Tag: "Science Future"

EP497: A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide

by Sarah Pinsker
read by David White

author Sarah Pinsker

author Sarah Pinsker

about the author…

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

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

 

A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide
by Sarah Pinsker

Andy tattooed his left forearm with Lori’s name on a drunken night in his seventeenth year. “Lori & Andy Forever and Ever” was the full text, all in capital letters, done by his best friend Susan with her homemade tattoo rig. Susan was proud as anything of that machine. She’d made it out of nine-volt batteries and some parts pulled from an old DVD player and a ballpoint pen. The tattoo was ugly and hurt like hell, and it turned out Lori didn’t appreciate it at all. She dumped him two weeks later, just before she headed off to university.
Four years later, Andy’s other arm was the one that got mangled in the combine. The entire arm, up to and including his shoulder and right collarbone and everything attached. His parents made the decision while he was still unconscious. He woke in a hospital room in Saskatoon with a robot arm and an implant in his head.
“Brain-Computer Interface,” his mother said, as if that explained everything. She used the same voice she had used when he was five to tell him where the cattle went when they were loaded onto trucks. She stood at the side of his hospital bed, her arms crossed and her fingers tapping her strong biceps as if she were impatient to get back to the farm. The lines in her forehead and the set of her jaw told Andy she was concerned, even if her words hid it.
“They put electrodes and a chip in your motor cortex,” she continued. “You’re bionic.”
“What does that mean?” he asked. He tried to move his right hand to touch his head, but the hand didn’t respond. He used his left and encountered bandages.
His father spoke from a chair by the window, flat-brimmed John Deere cap obscuring his eyes. “It means you’ve got a prototype arm and a whole lot of people interested in how it turns out. Could help a lot of folks.”
Andy looked down at where his arm had been. Bandages obscured the points where flesh met prosthetic; beyond the bandages, the shine of new metal and matte-black wire. The new arm looked like their big irrigation rig, all spines and ridges and hoses. It ended in a pincer, fused fingers and a thumb. He tried to remember the details of his right hand: the freckles on the back, the rope-burn scar around his knuckles, the calluses on the palm. What had they done with it? Was it in a garbage can somewhere, marked as medical waste? It must have been pretty chewed up or they would have tried to reattach it.
He looked at the other arm. An IV was stuck in the “Forever” of his tattoo. He thought something far away was hurting, but he didn’t feel much. Maybe the IV explained that. He tried again to lift his right arm. It still didn’t budge, but this time it did hurt, deep in his chest.
“Can’t prosthetics look like arms these days?” he asked.
His practical mother spoke again. “Those ones aren’t half as useful. You can replace this hand with a more realistic one later if you want, but to get full use of the arm they said to go with the brain interface. No nerves left to send the impulses to a hand otherwise, no matter how fancy.”
He understood. “How do I use it?”
“You don’t, not for a while. But they were able to attach it right away. Used to be they’d wait for the stump to heal before fitting you, but this they said they had to go ahead and put in.”
“You don’t have a stump, anyway.” His father chopped at his own shoulder as an indicator. “You’re lucky you still have a head.”
He wondered what the other options had been, if there had been any. It made sense that his parents would choose this. Theirs had always been the first farm in Saskatchewan for every new technology. His parents believed in automation. They liked working the land with machines, gridding it with spreadsheets and databases, tilling the fields from the comfort of the office.
He was the throwback. He liked the sun on his face. He kept a team of Shires for plowing and used their manure for fertilizer. He had his father’s old diesel combine for harvest time, his biggest concession to speed and efficiency. And now it had taken his arm. He didn’t know if that was an argument for his horses and tractors or his parents’ self-guided machines. The machines would take out your fence if you programmed the coordinates wrong, but unless your math was really off they probably wouldn’t make it into your office. On the other hand – now a pincer – it had been his own stupid fault he had reached into the stuck header.

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

#

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

EP496: Falling Through Creation

by Mark Robert Philps
read by Christina Lebonville

author Mark Robert Philps

author Mark Robert Philps

about the author…

Mark Philps is a writer and video production professional who lives and works in Vancouver, BC. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop. His writing has appeared in such publications as Vancouver Magazine, AE-The Canadian Review of Science Fiction, and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.

about the narrator…

Christina Lebonville is known by the online moniker, Evil Cheshire Cat, a tribute to her sense of sarcastically dark humor and toothy resemblance to the re-imagining of the classic Wonderland character in American McGee’s video game, Alice. She has done voice work and writing for skits and songs played on the now retired comedy podcast, The Awful Show, and is the co-creator and former co-host of the podcast Obviously Oblivious, a nearly four-year running comedy podcast with a science twist. Christina has since retired from podcasting to pursue a doctorate in Behavioral Neuroscience.

narrator Christina Lebonville

narrator Christina Lebonville

 

Falling Through Creation
by Mark Robert Philps

_HD 168443 b — Extra-Solar Terrestrial Planet, Silicate Core, Active Plate Tectonics_

We drift in warm lighted liquid and dream of a home that we have never known. Below us the dead world hangs in space, its mantle loose and wrinkled like dusty grey skin. We fire probes, watch as they arc towards the planet in long loops of light.

We wonder if this planet is our planet. Will we find some trace of our people here?

The probes have laser cutters and diamond drills and they burrow deep into the planet core. We collect samples from the surface and test them. This had once been a lush world, a garden in a droplet of water, trembling in the void. Now it is dead, the atmosphere a noxious soup, and we can feel only its past in the rocks that remain.

This world is not our home.

We play cards while the probes do their work. You always win. Remember how Father would drift above us–a short man, even for a human, pudgy, bald and smiling, some kind of Buddha in a wetsuit–teaching us how to play? How he would laugh as we pincered the oversized polymer cards between jet-black mandibles. Now the cards are slick with the residue of our feeling for him.

We play for a long time. Days, weeks, months–it is easy to forget that time moves differently for us, faster than it does for Father and the other humans.

_They are liars. They use us._You share this once, many times.

_They let us leave,_ I reply _They could have killed us._

I don’t remind you that it was because of your anger, your frustration, your rejection of ignorance, that we are out on the edge of the void, alone and separated from Father and the Star-City where he raised us. I don’t care about these things. Besides, you are the mercurial one. The stronger one.

EP495: Aficionado

by David Brin
read by Joe Scalora

author David Brin

author David Brin

about the author…

David Brin is a scientist, best-selling author and tech-futurist. His novels include Earth, The Postman (filmed in 1997) and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. A leading commentator and speaker on modern trends, his nonfiction book The Transparent Society won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. Brin’s newest novel EXISTENCE explores the ultimate question: billions of planets are ripe for life. So where is Everybody? David’s main thread: how will we shape the days and years ahead — and how will tomorrow shape us? – See more at: http://www.davidbrin.com/about.html

narrator Joe Scalora

narrator Joe Scalora

about the narrator…

Joe Scalora is the senior marketing manager of Del Rey Books, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of Random House. When he’s not working or attending conventions, he lends his voice to audiobooks (The Shakespeare’s Star Wars series), podcasts (Pseudopod, The Drabblecast, PodCastle, HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast), and
selling cars. He lives with his family in New Jersey.

Story text is available at the author’s website here:  http://www.davidbrin.com/aficionado.html

EP494: The Retgun

by Tim Pratt
read by Rachael Jones

author Tim Pratt

author Tim Pratt

about the author…

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

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

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

narrator Rachael K. Jones

narrator Rachael K. Jones

about the narrator…

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

You can follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.

The Retgun
by Tim Pratt

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

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

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

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

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

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.

EP492: The Silent Ones

by Erica Satifka
read by Angela Davis

author Erica Satifka

author Erica Satifka

about the author…

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

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

narrator Angela Davisabout the narrator…

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

The Silent Ones
by Erica L. Satifka

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

EP491: Heaven’s Touch

by Jason Sanford
read by Marguerite Kenner

author Jason Sanford

author Jason Sanford

about the author…

Jason Sanford is the award-winning author of a number of short stories, essays, and articles, and an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Born and raised in the American South, he currently lives in the Midwestern U.S. with his wife and sons. His life’s adventures include work as an archeologist and as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Jason has published more than a dozen of his short stories in the British SF magazine Interzone, which once devoted a special issue to his fiction. His fiction has also been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Tales of the Unanticipated, The Mississippi Review, Diagram, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Pindeldyboz, and other places. Book anthologies containing his stories include Year’s Best SF 14Bless Your Mechanical Heart, and Beyond the Sun.

A collection of Jason’s short stories, titled Never Never Stories, was published by a small press in 2011.

Jason’s awards and honors include being a finalist for the 2009 Nebula Award for Best Novella, winning both the 2008 and 2009 Interzone Readers’ Polls for best story of the year (and being a co-winner of the 2010 Poll), receiving a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship, being nominated for the BSFA Award, and being longlisted for the British Fantasy Award. His stories have also been named to the 2012 and 2013 Locus Recommended Reading Lists along with being translated into a number of languages including Chinese, French, Russian, Polish, and Czech.

Jason co-founded the literary journal storySouth, through which he ran the annual Million Writers Award for best online fiction. His critical essays and book reviews have been published in a number of places including SF Signal, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and The Pedestal Magazine. He also writes a regular column for the Czech SF magazine XB-1.

narrator Marguerite Kenner

narrator Marguerite Kenner

about the narrator…

Marguerite is a native Californian who has forsaken sunny paradise to be with her true love and live in Merrye Olde England. She frequently wears so many hats that she needs two heads. When she’s not grappling with legal conundrums as a trainee solicitor or editing Cast of Wonders, she can be found narrating audio fiction, studying popular culture (i.e. going to movies and playing video games) with her partner Alasdair Stuart, or curling up with a really good book. You can follow her at her personal blog, Project Valkyrie, or on Twitter via @LegalValkyrie.

Heaven’s Touch
by Jason Sanford

As the Tonatiuh arcs through the sparkling coma of Heaven’s Touch, Parda’s holographic proxy wraps herself around my spacesuit and kisses my visor. “Please let Sister Dusty live,” the proxy prays in fervent devotion, defying the actions of the real Parda, who at this moment is piloting our ship on a collision course with the comet.

But I’m too busy for either Parda or her proxy. After topping off my suit’s air, I crank open the exterior airlock door until whiteness swirls before me, my fatigue-addled mind turning the ice and dust to ghosts. Countless comet ghosts. Icy haunts begging me to embrace my destiny.

“If you jump now, you’re dead,” the proxy whispers seductively in my ear. “All the prayer in the universe won’t save you. Wait until we’re closer to the surface.”

I nod, almost forgetting this isn’t the real Parda. Instead, the autonomous AI program is a near-perfect imitation of my best friend–the proxy’s programmed intelligence infesting my spacesuit, my visor’s holographic projectors creating the illusion of her body. The proxy appears to wear a white dress as she stands barefoot before the open airlock door, as if Parda and I were once again in Florida running along white-sand beaches.

To my eyes, this is Parda.

As if knowing my thoughts, this simulated Parda suddenly pirouettes and, without a care on the lack of gravity, dances out the open airlock door into the coma. The proxy’s green eyes gaze at me as she shimmies and spins through the ice and dust, her slender brown hands clasped firmly together in prayer.

“Stop that!” the real Parda hisses over the radio, her voice mixing to the cockpit’s proximity alarms and computer warnings. I should have known Parda would be monitoring her proxy’s actions. Chagrined, the proxy appears to skulk back into the airlock, eyes downcast as if ashamed to express frivolity in such a serious moment.

“You should join me in prayer, Sister Dusty,” the real Parda broadcasts to me. Without waiting for my response, she begins: “Blessed be those who embrace their destiny, for they shall see heaven. Blessed be God’s one true destiny, for it carries humanity to paradise.”

Her words run ice through my spacesuit. That’s the martyr’s prayer, uttered by Seekers prepared to die in attainment of their destiny.

“She doesn’t mean it,” the proxy whispers. “She loves you, Dusty. Your death is merely an undesirable aspect of achieving her destiny.”

I don’t answer, even though I want to curse and scream. Perhaps this intelligent program believes her words prove her love for me. Perhaps she believes her AI-generated prayers can spark miracles, just as religious fervor led Parda’s real self down the path of martyrdom.

Knowing I’m out of time, I edge closer to the open airlock door. Before me, the comet’s dirty surface reaches for the Tonatiuh. Parda has piloted our ship into a near horizontal approach to Heaven’s Touch, closing on the ice at only 10 meters a second. But that’s still too fast for our delicate ship to handle.

Parda repeats the martyr’s prayer twice more before sighing, disappointed I didn’t join in. “Don’t forget,” she says. “I’ll always be your friend, my sweet. That’s God’s only truth.”

The proxy’s holographic face nods her own agreement, looking so like the real Parda I want to punch her for her progenitor’s deeds.

“Don’t worry, Dusty,” the proxy says excitedly as the comet’s black surface races toward us. “I know God heard me. You’re going to make it. You’ll finish building your ice ship and see the universe!”

I don’t answer. We’re mere seconds from crashing. All I have to do is stay in the airlock and my death will be quick. If I jump I’ll probably only prolong my life for a few days.

I mutter how I didn’t want to die like this. Not alone. Not knowing I was betrayed by my closest friend.

“You aren’t alone, Dusty,” the proxy says with a loving sigh. “I’m there for you. Always.”

I nod my head. Parda is with me. Always.

I jump into the coma.

#

Perhaps the proxy was Parda’s way of comforting me. Perhaps gifting me with the intelligent program proves Parda still cared–that even as my friend piloted the Tonatiuh toward its impact with Heaven’s Touch, some part of her still needed to reassure and look after me.

Not that it worked. Parda had trapped me in the main airlock after I’d left the ship for routine maintenance on our antenna. Naturally, I didn’t seen the betrayal coming. Instead, as Parda helped me into my space suit, she’d grinned happily and promised to cook a big dinner upon my return. I’d laughed at her lame joke–there was no cooking involved in heating packets of synthetic food–but as the airlock door closed her grin turned horribly serious. I thought she was merely worried about my safety, but when I finished the space walk I discovered the inner airlock door jammed shut and a suddenly religious Parda proclaiming her destiny.

“I’m sorry, Dusty,” she’d said sadly. “It doesn’t matter to wish things different. We can’t go against God’s will.”

I cursed her to no end. Back on Earth, our company’s director begged Parda to reconsider. When that didn’t work, the company reluctantly turned control over to NASA, allowing Johnie Acaba and the other astronauts I’d once worked with to broadcast soothing words at Parda. None of it made a difference. With me trapped and Johnie and everyone else so far away, there was nothing to stop Parda’s dream of martyrdom.

But she did share her proxy with me.

Perhaps, in the end, that means something.

#

After jumping from the Tonatiuh, I shoot high in the weak gravity and waste most of my suit’s emergency jets reaching the surface. The proxy had been correct–if I’d jumped earlier I wouldn’t have made it.

The ship hits the coal-black surface a few moments after I land. I watch the Tonatiuh rend and twist as automatic lines and spurs shoot out, anchoring the ship even as it breaks apart. Our precious foil-wrapped cargo bay breaks away, The cockpit explodes in a burst of decompression. I imagine Parda screaming as tears boil from her eyes.

When outgassing finally hides the crash site, I gaze with despair at Heaven’s Touch. We’ve crashed on the comet’s dark side, meaning I won’t immediately bake to death or be outvented into space. As I stumble across the black surface–scraping or punching through to the volatiles below with each step I take–I leave behind a dingy trail of smoking pearls. Above, the comet’s misty coma wraps the sky in a glittering gauze.

Heaven’s Touch is a sungrazer twenty kilometers in diameter. Our mission had been to anchor the Tonatiuh to the comet and siphon enough water to build an ice ship. While the timing had been tight–we’d have only had a few weeks before the comet was too close to the sun to safely work–the potential payoff was so exciting Parda and I eagerly agreed to the mission.

But obviously Parda had hidden her true plans.

The crash site outgasses for almost an hour before dying down enough to again see the ship. The Tonatiuh looks relatively intact even though her right angles of struts and interconnected modules have partially collapsed. I bound over to discover large rips in the ship’s mirror-reflective skin. Through a hole in the main cabin I see my zero-gee sleeping bag fluttering as the main oxygen tank vents. The airlock I’d been trapped in is also destroyed.

The only good news is the auxiliary airlock still works. I crank the airlock open and step inside. The space is tiny, barely big enough for me and my suit. Still, its emergency batteries function and the backup air supply means I can top off my suit for at least a week. If I wanted to waste the air, I could even pressurize the airlock and take off my helmet.

Not that it matters. Unless I escape this comet, an extra week’s air will mean very little.

I leap carefully to the top of the Tonatiuh–not wanting to hurl myself too high in the low gravity–and scan the wreckage. My visor’s holographic interface lights up with rainbowed notations showing coded supplies of food, gear, and other survival items. I ask the system to locate additional air supplies, but there are none.

Then, in an urgent starburst of red vital signs and flashing arrows, the visor points me to Parda’s body.

Needing to see her one last time, I hike toward the ship’s cockpit, which broke off and rests dozens of meters from the rest of the wreckage. Parda is strapped in her control seat and wears a white Seeker gown, which blurs to the comet’s mists. She must have cut the gown from her sleeping bag’s lining, with the gown’s whiteness indicating she attained her life’s destiny.

“God’s only truth?” I mutter. I kick her already frozen body. I would cry except there’s no way to wipe tears in a spacesuit.

As I look at our shattered ship, I naively believe Parda’s goal has been to stop our mission. To keep us from creating the first long-term spacecraft in human history.

I am wrong.

#

As usual, Johnie Acaba breaks the bad news.

“Here’s the problem, Dusty,” he broadcasts from a space station in low-Earth orbit, his voice mixed to static from crossing so many millions of kilometers. “She rammed the blipper.”

He means the tiny nuclear device NASA launched a year earlier and attached to the comet. While Heaven’s Touch easily missed Earth this go around, its close approach to the sun would change its orbit. When it comes back around two decades from now there’s a high chance of a devastating impact. NASA designed the blipper to explode at the comet’s closest approach around the sun, changing its orbital path by a few millimeters. While that wouldn’t matter much in the short term, over the next two decades the effect would grow until the comet missed Earth by a safe distance.

“Where’s the blipper?” I ask, waiting the long seconds for our broadcasts to cross space.

“On a quick drop toward the sun. Parda jumped it like a cue ball off an icy pool table.”

I grimace at Johnie’s silly analogy, even if it’s accurate. This is bad. While my mission was privately funding, our company had subcontracted with NASA to remotely inspect the blipper and make sure it was still functional. But as I watch oxygen and other gases venting from the Tonatiuh, I realize this no longer concerns me. I won’t be alive in a few weeks–let alone twenty years–unless I escape Heaven’s Touch. Still, it explains what Parda had been up to.

“The Seekers are going crazy down here,” Johnie says. “They’re proclaiming the comet to be God’s will. Saying unless people repent Heaven’s Touch will destroy the world.”

“That’s what you get for subcontracting out important work,” I joke, instantly regretting the words because I know they’ll be misunderstood by too many people back on Earth. I don’t ask if NASA can launch another blipper at the comet–I already know the answer. Thanks to anti-tech religions like the Seekers, NASA barely has the funding for a single blipper. Hence subcontracted players like me.

Besides, the timing is off. The easiest way to change the path of a large comet is to affect it at perihelion. With the blipper gone, that opportunity is lost. By the time the comet heads back to Earth two decades from now, it’ll be extremely difficult to change its course.

“I’d hate to be in your shoes right now,” I say, imagining the panic and finger-pointing unfolding on Earth over this debacle.

“It’s worse than you know,” Johnie says. “Parda uploaded something into the Tonatiuh’s systems before she crashed the ship. This, uh, thing, kept us from remotely accessing the ship’s controls.”

Despite Johnie’s vagueness, I know he’s referring to Parda’s proxy. I’ve been so busy trying to survive I’d forgotten about the AI program. If the proxy had access to my suit before I jumped, it is a safe bet it’s still hiding somewhere in my systems.

“Are you there, Parda?” I ask. For a moment the radio static giggles. Johnie asks me to repeat my statement so I explain that the proxy has already infested my suit. His silence tells me all I need to know about what this means for my chances at survival.

I glance at the shimmering white sky. I stand on a comet with only a weak suit radio to contact Earth, more alone than any other person now living. If this proxy really did help Parda crash the Tonatiuh, then it isn’t as benevolent as I originally thought. It might even be able to take control of my space suit. All it has to do is shut down my heat exchangers or air system and I’ll die.

“Sucks to be me, huh?” I mutter. “Although it might suck to be you in twenty years.”

To his credit, Johnie doesn’t disagree. “Worry about yourself, Dusty,” he says. “Maybe the comet won’t hit Earth. And twenty years is a long time.”

I nod. A long time. Much longer than I have.

#

After securing as many supplies as I can, I recharge my suit’s oxygen and sleep a few hours in the airlock, closing the outer doors but staying in my suit. My stomach snaps and begs–I’ve now gone almost two days with only a single high-energy protein bar to eat, which is all the food we normally keep in a space suit. To eat anything else I’d have to pressurize the airlock and remove my helmet. But I refuse to waste air on a grumbling stomach.

As I fall through a fitful sleep, Heaven’s Touch shimmers and vents. Each vibration hums the airlock’s darkness, reminding me of the violence the sun throws my way. If the lack of air doesn’t kill me I’ll eventually be baked alive or exploded off the surface by outventing.

Lovely thoughts. Perfect for meditating on while falling asleep.

Eventually I do sleep, only to dream of meeting Parda two years back at our company’s training facility near Cape Canaveral. During our training and the time we spent on the Tonatiuh, I felt like I’d discovered the sister I’d never had. We were the perfect team, knowing each other’s needs before our own.

Once, during an EVA, my space suit snagged on the communications array. I kept quiet, figuring I could free myself, only to see Parda floating beside me with a cutting tool. Somehow she’d figured out the situation without a word from me.

After slicing off the metal snagging my suit, she’d pushed me back to the airlock with a giggle. “Dusty,” she’d said, “I don’t know what you’d do without me.”

I wake from my dream as the airlock shakes from an extremely violent outgassing. My breathing echoes in my helmet as I hear Parda’s voice whispering. Apologizing. Saying she is still my friend.

I tell her to go to hell as I fall back to sleep.

#

When I finally open the airlock door–feeling even more tired, hungry, and angry–I walk to the Tonatiuh’s cargo bay, which appears intact. I open the bay using the manual release. Inside, the mechanical spiders are undamaged, as is the massive package containing the ice ship’s fabric shell.

Despite everything Parda has done, there’s no reason I can’t still build our ice ship and use it to escape from Heaven’s Touch. Everything I need to melt the ice and fill the giant fabric shell is in this cargo bay. Even the arm-sized solid-fuel rockets to lift the completed ship from the surface have survived.

But my hopes die when I look at the collapsed solar sail–during the crash one of the ship’s structural beams impaled it. I run my gloved fingers across the sail’s silver sheen. The sail had always been the most delicate part of our mission. Even if everything else works, without the sail the ship can’t be propelled back to Earth. It’ll drift on a long-term orbit just like this comet, and I’ll die the same as if I’d never left Heaven’s Touch.

I curse as I grab my anchor gun, used for bolting items to the ice. I hike to the destroyed cockpit and cut out Parda’s stiff body. Her frozen, holier-than-thou gaze pours through my visor. I bolt her hands and feet to the ice with the anchoring gun and ram one final bolt through her heart. I hope her ghost screams at the insult. I hope she’s gone straight to the devil for betraying me.

Panting at the exertion, and angry at wasting my limited time and air on such stupidity, I try to decide what to do. I could still build the ice ship but I’d only drift inside it until my food supplies ran out. Far better to die here. Simply shoot the anchoring gun through my suit and be done with it.

But as my hand absently taps the gun, Parda appears. She stands barefoot on the frigid surface, her white gown sparkling to the soft rain of ice crystals I’ve stirred up.

“Hello, Dusty,” she says, her beautiful lips puckering as if to kiss my facemask.

I jump–literally, rising dozens of meters in the air. My emergency jets kick on and return me to the comet’s surface.

I land beside Parda’s bolt-impaled body, her white gown speckled with black dust. I kick her leg and feel her frozen flesh crack.

“Hello again,” Parda says.

I spin to see Parda again standing before me. She laughs the irritatingly happy grin she’s always flashed when she knows the answer before I do. Even though I understand this is the proxy, I still reach for her. My gloved hand passes through her body.

“You’re not real,” I say, more to myself than to Parda.

“Real as you, perhaps.”

I curse, remembering what Johnie said about this proxy helping Parda crash the ship. I radio him and wait for several long minutes, far longer than he’d need to respond. Nothing.

“Johnie won’t be talking anymore,” Parda finally says, her brown skin glowing against the whiteness of her gown and the outventing mists. “I didn’t like what he said about me, so it’s now just the two of us.”

I stare at the proxy, which looks so like the real Parda I fight the urge to hug her for being alive–or punch her for what she’s done. Our company had built detailed proxies of all its astronauts so the AI personality programs could be quickly run through mission scenarios. I assume Parda somehow copied her proxy and brought the program with us.

I try overriding my suit’s communication controls, which projects her holographic image onto my facemask, but I’m locked out. The proxy obviously wants no one else to talk to me–and to leave me no choice but to listen to her.

“So what are you doing, Dusty?” Parda asks as she stares at the black ice and the remains of our ship.

I grip the bolt gun tight. I could still end it all. Take the quick way out. But seeing Parda’s proxy standing there reminds me how angry I am at her. I refuse to let her or this Seeker nonsense be the death of me.

I holster the bolt gun and smile at the proxy. “I’m building an ice ship. You want to help?”

#

“I admire your will to survive,” Parda says, appearing to sit on the ice as she makes a snowman. “Not that I’m surprised. Your destiny’s among the stars.”

I ignore the proxy as I power up the spiders in the cargo bay. The spiders look like giant insects and are the perfect companions on construction projects, with a wondrously strong yet delicate touch.

As I test one spider, Parda throws a dirty snowball at me. I duck, my instincts forgetting she and everything she does are only holographic projections on my suit’s visor. I’ve already run a diagnostic and, as I’d suspected, the proxy is deeply embedded in my suit’s systems. But as long as the proxy only wants to harass me with words and images, instead of harming my suit’s critical systems, I’ll be okay.

Using the spiders, I pull the steamer out of the cargo bin, leaving a long, outventing scar in the black surface of Heaven’s Touch. I set up the small reactor several hundred meters from the crash. The steamer immediately snakes pipes into the comet’s surface to melt water for the ice ship.

“Going nuclear, huh?” Parda asks as she inspects the steamer. “Not very green of you.”

I laugh. The proxy perfectly mimics Parda’s lame sense of humor. “Not much green out here,” I say. “Which is, of course, why you’re frozen stiff.”

Parda glances at her body, which is still bolted to the ice. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“You didn’t have to crash our ship.”

“But I did. It was my–her–destiny. Come on, surely you suspected something. Didn’t you ever wonder why we became such close friends?”

I nod, forgetting I’m only talking to an intelligent program. I can see I’ll have to be careful–the more exhausted I become, the harder it’ll be to remember I’m not seeing and hearing a real person.

Still, the proxy is right. I’d long suspected Parda of being a Seeker from the little things she said. The words and motions only someone who’d grown up in that tech-hating religion would notice. How she seemed a little too convinced of her destiny in life.

I knew these things because I’d also grown up a Seeker, even though I’d never been a very good one. Instead I was always reading that cursed science fiction, and I loved fighter jets and space ships a little too much for a good God-fearing, anti-tech girl.

I never mentioned my suspicions about Parda because I remembered the obstacles I’d encountered as a lapsed Seeker in the space program. NASA had kicked me out when it learned about my Seeker background, and I’d only been able to find work as an astronaut for private companies. I figured Parda was the same–trying to escape her past. And we were friends. Best friends.

Obviously I’d been wrong.

“Why are you here?” I ask. “You reached your destiny. You destroyed the blipper, ensuring this comet will hit Earth.”

Parda giggles as she flops a snow angel in the comet’s ice. “Maybe I don’t trust you. Maybe I think you’ll find a way to disturb the destiny I died for.”

Obviously this proxy either doesn’t truly understand the situation I’m in, or is lying. “Are you going to kill me?” I ask.

Parda looks at me with wide, innocent eyes. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, do you plan to finish what Parda started? If so, perhaps you should just do it.”

Parda gazes at me as her face beams purest love and caring. But while her projected image doesn’t waver, my suit does, the environmental controls suddenly flickering as the heat exchangers stop pumping. “Might be interesting,” Parda whispers. A wave of nervous warmth flashes through me. I can already imagine the temperature rising in my suit.

But then the heat exchangers start pumping again. I shiver, but not from the chilled air once again blowing against my body.

“I could kill you,” Parda says softly. “It’d be easy. But I’m not that Parda. Just please don’t mess up my destiny.”

I frown, trying to understand how a copy of a dead person’s personality and memories could have a destiny. Or if she’s simply referring to the real Parda’s destiny? Either way, I mutter that I won’t muck it up.

“You promise?” she asks.

“God’s truth,” I say between gritted teeth.

You know you’re in rough shape when you to lie to a computer program.

#

I work on the ice ship for three days straight with no food and little sleep. I drink my suit’s recycled water until the system can’t purge the taste of urine. My backup air supply in the airlock drains lower and lower while the ice under my feet continually shakes as the sun’s energy causes violent outventing on the other side of Heaven’s Touch.

Still, the ice ship comes together quickly. The spiders clear a flat area near the Tonatiuh and unfold the torus while I assemble the insulated pipes to carry water from the steamer to the ice ship’s fabric.

The nuclear steamer is, as expected, temperamental–pump in too much water and the pipes shoot off, the explosion of spray freezing on everything and making reconnection difficult. Still, I manage, and the ice ship’s reinforced canvas quickly fills.

The canvas is designed to be filled with water until it creates a ring torus 100 meters in diameter. When full the canvas will look like those old science fiction dreams of a rotating space station. Running along the middle of this torus–shielded by ice walls 5 meters thick–will be more living space than all the space ships and stations built across the last century. More than a hundred people could live for decades inside the ship’s bulk.

Nuclear engineer Anthony Zuppero first proposed creating an ice spaceship back in the 20th century. My company updated his design with a carbon nanotube mesh reaching between the outer walls to strengthen the torus. Once water freezes through the mesh the walls are strong enough to rotate and create an artificial gravity. The thick ice is also the perfect shield against all the nasty radiation space throws at us flimsy little humans.

I glance again at the sparkling coma framing Heaven’s Touch–already the comet’s slow rotation has brought closer the bright lines of sunlight slicing through those cloudy mists. With the comet quickly nearing the sun, the ice ship will soon be a great place to be.

#

On the fourth day I sleep again, pitifully collapsing from exhaustion in the airlock. Hunger dull-aches my body while my mind spins to the thousand things I need to do before launching the ice ship. I also gag on my suit’s recycled funk, wishing I could waste the air to pressurize the lock.

“Are you asleep?” Parda asks.

“I’m trying,” I say, uncertain if I’m asleep and dreaming of the real Parda, or awake while her proxy messes with me.

“I hope you know it wasn’t about you,” Parda says. “My destiny, I mean.”

“That makes it better? You betrayed me. Betrayed everyone. God’s truth.”

Parda sits silently beside me, her white robe flapping to breezes which don’t blow on Heaven’s Touch. “I thought you’d understand.”

Tears run my eyes. I want to hug Parda. To tell her everything is alright. That everything is forgiven.

Parda arches an eyebrow, the same mischievous look she’d flashed so often when she was alive. “Remember that beach trip?” she asks. “When that shark swam up behind Johnie?”

I grin at the memory. While I’ve been friends with Johnie for years, he is such an astronaut’s astronaut–with a chiseled face, perfect crew-cut hair, and big muscles from long hours of working out–that he often drives me crazy. But on that beach trip his macho image totally broke down. We’d been swimming a dozen meters offshore when a small sandbar shark swam by. Johnie had freaked and run from the waves while Parda and I howled in laughter.

Wishing I could go back to those happy days, I grab at Parda’s holographic hand and dream of playing yet again under the blue Florida sky.

“God’s truth,” Parda says. “If I’d wanted to kill you I could have let the real Parda crash the ship into the blipper at full speed. I convinced her that doing so risked missing the target. Do you know how difficult it was to crash into the comet without destroying the ship? I did that so you’d have a chance at survival.”

As I stare into Parda’s face, I want so badly to believe her. But did this proxy save my life, or had the real Parda done that while her programmed double now merely lies? It’s impossible to know the truth.

Suddenly the airlock shakes to another outventing and I shoot forward, smacking my helmet on the closed airlock door. I curse and kick like an angry child, wanting to be back in Florida where I’d known who my friends were.

“I’ll always be there,” Parda whispers in the dark. “Always.”

#

By the fifth day the ice ship’s torus is filled and frozen solid. I connect the steamer to the ship’s spare water bag–which will hang in the center of the torus like a big balloon–and use the spiders to attach the solar panel fabric to power the ship’s systems.

As I stand before the torus’ reflective skin, checking my suit for any possible damage, Parda speaks. “It’s all vanity,” she says

“What’s vanity?”

“The fact that you’re attempting to deny your God-given destiny.”

My body shakes from hunger as I glance again at Parda’s real body. She’s dead. But as I stare across the blackened landscape–and especially at the distant ring of ice fingers created by millennia of melting and freezing–I realize this is the perfect place for a ghost. A ghost-haunted comet.

“What do you know of my destiny?” I ask.

“You’re destined to reach for the stars.”

“So you’ve said. Well, guess what? I’m here.”

“No. To truly reach the stars you must ride Heaven’s Touch around the sun before heading further out than any human has ever gone.”

I laugh. “Is that what you want? To stay on this comet with me? Return to Earth and destroy the sinners? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Not really,” Parda mutters sadly. “But the real Parda once told me that was your destiny.”

I want to spit. Parda believed her destiny was to send this comet slamming into Earth, so of course she thought my destiny was to be dead and cold and tagging along for the ride. “If that’s what you believe, why did you save my life?”

“Because I wasn’t sure if Parda told the truth,” the proxy says. “Perhaps she was wrong about your destiny.”

“I guess we’ll soon find out,” I say, not sure where the proxy is taking this conversation.

“Exactly!” the proxy says, clapping her hands in excitement. “You understand! The only way to discover God’s true plan for you is to see if you survive!”

I start to tell the proxy to shut up–that at this point it isn’t God’s destiny that will save me but my own hard work. But before I can argue, my suit’s controls indicate that the steamer’s pumps have shut down, likely clogged yet again with slushy ice crystals. As I bound over to fix the problem, I mistime my landing and fall in slow-motion, banging my facemask on the ice. I curse as I flop over, trying to stand up.

Parda appears beside me. Holding me. Comforting me. Like she did during those long months alone in our ship. “You should sleep. Eat something.”

I push her away, only to fall forward as my hand shoots through what I’d thought was her body. I’m getting punch-crazy from exhaustion and hunger, but I don’t care. I stumble to the steamer, intending to clear the clogged pipe before taking a break.

I glance at the steamer’s control panel and see that the pump has shut down automatically. Leaning over the steamer, I unclamp the pipe, which jumps from my gloves as a blast of water explodes against my space suit. Parda shrieks in happiness as the explosion shoots me up in the weak gravity, spinning me end over end as my suit’s nearly depleted jets try to compensate.

After a few weak spurts, the jets die.

“I’m sorry, but I have to know,” Parda says softly, her image in my facemask shedding tears which dance around her face. “Now we’ll learn whether God truly wants you alive, or if you’re destined to perish here.”

“Leave me alone!” I yell, trying to focus on saving myself. Parda bows slightly and disappears.

I quickly assess the situation. While the jets have slowed my climb I’m still rising. Two hundred meters. Four hundred. The comet’s surface fades to white from the coma mists roiling around me. If I’m not careful, I’ll lose my sense of direction.

Before me, the sunlight burns a bright line through the coma. When I cross out of the comet’s shadow, my suit’s heat exchangers will struggle to keep me alive.

I am dead. I’ll die alone, floating endlessly through these white mists.

“If it be Thy will, please let Sister Dusty live,” Parda whispers.

Nodding agreement, I reach for my anchor gun and turn it to full power. I shoot a bolt into space, then another, only three bolts left. Two. One.

The bolts slow my accent, maybe even push me back the way I’d come. But in the mists I can’t tell if I’m now falling or still rising. I fling my gun away to give me a final grab at momentum before relaxing. There’s nothing more I can do.

Parda giggles nervously before reappearing, her body appearing to hug my suit. She is still praying, begging God to save my life, just as the proxy did before the ship crashed. I float in a sea of milk as tiny ice motes swim by, my addled mind again turning them into ghosts.

My suit’s clock counts twenty minutes before the mists clear and I can see the comet’s dirty surface approaching. Without my jets I land hard, rolling across the ice as I pray my suit doesn’t break.

When I look up–bruised, but safe and alive–Parda stands before me. She smiles as she leans over and kisses my helmet.

“I’m glad you made it,” she says. “And now, Sister Dusty, we know the truth. God intends you to live.”

#

After checking the steamer, I realize what Parda did. She’d projected a false image of the steamer controls onto my facemask. The pipe hadn’t jammed and it hadn’t been shut off by automatic controls. When I’d opened the valve, instant liquid explosion.

Even though I have very little air left, I need rest and food. Going for broke, I climb into the airlock and pressurize it. I twist off my helmet, removing Parda’s ability to interact with me. I drink fresh water and eat packet after packet of food–not caring what flavor it pretends to be–and fall into the best sleep I’ve ever known.

The airlock controls wake me ten hours later. I place extra food and clean water pouches in my suit and twist on my helmet.

Parda is waiting. “You don’t have much time,” she says urgently. “Only twelve hours of air left. You must hurry.”

“So what are you going to do? Support me or stop me?”

“I’m your friend. And now that we’ve determined God’s destiny is for you to live, I’ll do anything I can to help.”

This proxy is as crazy as the real Parda. I’m about to say that when suddenly Parda disappears, replaced by a holographic diagram showing detailed blueprints of the ice ship. But the blueprints have been modified, with the water bag in the center of the torus now connected to the steamer.

“Even if you launch the ship,” Parda says, “without the solar sail you’ll never reach Earth. But if you hook up the steamer to the spare water container, you could use spurts of steam to slow your orbit. My calculations show we could get close enough to Earth for NASA to mount a rescue.”

I scan through Parda’s diagrams and numbers, which seem to add up. “It might work.”

“I thought of the idea after the steamer blasted you off the comet,” Parda says, grinning wickedly.

The proxy is obviously playing with me because those are exactly the wrong words to make me trust her. Still, her plan is solid. And if the proxy’s now convinced it’s my destiny to escape Heaven’s Touch, perhaps she won’t get in my way. “Do I have your word on this plan?” I ask, remembering how this proxy once made me promise not to mess up the awful destiny the real Parda died for.

“Would it matter?” she asks. “Stopping you isn’t my destiny, is it?”

“No, it isn’t,” I say as I open the airlock and return to work.

#

Parda sees herself as a true believer. I wonder if the proxy should instead call herself insane.

After all, proxies are only meant for simulations, not real life. Whether utilized by NASA or a private space company or the latest high-tech startup, you plug proxies through simulation after simulation and they are none the worse for wear. But real life–who knows what that does to them.

No matter how closely they’re molded around our minds, memories, and personalities, the proxies aren’t us. Parda’s proxy obviously inherited the love Parda showed me before her betrayal. But Parda also somehow hid her true memories and belief in martyrdom from our company, or else they would never would have let her become an astronaut. So when Parda copied this proxy, she copied an inexact replica of herself. And when she hacked the proxy into doing her bidding, she moved the program even further from what my friend had once been.

I can’t trust this version of Parda any more than I could trust the real Parda.

But I also don’t want to die alone. And right now this Parda is all I have.

#

With the spiders I install the ice ship’s main airlocks and finish moving the heavy equipment inside. According to the original mission plan, at this point Parda and I would have used the tiny rockets attached to the ice ship to lift it from the surface. After rendezvousing with the ice ship, we’d have brought the internal systems online and used the solar sail to guide the ship into Earth orbit.

Obviously I don’t have that last option. But if Parda’s plan works, perhaps it won’t matter.

With the ice ship hooked up to the steamer I have enough power to run the systems until I unbolt the ship from its anchors. I plug the final hose into the ice ship and set the steamer to both pumping in and heating up the ship’s atmosphere. It’ll be cold in there when my suit’s air runs out, but at least I’ll be able to live.

One final time I finger the solar sail’s collapsed sheen. The sail’s mirror-like gossamer would have been a beautiful sight, stretching for kilometers through space after it unfolded. But with the sail damaged there’s no way it can propel the ship. I order several of the spiders to drag it away. The other spiders continue carrying supplies to the ice ship, and hooking up the steamer to the massive ice bag in the center of the ship’s torus.

By the time the ship has a breathable atmosphere, I have less than an hour of air left in my suit. I cycle through the ice ship’s airlock and stand inside the massive, curved hallway. Dim glow lights light the space. After a career in the cramped quarters of space stations and tiny spaceships, my eyes tear at the size of this ship.

“You should be here,” I tell Parda. “This is the start of humanity’s real exploration of space.”

“I am here.”

I start to argue. To tell the proxy that no, the person she’d been modeled after was dead on the ice, her body waiting to be exploded by outventing and baked by the sun.

Instead, I remove my helmet and breathe deep of the chilled air.

“I knew you could do it,” Parda says, her voice a whisper from the helmet in my hands. “Do you think they’ll be able to rescue us in time?”

“Maybe. If not, I’ll be embracing that starry destiny you mentioned.”

Parda laughs in happiness.

I also laugh, attempting to sound relaxed. Because this proxy is so smart, I don’t want to risk her discovering the last part of my plan. “Parda, can you run a final check of the launch sequence?” I ask. “The maneuvering rockets weren’t designed to lift both the ship and the steamer. We don’t want something going wrong.”

“I’ve already analyzed all possible outcomes. Do you want me to do this again?”

“Please.”

The proxy almost purrs with satisfaction as she dives into her deep analysis. With Parda distracted, and while still cradling my helmet in my arm, I turn the helmet slightly so its sensors can’t monitor my hands. So the proxy won’t see what I’m about to program the spiders to do.

I’ll take most of the spiders with me. They’ll unbolt the ice ship and hang on as the maneuvering rockets lift us from the surface. But I have a special mission for the spiders I’m leaving behind. I’m tempted to tell Parda my plan. But as I’ve learned, I can’t trust her too much.

A minute later, Parda says her calculations show everything is still a go for launch. “Now what do we do?” she asks.

“Test my destiny,” I say. “See if it’s still God’s will that I survive.”

Parda giggles like a little girl receiving a gift. I put my helmet back on and walk through the entire torus, showing Parda the ship we’ve built. She seems impressed, her voice chuckling over every square meter of open space.

“Do you forgive me?” she asks. “Maybe we can both embrace our destinies?”

“Maybe,” I say as the spiders unbolt the ship and the rockets kick us into space.

#

Five months. Five months of the ice ship spinning blindly.

At first Parda is so happy to escape the comet she lets me speak to Johnie and everyone else back home so they’ll know I’m alive. So they can mount a rescue mission. Using the spiders, I also finish hooking up the steamer to the spare water bag in the middle of the torus. With the steamer functioning as a simplified steam engine, I slow the ice ship enough to give a rescue ship from Earth a shot at reaching us.

Parda’s excitement lasts until we receive telemetry that Heaven’s Touch has changed course. Johnie and everyone back on Earth are baffled, so I finally admit ordering the spare spiders to unfold the solar sail across ten square kilometers of the comet’s surface. As Heaven’s Touch neared its closest approach to the sun, the sail reflected back so much energy that the projected outventing greatly decreased. The comet’s trajectory changed far more than the blipper could ever have achieved. Heaven’s Touch would never again threaten Earth.

Naturally, Parda is furious. In a burst of un-God-like rage, the proxy crashes the ice ship’s communication and sensor systems and refuses to speak to me for a week. Still, I know NASA is coming. It’s just a matter of whether they reach me before my food supply runs out.

But it’s a long, lonely, hungry wait.

#

“Today’s the day,” Parda says as I wake. I’m in the ice ship’s cockpit. It’s cold in here–I’ve never been able to activate all of the ship’s solar-heating systems–but my spacesuit’s insulation keeps me warm enough. Because the suit long ago ran out of air, I now wear it with my helmet cracked open so I can breathe the ice ship’s atmosphere. But aside from that, the suit feels much like it did on Heaven’s Touch.

This has the added benefit of allowing Parda to keep me company. To keep me from being the loneliest person in the solar system. To ensure this, Parda always reminds me to recharge the suit using the ship’s power, and as the suit’s main systems crashed she rerouted the controls so the holo displays continue to show her to my eyes.

At the sound of Parda’s voice I try to sit up but fall back to the deck. My food ran out weeks ago. The other day I asked Parda if I was going to end up a ghost like her, but she hadn’t answered. She hates it when I’m morbid.

I sip my suit’s water as I watch Parda sit on the control panel, her flowing robe as sparkling white as ever. When she’d first learned I’d destroyed the real Parda’s destiny she’d been angry. But over time she’s forgiven me like only true friends can do.

“You said yesterday was the day,” I whisper weakly, “but no one arrived.” I stare out the cockpit windows. Without communications or telemetry, staring into space is the best I can do. Parda still apologizes every day for crashing those systems, but at this point there’s nothing to be done about it.

“Today it will happen,” she says in a cheerful voice. “Today they will arrive.”

I grin and reach for Parda’s hand, forgetting for the millionth time I can’t touch her. She and I both know the orbital mechanics. There’s a narrow window when a ship from Earth can reach us. We’re almost at the end of that time frame.

I then fall back asleep and dream of food–rice and beer and chicken and spices and pies, a feast I’d give anything to eat. Each time I wake I listen to Parda prattle on about what we’ll do when we’re rescued. She’s afraid they won’t keep us together. That everything will change between us. Before I fall back asleep, I reassure her that nothing could ever change.

I wake a final time to silence and the sensation of the ice ship shaking slightly. Only a small shimmy, but enough to know something is happening.

“What’s going on?” I ask. Several of the cockpits controls flash rainbow colors, but I’m too weak to sit up and read them.

“Parda?” I whisper. “Are you there?”

“Are we still friends?” her tiny voice asks. For the first time since I’d known the proxy she sounds nervous. Afraid.

“We’ll always be friends.”

“Do you really mean that?” she says. She stands in front of the control panel and twists her white robe back and forth. She stares fearfully at the cockpit door.

“Yes,” I say as Johnie and another astronaut step before me. They shout my name and twist my helmet off, vanishing Parda in a burst of light. Johnie holds a food bulb before my face and squirts soupy protein between my lips. I swallow greedily.

“Parda!” I yell, hoping she can still hear me. “Don’t worry. You’ll always be my friend.”

You know you’re in rough shape when you lie to a computer program.

EP490: Flowers for Algernon

by Daniel Keyes
read by Dave Thompson

Flowers for Alfernonabout the author…

from Wikipedia: Flowers for Algernon is a science fiction short story and subsequent novel written by Daniel Keyes. The short story, written in 1958 and first published in the April 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1960. The novel was published in 1966 and was joint winner of that year’s Nebula Award for Best Novel (with Babel-17).

Keyes was born in New York City, New York.[2] He attended New York University briefly before joining the United States Maritime Service at 17, working as a ship’s purser on oil tankers.[2] Afterward he returned to New York and in 1950 received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Brooklyn College.[2]

A month after graduation, Keyes joined publisher Martin Goodman‘s magazine company, Magazine Management.[2] He eventually became editor of their pulp magazine Marvel Science Stories (cover-dated Nov. 1950 – May 1952) after editor Robert O. Erisman,[3] and began writing for the company’s comic-book lines Atlas Comics, the 1950s precursors of Marvel Comics. After Goodman ceased publishing pulps in favor of paperback books and men’s adventure magazines, Keyes became an associate editor of Atlas[1] under editor-in-chief and art director Stan Lee. Circa 1952, Keyes was one of several staff writers, officially titled editors, who wrote for such horror and science fiction comics as Journey into Unknown Worlds, for which Keyes wrote two stories with artist Basil Wolverton.[4]

As Keyes recalled, Goodman offered him a job under Lee after Marvel Science Stories ceased publication:

Since my $17.25-a-month rent was almost due, I accepted what I considered a detour on my journey toward a literary career. Stan Lee … let his editors deal with the scriptwriters, cartoonists, and lettering crew. Writers turned in plot synopses, Stan read them, and as a matter of course, would accept one or two from each of the regulars he referred to as his “stable.” As one of his front men, I would pass along comments and criticism. … Because of my experience editing Marvel and because I’d sold a few science fiction stories by then, Stan allowed me to specialize in the horror, fantasy, suspense, and science fiction comic books. Naturally, I began submitting story ideas, getting freelance assignment, and supplementing my salary by writing scripts on my own time.[5]

One story idea Keyes wrote but did not submit to Lee was called “Brainstorm”, the paragraph-long synopsis that would evolve into Flowers for Algernon. It begins: “The first guy in the test to raise the I.Q. from a low normal 90 to genius level … He goes through the experience and then is thrown back to what was.” Keyes recalled, “[S]omething told me it should be more than a comic book script.”[5]

From 1955 to 1956, Keyes wrote for EC Comics, including its titles Shock Illustrated and Confessions Illustrated, under both his own name and the pseudonyms Kris Daniels and A.D. Locke.

 

narrator Dave Thompson

narrator Dave Thompson

about the narrator…

Dave Thompson is the California King and the Easter Werewolf, and is the host and co-editor of PodCastle. He has narrated audiobooks (by Tim Pratt, Greg van Eekhout, and James Maxey), written short stories (published in or forthcoming from Apex, Drabblecast, Pseudopod, and Escape Pod), and lost NaNoWriMo twice. He lives outside Los Angeles with his wife and three children.

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.

EP488: In Another Life

by Kelly Sandoval
read by Carla Doak

author Kelly Sandoval

author Kelly Sandoval

about the author…

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

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

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

 

narrator Carla Doak

narrator Carla Doak

about the narrator…

I talk for a living, and push buttons – some literal, some metaphorical. I get to play music (and for the most part, choose what I get to play!), talk to folks from all walks of life, give away awesome things and generally make people smile.

I search the world (often via the internet) for strange, wonderful, thought-provoking, conversation-invoking things and relay that information to hundreds and thousands, with my voice and with written word.

I listen to new music, old music, new music that sounds like old music, old music that could be new music and music that should never hear the light of day. I share this music with others, willingly and volun-told-ally.

I share my happiness, my sorrow, my anger, my passion, my wisdom, my ignorance. I wear my heart on my sleeve, in a pocket that is buttoned. There’s a small hole in that pocket, near the bottom, slightly frayed.

 

In Another Life
by Kelly Sandoval

Waking after a night spent slipping, I reach for Louisa automatically, rolling into the empty space where she belongs. I lick the memory of her from my lips, languid with sex. The alarm shrieks from my bedside table but I’ve gotten good at ignoring it.

We went skating. Louisa wore a purple sweater and, giggling and unsteady, clung to my arm. We kissed on the ice and she pressed herself against me, her frozen fingers sneaking under my coat to stroke my back. It’s her laughter I cling to. These days, I only hear her low, honeyed laugh when I’m slipping. I miss the warmth of it.

But it fades. Even the taste of her fades.

I tell myself it’s all right. That it’s necessary. I’ve got an appointment with my therapist at noon. If I’m still clinging to the night’s slip, he’ll know I haven’t been taking my medication.

No help for it. I drag myself out of bed and hit the alarm. My head pounds and the world blurs along the edges. I’ve slipped for three nights straight and ice skating with Louisa is nothing like sleeping. If I don’t take a day off soon, it’ll start to get dangerous.

My therapist would say it’s already dangerous. But he doesn’t understand what I’ve lost.

I’ve got four houses to show before my appointment, and a lot of coffee to drink to be ready for them. He’ll make a thing of it, if I’m late. He always does.

The hours dribble past, hazy and distant. It’s like I left a shard of myself in my alter and can’t quite get back in step with my timeline. When the charming young couple at house two asks me about financing I try to answer, only to be distracted by the ghost of a red-headed boy rushing past in pursuit of a large gray bunny. The woman selling the house wears her red curls pulled back in a tight bun. She’s childless, though abandoned rabbit hutches sit moldering in the back yard, lowering her property values.

Does she slip, stealing moments with this laughing, clumsy boy?