Escape Pod 732: At Her Fingertips
This is the second in a special series of space-themed stories for May 2020.
At Her Fingertips
by Jason Kimble
Ten fingers, ten toes. That’s the baseline for a healthy kid, right? You’d have thought I’d be a bonus, what with eighteen fingers. Guess they all have to function before you count them.
As Deficiencies go, mine’s not so bad. The Skew was a hell of a thing, and everyone on the Rim’s still feeling it. I knew a guy once had a fully formed jaw down around his nuts. I only wish I was kidding. On the upside, the hinge didn’t work, or it would’ve been a nightmare sitting down.
So, yeah, I have extra digits grown out from the top of my primary knuckles. You get used to working around them, though. Makes some things tenser for me when I’m elbow-deep in an engine than it does for people without them, but it only took once or twice pinching them before my reflexes amped up. And, like I said: could be worse.
Case in point: I could have a mouth that doesn’t close all the way like my boss, Harvey. He literally never shuts his trap.
“Acaja, get the hell over here!”
No matter how much I wish he would.
“Yes, Harvey?” I call back, loud but polite, wiping off my hands and making my way across the shop. We just got our shipment in from this month’s lineup with planetside, so the place is a bit crazy. All the parts we’ve been sitting on our asses waiting for are finally here. Mostly.
“Why aren’t you working on the Beej?” Harvey snaps, jabbing a fat thumb at the Billings 33-J barely peeking out from under its tarp.
“Sidestep unit didn’t come in on the lift.”
At one point, that oversized cannonball was top of the line in inter-roid transport, but too many close calls with a faulty sidestep unit wound up crushing two of the starboard thrusters. Nearly took out the pilot.
There’s probably a half-dozen folks around who are sad it didn’t. The wait list to be on jumper crews could wrap two times around the Rim, seems like. I used to be stupid enough to be on it.
“What do you mean it didn’t come in?” Harvey barks, flipping through his manifest. He slurps a little to keep the drool from leaking out from his oversized jaw.
“A little slower, just because I like you, Harv,” I answer, moving my hands in a phony sign language as I say, “Did. Not. Come. In.”
“You do know what it is, Ace?” Harv sneers back.
I sigh and walk over to the Beej. “Integrated radar and limited AI,” I say, popping open the front panel. “Goes home here, ties into the thruster arrays,” I add, gesturing to the ports all along the surface of the jump ship.
“No, what it is, is the most expensive piece of tech anyone on this entire roid’s even breathed near,” Harv growls.
“Atmocite converter core probably gives it a run for its money,” I counter, leaning up against the Beej. “I mean, thing turns rock into air, it’s gotta be tougher to make than—”
“For the love of . . . without a sidestep, this?” Harv pounds on the glossy metallic shell,
“Might as well roll right into the scrapyard!”
“Harv? Think we’ve established I’m aware,” I snipe back. “Aren’t any pilots on jump rotation can dodge the rock coming at them from every whichway all on their own.”
“Exactly. And we’ve been sitting on this thing for a lift cycle and a half.”
“Trust me, I want that thing gone more than anybody. I could totally use the space for about half a dozen other repairs I can get done with what we actually have.”
“It’s right the hell here on the manifest!” Harv screams, pointing.
“Well, if you can turn the words on your screen into a part, then we’re all set. If you can’t, then you need to talk to someone planetside, because I’m telling you: no sidestep unit.”
I don’t know that I can really blame Harv for being so upset. Sidestep unit’s pretty much the key to the whole shebang for a jumper. Which is why I stole the thing in the first place.
Rixzah is fine as far as roids go, I guess. But when the world’s the size of an asteroid, it doesn’t take long before you want to find another one. And kids’ll dream their days away wondering what that might be like if you let them.
Those kids born without any surface signs of Skew can fill their heads imagining a planet full of plants and clouds and rainbows and whatever else they have down planetside. And when they’re old enough, they might even test clean and get to see that.
But for a little girl with extra parts out where everyone could always see them, there wasn’t any kind of hope for that. Didn’t mean I didn’t dream, just meant it was a different kind. So, I sat in my room, teaching myself how to braid my hair without catching my spare digits in it. And watching spacefarer vids.
Hanson Reag was my favorite. Any time my folks managed to snag one from a skimmer, I ate that stuff up. Hanson Reag and the Particle Planet. Hanson Reag and the River Ring. Hanson Reag and the Amazon Atoll. Hanson’s writers liked alliteration.
Or maybe they just liked a lot of the same, because if I’m being honest, those vids weren’t exactly new each time around. Hanson would always start out in some kind of trouble from an adventure you hadn’t seen, but that you knew was probably all sorts of fantastic. And then he’d hide or get lost or malfunction his way onto the new planet. There was the local nice guy who wanted to help Hanson, and the local authority that thought he had the wrong look about him. Sometimes that was more literal than others; the Insect Insiders figured they shouldn’t trust anyone without antennae and compound eyes. The Viridian Void’s leader thought someone without green skin just looked sickly.
But Hanson always found a way to charm his way into their good graces, manage to find out just what was Secretly Going Wrong, and land himself a woman. Didn’t matter where the hell he wound up, Hanson found some curvy piece of ass who fell into his arms at one point or another. Sometimes she turned him down flat when they met. Sometimes she swooned at the sight of him. But there was always some place, usually in the middle of the third-act chase scene or gun battle, definitely before the nasty authority figure met his poetic demise, when Hanson and his woman-shaped alien locked lips. And I’ll tell you, I didn’t mind that part at all. It was one more reason I wanted to be just like Hanson.
I’d curl up under my thin sheet, sucking on a tasteless vita-stick, and watch my vid-player with its hairline crack across the left side. Over and over and over again I watched until I had it memorized, and then I’d play it over and over again in my head. Only, maybe Hanson was tanned more, and maybe he was a girl, and maybe she had a long, thick braid, and maybe her name started with an A.
Of course it was all a bunch of crap. But even with the Rim making it impossible to send a ship between planets, I guess those folks planetside had some of the same dreams, ’cause Hanson and the guys like him were always landing somewhere new.
The closest real thing a girl like me could hope for was making it onto a jump crew. There weren’t aliens out there, but there were other roids, and those folks crazy enough to push a sleek bit of metal through the always-shifting maze of rock between one Skew colony roid and another were even brassier explorers than Reag.
“Daaamit,” Harv grouses, running his meaty fingers through hair that looks like he used the same lubricant we keep for lift joists. I look around the shop, where everyone else has his or her head planted firm in an engine or a servo unit or whatever other big block of metal and plastic keeps them from having to make eye contact with Harv. Me, I’m stuck here till he lets me go. Isn’t a single bit of metal to hide my eyes in, so I just start wiping my hands again, slow and careful and not looking him in his slack-jawed face.
Doesn’t really help, since his eyes land right on me again eventually, and he frowns. His version of a frown, anyway, which looks a little like he’s ready to hock up a hairball.
“And how long were you gonna screw around tightening bolts on that low-end backup hauler before you grew a set and told me, Ace?” he says. I shrug.
“Oughta trash all your damn credits for the week,” he growls. “Nothing but trouble outta you, I swear. All high minded and trained up and nothing but. . . .” The rest of it flies off into something between a moan and a howl as he punches the air above his head for a minute.
“I got more important throats to rip out,” he says when he remembers what words are. “Help Cassette on lift upgrade and stay the hell out of my way the rest of the day.”
“You’re a prince, Harv,” I say, trying to keep the sarcasm bright. I’d get his hackles up even more if I suddenly started acting like I respected his authority. Gotta stay normal. For however normal any of us are up here.
“You’re a bitch, Acaja,” he tosses back, but he seems to be done with me for now, stomping off to his office, where some poor sod is about to have every member of his extended family threatened for the mix-up, I’m sure. I stuff my rag in my back pocket and hustle over to the open lift unit, where I can hear Cass clanking around.
By Green standards, I suppose the Officiant’s office is corrupt, but credits and favors keep the air moving up here. We don’t have a pretty arboretum to live in. We’ve got a mess, and you need folks who are willing to rake the muck in order to get by.
Bribes are less about greed and more about insurance. Ours is an eat-or-be-eaten life. It’s all about what you can get for yourself in the time you’ve got. If the government weren’t greasing the slide, we’d probably have gutted each other six times over by now.
Not that I knew that when I was younger. Most of us Defs are sterile; few who manage to reproduce, then, get a lot of perks. Folks who shoot out a kid who doesn’t show clear signs of the Skew can manage even more. Which is, of course, why my parents were so disappointed when they saw my hands. Still, there was a chance I might be fertile, so we got a bit of extra comfort. And my parents used that to help shield me from the way the rest of the roid worked. At least for a while.
I had no idea just how much it cost my parents to get that half-working vid player, or how many favors and credits each skimmed copy of a spacefarer adventure cost them. I thought good people got good things. Sometimes there were obstacles, but if you were just bold enough, you always ended on a high note, like Hanson.
So I burned even more of their credits getting all the training vids to be a jump pilot. Braided my credential medals into the crazy-thick rope of hair I’d grown—I didn’t even have to look to keep my spares out of the tangle by then. I ran reaction sims in my head when I couldn’t log into the network. Worked my body for the rigors of travel. Ate as well as we could afford. I signed up for the jumper list when I was old enough, and waited for my turn.
Kept right on waiting. See, having me gave my parents some perks, but those weren’t near enough to move me up the list. Which, the way things work on the Rim, basically meant I just slowly moved down the list as people with the credits or clout pushed ahead of me.
There wasn’t quite so big a blockade around jumper maintenance, at least. It’s a gig a lot of folks still want, mind you, but no one ever made adventure epics about intrepid grease monkeys going nowhere but from one end of the shop to another. I went through all the maintenance training in hopes of making myself a more well-rounded jumper candidate, before I realized qualifications weren’t what anyone running that program was looking for. Between my maintenance certs and having gotten better than average with my weird hands, though, I got in the doors, at least. Got to run all eighteen digits along the smooth surface of jump ships and lift rockets.
But I wasn’t ever going to fly one. Not just sitting around, anyway.
“That was a fun bit of strafing, now wasn’t it?” comes Cass’s mellow bass echoing through the open chassis.
“Oh, that?” I brush off. “That was barely a ding.”
Cass laughs, his dark, calloused hands hooking the outside of the engine he’s been in and sliding him and his sled out.
“Someday you are going to hit the wrong nerve on that one,” he says, shaking his shaved head as he slides himself onto his chair and taps the button to lower himself back down.
Cass is probably the only person here can give me a run for my cred when it comes to maintenance. Probably why he’s the only one around here ever earns a real smile out of me. Usually by flashing his own bright one first.
He wipes his hands off and swivels the chair, cocking his head to one side.
“Last time I saw you like this, you were all worked up ’cause you lost contact with that cyber-lay of yours,” Cass says.
“Aw, you’re such a romantic,” I answer, trying to convince my heart that it needs to stay right where it is. The beating on the inside of my rib cage tells me it doesn’t quite buy what I’m selling. Cass just shakes his head and waits.
“Yeah, well, it’s complicated,” I finally mutter.
“Always is,” Cass says with a wink. “So, you hand me the spanner and we’ll work on something simple, like upgrading geo-synch ascension protocols and reworking emergency oxygen sensors.”
He raises one black eyebrow, and I can’t help but chuckle as I dig up the spanner.
Cass has a knack for sussing out what’s wrong, and not just with machines. He’s been fixing those since he replaced the motor on his chair at twelve years old, but despite the look of him—all broad shoulders and muscles from the waist up, where you can’t see what the Skew shriveled—the man’s got a light touch when it’s called for.
The day I lost my transmit link with Heady, I’d been exhausted and hyperagitated all morning. Nearly fried the circuits on a hydro pump. Cass pulled me aside, listened to me whine about this girl on another roid whom I’d never even seen, but whom I just had to talk to again. Must have been pathetic.
“Do me a favor and pitch this, would you?” he said, holding out a contact chip when I’d finished grousing. “Some asshat wanting to sell me skimmer gear. Like I need that kind of headache, you know?”
I stood there a second as he held the chip, and couldn’t quite manage words. Then he sighed, a heavy thing coming from that barrel chest of his. He opened my hand, turned it palm up, shoved the chip in, and wrapped my hand closed around it.
“It’s the kind of thing can get a body in trouble, you know?” he said, one thick eyebrow arching up, and I caught the glint in his clear, brown eyes. “I probably wouldn’t even toss it here. Maybe take it out by the strip, over in the slate quarter.”
I looked back down at my hand, with one set of fingers held tight, the other swaying up and down slightly. I looked back up at him and smiled. He spun his chair away and motored over to salvage the hydro pump before I could even thank him. For more than one thing; Cass’s skimmer contact is how I first got practice sneaking parts across town. Skimmers don’t want creds. They can get those with barely a few minutes in the hypernet. They need tech.
Probably why the scrapyard sticks around to begin with. Space is at a premium, so you’d think a sprawl of old parts wouldn’t rate. But there’s only so far behind we can lag before no one planetside makes what we need. At that point, it’s shell out credit most of us don’t have for the newer models, or find a way to keep it running with what’s lying about.
I guess I owe it to whatever part of me had given over to the doubt, since it meant I was still working off shifts doing inventory at the scrapyard despite the maintenance gig. Which also meant doing security, but it only took a couple of times showing the looters the wiry girl isn’t worth messing with. You’d be surprised what whipping a guy in the face with a braid full of credential medals can do to earn you a rep.
Most nights, it was just me and the scrap. Good thing about scrap, unlike a lot of other garbage, is that old parts don’t tend to smell much different than new ones. Some more oil wafting around, that little bite of rust in the air, but nothing organic. Parts decay, eventually, but more slowly, and they never go rotten.
Over a week, I scammed three power conversion units and a quintet of prismatic optics out of the scrapyard for Cass’s skimmer contact, and at the end of it all, I could talk to Heady again.
I was afraid I said something to upset you, she typed.
Hell, no. Damn unit fried, and I only had that one by accident. I thought I might never talk to you again.
Heh. Yeah, type.
I’d love to talk, though, came the characters, and I groaned into the night, setting the straps creaking in the makeshift hammock-lounger I built with cables and pipes, deep back in the maze of scrap where even personnel aren’t keen on schlepping. Maybe when you finally get onto a jumper crew.
Yeah, sure, I typed back, my eyes drifting to the jumper husk in the far alcove. I can’t be on the bottom of the list forever, right?
That’s the way, she typed, and right then I was so very glad I hadn’t been able to find the subcortical node the skimmer wanted as trade for a vid unit. Much as I wanted to see Heady, I didn’t want her to see me right then. I was never going to have the creds or connections to push myself up the list. I was about as likely to take a trip between roids as that stupid, burned out jumper shell.
I haven’t had a day drag so long as this one in, honestly, ever. But somehow, I get through Cass’s sidelong glances and Harv’s growling and even a stint spent scrubbing old thruster housings, and finally—finally—I can clock out.
“Where the hell is she?” I hear Harv bellowing as my fingers are reaching for the exit. I swear under my breath.
“Go,” Cass says, waving at the door while he spins his chair back toward the shop. “I’ll tell him he just missed you.”
“I’m a tank,” Cass says, patting the arm of his chair. “Harv can’t do anything to me. And you got whatever it is with that girl of yours to work out.”
I turn over in my head whether it’ll be more suspicious if I stay and take Harv’s tantrum. Any other day, though, I’d flip him double birds and walk at the end of my shift.
“You’re a prince, Cass,” I say, and scramble outside.
“I’m the whole royal family, sweetheart,” I hear him say as the door slips shut.
I shove my hands in my jacket pockets to keep anyone from seeing them shake. Keep my eyes down, which isn’t really out of character; never know who’s going to decide to take offense from eye contact and decide you’re staring at their scaly skin or head fin or missing joints.
I grunt at security and scan my badge, hustle off into the crowd of after-work Defs who are all just trying to get the hell home. They want their little boxes, vaguely edible rations, and maybe a shoddy vid unit if they’re lucky. A good night here is getting away from all the other folks who are just a big, ugly reminder of how broken we all are. Or getting smash drunk and managing to blur them all out of your head. Maybe both.
Me, I’ve got a bunk and most of my stuff in a back room of the scrapyard office to get to. I do the crowd-bumping dance, throw enough attitude that I don’t have to stop and deal with anyone who gets a nose or lack-of-nose out of whack from the jostling.
I give a dead-handed wave to the day staff leaving the scrapyard. Tap in for the night. Drum my fingers on the desk just long enough to make sure no one’s coming back for something he forgot. Then I practically bounce to the back of the office to grab my transmit unit.
Finally got the sidestep, I type.
That’s amazing! comes the response onscreen, and I try to ignore the warmth in my cheeks. How long before you think you can get it installed?
Maybe half an hour? I type back. Between extracting the old one and running the testing routine to make sure the new one’s up to snuff. The intercept light on the unit flashes orange and I sigh.
They’re doing a sweep, I read before I have time to type it myself. Contact again when you’re here. I can’t wait!
I tap the power off on the unit. I trust Cass’s skimmer well enough, but it’s been a good year now, and the Greens planetside have a lot more resources than we do. I don’t want to test out whether his hack holds up to mask my location. The last thing I need right now is some hypernet bot frying my only way to keep in touch with Heady.
I fall back on the lumpy pallet in my little room when I feel that warmth in my cheeks again. I’ve never even seen her. But she’s been a lifeline for so long, I just. . . .
Yeah. So I guess there’s still a little dreamer in me after all this time.
Honestly, there’d have to be for me to be trying to pull this job off in the first place. Harv isn’t just the maintenance supervisor. No one that high up is “just” in any of the senses of the word. Like making it onto a jumper crew, you make it to being in charge by pulling the right strings and doing the right favors for the right people.
That the right people are usually doing what the Greens would call wrong is just the way it works up here.
When there’s almost no good source for quality local tech, it only makes sense that you’d have someone in Harv’s position to facilitate acquisitions. The high-end stuff—like the sidestep—takes a lot of sweet-talking and finagling. Most of the rest, though: given how old just about everything we work with is, it doesn’t really faze the order takers planetside when Harv puts in for extras. If sending up cheap, mass-produced tech keeps us out of their atmosphere, I expect the Greens are happy to shuttle it up in whatever quantities get ordered. At least for as long as they’re still making it.
It takes me all of five minutes to gather the last of my gear in my knapsack. Then I key in the code logging me for a patrol and slide out into the scrap stacks.
Sure it’s my job, but I actually like walking back through the maze of metal and plastic, especially when I’m agitated. Piles of gears and tires and windscreens and circuits and . . . yeah. Everything we ever made that lasted, that got better? It’s here. Not exactly broken, but not exactly the best, either. There’s the pile of rudders from the obsolete surveillance bots. Two more twists to the left, and I’m in the containers of switches. Every modality someone might want to alter, we’ve managed to make toggles, flip bits, or knobs for it.
I like running the tips of my real fingers over the monitors. Some of them are hard as metal, others bend with a touch. We sort them by size in the yard, so I can slide my touch over all the cycles, from when we needed to see everything at the size of our room walls until pictures burned into the back of our eyes, to when we needed to have it locked on our wrists despite the squinting. Every size for your artificial-viewing needs.
Right around here—a switchback and a half or so—is where folks generally lose interest. No one wants to be hauling parts from this far back in the yard. By design and out of habit, the parts start falling into true graveyard categories by now. I can’t really remember the last time anyone asked for outmoded cable pulls for a mobile crusher unit, for example, so they all hang like some kind of rubberized vineyard along the wall I’m passing. We could probably fully trash them, but staff isn’t any more inclined to haul a mess of old parts from this far back as any citizen is.
Makes it the perfect place for my little assembly lab. It started out as practice for my maintenance certs. Nobody may want them, but the fact is, once I was able to reassemble some outdated engines, the easy-make variety we have now wound up giving me no trouble at all. At the end of the day, I also wound up with a clunky but rideable floater bike. I only really take it out for rides in the rock desert behind the yard, though. Greens banned the things for exhaust violation ages ago.
I pat the old girl when I see her again, then flop my knapsack on the top of my old screener. You see, after the bike, I got nostalgic for that vid-player from when I was a kid. Took a bit longer on that one, but eventually I had a full-sized version, not the little portable model I remembered. I did manage to find a screen with a crack in exactly the same place, though. Set it all up in the empty front-end shell of an atmocite trawler. So, when I got to wanting a distraction but didn’t feel like taking the bike out, I’d load up some old Hanson Reags into the player, lean back on the creaky cables, and pretend I was that stupid kid under the covers again.
That’s how I first picked up Heady’s signal. I wasn’t as good with the vid tech, so while I was swapping a burned-out board one night, trying to figure out which one could actually decode my old vid files, one of them turned out to be a half-working transmit board.
Come on you piece of shit and work, I typed into the console. Yeah, it was late. I was annoyed. I didn’t think I was doing anything other than getting out my frustration.
Hello? Do I know you?
So, not as dashing a first meet as Hanson, but Heady’s got a sense of humor, so we moved past it pretty quickly, and I stopped looking for the vid conversion card. Instead, when I came back to take a break, I’d type with Heady, instead. Weren’t any pictures, but I had plenty of old Hanson Reag stored up in my head, so it worked out all right.
We had a lot in common, turns out. She was bright as I was, though Heady’s skills were more medical.
I’ve never been very good with people, I told her.
You seem to be doing all right now.
Back at you.
Heady kept me from freaking out whenever I was waiting on new cert results. I told her about all my tinkering. She told me about her stumper cases and her stroke-of-luck saves. We both vented about our hard-nosed supervisors. Heady was the first person I told about landing the job in maintenance.
So, I guess we won’t be able to chat as often?
All right, so maybe I didn’t keep the scrapyard job entirely out of pessimism.
That transmit unit didn’t last too long. Outdated tech, poorly maintained by me? It was bound to fry from a scrambler signal eventually. That was a night: me ripping through the boards, trying to match another up to the one I had, which was fused and melted so it wasn’t exactly a pristine template, now was it?
I never did find another board in the scrapyard, but in all my running around, digging for things, I found the jumper husk—another Beej. Hooked up the floater bike and half-careened that thing back to my tinkering arena. There was a pattern of micrometeorite burn along the starboard curve. A huge dent in the aft from some other collision, surrounded by a radiating patina of tarnish and oxidization. But, all things considered? It looked like a jumper.
I look up at her now. I slide my false fingers along the places where I sealed up the micro breaches. There’s still rusty streaks from where they were, but the surface is intact now. The dent’s been bumped back out for a while, though I left the radiating patina. I thought it gave her character. I unzip my jacket and pull the new sidestep unit from my inner pocket. I hold up the cylinder to the front assembly armor plating.
“You see that, Little Beater?” I say, turning that stupid-small rod of transparent steel and circuitry in my hand with a grin so large it makes my cheeks ache. “Tonight, we’re fixing you up for good.”
I point upward, patting Little Beater’s shell and getting a hollow, echoing thunk that makes my stomach jump a bit.
“Then you and me are off to rescue the princess.”
I know the creaking sounds are just the frame settling, but part of me likes to think it’s the ship smiling big as me at the thought of doing what she was born to do. I pat her hull a little softer this time, watch the stars and bits of rock at play in the night above us a minute. Then I open her up and get to work.
Little by little, telling myself it was just a hobby, just something to keep my hands from going idle, I managed to cobble together what was missing in the jumper. Then, in a stray fit of insanity, I told Heady.
You *built* a jump ship?
Reconstructed. It’s not nearly as hard. Replaced the fuel lines. Reshopped gears. Soldered loose connections.
None of that sounds easy.
It’s not all exactly up to code, mind.
There are codes for bringing a jump ship back from the dead?
Ha ha. Well, like: I converted a geo-positioner into a route calculator. Replaced a few lost guidance fins with parts from the scrapyard’s rudder pile. Cobbled two flex screens and the castoffs of an old armored crowd control unit into a working front end/navigation display.
But that’s. . . . Okay, that’s just amazing.
It’s still not much better than decoration.
Well, I still think it’s amazing. And look at how much you found already that you never thought you would? You’re bound to find the rest sometime soon.
Is everyone on your roid such a crazy optimist? I typed, though I could feel the twitch from the smile I was trying to hide, even though she couldn’t see it anyway.
I’m one of a kind, she answered.
And then that other Beej landed in our shop, and I had a sidestep. It was busted, sure. It couldn’t engage autoevasion, but it would complete the thruster control panel by bridging its connection to the collision sensors. I lodged the unit in, strapped myself down. I probably sat in that seat a good fifteen minutes, staring at the control panels and the monitors. Finally, I initiated the test sequence.
I’m pretty sure I screamed louder than the engines when she lifted ten feet up and spun me onto my head. I reversed the controls and set her down in a hurry. There were always loud noises from one corner or another on Rixzah, but I didn’t need too much attention.
That was nearly it. It could actually work. Some stupid, hare-brained scheme that made about as much sense as something Reag would come up with, and I was just one overpriced piece of tech away from having it work.
I’ve been turning that stupid little tube of half-working tech in my hand for a good ten minutes now, ever since I yanked it out of the bridging panel to replace it. It’s about the size and shape of the handlebars on my floater bike. Wrapped half in conductive metals, half in transparent plastics where it needs to let the laser relays through. It all comes to a point on one end, which is covered in the fine circuit mesh that translates the sensor warnings into thruster commands. I hold it up next to the pristine, new unit, and sure, the new one shines better, but damned if they aren’t both ridiculous feats of engineering.
“Think you forgot to return some equipment to the job site, Ace,” comes a voice from behind me.
“What, this?” I ask, holding the old sidestep over my head as I slide the new one behind the ridge in the open panel. “Harv, this thing doesn’t work. You can’t refurb sidesteps. I didn’t think you’d give a—?”
I’ve turned around now, and the gun in his hand says this is probably a whole lot deeper hole I’ve dug myself than I would have thought.
“I know you think I’m a moron, girl,” Harv says. “You think ’cause you can make just about anything run, that makes you better than me.”
“What can I say? I was born with the right hands for the job,” I quip, though my throat’s threatening to close up. I slip the old sidestep unit into my jacket and slowly raise my hands.
“Do I look like I want to take any shit from you, girl?” Harv says. Most people would be gritting their teeth right now, but, well: Harv. “I already had to screw around with Cassette covering for your ass.”
My throat really does close up for a second. I have to cough to make the words come out.
“Is Cass all right? He didn’t have anything to do with—”
“I told you I’m not a moron, bitch,” Harv growls. “I did not get where I am by being stupid. I did not get where I am by buying what the rabble is selling. And I will not lose what I have because two little shits— who read too many manuals and never got their hands dirty—have it in their heads they deserve a reward.”
“My hands are in engines every day, Harv. They’re plenty dirty,” I counter.
“Not the right kind,” he says. He brings the gun up, sighting along the top, balances it with his other hand, and steps closer. I’m trying not to show it, but the certs in my braid jangle from my shaking.
“I lose that unit, I lose everything,” Harv says, slowly closing on me. I see the sweat dripping down from his temples, and it clicks.
“You haven’t told anyone.”
“Just hand it over, and no one needs to know,” he says.
“You spent the day tracking it, seeing whose screwup it was, and when you figured out the trail was solid all the way up, you realized it was gonna land on you.”
Harv doesn’t say anything, but he’s close enough now that I can hear the energy converter on the gun humming.
“You didn’t hurt Cass,” I say, and I feel one of the knots in my stomach let go. “’Cause if you did, you’d need someone to clean it up, and you’d have to tell them why you hurt him, and you couldn’t do any of that until you had the sidestep back.”
“About to get it back now, though, aren’t I?” he says, his gaping smile broken up in the middle by the crystal lens at the end of the gun barrel. One little finger twitch, and there would be a big, burning hole in the center of my chest. He can’t miss, given how close he’s gotten.
“So I don’t have to be careful not to hurt anyone else, do I?” he says. “That stupid, self-important braid full of certs ain’t nothing to brag about now, is it?”
His smile falters when he sees mine creep into place.
“Why are you smiling?” he asks.
That’s when I swing my head down and knock his hands aside with my credential-heavy braid.
“Still think the braid might be something to brag about,” I say as I close the distance and smash my elbow into the hand still holding the gun. It falls to the ground, and I kick it out of the way.
Surprise only lasts so long, though. It’s clear pretty fast that Harv wasn’t blowing smoke about getting his hands dirty. I know how to fight, but he’s definitely got more practice. And about fifty pounds of muscle on me. He’ll be bruised tomorrow, but I’m pretty sure the shooting pain in my chest means I’ve got at least a couple broken ribs. Makes it hard to catch my breath, and when I take the half-second to wipe the blood away from my right eye before I lose the use of it, Harv lands another haymaker. Pain shoots up my back as my spine smashes hard into the ridge of the open panel on the jumper.
“Give me the unit,” Harv growls, stomping toward me.
“Okay, okay!” I scream, holding up one hand as I reach with the other down to where I slid the new sidestep.
“Thatta girl,” he says. “Hand it over, and everything gets fixed.”
He looms over me, and that gaping, blood-coated smile tells me he’s going to kill me. Once he has the sidestep, he’s going to kill me, and then he’s going to kill Cass. If he finds the transmit, he’ll probably send people after Heady, too.
I wrap my hand around the smooth cylinder of the new sidestep, and all I can think is, I hate you, Hanson Reag.
I rush forward with as much force as I have left, slamming my body into Harv’s chest. It’s not enough to knock him over, but keeping on his feet takes him just enough time for me to swing my arm up and shove the pointed end of the sidestep straight into the soft spot behind Harv’s chin.
He chokes out something, but given that he’s got metal skewered up through his tongue, it’s probably nothing I was ever going to understand. Harv staggers backward, clutching for the bit of the cylinder still sticking out below his chin. While he’s trying to get ahold and pull it out, I manage one breath, find my balance, then whip my braid around his neck.
I jump up, wrapping my legs around his waist from behind. Grab hold of the braid with all eighteen digits and pull. Harv lurches left, then right, and my credentials jangle as he gargle-moans something.
My grip almost falters from the jolt through my body as we fall to the ground, but I hold on. I hold on as he rolls on top of me. Hold on as he flails and gurgles out more insults. Hold on as I hear something loud and wet crack and don’t know which of us it is. Hold on until the last, ugly rattle, and for at least a minute after Harv stops moving.
It takes some time before I can finagle my knees enough to get leverage and roll Harv off of me. I take a second and a few, painful breaths, then I look.
Turns out the wet cracking was Harv. For the first time in his life, his jaw is completely closed.
“You’re welcome,” I croak as I grit my teeth and twist the sidestep out of him. I know before I look: the thing’s trash. One of the optic ports is cracked, and the circuit mesh is pretty much circuit mush now.
I drop it on the ground and push myself to my feet. A few unsteady steps get me back to the open side port, and I pull the old sidestep out of my jacket. This one’s still intact. At least, as intact as it ever was. The thrusters would fire. The collision alerts would sound. But there’s no functional AI to connect the two. Just a Deficient I.
I look up at the debris field lying between me and Heady, the smooth metal of the cylinder sliding across my fingers as I twirl it on instinct. Might as well be explosive mines. I close my eyes a second and shake my head, credentials clattering in the quiet.
The old sidestep slides in place and I twist it secure, latch the panel back down. I limp my way inside. Latch myself in the control chair with a wince as the straps pinch one of my broken ribs. Initiate the startup sequence.
Harv’s right. You don’t get on a jumper crew by acing the training, setting reaction records, and knowing the control board like the back of your disfigured hand. The schlubs who ride these things need the ship to do the driving for them, because they spent too much time working the system to get into this seat and not enough figuring out what they could do once they were in it.
But that’s all I’ve been thinking about, all I’ve been training to do, since I was staring at a cracked vid-player screen under a thin, cheap sheet. Well, that, and one other thing. The thrusters rumble to life with the sensor displays, and the busted metal husk I’ve been rebuilding and filling with dreams I never had the right to lifts off.
It’s time to go kiss the girl.
by Tina Connolly
I thought the whole storytelling of this one was so fun. I liked the glorious energy and pace and language of Acaja’s entire adventure. This is a story where the voice itself is a large part of its charm; it’s great fun to hear Acaja spout off lines like “Rixzah is fine as far as roids go, I guess” and “Only, maybe Hanson was tanned more, and maybe he was a girl, and maybe she had a long, thick braid, and maybe her name started with an A.” You get pulled right into her story, and you want her to steal all the parts she needs, and outwit Harv, and go get the girl.
It’s also a fun story for right now because there’s a bit of a theme of escapism through adventure running through it – Acaja grows up dreaming about all the Hanson Reag spacefarer vids: Hanson Reag and the Particle Planet, Hanson Reag and the Amazon Atoll. Dreams about them until finally she can be part of her own adventure, and escape her lousy circumstances. And so when it’s a tough time in our own world, you can listen to Acaja’s adventures, and how she gets the better of the bad guys and sets off into space. And, yanno, you can dream about the future time when we can have adventures of our own again. Great, grand, adventures, like, going out to restaurants with friends.
And our closing quotation this week is from Jack Kerouac in On the Road, who said: “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
Thanks for listening! And stay well.
About the Author
Jaxton Kimble is a bubble of anxiety who wafted from Michigan to Florida shortly after having his wisdom teeth removed. He’s still weirded out by the lack of basements. Luckily, his husband is the one in charge of decorating — thus their steampunk wedding. He has far too many 80’s-era cartoon / action figure franchises stored in his brain. His work has appeared previously (as Jason) or is forthcoming (as Jaxton) in Cast of Wonders, Diabolical Plots, and It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility. You can find more about him at jaxtonkimble.com, or by following @jkasonetc on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Ibba Armancas is an Inland Empire PBS writer/director and TV host whose COVID-themed educational kids show “Pandemic Playhouse” airs Friday starting January 2021. You can find out more about her, it, and her puppet pals at https://www.