by Jeremy R. Butler

There’s a scene in a black-and-white where a cowboy rides a nuclear bomb dropping from the sky. It’s from back in the 1900s. I forget the name, but it’s in the archive if you look. The guy rides that bomb right down to Earth, waving his hat around like he was strapped to a bull. That’s what I thought the Belt Corps would be like. Well, a combination of that and the way Apollo drove his chariot across the sky: a ball of gold streaking from horizon to horizon, for all to see.

You need to know I didn’t come from hero stock. No military service or brushes with danger. Farmers, merchants, carpenters. Six pharmacists, a railway man, three chiropractors. No outlaws or gangsters or bare-knuckled brawlers. I have an uncle who served time for vehicular manslaughter when he was drunk; that’s about as macho as we get.

Dangle Smilin’ Joe Ferese in front of a seven-year-old wired for middle management and watch a kid’s destiny implode. Smilin’ Joe was the poster boy for asteroid wrangling back at the start. They rolled him out every news show for at least a year. Smilin’ Joe sitting in his wheelchair, happy as a clam, telling stories about micrometeorite punctures, emergency decompressions, launch failures. Tales of terror told through a grin. Near death served with a shoulder shrug and side of ennui. He made an impression.

At some point, the host would change the subject or risk scaring off the viewers. They had to know when parents were just about to switch him off, because then came the questions:

Were you scared? Every day.

What’d you eat? Algae and algae products.

Why’d you do it? For the adventure.

For the adventure! I ask you, what seven-year-old’s brain wouldn’t be scrambled by that? You line up every other earth-bound profession-lawyer, dentist, office manager, garbage collector, and which holds a candle to Smilin’ Joe and his adventuresome self? Marine? Navy SEAL sniper? Lion tamer? Too common. Too ordinary. Nothings and nobodies. There were gods at work among the stars, and what, we were going to stay on Earth?

It wasn’t just me. Every kid I knew worshipped Joe back in those days. Smilin’ Joe and Tariq Fairweather and Carson Daniels. A few hundred years earlier and we’d have had trading card collections. The Corps used to announce when a Wrangler was reaching orbit. We’d be at our telescopes for six months to watch their twinkling balls get bigger. We watched their press conferences, conducted from orbit or wheelchairs.

When I was ten, Wranglers were the reason I ate healthily, the reason I went to school.

When I was fifteen, Wranglers were the reason I trained for marathons, the reason I did my chemistry homework, the reason I didn’t smoke.

When I was eighteen they were the reason I enlisted in the Corps.

I once knew a kid who got an autograph of Kitty Malone, the first female Wrangler. It must have been worth a fortune at one point. I hope he cashed out when the going was good.

For a long time I blamed Smilin’ Joe.

 ***

Ever see The Return of Beyond? It’s a must for anyone in the biz, so I’d bet my haul you have. During Prep, we watched it a thousand times if we watched it once. Best scene: Riptide (we never learn his real name, you notice?) is drunk at his birthday party. Penny Champlain (played by the very cute, but horribly maudlin Lupe Duggan) screams: “I’ll never speak to you again, you beast!”

Ignoring the gasps of his ass-kissing guests, Riptide, unbuttoned tux and all, whispers: “Haven’t you heard, little girl? I’m a Wrangler. I’ve ridden rock halfway across the system. You think anything you say matters? You’re dust, baby. Dust. And I don’t listen to farting dust.”

Cheeks aflush, Penny gasps and clenches her fists.”If I’m dust, then what are you, Rip? What are you?”

“Don’t you know, baby?” He raises his hundred-year-old Scotch to his lips. “I’m a giant.” Best scene ever.

Prep was the first time I really understood what a classroom was supposed to be, not a virtual one but a real one. Ever seen those Brit two-dees from back in the 1900s when they had headmasters and professors? The kids all wore cutesy uniforms with knee socks, and sat at desks with lids to store their slates or inkpots. I didn’t get how they did it, how they just sat there. The teacher talked, the students listened. They were so obedient they were like aliens. Earth training for the Corps was a year of discipline and testing and calisthenics. Whittling numbers, basically. We all knew the real work was done in Prep.

Boarding the ship, we were nothing but fit, eager pukers. All the ground training in the world can’t prepare you for that first week, you know? Your inner ears tell you forward is down and left is spinning. Every burp makes you puke, it takes five minutes just to get the piss stream started, and you can’t taste a thing. The first week is hell. But then the shuttle launches, Prepstarts and we morphed into those little alien Brit kids. We gripped handles, stared straight ahead, and listened to every word.

Over the years I’ve thought about the educational system, how if someone could bottle that experience, we’d be a race of Einsteins. It’d be pretty tough, I figure. After all, we were hostages, volunteers with an eight-year return trip and nothing to keep us alive except what we learned. They say that’s why they leave Prep until the shuttle–you’re so damn scared you actually learn.

We lulled each other to sleep with pop quizzes. What’s the growth rate of Standard Island Pink? How do you clear a 6b coolant block?

Who needed exams? We hazed each other.

Can’t harvest a day’s worth of Prussian Red in under a minute? You’re cleaning the wasters.

Forget how to re-calibrate a launcher for yaw correction? There goes dessert for a month.

We were tough on each other, but we also rewarded the best. I was evasive-maneuver-speed champ for six months in a row. That got me priority handle in class until I resigned, undefeated, from competition. In prison they work out their bodies, we worked out our minds. We were mental hulks.

Believing it was just a game, just a standardized test to be passed, helped us cope. Everyday we learned and memorized and tested each other. In between we ate, slept, wasted and watched old Rip. We made complicated bets on who’d be back first, how big their haul would be. We bitched about some of us being dropped first, others weeks later. We wanted a starting line, a pistol shot. We wanted it to be even. We each believed we’d be the first one back to orbit with a haul of vanadium and rhodium, oriron ore, or pure ice. Not only would we ride a silver ball of fortune across the universe, we’d also set speed records doing it.

Haul checks in our pockets, each of us would wait in on the orbital station, watch the nextgen ships being built, and wait for all the slowpokes to limp in. Then there would be decisions to make. What car to drive. Whom to marry. Where to live.

We gave each other nicknames (à la Riptide). We called each other Giants and were only half kidding.

 ***

Voids. That’s what I call them. That’s all space is: void. It’s a thing defined by the absence of things. A void is what is not. There are other kinds of voids, too, data voids. The absence of information where it should be found. It’s hard to see a void down on Earth. People are bombarded there. It’s like a zen koan: how, on Earth, can you spot a void? I don’t know, never saw one, myself. It’s easier in space. Void is the norm. You get to know nothing better than you know anything.

I don’t know when the voids started, but if you look at the first ten shuttle trips, those guys are heroes. There are officially sanctioned biographies on at least ninety of them. But the eleventh shuttle only lists twenty-eight Wranglers. What happened to the rest? Good luck finding out. The next twelve missions have the usual thirty-two, only see if you can find any info on half of those guys. The archive only has dead ends, I’ve tried. Whoever they once were, they’re voids now.

On our way out to the belt, the Corps made an official statement. They told us that some reporter had figured something out. Never told us what she found, but they made the announcement which was nice of them. Earth was on the far side of the Sun by then, so there was no other way we’d have learned about all the disappeared Wranglers.

You ever watch a movie that’s got a twist ending, and afterward you look back and can’t figure out how you didn’t see it all along? Well, that’s the way I feel about those sixteen months. It was like the part of the movie where the answer is all around but you don’t see it.

 ***

For the first month I put myself to sleep with visions of my own six o’clock interview. They’d roll me out like Smilin’ Joe, introduce me as the man who made the trip in two and a half years. The man who beat his shuttle-mates back, despite being the last one launched. Sometimes I’d smile wanly, wave to the camera bashfully, humble as can be. Or else I’d scowl like Riptide, sneer, and take a swig of Scotch.

Were you scared? Nah.

Why’d you do it? Don’t you know, baby? I’m a Giant. I rode rock from the Belt to Earth. Eight billion U.S. of mixed haul, enough to build half a station, wire it up and even put in a swimming pool. (Belly laughs would follow.)

How did you get back so soon? I revised there fining program. I increased the launch mass by a few thousand pounds a day, and doubled the speed. I slingshot around Mars, used Phobos to block the solar wind, and the rest, well the rest is classified. (Wink to camera.)

I heard that it took four probes to slow you, you came in so fast, is that true? Actually, it was five.

What do you have to say to your shuttle mates? Well, whenever you get back, I’ll buy you an island. And Pinstripe? You lost. You owe me half a million.

Then, I’d stand from the wheelchair. Ladies and Gentlemen, an amazing recovery from years in zero-G! Applause. I sign autographs. They issue trading cards.

The truth was, I looked at scatter plots and chromatographic analyses. I monitored the uranium reserves and coolant temps. I charted the courses of passing objects, examined hull integrity. I double-checked the navigation plans, launcher sequences, the CO2 levels, algae growth, potable and pre-potable water levels. I made sure the waster worked.

It took four months to accept that I did more to load a dishwasher than to mine my asteroid.

For the first year I just thought I was doing it wrong. I figured that there was some way to add myself into the process. My classmates would have taken all the knowledge, all of the hours of pimping and hazing, and found ways to speed it up. Why couldn’t I? I repeated the computer’s calculations, by hand. I learned analytic spectroscopy far beyond what they taught us during Prep. I learned mineral detection like few people on Earth. I found corrections to be made to the archive. But for all that busy work, I agreed with the computer every time.

At eighteen months I was out of the Belt and heading home. I was alive and healthy. My rock was shrinking as its tail grew. Our speed increased daily. All systems were green. I was on a successful mission and I hadn’t done a thing.

It took two years to realize the truth. Asteroid mining may have been an adventure once, but I was a generation too late. Smilin’ Joe and the hundreds of Wranglers after him had worked out the kinks.

Don’t believe me? Do your homework, look it up.

After Joe’s micrometeorite story, the Corps re-designed the pods to be less vulnerable. Because of Davis’ double launcher failure, we now fly with three. Because of Kitty Malone’s waster malfunction, we’re taught eighteen different ways to fix the thing. Sure, we were there in case something went wrong, but mostly, the kinks were gone. And even when things did go wrong, I always knew what to do. We’d quizzed the mystery out of each other.

Like I said before, for a long time I blamed Smilin’ Joe.

A thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters might churn out Shakespeare but they’re not him; they’re just a bunch of monkeys pushing buttons.

I didn’t even have a button to push.

Hell isn’t the absence of feeling, it’s the absence of meaning.

 ***

You know the part in the movie when the rogue cop does his taxes? Or the scene when he throws out his back and needs to stay in bed for a week? Or when he gets diarrhea after lunch?

You know the triumphant climax when the soldier polishes his boots for an hour between battles? The epic battle between the meter maid and the renegade reporter?

Or when Riptide stares at the camera for six years?

Voids, all of them. Voids.

I was living in one.

 ***

I consider myself a pretty resilient, upbeat type of guy. Maybe because I’d always dreamed of getting to the Belt and managed to do it. So what then? What do you do when you have six years of nothing to do, no one to talk to? You watch movies. And you read the archives. And you sleep. You try to unhook your dreams from disappointment.

In my third year, I discovered recipes.

The first came from a real emergency. While harvesting some Aleutian Orange, I cut myself. Just a little sliver of a cut on my pinky, a paper cut really, but from a sheet of algae crystal. It happened occasionally, where the algae dried. Aleutian Orange isn’t used for much except to add a little Vitamin D to the mainstay meals. I put pressure on the cut, there was barely a drop of blood, but within seconds it started to itch.

Itching. I hadn’t itched in years. I went to the archives and searched for Aleutian Orange toxins. Nothing. Was it a void or was it a true nothing? I couldn’t tell. On it itched. Convinced that something had entered my bloodstream and would kill me in seconds, I chose amputation. I wrapped a tourniquet around my finger, watching it turn purple and throb. I said good-bye to my littlest finger and readied the scalpel only to find the itch was fading and would soon stop.

Quite an emergency, huh?

Still, it inspired me. This was my first:

 ***

Lick (or otherwise wet) a monitor panel. Apply 2cc of Aleutian Orange to the moist surface. Dry for three days. Scrape using stiff object. Pulverize. When applied to skin, a mild itch results. To the nasal area, a sneeze. To the lips or genitals, a pleasant warmth. To the eyes, tears.

 ***

Does it seem silly? I was giddy. I smeared that stuff every place you can think of, and a few you probably can’t. You get so used to nothing, I was just happy to feel something again.

The thing with Wrangling is that it’s so difficult to communicate you give up after a few weeks. The archive basically says it’s pointless until you’re in your last three months. You’re in the middle of nothing strapped to a rock. Your rock is between you and every transmitter until you clear the outer probes, and as for peers, if you could find them, either your rock is in the way or theirs is. In Prep, we just figured that it added to the adventure. Just look at Riptide: heroes were loners. Who needed farting dust?

I wasn’t in Prep anymore, so I sent out the recipe. Kept it brief. I cycled it for a few days. I called it Tingle.

My antennae were receiving all the time but between solar flares and Earth data run-off, what little I got was tough to decipher. Still, I sent my recipe everywhere.

A week later I got a message back: Friend.

Three months Standard Island Pink. Max O2, low humid. Agitate twice daily. Place in uniform. Warm lightly on growth bench before sleep.

After one month I had a pillow. After two, a midget sidekick. After a full three I had a companion. I called her Penny. If I close my eyes, Standard Island Pink almost feels like skin.

I’ve been listening ever since.

Most of the time all I got was a burst of words (stir, inflate, warm, 39oC), sometimes a title (Joy, Roses, Summer). I had mysteries, I had missions. I had questions and answers. I had purpose.

I was Michelangelo exposing David.

I was Trevor Schmidt with the Animation Wand.

I was Scarlett O’Hara in my dress of curtains.

 ***

Chill. Alsatian Blue burned with a little hydraulic fluid and a dash of urea. It gives you a nice buzz that’s not unlike hash.

Home. Ground-up red wire casing mixed with San Diego Gray and boiled. It creates an odor that is remarkably close to chocolate chip cookies.

Each time I had a full recipe, I added it to a broadcast loop. Others must have done the same, since pretty soon, I was getting a full new recipe each week.

Chicago involves a 1% decompression to feel the wind.

New York is a Chicago with Standard Island Pink dust blowing nearby and car horns blaring from the archive.

Beijing is New York with charred dust.

Everyone should try Parker’s Mom once. Or else Parker’s Sister (substitute Jamaican Yellow) or even Parker’s Grandfather (corrugated tubing instead of smooth). I can’t remember who Parker is, but for his sake, I hope it’s a pseudonym.

The recipes came in fads. There were recipes of obliteration (Off, Haze, Coma). Recipes of distortion (Oz, Vertigo, Yesterday). The recipes of pleasure (Bliss, Marilyn, Pimping).And, of course, there were recipes for food (Ham Steak, Cheese, Collards).

The competition was on. My personal best was Widow’s Fingers which took two weeks of experimenting. The effect is not dissimilar to a backrub (if I’m honest, it’s similar to a Paisley Comet but without the warmth).

 ***

The archive says that even though the first hero tale was written millennia ago, the genre will never end, it will just keep being re-written in perpetuity. I believed it. We were conjurers, alchemists, creating something from nothing. Experience from boredom. Thing  from void. Joy and fear and sensuality from a vacuum. And it was almost satisfying, for a while.

Finnegan’s Wake is really just Chicago with Haze on board and half a Tokyo Rose.

Apple Pie is actually Home but with red wire instead of blue, a touch of Solyent Green, and one-tenth of a Nostalgia.

Womb is just Coma while turning up the thermostat.

I don’t know how many of my shuttle mates were doing it. But at about the five-year mark I could feel the collective boredom. Not that we talked. We weren’t farting dust. Maybe we feared getting our haul checks docked if the Corps found out, or maybe everyone tried, but they got lost in the static. Recipes were our way of communicating. And after a few years we ran out of things to say.

The novel recipes slowed and stopped. There was still re-broadcasting loops of everything that had been created. I stared at the receiver and hoped for something new but it wasn’t coming. I experimented, but a Vertigo is still a Vertigo even if you call it a Déjà Vu.

 ***

Imagine a detective movie that never ends. Holmes and Watson walk around interviewing people, investigating, following leads, amassing clues but they never figure out the killer. A movie of infinite expectation and no answer. Brutal, right?

Thankfully, the mystery was solved. I wish I could take credit, but I can’t. I won’t try. It came as a recipe, the first new recipe in months, and it was the answer. The recipe for the one thing we craved and were missing. The single purpose to which we’d dedicated our lives.

The recipe was called Adrenaline. It was simple. 1 pint of hydraulic fluid, open flame. Recover.

I was numb and invigorated at the same time.

A recipe like that comes up and it’s a dare. Can you do it? Can you handle it? Are you strong enough? Fast enough? Smart enough? It was everything we’d prepared for, but real.

Could I handle it, or no? The answer was yes, absolutely, I wasn’t emergency maneuvers champ for nothing. I wanted to prove it, if only to myself. And prove it, I did.

I have no excuse, I was sloppy. I have second-degree burns to my right leg, and lost two weeks worth of algae growth. Penny was destroyed and one monitor got a little warped. I put out the fire in a little under forty-five seconds, just before I passed out. I don’t know how that compares, but fires in zero-G are totally different beasts, beautiful fire balls that kill you as they hypnotize. I could have shaved a good twenty seconds off my time if I hadn’t been in awe. I know because I cut off twenty-three last week.

Panic, followed. Then Challenge.

Decomp is like a Chicago times ninety. The air is sucked out of your lungs and you start to see stars. I lost my left pinky the first time I did it. Still had my hand on the threshold when I re-sealed. Oops.

Panic is Adrenaline with a Decomp.

Terror is a Panic with Coma on board.

Yesterday’s was Giant. A triple Adrenaline with a half Decomp and a New Yorkthrown in for kicks. Eighteen seconds of pure heroism. Got it down to seven seconds on my fifth try.

I finally feel like Smilin’ Joe and his adventuresome self.

Adventure came in last night and I couldn’t sleep at all. It’s what I’ve been waiting for my whole life. Christmas has finally come.

The broadcast feed was quieter this morning. Not surprising.

Disconnect computers. Place them in airlock. Open. Survive.

Crazy? Maybe. But it’s why we came, why I’m here, who I am. For the adventure. I watched the archive hurdle back toward the belt two hours ago. I’m on my own now. Nine months before I clear the outer probes, I think. I should have looked that up first, but it’s too late now.

On the off-chance you’re allowed to share any of this, just say I died of boredom. Say it was too easy. Tell the kids that they’re better off with nine-to-fives and pension plans. Sell them on classrooms and graduate education and human resource managers. Tell them Wrangling’s a pointless waste of time.

Whatever you do, don’t tell them that adventure did me in.

Actually, never mind, I take that back.

Leave them something to live for.

Don’t tell them anything.

Jeremy R. Butler enrolled at MIT to master quantum mechanics, only to graduate with a degree in theater. When Broadway didn’t come calling, he turned instead to medical school. Now a forensic psychiatrist, he spends the bulk of his time in the fantasy lives of others, and until now his writing has been restricted to medical charts and psychiatric journals. An avid reader and improv student, Jeremy is overjoyed that his closet writing passion has been exposed and is thankful to his wife and daughter for their tolerance and support.

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