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  1. EP507: The Call of the Sky : Escape Pod

    EP507: The Call of the Sky

    Filed in 10 and Up, Podcasts on October 22, 2015 with 2 comments

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    Tags: alien invasion, borg, cliff wining, disease, fiction, Marguerite Kenner, nanobots, pluto, podcast, sci fi, science, science fiction, Science Future, space, space battle, the call of the sky

    EP507: The Call of the Sky [ 35:43 ] Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

    by Cliff Winnigread by Marguerite Kenner

    This story was originally published in the anthology When the Hero Comes Home: 2.

    Discuss on our forums. 

    For a list of all Escape Pod stories, authors and narrators, visit our sortable Wikipedia page

    author Cliff Winnig

    about the author…

    from the author’s website:

    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. He can be found online at http://cliffwinnig.com.

    narrator Marguerite Kenner

    about the narrator…

    Marguerite is a native Californian who has forsaken sunny paradise to be with her true love and live in Merrye Olde England. She frequently wears so many hats that she needs two heads. When she’s not grappling with legal conundrums as a trainee solicitor or editing Cast of Wonders, she can be found narrating audio fiction, studying popular culture (i.e. going to movies and playing video games) with her partner Alasdair Stuart, or curling up with a really good book. You can follow her at her personal blog, Project Valkyrie, or on Twitter via @LegalValkyrie.

    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.

    “Colonel Jain?”

    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.

    “My boyfriend.”

    “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?”

    “Some.”

    “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?”

    “Why not?”

    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.”

    http://escapepod.org/2015/10/22/ep507-the-call-of-the-sky-2/

    —Huffduffed by rycaut

  2. Escape Pod 412: Thirty Seconds From Now

    Thirty Seconds from Now by John Chu

    One second from now, the bean bag will thunk into Scott’s left palm. From reflex, his fingers will wrap around it before he’ll toss it back up again. The trick of juggling lies not in the catch but in the toss. The bean bag will arc up from his right hand, but Scott sees his left hand blur now. Phantom left hands at the few places his left hand may be one second from now overlap with each other, and with his real left hand about a foot above the cold tile floor he’s sitting on. The same holds for the phantom bean bags. They overlap each other and the result looks nearly as cubic, red, and solid in the air, stark against the dorm room’s blank walls, as the bean bag does right now resting in Scott’s right hand.

    He’s making a good toss. This catch will be easy. His three bean bag cascade looks to him the way he imagines it must look to anyone else, well, if they were near-sighted and missing their glasses.

    When he makes a bad toss, translucent Scotts scatter across the room. They reach for the beds on either side of him, lunge for his or his roommate’s desk, and dive over his bed for the closet. They all stretch for the myriad translucent bean bags raining from the stucco ceiling. The bean bags threaten to knock over the desk lamps, bury themselves in the acting textbooks that line his closet shelf and smack against the window blinds. A desperate enough toss and a phantom bean bag may fly through the doorway into the hall.

    He does not need his time-skewed senses to know he will eventually make a bad toss. As hard as he tries to keep his sight solid, to make his life predictable, he will drop a bean bag. That’s why he’s sitting on the floor. It’s easier to pick up dropped bean bags that way.

    #

    Five seconds from now, someone will walk past the open door of his dorm room. Scott doesn’t recognize him. He’s just arrived at the university and can barely recognize his roommate, a long-haired rail of a man who left him to eat breakfast in the basement cafeteria. The man who will walk past the door is about the same height as the bulletin board across from Scott’s room. His thick body will block what he’s posting from view. His dark hair will lie on his head like a mane. Looking at the man’s back, Scott sees a rounded teddy bear quality to him. What attracts Scott, though, is the man’s clarity.

    Scott can read the man’s t-shirt. It lists films the Department of Media Studies screened at a festival this past summer. Five distinct fingers will splay to hold his flyer in place as the other hand pushes pins into the cork. His actions show none of the uncertainty, the blurriness that everyone else’s shows. It’s been years since anyone has looked so clear to him.

    The future is messy. Scott’s senses feed him all possible futures at once. He’s learned to wander only a few seconds ahead. That’s close, but it’s still not normal. This man, though, is a relief to his senses. He makes everything clean. Scott wonders for how long he can ogle the man and if he’ll ever walk by the room again. He untethers his senses, and the future rushes in.

    #

    Thirty seconds from now, the man, when he turns to leave, will see Scott juggling. He will rip the flyer he posted off of the bulletin board. The dorm room door will bounce against the closet wall when he knocks on it. A boom will punctuate the bounce. The man will stare at the door chagrined. Scott finds him even more like a teddy bear from the front.

    “Hey, I’m Tony.” He’ll shrug as if to say that he didn’t know his own strength. “How long have you been juggling?”

    No alternate phrasings or completely different sentences overlap Tony’s words. Scott hears what Tony will say as clearly as if Tony were speaking to him now.

    “Five years.” Juggling taught him control, to work in the now. “Why?”

    “My senior project–” Tony’s hands will play with his crumpled flyer. “Can I come in?”

    Tony’s smile will be warm and Scott’s a sucker for a warm smile. Scott will nod.

    “Here’s the deal.” Tony will toss his flyer into the wastebasket. “I want to be the next Fellini. I need a juggler for my senior project. And I want you.” He will dig a finger into Scott’s shoulder. Phantom bean bags will fall around Scott. “Interested?”

    “Don’t know enough about your senior project.” The bean bag may fall two inches to the left of Scott’s left hand. His juggling is blurry, but his words to Tony sound as clear as Tony’s words to him. “Also, the Department of Theater and Dance has a mixer tonight in the atrium of the Center for the Arts. I should find out about everyone else’s projects too. Stop by tomorrow, maybe.”

    “Sure.” Tony will look disappointed as he backs out of the room. “Tomorrow.”

    #

    About nine hours from now, the roommate will be downstairs partying with friends. He will have mentioned something to Scott about either jello shots or kamakazes and Scott will have said no. The dorm room will be dark and empty when its door unlocks. A hand will fumble for the light switch. It’ll be Tony’s. His other arm will be around Scott, trying to slow his breathing.

    “What happened to you, anyway?” Tony will set Scott’s keys on the closest desk. When Scott pulls away, Tony’ll let go of him. “One moment, you’re standing by yourself in a corner of the atrium. The next moment, you can’t breathe.”

    Scott will have already plucked his bean bags, sitting next to his keys, from his desk. Seated on the floor between the beds, he’ll juggle.

    “I didn’t expect so many people at the mixer,” Scott will say.

    He doesn’t do well with crowds. A bad trait for an actor. The multiple alternate selves fill a room and their cacophony sounds like the chaos of all future conversations heard at once. That noise is not the certainty of rehearsed lines and preset blocking on stage. It’s what he’s worked so hard to avoid and what he doesn’t hear when he’s talking to Tony.

    Tony will sit on Scott’s bed. His gaze will follow the bean bags up and down.

    “Better now?” Tony will lean forward, his hands on his thighs. “I can stay for a while if you want. To make sure you’re ok.”

    “You don’t need to do that.” To Scott, the bean bags look nearly as sharply defined as Tony. “I’ll be fine.”

    “Of course, I don’t need to do that.” He’ll open his palms to Scott. “I don’t need to do anything.”

    “You don’t even know my name.”

    “Which is…?” Tony’s face will hang, expectant.

    “Scott.” Right now, he’s staring at Tony, but about nine hours from now, he will be studying the bean bags as they arc through the air. “For now, I just need to be alone and juggle, ok?”

    “Fine, Scott. But you haven’t seen the last of me yet.” Tony will point his finger repeatedly at him. “I will get you into my movie.”

    Tony will back out of the room again.

    #

    Four days from now, Scott will have his jacket on, his juggling gear in his backpack, when the dorm room door will rattle with polite knocking. It’ll be Tony. His right hand will clutch a paper bag. The smell of roasted chicken and cornbread will waft through the doorway.

    “Hey, Scott.” Tony will smile and the rest of the world will dim a little. “Doing anything tonight?”

    This will be the third day in a row Tony has stood at Scott’s door trying to have dinner with him. Right now, parsing the future, Scott wonders why Tony’s so insistent. Maybe they will have also talked elsewhere. He can’t hear those conversations unless he also goes there to listen. Or maybe Tony will need a juggler really badly.

    “Getting a quick bite down in the basement, then I’m going to Juggling Club.”

    Tony will look disapprovingly at Scott, but he will only be able to keep it up for a second before he’ll smile. The power of Tony’s smile worries Scott.

    “You don’t want to do that.” Tony will hold up the paper bag. “Real food. They’re serving yellow stuff and brown stuff in the basement. I checked. Besides, I have to tell you about my senior project.”

    Scott will look back at the room and sigh. His roommate will have used the floor as his closet. In four days, he will know exactly what his roommate has scattered on the floor. Right now, to Scott’s time-shifted gaze, clothing of some sort lies smeared over the tile like a gray carpet. Tony is unusual in that Scott can envision him distinctly even four days ahead. The yellow and black checkerboard of Tony’s button-down shirt is hideous, but on him, it almost looks good.

    “Scott, you know that you don’t come close to blocking the door, right?” Tony will pretend to jump to see over Scott. “I can see past you just fine. Just tell me none of that underwear is yours.”

    Scott will step aside and they will sit opposite each other on the tangle of sheets and blanket covering his bed to eat chicken, cornbread, and greens. The juices will dribble down his chin. The sweet, salty, tender chicken is everything he already misses about real food.

    “The movie is about a charismatic, womanizing director.” Tony will gesticulate with his fork and a piece of cornbread. “The conceit is that the world is a circus. We’ll shoot in black and white….”

    Scott will listen intently, facing Tony at first. As the conversation wears on, they’ll talk about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the Jazz Age. Tony’s gaze will invite Scott and he won’t refuse. He’ll find himself resting against Tony’s chest, within the embrace of Tony’s arms. The Juggling Club will meet then break for the night without him.

    #

    About two weeks from now, Tony will swap rooms with Scott’s roommate. Tony will have suggested that this will be more convenient for everyone. No games with ties on doorknobs to show who is where.

    Movie posters will cover the walls. Scott does not recognize most of them yet. Maybe he will in two weeks. Right now, studying the walls that will be, he recognizes only Roma, La Dolce Vita, and 8 1/2.

    Tony’s stuff will dominate their room. All Scott has brought with him to school are his clothes, a laptop, and his juggling gear. He sees Tony’s stuff as clearly as he sees Tony. Cases of lights, cameras, and lenses will sit against their own wall. A refrigerator will hum between their desks. Reference texts will fill Tony’s closet, along with hangers of perfectly pressed clothes. To make space for everything, they will have bunked their beds, not that they expect both beds to get much use.

    The shirts they’ll wear will become sticky with sweat as they move Tony in, and the smell assaults Scott. After they’ll have finished unpacking, Tony will take off his shirt as he struts to the refrigerator. He’ll hand Scott a beer. Scott will stare back at him puzzled.

    “You’ve never had a beer before?” His face will contort into an incredulous scowl. “This is the perfect drink after moving lots of heavy boxes. Trust me. You’ll love it.”

    Scott will be so parched that he barely notices any bitterness. Astringency rides on bubbles that explode in his mouth and flow down his throat. His second sip will be a chug.

    “Hey, don’t drink it all at once.” Tony will hold his own bottle out to him. “To my, among other things, best buddy.”

    Scott will nearly choke on the beer. Tony will pound Scott’s back. When Scott’s finished coughing, he’ll find Tony’s left arm around his shoulders.

    “What’s the matter?” Tony will squeeze Scott’s shoulders. “Didn’t you ever have a best buddy before?”

    Scott didn’t. High school was an acting exercise. Camouflage. Pretending he never heard all the things people might say. Pretending he never saw all the things they might do. Pretending he was what everyone else expected.

    #

    About four weeks from now, Scott will be on the floor in his pajamas, juggling, waiting up for Tony. The door will rattle against the jamb several times before Scott hears a key inserted into the lock. Scott likes to keep the door locked. Tony always assumes the door will be unlocked. Scott, through his time-shifted sight, has seen Tony forget the door will be locked several times already in the two weeks since they started living together.

    “Where have you been?” Scott will stifle a yawn. He will catch his bean bags then rub his bleary eyes. “I need to tell you something.”

    “I’m starting production of my movie.” Tony will drop his backpack on his desk. “Are you ok?”

    Tony will wrap himself around Scott on the floor. His lips will touch Scott’s neck. Well beyond the point when Tony ought to have been a scattered, transparent ghost, the hair on his arms will be crisp, sharp, and distinct. Scott will share with Tony the secret he’s never shared with anyone else.

    “Something I want you to know about me.” Scott’s words will be slow as much from fear as from tiredness. “I sense future sights, sounds, whatever while I sense the present.”

    “You know the future?” Tony will laugh. “Tell me that one of these days, I’ll get all the locations for my movie sorted out.”

    “I don’t know the future.” Scott will say. “It’s like my body is jet lagged compared to my senses, and all possible futures stack on top of each other.” Scott will lean back into Tony. “Wherever I am, I experience all the things that may happen there. The more likely it is, the clearer and stronger it is. When I’m near you, the future clears. I never see alternative yous.”

    “I never see alternative yous either.” Tony’s whisper will brush Scott’s ear and undercut its gently mocking tone. As Tony stands, he will squeeze Scott’s shoulder. “You’re tired. Get to sleep.”

    #

    Some 50 days from now, Scott will wake to the door crashing back and forth against the jamb. This will not be the first time Tony will return without his key. Nights when Tony needs the juggler on set, this will not be a problem, but the juggler is not a large part.

    Scott will stumble to open the door. Tony will march in, forcing Scott back until he is crushed against the bunk beds.

    “What the fuck is the matter with you?” Tony will launch his backpack towards his desk. When it lands, a sheaf of paper will scatter and a few pens will crash to the floor. “How many times do I need to tell you? When I’m not in, the door stays open.”

    “I don’t want anyone to sneak in while I’m asleep.” Scott’s voice will be small. They will have been building to this conversation for weeks. “We’re not supposed to leave the door open.”

    “If you can actually see the future,” Tony will say, folding his arms across his chest. “Shouldn’t you know if someone is going to sneak in while you’re sleeping?”

    Scott will roll his eyes. He will have lost count of how often he has explained this.

    “I don’t want my senses any further ahead than they have to be. And I never see what will be. I see everything that may be. Well, you I always see clearly, but you’re special.”

    “You stupid motherfucker. You’ve got it all worked out, don’t you? You get to be a special snowflake but never have to prove it.”

    For an instant, Tony will blur and scatter. Scott, now sensing almost two months ahead, has never seen Tony do this before. Tony, like everyone else, has multiple potential futures. Until now, however, Scott has never seen them.

    As translucent Tonys scatter around the room, so do translucent Scotts. One Tony slams a Scott against a wall, punching his stomach. Another hits Scott where they stand. Some step back toward the closets, the desk, and Tony’s film gear, turning away from Scott. Others stare at Scott stunned. Only one lays his arms around Scott, gently stroking his back.

    Scott and his future self both feel all these alternatives at once. His mind reels from the shock of pain breaking against his nose. A salty, metallic taste slides down his throat, even though he may not bleed that night. Tony’s potential punches to his torso stun, and even if they never happen, they will still knock the wind out of Scott about 50 days from now. Simultaneous with the pain, Tony’s phantom gentle arms caress him. Phantom whispers, like the rustle of leaves, soothe him.

    An instant later, Tony will snap back into focus. As the phantom Tonys collapse back into the real one, the phantom Scotts collapse too.

    Tony will stare at Scott, his jaw slack. His gaze will sweep over Scott, taking in the grimaces, tears, and the body twisted with pain from the futures that Tony will not have chosen.

    “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.” Tony will caress Scott, his arm moving smoothly across Scott’s back. “I’ll never even think about hurting you again. I promise. The actors who I picked have been real assholes, but I shouldn’t take it out on you. I’m sorry.”

    Tony will be unusually attentive that night. He won’t press, though, when Scott refuses the attention.

    #

    Three and a half months from now, both closets will be empty. Tony’s gear will be stacked in black boxes almost exactly where Scott is sitting right now. The future Scott will be sitting on the bottom bunk, cross-legged, folding his shirts. His pants will already be packed in the suitcase sitting on his desk. The refrigerator will be empty and unplugged, its door ajar.

    The dorm room door will swing open and clang against the wall. Tony, wrapped in his winter coat, will look like the snowman a five-year-old might make. As far as Scott’s time-shifted sight has shown him, Tony will have been true to his word. He will not have hurt Scott.

    Tony will reach for a box of lenses, then stop. “Are you ashamed of me?”

    Scott will look at up him. “What?” He will drop his cast T-shirt from the Theater and Dance Department’s fall musical onto his lap. “Why would you think that?”

    “You never bring any of your friends here.” His gaze will sweep past him like a final exam. “You do have other friends, right?”

    Scott will look at his bean bags on the desk, his acting texts sitting on the closet shelf, and climbing gear lying on the closet floor. “Sure. But this is the room where I don’t have to work to untangle my senses. Bringing my friends here would make it like the rest of the world for me.”

    Tony’s face will twist into a frown. He’ll pull his chair from his desk and sit in it backwards facing Scott. Tony’s arms will rest on top of the chair back.

    “It’s ironic that I have to talk to you about the future.” He’ll take a deep breath. “You know this will end, right? It’s winter break.” He’ll shrug. “After the spring semester, I’ll be gone, but you’ll still be here.”

    “You’ve met someone else?”

    Tony will laugh. “No, I only direct like Fellini. Six months from now, I’m going to graduate. You should keep your options open.”

    Scott’s brow will furrow. He’ll look at the boxes of gear, stacked ready to go. “You’re moving out?” He’ll pick up his T-shirt and twist it in his hands.

    “No, of course not, Scott. And you’re not moving out either.” Tony will sit next to Scott, his hand on Scott’s thigh. “If you want to keep fucking, I’m completely willing. As much and as often as you want. But us, it’s going to end in six months. You have lots of possible futures and they probably don’t involve me. Just saying…”

    Scott’s eyes itch. His T-shirt will be a pretzel in his hands.

    “Can you leave me alone for a moment?”

    Tony will nod. He’ll stand, avoiding the top bunk, his face apologetic. His hands will slap onto his topmost box of gear. With a grunt, he will heft it out of the room.

    #

    Right now, the bean bag thunks into Scott’s left palm. His eyes still itch and he feels the grief he’ll feel again at the end of the semester. A ghost Scott moves to shut the dorm room door. If he closes the door, he and Tony will never meet. Tony will never learn how to hurt Scott in a way that only he can be hurt. Tony will never hurt him in a way that anyone can be hurt.

    Scott sighs. All he’s done for years is hide. He’s already lived that kind of hurt. He throws a bean bag into the air and waits for the man with the flyer to arrive. He’s seen the movie of his life. Now, he’ll live the whole thing.

    —Huffduffed by rycaut

  3. Escape Pod 251: Unexpected Outcomes by Tim Pratt

    But the plane just stopped, and hung there, nose tipped at a slight angle, mere feet from the building.

    And that’s when the figure — the one people call the Ambassador, or the Doctor, or the Outsider, or the Professor, or a hundred other names — appeared. Just a middle-aged man in a white lab coat, with steel-rimmed glasses and graying hair. His image filled the air above the jetliner, like the dome of the sky had been transformed into an IMAX movie screen.

    He said, “People of Earth, I have a message for you.”

    Rated PG for ennui and futility of life. (http://escapepod.org/)

    —Huffduffed by rycaut

  4. Escape Pod ep 276 On a Blade of Grass

    Short story by Tim Pratt

    —Huffduffed by rycaut

  5. The Fork: Science Fiction versus Mundane Culture

    Neal Stephenson delivers a talk on Science Fiction as a Genre at Gresham College. Four professors discuss the origins of science fiction, its overlap with other genres and its developments over more than a century.

    —Huffduffed by rycaut

  6. The Chronic Rift: Spotlight — Paul Cornell

    Keith recently sat down with the man himself, Paul Cornell, and discussed Doctor Who and writing for comics.

    Paul Cornell is a novelist as well as a comics and TV writer. He is best known for his work on Doctor Who in both literary and television formats. In addition, Paul created Bernice Summerfield, a fan-favorite in the Doctor Who universe. His comic works includes Captain Britain and MI-13 as well The X-Men.

    http://www.mevio.com/episode/191806/Spotlight - Paul Cornell

    —Huffduffed by rycaut

  7. Tachyon TV finale

    In the final edition of Tachyon TV to be releaed by the current production team: an interview with Nicholas Briggs, a guide to Gallifrey 21, Torchwood - The Musical, some very brave singing and a tear-jerking, self-congratulatory denouement.

    —Huffduffed by rycaut

  8. Hyperion

    The Kick-Ass Mystic Ninjas, Show 1.

    "As was discussed earlier, I have had problems over the years trying to understand why there was so much hype about Dan Simmons’ Hyperion being such an outstanding novel, so I figured that’d be a good topic for a first show."

    From http://www.kickassmysticninjas.com/2005/10/16/show-1-hyperion/

    —Huffduffed by rycaut

  9. Nova Star Hunters: Episode 1

    "After listening to the first episode I would almost guess Nova Star Hunters was more inspired by The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or Red Dwarf …" sez Jesse from SFFaudio where I found this hilarious, inspired, clever audio drama (can you tell I loved episode 1?). Give it a try with those two examples in mind.

    Jesse’s review: http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=14644 Nova Star Hunters feed: http://feeds.feedburner.com/novastarhunters

    —Huffduffed by rycaut

  10. ConFusion (convention panel): Did Captain Kirk Own A Wallet?

    Panelists: Cory Doctorow, Tobias Buckell, Philip Edward Kaldon, Paul Melko and Matthew Stewart-Fulton

    Recorded: Saturday January 24, 2009 11am

    Economics and SF

    • how has science fiction portrayed economics of the future over the years,
    • how have things changed,
    • what are some of the enduring themes?

    —Huffduffed by rycaut

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