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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.

(Continue Reading…)

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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.


(Continue Reading…)

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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 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 721: Hustle


Hustle

By Derrick Boden

I’m all stims and grins as I kick open the door to West Precinct, strung-out bounty dangling from my headlock like a slab of vat beef with a fauxhawk. Inside, it’s the regular bullshit: a row of five tellers–one for each of the bounty app networks–a half-dozen grime-streaked auto-cuff stations, four janitors, one cop. Everyone’s hustling, of course–cobbling gig-shifts to cover backlogged tuition payments and overdue streaming services, eyes glazed and fingers flensed to bone. Everyone except the cop, who’s there to lock up after everyone bails for the evening rideshare rush. She’s a loophole, a salaried ultra-minority, a relic of pre-privatization. She gives me the creeps.

I wrangle my mark to the EpicBounty desk. “Payday, y’all.”

The teller stares at me with soulless eyes. “Name and ID.”

Her DMV monotone is the stuff of legend. Of course she recognizes me–I’m not sporting a latex halter top and violet-tuned contax to blend in. But I’m still riding the post-gig high, so I play along.

“Violetta Yamamoto–”

“Into the lens, ma’am. You know the drill.”

Of course I know the drill. I’m a five-star double elite EpicBounty hunter, two tiers shy of max. Max elites qualify for fucking health insurance. No one in King County’s amassed more rep than me since I made parole five years ago–seventy-four thousand points and counting.

But who’s counting? (Continue Reading…)

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Escape Pod 717: Listening


Listening

By Bob DeRosa

At exactly nine in the morning, Karen tapped the green box on her tablet screen and said, “Hello, my name is Karen. I’m listening.”

After a pause, a young woman said, “I’ve never done this before.”

“Whatever’s on your mind, feel free to share.

“Okay,” said the young woman. “I uh…my landlord’s raising my rent again. And…I have two kids and I work two jobs and their father…he’s just never around, y’know?

There was another pause, and Karen knew the young woman was trying not to cry. Still, the tears came. “And I don’t know what to do about it. I usually ask my mother for help but she’s not doing so good herself…”

Karen leaned back in her chair and settled in for the call. Her cubicle was small, but comfortable. A small desk held her tablet on a stand that was connected to the wireless headset she wore every day. The floor she worked on was a sea of identical cubicles. Every morning, Karen would enter the lobby of the unmarked corporate high-rise with the rest of her co-workers at the Listening offices. No one stood out. No pink hair or hipster beards, no sexy dresses or flashy ties. The plainness of the employees’ appearance matched their demeanor. There were no wishes of good mornings or smiles of greeting. (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 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 707: Rule of Three (Part 3 of 3)


Rule of Three (Part 3 of 3)

By Lawrence M. Schoen

Late in the day Foom laced its fingers with my clone’s and I felt my consciousness pushed aside. Not entirely out, but no longer in control of my doppelganger. There wasn’t the exchange of knowledge and insight that had accompanied this gesture in the past. I followed the alien’s focus, using everything I’d learned in the last few days. I could see what it was doing, but not understand it. “Can you explain what’s happening?” I asked.

“I am crafting what you would call a retrovirus from your double’s cells. Actually, many variations of this retrovirus. If I am successful, one of them will rewrite your gonads and ultimately alter the viability of any spermatozoa they produce. He’ll still produce semen in the normal fashion, but it will be inert for reproductive purposes. No ‘Jing’.”

Foom grinned as it said that last word, lapsing from the Miao tongue into Chinese for an old word from Chinese medicine for ‘sexual energy’ that I must have picked up years ago and long since forgotten. Apparently, it had pulled more than just the one language from me.

“Shooting blanks, as the Americans would say,” I added.

“Thus ensuring the extinction of your species without causing any physical harm to the living.” (Continue Reading…)