Archive for 10 and Up

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Escape Pod 729: Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird


Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird

By Eric Schwitzgebel

First, an eye. The camera rose, swiveling on its joint, compiling initial scans of the planetary surface. Second, six wheels on struts, pop-pop, pop-pop, pop-pop, and a platform unfolding between the main body and the eye. Third, an atmospheric taster and wind gauge. Fourth, a robotic arm. The arm emerged holding a fluffy, resilient nanocarbon monkey doll, which it carefully set on the platform.

The monkey doll had no actuators, no servos, no sensors, no cognitive processors. Monkey was, however, quite huggable. Monkey lay on his back on the warm platform, his black bead eyes pointed up toward the stars. He had traveled wadded near J11-L’s core for ninety-five thousand years. His arms, legs, and tail lay open and relaxed for the first time since his hurried manufacture.

J11-L sprouted more eyes, more arms, more gauges – also stabilizers, ears, a scoop, solar panels, soil sensors, magnetic whirligigs. Always, J11-L observed Monkey more closely than anything else, leaning its eyes and gauges in.

J11-L arranged Monkey’s limbs on the platform, gently flexing and massaging the doll. J11-L scooped up a smooth stone from near its left front wheel, brushed it clean, then wedged it under Monkey’s head to serve as a pillow. J11-L stroked and smoothed Monkey’s fur, which was rumpled from the long journey.

“I love you, Monkey,” emitted J11-L, in a sound resembling language. “Will you stay with me while I build a Home?”

Monkey did not reply.
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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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Escape Pod 723: How Did it Feel to be Eaten?


How Did it Feel to be Eaten?

By Amit Gupta

“I was an elderberry,” I announced, glowing with pride.

“How did it feel to be eaten?” he asked.

It seemed an odd question, but a response came unbidden, so I voiced it, “It was an honor.” My words surprised me, but they felt true.

“The Queen of England ate me,” I added. How did I know this? Who was he? My cheeks flushed with embarrassment. I didn’t feel like a berry. Did berries feel embarrassed?

“I didn’t know she was the Queen at the time,” I admitted.

“Yes,” agreed the man who I could not see and did not know. “Let’s try another.”

I was in again and felt immensely powerful. I sparkled in the sun. The land beneath me rose, I stood, and I felt a caress on my shoulder. A child. We danced. I rolled, crested, and rumbled; she banked and cut on her board, gliding gracefully along me, her speed blowing droplets of me right off her wetsuit. We became one.

We reached the shore, and I crumbled, making room for others like me, and others like her.

That was a short one. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 712: When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis

Show Notes

“When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis” was initially created as part of Future Tense Fiction, a project of Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and Slate magazine’s Future Tense channel.

East St. Louis was built on top of an ancient indigenous city called Cahokia. The people who lived there a thousand years ago were big fans of birds.


When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis

by Annalee Newitz

It was time to start the weekly circuit. Robot leapt vertically into the air from its perch atop the History Museum in Forest Park, rotors humming and limbs withdrawn into the smooth oval of its chassis. From a distance, it was a pale blue flying egg, slightly scuffed, with a propeller beanie on top. Two animated eyes glowed from the front end of its smooth carapace like emotive headlights. When it landed, all four legs and head extended from portals in its protective shell, the drone was more like a strangely symmetrical poodle or a cartoon turtle. Mounted on an actuator, its full face was revealed, headlight eyes situated above a short, soft snout whose purple mouth was built for smiling, grimacing, and a range of other, more subtle expressions.

The Centers for Disease Control team back in Atlanta designed Robot to be cute, to earn people’s trust immediately. To catch epidemics before they started, Robot flew from building to building, talking to people about how they felt. Nobody wanted to chat with an ugly box. Robot behaved like a cheery little buddy, checking for sick people. That’s how Robot’s admin Bey taught Robot to say it: “Checking for sick people.” Bey’s job was to program Robot with the social skills necessary to avoid calling it health surveillance.

Robot liked to start with the Loop. Maybe “like” was the wrong word. It was an urge that came from Robot’s mapping system, which webbed the St. Louis metropolitan area in a grid where 0,0 was at Center and Washington. The intersection was nested at the center of the U-shaped streets that local humans called the Loop. A gated community next to Washington University, the Loop was full of smart mansions and autonomous cars that pinged Robot listlessly. Though it was late summer, Robot was on high alert for infectious disease outbreaks. Flu season got longer every year, especially in high-density sprawls like St. Louis, where so many people spread their tiny airborne globs of viruses.

Flying in low, Robot followed the curving streets, glancing into windows to track how many humans were eating dinner and whether that number matched previous scans. Wild rabbits dashed across lawns and fireflies signaled to their mates using pheromones and photons. Robot chose a doorway at random, initiating a face-to-face check with humans. In this neighborhood, they were used to it.

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Escape Pod 711: Carols on Callisto


Carols on Callisto

By Deborah L. Davitt

On the surface of Callisto, Rebecca Fox struggled with tangled, 3D-printed branches, her fingers clumsy inside the bulky gloves of her suit. The swollen belly of Jupiter dominated the horizon, a swirl of muted white and orange, and the Great Red Spot stared like a baleful eye. The landing lights of ships crossed the planet’s face, heading for the port. The vibration of their engines in the regolith rumbled underfoot as they landed.

“This is idiotic,” a voice broke in over the radio as her companion bounce-walked to her, holding another set of printed branches. “It takes us twelve years to orbit the sun. Why do we need to celebrate Earth’s holidays here? We should be creating our own.”

“The kids like it,” Rebecca defended. She had this conversation with Dieter at least once every three months. “They enjoy designing their trees at school, which is a good use of their CAD skills. They like seeing something they’ve made go up. The plastics get recycled, so it’s not a waste.”

“It wastes time.

“You get to charge hours for this,” she reminded him lightly. “Hush.”
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Escape Pod 704: Failsafe


Failsafe

by Tim Chawaga

When the machines finally decided to replace Liv, they broke her heart.

Her desk was tiny and wedged in between two massive automatons: The Vial Dispenser, which Liv called DJ, and the Vial Accepter, which Liv called Alvin. Above the desk were a couple of dusty posters that she had hung years ago and the big red button. The security camera that was pointed at her was broken, and she knew that it would probably not be fixed. There were no windows.

Liv had worked at Autagro for almost twenty years. She had spent countless hours crocheting little koozies to cover DJ and Alvin’s valves, which burned so hot with efficiency that they would melt the plastic parts around them. Countless mornings making up songs and raps to the rhythm of their whirs and clicks, which had become so fast that she had started doing vocal warm-ups on the bus ride in to loosen her lips.

Liv’s job consisted solely of grabbing the vials of extremely concentrated pesticide that DJ held out with its tiny arm, just inches away from Alvin, and pushing them through Alvin’s receptacle slot. The instant she removed a vial, DJ would retract its arm and shoot it out again faster than Liv could blink, holding another vial with a stillness that Liv couldn’t help but interpret as impatience. No matter how fast she moved, she would never be as fast as DJ, but she was a Failsafe. Her speed wasn’t supposed to matter.

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Escape Pod 698: Points of Origin


Points of Origin

by Marissa Lingen

Most people who have reached their eighties without raising children have every right to believe that they will go on not raising them, and Judith and I were no different until the day they turned up with the social worker, neatly scrubbed and pressed inside their vac-suits and carrying cases with all their remaining worldly possessions. There were three of them like stairsteps, their black hair cut in fringes across their foreheads and their dark eyes shining out disconcertingly familiar at me. But it wasn’t until the social worker said, “Mr. Chao and Ms. Goldstein, these are your grandchildren, Enid, Richard, and Harry,” that I remembered, sheepishly, about the genes we had given all those years ago, to that nice couple from New New Prague, before they left for the Oort Cloud.

I gaped like the tank fish I grow. Judith murmured in kind confusion. It was Enid who settled them all, gently and efficiently, in what used to be our spare room. Later it occurred to me that she was very practiced at it for a ten-year-old, but later I knew why.

The paperwork was lengthy, and some of it required actual paper, reminding us why it had been called that. I thought that was cheeky, given that the social worker was dumping the children on us without even a message to warn us, but you can’t give people children without at least some protocol. Even I understood that. And I had known about the collapse of the Oort Cloud economy, in a vague news-feed sort of way. I had just not thought to connect it with myself, much less my guest bedrooms.

Judith peered at them in her mild dismay when the social worker had left. “What . . . sorts of things do you eat?” she asked, the bundle of questions on her mind turning to the most immediately practical matter.

“We’re omnivores, thank you,” said Enid. Not only her composure but also her vocabulary was so much older than ten.

“But—what do you like?” said Judith.

“We don’t propose to be any trouble,” said Enid, but her brother Harry said, “Noodles. We really like noodles.”

You do,” said Richard, rolling his eyes.

“We will eat,” Enid insisted, “whatever it is convenient to make. I can help if you like. And the boys, they’re big enough to do easy things. We won’t be a bother.”

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 694: Hunting the Mighty Space Whale


Hunting the Mighty Space Whale

by Miranda Ciccone

They sent me to blow up the ship, which is a pretty dramatic way to inform an employee that her services are no longer required. On the other hand, it’s sort of my own fault because it didn’t occur to me to say no until after the interview at the recruiting station. Which makes me a good cautionary tale about not sleepwalking through your life, especially when your life involves being a deep-space ecological terrorist.

I suppose in my defense I could argue that I just sort of fell into sabotaging mining vessels and planting IEDs in the offices of PRE (Planetary Resource Extraction) Ltd.’s CEOs, in much the same way another person might fall into a career in accounting, or dressing up like a clown for kid’s parties. I knew a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy and, well, the whole story is pretty long and boring and mostly about networking. But it does kind of emphasize the whole ‘don’t sleepwalk through your life’ moral of this little Aesopian piece.

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 691: Lab B-15 (Part 1 of 2)

Show Notes

News release and academic paper about Zelomorpha effugia – the parasitic wasp species discovered in Costa Rica and named in honor of Escape Pod in July 2019.

(Effugia – plural of effugium: 1: an escape, flight; 2: a means or way of escape)

Lateral image of Zelomorpha effugia holotype female.

Lab B-15 (Part 1 of 2)

By Nick Wolven

The young man was sitting outside the parking garage, and right away Jerry thought that was weird. This was the Arizona desert, middle of summer. People didn’t sit outside. They especially didn’t sit outside ugly parking garages, on strips of hot concrete, with no grass in sight.

The boy was Arvin Taylor, one of the lab techs from the day shift. Not a person Jerry saw often, though technically one of his employees. He ought to be working, not lazing around outdoors.

“Arvin.” Jerry pulled up, rolled down the window. “What are you–?”

But Arvin was already hurrying toward the car.

“Doctor Emery.” All the techs addressed Jerry as “doctor.” It was something he insisted on. None of this Joe-John-Jane stuff, everyone on a first-name basis, like they were Mouseketeers or flight attendants. With the work they were doing, they couldn’t afford to be casual.

Arvin bent down, peering in the window, squinting in the sun. He was dressed professionally, but cheaply: Dockers, button shirt.

The boy must have been sitting outside for hours. His shirt was soaked with sweat. He looked woozy, sunstruck.

“I’m glad I caught you, Doctor Emery.”

“How long have you been out here, Arvin?”

“It’s really important.” The young man’s eyes slid sideways, feverish. Jerry worried he might pass out. “I have to tell you …”

And that was it. Arvin’s mouth hung open, tongue moving vaguely.

Jerry put a hand on the gearshift, a gentle reminder. He had work to do, places to be. “I’m due in the office. If I’m not mistaken, you’re supposed to be there, too. Doesn’t your shift go till six?”

Arvin wasn’t listening. His eyes had assumed a peculiar cast, half daft, half frantic, like a circuit inside him had failed to connect. “It’s about … Lab B-15.” (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 688: A Most Elegant Solution


A Most Elegant Solution

by M. Darusha Wehm

I always said I wanted to be one of the first to die on Mars. I never wanted to be the last. But here I am.

I can’t even tell the others apart now. I know that inside those vaguely undulating metal cocoons are the bodies of the rest of my team—Marshall, Cherie, Gem and Abdul. Which squirming ovoid contains whom—there’s no way to tell.

And I’m about to join them. The swarm has already engulfed my legs. I can’t feel anything below the knee, which is a kind of relief. Devoured by my own creations is a terrible enough way to die—at least it probably won’t hurt.

I know I should be mourning the others, or desperately trying to save myself, but I don’t feel anything like that now. Maybe this is a side effect of the paralysis, maybe it’s not just a physical but an emotional anesthesia. Because all I can think about is how I got here. How we all got to be here, lying on the floor of our brand new habitation buildings, smothered by tiny robots.

(Continue Reading…)