After reading the beginning of the new science-fiction story I posted a few weeks ago, an astute writer/reader friend commented that the focal character (Megan) seemed a lot like some of my other characters, that I should consider altering her. I decided that this comment was true, so I roughened Megan up a good bit, and I think she’s more interesting now.
Also, the process created more back story hints. See if you can spot any. In addition, I deleted the reference to a pirate ship, because it seemed too contrived. I will have to figure out another way to put that in. I think I still need to work on roughening up some of her interior monologue, but I can do so when I get to know her a little better.
In any case, I hope this provides insight into some of my early story-development processes.
I aimed my body at a set of blinking lights on the far wall, pushed off from my cot, and floated across the spaceship’s darkened maintenance hold. Momentum carried me to the voice-command port where I grabbed a bracket riveted to the wall. I spoke into the port, careful to speak my name clearly. “Megan Willis.”
The ship’s computer replied from speakers embedded in the ceiling, its voice mechanical though obviously intended to be a man. “You are thirty minutes ahead of schedule, Megan.”
“Don’t you think I know that? We’re shootin’ out of the wormhole today, so the captain’ll be up early. If I don’t get his coffee to him, he’ll be a powder keg ready to explode. Fly into a rage just because someone’s shoes ain’t polished where he can see his pretty face.”
“Acknowledged. Level two access granted.”
Shielded bulbs in the ceiling flashed on, giving light to the ten-by-ten-foot maintenance room that I called home, at least for the past three weeks. My bed was a cot and pillow in one corner, and a shower and vacuum toilet in another corner gave me a place to do my personal business. Access panels that led to nearly every part of the ship filled the rest of the wall space.
As I looked at my hovel—my prison, really—heat rose to my cheeks. It was a lot bigger than what I had on my family’s spaceship, but sleeping side by side with people I loved was better than sleeping alone in a ship where everyone hated me, no matter how much room I had.
I curled a hand into a fist. Somehow I would reunite with my family, and the captain would pay for his cruelty. But for now, I had to keep playing the game.
I flipped on the coffee maker, which was fastened to the countertop by bolts in its base. In five minutes, hot coffee would begin filling the open pot—not a good idea in a weightless world. “Emerson, let’s get the gravity going. Increase it by ten percent every two minutes.”
“Acknowledged. Do you want video logging turned on?”
I glanced at my clothes—jeans, sneakers, and my nightshirt that displayed my family ship’s logo. If the captain saw that on the log, he would have me licking the mess floor for an hour.
I stripped the shirt off, turned it inside-out, and put it back on. That would hide the logo, but I would also have to watch my mouth. “Ready for action.”
A tiny video camera attached to the ceiling blinked its blue light—its power-on signal. One second later, the gravity engine hummed. As usual, pings, clicks, and clanks came from the ship’s innards while gravity mode kicked in.
As I slowly sank toward the floor, a loud clunk came from somewhere on the stern side. I spun my head that way. “Emerson, got any data on that noise?”
“Nothing obvious. Hull integrity is ninety-seven percent. All systems are at nominal levels.”
“Space junk, maybe? Would a small dent trigger something on your sensors?”
“First question’s answer: Space junk in this wormhole is possible, but the likelihood is near zero. Second question’s answer: A small dent would not raise an alarm, but the hull’s integrity would drop in proportion to the decreased strength. No such drop has occurred.”
I stared in the direction the noise came from and imagined what lay beyond the wall. The clunk was loud and sounded like metal-on-metal. It could have been a girder that supported the stern hull. The sensors probably wouldn’t detect the hull’s weakness until gravity rose higher. By then, it might be too late to repair.
“I’d better check it out. Shut off the gravity in thirty seconds. No overrides. Emergency repair.”
“Acknowledged. For video logging purposes, you will need to take the camera with you.”
“Got it.” Still nearly weightless, I leaped up, detached the camera, and clipped it to my shirt collar on the way down. After grabbing a flashlight from a wall bracket and a rivet gun from a drawer under my bed, I opened a panel on the wall’s stern side, turned the flashlight on, and walked into a corridor.
As the passage narrowed and its ceiling lowered, I scrunched down more and more until I had to crawl on hands and knees. Since the men were too big to fit into the narrow passages that snaked through the ship’s innards, the captain chose me to take care of nearly every fix-it job, a dangerous duty usually reserved for robotic drones.
Some of the men laughed, saying it served me right for taking up so much sleeping space. But I loved it. I got to know the ship better than anyone except the captain. Sometimes being a twelve-year-old shrimp had its advantages.
The gravity engine quieted. The moment I became weightless again, I used my feet to push my way along. When I reached an intersection, I aimed my light down the channel to the left. Something blocked the way.
With another push, I floated to the spot. A metal girder had crashed through the access channel’s ceiling and now lay inside the channel. Since the gravity had been so low when it happened, the girder must have been hanging by a thread.
Bending my knees, I slid my shoulder under the girder. As I straightened, it rose through the ceiling hole. Under normal gravity, I wouldn’t have been able to budge the thing, but now I felt like I could move a planet out of orbit.
I ran the flashlight’s beam along the girder and found that one end was still connected to the central support while the other had shaken loose from the hull. I shoved the girder upward. The loose end floated toward the spot where it was supposed to be while an elbow joint at the central support swung to allow the motion.
I squinted at the joint. Strange. That should’ve been locked in place by a cotter bolt.
With the flashlight and rivet gun still in hand, I leaped up, hooked an arm around the rising girder, and set my feet on the hull to stop. I moved the girder into place and shot eight rivets through the flange, two more than usual.
A tremor shook the hull. Vibrations ran under my shoes, as if the ship were shivering.
Clutching the girder tightly, I whispered, “Steady, girl,” as much to myself as to the ship. Tremors happened every day in the wormhole, but standing with only a sheet of metal between me and instant death made me shiver along with her.
When the tremors settled, I pushed off from the hull, floated to the ship’s central support, and set the flashlight beam on the elbow joint. The cotter bolt was missing from the locking joint.
“Emerson,” I said to the camera, “we got any cotter bolts left? The kind that goes into the hull support elbow? Looks like the ground crew fell asleep or something and missed it during takeoff inspection. Must’ve broken off during landing.”
“Inventory count stands at three.”
“Good. I’ll fix it after the morning crew meeting. It’ll be safe until then.”
I pinched my shirt and pointed the camera at my face. “You can stop the video logging. Turn the gravity back on in one minute.”
I pushed off the girder, floated back to the access channel, and climbed through the hole. Since the girder couldn’t have smacked the channel’s ceiling real hard, the panel had to be weak. I could check on that later.
After going back the way I came, I entered my room and floated into a sea of black globs scattered through the air. One splashed on the front of my shirt and stung my skin.
I grimaced. The coffee machine was still running, and I forgot to cover the pot. The ship’s tremor must have sent the coffee flying.
Emerson spoke up. “Gravity engine starting in ten seconds.”
“No!” I set the flashlight and rivet gun on the floor. “I gotta get this stuff out of the air before it falls and makes a huge mess.”
“Are you extending your emergency-repair order?”
“Um …” I imagined myself floating around the room holding a pot and trying to catch the globs. It would be like chasing rats in the bilge at night. I heaved a sigh. “No. Turn the gravity on. The usual increments.”
When the engine hum returned, I closed my eyes. Coffee splashed on my head and shoulders, one glob after another, hot and wet. By the time my feet touched down, the stuff had oozed down my arms, coated my skin, and plastered wet hair to my cheeks.
I opened my eyes and looked down. Not only were there coffee puddles all over the floor, dark splotches covered my shirt. I was a mess.
When I reached for the hem to strip the shirt off, the camera on my collar came into view. I plucked it off, leaped to the ceiling, and reattached it to its bracket. As I descended, the little blue light continued flashing.
“Emerson, turn video logging off for thirty seconds.”
The camera’s power light darkened.
With gravity still low, I half-leaped and half-floated to my cot. There I pulled out a box that held my clothes and rummaged through it. Now if I could only find something clean to put on, but today was laundry day, so—”
“Megan,” Emerson said, “the captain is now on the bridge.”
“All right, all right. I’ll change later.” With a huff, I shoved the box back in place, then ran to the cabinet, dodging the puddles. Some coffee was still in the pot. I poured it into the captain’s favorite cup and dashed to the ladder.
Climbing while holding on with one hand, I shot up to bridge level. At the front of the ship, a single light shone from a reading lamp next to the command chair.
The captain sat staring straight ahead, the side of his face in view. With a tight jaw and low brow, he was obviously deep in thought, most likely brooding about his missing son. These alone times probably gave him the gray streaks in his hair and mustache, too much gray for a 35-year-old man. My own father was the same age, and his hair was as black as coal. At least it was the last time I saw him.
I walked to the side of the chair and looked at the massive viewing window. A tunnel-like blur of light mixed with darkness as our ship continued zipping through the wormhole. Even after five days in this shortcut, the sight still sent a chill up and down my spine.
As I turned back to the captain, I cleared my throat. It was time once again to put on the charm. “Captain Tomlin, I have your coffee.”
He reached without looking at me. “Thank you, Megan.”
I gave him the cup. “I’m sorry for being late, sir.”
“No, no. I’m early.” Holding the cup with both hands, he took a sip. “Today’s the day.”
“Yessir. I’m sure you’ll find Oliver this time.”
His brow lifted. “Why so?”
“That signal from Delta ninety-eight you told everyone about. His voice print matched. He has to be there.”
“Perhaps. It’s happened twice before, but the Jaradians moved him somewhere else only days before I arrived. They seem to enjoy the cat-and-mouse chase.” He turned toward me. “But you wouldn’t know the history since this is your first—” His eyes widened. “What happened to you?”
I straightened and linked my hands behind my back. “A gravity accident, sir. I left the coffee machine going in zero gravity. I guess I forgot.”
“You forgot?” He peeled hair from my cheek and held the strands where I could see them, a darker shade of brown than usual. “You should have cleaned up before coming to the bridge.” His voice was stern but in control. “Even the scullery boy knows better than to break decorum.”
The words I wanted to get you your stupid coffee on time came to mind, but that would just get me toilet duty. I kept my head high, my eyes locked on his. “Yessir. It won’t happen again, sir.”
“See that it doesn’t.” He released my hair. “I took a big risk bringing a young girl on as a mechanic. The other officers said you’d be a bad choice—no discipline, bad morals, a mirror image of your low-life parents.”
His words bit hard. How dare he insult my parents yet again? I firmed my lips to keep from crying.
“But I kept you out of jail for one reason, and it wasn’t charity.” He thumped a finger on an armrest. “You’re here to serve this ship. So if you don’t show me some reason to think that I made the right decision—”
“Pardon the interruption, Captain,” Emerson said through the ceiling speakers. “Protocol instructs me to report an anomaly.”
The captain looked up with an irritated scowl. “Proceed.”
“I will explain using a log from this morning’s activities.” A monitor lit up in front of the command chair. The captain glared at the screen.
A silent video showed every step of my repair job this morning. As the work continued, Emerson talked about the details, including his calculation that the hull would never have survived a landing without the repair. He also said that the fallen girder didn’t register on the sensors and that an “astute shipmate deduced the problem,” though he never mentioned my name.
Then my face appeared, and my voice came through the speakers. “You can stop the video logging. Turn the gravity back on in one minute.”
The monitor turned off. Emerson’s voice returned. “I sent a flight-preparation report to you along with a record of who has had access to the ship’s support structure.”
“Thank you, Emerson.” Captain Tomlin swiveled toward me. A sad sort of smile spread across his rugged face. With a finger, he pushed my hair back on each side as he whispered, “You look so much like your mother.”
Although I hated being touched by him, I resisted the urge to lean out of his reach. Why was he bringing up my mother at a time like this?
“I’m sorry, Megan. I was …” He glanced away as if searching for a word. “Too harsh.” When his eyes met mine again, he tilted his head. “Why didn’t you speak up for yourself?”
I squared my shoulders. I had to keep playing the perfect shipmate’s role, no matter how much I despised this man. “I was guilty, sir. Being in a hurry is no excuse for looking like a mangy dog. And like you once said, forgetting to do something is as bad as refusing to do it. It’s all the same when the ship crashes.”
The captain chuckled. “I did say that, didn’t I?”
“Yessir. It was when the first mate forgot to secure the—”
“Never mind.” He tousled my hair. “The crew meeting’s in twenty minutes. That’ll give you time to replace the cotter bolt and get cleaned up.”
“Yessir.” As I scurried toward the ladder, I pumped a fist toward the ceiling and whispered, “Thank you, Emerson.”
Categories: Story Development