In honor of my co-moderating a session on science fiction at ScienceOnline09, here is one of my science fiction stories. I hope you enjoy it.
Daria clung to the rope ladder, her knuckles white. Her arms and legs shook. Her eyelids were screwed shut, but tears still squeezed through.
This shouldn’t be this hard, she pleaded, but she knew no one was listening.
Her baby brother, Yuri, never had any trouble with the ladder. He loved swinging on it. He’d jump out of the tree house if Mom hadn’t forbidden it. So would his best friend, Timofy. They were having a blast up there now, laughing and shaking the ladder as hard as six-year-old arms could move it.
Daria knew she was barely three feet off the ground, but it made no difference. A chasm gaped below her feet, and the feeble swaying of the rope felt like an earthquake. She couldn’t let go. She couldn’t open her eyes. She could barely even breathe.
The ladder shook harder. She gripped it tighter, her arms cramping.
“Come on, Daria. Everything’s okay. You’re perfectly safe. You’re here with me on Peregrine Station. Please wake up.”
Peregrine. With a gasp, Daria woke. She flipped over onto her back.
Eoin was propped up on one elbow next to her, frowning with concern. “You okay? That looked like one hell of a dream.”
“It’s an old one.” Daria blinked hard, clearing the last of the tears from her eyes. She wished she could shake the dream as easily. The feeling of motion, twenty years old, clung to her.
"Want to talk about it?"
"No." The word shot out of her before she could make her tone match Eoin's friendly one. She patted his arm in apology. “I’ll be fine in a minute.”
Eoin brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Good.” He relaxed and lay back down, chuckling. “These bunks are pretty small even for two perfectly sound sleepers.”
“I’m sorry,” she said absently. She took a deep breath and concentrated on pushing her pulse back down. She hadn't had that dream since college, but it seemed to be making up for lost time. She could still feel the ladder swaying. She sat up and turned to lean against the wall. Sound-dampening paint over smooth metal, it was chilly against her bare back, but it was solid.
Eoin sat up too. "Sure you're okay?"
"I will be." She smiled at the tall, black-haired Aussie, immensely glad she hadn't been sleeping alone, more glad to wake up next to him. "Thanks."
He sketched a half bow. "What are friends for?" The muscles in his bare chest rippled invitingly.
Daria had met Eoin when her company hired him for this mission. It had been lust at first sight, which had made her wary. It could make for a great assignment or the world's longest yearlong trip, depending on his feelings and whether hers lasted once she got to know him.
Ten months in, everything was going beautifully. They even laughed at the same things. They hadn't talked yet about what could happen when they were back on terra firma, but she thought this might be a good opportunity. She opened her mouth.
"Eoin--" The world wobbled. She grabbed his arm. "Did you feel that?"
"I feel fingernails." He sounded a little too tolerant.
"Sorry." She loosened her grip. "Just sit really still for a minute."
She waited what seemed like forever, barely breathing and trying not to squeeze Eoin's arm again.
He was less patient. "I'm sorry." He shook his head. "I don't--"
Daria felt a stronger heave. "Damn!"
Eoin's eyes were wide "What was that?"
"The gravity unit’s destabilizing, I think." She thought hard and quickly. "How secure is your lab?"
"Against gravity?" Eoin frowned. "I'm not sure. I thought your units were fail-safe?"
"It'll cut out everything over a gee and a half, but you can do damage with a lot less."
Eoin looked worried.
Daria wanted to reassure him, but she wasn’t sure there was time. "Okay, get your cute little butt over there and make it as stable as you can. Get anything fragile onto the floor. Spread out or brace anything that's stacked. Be quick. Radio down to Malang and tell..." She glanced at the clock. "...Didi what's happening. Then get someplace safe and stay there." She patted his bunk. "This should be a good place to ride it out if you strap in."
She stood up and started throwing on clothes. Eoin followed her lead. "Can you fix it?"
She shook her head. "Not the control module, which is what this feels like. It’s pretty rare for one to destabilize, but when they go, they’re very unpredictable. I've got backups."
"Let me know when you've got it taken care of." Shirtless and shoeless, he was gone after one quick kiss, running down the long gray hall toward his radiation lab.
"Be careful!" She headed the other direction, still buttoning her shirt. Daria's lab, where she kept the modules, was near her cabin and the control room. It was a much longer trip from his. This place was far too big for the two of them. If everything went well, its final population would be much bigger. Then maybe there'd be some more color to the place.
She walked as quickly as she dared, bracing herself for another wobble in the gravity field. It came as she was putting a foot down. The floor seemed to drop away from under her, leaving her dangling over forever.
Then it was over, and Daria stumbled as her locked legs took her weight again. She staggered to the nearest wall and sagged, clinging to the recessed rungs on the wall for support. She fought for air. A small voice she hadn't heard in years chittered in the back of her mind that she was going to die.
Daria forced herself to take a deep breath. Get a grip! She had a mess to fix.
She had invented the prototype for the gravity generator in college. Studying math at the Saint-Petersburg State Institute of Technology, she’d had access to all the science and engineering journals she could ever want. Lifelong acrophobia had kept her obsessively tracking the latest gravitational research, even though it was outside her field. In one article, she'd half-glimpsed a pattern in the data. She hadn't been able to resist.
She'd pestered engineering students she knew with half-formed questions, bought bits and pieces at salvage, and learned to solder. She laughed at the resulting jumble and plugged in the power. The gravity surge bounced her tailbone painfully off the floor before the circuit blew.
She still didn't understand all the details of how she’d accomplished it, but for a change, she was controlling gravity. The feeling was addictive. She changed her major to engineering and filed a very quiet patent application.
She decided against graduate school when no one would guarantee her a free hand to direct her own research. Instead, she shopped herself around to the multinationals until she found one that promised to fast-track her design. Contract negotiations went smoothly--once she convinced them that unless she could keep control of her project and oversee the dirtside testing, she'd find another company.
There was very little culture shock involved in the move from St. Petersburg to Indonesia, mostly because Daria spent all her time in the lab. She and her team refined the unit until the power consumption made it practical for industrial use. Then she concentrated on making it space-worthy.
Once the generator was scheduled to be installed in an experimental orbiting station, Daria announced she was going with it. Acrophobia be damned. She wasn't about to hand her baby over to someone else.
If the station had been a government project, her fears would have ruled her out immediately. As it was, she’d lied her way through psychological tests. She’d doped herself with sedatives and recited Pushkin from memory to keep her heart rate somewhere near normal for the medical tests. The doctors had still looked at her skeptically. But when she'd reminded the board about her contract and told them she could perfect the mechanism faster with first-hand data, they'd agreed she could go.
Daria had insisted on taking this job. Now she had to finish it, even though the serenity she’d faked for the tests was gone. Eoin was counting on her. The success of the mission, his experiments, even her control of her project, hinged on her doing this right.
She made herself loosen her grip. She shifted from rung to rung, not letting go of one until she was holding securely onto the next. It was progress, but it was slow.
Finally, resting her forehead against the cool metal wall, Daria knew it wasn't working. She was no more than halfway to her lab and still further from the generator. The fluctuations in the field were coming more frequently, and they were starting to ripple, turning the corridor into a shifting hillside.
Each heave left her shaking, weaker and closer to panic. The babbling doom in her head was louder. She had to do something while she and the field were still experiencing stable periods. She waited where she was through three more cycles, trying to shut it all out. She looked for a calm inside of her she wasn't sure existed.
She let go and ran, using the adrenaline from her fear to power her legs. The corridor flashed by unseen as she concentrated on her goal.
Daria could see the door to her lab when the world heaved again. The floor tilted away and she was falling downhill. She knew she should let herself go, tuck up and concentrate on landing, but her panic-laced body had its own ideas.
Her outstretched arms, braced against the fall, hit first. Her left wrist gave with a stab of pain. She would have screamed if her chin hadn't landed next. Then she was too busy trying to stay conscious.
When her vision cleared, Daria pulled herself to her knees. Her left arm wouldn't support her, so she limped along on three limbs. When gravity shifted, she clutched at the hard flooring and panted. She heard whimpering, but she didn’t have attention to spare to shut it off. She just kept dragging herself down the endless gray hall.
Then she was at her lab, then inside, in front of the cabinet where the extra modules were stored. They were up top, so she opened the door, a neutral gray like the rest of Peregrine, and hauled herself up the shelves. She'd just let go and pulled a module from its cradle when the world wobbled again.
It was weak compared to some she'd felt, but it was still too much. She dropped the module and grabbed again for a shelf. The module bounced hard off her bare right foot before hitting the floor. Pieces skittered into the corners of the lab, but Daria wasn't in any condition to notice anything outside herself.
When everything stabilized, Daria gently moved the two remaining modules to the floor. Then she closed the cabinet door, leaned her back against it, and slid down beside them.
She indulged in a few tears, then found she couldn’t stop. She barely noticed the pain in her foot or wrist.
Daria knew what to do next. She needed to get back on her feet, grab a module and walk, without stopping or panicking, to the control room. She also knew it was impossible.
All her life, she’d watched people around her do things she couldn’t do--things she couldn't think about without her heart racing and her knees buckling--and do them as easily as they breathed. So many rites of childhood had been closed to her because she couldn’t do something as simple as climb a tree or let go at the top of a slide.
One of her strongest childhood memories involved a family vacation in the forest. She didn’t know which forest, and she couldn’t remember what else they’d done on the trip. The part she remembered was sitting on the first landing of an old fire tower, unable to go any further up, unable to get back down alone.
There she'd sat, abandoned and terrified, while the rest of her family laughed and jumped around above her. Each time the tower swayed in the breeze, she'd been sure it would tumble. The shock of each footfall echoed in her thundering heartbeat.
Her father had grumbled about having to carry her back down. Her mother had told her she'd outgrow it. She hadn't. Growing up had made no difference. All her work on controlling gravity hadn’t earned her a thing. She was just as useless as she’d been before she started.
The tears kept coming.
She jerked her head up at the noise and bumped it lightly on the cabinet. She was swearing when the station's communication system crackled again.
"Daria, can you hear me?" Eoin's voice was tinny.
She scooted along the floor to her desk and pulled herself up. Another wobble dropped her into her chair. It rolled a little, and she grabbed the desk to steady it. When the surge passed, she hit Respond. "Are you okay? Didn't I tell you to strap in?"
"I'm on my way there now. Just finished in the lab. There's no major damage yet, but I'm not sure how secure everything is. Down is rather arbitrary just at the moment." He sounded cheerful. "Is there anything I can do to help you?"
Daria considered handing the whole mess over to him. Unpredictable gravity didn't seem to bother him and changing a control module wasn't difficult, just plug and play. She could walk him thorough it over the com. He could handle it and she could....
What? Give up and huddle in the corner? Was she ready to be that useless? She sat up straight. "Thanks, Eoin, but I think the best thing you can do is be somewhere safe so I don't have to worry about you." She bit her lip, then took a deep breath. "I'll call if I need help."
"Yes, ma'am." She could hear his grin. "You know where to find me."
"I do. I will." Then he was gone, and Daria slid back to the floor to crawl limpingly to the modules.
As she unbuttoned her shirt, she asked herself what she thought she was doing. She'd had a perfect opportunity to let someone else take care of everything, and she'd pushed it away. Eoin probably would have found the trip down the hallway fun, like those rollercoasters that everyone but her seemed to love.
At least he was safe. And within com reach if she needed him.
She tucked one module into each sleeve and twisted the shirt until they felt secure. Tying her shirt around her waist one-handed was exhausting. When she finished, she dragged herself over to the door.
She looked to her right down the corridor toward the equipment room. Crawling was tempting, and so was the panicky flight she'd used earlier. But she knew she wouldn't get that far with just one good hand, nor could she afford to fall and break more modules.
She was going to have to do this on her own two feet, without any shortcuts. Leaning against the doorframe, she slowly stood up. Another heave made her wish desperately to be back on the floor. It was hard and tended to hit her unexpectedly, but the fluctuations in the field were less terrifying when she didn't have far to fall.
She tried looking toward her goal, but the long straight hallway stretching into the distance was too intimidating. Instead, she looked at her feet. She took one small step away from the door.
"Only five hundred or so left to go." Even to herself, she sounded hysterically cheery. She concentrated on taking another step.
This pulled her hand off the doorframe, and she felt a moment of unthinking panic. She stepped back toward the wall, close enough that her hand could touch it, but far enough away, she hoped, that she wouldn't smack into it if it were suddenly downhill.
The rungs weren't far above her hand, but Daria avoided them carefully. If she grabbed onto one, it would take too much work to let go. She wanted all her energy for walking. She took another step.
She adopted a shuffling step that kept her feet close to the ground and her weight centered above them, like she was walking on ice. Still, when gravity dropped and the floor no longer pushed reassuringly on her soles, she reflexively slammed the foot in the air back down for support, sending her drifting. Normal gravity was restored before she got very high. She wanted to stop to recover, but she didn't let herself. Another step.
She wasn't as lucky with all the fluctuations in the field. One wave tilted the floor below her almost vertical, or so it felt, and she had to run to keep her feet under her. It was hard to stop running when everything stabilized. Without the throb from her wrist at each jog to remind her of the consequences.... She pulled herself back to a shuffle. Another step.
Each time Daria staggered away from the wall, she moved back to it before going on. Every time another heave brought the portentous babbling in her head to a crescendo, she was less sure of her ability to go on. Still she moved forward.
When the texture under her hand changed, she looked up. She was standing next to the viewing portal. She'd reached the center of the station. The equipment room was only another twenty feet away.
Relief flooded through her, leaving her wobbly. Daria sagged against the glass. It was cool, and she turned to rest her forehead against it.
Out the window, framed by the walls of the station, distorted by layers of glass, lay Earth.
Daria frowned at her old nemesis. Ever since she'd been old enough to understand how gravity worked, she'd resented the Earth, resented its ability to stop her life cold just by tugging on her. It had stolen so much. She thought about the decades of mindless terror, sweating palms and useless legs.
She'd dedicated her entire adult life to eliminating its power over her. As she looked at Earth, she realized for the first time what that meant. Somewhere along the way, in trying to escape from the planet's grasp, she'd gone from letting it determine what she couldn't do to letting it dictate what she did.
She still wanted to hate the planet. Yet from up here, her tormentor almost looked beautiful, blue and white and nearly small enough to hold. The feeble pull it exerted wasn't even a factor in her current situation.
She thwacked her forehead gently against the glass. She'd left the Earth behind months ago. It wasn't the problem now. She couldn't blame the station's fluctuating gravity either, since she'd had acrophobia all her life. The only constant in the situation was her--her fear.
She blinked. She'd spent all her efforts on the wrong piece of the puzzle. If she'd only carried her problems with her when she left Earth, all the time she'd worked to control gravity had been--
No. Daria laughed at herself. It hadn't been wasted.
Despite the start of another upheaval in the gravity field, Daria smiled down on the planet far below her. She hadn't escaped the thing she'd most wanted to leave behind her, but living in orbit around the planet, she could hardly claim her work hadn't gotten her anywhere.
And after that kind of journey, how bad could twenty more feet of hallway be? Daria took a deep breath and pushed away from the window. Trailing her hand along the wall, she told herself, "One more step."
"I take it everything's fixed then?"
Daria lazily looked up from where she was slowly twisting the dial on the gravity generator back and forth. Eoin was leaning against the inside of the doorway. He looked a little green.
"Eoin!" Daria realized what she was doing and dropped her hand. Just as quickly, she reached for the knob again and dialed normal gravity.
He put a hand to his stomach. "Thank you, I think. Hopefully that will help everything stay down where it belongs." He sighed. "You sure know how to make a man seasick."
"I didn't...I wasn't...." Daria closed her mouth, then started over. "I'm sorry."
Eoin waved that away. "I'll be fine. I was a lot more worried about you, especially when you didn't answer my call."
"You called?" She looked at the com.
"Only about a dozen times. What's the matter with--hey! You're hurt." He knelt beside her and touched her wrist.
She'd forgotten about it. She hissed in pain. It was about twice normal size and faintly purple.
"Yeah, that's no good. You look a little shocky too. I should get you somewhere..."
Trying to figure out how to confess that her dazed condition wasn't due to her wrist, Daria didn't notice him reaching for the field generator. Eoin had it dialed half down and was turning back to her before she could protest.
She squawked as he swooped her up and stood. She buried her head in his shoulder and braced for the panic.
"Did that hurt? I figured it'd be best if I did it all at once."
Daria frowned up at Eoin. "No. I...I'm fine."
"Good." He stepped out the door and headed back toward the cabins.
Daria took a deep breath. No fear. No chittering. She wasn't comfortable, but.... She waited. The panic didn't come.
Maybe it was exhausted. She certainly was. Or maybe Eoin's arms were just a patently safe place to be. Either way, she'd take it. She'd earned it.
She snuggled closer. "So, Eoin, did I ever tell you I'm afraid of heights?"