Escape Pod 507: The Call of the Sky
The Call of the Sky
by Cliff Winnig
The army hospital’s underground floors reminded me of Pluto Base, a place I’d never actually been. I’d never even been off-world, but I remembered those claustrophobic beige corridors. Two years before, I’d synced with a bunch of my alts home on leave after basic training. Today for the first time I’d be meeting one who’d seen combat. More than that, one who’d become a hero, the only Teri Kang to survive the Battle of Charon.
We wouldn’t be syncing, though. Not this time. Not ever. Before she’d escaped the doomed moon — the moon she’d given the order to destroy — she’d been bitten. That’s what the G.I.s called it when Hive nanobots infected you: being bitten. Like it was a zombie plague or something.
Hell, it might as well be. Soon the only other Teri Kang in the universe would lose her fight with that infection, and the army docs would euthanize her. Under the circumstances, even coming home had been an act of courage. A lot of G.I.s who got bitten went AWOL rather than face the certain death of returning to base. Not for the first time, I wondered if I had such courage lying latent within me.
Flanked by MPs, I followed a nurse down hallway after hallway till we arrived at my alt’s room. Well, the room next to it, since she was quarantined. A smartglass wall separated me from the sterile chamber where the other Teri Kang would live out her last few hours.
I found her sitting at a desk, reading a newsfeed it projected in the air. She’d propped her head in her hands, elbows on the gray metal surface. I sometimes read like that, but only when sick or exhausted. She looked to be both. Right then, the anti-Hive nanobots they’d pumped her full of were fighting a battle every bit as pitched as the one she’d fought on Charon, one that would end for her the same way it had ended for the moon.
Hearing me enter, she raised her head and swiveled to face me. She moved as if her joints didn’t ache, as if she weren’t already running a fever, but I could tell. The MPs stationed themselves outside the door, and the nurse made his exit. That left us alone, save for the hidden cameras we both knew were watching.
My alt rose to her feet and put her hand against the glass. “Hi, Homebody. Glad you could make it.”
That’s what they called me. Homebody. The only Teri Kang who hadn’t enlisted when the Hive invaded. The one who’d stayed safe at home, teaching military history and tae kwon do at the University of Chicago, unwilling to drop tenure for a chance to help save the human race.
I made a show of taking her in, head to toe: a sick and dying soldierly version of myself.
“I’ve looked better,” I said.
This made her smile, as I’d hoped it would. Still, it was true. Her short hospital gown revealed dozens of half-healed scars on her arms, legs, and face. Repair nanobots can only work so fast, and hers had double duty helping their brethren fight against the Hive. Though she’d pulled her hair back in the same ponytail I wore at the dojang, loose strands clung to her face and neck. Her skin was ashen, and the circles under her eyes were dark, as if she hadn’t slept in days. Still, she looked better than she would an hour or two from now.
“True enough,” she said. “All in all, I’m glad you didn’t stop to run errands on the way over. Though you could have brought pizza. I really miss Giordano’s.”
“You can’t get stuffed pizza in space?”
“Nope.” She shook her head, then grinned. “It’s the only drawback, though.”
I stepped up to the glass and put my hand against hers, right against left. I wanted to embrace her, to comfort her, but I settled for what I could get. The glass could have been a magic mirror, opening onto some other world where the person staring back was a stranger. I met her brown eyes with my own. My boyfriend Dave calls them soulful, and he’s right, insofar as they’re windows to the soul. People used to say that before they could sync souls directly. So it was again for this Teri and me. Eyes would have to do. And words.
“We need to talk,” she said and glanced to her left.
I followed her gaze back to our twinned hands, noticed the plain gold ring on hers. The sudden force of that knowledge hit me harder than the news of my alts’ deaths, a whole unit of my alts dying, and the one survivor hours away from her own extermination. I’d been grimly determined to face my future solitude without giving into despair, but to see then how much I’d missed of the past, a past we could no longer share…
I backed away from the glass and sat down hard on the bench that was the only furniture on my side.
“You got married?”
She smiled at me, and it was a sad smile. “We all got married. Well, all of us who were in space.”
“To the same person?”
She nodded and lowered her hand from the glass. “Things get complex enough when you’re sharing multiple bodies, so all of us married all of her. We make do, though unlike me, my wife doesn’t serve in the same units as herself. We wanted to tell you. Hell, we wanted you to meet her, to come to the wedding, even if you didn’t want to opt into it, but it all took place during a security blackout. You wouldn’t be here even now if I hadn’t pulled strings. After Charon, I finally had the clout.”
Good to know some benefits come with being a hero.
“Since we couldn’t tell you then,” Teri said, “I wanted to tell you in person.”
“Sure.” She gave me a moment to finish digesting the news. While I sat there, she plopped herself down in her swivel chair, watching me the whole time. “So,” I said. “Tell me about her.”
“I can do better than that. One of her alts rode down with me. She didn’t get bitten, so I imagine she’s up on the roof. It’ll be nighttime soon, and she doesn’t like to lose sight of the stars.”
I shook my head, stood up, and started pacing the room. “She’ll have a tough time with that. Too cloudy.”
“Ah, yes. Chicago.” Her eyes followed my nervous movement. “She can fill you in on our marriage later. First we need to talk about the war. I asked her to give us some time alone together, but I don’t want to keep her waiting too long.”
“What’s her name? At least give me that.”
My alt rubbed her forehead. “Of course. It’s Shanti Jain. She’s a colonel. Well, most of her anyway. One of her alts just made general.” Military rank for alts is a delicate affair. It’s still new enough that the rules keep changing. “She’s a great strategist, good at predicting the Hive’s movements.”
Teri told me of Shanti’s military career, clearly proud of her accomplishments, though nothing about how they’d met or fallen in love. After a minute or two, she switched back to us. “I’ve gotten you clearance, a little bureaucratic trick. You’re still a civilian, but you’ve been reclassified as me, at least as far as the army’s concerned. You’ll have paperwork to sign, of course, when you leave.”
I stopped pacing and turned to stare at her. “You’re serious.”
She nodded once.
“You want me to enlist, don’t you? You want me to enlist and fork a bunch of alts into fast-grown bodies and recreate your damned all-Teri unit. You want me to pick up where you left off, blow up some other moon, and die a hero.” I was shaking, waving my hands. I knew I was overreacting, could feel it, but I couldn’t stop myself.
If my outburst had upset her, she gave no sign. She just cut past what I’d said to what I thought. “I miss them too, Homebody. I wish you’d gotten to meet more of us, to sync with more of us, but once they’d deployed us in covert ops — well, even if we had gotten shore leave on Earth, we couldn’t have synced with you. Only now, after Charon –”
“Charon!” I shouted. “What’s so big about Charon? So you blew up a moon! Give me enough explosives, and I could do the same thing.”
She cocked her head sideways, measuring me. I folded my arms, held my ground. We went on like this for a minute or two while I fought the urge to resume pacing. Then she smiled a half-smile, though her eyes stayed serious. “Could you? Knowing that more than a thousand uninfected troops remained on the surface? Knowing that all your alts, your best friends, your comrades-in-arms, were there too? Could you, if it had to be done?”
I looked down at my feet. “I don’t know,” I whispered. When I lifted my eyes again, I’m sure she saw the anguish there.
She nodded, approving of whatever she did see. “That is the beginning of wisdom.”
I chuckled. “Now you just sound patronizing.”
Her half-smile blossomed into a full one. “I leave that to the professors.”
“Touché. So if you’re not here to recruit me, why did you come home? It can’t be for the scenery. They’re not letting you leave the room.”
Now she laughed. “Actually, I am here to recruit you.”
I sat back down, not trusting myself to speak.
“Only as an advisor. Earth needs you. Humanity needs you. The Hive will keep coming, and we need your mind, your experience. Before our alts died on Charon, the docs started growing another batch of bodies. We were going to double ourselves, make another unit. That won’t happen now, of course. We still haven’t perfected out-of-body mind backups, so after I’m gone, that’s it. Unless, that is, you fork a new set of alts into those bodies. You could really make a difference. You know you’d work well together, and you wouldn’t be alone.”
I stood up, met her stare with my own. “I think it’s time I fetched your wife.”
“At least think about it, okay?”
I crossed to the door, which opened as I approached. Beyond, the MPs stood ready to escort me away.
From the roof I could see for miles in any direction, though the space elevator loomed over it all. Its shadow cut across nearby O’Hare, sliced the freeway in half, and fell like the Mongol hordes onto the buildings to the east. And it kept going, crossing the lake to the distant horizon.
I hated the damned thing. Dave says its power lies in our constant connection to space, but it tore me apart, split me from myself. I had three alts at the start of the war, and all of them rode its boxy cars two hundred miles straight up. When they forked more alts, they did it without me. When they died, they left me behind like an old photograph, an image locked in the past.
I found their wife at the edge of the roof, in the shadow of that great carbon tube. She stood at ease, hands behind her back, and stared toward downtown. A strip of her nut-brown neck showed below black hair shorn close to her scalp, above the collar of her khaki uniform. About my height, slender like a gymnast. When she turned at my approach, I saw delicate features, joined to a strong jaw by the elegant curve of her face. But her eyes, impossibly blue, commanded my attention. I’d never seen blue eyes on a South Asian before, yet hers didn’t look out of place. They looked like the eyes of a goddess. I could see why my alts had fallen for her.
I saw in her face an instant of joy, one that vanished when her subconscious caught up to what she knew to be true: I wasn’t her wife. I was just her wife’s alt. Nonetheless, she smiled at me, her teeth bright in the fading light. “You can call me Shanti.”
We shook hands, her grip firm and businesslike. “Teri’s told me all about you,” I said.
Shanti raised an eyebrow. “Has she? That’s too bad. I hope we’ll get along anyway.”
I laughed, feeling the grief float away, if only for the moment. “She said you have alts, but you don’t work alongside them.”
Shanti nodded. “I don’t get along with myself like Teri does. She works better with herself than anyone else, the perfect balance between loner and group thinker. It’s why she’s so effective tactically. Did she tell you how she contained thirteen separate Hive incursions on Charon, kept them from escaping the moon, from spreading to Pluto Base, long enough for ninety percent of our ground forces to evacuate? I’d worked out the seismic stress points, the places she’d have to place the bombs. Even while holding off the enemy, she positioned herself perfectly.”
She told me the story as we crossed the roof to the stairwell, her boots loud next to my sneakers. I wasn’t used to picturing places I’d never seen, not even in still images, but as she spoke I felt as if I too had been there with my sisters-in-arms, fighting the Hive-infected people and aliens. The Hive weren’t a species, like Homo sapiens. They were a collection of every species they’d absorbed. Some of the soldiers we’d fought had been human, but even more flew or hopped or slithered their way across the battlefields of Charon, all bent on using the moon as a staging ground to infect Earth’s main base in the Kuiper belt.
Shanti’s face glowed with pride as she spoke of her joint accomplishment with Teri. She’d worked remotely with her other selves to plan the overall strategy, and the Teri Kang unit had executed it brilliantly. Then her face showed the next logical step: her wife’s decision to sacrifice herself so that more of the other troops could escape. She broke eye contact and turned back toward the city. “I’ve never been to Chicago. I’ve been given a few days, so before I return…”
“I can show you around, play native guide. You can meet Dave.”
She raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Ah.” Shanti opened the door to the stairs. “Well, let’s go below. How was she when you left?”
We exited the stairs on the first floor, then passed a checkpoint to enter the underground levels, and another one for Teri’s floor. By the time we got back, we could see it wouldn’t be long.
Shanti approached the glass and put her hand up as Teri had with me. My alt stood with effort to return the gesture. They stayed that way for so long I felt like an intruder. I sat quietly on the bench, barely even breathed. At length Shanti lowered her hand and sat down beside me.
Teri shuffled to her cot, where she lay still and closed her eyes, her breathing labored. Within minutes, she’d soaked her gown with sweat, so that bits of the material fell apart. Her chest rose and fell, its rhythm growing uneven. She began to thrash, to call out – names from our shared childhood, names I didn’t recognize, from after we’d forked.
Safe on our side of the barrier, Shanti and I watched in silence. Sometime during that final hour, she took my hand.
Teri moaned and bucked, then lay still, unconscious at last. After maybe twenty minutes, she sat up and rubbed her eyes, as if she’d merely woken from a nap. She turned to face the glass, but she looked past us into the middle distance. “The sky,” she said. “The sky is calling.”
That’s when the door to our room opened. The nurse returned, the MPs right behind him. In quiet, professional tones, he told us to say goodbye and leave. It was time, he said.
I took one last look at myself and followed Shanti out to the cold, empty corridor.
It’s a curious thing to see yourself for the last time, to know you’re truly alone again. When alt technology became affordable, years before the war, I felt drawn to the way it opened up possibilities. I could take different life paths, sync memories, and so explore them all. I knew intellectually a day like this might come, yet my new solitude felt stranger than my younger self — the self who underlay all my alts — could have imagined.
I took comfort in the mundane rituals of death. The funeral was short and dignified. Apart from the chaplain, only Shanti, Dave, and I attended. Afterwards, we took an aircar back to the apartment I shared with Dave, in the Hyde Park neighborhood near the university. Ever thoughtful, Dave asked Shanti what she’d like to do. We could have a simple meal, he said, or order in. Or he and I could go out for a bit and give her some space. He took care not to give the impression he’d prefer any particular option.
“Thanks,” Shanti said. “But I’ve always been partial to wakes.” She flashed us a sad smile that reminded me of my alt’s. “Teri was always on about the pizza here. Though they gave me a few days, I’ve decided to head back in the morning. Too much needs doing up there. Still, I’d like to try this Chicago-style pizza thing before I go.”
“I’ll order take-out and bring it back,” Dave said, “give you two a chance to unwind here.” He called in the order, then bundled up and headed out, even though it wouldn’t be ready for forty minutes. I dashed after him, catching him in the drafty hall that led to the stairwell.
“Why the rush, Dave?”
“I thought you might like some time together. I mean, it’s not like I don’t trust you.”
It stung that he’d even thought along those lines. “She’s her widow, not my wife.”
He held up his gloved hands, surrendering. “Of course, but you both have a bond to the deceased I don’t share.” Dave’s a good guy, but he’s a singleton. He never even considered forking alts. He knew I had alts, but I’d met him after the war. Maybe for him they were a distant thing, a theoretical possibility. Teri and Shanti’s appearance had made the theoretical uncomfortably real.
“Sure,” I said. I hugged him briefly, then let him go. He headed downstairs without another word and out into the autumn night.
Back in the apartment, I found Shanti had helped herself to our scotch. She’d poured two glasses, though, and handed me one before raising hers.
“To Earth!” she said. “How I’ll miss her!” We clinked glasses and drank. She downed hers, but I just took a sip. Dave and I usually drank wine, and we seldom had a second glass.
Shanti crossed to the living room window. That side of the building overlooked a small park. “You know what makes Earth great?”
I shrugged, though she couldn’t see the gesture. “Stuffed pizza?”
“Naw. I haven’t even had it yet.” She used her empty shot glass to point to the trees outside. “Life! It’s brimming with life. In space we make our bubbles, build our habitats, but here it literally bursts out of the ground. And humanity — hell, that was quite an achievement.”
She turned back to me, her face unreadable. “Okay, Homebody, it’s truth time. Did Teri tell you what’s happening up there, what it’s really like?”
“I’ll tell you the rest, but first a question: before you had clearance, when you were just another civilian, what did you know or guess?”
I frowned and took another sip of scotch. “People … wonder. It’s no secret the Hive first showed up at the Oort cloud, infected a few miners, and then swarmed its way inward to the Kuiper belt.”
Shanti nodded. “That much is declassified. I imagine everyone on Earth knows about Pluto Base.”
“Yeah, and Charon too. It’s not like you could hide an exploding moon from all the amateur astronomers.”
“As you say.”
“What I’ve been wondering — what I still wonder — is this. As the name implies, the Oort cloud’s a rough sphere. The Kuiper belt, like the asteroid belt and all the planets, lies in the plane of the ecliptic. It’s not talked about, but if you do any digging, you find the first comet miners attacked were in a part of the Oort cloud forty degrees north of the ecliptic.”
“And?” Shanti crossed the room to the bottle and refilled her glass.
“If the Hive wants to infect humanity, why is it mucking around fighting our forces in the Kuiper belt? Why don’t they just fly in from the Oort cloud directly to Earth?”
Shanti downed her second shot. “Why indeed?”
On Earth the Hive was a distant concern, way out in the Kuiper belt. We knew they were gunning for us, wanting to make us their latest acquisition, but we had faith, faith in our united armed forces, faith in the human spirit. Teri’d had that faith as well, and she’d had a much more informed view of our chances.
Shanti seemed to follow the trail of my thoughts. “You’re just like her.” She scowled, as if the very idea angered her. “I can see Iwo Jima in your eyes.”
I cocked my head sideways, studying her. “You mean the statue of the marines raising the US flag?”
She snorted. “The military history prof gets it in one. You think we can beat the Hive, don’t you? We just need the kind of spirit embodied by that image, and we can beat them, stay human.”
“Teri thought so,” I said quietly.
She didn’t reply, but I saw in her face I’d just entered a long-standing argument between them.
Shanti put down her glass and strode to the apartment door. “Come on. We’ve got a few minutes till Dave gets back. Let’s go outside.”
Shrugging on my coat, I followed her out to the park. She didn’t bother with her own coat, wearing only her dress uniform. Leaves crunched under her boots as she hiked to the clearing in the center. There she stood, waiting for me to catch up.
“Do you know how cold it is out here?” I said.
“I’m okay. It’s colder on Pluto.” She pointed up at the sky. “Look. There’s a break in the clouds.”
It was true. Most of Orion floated above, twinkling. “See anyone up there you know?” I asked, trying to lighten the mood.
She shook her head. “Too few remain.”
“Then why are you going back so soon? I’ve lost a piece of myself, sure, but it’s not the same. You lost your wife — all of your wife.” I suddenly felt embarrassed, knowing myself a mere doppelgänger.
She looked at me. Even in the cloud-obscured moonlight, her eyes shone blue. “You think I need more time to grieve, is that it?”
She turned back to the stars. “I’m not grieving. You heard Teri there at the end, same as I did. The sky called to her. That was her Hive nanobots making a connection, despite all the EM blocking fields and two dozen floors between her and the rest of the Hive. The army killed her, put her down like a rabid dog, but not before part of her uploaded to the Hive. Maybe only a small part, but a part.” She turned to me, her jaw set. “No offense, but it wasn’t worth most of her dying just to talk to you.”
I could see it then, almost as if Teri and I’d synced, how she’d urged my alt to go AWOL when she’d been bitten, despite knowing that when the Hive took her over, she’d give them all her military secrets.
“Charon’s not the only time we engaged them,” Shanti said, still watching the sky. “We’d lose someone, someone would get bitten, and we’d shoot them, take them out completely, head shot and all. Then a week or a month would go by and we’d see them again, maybe looking just like before, maybe in some crazy body with tentacles and fish eyes and an exoskeleton, but the thing would speak in their voice, their speech patterns, know stuff only they knew. We’d blow it away, but then sure as anything they’d be back again the next time we fought.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, or even how I felt about it. Violated, maybe. Relieved. That ghastly combination silenced me, while wheels within wheels spun in my head.
“They’re up there,” Shanti said, “waiting for you, me, and the rest of humanity. You want to know why the Hive didn’t just skip the Kuiper belt and go straight to Earth? They don’t want to miss anyone. They’re here to make us all Hive. Everyone. Certainly every human, but maybe every animal too, or at least every mammal. For all I know they might integrate the trees.” She gestured at the ring of oaks around us. “They preserve everything, link it all up. And really, is that so different from what we do, splitting our minds among multiple bodies? Did we become the Hive even before we started to fight them? Who’s to say it’s not humanity who’ll wind up running the place once we’re onboard?”
“But we won at Charon,” I growled, sounding to my own ears like all my military alts. “We saved Pluto Base. We’re fighting them still.”
Shanti waved a hand, dismissing the notion. “A rearguard action. A delaying tactic. They’re coming, Homebody. They’ll take Pluto Base, maybe next week, maybe next month. Then they’ll take Titan and Europa and Mars. They’ll swallow Earth and keep going until they’ve got the whole damned solar system.” She smiled, then, looked back at the sky. “After that, they’ll move on, only we’ll be there too. Humanity’s oldest dream: to touch the stars.”
I followed her gaze to the deceptively quiet night sky. The clouds had broken apart and blown away, leaving a vast starscape arching above.
“Do all the troops feel like you do?” I asked.
Shanti shrugged, as if such concerns were irrelevant. “Everyone at HQ.”
“Then why fight them at all? Why not give in and let yourselves get taken over, become a bunch of marionettes?”
“Believe me, I thought about it. Teri did too, though her stubborn streak won out, her insistence on ‘staying human,’ as she called it. Still, I thought there might be more than one way to merge with the Hive. Who says we have to do it on their terms? They’ll take us in, pull our strings, as you say. That’s inevitable. But before they do, right up to the last moment, even as we get absorbed, we can show them what Teri showed them: the human spirit.”
We stood in silence for a minute or two while I followed her logic, digested her philosophy. I felt the latter infect me as if it too were a Hive nanobot swarm, though I fought against it. I doubted the human spirit would survive inside the Hive. That’s when my path — and the path for all my future alts — unfolded before me.
“Take me with you,” I said.
I didn’t think about Dave before I spoke. I loved him, had figured someday I’d marry him, but now I couldn’t see it, not unless I went up there and turned the tide of the war.
Shanti raised an eyebrow, though she didn’t say anything. I wondered if Teri had even told her she’d offer me that new batch of alts if I joined the cause.
“Not as a soldier,” I said, “and not as your wife. As a civilian advisor. I’ve already got clearance, and I’ve got millennia of military history under my belt. I bet I can come up with a thing or two.”
“I bet you could, but it’s out of the question. Stay here. Enjoy your time with Dave. We’ll all meet up again, one way or another.”
Colonel Shanti Jain was brave, a good soldier, no doubt a brilliant strategist. But she wasn’t a hero, not like Teri had been. The war had gotten to her. Maybe I couldn’t help her — or anyone else at HQ, if they truly thought as she did — but I could try. I could make a difference. So I pulled out my trump card, one I hoped still had weight with her.
“Teri believed in me,” I said. “That’s why she came home.”
Shanti frowned. “You really think you can find a way to defeat the Hive?”
“We’ll find it together.”
She stared at me with those eyes like twin blue suns. “All right.” Her gaze flicked back to the apartment building, and she hugged herself, as if the cold were finally getting to her despite her protest. “Let’s go back inside. I want to catch the morning car up the shaft, and you need to pack.”
About the Author
Cliff Winnig’s short fiction appears in the anthologies That Ain’t Right: Historical Accounts of the Miskatonic Valley, Gears and Levers 3, When the Hero Comes Home: 2, Footprints and elsewhere. The twitterzines Outshine and Thaumatrope have published his very short fiction.
Cliff is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and a three-time finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.
When not writing, Cliff plays sitar, studies tai chi and aikido, and does choral singing and social dance, including ballroom, swing, salsa, and Argentine tango. He lives with his family in Silicon Valley, which constantly inspires him to think about the future.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.