A Fear of Falling Under’, A.J. Fitzwater

Illustrations © 2013 Robin E. Kaplan



 [ EVA, © 2013 Robin E. Kaplan ] Silentia SaganDrop Station has two-thirty-two capacity.

ELE is silent.

I am awake.

I am the only one here.

Three Things

I’m in the holding cell, not sure how I got here or why. Maybe it was just the closest bed.

I can’t remember my name all too well, it has an L and a Z in it, so I’ll work with that. There is a flashpoint vacuum welder on the floor beside me.

Day One

The cell door has reset. The main computer isn’t recognizing any input, but we’ll work on that.

I panic for a moment when I realize I can’t remember how or why or what or whom, realize I’m alone with ELE, down there, waiting, until I tell myself it’s not that bad. No one to answer to.

Maybe the computer will help me, maybe not.

Bigger problems as yet. Let’s get this metal flesh stink out of the air and some fresh Oh-Two flowing. There we go my girl, I know I’m not someone you’re used to dealing with, but we’ll figure this all out.

Whatever this is.

I’m tired. I lie down on the cell slab again. It’s as good a place as anywhere.

Day Two

Sometime in the night I’ve had an accident and soiled myself. A little weep never hurt anyone, no one here to tell me to buck it up. Not sure what I’m crying for; the silence or the mess. Never been good with either.

Hug myself tight after a bad dream. It’s gonna be okay. We’ll figure it out.

It doesn’t take me too long to figure out I can shower. Yes, a real shower! In some random flunky’s cubicle. Not that I could find my own. My head hurts too much to think about where it is right now.

Wow, real water. None of that three minutes of recycled chemical slop. I haven’t had a proper shower in months… I think. At least, I smell like it.

The hot water stings. There’s a cut on my head. Why didn’t I feel it earlier? How did it get there? Memory of something about shock. Is that what I’m in? Shock and awe? Awe at the silence. Shock that ELE has stopped talking?

ELE. Oh. Is that why the station is empty? What did ELE find that was so bad?

I’m frightened. I’m curious. Maybe not curious enough. I’ve got no choice but to be all over the place about it.

I get out of the shower and stare at the stranger in the mirror. Oh hey, it’s just you.

Run a hand across the scalp fuzz. Burr, scrape, scab. Don’t have enough hair to pull at the scab. Hey wait. No one, no regs. I can have my hair back!

Ah, there’s my headache. Forehead is split from temple to temple. Shallow, but messy. Another deeper slice on the right shoulder that’s scabbing up. Handsome colour too, quite the elegant Hieronymus Bosch. Never seen its like on myself before. Always been so careful. Have to be out here. Long way from anything.

Not much I know how to do other than keep the wounds clean and medicated. I slather on what looks good from Medical. What a mess. Gravity hasn’t been kind.

Scars; always been for the brave. What did I do that was so brave? I can remember I’ve never been brave before, and now that I have been I want it back.

Can’t force it. Tired again, so very quickly. What does the computer say about concussion? Ha, no it can’t say anything yet. Botheration.

I find myself a sunward portal before I lay me down to rest, but the view is off. The constellations are on a drunken lean, and I can’t see the dead edge of K64128.

I should be concerned, but the stars are still there in their infinite prettiness. I’m not dead. Although. Twinkle twinkle little star, I can see you’re not that far.

That can’t be right.

No, that’s not right at all.

Day Three

Whoever’s bunk that was, it was exceedingly comfortable. However. The station is spinning around me when I perform some semblance of verticality. Little hard with the floor tilted. Something else to speak to the computer about.

This is a vicious headache, but my brains and guts remain where they should be. I count that as a plus.

Speaking of guts, despite the protestations there’s nothing to offer to the porcelain gods. The stomach, the woozy head. What is it now? Of course, I’m hungry. I’ve only had water the last few hours. Wait, no, days? Really?

Tank steak and powdered eggs in the mess. Hey, I’m that damn good, I still remember how to get it juicy and bloody in the middle. Carrion and charcoal, down it goes.

And up it comes, a gush of blood, like someone’s punched me in the mouth. Oh that’s right, I’m a vegetarian.

Dammit, this is gonna come slow and messy, isn’t it.

Wash your mouth out. More fresh water, damn does it taste good. And now I have a hankering for cherry tomatoes, the ones that pop sweet and nice in the mouth.

Huh. Here I am. All alone. Something very very wrong going on, and all I want is tomatoes. Brain, you’re freaking me out.

The hydroponics atrium smells like home, wherever that is, and has a good crop just coming in. I eat tomatoes right off the vine, still slightly warm from the sunlamps. A little salt wouldn’t hurt.

All this, all mine. I don’t have to share. I hug the dwarf corn in glee. Pick out a few weeds, encourage the new shoots of climbing beans like I know what I’m doing. Perhaps I do. Wow, they really left this place in a mess.

Pop peas like hard little bullets into my mouth, bam bam bam.

I lay beneath the apple cucumber and banana passionfruit for a while. I’ve done good here. No one to tell me I’m interfering in god’s work.

I have food and I have Oh-Two. Maximum output for minimum input, recycle recycle recycle. It’s the Silentia way. Can’t get takeaways this far out. Pizza delivery fees are killer this close to Jupiter.

Gotta laugh, or you’ll cry.

The atrium doesn’t have a portal, it’s shielded too well, but I know now those twinkling stars are sitting just off the shell of the station.

Gotta cry, or you’ll laugh.

The tofu vats are still bubbling away, one just coming to maturity. Not going to need fifteen of these smelly bastards. I shut off all but two, one for a new crop, one for fermenting. The rest gurgles and chokes away into the recycling system to be turned into fertilizer. Nothing going to waste here, not even the protein.

The system chews over the unexpected effluent for a while but then it hums with satisfaction. Job well done. The less smell, the better.

All this fresh Oh-Two is doing my head in. I make sure the extractor fans are doing their thing to distribute that lovely oxygen across the station, and tank the rest. Never know when I’m going to need it.

I sleep beneath the brassica, dreaming of borscht and rag dolls.

Day Four

Leave me alone, ELE. I’m tired. I know you’re there, just waiting on the other side of the drop. I’m not ready to talk to you yet.

When you wish upon a star, how I wonder why you are…

Shut up.

Day Six

Why did they leave me?

Why did they leave me?

Are they going to come get me?

Do they even know I’m here?

Uplink’s broken, so says the computer, which has nothing to say about ELE at all. It wasn’t made to give an opinion.

No uplink. So. Back home might see those twinkly little bits out there and think it’s all over rover. Silentia is silenced once and for all.

And if they don’t come, how do I feel about that?

All these questions, they hurt my head.

I’m no ambassador. What am I supposed to say to ELE?

Day Ten

I’ve fallen out of bed, but it doesn’t hurt. I bounce. That’s wrong. Better check the spin’s not out of kilter.

Something woke me? Ah yes, I heard a drop cradle engage. One wouldn’t normally hear the clamps lock in with a full compliment on station; one only feels it.

But with this waiting silence like an indrawn breath, I can hear everything.

Dammit. Not going to get back to sleep now. Off the floor soldier. Now, which way to the cradles again?

I can’t remember the last time a cradle dumped their load. But then again, I don’t remember much before… something about a choice that wasn’t a choice…

Shut up.

There you are ELE.

I must have been dreaming. The drop cradles are silent and full, the Einstein-Rosen Link Engine spheres in repose, the symbols splashed triumphantly on each hull. Eh El Eh. Ready to shake hands with what or whomever is out there. Say it like Ellie, like belly, like warmth in the womb my god there’s something talking back…

But still that whisper? None of the consoles are showing any communication. Stop it ELE. Don’t make me think it, don’t make me say it. I’m not. We were right to look, but wrong in our expectations. It’s going to be okay, ELE, I promise.

Where was I? Oh yes. I must have imagined it, though they always said I never had much imagination. The launch consoles behind layers of quarantine glass blink on off, on off, twinkle twinkle. One cradle is black, console circular blinking through a stuck diagnostic loop. None of the clamps show the characteristic ice scarring of a Drop just returned.

Go back to sleep, ELE. Please. Just for a little while longer.

Better go do something about this wonky gravity, though it’ll be the long hard way since the computer is still having difficulties. It’s making walking hard, and I’ve never been sufficiently co-ordinated in low-g to look as balletic and arrogant as those ELE riders. Plus I get motion sick. Makes you wonder how I got out here in the first place.

Day Twenty

I’ve let ELE go, sent the spheres on their way, and wished her best in her future endeavours. She was annoying me with the on off, zero one, there not there, strobe strobe. God, it was like Christmas on steroids, making it hard to sleep. I told her to go find someone else’s ear to whisper in.

It was all gibberish anyway. I told her to speak any one of the five languages I have a passing tongue in and the two I’m fluent in, but she ignored me, even in ISL.

So I’ve set random co-ordinates without a return axis. Go hang out in the middle of a star for all I care. Maybe you’ll find someone and this alien friend will think you’re intelligent life yourself, ELE. Hello hello, is there anyone in there?

Clunk, hover, drop, flash. Gone. Rinse and repeat on each sphere. Even the one on diagnostic, though that wasn’t a pretty sight, smeared beneath the station after it missed its injection point. More twinkly bits to add to my collection of stars.

They can be quite pretty if I let my eyes go out of focus, squint, turn my head, and stare at them long enough. Until I remember what’s in that star dust.

Day Twenty-Five

Letting ELE go? Hasn’t made a damn bit of difference. The whispers haven’t gone away.

Shit.

Day Thirty

So here we are, talking to myself. Better conversation than before, that’s for sure. Do this, do that, get on the ship, don’t be a fool, there’s no ti-…

Hey, I can’t help it if the computer has got the hump. Having to reprogram it from scratch, though it’s still capable of the basics. It’s like a really intelligent and capable baby. I don’t have the energy to nurse it through another adolescence let alone the terrible twos.

It does the minimum. Lets me eat, sleep, shit and amuse myself. That’s enough. Best parent a woman could have. Never answers back.

Just wish it had some sort of answers. Cause ELE doesn’t. She’s not even blaming me for sending off the spheres.

I need to lie down. The cradle room is quiet. That’s a good enough place for now.

I’m not waiting for anything to come back. That’s ridiculous, and impossible.

Don’t answer that, ELE. Please. I know you don’t want to frighten me, but you do. You don’t even need the spheres now. I know you’ll come through in your own good time.

Day Forty-One

Naked day on the bridge. Like casual Friday, except no prurient judgment.

Well, only because the environmentals are on the fritz.

I’m tracking through the relays slowly, but every time I replace a circuit or reformat a control, something else thar she blows further downstream. I’d like to say I’m good at this, but really, I’m faking it. But who’s here to judge?

No joy on finding an uplink, so I’ve set the computer to cataloguing and tracking all the sparkly bits.

The atrium is coming along well. A little overgrown, and I’ll have to repurpose some of the crops, but I won’t be running out of Oh-Two anytime soon. Might have to deploy the hydrogen scoop eventually, but fuel is doing fine so far.

My forehead is healing nicely. Itchy. But at least I’m not going to die.

Or maybe I’m just delaying the inevitable because I’m a coward.

Day Forty-Eight

Someone is singing. I wish they’d shut up. I hate opera, especially sung as badly as that. I know the acoustics down in the loading bays is good, but Jesus Christ on a bicycle, stick a sock in it.

Tofu casserole is good. Basil smells divine. Won’t you try some?

Day Fifty-Five

Shutupshutsupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutupshutup.

Day Sixty-One

Peace. Glorious peace at last.

Day Sixty-Two

I have to stop washing my hands. Look at the tips. They’re little prunes.

But the mess just keeps on coming. I clean up one thing and I turn around and another place is messy. Alls I want is clean hands, to show how good I’ve been, clean hands, that’s what they say, cleanliness next to godliness. God is whispering through the plumbing? Is that what that sound is, ELE?

I think I’m about to get a fever. My eyes are so hot, cheeks are sweating.

I’ve never been a good liar.

Just give me a quiet corner for a while, I’ll stop shaking, I’ll be okay.

Day Seventy-Three

Communists in the funhouse.

Been forgetting my patch. Guess that’s what I get when I don’t have the usual reminders. Vaccines up to date? Radiation patch changed? Don’t get knocked up? Wiped your arse lately?

Dammit, ELE, I thought things changed on adventures like this. Those stories never said the waiting was so frighteningly tedious. Eat, sleep, shit, wait for something.

Anything.

Day Seventy-Four

I dreamed of howling wolves. At least I think it was a dream. I’ve been awake for a few days because of the noise, so I can’t be too sure. There was a howl, out there, in the dark, a reply to the serpent’s hiss of stars.

ELE, please tell me that was you. I’ll forgive you if it is.

Day Seventy-Five

There’s something I’m supposed to remember. Simple as dust, lost as the stars. Something ELE told me I have to do, must remember.

No, it’s gone.

Day Eighty

I’ve been a little distracted, chasing down stars out the corner of my eyes. And just when I think I have them, my mind wanders. Headaches too. Not good for solving problems, terribly bad for conversation.

Try the tofu steak. It’s really good. The bread is coming along too. It’s rising more often than not now.

Day Eighty-One

Shh. Sleeping.

The diamonds are dancing against the black velvet, spinning around my head, a constellation, a pattern I should remember, should honour.

I’ll pluck them one by one, name each two hundred and thirty one of them, and put them safely away in my pocket. Maybe that will be enough.

Day Ninety-Nine

I’ve put up the Holiday decorations.

My holidays were never this cold though. I don’t remember a white Christmas.

Nope, it’s gone. Just remember that it was definitely warmer than this.

I’ve kept clippings from the atrium, slashes of red and green. The greenery has gone brown at the edges very quickly outside the atrium though.

Christ’s Mass. There’s no massing of Christ out here. No ghosts between the stars. No angels dancing on the head of those diamonds pinned against the sky.

Computer reports still no uplink. ELE is telling me otherwise, about other things, but we’re not on good speaking terms, her and I, so I don’t know whether to believe her. I tell her she’s nothing but glorified Christmas lights again. She hasn’t been everywhere, the universe is too big for that. I guess I could go look for myself.

Maybe.

No. I prefer it here. Nice and quiet.

I’m tired. The baby potatoes grown especially for this meal were good. There’s a pretty dusting of snow on the inner hull.

I need an extra blanket.

Day One Hundred-Four

I’m starting to see my breath all the time. The Christmas decorations are dead, and now the temperature in the Atrium has dropped. I can’t afford to lose a crop. There are no emergency rations with all the shuttles popped, and it would take me too long to get the other vats fermenting.

I’m seeing sparkles on the inside of the hull now. Not good.

Day One Hundred-Eight

Even ELE is quiet. I want to sleep, it’s so cold.

Day One Hundred-Nine

I’ve been sleeping closer and closer to the central core in an effort to keep warm. I ended up sleeping on the bridge last night. Well, tried to sleep.

So many bloody lights. I definitely put up too many strands of fairy lights for Christmas, and I haven’t found them all yet. Star light, star bright.

Alright, I’m up, I’m up.

Oh.

Computer is not very good at sign language since I’ve shut down all unnecessary functions. And I don’t come in here much.

Well, that puts a dent in things. Literally.

Day One Hundred-Ten

I’ve been reading up as much as I can on micro-meteor strike and Oh-Two loss, but it’s tough. My own personal asteroid belt of diamonds is so pretty. Tracing their orbits with my fingers, how they catch the scant light from the station, and how they genuflect to their celestial sisters.

The sun is so quiet.

I haven’t put on an environment suit yet. I have a bit more time before that’s necessary. I’ll have to seriously consider soon, as all these extra layers are restricting movement.

I don’t know what to do. ELE’s no help. How am I supposed to remember what to do?

Day One Hundred-Twelve

Of course I know what I need to do.

But it’s so BIG out there.

And they’ll be watching. My diamonds, my ghosts. Judging every movement.

I could fry. I could suffer a puncture myself if one of my diamonds got too close. A piece of dust so microscopic I wouldn’t even see it coming could blast right through me and I wouldn’t even know it was until I was too late.

I could lose my tether and my rubies would join the diamond dance.

At least I would die quietly, only my breath and my screams to keep me company.

But why scream? What a waste of breath.

Oh ELE, what should I do?

Day One Hundred-Thirteen

I don’t want to die. I’ve grown to like it out here.

Day One Hundred-Fifteen

I’ve chosen one of the long-term EVA suits. None of them fit me properly. I never needed one made to order. But I have all the tubes in the right place even if I have to tape them in place. Gonna hurt like a bitch taking them off, but what’s a little baldness compared to death by suffocation and exposure?

All the cargo bays are empty—why didn’t I notice that before?—so I have my pick to practise in. Dropped the spin enough so I can do run-throughs in near freefall.

I forgot to tie things down in the Atrium and the mess room. That’s going to be a, err, mess to clean up when I’m done here.

If I’m done.

Day One Hundred-Seventeen

No stars. No ELE. Not even a ghost.

I’m magged to the hull, spread eagle. I don’t remember how I got here. I see the cargo bay door open, but I don’t remember doing that either.

I’m going to black out and unnecessarily waste my air tanks if I keep breathing like this. I know I have hours upon hours but that knowledge doesn’t stop the downward spiral.

I’m black against black. So black this close, this far away.

The computer is running symbols and numbers in the lower left of my visor. I should know this stuff, but I never bothered with it. The computer won’t be bothered if I don’t come back. It’ll carry on, looking for uplink. It’ll tell them about ELE if it finds one.

There’s a leftover flavour of bile against the metallic air. Whatever I did has already been tubed away. I tongue between tubes and sip at oily water, rinsing out my mouth. The only way is down, and I can’t help but gag a little.

It stays down.

My breath is coming faster again as I focus beyond the data stream to the intricate tumble of diamonds. I can usually only see them at sunrise and sunset, six times a day on faster spin, or if I turn on the docking lights. Which is now.

They are eyes. Winking at me. They know.

Stop looking at me like that! It wasn’t my fault. You were the ones who panicked.

With a flicker of eyelids and pupils, I unlock the mags and flip over. Graceful is an inadequate descriptor. Floundering, elephantine maybe. But what the hell, no one is here to give me a gymnastics score.

My face is mere millimetres from the metal desert of the hull. This close, it takes me minutes to crawl across symbols I can’t process. I can see pits and close calls. I could have been a peeping tom.

I could stand up. If I wanted to. Everyone must pass an EVA test to get out here. But what the hell would I do with a skill like that, two hundred and thirty-first in line to the president?

Well, there you go then. The improbable made possible.

I can only hear the hiss of my air. Just the sort of silence I’ve always enjoyed. Now that I have it, you can take it back thanks.

ELE watches from the other side of the station, her tiny mass a millstone pulling on my feet, my mind. A big empty eye to the universe. I’m waiting, she whispers.

I say nothing. I’m not going to be the one to break this spell.

I finally reach the plate in the hull the computer shows me as the offender with intersecting green lines. I can’t see anything so I switch between spectrums… and oh, there we go. A thin stream, barely a hair’s breadth, from a pore blacker against the black. So tiny you’d almost think it couldn’t do that much damage, it couldn’t kill.

I rest again, nano-glass the only thing separating my kiss from the metal, spreading my body across the hole. Perhaps I could stay here; this would be a sufficient repair.

No, says ELE. It would not.

I’m not used to these gloves, no matter how much I’ve practised. It wasn’t enough. I fumble the flashpoint welder and things go black again as it spins away after a soundless bounce off the metal.

That’s it. I’m done.

Until a thump on my leg.

Of course. The welder is attached to my tool belt by a retractable nano-fibre cord.

I’m going to design better gloves. Add it to the growing list of things To Do. I have the time. Now. They’ll thank me for it, I’m sure.

When I’m done, I stop to watch the stars waltz.

I can hear them singing my praises.

I bow.

Day One Hundred-Eighteen

I don’t know how I’m back inside, but I am. I sleep in my suit because it’s still too cold and I’m too tired to take the damn thing off.

Day One Hundred-Nineteen

My fingers keep cramping.

The suit stinks

But at least I can take the helmet off.

My ears sting with the cold.

I’ve found the corresponding puncture on the inner hull, with the help of the computer.

The welder keeps moving, I can’t make it stop.

Stupid thing.

There we go. Place, point, aim, shoot.

Way to go. You’re a damn hero.

To whom? For what?

Cry. Laugh. Same thing.

Day One Hundred Twenty-two

I’ve lost about two-thirds of the Atrium. I won’t go hungry, but it’ll be a bit lean and a lot of tofu until I can restart the soil and get another crop going.

I’ll have to shut off most sections of Silentia until the oxygen mix resets.

Boring. But at least I make sure I can visit ELE.

We sit in quiet contemplation.

After a while, ELE asks me why I did this.

Thinking has never been my strong suit.

Maybe I like the quiet. Maybe I’m not ready to become a constellation yet.

No. It’s what I had to do.

You deserve a second chance ELE.

At least you have taught me patience.

Day One Hundred Twenty-Five

Yep, it’s gonna take a while to clean up the mess and the bridge and the captain’s quarters, but dammit Silentia, you deserve it.

Day Two Hundred-One

Reading for pleasure? What a bizarre concept.

Alright, I’ll try to put the words in the right order.

What do you think ELE? What should I read?

Science Fiction? That’s funny.

Day Two Hundred Thirty-Three

What’s my name again?

Doesn’t matter. No one to use it. ELE’s not into that sort of thing.

Day Three Hundred Sixty-Four

A star has moved out of near orbit. The computer is telling me it’s getting bigger.

It takes me a while, but I eventually realize that the reason it’s taking so long to move is because it’s so far away. It’s a long way off, but it’s coming. Maths was never my strong suit.

And there’s a whisper from an uplink.

Something about an apology.

They’re useless, because stars shouldn’t talk back.

Something about regret.

 [ Regret, © 2013 Robin E. Kaplan ] I’ve never had time for that. It would have killed me.

Something about not knowing.

Yeah, they should have been better prepared.

Do they know about you ELE? Practise your nice words.

Day Three Hundred Sixty-Five

I can’t.

I won’t go down there.

But I must.

ELE heard they were coming. She’s ready. Her voice is no more a whisper. She’s almost here, almost pulled her way through. She won’t let me go now. She’s trying to be kind.

Voices on both sides. I am the medium. My mouth is full of salt.

There’s something in a drop cradle.


© 2013, A.J. Fitzwater

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