Author Topic: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows  (Read 3668 times)

eytanz

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EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« on: May 26, 2016, 11:21:51 AM »
EP531: Bend Back the Shadows

By Michael Reid

read by Summer Brooks

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Month 669, Day 10

When I was a little girl, Grandma used to tell me scary stories about the day the lights went out on Earth. Back then, she said, there were lots of people on our station. People would come and go from Earth all the time in little gray capsules. And then, one day, the capsules had stopped coming. Soon after that, the messages had stopped coming on the radio. Everyone on the station had hovered by the windows like ghosts, watching day after day as plumes of smoke erupted from the hearts of the cities, their trails snaking across the continents.

“But that wasn’t the worst of it,” Grandma would tell me. “Not by a long shot.”

“What was worse?” I asked her once, between lessons on medicine and aquaponics.

Grandma looked away when she spoke. “The worst part was watching the night sweep across the Earth and seeing that the darkness was empty. No more lights. Just shadows.”

Grandma used to live down on Earth, a long time ago. She was a doctor–a brain doctor. She said that one of the reasons she came up to the station was to see Earth from space with her own eyes. She loved the day side with its browns and greens and blues, but I think she loved the lights on the night side even more. I’ve seen pictures from back then, back when the whole Earth was covered with cities that glowed yellow at night. The pictures reminded me of the diagrams of neurons Grandma used to show me on her slate: nuclear cities connected to dendritic suburbs, all bound together by axonal highways. Then the end had come. Night after night, the web of neurons had disintegrated, like a brain consumed by Alzheimer’s. Grandma and the others had watched it all happen, watched each city flare brightly for a few seconds, then disappear forever.

Our station orbits Earth once every four hours: two hours over the day side and two hours over the night. Grandma said that, every time the station caught up to the night, she would go to a window and pray that there would still be lights. One orbit, she had gone to the windows and there had been only one light left on the whole dark side of the planet. One tiny light, smack in the middle of the big continent–Africa, it was called, when there were still people on it. Orbit after orbit, she watched for that spot, prayed the whole time it was in daylight that it would still be there when the night returned. She would wish on it like an ember, praying for it to spark and spread. But one day, less than a year after the last capsule had come to the station, darkness swept over the place where the light had been and the light was gone.

Grandma said that was the single worst day of her life. Worse than leaving Grandpa behind on Earth. Worse than watching the city where he lived go dark. Worse than watching all those plumes of smoke circling the planet. She said watching that last light be engulfed by the shadows was more fearful than losing all of the rest combined. “But it won’t always be this way,” she told me. “Someday those lights are going to come back. Someday you’ll see just the tiniest flicker down there, but that one tiny flicker will spread and soon it will bend back all those shadows.”


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!

Thunderscreech

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #1 on: May 27, 2016, 03:23:10 PM »
I got a totally different impression from the ending than the host, to me it sounded like someone dying of hypoxia or something.  Thousands of fuzzy lights drawing closer as the protagonist groggily confuses them for stars and tries to see constellations?  I think Suyin may have been fading out in her suit, did anyone else get the same idea?

I'm having difficulty visualizing how the orbits of the stations worked.  If they're blinking lights back and forth it sounds like they're really, really close.  I didn't catch any mention of brief encounter windows between the two either (if they spent hours blinking back and forth, the two must have been relatively motionless) yet the other station is described as being at a lower orbit.  I just couldn't wrap my head around that part, especially with the two being so close that they could see someone on EVA without a tether.  If the stations were at geosynchronous orbit, it might make sense, but only if they were at the same altitude and then there wouldn't be the '4 hour orbit' which suggests an altitude of a few thousand kilometers but far short of Geo. 

I feel like I've gotta be missing something basic here, can anyone figure out my malfunction?  If the other station was at a lower orbit, it should pass by periodically because it would orbit faster than the higher station, and if the passing speeds were slow enough for conversations to happen via flashlight, then they'd be out of range for weeks before the next conjunction.

acpracht

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #2 on: May 27, 2016, 04:07:00 PM »
I got a totally different impression from the ending than the host, to me it sounded like someone dying of hypoxia or something.  Thousands of fuzzy lights drawing closer as the protagonist groggily confuses them for stars and tries to see constellations?  I think Suyin may have been fading out in her suit, did anyone else get the same idea?

I'm having difficulty visualizing how the orbits of the stations worked.  If they're blinking lights back and forth it sounds like they're really, really close.  I didn't catch any mention of brief encounter windows between the two either (if they spent hours blinking back and forth, the two must have been relatively motionless) yet the other station is described as being at a lower orbit.  I just couldn't wrap my head around that part, especially with the two being so close that they could see someone on EVA without a tether.  If the stations were at geosynchronous orbit, it might make sense, but only if they were at the same altitude and then there wouldn't be the '4 hour orbit' which suggests an altitude of a few thousand kilometers but far short of Geo. 

I feel like I've gotta be missing something basic here, can anyone figure out my malfunction?  If the other station was at a lower orbit, it should pass by periodically because it would orbit faster than the higher station, and if the passing speeds were slow enough for conversations to happen via flashlight, then they'd be out of range for weeks before the next conjunction.

Well... I'm no orbital physicist to address that bit...

But I'd guess that the question about how to see that far between stations probably has a lot to do with having a telescope of some kind, even if it wasn't explicitly mentioned.

They have those in space, right? ;)

Not-a-Robot

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #3 on: May 27, 2016, 04:20:15 PM »

I'm having difficulty visualizing how the orbits of the stations worked.  If they're blinking lights back and forth it sounds like they're really, really close.  I didn't catch any mention of brief encounter windows between the two either (if they spent hours blinking back and forth, the two must have been relatively motionless) yet the other station is described as being at a lower orbit.  I just couldn't wrap my head around that part, especially with the two being so close that they could see someone on EVA without a tether.  If the stations were at geosynchronous orbit, it might make sense, but only if they were at the same altitude and then there wouldn't be the '4 hour orbit' which suggests an altitude of a few thousand kilometers but far short of Geo.  


Seriously, get out of my head. I was thinking the same thing. Also, wouldn't the station be in a BBQ roll to help with thermal control, so that the window is not always facing the same direction? Or is that just spacecraft that they do that with? Or are there lots of windows to provide all of the plants with sunlight? And 55 year (669 months) in space would be a serious killer of bone density...

As for the story, it was good. Strongly written with an honest voice. But overall I am starting to get a little tired of post apocalypse/last person stories.
« Last Edit: May 27, 2016, 04:31:49 PM by Not-a-Robot »

Arachnophile

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #4 on: May 28, 2016, 01:25:49 PM »
I really liked this story. Loved the voice, loved the way it was framed, and I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic. As others have noted, though, (and yes, I realize that this is strictly a result of my science-nerddom) the technical details that were offered either didn't fit together or didn't make sense. At one point it's stated that Milo's station moves past so quickly that he's just a blur in her telescope--but then they're within visual range of one another long enough to have extended Morse code conversations. Also, a significant difference in orbital velocity implies a very significant difference in orbital altitude (for example, an orbital period of 90 mins = ~300km altitude, while an orbital period of 100 mins = ~800km altitude.)  Flashlights are probably not gonna do it for communications.

I guess my preference would be to either get the details down, or leave them out.  That said, though, (repeating myself) I really liked the story as a whole.  Just picking nits here.

bounceswoosh

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #5 on: May 29, 2016, 11:40:27 AM »
The ending chilled me the more I thought about it. Best case, the lights are from human spacecraft, they pick her up, she's with people again - yay! But what if they're not human? And what if they are human, but because they get no radio response, they just leave her there?  The Earth is rebuilt, but she's trapped alone, watching the lights come back? *shudder*

Frank Evans

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #6 on: May 30, 2016, 10:26:33 AM »
I liked this story. There are a couple of details that made me pause and think "how does that work?" (the stations' orbits, the grandma's husband on earth being referred to as grandpa even though I have trouble imagining a pregnant woman going up into space, particularly if she left before any crisis occurred) but nothing that couldn't be smoothed out. And the overall story more than made up for any detail questions I might have had. It was well written and narrated, had an interesting premise, good characters and built a solid foundation on the way to its conclusion.

I think Thunderscreech's interpretation of the ending makes a lot of sense, but to me that's a pretty bleak ending. So I'm going to stick with the best possible conclusion that the lights are back on and that help will be coming.

Dwango

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #7 on: June 01, 2016, 09:12:53 AM »
I'm thinking that all the lights being down mean either some sort of EMPs were used or that something was implicitly interrupting the electrical grids.  This could be bombs from space, but the fact the the last city lasted so long, implies something was happening on the ground, and that last particular city was hard to get to.  Next, lights come from space to visit.  I just doubt that was of the human variety, as the people on the orbiters would probably have some knowledge of them, as they are obviously a part of the space program.  So, I'm thinking this has to be some sort of invasion where they cleansed the earth of its population and now are coming to take the planet.

It might be possible a nuclear war occurred, but the part about them not knowing there are other people out there, and in enough numbers to get that many lights, I doubt it, unless they are scavengers taking advantage.

The story was very sad in the end.  She never gives up in the face of the most heartbreaking adversity.  While I agree some of the science was stretched in this piece, there has to be some way for her to communicate with the other satellite.  This isolation from other people, yet having some communication, emphasizes how alone she is at the end of the piece.  One loved contact at a time, stripped in most emotionally debilitating ways, each time survival rising up to obliterate the allowance of mourning.  It's a wonder she didn't break, but maybe she did at the very end.  Maybe.


awfulhorrid

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #8 on: June 02, 2016, 11:19:40 PM »
I have very mixed feelings about this one, but I listened to the end, so I guess I have to say I mostly enjoyed it. Some of the scientific details already mentioned (orbital mechanics, mostly) did occur to me, but I'm generally willing to set those aside if they're not too blatant and are either dramatically necessary or if the way the work aren't strictly key to the story.

Unfortunately, the bit that left me questioning the actions of the characters left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. It seems like a long string of really bad choices - not so much in the short term (go out side, repair the radiator vs. dying an unpleasant death,) but over the entire time span described. Earth had a nuclear war (unless it was aliens, of course)? We're already off to a particularly bad start, but that's not exactly a small scale choice, and it's mostly a matter of setting. However, what were these people on the station thinking that any of them had children? Yes, the mother obviously touched on this herself and Suyin finally came to the same thought towards the end of the story.

Honestly, I was thinking through most of the story that it was long past the time to just de-orbit the station already, or at least take a nice relaxing EVA without a tether. Maybe the central theme was hope may not be enough? (Alternately: knowing when to give up.) That's a bit bleak, but most post-apocalyptic stories aren't really know for being bright and sunny, I guess.

Um. I don't want to end on a bad note, so I do have to say that although I thought they made a series of bad choices, I did like the strong female characters!
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Unblinking

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #9 on: June 07, 2016, 10:40:37 AM »
I did keep asking a lot of the sciencey questions too, even though I know very little about the science of space.  Mostly about the early detail that the lower station was moving so fast that the higher station couldn't fix on it with a telescope but then they were somehow communicating with light flashes for extended periods of time. 

But, that aside, I was willing to take it as a not-too-rigorous SF story and I'm fine with that. 

I liked all the characters, felt they all added to the story, having a way to communicate with someone who is entirely out of reach served to highlight the isolation and give at least some minor goal of desperation in her brief plan to try to jump from one station to the other. 

I hadn't considered that the lights might be hallucinations from hypoxia, but it does seem to me that they're not humans either or they would've known about them.  So, I'm guessing it's aliens and whether they stop and whether they find her there are big big questions, but I think the story ended at a suitable place where hope is strong but not certain.

adrianh

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #10 on: June 07, 2016, 03:24:32 PM »
What everybody else said basically. The core of the story was great, and the voice of the MC was wonderfully carried off. But the science stuff killed my suspension of disbelief.

In addition to the orbital mechanics the details of the biosphere didn't really hang together for me. The idea that you could grow out enough plant life for oxygen + food for (initially) dozens of people from an experimental lab — and keep that running for 50 odd years is just laughable. Let alone two generations of successful pregnancies and childbirth in microgravity.


Devoted135

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #11 on: June 08, 2016, 08:47:59 PM »
I'm so glad that I didn't think about all of the science holes while listening. I'm of the opinion that when the science falls into realms that are this well understood, it should either be rigorously correct or not addressed at all. In this case it was addressed but incorrect.

That said, the emotional arc of the story was really well done. The poor narrator was so strong and never gave up hope as layer after layer of her world was peeled away. I do tend to think she was succumbing to hypoxia at the end. This was a sad one!

Fenrix

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #12 on: June 17, 2016, 01:09:07 PM »
I love the ending on this one. The narrator's tone is cautiously hopeful but the likely outcome is doom.
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CryptoMe

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #13 on: November 23, 2017, 03:19:28 AM »
Add me to the Problems with Science camp. It really dragged me out of the story several times. One that hasn't been mentioned here is the supposed need for cooling. Space is very cold, as in 3 Kelvin (or -270 deg. Celsius). I have a very tough time believing that all the equipment on the station is so inefficient that it generates enough waste heat to warm the station to the point it needs cooling. I would expect that, considering sun/shade variations, the average temperature of the craft would be somewhere below 0C and so would need heating, not cooling.

The non-technical parts of the story were handled well, though.

Ichneumon

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #14 on: November 24, 2017, 04:18:12 PM »
I have a very tough time believing that all the equipment on the station is so inefficient that it generates enough waste heat to warm the station to the point it needs cooling. I would expect that, considering sun/shade variations, the average temperature of the craft would be somewhere below 0C and so would need heating, not cooling.

I'm not that knowledgeable about the physical sciences, but in the vacuum of space I think it is difficult to get the heat energy to dissipate. The international space station has a cooling system. See the below links
https://www.nasa.gov/content/cooling-system-keeps-space-station-safe-productive
https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2001/ast21mar_1

CryptoMe

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Re: EP531: Bend Back the Shadows
« Reply #15 on: November 27, 2017, 02:14:43 PM »
I have a very tough time believing that all the equipment on the station is so inefficient that it generates enough waste heat to warm the station to the point it needs cooling. I would expect that, considering sun/shade variations, the average temperature of the craft would be somewhere below 0C and so would need heating, not cooling.

I'm not that knowledgeable about the physical sciences, but in the vacuum of space I think it is difficult to get the heat energy to dissipate. The international space station has a cooling system. See the below links
https://www.nasa.gov/content/cooling-system-keeps-space-station-safe-productive
https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2001/ast21mar_1

Thanks so much for that,  Ichneumon. I didn't know. I mean, I knew that radiation was the main heat transport method, and it is fairly efficient in space, but I didn't realize that the space station was so well insulated that radiation no longer works so well. Also, I knew that the temperature variations between sun-facing and space facing would be really large, so I thought you would need a heat redistribution system. Live and learn.