Excerpt


“There is only one way across, and with the shielding destroyed, it will expose whoever takes it to a dose of radiation that will almost certainly be lethal,” said LEA.

Mina smiled wanly. “Almost certainly, you say? Give me the chance of survival, then.”

“You would be subjected to the full force of ionizing radiation from the solar event that the station was commissioned to study. Your suit would provide negligible protection, and it is 99.99% certain that you will be exposed to a lethal dose of 1000 rads or more.”

“Death by sunshine exposure,” Mina said. “And the .01%?”

“That only exists because my programming does not permit rounding to 100%,” said LEA.

“Immediate effects of acute radiation syndrome will include nausea and vomiting, following which there will be a temporary lull in symptoms lasting 24-36 hours. Your condition will rapidly deteriorate thereafter, and you will be subject to radiation-induced traumas including, but not limited to, severe diarrhea, erythema, blistering, intestinal paralysis, gangrene, and eventually a total disintegration of bodily functions. Estimated survival time is 120-168 hours, with no useful consciousness after hour 96.”

“You always did have the best bedside manner, LEA,” said Mina. “And there’s no other way to get to the relay?”

“Not at this time.”

Mina took a deep breath, gulping down the cool, cold recycled air with a spasm that sounded like a sob. “All right,” she said weakly. Then, again: “All right.” She tried to keep her voice from quavering, to project an air of confidence, as if LEA was capable of judging her, the only living human being left in the power station.

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When they first came, they took the forest’s bark, and the old trees that had fallen. But the stubborn forest persisted.

In time, they took the trees themselves, one at a time, toppling them and hauling them off. But the stubborn forest persisted.

Then came great metal claws, and teeth that tore and shredded harder and faster than any before while belching poison. But the stubborn forest persisted.

Soon there were few trees left, and they were cordoned off to one side, too small to be useful, while new forests grew nearby–forests of squares, of oily surfaces, of dancing and captive flames. But the stubborn forest persisted.

Then the new forests grew silent. The dancing and captive flames went out. The new square forests, flimsy, collapsed upon themselves. Empty, dead, and abandoned for those few places that remained as refuge. But the stubborn forest persisted.

It is quiet now, and the boundaries of the forest are expanding. The world is different now, and some of the trees can no longer survive. But the stubborn forest persisted.

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CARL: This is Carl Drake, play-by-play commentator for NBS Broadcasting, coming to you delayed via the NBS Sports Podcast. The NBS Sports Podcast: what new talent outgrows and where old talent comes to die.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. This is Tom Hicks, color commentator for NBS Broadcasting, and in addition to the absurdities of putting two of its most experienced sportscasters in a low-bitrate format with no actual sports to commentate, we’re here to talk to you about Northern Mississippi University football’s coach, Mark Skywalker, who was let go this week in a shocking turn of events.

CARL: Only shocking if you hadn’t been paying attention, Tom. The NMI Confederates are 4-8 this season, their third losing season in a row, and they just lost a heartbreaker to Eastern Mississippi by a single point in overtime after leading the Bird-Dogs for three quarters.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, rumors of Coach Skywalker’s demise were rampant for years, but let’s not forget that he came to the NMI Confeds while they were under NCAA sanctions for paying players under the table and he was hobbled by both those sanctions and the ignominious end of his predecessor, who was caught up in a prostitution ring sting operation in Las Vegas.

CARL: Well, whether you think that Coach Skywalker deserved another chance or not, you can’t argue that the way he was fired was not the best.

TOM: That’s right, Carl. Normally one expects a formal meeting or joint press release, but in this case, by all accounts, the decision was written in eyeliner on a dryer sheet and Skywalker only found out when NBS Sports reached out to him for comment.

CARL: I don’t think we can repeat his reaction on the air, even if this is just a podcast.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, and even if we could I don’t think we could match his heady mix of disappointed stoicism and florid sailor talk.

CARL: Add to that the indignity of being fired literally as the first act of the Confeds’ new athletic director, himself less than two weeks in the position, and appointed by the controversial new NMI president who is himself on the job less than two months.

TOM: That’s right, Carl, and with both hires accused of corruption and cronyism, it’s anyone’s guess who will wind up as the new head of oblate spheroids at NMI–a position so prestigious and well-paid that even the salary is considered to be a Mississippi state secret. My thought is that they’ll try to lure Gunderson away from the Bird-Dogs at Eastern Mississippi.

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Our car idles on the side of the road as the cruiser’s lights flash. The officer saunters up, gestures for us to lower the window.

“Do y’all know why I pulled you over?” he drawls, his eyes inscrutable behind mirrored shades.

“Uh, no, officer, I don’t.”

A badge flashes, held safe in a leather wallet. “Kentucky Fashion Police,” he says. “Ordinarily we don’t pull people over, but after seeing what y’all were doing, well…we had to make an exception. Please step out of the vehicle.”

“Are you really allowed to arrest people for bad fashion choices?”

The officer sucks at something in his teeth. “Boy,” he says, “this here’s Kentucky. We let a lot slide by, but not this. You best thank your lucky stars you weren’t wearing that in California. CFP’d have you in the chair for it.”

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“Isn’t this just…electric cruelty?” said Ms. Muscovy. “How much electricity are you putting through these rats?”

Dr. Sputtersnipe proudly tapped on one of the gilded cages. “The scale goes up to two blocks, but we don’t usually subject them to more than about one block.”

Ms. Muscovy cocked a skeptical eyebrow. “A block? How much, pray tell, electricity makes one block?”

“Well, a block is approximately 5.5 blockettes,” the doctor said.

“And 5.5 is a standard measurement, is it?”

“We thought it was 5 even at first, but we had to revise our estimate as we got better instruments.”

“And how many amps are in a blockette?” said Ms. Muscovy.

“Well, that’s apples and oranges, you see,” replied Dr. Sputtersnipe. “The blockette is a measure of electric potential.”

Muscovy grunted. “How many volts, then?” she snapped.

“Well, again-”

“Stop trying to confuse me,” Ms. Muscovy said. “Just relate this unit you are coursing through the experimental rats to something the rest of us are familiar with–volts, watts, joules, what have you!”

Dr. Sputtersnipe shrugged. “We’re not really sure,” he said. “But we do know that if you run 2 blocks of power through a rat, it becomes a squishy living goo. Let me show you in the airtight containment cage.”

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“Snakehead? I suppose it is as good as any other, as names go,” the supermassive fish growled. “Since you insist on remaining out of my reach, I must wonder what business you have with me.”

Anur, Rana, and Bufo croaked quietly a moment before responding. “We wish you to go,” Rana said. “Take your leave of our pond and trouble us no longer.”

“Ha!” Snakehead said. “Bold words indeed. A fish, leaving a pond? You might as well ask a spider to swim.”

“We’ve seen you go out of the water. It’s how you got here.” Bufo’s voice was low, as menacing as he could make it. “You pretend to have a weakness that you don’t really have.”

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The experiment had been a success.

By careful distillation and even more careful dehydration, Hudson had been able to reduce most common domestic animals into a simple emulsion for easy transport and storage. There had been some early problems with bovines becoming too diluted into a thin and useless ‘aqua moo,’ and even more problems with thermal expansion–an ‘aqua moo bulge’–but Hudson had finally worked everything out.

The contract had already been signed: a test batch of 100 cats in a single beaker to help eradicate a rodent problem on a distant island where transportation costs were a major factor. Everything was read to go…

…until Hudson elbowed over the very beaker he was about to ship, spilling the concentrated cat-emulsion into a bucket of water. With the one hundred cats suddenly reconstituted–and diluted–it was safe to say that the cats became very abundant indeed, and Hudson’s priorities very quickly shifted from profit to survival.

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