by N. E. Chenier
I dive naked into a pool of black glass and white stars. My breath explodes out my parted lips. Shards rip at my skin, claw down my throat. My muscles seize up.
Cold! Hell! Cold!
Focus. Must focus. Fifteen seconds to be impressive. As planned.
Jesus, as if just being out here isn’t enough. Lungs empty. Totally vacuum empty. Instinct has me scrambling back down the lead line to the air lock. Will–no: desperation keeps me floating. Twelve more seconds.
I have to blink like crazy to keep my eyeballs from freezing. But I have to look, at least out my left eye. I have to get the visuals. See? My skin is the color of an eclipsed moon. My bare feet pedal on empty space. The earth sprawls below, blue and white as a glacier. The grey horizon of the Lunarescent colony satellite shivers with distant sunlight.
A deadly sliver of light, that. I’m in the shadow. The bulk of the station colony blocks my body from the worst of the radiation.
You’d think radiation was the least of my worries. You’d be wrong. I have eight more seconds before anoxia saps the oxygen from my tissues and they start swelling up. Longer than that before I really start freezing to death. Naked exposure to sunlight out here? Five seconds to UV fricassee.
I force movement into my gelid limbs, tuck into a somersault. My lungs pinch in protest. The earth swings above my head. See how far the hatch is?
Splinters poke into my pupils. I can’t keep looking. Still six seconds, stretched out over darkness. I have to keep watching. My un-augmented breasts sloppily organic against the angles of the station. My thighs slide across the star field.
Puny, fragile, but alive! I gotta sell it like that. But the real emotion is a slurry of obscenities. Most piggy-backers won’t notice. Hell, they might like it better.
Two and one . . .
Time’s up! Go back! The panic tears through my brain. What happened to the reel? Pull me in!
The hatch hisses shut. Pull me in! Pull me in! I take a breath to shout–and find a breath there to take. Thin as a snare around my neck, but it’s there. I’m in the air lock already, reeled in by the lead around my ribcage. Pure oxygen, just like on the way out.
This has been my third exposure jump. It gets harder, not easier. That’s a good thing what with all those adrenaline junkies out there. Fuckers.
It takes forever to recompress. I drift around the airlock locked in a fetal ball. Too cold to shiver yet. I won’t feel normal until after a bath, but my skin is not warm enough for that yet. Gradient thermal blankets, mitts and socks first.
Eyes glued shut, my hands won’t uncurl from granite fists. I don’t need sight to get to the thermals. I paw them free from their cubby one at a time. I knuckle the socks on, use my teeth to wedge on the mitts, roll myself in the blanket and wait.
When at last I can peel open my eyes, I bob over to the display to check the numbers. God dammit! What does it fucking take, you guys?
The increase in viewers for that little stunt is pathetic. It barely covers a year of supplies. At this rate, I’m never going to get off this tin can.
Equalized and thawed enough to move, I head to the baths. My swathed extremities not quite functional, I propel myself through the corridor using my wrists and heels. Pop hangs out in the living area, held in place by the blob of an olive green warp-chair.
“Hi, Pops,” I mutter through blistering lips.
No answer. No eye-contact. Just the gasping sound of him sucking at his drink tube, the one connected to a swollen bladder of home-brew.
Yeah, I love you too.
“Where was I? Just a stroll outside to keep us stocked. Thanks for asking.” Yeah, you’re fucking welcome. The sensation returning stabs agony into my guts, my skull.
Pop’s no help at all. I mean, look at him. Staring into space. Suck-gasping. Other than that, he doesn’t move from his slug-like chair. If I squint, it looks like two slugs having sex, one greenish, one yellowish. He might as well be a piece of furniture, except that he leeches up resources.
Cramps clamp down on my muscles. My limbs start to spasm. Hyperventilation is next. I need to get to the baths.
The greatest expense, the finish line, the thing that keeps me trying, I know I’ll stumble upon it again someday: a shuttle back to earth. Oh, I know, dreaming, right? Supply runs are one thing, but a shuttle with life support and the capacity to land me safely? An impossible expense. If I space-walked into my 90s and each one drew the same attention as that first one, I wouldn’t make it.
I bathe in a tube that seals around my neck. Water sluices my body. The temperature increases in increments. It’s a lot of water, but it’s an investment. I can’t afford to shirk on recovery.
666,661–nearly the number of the beast, mirrored. My finish line. That’s the amount of credits I need to call up a transport, for one.
Jumping out naked up-ticked things a bit, more so when I initially tried it. But someday I’ll once again do that something which will get me a ton of piggy-backers.
Yeah, again. The biggest surge was on one of the first space walks I did drunk. Weird, right? I was in a full suit, then. Put me about halfway. But supplies keep eating it back down. Future blotto walks registered fair numbers, but not even close to that first one. This last exposure hop barely got me better than a moderate argument with the Pops.
These days, it’s the dysfunctional family bullshit getting hits. Fickle bastards.
Unfortunately, Pop hasn’t been very talkative. See, he’s a paranoid freak. He’s why we didn’t go back with the rest of the evacuees when the Lunarescent colony went bust way back when. He’s the reason we’re still here.
Why did he pull such a boneheaded move?
Big Brother. He’s scared shitless of this bogeyman who apparently has total omniscience on earth but doesn’t bother with orbiting space junk. During the evacuation, I was too young to understand that Pop was a complete wacko.
So now I’m stuck here with him. He’s whacked and useless. While I’m out there trying to get us an audience, he’s doing every damn thing in his power to lose us viewers. Big Brother, this. Candid camera, that.
He drinks away the days on his awful home-brew, the big dull lump that he is. Claims he’s trying to escape from prying eyes. I don’t buy it anymore. It’s just a lame excuse to justify his being a lazy-ass.
Post-bath inspection: there’s a scar on my cheekbone, a diagonal slash down to my jaw like a razor tear. I still have no idea where it came from. Vivid and red, it looks new, but that doesn’t mean much. Cuts take forever to heal.
The scar terminates at a seam under my left eyebrow. The seam is a much older scar, a fold of skin where they inserted the chip inside my infant skull. Mom used to say I screamed like a banshee. Dad says he doesn’t remember any such thing.
The chip is looped to the optic nerve because 80% of perception depends on visuals. To keep the children safe. That’s why they did it. So I could be traced, protected–oh, and did we mention watchable? Congratulations to the proud father; it’s a bouncing baby VR vehicle.
Okay, I’m getting desperate, here. If naked space walks aren’t doing it, I have to go back to the big one. I can’t watch the archives. All the station vids are smashed.
That was Pop’s first order of business after everyone else evacuated. Not since Mom’s death had he showed such unrestrained emotion. It freaked the ten-year-old me right out. He went up and down the corridors, sure to get all of them. So, I never learned what it’s like to ride in someone else’s skin.
So what do I remember about that popular space walk? It was after another fight with Pop. I don’t remember about what. It got to me though, like a rusty corrugated knife across the wrists. That’s why I dipped into his stash. Yeah, I got drunk and took a space walk out to the Ugly.
Let me tell you about the Ugly. I call it that because that’s what it is: a big, stupid, ugly junk statue. The Ugly was a lame idea I had to get viewers. Space art or something. Slight problem: I’m a shit artist.
It started with vid screens because I thought that would be symbolic. A ring of them form the base with spider-webbed liquid crystal fractured faces. Over time, I’ve added to it. Lumps of warp-chairs mounded up like playdough, burnt out thermal blankets draped like foil flags, broken panels smeared with sterile mud. I used to assemble salvage during the down times, recovery times, then when my body was ready and we’re rotated right, I would go out and lash it to the rest of the beast. It was something to do.
Maybe it’s the Ugly they want to see again, though I can’t imagine why. You can’t see it from any of the portholes. I blocked the external cameras from catching it too. The only way piggy-backers can view it is when I go out there. It’s been months. It’s a pain in the ass to get to.
After recovery, it might be time for another trip out to the Ugly.
Pops is going to be pissed I took from his stash again.
The handhold is a mess of blurred loops in the shade, only one of them real. I reach out with a gloved hand to grab one.
Wrong one. My body in its inertial inebriation rolls after it. My feet swing free in the null gravity. Okay, that’s done it.
Oh, look at that: my other hand is still gripping the last successful rung. Oh, I guess I’m not doomed yet. That would have sucked. Maybe I should use my coupling.
This has got to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever done–like every time I do it. The space suit doesn’t fit right. Mine’s long retired, this one rubs and pinches, squashes my fingers. It’s a long blurry scramble rung to rung across to Lunarescent satellite’s X-pos wing, where the Ugly squats.
My guts start sloshing with nausea, but it’s not the home-brew. Something bugs me about the Ugly. It digs at the corner of my memory like the phantom scar.
When I see the Ugly’s upper spire, a twisted shelving ornamented with non-recyclable food vessels and lashed to a defunct antenna, my heart nose-dives into my intestines. My hands shake like crazy. I can’t get the carabiner hooked to the rung.
I’m just about to ditch this voyage when I notice the numbers on the helm display. It shows a decent amount of curiosity from piggy-backers. Really? I mean, really? It’s been the Ugly all this time?
The closer I get, the more shakes take over. By the time I get to the base, I’m a freaking noodle made of jello. What did Pops put in that last batch of brew?
The vid-screens glare at me, a row of black eyes.
“Don’t look at me,” I say, groping for hilarity and missing. “I’m not the one who smashed you.” I really have to hurl.
I trade rungs for one of the cables that anchor my hideous masterpiece and pull myself up to it.
Then, I see him. A bloated purple popsicle face in the shadows behind the screens.
At the same instant, the ricochet of time snaps me back to the day the numbers soared. That day, his face was whiter than the moon.
That day, his face was a flesh balloon bobbing over my bed-rack. A furrowed brow that shadowed his eyes into skull pits. A blade glinted me into instant wakefulness.
“What the hell are you doing?” I demanded and rolled out from under him.
I hovered up toward the ceiling to get a better perspective. Blood, lots of it. He had a kitchen knife, the blade shaved down so it tapered to a point.
He’d nicked me, the bastard, on the cheek. Red beads wobbled and shimmered in the space between us. Most of it was coming from him. Oh, god, I don’t want to look.
“I can get it out,” he babbled, grin stretching his cheeks into a freak version of a smile. The blood made a bubbly halo around his face. The shadow was too deep across the left brow.
“Are you fucking kidding me?”
“We can be free.” He swam closer, belly wavering in a loose bag of skin. A was rag shoved in the shadow of his eye. It was drenched, skin puckering out around the edges. It smelled like meat. Every last nutrition pack I’d eaten in the last week threatened to erupt up my throat.
I ducked under him toward the hatch. “You got it out?” That chip is wired into our brains. No way it comes out without taking chunks of important stuff with it.
I wasn’t the only one tweaked by this. The buzz across my forehead told me we’d surged in subscriptions. We’re not supposed to feel it, but the readout on my watch confirmed it. Check those numbers! I had to stick it out, had to witness it all.
Pop’s other hand, the one not gripping the smeared blade, opened around a mess of filaments and gore. There was too much shit in that hand. Something that looked like a squished marble. He was all proud of himself, too. That stupid grin.
“Ah, Pop, that’s suicide.”
He never listened to me. “I’m free,” he said. “Let me help you.” But he was fading. He didn’t have much time left.
The numbers kept climbing. Like all his audience had to hop to me now.
Watch, you fuckers. Lap it up.
Vomit smears the inside of my helm, but I can still see the blank white right eye and the left ragged pit tucked deep in the Ugly.
That’s it, then. I got drunk, suited up, and took my dad out for a stroll. Was he all the way dead when I dragged him out of the airlock? Another layer I can’t peel off.
I strung his corpse like a hood ornament, here, on the outside of the deserted colony. Continued to erect a monument around him. What was I thinking?
Maybe it was like now, with the viewer numbers climbing, the credit numbers climbing–more slowly, always so much more slowly than the viewer numbers. The viewer high drove me on: keep ‘em coming, keep ‘em coming.
Just like then, I know I have to do something big.
The drunk lump in the chair hasn’t been real for months. As if to oblige my discovery, the specter is gone when I get back. I’ve been screaming at a ghost all this time. No wonder our tiffs get more hits than my tits do. Dramatic fucking irony, right? The reader knows something the character doesn’t.
Now they’re waiting for the release. Of course she’s going to jam that blade in her eye and end it like her old man, right? What else is there for her?
Space colony tragedy. Everyone dies bloody and despairing so the audience doesn’t have to. The downward spiral I’ve been on, the only satisfactory release for everyone involved ends with me stabbing myself. Bet they can’t wait to see me bleed out like Pop did. Maybe I’ll strap myself to the Ugly too.
It’s what Pop always railed against. I get it, now: I’m nothing but a puppet. So why am I the one caught in Pop’s version of hell?
This is not my story. I need to make it my story.
I’ve kept the blade he used. In the kitchen unit. Where he did it. The shards of recollection have me rubbing rusty speckles off of every surface.
I breathe a long time with the instrument in my hand. The blade reflects my left eye.
They’re here. Of course they’re here. You’re not supposed to feel it, but when the deluge of spectators floods into your brain, there’s a thrum of activity, a sound just out of hearing frequency. I can feel them crowding into my skull like a demon possession. I am legion.
Fine, watch me end the story, then. Come get your catharsis.
The last thing he said resonates: Reggie, I can remove it.
“I can remove it,” I echo the memory and slide the blade over the scar. I jump naked into black glass. This time the stars are red.
I find my breath. The left eye is in ruins. I push at the seam just under the brow, the net mesh–the filaments Pop managed to grab. I pluck at it. Shadows blot out what’s left of my vision.
Do the viewers see the shadows too? It doesn’t matter. They’re loving this.
Blood like fireflies. Not much longer before I go out like him. Life slips away into the blessed silence of true solitude. Relief, not straining after the whim of an audience. Never have to worry about the numbers again. Pop knew it was suicide. He realized it was the only way out.
The moment it clicks over to the magic number, my wrist unit vibrates. A med-patch is in my hand. I slam it over the gash in my brow. The wound explodes in lightning. Then, it goes numb.
I hit the call button.
“Show’s over, motherfuckers.”
Is that the collective scream of frustrated masses? Too late for them.
The order’s been sent, the creds accepted at the speed of light. And just like that, I’m getting off this hunk of space garbage.
Lightheaded, I drag myself to the medical terminal. It’s behind a panel in the kitchen, where home accidents are most likely to occur. The IV tube uncoils from its hook. The needle is a cinch to insert, after a knife to the eyelid. Fluids drip to replace the blood that still swirls around me in a cloud.
The shuttle is en route. It’s my story now. I get to decide how it ends.
I check my watch and catch my breath. The number of viewers continues to increase.
N. E. Chenier has lived in three different countries this year alone. Recently landing in Canada, she encountered the most savage land of all: parenthood. She lives and writes in Vancouver with her husband and the squidlet. Some of her fiction has appeared in OnSpec, Bards & Sages, The Martian Wave, and assorted anthologies.