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Fiction

Breakaway, Backdown

You know, in space nobody wears shoes.

Well, new temps wear slippers. They make the soles out of that adhesive polymer, griprite or griptite. Sounds like paper ripping when you lift your feet. Temps who’ve been up awhile wear this glove thing that snugs around the toes. The breakaways, they go barefoot. You can’t really walk much in space, so they’ve reinvented their feet so they can pick up screwdrivers and spoons and stuff. It’s hard because you lose fine motor control in micro gee. I had…have this friend, Elena, who could make a krill and tomato sandwich with her feet, but she had that operation that changes your big toe into a thumb. I used to kid her that maybe breakaways were climbing down the evolutionary ladder, not jumping off it. Are we people or chimps? She’d scratch her armpits and hoot.

Sure, breakaways have a sense of humor. They’re people after all; it’s just that they’re like no people you know. The thing was, Elena was so limber that she could bite her toenails. So can you fix my shoe?

How long is that going to take? Why not just glue the heel back on?

I know they’re Donya Durands, but I’ve got a party in half an hour, okay?

What, you think I’m going to walk around town barefoot?  I’ll wait—except what’s with all these lights? It’s two in the morning and you’ve got this place bright as noon in Khartoum. How about a little respect for the night?

Thanks. What did you say your name was? I’m Cleo.

You are, are you? Jane honey, lots of people think about going to space but you’d be surprised at how few actually apply—much less break away. So how old are you?

Oh, no, they like them young, just as long as you’re over nineteen. No kids in space. So the stats don’t scare you?

Not shoe repair, that’s for sure. But if you can convince them you’re serious, they’ll find something for you to do. They trained me and I was nobody, a business major. I temped for almost fifteen months on Victor Foxtrot and I never could decide whether I loved or hated it. Still can’t, so how could I even think about becoming a breakaway? Everything is loose up there, okay?  It makes you come unstuck. The first thing that happens is you get spacesick. For a week your insides are so scrambled that you’re trying to digest lunch with your cerebellum and write memos with your large intestine. Meanwhile your face puffs up so that you can’t find yourself in the mirror anymore and your sinuses fill with cotton candy and you’re fighting a daily hair mutiny. I might’ve backed down right off if it hadn’t been for Elen—you know, the one with the clever toes? Then when you’re totally miserable and empty and disoriented, your brain sorts things out again and you realize it’s all magic. Some astrofairy has enchanted you. Your body is as light as a whisper, free as air. I’ll tell you the most amazing thing about weightlessness. It doesn’t go away. You keep falling: Down, up, sideways, whatever. You might bump into something once in a while but you never, ever slam into the ground. Extremely sexy, but it does take some getting used to. I kept having dreams about gravity. Down here you have a whole planet hugging you. But in space, it’s not only you that’s enchanted, it’s all your stuff too. For instance, if you put that brush down, it stays. It doesn’t decide to drift across the room and out the window and go visit Elena over on B deck. I had this pin that had been my mother’s—a  silver dove with a diamond eye—and somehow it escaped from a locked jewelry box. Turned up two months later in a dish of butterscotch pudding, almost broke Jack Pitzer’s tooth. You get a lot of pudding in space. Oatmeal. Stews. Sticky food is easier to eat and you can’t taste much of anything but salt and sweet anyway.

Why, do you think I’m babbling? God, I am babbling. It must be the Zentadone. The woman at the persona store said it was just supposed to be an icebreaker with a flirty edge to it, like Panital only more sincere. You wouldn’t have any reset, would you?

Hey, spare me the lecture, honey. I know they don’t allow personas in space. Anyway, imprinting is just a bunch of pro-brain propaganda. Personas are temporary—period. When you stop taking the pills, the personas go away and you’re your plain old vanilla self again; there’s bushels of studies that say so. I’m just taking a little vacation from Cleo. Maybe I’ll go away for a weekend, or a week or a month but eventually I’ll come home. Always have, always will.

I don’t care what your Jesus puppet says; you can’t trust godware, okay? Look, I’m not going to convince you and you’re not going to convince me. Truce?

The shoes? Four, five years. Let’s see, I bought them in ’36. Five years. I had to store them while I was up.

You get used to walking in spike heels, actually. I mean, I’m not going to run a marathon or climb the Matterhorn. Elena has all these theories of why men think spikes are sexy. Okay, they’re kind of a short term body mod. They stress the leg muscles, which makes you look tense, which leads most men to assume you could use a serious screwing. And they push your fanny out like you’re making the world an offer. But most important is that, when you’re teetering around in heels, it tells a man that if he chases you, you’re not going to get very far. Not only do spike heels say you’re vulnerable, they say you’ve chosen to be vulnerable. Of course, it’s not quite the same in micro gee. She was my mentor, Elena. Assigned to teach me how to live in space.

I was an ag tech. Worked as a germ wrangler in the edens.

Microorganisms. Okay, you probably think that if you stick a seed in some dirt, add some water and sunlight and wait a couple of months, Mother Nature hands you a head of lettuce. Doesn’t work that way, especially not in space. The edens are synergistic, symbiotic ecologies. Your carbo crops, your protein crops, your vitamin crops—they’re all fussy about the neighborhood germs. If you don’t keep your clostridia and rhizobium in balance, your eden will rot to compost. Stinky, slimy compost.  It’s important work—and duller than accounting. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we could’ve talked on the job, but CO2 in the edens runs 6%, which is great for plants but will kill you if you’re not wearing a breather. Elena painted an enormous smile on mine, with about eight hundred teeth in it. She had lips on hers, puckered so that they looked like she was ready to be kissed. Alpha Ralpha the chicken man had this plastic beak. Only sometimes we switched—confused the hell out of the nature lovers. I’ll tell you, the job would’ve been a lot easier if we could’ve kept the rest of the crew out, but the edens are designed for recreation as much as food production. On Victor Foxtrot we had to have sign-ups between 8:00 and 16:00. See, the edens have lots of open space and we keep them eight degrees over crew deck nominal and they’re lit twenty hours a day by grolights and solar mirrors and they have big windows. Crew floats around sucking up the view, soaking up photons, communing with the life force, shredding foliage and in general getting in our way. Breakaways are the worst; they actually adopt plants like they were pets. Is that crazy or what? I mean, a tomato has a life span of three, maybe four months before it gets too leggy and stops bearing. I’ve seen grown men cry because Elena pulled up their favorite marigold.

No, all my plants now are silk. When I backed down, I realized that I didn’t want anything to do with the day. My family was a bunch of poor nobodies; we moved to the night when I was seven. So nightshifting was like coming home. The fact is, I got too much sun while I was up. The sun is not my friend. Haven’t seen real daylight in over a year; I make a point of it. I have a day-night timeshare at Lincoln Street Under. While the sun is shining I’m asleep or safely cocooned. At dusk my roomie comes home and I go out to work and play. Hey, being a mommy to legumes is not what I miss about space. How about you? What turned you into an owl?

Well, well, maybe you are serious about breaking away. Sure, they prefer recruits who’ve nightshifted. Shows them you’ve got circadian discipline.

Elena said something like that once. She said that it’s hard to scare someone to death in broad daylight. It isn’t just that the daytime is too crowded, it’s too tame. The night is edgier, scarier. Sexier. You say and do things that wouldn’t occur to you at lunchtime. It’s because we don’t really belong in the night. In order to survive here we have to fight all the old instincts warning us not to wander around in the dark because we might fall off a cliff or get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger. Living in the night gives you a kind of extra…I don’t know…

Right. And it’s the same with space; it’s even scarier and sexier. Well, maybe sexy isn’t exactly the right word, but you know what I mean. Actually, I think that’s what I miss most about it. I was more alive then that I ever was before. Maybe too alive. People live fast up there. They know the stats; they have to. You know, you sort of remind me of Elena. Must be the eyes—it sure as hell isn’t the body. If you ever get up, give her a shout. You’d like her, even though she doesn’t wear shoes anymore.

Almost a year. I wish we could talk more, but it’s hard. She transferred to the Marathon; they’re out surveying Saturn’s moons. There’s like a three hour lag; it’s impossible to have real-time conversation. She sent a few vids, but it hurt too much to watch them. They were all happy chat, you know? Nothing important in them. I didn’t plan on missing her so much. So, you have any college credits?

No real difference between Harvard and a net school, unless you’re some kind of snob about bricks.

Now that’s a hell of a thing to be asking a perfect stranger. What do I look like, some three star slut? Don’t make assumptions just because I’m wearing spiked heels. For all you know, honey, I could be dating a basketball player. Maybe I’m tired of staring at his navel when we dance. If you’re going to judge people by appearances, hey, you’re the one with the machine stigmata. What’s that supposed to be, rust or dried blood?

Well, you ought to be. Though actually, that’s what everyone wants to know. That, and how do you go to the bathroom. Truth is, Jane, sex is complicated, like everything about space. First of all, forget all that stuff you’ve heard about doing it while you’re floating free. It’s dangerous, hard work and no fun. You want to have sex in space, one or both of you have to be tied down. Most hetero temps use some kind of a joystrap. It’s this wide circular elastic that fits around you and your partner. Helps you stay coupled, okay? But even with all the gear, sex can be kind of subtle. As in disappointing. You don’t realize how erotic weight is until there isn’t any. You want to make love to a balloon? Some people do nothing but oral—keeps the vectors down. Of course the breakaways, they’ve reinvented love, just like everything else. They have this kind of sex where they don’t move. If there’s penetration they just float in place, staring into one another’s eyes or some such until they tell one another that it’s time to have an orgasm and then they do. If they’re homo, they just touch each other. Elena tried to show me how, once. I don’t know why, but it didn’t happen for me. Maybe I was too embarrassed because I was the only one naked. She said I’d learn eventually, that it was part of breaking away.

No, I thought I was going to break away, I really did. I stuck it out until the very last possible day. It’s hard to explain. I mean, when nobodies on earth look up at night—no offense, Jane, I was one too—what calls them is the romance of it all. The high frontier, okay? Sheena Steele and Captain Kirk, cowboys and asteroids. Kid stuff, except they don’t let kids in space because of the cancer. Then you go up and once you’re done puking, you realize that it was all propaganda. Space is boring and it’s indescribably magic at the same time—how can that be? Sometimes I’d be working in an eden and I’d look out the windows and I’d see earth, blue as a dream, and I’d think of all the people down there, twelve billion ants, looking up into the night and wondering what it was like to be me. I swear I could feel their envy, as sure as I can feel your floor beneath me now. It’s part of what holds you up when you’re in space. You know you’re not an ant; there are fewer than twenty thousand breakaways. You’re brave and you’re doomed and you’re different from everyone else who has ever lived. Only then your shift ends and it’s time to go to the gym and spend three hours pumping the ergorack in a squeeze suit to fight muscle loss in case you decide to back down. I’ll tell you, being a temp is hell. The rack is hard work; if you’re not exhausted afterward, you haven’t done it right. And you sweat, God. See, the sweat doesn’t run off. It pools in the small of your back and the crook of your arm and under your chin and clings there, shivering like an amoeba. And while you’re slaving on the rack, Elena is getting work done or reading or sleeping or talking about you with her breakaway pals. They have three more hours in their day, see, and they don’t ever have to worry about backing down. Then every nine weeks you have to leave what you’re doing and visit one of the wheel habitats and readjust to your weight for a week so that when you come back to Victor Foxtrot, you get spacesick all over again. But you tell yourself it’s all worth it because it’s not only space that you’re exploring; it’s yourself. How many people can say that? You have to find out who you are so that you decide what to hold onto and what to let go of…Excuse me, I can’t talk about this anymore right now.

No, I’ll be all right. Only… okay, so you don’t have any reset. You must have some kind of flash?

That’ll have to do. Tell you what, I’ll buy the whole liter from you.

Ahh, ethanol with a pedigree. But a real backdown kind of drug, Jane—weighs way too much to bring out of the gravity well. And besides, the flash is about the same as hitting yourself over the head with the bottle. Want a slug?

Come on, it’s two-thirty. Time to start the party. You’re making me late, you know.

Do me a favor, would you?  Pass me those shoes on the shelf there…no, no the blue ones. Yes. Beautiful. Real leather, right?  I love leather shoes. They’re like faces. I mean, you can polish them but once they get wrinkles, you’re stuck with them. Look at my face, okay? See these wrinkles here, right at the corner of my eyes? Got them working in the edens. Too much sun. How old do you think I am?

Twenty-nine, but that’s okay. I was up fifteen months and it only aged me four years. Still, my permanent bone loss is less than eight percent and I’ve built my muscles back up and I only picked up eighteen rads and I’m not half as crazy as I used to be. Hey, I’m a walking advertisement for backing down. So have I talked you out of it yet?  I don’t mean to, okay? I’d probably go up again, if they’d have me.

Don’t plan on it; the wheel habitats are strictly for tourists. They cost ten times as much to build as a micro gee can and once you’re in one you’re pretty much stuck to the rim. And you’re still getting zapped by cosmic rays and solar x-rays and energetic neutrons. If you’re going to risk living in space, you might as well enjoy it. Besides, all the important work gets done by breakaways.

See, that’s where you’re wrong. It’s like Elena used to say. We didn’t conquer space, it conquered us. Break away and you’re giving up forty, maybe fifty years of life, okay? The stats don’t lie. Fifty-six is the average. That means some breakaways die even younger.

You don’t? Well, good for you. Hey, it looks great—better than new. How much?

Does that include the vodka?

Well thanks. Listen, Jane, I’m going to tell you something, a secret they ought to tell everybody before they go up.

No, I’m not. Promise. So anyway, on my breakaway day Elena calls me to her room and tells me that she doesn’t think I should do it, that I won’t be happy living in space. I’m so stunned that I start crying, which is a very backdown thing to do. I try to argue, but she’s been mentoring for years and knows what she’s talking about. Only about a third breakaway—but, of course, you know that. Anyway, it gets strange then. She says to me, “I have something to show you,” and then she starts to strip. See, the time she’d made love to me, she wouldn’t let me do anything to her. And like I said, she’d kept her clothes on; breakaways have this thing about showing themselves to temps. I mean, I’d seen her hands before, her feet. They looked like spiders. And I’d seen her face. Kissed it, even. But now I’m looking at her naked body for the first time. She’s fifty-one years old. I think she must’ve been taller than me once, but it’s hard to be sure because she has the deep micro gee slouch. Her muscles have atrophied so her papery skin looks as if it’s been sprayed onto her bones. She’s had both breasts prophylactically removed. “I’ve got 40% bonerot,” she says, “and I mass thirty-eight kilos.” She shows the scars from the operations to remove her thyroid and ovaries, the tap on her hip where they take the monthly biopsy to test for leukemia. “Look at me,” she says. “What do you see?” I start to tell her that I’ve read the literature and watched all the vids and I’m prepared for what’s going to happen but she shushes me. “Do you think I’m beautiful?” she says. All I can do is stare. “I think I am,” she says. “So do the others. It’s our nature, Cleo. This is how space makes us over. Can you tell me you want this to happen to you?” And I couldn’t. See, she knew me better than I knew myself. What I wanted was to float forever, to feel I was special, to stay with her. Maybe I was in love with her. I don’t know if that’s possible. But loving someone isn’t a reason to break away, especially if the stats say that someone will be dead in five years. So I told her she was right and thanked her for everything she’d done and got on the shuttle that same day and backed down and became just another nobody. And she gave up mentoring and went to Saturn and now that we’ve forgotten all about each other we can start living happily ever after.

No, here’s the secret, honey. The heart is a muscle, okay? That means it shrinks in space. All breakaways know it, now you do too. Anyway, it’s been nice talking to you.

Sure. Good night.

© 1996 James Patrick Kelly
First appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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James Patrick Kelly

James Patrick Kelly has won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. His most recent publication is the novel Mother Go; a new collection, The Promise of Space, is forthcoming from Prime Books in 2018. In 2016, Centipede Press published a career retrospective in its Masters of Science Fiction series entitled James Patrick Kelly. He has published over a hundred stories and his fiction has been translated into eighteen languages. With John Kessel he is co-editor of Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology, Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, The Secret History Of Science Fiction, Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, and Rewired: The Post Cyberpunk Anthology. He writes a column on the internet for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and is on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.  Jim’s website is
jimkelly.net.