The Gravity of the Situation

In my 2008 roundup, I mentioned that I had some plans for my blog for the new year. One of the things I’ve been wanting to do is post some of my short fiction. For various reasons (including that it is a bunch of tedious no-fun), I’m terrible about submitting my stories for publication. However, this doesn’t mean they have to go without an audience.

In honor of my co-moderating a session on science fiction at ScienceOnline09, here is one of my science fiction stories. I hope you enjoy it.

The Gravity of the Situation

Daria clung to the rope ladder, her knuckles white. Her arms and legs shook. Her eyelids were screwed shut, but tears still squeezed through.
This shouldn’t be this hard, she pleaded, but she knew no one was listening.

Her baby brother, Yuri, never had any trouble with the ladder. He loved swinging on it. He’d jump out of the tree house if Mom hadn’t forbidden it. So would his best friend, Timofy. They were having a blast up there now, laughing and shaking the ladder as hard as six-year-old arms could move it.

Daria knew she was barely three feet off the ground, but it made no difference. A chasm gaped below her feet, and the feeble swaying of the rope felt like an earthquake. She couldn’t let go. She couldn’t open her eyes. She could barely even breathe.


The ladder shook harder. She gripped it tighter, her arms cramping.

“Daria, please!”

The words promised salvation, but to reach for them, she’d have to let go of the ladder. She couldn’t.“Come on, Daria. Everything’s okay. You’re perfectly safe. You’re here with me on Peregrine Station. Please wake up.”

Peregrine. With a gasp, Daria woke. She flipped over onto her back.

Eoin was propped up on one elbow next to her, frowning with concern. “You okay? That looked like one hell of a dream.”

“It’s an old one.” Daria blinked hard, clearing the last of the tears from her eyes. She wished she could shake the dream as easily. The feeling of motion, twenty years old, clung to her.

“Want to talk about it?”

“No.” The word shot out of her before she could make her tone match Eoin’s friendly one. She patted his arm in apology. “I’ll be fine in a minute.”

Eoin brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. “Good.” He relaxed and lay back down, chuckling. “These bunks are pretty small even for two perfectly sound sleepers.”

“I’m sorry,” she said absently. She took a deep breath and concentrated on pushing her pulse back down. She hadn’t had that dream since college, but it seemed to be making up for lost time. She could still feel the ladder swaying. She sat up and turned to lean against the wall. Sound-dampening paint over smooth metal, it was chilly against her bare back, but it was solid.

Eoin sat up too. “Sure you’re okay?”

“I will be.” She smiled at the tall, black-haired Aussie, immensely glad she hadn’t been sleeping alone, more glad to wake up next to him. “Thanks.”

He sketched a half bow. “What are friends for?” The muscles in his bare chest rippled invitingly.

Daria had met Eoin when her company hired him for this mission. It had been lust at first sight, which had made her wary. It could make for a great assignment or the world’s longest yearlong trip, depending on his feelings and whether hers lasted once she got to know him.

Ten months in, everything was going beautifully. They even laughed at the same things. They hadn’t talked yet about what could happen when they were back on terra firma, but she thought this might be a good opportunity. She opened her mouth.

“Eoin–” The world wobbled. She grabbed his arm. “Did you feel that?”

“I feel fingernails.” He sounded a little too tolerant.

“Sorry.” She loosened her grip. “Just sit really still for a minute.”

She waited what seemed like forever, barely breathing and trying not to squeeze Eoin’s arm again.

He was less patient. “I’m sorry.” He shook his head. “I don’t–”

Daria felt a stronger heave. “Damn!”

Eoin’s eyes were wide “What was that?”

“The gravity unit’s destabilizing, I think.” She thought hard and quickly. “How secure is your lab?”

“Against gravity?” Eoin frowned. “I’m not sure. I thought your units were fail-safe?”

“It’ll cut out everything over a gee and a half, but you can do damage with a lot less.”

Eoin looked worried.

Daria wanted to reassure him, but she wasn’t sure there was time. “Okay, get your cute little butt over there and make it as stable as you can. Get anything fragile onto the floor. Spread out or brace anything that’s stacked. Be quick. Radio down to Malang and tell…” She glanced at the clock. “…Didi what’s happening. Then get someplace safe and stay there.” She patted his bunk. “This should be a good place to ride it out if you strap in.”

She stood up and started throwing on clothes. Eoin followed her lead. “Can you fix it?”

She shook her head. “Not the control module, which is what this feels like. It’s pretty rare for one to destabilize, but when they go, they’re very unpredictable. I’ve got backups.”

“Let me know when you’ve got it taken care of.” Shirtless and shoeless, he was gone after one quick kiss, running down the long gray hall toward his radiation lab.

“Be careful!” She headed the other direction, still buttoning her shirt. Daria’s lab, where she kept the modules, was near her cabin and the control room. It was a much longer trip from his. This place was far too big for the two of them. If everything went well, its final population would be much bigger. Then maybe there’d be some more color to the place.

She walked as quickly as she dared, bracing herself for another wobble in the gravity field. It came as she was putting a foot down. The floor seemed to drop away from under her, leaving her dangling over forever.

Then it was over, and Daria stumbled as her locked legs took her weight again. She staggered to the nearest wall and sagged, clinging to the recessed rungs on the wall for support. She fought for air. A small voice she hadn’t heard in years chittered in the back of her mind that she was going to die.

Daria forced herself to take a deep breath. Get a grip! She had a mess to fix.

She had invented the prototype for the gravity generator in college. Studying math at the Saint-Petersburg State Institute of Technology, she’d had access to all the science and engineering journals she could ever want. Lifelong acrophobia had kept her obsessively tracking the latest gravitational research, even though it was outside her field. In one article, she’d half-glimpsed a pattern in the data. She hadn’t been able to resist.

She’d pestered engineering students she knew with half-formed questions, bought bits and pieces at salvage, and learned to solder. She laughed at the resulting jumble and plugged in the power. The gravity surge bounced her tailbone painfully off the floor before the circuit blew.

She still didn’t understand all the details of how she’d accomplished it, but for a change, she was controlling gravity. The feeling was addictive. She changed her major to engineering and filed a very quiet patent application.

She decided against graduate school when no one would guarantee her a free hand to direct her own research. Instead, she shopped herself around to the multinationals until she found one that promised to fast-track her design. Contract negotiations went smoothly–once she convinced them that unless she could keep control of her project and oversee the dirtside testing, sh
e’d find another company.

There was very little culture shock involved in the move from St. Petersburg to Indonesia, mostly because Daria spent all her time in the lab. She and her team refined the unit until the power consumption made it practical for industrial use. Then she concentrated on making it space-worthy.

Once the generator was scheduled to be installed in an experimental orbiting station, Daria announced she was going with it. Acrophobia be damned. She wasn’t about to hand her baby over to someone else.

If the station had been a government project, her fears would have ruled her out immediately. As it was, she’d lied her way through psychological tests. She’d doped herself with sedatives and recited Pushkin from memory to keep her heart rate somewhere near normal for the medical tests. The doctors had still looked at her skeptically. But when she’d reminded the board about her contract and told them she could perfect the mechanism faster with first-hand data, they’d agreed she could go.

Daria had insisted on taking this job. Now she had to finish it, even though the serenity she’d faked for the tests was gone. Eoin was counting on her. The success of the mission, his experiments, even her control of her project, hinged on her doing this right.

She made herself loosen her grip. She shifted from rung to rung, not letting go of one until she was holding securely onto the next. It was progress, but it was slow.

Finally, resting her forehead against the cool metal wall, Daria knew it wasn’t working. She was no more than halfway to her lab and still further from the generator. The fluctuations in the field were coming more frequently, and they were starting to ripple, turning the corridor into a shifting hillside.

Each heave left her shaking, weaker and closer to panic. The babbling doom in her head was louder. She had to do something while she and the field were still experiencing stable periods. She waited where she was through three more cycles, trying to shut it all out. She looked for a calm inside of her she wasn’t sure existed.

She let go and ran, using the adrenaline from her fear to power her legs. The corridor flashed by unseen as she concentrated on her goal.

Daria could see the door to her lab when the world heaved again. The floor tilted away and she was falling downhill. She knew she should let herself go, tuck up and concentrate on landing, but her panic-laced body had its own ideas.

Her outstretched arms, braced against the fall, hit first. Her left wrist gave with a stab of pain. She would have screamed if her chin hadn’t landed next. Then she was too busy trying to stay conscious.

When her vision cleared, Daria pulled herself to her knees. Her left arm wouldn’t support her, so she limped along on three limbs. When gravity shifted, she clutched at the hard flooring and panted. She heard whimpering, but she didn’t have attention to spare to shut it off. She just kept dragging herself down the endless gray hall.

Then she was at her lab, then inside, in front of the cabinet where the extra modules were stored. They were up top, so she opened the door, a neutral gray like the rest of Peregrine, and hauled herself up the shelves. She’d just let go and pulled a module from its cradle when the world wobbled again.

It was weak compared to some she’d felt, but it was still too much. She dropped the module and grabbed again for a shelf. The module bounced hard off her bare right foot before hitting the floor. Pieces skittered into the corners of the lab, but Daria wasn’t in any condition to notice anything outside herself.

When everything stabilized, Daria gently moved the two remaining modules to the floor. Then she closed the cabinet door, leaned her back against it, and slid down beside them.

She indulged in a few tears, then found she couldn’t stop. She barely noticed the pain in her foot or wrist.

Daria knew what to do next. She needed to get back on her feet, grab a module and walk, without stopping or panicking, to the control room. She also knew it was impossible.

All her life, she’d watched people around her do things she couldn’t do–things she couldn’t think about without her heart racing and her knees buckling–and do them as easily as they breathed. So many rites of childhood had been closed to her because she couldn’t do something as simple as climb a tree or let go at the top of a slide.

One of her strongest childhood memories involved a family vacation in the forest. She didn’t know which forest, and she couldn’t remember what else they’d done on the trip. The part she remembered was sitting on the first landing of an old fire tower, unable to go any further up, unable to get back down alone.

There she’d sat, abandoned and terrified, while the rest of her family laughed and jumped around above her. Each time the tower swayed in the breeze, she’d been sure it would tumble. The shock of each footfall echoed in her thundering heartbeat.

Her father had grumbled about having to carry her back down. Her mother had told her she’d outgrow it. She hadn’t. Growing up had made no difference. All her work on controlling gravity hadn’t earned her a thing. She was just as useless as she’d been before she started.

The tears kept coming.


She jerked her head up at the noise and bumped it lightly on the cabinet. She was swearing when the station’s communication system crackled again.

“Daria, can you hear me?” Eoin’s voice was tinny.

She scooted along the floor to her desk and pulled herself up. Another wobble dropped her into her chair. It rolled a little, and she grabbed the desk to steady it. When the surge passed, she hit Respond. “Are you okay? Didn’t I tell you to strap in?”

“I’m on my way there now. Just finished in the lab. There’s no major damage yet, but I’m not sure how secure everything is. Down is rather arbitrary just at the moment.” He sounded cheerful. “Is there anything I can do to help you?”

Daria considered handing the whole mess over to him. Unpredictable gravity didn’t seem to bother him and changing a control module wasn’t difficult, just plug and play. She could walk him thorough it over the com. He could handle it and she could….

What? Give up and huddle in the corner? Was she ready to be that useless? She sat up straight. “Thanks, Eoin, but I think the best thing you can do is be somewhere safe so I don’t have to worry about you.” She bit her lip, then took a deep breath. “I’ll call if I need help.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She could hear his grin. “You know where to find me.”

“I do. I will.” Then he was gone, and Daria slid back to the floor to crawl limpingly to the modules.

As she unbuttoned her shirt, she asked herself what she thought she was doing. She’d had a perfect opportunity to let someone else take care of everything, and she’d pushed it away. Eoin probably would have found the trip down the hallway fun, like those rollercoasters that everyone but her seemed to love.

At least he was safe. And within com reach if she needed him.

She tucked one module into each sleeve and twisted the shirt until they felt secure. Tying her shirt around her waist one-handed was exhausting. When she finished, she dragged herself over to the door.

She looked to her right down the corridor toward the equipment room. Crawling was tempting, and so was the panicky flight she’d used earlier. But she knew she wouldn’t get that far with just one good hand, nor could she afford to fall and break more modules.

She was going to have to do this on her own two feet, without any shortcuts. Leaning against the doorframe, she slowly stood up. Another heave made her wish desperately to be back on the floor. It was hard and tended to hit her unexpectedly, but the fluctuations in the field were less terrifying when she didn’t
have far to fall.

She tried looking toward her goal, but the long straight hallway stretching into the distance was too intimidating. Instead, she looked at her feet. She took one small step away from the door.

“Only five hundred or so left to go.” Even to herself, she sounded hysterically cheery. She concentrated on taking another step.

This pulled her hand off the doorframe, and she felt a moment of unthinking panic. She stepped back toward the wall, close enough that her hand could touch it, but far enough away, she hoped, that she wouldn’t smack into it if it were suddenly downhill.

The rungs weren’t far above her hand, but Daria avoided them carefully. If she grabbed onto one, it would take too much work to let go. She wanted all her energy for walking. She took another step.

She adopted a shuffling step that kept her feet close to the ground and her weight centered above them, like she was walking on ice. Still, when gravity dropped and the floor no longer pushed reassuringly on her soles, she reflexively slammed the foot in the air back down for support, sending her drifting. Normal gravity was restored before she got very high. She wanted to stop to recover, but she didn’t let herself. Another step.

She wasn’t as lucky with all the fluctuations in the field. One wave tilted the floor below her almost vertical, or so it felt, and she had to run to keep her feet under her. It was hard to stop running when everything stabilized. Without the throb from her wrist at each jog to remind her of the consequences…. She pulled herself back to a shuffle. Another step.

Each time Daria staggered away from the wall, she moved back to it before going on. Every time another heave brought the portentous babbling in her head to a crescendo, she was less sure of her ability to go on. Still she moved forward.

When the texture under her hand changed, she looked up. She was standing next to the viewing portal. She’d reached the center of the station. The equipment room was only another twenty feet away.

Relief flooded through her, leaving her wobbly. Daria sagged against the glass. It was cool, and she turned to rest her forehead against it.

Out the window, framed by the walls of the station, distorted by layers of glass, lay Earth.

Daria frowned at her old nemesis. Ever since she’d been old enough to understand how gravity worked, she’d resented the Earth, resented its ability to stop her life cold just by tugging on her. It had stolen so much. She thought about the decades of mindless terror, sweating palms and useless legs.

She’d dedicated her entire adult life to eliminating its power over her. As she looked at Earth, she realized for the first time what that meant. Somewhere along the way, in trying to escape from the planet’s grasp, she’d gone from letting it determine what she couldn’t do to letting it dictate what she did.

She still wanted to hate the planet. Yet from up here, her tormentor almost looked beautiful, blue and white and nearly small enough to hold. The feeble pull it exerted wasn’t even a factor in her current situation.

She thwacked her forehead gently against the glass. She’d left the Earth behind months ago. It wasn’t the problem now. She couldn’t blame the station’s fluctuating gravity either, since she’d had acrophobia all her life. The only constant in the situation was her–her fear.

She blinked. She’d spent all her efforts on the wrong piece of the puzzle. If she’d only carried her problems with her when she left Earth, all the time she’d worked to control gravity had been–

No. Daria laughed at herself. It hadn’t been wasted.

Despite the start of another upheaval in the gravity field, Daria smiled down on the planet far below her. She hadn’t escaped the thing she’d most wanted to leave behind her, but living in orbit around the planet, she could hardly claim her work hadn’t gotten her anywhere.

And after that kind of journey, how bad could twenty more feet of hallway be? Daria took a deep breath and pushed away from the window. Trailing her hand along the wall, she told herself, “One more step.”


“I take it everything’s fixed then?”

Daria lazily looked up from where she was slowly twisting the dial on the gravity generator back and forth. Eoin was leaning against the inside of the doorway. He looked a little green.

“Eoin!” Daria realized what she was doing and dropped her hand. Just as quickly, she reached for the knob again and dialed normal gravity.

He put a hand to his stomach. “Thank you, I think. Hopefully that will help everything stay down where it belongs.” He sighed. “You sure know how to make a man seasick.”

“I didn’t…I wasn’t….” Daria closed her mouth, then started over. “I’m sorry.”

Eoin waved that away. “I’ll be fine. I was a lot more worried about you, especially when you didn’t answer my call.”

“You called?” She looked at the com.

“Only about a dozen times. What’s the matter with–hey! You’re hurt.” He knelt beside her and touched her wrist.

She’d forgotten about it. She hissed in pain. It was about twice normal size and faintly purple.

“Yeah, that’s no good. You look a little shocky too. I should get you somewhere…”

Trying to figure out how to confess that her dazed condition wasn’t due to her wrist, Daria didn’t notice him reaching for the field generator. Eoin had it dialed half down and was turning back to her before she could protest.

She squawked as he swooped her up and stood. She buried her head in his shoulder and braced for the panic.

“Did that hurt? I figured it’d be best if I did it all at once.”

Daria frowned up at Eoin. “No. I…I’m fine.”

“Good.” He stepped out the door and headed back toward the cabins.

Daria took a deep breath. No fear. No chittering. She wasn’t comfortable, but…. She waited. The panic didn’t come.

Maybe it was exhausted. She certainly was. Or maybe Eoin’s arms were just a patently safe place to be. Either way, she’d take it. She’d earned it.

She snuggled closer. “So, Eoin, did I ever tell you I’m afraid of heights?”

The Gravity of the Situation

20 thoughts on “The Gravity of the Situation

  1. JLK

    I dig the story, Stephanie. The idea of controlling gravity is definitely interesting. But I do have a question. Are you at all concerned about people stealing your writing from the internet and claiming it as their own work?I’ve always had a hang-up about posting my own stories and poems for that very reason.

  2. 2

    Nice story, and I like the interweaving of concepts with character interactions and inner fears.And so, at the end she took the gravity and controlled it and being in control of it made her overcome her fear or problem with it – I think I got that right? [I do something similar on boats if I’m getting seasick feelings.]Everything posted is under automatic copyright, but possibly it wouldn’t hurt to make that explicit.

  3. 4

    Thanks, guys!JLK, I’m not particularly concerned. Nobody is going to steal this to make money. This kind of personal story just isn’t where the short SF market is right now, and it hasn’t been there for years. And anyone who wants to just post it as something they wrote will, frankly, be the kind of writer who trips “Oh, no you didn’t” alarms all over the place. This may not apply for other genres, though.Silver Fox, I would love to chat about what I intended with the story, but authors talking about intent ruins the fun for some people, so I’m not going to do it in the comments. People can always feel free to argue about it, though. :)I do need to put a Creative Commons notice on the blog, since I don’t actually want to reserve all the rights that I’m automatically granted. And as you say, not everyone knows what kind of protections are granted automatically. I’ll get that up asap.

  4. 5

    Very nice. A couple of margaritas in the right company, it could be commercial. Maybe a TV series. But we have to make the man gay so the girl can have serial love interests or we’ll lose the audience. And instead of a space station lets make it a cruise ship so it is easier to introduce new characters. So we’ll have to get rid of the gravity thing to, maybe instead of an engineer she can be a CSI investigator working for a major cruise line. CSI Miami meets The Love Boat. Perfect…. But seriously, I liked it a lot. Very nice.

  5. 7

    I really like it, Stephanie. So many times when I read Sci-Fi, it’s about the great people doing great things. One of the things I like about this is it’s about a scientist doing her job, and the fears and issues of normal people. Good stuff!

  6. 15

    Hi, Stephanie, really enjoyed your story. Got concerned at first that the scientific terms might lose me but that definitely wasn’t the case. They didn’t overwhelm and the story itself did, in a good way. What a “far-out” concept… a fear of falling being dealt with as one is looking down at the whole freaking planet. Talk about dealing with fear by “looking at the big picture”! Very ingenious. Also liked the imagery in your writing in phrases like, “She could hear his grin”. Great stuff. As someone said before me… post more of these.Also… it was interesting to hear your take on someone stealing your story. I’ve been thinking of posting some of my short stories down the road, way down the road, but was afraid of that very same thing… someone stealing them. Still not sure if I’ll do it but I liked what you had to say on the subject. In your case however, and with this story in particular, I guess the real danger lies not so much in someone stealing your story word for word and posting or publishing it, but in the theft of the unique concept of the story which is truly original.. your brilliant idea of dealing with acrophobia while orbiting the earth. Doubt it’s been done. Then again, perhaps the good news is… if some heartless bastard did steal that concept and turned it into a movie or TV episode, your idea would probably still be in tact because those are the same kind of people who are of the creative ilk that would do what Greg said so wittily in his comment. Turn it into CSI meets Love Boat.Good luck with whatever you do with this and others you may have in the hopper.

  7. 16

    Scribbler, thank you, and why am I not remotely surprised that you have stories tucked away somewhere? Okay, know that everything from here on out is tainted by my desire to have you post some so I can read them. Of course, I’ve had said it anyway.Every professional writer talks about someone who said to them, “Hey. I got this great idea but I don’t write so good. How’s about I tell you the idea, you write it, and we both make some money?” And this is the point in the story where everyone who has written something laughs, because the idea is such a tiny part of the story. Much more work is getting all the details and the language right. If someone riffs off my story and turns it into something better, more power to them.Also, this idea isn’t that original. Well, I’m only guessing, but I’m sure it’s been used before as an extra barrier to add tension to the climax of some heroic adventure. I know who I could ask, though. Today’s crop of SF short fiction editors have an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the genre that is only achievable by the true geek (geek = someone who goes to lengths for their vocation or avocation to which nobody else would go).Combine this knowledge with the idea that SF is the genre of the original idea, and I’m not sure that’s good news for the SF short story, but that’s another post.

  8. 17

    Stephanie… I get your point that, yeah, it’s all those words and language and plot twists and characterizations around the idea that make everything work… that all ideas have been done before, etc. (or so they say) and people who ask you to develop their idea just don’t get that… but I really was taken by that image you painted of her pressed against the glass looking (down?) at planet earth and, given her phobia (which I share, by the way), I thought it was not only original but powerful as hell. And you did extremely well what someone who “don’t write so good” couldn’t do. From those childhood flashbacks, all the way through crisis to closing just worked. And it all served to give “the idea” validity. I’m certainly not a critic or a professional writer to be sure, but to me the concept was original, I liked it, and if previously done by someone else I’m sure it wasn’t done the way you did it. That said, and if I were you, I’d be pissed if someone in the future ripped any of that off – idea OR story.As for my stories, they are so different in tone and persona than “your friendly bartender” that I hesitate at this point to go and post them. (Besides the theft issue.) That’s why I said “way down the road”. They are comedy in the absurd, ala Steve Martin and early Woody Allen (not that I’m in any way comparing talent, just genre) and they wouldn’t fit in just yet with what I’m still trying to develop on my blog. I hope that didn’t sound bull-shitty or pretentious, but do you know what I mean? I’m still way too new at all this to start splitting in two. But if I ever do get the nerve, and the bartender stuff gets legs (as they say) and I decide to post one of my absurdities, you’ll be one of the first to know.Best,ScribblerPS: Have you noticed my love of parentheses? I’ve got to seek professional help!

  9. 18

    Scribbler, you probably won’t be surprised to know that I have acrophobia too. Considering that, I certainly hope I got the details right! :)Well, if I have to wait for stories, I have to wait. I’m encouraged, though, because absurdism really needs a grounding in the close observation of human behavior, which “your friendly bartender” has in spades.No, it doesn’t sound in the least pretentious to say that you’ve got a vision for your blog. That’s the difference between a blog and public masturbation. Most of the blogs I like have a much stronger focus than, say, mine does. I just tend to be so thoroughly caught up in whatever’s obsessing me at the moment that that approach wouldn’t work for me as a blogger. That mine works for my readers is a continual amazement to me.(And I love parentheses. I spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to figure out how to cut them out of my writing.)

  10. 19

    Hi Steph.I finally got the moments of undistraction I needed to just sit and read this story. It’s very good.I’m tickled with its “littleness”. It’s not so much a Sci-Fi or Space story as a good story that happens to take place in space.It’s interesting and meaningful to me on a level that has almost nothing to do with its setting. At its heart, it’s a story about a person realizing they have conquered the wrong thing, and in the realization, conquering the right thing.Bravo.

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