Prologue - Picking flowers
I was out in the nets harvesting carbon flowers on the day before I fell down the well. It's a methodical meditative process which I had always enjoyed. Each time I finished clipping another gnarled black nest of super-expanded fibre out of its place in the net and chucked it into the gurney floating behind me I felt that positive bump of satisfaction you always get from having done something productive. Then I'd unclip the gun from my belt and extrude a new web of fresh carbon fibre in solid protective lines to fill the gap.
It wasn't really carbon of course that's just what we called it. I mean there's some carbon in there but under the hood it's lab built nanomaterial based on designs sketched out from exotic materials. Twisted up tight in on itself, the molecules all curled and stacked in orderly rows, ready to spring out if a decent whack of kinetic energy hits it and engulf whatever did the hitting into one of those big black frozen fractal explosions we call the flowers.
We're talking a lot of energy here, as in you can climb around on them fine, and I've even seen a shuttle brush against them a couple of times with no harm done. But a micrometeor or some fleck of metal or paint or other space junk comes flying in fast enough to punch a hole in the house and wham, the nets draped carefully all around us, will take it out every time before it can do any damage. As long as they're well maintained of course.
All sorts you might find inside. The flowers are dumped into their hopper and broken down to be turned back into more net paste. This takes a few hours and when you open up the hopper afterwards there is always something left behind like the grain of dirt that starts the pearl.
I guess probably every kid Upstairs goes through a phase of collecting them at some point. Usually it's one of the above-mentioned but every now and then it's something odd. We got a boot one time, no foot in it thankfully but you've got to wonder right, I mean it's not as if someone just forgot it out there. And I even heard of someone getting a golf ball, never saw it though, it wasn't at our house and we didn't get out that much.
So there I was taking a break. Hanging out for a few minutes with my gloves hooked into the net and gazing through a gap at the huge swirling churning background of blue and green and brown and white in the distance. I was trying to remember some of my terrestrial geography and see if I could figure out which bit was our namesake down there but to be honest I couldn't even tell if it was on the side that was showing at all.
Then suddenly right across in front of me from my left came a streak of light as something ploughed into the atmosphere and started to glow hot once the friction built up. It lasted as long as I could see it without burning out or breaking apart, angling down into the distance until it was too small to keep track of any more. A lot bigger than a boot, I would think it must have been maybe as big as a whole person.
I wondered if it would make it all the way down. You don't see those ones often and it seemed kind of symbolic you know, kind of poignant, although I don't think I'd have been able to fit the words around how exactly.
I switched my radio off and stayed there for a while after that, thinking about things, and despite where I was looking towards, I was saying goodbye rather than hello. A blinking blue light started up on the edge of my helmet at the bottom of my field of vision pulling me out of my reverie to tell me someone was looking for attention. I opened the audio channel back up to see what was going on.
"Poppy my love, you're down to twenty."
It was just my mum telling me it was time to come in. I knew how long I had left in the tank already of course but one thing you learned young where I came from is that it's always a good idea to have someone else around to double check things. I let go, kicked back my heels and pushed off against the net, setting myself on course to float smoothly back to the airlock of the house. The gurney came trundling obediently behind me.
Part 1 - Out of Time, Out of Space
I was born Upstairs but my mum and dad had come from the ground. Not in the early days when it was all scientists and ex-military test pilots, but in the second wave back in the eighties once there was some heavy industry starting to kick off and there was a big recruitment drive for mechanics, robotics engineers, materials scientists, plumbers, that sort of thing. They'd both trained for and worked in electrical engineering so they ticked enough of the right boxes.
Like almost everyone in wave two they paid for their transport with three years of indentured labour. Then once they were done with that they worked for another two to get the cash together for their own house and a crystal farm. This made our place one of the oldest residentials in the group of private homes, communal dormitory blocks, factories, hydroponic farms, hospitals and other such places which we called Upper London. It shows in a variety of ways but most obviously because a lot of the central rooms and corridors are more squared off and smaller than the more modern geodesic designs which everyone is building with these days.
You shouldn't take us for primitives though, stuck back in the nineties along with our boxy habitats and our acid house. We've added a few extensions over the years and kept up with the times. The living room for example was one of these. It was a huge hemisphere almost six metres across which would have been extravagant in scale back when the first modules of the house were put together but had hardly put a dent in the finances eight years ago when we'd bought it, fixed it on, and hooked it up.
That was where I headed once I was out of my suit. I came in from the hall and somersaulted gracefully (even if I do say so myself) across the room into a pile of soft furnishings causing the whole room to wobble and thrum when I landed. Modern architecture is more flexible than the old solid designs. Kind of like a rigid tent I understood rather than what you'd think of as a house traditionally. You have to adapt.
Which brings me, in a roundabout sort of way, to the tough part. A lot of things were different back in the old days of the early colonisation. Genetic screening was already well advanced though and because of the small size of the population the restrictions were pretty extreme. Mum and Dad both checked out fine of course or they wouldn't have been up here in the first place.
But the problem was that nobody had heard of Fleischmann's back then. I was about eighteen months old when they figured it out and still wriggling around zipped up in my cot hammock. Infants need to remain pretty well secured in low gravity until they can control themselves. You haven't laughed until you've seen a naked baby fire itself spinning and giggling across the room propelled by a stream of piss.
Anyway keeping on track we'd had people living in orbit for years on end at this point and it was starting to become obvious that some of us were adapting better than others. Critically, and most pertinently to the story I'm telling here, despite supplements, exercise, whatever we could throw at them, we had occasional people who kept on losing bone mass.
Genius medical heads were put together and, a few months down the line, there we had it. Fleischmann's syndrome, an inherited disease which had been lurking at the bottom of the gene pool probably since the beginning of time and was completely asymptomatic unless the adult with the condition was exposed to microgravity for a prolonged period. The symptoms started with the kind of early onset osteoporosis we'd already been spotting, the prognosis was that ultimately, however careful you were, and you'd have to be pretty careful, eventually your bones would start to come apart inside you - torn to pieces by your own musculature.
Thankfully it has never got that far for anybody and as long as we keep up the good screening it never will. The poor sods who'd been diagnosed with the full blown version were all put on the next available shuttle back home, Then the population's genetic samples were re-scanned for carriers and emails went out to let the lucky winners know they were going to be having their tubes tied off. Both of my parents got emails.
I don't know how much you know about recessive genes but I'm a bit of a celebrity in certain niche medical circles. It took two weeks for my test results to come back and I bet it felt like longer while they were waiting and then afterwards I bet it didn't feel like long enough.
So amongst other things that explains why I don't have any brothers or sisters. It also explains why I've always seen a doctor more regularly than most children. And then it explains why I'd been in an absolutely foul mood since the change I had known was on the way for my entire life had finally shown up in my tests last month.
You can know all you like that science is reliable, and believe me Upstairs there are few if any more vital pieces of knowledge, but even then it isn't quite real until it happens. I'd always treasured that smallest hope that there was the teeniest opportunity at the far end of the curve, and I'd far more than halfway convinced myself that it was all a terrible mistake, that I was going to turn out normal after all.
But in the end as the old saying goes, nature will not be fooled, and now that I was an adult I had finished my growth phase such as it was. So my body had stopped producing all of those compensatory hormones and my bone density was starting to drop away from the level being casually and effortlessly maintained by my peers.
A lot of people leave their family homes at eighteen. Some of them are setting up new homes of their own together, some are going off to further their educations. Me I was going down the well, leaving behind everything and everyone I'd ever known, supposedly so that I could live a normal life.
In order to make this happen we'd spent the last couple of weeks tweaking our orbit to bring us close by one of the stations where the shuttles docked when they came up from the ground. It was still about twenty kilometres away but if you knew where to look you could see it sparkle slightly beneath its veils of netting where it hung in space next to us.
We wouldn't have gone to this kind of trouble to post cargo down, we'd generally strap it all onto a drone and fire it off on automatic. Let it take a week or so to glide over to the station and be picked up there to get packed into the next shuttle with some spare mass available. It's different when you are transferring people though as I'm sure you can see. Anyway finally the day had come, a shuttle had been launched up and was due to dock any time now.
The vehicle we were taking across was called a Packmule, basically a larger version of the gurney I'd been tossing carbon flowers into the day before. It was programmed with the thrust pattern for its jets which would take us smoothly and safely over to the landing platform we'd rented at the station. There was no pressurised cabin so Dad and I were suited up for the trip and clipped onto the side with carabinas.
The main body of the 'mule held the wrapped up package of manufactured goods we were sending down on the shuttle. The manifest listed a variety of different custom grown alloys and mineral crystals destined for a major electronics factory somewhere in the northern UK which was our main trading partner down there. There they would be used for all sorts of things but primarily as vital components for room temperature superconductor arrays.
On the way back home later it would hold a similar package with some orders we were having posted up. The vast majority of this would always be raw materials for the crystal factories and trace elements and amino acids to supplement our foods. In addition there were generally a few treats like spices and herbs we couldn't grow ourselves to add some variety to our diets.
We'd had to program a different thrust pattern for the journey back to account for various differences in the flight not least of which was the mass difference, because the package coming home weighed a lot less than the one we were sending down, and of course there'd only be Dad clipped to the side.
Once we had made our way over it was all very busy. The project chat group was listen-only except for the people running the show. This was mainly the works foreman organising the packing, the chief engineer responsible for checking the shuttle hadn't broken on the way up and all was well for the trip back down, and the captain of the shuttle itself overseeing and rechecking everything before signing it off. The captain would understandably take a fairly obsessive interest in the work of the other two as well as continuously adjusting the flightpath down to compensate for changes taking place as the project developed. Everyone involved would be keeping track of the rest of their teams on private channels too of course.
There was a local social on the go as well but with over fifty people logged into it things were pretty chaotic there and it was really just a load of shouting and running gags. Dad pinged a request over to the captain to open a conversation with us. He came back right away.
"Hello Mr Grant, Ms Grant. Good to meet you. Could you make your way over to the shuttle airlock and we'll let you in Ms Grant, we're hoping to begin our descent in about an hour from now."
We confirmed, docked up the 'mule and handed our cargo over to one of the stevedores, then we used the grip lines to haul our way over to the shuttle. When we got there this was goodbye to Dad then. They weren't going to want to cycle the airlock twice so he could have an extra five minutes in my company. It didn't feel like much really, I'd kind of thought it would. But for a start you can't hug in a suit and have it mean anything so we'd already done our proper farewells back at home before we set off. Also we were still connected on audio in the family group and would be until the shuttle started dropping into the atmosphere in a little over an hour's time so for a while longer he and Mum were still there.
The airlock filled, the safety lights turned solid green, and I took off my suit helmet, pressure was lowish and my ears popped. Then the inner door opened and two figures in the traditional orange uniforms were there to greet me. Captain Anderson, the stripes on his arms marking him out as such, gave me a long look.
"Kind of short aren't you?"
Oh, ha bloody ha. Dumb dirtboy thought he was a comedian. His companion, obviously the more perceptive of the two, at least had the grace to wince visibly for my benefit.
I should shed some light on what was going on here. A side effect of my condition is that I didn't develop the longer bones which everyone else born in space has ended up with. So while they are all clocking in around six foot plus I'm the same length as my mum, four foot nine. As a kind of reaction to this I suppose I went full on spacer in a couple of other ways to try to fit in.
I'd taken the hair removal meds as soon as I was allowed, so there was literally not a hair on me, and I'd also had some fairly extensive tattooing done. Geometric patterns over my torso and down one arm based on the microscopic structure of one of the more exotic alloys we produced, and some circuitry up the left side of my neck over the cheek and onto my scalp. All inked in by computer of course, and I designed them and programmed the needles myself so they are originals.
I was a proper spacer though. Even if we'd had to fight for it a little. There's certain coming of age things we do you know. All the kids around the same age get together and go on a trip, that kind of thing. Knowing my eventual fate there were a few who had griped about me being involved but my parents had made their arguments and consensus had agreed - I was born in space, I was one of us.
But I digress again, the original point I was trying to get to was that he probably didn't know it but he was essentially mocking my disability. So it was a good thing I was over that and well used to jokes about my length. I seethed silently nonetheless and glared at him for a moment or two, just as a matter of form really, and then grinned and stuck my tongue out to let him off the hook. Actually strangely enough it broke the ice a bit and took the edge of what might otherwise have become awkward formality so maybe the captain wasn't as dumb as he liked to play it.
"Sorry, welcome aboard Ms Grant." he said, "You're the first passenger we've carried down in a while so we don't exactly have a formal process in place for this. Let me show you to your seat. There will be no inflight meal and we trust you're plumbed in for your bathroom needs. Our expected flight time is about three hours. In case of emergency take comfort in the fact that it'll probably happen so fast you'll never know about it."
You might think that all sounds a bit flippant, especially the last part. You have to bear in mind though that I'd lived my whole life surrounded with risk profiles that were usually pretty much a binary switch between 'everything is fine' and 'you're dead now'. So really it was kind of nice to know he wasn't going to try to patronise me but other than that he was just talking to be friendly and I barely noticed the content.
The cots were bolted onto the floor side by side, my one was the leftmost of the set of three and was obviously mine. It was far more padded up than the other two and had no controls mounted in front of it just an instrumentation screen. This was nice of them as there was nothing in the contract to say they had to give me one of those. I figured out the straps and the co-pilot (call me Janine) helped me to make myself secure.
In the meantime they invited me into the private admin group on the condition I kept quiet, which was awesome - being able to sit in on this kind of live project planning is always educational. From the way they were talking the captain's original estimate of an hour was being recalculated rapidly down. Loading was already finished and the final preflight checks were about to start. I forwarded the audio into the family group so my mum and dad could keep up too.
Then it was time to put helmets back on while they ran through a quick countdown, really more traditional than meaningful these days. I heard and felt the release of the station's arms which had been holding us in place then the first tug against my straps as the thrusters started to edge us around onto the trajectory that would take us down into the atmosphere. Before I closed off the family group (no unnecessary radio signals flying around while the shuttle does its thing) we all three of us exchanged our farewells again because, safe and well planned as this all was, there is a disaster lurking at the end of every bell curve and nobody needs to live with the regret of not having said goodbye.
To me it felt bittersweet, like godspeed and best wishes, like what will be will be, like I fought the law but the law won.
Full respect to both pilot and co-pilot we made it down clean and smooth and we came to a halt on the long ex-military runway outside Newquay just when they had said we would. The bruises under my straps were going to hurt like hell when the adrenaline wore off, but the higher air pressure now that the hatch had been popped, and the relentless gravity, were both freaking me out nicely so there was no danger of that in the immediate future.
I'd thought I'd been under a full g often enough to be used to it by now. We'd spun the gym up to that level months ago and I had long since given up trying to keep track of all the hours I had spent day after day on the equipment in there. But it had always been really hard work and I don't think I can have realised how much during each session I had been focussing through the stress on the knowledge that when I was finished I'd be able to go back out into the blessed comfort of the microgravity. This time there would be no end though, not ever probably, and that lack of a promise of reprieve was wrapping itself around me like a death sentence and I was barely holding back my hysteria.
Prologue - Picking flowers