Today I am posting the first chapter of a story idea I am contemplating. The target audience is middle graders (age 8 to 12). I hope you’ll let me know what you think of it.
Notice that I introduce the protagonist immediately, and I give her a goal right away. It’s important to keep the protagonist moving forward, whether the goal is big or small.
Also notice the character development. Readers learn about Megan’s strengths and weaknesses through her actions. My hope is that she will be endearing, even if somewhat forgetful, and readers will become emotionally attached to her.
I also dropped tidbits about the back story as the events proceeded rather than providing a narrative information dump. The back story elements provide details that help readers sympathize with Megan and understand why she is on this ship.
In addition, I introduced two secondary characters (Emerson and the captain), and readers learn quite a bit about them as well. The captain’s introduction revealed the bigger goal, which will drive Megan’s activities for quite a while.
What character traits did you notice in Megan? Can you see the back story knitting together? If you have any other comments, please post them. Also, if you have any ideas for a title, let me know.
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 stabilizing bracket riveted to the wall. I spoke into the port, careful to enunciate. “Megan Willis.”
A mechanical male voice emanated from the ceiling. “You are thirty minutes ahead of schedule, Megan.”
“We’re coming out of the wormhole today. The captain will be up early, and he’ll want his coffee.” With the glow of computer lights allowing me to see, I looked at Captain Tomlin’s photo taped to the door of a cabinet that abutted the wall. Although he often sported the genuine smile he displayed in this portrait with his wife and son, everyone on the ship knew that smile could vanish in the blink of an eye, especially if someone did something stupid. “We don’t want a grumpy captain, do we?”
“Agreed. Level two access granted.”
Lights in the ceiling flashed on, illuminating the ten-by-ten-foot maintenance room that I had called home for the past three weeks. A single cot and pillow served as my bed in one corner and a shower and vacuum toilet supplied sanitary needs in another. Access panels that led to nearly every part of the ship filled the remaining wall space.
I flipped on the coffee maker anchored 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 environment. “Emerson, begin gravity sequence. Increase by ten percent every two minutes.”
“Acknowledged. Do you want video logging turned on?”
I glanced at my clothes—jeans, sneakers, and my “Geeks Are Awesome” T-shirt—black with white letters. Perfect, though it meant that I had conked out without changing last night. “Sure. Turn the camera on.”
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 emanated from the ship’s innards as the hardware adjusted to the changes.
As I slowly descended toward the floor, a loud clunk came from somewhere on the aft 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 debris, maybe? Would even a small dent trigger a hull anomaly?”
“First question’s answer: Space debris 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 the structure beyond the wall, recalling the map of the ship I had memorized. Based on the loudness of the sound and the metal-on-metal clank, it could have been a beam that supported the aft 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 aft 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 crawled on hands and knees. Since the men were too big to fit into the narrow channels that threaded through the ship’s bowels, the captain chose me to take care of nearly everything related to ship maintenance, a dangerous job usually reserved for robotic drones. Some of the men laughed, saying it served me right for taking up for 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 obstruction—a metal girder that had crashed through the access channel’s ceiling. 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 a superhero.
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 detached from the hull. I shoved the girder upward. The loose end floated toward its former position while an elbow joint at the central support pivoted 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 my momentum. I moved the girder into place and shot eight rivets through the flange, two more than usual.
I whispered, “That should hold it.”
A tremor shook the ship. Vibrations ran under my shoes, as if the ship were shivering. I shivered along with it. Tremors were common in the wormhole, but standing with only a thin metal skin separating me from instant death wasn’t exactly comforting.
With another leg thrust, I floated to the ship’s central support and set the flashlight beam on the elbow joint. The cotter bolt was missing from the locking mechanism.
“Emerson,” I said to the camera, “check inventory for the cotter bolt that goes in the hull support elbow. It looks like the ground crew missed this during takeoff inspection. Must’ve broken off during landing.”
“Inventory count stands at three.”
“That’ll do. 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 turn off video logging. Restore gravity 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 gained much speed during its fall, the channel’s ceiling panel had to be pretty weak to allow the girder to break through, but I could check on that later.
After retracing my route through the channel, I emerged in my room and floated into a sea of black globules scattered through the air. One collided with the front of my shirt. The liquid adhered and stung my skin.
I grimaced and bit my lip. I had left the coffee machine running and forgot to cover the pot. The ship’s tremor must have shaken the coffee and scattered it.
Emerson spoke up. “Gravity engine starting in ten seconds.”
“No!” I set the flashlight and rivet gun on the floor. “I have to collect the coffee or it’ll fall and make a huge mess.”
“Are you extending your emergency-repair order?”
I imagined myself floating around the room gathering a hundred globs. It would take forever, and I would be late getting coffee to the captain. I heaved a sigh. “No. Turn the gravity on.”
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 with liquid warmth, and plastered wet hair to my cheeks.
I opened my eyes and looked down. Not only were there coffee puddles all over the floor, now my T-shirt said, “Gecko.” Dark splotches covered the missing letters.
Dodging the puddles, I tiptoed to the cabinet. Some coffee remained in the pot. I poured it into the captain’s favorite cup and hurried to the ladder. Climbing while holding on with one hand, I ascended to bridge level. At the front of the ship, a single light shone from a reading lamp next to the captain’s chair.
The captain sat staring straight ahead, his angular profile easy to see from where I stood. With a firm jaw and low brow, he was obviously in deep thought. Flecks of gray dotted his hair and mustache, showing evidence of worry more than his age. The last two years had been torture for him.
I strode to the side of the 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 five days in this shortcut, the sight still sent a chill up and down my spine.
I cleared my throat. “Captain Tomlin, I have your coffee.”
He reached without looking at me. “Thank you, Megan.”
I gave him the cup. “I apologize 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. “What makes you so sure?”
“The signal from Delta ninety-eight. His voice print matched. He has to be there.”
“Perhaps. It’s happened twice before, but the Mardigans 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. “Zero-gravity accident, sir. I apologize for my lack of awareness.”
“Lack of awareness?” 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. Even the scullery boy knows better than to break decorum.”
The words I wanted to get you your coffee on time came to mind, but they sounded too stupid to utter. 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 you along. 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. 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. “To serve this ship. You were available, and your reputation as a spaceship technician was stellar. Never mind that you had only worked on pirate vessels. I needed a mechanic. 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, an irritated scowl bending his features. “Proceed.”
“I will explain using a log from this morning’s activities.” A monitor lit up in front of the captain. He shifted in his chair and looked at the screen.
A silent video showed every step of my work this morning. As the repair continued, Emerson narrated the details, including the fact that the hull would never have survived a landing without that support girder. He also noted that the fallen beam didn’t register on the sensors and that an astute shipmate deduced the problem, though he never mentioned my name. At the end, my face appeared, and my voice came through the speakers. “You can turn off video logging. Restore gravity 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 dressed his rugged face. With a finger, he pushed my hair back on each side. “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 was guilty, sir. Forgetfulness is no excuse for gravity mistakes or my slovenly appearance.”
“Slovenly?” The captain chuckled. “How did you get so educated on a pirate ship?”
“Well, sir, I had plenty of books—”
“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 blew a kiss toward the ceiling and whispered, “Thank you, Emerson.”
Categories: Story Development