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Escape Pod 734: Murmuration

Show Notes

This is the fourth in a special series of space-themed stories in May 2020.


Murmuration

by E. Catherine Tobler

Sita Balachandran found the bone on her forty-first birthday, its pale wind-scoured point emerging from the dry Martian floodplain like the splintered stalk of a flower. At first, she thought it was a stone, the floodplain a riot of similar, jagged debris, but the shape and color told her otherwise. A fossilized rib bone, she was sure.

The Martian atmosphere was well-known for the tricks it would play, even the earliest collected images of Mars calling to mind familiar shapes. A rock that resembled a crouched squirrel. A swirl of dark dust that took on the shape of a mourning woman. People sought what they understood, preferring the familiar rather than contemplating what they did not know. Especially when it came to distant worlds. But archaeologists couldn’t afford to look away; they had to look at everything from a new perspective, in order to assemble the broken past.

No matter how Sita looked at the bone, no matter how she tried to see it from a new perspective, it remained a bone. Beneath the shadow of the ancient, excavated Pathfinder lander shell, a bone.

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Escape Pod 732: At Her Fingertips

Show Notes

This is the second in a special series of space-themed stories for May 2020.


At Her Fingertips

by Jason Kimble

Ten fingers, ten toes. That’s the baseline for a healthy kid, right? You’d have thought I’d be a bonus, what with eighteen fingers. Guess they all have to function before you count them.

As Deficiencies go, mine’s not so bad. The Skew was a hell of a thing, and everyone on the Rim’s still feeling it. I knew a guy once had a fully formed jaw down around his nuts. I only wish I was kidding. On the upside, the hinge didn’t work, or it would’ve been a nightmare sitting down.

So, yeah, I have extra digits grown out from the top of my primary knuckles. You get used to working around them, though. Makes some things tenser for me when I’m elbow-deep in an engine than it does for people without them, but it only took once or twice pinching them before my reflexes amped up. And, like I said: could be worse.

“Acaja!”

Case in point: I could have a mouth that doesn’t close all the way like my boss, Harvey. He literally never shuts his trap.

“Acaja, get the hell over here!”

No matter how much I wish he would.

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Escape Pod 730: When We Were Patched


When We Were Patched

by Deji Bryce Olukotun

The last time we ever spoke, my partner Malik asked me whether I believed speed or power made for the best athlete. I was puzzled, of course, feeling that neither could explain why some athletes excelled more than others, even in straightforward competitions like sprinting or the javelin. “There are enough variables to make it unclear,” I observed, “whether speed or power offers a better advantage in competition, or whether some other factor confers the greatest advantage.” It seemed to me an unanswerable question.

“And how about elegance versus quickness of thought?” Malik asked. But he stormed off before I could respond, as if he had confirmed some awful quality about me. By then I should have known not to expect anything from Malik, because he was about to ruin my career.

​You see, I come from an illustrious line of sports officiants, spanning the world’s most dynamic and lucrative competitions, and I think my family would agree that my treatment by the FogoTennis Officiants Association was abominable. I should never have been suspended because of dishonorable behavior on Malik’s part.

​Like many referees, I remember the very instant I was called for the first time to officiate on the professional FogoTennis circuit, widely considered the most exciting and dangerous sport in the world. I had honed my skills by watching my parents officiate before me, and by observing my siblings, cousins, and extended family. You could say that I was an officiant from the day I was born. Not only did I learn from other matches, but I also visualized countless scenarios of FogoTennis so that I could fulfill my duties to the best of my ability, cementing my family’s reputation as impartial, efficient, and affordable judges. But there is a difference between officiating in theory—even when it is woven into your very soul—and officiating in reality, when you can find yourself with an irresponsible refereeing partner.

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Escape Pod 728: The Cost of Wonder


The Cost of Wonder

by Leah Cypess

I’ll keep this one, I thought, that day at the fair, as the sunset cut a sharp line across the sky. Gina’s laughter rose in a crescendo of delighted giggles, and life seemed absolutely perfect: a sparkling gift of wonder and joy.

I could never afford a memory like this, but I wasn’t buying this one. I had made it, and it was mine, and I wanted it to last forever.

I’m not going to sell this day.

But even as I thought it, I was calculating, trying to guess just how much it was worth. I had known today would be magical; I had dressed Gina for the part, in a little denim dress and matching hat, both of which I’d bought with my earnings from last week’s trip to the playground. The hat flattened but didn’t tame her curls, and her round face was stretched by her smile. She squealed again as soap bubbles filled the air, trying to catch them with tiny, uncoordinated half-jumps, unaware of the iridescent globes settling all over her arms.

My heart swelled with a joy so potent it almost hurt, and I swore it again: I’ll keep this day for myself.

But the next morning Gina woke up sobbing, with a temperature so high she was hot to the touch. I had to beg the doctor to let me bring her in. He was busy, but he relented; I always paid on time.

It was, as I had feared, strep throat. I looked at the antibiotics prescription, which included the price, and knew the day at the fair was already gone.


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CatsCast 289: The Thing in the Basement


The Thing in the Basement

by Gerri Leen

You can hear it, in the basement, behind the metal boxes that your human puts her outer-coverings in just when they start to smell good—when the boxes are done, she brings out her things stinking of flowers or fruit. She’s lucky you know the sound of her voice, because her scent is all over the place.

You chirp to get her attention. A cat would understand the sound. “Alert! Something to hunt!”

But no. Your human is frightfully stupid. She goes on loading the boxes and turns them on. You hear the sound of water, but you can’t see it. You’d splash in it if you could. Your kind has played in water since cats first walked the earth. You’re the original longhaired breed. Your lineage was explained to you by your mother, who heard it from her mother, who heard it from hers.

“She’s a Turkish Angora,” you’ve heard your human say when she’s complimented on your silky white fur or your bright green eyes. As if she had anything to do with them? She thanks your admirers, nonetheless.

But the water perplexes you. You’ve whiled away more than a few moments down here trying to find it, so tantalizing, but right now it’s annoying you because it’s masking the sound of whatever’s down here.

You’re a mighty hunter. That’s what your human tells you, as if you need confirmation that you’re skilled at catching vermin. Doesn’t she realize this is why you stay with her? Why any of your kind do? The first cat to move in with humans was a visionary who could recognize an all-you-can-eat buffet in the granaries. A bunch of cats followed. And the rest is history.

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Escape Pod 725: Falling Through


Falling Through

by Steen Comer

Woke up again. Checked the news feeds. Everything seems to be about the same, though there is news of a presidential candidate who I don’t remember dropping out of the race. It’s really hard for someone in my position to take an interest in politics, so that’s not really a strong indication. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

I went to work and the office was still there. My memory tells me I’ve had this job for a few months now, which is helpful. One of the most traumatic shifts I had, because it was one of the first, was showing up at my office job and finding that it was an auto body shop. Luckily I had a faint memory of another location and was able to get there only half an hour late. My boss didn’t even notice.

That was when I first started really thinking about the shifts. I had been seeing the small ones for a long time, but that was the first incontrovertible one, the first that I couldn’t explain away as an error of memory. I thought I was going crazy, of course. Spent a while like that. And, in a case like this, it’s impossible to be sure that I’m not crazy. But I’ve found a Practical Operational Paradigm, as Jonas was fond of saying.

Oh Jonas. First shifter other than myself I ever met. Last one I ever saw. I should get back to work. I don’t know why today I need to write this down again. Maybe it’s the sky. It’s a flat grey that could be anywhere. It’s the color of Claire’s eyes.

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Escape Pod 724: The Season of the Storm


The Season of the Storm

by Jonathan Edelstein

Twenty kilometers outside Nkoloso Station, we stopped for gas.

The Titan rover turned and Misozi steered for a group of outcroppings; there were more of those now that we were getting to the uplands north of Kraken Mare. She slowed and stopped beside one of them, a cairn of ice-rocks fused into a column half again my height.

“Elias!” she said. “Let’s cut some.”

My eyes flicked to the dashboard display. “We’re not low.”

“Never hurts to top it off, and we’ll be up there a couple of days.”

Misozi was like that. She liked her margins of error large, and she’d never be satisfied with the gauges at eighty percent when they could be one hundred. She wasn’t going to change, and her habits had saved our lives a time or two, so I didn’t argue. Instead, I opened the door and jumped down.

There was a toolbox on the rover’s flatbed with the word “Banda” scrawled on it in an ancient marker; Misozi opened it and took out an ice pick and hammer, and I did the same with the box labeled “Yaluma.”

A breeze was blowing and stirring the dust and ice particles on the ground, raising even more of a burnt-orange haze than was usual in Titan’s sky. Enough dust was in the air that I had to wipe the face-plate of my suit, and I had the sensation of being in a cloud. I leapt into it; a single bound, in gravity one-seventh of what I’d been born under, took me to the middle of the cairns.

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Escape Pod 722: His Stainless-Steel Heart


His Stainless-Steel Heart

by Jeffery Reynolds

It was at the rest stop in Tali that Viktor ran into trouble. His fault, really. He’d been driving along all swoon, meditating in an isolationist haze that provided him a good feeling, kept his thoughts clear. Didn’t even have to get high, it was a natural vibe for a motoring king. The ancient Buick purred like an avalanche of love, eating the miles. Better outcome than a warmonger could hope for. The rest were all perished. Peacetime no peace for warriors.

Into the stop he pulled, needing a stretch and a piss, maybe a hit of Somnup or a sip of caffeine. There were only a couple of vehicles there, so he thought sweet, no one to bust in on my mood. Two drone trucks; a couple three sedans, all electric and shiny new; a lone RV — first one he’d seen in about six years to be fair, so that made it coolness, and it clearly guzzled rich diez. Getting so he didn’t see gassers any more, which was opaque for the lungs, but always a bit low on the sadness scale. Made that RV something special, sitting there all proud on its rubber soles.

He walked through the swinging glass doors, into the cool of interior dusk, with the hum of an old AC unit buzzing like a hive through the ducts overhead. And there she came, out of the facilities, a Valkyrie with bleached blonde mohawk and electric green irises from the finest graft shop, her right arm one big circuit board, bio-gened and soldered with immaculate chromium threads. Perfect teeth when she smiled. Preggers as all heck, like she carried twinsies. She had that thing preggers get. He remembered that glow they had.

Green eyes.

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Escape Pod 720: Child and Orb


Child and Orb

by James Dunham

The child spent most of her time watching the empty stars from the pod window. They were always nothing but distant, dead glitter–not a planet, cloud, or rock, not a fleck of wreckage from the explosion. With only one window, she often wondered whether, if there had been another vista at the rear of the two-room pod, she might still be able to see the spinning pieces of hull and conduit, see that glove someone hadn’t gotten a hand into in time.

Even though the stars ahead never grew closer, she knew the pod kept moving. A display in a lean-to showed speed, fuel, and probably a destination, though none of the numbers meant much to her. The windowed orb that had carried her onto the pod told her what she needed to know–the pod was heading to meet another ship, still weeks distant. She appreciated that the orb hadn’t lied to her the way adults sometimes did, to make her feel better or to give her time to adjust. Instead it told only the truth.

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Escape Pod 718: How the Emperor of All Space and Every World Awoke to the True Nature of Reality and Why it Didn’t Matter


How the Emperor of All Space and Every World Awoke to the True Nature of Reality and Why it Didn’t Matter

by P. H. Lee

The Emperor was bored. This was a problem. His Imperial Majesty, King of every Spiral Arm, Prince-Protector of Coreward Republics, Thearch of Bohm and its dependencies, Grand Duke of the Exterior Habitats, Elector of Both Magellanic Clouds, Guardian of All One Hundred Holy Relics and Defender of the Faith, the Emperor of All Space and Every World could not be bored. When he was not administering his empire—a task that consumed more than half the day—he was supposed to be entertained by his court—replete with jesters (from Mullwyd, the Jester Planet), dancers from Akyll and Boas (the best among the seven Dancer Planets), and singers from the Ibelia Habitat (known of course for its singers)—or comforted by his harem—staffed entirely by beautiful concubines from Isa (the Pleasure Planet) and eromenos from R’ (the other Pleasure Planet.) The Emperor, by convention and necessity and custom and law, could want for nothing.

All of the advisors in the Depleted Uranium Palace were distraught. “Your most Imperial Majesty,” they explained to him time and time again, “you cannot simply be bored. You want for nothing, and everything is at your command. It is not possible that you could be bored. If you were, if even the whole of space was not enough to entertain a single man, then what good would be your empire? Surely you cannot simply be bored. There must some other explanation. Perhaps you are ill?”

In response the Emperor—who had heard this speech as many times as he had advisors, and was well and truly bored of it—would sigh. “Perhaps you are right,” he would say, and sigh again. “Let us see what our doctors have to say.” But although the imperial doctors—the best of the best from Mimward (the Doctor Planet)—examined the Emperor time and again, they could find nothing wrong with his imperial person.

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