This was another complete gender swap and the story works just as well as it ever did. So why was the protagonist originally written as a male?
The true cost of spaceflight is always paid in lives. But sometimes, the ones who go aren’t the ones who pay the most!
(Based on The Altar at Midnight By C. M. Kornbluth)
Altered at Midnight
She had quite a rum-blossom on her for a kid, I thought at first. But when she moved closer to the light by the cash register to ask the bartender for a match or something, I saw it wasn’t that. Not just the nose. Broken veins on her cheeks, too, and the funny eyes. She must have seen me look, because she slid back away from the light.
The bartender shook my bottle of ale in front of me like a Swiss bell-ringer so it foamed inside the green glass.
“You ready for another, lady?” she asked.
I shook my head. Down the bar, she tried it on the kid – she was drinking scotch and water or something like that – and found out she could push her around. She sold her three scotch and waters in ten minutes.
When she tried for number four, the kid had her courage up and said, “I’ll tell you when I’m ready for another, Jack.” But there wasn’t any trouble.
It was almost nine and the place began to fill up. The manager, a real hood type, stationed himself by the door to screen out the high-school kids and give the big hello to conventioneers. The boys came hurrying in, too, with their little makeup cases and their fancy hair styled just so and their frozen faces with the perfect mouths. One of them stopped to say something to the manager, some excuse about something, and she said: “That’s aw ri’; get inna dressing room.”
A three-piece band behind the drapes at the back of the stage began to make warm-up noises and there were two bartenders keeping busy. Mostly it was beer – a midweek crowd. I finished my ale and had to wait a couple of minutes before I could get another bottle. The bar filled up from the end near the stage because all the customers wanted a good, close look at the strippers for their fifty-cent bottles of beer. But I noticed that nobody sat down next to the kid, or, if anybody did, she didn’t stay long – you go out for some fun and the bartender pushes you around and nobody wants to sit next to you. I picked up my bottle and glass and went down on the stool to her left.
She turned to me right away and said: “What kind of a place is this, anyway?” The broken veins were all over her face, little ones, but so many, so close, that they made her face look something like marbled rubber. The funny look in her eyes was it – the trick contact lenses. But I tried not to stare and not to look away.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s a good show if you don’t mind a lot of noise from – ”
She stuck a cigarette into her mouth and poked the pack at me. “I’m a spacer,” she said, interrupting.
I took one of her cigarettes and said: “Oh.”
She snapped a lighter for the cigarettes and said: “Venus.”
I was noticing that her pack of cigarettes on the bar had some kind of yellow sticker instead of the blue tax stamp.
“Ain’t that a crock?” she asked. “You can’t smoke and they give you lighters for a souvenir. But it’s a good lighter. On Mars last week, they gave us all some cheap pen-and-pencil sets.”
“You get something every trip, hah?” I took a good, long drink of ale and she finished her scotch and water.
“Shoot. You call a trip a ‘shoot’.”
One of the boys was working his way down the bar. He was going to slide onto the empty stool at the spacer’s right and give her the business, but he looked at her first and decided not to. Instead, he curled around me and asked if I’d buy him a li’l ole drink. I said no and he moved on to the next. I could kind of feel the young woman quivering. When I looked at her, she stood up. I followed her out of the dump. The manager grinned without thinking and said, “G’night, gals,” to us.
The kid stopped in the street and said to me: “You don’t have to follow me around, lady.” She sounded like one wrong word and I would get socked in the teeth.
“Take it easy. I know a place where they won’t spit in your eye.”
She pulled herself together and made a joke of it. “This I have to see,” she said. “Near here?”
“A few blocks.”
We started walking. It was a nice night.
“I don’t know this city at all,” she said. “I’m from Covington, Kentucky. You do your drinking at home there. We don’t have places like this.” She meant the whole Skid Row area.
“It’s not so bad,” I said. “I spend a lot of time here.”
“Is that a fact? I mean, down home a woman your age would likely have a husband and children.”
“I do. The hell with them.”
She laughed like a real youngster and I figured she couldn’t even be twenty-five. She didn’t have any trouble with the broken curbstones in spite of her scotch and waters. I asked her about it.
“Sense of balance,” she said. “You have to be tops for balance to be a spacer – you spend so much time outside in a suit. People don’t know how much. Punctures. And you aren’t worth a damn if you lose your point.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Oh. Well, it’s hard to describe. When you’re outside and you lose your point, it means you’re all mixed up, you don’t know which way the can – that’s the ship – which way the can is. It’s having all that room around you. But if you have a good balance, you feel a little tugging to the ship, or maybe you just know which way the ship is without feeling it. Then you have your point and you can get the work done.”
“There must be a lot that’s hard to describe.”
She thought that might be a crack and she clammed up on me.
“You call this Gandytown,” I said after a while. “It’s where the stove-up old railroad men hang out. This is the place.”
It was the second week of the month, before everybody’s pension check was all gone. Oswiak’s was jumping. The Daughters of the Pioneers were on the juke singing the Man from Mars Yodel and old Patty Shea was jigging in the middle of the floor. She had a full mug of beer in her right hand and her empty left sleeve was flapping.
The kid balked at the screen door. “Too damn bright,” she said.
I shrugged and went on in and she followed. We sat down at a table. At Oswiak’s you can drink at the bar if you want to, but none of the regulars do.
Patty jigged over and said: “Welcome home, Doc.” She’s a Liverpool Irishman; they talk like Scots, some say, but they sound almost like Brooklyn to me.
“Hello, Patty. I brought somebody uglier than you. Now what do you say?”
Patty jigged around the kid in a half-circle with her sleeve flapping and then flopped into a chair when the record stopped. She took a big drink from the mug and said: “Can she do this?” Patty stretched her face into an awful grin that showed her teeth. She has three of them. The kid laughed and asked me: “What the hell did you drag me into here for?”
“Patty says she’ll buy drinks for the house the day anybody uglier than she is comes in.”
Oswiak’s husband waddled over for the order and the kid asked us what we’d have. I figured I could start drinking, so it was three double scotches.
After the second round, Patty started blowing about how they took her arm off without any anesthetics except a bottle of gin because the red-ball freight she was tangled up in couldn’t wait.
That brought some of the other old gimps over to the table with their stories.
Blackie Bauer had been sitting in a boxcar with her legs sticking through the door when the train started with a jerk. Wham, the door closed. Everybody laughed at Blackie for being that dumb in the first place, and she got mad.
Samantha Fireman has palsy. This week she was claiming she used to be a watchmaker before she began to shake. The week before, she’d said she was a brain surgeon. A man I didn’t know, a real old Hobo Joe, dragged himself over and began some kind of story about how his brother married a Greek, but he passed out before we found out what happened.
Somebody wanted to know what was wrong with the kid’s face – Bauer, I think it was, after she came back to the table.
“Compression and decompression,” the kid said. “You’re all the time climbing into your suit and out of your suit. Inboard air’s thin to start with. You get a few redlines – that’s these ruptured blood vessels – and you say the hell with the money; all you’ll make is just one more trip. But, God, it’s a lot of money for anybody my age! You keep saying that until you can’t be anything but a spacer. The eyes are hard-radiation scars.”
“You like dot all ofer?” asked Oswiak’s husband politely.
“All over, sir,” the kid told him in a miserable voice. “But I’m going to quit before I get a Bowman Head.”
“I don’t care,” said Marty Rorty. “I think she’s cute.”
“Compared with – ” Patty began, but I kicked her under the table.
We sang for a while, and then we told gags and recited limericks for a while, and I noticed that the kid and Marty had wandered into the back room – the one with the latch on the door.
Oswiak’s husband asked me, very puzzled: “Doc, w’y dey do dot flyink by planyets?”
“It’s the damn govermint,” Samantha Fireman said.
“Why not?” I said. “They got the Bowman Drive, why the hell shouldn’t they use it? Serves ’em right.” I had a double scotch and added: “Twenty years of it and they found out a few things they didn’t know. Redlines are only one of them. Twenty years more, maybe they’ll find out a few more things they didn’t know. Maybe by the time there’s a bathtub in every American home and an alcoholism clinic in every American town, they’ll find out a whole lot of things they didn’t know. And every American boy will be a pop-eyed, blood-raddled wreck, like our friend here, from riding the Bowman Drive.”
“It’s the damn govermint,” Samantha Fireman repeated.
“And what the hell did you mean by that remark about alcoholism?” Patty said, real sore. “Personally, I can take it or leave it alone.”
So we got to talking about that and everybody there turned out to be people who could take it or leave it alone.
It was maybe midnight when the kid showed at the table again, looking kind of dazed. I was drunker than I ought to be by midnight, so I said I was going for a walk. She tagged along and we wound up on a bench at Screwball Square. The soap-boxers were still going strong. Like I said, it was a nice night. After a while, a pot-bellied old rummy who didn’t give a damn about the face sat down and tried to talk the kid into going to see some etchings. The kid didn’t get it and I led her over to hear the soap-boxers before there was trouble.
One of the orators was a mush-mouthed evangelist. “And, oh, my friends,” she said, “when I looked through the porthole of the spaceship and beheld the wonder of the Firmament – ”
“You’re a stinkin’ Yankee liar!” the kid yelled at her. “You say one damn more word about can-shootin’ and I’ll ram your spaceship down your lyin’ throat! Wheah’s your redlines if you’re such a hot spacer?”
The crowd didn’t know what she was talking about, but “wheah’s your redlines” sounded good to them, so they heckled mush-mouth off her box with it.
I got the kid to a bench. The liquor was working in her all of a sudden. She simmered down after a while and asked: “Doc, should I’ve given Rorty some money? I asked him afterward and he said he’d admire to have something to remember me by, so I gave him my lighter. He seem’ to be real pleased with it. But I was wondering if maybe I embarrassed him by asking right out. Like I tol’ you, back in Covington, Kentucky, we don’t have places like that. Or maybe we did and I just didn’t know about them. But what do you think I should’ve done about Mister Rorty?”
“Just what you did,” I told her. “If they want money, they ask you for it first. Where you staying?”
“Y.M.C.A.,” she said, almost asleep. “Back in Covington, Kentucky, I was a member of the Y and I kept up my membership. They have to let me in because I’m a member. Spacers have all kinds of trouble, Doc. Man trouble. Hotel trouble. Fam’ly trouble. Religious trouble. I was raised a Southern Baptist, but wheah’s Heaven, anyway? I ask’ Doctor Chitwood las’ time home before the redlines got so thick – Doc, you aren’t a minister of the Gospel, are you? I hope I di’n’ say anything to offend you.”
“No offense, kid,” I said. “No offense.”
I walked her to the avenue and waited for a fleet cab. It was almost five minutes. The independents that roll drunks dent the fenders of fleet cabs if they show up in Skid Row and then the fleet drivers have to make reports on their own time to the company. It keeps them away. But I got one and dumped the kid in.
“The Y Hotel,” I told the driver. “Here’s five. Help her in when you get there.”
When I walked through Screwball Square again, some college kids were yelling “wheah’s your redlines” at old Charline, the last of the Wobblies.
Old Charline kept roaring: “The hell with your breadlines! I’m talking about atomic bombs. Right—up—there!” And she pointed at the Moon.
It was a nice night, but the liquor was dying in me.
There was a joint around the corner, so I went in and had a drink to carry me to the club; I had a bottle there. I got into the first cab that came.
“Athletic Club,” I said.
“Inna dawghouse, harh?” the driver said and she gave me a big personality smile.
I didn’t say anything and she started the car.
She was right, of course. I was in everybody’s doghouse. Some day I’d scare hell out of Tom and Lise by going home and showing them what their Mommy looked like.
Down at the Institute, I was in the doghouse.
“Oh, dear,” everybody at the Institute said to everybody, “I’m sure I don’t know what ails the woman. A lovely husband and two lovely grown children and he had to tell her ‘either you go or I go.’ And drinking! And this is rather subtle, but it’s a well-known fact that neurotics seek out low company to compensate for their guilt-feelings. The places she frequents. Doctor Francis Bowman, the woman who made space-flight a reality. The woman who put the Bomb Base on the Moon! Really, I’m sure I don’t know what ails her.”
The hell with them all.