Escape Pod 858: Pen Pal (Part 1 of 2)
By Grant Canterbury
December Third, 1996
Hello!! My name is Mary and I am nine years old. I got your name for a pen pal and they said you were the first pen pal on Mars. This is the first time I have written a letter to Mars to. So I will tell you about me and how things are here in Oregon. And if you can tell me about yourself and what Mars is like that would be great! I am interested in mars but I have never been there yet. There is a book in the library that has pictures, I like the one with the little boats and orange trees on the grand canal. I mean the trees are orange not that they have oragnes. Here our trees are green except in fall. Right now they have lost their leaves.
So I like Oregon but it is not like Mars and that is because it is really really wet. Not as wet as Venus but it is still really wet. Right now it has been raining for about a week and I am ready for the sun to come out. I dont know if it rains on Mars? But I bet it does not rain very much. The school bus comes to take me to school I am in fourth grade and I have to wait outside for it in the rain usually!
Our family is my mom and dad and my big brother Robb and my grandparents live not too far off. We are close to Silverton and there are vinyards and fields around us. I have a horse. I am going to put his picture in this envelope. His name is North Star. That is because he is black and he has one white blaze on his forehead so it is like a star. I am learning to ride him and I fell off once! But I did not hurt myself. And North Star is very good. Once there was a beehive and the other horses got scared and galloped but North Star did not buck me off even though he got stung. So I like him very much.
Mom says I have to finish this letter soon because the rocket is leaving soon and it will not wait. I hope you can write back to me. I am very interested to hear about you.
Please deliver to Mary Havens
13356 Paradise Alley Road
Dear Mary Havens,
I have your letter. Greetings! I am practicing writing in English. I hope you see the words I want. Sometimes I speak with the visitors at the America station here. I can understand them. And now I have a dictionary and a primer. But still I only begin to learn this language.
My thanks to you for your letter. I am the only daughter of my mother Meliari Nemytha. My father is Tendu. Usually I am called Thulissia. But within my creche I have been called Thu. I see in your letter that you named yourself as my friend. I also hope to be your friend. I hope you will call me Thu.
Our years are different and our people also live more slow. I was born in the winter of the Year of Questioning Mists. I think on Earth that was your 1973? The America station was still very new in that year. So I think I have lived more time than you. But I will not be counted as adult for many years. I hope you think of me as a girl like you.
Our holding is not far from the station. We are in the high country, on the edge of Yuli. Your people call it Tharsis. I have seen rain, but only once or twice. In the right season the winds bring mists across Yuli, and at our holding we raise up sieve nets to catch water droplets for our cistern. What we cannot hold we sell to the Kori society, and it is directed down to the low deserts to fill the canals. In a good year the chula fruit from our vines is very sweet!
I hold in my hand your photograph of North Star. I feel he is beautiful. I have not seen a horse, although I have seen two dogs. I spoke with Captain Jimenez at the station and he told me horses would not survive the voyage across the void, so none have been brought to our world. So I will never see one, likely. I hope you give my greetings to North Star. I forgot to ask if horses speak. Some of our creatures do and some do not. I have a little pindi who speaks, and I feel affection for her, but she does not always tell the truth. I am sending to you one of her feathers.
In my language for North Star you would say Ara Kinosa.
I will seal this letter and give it with wishes for careful delivery. I know the distance across the void is very great.
February 2, 1999
Thank you so much for writing back to me! I got your letter last year and I have been waiting for the next rocket to go. I can’t believe they only send them every two years! Dad says there are good reasons for that, but it is a long time to wait! Apparently radiograms are very short and they are only supposed to be for emergencies anyway and this is not one. Oh Well.
I read your letter over a lot. I think your handwriting is very pretty. I got an N in penmanship which is basicly Not very good but I think I am getting better.
My brother Robb was jealous about your letter but I guess there is nothing stopping him from writing to Mars either if he really wants. He also asked Mom and Dad if he could have a Venusian skipperjack for a pet after he saw some for sale in an aquarium. They are kind of cute in a slimy way I guess and one of them was blinking its eyes at him in partcular and scampering about. But Mom and Dad said no!
My grandpa had cancer and he was pretty sick but Dad got him in to the medical trial for the Venus liana extract and he has gotten a lot better so I am pretty happy about that because I love my grandpa!
I saw in the newspaper that a Martian is giving lectures across America. His name is Trapindi. I wonder if you know about him? He is talking about what it is like on Mars so people do not get scared of you although why would they. Like that tripod book had nothing in it that was true at all. For one thing Martians look a lot like Earth people. I don’t think you got sick from Earth germs either – is that right? I guess the writer had no way of knowing about Martians a hundred years ago but that is not an excuse for people to be dumb today.
Last time I sent you a picture of North Star but I did not think to send a picture of me so here is one so you can see what I look like. I am in sixth grade now. North Star is fine. You might like to know that I call him ara kinosa when I give him an apple for a treat and so he knows his name in Martian. Unfortunately horses do not talk though. I did read a story where a horse did talk, his name was Bree. I liked that book a lot but it was imagination, animals are not able to talk really. Except that parrots do talk but I am not sure if they understand what they are saying. Anyway North Star is still a good friend though. How is your pindi? I have kept the feather that you sent me. I took it to school and my teacher Mr. Berry showed me it is different from a bird feather because it is not hollow in the shaft. It is so wierd and cool! Kevin in my class grabbed it while I was showing my friends Lisa and Tina and ran off but Mr. Berry made him give it back. I was mad at him! Right now it is in my keeping box beside a not broken sand dollar I picked up on the beach when we went to the coast. Also I am going to send you a bird feather that I found in our yard. It is from the wing of a red-shafted flicker. That is a wild bird that lives here. They are brown but when they open their wings they flash red.
Speaking of red sometimes I can see Mars at night and I will wave to you sometimes. I know there is no way you can see me but just so you know.
13356 Paradise Alley Road
Greetings again. I smiled when I saw your letter had come to me.
At some seasons I see Earth as well in the dark morning or in the dark evening and I consider that my friend is there. We say Aratielbra. This is the bright twin who travels always with her dim twin Aratiellissa. Your Moon she is.
We do have good health in our household. I understand the men at the America station had concern when they first arrived, and they spoke about sicknesses that might come, but we have never felt more than a few coughs. I believe that those sicknesses that grew well in your waters and forests on Earth do not survive well in our dry world. And although Earth people and Martians must once have come from the same race, we have walked separate roads for long and long. Jimenez tells me half a million years and it may be so. My father doubts this root in common but I think we could be sibling. But if we have changed, I suppose many illnesses of Earth must now find it hard to grip us.
My pindi is also robust and well. Because you have not seen a pindi I will tell you more about them. They are as tall as my knee, and they go on two strong legs, with four long toes that have fringes for walking the soft sand. Their feathers are very soft. They live in burrows they dig near habitations and feeder canals, and they do not speak just as people do but they do sing songs. Often people will sing songs to them so that they will learn. This hour my pindi has come to me and she sang “The stars shine up from the waters of the canal/They waver with the ripple/Where you drew your toe across.” That means that she is thirsty and she would like me to draw a cup from the cistern. Except that I have already seen her drink this evening so I know she is being greedy. Still I like the sweetness of her voice, so I have just given her a small drink after all.
The America station is a morning’s walk from us so I see them often. I have seen prospectors and folk who come trade for fiber work and I spoke with an anthropologist Mary Bateson who is now traveling Mars and I learned she is probably not a relation of you although she holds the same name. She hopes to translate the Old Tale to English and that will be a long work for every lineage guards only a small piece of that story, much is under seal of tanj, and some do guard it very close. We told her one thread concerning the search of Great Kadat and one evening she told us a story of Odysseus and the Cyclops. I believe it was not lucky for him to call himself Nobody and maybe that is why he did wander lost for so long but it is good fortune that giants easily can be fooled.
There are also Japanese on the other side of Yuli, and this season there is also word of a new Earth station in Tan Talan, that is Noctis Labyrinthus, beyond the nomad clans. My father says these people are Soviet. But I have not seen them yet. They have not visited on this side of the world before. I do not know if they come from close to you or if have you met Japanese or Soviet in Oregon?
I have heard of Trapindi who went to your world. His origin is by the southern pole snows, quite far from this place Yuli, so he was never in my eyes. He came out of the Kho affinity – and I admit they do have some enmity with my lineage Meliari. But it was told he became, I do not find the right word, fey? Tiliumit. And because of this he held himself apart from Kho and every other affinity. But you might see this is easier done if you leave a place! Therefore he journeyed to Sharldegal and the French agreed to bring him to Earth. I do think he is brave to go to Aratielbra. Because I know that some others have gone there before and they could not live under the heat and the heaviness for long.
For me I cannot think of holding apart from my lineage though. I know I will always be of Meliari.
Favor to greet for me the red shafted flickers. Yet only if it is safe because I do not know if they are dangerous. I hope you are in good health and I hear from you soon.
May 1, 2001
I was thinking of the letters I have written to you before and I am kind of embarrassed because I probably wrote some silly things in them, but I was pretty young back then too! I just want to say I have enjoyed reading your letters and I hope you will keep writing to me. I will probably never get to Mars but I like hearing about your life there.
It is spring here right now and very beautiful all around. During the winter there is a long time when it is pretty cold and dark and it rains a lot, and now we are getting very bright warm days and all of the leaves are growing back on the trees. When they first come out they are very light green and everything in the air smells alive again. There have been white blossoms on all the cherry trees in our yard and they smell wonderful. I pressed some so I will send them to you. They are not flat like this when they are on the tree. You put them between the pages of a heavy book and after a few weeks they are dry and then you can keep them for a long time without them withering. The birds that migrated south for the winter are all back now and they all are singing in the mornings when I go to feed North Star. They don’t sing in words like a pindi though.
That is interesting that there are Japanese and Soviets near you. Sometimes we do have Japanese visit here although Japan is far away on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. They are mostly tourist groups and I do not really know any of them. There are some kids at school whose grandparents did come from Japan but they are basically as American as I am. America did have a war with Japan a long time ago but I think that is all better now. It is not so good with the Soviets I guess.
Hey you might be interested that I was able to meet Trapindi last fall! He was at Timberline Lodge. This is up on Mount Hood, which is a very tall mountain here in Oregon that has snow even in the summer. It is actually a volcano but it has not erupted for a really long time so it is pretty safe. Trapindi had been giving his talk in Texas but it was very hot there – I have been to Texas once in summer and I about melted so I imagine it was brutal for a Martian! Anyway even with air conditioning he got pretty sick so his friend Jean Renard arranged for him to come to Timberline and recuperate. Trapindi says Mount Hood is not really like Mars but it is more like Mars than most places on Earth. It is called Timberline because it is about as high on the mountain as trees can grow and they are small and twisted by the cold winds. And the air is thinner so high up so that helped Trapindi, and when we went he was able to talk to small groups again.
So Mom drove me up there in the Bug for a day trip. The lodge is all gray stone and very massive and impressive. And among the crowds of people coming up to ski and hike we went aside into a meeting room and this very stylishly dressed little man Mr. Renard (Mom said “My isn’t he dapper,” aside in her kind of snarky way) talked about how years ago he rescued Trapindi on Mars after his long journey across the Hellas Basin marshes and how he knew then that he was special. Also I learned he pronounces his name Zhon instead of Gene, because French. And he wheeled Trapindi up in this very padded wheelchair with pillows and took his hand to help him up to the lectern to talk. He was a little shaky standing but he told his story and showed us a cool slideshow with pictures from Mars and also the places he has been to on Earth which is honestly a good deal more than me – France and Mexico City and Haiti and New York and Cairo and more.
And later a few of us went out with him to walk along the easy walking paths around the lodge. There are snow fields and rocky talus slopes up above, and a couple of marmots came out of their burrows to look at us, and a big raven flew in close and croaked at us from the roof of one of the lodge buildings. Ravens are birds that are all black and almost as big as a pindi and I think they are pretty smart. And I had been waiting because I was not sure if it was polite but I asked Trapindi about being tiliumit like you mentioned. And he was surprised to hear that word from me but we talked a while about it. And it is like I am in 4-H and at the same time I am my mother’s daughter and my brother’s sister and an eighth grader at Silverton Middle School and I am from Oregon and from America, and Trapindi says tiliumit is like realizing you are really none of that. He says here on Earth he is only The Martian, and to Jean Renard he is only Trapindi. And he says on Mars most do not survive long living as tiliumit, so even though Earth is a difficult place for him he says he feels fortunate to be here and to be sitting on a stone and looking back at a curious raven.
I don’t know whether or not that makes me sad but I guess Trapindi is doing okay so far. I hope you are doing good too. I am going for a sleepover at Tina Wesley’s place a few houses down the road pretty soon so I will give this to Mom to send off.
13356 Paradise Alley Road
This past thirty-seven days the sky has been dust and we wait in shelter of our home. There is my close family and my mother’s sister Meliari Chinquinil and my father’s affines who number eleven at present. We sleep and we set out the pieces of tanj-boards to play until we are tired of games. While at home we play to the third mode at most, with no stronger forfeit than giving oneself a pinprick. Today I did achieve advantage over my mother Nemytha and she must draw up the day’s water from our well for three days. The water lives quite far below so this is never quick. However I suspect her play was generous to me.
In mornings because of the storm we must go out to our orchards and vines and beat them so they will shed the sand. We go wearing harnesses on long cords, so we do not lose the path back, because the dust blocks sight in the air. Now the sand has built deep drifts and one must take long poles to probe them before setting down foot. In these storms a paktar may come close to habitation unseen. They are slow, but they may have the mass of three men, and they will let themselves be buried under sand and wait and wait. I was with my father Tendu when he found one. It rose up and tried to take him in its pincers, but he was brave and quick and put his lance into the soft gap in its chitin. I also beat it with my pole but I know I was not the one to kill it.
One morning when the dust had paused and there was some light we walked to visit the America station. All things were the color of dust and in the air we saw moving shadows from a line of tall wild palondi that stalked along the near ridge. I must judge the station was placed badly for the winds in this season. Their flag was all dust colored on the pole, and drifting dust was all around their big square brick building and had almost buried the domes of their quonsets, some bowing inward, and in our dune-shoes we walked above them and called within. Captain Jimenez roused and spoke with us asking if the storm would soon end. We had brought lightweight resin scoops for sand so we aided them to clear a few doorways. A few days before one of their men had become mad from closeness and with a Gun he killed one of his companions and then himself. Also after they had buried the bodies they returned to find they had been robbed by paktars. Jimenez was most troubled but he continues to encourage their steel to endure. He says they still expect the next rocket in some twenty days, and it is guided by a beacon that dust does not hide, so I now prepare this letter for you.
The America station has been troubled before by dust. And its people have been often generous for favor, but I worry they do not do well here. Of course being from Earth they do not have position in any higher tanj modes. But they stand upon the board in a certain relation to Meliari. And if they are seen to be failing then some may choose to take benefit from this instead. I judge a more favorable location might be found for them and I will speak counsel to my father.
When I wrote my previous letter to you my mother Nemytha was away at lineage moot, because she has lead position for Meliari in the game, but this day she has worked with pell ink and fine brush and made an image of me that I will send to you. I do not have this skill but her images live. Here I am at our sand gate and I wear my dust hood, it is dyed green, and I have not yet covered my face.
July 4, 2003
Well it is Fourth of July today and I just got back from the fireworks. Walked down the road with some of my friends to near the new gardens where they put on the show. This is the celebration of the founding of the United States of America, which is the 227th anniversary this year, and it is pretty fun. There are small fireworks and sparklers that you can set off by hand, and there is a show after it gets dark where they shoot off the big ones up in the air and they bang and sizzle and explode up in the sky yellow and red and green and white, in big showers and booms. They are very loud and beautiful and I guess it is romantic. Also animals do get awfully scared by the noise, and usually the fire department has to get called to put out a grass fire that got started by accident, but there you go. Tina and Kevin were holding hands as we walked down and I saw them kissing during the fireworks. Tina says snogging now since she got back from her visit to England. She has been a little annoying about it actually! You know at one point this spring I thought Kevin liked me instead of Tina, but whatever.
Well I walked back home with my brother Robb and we talked for a bit. He is going to be back at college next fall. It was weird for him to be gone last year and it has been kind of normal but a little weird having him back this summer and then he will be gone again. A guy at the library was demonstrating a computer in the meeting rooms this week and Robb got to work with it and he is kind of psyched about the idea. There is a keyboard that you type on and the computer types back in words on a glass screen, you can hook up a TV for it. Robb played a game of Monopoly with it for a while although he said it was a little confusing because you couldn’t see the board or the cards but just words, but it is pretty cool I guess. When you pushed a button the computer would just tell you what the dice roll was on the screen. Hopefully it does not cheat because I would think it would be hard to tell! Maybe Robb will study computers at college. By the way I did beat him last time we played Monopoly at home (with the actual board that is). Although if Mom is in on the game that is a different story because let me tell you she plays for blood! It is a good game for a long afternoon on vacation. If anyone has it up on Mars I bet it would be pretty good during your next dust storm!
Joking aside I hope you are not having any dust storms because it sounds like the last one was bad. Ugh. Sorry for Captain Jimenez. I did hear that the American base at Tharsis was relocating a bit so I hope they are in a better spot now.
Mom and Dad are out tonight at a concert so it is just me and Robb here, and I made hot chocolate before bed. The Quarrymen are on a reunion tour – that is a band that Mom liked when she was a kid – and they are playing at Memorial Coliseum in Portland. Dad said this is his contribution to their latest yacht payment. He told me, “I have to go along to keep your mother from rushing the stage.” Really he does like them too though.
I have your picture framed up on my wall and I am looking at it right now. Your mother is a really good artist. Thank you for sending it and please thank her for me also! I like being able to see what you look like. I think you have a good face.
I saw an article in Newsweek that Trapindi and Jean Renard are living in Hawaii up on Mauna Loa which is a little like Mars. There are weird spiky plants called silverswords that apparently remind Trapindi of home. Mr. Renard has gotten quite sick though and they are not sure what is wrong.
You might also be interested that on the news there are a few oopses from Florida. Some skipperjacks got set loose, or flushed down the toilet, or just skippered off, and ended up living in the swamps in the Everglades. And double oops, it also turns out they are actually the larvae of Venusian gulguthroi and they grow up quite big. On TV I saw video of one wrestling with an alligator over who got to eat who. What a mess.
Mom and Dad are back home. Pretty late, but I guess they got back all right. I can hear Mom singing downstairs.
I’ve got a rocket,
Keys in my pocket,
Touched down, snap! in the dock, it
Might be our ticket to liberty…
Sounds like they had a good time at the concert. Mom is really belting it out. I guess they probably stopped for drinks on the way home. I may tweak her about it tomorrow morning! But I’m glad she finally got a chance to see them. According to Mom she had a big crush on Paul when she was a girl. Personally I think John is much cooler, but they didn’t ask for my opinion.
But I Don’t Mind,
As long as you can be
On your way with me
To Jupiter, and freee…
I think back in the 60s they did not know yet that Jupiter mostly has Europan ice worms that are not fond of visitors. But that doesn’t mean it is not an awesome song.
Sleepy now so will finish. Will get this mailed tomorrow since I am starting to run late for the launches. Hope life is good for you.
13356 Paradise Alley Road
This day has been quiet and cold and I have walked by the feeder canals and watched the ice growing over their surface. My pindi came with me for a while, but she returned to her burrow where I suspect she has an egg.
I have never seen fireworks and I am not sure why because I believe they would function on Mars and I know we would have pleasure at a brightness of color in the sky. Sometimes I wonder if my people have limits that we cannot perceive.
I have asked Captain Jimenez about Monopoly and he has found a box with this game in their storage. This box he has given to me and I have wrapped it and brought it to our home upon the back of a palondi I had under rein. I am studying it to learn more about Earth. He said to me, “I hope I am not creating a monster.” I do not understand this but I believe he joked.
I wonder about dice because they have chaos in this very square game. There are no dice in tanj although much is hidden in the hand of each player. And there may be chaos at the base of each player’s choice, although also character shapes it as one can see if playing with a person one knows well, so also I wonder if it may not be chaos.
I do not understand the shapes of most of the pieces. However I like the little dog.
Mary I regret that I cannot converse with you face to face.
By Tina Connolly
And we’re back! Again, that was the opening section of Pen Pal, by Grant Canterbury, with the part of Mary read by Kitty Sarkozy, and the part of Thu read by Rachel Lackey.
Grant sent us some thoughts on the story, and since they have no spoilers as such, I’ll read those to you this week, and next week I’ll share some of my own thoughts.
Grant says: “Pen Pal” is my homage to the speculative worlds of mid-20th century science fiction, where canals threaded the Martian deserts and prehistoric beasts roamed the fetid jungles of Venus. In our timeline that universe vanished from possibility when space probes got a closer look and sent back their telemetry to Earth. But the history of the solar system might have played out very differently.
There are plenty of stories of bold explorers encountering alien wonders, and this is certainly one of them. But I was also just as interested in perspectives from the vast majority who stay home on Earth, navigating everyday lives they hardly consider to be science-fictional – and what place the stories from beyond hold in their hearts – and how great events in the vaster universe might come home to touch their lives in unexpected personal ways.
And Tina here to say, I very much enjoyed that about Grant’s story, and am looking forward to sharing part 2 with you next week.
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And our closing quotation this week is from Emily Dickinson, who said: “A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”
About the Author
Grant Canterbury is a naturalist and writer who grew up exploring the wild landscapes of Alaska and the American West and reading stories about speculative worlds of science fiction and fantasy. His stories have been published in the science fiction anthologies Vintage Worlds, Merigan Tales, and After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis. He lives in the Pacific Northwest. See canterburia.blogspot.com for irregular commentary and project updates.
About the Narrators
Rachel Lackey plays Mrs. Humble and Penny in the comedy audio series Quiet & Bold and is a regular reader for Strange Studies of Strange Stories, the HP Lovecraft Literary Podcast. Since you enjoy short audio fiction, make sure to check out her narration of Cool Air. Rachel is also one of the hosts of Rachel Watches Star Trek. Chris loves Star Trek. Rachel had never watched it. Until 2017, when that podcast began. They have now completed the Original Series, the Animated Series, the 1960s movies, seasons 1-3 of The Next Generation and seasons 1 of Discovery and Strange New Worlds. This is a podcast where Rachel and Chris rate each episode of Star Trek, from the original TOS pilot onwards, getting her outsider’s perspective on one of the most influential Sci-fi shows of all time.
Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer, actor and robot girlfriend. Kitty is an alumnus of Superstars Writing Seminar , a member of the Apex Writers Group, and the Horror Writer’s Association. Several large cats allow her to live with them in Marietta, GA, and she enjoys tending the extensive gardens, where she hides the bodies. For a list of her publications, acting credits or to engage her services on your next project go to kittysarkozy.com.