by Jaxton Kimble
My favorite part about skimming is that I’m not broken when I do it. It doesn’t matter that I don’t have levels, that I’m on or off, because that’s how everything’s supposed to be when you’re in the hypernet. Even if I’m not supposed to be in the hypernet.
I’m only able to skim because Kaipo left my interface node on. That was the day he told me I could call him Kaipo instead of Dr. Singh. His eyes are different than mine, but that’s not because of the Skew, and even if it is I wouldn’t care, because they’re pretty and dark and they twinkle a little bit when he smiles. We’d had sex twice when he told me I could call him Kaipo if we’re alone. Sex is almost as good as skimming, only it doesn’t last as long, and sometimes I’m stinky afterwards, which I’m not a fan of. Sometimes Kaipo smells like pumpkin, which I’m totally a fan of.
“Hi, Heady,” I say, rolling onto my side on the bed to look at her. I frown, which I know because the muscles at my jawbone ache a little when I frown. “Did you hear all that?”
Heady raises an eyebrow and purses her lips. Heady’s my big sister. Like, really big. Eight and a half feet big. That’s what the Skew did to her, blew her up bigger than life, but I think it suits her. She’s not as tough as she looks to most people, though. She’s totally as tough as she looks to me right now.
“Sorry,” I say, sitting up. “Sometimes I get confused about outside and inside my head.” That’s what the Skew did to me: broke my head. You can see that when I cut my hair or trim my beard, because the hairs change colors each time. Other people tell me it’s silly, but I like it. I can never decide if I like red or blue or green or purple or yellow more, and this way I get to have them all, and all’s better than some.
“Don’t worry, Sy,” she says, because Sy’s my name. “You never have to apologize to me.”
She smiles, and the muscles in my cheeks tense up so I know I’m smiling, too. She’s a good big sister, Heady. Even if she’s not real.
Well, Heady’s real, but she’s not real here. She used to be. The room felt even smaller and tighter back then, because my interface node was turned off and no one would turn it back on. The world was only four walls, and they were right on top of me. The window didn’t matter; it was just part of the wall, wasn’t it?
The door, now that mattered. Heady came through the door. She left through the door. One of those times, she introduced me to Dr. Singh. That was before he let me call him Kaipo.
“Neuroelectro therapy,” I said after Kaipo did. It was just sounds.
“It means your node turns back on, Sy,” Heady said. She smiled. She has a good smile, too. Not the same way as Kaipo. It’s not like that. The muscles in my cheeks ached a little.
“I’ve been looking over your files since I was assigned your case, and … I think we can actually use our interactions through the node to re-map some pathways.”
“My node turns on,” I said.
“For our sessions, anyway,” Kaipo said. It was the first time I saw his smile. My ears tingled.
He left us alone after Heady signed some paperwork, and then she sat us down on my bed.
“Sy, I have to go away for a while,” she said. Her voice was soft, like all her hair. Her hand was light on my shoulder even though it could swallow mine.
“How long’s a while?” I asked. I’m good with time. It’s a pattern. I’m very good with patterns. While isn’t a good pattern. It isn’t time. It’s pretend, like a code loop that never finishes.
“I don’t know,” Heady said, still soft. She hugged me to her, and I could hear her heart pounding. I remembered how mine slammed in my chest when I was trying to think of what I should say to Pointy Teeth and Bone Knuckles. Heady always knew what to say. She let me go, kneeled in front of the bed, then wrapped her sprawling hands on my shoulders. Her round eyes were a little wet, but she smiled as she looked me in my eyes. It wasn’t quite as pretty as usual.
“But Dr. Singh is going to take care of you,” she told me. “And once I’ve got things sorted out, I’m coming back for you.”
I bit my lip. Not enough to hurt, which I sometimes do.
“But you have to stay here so I can find you, understand?”
“And then no more doctors or secrets, just you and me. I promise.”
I didn’t talk. I hugged her. It’s not always easy, wrapping my arms around her, but I did it. I didn’t squeeze too tight, because Heady’s bones aren’t as tough as normal-sized people. I held on until she hugged me back. Her hair fell around us and made the world go away. She smelled like ginger and cumin, which don’t go together, except with Heady they do. I listened to her heart pounding, to the little sniff she made. I held her with my arms, then I let her go with my arms, and then she walked out the door.
“How about that doctor?” the other Heady said after the door clicked closed. That’s when the other Heady started, because I’m very good with patterns, and I only let Heady’s go with my arms.
“He’s a cutie, right?” Heady prodded, smiling. “There’s definitely potential there.”
The muscles in my cheeks ached again, but only a little.
Kaipo has access to turn my interface node on and off because that’s how we do neuroelectro therapy. That’s when I have to call him Dr. Singh.
“It’s getting more tranquil here, Sy,” he says with a smile when he joins me in the closed server where we do therapy.
“That’s totally good, right?” I ask.
“It totally is,” he says with a little laugh. He smiles. I really like his smile. Right now it’s simulated through the code, but the real one is nice, too. He shows all his teeth, even the canines that are a little crooked. It’s open, his smile. I’m totally a fan of that.
So I’ve been practicing, smoothing out the abstract shapes and the code mutations that make being in the server interesting. They worry Kaipo. If I’m ever going to build filters, real filters and coping whatchamahooies, I have to listen to him. Plus, my chest gets a little tight when he cocks his head and frowns that worried frown. I like the smile more.
Kaipo takes us through the exercises. I make the right shapes and say the right things. I’m very good with patterns, so this feels natural. When we’re done and we’re back outside the server box, but inside the room box, he taps notes into his tablet.
“You weren’t too good at the coding bits?” Heady asks. I bite my lip. It hurts a little this time. I shake my head.
Kaipo says being accelerated too much in one area puts me out of balance in the others. There’s a middle. He’s helping me find out how to present it. I can’t talk out loud to Heady, though, when Kaipo is around. That definitely gets a frown and isn’t what I ought to present. So I keep my mouth closed, because if I don’t say anything, I can’t lie. Which I’m bad at, anyway.
“This is maddening!” Heady calls out, walking around behind Kaipo. She leans down to see what’s on his screen.
“Just tap in already,” she says, pointing to me and then pointing to the tablet. She knows she can’t really see what I can’t. I shake my head.
“Come on,” she drawls, kneeling next to Kaipo. She leans her head on his shoulder. “Just one little skim and you can see–”
I feel a pinch in the muscles on both the top and the bottom of my mouth, and that’s how I know I’m pursing my lips. I try to wave Heady off.
“Sy?” Kaipo looks up. It’s not a frown or a smile or even pursed lips exactly. That arch at his eyebrow means he noticed. He walks over. “Are you all right?”
Heady throws her hands in the air.
“If you just listened to me, you wouldn’t have to–”
I stand up and smile at Kaipo and bite my lip just enough. He smiles. I like his smile.
“Okay, fine. You got this,” Heady says, and walks sideways until she’s not here any more.
Kaipo taps the tablet to put the security feed on a loop. I let him think I didn’t do that a minute and a half ago.
I touch his fingers with mine. My cheeks feel warm. Other places, too.
I don’t just like Kaipo’s smile. Or his eyes. Or how he sometimes smells like pumpkin. I like that his skin is a kind of pale, not-exactly copper. I like that there’s a little bit of hair around each of his nipples, and a tiny dusting of it on his sternum, but not much anywhere else under his shirt. I like the feel of his waist when my legs are wrapped around it. I like the rough sides of the spine ridges the Skew gave him. I like how soft his lips are on mine, and on my neck, and on my nipples even though they have more hair than his. I like that I don’t have to talk but he knows what I need and want, and I know the same for him.
I don’t like how tight my chest feels when I think about what he’ll need and want once I’ve run away.
When they first brought me (I’m not supposed to talk about them), Heady — real Heady — came to visit every day. She held my hand, and told me what she’d done that day, only not everything, because she knew if she told it all, I might open my mouth and it would all come out.
That was how I got put in to begin with. We’re special, Heady and me. It’s hard — like, super duper hard — for people to have babies up here on the Rim, because one of the ways the Skew hurt just about everybody is that they can’t make babies. One baby is a party. Two babies is the kind of new that’s scary.
They didn’t want scary, because scared makes people do even more scary. They raised us separate for a while, helped us figure out what we were good at. Heady was good with people. I was good with not-people, with patterns. They fitted me with an interface node, and it felt right. At first I could just tap the local network, and I felt less cramped in my head, but it was still small. Pycha Gol is supposed to be one of the better roids, but home was still just a floating rock in the Rim. Everything was cramped and close and slow and stinky, which I’m not a fan of.
But the planet below? They’ve got the hypernet, which is big and bright and open and has more to know floating around inside it than I think anyone could ever know. Even any-one-hundreds could probably never know it. I’m totally a fan of that. Which is why I started learning to skim.
I’m good with not-people, but Kaipo’s been teaching me: talent is different than perfect. Especially when you’re excited about something and don’t really get that you have to be careful. And aren’t very good at being careful even when you know to be.
The woman who came first was big. Not as big as Heady, but the Skew gave all her teeth points, which made her scarier. Her partner was a man who rode in a chair. He had bone on the outside of his knuckles. I think maybe the Skew knew they wanted to be in security. Which is weird, because everyone tells me diseases can’t think.
The room was cramped and close. All smudged metal and streaky glass. The chair hurt my back, but I think maybe it was supposed to. Heady and I were eighteen. The hair at my scalp was orange from my most recent haircut. There was still some purple on the tips, though, and all the green and pink from the two cuts before that. It helped me feel a little brighter when I saw it in the smudged mirror, but then Bone Knuckles crunched his fist into the table, and Pointy Teeth leaned in and smiled. Her breath was stinky, which I’m not a fan of.
I don’t think she liked the face I made when I smelled her and tried to turn away. She grabbed me by the cheeks and made me look right at her.
“So, you’re going to tell us who hooked you up with hypernet access codes, and then maybe we can see about making sure you don’t have to do rehab time at a conversion station.”
“That’s a deal you want, kid,” Bone Knuckles said, wheeling his chair around to my other side. “I’ve been in the atmocite plant. For a place that makes our air, it is damn hard to breathe inside.”
“Scrawny thing like you?” Pointy Teeth said, “I figure you might not even make it through a term before you wind up too damaged for life after.” She stood back up and moved over to the wall, leaning against it. That made me feel better, because then I couldn’t smell her breath. I thought how bad it’d be if I had to work in the conversion station, where it would be stinkier than anything.
“I just asked nice,” I told them, because that was the truth, and I thought that’s what people wanted. Bone Knuckles wheeled his chair back again and laughed.
“You hear that, Sonja?” he said. “Asked nice. That’s all.”
“I had to ask a lot,” I clarified. Which was true. I knew it was called encryption, and I knew what I was doing with protocols and algorithms, but I knew that none of that made sense to most people the way it did to me. I was trying to make it easier for them to understand. They were still mad and confused, though. I wasn’t good with people. Heady was.
That’s all I was thinking when I said, “Maybe we can call my sister, and she can help me explain better, because Heady’s good with–”
“Woah,” Pointy Teeth said. She looked to Bone Knuckles, and he wheeled closer again while she stalked in from the other side. They looked at each other, and I looked at them, then they looked at me.
“You have a sister?” Bone Knuckles asked. I’d already remembered by then that I wasn’t supposed to tell about having a sister, but it was too late. I wanted Heady there more than ever. Heady’s really good at lying, but I’m no good at it at all. I’m either talking, or I’m not talking.
I didn’t talk. They didn’t like that. There was yelling and shaking, and Pointy Teeth threw a chair.
Since I didn’t talk, I still don’t know how Heady found me, but she did. And she smiled down at Pointy Teeth and Bone Knuckles.
“Adopted,” she said, calmly. “Sy’s my cousin, really, but his folks were in a horrible … ” she sniffed and covered her eyes, and even I wanted to hug her and make her feel better for my parents who were dead, but who really she just invented on the spot.
Bone Knuckles reached into a compartment on his chair and gave Heady a handkerchief. She dabbed her eyes. They apologized. They said things about trouble and heartache even though my chest didn’t hurt. They promised to track down whoever sold me skim codes, who was me but they were letting me go, because Heady and I walked out the door together.
The next day they committed me. That was three years ago.
“This is, really, the worst idea ever,” Heady says. People keep walking where I put her, so I move her around. It’s much more crowded outside than I remember. And stinky. I’m not a fan of that.
“Then we should go back,” Heady hisses, stooping down to try to pull me out of line for the jumper. “We can still go back.”
It took me a long time to get here. First Dr. Singh had to become Kaipo, and even though I liked his smile and all the other things, I had to remember about the next piece. He had to leave my node on, and even that was a tiny step.
I had to remember to be careful this time. Had to remember talent wasn’t skill. That if you go too fast, they catch you. Just fast enough. Find the pattern. Fall into it. I didn’t want Pointy Teeth and Bone Knuckles to drag me away again three years later.
When the orderlies thought I was sleeping, I skimmed. I started small because, Kaipo taught me you always do. You have to pick up bricks to build a wall to build a house to build a city. When you skip the normal steps, people notice.
First, I asked the internal net nicely if I could sit quiet in my little corner. I watched the bits and bobs moving around. Made a map of my tiny piece of things while the code got used to me being there.
The security systems are very territorial, which is good for a security system but was bad for me. I squeezed myself small and made my edges soft. You have to let them know you aren’t mean or angry and won’t try to make them let you places that belong to them. The security system hissed once or twice, and sniffed me over a few times, but eventually it stopped looking at me. I was part of its territory, so it didn’t need to guard against me.
I could move around, then, and smile nice at the video feeds. Video feeds aren’t like security systems. They want you to look, as long as security isn’t nearby. The feeds were fans of mine, because I didn’t make them pick and choose. I let them show me everything, not just the fights and the screaming and the people when their clothes came off. The feeds said the orderlies kept making them show just that last bit and ignoring empty halls, which made the hall feeds sad and lonely. But I curled up with them and didn’t yawn even once when they showed me the quiet between the night patrols.
Once I learned the patterns, I had to talk to the lock timers. Locks aren’t as prickly as security, but they are stubborn. They slide into place and they fall dead asleep and they don’t want to move until morning. They like their routine. They don’t like to change. It makes them wobbly inside, which I am totally not a fan of, so I understand. I puzzled over that until I bopped myself for forgetting I wasn’t starting small again. Little bits, little bobs.
Each night, I slipped just a little more into the timing algorithms for the locks. They batted at their noses a few times. Snorted, but not loud enough that security bothered to look, because it was busy slinking and hunting, and locks and me didn’t move fast enough to catch its attention. Once a lock half rolled over, and I had to hum it back to sleep because it wasn’t quite time yet.
I needed a place to go when I was outside. I couldn’t stay on Pycha Gol. I’m not sure if roids are the bricks or the houses, but I needed a new one. I threw a jangly bit to distract the security system, then I skimmed out into Pycho Gol’s net to the jumper system to pick a route and a ship, so that when the locks opened, I wouldn’t have to wait any longer.
I picked this jumper after I accessed it. It’s going to a roid where they fix things, not people. I think that’s a good place for me. So I nudged here and there, and when the locks woke up early while the orderlies were busy watching people with no clothes, I picked up my bag and walked through the crowds and the stink to the line because now I have a ticket, linked up on my retinal scan. I lean down and don’t blink at the flash.
“We’ll buzz in a little while,” the jumper security guard says, strapping a little plastic bracelet to me. It fits almost like the ones at the hospital. He waves me on with his flipper-hands.
“Kaipo will get in a lot of trouble for this,” Heady says.
“He really cares for you,” she adds. I look her in the eye, and she cocks her head to the side. If she were real, I think she might cup my cheek in her hand. The muscles at my jawbone ache.
“I think I was bad for Kaipo,” I say.
“Sy, sweetie, that’s not–”
“I’m bad with people. For people.”
Heady’s lips thin, but she doesn’t say anything.
“Kaipo’s a doctor. He wanted me to get better. I’m totally better now, you heard,” I say.
“He’ll hurt, Sy,” Heady says. “It hurts when you leave people.”
“I know,” I whisper, hanging my head. My eyes burn a little, and it’s hard to focus.
“Then you should stay,” Heady says, kneeling down in front of me. She doesn’t have real fingers, but my chin picks up when she puts her hand under it, anyway.
“If you leave, I won’t know where to find you when I come back,” Heady says.
“That’s not true,” I say.
“You can’t leave a trail,” she says, standing in front of me, hands hovering near my shoulders because she can’t touch them. Her eyes are wet. “If you did, they’d find you and put you somewhere else where they’d never let me in to–”
“Not that part,” I say. My chest is tight. “You’re never coming back.”
Heady stands there, towering over me. I feel extra small right now.
“Don’t say that,” she whispers. “I promised.”
“You lied,” I say, walking around her, putting her at my back. I can’t look at her, even if she’s not really there.
It’s a long few minutes while I wait for them to buzz me. I try not to breathe too deep. Then I finally hear her say it. Soft, because I probably still don’t want to hear it.
I sniffle, which is totally because the air’s so dirty and stinky here. I’m not a fan. I look back at Heady and her big, wet eyes. I wish she really told me. Real Heady. I wish she trusted me. But she didn’t, and now she’s gone. One blink later, and the other Heady’s gone, too, because I can’t see her any more.
I can’t stay for Heady. I can’t stay for Kaipo. But I can do this much for them. I can let go. Of the promise we both knew wasn’t one. Of one last piece of reshaped code that shouldn’t be there. Flatten it all out. No more bad patterns. Just me.
The bracelet on my wrist buzzes. It’s been a little while, I guess. Now it’s time.
by S. B. Divya
This is my first time doing a full length Flashback episode, and I chose this particular story because it’s the first one that I passed up from the so-called slush pile. I was an associate editor at the time – back in 2015 – and I’ve had the privilege to pass along or publish many more stories since. This one seems like a fitting choice right now, when Mur and I have been nominated for a Best Editor, Short Form, Hugo Award.
It’s been quite a journey these past six years. This story resonates with me now as much as it did then. I still love the biotech ethos, the weirdness of the Skew, the non-neurotypical way in which Sy interacts with the world. I’ve also enjoyed watching Jaxton Kimble’s career as an author grow in the intervening time. We published another Skew-universe story a year ago, “At Her Fingertips,” about someone else searching for Heady, and I encourage you to check it out.
At its heart, “Broken” is a story about the slipperiness of the word normal. It’s a word I’ve been hearing a lot lately as parts of the world begin to emerge from the pandemic lockdown. “We can finally get back to normal life,” people say, but what does that mean? I don’t think anyone has been unaffected by the events of the past year and a half. We can’t go back to life as it was in 2019. For some of us, it’s because of trauma due to Covid affecting us or our family or friends. For others, it’s the way a year of distance learning has impacted their children’s educations. Or the fact that work-from-home employees aren’t eager to go back to a full-time office job. I suspect it will be a decade before the ripple effects of the pandemic become less obvious, and by then, life will have changed so much that “normal” won’t mean what it does today.
Everyone in the Skew is broken somehow, which means that everyone is normal even though they feel like they aren’t. I can relate pretty heavily to that. For most of my life, I’ve never felt like I fit in with the mainstream, but the older I get, the more I realize that a lot of people feel that way about themselves. It begs the question: is there any such thing as normal when it comes to human behavior? Maybe that idea is as much of an illusion here on Earth as it is in this story.
And our closing quotation this week is from Maya Angelou, who said “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”
Thanks for joining us, and enjoy your adventures through time and space.
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
Mat Weller is the servant to a lovely family in eastern Pennsylvania. After his wife and kids go to sleep at night, he sometimes re-watches old episodes of X-Files on Netflix and other times retires to his basement booth where he records noises that get played on the Internet. Rumor has it he also makes delightful chocolate chip cookies.
Oh, and in October 2014, he beat Metroid II for the first time since 1991.
Mat had the honor of producing for Escape Pod from 2010 to 2016. He is also a graphic designer, an amateur voice actor, an amateur father, and he narrates a growing catalog of books for ACX.