the door.
That evening, I decided to go to the fort. I had to wait for Mom and Dad to go to sleep; I was grounded for a month in addition to the three-day suspension I caught for creating a fire hazard, and the only reason it wasn’t worse was because I’d managed to convince everyone I’d wanted to use the fireworks as part of an art project and not just as a prank. Not a bad idea, actually. I wish I’d thought of it before. At any rate, it’s a good thing Adam didn’t get superpowers until after I was already known as a “good kid.” We’d both have been expelled by now if I didn’t have that reputation to draw on. Even so, I was already on the last threads of trust with most of my teachers.
It was dark out in the woods. We’d had candles and flashlights and stuff stashed here for ages, though, and ever since I started taking Art class seriously, I’ve made sure I also had a good bright lamp and spare batteries. The fort itself was basically falling apart now. It had been falling apart when it was new, for that matter, just a couple of planks leaned together. We had a tent set up, though, and waterproof camping bags with all kinds of useful things. I know Adam kept his spare costume out here, for instance. And his porn stash.
My hand was all covered in ointment and bandaged up. They’d had to send me to the actual hospital because the nurse’s office didn’t have the right supplies. I still don’t think it was that bad. It just stung, was all. I could have gotten worse at a regular old campfire. It’s not like Adam hit me directly with one of his energy beams or something. I used my forearm to balance my sketchbook and kept my palm turned away. It itched, but I knew better than to try and scratch it. Being Adam’s friend meant knowing a lot about burns.
The first few pages of my sketchbook had some abortive landscape drawings and a first attempt at a still life for last month’s assignment. In the corners and the margins, though, were my anatomy studies. Mostly Adam, at least the recognizable ones. Adam laughing, Adam with his hair all glowy, Adam taking off from the barbecue pit at his house.
The others were all Belinda.
I never drew her in full. An eye, or a hand, or a shoulder; never enough that someone could recognize her. The stuff with Adam I could pass off as imagination, but when someone stole my sketchbook – and let’s face it, in high school, that’s a “when,” not an “if” – I emphatically did not want them to be able to figure out I had a pathetic geek crush on Linda. She goes by Linda now; she used to prefer Bella, when we were all little, but she hates those stupid vampire books and says they ruined the name for her. For all I care, she could call herself Snot-Hog the Uglinator and I’d still draw her in my sketchbook. I’d broken my rule, now that we were coming up to Winter Break, and started work on a full portrait of her. I wanted to give it to her as a present, but I also wanted to be able to disappear for two weeks right afterward if it didn’t go over well.
I’d been drawing it for over a week, working on getting everything just right. It was hard to work mostly from memory, but it wasn’t like I didn’t know what she looked like. She stared up at me from the page, her eyes dark and a hint of a smile playing around her lips. The background wasn’t filled in yet; that was what I’d come out here to work on. I’d decided on a vaguely Classical theme, so I started on the rough pencils for a set of columns and some curling vines. Maybe a fountain in the background. It was a relief to lose myself in my work for a while, like diving into a pool on a hot summer day, letting the stress and fatigue and pain drizzle away and leave me in peace. I decided my ego was bruised enough that I was allowed to indulge in a little fantasy, so I sketched myself in as a companion for Linda, off to one side. Very lightly, so I could erase it afterward; that would be more than a little presumptuous to give as a gift. It was only when I came to the face that I realized I’d drawn it wrong. This shape was tall, athletic, with a strong chin and pale hair.
I’d drawn Adam out of sheer habit.
Suddenly I didn’t feel like drawing anymore.
With a buzz and a rush of air, Atom Boy landed in front of me. “Hey, Q!”
“Hey, stranger,” I replied. “So what happened? The official news isn’t too helpful.”
“Oh, it was the Lizardtron again,” Adam said breezily. “Marcus thinks that the Genegineer is back, but I recognized that hydraulic work; I think it’s got to be Doktor Tektonic.”
“Who’s Marcus?” I turned off my lamp then closed my sketchbook and tucked it by my side.
“Huh?” Adam’s hair faded back to its normal blond hue, and stopped waving around like an anemone. “Oh, didn’t I tell you about him? He’s this old guy, I think he used to be Mentat, but now he’s a professor at some school for ‘special’ kids, if you know what I mean. He’s been coaching me. You know, mentally.” Adam tapped his head. “It’s cool. I checked his story out, and the Dean of Admissions said they’d offer me a place if I wanted it.”
“You’re leaving? Before graduation?”
“Well, I didn’t accept yet. I have to think about it, you know?”
I hesitated. This was a minefield. “You… haven’t mentioned any of this.”
“Oh, man, bro, it’s just been so busy. Like, the Underground attacked, and then there was that whole trip to the alternate Earth, and Marcus’ voice stopped when I went on that new medicine and I thought maybe it was all a hallucination and it was only today that he got through again. And then I lost my powers or I thought I did and you totally saved the day on that one, Q, Marcus said to tell you that you were cool about that with the thinking fast and stuff.”
“Did he actually say that?”
“No, he said something about a ‘level-headed young individual’ and stuff, he talks like he’s a hundred or something, but he would’ve said ‘cool’ if he knew any words later than like eighteen-twelve or whatever, and I think you gave me a little too much because I feel way hyper, do I seem hyper to you? Mom said it’s a side effect and it’s worse than farting in class but I can’t really tell what do you think?”
“Your mom’s usually right.”
“Dude, I am not getting back on the fart pills. That was awful.”
I managed a smile. “Oh, hey, I got your homework for tonight. I finished most of it, but I’m not in French so I couldn’t do that part.” I pulled the sheaf of papers out of my backpack and stood, careful of my burned hand.
“Q! You are the man, I swear to God.” Adam plucked the papers out and leafed through them.
“I even got a few wrong so they won’t figure out you didn’t do it yourself.”
Adam punched me lightly on the arm. It kind of hurt. “You doof.” Unexpectedly, he grabbed me and pulled me into a rib-cracking hug. “Man, I don’t know what I would do without you. You are my best friend, Q; I mean that.”
“It’s okay, Adam,” I squeaked, barely able to breathe. “You’d do the same for me if you could. You saved my mom from that giant centipede, remember?”
“Yeah, but that’s different.” Adam released me and ducked into the tent to change out of his costume. It’s amazing the difference clothing makes. No one’s ever even commented how much Adam Baum looks like Atom Boy. Probably the glowing blue hair helps. It’s really distracting. “Anyway, I have to get home. You want a ride?”
“Nah. You make everything taste blue for a week when you do that.”
Adam laughed. “You’re such a weirdo, Q. What does that even mean?”
“I’m serious! Have any supervillains ever complained about it?”
“Shut up. Oh, hey, by the way, be careful ’cause if it is Doktor Tektonic, then he knows my real identity and he might come around and cause trouble. Don’t touch anything shiny that ticks, okay?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
And then he was gone, and the little clearing in the woods where we’d played together as little kids was suddenly darker and full of shadows.
The problem was that Adam really was such a nice guy. If he’d been arrogant about it, or if he’d expected me to do all this stuff for him and made a big deal about how busy he was with important stuff elsewhere, or if he’d rubbed my face in my nothing-specialness, I could have been resentful and angry and gotten it out of my system. Adam wasn’t like that. He was honestly surprised whenever I did things to help him out, and he never tried to exclude me or lie to me. He forgot stuff, but that was Adam. He was like a giant, super-powered puppy, happy and cheerful and endlessly loyal. Completely unselfconscious. And completely thoughtless. As in literally without thought. It just never occurred to him that his powers were anything but awesome or that there were any other lives that could be lived, and if he’d had any idea that the sheer rotten unfairness of the whole situation upset me, he’d be even more miserable than I was.
I couldn’t hate Adam for being Adam. All I could do was bottle it up, swallowing my resentment like a slimy toad that crouched in my gut, cold and clammy and undying. Every day, the toad would try to climb up and get out, to force my mouth open and croak bile at Adam and Mom and Dad and Mr. Adelaide and everyone, and my job was to keep him locked away. The toad was my nemesis, my own personal supervillain, and at least I could beat him if I couldn’t beat anyone else. That was how I tried to think of it, anyway. It helped, a little.
I started skipping school to hide out at the fort and work on my drawings. Forged a note about strep throat; all that imitating Adam’s handwriting meant I had lots of practice at that kind of thing. Why should I go? Adam was gone most days, and I hated every class except Art, which I couldn’t enjoy anymore because Mr. Adelaide was mad at me for “abusing his trust,” and what could I tell him? “I had to do it to help a superhero fight a giant robot dragon”?
What could I tell anyone, really? That I was mad at no one because my friend had superpowers and I was afraid to talk to a girl I liked because I didn’t? Everyone around here tried to pretend like superheroes didn’t exist and harrumphed about them whenever they showed up on TV. They’d sure as heck never believe that it was Adam the screwup, the “Baum kid, isn’t it a shame,” who’d saved the city all these times. And I didn’t want to reveal Adam’s secret; they’d make him stop if they knew who he was, make him get licensed and registered by the government and probably sent out to the Middle East or something. I’d promised to protect his identity, and I would keep that promise.
Adam wasn’t around, though. He was off hunting for that person who’d rebuilt Lizardtron and doing stuff for that jerk Marcus and his stupid superhero school. Some kind of test or something. He said he’d found Doktor Tektonic, but even though the Doktor was defeated, the “Prismatic Matrix,” whatever that was, was still missing. Adam didn’t go into much detail, and what little he did say was kind of Adam-ish and therefore mostly unhelpful. I didn’t pressure him. He’d tell me if he wanted to.
Or if his big new friends let him.
So I was alone. Some days I could see the flash and hear the distant rumble of Adam fighting some new monster, but mostly I saw and drew and tried to lose myself for a while. I finished the picture of Linda, but I didn’t give it to her. I tried, once. Went to school and everything, but when I saw her, she was getting into some guy’s car with a bunch of friends and they were all laughing and talking and basically every single person in that car was light-years out of my league, attractiveness-wise. So I left and swallowed the toad back down and went to the woods. I drew studies of everything in the clearing, one tree at a time.
That was how I found the artifact. It was buried in the ground, deep, as if it had impacted with a lot of force after traveling from far away. It glinted in the morning sun, and I had to dig for twenty minutes to get it out. When I did, I found that it was a little handle, like a set of brass knuckles. On the front, where there’d normally be the actual, you know, brass knuckles, there was just a glittery gem-looking thing. It was obviously superhero stuff. I should have called Adam immediately and had him or Marcus or whoever come and get it and contain it and make sure it was safe or whatever, but I felt the toad clawing up my throat and I didn’t.
I put it on my hand instead.
The gem flashed, and the whole thing made a whirring, clattering sound and folded out in some way my eyes couldn’t follow, and suddenly I was wearing a little gauntlet with all kinds of buttons and sliders on it. I tried to pull it off, but it wouldn’t come. I figured it had to be turned off first, so I started trying the buttons and switches one at a time. I’m not an idiot; I kept the business end pointed off into the woods. The fourth switch I tried – a little slider thing at the wrist – made the whole gizmo retract back to its little handheld form. The third button I tried, though, the big green-and-purple one on top, made the gem in front flash and send out some kind of beam that turned a two-foot-thick tree into crystal and shattered it to dust.
I stood there for a while, holding the gizmo and looking at that pile of glittering shards. I felt my lips curl into a smile, and it seemed like they stretched wider and wider until my mouth must have looked like a toad’s.
For the rest of that week and the weekend, I tinkered with the gizmo. I figured out how to do lots of things. It had dozens of different weapons, and a couple of them looked like they were means specifically to take on Adam, based on what I knew of his weaknesses. He can’t deal with this one kind of alien crystal stuff – something about the molecular structure – that looked a lot like what the tree turned into, and his power gets borked if you can set up a feedback loop, which is hard because the stuff he puts out is kind of electrical and kind of laser-y at the same time. The glove could do it, though. It also had a force field, a couple of stealth modes, and – my personal favorite – it could fly, at least for a little bit. There’s nothing like the feeling of wind in your face without tasting sour-sweet fizz for hours afterward. I figured out flight on Sunday.
I went back to school the next day. It is really amazing, the feeling you get from walking around with a weapon of mass destruction in the bottom of your backpack. I definitely recommend it if you’re having self-esteem issues. I saw Dave and Deke, who used to take my lunch money every day when I was in third grade, and I waved like we were old friends. They looked at each other, confused, but something in the way I was walking must have told them it would be a bad idea to mess with me. My teachers were all angry about me being absent, especially when I told them I hadn’t even checked on the website what the homework was. I got a lecture every period, but I just smiled and nodded and thought about how I could use my gizmo to destroy the whole school if I wanted.
Linda was there, too. I saw her talking with Adam in homeroom. When had he decided to come back to earth? They were laughing about something. The toad kicked hard at my diaphragm, and I turned my wince into a smile.
“Hey, guys!” I said, leaning in. They both glanced up at me and went quiet. “How’s it going?” I asked. I winked at Adam, and he grinned his goofy Adam-grin, thinking everything was cool.
“It’s great. My big project is almost done.” Adam would make a terrible spy. Thank God he doesn’t take Drama.
“Cool. So… I didn’t know you and Linda still hung out.” I kept my voice casual, icy-calm. I thought about the gizmo.
“Yeah. She’s, uh, helping me with my French homework,” said Adam, blushing a bit. I clenched my teeth.
“Jeez, Adam, you make it sound dirty,” Linda rolled her eyes. “Just because I let you copy my papers doesn’t mean we’re dating or something.”
“No, not like that. It’s just… not really helping… if I don’t… um…” Adam’s blush deepened.
“It’s cool. I just hadn’t seen much of either of you lately. Other than, you know, like, Pre-Calc. I haven’t talked to you since like last year, Linda.”
“I tried to call you the other day,” said Linda, not meeting my eyes. “Your mom said you were grounded. Did you really try to burn down the school?”
“You’ll have to ask Adam about that one.” I was smiling so hard it hurt my cheeks.
“I thought you went home early that day?” Linda asked Adam.
See, this is why he needs me. His secret identity would be toast in a half-second if it was up to him. “Nah, Adam’s just a total pyro. He burns things down like once a year at least. Hey, Linda, I need to talk to you. It’s about Art. Do you mind?”
“I gotta go anyway,” said Adam, looking grateful to escape. “See you around.” He left as fast as I’ve ever seen him move without leaving those stupid blue sparkles behind.
“What’s up?” asked Linda. She was biting her lip. Was I making her nervous? Maybe I was wound a little tight. I tried to remember that I was in control and totally all-powerful if I wanted to be. I forced myself to relax.
“I’ve been working on a secret art thing. You know, for the final project? It’s out in the woods right now. I thought maybe you could come and, y’know, give me pointers and stuff? I want it to be awesome because Mister Adelaide is kinda peeved.” There. That sounded totally natural.
Linda looked skeptical. “You mean out in that silly ‘secret fort’ you and Adam had in grade school?”
“Uh, yeah.” Think about the gizmo, I told myself. You’ve got the power. “Yeah, out there. I know it’s dumb, but it’s a big secret and I can’t reveal it until it’s ready, you know?” I licked my lips. “Please? It really would mean a lot to me to have your opinion.”
She met my eyes for the first name. I’d forgotten how blue they were. “Okay. Tomorrow, though, all right? I have cheer practice tonight. Around four?”
“Sure. It’s not due until Friday. I can make changes if I have to, still.” I stood up again. “Thank you.”
“Sure,” she said. When I glanced over my shoulder, she had her head down, staring at her notebook.
I spent Tuesday wavering between feeling like I was flying with the sun on my face and feeling like I was in the bottom of a muddy well. I tried to chase the toad away by focusing on warm and happy things like the gizmo and Linda’s expression when she realized what I could do, but the toad kept coming back. Finally, I just resigned myself to the cycle. I have no idea what anyone said in any of my classes. The gizmo sat at the bottom of my backpack, and it was as if I could see it through my desk and the plastic and canvas, glowing like a tiny second sun, just for me.
After school, I ran to the woods and waited. What would I say to Linda? I tried playing out several scenarios while I waited for her to arrive. Maybe I’d just be hovering overhead when she got in and I’d call out and she’d look up, all dramatic and stuff. On second thought… flying with the gizmo is kind of awkward, and I didn’t want her to see me looking like I was hanging from invisible monkey bars. Maybe I’d just casually activate it and shoot a tree. Except she might just get scared and run. But I could catch her, and then… yeah, okay, bad idea. I wished Linda smoked because I knew how to get a really thin little laser and I could be all, “Need a light?” But she didn’t. I couldn’t decide, and I got restless. I paced for a while, but then I started wondering why Linda wasn’t here yet and maybe she got lost or maybe she wasn’t coming at all. I felt vaguely nauseated. I sat down. I checked the time. Half past three. How was I going to kill a half-hour?
I pulled out my sketchbook and tried to clear my head. A charcoal pencil is like Pepto-Bismol for the soul. I drew a leaf. I drew my hand, encased in the gauntlet. I doodled a little stick-figure Adam and then drew a beam from the gauntlet that traveled across the page and scribbled him out, like I used to do when I was little and mad at someone.
Idly, I flipped the pages backwards and saw the drawing I’d finished, the portrait of Linda. Because I knew what to look for, I could just make out the remnants of the empty-faced Adam shape I’d drawn when what I wanted was to put myself in the picture. I imagined myself there now, with my gauntleted hand resting on Linda’s shoulder. Would her expression still have that faint wryness to it? Or would she be biting her lip and glancing away to the side, towards where Adam had been until I erased him?
I glanced up, startled. Linda stood on the edge of the clearing, opposite the tent.
“What are you working on? Where’s your art project?”
I didn’t know what to say. I handed her my sketchbook. Her cheeks went pink. “That’s beautiful,” she said. “I wish I actually had a dress that nice. You should be a fashion designer.”
My voice came back, but I used it like a moron. “I stole it from a magazine. The look of the dress, I mean.”
She nodded, her eyes still on the picture. I hadn’t really captured her, not properly. The liveliness of her eyes, the tiny crinkling at the corners of her eyes…
“Is this for me? Is this what you asked me out here to show me?” She looked up, and our eyes met again. I felt something flip-flop inside me that didn’t feel toad-like at all.
“Yes. No. I mean, um. That’s you. Yours. That picture is- I made it for you. But I…” I froze. Linda was looking at me, expectant. I couldn’t think what to say. She was here, she was back out at the fort like when we were kids, and I hadn’t talked to her in so long and she didn’t know why, maybe she thought I didn’t like her anymore but I did and… and…
“Adam is Atom Boy,” I blurted.
The words hung in the air for a moment. Then Linda laughed. Not a disbelieving laugh, but real belly-shaking hilarity. She doubled over and laughed until she was out of breath.
“It’s true! I’m not kidding! It’s why-”
“No, no, I believe you,” Linda waved a hand, not looking up. “God, no, it makes so much sense now. Of course he is. He thought that up himself, didn’t he? Probably thought it was hilarious. Adam Boy!” She glanced up and burst into peals of laughter again. “Oh, God, no wonder he didn’t want to come to the pizza party, if he’s a superhero on the weekends.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye and hiccupped, then looked up at me. “What about you?”
“Me?” I slipped my hand into my pocket and gripped the gizmo. “I’m nothing special. I’m just a normal kid.” My other hand shook a little. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and clasped both hands together in front of me.
“No, no, I mean do you want to come to the party on Saturday? It’s a holiday thing. Everyone from school is going to Gallagio’s. Pizza and stuff.”
“I, um…” I felt my cheeks burning.
Linda coughed and chuckled again, as if a laugh got stuck in her throat. “So why tell me about Adam? Did he ask you to tell me? Is he trying to impress me?”
“No, I just… I thought you should know. If you were going to hang out with him.” I stared carefully into the distance over her left shoulder.
“‘Hang out’?” Linda looked puzzled for a moment. “Oh. Oh! Quinnie, you are so silly sometimes, you know that?” She walked forward, still holding my sketchpad. “Adam’s a sweetheart, but he’s… he’s kind of Adam. I don’t think he’s even noticed girls yet, honestly.”
She was close enough to touch, close enough that I smelled her perfume. There was a moment of silence.
“Do you remember what you got for me for my eleventh birthday?” she asked abruptly.
I responded instantly: “A pink Power Ranger zord and all the accessories.”
She smiled. “I still have her, you know. She’s on my dresser, right in front of the mirror. I see her there every morning. Sometimes my mom leaves notes for me in her hands, like she’s waving a sign at a parade or something.”
A high-tension wire was twanging in my innards. I felt like I should be paying attention, but I wasn’t sure to what. “Why do you bring it up?”
“No reason.” Linda leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. She pulled back, looked me in the eyes, and then kissed me again. On the lips, longer and deeper. By the time my brain caught up to what was happening, my body had already reacted, my hands coming up to rest on her back, my mouth opening, my eyes closing. She breathed out, I breathed in. There was no one else in the world. Somewhere far inside me, in the place where my thoughts ran dark and cold, something slick and green hopped in and disappeared without a ripple.
Then Linda pulled away. “So I’ll see you on Saturday,” she said, and it was a promise and a question all at once.
She handed me my sketchbook. “Keep my picture safe until I can find a frame for it, okay?”
“Okay.” I felt as though I had just come out of a coma, a long lapse that left me blinking in a strange new day.
“Will you need a ride?”
“Yeah, probably.” I thought of something else. “Um, I’ll have to sneak out, so meet me down at the corner, okay? I’ll be grounded still.”
“Won’t you get in more trouble?”
I shrugged. “It’ll be worth it.”
Linda smiled again, and the sun shone inside me. She began to walk away. “Oh,” she said, turning back, “should I keep Adam’s secret identity, um, secret?”
“Yeah,” I said, rubbing at the back of my neck. “You, uh, probably shouldn’t say anything to him either until I figure out how to warn him.”
She giggled again. “Okay. I can’t believe I didn’t figure it out already. God, it is so obvious in retrospect.” Her eyes twinkled. “You were a good secret-keeper up until just now. I never would have suspected you were involved. You’re so respectable sometimes.”
“Linda, I-” I blushed. I had no words left. I’d forgotten how to talk.
“Shh,” Linda held up a finger. “Take your time. You’ll figure it out eventually. I always said you were the smart one.”
I watched her leave. I slipped my hand into my pocket and pulled out the gizmo. I could give it to Adam. One of his superhero friends or mentors would know what to do with it. I could keep it secret in my backpack for emergencies, just to know it was there. Or I could learn to use it better, maybe wait for Adam to need some help, a sidekick or a superhero partner, the start of a new team. I could do anything I wanted with it, really.
But I didn’t need it anymore.
I found the hole where I’d unburied it weeks ago and dropped it in. I covered the hole with dirt and dragged a log over it to hide the scuffmarks. Adam would find it, eventually. Or he wouldn’t. Maybe that was part of the test, to see if Atom Boy was worth inducting into the ranks of the real superheroes. I wondered if Adam would pass. I hoped he would; it’s all he’s ever really wanted.
“Good luck, Atom Boy,” I said aloud. “And thank you.”
By S. Hutson Blount
Read by Mat Weller
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in The Fifth Dimension
All stories by S. Hutson Blount
All stories read by Mat Weller
Rated 15 and up for language and violent imagery
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“It’s quiet outside,” Nohaile said, trying to find a comfortable way to sit in his armor suit. “Are you sure it’s started?”
“It’ll get plenty loud,” said the girl. She was armored only in a ratty sweatshirt and a patched bib coverall. She’d entered the bunker
with a vest and some sensible-looking boots, but promptly removed them. Her bare feet made her look about twelve years old. “For right
now,” she continued after some rapid two-thumb typing on her hand console, “we got time to kill.”
“Miz Bamboo, do you think we can win?” Nohaile had a matching helmet to go with his armor. He felt foolish either leaving it off or putting it on, so it worried in his hands.
The girl laughed a little. It didn’t reach her eyes. “There’s no ‘miz.’ Bamboo is my handle, not my name.”
“No worries. And yeah, we can win. The other guy hired cheap.”
Bamboo kept looking at the display on her console, checking through her seemingly-infinite pockets and producing unidentifiable items to
inspect and disappear again. Everything she carried seemed dirty but functional.
Nohaile looked down at his shiny armor suit and was ashamed.
“So, when do I get the story?” Bamboo asked.
By George R. Galuschak
Four of us, jammed into my sister’s Ford Festiva, going to kill the monster. Sylvia drives. The Hum has left her untouched, so she’s the only one left in town who can drive. My sister licks the palm of her hand, touches it to her nose and bumps her forehead against the steering wheel. Then she does it again.
“Today would be nice, sis.” I say. I’m in the back seat with June, a twelve-year old girl clutching a teddy bear to her chest.
“I’m going as fast as I can,” she tells me. “It’s bad today.”
“The Shop-Rite has three hundred and fifty-seven ceiling tiles,” Michael tells me. He’s a little kid, nine years old, sitting up front with Sylvia. “I counted them.”
“Inpatient oranges creep handsome banisters,” June says, rolling her eyes.
“Good for you,” I say. My left leg hurts, which I guess is a good sign. My left arm feels like dead weight except for the tips of my fingers, which are tingly.
“Do you count tiles, Mr. Bruschi?” Michael asks.
“No. I counted cracks on the sidewalk. When I was a kid.”
A sparrow collides with the windshield. It bounces off and skitters to the pavement, where it thrashes. I haven’t seen a living bird in days. It must have flown into the Hum.
“Swill,” June says, pointing at the bird. “Maraschino cherries. Skittles. Cocktail weenies.”
“All right. I’m ready.” Sylvia twists the key, and the car starts. We back out of the driveway.
“The streets are so empty,” she says.
“That’s because everyone is dead,” Michael tells her. “They listened to the Hum and went into their houses and pulled the covers over their heads and died. I had a hamster that died, once. It got real old, so it made a little nest, and then it laid down in it and died.”
“We’re not dead,” I say.
“Not yet,” Michael corrects me. “Give it time.”
Rated appropriate for 15 and older due to language.
Night Bird Soaring
By T. L. Morganfield
On his sixth birthday, Totyoalli’s parents took him to the holy city to see the Emperor Cuauhtemoc, but the plane ride proved the most exciting part. He kept his nose to the window, taking in the vast lands of the One World, from the snow-capped mountains of his home in the northern provinces to the open plains of Teotihuacan. He marveled at the miniature cities and cars passing below. All his life he’d dreamt of flying, ever since the first time he’d seen a bird gliding through the air.
From the airport, they took a cab to the royal palace on Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan, the single largest city in the world, sprawled around it for miles. The cab buzzed across one of the royal causeways, the water blue and shimmering in the hot sun. Inside the walled royal complex stood the Great Temple, meticulously maintained by a crew of thousands, its sacred Sun Stone keeping watch over the visiting crowds.
At the palace, two genetically-engineered royal jaguar knights escorted Totyoalli’s family to the Emperor’s gardens. Totyoalli watched their tails swish behind them, fascinated. Their heads looked so soft he wished to pat them between the ears, but when he tried to talk to them, they bared their fangs and gripped their spears a little tighter.