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Escape Pod 764: In the Absence of Instructions to the Contrary


In the Absence of Instructions to the Contrary

By Frank Wu

Karl 3478 sprawled on the beach, partially disassembled, bits of him scattered across mats arrayed on the sand. Diving planes, ducted propellers, 5-way valves and 4-way cables all awaited clean-up, tear-down and re-build.

He was performing a major overhaul on himself for deep-seaworthiness. No poppet or sprocket would escape inspection.

Underwater, Karl was untethered, free. But freedom came with risks. If a vital system failed, no one would rescue him.

Wrapped around Karl’s finger was a black O-ring. One of his smallest but more important parts, it fit into a groove at the end of electronics sleeve III. This little ring, with a little grease, was all that prevented water from rushing into the sleeve, destroying everything inside.

Only a smear of marine-grade silicone grease was necessary. A blob might break off, allowing the water in.

In knowing violation of protocols, Karl squeezed a huge glob of grease onto the tip of a titanium finger.

This he would do – as everything – in full consideration of his love for Adaline.

(Continue Reading…)

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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.

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 757: The Sun From Both Sides (Part 1 of 3)


The Sun From Both Sides (Part 1 of 3)

By R.S.A. Garcia

Once, a woman loved a man, and a man loved a woman.

They lived in a forest, in a small stone-grey hut, set far enough back from a river to escape the seasonal floods. Every day, they woke on a too-soft mattress and turned their faces to each other before they opened their eyes. Her smile would curve her lips as she lay her hand on his cheek, and he would sigh and nuzzle her palm.

Then they would roll away and sit up on either side of the low bed and push their feet into their shoes.

Days were short and cool, or long and hot, but there was always something to do. Firewood to chop, the roof to repair, a garden to tend. They carried out their chores accompanied by his tuneless humming, and when she looked at him, he always knew. They would pause, gazes locked as they took a breath, hands wiping sweaty foreheads, or resting on bent knees, before they both went back to what they were doing.

Nights were for dinner, and fireside reading, and sitting with their shoulders touching on the wooden swing-bench outside the creaky front door as they stared up at the patches of sky visible between the swaying branches. He would use his legs to push them back and forth slowly while she sat with her knees drawn up. Sometimes she let her head rest against his neck, and sometimes he put his head in her lap. Other times, he would play his flute while she lay her hand on his chest and her head on his shoulder. If she fell asleep, he would carry her inside without waking her.

When they fought, with air sucked through teeth, hands on hips and narrowed eyes, it was usually over small things, like whose turn it was to clean up. But they made up quickly, with soft kisses, fingers interlaced as they walked, and bodies entwined at night. (Continue Reading…)

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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 743: Flash From the Vault


Flash From the Vault

Hello and welcome to Escape Pod Summer School, where we post some of our favorite episodes from the vault with a new perspective. I’m your assistant editor and teacher for this class, Benjamin C. Kinney, and I’ve got three flash episodes from long, long ago. We bring you “Paul Bunyan and the Photocopier” by Larry Hammer, “Beachcomber” by Mike Resnick, and “Semi-Autonomous: or, For Whom the Warranty Tolls” by Jim Kling. (Continue Reading…)

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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.
(Continue Reading…)

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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.

(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.

(Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 709: In A Wide Sky, Hidden


In A Wide Sky, Hidden

by William Ledbetter

Warm liquid gurgled away and the kettle field winked off, leaving me naked, wet, and trembling in the soup kitchen’s receiving chamber. My traveling companion, Roger, waited with clothes. Humanoid in shape but impossibly thin, his eight-foot-tall metallic figure moved with an almost liquid grace as he stooped to help me into the robe. My new skin felt raw against the thick fabric, but, like the chills, was caused by the transfer and only temporary.

“Is she here?” I said while bending down to pull on a pair of quilted boots.

“No obvious signs,” Roger said and handed me a glass of bourbon.

I took a long sip and moaned as its burn saturated me from the inside out.

“Thank you,” I muttered.

His bulbous head nodded a slight acknowledgement. “You should really drink something else upon reconstitution,” he said. “Tea, perhaps. That really doesn’t help.”

“No obvious signs of her? What does that mean?” I said.

“Skimmer forty-eight found something interesting. I’ll be able to tell you more when its full report arrives in about five minutes.”

I looked up at his smooth, featureless face hovering two feet above mine. Even after nearly eighty years of association and friendship, my human hindbrain still expected facial expressions when I looked at him. Finally, when he offered no further information, I shrugged and took another sip.

It wasn’t real bourbon, only a molecule-by-molecule reconstruction from local materials, but unlike a human mind instantaneously transferred into a soup-kitchen body via a quantum link, no method could reinstall the soul into the body of bourbon. In other words, I had tasted real aged Kentucky bourbon on Earth and flattered myself by thinking I could tell the difference.

(Continue Reading…)

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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.

(Continue Reading…)