Escape Pod 604: Given Sufficient Desperation
Given Sufficient Desperation
By Bogi Takács
An ice cream cone.
A ceramic mug—brown with a single green stripe around the rim.
A smartphone—I don’t recognise the brand. It’s been a while.
Two sheaves of corn.
A plush caterpillar toy from some cartoon.
A table—rather worn, I’d say Danish Modern, but I’m not sure.
I need a break.
Looking at objects for hours upon hours wears me down, even though I’m not supposed to do anything with them. I remove the helmet that records my responses to the images and wave my hands around my chair to find my forearm crutches. My eyes are still adjusting to the different stream of sensory input. I grasp one crutch; the other falls to the floor with a loud clang. I wince.
Small Purple Circle comes up to me, twines two of his tentacles around the crutch and hands it to me. I frown at him and rub my eyes with my free hand. “Thanks,” I mutter. His colouring seems to be more faded than usual, more pink than purple.
“How are you doing? Are you all right?” he says in the voice of Oszkár Gáti—the Hungarian dubbing actor of both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Before the invasion.
I just groan in response. My ankle sprain will heal, but there will surely be another injury after that, and another. The aliens don’t really understand that my motor coordination issues get worse if I don’t get enough sleep, and they think eight hours of sleep should be enough for a standard human.
“Tell me about Danish Modern sometime,” Stallone adds.
I stream past other workers in the narrow corridor while they stare. I don’t hobble on crutches, I whoosh. I’m very, very good at it. Of course my shoulders will protest, but frankly, I’m faster on crutches than on my undamaged feet. Not that they’re often undamaged these days.
“Vera,” somebody yells after me. I turn rapidly, slip, crash into a stranger. I’m still trying to extricate my limbs from his and muttering apologies when Kati catches up to me, her two thick dark braids slapping at her shoulders.
“What’s up?” Kati asks. “This is not your regular break.”
“I earned twenty-three minutes off. And I felt like I really needed it,” I say. “Let’s go up to the roof?”
We walk. The slower I go, the more my shoulders hurt.
I lean against the parapet. In the distance, the ruins of Pannonhalma Abbey are still smouldering. How is that possible? It has been such a long time since the attack. I point, ask Kati if she knows.
“There’s a group squatting up there on top of the hill. The pacifist anarchist kind, like the Two-Tailed Dog or something, but a different name. I haven’t heard of them before.”
I nod. The aliens only seem to care about the militant ones. I consider if I should just walk out of the compound, join the group. We haven’t seen people passing by lately; I was wondering if there were any groups of stragglers still out there.
“It’s not worth it,” Kati says. She can guess what I’m thinking—she always says my emotions are written plainly on my face.
I know it’s not worth it. For one thing, it’s a lot harder to use my crutches on an uneven surface. And that’s before I consider the painkillers and the occasional brace. Though at least I haven’t needed a plaster cast in a while. How do I find any of that in the wilderness?
If not for dyspraxia, I would have long since run away. I’m still considering it.
I swear under my breath. We go back to our workrooms in silence.
A picture book, in Swedish.
A ballpoint pen.
A succulent of some sort, planted in a glass jar.
An axe with a red handle.
A flatscreen TV, looks like Samsung.
A large crucifix, made of silver, I assume.
I’m done for today; I take off the helmet, clock out, go back to my dorm room in the same building. Ten of us for each, white walls, white plastic crates for storage.
There are no wardrobes; we wear what we are assigned each morning. Usually something grey with tiny blue speckles. The aliens love the colour grey with tiny blue speckles.
Large Blue Triangle admonishes me, in the Hungarian voice of Will Smith, to move more cautiously lest I injure myself again. I saw the actor, Artúr Kálid, in a play back before the invasion. I wonder if he’s still alive, and if he ever meets an alien talking in his voice, using his words.
I fall asleep every day like a rock. I try to force myself to stay awake just for a few minutes, just to give myself time for my own thoughts. The aliens drive us mercilessly while they gloat that we are all voluntary workers. Human-aided categorisation. Their algorithms have no clue what our everyday objects are.
Why is Stallone interested in Danish Modern?
A bag of Chio chips, peanut flavour.
A small spoon—teaspoon, I think.
A pair of yellow candlesticks.
A small whiteboard.
I hoard off-time. I want to go for a walk.
Days run together.
A macramé wall hanging.
A pocket knife.
A brown paper bag.
A pair of scissors.
A bin liner.
Accumulated off-time: three hours forty-three minutes. My ankle is better and I can walk without crutches. It will have to be enough. I am sleepy. Uneven ground.
We are not, technically, restricted to the compound. There’s just nothing worth leaving for. We are not, technically, forced labourers. There’s just nothing else to do.
A large oak tree.
An overgrown drainage ditch.
My brain is stuck in object-labelling mode. I wonder if it’s permanent.
We all do what we can to survive. I just want to know what these others do to survive. I should’ve brought my crutches with me—what if I wanted to stay?
A road uphill.
Off to one side: remains of the botanical gardens.
Lavender growing wild.
Pannonhalma Abbey, razed to the ground.
An abandoned camp.
Hastily assembled tents.
A tuna fish can now holding cigarette butts.
Fires burned down to ash.
Far-off voices carried on the wind.
I turn around and in the distance I can see the alien compound, smouldering. My mind can only label, not understand. I hobble into a tent.
“You from the compound? Down there on the plains?” A soot-smeared face. A teenage boy.
I murmur something.
“I didn’t realise there were any survivors,” he says. “I’ll let you sleep.”
By next morning my brain works better, the forced frame of object-labelling faded into the background. I sit on the boy’s cot, sipping hot nettle tea. His name is Brúnó and he has cinnamon-brown curls. He describes what has been going on: the pacifist stance was all an act, a charade while the militants smuggled in weapons, brought a small army up the hill one by one, occupied the wine-cellars dug into the hillside below the abbey hundreds of years ago.
“So what were you doing down there?” he asks.
“Labelling objects for the aliens. You sit and the computer shows you things and they record the responses your brain makes. Something like that.”
“What’s the point?”
“They always told us they wanted to rebuild.”
That’s when it hits me—and I’m still too exhausted to even cry, and I didn’t know anyone in the compound besides Kati, socialising was not encouraged—but I did know Kati, and I can barely believe I should start mourning.
I can’t; I just can’t. I save it for later, provided there will be a later. I’ve lost so much. I refuse to think of my family—I think they are still alive somewhere, in a different compound, in a different corner of Hungary, tucked away safely. I refuse to think of my friends. I refuse to think of my life. My former life. I refuse to think of hot chocolate and video games and ranting at my friends on chat and imagining that one day I will be Internet famous. I refuse—what am I even thinking?
I turn away from Brúnó, stare at the mushy afternoon sky. Is it spring or autumn? Everything has become indeterminate.
The next day I drag Brúnó off the hill, or rather he drags me, my ankle still painful. Downhill is worse than uphill; I’m never sure why. He drags me and I urge him, while he’s attempting what innumerable compound-dwellers have tried and failed: to puzzle out the aliens’ motives.
Raze, then rebuild? “Maybe it’s a different faction,” he suggests, and he has a point—why would the aliens form one homogenous group? But there was nothing I’d seen during my time of work to suggest any kind of difference between one movie star voice and another. I tell him so.
“But how do you know these aliens are the same aliens who bombed us back to the Stone Age?”
I shrug. We’re almost back to the compound.
I wanted to have smouldering ruins, and I got them. As I slip and slide among rocks, half-melted pieces of plastic with jagged edges and undefinable heaps, I realise I’m not going to find Kati here.
We trundle back to camp and I find her on top of the hill.
This is too much disruption. I’m glad to see Kati, but this is too much. We stare at each other. Her left ankle is immobilised between two thick tree-branches and wrappings of dirty gauze.
“You’re the expert,” she says with a lopsided, pained smile.
“I left my crutches back in the compound,” I respond; they must’ve melted into slag.
“I wanted to catch up to you when I saw you walk out, I tripped and fell. I stepped into a hole or something. It took me a day to get up the hill and find help,” she says. The militants helped her. Maybe they would help me? Maybe it would be all right?
The people sing marching songs—I vaguely recognise old Communist melodies, with new lyrics. I wonder if someone is passing them off as originals. I only know them because it was a hobby of mine to collect those recordings, post them on YouTube. I will not think of the loss. I will not think of anything missing from the world, bits and bytes forever scattered. I will not—
“Tomorrow, we go,” trills Brúnó at me, and before he can dash off, I grab his shoulder.
“We go, where?”
“To the next station, the next fight!” He shakes my hand off, runs away.
I don’t want to fight. I just want to be left alone on a cosy sofa with a laptop, watching random crap on the Internet. What, maybe five aliens were killed—and how many dozen workers? Other people can do this, and be cheerful about it, for all I care.
At least Kati doesn’t seem to be enthusiastic either, sitting on a half-rotted pillow with her back to a bag filled with straw. “I’m not going to march anywhere,” she declares to Brúnó, who’s busy running back and forth. He shrugs and responds with, “Then we’ll just leave you here. No dead-weight.”
I slap him on the top of the head with an open palm, but he laughs it off, thinks I was just joking, horsing around. Not recognising his own cruelty.
I lie down on a spare cot, busy myself with recalling the stream of images before sleep. It gives me an odd, uncanny kind of peace. Now that I can do anything I want, I’m surprised that I want this. Routines can be comforting.
A head of cabbage, sliced in half.
An empty windowpane made of wood.
A sack of potatoes, about five kilograms, give or take.
If they want to know what these things are, why don’t they just ask us?
Up above, I hear the rumble of their aircraft. So much for flying saucers being silent. None of them have landed near the destroyed compound, no one came to look for survivors. But maybe now?
I wish I had Small Purple Circle at hand. I’d tie him to a chair and interrogate him. He’d creak in the voice of Arnie and I’d hit him with the butt of a gun like Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell. Not with my bare hand which even Brúnó can shake off and laugh. I would hit them both. My ferocity surprises me; I draw back from my own thoughts.
In this moment, I hate everything and everyone with pure, hundred-proof hatred. And I also know that I will go back, to the aliens, to another work compound. If nothing else, I will pretend to myself I am an infiltrator, seeking to bring down the heartless taskmaster aliens and the crude, brute-force humans alike. Winning with cunning, not overwhelming power.
It doesn’t last—power fantasies never do. When I put the console into sleep mode, it’s always over. When did I last play a video game?
As I contemplate this, sleep claims me and I don’t wake until the next morning—restless, but well-rested.
The march-column is leaving, and all the accommodation the two of us got was that we didn’t have to strap a full-size army surplus backpack to our shoulders. Brúnó is also supposed to help us, but I send him forward to carry some made-up, inconsequential message to our section march-leader, while Kati and I hobble in the opposite direction, towards where we can see a flying saucer landing, behind the hill. We do not want to stay with the militants, and we don’t think we can survive on our own. This is the alternative we have.
The militants don’t care. Which is good because our two-girl march is slow-going, loud with all the assorted obscenities we can produce.
I will not think of my gaming stream, I will not think of my gaming stream, I will not think of how I miss my gaming stream and all the cuss-worthy moments and all the glorious ridiculousness of it.
I will only think of Sam Fisher, infiltrating the enemy compound. I will think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, late governor of California, epic action-hero of the previous generation.
I will rip the aliens’ heads off.
“Welcome back, Earthlings,” Will Smith says, and I don’t know if it’s the same alien, Large Blue Triangle, or a different one. His colouring is different and his texture is all puckered up, but for all I know they can change those on demand, like cephalopods. They don’t do it in front of us.
I stare at the images and my gaze could burn a hole in the world.
A flagpole, ideal for stabbing people in the stomach.
An empty glass Coke bottle, ideal for making Molotov cocktails.
An egg cup, ideal for jamming down people’s throats.
I sigh, try to look away, but the images keep on coming, direct through the helmet to my visual cortex.
A candle-holder, ideal for bashing in people’s heads.
A pink flowerpot, ideal for bashing in people’s heads.
An old gramophone, ideal for bashing in people’s heads.
“No, no, no,” Keanu Reeves says—this is a new alien; I don’t remember the voice actor’s name. “This is not good. You’re messing up the data! All the affordances!”
He tears the helmet off my head and I stand. We face-off, the heat of anger rising from me while he puckers up and deflates in cycles.
“All the what?” I glare at him.
“Did you figure it out?” He seethes.
Everyone else in the room is still under their helmets, but the work doesn’t involve the auditory cortex. They can potentially hear us. Keanu Reeves—Soft Green Oval—ushers me outside, then into some kind of closet.
He mutters something unintelligible. Is he swearing? Then: “I always thought someone would figure it out under my watch. It has to be my watch; it has to be. What am I supposed to do with you?”
I’m shaking with barely repressed fury. “Am I supposed to tell you what to do with me? How about a nice comfy sofa and a jar of sweets?”
“Th-that can be arranged,” he mutters and I realise he thought I was serious. Oops.
He starts trembling, inflating and deflating at an alarmingly rapid pace. We shiver in unison, but for very different reasons. “I can’t just kill you,” he says, whining. “Besides, the recordings have already been transmitted to Centerpoint.”
“Explain,” I grimace at him. “Explain before I throttle you.” Do I really have the upper hand?
Maybe I do, because he explains. “It’s not really about identifying objects. It’s about their affordances, meaning what can be done with them. We’re recording immediate, implicit reactions. Specifically, we’re trying to identify which objects can potentially be used as weapons. There is a marker…”
“And?” I don’t see where this is heading.
He spreads his tentacles in a gesture I’m sure he learned from his workers—a display of helplessness. “I saw your data. Everything can be a weapon. Everything can be seen as a weapon.”
I stare at him. I realise I’ve been clenching my hands and I slowly unclench my fingers. If this were a movie, blood would be dripping from my palms at a bare minimum.
Have I just condemned the human species?
We can use everything as weapons.
I look away, disgusted with him, me, the entire world. But something doesn’t make sense.
I look back. “You bombed us to smithereens. Why would you need to know about our weapons?”
He doesn’t respond. His motions halt. Is he even breathing? And at that moment I understand—Brúnó was right. These are not the aliens that destroyed civilisation. They are not. They are opportunists, bottom-feeders, here to fill a suddenly empty niche. Maybe the ones who attacked us didn’t care anymore, once we were no longer a threat.
Maybe. It makes sense.
I hiss. “This is why the militants could take your compound so easily. You are weaklings.”
He doesn’t say anything. His skin slowly undulates. Is he afraid of me? If they are weaklings, what does that make us—what does that make me, with my boundless display of rage? I feel suddenly raw, exposed, my anger evaporating and giving way to pure existential dread.
“So what happens now?” I whisper.
Keanu turns away. Is he more disgusted than afraid? He speaks softly, almost gently. “The data has been transmitted. Centerpoint will decide.”
I walk back to our dorm room, built to the same specifications as the previous one, every compound an almost exact duplicate.
I want to cease to exist. I can’t even cry.
Was I really the first human to get so angry, so desperate, so furious? Surely there had to have been others, people with their families murdered, their entire way of life destroyed. Surely it couldn’t have been me. Then again, in the compounds, people are volunteers. Collaborators. People who play by the rules.
I half sit, half crash down on my bed, turn to Kati and try to haltingly explain. I break into tears halfway through, remembering the egg-cup, the most innocuous of all household objects.
The evacuation signal sounds exactly then, and as we run out to the courtyard—Kati half-jumping on one leg, holding on to me—the saucers are already overhead, streaming toward space, away from Earth. The aliens are leaving. Fleeing? Escaping?
They don’t want to have anything to do with us any more.
I think of Danish Modern, hug Kati and endlessly, endlessly weep.
The science in the story was extrapolated from Shenoy P, Tan DS (2008): Human-aided computing: utilising implicit human processing to classify images. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: 845-854.
About the Author
Bogi Takács (e/em/eir/emself or they pronouns) is a Hungarian Jewish agender trans person and a resident alien in the United States. E writes, edits and reviews speculative fiction, nonfiction and poetry. You can read eir work in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Uncanny, among other places. You can read eir QUILTBAG space opera webserial at http://www.iwunen.net.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, storm chaser, and Saturday Songwriter. Author of over 20 books and 40 short stories, Alethea is the recipient of the Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Grant, the Scribe Award, the Garden State Teen Book Award, and two-time winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award. She has been twice nominated for both the Andre Norton Nebula and the Dragon Award. She was an active contributor to The Fireside Sessions, a benefit EP created by Snow Patrol and her fellow Saturday Songwriters during lockdown 2020. Alethea also narrates stories for multiple award-winning online magazines and contributes regular YA book reviews to NPR. Born in Vermont, she currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and her wonderful world at aletheakontis.com.