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Escape Pod 410: Nutshell


Nutshell

by Jeffrey Wikstrom

Carpet ocean, stretching over miles; hills and valleys and ravines, all upholstered.  The green indoor-outdoor gives way to blue, as land gives way to sea, but the texture never changes.  When it rains, as it sometimes does, the drops pass through the carpet without making contact, as though they or it aren’t really there.  It’s there enough for me to walk on, at least, though spongy in some places and firm in others, as though it conceals hidden frames or foundations.  Out on the blue carpet-sea, it feels stretched, tight, as though I walk on a drumhead.  Maybe if I cracked it open I would find a vast dark expanse of water, lit by undersea jack-o-lanterns and holes that show the sky without breaking up the carpet-underside ceiling.

None of it is real, of course.  That probably goes without saying.

It’s funny; I wasn’t supposed to experience time at all.  When they loaded us into the ship, we were told that the travel would be instantaneous from our perspectives.  One minute lying down in the big white plastic tombs, the next freshly decanted and opening raw new eyes.  We would transition seamlessly from fluorescents and anesthesia to the light of some distant new sun.  Certainly I have no memory of consciousness during departure.  I wouldn’t have wanted to be aware, during that dreadful acceleration which pulped our bones, and wrecked our flesh.  By then they had already guided us from our old bodies into the safety of simulation and storage.

This curated world never bruises me or shows me sharp edges.  Trees are padded poles, slick vinyl trunks capped by rubbery green spheres fifteen, twenty feet up.  Stairsteps run up the hillsides, though even the steepest rises are shallow enough I don’t really need the footholds.  Fat plush toys, pink and green and blue, gambol across the plains and mimic living beasts grazing carpet-grass, or drinking from carpet-brooks.  They ignore me, even when I shove or punch them.

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Escape Pod 408: Immersion


Immersion

by Aliette de Bodard

In the morning, you’re no longer quite sure who you are.

You stand in front of the mirror–it shifts and trembles, reflecting only what you want to see–eyes that feel too wide, skin that feels too pale, an odd, distant smell wafting from the compartment’s ambient system that is neither incense nor garlic, but something else, something elusive that you once knew.

You’re dressed, already–not on your skin, but outside, where it matters, your avatar sporting blue and black and gold, the stylish clothes of a well-traveled, well-connected woman. For a moment, as you turn away from the mirror, the glass shimmers out of focus; and another woman in a dull silk gown stares back at you: smaller, squatter and in every way diminished–a stranger, a distant memory that has ceased to have any meaning.

Quy was on the docks, watching the spaceships arrive. She could, of course, have been anywhere on Longevity Station, and requested the feed from the network to be patched to her router–and watched, superimposed on her field of vision, the slow dance of ships slipping into their pod cradles like births watched in reverse. But there was something about standing on the spaceport’s concourse–a feeling of closeness that she just couldn’t replicate by standing in Golden Carp Gardens or Azure Dragon Temple. Because here–here, separated by only a few measures of sheet metal from the cradle pods, she could feel herself teetering on the edge of the vacuum, submerged in cold and breathing in neither air nor oxygen. She could almost imagine herself rootless, finally returned to the source of everything.

Most ships those days were Galactic–you’d have thought Longevity’s ex-masters would have been unhappy about the station’s independence, but now that the war was over Longevity was a tidy source of profit. The ships came; and disgorged a steady stream of tourists–their eyes too round and straight, their jaws too square; their faces an unhealthy shade of pink, like undercooked meat left too long in the sun. They walked with the easy confidence of people with immersers: pausing to admire the suggested highlights for a second or so before moving on to the transport station, where they haggled in schoolbook Rong for a ride to their recommended hotels–a sickeningly familiar ballet Quy had been seeing most of her life, a unison of foreigners descending on the station like a plague of centipedes or leeches.

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Escape Pod 407: Mono No Aware


Mono no Aware

by Ken Liu

The world is shaped like the kanji for umbrella, only written so poorly, like my handwriting, that all the parts are out of proportion.

My father would be greatly ashamed at the childish way I still form my characters. Indeed, I can barely write many of them anymore. My formal schooling back in Japan ceased when I was only eight.

Yet for present purposes, this badly drawn character will do.

The canopy up there is the solar sail. Even that distorted kanji can only give you a hint of its vast size. A hundred times thinner than rice paper, the spinning disc fans out a thousand kilometers into space like a giant kite intent on catching every passing photon. It literally blocks out the sky.

Beneath it dangles a long cable of carbon nanotubes a hundred kilometers long: strong, light, and flexible. At the end of the cable hangs the heart of the Hopeful, the habitat module, a five-hundred-meter-tall cylinder into which all the 1,021 inhabitants of the world are packed.

The light from the sun pushes against the sail, propelling us on an ever widening, ever accelerating, spiraling orbit away from it. The acceleration pins all of us against the decks, gives everything weight.

Our trajectory takes us toward a star called 61 Virginis. You can’t see it now because it is behind the canopy of the solar sail. The Hopeful will get there in about three hundred years, more or less. With luck, my great-great-great-I calculated how many “greats” I needed once, but I don’t remember now-grandchildren will see it.

There are no windows in the habitat module, no casual view of the stars streaming past. Most people don’t care, having grown bored of seeing the stars long ago. But I like looking through the cameras mounted on the bottom of the ship so that I can gaze at this view of the receding, reddish glow of our sun, our past.

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Escape Pod 402: The Tale of the Golden Eagle

Show Notes

Links for this episode:


The Tale of the Golden Eagle

by David D. Levine

This is a story about a bird. A bird, a ship, a machine, a woman—she was all these things, and none, but first and fundamentally a bird.

It is also a story about a man—a gambler, a liar, and a cheat, but only for the best of reasons.

No doubt you know the famous Portrait of Denali Eu, also called The Third Decision, whose eyes have been described as “two pools of sadness iced over with determination.” This is the story behind that painting.

It is a love story. It is a sad story. And it is true.

The story begins in a time before shiftspace, before Conner and Hua, even before the caster people. The beginning of the story lies in the time of the bird ships.

Before the bird ships, just to go from one star to another, people either had to give up their whole lives and hope their children’s children would remember why they had come, or freeze themselves and hope they could be thawed at the other end. Then the man called Doctor Jay made a great and horrible discovery: he learned that a living mind could change the shape of space. He found a way to weld a human brain to the keel of a starship, in such a way that the ship could travel from star to star in months instead of years.

After the execution of Doctor Jay, people learned that the part of the brain called the visual cortex was the key to changing the shape of space. And so they found a creature whose brain was almost all visual cortex, the Aquila chrysaetos, or as it was known in those days the golden eagle. This was a bird that has been lost to us; it had wings broader than a tall man is tall, golden brown feathers long and light as a lover’s touch, and eyes black and sharp as a clear winter night. But to the people of this time it was just another animal, and they did not appreciate it while they had it.

They took the egg of a golden eagle, and they hatched it in a warm box, and they let it fly and learn and grow, and then they killed it. And they took its brain and they placed it at the top of a cunning construction of plastic and silicon which gave it the intelligence of a human, and this they welded to the keel of the starship.

It may seem to you that it is as cruel to give a bird the intelligence of a human, only to enslave its brain, as it is to take the brain of a human and enslave that. And so it is. But the people of this time drew a rigid distinction between born-people and made-people, and to them this seemed only just and right.

Now it happens that one golden eagle brain, which was called Nerissa Zeebnen-Fearsig, was installed into a ship of surpassing beauty. It was a great broad shining arrowhead of silver metal, this ship, filigreed and inlaid with gold, and filled with clever and intricate mechanisms of subtle pleasure.

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Escape Pod 400: Rescue Party

Show Notes

All sound effects used in this episode were found at FreeSound.org on the pages of the following users: hdesboisswiftoidjobroSyphon64doubletriggercognito perceptuFreqManReadeOnlycsengeri

Performed by Graeme Dunlop as Alveron; Steve Eley as Rugon; Nathaniel Lee as Orostron; Mur Lafferty as Hansur; Paul Haring as Klarten; Alasdair Stewart as Alarkane; Dave Thompson as The Paladorian; Ben Philips as T’sinadree; Jeremiah Tolbert as Tork-a-lee


Rescue Party

by Arthur C. Clarke

Who was to blame? For three days Alveron’s thoughts had come back to that question, and still he had found no answer. A creature of a less civilized or a less sensitive race would never have let it torture his mind, and would have satisfied himself with the assurance that no one could be responsible for the working of fate. But Alveron and his kind had been lords of the Universe since the dawn of history, since that far distant age when the Time Barrier  had been folded round the cosmos by the unknown powers that lay beyond the Beginning. To them had been given all knowledge–and with infinite knowledge went infinite responsibility. If there were mistakes and errors in the administration of the galaxy, the fault lay on the heads of Alveron and his people. And this was no mere mistake: it was one of the greatest tragedies in history.

The crew still knew nothing. Even Rugon, his closest friend and the ship’s deputy captain, had been told only part of the truth. But now the doomed worlds lay less than a billion miles ahead. In a few hours, they would be landing on the third planet.

Once again Alveron read the message from Base; then, with a flick of a tentacle that no human eye could have followed, he pressed the “General Attention” button. Throughout the mile-long cylinder that was the Galactic Survey Ship S9000, creatures of many races laid down their work to listen to the words of their captain.

“I know you have all been wondering,” began Alveron, “why we were ordered to abandon our survey and to proceed at such an acceleration to this region of space. Some of you may realize what this acceleration means. Our ship is on its last voyage: the generators have already been running for sixty hours at Ultimate Overload. We will be very lucky if we return to Base under our own power.

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Escape Pod 392: Aftermaths


Aftermaths

by Lois McMaster Bujold

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

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Escape Pod 390: Cerbo un Vitra ujo


Cerbo un Vitra ujo

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Grete snipped a diseased branch off her Sunset-Glory rosebush like she was a body harvester looking for the perfect part. Behind the drone of the garden’s humidifiers, she caught a woosh-snick as the airlock door opened. Her boyfriend barreled around Mom’s prize Emperor artichoke.

Something was wrong.

The whites showed around Kaj’s remarkable eyes, a blue-green so iridescent they seemed to dull all the plants around them. “Mom and Dad got me a Pass to a down-planet school!”

The blood congealed in her veins. Kaj would leave her. Grete forced a smile. “That’s the outer limit!”

“I didn’t even know they’d applied. Fairview Academy—game design.” His perfect teeth flashed like sunshine against the ink of space. “It’s wacking crazed. Should’ve been you, you’re a better hack than me.”

“I’m already entitled to school.” Grete winced as the words left her mouth. Like he didn’t know that. He was the middle of five children, way past the Banwith Station family allowance. She picked up the pruning sheers to hide the shake in her hands. How would she live without Kaj? “So, I guess you got packing to do and stuff.”

“They provide uniforms. All I’m taking is my pod with music and books. Zero else.” Kaj slid his arm around her waist and laced his long, delicate fingers through hers. “And I want to spend every moment till launch with you.”

She loved him so much, it hurt. Grete leaned her head against him, burning the feel of his body into her memory. She breathed in the musky smell of his sweat and kissed his neck, sampling the salt on his skin.

After a moment, Kaj hung a chain around her neck. The metal tags hanging from it were still warm from his body.

“What?”

“Dogtags, like they used in the oldwars. I put all my bios on there so you’d remember me.”

“Kaj Lorensen, don’t think I could forget you.”

But if he was away at school, he might forget her. She studied her rosebush and freed the most perfect rose with her sheers. She held it out to him, suddenly shy.

He kissed the rose and then her palm. Grete sank into his gaze, lost in the blue-green of his eyes. (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 385: The Very Pulse of the Machine

Show Notes

Special thanks to user ERH at FreeSound.org who created and/or recorded the sound effect used in this episode!


The Very Pulse of the Machine

by Michael Swanwick

Click.

The radio came on.

“Hell.”

Martha kept her eyes forward, concentrated on walking. Jupiter to one shoulder, Daedalus’s plume to the other. Nothing to it. Just trudge, drag, trudge, drag. Piece of cake.

“Oh.”

She chinned the radio off.

Click.

“Hell. Oh. Kiv. El. Sen.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Martha gave the rope an angry jerk, making the sledge carrying Burton’s body jump and bounce on the sulfur hardpan. “You’re dead, Burton, I’ve checked, there’s a hole in your faceplate big enough to stick a fist through, and I really don’t want to crack up. I’m in kind of a tight spot here and I can’t afford it, okay? So be nice and just shut the f*** up.”

“Not. Bur. Ton.”

“Do it anyway.”

She chinned the radio off again.

Jupiter loomed low on the western horizon, big and bright and beautiful and, after two weeks on Io, easy to ignore. To her left, Daedalus was spewing sulfur and sulfur dioxide in a fan two hundred kilometers high. The plume caught the chill light from an unseen sun and her visor rendered it a pale and lovely blue. Most spectacular view in the universe, and she was in no mood to enjoy it.

Click.

Before the voice could speak again, Martha said, “I am not going crazy, you’re just the voice of my subconscious, I don’t have the time to waste trying to figure out what unresolved psychological conflicts gave rise to all this, and I am not going to listen to anything you have to say.”

Silence.

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Escape Pod 381: Elias Smith and Jones

Show Notes

Special thanks to user Tomlija at FreeSound.org who created and/or recorded the sound effect used in this episode!


Elias Smith and Jones

by Mark English

Every space in the four thousand seat lecture theatre was taken. Additional folk had snuck in to sit on the dark steps at the back. With everyone whispering discretely, the noise was deafening to the grizzled old-timer who stood leaning on the lecturn at the front—or it would have been except for the myPod player earbuds delivering their tinny frantic bluegrass tunes into his head. He chuckled to himself as he looked up at the wall of people in front of him. Political leaders, military leaders, space systems engineers; all desperate to hear the words of an aged ship’s monkey from the Frontier. All because he and his co-conspirators had blackmailed the solar system.

Elias chuckled to himself again. Who would have figured things would have turned out so? He plucked the ear buds out. Instant silence. The university had scored a coup in convincing one of the Sundance gang to tell their tale since any spaceway robbers were generally executed. However the Sundance gang had a thirty year old secret, one that everyone wanted. With the removal of the first earbud old Elias had indicated he was ready to start; all the spectators held their breath.

Elias turned his face up to the watchers, felt the bright lights warming his face, and smiled a toothy grin. “Howdy folks, I’m good an’ pleased to be here today, to see so many notables amongst you. Some I have met before.” A five star general shuffled uncomfortably in his seat as if the warm smile made him sweat—which it did. Elias continued in his soft southern-states patois. “We are gathered here today to hear a story, so let’s go back thirty years, back to when I was even more good lookin’. My partners and I had just obtained a large cargo of rare earth metals from an asteroid cargo waggon, and this had been mistak’n for a robbery. I guess after these years I gotta ‘fess up and say that it sure as hell was a robbery!” Elias leaned forward and grinned at the Sheriff-Admiral in the front row like he was about to lay a golden egg—which as history showed he had (in a manner of speaking). The Sheriff-Admiral returned a tight grimace filled with thirty years of difficult restraint.

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Escape Pod 379: Concussion

Show Notes

Special thanks to users costaipsa, iankath, mario1298 and DJ Chronos at FreeSound.org who created and/or recorded the sound effects used in this episode!


Concussion

by David Glen Larson

He scrambled from the fire that was snaking through the corridor when another explosion jolted the ship, and just like that he was dead again. A moment later he was someone else, gazing down with another’s eyes at the mangled green body he’d left behind.

Never before had Tyler experienced such terror. Sure, he’d been afraid—afraid his knee would give out again, sidelining him for the big game; afraid he’d let down his teammates and make a fool of himself—but he’d never been terrified of being incinerated in an alien system countless light-years from the home world he was forced to flee. Not until now.

Staring up at the night sky, the stars were dim under the glare of the stadium lights. Which star was theirs? He caught himself and shook his aching head. It was only a dream, after all. The frog people weren’t real.

The doctor shined a penlight into each pupil. “Any headache, nausea, or dizziness?”

“What do you think? I was just hit by a freight train.” Good old Number 32—the biggest, meanest linebacker in the NFL.

“You may have a concussion.”

Coach Landis spit tobacco juice on the grass only inches from Tyler’s head. “We’re down 22-27 in the fourth quarter with under a minute to go. Montoya’s out, Casper’s out, and now you’re saying I’m out my third string too? Uh-uh, Doc. I need Harden in the game.”

“If he takes another hit—”

“A few aches and pains go with the territory,” said the coach.

“Forget aches and pains. I’m talking stroke or death. Those go with the territory?”

(Continue Reading…)

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