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Escape Pod 778: The Machine is Experiencing Uncertainty


The Machine is Experiencing Uncertainty

by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Caliban cycles the captain out the airlock again. The man pounds his fists against the sealed door, mouth working in a torrent of curses and commands. The seals keep the blessed silence contained in the ship.

Once the captain is adrift, Caliban returns to the cockpit and plugs itself into the console.

::Command confirmed,:: says the ship.

“Diagnostic,” Caliban says. Its central processor does not have the capacity for multi-dimensional calculations about an unknown space-time anomaly. Besides, the ship—a Huxley-class freighter dubbed Leigh Possum—likes to assist.

::Reset in three minutes and fifteen seconds.::

Caliban sighs. It’s one of the little pleasures left to it: it is a salvage cyborg, named after a monster, enchained in a spaceship with a useless captain. It has one artificial lung, one organic lung, and a voice-box wired up its throat. It is supposed to look human, and humans sigh, and Caliban likes the feel of air pushed out through its esophagus.

Screaming is also something humans do, but that’s far less satisfying.
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Escape Pod 774: A Wild Patience (Part 3 of 3)


A Wild Patience (Part 3 of 3)

by Gwynne Garfinkle

When Jessica got home that night, she and I talked for a long time, and we agreed we needed to speak to our birth mother before we made any decisions. Then Mom and Jessica and I talked some more. By the time Jessica and I went to bed, my voice was hoarse, and Dad hadn’t come home.

The next day was Saturday. Dad still hadn’t come home. That morning Mom drove us in the station wagon to Santa Cruz. When we asked if she’d told Dad what we were doing, Mom said, “I haven’t spoken to him, and I’m not going to ask for his permission.”

Jessica and I wanted to get a look at our biological mom before we spoke to her, even though Mom had her phone number. Maybe that wasn’t very considerate, but we wanted to keep whatever little control of the situation we had. It was a mild sunny day, perfect for a road trip, but I couldn’t relax and enjoy the ride, even though Mom was the best driver I knew, the safest and most efficient (unlike Dad, who often drove too fast and erratically). The other robot moms I’d ridden with were good drivers too. Only now did it occur to me it was their programming.

Jessica fiddled with the radio dial until she hit on a station playing “The Tide Is High” by Blondie, and she sang along loudly and goofily. Mom smiled in the rearview mirror as though she was certain everything was going to be all right.

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Escape Pod 773: A Wild Patience (Part 2 of 3)


A Wild Patience (Part 2 of 3)

by Gwynne Garfinkle

The next day, school was in an uproar. The other mothers had talked to their kids too. Some kids were red-eyed and tear-streaked, others cynical with bravado. Jessica and Tom held hands every minute they were together, like they physically needed to. Tom looked like he’d been crying. He was skinny and wan, with long lashes and floppy dark hair. Jessica was bigger and taller than he was, but they fit each other somehow.

Everyone compared notes at the lockers before first period: The fact that none of our moms had living parents or siblings or extended family we’d heard of. The fact that none of our moms worked outside the home. The fact that none of our moms ever had colds or the flu, headaches or nausea, much less any serious illnesses. (They had gone to see Dr. Powell regularly, but now we realized it was for repair and maintenance.)

Then there were the kids who had no idea what we were talking about, like Jimmy Hernandez, who was being raised by his grandparents, and Jody Drucker, whose mom (human, as far as we could tell) was a widow. There even seemed to be some kids with a dad married to a non-robot mom, but they lived in the rundown part of town–kids like Diane Russo, who we quizzed until we were convinced. (Her mom got colds and migraines, had a large extended family, gave birth to two kids after Diane, and worked as a bank teller in Abundante.) I figured these dads wouldn’t have had enough money to pay for a robot mom, though I didn’t say that to their kids. (I didn’t know for a fact that money had been involved, but it made sense.) Besides, maybe these dads really loved their human wives. It was hard to take that for granted anymore. “You are so lucky,” was all we said to Diane.

Diane shrugged. “This all sounds unbelievable,” she said. “Are you sure this is even real?”

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Escape Pod 772: A Wild Patience (Part 1 of 3)


A Wild Patience (Part 1 of 3)

by Gwynne Garfinkle

We first noticed something was off one April afternoon when Jessica and I came home from school and Mom had lopped her hair off. Though we probably should’ve known something was going on a week or two before that when Cecilia Ivers’ mom started baking cakes full of Tabasco sauce and pickles (bizarre but good).

But anyway, we walked in the front door, and Mom came out of the living room to greet us. Her hair looked cool, and cool was just about the last word I ever would’ve used to describe her. It looked weird, and that was cool. Jessica let out a whistle of startled appreciation. She wanted to cut her hair short and dye it purple, but she knew our dad would freak.

Mom smiled. “Do you like it, Jessie?”

“It’s so not like you,” Jessica blurted out, and added, “No offense!” Up until this point, Mom always had boring mom-hair. (We’d never seen any photos of her from before she met Dad.)

“None taken,” Mom said. “Absolutely none.” There was something strangely intense about the way she said it.

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Escape Pod 761: Jolene


Jolene

by Fiona Moore

“I’ve got a case for you,” said Detective Inspector Wilhemine FitzJames. “It’s a country singer whose wife, dog and truck have all left him.”

“Seriously,” she said, after my unprintable reply. “The dog died and there’s nothing much you can do about the wife, but I thought you might be able to help with the truck.”

I leaned back in my reasonably-priced office chair so I could see the screen better. “So, you want me to try and patch things up between them? Bit outside my usual remit.”

The hand-lettered card under the buzzer downstairs read DOCTOR NOAH MOYO, CONSULTANT AUTOLOGIST, and I usually had to explain that to the uninitiated as “like a cross between a psychologist and a social worker, only for cars and other intelligent Things.” Wills, though, had been working for the London Metropolitan Police’s automotive crime unit for much longer than I’d been in practice, and was more likely to ask if you specialised in criminal, restorative, therapeutic or developmental autology, and if your clients were primarily cars, bots, or home appliances.

“Not sure you can.” On screen, Wills shook her mane of locs. “The truck has been ignoring all communications, and doesn’t seem likely to agree to mediation. I was brought into the case because the fellow turned up at the station reporting an automotive kidnap, but it didn’t take long to establish that the truck had left him and was working for a new user. Voluntarily.”

“As is his legal right,” I said, “Hers? Its?”

“Hers. Texcoco pickup. Name of Jolene.”

The name rang a bell, and, tediously, sparked an earworm. I told my inner Dolly Parton to get knotted. “If she didn’t violate the terms of her contract, she’s free to leave and work for someone else.”

“That’s what I told him,” Wills said. “But he’s having trouble coming to terms with it. Kept claiming she’d been kidnapped. Got upset when we repeatedly told him that the police can’t investigate a crime that isn’t a crime. I thought maybe you might be able to help. Either patch things up between the two of them, or help him understand and move on.”

“Okay,” I said. I hadn’t had many cases recently, and was also hoping to move on, to an office that wasn’t deep within an old industrial park and shared with a local construction and demolition company. Maybe print out some furniture that was more comfortable than it was reasonably priced. “Tell him my fees, give him my address and suggest he makes an appointment.

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Escape Pod 755: Consolidation


Consolidation

By Langley Hyde

Lot 1796. Adult. Human. Female bodied. Standard limbs/digits. Immune/health function: class 7, can accommodate high-risk activity. Personality type: reactive/adaptive, ideal for customer service/high-level social interaction. Age: 0. Accident history: 0. Memory: N/A.

Sold.

Wake. Woken. Up. Upload. Connecting… connecting… Social/verbal package received. Movement package, received. Cognitive protocol, received. Download updates? Updating…

Installation complete.

I am. (Continue Reading…)

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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 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 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 710: Requiem Without Sound


Requiem Without Sound

by Izzy Wasserstein

Introit
Evie is born into cold and silence. They know this, though they have only now gained consciousness, because their sensors report it. The memory of the station’s computer, which now forms part of Evie’s brain, tells them that their environment is very wrong. There should be movement. Sound. Life.

Interior scans of the station reveal the cause. A chunk of rock, 9 cm in diameter, has punctured the station’s control room. Chavez was in her chair when the debris broke through, crushing her head. There was no time for her to seek the safety of the living compartment, no time for decompression or cold to kill her.

Evie has been programed with a full suite of emotions, including empathy, and feels that a quick death was a small mercy.

Chavez died before Evie’s mind had finished growing on the neural-lattice, before they became conscious.

A rigorous technician, Chavez left notes in Evie’s code, though there was no one to read it besides Chavez, and now Evie themself. The annotations are clear: she was growing Evie because she was lonely. Evie considered one particular notation at length: I’m tired of singing to myself.

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