Robert Lowell Russell* is a writer and trophy husband (obviously). He is a SFWA member and a member of the Writeshop and Codex writers’ groups. He is a former librarian, a former history grad student, a former semi-professional poker player, and is now pursuing nursing degree (say “ah!”).
Rob has also just noticed how outdated and lame his website has become and will be modifying it in the near future here: robertlowellrussell.com
His stories have appeared (or will appear) in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Penumbra, Digital Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction (thrice!), Stupefying Stories (fice? what’s the word for five?), and a whole bunch of other places (see complete list on the right side).
*RLR finds it a bit silly to write about himself in the 3rd person.
about the narrator…
My name is Ethan Jones, I live in Melbourne, Australia. I have a passion for audio drama, and this passion led me to create my own. All on my lonesome, I have created ‘Caught Up’, an audio drama about three men who are unwillingly thrust into a world of crime after a shocking encounter with a hardened criminal. You can find this podcast on iTunes by searching my name or ‘Caught Up’, or find more info and subscribe via RSS on the website: http://caughtuppodcast.tk
Gorlack the Destroyer’s All You Can Eat Adventure
by Robert Lowell Russell
Seven hundred battered cases of “Unleash Your Inner Awesome!” mega-nutri-bars dotted the purple grass for kilometers in every direction. Pelle the Silicate rested his rocky body on one of the battered metal crates and sighed.
Noxious smoke from the wrecked “Do-It-Yourself and Save!” cargo lander wrinkled Pelle’s nose. He wondered if the “environmentally friendly materials” the lander was constructed from were in fact sarki beetle shells and dung.
Pelle had bet the Silicate colonists on this distant world would trade their exotic spices and rare materials for a little taste of home. Now, those little tastes were baking in their crates under an alien sun, a thousand kilometers from the nearest settlement.
“I’m ruined,” he muttered.
Gorlack the Destroyer fixed his gaze on the rough-skinned alien sitting on the metal box.
“Bah! Zarg, my friend, it is only another of the stone creatures.”
Zarg shook his head. “These are trying times.”
The troop of warriors and women gathered behind Gorlack murmured its discontent.
“A number three fusion blade will pierce the creature’s hide,” said Zarg, “but leave its soft, inner flesh intact. They taste like kana.”
Gorlack spat on the grass. “Everything tastes like kana. I long for a proper meal.” He turned to Zarg and rested a furred paw on the other’s shoulder. “The number three blade it will
be, but first, honor demands I offer the creature challenge.”
“The coward will refuse.”
Gorlack nodded. “Undoubtedly.” He strode boldly through the grass, approaching the alien. The murmurs turned to silence.
Gorlack addressed the alien telepathically. “I am Gorlack the Destroyer. You are my prey.” He waddled forward, flaring his hips. “Observe the size of my genitals. My many children will feast on your flesh.”
He opened his eyes wide and wiggled his rounded, furry ears. “If you flee, I will find you. If you hide, I will hear you.”
He flexed his fingers. “The Goddess did not give my people pointed claws, yet I will rend your flesh.” Gorlack opened his mouth, showing smooth, rounded teeth. “The Goddess did not give my people sharp teeth, yet I will consume you.”
Gorlack held his arms wide. “Look upon your doom and despair!” Then he filled his lungs, and he screamed aloud the ancient war cry. “Hagmay!” (Continue Reading…)
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.
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.
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 14, Bless 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.
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.
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
“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?”
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.
Natalia Theodoridou is a media & theatre scholar based in the UK. Her writing has appeared in Clarkesworld, Crossed Genres, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. Find out more at www.natalia-theodoridou.com, or just say hi @natalia_theodor on Twitter.
about the narrator…
Hugo Jackson is an author with Inspired Quill; his first fantasy novel, ‘Legacy’ is available from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He has acted and performed stage combat for years, having appeared in various film, theatre and TV productions, including The Young Victoria, Diamond Swords at Warwick Castle, Cyrano de Bergerac (Chichester Festival Theatre, 2009) Romeo and Juliet (Arundel Festival, 2005), The Worst Jobs In History, and Ancient Megastructures: Chartres Cathedral. See him at www.hugorjackson.com
That Tear Problem
by Natalia Theodoridou
“Now flex your arm,” the controller said. Her voice sounded dry and mechanical through the speakers.
“The real one or the other one?” I asked and immediately received a neuro-ping: You are real.
“Both your arms are real, soldier,” she said.
I always thought of her as a woman, but really it was just a voice. There was no way to tell gender.
“Right. Which one do you want me to flex?”
“The left one.”
I flexed my left arm. It’s one of the limbs they rebuilt after the accident. The Neuropage pinged me again, just in case: You are real. All this is real. I wondered if they figured out I had found the glitch. Was that what prompted this ping? But it couldn’t be; the pager was supposed to be entirely incorporated into the nervous system. No outside access available.
Unless that was a lie, too.
“Now the other one,” the voice said.
“How much longer is this going to take?” I asked, flexing my right arm. I could feel my legs getting fidgety. They always did that when I was strapped down for long chunks of time. Ever since the accident. Fidget fidget fidget. Even while I slept, the legs fidgeted. I would much rather sleep floating around, but that set off the security alarm. I had found that out the hard way, on my second day at the space station.
“The muscle-tone examination is complete,” the controller said. “Now on to the neural routine.”
“The neural routine. Of course.”
If she caught the irony in my voice, she didn’t show it.
“Attach the red electrode to your left arm. Good. Now let me know if you experience any pain.”
A moment passed, but nothing happened. “I don’t feel anything,” I said.
“OK. How about now?”
I waited. My eyes started to tear up. I felt the moisture form into little beads around my eyeballs.
“I don’t feel anything in my arm, but my eyes sting like hell. It’s that tear problem again,” I said.
Tears, apparently, don’t flow in microgravity. The little fuckers just stick to your eyes like liquid balls, refusing to let go before they get to be the size of small nuts. Bottom line is, you can’t cry in space. They always get that one wrong in the movies. Who would have known?
“You are reacting to an imaginary stimulus,” the voice said. “Your brain thinks you should be hurting, so your eyes tear up. Hold still. You can wipe them in a minute.”
Maybe the controller was a man, after all. Maybe it wasn’t a person at all at the other end, just a machine.
I waited for a ping, but got nothing.
“All done. You can unstrap yourself, soldier,” the voice said. “Same time tomorrow. Do not be late.”
“The Neuropage will make sure of that,” I muttered, but she had already signed off. She, it, whatever.
The first thing I did was dry my eyes. Then I freed my legs and stretched.
Time to eat, the Neuropage said. One of the scheduled pings. I ignored it and propelled myself towards my compartment. It would ping me again every few minutes. I knew it would get on my nerves–a pun? really?–and I’d have to eat, eventually, but it felt good to ignore it for a while. It was my small fuck you very much to the system. Harry would have tut-tutted at my attempt to play the rebel, he always did, but I think he secretly liked it.
I was raised in New Haven, Connecticut. I attended the University of Connecticut for a couple of years but left to marry my husband of more than twenty years. I have three beautiful children, who like most children these days, far outstrip their parents in intelligence and creativity.
My days, my concrete life, are spent caring for breast oncology patients as a registered nurse. I love working as an oncology nurse. It keeps me grounded and forces me to remember the transient beauty of life, and the importance of doing what one loves while one can. It also keeps God foremost in my mind as I journey through this brief life, that my choices might be according to His will.
My less ordered life (Don’t we all live multiple separate lives?) is spent mostly in my head. I am always attempting to order the multitude of ideas that rise unbidden in my mind when I least expect them. To some people this makes me look deeply spiritual and wise, to others I look angry. I assure, I am neither. Sometimes the voices of half-formed characters speak to me, begging to be recorded for posterity, that we might learn from them, or them from us. Sometimes the voice I hear is my own, reminding me of my obligation to this life. Unfortunately, I rarely have time for any of the voices creating the chaotic din in my head.
about the narrator…
Kaitie Radel is a music education student and aspiring voice actress, has been voice acting as a hobby for two years. In addition to this project, she has participated as both a VA and administrator in several fan projects such as The Homestuck Musical Project and Ava’s Melodies. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali
“Orani, tell Boris what is wrong.”
I told Boris about Enoch and our shared dreams, about how he abandoned me.
“He said I was frigid,” I confided, my head on Boris’s shoulder, his hand stroking my back.
Boris nodded, “What else?”
“He said that for all the credits in the system, I would never learn how to love.”
I’d been drowning in loneliness when I contracted Boris to help me recover from losing Enoch. After two years of long distance communication, Enoch had traveled from Earth to be with me, only to later decide it was a mistake. “You’re not the human being I thought you were,” he said, which was rich because he wasn’t a human being at all.
When I was spent of energy and tears, Boris lifted me into his arms, like steel support beams, and carried me to the bathroom. He undressed and washed me. He kissed my tearful eyes. He rubbed my skin with oil. With Boris I finally felt warm and safe.
“Orani, you are worthy and lovable. I want you to know this,” he murmured to me as he carried me back to bed. “I want you to feel like a little baby.”
I live in the Columbia River Gorge, one of the most beautiful places anywhere. My day job is at the local public library. I started writing quite young, and submitted my first story to a magazine when I was 14 years old. Nowadays I write poems, stories, novels, and a little non-fiction. I’m married to fellow writerKim Antieau. We met at a writer’s workshop quite a few moons ago and got married a year later. We’ve been deliriously happy for many years now. My advice to any would be writers: Don’t do it! It’s a crazy life. But if you absolutely must enter this nutty profession, here’s three things that just might help you out: 1. Write regularly (every day is good). 2. Read constantly. 3. Get a job. Seriously.
about the narrator…
Bill started voice acting on the Metamor City Podcast, and has wanted to do more ever since. He spends his days working at a library, where he is in charge of all things with plugs and troubleshooting the people who use them. He spends his nights with his wife, two active children, and two overly active canines and all that goes with that. Bill last read for us on EP440: Canterbury Hollow.
I never understood the term “new moon.” When the moon is invisible, how can it be new? “New moon” should be called “empty moon,” the opposite of full moon. I resolved to use the term when I was quite young. I figured all my friends would agree with me and we’d start a new way of talking about the moon. Only thing is, the phases of the moon don’t come up in conversation all that often, so the terminology never caught on.
Another thing I remember about the moon: I used to put my finger over it to make it disappear. Lots of kids did that There’s immense power in erasing an object big enough to have its own gravity. Kids crave that kind of power. They want to rule the world.
You work at a medium-sized law firm. You get a call from some nerds. Space cadets. They want to reclassify the moon. They say it’s a planet, not a satellite. You think this has to be some kind of joke. But no. They are dead serious. They have money to pay for your legal work. Seven hundred and eighty-six dollars. And thirty-two cents. They collected it by passing a hat.
You are amused. You take the case. Why not? No point in being who you are unless you can have some fun once in a while, right? Right?
Alice Creighton knew as much about Richard Mollene as anyone who ever looked at a gossip website, which made sense, since she wrote for one of the most popular. Mollene was the richest person ever, a complete recluse, a widower, and dedicated to three things above all else: stopping global warming, halting disease, and making the moon disappear. He had already accomplished the first with his innovative solar cell technology, had made real progress on the second with his universal vaccine, and now, with the pepper mill in orbit around the moon for the past twenty years, he was well on his way to achieving the third.
Alice approved of Mollene’s first two dreams, but was not in favor of the third. A lot of people said they understood Richard Mollene and his pepper mill.
Alice Creighton did not. She asked for an interview with Mollene to get more information. To her surprise, he said yes. Alice would get face time with the man who set the pepper mill grinding and seasoning the moon from lunar orbit almost twenty years ago. A lot of people said its mission was impossible. They said fine non-reflective dust, no matter how abundant, couldn’t quench the light of the moon.
But they were wrong.
Credits: The Australian science fiction magazine Cosmos: The Science of Everything published my hard sci fi story “Echoes” and “Inspiration” was printed in the first Antipodean SF Anthology. Other credits include the comparative mythology fantasy “Realms of Gold” and Jupiter mining sci fi “Bright Cloud of Music,” both at Neverworlds The Unique Fiction Webzine. I was short-listed for the Random House/Transworld Australia George Turner Prize for my manuscript “Hashakana”.
about the narrator…
Pamela Quevillon is a writer and narrator who lives in the St Louis area and gives voice to everything from planetarium shows to documentary movies from her not necessarily well heated attic. You can find more of her narration as part of the Space Stories series on 365 Days of Astronomy and on past episodes of Escape Pod.
by Liz Heldmann
The disruptor net hit the ocean with an eruption of steam. Obscuring billows gouted up in columns of gray and white and the target was close enough that the aft hull immediately registered a thermic spike. The temperature shot from swampy greenhouse to hot-as-fucking-Hades. Technically speaking.
Around the quadrant, warships were deploying nets as weaponry. Best not to think about that. Science was the new war, according to Delia.
The weave generated out of the arse end of the ship was coarse, each node tuned two-dimensionally to its neighbors in a honeycomb lattice that formed a curved plane. A great big seine made of plasma, dragging a world ocean underneath a sun that filled the forward viewscreen as if trying to muscle out of the frame.
Both density and chemistry dials had been spun and today’s net split the surly bonds between hydrogen and oxygen wherever it encountered them in a medium of approximately one gram per cubic centimeter. Which meant that the net sliced through alien waters like gamma rays through goose shit and didn’t so much as muss the hair of any entities it scooped up in the process.
Forget ‘Take me to your leader’. We quit asking nicely a few planetary systems in.
Just about the day we got our first sentient ‘Thanks, but no thanks, and by the way, eat plasma’.
Hence the warships.
The thought of slammin’ and jammin’ in the spaces between worlds raised a bit of nostalgia in a girl.
“All right, Shar, bring her up!” Delia’s shout interrupted before I got all weepy.
The science vehicle, romantically named ScV-341, burped inertial brakes out of its titanium skin and gimbaled 45°. The net raveled in. A telltale with the image of a stepped-on snail floating above it went green, the deck vibrated and the ship pinged a saccharine little public service announcement. “Aft hold, secure.”
“Thank you, ship.” We’d been excessively polite to each other ever since Delia had told me it was beneath me to argue with a ship over operational procedure. What she’d told it, I don’t know.
I live with my husband Brian, his brother John, and two adorable cats, in a 1930s neo-colonial that we unworthy slobs do not keep up.
I’m currently employed as the webmaster for the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.
I’m a member of the Cajun Sushi Hamsters from Hell – a science fiction writer’s group. I sold a story to an online magazine (now defunct) in 2009 that garnered a Nebula nomination (probably from my friend Mary), and in 2013 I attended the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop in San Diego, CA. In 2014, I became a member of SFWA, the Science Fiction Writers of America professional organization. You can find links to my stories and more about my writing at my author’s website: http://marievibbert.com
I’m also a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, squired to Sir Ephraim ben Shlomo.
Since 2010 I’ve been playing football for the Cleveland Fusion, a women’s tackle football team. I’m a lineman.
about the narrator…
Tatiana fell in love with New York City when she took a school trip to the city at 16 years old. Six months later she had her feet and a suitcase on the New York City asphalt as a new student accepted into New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts which began her New York career. She adores traveling and counts her lucky stars that acting and dancing have taken her all over the United States, to Montreal, Vancouver, Ireland, and Holland… but she loves coming home to New York where it all started.
Equally at home speaking heightened language in a corset, in a leather jacket spouting obscenities, and as a dancer she has been compared to such dark, vivacious heroines as Helena Bonham Carter, a young Winona Ryder and Ellen Page. This depth and facility with multiple genres garnered her a New York Innovative Theatre Award Best Featured Actress nomination for her work in The Night of Nosferatu. Her facility with accents has landed her quite a few audiobooks and numerous on- camera roles including the role of Evgenya in the award winning I am A Fat Cat. Tatiana is a proud member of Actor’s Equity Association.
by Marie Vibbert
Nanlee was a woman with the sort of past that necessitated moving to a non-extradition treaty country, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t planned on enjoying her “retirement” on Luna Colony. She was Facilities Manager – a polite term for the boss of all janitors. Her staff jumped anxiously at her every glance, and waste was down nine percent since she had taken office. She was still important; the life of the colony depended on her work. No one bothered her. Which was fortunate, given how she used to deal with people who bothered her.
Luna Colony concerned itself with maintaining the Ungodly Huge Array on the dark side of the moon and serving as a weigh station between Earth’s inconvenient atmosphere and the rest of the universe. Nanlee concerned herself with minding her own business.
She was at her desk when the alarms started. A male voice recorded long ago grunted “Evacuate. Imminent danger of decompression. Evacuate.” No doubt he had thought he sounded important and tough. Nanlee sighed and locked her workstation.
Vince, her assistant, fell to a halt against the door as she was picking up her cane. “Boss! The station—”
“Yes, I heard. I do have two working ears. Probably a drill, but gather everyone to the garage.”
Vince’s hazel eyes just about vibrated, so wide open she could see the white all the way around the iris. “It isn’t a drill! This is ‘we could all die tonight’ bad news.”
Nanlee paused, half on her cane, half on the edge of the desk, pulling herself out of her chair. She fell back into the seat. She could feel her hot-tub calling to her. “Metaphorical death or literal?”
“Literal. Two tons of titanium on a crash-course with our dome.” He tapped her desk surface, hurriedly typing in his password and pulling a document, which he rotated with a flick of his hand to point at her.
It was an orbit decay projection. They always looked the same. “And this is too big for the dome to handle?”
“It’ll crack us like an egg!”
Vince sounded excited, almost gleeful, at the prospect. He was young.
“What the hell is it?”
“The last stage of a Saturn V rocket. Sucker’s been orbiting Luna for a hundred years. Maybe it got hit by some other debris, maybe it’s just decided now’s the time to land.”
Nanlee stopped herself from asking “Saturn what?” because Vince was looking at her like he’d just won the lottery. “Does Trey know about this?”
Trey was the mayor of the colony, Nanlee’s boss.
Vince rolled his eyes. “Of course Trey knows.” Like that was any less valid a question than asking her if she had heard the evacuation announcement. Nanlee wasn’t going to waste breath pointing it out. “He sent me to tell you we’ve got a little less than a day.”
“Well pack shit up!” She poked her cane against the wall behind her to get a little boost forward. “Get Percy and take the organic filters off-line. They won’t survive decompression. Also—“
“No. We’ve got a day to try and save the colony.”
Nanlee arched an eyebrow. “We?”
“Trey has put waste management on this. Everyone else is booking it.”
“Why the hell is this my jurisdiction?”
“Because,” he smiled ruefully, “it’s trash.”
With surprising strength, Nanlee pushed Vince out of her way and started down the corridor. She didn’t bother playing up her limp like she usually did – it never hurts to be underestimated. “Where is he? Where is Trey?”
“Uh… he’s gone. Central administration relocated before the alarm.”
“Damn.” Nanlee bounced upward as she struck the floor with her cane. Vince ducked as she whirled in place and started toward the equipment bays. “If we’re staying, our gear is staying. Don’t tell me that coward commandeered a single maintenance vehicle.”
I reside in Buckeye, Arizona, on the outskirts of Phoenix. My family includes my husband Jason, son Nicholas, and elder-cat Porom. I’m originally from Hanford, California. If I wear ruby slippers and tap my heels three times, that’s where I go by default.
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, rockclimbing, 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.
Red Dust and Dancing Horses
by Beth Cato
No horses existed on Mars. Nara could change that.She stared out the thick-paned window. Tinted dirt sprawled to a horizon, mesas and rock-lipped craters cutting the mottled sky. It almost looked like a scene from somewhere out of the Old West on Earth, like in the two-dimensional movies she studied on her tablet. Mama thought that 20th-century films were the ultimate brain-rotting waste of time, so Nara made sure to see at least two a week. Silver, Trigger, Buttermilk, Rex, Champion—she knew them all. She had spent months picturing just how their hooves would sink into that soft dirt, how their manes would lash in the wind. How her feet needed to rest in the stirrups, heels down, and how the hot curve of a muzzle would fit between her cupped hands.The terraforming process had come a long way in the two hundred years since mechs established the Martian colonies. Nara didn’t need a pressure suit to walk outside, but in her lifetime she’d never breathe on her own outside of her house or the Corcoran Dome. There would never be real horses here, not for hundreds of years, if ever. But a mechanical horse could find its way home in a dust storm, or handle the boggy sand without breaking a leg. She could ride it. Explore. It would be better than nothing. Her forehead bumped against the glass. But to have a real horse with hot skin and silky mane…
“Nara, you’re moping again.” Mama held a monitor to each window, following the seal along the glass. “No matter how long you stare out the window and sulk, we can’t afford to fly you back to Earth just to see horses. They’re hard to find as it is. Besides, you know what happened when that simulator came through last year.” (Continue Reading…)
M.K. Hobson recently decided to follow a time-honored authorial tradition and become a bitter recluse. She swore off all social media and left her website to go to seed. At the moment, she exists only as a voice on short fiction podcasts such asPodcastle and Cast of Wonders. She leavens the tedium of her vastly expanded free time with misanthropy, paranoia, and weight lifting.
by Aaron Gallagher
It took concentration to perform delicate work in the cumbersome gloves of the suit. The rounded fingers were metal-tipped, and bulky. Elise painted the tips of her gloves with luminous paint for ease when working outside.
The octopus found the wires and shorted the alarm. The device glowed green and she triggered the manual release. The door popped, expelling a breath or two of oxygen.
Elise slipped into the airlock and closed it behind her, shutting the door on the endless black of space. The inside porthole looked into the cargo hold. She glided through the cargo room with three kicks.
The head-up on her helmet showed schematics in blue. She found the environmental control room.
She flipped open the airtight seal on a container holding a large slab of green gel. She snapped open a metal vial sprayed dark liquid onto the slab. She sealed the container, turned the machinery to full, and crouched by the door out of sight.
At thirty minutes, Elise headed upstairs for the cockpit. Empty. She looked for the captain’s cabin. In the cabin’s refresher, she found his body slumped in a large rubber bag.
Great. He passed out in the shower.
Elise wrestled the naked man out of the rubber shower. Round globules of water drifted around them. She pulled a sedative pad out of her bag and slapped it onto Holland’s arm. The chemicals seeped into his bloodstream.
He’d sleep twenty-four hours in a chemical coma. She left him in his bunk pouch, cinch closed around his neck. His balding head bobbed in the breeze from the vent.
Back in the environmental control room, she worked the o2 scrubbers at full blast for thirty minutes. She broke seal on her helmet and sniffed the air, ready to clamp the helmet down the moment she felt dizzy.
The ship was hers.
Elise floated through the ship to familiarize herself. It didn’t take long. It was a small Beech Skimmer, cargo capacity of around five metric tons. The craft was cylindrical, with two floors. Cargo, environmental, and engine room below. Main floor above was one long corridor, sixty meters long, with the cockpit at the fore, two staterooms to each side, a combination kitchen, dining room, and recreation area at the other end. The ship was roomy for one, comfortable with eight, rated for a maximum of sixteen.
Down below she examined the engines, because no pilot she knew ran a ship within recommended specs. The big Beech was tuned up to 122% efficiency. She studied the specs to learn what he had done. She shook her head. Sure, he’d managed to coax more power from the big engine, but it would need an overhaul twice as often. She shut off the display with a shrug. They never thought of the bottom line.
She finished her inspection and sealed her helmet. As she kicked out of the airlock, she paused to admire the view. It was worth admiring. Pluto, with her single, sickly colony. The dock in orbit, half-full of ships in port, lit like Vegas, and shining like diamonds on velvet.
She slipped under Adage to where her Betty was Remora’d to the hull and went inside. She plopped into the pilot’s couch. All her controls were custom, larger than normal. She spent a lot of time in her suit. Only two hours had passed since she used thrusters to come alongside the bigger ship. She watched the displays as she worked the controls by feel. Her deft touch meant hardly a small thump when she triggered the electromagnet and sealed to the hull of the bigger ship.
She looked around the small cabin, dingy with use. The Betty was a work-ship and looked it. She kept it neat, but it was still messy in that lived-in way.
After a last look around, she grabbed her bag and thumbed the power-down sequence, keeping the power plant only alive enough to keep the electromagnet on and her wine unfrozen.
In the cockpit, she entered her flight plan and engaged, then she removed her suit. She shook herself out, tugged the simple grey shipsuit straight. It was a relief to scratch. She scrubbed her fingers through her brown free-fall short hair. Her eyes itched from the low-humidity atmosphere of her suit.
Twenty days from Pluto dock to Lunar orbit. It took one hundred forty minutes to get to full thrust.
Elise rooted through Holland’s stores. Among his other qualities, Efram Holland had surprisingly excellent taste in both wine and coffee. While the plastic didn’t improve the flavor of either, it wasn’t intrusive.
She opened a box of 2105 Chateau d’Yquem. She put a clip in the reader and stuck herself to the wall. She squeezed a globe of wine into the air and leaned forward to sip from the bubble. The reader displayed the text of Jane Eyre.
“Chapter nine,” she said, and the reader skipped ahead. She crossed her legs and arms and got comfortable.
# (Continue Reading…)