Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death
By N.K. Jemisin
The intel is good. It had better be; three women died to get it to us. I tuck away the binoculars and crawl back from the window long enough to hand-signal my girls. Fire team moves up, drop team on my mark, support to hold position and watch our flank. The enemy might have nothing but mercs for security, but their bullets punch holes same as real soldiers’, and some of ’em are hungry enough to be competent. We’re hungrier, though.
Shauntay’s got the glass cutter ready. I’m carrying the real payload, slung across my torso and back in a big canteen. We should have two or three of these, since redundancy increases our success projections, but I won’t let anyone else take the risk. The other ladies have barrels cracked and ready to drop. The operation should be simple and quick—get in, drop it like it’s hot, get out.
This goes wrong, it’s on me.
It won’t go wrong.
Shauntay makes the cut. Go go go. We drop into the warm, stinking, dimly lit space of the so-called aerie—really an old aircraft hangar, repurposed since commercial air travel ended. There’s the big trough on one side of the hangar, laden with fresh human body parts. It’s horrible, but I ignore it as I rappel down. We’ve seen worse. Touchdown. No sounds from the pit at the center of the hangar. We get our little trough set up in near silence, just like we rehearsed. My girls are on it like clockwork. The barrels come down and we dump load one, load two, load three. Stirring sounds from the hangar behind us. Ignore them. I signal the other soldiers to back up. Nothing left but the payload. I unsling my canteen, not listening to the sounds behind me, concentrating on my fingers so I don’t fumble the cap, remembering to unseal the pressure valve so the vacuum effect doesn’t clog the whole thing up and—
A warm, sulfur-redolent breath stirs my fatigues. Right behind me. Shit.
I turn, slow. They have cat eyes; fast movement excites them. The smell of fear excites them. Dark skin excites them.
She’s huge—maybe the size of a 747, though I’ve only seen husks of those, lying scattered around the edges of old killing fields where the world was remade. She’s not quite green. Her scales are prismatic, slightly faceted, which makes them nearly invisible at night. That was an accident, I’ve heard, some side effect of tweaking the genetic base to make them hyper-focused on shorter wavelengths of visible light—or something; I don’t know the science. I know beauty, though, and she’s lovely, scales shimmering as she moves, iridescent blue–black–golden brown. They probably mean for her to be ugly and scary, dark as they’ve made her, but they forget there’s more ways to be beautiful than whatever they designate. Red eyes. Fangs long as my whole body. Those are just there for the scare factor, I know; our scientists have proven they don’t actually use the fangs for eating. Do a good enough job killing without them.
A few of the others stir behind her, some coming over, all of them following her lead. She’s the dominant one. Figures. I’m not scared. Why? Suicidal, maybe. No. I think—and it’s just in this moment, looking at how beautiful she is—that I see a kindred spirit. Another creature whose power has been put into the service of weaker cowardly fools.
So I smile. “Hey, there,” I say. She blinks and pulls her head back a little. Her prey doesn’t usually talk back. Still dangerous; curiosity plus boredom equals me being batted all over the hangar like a toy till I’m dead. Time to divert her interest. Slowly, I move behind the trough—stuff’s still steaming from the barrels —and start pouring out my payload. The hot, sharp smell catches her attention immediately. Those lovely slit pupils expand at once, and she leans down, sniffing at the trough. I’m irrelevant suddenly.
“Getcho grub on, baby,” I whisper. My beautiful one flickers her ears, hearing me, but her eyes are still on the prize. Mission accomplished. I rappel back up to the roof, and we head homeward as the flock chows down.
Dragons love them some collard greens, see. Especially with hot sauce.
The first attacks were the worst. Nobody was ready. I remember a day, I couldn’t have been more than six or seven. I was sitting in the living room. Mama came running in, not a word, just grabbed me and half-dragged me out of my chair and across the house to hide in the bathroom. I felt the house shudder and thought it was an earthquake, like I’d read about in books. I was excited. I’d never felt an earthquake before. We curled together in the bathtub, me and Mama, me giddy, her terrified, with the sounds of screaming and the smells of smoke filtering in through the vents.
It was so terrible, the Towers said, amid news stories with two-faced headlines like SAPPHIRE TOWNSHIP RAIDED BY DRUG-SNIFFING DRAGONS and OFFICIALS DENY DRAGONS INTENTIONALLY BRED TO PREFER “DARK MEAT.” So terrible indeed. Maybe if we didn’t hide things from the police, they wouldn’t need to use dragons? The dragons only attacked when people attacked them—or ran as if they were guilty. Why, if we’d just turn out every time there was a police patrol and point out the folks among us who were causing trouble, the dragons would only bother those people and not everybody.
Motherfuckers always want us to participate in their shit. Ain’t enough they got the whole world shivering in the shadows of the Towers. Ain’t enough they’ve got our boys and men tagged like dogs and preemptively walled off over in Manny Dingus Prison, only letting ’em out for parole now and again. (Only letting some of ’em out—the ones they think are meek, ’cause they think eugenics works. If they had any sense, though, they’d be more afraid of the quiet ones.)
This latest front in the long, long war started because they didn’t like us growing weed. Ours was better quality than that gourmet shit they grew, and also we sold it to their people over in Americanah. Not that those were really their people, white men as poor as us and the few women whose pussies the Towers haven’t grabbed, but they gotta try to keep up the illusion. Gotta have somebody as a buffer between them and us, especially whenever we get uppity.
They’ve been engineering the End Times. The Plagues were supposed to be about salvation. Trying to get all the townships and ghettoes and reservations to go evangelical, see? So they poisoned the water—turned it red—and killed a whole bunch of men over in Bollytown. Got them dependent on bottled-water deliveries from the Tower, forever. The dragons are supposed to be the Second Plague, engineered from frogs, with a little dinosaur and cat spliced in. That’s bad, but they tried to start a Plague of boils, big enough to kill, in Real Jerusalem. Didn’t spread much beyond their patient zeroes, thank G*d, because Jewish people wash. (They’ll try again, though. Always do.) Anyway, we got the point when they rained hail and fire on the Rez, even though they claimed that was just a weathercontrol satellite malfunction.
We’re all heathens to the Towers. All irredeemable by birth and circumstance, allowed to live on the sufferance of those on high. They don’t want to kill us off, because they need us, but they don’t need us getting comfortable. Rather keep us on edge. Keep us hungry. Best way to control a thing, they think, is through fear and dependency.
Gotta mind, though, that the ones you’re starving don’t start getting their needs attended to someplace else.
The next raid goes off right when our hackers have said, but we didn’t need the warning. The Towers are predictable, complacent, and lazy in their power—same mediocre motherfuckers they’ve always been. We’re ready. Got countermeasures standing by, but they don’t even bother to send observation drones. Stupid. It’s been years since that first raid. We’ve been living under siege so long that fear stopped making sense a long time ago.
The dragons darken the sky and then stoop to attack. The whole damn flock; the Towers must have found the evidence of our infiltrations, or maybe they’re mad about something else. I spot my baby in the vanguard, blue-black-brown, big as a building. She lands in the market and unleashes a blast of flame to obliterate a shop—oh, but then she stops. Sniffs the air. Yeah, what is that? Check it out, baby. See that great big steaming trough over there on the school track and field? Remember that taste? Once upon a time, this was food fit only for beasts. We made it human. Now we’ve made it over, special, for you. Hot hot, good good. Eat up, y’all.
She whuffles at the others, and they follow as she hop-flies over to the field. A trough the size of a shipping container is all laid out, filled to the brim and steaming with three days’ worth of cooking work. Plenty of hot sauce this time, vinegary and sharp and fierce as all get-out. That’s the kicker. Wakes up their taste buds, and the fiber fills them up better than plain old human flesh. Volunteers, including me, linger nearby while the dragons eat. We move slowly, letting them smell our living human flesh, working clickers so they’ll associate sound with taste. Then it’s done, and the dragons fly back to their aerie slow, heavy with greens. Nobody gets eaten that day.
The Towers are pissed. They send in cops to retaliate, stopping and frisking random women walking down the street, arresting anybody who talks back, even killing two women for no reason at all. They feared for their lives, the cops say. They always say.
Collard greens get added to the contraband list, between C-4 and contraception.
We retaliate right back when they come with crews of deputized men from Americanah to tear up our fields. No collards? Fine. When the dragons come next, we offer them callaloo.
They come for the callaloo. We just stand there, pretending harmlessness, and don’t fight back. They can’t admit that the dragons are supposed to eat us, so they claim they’re worried about listeria. No FDA anymore, just gotta destroy the whole crop. Okay, then. Word spreads. After they take the callaloo, Longtimetown—none of us named this shit—sends over frozen blocks of spinach cooked with garlic, fish sauce, and chili oil, layered in with their heroin shipment. We have to add our own spinach to stretch it, but that chili oil is potent. It’s enough.
By this point the Towers figure they’ve got to rob us of every vegetable and then watch us die of malnutrition or there’s no way their dragons will ever bother with bland, unseasoned human meat again. They actually try it, motherfuckers, burning our farms, and we have to eat cat grass just to get by. We fight over kohlrabi leaves grown in an old underground weed hothouse. Can’t give this to the dragons; there isn’t enough, and our daughters need it more. It’s looking bad. But just before the next raid, Spicymamaville smuggles over mofongo that makes the dragons moan, they love it so. Towelhead Township is starving and besieged, but a few of the mujahideen women make it through the minefields with casks of harissa strapped to their bodies. Sari City, mad about Bollytown, ships us “friendship basketballs.” They do this openly, and the Towers let them through as a goodwill gesture. Black people love basketball, right? Maybe it’ll shut us up. And it does, for a while: There’s enough saag paneer and curry paste vacuumpacked inside each ball to feed us and the dragons too.
The Towers burn our peppers, and our allies respond with dead drops of hawajj, wasabi, chili-pepper water. The Towers try to starve us, but we Just. Don’t. Die.
And each visit, I pet my dragon a little more. She watches me. Looks for me when she lands. Croons a little when I pet her. It doesn’t all go smoothly. In a single day I lose two soldiers to one dragon’s fit of temper. Old habit. The dragon spits the soldiers’ bodies out immediately, though, and snorts in disgust even before my beauty and the others can twist their heads around to hiss at her. They know we won’t open the reward trough that day. Lesson learned, though it cost us blood.
It’s war. We’ll mourn the lost as heroes, our own and allies alike. I check in with my girls before every meal and ask if they’re still willing to serve; they are. We are all resolved. We will win.
The Towers have got something big planned. The dragons have become less responsive to their breeders and trainers, and sometimes they just up and leave the aeries to come to our township, where the good food’s at. News articles say the Second Plague program is going to be retired due to “mixed results.” Civilian casualties have decreased; they’re spinning that as a benefit and not mentioning that the decline is our doing. Anyway, the dragons have been declared a failed experiment, so they’re planning to “decommission” them during their next official deployment. Missiles vs. dragons, in the skies right over Sapphire Town. Who cares about collateral damage.
A spy in one of the Towers confirms it. They’ve gotten tired of us Sapphires, and it’s about time for the Tenth Plague anyway. They’re coming for our firstborn.
My lovely one waits patiently as I gear up, even though the troughs only have a little food in them this time. They know now to associate our presence with good things like food and pleasure and play, so they’ll abide awhile before they get testy. We’re all wearing flight gear and carrying saddles. I’ve got the payload again: our last batch of Scotch bonnets, grown and pickled in secret, sweetened with mango and hope. Word is there’s a great big warehouse full of confiscated greens over near Tower One. And just so happens there’s a whole lot of tanks and troops to set on fire along the way.
One by one, we mount up. My beautiful one—her name’s Queen—turns her head back to get one ear skritched, and I oblige with a grin. Then I raise a hand to signal readiness. She lifts her head, smelling my excitement, sharing it, readying the others. I feel like I’m sitting astride the sky. She lifts her wings and lets out a thundering battle cry. Feeling her power. So am I.
Go go go.
And once the Towers lie in broken, smoldering rubble below us? We’ll come back home, and sit on down, and have us all a good-good feast.
By S.B. Divya and Mur Lafferty
Hello and welcome to Escape Pod, your weekly science fiction podcast. I’m Divya, your host for EPISODE 800.
This marks one of our decimal system milestones. Eight hundred episodes! I’ll give you a second to think about that … In four more years, we’re going to hit a thousand, and I have no doubt we’ll get there. It’s kind of mind-boggling to think of keeping anything going on a weekly basis for this long. This is one tough pod. Our crew has changed. We’ve had a variety of people in the Captain’s chair. We’ve weathered some pretty close calls, when our future was far from certain, but we’ve come through it intact. We look at the scratches on our hull with pride. They mark our toughness, and the determination of all of YOU in keeping us going.
YOU are the reason we’re still here, and the reason we keep making our trips around the sun. And I don’t just mean monetarily, I mean spiritually. What is a podcast without its audience? Or a digital zine without its readers? Without all of you, we’d be shouting into the void. So…thank you. For sixteen years of support and love, through financial ups and downs, through award nominations and a print anthology. Thank you for sticking with us, for tuning in weekly or binging annually, for telling your friends, and for sending us love.
And now here’s Mur with a few words of her own: “Many many many years ago, Summer Brooks of Slice of SciFi gave me some advice on the naming of podcast files to keep things neat in my digital archive. I remember clearly that she advised naming the file podcastname001, 002, etc. which is probably safe enough since none of us are going to be doing over 1000 episodes. Remember that, Summer? Now, Summer is with escape artists doing production for us, and Escape Pod is at episode 800 and showing no signs of stopping.
If memory serves, sixteen years ago we were paying authors $20 a story — and that was it. Narrator, producer, host, editor–that was all unpaid, and often the same person would do more than one of those jobs. Now, we are able to pay our authors $.08 a word for originals and #100 for reprints, and everyone on the team is paid, from our slush readers to the folks who moderate the livestream chats over at twitch.tv/eapodcasts. It’s not a lot of money, but we went from spending $20 a week to … I can’t do the math, but it’s well over $20.
We are so happy that your support has allowed us to pay our team for their hard work. No one is doing it “for the love” – or. if they are, they’re still getting paid. Escape Pod has become something I am so proud to be a part of, and humbled that our fantastic team works so hard to make this work. Thanks to the team and the listeners and to my co-editor, SB Divya, whose fierce organizational skills balance my ADHD brain.”
We’re celebrating this milestone with the story, “Give Me Cornbread Or Give Me Death,” by the greatest science fiction author of our generation, N.K. Jemisin. We were fortunate to have this story included in our fifteenth anniversary anthology, and we’re delighted to bring it to you in audio today.
As always, N.K. Jemisin pulls no punches with this story. It’s one of survival, of rebellion, and of creative problem solving in the face of institutional adversity. Also, dragons.
I should note that I love dragons, and the idea of genetically engineering some as weapons is both painfully fun and plausible. The United States, where this story is set, spends over 600 billion dollars annually on defense. The funding for a project like this would certainly exist. That they would use it to insidiously repress the “undesirable” elements of society? Also pretty plausible.
It’s a grim future in a lot of ways, but the resolution is based in celebration. Food, in all its vibrant and diverse forms, becomes the solution instead of violence. People who’ve been ghettoized in this future learn to work together and take advantage of their cultural heritages. Plus, in the end, they save themselves and the dragons, so bonus points for that. This is not a story of despair and dystopia, but one of hope and optimism.
We’re hoping to bring you a lot more of those next year, as this episode marks the beginning of a special themed submissions month for our authors, one of joy.
Come back next week for a quieter, more intimate story about the complicated relationship between mother and daughter in a data-driven, surveillance-based future.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution noncommercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Do go forth and share it.
If you’d like to support Escape Pod, please rate or review us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite app. We are 100% audience supported, and we count on your donations to keep the lights on and the servers humming. You can donate via Patreon.com by searching for Escape Artists – or via Paypal through our website, escapepod.org. Patreon subscribers have access to exclusive merchandise and can be automatically added to our Discord, where they can chat with other fans as well as our staff members.
Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from author Sherrilyn Kenyon, who wrote, “Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and good with ketchup.”
Thanks for joining us, and enjoy your adventures through time and space.
About the Author
N.K. Jemisin is an author of speculative fiction short stories and novels who lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. In 2018, she became the first author to win three Hugos in a row for her Broken Earth novels. She has also won a Nebula Award, two Locus Awards, and a number of other honors.
Her short fiction has been published in pro markets such as Clarkesworld, Tor.com, WIRED, and Popular Science; semipro markets such as Ideomancer and Abyss & Apex; and podcast markets and print anthologies. Her first eight novels, a novella, and a short story collection are out now from Orbit Books. (Samples available in the Books section; see top navigation buttons.) Her novels are represented by Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency.
She is a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. In addition to writing, she has been a counseling psychologist and educator (specializing in career counseling and student development), a hiker and biker, and a political/feminist/anti-racist blogger. Although she no longer pens the New York Times Book Review science fiction column called “Otherworldly” (which she covered for 3 years), she still writes occasional long-form reviews for the NYT.
About the Narrator
Laurice White is an actress, poet and mom currently residing in Michigan.