Escape Pod 874: Common Speech

Common Speech

By Elise Stephens

Dr. Jaiyesimi Obiaka tugged at her sweat-damp collar, wiped her eyes, and tried to focus on the copied pages of the final experiment she and Ganiru had created together. Just looking over his familiar handwriting blurred her vision with tears.

Jai’s colleagues had told her to stay home, to take time to grieve, but she’d allowed herself just two days to mourn her husband’s death before donning her lab coat again. She had to be pragmatic.

Vita Colony faced two substantial threats: the Desiccant microbe that was killing them—with no cure in sight—and the outraged community of Sonitus who showed all signs of readying to attack the colony. Jai knew that her work might still help the colonists reach a solution to the Desiccant, but all the while her conscience kept on jabbing her with the murky ethics of this inter-species fiasco. Her life-long struggle with insomnia had savagely redoubled since Gani’s death and the bleary fatigue made the letters on the page tremble now as she squinted at them.


Day 181 on Viridian-19


Project #97: Medical Vocabulary Expansion

Increase disease and medical vocabulary with Sonitus subjects.


  1. Play the following known words to establish baseline: help, sick, family, live, die, food, eat, health, protect,
  2. Synthesize word pairs i.e.: help-sick, help-family, help-live, etc.
  3. Record and analyze individual subject reactions.


Jai looked up, Gani’s voice ringing in her head. If we stopped treating them like plants, maybe they’d start treating us like people. He’d said it a few days before he died. In these hours since he’d been gone, she often thought she heard him calling from another room. A hallucination bourne of longing.

Jai’s linguistic training had earned her a place on the Sonitus Language Project, which had been exciting because it meant collaborating with the colony’s lead xenobiologist, Ganiru Obiaka. But the joy of working alongside her husband had shriveled since then. Gani’s death had been absolutely preventable.

Jai tapped her chin with her stylus and ground her teeth. Sonitus 49, AKA Yvette, had finished speaking. Yvette stood about nine feet tall with five deep-green arms that tapered at the tips and blueish striations that marked her as female. Her limbs gleamed with a healthy mucus coat that smelled of lime and steamed rice. No buds were presently forming.

Jai typed a short message of gratitude into her translator, wondering if her colleagues would notice if she added an apology—something to show that she condemned the governor’s violent behavior and express lament for how her colony was grasping at Sonituses to save it from the Desiccant’s annihilation.

Ethics grew chillingly flexible when human survival was at stake. Jai both understood and hated it. And with Gani gone, the only things keeping Jai’s mind from imploding were seeing her daughter’s face at night when she came home and staying busy with the language research.

The translator was still converting her words into reedy notes as she slipped out of the atrium. Jai removed her gloves and tapped a button to upload Yvette’s recordings to the audio-analysis server, then made her way toward Tarasov, the team’s biologist, where he was bent over the audio analyzer. He straightened as Jai approached.

“How’d it go with Yvette today?”

Jai gripped her stylus, steeling herself. “She recognized the pairs for help–family and help–protection and gave them new sound signatures. I uploaded the clips.”

“And her response to help–human?” Tarasov had been conducting an identical experiment that afternoon. His tight jawline revealed his disappointment.

Jai sighed. “First Yvette was silent. Then she tried to reach for me. It didn’t seem threatening. Then…she said no.”

Tarasov’s sigh sounded like a prayer and a curse. “Dexter said the same thing, but his answer was immediate; no reaching for me. Then again, three of his five arms are injured.”

Dexter had sustained permanent collateral damage from the gunfire that had killed the Sonitus who’d strangled, then broken Gani’s neck.

Jai shuddered and blinked hard. “If it were me,” she said, “I wouldn’t offer to help the species that had just murdered one of my comrades, either.” Her throat closed. Objectivity was impossible here. For the past two nights, she’d lain awake in bed trying desperately to sleep, but the only thing she saw behind closed lids was Gani’s bulging eyes, frightened and confused.

“That Sonitus was killed in self-defense,” Tarasov said, adding in a harsh whisper, “and if the Governor’s men hear you talking about its execution like that—”

“The Governor? The one who—” Jai bit down on her bitterness, stopping the words she’d come to regret. The murdered Sonitus has been acting in its own defense. But all of it was done and unchangeable. Nothing would bring Gani back to the shattered family he’d left behind. She began again, “What happened to Gani was…” but she couldn’t find a word that fit it. Awful. Shocking. Unthinkable. She let the words echo in her mind, but finally left a vacancy where a word should have been, then added, “I have to believe that what he did to Gani wasn’t personal. These Sonitus subjects respected Gani. They used honorifics to address him. But then Gov. Hockman marches in and plucks one of their buds like he’s picking a grape.” She bit her tongue, barely stopping a curse. “He might as well have just ripped out an eyeball.”

Tarasov stared at Jai, face purpling with fury. He’d lost his wife and son to the Desiccant. The Sonitus buds supposedly held a biological cure that Sonituses could manufacture for each other, but none had yet been willing to surrender a bud to human researchers.

Jai dropped her gaze. The weight of failure made it hard to think. In the six months since they’d landed topside, the Desiccant had claimed twenty-five percent of their 1000 colonists. With no hopeful progress toward a cure, it was just a matter of time before it took them all.

She fumbled in her pocket for her mask and goggles. “I need to get home. Dara has evening plans and I want to see her before she goes.”

Jai stopped by her desk to transmit the Sonitus word for “goodbye.” The software played a melancholy string of notes. As usual, the subjects didn’t seem to react. They’d probably send a reply in five to ten minutes. The species’ comparatively slow speech and movement had led to the surveillance error that originally classified Viridian-19 as lacking large or sapient life. It seemed an impossible oversight, in retrospect. Sonituses could move quickly but saved this for dire circumstances—perhaps for energy conservation. As to the planet’s lack of large life forms, the Desiccant bacteria’s semi-annual recurrence likely accounted for major population control if not the elimination of species that failed to defensively adapt. But hindsight couldn’t relocate a settled colony.

Jai scrubbed up at the sink, hung her coat, slipped into outdoor shoes, sealed her mask over nose and mouth, donned her goggles, entered and cycled the airlock, then stepped into the world that was doing its best to eradicate her pocket of humanity.

As she emerged outside, the crackle of their colony’s electric perimeter sent prickles up her neck. The border guard had been tripled in force since Gani’s death. A Sonitus had died as well as a human, and Sonitus vengeance was expected. A double line of armed soldiers stood watch, weapons trained on the mass of Sonituses visible along Vita’s western border.

The morning after Gani’s death, this ring of thick-limbed Sonituses had appeared on the horizon. They’d made no definitive aggression against the colony, but every few hours the distance between Vita and the cluster of Sonituses shrank measurably. Colony security believed they were conserving speed and energy for combat use. The Warriors, as Gov. Hockman termed them, were now only two or three hundred paces out from the colony border.

So far, the order to hold fire remained in effect, but Jai knew that everything could change with one impulsive breath.

 All species are violent when given sufficient cause, Gani had said. Even a sweet-tempered mother will attack something that tries to hurt her child.

Time was running out. For inter-species relations, for humans to survive an alien plague, for hope in a heartless world.

During her walk home, Jai stopped beside a ditch that had been half-full of rainwater that morning. The water had been replaced by a layer of green slime, evidence of the Desiccant’s handiwork. The microbe’s reproductive process had sucked moisture from the earth so thoroughly that the once-muddy soil was now dry and cracked beneath the glutted slime.

Jai reflexively checked the seals on her mask and goggles, then glided home on the planet’s low gravity, trying to suppress shivers as she passed horizontal surfaces coated with the green pollen that was killing her colony.

So far, their medical team knew that Desiccant traveled on the pollen grains of certain native plants and displayed an aggressive tendency to absorb moisture, while its reproductive cycle followed the planet’s two rainy seasons. Humans who inhaled the pollen soon found their bodies bloating as the Desiccant bred and dehydrated their organs from the inside out, causing raging thirst for the infected. Once a cough developed, the patient was contagious. Thus far, no colonists had lived more than a week past infection. By the time Vita Colony had experienced its first rainy season and discovered the Desiccant’s effects, a two-year wait spanned the time until the next supply shuttle.

Jai entered her trailer’s foyer and held herself motionless while cleansers and pressurized air sanitized her skin, hair, and clothes from pollen. She undressed, rinsed under a small showerhead, and grabbed a clean robe from a shelf.

The bacteria had proved resistant to every known antibiotic, likely because of its non-terrestrial source. A wavering hope lay in observations made of the Sonitus community: They’d shown themselves susceptible to the Desiccant bacteria, but also to have means of healing each other through synthesis and application of their buds. It was this that had made Gani optimistic.

Jai lifted her husband’s journal from the countertop, where it had remained ever since she brought it back from the lab. She set some water boiling for tea, then sat at the kitchen table to read.

She wanted some of his hope. She wanted his voice in her head again. She thumbed through the pages, pausing at the phrases he’d underlined. The lifeforms sing to each other and indications of photosynthetic abilities and appear to be sapient. She wished she could recapture what he’d felt the night her wrote I’m so excited I can’t sleep, but no childlike joy survived in these bleak days. At last, she turned to Gani’s first journal entry about the Desiccant.


Day 89 on Viridian-19

Our colonists have begun sickening and three have died in the last week from an illness we don’t recognize. Two days ago, we noticed our Sonitus subject, Lorelle, begin to discolor and show bulges on her hub.

We quarantined her, but the other subjects responded with shrieking and discoloration, so we finally removed the quarantine barrier. The others Sonituses immediately surrounded Lorelle. She looked markedly improved the next morning. Camera footage showed the healthy Sonituses producing buds and administering these to Lorelle.  If they’ll let us, I want to collect tissue samples from the convalescing Sonitus.

What if they could make medicine for us?


Jai heard footsteps and looked up as Dara entered the kitchen. Her daughter’s braids were knotted at her neck and she wore an oversized shirt with drawstring pants. She flashed Jai a thin smile but didn’t say anything.

In the two days since her father had died, Dara had stubbornly refused to speak more than a handful of words on the subject. Still in denial. Seventeen now, and growing taller and more incomprehensible by the day. Jai frequently wondered if she had a better chance of getting through to the Sonituses than to her own child. She had no words for her own grief, and even fewer for sharing grief with her daughter.

“You hungry?” Jai asked, moving to the counter to chop vegetables. “I’m making soup.”

Dara shook her head. “Tonight’s a group-wide fast. We’re protesting.”


Her daughter was a devoted member of the colony’s small social activist group.

Dara said, “All of us sitting in the dining hall with empty bowls should draw some attention. We might paint our faces and arms green, too, to show Sonitus solidarity.”

“You know we can’t stop the research,” Jai said as she stirred the broth.

Dara whispered, “I know you believe in your work. But they’re being held prisoner and so many of those experiments are frighteningly close to coercion. Do you really think the Sonituses will give us medicine after all we’ve put them through?”

“It’s not that simple,” Jai said, sweeping vegetables from cutting board to pot. “Tarasov’s field crew has documented Sonitus healing across species. This means the Sonituses might be able to synthesize buds compatible with our–”

“We invaded their planet and now we’re trying to force their help. That doesn’t horrify you?”

Jai had to look away from Dara’s large, disappointed eyes. Her daughter’s soft heart was poorly suited to this harsh planet.

Dara added in a whisper, “We’re the monsters in this story.”

Jai’s stirring hand jerked, sloshing broth. Her voice trembled as she said, “At this rate of attrition, if no cure is found, none of us will survive another rainy season.”

“Maybe we don’t deserve a cure.”

Oh, you idiot idealist! Jai wanted to kiss Dara’s head. She wanted to scream and shake her by the shoulders. She wanted to argue with her and also agree with her. But she was a mother. She had to present a confident front.

Jai kept her eyes on the soup and fought to hold back angry tears. For a while, no sound passed between them, and then the airlock hissed as Dara exited, a thousand whispered words that mother and daughter couldn’t form for themselves.

Jai ate her dinner in silence, rehashing the memory of Yvette reaching for her. Gani had proposed that Sonituses healed through touch, but initial experimentation had been problematic.

It had taken weeks for Gani to earn enough rapport with the subjects to allow him to take a mucus sample from one of their limbs. The mucus had proved caustic to human skin, causing stinging surface burns. Jai’s vision filled again with the image of massive green Sonitus arms wringing life from her husband, livid red burns rising on Gani’s neck. She shoved her bowl away and poured herself a large glass of wine.

That night, Jai lay awake, unable to sleep as usual, but with new, aching loneliness that now nestled beside her in Gani’s absence. At dawn, she drifted into a restless doze, clinging to a shameful hope that, when the Desiccant came for the rest of them, it would take her before it took Dara. Or, if they were going to die in a Sonitus raid, that the natives would kill the humans swiftly.

On her way to the kitchen the next morning, Jai passed Dara’s open bedroom door and frowned. Poster prototypes littered the floor, bearing stenciled messages: Hunger Strike and Solidarity with Our Sonitus Brothers and Sisters.

So she hadn’t come home. Likely, Dara was curled on some friend’s floor and hadn’t sent word in order to spite her mother or to emphasize her independence. Or both.

Jai dressed and ate, secured her mask and goggles, and stepped out into swirling green clouds. The morning wind spun the pollen grains into sinister shapes and Jai found herself jogging, chin tucked and heart racing with the urge to flee the pollen’s presence. She was half an hour early and would likely be the first to arrive at the lab.

Inside, she scrubbed and sanitized, then rushed forward in alarm when she noticed that the power line to the building’s security system had been cut. Emergency strip lighting glowed beneath the equipment and desks.

Jai was about to remove her mask, but at the last second, she saw particulates in the air, illuminated by the strip lighting. She held out her hand and found an air current. It was coming from the atrium.

A breach. Something had let outside air into the lab. Jai scribbled and posted a note on the lab door:

Air Contamination Alert: Wear masks and goggles indoors.

She sent an urgent message to Tarasov on his commlink, rechecked her mask and goggles, then hurried to the atrium.

The door hadn’t been forced and the breach was obvious. Dexter, their wounded Sonitus subject, had his two healthy limbs pointed upward at a missing skylight panel. The edges of the hole were charred black from laser burns. Yvette was nowhere to be seen.

Adrenaline spiked Jai’s bloodstream as she overlaid the events of this break-in with her daughter’s absence the night before. What if Dara hadn’t told the truth about a peaceful protest?

Tarasov appeared a minute later in the atrium doorway, wheezing through his mask. “What happened?”

“I just got here,” Jai said, “but it looks like someone cut open the roof and Yvette escaped. Dexter is probably still here only because his injury kept him from climbing.”

“Have you asked it?” Tarasov nodded at Dexter.

Jai flushed. “Not yet.” She’d been too distracted by panic over Dara’s potential—no, probable—involvement to start interrogating the subjects.  “Him,” she corrected, “Not ‘it.’”

Tarasov ignored her. Jai fetched her translator and typed a series of simple questions:

How did window break? Are you hurt? Did you see any Long Legs?

Long Legs was the Sonitus word for humans. The software piped musical notes into the air, then the wait began.

Jai stared at Dexter’s hub and the pulse of his powerful vascular system. The longest of his good arms was reaching up through the open skylight into the air beyond. She could almost read a plaintive cry in his body language.

A sparse team of colony security arrived on the scene and dispatched engineers to seal the breach and set up air filters. Jai’s chest tightened as she watched crewmembers shove Dexter’s limb back under the roofline and drill a transparent plate across the gap.

Dexter sent Jai a brief, single-sentence reply: Some Long Legs are friends.

The Institute instructed all research staff to return home while the board delivered a press conference. The break-in was labeled anti-science terrorism and a reward posted for information leading to the identities of those involved. Jai prayed she wouldn’t be asked to testify.

Back at home, she brewed some anise and mint tea—Dara’s favorite. She’d welcome her rebel as if there was nothing wrong. No time to waste with accusations. These might be their last hours before authorities traced her daughter’s guilt back to her.

As she was pouring hot water over the herbs, a moan sounded from Dara’s bedroom.

Jai ran. She found her daughter balled beneath a sheet, cheeks red and puffy. Jai raised Dara’s shirt to look at her stomach and found it eerily bloated.

“Water,” Dara croaked. “So thirsty.”

No. No. No.

Dara looked up at her mother, red-eyed, and wrapped an arm around her abdomen as if trying to squeeze it back to its proper size. She smiled sadly, as though she knew what was happening and had already surrendered.

“Tore my mask last night,” Dara said. “No time to grab another. Too important. You saw the lab?”

Jai fell to her knees and dropped her forehead onto Dara’s shoulder as the world went dark. Her baby. Her husband. This planet was going to take everything.

Jai’s panicked mind began running scenarios. If Dara had been indoors when her mask ripped, her initial dose of Desiccant might be light, and if she stayed hydrated, it would slow her decline.

But there was no cure.

Jai’s one wish had been refused. The disease would take her child and make her watch it happen.

Jai put on her mask and goggles, hands shaking violently. She had a few days before Dara started coughing and became contagious. But nothing she could do would save Dara from her fate. Numbness seized Jai’s lips and jaw, spreading to her brain.

She sat with Dara for hours, unable to move, holding her daughter’s hand and stroking her face. She wouldn’t take her to the clinic. They’d only put Dara in quarantine and then Jai would have to watch her last moments through a clear wall, unable to touch or hold her.

Touch. Jai blinked and stood. Gani had journaled about this.

It was dark outside. There might not be time for Dara, but Jai had to do something, even if it had a slim chance of helping. She made sure Dara was dosed with painkillers and had plenty of water within reach, then kissed her forehead and slipped out.

What if Gani had been right about the importance of touch? She rushed to skim one of his later journal entries before she left the house.


Day 122 on Viridian-19,

We may have found a Sonitus cultural taboo. Every time Jai or I steer the conversation to the topic of Sonitus buds, the subjects display reluctance to answer.

It’s like I’ve hit upon a forbidden topic. Could it be that physical touch among their community is far more intimate than we humans understand it to be?

The lab’s lights were on, even in the middle of the night, and all staff were masked and goggled, doing their work amidst the drone of air filters. Tarasov was mounting specimens on slides, looking grouchy and stubborn.

He gave Jai a curt nod, then said, “Dexter busted through that temp skylight half an hour ago and has one arm up on the roof again. He hasn’t spoken to anyone since Yvette escaped, except for that short exchange with you when you found him alone.”

Jai shrugged. “I’ll climb up there and take some photos of his exposed limb to see if there are visual differences made by the open air, maybe some new buds forming. And on the slim chance that I’m his new favorite, I’ll try chatting with him.” She didn’t tell Tarasov her plan about Sonituses and touch. For all she knew, Sonitus mucus was toxic in sufficient quantities. Her experiment might be seen as suicidal.

The night air was cold and the roof’s floodlights glared on Jai’s goggles, forcing her to squint as she knelt by Dexter’s arm that jutted through the skylight. Her gut lurched as she again noticed the supplicating tension in his limb. Or maybe she was just projecting her guilt onto everything these days.

Dexter’s limb tip had developed tubular “fingers” since entering the open air. Wind passed through the fingers and formed a soft song. It was too complicated for Jai’s translator to parse, so she guessed it was a message meant for other Sonituses. Jai captured multiple audio clips, then sent Dexter a few questions through her translator.

What do you want? What do you need?

Sonituses always offered help before asking for it. So Jai would do the same. Maybe Dexter would notice her attempt at courtesy. She bit her cheek. Nothing would be fast enough to save Dara.

Jai thought again of touch. Stroking Dara’s fevered cheek. Sonitus mucus burning human skin. The reverence for touch among Sonituses. The wary distance between humans and Sonituses since Gani’s death.

Dexter never replied. Jai took several photos of him from surrounding angles, then, just as she was shaking out her stiff limbs to prepare to descend, a new harmonic chord rang from the atrium.

Jai’s neck hairs rose.

Dexter’s second functional arm had slid up through the broken skylight and now both his limbs were moving toward Jai. She held still, heart thumping in her throat, as one limb encircled her waist and the other draped across her shoulders.

Was this gesture friendly or aggressive? Without time to ask and receive an answer, she’d have to rely on instinct. Dexter had moved slowly, not with the assault speed that had killed Gani.

Mucus from Dexter’s limbs soaked into Jai’s lab coat. The exposed skin above her collar began to itch, then sting. An embrace filled with pain. Then one of Dexter’s limb tips bobbed in front of her face.

He might still mean to kill her. But he, a Sonitus, was touching her, a human, and this was reason enough to wait and see. Jai blinked and her eyes focused on something tiny, oval, and pearlescent on Dexter’s limb tip.

A Sonitus bud. The thing they’d been begging for—the thing Gov. Hockman had seized by force and Ganiru had died for—was now being offered to her freely.

Jai had never seen a bud so close while attached to its host. One of Dexter’s suckers gripped Jai’s mask and peeled it from her face. The bud pressed against her lips. More burning.

Jai let it enter her mouth, formed a wisp of thought, I love you, and tried to send it to Dara. Then her consciousness loosened and slipped sideways.

Jai woke alone in a soft chair in the office she shared with Tarasov. Early morning light peeked through the blinds. Tarasov appeared in the doorway. He explained that she’d been found unconscious on the roof and that he was preparing to sedate Dexter since Jai showed surface burns from an attack.

“No. Leave him alone,” Jai said. Red welts rose across her skin like embossed paint, but more interesting than these wounds was a subtler sensation: She felt wondrously clearheaded, as if she’d just had a good night’s sleep. Something so rare in her existence, it was almost a—

Jai rubbed her face with her hands, chest bubbling with excitement. The Sonitus bud. Could it have done this?

She thought again of Yvette reaching for her when she heard the help-human word pair.

Biological communication via touch. Yes, and there was precedent for this in human biology. An infant could transmit medical needs through saliva while breastfeeding and the mother’s body would send responsive antibodies into the breastmilk.

Thus far, no Sonitus had been willing to offer help to a human. But if Dexter had just now bridged that gap by giving Jai something for her insomnia, then… Maybe it wasn’t too late for Dara.

It had been over a decade since Jai had carried Dara in her arms. The low gravity was a mercy. She and Dara both wore masks and goggles as they snuck toward the colony’s perimeter.

The proximity of the Sonitus Warriors to Vita’s eastern edge had concentrated the security forces along this side, which meant that Jai could slip out the western edge with a little help from Dara’s activist friends posing a distraction. As Jai carried her daughter toward the Warriors, several colony soldiers noticed and ordered her to turn back, but none left their post. She ignored them.

The Warriors stood in a grove-like ring around a central leader, a quiet symphony drifting from their limb tips. Yvette was among them and Jai wondered if the Sonitus felt revulsion in the presence of Jai, her former captor. Jai shuddered. They could still kill her and Dara if they wanted to.

Jai adjusted Dara’s head to lie against her shoulder, then approached, ears ringing with fear, burns on her neck flaming. Jai’s translator hung on her belt, but she knew it would be too forward to ask any of them to touch Dara. Instead, she would place her daughter and herself within reach and hope that the Sonituses understood her plea. There was nothing else left. Not for Dara.

The Warriors didn’t stir as Jai entered their circle. The smell of rice and lime closed around her. Even after all these months of study, even though she knew better, Jai still struggled against the interpretation that their silence meant they were ignoring her.

Give it time. The words sounded like Gani’s voice.

Jai laid Dara on the dark earth before the female Sonitus leader. Dara moaned and clutched at her stomach. Her face was so swollen she barely looked like herself anymore.

Still no movement from the Sonituses. Their symphony had shifted slightly, but this was their sole indication of acknowledgment.

Jai shut her eyes against buzzing waves of panic. Perhaps the Sonituses would see her mucus burns and deem her trustworthy because another Sonitus had touched her. Or maybe Yvette had convinced them that all Long Legs deserved to die. Both were plausible.

As the Sonituses stood suspended in motion, Dara stirred, then pushed up onto her elbows, eyes wide.

“Mom?” she rasped through her dry throat. “Why are we…?”

Jai squeezed Dara’s hand. Even her daughter’s fingers were swollen. She said, “One of the Sonitus helped me. And I think I understand them better now. But I might be too late.”

Dara’s eyes glowed with admiration. “You’re not too late. Not for me.”

She wasn’t talking about her health.

Jai pulled her child into a hug. The smell of lime and rice intensified around them like a gathering mist. Then Dara made a soft noise and Jai opened her eyes to see a green limb touching her daughter’s cheek; the tubular fingers on its tip emitted a soft, fluting song.

Jai switched on her translator and watched its readout.

You guilty. But we honor request. Come.

Jai nodded, throat too tight to breathe. She helped Dara sit up, then wrapped a stabilizing arm around her daughter’s shoulders.

You not stay here, the leader continued. Planet not safe for Long Legs. Many life forms die from water-suckers before Sonituses become Healers. We help Long Legs, but when ship returns, all Long Legs must go.

Healers. Burning mucus. The Sonituses were resistant to the Desiccant because their mucus coat stopped and killed the microbe.

The Governor had once called Viridian-19 a “lush garden, ready for harvest.”

Not a garden, Jai thought. A graveyard.

Dara tilted her face toward the Sonitus who still held her limb against her cheek. Dara was weeping, and although a burn was reddening on her face, she didn’t flinch. A small bud rose on the Sonitus’ limb, made especially for Dara, the child of humans who’d perpetuated the Sonituses’ suffering.

Jai nodded. Vita Colony didn’t deserve this help, and they certainly didn’t deserve to stay on Viridian-19.

Jai typed into her translator, “It will be difficult to ask our leaders to go. We traveled a very long way to come here. But I will do my best.”

The leader gave a dissonant blast of notes. Long Legs will die here if they stay. Long Legs have ship that flies through stars. No reason to complain. Many futures to come.

Jai nodded. She helped guide the Sonitus bud into Dara’s mouth, not even noticing the mucus that stung her fingers.

She and the Sonituses were finally speaking the same language.

Her daughter would live. Many futures to come.

Host Commentary

Host Commentary

By Tina Connolly

And we’re back! Again, that was Common Speech, by Elise Stephens, narrated by Ibba Armancas.

About this story, Stephens says:

I’m fascinated by the nuances of communication across cultures, worlds, and language barriers. Friendships between two strikingly different communities often start with someone who’s brave enough to humbly seek out common values and practices among the other “alien” group–in this case, another sapient species. I see this courageous act as the first step toward creating a common speech. I’d also like to thank Josue Anderson for his help on the effects and patterns of colonization.

And about this story, I say:

I thought this was a really thoughtful look at two cultures trying to connect across a wide gulf of differences (which is also mirrored in the thread of parents and children trying to connect with each other across their own gulf of differences.) The narrator and her daughter have reacted differently to the death in their family, but they still have to figure out how to address it and get along again.

On a worldbuilding level, I also really liked the interesting way the Sonitus were built. It was very believable that a slow and plant-like species could be overlooked in the initial planetary survey. Earthling human bias might not immediately spot sentient plants. And the rash earthlings–compared with the slow Sonitus–would also of course be quick to settle, quick to barge ahead and see what happens.

I also really enjoyed the resolution here. We are hoping for the humans and aliens to find some understanding together, find a way to get along. And they do. But the initial planetary inhabitants still say: “we can help you, but you still need to go.”

And now onto the regular old bit, which is a little new and different this time – if you haven’t heard yet, Escape Artists is now officially a non-profit! So your new patter which I will eventually have equally memorized is gonna go:

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, go forth and share it.

How do you share it, you ask? Well! In addition to your social media of choice, consider rating and/or reviewing us on podcast listening sites, such as Apple or Google. More reviews makes for more discoverability makes for more Escape Pod for you.

Escape Pod relies on the generous donations of listeners exactly like you. And remember that Patreon subscribers have access to exclusive merchandise and can be automatically added to our Discord, where you can chat with other fans as well as our staff members. So! If you enjoyed our story this week then consider going to or and casting your vote for more stories that offer help before asking for it.

Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at

And our closing quotation this week is from George Bernard Shaw, who said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

Thanks for listening! And have fun.

About the Author

Elise Stephens

Elise Stephens

Elise Stephens’ storytelling is influenced by a lifelong love of theater and a childhood of globetrotting. Much of her work focuses on themes of family, memory, and finding hope after a devastating loss. She is a first-place winner of Writers of the Future (2019). Her fiction has appeared in Analog, Galaxy’s Edge, Escape Pod, and FIYAH, among others. Elise lives in a house with huge windows to supply the vast quantities of light she requires to stay happy. She’s currently seeking representation for her next science fiction novel. Find her at

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Elise Stephens

About the Narrator

Ibba Armancas

Ibba Armancas is an Inland Empire PBS writer/director and TV host whose COVID-themed educational kids show “Pandemic Playhouse” airs Friday starting January 2021. You can find out more about her, it, and her puppet pals at

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