The Sky Above Io by Sam W. Pisciotta
Starship pilot. Mother. Paths I took and paths I didn’t. Most people don’t want to know what might have been. Regret is bearable when it remains vague, but to really see the person you might have become, to walk the path you’d given up — well, that’s scary as hell.
Twelve kilometers out from Hinton station, the Io Field lies just ahead. The hike has left me with plenty of time to consider and reconsider. Honestly, it took me years to save the creds to afford this moment, so it’s not like I hadn’t already spun it over and over in my mind.
In the distance, Tvashtar plumes ash and volcanic gasses into Io’s thin atmosphere. Jupiter looms on the eastern horizon, her cold eye tracing my slow progress. But the real light show is overhead. I look up at the thousands of stars scattered across the sky. Behind them lie billions more, invisible to the naked eye.
Each instant of our lives is like a pinprick of light, a moment of decision that splits off from all the other choices we didn’t take, one after another, light after light adding up to a lifetime. I don’t regret my life or my choices; still, I want to know what they might have been like, the child I didn’t have. I think that’s only human.
I approach the perimeter, a line of cairns glowing in the twilight; a beacon emits a series of chirps. Recorded audio fills my helmet: Warning. Potentiality field ahead. Do not enter this area without a Synaptic Grounding Interface.
Out of caution, I step back. The Io Field is a natural phenomenon, a chunk of space caught in a state of quantum superposition. Too many people have died after wandering into it unaware. Unable to reconnect with the present, they danced among the various outcomes of their lives until their air supplies gave out.
“Initiate SGI,” I say.
My suit’s AI responds. “Please designate duration of interaction within the quantum field.”
“Thirty ES minutes.”
“Confirming. The Synaptic Grounding Interface will reengage after thirty Earth Standard minutes.”
The SGI turns on an electrical storm that traverses the surface of my brain. Nausea brings me to my knees. I inhale several deep breaths until the dizziness passes. Protected by the device, I step into the potentiality field. A few paces in, I confirm my input of thirty minutes and then turn off the SGI.
Almost instantly, the years of my life collapse onto one another, exploding into a spiral of timelines like accordions pulling and squeezing from the present. I reach for a single moment, letting the memories of paths taken and untaken fly past me like flocks of crows.
I turn, and there she is. The daughter I never had, but in this place and in this moment she’s real. And beautiful.
“Mommy, I’m ready.”
“Jennifer, you can’t wear three dresses to school.” She’s put on all three of her fancy dresses, one on top of the other. On her feet, she’s pulled on her snow boots. The school is going to think I don’t know how to dress my child.
“But I like them. They’re pretty.”
“You’ll be too hot,” I say.
The sadness on her face reminds me that five-year-olds don’t care about logic and reason. She hugs my leg and whimpers, and I instantly know that she will be going to school wearing three dresses today. I love her independence and quirky sense of style.
It’s not that I actually see all of this; it’s more that I suddenly hold every memory of her — the scraped knees and swimming lessons, the time she snuck out of the house to meet her friends on the corner.
Two words that split my timeline and sent me tumbling forward — you’re pregnant. I remember that moment fifteen years ago when I decided that she was worth it. Decided that I would rather have her than attend flight school.
Another moment, years later, we sit together in the kitchen. Jennifer has grown.
“Can we have pasta for dinner tonight?”
I bunch her hair into a ponytail and tie it off. “It’s your birthday. You decide.”
“Fine. Then I’m eating cake first.” She glances back with a playful smirk.
“Barely a teenager and already a rebel.”
Her laugh is full and rich, the laugh of a young woman, and I wonder how I missed the change.
At thirty minutes, the SGI reengages to block the field’s effect. The timeline collapses and folds, I turn to watch the moments expand, flying away like cards shuffling through my fingertips, and then I’m back, breathing in all the original choices of my life.
Fifteen years earlier, I’d heard the two words that weren’t part of my dreams — you’re pregnant. I remember everything. The name of my transport vehicle — The Shogreen. The name of my co-pilot — Asha. The face of the man I would fall in love with — Alejandro.
Nausea floods my body, and the suit’s HVAC filters out my vomit. I crawl from the perimeter and disengage the neuro unit, relying on a strength developed over years of starship training.
At twenty-one, I was accepted into the ISP flight program and worked harder than anyone else. Top of my class. Choice of assignments. They were surprised when I chose the transport vehicle over the fighter. I yearned for the vast distances associated with transport. I wanted the stars. And they have always brought me joy.
My chest heaves with laughter and sobs, caught in a flux of emotion that flickers over me like sunlight on treetops. There was a moment fifteen years ago when the cat that represented all of my tomorrows clawed to get out of that fucking box. You’re pregnant. Two words tilted the lid then popped it off, and that ragged cat crawled out to scratch at the infinite quarks and electrons containing my future.
I came here needing to know if I’d chosen correctly, but now I can see that I never really gave up anything. It’s all there. Starship pilot. Mother. Variations on the same life. And in a sense, they both happened. Didn’t they? In this expression of a universe, I’m preparing my ship for re-entry. In another, I hold my daughter for the first time.
We all exist at the crossroads between here and there. And we are always, every one of us, constantly splitting and changing into something new and beyond ourselves. You’re pregnant. I was so scared. Terrified.
But at that moment, I made a choice, and then I lived my life. And isn’t that the very nature of being human?
Originally published in the April 2023 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
Sam W. Pisciotta lives in Colorado. After years of difficult training in daydreaming and doodling, he now calls himself a writer and visual artist. Thousands of cups of coffee and hours of contemplation have prepared him to pull worlds from the ether. Sam is a member of the SFWA, HWA, and Codex Writers. He holds an M.A. in Literary Studies from the University of Colorado. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming in Analog, Factor Four Magazine, F&SF, Asimov’s, and other fine publications. Follow him on Twitter/silo34 and www.silo34.com.