Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Jupiter Wrestlerama

Two-Ton Tony had a hard body, and though Karen knew the facts of life cold and backward by the time she got her chance to push him against a wall, she’d never had anything so sweet. Biceps like boulders, arms to swing on and hips to ride: a body like a playground. She’d held on to him and never quite believed her luck that he let her. Artificial gravity made most station folk skinny, flabby, or flabby and skinny, but Tony had worked on his body all his life, stealing and cheating extra rations wherever he could, lifting whatever heavy objects ended up near him, doing push-ups with conveyor gears on his back. His body was his big accomplishment in life, his ticket out.

Now Karen stood at the entry to C-stairwell, on her way to work, and saw that body still and crooked at the base of the stairs.

“Oh god, Kay!” One of her neighbors stepped in front of her, blocking the view, and tried to push her back from the crowd. She shook the hands off. Another pair landed in their place. Living on a space station meant always having someone in touching distance. The cops arrived and pushed back the people in the stairwell, which pushed Karen back further. She collapsed against the bulkhead that led into her and Tony’s room. All she’d wanted was to straighten his neck. It wasn’t right, Tony’s neck being bent like that, backward over the bottom step, like he was giving up.

And then she was numb. The cops took the body away. They asked her questions. When had she seen him last? Had he been in any fights, had any enemies?

Bret Richards, across the hall, said, “How about the Bombay Bomber? Or Mr. Black?”

Bret Richards had no more sense than a crocheted spacesuit.

Karen told them that no one didn’t like Tony. She didn’t tell them that the homemade knife sticking out of his chest belonged to Joey Vaughn. They’d figure that out for themselves. The fabric wrapped around the handle came from his mother’s drapes, and there weren’t many people on the station who even had drapes, much less purple ones with silver moons.

When the cops finally left, Karen wanted nothing more than to take a nap. Wasn’t that funny? But she couldn’t. She picked up her purse, still packed with all the things she’d need for the workday, and headed up the D-stairwell to the Strip to tell her boss at The Blue Cricket that she was going to take the day off.

She had to stop on the landing, under the cheerful red and yellow signs that said “Upspin stair” and “Downspin stair” with arrows, reminding passers that the switchback stairs were designed by an idiot comfortably at home on Earth and they should turn slowly to avoid vertigo. “Don’t Fall!” both signs said, with a cartoon leaning back and waving his arms.

She spent a long time looking down at the base of the D-stairwell thinking of the C-stairwell. People paused as they passed, a stream of touches and soothing tones.

Karen’s boss had already heard, and told her to take the week off before she could even open her mouth.

It was a numb day, an unreal day. When she woke up, she rolled over, reaching for him and touching the cold sheet.

Two days later she read the police report. She’d been checking every day for news. The bastards didn’t have the decency to come to her.

Accidental death, they said. Apparently Tony had fallen on that knife in his chest before falling down the stairs. It was the fall that killed him, so maybe “accident” made sense and tied it up all neatly, but Karen knew the station cops. She couldn’t believe they’d do that to Tony.

Karen went to see Joey Vaughn’s mom. The Amazing Magdalena, real name Judy, was an old friend of Karen’s mom, from way back in the day when her dad had been around and they’d lived in better quarters farther from the Strip. Joey’s dad had been station personnel, too, but his parents split and Judy took over from the old Amazing Magdalena to make ends meet.

There was a camaraderie among former personnel, like being employed by the station made you slightly better than those who worked the gas mine or the docks, and they always ended up working the Strip — because fleecing tourists was a more noble pursuit than lifting or carrying. Karen didn’t buy into that. Tony’s folk were dockworkers, right up until his momma had been crushed by a malfunctioning bulkhead and his dad went a little nuts.

Judy’s shop was an old service closet on one of the smaller access corridors near the tourist strip. The bulkhead was wedged permanently open, supporting a purple neon sign with an outline of a hand. A beaded curtain hung from the empty track where the sealant should sit. The other walls were covered in fabric, including the purple drape with silver moons. Karen scanned the hem for a ragged edge or missing piece.

“I heard about Tony,” were the first words out of Judy’s mouth. She stood in the door, bead curtain drawn back. “Did they catch who did it?”

Karen opened and closed her mouth. She had a lot she wanted to say, more than could fit in words. “Accidental death,” was all that came out.

Judy was still. She covered her mouth. “Those bastards!”

“I . . . I don’t know why I expected different. The same happened with poor Betsey Carmi. They just don’t want to get feds involved.”

“Oh, baby,” Judy drew her into her little shop. “All people like you or me or Tony are to them are cheap parts, easily replaced.” She huffed, pulling scarves and folded pamphlets out of the way to clear her client chair for Karen to sit on. “If they could get tourists to pay for holographic porn, they’d have the wrestlers and dancers out of here in a second. But it’s what they expect, I think. The tourists, I mean. They expect the wild frontier, loose laws, they expect to get away with murder . . . oh gosh, I didn’t mean it that way.”

Karen sank into the soft, over-stuffed chair. “Is Joey around?”

“He’s been up at the gym since 0900. Oh, of course — you don’t want to be alone, do you? I didn’t even think. Hang on, I’ll call him to come get you.”

“No, it’s not that,” Karen said, though of course she didn’t want to be alone. All she could think of when alone was the last time she’d put her hand down Tony’s pants.

Judy ran out of things to tidy up and wrung her hands instead. “I’ve been doing Tony’s chart.”

Karen’s eyebrows rose, and she almost laughed for the first time that day. “His star chart?”

Judy nodded mournfully. “From the moment I found out. You remember when you two first got serious and I found out you had the same moon sign? I just thought . . . I don’t know. It’s like examining the evidence, for me. Sometimes you find things. Like his destiny is in Uranus. That’s a dark planet — a big, fat warning sign, and I missed it.”

“Judy . . .”

“I know. ‘Random patterns.’ I know. You’re going to doubt me, but sometimes it’s scary. I wanna do your chart again, just in case.”

There was no way to explain to Judy that the alignment of planets and stars — as seen from a place over six hundred million kilometers away — had nothing to do with miserable fate. Karen had tried. “Maybe later. I really just want to talk to Joey right now.”

“I’ll call him, he’ll take the rest of the day off for you. He loves you like a sister, you know.”

“No. I’ll stop up there.” Karen stood. Stiffly, she said, “Thanks.”

“You know you can always come here, Kay.”

Not if I’m right, she thought, but nodded. “I’m going to find who done for him, Judy. I’m going to find who killed my Tony.”

“Course you will, baby girl.” Judy gave her a hug. Her cheek was wet. “You find that bastard, and my Joey will make him pay.”

• • • •

Karen had to walk down the Strip to get to Joey’s gym, past the Wrestlerama, where Tony had worked. The doors were open already. Sanjay Narayanan — the Bombay Bomber — was bussing tables in preparation for the Wrestlerama’s afternoon opening. Behind him, Jenna Waite was testing the springs on the performance mat. Tourists liked to think the station’s light gravity would make the wrestlers fly, so the mat was really a trampoline, and the wrestlers wore guy ropes like stuntmen. The squeaking sound echoed hollowly through the room while Jenna did flips, reminding Karen of mattress springs and unenthusiastic sex.

“Kay!” Sanjay wrapped his big arms around her. She stiffened like a caught rat. The gentle hardness of his body touched her off like a spark on dry grass, burning away the false strength that had been carrying her through the day. For the first time since seeing the crowd gathered at the base of the stairs, she cried.

Sanjay pulled her closer, holding her and rubbing up and down her back. “There, there, Kay. It’s okay. We’ll find the bitch. We’ll get her.”

She wiped her face on his tight t-shirt. “‘Her’? You think it was a woman?”

“I probably shouldn’t say nothin’.” Sanjay glanced over his shoulder. Jenna was the only other person out on the main floor. He let Karen go gently, as though afraid she’d collapse. “There’s this corporate. Grabby Sue, we call her. She kinda had her eye on Tony, y’know? And she hasn’t been back since, even though she never misses a show when she’s on station.”

Karen almost laughed. It felt good. “No woman pushed Two-Ton Tony down a flight of stairs.”

“Hey, if there’s one thing you learn in this business, it’s that it doesn’t take a lot of strength, or skill, to hurt someone. We spend all our time learning not to.”

“What about Joey Vaughn?”

“Joey? He was fixing Tony up with carbs. Why would Joey shiv his best customer?”

“I didn’t know Joey had business with Tony.”

“Sure. He hooks all of us up. It isn’t easy, you know, looking like this.” Sanjay leaned back and glanced down at his muscular chest with a self-deprecating smirk.

Karen bit her lip. “Thanks. I think I’ll go talk to Joey.”

“Whoa, hey. You aren’t gonna go accusing no one? C’mon, Kay, we all breathe the same air around here.”

“So because it’s more convenient, it has to be an outsider?”

“Don’t make me sound stupid, Kay. You know what I’m saying.”

“How much does Joey charge for the food?”

Sanjay shrugged. “Couple hundred a week. I work the loading dock days to cover it.”

“Tony didn’t have a second job.”

“That doesn’t mean nothing.”

“Yeah, it does. We shared expenses, Sanj. I would have noticed a couple hundred a week. He came up short now and again, but never that much.”

“Maybe Joey floated him. They were tight. You haven’t seen this corporate chick. I’m telling you, she looks like a killer. And you know, she . . .” he looked over his shoulder again and lowered his voice, “She hangs out, y’know? After shows? Some of the guys, they go with her. For money.”

Karen had to laugh at the pained expression on Sanjay’s face. “You check it out. If you find anything, let me know.”

• • • •

She hadn’t been to the gym since Tony’s death, and the sudden smell of it shocked her like a slap. Tony and the gym were linked in her memory, for all that she’d been coming there since before she could walk. Weights and time in the heavy room punctuated every stationer’s life, especially the young, who wanted so desperately to get out. Lazy folks couldn’t pass the strength test to leave the artificial gravity for the real thing. Hell, you couldn’t even just be lazy for a few years and make up for it, because if you weren’t careful your bone density went down too far and you never got it back. Even working all the time just forestalled the effects of low gravity. Eventually, everyone failed the test. Bone density was a phrase Karen associated with embarrassing tests in the school gym teacher’s office and chalky pills that coated your mouth with glue.

And then she had met Tony. Tony and his big plan: Someday, someone would stop at Jupiter Station, see his perfect body in the ring and decide the world needed one more barbarian movie. He made the losing battle against their bones a competition, an exciting promise.

Joey Vaughn glanced up from setting clean towels on the shelf by the free weights when Karen entered. He had been working at the gym since high school — minus that year he had to serve time for gang fighting. He was nine years younger than her and still looked like a kid — like he hadn’t grown into his bones yet. Karen watched closely, alert for any strangeness in his behavior. He just walked over. “Hey. Bike three is open if you want it.”

Karen couldn’t breathe.

“You okay?” Joey wadded his hand towel. “Maybe you should come back later. No one’s going to blame you for taking time off, Karen.”

“No. I’m fine. I mean, I will be. I wanted to lift some. Spot me?”

For a moment he looked angry, like she’d challenged his strength. Then it was gone. Karen wasn’t sure what to make of that. He cleared his throat and said, “Sure, I have time.” He threw his towel over his shoulder and lead the way to the bench press.

Karen leaned back on the sweat-smelling plastic and stared up at the pudding surface of Jupiter, scrolling serenely by the public gym’s glass roof. All the windows in the station faced Jupiter, even if they had to put them on the ceilings. The good thing about Jupiter was that though it was always in motion, it was always the same, and so looking at it wasn’t really looking at anything at all. This was what the tourists came for — to gaze at swirls of gas because there was something magical about beauty you couldn’t touch.

Karen’s arms felt heavy. “I can’t do this,” she said.

“What? You were at 140 last week, weren’t you?” Joey slapped the bar over her head.

Karen rubbed her sweaty palms on her stomach and grasped on either side of Joey’s thin, calloused hands. “Did you and Tony do this?” she asked. “Lift on this bench?”

Joey didn’t answer right away. “Yeah,” he said.

“How much was Tony benching the last time he worked out?”

Joey’s fingers flexed on the bar. “God, that’s morbid.”

“C’mon, how much?”

He started to raise the bar off for her. Karen grunted and took over. It fell fast and the air strained in her lungs until she remembered to exhale. The bar shook as she raised it, fitfully falling back into place. “Like hell that’s 140!” she shouted.

Joey leaned over the bar, smiling down at her. A little sweat dripped from his nose. “One-sixty. You going to do the set, girl? That’s still forty pounds shy of Tony’s light set.”

“Bastard,” Karen said. This was an old game she’d forgotten. Joey would do anything, say anything, to get more mass lifted. He grinned down at her, his teeth star-white, Jupiter a halo behind him.

She sucked in a big breath and lifted the bar off its rest.

Just because Joey’s knife had been in Tony’s breast didn’t mean Joey’s hand was on it when it entered. This was Joey. Judy’s kid. She remembered him giving her his G.I. Joe for her eighteenth birthday — it was his favorite and best toy and all he could think to give his babysitter on an occasion so important.

And he grew into this sensitive young man, sinewy and earnest with eyes that pleaded for just one more rep, as though the fate of worlds hung in the balance.

She did fifteen reps at 160, a rest, and twelve more. Joey asked her if she wanted to do a third set, but she shook her head, sat up and crossed her arms, feeling the burn in her pecs. “I wanna bulk up,” she said.

“What?”

“I want Tony’s old job.” Karen wasn’t sure where the idea came from; the words just flew out of her mouth. She turned to see Joey staring at her. “It’s open, isn’t it? And I’m every bit as athletic as that Jenna chick. What do you think, Joey?”

He stood behind the barbell like a priest at his lectern. “I think it’s not a good time for you to be making career decisions, Karen.”

“I need something to keep me busy, right now. I heard you could hook me up with extra carbs.”

His expression was flat and cold — a face she’d never seen on Joey. “I can’t help you.”

“Are you afraid I’m not good for it?”

“I have to get back to work,” he said.

“Can you point me to someone else? Joey!” He ignored her, crossing the gym to the employee’s door without a look back.

• • • •

Sanjay crouched on the elastic ropes, thighs wide and low and glistening. Mike Black strutted a half-turn on the other side of the mat. Then Sanjay sprang, the guy ropes hoisting him and making his leap a slow arc. He stretched one leg forward, a ballet pose for landing.

Karen admired the way Mike threw himself backward precisely when Sanjay’s foot grazed his cheek. She also had to admit that the two men looked very nice locked in struggle.

Jenna gave her a basket of deep-fried spicy tofu on the house and a shoulder-squeeze in passing.

Sanjay raised Mike over his head and spun in a circle. Mike flew out over the audience, landing in a carefully choreographed pile of folding chairs.

Karen finished her food and went to wait for Sanjay by the back entrance.

He led her to a video booth at the head of the short corridor to the L-stairwell. Drawing the little curtain almost all the way, they could see the Wrestlerama’s employee entrance through a slit of orange polyester. “She’ll be out soon. She waits right there,” he said, leaning over her, warm, heavy. “She . . . you know. I told you.”

“Does anyone say yes?” Karen asked.

He leaned into the back of the booth. “That’s the thing. Mike Black was telling me he wants to stop seeing her, but he’s scared. She’s a VP or something. She could make a body gone. Those were Mike’s words. Me, I turned her down flat.”

“Sanj, look me in the eye and tell me: Did Tony?”

Sanjay’s big brown eyes met hers a moment and flicked to the wall of video adverts. “I think he led her on, Kay, for tips. She gives big when you flirt. We all do it. But you know he’d never go beyond that. He loved you.”

“You flirt with her?”

Sanjay twisted back from her. “C’mon, Kay.”

Karen looked away from him just in time to see the older bottle blonde cop a feel off Mike, who draped his arm over her shoulder and followed her down the corridor back to the main strip.

There was an awkward silence as they stepped out of the photo booth. The bars were all closed, and the big corridor echoed with after-hours emptiness. Karen faced the main strip, the direction Mike had gone. “You said you turned Grabby Sue down flat, right? Then why didn’t she go after you?”

Sanjay uncrossed and re-crossed his arms. He looked down the corridor and then at the floor. He was beautiful when he looked down like that, his lashes thick and his cheek foreshortened against the pale wall. “Kay . . . I’m a total coward. I stayed late or snuck out the front. She never had a chance to ask me.”

“Sanj,” Karen said. “I need your help. How . . . how much would you do, to find out for sure?”

Sanjay fell back against the wall. The cheap plastic squeaked. “The woman’s got the face of a dog.”

“I’m not asking you to close your eyes and think of England. But you could lead her on.”

“She’d kill me. No, I’m not on the fence on this issue. The more I think about it, the more I think we should just leave Grabby Sue alone. If she’s innocent, no loss. If she’s guilty, Kay, what’s to stop her doing it again?”

“How can such big men be so chicken?”

“Kay!”

“No one is supposed to have any secrets on this damn station, and suddenly I can’t find out anything. You can help me, or stop bothering me.”

It was her turn to walk off without looking back.

• • • •

Karen had to do laundry — there wasn’t much clean in the apartment. She started to gather up Tony’s clothes, too. She left them in a pile on the bed, helpless against the smell of him.

She felt like she was fleeing the apartment, and maybe she was, pushing her way through the corridors with her basket of clothes like a shield in front of her. It worked like a shield, too, warding off three attempts at hallway conversations.

She ran too fast down the stairs and got caught with vertigo at the bend of the stairs, that seasick feeling when you turn too quickly from up-spin to down-spin. She gripped the railing, and a pair of panties tumbled out of the basket. How she hated this station! She swung the basket into the wall in frustration.

Then, of course, she had to just pick up the fallen laundry and continue. What else was there to do?

Ironic that this was the place her mother talked about fleeing to. She thought of Earth, of her parents’ origins, as a mythic and glorious place. Her own world was bounded in plastic and titanium. She had paced every inch of it by the time she was eleven, including sneaking into restricted areas. There was nothing to discover, and she breathed in the same air her parents had breathed out.

She knew every permanent resident on the station — if not by name, by face. She felt like she’d talked to all of them that week, looking for some clue as to what had happened that night when Tony hadn’t come home.

Tammy, the cop she knew best, said, “Corporate only wants closed cases. We can’t rock the boat. But we’re looking, Kay. We do care, you know.”

So there was that.

Karen sat watching the washing machine when Judy burst in. Her face was as livid as Jupiter himself. “Why are you asking people about Joey? You think he did it?”

There was that legendary lack of privacy. Karen kept her eyes on the progress bar over the washing machine. “He was smuggling food for Tony, and I don’t think Tony had any way of paying for it.”

Judy slapped her, hard and sudden. “How dare you! Joey loves you like a sister! And you!”

Judy’s lips trembled, unable to form words. She turned and ran out of the laundromat. Karen touched her stinging cheek and wondered if there was any point to anything, anymore.

• • • •

“You were right, I’m a chicken, Kay; I admit that, okay? Some people never get off this station because life catches up with them. Me, I never tried, you know?”

Sanjay leaned against the door to her compartment, picking at his cuticles. His eyes flashed up, just once, a curtain of shy lashes descending again. “So I decided, for Tony, this I would do, because I was so convinced, Kay. I thought I knew it so clearly. She was always so mean, and ugly, and I thought that made her the perfect jealous fan, you know? But she ain’t. I mean, if she was . . . look, I did it, I went out the back, knew she’d run into me. She’s had her eye on me, you know? She took me back to her hotel room, but I couldn’t go through with it. She cried, Kay. She just cried. She’s a sad, lonely woman who really likes wrestling. That’s all. I’m sorry, this whole thing was in my head, I guess. Tony . . . Tony wasn’t no angel, Kay. Whoever did for him, well, they probably had a reason. I just hoped it was a romantic reason, I guess.”

Karen set the last clean shirt in her dresser and closed it. “All right,” she said. “I’m going to confront Joey.”

Sanjay’s answer was a liquid expression, pleading and worry. She wrapped her arms around him and let her head rest against the hard, flat plane of his chest. “Sanj, I love you. Be near a phone for me, okay?”

He hugged her back. “I still think you’re wrong. Joey and Tony were close.”

“I know. I used to babysit him. Relax.” She squeezed him once more and gently ushered him out into the hall.

• • • •

Karen had a shiv — most people did on the station. It was a natural artifact of having to import everything. (The joke was the only exports from Jupiter station were gases and idiots.) A good kitchen knife wouldn’t be worth the shipping expense. So she had made her own. Like Joey had.

Karen was unreasonably proud of her homemade knife. It had a little notch for snipping threads and a comfortable handle formed from quick-foam.

She carried it by her thigh as she walked to the Vaughns’ apartment. She wasn’t sure what she was going to say, but she knew she wanted to have her knife there for the conversation.

Joey met her at the head of the corridor. He’d been running — had probably seen her on the security monitor. “Karen.” He caught his breath.

“Joey, I want to talk to you.”

“Yeah, I want to talk to you, too.” He shifted nervously. “Come with me.” He turned.

His narrow back made her think of violence, but she kept cool and followed. “How much money did Tony owe you?”

Joey walked in silence a while, and Karen thought he wasn’t going to answer, until he said, “Little over a grand.”

“You let a wrestler work up over a grand in credit? Are you stupid?”

Joey glared at her over his shoulder. “He said he had a new way to get money. Something sure.”

Karen wondered if that way was Grabby Sue. They were walking very fast, now, and she had to almost jog to keep up. “Where are we going?”

“Here.” Joey looked back, then in front of them, and then shoved Karen toward the wall.

It was an airlock — one of the small emergency ones, and the interior door was open. Karen had all of a second of horror to realize what Joey planned. She dropped low and struck at him with her elbow, but he was stronger and she was over the threshold. She scrabbled at rubber and metal with her fingernails and twisted, jamming her knife into Joey’s thigh.

He howled, and let up just enough for her to crawl over him, back to the corridor-side of things. He looked up at her in betrayal — wasn’t that ironic — both his hands clasped over the spreading blood on his trouser-leg.

She yanked her knife from his leg and held it to his neck. “You’re so stupid, Joey. They monitor all the airlocks. You think they’d let you slide again?”

“It was an accident, Karen. An accident.”

“Oh, now you want to talk.”

“I only wanted to get him to pay up. I swear! But we were on the stairs, and he started fighting, and you know how it is when you turn from up-spin to down-spin . . . Karen, please don’t kill me.”

“Trying to push me out an airlock wasn’t an accident.” She pressed the knife closer to his throat. She had her knee on his chest, pressing him down. They were in the airlock door, and dimly she became aware that the alarms were sounding. Cold as yesterday’s coffee, she felt Joey’s life in her hands. She could kill him. He deserved it. And the cops would just cover it up again.

“Please, Karen. I didn’t want to. You know I didn’t. I’m just so scared. If anyone found out, everyone would find out. How could I live here? Trapped with what I’d done and my mom and everyone?”

“Be quiet,” Karen said. She noticed the blood starting to seep around the knife while Joey panted under her. His face was white as a moon. There were feet rushing toward them in the corridor, and she knew this was her moment, her decision, and the anger and hatred all evaporated into cold, calm thoughts.

She stood up, wiped her knife, and put it into her pocket.

She didn’t hear the words she said to the station cop — something about a misunderstanding — the things you say in these situations. They let her walk toward home. She didn’t acknowledge any of the people whose faces passed her. She was cold and empty inside, like space.

A hand closed on her arm, and she turned to see Joey standing next to her. The cut on his neck didn’t look so bad. “Karen,” he said, and his mouth opened and closed again, working on words he couldn’t quite get out.

They walked together to the big windows on the Strip. It was convenient. They looked at Jupiter instead of each other.

At last, Karen spoke. “All Tony wanted was to get off this station. Well, he didn’t make it. And I’m old enough and smart enough to know I’m not gonna make it, either. Neither are you.”

“I know that,” he said, in a voice like breaking glass.

The silence said more than either of them could about the futility of their situation. They had to live together, in one tin can, with an eye on every airlock and their hands on their shivs.

“Get me some carbs,” Karen said. “I’m going to work at the Wrestlerama.” Joey started to speak and she cut him off. “Don’t say a damned thing, Joseph Vaughn, while I’m still deciding what to do with you.”

“Okay,” he said, and nodded.

They spent a long time together, staring at Jupiter’s slowly unfurling banners of cloud. There was nothing else to say.

Marie Vibbert

Marie Vibbert

Marie Vibbert is an IT professional from Cleveland, Ohio.  She is a member of the Cleveland science fiction workshop, The Cajun Sushi Hamsters, attended Clarion in 2013, and joined SFWA in 2014.  Her work has appeared in Asimov’s and Analog.  She has ridden 15% of the roller coasters in the United States and plays for the Cleveland Fusion women’s tackle football team.  Her website is marievibbert.com.