The Space Between
Howard Cohen

Chapter 0: Launch

Roland knocked his knuckles on the door of the seventh relay room. The metal door rang and the sound echoed through the corridors of this deep part of the Green Davis Thrustplant Factory. Gree Davis was located in the asteroid belt about two days from Rose World. It’s where Roland grew up with about 500 people who lived and worked there. He was one of the oldest of the Generation One children: the first children born after the destruction of Earth twenty five years earlier.

“Ktooommmmmm. Ktoooooommmm…” Roland knocked again. “It’s me, Axel. It’s Rolo. Open up!”
“Axel’s not here.” Came a voice from inside.
“Whatever you say, Axel. Open up!” Roland yelled.
Roland heard the door unlock and he opened it. It was dark inside, but it was not a large room. Roland shut the door and then it was absolutely black: all the indicator lights in this relay room were off because it was not in use. It had not been in use for Roland’s entire life. He knew Axel would be here because this is where they had always come as children to hide and play. Nobody else ever showed interest, it being one of a more than a hundred unused parts of the large Green Davis factory ship.

Roland stood in the dark. “I heard.”
There was no reply.
“I’m so sorry, Axel.” Roland said.
Suddenly the sound of a young man crying was all that could be heard and Roland listened and tried not to cry himself. The sound went on for several minutes and then faded back into silence.
Roland was quiet too for a while and then said, “Axel, you should go see your mom.”
“I just… cannot watch her feel happy about my dad’s death right now, Rolo.” Axel said as plainly as his wavering voice would allow.
“Are you so sure she would?” Rolo asked just as plainly.
“I don’t really care. Just, not yet. But I will go see her. I promise.”
“OK.” Roland said.
“You know, he’s a hero. He saved a ship with thirty people. They would have all died out there in the Holcomb Clump.”
“I know.” Axel said. “I’m not asking that things be different.”
“When’s the last time you saw him?” Rolo asked.
“Two months ago. He was here for three days.” Axel said.
“Did you get any time with him.”
“Yea, a little.”
“What you guys do?”
“He gave me another piloting lesson. It was a good one. He’s such an incredible pilot, it’s just so wrong that he died this way.”
“Saving thirty people?”
“No, crushed like a fly on a rock in space.”
“It was an accident. It wasn’t his fault. Don’t make it his fault.” Rolo insisted.
“He was a great pilot. He invented the Rodrigues Helical Constant-Gravity Transition. He taught everyone how to fly at full thrust from beginning to end of a journey and never vary the direction or intensity by more than 2% in any direction the entire time.” Axel said.
“How is that even possible?” Roland asked.
“He transitions from linear flight to a helix and then rotates the moving disc of the helix 180 degrees, keeping thrustgravity going the whole time so nobody notices, unless they are looking out the window. Once it’s flipped 180 he reverses the process and ends up in a linear deceleration to the end.”
“I can’t quite picture it.” Roland said.
“I can. He taught me how to do it when I was fourteen.” Axel said.
“Your dad taught you so much!”
“He was never around much.”
“My dad was around a lot and I didn’t learn that much from him.”
“Sure you did. You learned how this whole factory worked by the time you were fourteen. Did you learn that by osmosis?”
“Well, yea, my parents made sure I knew how the factory worked. In their eyes I’m going to be the new factory supervisor some day.”
“You could be if you wanted to be.”
“I don’t. I don’t want to have anything at all to do with Thrustplants, or Green Davis. But that is what everyone expects.”
“Nobody expects me to be the supervisor of anything.” Axel said. “There’s not that much here for me anymore.”
“What about Louise?” Roland asked.
“I’ll miss her, but we don’t have any promise to stay each together.”
“And Ruth?”
“Same. I love them both. They both love me. It’s not enough to make me stay here.” Axel said.
“Your mom?”
“Don’t make me laugh!”
“So, what? You’re leaving? Just like that?”
“I’ve been planning to leave for a long time, Rolo. You know that. My dad’s not coming home any more. Why stay? Why stay even a second longer?” Axel said.
“But, how?”
“I’m going to take my dad’s old tug. It’s parked in the factory spaceport. I have the access codes.”
“Isn’t that theft?”
“Why not? Do you have permission?”
“I don’t need permission to take what’s mine.”
“It’s yours?”
“Yea. My dad willed it to me.”
“It’s like he knew you’d want to get out of here if he died.”
“I think he was waiting until I deserved it to give it to me. I guess he ran out of time waiting for me to do something good enough.” Axel said.
Roland tried to think of something to say but couldn’t.
“So, I’m gonna go. That’s pretty clear. I promise I’ll say goodbye to my mom. So, what about you?”
“What about me?”
“You’ve talked about leaving Green Davis. Are you staying here?”
“I… well. I don’t want to, but what else could I do?”
“Are you kidding me? You? You’re so on with computers.”
“So, what? Fulfill requests for programming tasks?”
“Maybe, but you’re thinking small. You could find a role with one of the software houses in Rose World or maybe even the bubbles.”
“Ugh! The bubbles? The neocapitalists? No way! I’d never be happy there.” Roland said.
“And, I can’t imagine anyplace as large as Rose World. It would be completely terrifying.”
“You should go to Rose World and test that theory.” Axel said.
“And be terrified?”
“You’d get over it. I know you would.”
“I can’t even imagine what it is like inside. It’s like something from a nightmare.”
“You and I have snuck out in the tug before. You know how big space is… right? Rose World is smaller than that, so what’s the big deal?”
“The tug isn’t very big. I’m inside the tug.” Roland pointed out.
“The main manufacturing floor of this plant is…” Axel began.
“…the absolutely scariest part of this entire factory.” Roland finished.
“Yea, I know, Rolo. It’s OK.” Axel said.
“I like rooms.” Rolo said and his anxiety was perceptible by his faster and shallower breathing.
“Rooms are good.” Axel said reassuringly.
“Rooms are safe and private. They have doors.” Roland said.
“And locks.” Axel added.
“But, you can’t hide in rooms forever, Rolo. You’ve got to go out there and find out what is waiting for you.”
“Are you happy here?”
“Not anymore. You think I’d be happier someplace else?”
“There are over a hundred thousand people in Rose World and about the same in the Bubbles. You’ve lived with the same 500 people your whole life!” Axel emphasized.
“So what? That’s normal.” Roland said.
“Normal for who? Introverted computer wunderkinds?” Axel retorted.
“What else is there?” Roland asked.
“Everything! Come on, Rolo! Think bigger than Green Davis! There are other places, other chances, other people.” Axel urged.
“Well, how can I plan this? How do I even start to… move away!”
“Pick a destination.”
“Wherever you find a role you like. But, I’ll bet it’s going to be Rose World.”
“Ugh.” Said Roland.
“They have rooms in Rose World too, you know.”
“Really?” Roland said with obvious sarcasm.
“Yes, Rolo. The the people sleep out on the ground. And, unlike us here in the advanced world of Green Davis, they live in primitive grass huts where they fornicate all night and the sound fills the air like…”
“You seem to have missed my sarcasm.” Rolo said.
“Not true. I do not miss your sarcasm.” Axel replied.
They both laughed.
“Find a role?” Rolo asked.
“It isn’t hard. Have you looked at the request boards?”
“Well, start there. Look at it this way, if you were looking for someone to do the kind of work you want to do, where would you look? How would you find someone?”
“That’s a great way to look at it, but I still have no idea. And, isn’t it against the rules for me to leave here?”
“Why, you’re nineteen. Nobody can tell you what to do.”
“Everyone tells me what to do.”
“You let them. But, that’s all the more reason for you to go out there and find out who you are, separate from all of this.”
“It’s so… unknown. It’s completely terrifying.” Roland said.
“It’s not as hard to find a role as it is to do any of the things you do with computers.”
“That would make finding a role a pretty easy thing then.”
“Then what are you waiting for?”
“Well, at the moment, I’m talking with my friend who’s dad just died and who just told me he’s leaving. I’ll look later.”
“I’m not leaving right away.” Axel said.
“What? Why not? I thought you said…” Rolo began.
“I’m not leaving until you find a role somewhere else. I’ll fly you there.” Axel said.
“Who knows how long that will take?” Rolo asked.
“We fly where the rocks aren’t.” Said Axel.
“What’s that mean?”
“It means I’ll wait because otherwise I’d be flying into a rock.”
“You’re going to stay until I find a role somewhere else?”
“Yea. Try to keep up. ‘mkay?” Axel said.
“Because, you’re sitting in the dark with me Roland. I wouldn’t wait for anyone else. I want you to find a role, and if it’s on Rose World, don’t worry. Just sign up and let’s go. It will be OK.”
“OK. I will.”
“Promise?” Axel asked.
“I promise.” Roland said.
“OK, then.” Axel said.
“OK, then.” Roland repeated.
“Are you going to miss anyone besides your parents, Roland?”
“I’ll miss everyone.”
“Not Bernard, but everyone else.”
“Nobody will know you after you leave this place. You can reinvent yourself.”
“I didn’t invent myself to begin with, how could I reinvent myself?”
“I mean, nobody will have any idea who you are.”
“Then we’ll all be in the same predicament.” Roland said.

    Joan sat at the dinner table with her parents, Sakia and Eric Pederson.
    “Johanna, what will you do now?” Eric asked.
    “I don’t know, Dad.”
    “What do you want to do?” Saskia asked.
    “I don’t know.”
    “But, you worked so hard on your degree. To give it up on school now… Are you sure?” Saskia asked.
    “That part I’m sure of: I’m
    done with school now.” Joan said.
    “Why? Why? What happened?” Eric asked.
    “Nothing happened.” Joan said dismissively.
    “You just
    woke up this morning and you decided hmm, ‘Today I’ll give up working for my degree.’ Is that it?” Eric asked, and shrugged as if were a trivial decision.
    “I’ve known for a while. I just didn’t know how to tell you.” Joan said.
    “Johanna, is your project going poorly? You can
    change projects!” Saskia said.
    “That’s not it.” Joan said.
    “What then? What?” Saskia implored.
    “The academic world is just…
    not the place for me. I know it works for you guys. I’m not saying it’s bad. It just isn’t for me anymore. There’s always someone controlling what happens to me.” Joan said.
    “Any role you take anywhere in Rose World you’ll have to work with other people, and some of those people may be in control. Johanna you can’t avoid it. It’s part of life. We all have a role and there are no kings or queens.” Eric said.
    “Some men… take advantage of hierarchy.” Joan said.
    “Did someone say something inappropriate to you?” Saskia asked.
    “Ha!” Said Joan.
    “What does that mean?” Saskia asked.
    “It means that I could have a prestigious role on one of the Rose World system management teams if I’m willing to let some old guy into my pants.” Joan said.
    “Which old guy?” Said Eric.
    “I don’t know his name. It wasn’t exactly a contract offer, it was more of a feeling anyway.”
    “That’s a bit too precise for a feeling.” Said Saskia. “What did he actually say?”
    “It’s complicated. I… misunderstood and then he really, really misunderstood. Look, he’s not a bad guy. He’s not even unusual! This happens with guys
    all the time. I’m just so sick of it.”
    “Do you really think it will be different anywhere else? I mean, outside of the University?” Saskia asked.
    “I hope so, Mom. If not, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m not ready to have kids. Everywhere I look there are little messages telling me to make babies. Being a new mom is like having a pile of currency instead of a baby.
    You know I’m right.” Joan said.
    “I can’t deny that there’s some social pressure on young women to have children, but you can wait until you’re ready, sweet one.” Saskia said.
    “What if I never want to?” Joan said.
    “It’s up to you, but you’ll probably change your mind. I did. I was just like you.” Saskia said.
    “But, I’m not just like you.” Joan practically interrupted to say.
    “I know. I know.” Saskia said.
    Everyone was silent for a few moments.
    “You know, for years you get to tell children what to do.” Eric said, and smiled.
    “Yea? Then what happens?” Joan asked.
    “Then they drop out of school when they’re half done with their degree and they won’t listen to you.” Eric said.
    “Sounds like another good reason not to be a parent to me.” Said Joan.
    “Or a good reason to reconsider dropping out. We’re not telling you what to do, we’re asking you to spend some time and think about what you’re giving up. All the work you’ve done for this. Dr. Halbert will be so disappointed.”
    “Dr. Halbert will be disappointed not to have my ass walking past his desk every day.” Joan said, not quite under her breath.
    “Johanna!” Saskia said.
    “I’m only watching his eyes.” Joan said.
    “She’s right, honey.” Eric said to Saskia.
    “She’s right about what?” Saskia asked.
    “It’s relentless. The attention Johanna gets from men. I see them watching her and I just want to punch them.”
    “You’ve never punched anyone.” Saskia said.
    “I could figure out how if I had to.” Eric said. “But, they watch her and they’re so solicitous. I hate that men are that way. But, they are.”
    “Thank you, daddy.” Joan said and she was trying to hold back her tears.
    “But, you shouldn’t have to leave school just because men are thinking with their pricks.” Eric said.
    “Shouldn’t have to? Maybe. But, what am I going to do about it?”
    “You could confront the creeps.” Said Saskia.
    “If it was one or two, sure. But, it’s so many of them. I’m the missing part to the grand plan of
    all these guys. Do you know what it feels like to disappoint one guy after another after another after another? To crush their dreams? To know every day that, before the day is out, someone will cross the line, or leave humiliated or be disappointed. And, to know that you’ll be the cause? Do you know what that feels like?” Joan asked.
    “No. I don’t.” Said Eric, “But I see it.”
    “No.” Said Saskia.
    you thought about having more kids, mom?” Asked Joan.
    “I can’t have any more kids, Johanna.” She said plainly. “I’m too old.”
    “Every day more and more women get too old, and the number of available potential moms gets smaller, and my problem gets worse.”
    “Maybe… yes, that is probably true. But that is the reality of our aging population.” Eric said.
    “That’s part of why it’s so hard to be a Generation One woman.” Joan said.
    You know, five years ago, when I was fifteen and I started wearing a bra… I was approached by a couple that wanted me to have a baby for them.” Joan said.
    “That was obviously too soon for you honey.” Saskia said.
    “They were wrong to ask before finding out how old you were. That was totally wrong.” Eric added.
    “It happens all the time now.” Joan said. “And I’m not too young. I’m tired of justifying to people why I don’t want to get pregnant right now. I can’t walk anywhere in public without someone trying to
    flirt with me. You guys don’t see it, but I grew up with it. And, in the last five years it’s been…” Joan began to cry. “Awful!” She managed to croak before she began to openly cry.
    “Oh, Johanna. I’m so sorry. People don’t mean any harm but I see how hard it’s been for you. How can we help?” Saskia said.
    “Tell us what we can do, please?” Eric asked.
    “Let. Me. Go.”
    “OK. OK. Wh… where will you go?” Saskia asked and she was crying now too.
    “I don’t know. I don’t have it figured out. But, I can’t stay in school. I’ve got to get out of this place and away from all these people. Maybe it isn’t like this everywhere. I’m going to go find someplace better for me.”
    “It’s out there.” Eric said. “You’ll find it, if anyone can.”
    “I’ve already been looking for roles. I have a grid worked up with possibilities. I’m applying as a boy. Meet your son: Johan.” Joan said.
    “Are you actually going to… dress up as a boy?” Saskia asked.
    “No. That stopped working when I started wearing a bra.” Joan said. “I’m just going to lie on the application and straighten it up when I get there.”
    “Why lie?” Eric asked.
    “Because, if I say I’m a 22 year old female I’ll get back 100% yes replies.” Said Joan.
    “And if you say you’re a 22 year old boy?” Eric asked.
    “Maybe they’ll judge my form on its merit.” Joan said.
    “Johanna, you’re half way to an advanced degree. What are you going to do, fill printers? Assemble skimmers? Plant trees?”
    “Maybe. Those things need to be done too.” Joan said.
    “Yes, but someone without your…
    gifts could do them.” Saskia said.
    “Which gifts do you mean, mom? My working uterus or my biological feedback modeling project?”
    “Both, actually.” Saskia said.
    “So, you think I should have kids now too? Because I’m leaving school?” Joan asked, dismayed.
    “If you’re ready.”
    “I’m. Not. Ready. OK?”
    “OK, I get it.” Saskia responded.
    “Mom, you were what? 39 when you had me? I’m 23. Talk to me about kids in 16 years.” Joan said.
    Everyone was quiet for a moment.
    “It wasn’t long after the Rose World was first being cut that your father and I decided to have you.” Saskia said with a far-away look in her eyes.
    “There wasn’t air in Rose World then, was there?” Joan asked absently.
    “No. They were still cutting disc one. We lived and worked in an air manufacturing plant. You might not remember it though; we moved to disc one just before you were three.”
    “I remember a bright yellow play room. That’s all I remember.”
    “Oh, I remember that room. You’re right, you used to always play quietly there.”
    “I used to take you there so I could study.” Eric said.
    “I liked to make things.” Joan said.
    “You always have.” Saskia said. “Maybe you can find a role where you’re making things?”
    “Maybe.” Said Joan.
    “I’d like to go see some of my girlfriends tonight. Can I use your skimmer?” She asked both her parents, since they shared it.
    “Sure. What time will you be back?”
    “Why? Are you going to wait up for me? I’m OK. I can take care of myself.”
    “Sure. But, please be careful.” Saskia said.
    “OK, Johanna.” Eric said.

    They finished their dinner and they all bussed the table. Then Joan got ready to go. She dressed down in baggy clothes and an oversized jacket. She wore a hat and she looked like she doubled in weight when she was done. There was not even the slightest hint of her real appearance, except for her face, whose frown and sad eyes still could not disguise her beauty.
    “Thanks for listening, Mom. Dad. I’m going to go. I’ll be back tonight.” She said and left.
    She flew the skimmer twenty-one kilometers to a small town she often visited because there was a dance venue she and her friends liked.

    This night one of her favorite bands was playing hard and fast music and it dug into her as she moved to it. The songs seemed to be the soundtrack to her struggle. She forgot about school and finding a role somewhere. She forgot about having children. But, she couldn’t forget about the guys and whenever she opened her eyes she always caught some guy staring at her.

    So, she danced with her eyes closed. Sometime around midnight she had a drink, and an hour later she had another. Then she began to get tired. She made her way back to the skimmer and decided to sleep in it for a while before driving home. She was just about asleep when the skimmer lurched underneath here. She looked out a window and saw another skimmer disappearing across the parking area. “
    Shit. They hit me and left! Those jerks.” She said out loud to nobody inside the skimmer. She got out and inspected. There was one big dent on one side. “Shit.” She said. “I’d better get home, I guess.” She said again to nobody, forgetting her condition for a moment.

    She started up the skimmer and flew it out of the lot and back toward her home. About half way there she started to get tired. The monotony of the flight path and alcohol still to be metabolized floating around inside her made fall asleep for just long enough to fly off the path and into a small work shed next to a farm.

    The small shed exploded in all directions and thousands of carefully sorted parts, fasteners, tools and jigs went everywhere. The roof fell down onto the bottom half of the shed and what was left looked like a pile of wood with a roof on it.

    The safety bags within the skimmer did their job and Joan wasn’t hurt. One of the resident workers who lived in a building right next to the demolished shed ran out and forced the hatch open. Joan stumbled out of the vehicle and lay down on the ground.

    Joan woke up in the back of an emergency skimmer heading back to the University’s Hospital. “What? Happened?” Joan asked.
    “You crashed your skimmer? Are you hurt?” Said an older woman, who was obviously a nurse.
    “Not really.”
    The nurse examined her and found nothing of concern.
    “Young lady, your blood alcohol level was way too high to be legally operating a skimmer!”
    “I only had two drinks.”
    “Well, you weigh, what? Ninety pounds standard?”
    “One twenty eight.” Joan said.
    “And you had two drinks in how long?”
    “All night. Four hours.”
    “When did you have them?”
    “One at midnight, one at one.”
    “And then you went for skim? What were you thinking?”
    “I… mmmm. Uhh.”
    “Well, you’ll have plenty of time to think about it again, thankfully.”
    “Why, what do you mean?”
    “I mean the building next to the shed you hit was full of something else.”
    “Was anyone hurt?”
    “No. But you’d have killed someone if you’d hit that building.”
    “Shit. I am so dead now.”
    “No, you’re not and you should be glad nobody else is either. The skimmer can be replaced.”
    Joan started to cry.
    “You’ll get through it. But, take a tip: alcohol is not
    your friend. Do something else for fun.”

    Joan stayed in a family service room at the Hospital that night and the next day Joan found her way to the transit court building. Within an hour she was sitting in a chair on one side of a table and five men and women who were all over sixty sat on the other side. They looked at her hard and after they had run out of questions to ask her they handed down their decision: six months working probation and her right to operate a skimmer was suspended for one year.

    She sat outside the courtroom in a bench by a path. Within minutes a man sat down next to her and tried to strike up a conversation. She got up abruptly without saying anything and left. She caught a ride on a public transport back to the University and it dropped her a short walk from her parents home. She went in.

    “Did you come home last night?” Saskia asked, but she knew the answer already.
    “No. But, at least I know what I’m going to be doing for the next half a year.”
    “Really? What?”
    “I’m going to be working. I’m on probation for six months.”
    “Good heavens! Why?”
    “I… got into an accident last night, mom.”
    “Oh! Dear! Are you alright? Is anyone else hurt?”
    “Yea. I’m OK. Nobody got hurt. But, the skimmer isn’t OK.”
    “You crashed the skimmer?”
    “Were you drunk?”
    “Yes. I lost my permit to skim too.” Joan said and looked down.
    “I knew you should not have gone out last night.” Saskia said.
    “Again, I’m not you, so I didn’t know.” Joan said.
    “Don’t get snippy with me! I didn’t get drunk and crash the skimmer.” Saskia said just as Eric was walking into the room.
    “You crashed the skimmer?” Eric asked.
    “Are you OK?”
    “Yea, I’m OK. I got working probation.”
    “So, you have to find a role or…” Eric started.
    “…or they put me in a locked room with a toilet.” Joan said.
    Everyone was quiet for a few minutes while the news sunk in.
    “We can get you a job at the University.” Eric said. “That should be easy.”
    “Nothing’s changed.” Joan said.
    “Well, something’s changed: now you need a role, and soon.”
    “Yea. I’ll find something today.” Joan said and looked down. “I’m really sorry. I know I screwed up.”
    “I’m really worried about you, Johanna.” Saskia said. “Why don’t you take a job at the University until you find something better?”
    “I’ll find a role. You’ll see.”

    “Hello my sweet Roger, you’re late. Everything OK?” Linda said to the tall, young man who walked through her front door from the darkness outside.
    “My dad… he’s in a
    special mood.” Roger grumbled. He took off his coat and hung it by the door. He took off his shoes and left them there as well.
    “Are you hungry?” Linda asked.
    “Only for you.” Roger replied and smiled. Then he kissed her gently. She closed her eyes and opened them. Then she noticed a bruise and a small cut on the side of his face. “You’re… you’re hurt!”
    “What? Well, yea, he hit me as I was leaving. Why? Did it leave a mark? This is nothing.”
    “What an awful man!”
    “He’s miserable.” Roger explained.
    “You make excuses for him.” Linda said. “He’s a drunk; he hits people. Is that why your mom left?”
    “Yes. One day our family just…
    exploded. She left.”
    “Why didn’t you live with her instead?”
    “Because she moved to the Bubbles.”
    “Oh. You didn’t want to live there?”
    “No.” Roger said..
    “What was your dad mad about?”
    “He doesn’t need a reason. But, he found out that I failed my engineering entrance exam again.”
    “You’re trying to be an engineer?”
    “No.” Said Roger.
    “Then… why take the exam?”
    insisted. He can’t understand how any fruit of his loins isn’t an engineer.”
    “Maybe he’s not really your dad?”
    “I wish, but I know he is.”
    “But, you’re so different from him, obviously. You’re such a kind lover.” Linda said. “Are you going to be kind tonight?”
    “Very!” Roger said with a tease in his voice.
    “Your mom and dad grew up in a different world, a place where money and achievement were a matter of survival. Your mom went back to it.”
    “My dad fell into his bottle when the elevators were done in disc four.” Roger said. “He’s been there ever since.”
    “Is that when your mom left?”
    “No, she left when the disc three elevators were finished.”
    “You measure time by when the elevators were completed?”
    “My dad was on the team that made them all.” Roger said glumly.
    “Oh? Really? I didn’t know. Yea, they’re one of the marvels of Rose World. You must be kinda proud, aren’t you? I mean, a little?”
    “I’d like to be, but whatever good I want to feel about that he’s used as a weapon against me. He calls me a meat head and when he’s drunk he says my mom must have fucked someone else for him to have such a stupid son.”
    “What a horrible man!”
    “He doesn’t hurt me anymore. Not really.” Roger said.
    “It seems like it still bothers you.”
    “I’m sad for him. He’s so unhappy and he lashes out at everyone and everything. It pushes them away and makes it worse for him. He’s just drinking himself to death now. It’s just… sad. A waste.”
    “I’m so sorry, Roger. I’ll be extra-nice to you tonight.” She said and smiled seductively.
    “You always are.” Roger said and kissed her again.
    “Actually, he did say one thing tonight that had a shred of truth to it. I need to find some purpose in life.”
    “I think you’ve found an excellent purpose already.” She teased.
    “I’m afraid this isn’t what the request/fulfillment system is for.”
    “That may be true, but I still feel fulfilled with you.” She winked.
    “I need to find a role. Something I can to do for my part in Rose World.”
    “Really? Like what?”
    “I don’t know. But, ideally someplace with an indoor soccer field.”
    “Well, that’s probably… well... Uh, none of the roles out there will have that, Roger.”
    “I can hope for it, can’t I?” He protested.
    “Well, of course, but I don’t want you to be too disappointed.”
    “It’s ok. I’m used to it.” He said darkly.
    “What would you like to do? You’re strong: maybe you could find some construction work?”
    “Maybe. I’m not that good with tools, though.”
    “Well, you’ll find a place. I know you will.” Linda said. “Now, come find a place by me over on the sofa.”

    Tracy switched on the skimmer’s starter and the small craft buzzed to life and lifted off the ground by a centimeter. It didn’t drift because it was secured to a maintenance rack. Tracy used a console to tune the feedback system so that the motors produced the maximum torque. The new energy plant Tracy had installed made this skimmer as good as new. Only a day earlier Tracy’s supervisor, Oscar, had insisted that the skimmer was nothing more than parts waiting for a better home or recycling.

    “You got it to fly? Great job!” Oscar said.
    “Thank you. It was just that the motors weren’t tuned to the power supply: they were just missing each other on the power cycle.”
    “What’s this?”
    “Oh, I added two power inverters in a row here.” Tracy explained.
    “Well, that should do nothing. Right?”
    “It does something. It makes the system work!”
    “But, they should cancel each other out...” Oscar started to say.
    “…And they take half a microsecond to do it.” Tracy finished. “That’s how I got them back in phase with the power supply.”
    “Oh! Brilliant!” Oscar said.
    Tracy smiled and nodded slightly.
    “And this wire?” Oscar pointed to a loose wire.
    “Oops.” Tracy said. “That is supposed to be connected to second power inverter. Of all the cretinous, pith-headed...” Tracy continued ranting in a less-than-audible voice. Tracy’s internal, critical voice continued in luscious bravado to remind Tracy of every single detail of this mistake and its ramifications. Tracy tried not to listen to it.
    “Hey! Easy there. It’s no big deal, OK?” Oscar tried to calm Tracy down.
    “It’s a big deal to
    me!” Tracy insisted.
    “Why? It’s… just a wire. You know?” Oscar said.
    “I know.” Tracy said, pouting over the mistake.
    “You’re an amazing guy, Tracy. You can fix things like nobody I’ve ever seen, and you’re Generation One. How did you learn?”
    “It’s all on the beltweb.” Tracy tried to explain it away.
    “Look.You do
    great work. The other supervisors all say the same thing. We think you can handle something bigger than skimmers. What do you say to that?”
    “Spacecraft?” Tracy said hopefully.
    “What? No. Sorry. But, we’re going to begin handling the big public transit skimmers starting in two weeks. We want you to be on our ‘big vehicle team’. What do you say to that?”
    “Well, sure.” Tracy said.
    “You don’t sound very thrilled.”
    “I like working alone.”
    “You’ll like the other guys, I think: they’re also really good with machines. You’ll fit right in.”
    “I’d rather work alone on the skimmers, actually. Unless you get me some work on any kind of spacecraft.”
    “I wish I could, really. I’d get you
    any kind of work you want. But, we don’t do that kind of work here.” Oscar explained.
    “I know. So, how about if you leave me on the skimmer duty then?”
    “The thing is, I need you on those transit skimmers. That’s our priority, not these personal skimmers. Once they start arriving for service we need your help.”
    “OK.” Tracy said.
    “Thanks.” Oscar said. “Uh, some of the guys and I are going out for a drink after work. You want to join us?”
    “Oh, no thanks.”
    “Is someone at home waiting for you?”
    “Well, not exactly.”
    “Then come out with us, it will be good to meet some of the people you’ll be working with, won’t it?
    Tracy felt trapped. “Uh… yea. OK. I guess it would be good to meet them.”

    Tracy attached the missing wire and the two climbed into the skimmer and Tracy flew it over to a local tavern where they found four older guys drinking in a corner privacy booth that looked like it had been built with them in it.
    “Oscar!” Two called out when they saw him.
    “Tracy!” called one of the other.
    “Tracy, this is Ivan, Rod and Yuet Lim. You already know Kevin. This is Tracy.”
    “Please to meet you… uh, sir?” Said Rod.
    “Pleased to meet you.” Tracy said silently acknowledging Rod’s question about gender. Tracy was used to it, but had long since decided that male was the gender choice that led to the fewest problems.
    “Nice to meet you Tracy.” Said Ivan and he raised his glass.
    Yuet Lim raised his glass and nodded a silent welcome.
    “Tracy’s gonna be on the big vehicle team.” Oscar announced and beamed.
    The others looked surprised, except for Kevin, who wore a big smile.
    “What do you know about big skimmers?” Ivan asked with deadly serious eyes and no hint of a smile.
    “Well, nothing yet.” Tracy said.
    “Is this a joke, Oscar?” Ivan asked.
    “Not at all. Kevin’s seen Tracy’s work. He’ll learn whatever he needs to know.” Oscar said.
    “Look, we don’t really need the help.” Ivan explained reasonably.
    “You will in two weeks.” Oscar explained in a reasonable voice that mocked Ivan’s.
    “Maybe he could watch and learn.” Suggested Yuet Lim. “Bring tools. Clean parts.”
    “Everyone has to learn sometime. What difference does it make whether he knows big skimmers or not?” Rod insisted.
    “You guys are idiots.” Kevin said.
    They all looked at him.
    “In a year Tracy will be teaching you things about how to fix ‘em.” Kevin said.
    “Boy, I was fixing skimmers in Luna Linda when I was your age and I’ve been doing it for forty years. You think you’ll be teaching me something new next year?”
    The air was unexpectedly tense and everyone waited for Tracy’s answer. “Yes, but only if you’ll teach me what you know first.”
    Everyone broke out laughing.
    “You’ve got a pair!” Said Ivan.
    Tracy looked uncomfortable. “Will you let me onto your team?”
    “It isn’t up to us.” Said Rod. “It’s up to Oscar, and he’s already decided.”
    “I don’t want to join your team if you don’t want me there.” Tracy insisted. “As far as I’m concerned, any of you can say no. I’d rather work alone on small skimmers anyway.” Tracy said.
    Kevin made a thumbs-up sign with his hand. Yuet Lim smiled and did the same. So did Rod. Everyone looked at Ivan, who was frowning.
    “You’d step away from the team if I say go?” Ivan asked.
    “Yes.” Tracy said.
    Ivan looked down at his hand and formed a thumbs-up sign himself. Tracy saw that the tip of his thumb was missing and he had only a vestigial thumbnail that was misshapen.

    Tracy and Oscar finally sat down and the host brought over mugs and refilled the pitcher of homebrewed beer that sat on the table.

    Tracy felt uncomfortable when the men began to talk about a group of woman at an open table in the middle of the tavern. Inside, Tracy was wondering which parts of small skimmer technology might also be in use in the bigger skimmers.
    Tracy was jolted out of this hypothetical comparative analysis by Rod’s elbow.
    “That brunette is checking you out.” Rod whispered in Tracy’s ear.
    Tracy hoped it wasn’t true.
    Just then the woman stood up and walked over to the table of skimmer mechanics.
    “Hey, I just noticed you guys are skimmermen.” She said and smiled.
    “I, uh… My skimmer won’t start. Will you help me get it started?” She said, but unmistakably facing Tracy.
    “Oh, uh, I’m new. I can’t really fix it. But, maybe one of these guys can.”
    The table erupted into laughter, except for Tracy and the woman.
    “If he can’t fix it, it can’t be fixed.” Said Oscar.
    Kevin nodded. Ivan was silent, which in itself was an astonishing endorsement that did not go unnoticed by Rod and Yuet Lim.
    “So, what’s it gonna be? Help me out?” The woman said and she smiled in that way that men love and which Tracy had come to fear, deeply.
    Tracy frowned and stood up. “OK, I’ll fix your skimmer.” Tracy could not prevent the sound of feeling trapped from slipping out.
    “Never mind. It isn’t broken.” The woman said and turned around and sat down with her friends. Everyone in the privacy booth stared at Tracy and nobody said anything.
    A few moments later the table of women erupted into laughter and it was obvious they were making furtive glances at Tracy.
    Tracy felt the all-too-familiar heat of humiliation.
    “We’re not homophobes, Tracy. You have nothing to fear here.” Rod said.
    Everyone showed a thumbs-up.
    That would make me feel really good, if I was a gay man.” Tracy thought and tried to look as relieved as possible, despite still feeling deeply the opposite. “Thanks.” Tracy said.
    “Welcome to the team.” Ivan said and raised his glass.

    Tracy studied hard and asked questions whenever possible. By the time the first large Skimmer floated in for service Tracy was ready to get to work.

    The new service bays were finally ready and Tracy settled in. There was a safety shower on one wall and Tracy wondered why. There hadn’t been a safety shower in the skimmer station she’d worked at.

    Within a few weeks Tracy was the go-to person for several different specialized jobs and Ivan had already learned some new techniques Tracy had invented based on novel repairs to smaller skimmers.

    Five weeks after the first large skimmer floated in another just like it was wheeled in. It’s power system had failed stranding it and its passengers. Now the craft looked like a dead thing rolled in for an autopsy. Tracy was the only person available to help.
    “Borked out about two hours ago. No power.” The driver said.
    “OK, I’ll check the supply.” Tracy replied and walked over to side the of the craft and bent over to open a service panel.

    She used a multi-test probe and took some measurements.
    “I think gel battery anodes are shot.” Tracy said.
    “Can you guys handle that or do I get it rolled over to a battery house?” The driver asked.
    “We can handle it. I’ll need help though. Let me see when one of the other guys are available.”
    Tracy used her dot and called Ivan. “Ivan, got a battery bug. I think I need help on this one.”
    “Yea, sure. I’ll send Rod or Yuet Lim. I’m in the middle of a main fan replacement.” Ivan replied.

    The driver tapped his console and spoke to it in a low voice, apparently recording the fact that it had been delivered to the repair depot.

    A few minutes later Yuet Lim showed up wearing heavy gloves and goggles. “Battery bug?” He asked.
    “Anodes, I think.” Tracy said. “I’ve never replaced them. Have you?”
    “I’ve done cathodes. How different could it be?” He said.
    They worked for about twenty minutes to expose the large gel-based batteries that stored power generated by the atomic disassembly engine. Large parts of the vehicle’s systems swung out of the way for access. The batteries looked like metal bottles a meter long with a large wire connector on each end.
    “So, how do we replace the anodes?” Tracy asked.
    “First we remove the batteries.” Yuet Lim said and they spent the next half an hour removing the four large batteries.
    The batteries were heavy and it took both of them to lift each one out and place it on a bench where they could work on them.
    When all four were out they took a break and had a drink of water.
    “OK, now we can open each end and inspect the anodes and cathodes.” Yuet Lim said. “But, the batteries are under pressure inside, so we have to relieve the pressure first. Understand?”
    “Yes.” Tracy said.
    Yuet Lim opened a small access panel on the battery to revealed a high pressure fitting. He connected one end of a high-pressure hose to a large tank and the other end to the fitting.
    “This is ready to depressurize. See?” Yuet Lim said. Then he pressed a button on the battery and the hose stiffened. A meter near the fitting showed the pressure had dropped.
    “You still have to be careful when you open it.” Yuet Lim said. He placed a cup under a pressure-relief valve. He stood out of the way and opened the valve. Some jello-like goop squirted out and into the cup, and then stopped.
    “Pressure is gone now. Safe to open. Understand?” He said.
    “Got it.” Tracy said.
    “Let’s check them all. You do cathodes, I’ll do anodes.” He said.
    They worked for half an hour and had already finished two of the batteries. Tracy was working on the Cathode of the third battery. She thought it was weird that the high pressure line didn’t get as stiff, or that the pressure relief value didn’t produce any of the battery goop. “
    It must not have any pressure inside.” Tracy thought. “That’s probably why it isn’t working.”

    Tracy stood to the side and started unbolting the Cathode access panel and suddenly the world changed. It happened both very fast and very slow, from Tracy’s perspective. In about a second the whole thing was over. But, it seemed to play out in slow motion as she watched the end of the battery explode and the cap fly off and ricochet off one of the open panels on the side of the skimmer and bounce almost straight back, nearly hitting Tracy. The gel blast outward in all directions and some of it sprayed across Tracy’s coveralls, from just below the armpits to just above the knees.
    “What!” Yuet Lim shouted and turned around.
    Tracy stood there, half covered with battery goop.
    “Get into the shower! Wash it off! Quick!” Yuet shouted and ran over to help Tracy get the overalls off.
    “No!” Tracy said.
    “You have to! No time! It will eat your skin!” Yuet said and unzipped the overalls from the front.
    “Turn around!” Tracy said and fumbled with the zipper. The overalls came off and Tracy ran into the shower and pulled the water chain. Two things happened: cold water and buffer foam shot down onto Tracy with unexpected force and an alarm sounded.

    A few moments later Ivan and Rod ran in as well as the driver. They saw Yuet Lim facing away from the shower shouting instructions to Tracy. They saw Tracy vigorously washing off the thick, sticky battery gel. They saw Tracy crying. They saw that Tracy was obviously not a man.
    “Please turn around.” S/he asked, sobbing.
    They all turned around except the driver.
    “I. Need some new clothes.” Tracy asked and for a moment s/he was truly hirself: s/he wasn’t trying to be any gender.
    “I’ll get them. There’s a towel in the plastic box by the shower.” Ivan said.
    “Yuet Lim, call for a doctor. Rod, go get a spill kit.”
    “You! Out! Now!” Ivan said to the driver with such force that he fell over himself trying to leave the service bay.”
    Everyone was gone in a moment and Tracy dried off with the towel.
    A moment later Ivan returned with a small bag and he managed to throw it near hir without looking at hir.

    Tracy dressed in silence. S/he knew what it meant: It meant that hir secret was out. It meant that people would talk and everyone would know. Tracy knew what would happen next and s/he had no interest in staying around to let it happen. It was only safe for hir when people thought s/he was at least one gender or the other. Many assaults and two rapes had shown hir the value of hiding in plain sight, as a man.

    Ever since s/he had reached child-bearing age it became impossible to pose as a woman. Once this fiction was revealed it was time to move on. Tracy was good at far more than just repairing skimmers because s/he had moved on so many times, sometimes after only weeks in a new location.

    It wasn’t hard to get a new identity in Rose World because of the steady trickle of immigrants from the Bubbles. It only took a short trip to an immigration point outside the security perimeter, a few moments to get lost in the crowd… change clothes… and Tracy was a new person with at least a new last name and a new chance to live as close to a normal life as possible for a while.

    It was a broken way to live and s/he knew it. But it was a way to survive. S/he’d learned long ago that being good at something came with some safety.

    A doctor arrived an examined Tracy.
    “You have a few chemical burns… but not too bad. This cream will help wherever it feels uncomfortable.” He said and handed her a small tube. “It’s burn ointment, but it will work fine on this too.”
    “Thank you.”
    “Any questions?” The doctor asked.
    “No.” Tracy said.
    The doctor left and Tracy went back to hir small room and collected hir things into a duffle bag. She took some food and her tools as well as her console. S/he put on a fresh flight suit and goggles and walked out to hir skimmer. Ivan was waiting for hir.

    “What are you doing?” Ivan asked.
    “I’m leaving.” Tracy said.
    “Word spreads fast.” Tracy said.
    “Don’t worry about it.” Ivan said.
    “You don’t understand. But, it isn’t your fault.”
    “You’re right. I don’t understand. What’s the big deal?”
    Tracy said nothing. S/he just stood and stared as the inevitable unfolded before hir. She wondered if s/he could topple Ivan and get to hir skimmer and escape.
    “Ok.” Ivan said, “You’re a girl. I mean, a woman. And you were pretending to be a guy. You don’t have to pretend to be a guy with us. You can be a woman if you want to be a woman. We don’t care. You do good work. You have a place here.”
    “I’m not a woman.”
    This was confusing for Ivan, because he’d clearly seen that Tracy was not a man. “Then what?” Ivan asked.
    “I’m leaving.” Tracy said.
    “Because I have to be a man or a woman to be at peace anywhere. Even here. But, I’m neither. The secret is out. I have to move on. Do you understand?” Tracy asked.
    “Are you sure?” He asked.
    “Yes. Let me go.” Tracy said.
    Ivan stared into Tracy’s eyes. “Go.” He said and stepped aside.
    Tracy ran to hir skimmer in tears. S/he ran the fans up to full power and the ground receded beneath hir. S/he flew the skimmer up and up and up, until the people below could not be made out. At five kilometers she flew over the tops of the day lights and suddenly the space around her was darker, lit only by the light reflecting off the floor and walls, and the still distant core lights that were never off.

    There in the darkness Tracy cried, again. This was hir place to cast off another mortally wounded identity. S/he liked this Tracy. It was hard to say goodbye to the person s/he had been. She decided s/he’d keep the first name. S/he flew slowly toward the core. When she reached it she flew through one of the large airlocks and toward the spaceport. The entire core through disc four was pressurized, so it was safe to fly a skimmer the whole way.

    S/he always kept a set of clothes packed. Tracy Antionio walked into a bathroom outside the immigration center and Tracy James walked out. Within the hour Tracy James had registered as a new immigrant and was pretending to be lost and wide eyed.

    It felt like being reborn to Tracy. It was another chance to reinvent hirself and let go of whatever drove hir to need reinvention. S/he felt hopeful. She always did when she started over.

    Next (Chapter 1)