Escape Pod 872: The HazMat Sisters (Part 1 of 2)


The HazMat Sisters (Part 1 of 2)

by L.X. Beckett

The runaway soldier comes upon their party days after they cross out of Oklahoma into Missouri, late in the afternoon when their Questmaster is on shift, as they camp in a culvert near a river somewhere near Grand Falls.

Wilmie drew last watch, shift at the end of day, through hot and humid afternoon and its build to an equally dense evening. She’s sliding in and out of a doze, heat-torpor amplified by her hay fever meds.

Pony pokes her with one of its sharps, a silent alarm that shoots Wilmie to her feet, adrenalized, raring and ready to wake the others… unless it’s a feral chicken, or a skunk. Pony’s supposed to know a coyote when it sees it, but it still flags every. Single. One.

“Unknown interloper.” Text from the bot scrolls across her augmented display.

She flicks the warning away with a gesture, linking to Tess’s Dragon and zooming with its cameras. It feeds a view of the brush direct to her goggles. No coyote this time. The man’s scrawny, but a man nonetheless. Not as big as Fee, but full grown.

He’s creeping toward them. Not blundering, not snuffling about for shelter, and moving superslow. Bidding to fool their motion detectors? Not good.

Wilmie checks the charge on Pony—three quarters—then side-steps, fighting a sneeze as she crouches beside her twin, Tess, and puts a hand over her mouth. Tess goes from slack to electric under her hands. She joins the Dragon channel, takes one look, and sends, subvocally: “Someone’s coming, Fee.”

Wilmie’s earbuds make the utterance seem loud.

Fee, their fearless leader, rolls deeper into the culvert they’ve claimed for the night’s camp. “Secure the mule.”

Wilmie obeys, triggering a clattering furl of shield over Mule’s chest-mounted solar panel. Pony collapses into a pile of dull silver spaghetti, camouflage mode, pretending to be broken chain-link fence, scattered in grass. Dragon rises another three meters, propellers whirring lustily as Tess, emitting a cheerful spray of happyface moji, queues up a trank dart.

Wilmie sneezes, adding to the noise.

The man pauses, just short of the clearing.

Fee lights up an arrow across the group shareboard, indicating the bug-out trail they established when they made camp. Tess slithers up two pegs they banged into the base of an American elm, climbing into its sparse coverage.

“Call him out,” Fee orders Wilmie, scrambling.

“But your helmet!”

“I just need a second!” The older girl lunges for the helm, with its opaque, light-bending visor and advanced tactical screen that lets her pass not only for an adult but for corporate security.

“We see you,” Wilmie shouts. “Come on out.”

The man steps forward. Maybe he gets a look at Fee’s face before it vanishes under the screen and maybe he doesn’t.

By now, Tess has dropped to the ground again, working her way along the banks of the river, flanking him.

The man puts his hands up. “Steady, girl scouts. I come in peace.”

Wilmie scans him. He’s a fairhair: old-looking, stubbly yellow-grey beard and lots of ugly freckles. His nanosilk coverage is thin. Bare patches of chest show under his much-abused bulletproof vest. The primer is running in safe mode—basic black tights, without even free apps like kneepads or pockets. A glitch, or is he hiding something?

“Casting Whooz,” she subs on the team channel.

“Don’t get distracted.” Fee’s voice is tight: probably she didn’t get her face hid fast enough. She has her hands behind her back—by now, her mother’s telescoping baton will be fisted in her left. She’s got her toes up against the pile of apparent rubble that is Pony, in case it comes to a real fight. “Ready a fireball.”

Wilmie opens Mule’s Dangerous Goods drawer, pulling a handful of puttied napalm out of her bag of tricks and installing a fuse. She keeps running the Whooz spell. Unless this guy has friends—in which case, face it, they’re probably all bagged and tagged—he’s outnumbered. Tess rustles in the brush, giving him something to think about. Dragon whirrs above, extending their scan perimeter.

“I’m alone,” he says, guessing their thoughts.

“What do you want?” Fee can do a good impression of her mother’s voice: deep, authoritative. That sound of Chakeesa sends a stiletto of grief into Wilmie’s chest. She sucks lip over her teeth, fighting another sneeze, and tastes blood.

“Just making sure you girls are okay. Need anything? I got food.”

Tess’s voice floats back from the trees. “Ooh, he’s a humanitarian!”

“You’re such a good guy, why sneak up?” Fee agrees.

“Aww, girls.” He’s got a gosh-darn twang to his voice that suggests he grew up in Texas. “You always this suspicious?”

By now, data have come back from his clothes. The primer is running a pretty good firewall—his OS is definitely militia grade. But Wilmie’s Mule has cracker software, downloaded from the world’s foremost online retailer and media monolith. She runs comparisons, trying tools in her spellbook against his security.

If she gets in, she can reboot his uniform. Literally show his true colors. She’s got no beef with deserters—well, unless they’re true believers from the Dixie Purity Party. But if he’s here to mess with them, she’ll turn his nanosilk undies into a puddle, dripping at his feet, even as Tess shoots him full of azaperone.

“Come on, honey, what’s your names?”

Fee crosses her arms. “Honey’s fine.”

“Me, I’m Baron,” the fairhair says.

“Didn’t ask,” Fee says.

This is usually the point where the nicey-nice wears off, where the man gets all pissy and calls Fee a bitch, or worse, and Tess starts asking if she can please trank him.

Baron keeps his hands up. “Okay, I get it. You’re badasses and you don’t want for nothing. I’mma leave.”

Tess makes another intimidating rustle, shaking hell out of a willow tree.

He reaches into his satchel.

Fee goes full alert, slapping out the baton. Pony rises from the underbrush, bones knitting into chainmail as it crawls up her body, toe to top, and the DisMazon logo forms, in bas relief, on her chest.

That knocks Baron back a step. But he gleams a little, too, like maybe he was wondering something and now he knows the answer.
He minces backward into the scrub. No coward, he still pulls whatever it is out of his pack.

“Peace offering, okay?” He sets three plastic-skinned boxes the size of grenades at the base of the elm before backing off.

Wilmie’s surreptitious handshake with his outfit loses connection. She’s tried maybe thirty driver codes without success. She saves her progress.

“Tess,” says Fee. “Possible tainted goods. Loop ‘round and check for traps after he’s cleared the camp.”

Dragon keeps him in its sights as he retreats, into foot-high fresh-planted forest on the ditch across the highway. Tess establishes a perimeter around his so-called offering, zooming in from a distance. The boxes contain brightly colored marshmallow chickens, individually wrapped, their safety seals allegedly intact.

Sugar. Wilmie’s mouth waters. “Think we could test ‘em?”

Her sisters don’t even seem to hear her. Tess dumps leaf litter on them from a meter out.

“Burn it,” Fee says.

Wilmie throws the fireball carefully, underhand, landing it in the leaf litter. Everything goes up in a whoosh of stink.
Maybe they weren’t smeared with virus. Maybe they weren’t drugged or poisoned. Maybe Baron really was just offering a dessert share and a chance to friend.

Fee, voice threadbare, orders: “Water, for the fire.”

Wilmie rummages in Mule for their collapsing bucket and shleps off to the river.

They wait upwind as the blaze burns to ash, filling the moist air with heat, with the stink of frying mulch mixed with caramelized sugar. After they douse it, Fee says: “I think the QM would tell us to move on, don’t you?”

“No shit, Captain Obvious.” Tess starts breaking camp. “At least we’ll get XP for refusing to take candy from strangers.”

***

The first plague, the stay-at-home, mostly killed the olds and the weaks. Daddy—who was a notable asshole in every possible way—liked to refer to it as a “necessary population correction.” This made it total cosmic justice, Tess says (at least she does when she’s trying to show what a toughie she is) when the second wave mutated and drowned him in pneumonia.

Their mothers couldn’t afford to be sentimental. Mom sold Daddy’s guns and got herself transferred to DisMazon call center in Chicago. She found a family-sized apartment—and population correction be damned, that’s no small trick these days. Chakeesa, Fee’s mother, spent that same time hunting for a car. One mom would set up house; the other would bring all three girls a few weeks later. Great plan, except for the part where Chakeesa caught the bug, either while car-shopping or because of the long shifts she was pulling at the end, guarding HazMat deliveries for the company.

Sunset finds the party trudging along Interstate 44 toward Joplin, Missouri, Fee still dressed in her mother’s uniform. The corporate brand confers an aura of authority even though they are refugees, even though Wilmie and Tess are obviously still kids. Everything they own is piled high on Mule, their precious server and charging station, encased in a wheeled and armored toolkit. They take turns pushing Mule: it can drive itself, but they need to save the battery.

When Mom checks in, they’ve paused for breakfast; sharing out egg bars with cheese and ketchup as the sun goes down.

Chimes tinkle in their speakers. A shimmery, androgynous fairy in a silver suit appears, projected onto their augmented view of the road.

“Hail and well met, adventurers! How fares your party this evening?” Mom’s familiar tenor bursts with warmth.

“Good health and good spirits all,” Fee says. Leader’s privilege to speak for the group, and Mom awards her ten XP for staying in character. Even now, hollowed out by grief, Fee’s good at preserving her lead in-game.

Mule’s HR app will have reported their vitals by now, summarizing body temp fluctuations, spikes in heartrate, sleep history, calorie intake. Checking they didn’t make any asks of the first aid kit, unless you count Wilmie’s antihistamines. Geopositioning reports how far the party got yesterday and scans their compressed audio feeds, high-grading for tension in their voices. Fee and Tess get docked whenever they actually yell at each other.

“Tell me about this encounter with the boy.”

Boy? Wilmie thinks.

“Scrounger. Hoping to steal Pony, probably,” Tess says. As a nod to staying in character, she throws in a “Milady” as an afterthought.

“No way!” Fee says.

“What makes you say so?” Mom asks.

“All that with the marshmallows, I think he just wanted a good look at… at our valiant steed.”

The sister with the most XP when they get to Chicago gets first dibs on a wish, anything that’s within Mom’s power to grant. Their apartment has three bedrooms… one of them, just one, will get her own space. Gamifying their evacuation is Mom’s way, basically, of bribing them to work together.

“I believe he deserted from one of the local warlords,” Wilmie puts in.

For a wonder, everyone actually seems to hear her.

“A Dixie deserter?” A note of fear creeps into Mom’s voice.

“He is a fairhair.”

“Doesn’t make him a true believer,” Fee argues. “Especially if he left them. Could just be lonely and clueless.”

Tess snorts. “Clueless fails before clueless levels.”

Wilmie shares her hack attempt. “I ran a spell to reveal his true nature—”

“I told her not to,” Fee says.

“He took off… um… fled before my incantation was complete.”

Mom nods. “If he returns, complete the spell and report his whereabouts to his lord or lady.”

“Turn him in?” Fee says sharply. “They’ll shoot him.”

Wilmie imagines it: hail of bullets from an autonomous gun platform, punching through flesh. She shakes the unwanted image away.

Mom posts the quest in their sidebar. “With luck he’ll stay away. You all did well to treat him with suspicion.”

She awards XP for distance travelled and homework completed, with bonuses for Wilmie and Tess for getting up and facing the threat right away. Fee gets a smidgin less because her face got seen. She and Tess look daggers at each other… Wilmie will have some heavy peacekeeping to do later.

Last Mom updates the day’s school quests. Wilmie gets a conundrum—a programming puzzle with some kind of Easter egg inside. Fee’s graduated, but Mom’s sending college prep: there’s a basketball scholarship waiting for her at UChicago, assuming the schools ever reopen.

“Now then,” Mom says. “I have a treasure quest, two days ahead. Who’s in?”

***

Treasure quest is a fancy euphemism for shopping. Someone has erected a pop-up mall next to the food drop on their route. Not their own corporate overlord, alas, or they’d have priority in the line-up.

Mom put in a provisional order, before they even arrived. Simple rations: nobody’s going to raid their party for protein bars and carrot leather. As a treat, she threw in six canned spaghetti. Cans add weight to the Mule, but the girls agree: spaghetti’s worth every mouthful. She’s also unlocked the family treasure chest—allocating a spending allowance for each of them.

“Get in, get out. Don’t cause trouble, and don’t overload the mule. Stay in character, Fiona.”

The estimated wait time in the queue is about two hours. Fee’s dressed in her dead mom’s corporate cop costume, widecasting Chakeesa’s ID and the HazMat courier certificates on her visor. Wilmie and Tess aim for a look that says they’re too tough to mess with and too boring to target for robbery.

Arriving at the end of the line, the girls array themselves the usual four pandemic-approved meters behind the party ahead, a fairhair mom-dad-baby trio. The man is carrying a homemade weapon, a baseball bat with nails driven through it.

Unwelcome mental image—the Papa Bear, swinging it—makes Wilmie flinch.

Fee puts a comforting hand on her back. “What’ll we buy?”

Tess answers promptly: “Stingers.”

“Not for the party, for yourself.”

“Stingers,” she repeats, edge in her voice. Tess loves her trank darts. “Gum, maybe. Do they have gum?”

“I’ll check,” Wilmie conjures a user account for them all, using Chakeesa’s name and DisMazon ID. A catalog unfurls in their goggle views.

There’s a chip that would boost their network reach, and another that would speed up Mule’s processing power. Wilmie weighs the options, then picks the network boost and buys an additional fan. Keeping Mule cool is almost harder than keeping its batteries charged.

It’s hard to know what to want for herself: to find something in the catalog gratifying enough to make it worth the extra weight. There’s nothing that’ll help them move faster, which is what they really need… to get out of the hot zone, and back within range of a responsible adult before Fee and Tess give up the pretense of cooperation.

“Maybe they have a spa,” Fee sighs. The three of them currently get a wash maybe once a week, whenever they find a campsite with functional plumbing.

Oh! Wilmie brings up camping gear. “What if we get a shower?”

Typically, neither sister seems to hear her. So Wilmie repeats herself.

Fee makes a shoo, fly gesture. “I just said a shower.”

“Not a one-off. What if we buy one?” Wilmie shares the specs on an expandable plastic tank, swanky version of their water bucket, with its own solar charger. It pumps and filters river water, spends the day heating it. A telescoping head comes up from the tank. “Whole rig, once collapsed… it barely weighs two pounds. We could use the tank as a bucket.”

“We have a bucket. And this isn’t cheap,” Tess says.

“If we go in together, though!” Fee brightens. “Tess, come on. Hot showers whenever we camp near water? We even still have soap.”

Tess frowns, no doubt struggling with her natural reluctance to agree with Fee. Wilmie gives her wideeyes.

“Fine. If it’s still in stock,” she agrees at last.

“Moment of unity, ground shippers?”

They turn, three heads simo-swivelling as Baron takes over the back of the line, four meters back.

“How’s it going?”

“Don’t talk to us,” Wilmie says.

“That’s up to you girls, innit?”

Deep irritation flashes across Tess’s face. She’s looking at Fee.

She’s right… there’s something there. Something in the way their elder sister sets her shoulders before turning to look across the distance at him.

“What?” Wilmie subs.

“Fucking flirting,” Tess signs.

She can’t be, can she? But Wilmie remembers Fee, two years ago. Already tall, already the school sports star. There’d been a guy at a backyard barbecue—

—she feels a pang of grief for the old normal, for yards and barbecues and friends and having people over—
But Tess is right. Fee did the shoulder thing then, too.

Wilmie remembers Mom saying, in their briefing yesterday: Tell me about this boy.

But Baron’s old!

Wilmie’s goggles are so much a part of her that she sometimes goes a week without removing her rig. Now she pops up the screens, blinking as the unaugmented nighttime world makes everything seem dim and mundane. The mall catalog disappears, along with the virtual boundary of their social distancing hex. Her school and social apps vanish. The stars get further away and tree pollens start clawing at her face.

Without augments, Baron’s hair goes from dirty grey to gold. His blotches and wrinkles vanish. He’s not forty at all. He’s their age, more or less, and even by moonlight she can see he’s got the face of an angel.

Wilmie snaps the visor down.

“Well?” Tess says.

“Mom’s running some kind of Beauty and the Beast wallpaper on the boys.”

“Someone’s gotta protect the straights.” Tess snorts, but doesn’t resist taking a peek. “Figures. Hey, didn’t you have a side quest? Fuck him up the AWOL or something?”

“Don’t swear.”

“Why the fuckity fuck not?”

“Just trying to keep you in the chase for your own room,” she says.

This gets a surly snort. Meaning, Wilmie guesses, that if Tess wins the XP and gets the wish, she’s planning to ask for something else.

Feeling uneasy, Wilmie unscrolls her list of drivers. She handshakes again, delicately, with Baron’s primer, trying to unlock his defaults. Her eyes are watering.

Tess subs in-channel abruptly: “The Callums are up ahead—I’m gonna go say hey to Patty.” She leaves without waiting for permission. Wilmie looks to Fee, but she’s still smoldering at the interloper.

Wilmie subs: “Fee, what if Tess is right and he’s after Pony?”

“Tess thinks everything with a Y chromosome is out to either bone or rob us.”

“Doesn’t make her wrong—” Cries near the front of the line interrupt them.

The blond Papa Bear, up ahead, raises his improvised mace. Moving frantically, his partner manhandles a kevlar cape around herself and their infant.

Wilmie climbs atop Mule for a better look.

It’s a couple big drones, incoming, and some of the other shoppers have mistaken them for gun platforms. Skittish civilians break from the line, fleeing for the dubious shelter of the trees.

“Wilmie?”

“False alarm, Fee—it’s treeplanters.” There are three of the bots, each the size of a moose and in the moonsprung dark, it’s hard to make out their public service infographics. “Something’s dimmed their nightlights.”

Word has spread. All the people who’d initially scrambled away, in case the planters were gun platforms, are now racing back to reclaim their place in line.

“Why are the planters even out?” The ditches here are already seeded—a mix of knee-high saplings has taken root in evenly-spaced lines from the edge of the road.

As if responding, the lead drone sprays tiny webs of super-cold nanomaterial among the saplings. Water will condense on the threads and its weight will draw the filaments down to the soil. Wilmie doesn’t understand the process, but by dawn everything will be damp and the webs will have dissolved.

She reconfigures her own primer to give her a bit more padding around her core; if there’s that much moisture to be harvested, it probably means a damp night. Usually the cold doesn’t get to her, but usually they’re hiking, keeping warm by pushing the Mule. Not sitting like ducks on the edge of the road.

Papa Bear has tried to barge ahead, into a space left by one of the families that panicked.

“You got out of line!”

“You knew we were here!”

He’s got the mace raised and that unwanted image comes to Wilmie again, all those nails, slamming into flesh, how that would feel. Her stomach flips.

It’s not just Papa Bear—another fight, the same fight, is going on maybe four spaces forward. Everyone, up and down the stretch to the pop-up mall, goes on alert, in case one of the disputing parties has a handgun.

“Tess, you should come back,” Fee sends. She doesn’t quite phrase it as an order, so naturally Tess ignores her.

A waterweb shouldn’t need escorts. Wilmie tracks the planting platforms as they cruise closer.

Baron bends then, pretending to fiddle with bootlaces he doesn’t have.

“What’s he doing?” Fee has her visor down, but she mojis a frown, curling her index fingers over her eyes, and popping a starburst of cartoon-puzzled faces on their screens.

“Who cares?” Wilmie’s getting closer to having his primer unlocked.

Suddenly the treeplanters turn on spotlights, bathing the highway in artificial daylight. It’s bright enough for their cams to run facial recognition on everyone in the queue. Papa Bear, unnerved, gives up his chest-beating fight for a better spot in line.

The planting platforms are allowed near civilians, despite the treaties, because they’re not supposed to be dangerous. Great in theory, but they’re designed to fire a quarter million tree spikes an hour. Sprouted tree seedlings, wedged in a crystal matrix of growth medium: they can penetrate even hard, dry, unprepped ground and loose asphalt. Human flesh would be nothing to them.
Sure, the treeplanters aren’t supposed to be weaponized. But it’d be so easy.

Paranoid thoughts dart through Wilmie, schooling like sardines in a bait ball. Militias shoot deserters wherever they find them. Some even shoot their opponents’ deserters.

Suddenly Fee strides over to Baron’s hex, defying Mom’s social distancing rules. Like, times a thousand! Wilmie finds herself deeply shocked. So’s the server in Mule—their border turns from yellow to red and flashes about sixty violations.

“You better hope this doesn’t just work in old movies,” Fee tells Baron, almost purring. She forgot to switch out the shared audio channel. She tips her visor up. Exposing her own face! And she pulls Baron up from his pretense of shoe-tying, into an embrace and then into…

It’s so gross.

Wilmie can’t look away.

Baron gobbles on her sister’s lips happily enough, putting his hands into Fee’s hair, obscuring both their faces.

Ugh, tongues. Now Wilmie does turn away.

Her spellbook pings—she has unlock codes on Baron’s primer. He won’t even notice if she resets him, he’s so busy trying to get his tongue down Fee’s…

ugh

… but if Wilmie’s paranoid idea about the planters is right, her sister could end up riddled with weaponized seedlings, along with the blonde boy.

What to do? Instead of triggering the unlock code for the primer, she tries casting a new charm, this one on the treeplanting platforms.

An ordinary spellbook wouldn’t be up to the task, but Wilmie’s been practicing her side quests faithfully, and of course the Mule OS has Chakeesa’s corporate authorizations—or it will, as long as Fee doesn’t keep advertising her true identity to the entire universe one gross French kiss at a time.

Hacking the platforms is at least a decent way of keeping busy as Wilmie avoids the horror of worrying that she’s going to see—and then never unsee—Baron making a grab for Fee’s boob.

Tess turns up beside her. “You hack Dragon’s settings, I can probably land two darts in his back.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

When the platforms are a good 500 meters past them and they’re well out of the spotlight, Fee pushes the boy away. Light move of her fingers, like she’s setting a volleyball. He stumbles backward, trout-gaffed. She slaps down her visor in one smooth move and turns on her heel, walking away like he’s nothing.

Honestly, it’s the coolest thing Wilmie has ever seen.

“Don’t come near us,” Tess says as she steps back into their hex. “You’ve got plague now.”

“They immunized him,” Fee says, sharing closeup footage; a ring of dates and bar codes tattooed on Baron’s gross, dirty neck.
“New flu bug every month,” Tess mutters.

“Oh, and you didn’t snorkle Patty when you went upline to visit her?” Fee snaps.

“I’m setting Dragon to double-trank him if he comes near any of our tech,” Tess says. “Just so you know.”

“Dragon won’t repeat fire unless Wilmie overrides his safety settings.”

They both look to her.

“Hey!” She puts up her hands. “If we trank him to death, I can’t turn him in for the XP Mom offered.”

Fee snorts. “Coupla murder twins.”

Somehow that’s the funniest thing that ever happened in the history of ever. The planters wheel round a curve in the road. Wilmie loses the connection midway through her attempt to hack them, and all three girls fall into gales of laughter. It’s been so long it almost hurts.

***

The shiny new shower comes with their food order, a package of government-issue food and goods packaged in nanosilk that will serve as top-up for their primers. With it comes a moisture-wicking towel Fiona insisted they add to the cart.

Tess somehow shoplifts a brick of caffeinated gum during the pickup. Papaya flavored, a bit cloying, it’s light, laced with vitamin C, and definitely tastes better than road dust.

They walk off the night and make camp, at dawn, near a stream.

Wilmie plays the others to a standstill in math drills, which wins her first crack at the shower, and as a bonus keeps them from coming to blows over it. She fills and filters the shower tank… and then keeps waking up all day, checking its status bar. Whenever she gets restless, Fee reminds her, “It’ll ruin it if the water’s just lukewarm.”

So Wilmie waits. Waits. Waits for the ping.

A couple hours before sunset, it comes. The girls scan the camp for interlopers and randy deserter boys, and then Wilmie runs a conversion app on her primer. Her onesie unravels, leaving her naked to the sky as it transforms into an opaque screen. She sets it to run a defrag routine, expelling hair and bits of grit, before she removes her goggles. Then, solemnly hanging up the sprayer, she steps onto the shower’s floor mat, leaning on its footpedal.

Hot water sprays over her, enough of a jolt that she squeals. Soaping up is glorious. Her sinuses clear enough that she can smell the river—old algae and wet rocks. There’s a sense of filth sliding off her, steam curling off her flesh…

“Good?” Tess asks from the other side of the screen.

“Bleeping Heaven!” She closes her eyes, pretending she’s home, with live friends and school twice a week, with Mom down the hall and a bedroom with a door that closes. Chakeesa and Fee living down the road. Even Dad, just a text away.

But the moment collapses. Papa Bear’s baseball bat, bristling with nails, smashes into the meat of her imagination again. She flashes back to the sound of Chakeesa coughing blood from the other side of a barricaded bathroom door.

Wilmie’s still bawling when the water tank runs dry.

Fee was right; they needed this threadbare terry towel. She uses it now, scrubbing at her face, then trying to dry herself with what’s left. She’ll compromise her primer if she puts it back on while she’s damp. Instead, she tiptoes naked and dripping to the riverbank, rinsing snot and tears out of the fabric. Mud chills her feet and she fights the wrack of sobs, shaking through her long bones.

Finally, when she’s dry enough, she walks back into the nanosilk privacy screen like it’s a curtain. Her clothes flow over her, leaving her barefoot, tights stopping at her knees so her muddy feet don’t contaminate them.

As her clothes transform back into a jumper, she faces her sisters—who haven’t even noticed her meltdown.

Remounting her goggs, she signs for their attention: “We need to talk.”

***

Keeping a conversation off their mics without Mom noticing is a process. Wilmie has to hack their rigs, first, so they don’t log the loss of haptic feedback when the girls take them off. Pony and Dragon have to be fully powered up and on red alert, just in case someone sneaks up on them. If they talk for too long, Mom will see discrepancies in a battery audit.

Quick and dirty, that’s the ticket. Two minute meetings, max.

Fee opens: “This better not be you dinging me for that kiss.”

Wilmie says: “No ding. But it is about the gross lip-smacking.”

Tess can’t resist. “Why did you? He’s cute, I’ll give you that, but—”

“He’d seen my face, remember?”

They fall silent for a breath.

Wilmie says: “Are you saying he blackmailed you into… I’ll report him right now!”

Tess snorts.

“You think I won’t?”

“No, he didn’t make me kiss him. I initiated, remember? But yeah. He could report me. Us. Cause trouble. Lose the corporate ID.” Fee shrugs. “As they used to say… business and pleasure.”

Wilmie fists her hands. “Okay, but, what about why he was hiding?”

Fee looks puzzled.

“Treeplanters aren’t supposed to be hunting deserters, you stupid jock,” Tess says.

“Name-calling,” Wilmie says. They ignore her.

“It’s against, like, all the treaties.”

“Like you’re an expert?” Fee was so wrapped up in getting her mash on that she forgot what she was protecting Baron from. “Were they after him specifically?”

Tess says: “Would they give that much of a shit about one draftee?”

“Not unless he’s someone important,” Wilmie says.

“Or stole something important.”

Fee rolls her eyes. “He’s not after Pony, Tess.”

Tess says, “That boy is a dirty taker.”

Fee cracks papaya-scented gum. “Takes one to know one?”

Wilmie steps in before fists come up. “Question is, do we tell? And who?”

Their timer chimes. Thirty seconds left. “Wilmie, can you prove one of the militias hacked the treeplanting platforms?” Fee asks.

“Well… I can log onto the agricultural network again, maybe, when we’re near the right kind of bots. With the upgrades I just got Mule, it might be possible.”

“Meanwhile there’s no proof, nothing to tell?”

Wilmie signs: Yes. Because that’s about the size of it.

“We’re out of time,” says Tess.

Fee passes out their goggs. All three of them rerig, check in with their perimeter—no pings on Dragon. Pony’s found a coyote a hundred meters away. They reset everything and Wilmie fiddles their offline timers so they don’t all three come back online at once. Then she takes an antihistamine; her ass will be dragging for twenty-four, but her ears are ringing and she itches all over.

Nothing to tell. Fee’s right.

“Tess, break camp,” Fee says. “Don’t forget your homework.”

Act normal for now, in other words. Keep working the problem, and in the meantime what the Questmaster doesn’t know won’t hurt any of them.


Host Commentary

Once again, that was The HazMat Sisters, by L.X. Beckett. Stay tuned for part two next week.

Escape Pod is part of the Escape Artists Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, and this episode is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please do 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 now donate via four different platforms. On Patreon and Ko-Fi, search for Escape Artists. On Twitch, we’re at EAPodcasts. You can also use 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 Octavia Butler, who said, “I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.”

Thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.

About the Author

L. X. Beckett

Alyx Dellamonica

Toronto author and editor L.X. Beckett frittered their youth working as an actor and theater technician in Southern Alberta before deciding to make a shift into writing science fiction. Their first novella, “Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling,” appeared in the July/August issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 2018, and takes place in the same universe as “The Hazmat Sisters” as well as their novels Dealbreaker and Gamechanger. Lex identifies as feminist, lesbian, genderqueer, and married. An insatiable consumer of kdramas, mysteries, and true crime podcasts, they can be found enthusing about these and other topics on Twitter at @LXBeckett.

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Alyx Dellamonica
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About the Narrator

Amy Kelly

Amy Kelly

Rasheedah Prioleau is an award winning southern writer with an eclectic range of screenwriting and ghostwriting credits. She graduated from Georgia College & State University with a BS in Art & Marketing and went on to earn her MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University. Her self-published novels include the southern dark fantasy series, American Specter and the Gullah horror novel, Everlasting: Da Eb’bulastin. They can be found in paperback on Amazon and downloaded on Kindle. She currently resides in Sumter County, South Carolina.

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Amy Kelly
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