BAD HABIT • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Ever try to shake a bad habit?

“Son of a gun,” I said to Donovan the other day, for maybe the millionth time. “No wonder you can’t keep a partner.”

He laughed, as he always does, and I laughed too.

It’s not like he’s not a great guy. Everyone likes Donovan. But in the end, he just wears you down, and there you go.

Almost everyone gets the space willies at some point. Some are raving by the time they de-pod. Some are just fine for months and then you find them making little piles of fingernail parings, or something. And there’s no predicting it; there’s no diagnostic tool. Pass basics, get selected, get yourself transport and hope for the best.

Donovan, now, he was the best. Impervious. Sending him off for R & R was a waste of good company money. But the guys who worked alongside him, that was a different story. Strange how unshakeable calm will get under your skin.

Now, I’m his regular partner, and I never complain about him at all. When I start to get a little cranky, a little restless, they schedule my off-world leave; they’ll send up a relief guy, and when I feel better we’ll start all over again.

Damned if I know how he does it. They’ve monitored him, sensored him up ‘til he looks like the goddamned spider from Mars or something, and they just don’t have a clue.

Complain about it, and you sound like an idiot, even to yourself.

The thing is, there’s no privacy on-station. Space is expensive in space. Everything’s calculated down to the bare minimum needed to keep you from going bat-shit before you’ve sweated out a tour. So the least you expect is your sleep time’s your own.

You have the solution? Just try dream suppression and see what you get. Think the on-base psych unit is just another perk?

You can’t even really put your finger on it. Just sort of a feeling you get. You’re doing whatever you’re doing, in your own dream, in your own goddamned head, and in that moment between asleep and awake, you just know he’s been there with you. Seen everything.

The worst of it is, he never says a word about it. You just know.

He shouldn’t even be out here. Best creative guy we’ve got — only one, really. The little extra he threw in when they posted him to the project. And unlike those other geniuses who find gorgeous solutions for problems you never knew you had, Donovan’s stuff is like heat-seeking missiles, senses the target and demolishes it. That Rex the Retriever of his, if I told you how much it’s made for us, you’d cry.

Oh, yeah, they can afford to be generous, with what he brings in for them. Donovan’s royalties, he doesn’t even need to work anymore. And my cut, well —

Senior agronomist, don’t make me laugh. It’s being Donovan’s guinea pig, so to speak, that built me my house. And I’m not, whatever they try to tell you, nuts. When he says something works, brother, believe him. And those little Rube Goldberg manual back-up systems, until the final version of whatever is signed sealed delivered I’m yours —

He made Rex just for me.

You just can’t get angry with a guy like Donovan. Wipes the floor with you at pinochle and you still feel like buying him rounds. Dazzles the brass, the bastard, but his brains never seem to be any big deal to him. Just doodles in his spare time, and everybody’s happy, including my bank account.

You don’t bite the hand that feeds you, do you?

Someone once suggested that it was a kind of metaphysical rape, but that’s a little too heavy for me. It’s just that his playground seems to be my head.  Anyway, I’m the one making the problem, if you know what I mean.

Maybe you don’t.

It’s like this. Up there, six months at a time, raising a hydroponic test crop, things move a little slowly. You get to the point, even the really unimaginative types, you can practically hear the plants think. You have a lot of time to bounce things around in your mind. You start looking at all the controls, the failsafe measures, and you start to think to yourself, what if I did this? Just idly, you know.

But then it grows on you (yeah — ha!), and you start to want to poke at things, like pulling off a scab, or something. You’re not trying to do anything, for God’s sake. It’s just that you wonder, what if I did?

And Donovan’s right there behind you.

Stare at an airlock an extra thirty seconds one day, and the next day he’s rigging up some new kind of alarm, or something.

I love working with the guy, really I do. He keeps you on your toes. I mean, up there, an acre of alfalfa or what’ll you have, how many times a day can you take a nutrient reading? Your mind wanders. And by God, he pulls you back.

I’ve learned, you know, to just put myself to sleep with the periodic table, or something. A few solid hours of oblivion. But towards the end of it, when I’m coming up from the depths, so to speak, sometimes I get away from myself. I think about space. Funny word, that. You picture it in your head, and your heart beats a little faster.

There’s so much space in space.

And I think, you know, I just want to take a little walk.

Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds.

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