Joe Fledge's Jump
by Patrice Sarath
The chatter over my commlink was faint, constant, and easily ignored. My helmet limited my view but if I turned my head, I could see the rest of the crew in our white suits, locking together each metal and plastic section of the new bridge that connected to the space elevator terminus. It was as deceptively flimsy as a rope bridge, only instead of crossing a jungle ravine, it crossed space.
I took a moment to look out at the work so far, leaning back against the safety netting, my boots secure against the strut I was working on. The bridge soared above me, the arc unfinished, its jagged ends waiting for the next segment. The structure was stark against the blackness of space, catching and reflecting the sunlight. I tapped the image capture button on the side of my helmet, snapping a picture. I’d send it to Alex when I went off shift.
The crew hab was a turning tin can that provided a semblance of gravity. There were eighteen of us, all on two-year contracts. I had another year to go.
“Hey Randy,” said Devin Fisher, crew chief and station head. I looked up at him from my terminal, in the middle of a letter to my son. Devin slid into the chair next to me. “Head's up. We're telling everyone not to go public, and that includes family.” Devin was a tall Black man, a seasoned crew member, who had made the career change from ironworker on some of the tallest skyscrapers on Earth to space bridge builder without much of a hiccup.
“Okay,” I said, confused. “And why is that?”
He gave me a hard look. “Some newbie tried to space himself. He survived and we're sending him home, but the less it's talked about, the better. We need to stay on schedule.”
There were easier ways to commit suicide. I was glad the guy was okay, but a shiver went down my spine at the thought. Decompression wasn't quick or painless. Those would be the longest last twenty seconds of a person's life.
He let me take it in, and then said, “From now on, keep your radio turned up, man.”
It was like all of Devin's rebukes – to the point, not a word wasted about why, but no less of a direct order.
“Got it,” I said. I would miss the silence but I didn't want to cause trouble. I went back to my letter to my son. Hey Alex, I wrote. Check out the latest on the bridge project. When you're older, you can see it for yourself. That's why we're building this thing, you know? Someday, you will think nothing of taking the space elevator up from Earth Terminus to NE-Terminus, and then suiting up and walking the bridge out to the hub, where the ships will dock. Love you, kiddo.
I attached the image and sent the letter.
Archie, the communications tech, pinged me a few hours later, just before I was turning in. “Incoming, Rand,” he said. “Real-time from your wife.”
My first thought was dire; Melissa hated calling because she could never get used to the very slight time delay.
I took the call. “Hey babe. Everything okay?”
“Randy, what the hell? What kind of joke was that?”
It got my back up. “No, ‘hello, sweetheart, nice to see you’?” I said.
To her credit, once she got the message, she looked rueful. “Sorry. No, it's the photo. What the hell was that about?”
“I send Alex a picture of the bridge every day, Mel. I have no idea what was wrong this time.”
“Look at the picture, Rand. Tell me what is going on. Alex asked if that was you.”
I pulled up the picture from my file, still not sure what she was talking about. The image was exactly as I remembered it – stark, bright metal and plastic against the black of space, rising up in an unfinished arc. Then I saw it.
At the lower left of the image, just exiting the airlock on the elevator terminus, was the newbie, arms outstretched in a swan dive, caught in the act of jumping away from the structure.
I didn't know Joe Fledge. He had come up a week before, rotated in with a group of new riggers. They were still in training and wouldn't be in-filled into the crews until they acclimated to near-Earth orbit. Apparently Fledge had not acclimated.
Fledge was rescued by a quick-thinking rigger who was fully suited and waiting his turn in the airlock. Fledge might have thought death would be instantaneous, or more likely that his momentum away from the station would be enough to keep him out of reach until he expired. Anyway, he was brought back in, and given meds and revived in a bends chamber. He survived his walkabout with nothing more than some burn and was sent home.
That should have been that.
Months later, the commotion over the radio was loud, chaotic, and against protocol. I turned my commlink to private and direct lined to Devin, who was out on shift with me. We were behind schedule, the only reason Devin suited up anymore.
“What now?” I said.
“Another walker,” he said, terse as always. “Hang on. I'm finding out what's going on.”
Some people see somebody do something stupid and they don't think, that idiot. Joe Fledge had set a record for surviving the longest unsuited spacewalk. The chatter on the Net had all been speculation about how long a person could survive, and what someone needed to do to stretch that survival time to its maximum.
Two newbies had gotten into the rigger program specifically to recreate Joe Fledge's jump. They took advantage of the accelerated training program, put in place to keep the project on schedule and at its target budget. They had practiced beforehand, learning how to expel all the air in their lungs to slow de-oxygenation. They smuggled up drugs to pre-treat themselves to prevent ebullism. One – Tandy Rollings – went out unsuited. She held the hand of her partner, fully suited, who timed her.
Twenty-five and a half seconds. Give or take a millisecond.
On my last shift on Terminus, I took a long look at the bridge. It was a massive structure, a complex lattice of steel and plastic. And yet, this triumph of human ingenuity was impossibly spindly and fragile, no match for the hostile environment of space. We can't survive out here, I thought. We're Earth-bound, not meant for space. One fire or explosion, and small bodies would be propelled outward with the rest of the debris.
I was glad I was never coming back.
I opened my son's bedroom door and peered in. White moonlight came in through the window. I could see his small body, a lump under the covers, facing straight up. The moonlight reflected in his open eyes. I listened for breathing, and heard none.
“Alex?” I said. My voice was sharper than I mean it to be, and I was acutely conscious of my respiration and heartrate.
After a moment he turned his head, and then I heard him take a deep breath and expel all the air from his lungs.
“I'm practicing, daddy,” he said.
“It's late, kiddo,” I managed. “You can practice another time.”
Another deep breath and long, measured exhale.
“Good night, son.”
I closed the door, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, and went down the stairs to the dark living room, where Melissa was curled up on the sofa watching a movie, her face illuminated by the display, inchoate dialog like the chatter over a commlink. She glanced up at me.
“Yeah,” I said. “He's good.”
Thirty-three and three-quarters seconds, the news reports said. Tandy Rollings and her latest accomplice were arrested, and there was another flurry of excitement before the news died down. I didn't know how much Alex was aware of the latest skinwalk, as the stunt was being called. I thought about my son's deep exhales, and pushed the fear away. I didn't ask him about it, and whatever secrets he had in his baby-faced way, he held them close.
Years passed and my son grew up, quiet like me, intense like his mother. Our marriage fractured under the stresses of our distinct natures, like a badly engineered superstructure. Alex shuttled between us, strewing books and papers and dumping his backpack by the front door, some days an emotional firestorm, other days content to just be. He changed imperceptibly, until I took the time to really look at him, and then I could see the lengthening of his bones under his skin, indicating the shape of the man he was becoming.
Once I picked up his papers, trying to put some order into the chaos, and stopped at a picture he had colored. It took me a second to recognize it. Terminus, the unfinished bridge, and a figure with arms outstretched floating off to one side.
Melissa called. We hardly ever spoke anymore, now that Alex was in college and our co-parenting duties discharged.
“Hi,” I said, mildly surprised.
She jumped right in. “Alex is a skinwalker. And before you say anything, I just want you to know that I don't blame you.”
“Yes you do.”
There was a pause, like our old Earth to Terminus conversations. Then, “Yes. I do.”
“He doesn't talk to me,” I said. I felt a deep pang of envy. How had I missed this? My son didn't tell me about the most important things in his life?
“Well, he doesn't talk to me either,” she said. “I saw it in the news. He's with a group who are pushing for the record – and other things.”
My worst fear, confirmed. “What other things?”
“I'll send you the article.” She paused. “Rand. I think we're losing him.”
An interview with: Alex Mulvaney, Skinwalker
Hi Alex. Let's jump in. How did you get involved in skinwalking?
My dad was a rigger on Terminus when I was a little kid. He used to send me images of the bridgeway as he was working on it, and one of them caught Joe Fledge as he went out the airlock, and I thought, wow, I want to do that.
Joe Fledge. He tried to commit suicide by EVA without a suit, correct?
Yeah. He found out that you can actually survive a pretty long time in hard vacuum. He --
But he wanted to commit suicide, and you didn't want to emulate that, right?
(Laughs) No, of course not. But Joe Fledge, he exhaled real hard when he stepped out, and that saved his life. He lasted twenty seconds and they pulled him in and revived him. It was hushed up, but we had the picture, and when I was little, I looked at it all the time. I thought man, I could do that.
What's the attraction?
Pushing yourself. People used to think you could only go 15 seconds at most, before decompression sickness, arterial gas embolism, all that shit, kills you. Barebacking it now, people can go forty seconds, easy. I went forty-seven but had to be resuscitated.
Explain barebacking for our audience.
Mostly us Skins, we use a skinsuit. It's basically a wetsuit, and adds extra compression, but it's not a pressure suit or anything like that. Barebacking is hardcore. That's when you go out with nothing. No clothes. Just you and space.
You’ve gone much longer than forty-seven seconds. You're the recordholder for a three-minute skinsuit spacewalk. What was the difference?
(Laughs) Drugs, man. We take a few different drugs that mitigate the effects of ebullism. Pentoxifylline, NMDA antagonists, a few others.
Which do you prefer, skinwalking or barebacking?
They each serve different purposes. Skinwalking now, that's to break records and to test the science. Barebacking is just pure. Raw.
What does it feel like to go out there? No suit. Just skin. Isn't it cold?
Hot, actually, but cold too. We call it old cold. You can practically feel the solar radiation zapping your cells. But inside, everything is trying to boil away and bust out. It's -- euphoric. You just fall and fall and fall.
Yes, the Sun, and the solar radiation -- you know you've basically signed your death sentence, right?
That doesn't bother you?
Listen. It’s not about the minutes or the radiation. Humanity occupies a fingernail- thin slice of the surface of the planet. Everywhere else on Earth – underground, the ocean, the upper atmosphere – is hostile to human life. It's insane that we think that's the only space we should ever occupy and that's the environment we should bring with us off-planet. Skinwalking isn't about setting records. That radiation you say is going to kill me -- that radiation is going to change me, just like oxygen changed life on Earth. You can keep building your habitats and stations. You can keep your razor-thin environment that's already been poisoned almost to death. Us Skins -- give us a few generations and we can survive anywhere. We're the future of the human race.
When Alex sent me and Melissa a terse e-mail that he had dropped out of college, I called her.
“Wow,” she said, looking up from her handheld to take the call. “He's cheating death on a regular basis but for this you call?”
“Have you talked to him?” I asked.
“Randy, he doesn't talk to me. He's like you – no words, just shutting people out.”
The same argument, the same accusation. “He's like you,” I corrected her, my voice like ice. “He is. You saw the article. That was all you.”
For a moment, Melissa paused. Then she sighed. “Oh, Randy. What have we done? Is he trying to kill himself? Is he punishing us? Is this our son's way of saying, you two never should have gotten together and made me?”
I licked my lips, try to get my voice to work. “I think – he's evolving.”
Alex and I agreed to meet at a cafe at Earth Terminus base. The space city that sprung up at the foot of the massive looming elevator was a combination of shipping containers and man camp shantytowns, cheek by jowl with state-of-the-art light rail and sleek new construction. It was mid-January: the sun was a glare of light and sky was parched and white.
I watched from across the table as Alex scanned the crowd. He looked so much like his mother. It was more than just the dark eyes and dark hair. It was the expressions that swept across his face, the way he held the coffee in his hands, the way he set his shoulders and jiggled his leg with impatience. He was nineteen now, and he had filled out, and he was tall, . He wore jeans and a hoodie, a ball cap drawn down over his face. But the camouflage couldn't hide everything from the merciless equatorial sun.
His face was mottled with bruises from the broken blood vessels under the skin. The whites of his eyes were shadowed and red, and the tiny capillaries around his nose made him look like a forty-year drunk.
He felt my observation and turned to look at me. He gave a wry, twisted smile, and fished for his sunglasses and put them on, hiding his red eyes.
The waitress brought us our burgers, and I saw that when he took a bite, he had to eat carefully, as if it were painful to chew.
“Do you – do you need anything? Money?” I was grasping at straws.
His mouth quirked again. “Nah. I'm good. Cheap rent out here.”
He lived with a group of friends, but he refused to let us visit him, and I suspected that they were all Skins. I knew someone was bankrolling them, because it cost money to ride the elevator, and it cost money to defy the procedures that were established to prevent Skins from making their jumps. Every jump was followed by a flurry of announcements from the Terminus authorities that anybody making an unsuited spacewalk would be arrested and fined. It had not been much of a deterrent.
“You need to stop,” I said.
He looked at me from behind his sunglasses. “You know I'm not going to stop.”
“You mean you'd rather die out there than stop for us.”
“That's mom talking,” he said. “This isn't about you or her.”
“Then what is it?” I challenged. “You're going to die, Alex. Doesn't that–” My voice broke. Alex knew what I was going to say, or thought he did. He leaned forward.
“Frighten me? No. You don't understand. I'm not frightened of anything. This is what I've been meant to do, ever since you sent that image. This is the future, Dad, of all humanity.”
Anger flared. “You aren't evolving. It doesn't work that way.”
His expression changed, and he dropped his head to concentrate on his burger, and in that moment he reminded me so much of his mother that I knew that he was hiding something.
“Jesus Christ, Alex,” I said. “What have you done?”
He was silent for a long time. He set down his burger. I saw a smear of something on his cheek until he wiped it away. He stood up, his skinny, angular frame looming over me. “I'm sorry,” he said finally. “I can't be what you want.” He looked as if he was going to say something else, but instead just picked up his backpack, hiked it over his shoulder, and walked away, toward Terminus. I watched until he disappeared into the crowd.
When I could no longer see my son, I leaned forward and touched a smear on the bun, where Alex had bitten into the burger. It wasn't blood red; it was closer to purple. I knew it was blood though, blood from gum tissue that had been compromised by vacuum.
The waitress came back, a bit surprised that we had barely touched our burgers. “Do you want a to-go box?” she said kindly.
“Yes please,” I said. When she brought it, I wrapped Alex's burger in its paper and put it in the box, leaving my untouched meal behind.
It took weeks before the genelab came back with results. Alex's blood was awash with genetic code that altered the effect of hard vacuum on oxygen-carrying blood cells. They weren't waiting for evolution. Skins were becoming something other than human, other than Earth-bound, skipping thousands of years of genetic progress.
That was the last time I saw my son alive.
I watched the video over and again. The airlock opened, and Alex pushed out, a graceful swan dive into the abyss. The camera zoomed in on him, and his eyes were open, reflecting Earthlight. He somersaulted, and I could see the exuberant grin, and behind the alien creature swimming in near-Earth space, I could see my son, both the man he had become and the boy he once was.
Then his grin changed, and the light went out, first in his eyes, and then in his body. And he fell, endlessly. Endlessly he fell.
Months later, I found the drawing again, crumpled at the bottom of Alex's desk drawer in his bedroom. I thought I had tossed it but no. I smoothed it out, and something struck me. I called up my image files from almost twenty years before. It took a while before I could find the photo of Joe Fledge.
If you didn't know what to look for, you could miss it. The focus of the image is the bridge, a soaring arc in space, against a backdrop of stars. Down in the corner was the figure of Joe Fledge. Behind him is his rescuer, reaching out.
I looked again at Alex's crumpled drawing. It was a ten-year-old boy's self-portrait. He had captured his own cheeky grin. And behind him was a meticulously detailed figure waving him on from the airlock.
I looked at the image. I looked back at the drawing.
Alex had drawn me, waving him on.
Devin Fisher called me out of the blue. He said that Terminus One was expanding the bridgeway, and they wanted to bring in experienced riggers for a fast ramp-up.
“There's a spot for you. If you want.” He paused, and then said, “I heard about your son. I'm sorry.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I took him up on it. It's quiet up there. My helmet restricts my view, and I can be alone with my thoughts and the routine work. I keep away from the Skins, who continue to make their jumps, setting records previously unthinkable. News reports say that in twenty years, cellular modification may successfully be used to prevent decompression and radiation exposure, and to facilitate adaptation to the most alien of environments – Mars, say, or Venus. Humans would no longer be limited to the sliver of Earth's surface. We would no longer be a single species. All because of Joe Fledge's jump.
The bridge is almost complete. When it’s finished, I’ll suit up and take the long walk out to the hub where the ships will dock. I will look out over Earth and space and scan the heavens for my son. And when I spot him on his long journey, I will lift my hand and wave him on.
Patrice Sarath's short stories have appeared in Weird Tales, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Best New Tales of the Apocalypse, and many other magazines and anthologies. Her novels include the Books of the Gordath (Gollancz/sfgateway) and The Sisters Mederos (Angry Robot Books).