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Escape Pod 744: The Evening, the Morning and the Night (Summer Flashback)


The Evening, the Morning and the Night

by Octavia Butler

[EDITOR: We don’t have the rights to post the text of this story.]

Host Commentary

by Alasdair Stuart

Welcome to Escape Pod Summer School’s final month!

The plan with these episodes has been to stack all our flashbacks in one place, and to use them to explore big concepts in some detail.

I’m Alasdair, your host for these episodes. Over the last few weeks, we’ve looked at the different ways science fiction explores space, we’ve looked at the concept of invasion, and this month, we’re taking a look at identity, and we’re starting with the amazing Octavia Butler.

One of the all-time greats, Butler’s work is redolent with this theme. This story in particular, a novelette, explores identity in a half-dozen different ways, and does so with Butler’s customary grace, compassion, and laser-focused vision.

Some logistics for you before we dive in: this episode was originally published Feb 2nd 2015, your narrator is Amanda Ching, your host for the original episode was Norm Sherman, your audio producer for the original episode was Mat Weller.

And without further ado, it’s story time!


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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 Robot leapt vertically into the air from its perch atop the History Museum in Forest Park, rotors humming and limbs withdrawn into the smooth oval of its chassis.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.

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 708: Into the Paddock


Into the Paddock

by Nathan Susnik

I.

“We need a shitload of Bunnies®. How fast can you get me a shitload of Bunnies®?” says Schneider, walking into my office.

Sort of.

Okay, fine. I don’t have an office, and Schneider is calling on ShareSpace™ over the ol’ intercerebral implant, so she’s not walking.

I’m in The Orchard scraping gum off of my shoe and watching a bunch of kids pluck ripe apples from plastic trees. A kid throws an apple at The Barn. It goes wide. I laugh. Another one hits the side (plunk), and then (ping) Schneider just sort of appears. She hovers in the air all ghostly for a while until I pinch her down on the Dirt Path and answer the call. That’s when she says the Bunnies® thing.

Schneider has three moods:

  1. Depressive
  2. Belligerent
  3. Depressive/belligerent

She’s belligerent ninety percent of the time, so I throw on VulgaBlock™.

“What happened to the Bunnies®?” I say.

She shrugs. “They died.”

“How?”

“Do I look like a [fornicating] veterinarian?”

“It’s Friday,” I say.

She shrugs again. “So?”

“I get off in an hour. De novo Bunnies® will take at least two.”

“So?”

“I have plans.”

Schneider laughs. “Good one,” she says. “Look, we need Bunnies®. If we don’t have Bunnies®, our billable animal count decreases for the whole weekend. If our billable animal count decreases, our ticket prices drop on VacationApp™, which means that we lose money on every visit, which means you lose money on your paycheck. Also, people write angry reviews, especially people whose children have been disappointed because we don’t have any Bunnies®. Angry reviews are bad for our stats, and you know how Rick feels about our stats.”

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 703: Light and Death on the Indian Battle Station


Light and Death on the Indian Battle Station

By Keyan Bowes

Diwali, the Festival of Lights is a magical time of the year, even on the Indian Battle Station. A hundred tiny oil-lamps decorated our apartment, glimmering along window ledges, glowing at the corners of the rangoli floor pattern, shining in the little niche with the image of Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity.

“Savitri!” My sister Ritika called me, a glittering sparkler illuminating her excited face as she held out the firework.  “Here! Light yours for the spinners!”

My sparkler spluttered into flowers of light as I touched it to hers. Mom and Ritika quickly moved out of the way and I ignited three ground spinners. The gunpowder-scented coils flung a scarf of fiery sparks across the balcony.

We were the lucky ones. I breathed in the scents of Diwali, smoke from the fireworks, incense from the Lakshmi niche, the warm coconut smell of Diwali sweets sitting on an ornate silver tray. Our cousins down in Delhi celebrated with strings of LED lights and chocolate and factory-made fireworks from China. It wasn’t the same.

We were lucky because Mom vividly remembered her childhood Diwalis, and because she had the Strength to make it real. That Strength was also why we were far from Earth on the Indian Battle Station, currently at war with the JAYAZ Network.

“Can I light a rocket?” Ritika asked.  “Mom, please?”

Me, I’d have said no.  Bottle-rockets in the hands of daring, impulsive teenagers like Ritika are just asking for trouble. But Mom gave in as usual. “Just be careful, sweetie.”

Ritika lit it, pointing it at the balcony ceiling instead of out toward the sky.

I grabbed the kid away as the thing ricocheted against the ceiling, fizzed, and exploded. “”Ritika! That’s so stupid!”

But before I could scold her properly, the sound of divine footsteps echoed in the hall and inside our heads. We froze.

Was Lakshmi coming to visit on her festival day? Did Mom have the Strength to bring her? We all held our breath.

The door opened. Instead of the radiant Goddess and her owl, there was a fierce blue-faced God with flaming hair. Two four-eyed dogs followed him. We dropped to the floor in obeisance. It’s never a good idea to disrespect Yama, Lord Death. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 702: Inheritance


Inheritance

By Elise Stephens

Carmen would have expected a gold necklace or tarnished antique, maybe some money or a secret family recipe card, but she’d never dreamed her grandmother would try to immortalize herself through an inheritance like this.

The attorney was holding a velvet-covered box in his open palms as he explained, “Maria Elena had these memory grafts discreetly extracted prior to her death. She chose not to inform the family beforehand. I believe she felt her memories could safely be left to the care of the third generation, that is, the three of you.”

Carmen was relieved to see that both her siblings were likewise surprised by the news.

Mr. Hoffman tapped the box with his thumbs. “As you may know, memory grafts are a practical-application variety of memory extraction. They’re a refined amalgamation of all memories and experiences related to specific fields or areas of expertise.”

“So there’s no real estate or stocks. It’s just her memories,” Mario said, eyebrows raised.

“She was never rich to begin with,” Daniela said. “Living in that tiny place after Grandpa died. Unless she was secretly saving up, how did she afford an extraction?”

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 699: A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide (Flashback Friday)


A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide

By Sarah Pinsker

Andy tattooed his left forearm with Lori’s name on a drunken night in his seventeenth year. “Lori & Andy Forever and Ever” was the full text, all in capital letters, done by his best friend Susan with her homemade tattoo rig. Susan was proud as anything of that machine. She’d made it out of nine-volt batteries and some parts pulled from an old DVD player and a ballpoint pen. The tattoo was ugly and hurt like hell, and it turned out Lori didn’t appreciate it at all. She dumped him two weeks later, just before she headed off to university.

Four years later, Andy’s other arm was the one that got mangled in the combine. The entire arm, up to and including his shoulder and right collarbone and everything attached. His parents made the decision while he was still unconscious. He woke in a hospital room in Saskatoon with a robot arm and an implant in his head.

“Brain-Computer Interface,” his mother said, as if that explained everything. She used the same voice she had used when he was five to tell him where the cattle went when they were loaded onto trucks. She stood at the side of his hospital bed, her arms crossed and her fingers tapping her strong biceps as if she were impatient to get back to the farm. The lines in her forehead and the set of her jaw told Andy she was concerned, even if her words hid it.

“They put electrodes and a chip in your motor cortex,” she continued. “You’re bionic.” (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 687: Four of Seven


Four of Seven

By Samantha Mills

In the waning light of an artificial sun, Camelia Dunlevy climbed a mountain with her sister on her back. Delilah was a hollow weight, bird-boned from reconstructive surgeries, unbreakable.

The trouble wasn’t her bones, but her lungs. She panted in Camelia’s ear, unaccustomed to altitude, a small sound that might as well have been a war drum. Camelia couldn’t call for help, she couldn’t leave Delilah behind, she couldn’t walk the road for fear of company men.

And her sister was still giving bad directions.

“There’s a path up the western slope,” Delilah whispered, her breath hot and tickling. “I swear it.”

“There’s no path.”

“I came up once, with Aster.”

“Then you were on a tram.”

“Yes. I saw it out the window.”

“I don’t know what you saw, but it wasn’t a path!”

An explosion rocked the mountain, pelting them in pebbles and moon dust. Camelia dashed behind the nearest bush—a sickly, transplanted thing, hardly any cover—and counted the seconds before the familiar grind-whir-scream of a strikebreaker started up. Distant, but not distant enough. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 685: A Vocabulary of Remorse


A Vocabulary of Remorse

By Dantzel Cherry

Dear Liam, I love you. I’m sorry.


“Well, Mrs. Rojas, the good news is that it’s contagious. I can safely state that pneumonia has never had such a positive outcome before.”

Dr. Robyn’s smile crinkled at the corners, as sharp and as numerous as the creases in the medical consent form that Lorelei had folded into an elephant, like the ones she’d been studying in Brahmagiri just before she took ill four days ago.

“Are… you sure?” she said. It was still astonishing to hear her own vocal chords. They weren’t soft and mellifluous like the rain dripping from the cherry blossom petals after the storm. They weren’t sharp, silvery and musical like the flute her son Casper played every afternoon at two-thirty. They weren’t a mellow alto like her sister’s. Her voice was croaked and cracked, an overeager frog at the far end of a drought-stricken remnant of a pond.

And yet it was a voice.

Dr. Robyn bobbed his head up and down. “And you said you have-” he checked his charts. “-Two children with the same condition?”

“Yes. My boys, Capser-” she tried again. “Casper. Liam.”

“And they have not seen you since you came home from your trip?”

Lorelei shook her head and gestured at the hospital bed under bed. She wished her tablet was within reach. Her chest hurt and her voice was already tired.

Dr. Robyn seemed to understand and bobbed his head again.

“You’ve presented us with an intriguing possibility, you know. It’s not often a condition like yours can find a cure – especially when it’s not a trigger word like ‘cancer’ or ‘Alzheimers.’ Truthfully, most of these types of non-life threatening conditions won’t be cured except through flukes like the one you picked up. It’s harsh, but there you have it.”

Lorelei nodded, and Dr. Robyn went on.

“We could culture this strain; give it to other patients with your condition. Even your sons could receive it.” (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 546: Recollection


Recollection

by Nancy Fulda

The dream is always the same. You are a tangled mass of neurons, tumbling through meteors. Flaming impacts pierce your fragile surface, leaving ragged gouges. You writhe, deforming under bombardment, until nothing is left except a translucent tatter, crumbling as it descends. Comets pelt the desiccated fibers. You fall, and keep falling, and cannot escape the feeling that, despite your lack of hands, you are scrabbling desperately at the rim of a shrouded tunnel, unable to halt your descent. Glimmers crawl along the faint remaining strands, blurring as you tumble…

You awaken to warmth and stillness. Gone are the soulless tiled floors of the seniors’ home. Sterile window drapes have been replaced by sandalwood blinds. Fresh air blows through the vents, overlaying faint sounds from the bathroom and from morning traffic on nearby canyon roads. You clutch the quilted blankets, stomach plummeting. This cozy bedroom, with its sturdy hardwood furnishings, should be familiar to you; but it isn’t. Two days, and still nothing makes sense. You feel as though you’re suffocating. Tumbling…

Your wife has heard you gasping for air. She comes running, nightgown flapping behind her. Her face is creased in overlapping furrows. Your mirror tells you that the two of you are a match: the same fading hair, the same shrunken hollows along the eyes. Laugh lines, she calls them, but you cannot manage to see them as anything except deformities, in your face and hers both.

“Elliott?” She grabs your hand and kneels at the bedside to look in your eyes. “It’s me, Elliott. Everything’s fine. Everything’s going to be ok.”

Her name, you recall, is Grace. She told it to you two days ago, and is irrationally elated that you are able to repeat it to her upon demand, any time she asks. You feel like a trained puppy, yapping for treats, except there aren’t any treats.

There’s just Grace, and this room. And before that, the seniors’ home. And before that…? You’re not sure. You flail at the bedside for your notebook, thinking it might offer continuity. But there are only a few shaky scribbles, beginning the day before yesterday.

Grace pulls you upright, propping pillows against your spine. She fusses over you, adjusting your hair, prattling off questions. She seems to think you’re in pain, but you’re not. Not any more than you’d expect of a man with joints and bones as old as yours. She tries to kiss your forehead, and you recoil.

It’s a cruel gesture, pulling away like that, but you can’t help it. She’s a stranger, and despite the anguish in her eyes, it feels wrong to pretend otherwise. You can’t feign love. You won’t. Not to please her, not to please anyone.

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 507: The Call of the Sky


The Call of the Sky

by Cliff Winnig

The army hospital’s underground floors reminded me of Pluto Base, a place I’d never actually been. I’d never even been off-world, but I remembered those claustrophobic beige corridors. Two years before, I’d synced with a bunch of my alts home on leave after basic training. Today for the first time I’d be meeting one who’d seen combat. More than that, one who’d become a hero, the only Teri Kang to survive the Battle of Charon.

We wouldn’t be syncing, though. Not this time. Not ever. Before she’d escaped the doomed moon — the moon she’d given the order to destroy — she’d been bitten. That’s what the G.I.s called it when Hive nanobots infected you: being bitten. Like it was a zombie plague or something.

Hell, it might as well be. Soon the only other Teri Kang in the universe would lose her fight with that infection, and the army docs would euthanize her. Under the circumstances, even coming home had been an act of courage. A lot of G.I.s who got bitten went AWOL rather than face the certain death of returning to base. Not for the first time, I wondered if I had such courage lying latent within me.

Flanked by MPs, I followed a nurse down hallway after hallway till we arrived at my alt’s room. Well, the room next to it, since she was quarantined. A smartglass wall separated me from the sterile chamber where the other Teri Kang would live out her last few hours.

(Continue Reading…)