Tag: "mur lafferty"

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…”

EP569: Safe Harbour (Artemis Rising 3)

Artemis Rising returns to Escape Pod for its third year! This month-long event highlights science fiction by women and non-binary authors. We have five original stories this year that range in topics from biotech to far-flung A.I, virtual reality, and nanotech.

AUTHOR: Kristene Perron

NARRATOR: Divya Breed

HOST: Mur Lafferty

ARTIST: Ashley Mackenzie

about the author…

Kristene is a former professional stunt performer for film and television (as Kristene Kenward) and a self-described fishing goddess. Pathologically nomadic, she has lived in Japan, Costa Rica, the Cook Islands and a very tiny key in the Bahamas, just to name a few. Her stories have appeared in Canadian Storyteller Magazine, The Barbaric Yawp, Hemispheres Magazine, and Denizens of Darkness. In 2010 she won the Surrey International Writers’ Conference Storyteller Award. Kristene is a member of SF Canada. She currently resides in Nelson, BC, Canada but her suitcase is always packed.

about the narrator…

Divya is a lover of science, math, fiction, and the Oxford comma. She enjoys subverting expectations and breaking stereotypes whenever she can. Her short stories have been published in various magazines, including Lightspeed, Mothership Zeta, and Daily Science Fiction, and her writing appears in the indie game Rogue Wizards. Her debut science-fiction novella, Runtime, was released by Tor.com Publications in May, 2016. You can find out more at www.eff-words.com or on Twitter @divyastweets.

about the artist…Ashley Mackenzie

Ashley Mackenzie is an artist and illustrator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She was born in Victoria, BC and grew up between Vancouver, BC and Edmonton, AB. After studying online for a year through AAU in San Francisco, Calif., she moved to Toronto to pursue a degree in Illustration at OCADU. Though she loves the challenge of creating complex conceptual illustrations and finding new ways to navigate ideas, visually she also enjoys making concept art and decorative illustration. When not drawing, she can be found reading, playing video games or thinking about her next project.

 

Safe Harbour

By Kristene Perron

It begins with breath.

In. Wrap my hand around the handle at the bow of the kayak. Out. Drag the boat across the rocks. In and out, in time with the low moan of the fog horn in the distance. I welcome the grey of dawn though my muscles ache from the damp and cold.

Ten years since I set foot on the shores of Barclay Sound, since I smelled the salty sweet decay of the open Pacific. The blood pulses in my veins and no matter how hard I fight it a single word rises from the depths like a corpse: home.

EP519: Artemis Rising – In Their Image

by Abra Staffin-Wiebe
narrated by Diane Severson
with guest host Mur Lafferty

Welcome to the 2nd Annual Artemis Rising

a celebration of women and non-binary authors
author Abra Staffin-Wiebe

author Abra Staffin-Wiebe

about the author…

I grew up in Africa, India…and Kansas. Then I married a mad scientist and moved to Minneapolis, where I fold time and space to be a full-time fiction writer, part-time freelance photographer, part-time work-from-home employee, and full-time mother. My next project is learning to fold time and space to make this all physically possible! I blog intermittently at http://cloudscudding.livejournal.com, and I can probably be found on whichever social media platform you prefer:
Facebook | Twitter | G+ | Livejournal | Goodreads.

I’ve had short stories accepted by publications including Jim Baen’s Universe and Tor.com. I specialize in dark science fiction, cheerful horror, and modern fairy tales. See all my available stories.

My latest project is an online post-apocalyptic steampunk serial story about a circus traveling through the collapse of civilization, which can be found at http://www.circusofbrassandbone.com.

I also manage Aswiebe’s Market List, a downloadable, sortable list of paying science fiction, fantasy, and horror markets.

narrator Diane Severson

narrator Diane Severson

about the narrator…

Diane Severson is a lyric soprano specializing in Early Music, especially Baroque and medieval music. She is also a teacher of singing (taking her cues from her mentor the late Cornelius Reid and Carol Baggott-Forte – Functional Voice Training). She is the mother of a young multi-linguist and married to her very own Rocket Scientist.

She has narrated for the StarShipSofa Podcast Magazine (StarShipSofa.com, part of the District of Wonders Network) since Tony C. Smith started running fiction and found out that she reads aloud to her husband. She has one 40 or so narrations of fiction, who knows how much poetry. As a result of her affinity to poetry, and because she does her best work when she has a Cause (a budding superheroine?), she decided to become Science Fiction Poetry’s Spokesperson. She produces the sporadic podcast, which runs as part of StarShipSofa, called Poetry Planet (http://www.starshipsofa.com/blog/category/podcast/fact-articles/poetry-planet/) and is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (sfpoetry.com) and is now their membership chairperson. She is a staff blogger for Amazing Stories Magazine (amazingstoriesmag.com) focusing on Science Fiction Poetry. She continues to narrate stories for StarShipSofa and other podcasts (notably PodCastle and Tales to Terrify) and has begun getting paying jobs as a voice actor.

The best place to find her is on the web because she tends to pick up and move to another country at the drop of a hat. She and her family recently moved back to Hannover, Germany after 3 years in Paris.

 

In Their Image
by Abra Staffin-Wiebe

When I stepped off the shuttle and breathed in the dry grass scent of Trade City, I was still confident I could launch the first human church on Landry’s World. My fellow passengers had been politely non-interested when I explained the mission my church had sent me on. A few had shaken their heads as they glided away. I thought maybe they objected to a female preacher. Or maybe it was because I’m an ex-marine. I’m an “ex-” a lot of things: ex-marine, ex-atheist, ex-drunk, ex-wife, and ex-mother–that last because I was a poor enough mother that when my kids grew up, they washed their hands of me.

The heavier gravity made my normal stride more of a shuffle, but my spirits were high as I walked to meet the young woman waiting for me. After all, I was here at the request of Amber Sands Mining, the major human employer on the planet. The indigenous government had approved; they even volunteered the labor to build my church. My denomination’s elders were delighted to have finally found a mission suitable for an ex-marine with other-world experience.

My guide held a sign saying, “Preacher.” She bestowed a chipper smile on me when I approached. “Welcome to Landry’s World! I’ll take you directly to the church so that you can get started.”

As I fell into step beside her, I said, “It seems odd that a planet with indigenous life is named after the captain who discovered it. Discovered isn’t quite the right term, either, is it?”

“Landry’s purpose in life was to find and name this world, and the Teddies honor that.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Teddies?”

“Oh, dear. I hope you didn’t memorize their long-form name! You don’t need to worry about that. We need to say that in the welcome packet.”

I remembered the images that had come with my briefing. The locals of Landry’s World were seven feet tall, ursine, and covered in bright pink fur. “Wait. You’re telling me that this place is populated by pink teddy bears?” I asked incredulously.

She grinned. “Yup. Here’s the road. Watch your step. I thought we could walk instead of taking the transit tube.”

The golden sand between the borders of the road appeared identical to the sand that stretched into the distance on either side. “What’s the difference?”

“Everything in its place.”

“And what’s your place? When you’re not shepherding green recruits, I mean?”

“This is my place.”

“Of course, but this can’t take up all your time. I meant, what else do you do? What are your plans for the future?”

“This is what I do,” she answered stiffly.

A few failed attempts at conversation later, I let silence fall between us until she stopped in front of a crystalline three-story castle. Sunlight danced across jutting, sharp-edged planes of glass. A Teddy the color of raspberry sherbet rose from the shadow of the building. I’d been so dazzled that I hadn’t even noticed him.

EP502: Gorlack the Destroyer’s All You Can Eat Adventure

by Robert Lowell Russell
read by Ethan Jones

author Robert Lowell Russel

author Robert Lowell Russell

about the author…

Robert Lowell Russell* is a writer and trophy husband (obviously). He is a SFWA member and a member of the Writeshop and Codex writers’ groups. He is a former librarian, a former history grad student, a former semi-professional poker player, and is now pursuing nursing degree (say “ah!”).

Rob has also just noticed how outdated and lame his website has become and will be modifying it in the near future here: robertlowellrussell.com

His stories have appeared (or will appear) in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Penumbra, Digital Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction (thrice!), Stupefying Stories (fice? what’s the word for five?), and a whole bunch of other places (see complete list on the right side).

*RLR finds it a bit silly to write about himself in the 3rd person.

about the narrator…

My name is Ethan Jones, I live in Melbourne, Australia. I have a passion for audio drama, and this passion led me to create my own. All on my lonesome, I have created ‘Caught Up’, an audio drama about three men who are unwillingly thrust into a world of crime after a shocking encounter with a hardened criminal. You can find this podcast on iTunes by searching my name or ‘Caught Up’, or find more info and subscribe via RSS on the website: http://caughtuppodcast.tk

 

Gorlack the Destroyer’s All You Can Eat Adventure
by Robert Lowell Russell

Seven hundred battered cases of “Unleash Your Inner Awesome!” mega-nutri-bars dotted the purple grass for kilometers in every direction. Pelle the Silicate rested his rocky body on one of the battered metal crates and sighed.
Noxious smoke from the wrecked “Do-It-Yourself and Save!” cargo lander wrinkled Pelle’s nose. He wondered if the “environmentally friendly materials” the lander was constructed from were in fact sarki beetle shells and dung.
Pelle had bet the Silicate colonists on this distant world would trade their exotic spices and rare materials for a little taste of home. Now, those little tastes were baking in their crates under an alien sun, a thousand kilometers from the nearest settlement.
“I’m ruined,” he muttered.

#

Gorlack the Destroyer fixed his gaze on the rough-skinned alien sitting on the metal box.
“Bah! Zarg, my friend, it is only another of the stone creatures.”
Zarg shook his head. “These are trying times.”
The troop of warriors and women gathered behind Gorlack murmured its discontent.
“A number three fusion blade will pierce the creature’s hide,” said Zarg, “but leave its soft, inner flesh intact. They taste like kana.”
Gorlack spat on the grass. “Everything tastes like kana. I long for a proper meal.” He turned to Zarg and rested a furred paw on the other’s shoulder. “The number three blade it will
be, but first, honor demands I offer the creature challenge.”
“The coward will refuse.”
Gorlack nodded. “Undoubtedly.” He strode boldly through the grass, approaching the alien. The murmurs turned to silence.
Gorlack addressed the alien telepathically. “I am Gorlack the Destroyer. You are my prey.” He waddled forward, flaring his hips. “Observe the size of my genitals. My many children will feast on your flesh.”
He opened his eyes wide and wiggled his rounded, furry ears. “If you flee, I will find you. If you hide, I will hear you.”
He flexed his fingers. “The Goddess did not give my people pointed claws, yet I will rend your flesh.” Gorlack opened his mouth, showing smooth, rounded teeth. “The Goddess did not give my people sharp teeth, yet I will consume you.”
Gorlack held his arms wide. “Look upon your doom and despair!” Then he filled his lungs, and he screamed aloud the ancient war cry. “Hagmay!”

EP498: Everyone Will Want One

by Kelly Sandoval
read by Erin Bardua

author Kelly Sandoval

author Kelly Sandoval

about the author…

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

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

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

narrator Erin Bardua

narrator Erin Bardua

about the narrator…

Erin Bardua is a Canadian singer and performer. She lives in near-rural Canada, where she assembles a living from singing and teaching others to sing. She always has about a dozen projects on the go; some of the more interesting ones have included acting and singing in a serialized film-noir murder mystery, and a collaborative clown opera. Erin is the artistic director of Essential Opera (www.essentialopera.com) which operates in Atlantic Canada and Ontario (so far), and recently rediscovered her writing habit, which she indulges in whenever the house is quiet enough.

 

Everyone Will Want One
by Kelly Sandoval

On Nancy’s thirteenth birthday, her father takes her to the restaurant he likes, the one with the wood paneling, the oversized chandeliers, and the menus in French. Around them, people talk in low voices but Nancy and her father eat their soup in silence. After the waiter takes the bowls away, her father sets a wrapped box the size of a toaster on the table.

She doesn’t open it, just smoothes down the ribbon and rearranges her silverware. The unsmiling waiter is watching her; she can feel it. She can feel that he doesn’t want her in his restaurant, opening her birthday present. It isn’t a birthday present sort of place, isn’t even a thirteen-year-old in her best dress kind of place. She tries to be very small in her chair.

“Go ahead,” demands her father. “Open it.”

He’s frowning and his frown is much closer than the waiter’s. Nancy picks at the bow, undoing the knot as best she can with her fresh manicure. Checking to make sure the waiter’s not looking, she picks up her knife and slides it under the tape, easing it loose without tearing the shiny paper.
The box inside has the logo of her father’s company on it. Nancy’s tangles her fingers together, stalling. She wants, very much, for it to be a toaster.

“Hurry up,” says her father.

She wants to fold the paper into a crisp square or turn it into a giant origami swan. She wants to pretend that is the present, a sheet of white wrapping paper. Her father clears his throat and she cringes. The box isn’t taped and she tugs it open. Inside, there’s a layer of packing foam, which she picks through, not letting any spill on the table, until her fingers meet fur. The thing in the box is soft, cold, and the size of her two closed fists. She traces the shape of it, four feet, a tail, ears pointed alertly upward.

When, a minute later, she gets it free of the box and shakes the last of the packing foam from its fur, she sees it has the shape of a kitten. Its fur is black and silver, with patterns that look nothing like a real cat’s, all loops and whirling, dizzy spirals. It looks like a synth-pet. They’re popular at her school and her father’s company does make them. But Nancy has a kitten, a dog, and a tiny jeweled unicorn at home. He wouldn’t give her another.

“Thank you,” she says, setting it beside her bread plate. “What is it?”

EP493: Beyond the Trenches We Lie

by A. T. Greenblatt
read by Andrew Clarke

about the author…

Who am I? I’m A(liza) T. Greenblatt. An engineer and a writer. A collector of cookbooks and recipes. An adventurous/messy cook and baker. Movie watcher, button mashing gamer, traveler, and gym rat. I like to make things and solve problems. I like to build things and write things down.

And I like stories. Ever since I figured out how to read, I’ve been a passionate reader. Always had a book or two in my book bag in school. My must-read booklist is still bottomless.

Why don’t I use my full name as my byline? Because when I first Googled myself this Aliza Greenblatt came up. It’s okay though, she beat me to it fair and square.

I was an editorial assistant for a few years at Every Day Fiction and am a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI. I currently volunteer as an interviewer at Flash Fiction Chronicles, pestering EDF’s top author of the month with questions.

about the narrator…

Andrew Clarke is a London-based musician, writer and actor who has created work for the stage, film and radio in an ongoing quest to work out how to make any money at all. He is currently writing the second series of The Lost Cat Podcast – which details the adventures he has had while looking for his lost cat – featuring monsters, ghosts, Old Ones, several ends of the world, some cats and lots and lots of wine. The first series can be found here: http://thelostcat.libsyn.com/ He is also currently demo-ing his latest album. The previous album, called ‘Bedrooms & Basements’ can be found here: Bedrooms And Basements, by A.P. Clarke

 

Beyond the Trenches We Lie
By A. T. Greenblatt

This morning, the Globs are waiting for us, just like always. Despite what the official propaganda shows, we, this little band of ragged soldiers, don’t even bother to line up anymore. We just cram down our nutritional packets as fast as we can and climb out of our holes. Captain Beamon scowls at our lack of discipline, but he doesn’t push the point. Not when there’s a battle to be won.

Beyond the trenches, the meadow is flourishing from the war. The grass is dark and lush, though it’s been trampled by soldiers. You can hear the brook running about a hundred paces away, fat and happy, while the tall elm trees on its banks overlook the whole situation from a distance. Win or lose, they will still grow for a long time to come.

Every morning, I yank myself out of a trench, pull myself up with my cane, and make my way across the field. We never start the fight running, despite what the vids show. No need. The Globs will wait for us.

Hell, they are waiting for us. On the other side of the brook, they’ve gathered on the banks, their clear gelatinous bodies undulating. Their neon eyes watching, boring into me from across the meadow, seeing nothing. Seeing everything.

Every time, I shudder. And every time, hate myself for it. I hold the clod of dirt I pulled from the trench wall to my nose, inhale, and remember.

My lies are endless. Everyone on the front line needs a mantra. Everyone needs a prayer. Mine helps me remember it’s the Globs that should be afraid of me.

Still, in spite of it all, I enjoy my morning walk. In the first weeks of fighting, the mud repulsed me (you avoid squishy, smelly, wet things on the station -usually at all costs). But now I walk through the field barefoot, savoring the wet thwacking sound my soles make with each step, though I’m careful not to snag my feet -or cane – in the soft uneven ground. Unlike Reggie, I never relished my boots.

When we reach the banks, we halt, taking a moment to eye our enemy. Sizing each other up, as it were. And then, slowly, we begin the assault.

I pick my way carefully down the bank and ease my feet into the water -my time on Earth has taught me to mistrust slippery pebbles. A comrade, Mae, offers me an arm and together we cross the brook.

The Globs meet us on the bank, slick and shiny like river stones in the morning sun. It’s impossible to tell for sure, but I can swear there are more of them today.

Why are you here?

The question is wordless – they don’t have mouths. Instead, the words rumble deep within your stomach vibrating, humming until every cell in your body understands what they are asking and you would do anything – anything – to stop that damn question from rolling around inside you. Even if it means telling them the truth.

The trick ­­-the thing that all those “traditional” soldiers and diplomats couldn’t manage – is not to lose yourself in the question. Keep your feet on the ground. Squeeze the clod of dirt in your hand. Remember who you are.

And lie.

Mae turns and looks at me. “I don’t miss Reggie,” she says, “I’m not sorry he’s gone.”

The humming of the six closest Globs bleeds into high-pitched whistles. Their dying screams

Mae’s a good solider. I study the remaining healthy Globs surrounding us and see my face reflecting in their shiny skins.

“Me neither,” I say. And a dozen more start to die, their glassy, dissolving bodies turning our reflections into monstrosities.

Despite what the military tells you, there aren’t any strategies or battle plans here. No higher logic or particular order. It’s just me and my fellow “soldiers” holding the line with a pocketful of lies. It’s true; all the traditional methods of warfare have failed and the traditional fighters have died months ago. But I’m not your typical soldier. Me and my brother were master liars long before this war.

“It’s like we’re pretty much invincible,” Reggie told me once, as he wriggled his feet into his new boots, trying to work out the pinching stiffness.

But we’re not. The Globs ate my brother two weeks ago.

Mae gives me a small nod before moving on alone and I make my way to my usual spot, the elm with the perfect size nook for a soldier in its roots. Because in this war, your lies are your own.

There is a Glob by my tree. My spot.

Why are you here?

“It’s true, I don’t miss my brother.” I tell it. And the Glob melts, not as fast as before, but it yields me my spot all the same.

Don’t ask me why the same lie doesn’t work as well a second time. It’s a problem for most soldiers. But not for me. My lies are endless.

Tucking myself between the roots and propping up my cane beside me, I flex my stiff leg, and wait for my enemies to come. They always do.

Why are you here? Every Glob asks the same question, their demanding insistence rattling around inside, until you start to doubt your answer. Why. Are. You. Here.

It’s easiest when you have a story -a mesh to weave all your lies on. Today I tell the Globs all about my family. It’s big, with a mom and a dad and lots and lots of sisters. No brothers, of course. No twins.

All around my tree, my enemies fall. In this war, there is no blood or bodies on the battlefield. No weapons or scorched earth. Just puddles, puddles, puddles. And the occasional pair of shoes.

The swollen brook besides me runs joyfully on.

By the time noon has come and gone, I’m drenched in the remains of my enemies and the only thing I want in life is a hot shower and a walk. About fifty paces away, Mae is surrounded by Globs. Her lies don’t come as quickly, she has grown pale and rivulets of sweat trickle down her neck. She’s going to slip.

I dig my cane into the ground and haul myself up, my leg protesting the change, refusing to bend.

“How’s your sister, Mae?” I call as I move, cursing my slowness.

“Fine,” she replies, licking her dry lips, “She always tells the best stories.”

Only two Globs fall and ten more move in to take their place. They can sense her weakness.

Why are you here? Why are you here?

By the time I reach her, their question is so loud and insistent, that I want to stick my fingers in my ears and scream. This is why no one’s ever managed to come close to a Glob without dying. But we are the military’s elite fighters. Our lies define us.

Mae is biting her lips, trying not to give them a shred of truth to eat. There is no color left in her face.

So, I dig my heels into the mud and take a deep breath.

“I have this sister who loved nutritional packets. Like, would wrestle me for them. It was a good thing that she was a slower runner than I was because otherwise I would’ve had to start giving her a few bruises of her own. Was a skinny little runt too. Like living proof that those things weren’t as cracked up as they’re made out to be. But she’s a weird one. She’s interested in Earth and seriously, who cares about Earth anymore?”

I pause. All around us, the Globs are whistling their death songs. Mae stands there silent, shaking, drenched, the relief honest on her face.

“See, this isn’t so bad, now is it?” I give Mae a mad grin.

And another Glob dies.

#

I think the leaves of the elm trees have souls. I’ve been watching them for a while now; they rejoice in the sunlight and dance in the wind and thrive in the rain. They die.

The trees alone make this fight worthwhile. Even a space station brat like me can understand why everyone’s taking up arms to protect Earth.

This evening, after the battle and before the Globs begin to reappear, I walk to the elms by the brook. I stand under the golden leaves that were once green and in the pile of fallen ones, browning at the edges. There’s a beauty here that I can’t quite understand and also a sadness, which I know all too well. When the transformation had first begun, Reggie had stood here with me.

“Nim, what’s happening?” he whispered pointing at the yellowing leaves.

“They’re dying, I think.”

“Why? Do you think it’s the war?”

“Maybe.” But that didn’t make sense. Whatever Globs became when they died, it makes things grow. The meadow was sickly and dry when we first arrived on the battlefield – the grass and the weeds and the wild flowers. Now, everything thrives. Only the leaves wilt.

I’ve done some research since then, learned about the seasons (yes, this information is in the station archives-if you know where to look) and how things on the surface sleep when the cold comes. I wish I’d known earlier, of course. Reggie would’ve been relieved. But I’ve been here for four months and this Earth – it’s new to me.

Hell, when we were kids, me and Reggie use to paint pictures with our water on the older parts of the station, where the galvanized steel had worn away from time and traffic. We had to be patient with those portraits and come back every day to “touch up” our work. But eventually the rust would begin to bud, filling out the drawings we had so painstakingly made. The adults would scoff, but they never told us to stop. Besides ourselves, it was the closest thing we had to anything that could grow.

Well, except for our lies, of course. Those got bigger too. Even back then we knew that lies should be endless because your truths are as finite as you are.

We lied because we were the rare set of twins in a station full of single child families. We lied when my leg went gimp and I couldn’t outrun the bullies. We lied to cover for Reggie’s pranks. We lied to deceive and to entertain. We lied because we could.

We must have been memorable, because when they figured it out, the army came for us – the cripple and the hell raiser, the most unlikely of soldiers.

I turn my face up to the autumn tree and pick a leaf out of my hair. This is the type of tree I used to make up stories about as a kid. Except in my stories, the leaves were blue.

I hope we were memorable. Because when Reggie slipped and began to tell Globs almost-truths, they devoured him, piece by piece.

Memories are all I have left of him now.

#

Tonight, I eat my nutritional packet, as always, from within the tightly packed walls of my trench. The Globs are back, I can hear them humming in that same tuneless voice and I know if I look up over the rim, their neon eyes will be there to greet me.

I wonder where they’ve come from, the Globs. I figure they’re like cells, reproducing by splitting in half and making perfect clones of themselves. I can’t imagine them courting or having sex – not with those deadpan eyes and repetitive questions.

And to think that me and Reggie laughed at the Globs the first time we saw them.

To think, one more week and I will be leaving my cozy trench behind.

From a few holes over, Captain Beamon climbs over and joins me in mine.

“Congratulations on your promotion, soldier,” he says dropping down next to me, “Can’t say I’m envious, but those station kids need to know what they’re getting into.”

I nod my thanks, but we both know I’ll make a terrible instructor. It was a promotion of compassion.

“I’m sure I’ll be an excellent role model,” I say, without sarcasm, of course.

The Captain gives me sidelong look. “You know you still have leaves in your hair, right?”

“Yes,” I lie, rushing to find them and pull them out. In my hands, in the trench, they look like misplaced recruits.

Funny, it was Reggie who always wanted to live on the surface and I figured if all we had to do were tell a few lies, I would help him. I didn’t hate the crowded station, but without him, I didn’t have a reason to stay.

The Captain braces his tall boots against the wall and lovingly rubs away the dirt. “What are you fighting so hard for, Nim?” he asks, like it’s the type of question you ask offhand.

“For Earth, of course,” I say. Reggie – who never owned a pair in his life – had been so excited about those damn shoes too.

The Captain nods, though I know he doesn’t believe me. He’s smarter than that; he’s been here for months now, since the beginning of the war. Rumor says, he’s the one that figured out how to kill the enemy first.

“Goddamn Globs,” he says, looking up over the edge of the trench, “Won’t stay dead.”

And like an idiot, I look too.

There must be hundreds of them out there. The military’s calling this the alien invasion that mankind has feared since, well, forever. But us, the few living soldiers who have been fighting this war day in and out for weeks can see that they are turning this yellow, arid Earth green again.

“Why are we fighting them?” I ask quietly, keeping my eyes trained on the enemy.

“What are you going soft on me, now? They want to destroy this place!”

In the distance, the Globs’ whistles grow so loud it’s almost unbearable and we both dig our hands into the trench walls. I grind my teeth and wonder why the Globs are wasting their time with this place.

But I guess some questions you’re better off not knowing the answers to. Sometimes a quick fib is even easier than giving in and dying.

When the Globs have finally melted and we can speak again, the Captain leaves in silence, both of us too tired for anymore lies.

#

This morning the Globs haven’t made it to the banks of the brook yet, but there are hundreds waiting for us. Probably more.

Today, their question is why.

Why?

They echo it over and over. The question with no right answer, the question with millions of truths. Maybe the Globs aren’t as stupid as they look.

It rained in the middle of the night and the world smells clean and damp and earthy. The field beyond the brook is soaked and covered in leaves, but the grass is so green and vibrant, it seems almost a crime to bend its blades. I do anyway, of course, because fighting is harder when you have to worry about your feet (and your cane) getting tangled.

Today I tell the Globs about all the sports awards I’ve won over the years.

Why?

Hell, where do they come from? What do they want? Why are we, this little band of misfits, the only ones who can fight them? Stupid questions I know, but I wonder about them anyway as I plant my feet in the ground and lie.

Why?

I see Mae about fifty paces away and give her a small smile. I know she can see the sweat on my forehead and my fist clenched around my cane. She knows I can see her paling face. It starts to rain again as I move over to aid her, fibbing my way through the crowds of Globs. My lies are endless. She’s the one that needs the promotion, not me.

Why? Why? Why?

And there, out of the corner of my eye, I see them. There. Between the Globs. His boots, about twenty paces away with the bright laces and scuffed toes, lying in the mud as if he dropped them carelessly there moments ago.

“Reggie.”

An instant too late, I realize my mistake. But the Globs are quick when they want to be; they see the almost-truth for what it is. The one closest to me lunges forward and I topple back into the mud.

The Glob takes a long, greedy piece out of my leg.

Funny, it doesn’t hurt as badly as I always thought it would. But I scream all the same.

Their neon eyes are hungry, so hungry, their questions are more demanding, frantically insistent now. And once you start telling the truth, it’s hard to stop.

I scramble back, pulling up a chunk of earth and throw it at the nearest Glob, but it doesn’t even make a dent. I see Mae moving, rushing toward me, killing Globs as fast as she can. But she still is too far away. So the next handful of dirt I hold on to. And I remember my lies.

“I always wanted to be an only child. Couldn’t stand that I had to share everything with Reggie. I’d rather have been like all the other kids, single and alone. I was tired of always getting into trouble, I liked the rules and stuff. Hell, I didn’t want to follow Reggie down to this place. Because…because I hated my brother.”

I’m shouting, almost shrieking. And the Globs -all of them within a thirty pace radius -begin to melt. For entire minutes, the battlefield is filled with the sound of their screaming whistles. I try to crawl away, but my bad leg has finally forsaken me. This is one wound it does not tolerate.

So I wait until the Globs are nothing more than harmless puddles.

“How did you do that?” Mae asks as she pulls me up and puts an arm around me.

I shrug, and try not to look at my bloody leg. “My lies are endless,” I tell her.

And then, mercifully, everything becomes silent and black.

#

This is my last evening on Earth. Like hell I’m going to spend it in the medics’ tent. Not when I have the elms and the meadow. What, you think a lame leg is going to stop me? Never has before. It’ll take more than a crutch to keep me from sneaking out.

The elms welcome me by showering drops of water as their branches sway in the wind. That smell – which I now know is the distinct smell of wet leaves – is extraordinary, a summary of life and death in a single sensation. And I know that in all my life I will never experience anything as beautiful as these fallen leaves.

My leg is comfortably numb and I want to sit between the roots one last time, though I doubt I’ll be able to get up again if I try. So I stand under the elms for a long time.

“Does it hurt?”

I turn to find Mae standing behind me, her hands jammed into her pockets.

I look down at my senseless limb. “Stings like hell.” I say.

“I..I wanted to thank you for saving my life the other day. If you hadn’t been there…”

I nod. “My pleasure,” I say. Before I realize that this is, in fact, the truth.

The words sound funny – out of place – like not recognizing a familiar voice. Mae must have realized it too because her eyes widen in surprise.

“Well, now that I’ve lost my edge,” I say, “You’ll have to raise a bit of hell yourself out here.” I smile. I can see why the truth’s hard to stop. I’ve missed the sound of it.

Mae nods. “I’ve been wanting to ask you for a while,” she says softly, “What was it like, having a brother?”

I frown, my hand clenching my crutch, my smiling slipping away. It’s not that I don’t appreciate her effort, but in a society made up of one-child families, no understands the loss of a sibling.

“Like having a partner in crime,” I say.

But that is an almost-truth. Rather, it was like having a bit of yourself kept safe within another person. And because I lied and didn’t lie enough, I’ve lost that piece.

You see, I’m the one who loved Earth, who studied it late at night. I’m the one who convinced Reggie to agree to the recruitment. I dragged him down here; Reggie knew how to handle the bullies and tell a quick story, but it was me who had the endless lies.

It’s my fault Reggie is dead.

“You’re not going to do anything reckless, are you?” Mae asks, twisting her hands in front of her.

I shrug. Suddenly, all my lies taste bitter.

So instead, I link my free arm around hers and together, we stare up past the trees into the night sky, our eyes focused on what we can’t reach. If Mae notices my tears, she never mentions it.

#

This morning is my last morning on Earth. Alone, I cross the brook for one final time. The crutch digs into my armpit and the world is still cold and dim in the early dawn light.

Their eyes are watching me, waiting as always. They are patient as I limp across the stream and I take my time. They greet me with their questions.

Who are you?

But today I have no lies. No stories. No fight. Today I have just come to reclaim my brother’s boots, the ones he had so loved. The boots with “NIM” scrawled on the inside. The ones I gave him when his own got destroyed by Globs. It’s was my fault, you see, I had slipped up and he had to fight them off using his shoes as shields. Our boots are the only solid piece left of him.

So I shuffle forward through the crowd of Globs that don’t attack me or even blink. They just ask.

Who are you?

The boots are exactly where I left them yesterday. Before I fainted and Mae dragged me away. Stupid, I should have held onto them tighter. I should have taken better care of Reggie.

I pick them up, clutch them to my chest and turn, cringing slightly as my bad foot sinks into the wet ground.

There is a wall of Globs blocking my retreat, their question drowning out everything but the feeling of dirt between my toes and the boots against my chest.

Who are you?

I look at the boots and at my scraggy signature. Hell, even this is a lie. Nim was just a nickname Reggie gave me. Short for Nimble. Our joke, you see.

Who. Are. You?

I look at the Globs and at my reflection in their shiny bodies, barely visible in at dawn, and I no longer recognize what I see.

“Who are you?” I ask. My reflection asks.

The Globs hesitate and the humming stops. And for a moment, there’s nothing but silence. Silence. The question to which there are too many truths and too many lies.

Then, the Globs begin to hum again, inching closer, and the war resumes.

A lie springs to my lips and it tastes foul. I don’t want to say it though I don’t want to die. So, I squeeze the boots closer and shut my eyes. But I can still see them, in the distance, the tall, defiant elm trees, who win or lose, will grow and look forever on.

EP489: Uncanny

by James Patrick Kelly
read by Dani Cutler

author James Partick Kelly

author James Partick Kelly

about the author…

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

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

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

 

narrator Dani Cutler

narrator Dani Cutler

about the narrator…

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

 

Uncanny
by James Patrick Kelly

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

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

“Whatever you want.”

“I don’t want anything.”

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

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

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

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

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

EP486: Blight

by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
read by Christiana Ellis

author Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

author Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

about the author…

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

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

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

 

about the narrator…

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

narrator Christiana Ellis

narrator Christiana Ellis

 

Blight
by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

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

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

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

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

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

EP481: Temporary Friends

by Caroline M. Yoachim
read by Caitlin Buckley

author Caroline M. Yoachim

author Caroline M. Yoachim

about the author…

I’m a photographer and writer currently living in Seattle, Washington. I’ve published about two dozen fantasy and science fiction short stories, in markets that include Asimov’sLightspeed MagazineInterzone, and Daily Science Fiction. In 2011 I was nominated for a Nebula Award for my novelette “Stone Wall Truth,” which you can read online here at my website.

For a list of my publications, see my writing page.

about the narrator…

Hey – my name is Caitlin Buckley, and I’m narrating this week’s episode. I’ve been voice acting for just over a year, but talking funny for my entire life – and I think it’s just such fun. If you want to see other stuff I’ve been involved with, I keep a blog with all my work: https://caitlinva.wordpress.com/. Thanks for listening!

narrator Caitlin Buckley

narrator Caitlin Buckley

 

 

Temporary Friends
by Caroline M. Yoachim

The second week of kindergarten, Mimi came home with a rabbit. Despite numerous mentions of the Temporary Friends project in the parent newsletter, I wasn’t prepared to see my five-year-old girl cuddling a honey-colored fluffball that was genetically engineered to have fatally high cholesterol and die of a heart attack later in the school year.

“I named him Mr. Flufferbottom.” Mimi told me. I glared at Great-Grandpa John, who’d been watching her while I finished up my shift at the clinic. He shrugged. My gruff maternal grandfather wasn’t my first choice of babysitter, but he needed a place to stay and I needed someone to watch Mimi after school.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea to name him, honey?” I knelt down and put my hand on Mimi’s shoulder. “He’s a completely biological rabbit, and this kind doesn’t tend to live very long.”

“Teacher said to pick good names for our rabbits,” Mimi said. “Besides, you put new parts on people, so if Mr. Flufferbottom breaks you can fix him.”

Replacement pet parts were readily available online, and the self-installing models could be put in by anyone who could afford the hefty price tag and follow simple instructions. But replacement parts defeated the purpose of the lesson — research showed that children needed to experience death in order to achieve normal emotional development. Aside from the occasional suicide or tragic accident, there weren’t many occasions to deal with loss. Schools were required to incorporate Temporary Friends into their kindergarten curriculum in order to get government funding.

The school couldn’t control what parents did, of course, but the parent newsletter strongly discouraged tampering with the damned death pets in any way.

“Mimi, sweetie, that’s not how it works this time — I know we get a lot of extra parts for Graycat, but your Temporary Friend is only until…” I tried to remember from the newsletter how long the rabbits were engineered to live. Six months? “Only until March, and then we’ll say goodbye.”

I expected Mimi to put up a big fuss, but she didn’t. She took Mr. Flufferbottom to the cage we’d set up in her room and got him some food and water.

EP477: Parallel Moons

by Mario Milosevic
read by Bill Bowman

 

author Mario Milosevic

author Mario Milosevic

about the author…

I live in the Columbia River Gorge, one of the most beautiful places anywhere. My day job is at the local public library. I started writing quite young, and submitted my first story to a magazine when I was 14 years old. Nowadays I write poems, stories, novels, and a little non-fiction. I’m married to fellow writerKim Antieau. We met at a writer’s workshop quite a few moons ago and got married a year later. We’ve been deliriously happy for many years now. My advice to any would be writers: Don’t do it! It’s a crazy life. But if you absolutely must enter this nutty profession, here’s three things that just might help you out: 1. Write regularly (every day is good). 2. Read constantly. 3. Get a job. Seriously.

about the narrator…

Bill started voice acting on the Metamor City Podcast, and has wanted to do more ever since. He spends his days working at a library, where he is in charge of all things with plugs and troubleshooting the people who use them. He spends his nights with his wife, two active children, and two overly active canines and all that goes with that. Bill last read for us on EP440: Canterbury Hollow.

 

Parallel Moons
Mario Milosevic

1a
I never understood the term “new moon.” When the moon is invisible, how can it be new? “New moon” should be called “empty moon,” the opposite of full moon. I resolved to use the term when I was quite young. I figured all my friends would agree with me and we’d start a new way of talking about the moon. Only thing is, the phases of the moon don’t come up in conversation all that often, so the terminology never caught on.
Another thing I remember about the moon: I used to put my finger over it to make it disappear. Lots of kids did that There’s immense power in erasing an object big enough to have its own gravity. Kids crave that kind of power. They want to rule the world.

2a
You work at a medium-sized law firm. You get a call from some nerds. Space cadets. They want to reclassify the moon. They say it’s a planet, not a satellite. You think this has to be some kind of joke. But no. They are dead serious. They have money to pay for your legal work. Seven hundred and eighty-six dollars. And thirty-two cents. They collected it by passing a hat.
You are amused. You take the case. Why not? No point in being who you are unless you can have some fun once in a while, right? Right?

3a
Alice Creighton knew as much about Richard Mollene as anyone who ever looked at a gossip website, which made sense, since she wrote for one of the most popular. Mollene was the richest person ever, a complete recluse, a widower, and dedicated to three things above all else: stopping global warming, halting disease, and making the moon disappear. He had already accomplished the first with his innovative solar cell technology, had made real progress on the second with his universal vaccine, and now, with the pepper mill in orbit around the moon for the past twenty years, he was well on his way to achieving the third.
Alice approved of Mollene’s first two dreams, but was not in favor of the third. A lot of people said they understood Richard Mollene and his pepper mill.
Alice Creighton did not. She asked for an interview with Mollene to get more information. To her surprise, he said yes. Alice would get face time with the man who set the pepper mill grinding and seasoning the moon from lunar orbit almost twenty years ago. A lot of people said its mission was impossible. They said fine non-reflective dust, no matter how abundant, couldn’t quench the light of the moon.
But they were wrong.