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by Leslianne Wilder
It’s the only fair way.
Mabel traces the edges of her respirator mask, makes sure there is no crack for the airborne toxins to wriggle in and burn holes in her lungs. She smooths the overalls over her belly- no swell yet. She’s hungry, but it’s worth it. She has four lottery tickets this week.
Mabel sits by the playground and chats with friends. Their children’s respirator masks are painted with elephants, snakes, and monkey tails, and the children run after each other for as long as they can without gasping. They laugh, and it sounds magical; deadly, terrifying and freeing all at once, like setting money on fire. No matter how bad things get, children fill Mabel with a sense of hope and gravity.
“Little Saul can read a whole book by himself,” Rachel says, muffled behind her mask. “He’s got a couple years yet, but we think he’ll be able to test into the domes after puberty. Think of it. A good job, something executive. He’s a sweet boy, he’ll send us back money. He’d never forget us.”
Rachel coughs, and on the gray rungs of the playground ladder, Saul wheezes to himself. Mabel doesn’t say it; no one says it. Rachel’s a sweet woman, and hope’s all she’s got.
“The factory’s staying open,” Wendy whispers. “They’re cutting pay, but at least they’re not shutting down.” Her daughter, Paige, limps when she runs, but she’s so big, so healthy. Wendy fills out Paige’s braid with doll hair she steals from the factory, so it’s thick and shiny as a respirator hose. Mabel doesn’t approve of theft- everyone gets caught eventually- but Paige’s braid is so fine, and the girl seems so happy, like the girls in TV commercials, on green lawns, in snow suits, up above the clouds.
Mabel turns the lottery tickets in her hands. It feels good to be here with these women she’s grown up with, away from the men, and the drinking; watching children run, listening to them laugh. She and Ralph have been trying for years now. This is the first time they’ve made the second trimester.
It’s noon. Old Gladys brings out her smart-phone, and the women expecting children separate from the women who’ve finished. They lean over the small screen, and the black, pitted plastic benches creek.
“Five,” Gladys shouts as the number comes up. Mabel throws away one ticket. It’s not worth a damn if you don’t have all six numbers.
“What are you doing here?” says someone. Mabel looks up. It’s Ellen, her mask polished up so the olive green looks like grass in a catalog. Ellen and Jack. The other women slide away. They give her looks like dirty ice.
Mabel looks back down. Twelve. Twenty-three. She and the others let ripped paper fall onto the wet concrete. She has one ticket left that could still win. That’s better than usual.
Jack has no mask. Jack’s skin is clear, smooth, brown as seeds that could still grow. He climbs to the top of the metal turtle easily. He lies on his belly and tries to pull up Saul, but Saul can’t breathe. He falls and starts to cry. Rachel scoops him up and hurries away with no goodbye. The other women scowl at Ellen. This is her fault.
Eleven. Mabel holds her stomach and sucks in filtered air. She has four numbers.
Jack runs, jumps, and laughs. His laughter is the most beautiful, terrible thing Mabel has ever heard. Paige sits in a corner and pulls doll hair out of her braid. People have whispered about Jack. He can already do algebra. His T-cells can fight off all known pathogens, and most new mutations. His internal pH auto-corrects. He speaks Mandarin without an accent.
Thirty. Mabel only needs one more number.
“…not his fault,” Ellen is saying. “He’s lonely. He misses his friends. What’s wrong with you? Didn’t we all grow up together?”
Wendy bends over Paige like a blast shield. “Get out of here and stop rubbing it in our faces.”
Gene mods are expensive, and they only work in utero. Fetal survival, skill, health, adaptation. Everyone puts in. One person at a time can win.
Ellen is weeping. Her eyepieces have a water line. She holds Jack to her chest and runs away.
On Gladys’s screen, the last number is fifteen. Mabel puts the ticket in her pocket and cries.
by Ben Hallert
John Babcock Hemingway (no relation) was born September, 1842. He lived an unremarkable life as first a student then later a clerk of modest means. His death by tuberculosis in 1891 was fairly standard. Following one final gasping, breathless fit of bloody coughing, he expired. With a flicker, he awoke in The Room.
“(* gesture of astonishment*) I… I am me!” The being, returned after 49 subjective years to full consciousness, sputtered and trembled. “I was another creature for its entirety, from birth to cessation” it roared mentally. “I was not myself, but a mere shadow; an unbearably dim silhouette of true being!”
The Arbiter indicated (* gesture of general agreement *). “The sentence for your crime, as previously communicated, is Life.” It bobbed briefly, and then reality flickered again.
Mahamayuri Kapoor was born June, 1994 in Delhi, India. She was a poor but happy student and formed many friendships. Her work in the eTurk industry during the early 2020s allowed her to advance to a management position from which she eventually became an executive. At the age of 68, she slipped while stepping to a curb after exiting a cab and fell. The head injury, though seemingly minor at the time, resulted in the formation of a clot that escaped detection for two more years before causing a stroke in her sleep. She died peacefully. Her soul flickered and she awoke again in The Room.
The being flashed many shades violently, its limbs shaking in extreme agitation. “(* Outrage of the seventh order *) This is barbaric! I am now burdened with two complete experiences of maudlin existence I cannot expunge. What is this madness?”
The Arbiter rotated to the left to indicate patient explanation. “Your crime is a well documented matter of record. Your sentence of Life must be carried out and I am (* gesture of service to society *) obliged to execute it.” A limb extended and reality flickered.
Sanjen’s newborn coughed hoarsely, the amniotic fluid still shining on its skin. The poor color of its skin and weak movement filled Sanjen with dread and as he stared into the tiny face, its eyes opened. It looked up, shook briefly, then relaxed completely. Its final blurry vision of the waving trees above in 2654 BC China faded inwards to a point with darkness all around until moments later-
Flicker. The Room.
“(* reticulated emotion 14 *) This is torture, you canno-” Flicker.
May 2341, Post-singularity Preserve aka ‘The Zoo’, Frank Tern-Shan (#A334B19) was born. 143 years later as specified per contract, he ended. Flicker.
“Stop! STOP!” the being cried. The Arbiter paused.
“Yes? (* patience with limited duration *)”
“I… I apologize. My crime was (* contrition *) terrible and I understand now.”
The Arbiter expanded upwards by one quarter in undefined emotion. “Your callous removal of a main sequence star resulted in the extinction of a fourth order civilization and robbed existence of its eventual combined cultural output. (* anger of injustice *) It is not this one’s place to counsel but the enormity of your crime requires the fullness of understanding. You have lived four lives of the affected civilization. Your sentence, however, is Life.” It spun and stabbed at a control.
The unnamed human was born 25,000 years before the first real human calendar and lived almost 23 years in the wilds of what was to be later called Tanzania before being killed by a predator.
“STOP!” The being threw itself at the walls of The Room to no effect. The Arbiter touched the control wordlessly.
Susan Bennett’s life was hard and best left un-described. She died at 30 in 1733 of internal injuries. Flicker.
“I BEG OF YOU (* panic *) Please, no. No more.” The being tried to cover itself but The Room offered no cover.
The Arbiter, again calm, poised a limb over the control. “Now that calibration is complete, the remainder of the life sentence will be executed under automatic switching. We will not speak again until it is complete.”
The being, already crushed by centuries of subjective life and death, looked up blankly at the instrument of its torment. “Please. How many of this dead race’s dull lives must I endure before my ‘life’ sentence is complete?”
The Arbiter paused the gentle perambulation of its second order limbs and tightened its primary around the control in anticipation. Carefully, it spoke without any outward emotion.
“Why, all of them.” Flicker.
The Future Is Set
by C. L. Perria
When I push this button, my robot armies will activate, emerging from their strategically placed bunkers like swarms of locusts. They will storm the capitals of every state, providence and country. Hundreds of innocents will die in the short war that ensues. I will come so close to conquering the world.
The other Supers will join the fray, but individually they will only slow the advancing masses of robot soldiers. It won’t be long before they cease their bickering and turf wars and unite against the threat. The League will form; working together to defeat my robot army and trace the signal back to my base.
I could cut the signal early and run. I could hide in some dank corner of the Earth. The remaining robots would fall limp, and tracing the signal would become fruitless.
But then, Leena would ask, “Hey, how come Forethought didn’t see this coming?”
Freeze would respond, “He’s a kook. Half of his ‘predictions’ never occur. But he should be helping at least.” An investigation would ensue. The League would still find me. They would only be delayed, disrupting the timing. And the timing is crucial.
No. Once I push that button, I must accept my fate. And I must push that button.
The future is set.
I will stay and continue commanding the robot army until the League tracks me down. With Ultra in the lead, they will breach my base. They will catch me, beat me to within inches of my life and lock me away in a hyper-secure prison. Ultra will forget his strength and I will later die in my cell, bleeding internally from his super-powered punches.
The worst part about seeing the future is that you still have to live it. I detach myself from my emotions, stifling my fear of death and empathy for the necessary victims.
I push the button.
Monitors switch from chaotic static to a myriad of views from my robot army cells. They march in perfect formation all across the globe. I flop down in my chair as the same scene plays out on every screen. Screams erupt as the slaughter begins.
One by one, Supers begin appearing on various screens, mounting attacks against my robot armies. Ultra arrives like a blur of light throwing sweeping punches that send scores of ruined robots into the air.
Leena and Freeze work together on another screen, each systematically disabling one robot at a time.
On a third screen, Current unleashes waves of electricity on the army with a look of great pleasure. Clusters of robots short circuit and drop in heaps.
But I have already seen all this. I turn away not wanting to see it again. I push the “could haves” and “should haves” out of my mind. I have already been down all those paths as well.
The future is set.
The people will call me a villain, and unite in hatred against me, quashing all nationalism and other boundaries that separate humanity. They will now have a commonality around which to relate to one another. That is what will save them.
A year from now, with my villainy still fresh in the minds of the people, with the League still in its prime, the alien motherships will arrive, spewing fighters like dandelion seeds in the wind. The people will fight together as a United Earth alongside a League of Supers, no longer on separate screens, but together, one cohesive unit much stronger than the sum of the individual parts. The invasion will not stand a chance against such a force.
I sit back, waiting for the future to play out. I smile to myself. I have saved Leena. I have saved Freeze, Ultra, Currant and the other Supers. I have saved countless civilians. I have saved the world.
After the world is saved, a forgotten memory will surface and Leena will look distraught.
“What’s wrong?” Freeze will ask.
“It’s just…” her brow will crease in thought, “I visited Forethought in prison, before he died. I couldn’t understand why he tried to take over the world. He must have seen we would beat him. His only response was, ‘you’re welcome, Leena.’”
Freeze will place a comforting hand on her shoulder. “He was crazy, Leena.”
Freeze will leave Leena to her thoughts. Comprehension will hit her like a flash. She, the only Super who took me seriously, will finally realize my sacrifice. Her eyes glistening, she will whisper, “Thank you, Forethought.”
About the Authors
C. L. Perria is a person that exists.
Leslianne Wilder was born in Austin, Texas. Since then she has lived in Osaka, Miami, and San Antonio before coming to rest in Oxford, England. Her work has appeared in Shock Totem and Black Dog and Leventhal’s Psychos anthology.
Ben Hallert lives in Oregon with his wife, two children, a plane, and a reach that regularly exceeds his grasp.
About the Narrators
Angela Lee is a long time Escape Pod fan and contributor, both on the forums and to the Artemis Rising event.
Nathaniel Lee (aka Nathan Lee) is one of the busiest members of the genre fiction podcasting community. His bio says he puts words in various orders and intermittently receives money in return. His fiction can be found in dozens of venues online and off, and he served both as Editor at the Drabblecast and Assistant Editor for Escape Pod.