Would you rather be smart or happy?
*Some spoilers follow*
Written by Nancy Kress and read by Sheri Mann Stewart, Ej-Es is a slow story that truly creeped up on me and whose ending left me with a feeling of exquisite anguish.
At first I felt somewhat restless with the story because I thought it was going to be a tale of military irony - people go in with all guns blazing only to have some hidden aspect of the world or society turn the tables on them. I already got some of that this week in the disappointing Mother Tongue on Variant Frequencies. Truly loved the Rick Stringer's narration and the sound effects are tremendous, but the story felt two dimensional.
Once I could see it wasn't that type of story, I found myself caring about the protagonist, Mia. Sheri Mann Stewart made her sound bone tired but steel willed in her determination to do good while she still could. Sheri Mann Stewart's voice cracked a couple of times in the story and this added so much to the sense of determination I found in Mia's character, intended or not!
Her crew lands on a planet whose colonists underwent a massive plague some 250 years ago. The remnants of that society are now barely more than primitive humans who are under a continual, permanent delusion of literally orgasmic intensity. They can't cook, they can't build - they can't possibly be capable of looking after themselves. But the crew decides that they shall not extend a cure. It is a "biologically based cultural difference", and more importantly, they are not dying out. Somehow they are actually increasing in population.
The crew leaves and Mia arranges to be left behind with supplies - and the cure. She applies it to the one "friend" she had made, Es-Efeb. It takes days and is painful, but she is cured. Mia teaches her some basics such as water purification, sanitation, food storage and health care. Mia travels to the next place to continue with her cures. And in the night, all by herself, Es-Efeb wails out in the night, a mournful, cry of "I am alone" in her own language.
It was a damning ending. The wailing sadness of Sheri Mann Stewart's Es-Efeb made me do a complete 180 in an instant. I had been hoping that Mia could cure these people, a hope which tasted like ash in my mouth as I suddenly realised what she was taking away from them at the same time. Better happy than smart.
Escape Pod forum for this story.