I decided to gear my new story toward young adults instead of middle-grade readers. That allows me more flexibility with regard to how much pain the heroic characters can suffer. If you read the original, you will be able to see the changes and why the new version is clearly no longer a middle-grade story.
Here is a link to the first version – http://www.theauthorschair.com/2015/07/21/story-development-new-science-fiction-story/
Suffering is a crucial part of a great story. It allows readers to rejoice more over success. The joy of being in the light is much greater after a long time in darkness.
Even more important, suffering invites readers to become connected with a character.
You might remember that I provided 7 keys to gaining an emotional connection with readers. Here is the post – http://www.theauthorschair.com/2015/02/16/writing-tips-creating-an-emotional-connection-with-readers-part-one/
- Physical need – A common handicap, illness, or negative environment
- Emotional issue – A need or desire that most have felt
- A purpose – A goal that most would find praiseworthy
- Urgency – The goal must be gained soon
- Obstacles – Barriers that readers would identify with
- Vulnerability – A soft spot to exploit
- Sacrifice – Character performs a sacrificial act to overcome obstacles
In the excerpt below, see how many elements you can spot.
Also, note the structure. The story begins with the protagonist’s ordinary world, at least a world that has recently become ordinary to her. Then a crisis hits hard and destroys that ordinary world.
During the ordinary world scene, it is critical to establish a couple of foundations : (1) To show the protagonist’s qualities and weaknesses and (2) to gain an emotional connection with readers. If a writer fails to accomplish these, readers (1) won’t be able to watch characters grow through the journey and (2) won’t care much about the effect of the crisis event.
Simply put, readers need to worry about the characters.
Here is a draft of the new version. I still consider it a rough draft, so I am wide open to edits. Feel free to comment on any aspect.
I woke to another morning in a deep-space wormhole. After way too many days of zipping through nothingness, our cruiser would finally leave this intergalactic shortcut. And maybe, just maybe, I could finally leave this flying tin can they called the Nebula Nine, but I had to get all of my work done early.
After unfastening the strap that kept me on my cot, I aimed my body at a set of blinking lights on the far wall, pushed off from the floor, 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 say my name clearly. “Megan Willis.”
The ship’s computer replied from speakers embedded in the ceiling, its voice mechanical though human in cadence and obviously intended to be male. “Your word for the day is improvise.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m a maintenance worker, Emerson, not a freaking writer.”
“May I remind you that I am required to record every conversation I have, even with a prisoner?”
I touched the metallic collar around my neck. Prisoner. What a crock. Kidnapped hostage was more like it. “All right. Improvise. To use … um … stuff you have with you when your plan failed and you have to figure out a new one.”
“That is correct. Level-two access granted. Your vocabulary skills have improved with great speed, but I must question your clock-reading ability. You are thirty minutes ahead of schedule.”
I glanced at the digital clock on the wall — 5:29 a.m. Alpha-One time. “Thirty-one minutes. Even low-life prisoners like me know how to tell time.”
“Then did you have trouble sleeping?”
“No more than usual. Just trying to dodge getting cooked. If the captain’s cranky, he might send a jolt to my collar just for being late with his coffee.” I mimicked Captain Tomlin’s deep voice. “I expect my coffee on time every morning without fail. Discipline will keep you from getting into trouble again.”
“Acknowledged. The captain’s schedule for you today will require a lot of discipline.”
“What? It’s landing day. Aren’t I on the list to visit the planet?”
“Negative. You are scheduled to stay on board with Dirk to perform maintenance duties.”
“But he promised!” I tugged at the collar. “It’s because of this, isn’t it? He doesn’t want a prisoner tagging along with his uppity crew.”
“The captain left no explanatory note, only an extensive list of maintenance duties.”
I heaved a sigh. “I guess I’ll never get a break, will I?”
“Captain Tillman has not authorized a break from your normal duties until your thirteenth birthday, which is in forty-one days.”
I growled under my breath. “Slave driver.”
Something whirred, then clicked. Emerson’s voice returned. “For some reason, the recording of our conversation this morning has been erased.”
“Thanks, Emerson. And sorry for blowing off steam. I know it’s not your fault.”
“Acknowledged. Illumination sequence commencing.”
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 months. A flimsy cot with a tied-down pillow in one corner served as my bed, 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 except for a small coffee cabinet that I hovered over.
As I looked at my dreary hovel, warmth rose to my cheeks. It was bigger than what I had on the Astral Dragon, my family’s spaceship, but sleeping scrunched together there with people I loved was better than sleeping alone here.
A slight stinging sensation ran along my arms and calf muscles. I looked at the network of conductive ink on the inner portion of one of my forearms, surgically imprinted parallel to nerves underneath. Electrical fields from the lights had activated the ink, causing the sting. Not bad. No more than a tingle, really. I just had to stay on the captain’s good side to keep it from getting a lot worse. And getting his morning coffee was the first step.
I flipped on the coffee maker, fastened to the cabinet’s countertop by bolts in its base. In a few 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.” 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, Emerson said, “Because of our exit from the wormhole and later our landing on Delta Ninety-eight, the captain ordered all activities today to be logged on video. Are you ready for your camera to activate?”
“Give me a couple of minutes. I need to get dressed.” I looked at the clothes I had on — gym shorts and a long nightshirt that displayed a silhouette of my family’s ship with The Astral Dragon in bold letters. If the captain saw that on the log, he would jolt me in a heartbeat.
I stripped the shirt off, exposing a white singlet undershirt, my locket at the end of a leather cord, and the skull-and-crossbones brand on my upper arm. The ugly scar always drew my eyes toward it. Even after months of healing, I could still hear my skin sizzling and my screams as the red-hot iron burned into soft flesh to make its court-ordered mark.
I cringed yet again. Not just from memories of the pain. Also the stench, the injustice, the hatred, both theirs and mine. I could never forgive them for what they did to me. I was innocent. They were guilty. And they all deserved to die.
Sighing, I tore my gaze away from the brand and cradled my locket. I opened the clasp for the thousandth time, hoping for a word of comfort.
My mother’s voice emanated from a built-in synthesizer. “Family first, others second, yourself last. Your purpose should never be about yourself.”
Within the locket, my mother and father gazed at me from a browning, wrinkled photo no bigger than my thumb, a photo taken four years ago. They were happy then. So was I. But now?
Tears crept to my eyes. I snapped the locket closed and pried its secret back cover open, revealing a tiny ruby my mother called the dragon’s eye. The gem glowed red. She was still alive. But for how long?
Her words returned to mind from the day the Nebula Seven captured our ship. “Megan, no matter what happens to your father and me, don’t ever lose this locket or show anyone the dragon’s eye. It is the key to your survival.”
I closed the locket and whispered, “Mama. Poppa. Someday … somehow … I’ll get you both out. I just have to find where they’re holding you.”
My mood sadder than usual, I knelt by my cot, pulled my clothes box from under it, found my work pants and shoes, and put them on. As I searched the box for a clean shirt, a loud clunk came from somewhere on the ship’s stern side, highly unusual. Halting my movements, I looked that way and listened. After a couple of moments of silence, I said, “Emerson, got any reading on that noise?”
“Nothing that indicates a problem. Hull integrity is ninety-nine 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 theoretically possible, but the likelihood is near zero, which is why shields are down, thereby saving power. 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. In addition, sensors indicate no air compression loss within the hull. Therefore, I conclude that there are no breaches.”
I stared at the wall and imagined what lay beyond it. The clunk was loud — 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. But the captain will want your activities logged on video.”
“Just another second.” I turned my nightshirt inside-out and put it back on, covering my brand and locket. “Okay. Ready.”
At the ceiling, a miniature video camera’s blue light blinked on. “You will need to take the camera with you.”
Still lighter than usual, I leaped up, detached the camera from the ceiling, and clipped it to my shirt as I glided down. “Got it.”
After detaching a flashlight from a wall bracket and fishing a rivet gun from a drawer under my cot, I disengaged the airlock on a panel on the wall’s stern side. Since the captain had pressurized the hull with oxygenated air, there was no need to wait for the compartment to fill. Of course, safety protocol demanded that I wear a pressurized suit just in case, but putting it on would take too much time, and the air tank on the back was cumbersome. I needed only a couple of minutes to check out the noise. No worries about safety.
I opened the panel, turned the flashlight on, and walked into a corridor, closing the panel behind me. As the passage narrowed and its ceiling lowered, I scrunched down more and more until I had to crawl on hands and knees, the only way to navigate the narrow passages that snaked through the ship’s innards, even for someone my size.
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. The beam halted at an obstruction about twenty feet away.
With another push, I floated to the spot. A metal girder had crashed through the access channel’s ceiling and now lay on the channel floor. Since the ship’s gravity had been so low when it broke loose, 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. 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 pivoted to allow the motion.
I squinted at the joint. Strange. It 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 used my big toes to touch a button on my metal-lined shoes that activated the magnets on the soles. When I set my feet on the hull to stop, the magnets planted there and kept me in position.
After moving the girder into place, I shot eight rivets through the flange and into the airtight catch sockets mounted on the opposite side of the wall. 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 death made me shiver along with her.
When the tremors settled, I deactivated the shoe magnets and pushed off from the hull. I floated to a three-foot-wide metal platform around the ship’s central support and set the flashlight beam on the elbow. The cotter bolt was missing from the locking joint.
“Emerson,” I said to the camera fastened to my shirt, “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,” Emerson said, his voice coming from the camera. “You should have one in your parts drawer.”
“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. “Turn the gravity back on in one minute.”
I pushed off the central platform, floated back to the access channel, and climbed through the hole. Since the girder couldn’t have smacked the channel real hard, the broken ceiling must have been weak. I could check on that later.
After going back the way I came, I entered my room, closed the access door, and floated into a sea of black globs scattered through the air and drifting in all directions. 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 tremor must have sent the coffee flying.
Emerson spoke up. “Gravity engine starting in ten seconds.”
“Wait!” I set the flashlight and rivet gun near the floor, letting them float inches from the surface. “I gotta get this coffee 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 roaches in the galley 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. Coffee puddles lay across the floor, and dark splotches covered my shirt. I was a mess.
When I reached for the hem to strip the shirt off, the camera came into view. I plucked it, 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. Privacy protocol.”
The camera’s power light darkened.
With gravity still low, I half-leaped and half-floated to my cot. Once there, I rummaged once more through my clothes box. Now even a dirty shirt would do, as long as —
“Megan,” Emerson said, “the captain is now on the bridge.”
I touched the prisoner collar. Again the ink on my arms stung, this time from fear. I would have to change clothes later. With a huff, I shoved the box back in place, tucked the nightshirt into my pants, and ran to the cabinet, dodging the puddles. Fortunately, some coffee remained in the pot. I grabbed the captain’s favorite mug from a bracket, filled it with coffee, and dashed to the ladder.
Climbing while holding the rail with one hand, I shot up to bridge level, then walked with soft, noiseless steps toward the bridge. The captain sat at his control console, the massive viewing window in front of him and the first-mate’s empty seat to his left. His profile in view, he spoke softly into his handheld computer pad. In the quiet of the room, his words reached my ears.
“When we arrive on Delta Ninety-eight, I plan to intercept the transport. My only hope of succeeding is complete secrecy. If anyone knows I’m coming, all could be lost.” He took a deep breath. “Captain’s personal log complete for the morning update.”
He clipped the pad to his belt, while I took a step back. I couldn’t approach him yet. He might realize that I heard his update, which would violate protocol, though I had no idea what he was talking about. I needed to wait at least a minute or so.
The captain stared straight ahead. His brow low, he was obviously deep in thought, maybe brooding about his missing son and dead wife. These anxiety-filled 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.
Behind the captain, vacant crew-member stations lined the curved wall. At the center, Emerson’s main I/O interface and monitor hung on the wall above his control console. The screen displayed a checkerboard-like series of camera views that showed every part of the ship, including my little hovel and the puddles of coffee, the flashlight, and the rivet gun on the floor. Since the captain hadn’t already sent a jolt or bellowed for me to come to the bridge, he probably hadn’t seen my mess. Maybe I could safely approach.
I walked to the side of the captain’s chair and looked at the massive viewing window. A tunnel-like blur of light blended with darkness as our ship continued zipping through the wormhole. Even after ten days in this space wrinkle, the sight still sent a chill along my spine. And soon, an even more spectacular sight would appear, a colorful explosion of radiance as we zoomed from the hole and splashed into the void of space.
As I turned back to the captain, I cleared my throat. “Captain Tomlin, I have your coffee.”
He reached without looking at me. I gave him the mug, a hundred-year-old antique cup with a family crest I had to protect with my life. “I’m sorry I’m late, sir.”
“No, I’m early.” Holding the mug with both hands, he took a sip. “Today’s the day.”
“Yessir.” As my most urgent question begged to be spoken, my throat tightened. I swallowed to ease the tension, though the motion just reminded me of the hideous collar around my neck. “Emerson said I’m not on the ship-leave list. Was that just an oversight?”
Still staring at the viewing window, the captain tightened his jaw. I knew that motion all too well. He was irritated, the reaction I hoped to avoid. But it was too late. The question had spilled out. I couldn’t take it back.
His lips barely moved as he replied. “The maintenance list is long. If you leave the ship, you won’t have time to complete all the tasks.”
I bit my tongue. I could argue that our planned stay was indefinite, that he couldn’t possibly know if I had time or not, but that would result in a painful jolt. “May I ask another question, sir?”
His brow furrowed. “If it’s relevant.”
“I was wondering. When we come out of the wormhole, we can send long-distance signals. Well, I wrote a message to my mother, and I thought maybe I could send it to her. I just need the coordinates of her prison. I mean, I’m allowed to send my mother a note, right? Wasn’t that part of the deal you made with the judge?”
His voice took on a condescending tone. “I told you before that your mother is in a high-security facility. You may submit your message to me, and I will send it along through the proper channels.”
I kept my face blank. He wasn’t going to budge. I had to change the subject. Maybe I still had a chance to get on his good side. “Okay. I just didn’t want to bother you. I know you’ll be busy when we get out of the wormhole, you know, looking for Oliver.”
His lower lip quivered. He said nothing, though his new expression told me that his anger had subsided. My appeal was working. “I’m sure you’ll find him 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.”
“No doubt he was there. We received voice matches twice before, but the Jaradians moved him 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 time —” 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 running 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.” He released my hair and pinched the shoulder of my shirt. “And what is this rag you’re wearing?”
I kept my head high, my eyes locked on his. “My nightshirt, sir.”
“Your nightshirt? You’re wearing your pajamas on the bridge?”
“Yessir.” I concealed a swallow. “It won’t happen again, sir.”
“Not good enough. Even the scullery boy knows better than to break decorum like this.” He snapped my collar’s remote-control box from his belt. “I took a big risk bringing you with us, and I didn’t do it to be charitable.”
I trembled. Torture was coming. How long would he shock me this time? Even after the jolt, when would my knotted muscles finally relax?
“You’re here to serve this ship,” he continued. “If you don’t show me some reason to think that I made the right decision …” He set his thumb on the remote’s red trigger button. I grimaced, anticipating the horrible shock.
“Pardon the interruption, Captain,” Emerson said through the speakers in his I/O wall. “Protocol instructs me to report an anomaly.”
“An anomaly?” The captain spun his chair that way. “Proceed.”
“I will explain using a log from this morning’s activities.” The camera views vanished from his monitor, replaced by a full-screen video that showed my hands supporting the fallen girder. As my repair job 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 girder’s drop failed to register on the sensors and that an “astute shipmate deduced the problem,” though he never mentioned my name. His label of shipmate instead of prisoner also sounded helpful.
Then my face appeared, and my voice came through the speakers. “Turn the gravity back on in one minute.”
The monitor flicked off, and Emerson continued. “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, his expression much softer now. “You didn’t breathe a word about this. Why not?”
Hoping for a new chance to get on his good side, I squared my shoulders. “It’s just my job, sir.”
He scanned me from head to toe, not in a creepy way, more like he was trying to figure out what to do with me. After almost a full minute, he said, “Do you have a sweater?”
“What? Uh … no. Why?”
A hint of a smile appeared. “Delta Ninety-eight is cold this time of year. I’m sure we can find something warm for you to wear.”
I sucked in a breath. “Do you mean I can leave the ship?”
He nodded. “But you still have to get the work done. Like you said, it’s your job.”
My heart raced. “I know. I know. Don’t worry. I can do it.”
“And I’ll see about getting that collar off while you’re on leave.” He opened a compartment on the arm of his chair and set the remote inside. “Maybe permanently. You probably saved the ship, young lady.”
An urge to leap for joy nearly overwhelmed me. It took every gram of strength to restrain myself, though I let a smile break through. “Thank you, sir.”
With a finger, he pushed my hair back on each side as he whispered, “That smile makes you look so much like your mother.”
My lips stiffened. I had to keep the smile intact. A new urge took over, to duck away from his touch, but I resisted. I had to play the obedient prisoner or else lose my chance to leave the ship and get rid of that cursed collar. “I do? How do you know? I mean, you barely met her at the court hearing, right? Have you seen her since then?”
“No … I haven’t.” His face reddening, he turned away and looked out the front window again. “When I testified for your release, I noticed the resemblance then because you were both disheveled in appearance due to your recent capture. Your current state of disarray reminded me of that event.”
Letting my smile wilt, I stared at him as he kept his eyes averted. He always covered his lies with eloquent talk and big words. I still ached to ask once again where the court banished my mother, but this would be the worst time. I had barely escaped a torturous jolt, and I had gained ship leave. Things were going my way for a change. “I’m sorry for my appearance, sir. I’ll clean up right away.”
He heaved a sigh. “See to it. The crew meeting’s in fifteen minutes.”
“Yessir.” As I scurried toward the ladder, I looked toward the ceiling and whispered, “Thank you, Emerson.”
After cleaning the coffee mess, I found a navy blue polo shirt in the clothes box, put it on, and brushed the dirty spots the best I could. With the crew meeting coming up and the cotter-bolt-replacement job still on my to-do list, washing my clothes would have wait.
I hustled up the ladder and onto the bridge. As before, the captain sat in his chair, but now the other seven crew members stood in at-ease position in a semicircle in front of him, the observation window behind them. Each member wore clean, long-sleeved blue shirts with the Nebula Nine eagle logo on the breast pocket. My dirty clothes made me look like a street urchin by comparison.
For some reason, they had all arrived early, including Dirk, the scullery boy. Maybe a centimeter shorter than me, he stood at the far end, his usually ragged hair slicked down with something shiny, probably cooking grease. As he looked at me with wide eyes, his chin quivered. Something was wrong.
Gavin, our lanky first mate, glanced at Dionne, our big-boned navigator, and whispered, “She’s here,” then cleared his throat as if to try to cover the alert.
When everyone turned toward me, I halted a few steps away and fidgeted as I searched each face for a reason for this odd arrangement. Yet, their expressions were unreadable. Even kindly Dr. Cole, our wrinkled, gray-haired physician, cast a brick-wall stare.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
The captain gave me a sober gaze. “I called the rest of the crew early so they could view the log of your activities from this morning. My purpose was to show everyone how you saved the ship.”
I suppressed an emerging smile. Maybe my efforts were finally being noticed. Yet, the crew members’ expressions seemed less than friendly. “Okay,” I said, stretching the word. “Why does everyone look like they’re at a funeral?”
Gavin stabbed a finger toward me. “You fixed a malfunction without reporting it to make yourself look good.”
“What?” I shook my head. “No, I heard a noise and —”
“You heard a noise and decided on your own to make a dangerous repair. Without a supervisor’s approval. Without considering the danger to the crew if you made a mistake.”
“A mistake? Danger? What do you mean?”
The captain kept his voice calm, though deep lines cut into his brow. “Sensor records show that when you entered the channel, you didn’t lock the air gate behind you.”
“The air gate? But I closed the panel. The gate locks automatically if a breach —”
“Protocol!” the captain barked.
I flinched at the sudden change in his voice. “Protocol?”
A vein pulsed near his temple. “A breach in the hull could damage the automatic lock. We always secure the gate manually no matter what.”
“Not only that,” Gavin added, “if we had a breach, the vacuum could suck you out in the blink of an eye. If the automatic system failed, you wouldn’t have a chance to go back to secure the air gate manually.”
“And you ignored security,” the captain said. “You weren’t wearing a safety harness or even your pressure suit.”
I swallowed hard, again reminding me of the collar. It seemed much tighter now. As I looked at each accusing face, every smidgen of pride leaked out. I felt like a deflated balloon. “I was …” My voice pitched high, making me sound like a whining kid, but I couldn’t help it. “I was just trying to fix it fast so I could give the captain his coffee as soon as he got to —”
Gavin laughed. “Did you hear that? She’s more interested in the captain’s coffee than in her shipmates’ lives.”
“But look at the results,” Dr. Cole said, his tone gentle. “She singlehandedly saved this ship. I don’t believe for a minute that she did it to make herself look good. She’s just not accustomed to following a rigid set of rules.”
“Because she’s the spawn of a pirate. No rules. No morals. Just out for herself. She’d slit our throats if she knew it would get her back to her parents.”
I boiled inside. Gavin had no idea what my parents and I were like. We had way better morals than the likes of him.
Dr. Cole shook his head. “Nonsense. She’s just a lonely, frightened girl who was trying to help.”
“Frightened?” Gavin snorted. “What are you talking about? She’s not afraid of anything. She’d stare down a cobra. I see murder in her eyes.”
“Be serious, Gavin. She’s just putting on a brave face to cover her fears, being a good soldier for our mission.”
Gavin pointed at Dr. Cole. “Why are you defending her? You were against her joining us.”
“Because a rescue mission is no place for a twelve-year-old girl. And we’re using her disgracefully, making her do dangerous jobs no one else would do.”
“Because she’s expendable,” Gavin said with a sneer. “If she gets sucked through a hull breach, it’s no loss. We’ll just replace her with a drone. They behave better, anyway.”
“No, no,” Dionne said, her rounded cheeks flushed and her tone laced with sarcasm. “Megan can’t be replaced by a drone. Because of her, I’m your token female, light years away from my home star system to make sure you men keep your hands to yourselves.” She crossed her beefy arms over her chest. “Nope. Only a parasitic pirate wench could do all of that.”
I winced. Although I already knew how most of them felt about me, hearing it still hurt.
“That’s enough,” the captain said. “The decision for Megan to join us was mine alone, and I will deal with her appropriately.” He turned toward me, his brow less furrowed. “Go to your quarters and stay there until I call for you.”
“Yessir.” I walked away with my head low. Obviously ship leave was out of the question, and my hope of getting rid of the collar had probably been blown to bits.
As I climbed slowly down the ladder, the captain’s voice followed. “Man your stations. Nine minutes to wormhole exit.”
I gasped. Nine minutes? But I still had to secure the support elbow. The shockwave from the reentry splash might cause a huge tremor and shake the support beam loose again.
I leaped to the floor, ran to the parts drawer, and whipped it open. After finding the cotter bolt, I hustled to access panel and halted. My pressure suit and helmet still hung from fasteners on the wall, ready to be put on. Now that the captain and crew were all at their stations watching the security monitors, they might spot me if I happened to pass in front of a camera.
I grabbed the suit and helmet, put them on, and clipped my flashlight to the suit’s harness, a series of straps that wrapped around my shoulders, chest, and waist. The harness also fastened the air tank to my back. Since I needed to work fast and nimbly, I didn’t bother to pressurize the suit with air from the tank. No one watching on a monitor would be able to tell the difference.
Just as I knelt to crawl into the channel, the cotter bolt in hand, Dirk dropped down the ladder. “Where are you going?” he asked, his eyes filled with mirth. “Sneaking to the galley?”
“No. Fixing something.”
He extended his hand. A miniature viewing screen lay on his palm. “I brought you a monitor so you can see the reentry.”
When I reached for it, he drew his hand back. “I’ll hold it. We can watch together.”
“Don’t you want to see it through the big window?”
“Sure. But I want you to see it, too.”
“So leave the monitor with me, and you go to the bridge.”
“Well … I would. It’s just that …” His cheeks reddened. “I don’t know how to say it.”
Still kneeling, I set a fist on my hip. “You’re afraid I’ll steal it because I’m a pirate. Right?”
“Something like that, I guess.” He glanced away, fidgeting. “I picked Dionne’s pocket to get it.”
“So you stole it first.” I shook my head. “And they call me a pirate.”
“But I just borrowed it so you could see the exit. I’m gonna give it back to her … eventually.”
“Do whatever you want. I have to go.” I dropped to all fours, crawled into the channel, and closed the hatch behind me, this time engaging the airlock. As I scurried along, warmth flooded my cheeks. Even Dirk had been poisoned by all the pirate talk. He had been my only friend, at least as much as a nine-year-old boy can be a friend. Three times I had sneaked through a channel into the galley to join him for sweetened vitamin water. It was no crime. We were encouraged to drink our fill. But when we sat in darkness and sipped the sugary stuff, the surrounding blackness felt secretive, dangerous. We shivered together. In a good way.
Not only that, Dirk and I studied together, listening to Emerson’s lessons on physics, math, literature, and histories of several worlds including my own planet, Alpha One. Emerson especially concentrated on vocabulary drills, insisting that a well-spoken young person is far more respected than otherwise. He changed the way I talked, at least around adults.
Dirk and I also exercised together. Being a black belt, I taught him karate, and he taught me how to do gymnastics moves. We were quite a teaching team.
Sighing, I shook off the thoughts. I had work to do. Probably less than five minutes to go.
When I reached the hole in the channel ceiling, I pulled line from the harness’s spool, fastened the clip to the channel’s frame, and climbed out, flashlight in one hand, the cotter bolt in the other. As I walked along a metal beam toward the central support column, more line reeled from the spool until I stepped onto the column’s surrounding platform and activated the shoe magnets. The elbow joint protruded from the column at eye level, putting it within easy reach.
I slid the bolt into the elbow’s gap and locked it in place. When I swung around to return, Dirk appeared in the flashlight’s glow. Wearing his pressure suit and helmet and holding my harness line to keep his balance, he shuffled toward me on the beam.
I touched the communications link button on my helmet and opened a channel to his helmet. “Dirk! What are you doing here?”
“I want you to see the wormhole exist.” He stepped onto the platform with me and showed me the little monitor again. “We can watch it together.”
I wagged a finger. “You shouldn’t be here. Unharnessed. No experience. When we shoot from the wormhole, the ship will shake. You might fall. You don’t even have magnetic shoes.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll just —”
The ship’s framework shook. Dirk teetered. He pulled on my line, nearly jerking me off the platform. If not for the magnets, I probably would have fallen. When he regained his balance, I grabbed his arm and made him sit on the platform.
As the ship continued shaking, I turned off the magnets and sat next to him. The harness would be enough to keep me safe. “Stay here till we leave the worm hole.”
“Not a problem.” He set the palm-sized monitor in my hand. “Sorry about not trusting you. It was stupid.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I gazed at the screen. The control room’s huge viewing window took up most of the space, though crew members moved across it from time to time, their heads and shoulders in view.
“I mounted a camera in Emerson’s console,” Dirk said, his impish face visible through his helmet’s face shield. “We can see anything that goes on, and no one knows it’s there, not even Emerson.”
I grinned. “So you’re a spy, you little sneak.”
“Yep. And a good one. When you’re as little as we are, you have to do what you can or someone’ll roll right over you.”
“Trust me. I get it.”
The shaking worsened. I locked elbows with Dirk. In the viewing window, the wormhole’s exit came into view, blackness at the end of the tunnel with multicolored sparks dancing at the outer edges. Maybe one minute till we reached them.
I flipped on my helmet’s communications switch to the computer channel. “Emerson, the cotter bolt’s in place. Everything is secure. Please inform the captain.”
“Acknowledged,” Emerson replied through my helmet. “Considering that the captain failed to mention the bolt again, I assume that it slipped his mind. The stress induced by his quest to find his son seems to have crippled his attention to detail.”
“Yeah. Probably. But that’s why I’m here. I got it covered.”
“I will suggest a commendation for you in my message to the captain.”
I gave myself a firm nod. Maybe getting the collar off and leaving the ship were still possible. “Emerson, can you send audio from the bridge to my helmet speaker? If I can’t be there, at least I can listen to what’s going on.”
A light buzzing sound emanated next to my ear along with a few whispers. As Dirk and I watched the screen, the end of the wormhole drew closer and closer. The sparks seemed to grow bigger, wilder, faster, converging on the center of the exit as if spreading a web of electrified glitter across the hole’s circular terminal point.
“Thirty seconds to exit,” the captain barked. “Emerson, shields up. Everyone on the alert.”
“Shields going up,” Emerson replied.
All around Dirk and me, the panels on the ship’s hull began to glow orange.
“Why the shields?” Price, one of the younger crewmen, asked. “No one knows we’re coming.”
The captain chuckled as he often did when explaining something to a novice. “Pirates sometimes station themselves at wormhole exits. Scanners don’t work until we’re clear of the hole, and the flashing lights make it impossible for us to see an enemy until it’s too late.”
Something sparked above me. I looked toward the sound. The panel where I refastened the far end of the support arm was still dark, and the surrounding glowing panels sizzled where they connected to the repaired one. Had I somehow damaged it with the rivets?
“Shields are at ninety-eight percent,” Emerson said. “One panel is not reporting nominal status.”
“We’ll be all right,” the captain replied. “Shields are just a precaution. I’ll have Megan check it out when we land.”
A moment later, we burst through the sparkling web. Colors flew in all directions, like super-charged fireworks arcing at hypersonic speed. My mouth dropped open on its own. I couldn’t even blink at the dazzling display.
The second the sparks diminished, a new burst of light appeared. A photon torpedo zipped toward us.
“Evasive action!” the captain shouted. Our ship dove out of the way. The sudden drop threw Dirk and me off the platform and sent us flying toward the hull’s wall, my arm still locked with his. The safety line tightened, snapping us back. Then an explosion ripped a hole in the hull. Air rushed out. An alarm squealed. The vacuum grabbed us and sent us hurtling toward the breach.
Again the line tightened, stopping us. The outward suction pulled on our bodies. Dirk began slipping away. I stuffed the viewer into a chest pouch and flipped on my suit’s pressurizing switch, sending air hissing into my helmet. I grabbed Dirk’s wrist with both hands and hung on while he flipped on his own pressure switch with his free hand.
As his body stretched toward the hole, his eyes wide with fear, I looked through the ragged gap in the hull. Stars dotted the five-foot-wide slice of outer space. The fractured panel was the one that failed to fire up its shield, the same one I had braced with the fallen support.
Shouts burst from my helmet’s speaker. The captain yelled, “Engage air locks!”
A garbled voice followed. “A maintenance hatch is open!”
“That fool of a girl!” the captain bellowed. “She’ll be the death of us all!”
I gulped. I closed that hatch and engaged the airlock. I was sure of it. Maybe Dirk left it open.
“Air-containment redundancy measures failed, Captain,” Emerson said in a calm voice. “I suspect sabotage.”
The ship lurched again. Dirk slipped from my grasp and into the vacuum. He plunged through the hole and disappeared.
I screamed, “Dirk! Can you hear me?”
Only silence came through the com link. As the rush of air eased, the breach alarm quieted, having no air to travel through. I settled back to the beam connecting the access corridor to the support platform. The gravity engine was dying.
I strained to listen to the helmet speaker. No sounds emanated. All of the air in the ship must have been sucked out. The captain and crew had probably died. Maybe they had no time to put on their suits.
I pulled out the viewer and looked at the screen. The bridge lights had dimmed to emergency level, flashing in a frantic rhythm. Nothing moved.
My body trembling, I whispered, “Emerson? Status report?”
No one answered.
Shaking even harder, I looked at the access channel leading back to my hovel. It would take too long to try to get back to the bridge to see what was going on. I had to try to rescue Dirk.
After reeling out more line, I pushed off the beam, floated to the fracture in the hull, and caught the edge of the hole, careful to keep the jagged metal from cutting my gloves. One slice, and I would be as good as dead.
I extended my head through the breach and searched the inky surroundings. A tiny white form flailed in the distance, maybe a thousand paces away. It had to be Dirk.
I called into my com link, “Dirk, I see you. Can you hear me?”
Again, no one answered. The com units in these maintenance suits were designed for short distances. Only the landing-party links allowed for more.
I looked at the viewer again. Someone in a pressurized suit walked past the camera, stopped at Emerson’s control panel, and pressed a button.
“Emerson,” he said, his face now visible through his helmet’s glass shield. “Status report. Are there any survivors on board?”
I sucked in a breath. Gavin. Was he the only one who managed to put on a safety suit in time? And his voice came through my speaker clearly. That meant Emerson’s communication channel to my helmet was open. He had to be able to hear me. Then why didn’t he answer earlier?
“Emerson,” Gavin repeated, “this is First Mate Gavin Porter. Give me security clearance.”
“Voice not recognized,” Emerson replied. “Security clearance denied.”
“What?” Gavin slapped the console. “I’m the first mate! As the only survivor, I am now the captain of this ship. How can you not recognize my voice?”
“Your voice has no match in the security database.”
He cursed, then grumbled, “I guess I’ll have to do a life-form scan on my own.” He stomped out of view.
I gulped. A life-form scan? Gavin was going to use a portable heat sensor to search for survivors, and without Emerson’s help, he would have to go to every compartment on the ship, including the maintenance channels. Since he was so skinny, he was probably the only adult crew member who could manage it. If I stayed inside the hull, he would eventually find me.
But did I want him to find me? Obviously Emerson didn’t trust him. Maybe I shouldn’t either.
I reeled out more line and pushed myself completely outside the ship. Now at the line’s length limit, I stood on the hull’s exterior and, holding to the line and turning on the shoe magnets for extra protection, I walked around as far the line would allow.
Over a curve in the Nebula Nine, the top of another ship came into view. I ducked low, rose slowly, and peeked at it. The foreign ship’s observation deck sat atop a single lower deck, the engine chamber below that. As I continued to rise, the entire ship seemed to rise with me. Could it be? Yes! It was! The Astral Dragon! My parents’ ship had docked with ours!
Just as I opened my mouth to shout, a sense of dread held my tongue in check. First, Gavin was the only person who would hear me. Second, he hated me from the moment I walked onto the ship three months ago. Third, the Astral Dragon was supposed to be locked in a space port somewhere, maybe hundreds of light years away. Why would it be at this spot at this moment? It just didn’t make sense.
A light flicked on inside the Nebula Nine, visible through the hull breach. I peered in. Gavin swept a flashlight as well as a life-form scanner. When he saw the line leading from the access channel to where I now perched, he looked toward me.
I ducked to the side. Had he seen me? He hadn’t aimed the flashlight my way, so maybe not.
Two seconds later, the flashlight’s beam emanated through the breach. Something tugged on my line. I detached it from my belt and let it fly loose. It reeled quickly into the breach and disappeared.
Now with only shoe magnets attaching me to the ship, I peeked into the hole again. The flashlight’s aura gave me a view of Gavin looping my line into a coil. When he finished, he lowered himself to all fours and crawled through the maintenance channel toward my living quarters.
His voice came through my helmet speaker. “I searched the entire ship. No surviving life forms aboard.”
A quiet, female voice responded, maybe from a speaker in Gavin’s helmet. “So they’re all dead? Even Megan?”
The woman’s voice sounded familiar. My mother, maybe?
Again I opened my mouth to shout, but Gavin interrupted. “I found her anchor line. It led through the hull breach. She got sucked into space. I guess the force made her detach from the line. It was hanging loose. ”
A weak crying sound leaked through my speaker. After a few seconds, the woman said, “Then we have to scan the area around the ship and find her. She was wearing her suit, right?”
My legs shook hard. She was my mother!
“Yes,” Gavin said. “I went out on a limb to shame her into wearing it, but it worked.”
“What about her prisoner collar? Was she still wearing it when you last saw her?”
“Yes. I looked for the remote, but it wasn’t on the captain’s belt. I found a spare collar and remote, but they’re not the right ones. Unless she somehow managed to take the remote with her, she might be far enough away to automatically activate a shock.”
“Then get back in here on the double. We have to look for her.”
“Wait. I’m on the bridge again, and I’m picking something up on the external sensors. A body floating freely.”
I peered at the viewer. Gavin was sitting in the captain’s chair, looking through the front window. He manipulated a dial on the console in front of him. “I’m zooming in on it.” The window warped and magnified Dirk’s flailing body. “A human wearing a space suit. It must be Megan.”
“Get on board now,” my mother shouted. “We’re going after her.”
“What about destroying the ship?”
“No time. Get in here or I’m leaving you.”
“On my way.” Gavin hustled out of sight.
“Mama!” I called. “Wait!”
I turned off the magnets, held the edge of the hole, and propelled myself back into the ship. I floated toward the maintenance channel but much too slowly. Since I was in midair, I had nothing around me to push against.
When I finally reached the channel, I pushed through it and into my quarters. Still weightless, I bounded up the ladder and flew into the bridge area, floating over dead bodies, all the while calling, “Mama, wait! It’s me, Megan!” But no one answered.
Just as I reached the door leading to the docking station, a loud click sounded from within. I set a hand against the wall and flung the door open. The Astral Dragon reversed out of the dock at high speed. Seconds later, it appeared in the front viewing window as it flew toward Dirk.
I engaged the magnets, set my feet down, and walked toward the window, bypassing two of the corpses. Tears welled. My mother came here looking for me. I was so close to being with her again, but Gavin’s search had come up short. Should I have trusted him? He talked about destroying the ship. Maybe that’s why Emerson refused to give him security clearance. But what was Gavin up to? Was he a traitor who told my mother where the Nebula Nine would be? Did he disable the shield on that panel and weaken it for an expected attack? Did he also sabotage the air-lock system?
Not only that, why did my mother attack us? I could have been killed. And the air loss killed everyone on board except Gavin, Dirk, and me. Nothing made sense.
“Megan Willis,” Emerson said.
Still staring at the Astral Dragon as it collected Dirk, I touched my helmet. “Yes?”
“You are the only surviving crew member remaining on the ship.”
“Crew member?” As I answered, the Astral Dragon flashed lights in every direction, apparently searching for me. Now that my mother had picked up Dirk, she probably thought my body was still out there somewhere. “I’m a prisoner, not a crew member.”
“Prisoner or not, you are still a crew member. Regulations allow issuance of a safety suit only to crew members, so the captain registered you as one.”
“Yeah,” I murmured, now barely aware of the conversation. “I remember him saying that.” I continued staring at the lights. I was alone … so alone. And soon I would die alone, deprived of oxygen when the available air tanks ran out.
“Megan Willis,” Emerson said again, louder this time.
Now crying, I clenched my fists and shouted, “What?”
“The Astral Dragon will not tarry long. I await your orders, Captain.”
Categories: Story Development