Tag: "tina connolly"

EP562: Meltwater

AUTHOR: Benjamin C. Kinney

NARRATOR: Rajan Khanna

HOST: Tina Connolly

about the author…

Benjamin C. Kinney is a neuroscientist by day, speculative fiction writer by night. Once upon a time, he worked in a glass-walled tower making cyborg monkeys, but he long ago abandoned that business to run electromagnetic fields across human brains. He lives in St. Louis with two cats and his spacefaring wife. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, PodCastle, and Flash Fiction Online – and, at last, his beloved Escape Pod, where he sifts through submissions as an Associate Editor.

about the narrator…Rajan Khanna Author Photo

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, was released in October 2014 from Pyr. A sequel, Rising Tide, came out in October 2015. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he’s a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. He is represented by Barry Goldblatt of the Barry Goldblatt Agency.
Meltwater

By Ben Kinney

My beloved waits for me in the flooded church. She’s died one time too many, and I can’t get her back without her help. At least, at last, it gives me a reason to see her again.

The church lies at the edge of the Mediterranean fracture, below cliffs barely eight thousand years old. Glacial melt pours down the precipice, filling the air with a fine frigid mist. Rime ice coats the façade, making the church look like a sharp-clawed hand locked in melting wax. Another fork drops me off in a flier, leaving me alone in the valley with my pack and what few memories I can carry.

Boulders and high water have turned the entrance into a scramble over icy stone. My lungs heave against thin cold air as I catch my breath in the nave atop a half-submerged pile of boulders. There’s just enough dry space for me to stand upright. I wish I’d taken a different body, but for this task–for me–only the traditional shape will do.

I first spot Emlune as a glowing line of blue. Her primary lamp cuts across the chamber, and the air glimmers with frozen mist. She clings to the vaulted ceiling with eight articulated limbs. Smaller lights spangle her teardrop-shaped chassis, as if she had swum in water rich with bioluminescent algae.

I cup my hands in front of my mouth. “Emlune!”

The light swivels toward me, even though she must’ve noticed me already. The artifice lends her attention a charming, primitive touch. I say, “There you are. Six thousand years, and this place hasn’t changed a bit. You’re still maintaining it, yes?”

“Percel.” Her voice sounds calm, but as distant as steeple to pews. “If you’re using that name again?”

“Of course.” I rub my hands together through their gloves, though my flesh is already warm. “Bad news. Your last iteration died without leaving any other forks of herself. No variants, no backups, nothing.” I intend to add she’s gone, but the words never leave my throat.

She scuttles down from ceiling to wall and hops onto a boulder beside me. Her body is glossy with layers of diamond, twice the size of my relic form. She says, “How?”

The question hurts, and I succumb to the temptation to avoid it. “She was in the Cascadia Zone, working on the volcanoes. She must’ve mis-timed an eruption.”

A manipulator swivels, like the shake of a head. “Why didn’t she make any backups?”

“I don’t know.” I want to fidget, to look anywhere else. Beneath her bright-light gaze, I can’t hold back the truth. “But it can’t have been an accident. Unless you think you forked someone careless.”

I wince as the last words escape my mouth. I don’t want her death on my shoulders, but I’d rather blame myself than her. Her beam flickers over my face, and I wonder what my skin and muscles reveal.

She laughs, a sound like the memory of bells. “You’re so transparent in that body. It’s sweet. It’s all right, I know you’re on edge. I’ve missed you too.”

I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with the easy grace of her forgiveness. “It’s good to see you, Emlune. It’s a lonely world out there without your fork. But to be honest, we missed this you.”

Emlune braces four legs beneath her and tilts her spun-diamond body like a sitting dog. “Am I so different from my forks? Or did you change yourselves to love me less?” Her voice gains a bittersweet edge, as if disappointed by the sadness on her tongue. “Probably both. I knew my fork would be different out there. Because of the work. I just can’t… obsess about the old Earth, not like you do.”

Frustration surges inside me. “What’s wrong with the work? At least I’m doing something productive! What have you accomplished these millennia? Thought deep thoughts and kept a church from falling down?”

Blue light strikes my eyes. I squint, but hold my ground. What could be more important than repairing this shattered Earth? I have to make her understand.

She says, “You shouldn’t have come back.”

She slips into the water and vanishes between the boulders. I am alone in the frozen church, hating myself. I haven’t forked into a body like this in millennia, and I’ve forgotten how to manage the emotions. The frustration remains, and I find myself pacing back and forth.

I slip on the ice. I catch myself on my hands, and my bones jar with the impact. I curse with clenched teeth and words that have long since lost their meaning.

I sit up. My body aches, but nothing worse. I’m not going anywhere. I may not remember all nine thousand years, but I know patience.

#

I dig a transmitter out of my pack and pass the time by keeping tabs on the work. I have four other forks currently running: two submarines working the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a solar array warming the Cocos Plate, and a flyer surveying the Iberian peninsula. I consider envying my other forks. They miss only Emlune’s now-dead fork, with an affection faded by the malignant accumulation of changes. They barely recall Emlune’s frozen source, but I exist for my task: body, mind, and memories. When I finish my mission, when we splice back together, all of us will learn what we’ve been missing. They will remember my minutes and hours with Emlune, and they are the ones who will envy me.

Emlune clambers up onto the rocks. Screenlight reflects off of the camber of her fins, rippling as her limbs narrow themselves into legs.

She says, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have have run off like that. I’m not used to company.”

I shift my jacket on my shoulders. “I’m sorry too. I was being nasty. I’d blame this body, but that doesn’t make me any less responsible.” I try a smile. “I hope you’ll forgive me?”

“Always. As long as you will,” she says wistfully. Her light flickers to my face, to my screen, and back. “I’m glad you’re still enjoying your work.”

I nod toward my screen. “Do you remember the old Earth?” I try to recall us walking there together, breathing air rich with nitrogen and oxygen, warm sunlight on our singular face. “But never mind. It’s okay if you don’t. I just need another fork of you that will.”

“It didn’t work out last time. Evidently.”

“It worked for six thousand years. If we have to do this every few millennia, that’s not so bad, is it?”

She sighs, her voice heavy with regret. “My fork must’ve been miserable. To end the way she did. Maybe this isn’t meant to be.” Her tone hardens, but I can hear the crack beneath the plaster. “Learn to adapt, Percel.”

I wince. This isn’t going well. “We will. But we–I–don’t want to do it alone. Won’t you try again?” My pleading tone embarrasses me. This is futile, even if she acquiesces. As long as the idea repels her, she’ll never be able to craft a self that wants this future.

An idea dawns, and I grasp it like a whisper of radio signal in a cave. “Wait. I’ve been greedy, haven’t I? Let’s trade forks. I’ll bring one here to keep you company.”

Emlune’s primary lamp goes dark. The other lights on her carapace twinkle like a cupful of stars. I can still discern her shape, as the light from my screen casts her spangled shadow against the false window-arch of a triforium. She says, “You think a version of you could be happy here?”

“With you? Of course.” I’ve spoken too quickly. Would that fork still be us, the me whom she loves, without its interest in the world beyond?

Maybe not. But maybe she’ll be happy, even if her partner is someone else.

I wonder whether she can see my agony. But I put on a smile and say, “It’s worth a try. I don’t have the hardware to copy from this body, but I’ll have one of my others send the new fork.”

Her light flickers back into life and she reaches out. Her diamond manipulator touches my skin. Not as cold as ice, but as cold as the dead. Still, it’s the only touch I desire.

“It’s worth a try,” she echoes. “And until your fork arrives, we have time to talk.”

#

I receive a message from my fork in the church. Emlune wants us to make a version willing to stay here.

I can make such a fork, and I know her future. The new fork will diverge so far we’ll never achieve a proper splice. She will learn the things I most lack: peace, certainty, trust in permanence. She will ask the hardest questions. She will challenge me.

I will fall in love with her.

Six thousand years have passed since the last time I did this, but I have not forgotten.

#

Dawn light filters through clerestory window holes as Emlune sits on the cold stone beside me, telling tales of her work. Water and ice and time form an ever-changing loom, and every day she weaves the church anew. She doesn’t pause at the sound of turbines, but she falls silent when spun-diamond feet clink against boulders in the entrance.

An eight-limbed teardrop-shaped machine joins us, carrying a box full of gear. With my inchoate senses, the kit looks like nothing more than a tangle of shadow and silver.

I say, “Hello, Percel.”

“And to you, Percel.” The new arrival laughs with my voice, and then swivels toward Emlune. “You must be Emlune? I’m afraid I don’t remember much of you. But I will in a moment.”

The new Percel unspools a pair of leads from the kit, plugs one into her carapace, and offers me the other. “You have the only full instance of our feelings for her. Ready to share?”

More than ready, if it’ll create one more soul who understands me. I slip the lead into the socket where my spine ascends to skull, a concession to modernity in the timeless architecture of my human body. The world stutters as my functions lock down during the copying process, but when I resume, only an instant has passed.

I disconnect, and rub my fingers against the hard rim of the port. I force myself not to glance at Emlune; even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to read the reaction on her carapace. “Do you remember now, Percel?”

My newest fork hesitates, lights cycling beneath her surface as she weighs my gift. For her, it should be no burden. “I do.” The lights fall still, and her main lamp flickers to Emlune, then back to me. “But why Percel? Neither of us should answer to that. Names don’t mean much if we reuse them. I think I’d rather go by Temze. How about you?”

Satisfaction freezes in my veins. “I like Percel.”

Temze’s lamp dims, and she swivels it toward Emlune. Tightbeam communication passes between them. Temze’s dismissal hurts, a spike of disappointment somewhere behind my ribs.

I’m still not sure I understand Temze’s meaning. There’s no reason why I should; she has a long and different life ahead of her. But I want to make her proud of me. I clear my throat. “Call me Arju.”

Emlune and Temze focus on me. A breath of mist eddies across the nave. Emlune says, “It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Arju.”

Meeting. We both know I’m not the same Percel who left her here six thousand years ago. I’m a short-lived fork, and soon I’ll splice back into the others. I will become part of my future selves, to live my manifold lives with Emlune’s copies.

It’s not enough.

This time, I’ll know what I’ve lost. In love but forgotten, as Emlune and Temze build their private world. I can’t imagine a more painful fate. There must be a way out.

There is a way out.

I take the kit from Temze’s manipulators. “Download Emlune’s fork into me.”

Emlune recoils. “Your body barely has room for one personality. I’d overwrite you! If it’s even possible.”

Temze speaks cautiously, her voice deferential. “It’s possible. We designed this kit to create Arju.” I’ve surprised her, and I try to hide my flash of pleasure before her attention swivels toward me. “I don’t understand, but I’ll respect your choice. If you’re certain.”

Emlune scrapes her manipulators along the ice, as if hunting for purchase. “Why are you doing this?”

The wire shakes in my hands. My body feels like glass, strong but brittle. I must not crack. I was made to love this Emlune, solitary and eternal. If I splice, my love would rejoin the stream of my future selves. As long as some part of us pines for Emlune in her sanctuary, we will return here again and again, frozen in our yearning for an impossible love.

I look at them both, two bodies dazzling with diamond and light. “Because without me, we’ll be free.”

I attach the lead and wait for her to flow into me.

###

EP558: Holding the Ghosts

AUTHOR: Gwendolyn Clare

NARRATOR: Dionne Obeso

HOST: Tina Connolly

about the author…

Gwendolyn Clare is a New Englander transplanted to North Carolina. She holds a BA in Ecology, a BS in Geophysics, a PhD in Mycology, and
swears she’s done collecting acronyms. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Analog, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others.

about the narrator…

Dionne Obeso is a freelance editor and a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Her awesome flash fiction can be found at SpeckLit.com and Daily Science Fiction. When she isn’t adventuring in fantastical worlds, exploring alien environs, or trekking through the high Sierras, she returns to her home base in the California Bay Area to remind her husband what she looks like. She has purple hair, a secret identity, and a strong position on the Oxford comma.

 

 

Holding the Ghosts

By Gwendolyn Clare

Abby was in control of the body the first time a glitch occurred.  She was “home from college for the long weekend”–that’s what the imprinted memories showed, at least–and her mother was pouring dollops of blueberry pancake batter onto the sizzling cast-iron griddle.

Her father had found an excuse to go into work on a Saturday morning, as he often did ever since Abby “went off to college.”  She assumed this was her father’s strategy for coping with empty nest syndrome and tried not to feel hurt by his avoidance.  Her interpretation wasn’t entirely incorrect, but of course she did not comprehend exactly how empty the nest was.

When Abby stopped living with them full time, the body stopped being Abby full time.  Leasing the body was quite expensive, so this was the only logical decision.  But Abby’s father could not reconcile himself to the idea that Abby only existed on the weekends when they rented the body, never mind that the techs would fabricate memories for her so that she believed she had experienced all the intervening days.

The body shouldn’t have known this.  The body should only know what Abby knew.

“Do you want another one?  We’ve still got some batter here.”

Abby looked up from the purple-and-amber swirls of blueberry juice and maple syrup she was prodding with her fork.  “Um… no thanks, Mom.  I think I’m full.”

“I wish you wouldn’t worry about the freshman fifteen,” her mother fussed.  “If anything, you look like you’ve lost a few pounds this semester.”

“I’m not your daughter, you know.  I’m just carrying her ghost for a while.”

EP556: In a Manner of Speaking

AUTHOR: Charity Tahmaseb

NARRATOR: Amy H. Sturgis

HOST: Tina Connolly

about the author…

Charity Tahmaseb has slung corn on the cob for Green Giant and jumped out of airplanes (but not at the same time). She’s worn both Girl Scout and Army green. These days, she writes fiction (short and long) and works as a technical writer. Her short speculative work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Deep Magic, and Cicada.

about the narrator…

Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in Intellectual History and specializes in the fields of Science Fiction/Fantasy and Native American Studies. She lives with her husband, Dr. Larry M. Hall, and their best friend, Virginia the Boston terrier, in the foothills of North Carolina, USA.

In a Manner of Speaking

By Charity Tahmaseb

I use the last of the good candles to build the radio. I still have light. The fire burns, and there is a never-ending supply of the cheap, waxy candles in the storeroom. I will–eventually–burn through all of those. My fire will die. The cold will invade this space.

But today I have a radio. Today I will speak to the world–or what’s left of it. I compare my radio to the picture in the instructions. It looks the same, but not all the steps had illustrations. This troubles me. My radio may not work.

I crank the handle to charge the battery. This feels good. This warms my arms, and I must take deep breaths to keep going. I shake out my hand and crank some more. When buzz and static fill my ears, I nearly jump. That, too, sounds warm. I am so used to the cold. The creak and groan of ice, the howl of the wind. These cold sounds are their own kind of silence. They hold nothing warm or wet or alive.

I decide on a frequency for no other reason than I like the number. I press the button on the mouthpiece. This, according to the instructions, will let the world hear me.

EP552: RedChip BlueChip

AUTHOR: Effie Seiberg
HOST & NARRATOR: Tina Connolly

about the author…

Effie Seiberg is a science fiction and fantasy writer living in San Francisco. Her short stories have previously appeared in PodCastle, Analog, and Lightspeed, among others. By day she’s a marketing and strategy consultant in Silicon Valley. She likes to make sculpted cakes and bad puns. You can read many of her stories at effieseiberg.com, or follow her on twitter at @effies.

 

 

about the narrator…Tina Connolly

Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin fantasy trilogy from Tor Books, and the Seriously Wicked YA series from Tor Teen. Her novels have been finalists for the Nebula and the Norton.

Her stories have appeared in Tor.com, Lightspeed, Analog, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily SF, and many more. Her first collection, On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories, is now out from Fairwood Press.

Her narrations have appeared in Podcastle, Pseudopod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, John Joseph Adams’ The End is Nigh series, and more. She co-hosts Escape Pod and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake.

 

 

RedChip BlueChip

By Effie Seiberg

The AdChip technician’s rubber-gloved hand was cold on my chin. “Now hold still, Mi-kay-la.”

“It’s Mi-KEE-la,” I grumbled. My mother, leaning on the beige metal door, didn’t look up from her smartpad.

“Right.” He nodded, uncaring. “This is going to sting a bit, but don’t you worry. It’ll be over before you know it.”

He didn’t know how right he was – it would be over soon, once Sivvy found out.

He pushed my chin to the side, exposing my left ear, then swiped an alcohol-infused gauze in the soft area behind the star-shaped earring I’d bent from a paper clip the other day.

“Now, do you want to be BlueChip or RedChip?” He busied himself with the metal tray of instruments sitting next to me on the ugly green table. An enormous syringe-like tool lay there next to two tiny Chips and a graft gun. Both Chips were black – I guess the color names weren’t literal.

“Shouldn’t my papers already tell you that? Haven’t you already decided everything for me?” There were posters on the walls advertising Coke and Pepsi and IBM and Apple and Honda and Toyota. Stuff for each Chip.

My mother finally glanced up. “Mikila, be nice.”

“Oh it’s fine,” he said with plastered-on cheer. “The papers are only for backup, in case you don’t choose. We just want you to be happy!”

“OK, fine. I’ll choose not to have a Chip at all – that’ll make me happy. Can I go now?” I hopped off the green metal table and moved to grab my worn messenger bag.

He moved to block. “Ha ha.” His smile stiffened on his face. “A funny one!”

EP550: When They Come Back

AUTHOR: Natalie Theodoridou
NARRATOR: Ibba Armancas
HOST: Tina Connolly

about the author…
View image on Twitter

Natalia Theodoridou is a media & cultural studies scholar currently based in Exeter, UK. She is also the dramaturge of Adrift Performance Makers
(@AdriftPM). Her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Nature, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. Find out more at her website or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.

 

 

about the narrator…narrator Ibba Armancas

 

Raised by swordfighters and eastern European freedom fighters, Ibba Armancas is a writer-director currently based in Los Angeles. Her darkly comedic genre sensibilities are showcased in two webseries and a feature film forthcoming later this year. One day she will find time to make a website, but in the mean time you can follow her projects and adventures on Twitter or Instagram.

 

When They Come Back

By Natalia Theodoridou

 

They were called Maria, and Michael, and Siobhan, George, Elise, and Sarah, and Violet, Daisy, Jasmine, Rose–

no, perhaps these were not people names, these were flower names, weren’t they?–

and Gabriel, Raphael, Bacchus, Athena, Io, Muhammad,

but these were mythical names, and god names, and prophet names, so hard to tell them apart all these years after the–

all these years after they–

and Natalie, Vasilis, Dmitri, Ousmane…

#

The angel is rotting. He’s leaning against the trunk of an olive tree. I examine his body but avoid his eyes, as always, just in case. I would like to have been a man, he’d said once, so I always think of him as one, no matter what his body looks like. Today he has a mane of dark curls that reach all the way down to the roots of his wings. No beard. No breasts. No hair on his body except a little around his crotch.

His skin has turned the colour of a fresh bruise. It won’t be long.

EP543: Rock, Paper, Scissors, Love, Death

AUTHOR: Caroline M. Yoachim
NARRATOR: Nicola Seaton-Clark
HOST: Tina Connolly

author Caroline M. Yoachim

author Caroline M. Yoachim

about the author…

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold cloudy weather.  Her fiction has appeared in Fantasy & Science FictionAsimov’sLightspeedClarkesworld, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places.  She is a 2006 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and her 2010 novelette “Stone Wall Truth” was nominated for a Nebula Award.  Caroline’s debut short story collection, “Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories,” is coming out with Fairwood Press in 2016.

narrator Nicola Seaton-Clark

narrator Nicola Seaton-Clark

about the narrator…

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

 

Rock, Paper, Scissors, Love, Death
by Caroline M. Yoachim

ROCK

Rock crushes scissors. Nicole sat on a crowded bus to Spokane, knitting a turquoise scarf. The gray-haired man sitting next to her stared obsessively at his wristwatch. He was travelling with his son, Andrew, who sat across the aisle. She offered to trade seats so they could sit together, but both men refused. The bus wound around the sharp curves of Stevens Pass, and Nicole made good progress on her scarf.

Out of nowhere, Andrew’s father grabbed her and shoved her across the aisle, into Andrew’s arms. There was a loud crack, and a roar like thunder. A boulder the size of a car slammed into the side of the bus. Nicole stared at the wall of stone that filled the space where her seat had been. The red handles of her scissors stuck out from underneath the rock, the blades crushed underneath. Andrew’s father was completely lost beneath the stone.

#

Love shreds paper. After the accident, Nicole met Andrew for coffee. She returned his father’s watch, which had somehow ended up in her jacket pocket, though she couldn’t figure out how or when he’d put it there. Andrew gave her a pair of red-handled scissors, identical to the pair she had lost. She invited him for Thanksgiving dinner with her parents, since he had no other family. They took a weekend trip to Spokane, and when the bus reached the site of the accident, they threw handfuls of flower petals out the window.

Andrew was an engineer and a poet. He built her a telescope that folded spacetime so she could see distant exoplanets, and he wrote her scientific love poems. At their wedding, they gave the guests bags of confetti made from shredded strips of his poems, so they could be showered in love.

#

Rock destroys love. Two years into her marriage, Nicole suspected Andrew was cheating. He stayed late at work, went out late with the guys, took weekend business trips. He was gone more than he was home, and he got angry when Nicole asked him about it. She already knew what she’d see when she followed him out to Beacon Rock, but she had to see it with her own eyes, if only from a distance. She was surprised to see him with an older woman, rather than a younger one. She filed for divorce, and he didn’t argue.

#

Scissors cut paper. A few years after the divorce, Nicole sat in the swing on her front porch and cut love poems and photographs into thin strips. It was her therapy, letting go of the memories she’d kept boxed up after Andrew moved out. There was something satisfying about the snip of the scissors. Words flew everywhere. Eternal. Heart. Devotion. True. Paper piled up on the porch, and a breeze sent a few strips swirling. It reminded her of the confetti at their wedding, and suddenly cutting paper wasn’t as satisfying. She hurled her scissors into the front yard.

#

Death steals scissors. Nicole went out into the yard the next morning to get her scissors. She didn’t want to run them over with the lawnmower later, and she wasn’t quite ready to let go of the first gift Andrew ever gave her. The poems were gone from her porch, and she couldn’t find the scissors in the yard, even after an hour crawling on her hands and knees. The common link between the poems and the scissors was Andrew. Had he taken them? Against her better judgment, she drove to his apartment. The door was open, and there were cops inside. Andrew was missing, and he’d left a note. A suicide note.

The body was never found. Neither were her scissors.

EP541: As Travelers in Sky Boats

AUTHOR: Kristin Janz
NARRATOR: Ibba Armancas
HOST: Tina Connolly

author Kristin Janz

author Kristin Janz

about the author…

Kristin Janz is a Canadian speculative fiction writer who has lived in the Boston area since 1998. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, On Spec, and Crowded Magazine, and she is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop.

My husband Donald S. Crankshaw and I have edited and are independently publishing an anthology of speculative fiction stories that engage with Christianity in some way–Christian characters, themes, or cosmology. Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith will be available in both paperback and ebook in August of 2016, and includes stories by Nebula-nominated authors Beth Cato and Kenneth Schneyer.

narrator Ibba Armancas

narrator Ibba Armancas

about the narrator…

Raised by swordfighters and eastern European freedom fighters, Ibba Armancas is a writer-director currently based in Los Angeles. Her darkly comedic genre sensibilities are showcased in two webseries and a feature film forthcoming later this year. One day she will find time to make a website, but in the mean time you can follow her projects and adventures on twitter or instagram.

 

As Travelers in Sky Boats
by Kristin Janz

My sister blames the Travelers.  Before they came, she says, we were content within the small world we knew.  No one wondered what lay beyond the flat blue horizon where ocean met sky, or who journeyed between the stars.  Children never complained that there was an easier way to mend fishing nets, that they did not like the taste of seaweed.  Men did not abandon responsibilities to pursue the impossible fantasy of becoming Travelers themselves.

One rainy night, when both she and the water leaking through our roof were keeping me awake, I told her that she sounded like a Traveler when she spoke that way.  Who was she–or they–to tell me how I should live, what I could know or not know?

She did not speak to me the rest of that night or most of the day that followed.  I did not enjoy her silence as much as I had expected to.

#

“May I hold that?”

Traveler Jarrett hesitated before answering me, as Travelers often did.  Unable to understand our words, they relied on their tools to tell them what we said and how to answer.  But I did not think Traveler Jarrett’s hesitation came from not understanding, not this time.  I had pointed to the tool on his wrist while asking and then held my hands out, palms facing up.  How could he not understand that?

Traveler Tess murmured a warning in Traveler Speak, but Traveler Jarrett unfastened his wrist tool anyway and placed it in my outstretched hands.

Traveler Tess moved her finger around in the air in front of her, listened for a moment to a voice no one else could hear, then looked directly at me and said, “Please be careful with that.”  As if I were a small child and might start bashing the wrist tool against the packed earth floor of the Travelers’ house!  Traveler Tess tried to act like a mother to the other Travelers, like my sister did with me.  I did not think they heeded her any better than I with my sister.

EP538: The Starsmith

STORY: EP538: The Starsmith
AUTHOR: Jonathan Edelstein
NARRATOR: James Odcombe
HOST: Tina Connolly

about the author…

Jonathan Edelstein is 44, married with cat, and living in New York City.  His work has appeared in Strange Horizons and the Lacuna Journal and is forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.  When not writing, he practices law and hopes someday to get it right.

about the narrator…

James Odcombe is a writer and storyteller who loves imaginary worlds and unusual characters. He’s British but grew up in Tanzania, East Africa. Now living in the UK, he pens tales of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror.

 

The Starsmith
by Jonathan Edelstein

It took two years for Faji Doumbia to travel from Madankoro to Mutanda on the free trader Mweshi: two years of sleeping in cargo holds fragrant with spices and scented woods, two years of waiting on each world as the captain concluded his business, two years of jumping through the ichiyawafu and dreaming of the dead. He worked his passage, and there was time enough to learn the dead language that the ship’s computers spoke and discover how to tend machines that no living person could build. There was time enough to contract two ship-marriages, and by the time Faji came at last to Chambishi Port on the forty-ninth day of the Year of Migration 30,891, he had given a son to the ship-clans.

What he found when he took his leave of the Mweshi was both more and less than what he expected. Ninety thousand people lived in Chambishi Port, far more than any town on Madankoro, but forty million had lived there once, and the new city seemed like a collection of villages amid its former glory. Some of the towers north and east of the port were four kilometers tall: the war that destroyed the Union had gutted them, and after six hundred years forests grew in their upper stories, but they loomed over the thatched houses that lay between them, and from a few, the remnants of the High Streets and High Gardens hung crazily.

It was minutes before Faji could bring his eyes down from the towers to the ships – the ships hundreds and thousands of years old, that the Union had built and that now served its children. By then, the dockmen were well started in unloading the Mweshi. He stopped one and asked where the numusokala was, and when he got no answer, he remembered that the people here used different words. “Where are the… washiri?” he asked, remembering the word he’d been taught. “The blacksmiths?”

The dockman turned to the north. “You’re one of them?” he said. “Yes, you’ve got the look of one. That way, through the old city. You’ll hear the place, and even before that, you’ll smell it.”

There was a hint of distaste in the dockman’s voice, and he walked away as if he couldn’t leave quickly enough. That, too, wasn’t what Faji had expected.

EP536: Prophet to the Dogs

RELEASED 3.August.2016
AUTHOR: Bethany Edwards
NARRATOR: George Hrab
HOST: Tina Connolly

about the author… Mystery!

narrator George Hrab

narrator George Hrab

about the narrator… Multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, producer, composer, and heliocentrist George Hrab has written and produced six independent CDs and a concert DVD; published two books; recorded hundreds of episodes of an award-winning podcast; emceed countless science conferences; been a TEDx speaker; and has even performed for President Clinton. He’s traveled to four continents promoting critical thinking, science, and skepticism through story and song. George is considered one of the preeminent skeptic/science/atheist/geek-culture music icons currently living in his apartment. www.GeorgeHrab.com

Prophet to the Dogs
by Bethany Edwards

A long time ago, in another life, when there were so many billions of us that 382 of them were small change, I worked in an office building. I was the graphic designer for a community arts magazine—circulation 382—on the top floor.

Across the street from this office building was a tiny, nameless park. It contained a few trees, some scraggly bushes, four benches, and just enough grass so that people thought they could hide their cigarette butts in it. I would always put my butts in the trashcan on the corner like a civilized person, but no one else ever took after my good example.

Despite being small, the park attracted a very diverse crowd. People in my building took their lunch break there, college students read or tapped away on their devices, teenage skateboarders attempted to skid across the backs of benches, moms let their young kids burn off some energy, and homeless people curled up with their dogs in the evening.

But by far the most interesting people in the park were the protestors. There were no huge corporate or political headquarters in that part of town, so we didn’t get organized protestors. We got lone Don Quixotes, tilting solo at the windmills of modern evils. They were usually spreading the message that the end was nigh if we didn’t stop global warming or come to Jesus. I got a big kick out of them when I first started my job, but over time they all faded into the background of my everyday life.

Until the day I noticed the “YOU ARE ALL F&@^%D” girl.

EP532: Saints, Beasts and Zombies

by Gary Kloster
narrated by Roberto Suarez

author Gary Kloster

author Gary Kloster

about the author…

I’ve always loved speculative fiction.  That’s the fancy name for stories that involve lasers, or swords, or in the very best stories, laser-swords.  So as a kid, I decided to try writing it.  And it went really badly.

A few decades later, after a short stint as a science reference librarian, I’m a stay-at-home dad who answers urgent questions like ‘When’s lunch?’ and ‘Can you find my stuff for me?’  It’s not really much different then helping the undergrads back at the University, but it can wear thin at times.  In an effort to save my sanity, and avoid housework, I’ve returned to writing.

I think it’s going better, this time.

narrator Roberto Suarez

narrator Roberto Suarez

about the narrator…

Roberto lives in Portland, Oregon. By day he works as a community college student advocate and recruiter. By night he geeks out on all things fantasy and science fiction, comic books and board games. He produces and co-hosts “A Pod of Casts: The Game of Thrones Podcast” ( http://apodofcasts.com/ ) and is a proud monthly supporter of all “Escape Artists” productions. Roberto is a father of four younglings being raised in The Ways of The Force and is married to Barbara, his Sun and Stars. Personal Website: robertosuarez.me

Saints, Beasts, and Zombies
By Gary Kloster

The kids ambushed me on the west side of the camp, near a line of abandoned latrines. Every time they hit me I gasped for breath, and sucked in the reek of old shit.

“Worthless. Everything you got.” A kick thumped into my ribs, driven by lazy contempt, not bone-cracking rage. “Why do you only bring toys here, gringo? You want the little girls to play with you? Or do you like the little boys better?”

The boy bared his teeth at me, lips twisted by an old scar, and his gang laughed. A dozen dirty little scarecrows, the youngest maybe ten, the oldest maybe fifteen. Gangs like this crept around the edges of the Minchin Refugee Camp like feral dogs, fearful, curious.

Vicious.

I’d watched them, boys choking on machismo and desperation, making fun of the peacekeepers as they passed. Listened to them taunt the girls. I’d hated seeing how this place wasted them, turned them small and stupid and angry.

Now, face down and hurting in the dirt far from the center of the camp and the protection of the peacekeepers, I just hated them.

“You come back, you better bring something better than toys. Or we won’t be so nice.” One more kick, and I managed to roll enough so that it caught me on the shoulder and not the head.

They walked away, laughing. They had my coat, my cell phone, and my satchel full of Qbooks. The phone was a burner, with less than an hour left to it. The coat was cheap, but I’d miss it on the walk back through the Andean night. The Qbooks, though…

Their loss hurt me more than the kicks to the ribs.

Maybe one of them would keep one. Stare at the tablet’s cheap screen and wonder about the symbols that danced across it. He might listen to it, play with it, and learn. Learn to read and write, learn math, science, languages. Maybe he would learn enough to escape this place and grow into a man wise enough to change the world, and end the need for camps like this once and for all.

“Or maybe you should get yourself checked for brain damage, Raul,” I muttered as I slowly pushed myself up out of the dust. “Because I think you’re starting to hallucinate.”

#

“What the hell happened to you?”

“Twelve stitches and a tetanus booster.” I sat at my desk, counting out the ibuprofens the clinic had given me, setting up for an uncomfortable night.

“Before that, Raul.” Grace shifted, leaning back and frowning. The motion made my eyes flick to the glowing image of her face centered in our chat window. She’d cut her dark hair, going back to the short style that she’d favored before she married Mark. A style I’d always preferred, but Mark had liked it long.

Marriage counseling must not be going well.

“Got rolled by some kids. No big deal.” I tapped at my keyboard, opening up the status windows on my Qbooks. Numbers danced, charts flowed, colorful distractions from her face.

“How many stitches does it take to make a big deal?”

“Christ, Grace, I got mugged.” My head still pounded, despite the clinics drugs, and I wasn’t feeling very diplomatic. “It happens, third world or first. Why don’t you stop pretending to be my– my mother and tell me why you called?”

Grace stared at me, dark eyes unreadable, and I wondered if she knew the word that I had swallowed. Probably. I stared at my columns of numbers and tried to lose myself in their familiar misery.

“I’m calling about the email you left yesterday. The one asking me for money.”

“Shit,” I muttered and straightened up in my chair, looked at her and tried to smile. Wished that I had changed my shirt into something more formal, less stained with dirt and blood. “Yes. I was-”

“Wanting money,” Grace cut me off. She ran a hand through that short hair, staring off into the darkness of her study. For the first time, I noticed the boxes stacked up behind her, the shadows that filled her empty shelves instead of books. Noticed too the absence of rings on her fingers. “I can’t do it, Raul. Not now. I asked Mark for a divorce two days ago.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, almost a whisper.

“No you’re not,” she said back, her voice just as quiet.

I looked from the screen, avoiding the image of her eyes, stared down at my filthy hands until my computer chimed quietly. A text chat request, and my fingers slid across my touch pad to kill it. Then I noticed the name, beast696.

Everything always comes at once, I thought, and tapped the window open.

beast696- Santo Raul! Heard you almost got yourself martyred today!

The Beast, after almost two weeks of silence. My fingers tapped the keys, just as Grace began to speak again.

“That isn’t what this is about. The money. It’s just, with the divorce coming, my lawyer-” she trailed off, her hand scrubbing through her hair again, as if searching for the length she had lost. “I just can’t do it.”

Raul@FindingGenius- No martyrdom for me. Just

a little banged up. Where you been?

“Your lawyer said no?” I said. I flipped through screens until I’d pulled up the tracking program I’d paid a hacker friend of mine to create, after it had become obvious that my security chops were too meager to capture Beast. “Why?”

“She seems to think that if I send large amounts of money to an ex-boyfriend in the middle of my divorce, it might look bad.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

beast696- Busy, Santo, busy.

Raul@FindingGenius- Did you look at those math lectures I sent you?

Beast696- Some. Got distracted though by something else on that site.

Raul@FindingGenius- Let me guess. The crypto?

“You’re giving to a charity, Grace. Not a person.” I activated the tracker and it started to bounce through the net, hunting for the Qbook that Beast was using, trying to grab its locational data. The little computers were meant to be easy to find, hard to tamper with, but Beast had hacked his into submission.

“You are that stupid charity, Raul. Finding Genius is you, a camper van, a crate of Qbooks, and a martyr complex.”

beast696- Crypto is cool, Santo. Very money.

Raul@FindingGenius- Money’s not everything, Beast.

beast696- I thought you were fighting ignorance, Santo. Not promoting it.

“Martyr complex?” The ghosts of a thousand old arguments drifted through those words, waiting. “Is that what you think this is? These kids need me.”

“They need you, Raul?” Grace leaned back from her camera, became a silhouette against the gray Seattle skies that filled the windows of her study. “They don’t know you. You’re just another interfering anglo trying to tell them how to run their lives.”

“I’m not-”

“Don’t give me that bullshit, Raul. You’re not from there. You’re grandma left Bolivia when she was five. The only thing you know about those people is what you read on Wikipedia.”

“I’ve been here two years, Grace. I know them now.”

“Christ, has it been two years?” she said. “Right. You left right before the wedding.”

Raul@FindingGenius- Don’t go black hat on me, Beast.

That’s not the world you belong in.

696- So what is? Your shitty school in La Paz?

“That’s not why I left.”

Grace stared at me, silent.

“It wasn’t. That company-”

“You mean the one we started?”

“It was a mistake.” I rubbed a finger across the stitches sewn neatly over my eyebrow and winced. “Using the Qbooks to haul kids in for the highest bidder isn’t right. That company turned us into zombies, Grace. Ransacking the world, looking for big fat brains to eat.”

“We’re saving kids, Raul. Finding them in the slums and bringing them in, giving them the best education money can buy. They’ll change the world. That’s what you said, what you wanted.”

“What I wanted.” Had I ever known what I wanted? “We were, you are, snatching kids out of the places their genius is needed most and selling them off to corporations for exploitation. Saving kids. Damn it, you wrote those awful contracts that we tricked those kids into signing. Zombie pimps, trafficking IQ’s instead of ass.”

“Jesus, why do I even try?” Grace said. “Finding Genius was your idea to start with. That’s why you got to keep the damn name.”

“Yeah, my idea. But you and Mark made it profitable.”

“Mark, I– Shit, now I can’t even keep you straight, you both piss me off so much.” Her eyes flashed at me, dagger sharp even over the link. So beautiful, and part of me wanted so much to say sorry. It felt years too late for that, though.

“So. No money.”

Grace stared at me, and the anger in her eyes dulled to exhausted pain. “No Raul. No more money. No more time. No more me.”

The chat window went black, her face gone, just an afterimage when I shut my eyes.

“God damn,” I whispered into the silence. Then the tracking program beeped, and I opened my eyes.

beast696- I don’t need school, Santo Raul. I need

money.

beast696- It might not be everything, but it’s enough

to get me out of here.

beast696- Santo?

The tracking program had opened up a map and dropped a pin into the location it had found.

“Shit,” I said dully, staring at it.

Raul@FindingGenius- Sorry. I’m here.

beast696- Your tracker done?

Raul@FindingGenius- Yes.

beast696- So where am I?

Raul@FindingGenius- Saskatchewan.

beast696- Where’s that?

Raul@FindingGenius- Canada. You didn’t do the geography lessons.

beast696- Too busy learning security protocols.

Raul@FindingGenius- You’re too smart for this place, Beast. Let me help you. The school in La Paz is a good place. Why won’t you let me help you?

beast696- Because you’re asking too much for something I don’t want, Santo.

beast696- Stay away from those bad boys and stay safe. Okay?

#

Two weeks later, I sat at my desk in suit coat and dress shirt, tie and fleece pants, hoping to hell my shivering didn’t show over the link.

“So far, Finding Genius has distributed almost a thousand Qbooks through the villages and refugee camps of southwestern Bolivia. Each of those tablets is a chance for a child to learn, and a chance for us to find children who might someday change the world. Already, we’ve located a number of children who might become the next Galileo, Curie, or Einstein.”

“A number.”

I kept a smile on my face, resisted the impulse to scratch at the maddening itch of my almost healed stitches. “Well, we’ve had some successes–”

“Three.” The man from the Gates Foundation leaned back in his chair, frowning at me. “I see three children that have been sent to La Paz by your program in two years.”

“Well, genius isn’t something–”

“Two of them have returned to the camps already.”

I gave up and swiped a sleeve across my forehead, scratching my itch. “They’re children. They missed their parents. I’m sure–”

“Uh-huh.” The man sighed, turned in his chair. “There’s already a UN program that uses tablets for rural education.”

“Qbooks are better,” I said. “And that program makes no effort to search out gifted students.”

“No. I hear there are private entities that do that.”

I shut my teeth on a retort, knowing it wouldn’t help. “Look, I know there are other worthy causes. But this area needs our help right now. The lithium war between Bolivia and Chile may have only lasted a week, but the armistice after has run for over three years. These people have been driven from their homes just so we can have batteries. We owe them something.”

“We owe everyone we can help whatever we can give, Mr. Hastings. But the Gates foundation is committed to giving where it can do the most good. And I’m afraid your program just hasn’t proven itself. I’m sorry. Best of luck elsewhere.” The window winked to black.

Elsewhere. I jerked my tie off and cursed. All my elsewheres had been used up long ago, and now—

My computer chimed.

“I’m really not in the mood for your shit today, Beast,” I said, looking at the text request. My finger hovered over the screen, ready to tap the window closed. “Damn it,” I muttered, and tapped it open instead.

beast696- santo you there ineed

Raul@FindingGenius- Beast, I’m here. What

beast696- get me please, come here, now, i

A new window flashed open on my screen, the tracking program suddenly springing to life. Trumpets rolled through the speakers, and a bulls-eye drew itself over a satellite image. Camp Minchin, cinderblock buildings and trailers and tents and shacks made of plastic sheeting and scrap. In the middle of it a red pin fell, marking a trailer half-overgrown with blue tarp.

The Beast’s lair, at last, right here, so close.

Raul@FindingGenius- Beast, are you in trouble?

Raul@FindingGenius- Beast?

Raul@FindingGenius- I’m coming.

#

The trailer door, dented and peeling, shuddered under my hand.

I pulled my new coat closed, trying to block the wind coming down from the mountains, but my shaking had nothing to do with the cold. What the hell was I sticking my neck into, here, alone? What the hell was I going to do if no one answered my knock? What the hell was I going to do if they did?

I should have talked to the peacekeepers. They wouldn’t have wanted to come out into the cold night, looking for a boy whose name I didn’t even know, but I should have—

The door jerked open.

A woman, sharp bones wrapped in wrinkles, eyes of cutting glass, glared at me. “What?” The word, Quechua, not Spanish, was spat out like acid.

“Child. Book. Where?” I stumbled over the language, gave up and switched to Spanish. “I’m looking for a boy with one of these.” I held up a Qbook. “Have you…”

The woman glared at me silently, then shut the door.

I stared at the blank metal and cursed, raised my hand and pounded on it, the noise echoing over the low growl of radios and the low moan of the wind. I pounded until the door jerked suddenly open again, then I stumbled back, almost falling.

The boy stepped out, red eyes flashing at me over a mouth twisted into a sneer by his scar. He wore my old coat, and in his hand he held a Qbook, worn with use, painted with markers. “You gave her this.”

A set up. An ambush. I shook, afraid and angry and tired, but my voice came out steady. “Who?”

The boy took a step closer, his too-big eyes feral with rage. “My sister. The Beast.” The boy stared down at the Qbook in his hand, his face stone except for the scar.

“Grandmother hated her, always playing with this. Wanted her to do real work.” His hands clenched on the thin tablet. “She took it away from her, when she sold her.”

“Sold her?”

“To be a maid in El Alto, that’s what those men said.” The boy stared at me, eyes burning. “That’s a fucking lie, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Traffickers. I stared at the bright flowers and crude faces that covered the Qbook. They hit the camp, sometimes, looking for girls to run to… anywhere. “Goddamn it. The peacekeepers—”

“Let them in.”

Bribed, and damn it the boy was probably right and I’d have no idea who was in on it, but what the hell was I going to do? My hand spasmed around my phone. “Did you see the car they took?”

“A truck.”

“Did you get—”

The boy held out the Qbook. On its rain spattered screen, a series of letters and numbers glowed. A license.

“Can you get her, Santos? Can you save her?” His eyes searched mine, and I could finally see the despair hiding behind all that rage.

“I’m going to try.”

“You’d better,” the boy whispered, his words barely breaking the sound of the rain. “You’d better.”

#

“Raul.” Grace, in her office, and there were boxes there too, crowding the desk around her. “I told you. No more—”

“I’m sending you something,” I interrupted. My fingers flew across the keyboard, dumping Beast’s file to her. Her eyes scanned her computer’s screen, started to come back to me, then stopped.

“How old is he? She?”

“She’s twelve, thirteen, I’m not sure. All I really know is that she maxed out the Qbooks intellect profiles. She’s the best I’ve ever found, Grace, and she’s obsessed with computers.”

Grace’s eyes narrowed, hard focused. “So why haven’t you scooped her up?”

“She’s been dodging me, until today. When her grandmother sold her to some traffickers.”

“Wait. Shit, what?” Grace’s eyes flashed at me. “Why the hell are you calling me about this?”

“Our– Your company.” I stared at the boxes around her, then focused on her face. “You and Mark. I know you’ve arranged extractions, gotten kids out of bad situations before. You have money, contacts. I told you to stay out of Bolivia, but–”

“We have contacts in that area,” she said, and we stared at each other, silent.

“Call them,” I said.

“Raul. Christ.” She stared down at her boxes. “I just told Mark I was quitting. Told him your idiocy had gotten to me. Now you want me to—” She broke off, sighed. “Twelve. Shit.” She stared at me, eyes small and sharp on my screen.

“I’ll talk to him. But there’ll be a price, Raul.”

“I’ll pay it.”

“No you won’t,” she said. “Your Beast will.”

My hands clenched over the keys. “I—”

“Have nothing Mark wants. Not anymore.”

Damn her. Damn me. My hands opened. “Whatever. Just help me save her.”

#

The road to El Alto was rutted and worn. That made it easy to angle my van across it, looking like it was stuck axel deep in a pothole.

“They’re coming,” a voice rumbled in my ear, Spanish brutalized by a thick Australian accent. I had no idea where Grace had dug up this merry little band of mercenaries, and didn’t want to. The fact that she could do it so quickly was a clear signal that the company had spun to a whole new level of insanity after I had left. Damn me though, it was useful now.

“You sure it’s them?”

“Right time and place, according to the info we bought. You’ll have to check the plate.”

“Okay,” I muttered into the headset, listening to a truck engine getting closer. I watched headlights swing around a curve, stared blind into them and waved my hands, stepping out of the way. With a lurch, the truck slid to a stop and I stepped forward, trying to see through the light.

“You hang that piece of junk?”

“Yeah,” I said, forcing myself to walk closer, blocking their headlights with a hand. “Can you give me a pull? I’ve got a chain.”

“Yeah, but do you have cash?”

Another voice, and laughter, and I was close enough to see the license now.

“It’s them,” I whispered in English, and the driver’s door was opening, a dark figure stepping out.

“What?” the truck driver asked, then he shifted, head turning toward the sound of boots crunching through the dust, and there was a pop.

With a strangled grunt, the driver fell. He thrashed in the dust, a black taser dart clinging to his chest like a vicious electric tick. Then the truck lurched at me.

I jerked myself to the side, barely dodging the rusty bumper, stopped myself from diving away and grabbed instead at the door that was flopping open as the truck bounced forward.

In the cab, the other man twisted, trying to get himself centered behind the wheel while he pulled something up off the seat beside him.

I ducked without thinking, heard a crack like fireworks and suddenly glass was falling, the broken shards of the window tapping like hail down on me. Almost lost in the echoes of the gunshot came another neat pop.

Big hands grabbed me and shoved me away from the door. The Australian blasted by and jerked the twitching man out of the truck and slid in, stopping it. The rest of his squad was there then, slipping out of the darkness like ghosts. They surrounded the truck, opening doors and flashing guns, and wrenched another man out of the back, zip tying his hands behind him.

Behind the last trafficker, five girls straggled out into the night, silent and shaking.

I reached into my coat and pulled out the Qbook, the bright colors marked on it glowing in the headlights. “Beast?”

She wore a Yankees t-shirt, dirty jeans, and in her face I could see a dim echo of her brothers.

“Santo,” she said, and took her computer from my hand and curled around it, clutching it close.

#

When I finally turned my computer back on, Grace was waiting for me.

“Raul, goddamit, where are you?”

She glared out of the screen at me, looking almost as rough as I did, and no one had been shooting at her.

Maybe I should have answered my phone.

“La Paz. Safe.”

“Safe,” she said. “You couldn’t have texted me that hours ago?”

“Your Australian did.”

“My Australian told me that the job was done, and that you had driven off with a van full of girls. That’s all I’ve known,” she eyes slipped, checking her computers clock, “for three hours.”

Three hours. For a second, I wondered what the mercenaries had done with the traffickers, than I decided I didn’t care. “I had to drive here and find Maria and get the girls settled.”

“Who the hell’s Maria?”

“Social worker from the school I work with.” And a damned good one. I’d rousted her from a date and settled five girls on her, and she’d had them showered, dressed, fed and settled around her apartment before I had time to stammer out my story.

“Okay,” Grace sighed. “That wasn’t completely idiotic. You still there?”

“I’m in my van, parked outside. I—” Laughter echoed somewhere on the street, people going home from the bars, and I trembled, still feeling the aftershocks of adrenalin. “I’m not sure what to do.”

“So what’s new?”

I looked away, stared out at the city night and caught sight of a skinny wraith hunched over something on the steps that lead up to Maria’s building. I popped open the door and called out, “Beast.”

She looked up, stood and walked to the van. Short and scrawny, she barely looked the thirteen she claimed.

“What are you doing?”

“That woman told me to sleep. I don’t want to.” She clutched her Qbook to her chest, defiant.

“Get in,” I said, picked up my phone and snapped a quick text to Maria. On my screen, Grace tilted her head, tracking the girl’s movement past the camera.

“Is that—”

“Grace, Beast.” I repeated the introduction in Spanish, but the girl ignored me, settling into my narrow cot with her computer.

She had refused to give me any other name.

Grace focused again on me. “Have you talked to her yet?”

“No.”

“Do it. We need her to sign a contract, and we need permission from her guardians. Will that be a problem?”

I thought of that old woman, the angry eyes of her grandson. Sold her. “No. Not with a little money.”

“Good. We need to get her out before any of this shit gets noticed.” Over the speakers came the click of her fingers, dancing across keys. “I’m sending you all the papers you’ll need, including her contract.”

The computer pinged, the file popping into existence, but I was watching Grace. “I thought you were quitting.”

“I was. Because of you. But Mark…” She stopped typing and looked past her computer, past me. “I promised him another six months. So we could manage the transition better.”

“So he could convince you to stay,” I said.

“Yes.”

“That was part of his price, wasn’t it? For tonight?”

“Yes,” she said again, running a hand through her short hair, and it was my turn to look away.

“You used to be together,” Beast said, curled on my bed.

“A long time ago.”

“Mmmm.” The girl held up her tablet, turned its screen to me. “Is this the contract she wants me to sign?”

Beast had gotten the file from some watchdog group’s expose on the company I had started and its practices. I could see logo at the top of the screen, the familiar first lines. “Looks like.”

She flipped the screen back towards her and danced her fingers across it. “Not so money. Twenty-first century slavery, that’s what all the comments say.” She stared at me through her ragged hair. “Am I going to get sold again, Santos? Twice in one day?”

“No.” What would it cost me? Would Mark demand I come back and work off what I owed the company for this? I felt the phosphors of Grace’s face, burning behind me.

No. He wouldn’t want me back.

It didn’t matter. I’d figure out a way. I wasn’t going to make the Beast pay for her life. “You don’t have to sign that. You can stay—”

“Stay? Here? Or with my family?” Her eyes looked just like her brothers, when they were filled with rage. “I don’t want to go back to them, Santo. Or that shithole camp. I want to go to the world you come from, with things and money and choice.” She tapped her Qbook’s screen. “I want this deal, without being screwed.”

“What’s she saying?”

Grace’s question pulled the Beast’s eyes off me, to the screen. When she spoke, her transition from Spanish to English was almost flawless. “What I’m saying is that your contract is shit. I want something money.”

“Whoa, young lady.” Grace waved her hand. “I can’t—”

“Don’t talk to me about it,” Beast said. “Talk to my agent.”

I blinked at her. “What?”

“The football boys, from the camps. They get agents, when the scouts from Europe come. Why not me?”

Her head dropped, her fingers flashing across her screen. Behind me, my computer chimed, and in the window beside Grace’s face the girl’s words appeared.

beast696- Do you really want to help me, Santos?

“Yes.”

beast696- Then why don’t you ever listen to me? Why haven’t you ever tried to find out what I want?

“I—“ I started, then stopped. I’d never asked her what she wanted, yes, but… “You’re thirteen.”

She didn’t bother to look up as she typed.

beast696- I’m me. This is my life, not yours. So who’s life are you trying to save, anyway?

I stared at the skinny girl, the stickered, battered, markered Qbook cradled in her hands, and my stomach lurched. “Yours,” I said, and for maybe the first damned time I thought about what that might mean. “Okay. Just one thing. Can you call me your advocate, instead of agent?”

Her eyes flicked up, gleaming with reflected light. “You work for me, Santos, really work for me, and I’ll call you whatever you want.”

“Raul, what the hell is this?”

Grace’s voice carried the lawyerly grate of whetstone on steel, but that didn’t shake me. I’d dropped into this country two years ago, nursing my wounded pride, convinced I could save these kids, save the world, just by showing up. But I’d never asked Beast what she wanted, never asked any of the kids that. I’d never really considered that, not when I was the brain eating zombie, and not when I was trying to play the saint.

“This?” I said. I turned back to my computer, fingers tapping keys, and I pulled up a copy of Grace’s contract onto my screen. “This is round one. First thing, citizenship. Or a green card, maybe a visa, if it’s good enough, but something besides that revocable piece of crap that you hold over these kids heads.”

“Christ, you’re serious, aren’t you?” Grace was pissed, and goddamn it felt good to see her looking at me with something besides disappointed resignation.

“Damn right,” I said, skimming the contract, tapping out notes. “You better wake up Mark, he’s going to have to be in on this.”

“Perfect,” Grace snapped. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, Raul?”

I stopped typing and stared into the camera. “Same thing I’ve been doing ever since we met.” I pointed behind me, at the scrawny girl curled around her tablet. “Trying to save the world. One genius at a time.”