Calling Me Home – Spencer Nitkey

Calling Me Home – Spencer Nitkey

August 2020

The entanglement circuit burns as it lights a fire right behind my eyes. I hear my daughter crying in the moments before the circuit switches. An imagined voice, I’m sure. Then the pain spreads like blood through my chest, and the stars outside the transport ship window slow, stop, and disappear.

I come to in my bed back home. The baby monitor plays a low whine that crescendos into a full-scale cry. It is the first thing I hear back in this body. I put my hand on my husband’s back as he grunts and starts to sit up.

“It’s okay. I’ve got it,” I tell him, tripping over my old tongue.

I get up and stumble, still not sure footed in my old body. I lean against the hallway wall to catch my balance. In Altair’s room, I sit in the rocking chair near the crib, and hold Altair in the crook of my arm and feed her. I hope this is what she wants. I love Altair so deeply. She is beautiful and strange, but her wants are foreign to me. I am, I guess, stabbing in the dark. She focuses, her whole face pressed together in concentration, on sucking the formula from the bottle. I breathe a sigh of relief. She was hungry. I helped fix it. This is worth every bit of the discomfort it takes to transfer, even if just for a few hours. It’s rare they let me take an unscheduled transfer home.

“It’s okay,” I whisper. The sun is rising, and the sounds of early commuters slowly roar until the noise-cancellation flicks on and there’s an ambient quiet again. I sit Altair in a high chair near the kitchen table and pour boiling water over the coffee grinds in the French press.

My husband comes out when the chestnut crepes are almost done cooking. He looks exhausted. I’m sure I do too, the weariness carried over from my spaceskin to this one. It is nice to be working with small and delicate things for a moment. The small flick of the knife, the gentle rocking of Altair, all so different from the lumbering weight of the minerals, mining equipment, and explosives I work with in the Belt. I enjoy this smaller, more sensitive body in these small spurts.

“Is it Saturday, already?” he asks.

“No. I get a few hours break during the trip from Ceres to Hygiea and thought I’d surprise you,” I answer.

“I’m glad you did,” he says as he kisses my forehead. “It’s nice to see you for a little while, at least.” The words sound like drill bits snapping, and I take it too personally.

“Well, we need money don’t we?” I say. He tightens his jaw, and I watch it loosen. He slouches, then takes a few steps back from me, like he is about to apologize for my shortness. Communicating back home is always hard. The bodily adjustments are one thing, but moving seamlessly from a military-style mining operation to domestic conversation is hard. In the Belt, there are clear goals, and in my skin I can achieve each and every one of them. It’s an intoxicating feeling. Here on earth, my body adjusts quickly. My mind doesn’t.

I turn to Altair, who is making slurping noises, harvesting drool from her hands back into her mouth. She still makes no sense to me—a confluence of atoms and biology and accident that resulted in this: the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen—but still, I love her. I am on my toes around her, waiting for the leg of her chair to tip, a piece of food to lodge in her fragile throat, but she is mine, and so are the doubt and uncertainty she casts on me.

My husband takes a large bite of crepe and doesn’t say anything. I regret our tiff already, he’s so handsome in the morning light, but the circuit behind my head beeps, and I have five minutes to lie back down in bed and get ready for the return.

He winces when the sound rings through the kitchen. The baby starts crying and he takes her in his arms and kisses me on the forehead. The circuit jolts to life and I feel the heat of it already.

“I love you,” I say.

“I love you, too.”

I crawl into bed, lay down, close my eyes, and wait.

I’m so tired I think my mechanized space-skin is about to crack open and let the small ooze of me leak out like a spilled drink. My biological brain is resting, sleeping, emptied and recovering, in my body back home, and this skin doesn’t need sleep to flush protein buildup the same way biological brains do. My physical body sleeps all the time, it’s just my consciousness that doesn’t. I am awake nearly 24 hours a day, especially when working. Still, I am tired; I want static nothingness just for a few hours. I don’t have time, though. I have been hearing Altair cry all day, her small voice ricocheting through the wiring and the acoustic chamber that replicates my ears. I know I can’t actually hear her, but this memory of her voice feels like it is calling me back to Earth. Even with all the hell I am going through on Hygiea, her voice is all I think about, more than the alignment on the sonic drill, or tension in the tether, or the carrying capacity of the supply train.

I clock out for my hour off, and already the entanglement circuit is spinning. I try to swallow the spreading pain and imagine the trillion spinning photon-like particles that make up my mind in the circuit that are moving a trillion other, entangled particles in my brain back home, lying in bed. The sun blooms inside me, and the inside of the transport ship vanishes.

I wake up to the sun setting through the open window. Warm summer air washes over my skin. I roll over and look at the clock. It’s 8:00 pm. I hear the faint sounds of television, and walk out into the living room, unsteady, eyes drooping low.

“You’re up!” my husband whisper-shouts, careful not to scare Altair, when he hears me creaking towards him. He wraps me up, tightly, and I feel like all my fraying parts are being pulled back together.

“I was worried I’d miss you,” he says. “How are you doing? Can I get you something?”

“A drink, please,” I say.

“I have an open bottle of red?”


He pours me a few fingers of my good whiskey, which he never drinks. He looks concerned as I down it in one sip.

“Everything alright?”

I can’t hold any of it back. “Hygiea is a nightmare. Chock full of palladium, so our targets are sky-high, but so small the gravity’s just nothing. Even in the suit, we have to do everything tethered, so it’s all twice as hard and four times as slow. We were supposed to get a week off—”

“Claire no —” he interrupts. He already knows where this is going, and I can see the joy fall from his face.

“But it’s looking like we’re not even getting a weekend, and our week is being deferred until we hit our targets,” I finish the thought. I hate disappointing him. I hate not being able to tell him how I feel about him. How thoughts of him keep my wiring warm in the freeze of the belt. How thoughts of his voice comfort me almost as much as thoughts of Altair. How I think about the first meal he cooked me when I am mining and want nothing more than to taste something even though I’m never hungry. How I thank him quietly every time I transfer for quitting his career as a software engineer to raise Altair while I work.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and I can’t help but wonder what he’s sorry for. For me? For himself? For Altair? Now that our reunion is dampened, I can see how tired he looks beneath the effort he puts on to hide it. The bags under his gray eyes make them look like waning moons with long shadows. His wrinkles seem deeper set. He hasn’t been sleeping. He’s skinnier, his arms slightly deflated, and he has a small pouch, or the beginnings of one. I wish I had the energy to tell him how gorgeous he looks. He is going to age well, I think.

“It’s just hard to be a single parent all the time,” he says, rinsing his wine glass in the kitchen. “Do you ever regret it?”

I still have four more years of this on my contract that I signed when I was eighteen. I remember the recruiter in a crisp suit calling me over to his booth at the high school college fair. When he told me the company could pay for all four years of my undergraduate degree and then give me five years of work experience, guaranteed, I thought he was making fun of me. When he didn’t laugh, I almost cried with joy, I was so happy to sign. I remember the hours I spent in the entanglement surgery 12 months before my ship-out date. I was already pregnant, but they said it would be fine. They installed the circuit. They opened my skull and targeted the sixteen trillion particles they found that contained my consciousness. They passed a laser through them and entangled them with the neural-processing center of my space skin and then installed the circuit that could agitate them simultaneously, creating a line of communication and transfer. They shipped my space skin to Ceres and I had one year to enjoy earth before my skin arrived and I would transfer.

Franklin doesn’t understand why I’m not more upset. And I am upset, but not like he is. I don’t know how to explain it. Home, I feel weak and tired. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I love Altair, but I don’t know how to love her right. I don’t know what I’m doing when I hold her, but I hold her as often as I can, like it’s all I’ve ever known how to do. Then, when I transfer, suddenly, I’m unstoppable. There are clear, concrete objectives. Build this. Carry that. Extract this much. And I can do it. Everything they ask of me, I can do. My body moves intentionally. It is intoxicating: waking up from uncertainty into the skin of a superhero and knowing exactly what my job is.

And would I take a different deal? I don’t think so. If I’d known every gory detail the recruiter neglected to tell me, 18-year-old me would have ran the other way. The me now couldn’t leave everything I’ve gained behind. I met Franklin at a college in Philadelphia I could have never afforded on my own. I remember his dumb smile beaming across the library from behind a tattered copy of Chekhov stories, and I am glad I made the deal, despite everything. I look over at Altair, sitting on a high chair, and I am glad that I had the chance to make something so perfect with Franklin. Despite all the pain, it’s hard to look at them and consider ever giving it up.

“If there were a way out, would you even take it?” he asks, tired of waiting for me to respond.

“I only have an hour,” I say, in lieu of addressing his point. It’s not worth thinking about an impossibility. “Can I change her? She smells.” I should apologize, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I signed a contract. He married me. Here we are. I try to remember that and hope he can, too.

“Of course you can,” he says. “That’d be really nice.” It’s an act of love. He lets me feel like a parent when I have no right to.

I set Altair on the changing table, and her feet are small. My husband watches over my shoulder as I coo. She is a beautiful, profoundly magical person. The fact that I made her seems—especially as I am now, barely functional in my own skin—impossible.

When I’m done, I spend an hour holding Altair close to me, as close as I can. I stare for a very long time at her face as a movie plays softly. I try to interpret the thoughts and emotions that pass through her. Her brow furrows and I wonder if she is trying to decipher the look on my face, like I am trying to decipher the look on hers. The hour passes quickly this way. Then the circuit chimes on the back of my head. I hand her back to my husband and head towards the bedroom. He kisses my forehead, like he does every time we say goodbye. Even when we are fighting.

The circuit fires and my bedroom disappears. The last sound I hear is Altair babbling to my husband. “Goodbye,” I whisper.

Moses died on the rig today, so witnesses get an afternoon of mourning time to spend with our families. They don’t say this, but I know we also get time off because we already reached our weekly goals. If we were behind, it wouldn’t matter how many people died: we’d still be working. I’m numb from it, so I hardly notice the transfer.

When I come to, I am in the bedroom with the blinds drawn, my feet still in stirrups from the negatrophic workout my bed just finished. I fish my feet out of the metal loops, and lie there for a few minutes. I don’t have the energy or inclination to get up. I didn’t realize how much I loved the psychic comfort of sleep until now. Now that it’s denied to me.

I was there when it happened, when Moses died. The images of it reoccur to me, now. His tether broke loose and wrapped around his sternum. We had warned the company about faulty tethers, but they hadn’t listened. When the anchor pulled down, it practically sliced him in half. I watch the last minutes of it in my memory—I watch his electric eyes flicker, lose power, and fade forever. As I watched Moses die, Altair’s cries sang in the background and I couldn’t understand anything about my life for a few minutes. If I’d had lungs, I’m sure I would have been hyperventilating.

They warned us when we first shipped out: if we aren’t transferred out of a skin and it gets destroyed, our consciousness putters out, too. Someone is supposed to be monitoring us as we work, to avoid things like this, but Moses’s death confirms what we all suspect: the company is either too short-staffed or too indifferent to really monitor us. Be careful, they told us. Be smart. And we do feel invincible in the suits. The first day, I remember the rush. So strong and sturdy. We walked as steel monsters and were proud. When he died, I watched Moses’s biomatter, a dense tangle of neural cells congealed near his circuit, where they inserted the trillions of entangled consciousness particles, float into the vacuum of space. Rescue reached him after the tether broke and tried to initiate a transfer, but by then there was nothing left to transfer. I imagine his body back home, a vacant, mindless husk someone still has to kill and bury. Company men will knock on the door, and his wife will answer it and not really understand. She won’t know he died until the company tells her. His heart will still be beating, his lungs pumping air in and out of his blood. He will die twice. The company won’t tell his wife that he died because they wouldn’t replace the tethers, even though we have been begging for new ones for months. They will just tell her he’s dead, and let her do the dirty work.

You’d think that watching someone die in a mech-suit wouldn’t be traumatic. There’s no blood, no gutsjust screws, tubes and steaming pistons, the small grey film of their mind wavering like petals to the dirt. But when that person was your friend, when you’ve known him for five years and, to you, he’s only ever been that suit, it really isn’t any better than watching a human body get torn apart: it’s still death.

The house is quiet. I notice that the baby monitor isn’t on and when I look for it on the bedside table it isn’t there either. I get up to explore. No one is home, I realize pretty quickly. My chest buzzes with sadness.

I look for a note and find one stuck to the fridge with a magnet.

“Visiting my parents, call if home. Love, Franklin.”

I miss my husband, of course, but I hurt for Altair. Her absence shocks like a faulty battery, sharp, alive, electric. I open all the blinds in the house to let the night in. The sky is like an over-washed blanket; the stars, a hundred odd holes torn through the fabric. I look up and try to find my other body, vacant in a transport pod somewhere in the asteroid belt. I try to swallow the sadness, keep it from staying lodged in my throat.

I lie on my back on the asphalt of the driveway outside. Is it even worth calling him? I’ll be gone again before I could make the trip to his parents. What good would it do either of us? A rushed conversation? A glimpse of each other’s faces? Apologies that wouldn’t change anything? I want to see him, but I don’t want to fight about something I can’t change. I don’t want to be reminded of all the pain I cause someone I love.

I need to see Altair though, so I call. The line rings and rings. I’m ready to give up when Franklin answers, and his face fills the camera, shadowed with stubble and wild eyebrows.

“Claire!” he shouts, a little drunk. “You’re home. How long?”

“Half-day,” I mutter.

“Oh. So you can’t make it?”

“No, I’m sorry,” I say.

“They let you off for my birthday?” he asks. “I’m sorry, if I had known, we wouldn’t have left.”

Shit. I hadn’t even realized. Time takes on such an ethereal, useless quality in space. It’s not grounded in anything, so it’s easy to lose track of.

“No,” I say. “Just a lucky coincidence,” half-heartedly, in a way I am sure betrays the truth.

“Do you want to see Altair?” he asks. If he knows that I forgot, he doesn’t say anything. I want to thank him for this, but don’t know how. There’s so much I don’t know how to do.

Altair suddenly fills the blurry screen, a hundred or so pixels of her. Still, there she is. Wisps of brown hair dot her smooth head. Her eyes blink confusedly and look nowhere in particular. I can see her chubby fingers smack at the phone. God, she’s smart, I think. And for a minute or two I don’t think about, or see, anything other than her, this little person who is already so much better than I am. The blinker on my neck flashes and I tell my husband I have to go.

“Happy birthday, baby,” I say as he takes the phone back. “I love you.”

Later, I hold the phone on my chest as the circuit flashes. I try to think of her, and hope maybe I will hear her voice in the Belt again.

It is Altair’s first birthday today, exactly fourteen days after Franklin’s, and I do get this day off. I am a little late. There were loose charges near the sonic drill, more faulty equipment the company had been too cheap to replace. Their anchors had to be repaired, and I was the only one active in the sector, so I ended up working three more hours before I clocked out. Three more hours away from Altair and Franklin. The whir of the entanglement circuit cuts me across space and I wake up to the sound of muffled laughter, footsteps, and the smell of roasted garlic.

I swivel out of bed but stay in the room for a moment. The afternoon air is stale, and the light from the sun filters through dust particles, a thin curtain of sparkling light. My husband’s computer is closed next to the domestic transfer station that activates my circuit when they call me back to the Belt. Downstairs thrums with houseguests. I peek my head out from the stairwell and I watch Altair recognize me, slung over her father’s shoulder. She garbles something incoherent and magical. My chest erupts like an ignited engine. Franklin’s sister is the first to see me. Soon everyone is crowded around me except Franklin.

Altair is passed from one parent to another until she ends up in my arm. I field questions and side-hugs from friends and neighbors and family. I try to remember how to talk to people who aren’t coworkers. I ask them questions about their children, and try to keep them talking so I don’t have to; most oblige.

I realize how little I know about them. I didn’t realize I was socially isolated from Earth until now. Nine months into the program, and I’m already a stranger to everyone I was friends with before. In the Belt, everything is more urgent. Each day is a navigation around death. The minerals we extract fuel everything on earth. And I’m supposed to care about barbecues, preschool teachers, and Home Owners’ Association rules. I try, today. I really do.

I find Franklin, finally, and slide up next to him, pressing Altair between us. When I am feeling far from him, or when we are fighting, reminding each other of Altair helps. It’s nice to remember the things that our love, done right, can make. He smiles and plays with Altair’s feet.

“Have you checked for any packages recently?” I ask him.

“No. I’ve been a little busy setting everything up,” he says. “Where were you?”

“Work,” I answer. “Where else?”

“You were supposed to be here,” he says, which is true.

“What did you want me to do about it?” I ask. “They weren’t going to sign off until I finished loading—” I stop myself. “You don’t care,” I snipe. Which is both fair and unfair.

I take Altair and walk to the front door to check the porch for packages. A box with my company’s logo printed on it is sitting there. I squat low to the ground and, with my free arm, pick the box up and bring it into the kitchen. I watch Franklin’s face turn ghost-white at the sight of the logo. Fear, more than anything else. But I am too excited to care. I ask his sister for the pair of scissors we keep in the pantry and cut the box open.

I am giddy for the first time all day since watching Altair recognize me. With everyone watching me, I pull out a shimmering silver-colored locket, and I beam. There’s another, smaller box that I take and slide into my pocket.

“It’s a palladium, iridium, and ruthenium alloy,” I announce to everyone, but really only to Franklin. “It’s from my first haul in the Belt. I got to set aside a little metal from the first mining operation I was a part of. This is from space, Altair. It’s why I’ve been so far from you. It’s yours now.”

I look up from Altair hoping to see Franklin smiling. He is. But there are no wrinkles on the corners of his eyes. It is even and not lopsided slightly to the right. His eyebrows are flat. It looks nothing like his real smile and I feel things break in me, like a thousand whirring gears and pistons all snapping in the wrong direction. I hold my breath for four seconds, trying to steady it, and look down at Altair. Her chubby fingers swipe at the chain, and her eyes reflect the shine of it. I watch the small dance of curiosity as she writhes. I let the joy of her set my gears back in place. I don’t really look at anyone but her for the rest of the party.

After the last guest leaves, we clean the house in quiet. Normally, I’d ask him to play some music on the speaker, something to cut against the tension that stretches between us; the air itself taut and pulled back in to a thin, breakable surface. Now, we clean in silence. I am afraid to ask. Speaking the right words seems impossible right now.

We put Altair to bed early. She is exhausted from the party. So are we. Beneath the cool blue light of the television, my husband and I sit up in our bed.

“You know,” I say. “There was one more thing in the box that got delivered today.”

“Oh?” he says, half-listening.

I reach into my bedside table, beneath the entanglement port and pull out the small box and open it.

I take the small ring and turn it over in my hand. Two thin strips of platinum vine around each other until they reach the head where they prong out and enwrap a moissanite diamond. I put it in his hand, and already it is refracting the bedside table lamp in a dozen directions. He looks up at me.

“It was supposed to get here in time for your birthday,” I say. “The platinum is from Ceres. And the stone is from a meteorite crater on Vesta.” He looks ups at me. “I know this is hard. And I’m sorry I’m not here. And I’m sorry I’m not a better wife or mom. It’s a small comfort, but I think about you all the time, Franklin.”

“I think about you, too,” he says, rolling the ring around his hand. He gets up and turns the ceiling light on and looks at the brilliant stone beneath the light. I see tears in his eyes. “It’s really beautiful, Claire.”

“Think about me mining when you look at it,” I say.

We kiss. I get to sleep. I get to sink beneath the sheets and let the cotton warm my skin. The dark comes over me and the first few times I’m about to lose consciousness, I flinch, expecting the shuddering jolt of transfer, but each time it doesn’t come, I relax a little more. A little around midnight, I fall asleep. I am certain I was smiling.

Around 4am the baby monitor begins speaking in a loud voice. Altair’s temperature has exceeded 102 degrees. Current at-home-remedies are having minimal effect. Immediate transfer to medical professional recommended. Immediate transfer to medical professional recommended. We both run out of bed and into Altair’s room. Franklin checks her temperature manually. While he is gone for the thermometer, I put my hand against her head and pretended I know what temperature her head normally feels like. When the thermometer returns 102.2 degrees, we hurry into the car and set the autopilot to the closest emergency room.

I turn off the autopilot in the car, so we can rush to the hospital. Franklin holds Altair. He rocks and coos to her as I speed through the empty lanes of traffic. The street lights fill the road with cones of yellow light, and I cycle through every catastrophe I can imagine. Franklin is immersed in the moment, taken up entirely by Altair. Her crying hits my periphery for a moment and I tear up. I wipe my eyes and focus on the road.

When we finally get to the emergency room, I drop Franklin and Altair by the door and then find parking. As I back in to the first open spot I find, I hear the circuit’s beep. I flinch. Then, I feel the vibration at the back of my skull. The circuit call shudders my bones. My heart races uncontrollably. The company wasn’t supposed to call me back for another three days. I am miles from home and my baby is dying.

I am far from home, so the authentication signal from the domestic transfer station will take slightly longer to reach my circuit. Maybe I have six minutes instead of five. I run into the hospital and Franklin and Altair have already been taken to an exam room. I try to ask where they are, but I can hardly talk through the beeping in my head. It rings and rings. I feel like I’m losing control of my body. My heart is beating too fast. My breaths are shallow, lungs catching on my ribs with each hitched exhalation. I am sweating too. My body is incoherent. So are my words. Altair could be dying, and I am going to be thrown from this body in minutes. Maybe seconds now. I can hear the entanglement circuit whir to life; the authentication signal reached the circuit. I am crying inconsolably on the ground, screaming Altair’s name. I try to hold on, weld my consciousness to this brain. I scream as the edges blur. There’s no holding on. The last thing I think I hear is Altair’s crying, then I’m gone.

As soon as I’m conscious in my spaceskin I try to talk to my supervisor. I need to be sent back, I tell her, my child is sick. She tells me that my child will be sick whether or not I am there, and the company needs me in the Belt. A rush order for a Lunar base came in and without Moses, there was no way they could fill it in time. Everyone needs to make sacrifices. I can spare an eighteen-hour shift of mining to help my team-members out, she tells me. I get to work.

All I can think about is Altair, which makes the work slower, which makes me think more about Altair. I’m used to getting lost in my labor, worries and anxieties melting in the mechanized concentration. Today, Altair’s small, failing body hovers, already a phantasm, near everything.

Twenty-hours later, after we’ve loaded the processing ship with a full order of palladium, I get approved for a transfer. My supervisor enters her approval key, and the circuit embedded in my spaceskin’s neck whirs to life. It takes longer than normal to transfer out this time. I wonder if that’s because my body is still far from the transfer station. I wait for the signal to reach my body.

Then it happens all in one, whirring hot instant, and I come to in a hospital with a face already wet with tears. My rediscovered lungs are already spasming. I turn hard, and almost fall out of the bed.

Franklin puts his hand on my shoulder and I look up. The sun rising through the window behind him means I only see him in silhouette. When he leans closer to me, I see the sleeplessness tattooed across his face. I wonder if, in a few years, when I’m home, those lines and bags will fade. I hope they don’t. I don’t ever want to forget what he did for us, for Altair. These tired imperfections are, almost, brushstrokes. I want to kiss him. The tears come harder.

“Altair?” I manage to ask.

Franklin twists and lifts Altair out of a crib nearby. He brings her down towards me.

“She’s fine. Doctors think it was a stomach bug or something. She’s okay now. Her temperature fell really quickly. She’s okay.”

I am crying over Altair and holding her as close to my chest as I possibly can.

“I can’t do this anymore,” I say. “I just can’t. It’s too much. It’s too much. I’m sorry. I can’t.”

My husband takes me and Altair home. I am still crying sporadically. When I can talk, I say I’m done. I say I can’t imagine going back. My husband lets autopilot drive us slowly home while he holds me and runs his fingers through my hair.

“It’ll be okay,” he says.

“How the fuck is this going to be okay?” I whisper, and then I start crying again.

He pauses for a moment. I watch him think, calculate variables, check two sides of an equation to see if they are equal.

“I have a, well, it’s not a solution, but it might be part of one,” he says.

“What are you talking about, Franklin?” I say, exhausted.

“Let me show you when we get home.”

Our car pulls in the driveway and Franklin helps me inside. I am still carrying Altair. My ankle hurts. When I transferred out, a nurse caught my head from hitting the floor, but my ankle twisted under the weight of my body as it collapsed. As we walk inside our home, I refuse, silently, to put Altair down. The pain in my ankle oscillates with the extra weight, but that doesn’t matter. It’s my job to keep Altair safe. I keep the warmth of her pressed up against me, desperate, as Franklin leads me into the bedroom.

He opens his computer, still on the bedside table next to the transfer port. He opens a screen with lines and lines of code flashing across it.

“What is this?” I ask.

He pauses for a minute. I recognize this face. He is deciding how best to explain something simply without dumbing it down too much to offend me. It’s one of my favorite things he does, though I haven’t seen it since I shipped out. There hasn’t been much time for casual conversation; almost everything we talk about now revolves around Altair or my work.

“Well, look, you can only ever transfer with supervisor approval, right?”


“Well, that means there’s some kind of authentication that needs to happen—”

I think I know where this is going, and I also know it’s a dead end, and highly illegal. “I know, but there’s no way to—” I say before he interrupts me.

“Let me finish,” he says. He’s excited. There’s a manic energy in his eyes. “So they authenticate to transfer you home, from the Belt, but then how do they send you back without an authentication here, on Earth? Well, I wondered that for a while. I wondered if maybe when they called you back, they entered a second authentication, which wouldn’t help us at all. But I started to think more. And tinker with that port there. They don’t authenticate twice, because then they’d have to transfer the code back to Earth and then into this port, which is a redundancy they’d try to avoid. So I checked. It turns out what they’re doing, and this is actually pretty cool, is essentially sending a second authentication with you when you transfer. It’s—” he pauses for a moment to watch if I’m following. I’ve stopped crying, engrossed in what he’s been saying. “— essentially a return ticket. They embed it with the consciousness data transfer but store it here, in the transfer station. So when they call you back, they just have to agitate the entangled particles in your spaceskin, and your consciousness particles here will automatically start their transfer spin. Which means—” By now he’s gesticulating wildly, like he did when he came home with a new program solution, before he stopped working to take care of Altair. “—that if we copy that return ticket, and embed it in your consciousness data, we can send you back with an extra authentication. You could transfer on your own!” He finishes with a flourish of his hands.

“But of course it’s encrypted, right?” I ask, still in disbelief that he’s thought this much about it.

“It’s a simple encryption. I don’t think they thought anyone would bother to try to copy an authentication key, anyway. Why would they? Besides, they hire engineers and athletes, not coders. It’d be easy to fake a new one.”

I don’t respond for a minute. I don’t say anything. It’s ridiculous, hardly worth trying. Besides, even if I did it once, the company would know and be furious. The house beeps to let us know the car is done charging. The noise brings tears to my eyes. I paw, for a moment, at my skull, thinking I was being called back already. My heart rate shoots up.

“You say you can’t do this anymore. This is a way out,” Franklin says.

“No,” I say, looking down at Altair, nestled in the crook of my arm. Her face beams up at me. I remember giving birth to her six months before shipping out. The realization washed over me as I heard her cry in the doctor’s arms. I had made a person. Her skin was purple and dense. Her whole head was squeezed and elongated, like a bottle of soda. I loved her in a way that rearranged me. I loved her in a way that was older than her two hours, a love that stretched back to my first thoughts. I had built her, particle by particle. We bled into each other for nine months, mixed indelibly, a different kind of entangled and here she was for the first time on her own. She was mine and she wasn’t. I was hers and I wasn’t. I had made her. She had remade me. Not everyone loves their child right away, but I did. Between the bleating heart monitors, beneath the blinding fluorescence, she was perfect. She cried. That was the first noise she made, and it, too, was perfect, entangled forever in my heart.

I look down at her and see all that, for a moment, all the molecules we shared, and how far I have to be from her. I looked up at Franklin, my husband, the man who has been raising her every minute while I was away. I thought of the countless small crises he’s dealt with, without me there to hold him, without me working late into the night trying to find him a way out.

I kiss Franklin. “I love you,” I say. “This is insane. But you’re right. It’s the beginning of the way out.”

I use my metal fingers to disconnect the tether from my hip. I weave the charge I stole from the shipment vessel inside the vacancies in my chest. Without a tether on, I squat low and push off, hard. Hygiea is small, its escape velocity microscopic. I fly free out of its delicate orbit, and drift. The goal is to get as far as possible from Hygiea before I blow the charge. The Belt is dense, and if I can disappear into a thousand small pieces, they’ll think I was dashed to pieces against a thousand small asteroids. I don’t want to transfer out of my skin whole and risk them finding it and salvaging the neural matter. I want a permanent solution.

I spin out of control, and the vertigo is unavoidable. I experience sensations I didn’t know these spaceskins were capable of feeling: nausea, palpitations, arthritic pain in the freezing joints. I can barely open my fingers without silent shouts of pain. I don’t eat in the skin, but I feel like throwing up, dry-heaving from the lack of stable vision. I reach out to try and grab something, anything, but my hands move through air. I struggle to remember what to do next.

I think of Altair and everything slows, crystallizes. I start the countdown on the charge, then reach towards the neck of my space skin and fish out the circuit, careful not to disconnect its wiring from the suit. I hold it as delicately as I can between my three thick metal fingers. I have to trust that Franklin’s code gave me a return authentication. That my envelope engineering will work, and I am far enough from Hygiea by now that they won’t know I blew myself up. I have to trust him. I’m lucky that I do. As the charge blinks silently out from my chest, I pull my left eye out of its socket, exposing the live wires beneath. Even with an authentication key, without the spark that comes with a supervisors transfer approval, the circuit needs electricity to start. I take the wire to the small battery of the circuit and hope this works. It whirs to life. My space skin swims wildly through space as my vision fades one final time. The stars and asteroid belt disappear. I taste the sensation of my limbs, the strength and fortitude of my body one last time and then, just like that, I am gone. Flown back to my body on earth, opening my eyes in my bedroom, Franklin and Altair waiting for me.

When the company comes, they come with lawyers instead of police. They beg me not to sue them for the faulty tether and almost killing me, and I graciously oblige. A real investigation might reveal what we did. Instead they “forgive” the rest of my contract. It would maybe take longer than the remaining four years on my contract to develop, entangle, and ship a new spaceskin to the belt anyway. They pay me the remainder of the contract and we go our separate ways. OSHA makes the third deep-space visit in its history, and the company is forced to dramatically increase its safety standards. Maybe what I did was still wrong, and I am justifying everything to myself, but the results don’t lie. My team is safer now than they ever have been. And I am home. I watch the sun bounce off Altair’s tufts of black, curling hair and browse my computer for new, terrestrial, jobs. Altair starts crying. I turn towards her and smile. I take her in my arms and laugh. I smile across the room at Franklin. “Don’t worry,” I tell her, steeping in the sweetness of her voice. “I’m here.”

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