"Part of Her World"
Jennifer Lee Rossman
I was never strong enough to swim by myself when I lived on Earth, and water doesn't follow the rules in space. But I bet it feels a lot like this.
Weightless, hair whooshing around my head, limbs moving with hardly any effort. One push off the cool metal wall sends me drifting to the other side.
I kick off, the inertia sending my body into a corkscrew twirl. With no gravity to slow me, I keep spinning until I gently collide with the door on the opposite end.
Laughing as I grip its handle, I pull myself parallel with the door and touch my toes to the ground, easing down until my heels almost touch. It's a good stretch, no danger of my contracted ankles going too far.
I pivot in place and smile at Jason. "Do I look like I'm standing?"
He chews his lip in thought before saying, "Your hair is defying gravity and your knees are bent."
Well, no fixing my knees; they haven't been straight since I was a kid. But then I'm not straight either, so who cares?
"Frame it from the thighs up," I say, tucking my ponytail into the back of my shirt. "Can you tell we're in zero-G?"
"What's wrong with people knowing that you live in space?" he asks. "Space is awesome."
"Space is extremely awesome," I agree, holding my smile as he takes the picture. "A space station full of disabled people, not so much." When the camera flashes, I swim over to look at the picture, pulling myself along with handles on the walls. "Not that it's bad to live here," I add quickly. "I just don't want them to have preconceived ideas about what I am before they even talk to me."
"You want them to think you're normal." His tone isn't quite disapproving, just disappointed. I don't know if it's because he's my therapist and wants me to have a better opinion of myself, or if he thinks I care about his missing legs.
But it's different for him. He's disabled, but he's still… normal. His body doesn't bend at funny angles, or slowly eat away at itself until he can't fight Earth's gravity. He doesn't get it. He's attractive, amputations or no, whereas I'm just pretty for a girl in a wheelchair. I don't have many opportunities to interact with people outside of the station, just the pilots we communicate with; I can't have my profile picture turning them off before they even talk to me.
"That's good. Upload that one."
Jason frowns. "I think you look better here," he says, flipping to another photo we took yesterday in my chair. When I wrinkle my nose, he continues, "Seriously, look at how—"
The alarms go off, their gently pulsing tone rising and falling in sync with the lights. We quickly swim through the hall to the central part of the station.
Gravity increases once we're through the door to the centrifuge and I sink, leaving the weightlessness behind. It isn’t nearly as strong as Earth's gravity, just enough to let us do more physical therapy, but my body still buckles beneath me and Jason helps me the rest of the way to my chair. I slip my headset on.
"—day, mayday," a frantic voice is saying. "Repeat, I am aboard the unresponsive shuttle Manato, on a collision trajectory with the Earth. Requesting immediate assistance."
"I hear you, Manato," I say, bringing up the ship's specs. The captain's specs, too—Tang Jin. Chinese national, thirty, about as hot as a supernova... "I see you're going to Chengdu in a Christiansen shuttle, model H.A.; is that right, Captain Tang?"
"Alright. What's going on?" I motion to Basira, the young person beside me, to start trying to hack the ship remotely. They nod, and their eyeballs dart across the screen, typing a keystroke with every pause in movement.
"Meteor storm," the captain says. "I lost my right thruster."
"Left one still working?"
"Yeah, but my throttle isn't."
Probably a loose wire. I look to Basira. They shake their head.
"I can't connect to her ship," their computer reads out in the voice of Judi Dench. I try not to laugh at such a mature voice speaking for a teenager, but it’s such a change from the Diego Luna they were using yesterday.
I lean back and chew my lip. "Your name's Jin, spacelady?"
"Yes," she says, anxiety creeping into her voice.
"Nice to meet you, Jin. I'm Portia, and I'm going to get you out of there. What do you know about wiring?"
There's a long pause. "Did you hear that?" she asks. "That was me telling you everything I know about wiring."
And she's funny? Still my beating lesbian heart.
"Okay, so having you open an access panel, locate a broken connection, and repair it is out of the question?"
"Uh, yeah. Very."
I look at her specs again. "Well, you had to go and get your repair bots damaged in the strike, so my crack team of hackers can't even do this remotely."
"Or maybe I sabotaged them so I'd be forced to call a pretty repair lady," she jokes.
Heat explodes in my cheeks. Basira pokes me in the shoulder. "Portia's got a girlfriend!" they tease.
"Any chance the pretty repair lady can make a house call?" Jin asks. "Or a shuttle call?"
Clearing my throat, I try to regain some semblance of composure. "Yeah, I don't know about—" Nina, the mathematical genius who sits on my other side, leans over to tap my screen. Jin's trajectory will actually bring her pretty close to our orbit in a few hours, and we do have some small shuttles I could use.
"Portia?" Jin asks.
"I'm here. What's your artificial gravity situation?"
"None; I'm floating in a tin can."
"Well, take your protein pills, Major Tang, and put your helmet on. I'll see you in a bit."
Her picture didn't do her justice. I have to remind myself to keep my eyes on my work, and not let my gaze drift over to where she's floating nearby.
"You know," Jin points out, "you could just offer to rescue me in that little pod of yours. Be a tight fit, but I can't say I'd mind."
"But then your ship would hit Earth, and I'd hate to have our canoodling be the reason you lost such a gorgeous craft."
I can't remember the last time I actually flirted with anyone, and an outsider, no less! I turn slightly so she can't see me blushing and try to focus on the wires. The ship's computers and the thrusters are fine, but that doesn't mean much when the messages can't get through.
Just like my muscular dystrophy. Brain works, muscles work, they just don't communicate well. Only some of the messages get to my muscles, making it harder to move than it should be. Lack of gravity really cuts down on the resistance; on Earth, I'd be incapable of lifting my arms over my head, but up here? No problem
I pull myself up from the floor, hovering in a sitting position, and use the ship's bulkhead to rotate ninety degrees. Aha! There's that damaged connection I couldn't see before.
"So what do they do on Capability?" Jin asks, appearing at my side. She's brought her gorgeous smile with her, complete with dimples, but she still sounds anxious. Understandable; we're still hurtling towards Earth, but we have more than enough time for me to reroute power around the damage.
"We do a lot of things," I say around the soldering tool clenched between my teeth. I reach into the tangle of wires and mutter some very bad words at the last mechanic. It's like zie was trying to crochet a scarf with the wires.
"That’s vague,” Jin points out.
Purposely so, but I elaborate. "We're one of several stations that run space traffic control for Earth's orbit, and some of us are trained in repairs." I hesitate. I'm leaving out its primary function as low-G rehab and housing for disabled people, but I can't help thinking how normal I look right now. She can't tell my body is wonky, that my arms and legs don't straighten or that the slightest bit of gravity will reveal my curved spine.
There's nothing wrong with being disabled. I truly do believe that.
But the way Jin smiles at me, not out of pity but just genuine friendliness. The way she glances at my body when she thinks I'm not looking, and I know she isn't trying to solve the mystery of what's wrong with me.
If we could just stay in space forever...
"Do you have to go back right away?" she asks, as if reading my mind.
In my surprise, I drop the solderer and have to catch it as it drifts away on a current of inertia.
"I. Um. Beg pardon?"
"Do you have to go back to the station, or can you hang out here a while?"
My heart skips a beat or seven. Hang out. There's no malice in her, nothing lecherous. But at the same time, I don't think she's asking me to play Monopoly, and I have no idea how to respond.
"Like a..." I swallow to wet my throat. "Like a date or something?"
She shrugs; the movement of her shoulders propels her slowly away from the wall where I'm working, and she scrambles back to my side with only a modicum of awkwardness. "I don't have much company on these flights, and figured you don't get out much either since there isn't much to do out here. Want to fly with me a bit?"
"Yes!" I flinch at the way my voice echoes in the glorified tin can and hide my embarrassment by burying my head in the access panel.
"Are you coming out of there?" Jin asks with a laugh.
"Nope. I live here now." I twist two final wires together and solder them in place. "Go try the thrusters."
The sound of her chuckling fades as she swims to the bridge. A moment later, the ship's engine rumbles to life.
"And we have thrust!"
Jin pulls me out of my hole and the next thing I know, her lips are pressed against mine in celebration.
I pull away in surprise.
"I'm so sorry," Jin says, sounding like she means it. "That was inappropriate."
I just stare at her, waiting for my brain to reboot.
Was that my first kiss?
I think back to all the times I've been anything close to intimate with someone. All two of them. My preschool boyfriend, who only dated me for my Cheez Doodles and wouldn't even hold my hand. No kissing there. Middle school play, where I kissed Juliet once in rehearsal, then caught her cold and had to drop out. Technically a kiss, but it didn't mean anything.
"Portia?" Her thick brows lower in concern.
And now, age thirty, kissed by a hot space lady because I fixed her ship.
Technically a kiss, technically doesn't mean anything.
Well, time to fix that.
I take her face in my hands, pull myself close. Our bodies touch; her shallow breaths warm my cheeks.
"Can I kiss you?" I whisper. When she nods, I lean in almost cautiously, as if she is a live wire that might electrocute me.
Maybe she is, because our lips touch and electricity runs straight through me, stopping to flutter my heart on its way south.
I'm standing in the shallows, afraid to go any deeper. What if I don't know how to swim?
Her hand goes to my back. Does she feel my crooked spine?
But she shows no sign of pulling away. If anything, she leans in, and I dive into the depths of the sea.
I don't know how to swim. My lips fumble with hers, my nose gets in the way, and I have absolutely no idea what to do with my hands, but she doesn't seem to mind.
I can't remember ever floating like this.
I'm not so foolish to call this love. We're just two strangers who find each other attractive and kissed, nothing more.
But we talk as Jin pilots her ship, and we laugh. And I could see this becoming something. She could swing by Capability when she's in the area, pick me up, and we'd deliver her cargo together. To the low-G stations, anyway. I wouldn't want to go planet side after all this time; I left when I was twenty and could hardly do anything for myself.
"Do you have family?" she asks.
I start to shake my head, but Jason and Basira and all the others come to mind. "Big family," I say with a smile, lying above the copilot seat and watching the stars through the portholes. "You?"
"Just my mom and I." She casts a sly glance my way.
"What's that look for?"
"It's just..." She blushes, and it shouldn't go with her whole badass space lady vibe, but somehow it makes her even more attractive. "She's always telling me to pick up a nice girl on my flights, and I can't wait to tell her it finally happened."
"I'd love to meet—" I bite my tongue before I accidentally call her my future mother-in-law. "—her."
The seat touches my back. Why am I sinking? I push away with some effort and notice Jin herself strapping into her seat.
Before I can ask for an explanation, I see it.
Earth, looming large in the windshield, so close that I can see the swirls of white clouds on her surface. Her gravitational pull is slight at this distance, but I can feel it pulling me down so deep that the pressure threatens to steal the breath from my lungs.
"We're going to Earth," I whisper.
Jin nods. "Chengdu. Picking up some antibiotics for the lunar bases, and some Sichuan peppers for my mother."
Oh, god. I thought the mission specs meant Chengdu Station, not Chengdu, China. The station has low-G docking areas; I could go lie down somewhere while Jin loaded her cargo, and she would never know how helpless I was.
But China, to the best of my knowledge, has the same gravity as the rest of Earth.
"Are you okay?"
I shake my head.
This shouldn't be happening; yes, gravity is pulling the ship in, but everything inside the ship is technically in freefall. Why am I—
"I thought you didn't have artificial gravity."
"Well, not in space. It only comes on when we're nearing a planet, to—"
"Offset some of the G forces we pull in re-entry," I interrupt. It's not a perfect system, and a lot of people claim it actually puts more stress on the ship, which is why most companies stopped using it decades ago.
Using anything within reach, I pull myself out of the seat and down the corridor to the airlock where my shuttle is docked. I have to get out of here before my arms are too heavy to pilot it home.
My toes start to touch the ground; I do the awkward astronaut hop, but each step lands harder than the last. By the time I reach the hatch, my legs are folding under me and I have to claw my way up the door hinges with my fingernails.
I hear Jin unclick her seatbelt. She has to have figured it out by now, but I don't care. This was a bad idea to begin with.
Every muscle cries out in pain and exhaustion as I fight the lead weights tied around my waist. I don't need to save face, I just need to get out before I'm completely helpless.
My hand slips; I can't soften the blow of my knuckles on the metal floor. I start to tip sideways, falling in slow motion, but my head never hits.
Jin's by my side, arms around me.
"Are you okay?" she says, gaze frantically scanning my body. She doesn't linger on my curving spine, or the way my hands hang limp and bent at the wrist like a tyrannosaurus. "Anything broken?"
I shake my head, feeling every muscle strain to perform this simple movement. "I'm fine. I just..."
What can I say?
There's no way out of this that won't lead to humiliation and anger, but I'll drown if I keep struggling against the waves. I can't lie anymore.
"I can't walk." The words come out in a rush, a tidal wave that pulls me helplessly along for the ride. "I have muscular dystrophy, and I live on Capability because I can't walk in gravity, and I hid it from you because you're cute and I wanted to be normal."
A tear slides down my face, runs into my neck and sinks into the fabric of my shirt.
"Is that all?" Jin laughs in relief.
"What do you mean?"
"I know what Capability Station is, Portia. And anyway, I saw your picture." Cradling me in one arm, she pulls her phone out of her pocket and taps her call log. My picture pops up, not the one where I looked like I was standing, but the one of me in my chair. Jason uploaded the wrong one.
"I knew." She scoops me up, holding me close to her body. I don't feel like a child in her arms. I kind of feel like I'm floating.
"We don't have to go to Earth," Jin says, setting me in the seat. "I'll turn around—"
"No. It's okay." I'll need help, but I don't mind her helping so much.
And maybe she can take me swimming.