Science Fiction Romance space fiction plausible science fiction Hard science fiction Science Fiction Romance space elevator orbital worker engineering fiction

Working The High Steel

By Jennifer R. Povey
Jan 14, 2020 · 4,770 words · 18 minutes

Ocean clouds seen from space

Photo by NASA via Unsplash.

From the author: As a woman, Malisse struggles in the male-dominated world of the orbital workers, and struggles with her feelings for a coworker. When the chips are down, however... This was my first published story and was inspired by an exhibit about Mohawk construction workers at the NMAI in DC.


"Working the High Steel"

by

Jennifer R. Povey

 

"She can do the job.”
Malisse heard that over her shoulder as she turned to walk away. That her ability to do construction work would be questioned, she was used to. She was not particularly tall, not particularly muscular and very particularly female.

In fact, if she had a dime for every time she had been questioned, belittled, told to go back to the reservation... She shook her head. Her long, dark hair had been braided and then secured at the back of her neck in a style that practice had taught her worked on high buildings.

Or in microgravity. It was, Malisse supposed, inevitable that the tradition of working the high steel would lead her people’s men to the highest steel of all.

“Go back to the reservation.” Women were supposed to stay home, raise the children, mind the farm. Not be suiting up to get on a space plane to take part in the most ambitious construction project in human history.

Malisse had never been one to mind the farm.

The latest person to question whether she could do the job had been a button pusher.

She’d stepped into the port terminal to hear, “Wasn’t there one more of those Mohawk guys?” from the suit.

“That,” she said dryly, “would be me.”

The surprise on his face as he turned was not positive. He didn’t say “go back to the rez” with his mouth, but he did with his eyes, his manner. “M. Gray,” he said, reading the name on her overalls. “Umm. Miss Gray.”

She resisted the temptation to put her hands on her hips, leaving them instead loose by her sides. “I worked the Berlin arcology,” was what she said, a defense that left most men stopping to think. Five men had died when a beam slipped. One of them should not have been there. Thomas should not have been there. Perhaps, one day, the robots really would make them obsolete. Until then, Mohawks would work the high steel. “And I worked Station Alpha.”

“Miss Gray, I was. . . .”

And then the foreman had stepped in. “She can do the job.”

She’d taken the opportunity to slip back out, to go to the staging area. She had checked in, had done her duty. Marshall was out there.

“Malisse,” he said softly.

His voice stopped her in her tracks. “Oh, don’t start. We’re not breaking the rules.”

“The elders still don’t approve.”

Screw the elders, she thought, but did not say. They had never approved of Malisse, of the handful of other Mohawk women who had chosen to join their men. It broke tradition. The men were supposed to be the ones taking the risks. “The numbers are fine, and nothing is going to happen to me.”

She claimed the last word with that, turning and showing him her shoulders and braid as she walked to the prep room. Screw the elders.

"The first problem we had to solve was the carbon nanotubing of the stalk itself. It took many attempts to get a material that could support its own weight. High Terminal helps. It’s a counterweight. Its orbital speed will hold the stalk up... once it’s finished.”

Malisse listened. One had to understand the technology one was working with. But, she realized, it was a bridge. Just another bridge. Not that she was worried too much about the elevator.

“The problem is that until the stalk is under full tension... it has to be held up by independently motored robots. And as it won’t be under tension until the two halves meet; we have to monitor those robots.”

Yeah, yeah. This wasn’t steelwork, babysitting robots? She’d rather focus on the station construction, familiar and less groundbreaking, but it was work that still needed humans to step outside into space, to face the long fall.

If you fall, you die. Those who said that to her as a way to motivate her to stop did not understand. Once you accepted that, you accepted your own death and embraced it. Only then were you free to live.

She felt eyes on her and turned, her attention drawn from the boring lecture. Marshall. He’d been looking at her a lot since they’d come up. Perhaps it was simply because the only other women on the skeletal station were . . . not Mohawks, for a start. And two of them may have been the first to have lesbian nookie in space. If she was wrong about that, it was because somebody on Station Alpha had beaten them to it.

Marshall, though.

As they maneuvered out of the room, he contrived to bump into her. “Mal, can we talk?”

He never called her Mal. She liked the nickname, which was most certainly why he never called her it. Sometimes he was like an annoying big brother. Most of the time she wanted to hit him. Occasionally she wanted to kiss him. Honestly, he made her de-age to about sixteen. “Sure,” she said grudgingly. If she didn’t agree to talk to him, then he would harass her until she did.

He ducked off into what would, eventually, be a lab. “Mal,” he said finally.

They were both wearing pressure suits with no helmets, which was required. The parts of the station they were occupying had life support, but it was not stable, not certain. “Marshall? Just come out with it.”

“I know you’re tired of hearing it. I want you to go home after this.”

Anger flashed within her. “I can do the job.”

“Please. Hear me out.”

There was little privacy. She kept her voice quiet. “Go ahead. Get it out of your system. But I won’t promise I’ll listen.”

“That’s what I love about you...” He tailed off.
Had he really said love?

“Marshall, for...”

“I want you to go home with my ring on your finger, dammit.”
It had to be the least romantic proposal ever made.

Malisse’s eyes widened. “You want...”

“I’ve been in love with you for years, just waiting for you to fall out of love with the steel. I’m tired of waiting. I thought if I told you...” He looked away.

Something inside her softened just a little. “I’ll think about it.”

It was all she was willing to give him. Yet, if she married anyone, there were few she would prefer.

Maybe none.

Marshall shook his head. Maybe he had made a mistake blurting out his intentions to Malisse five months ago at the start of their shift. A man was supposed to be more subtle in his courting.

He was supposed to win her, not try to take her. Now she thought he was after her because the tribal council had asked him to rein in the wayward. The truth was, she really was the woman he wanted to marry.

Malisse, who insisted on keeping her long hair even in the difficult conditions in orbit, and succeeded with never a safety violation. Malisse, who groundside and off duty dressed as if she were on the reservation, but on duty pulled her weight and did her job, who honored and defied their traditions in equal measure.

He couldn’t really imagine marrying anyone else. So he tried to overcome his initial mistake.

Of course everyone knew he was courting her. Sadly, the reaction seemed to consist of crude jokes about how she was the only “squaw” on the station. Not that Malisse was a woman to take that word as an insult. She responded to it with a tossed head and a “thank you.”

She was not the only despair of the elders. It was all the influence of the white man, this erosion of roles. Yet she could do the job.

In any case, in less than a month, they would be groundside . . . and groundside in triumph. Today had been the day the two strands of ribbon, one snaking up from the Earth, the other down from the station, had met and fused together.

There was always a celebration when the span of a bridge met in the center. It was amazing how much alcohol had been sneaked onto a station that was supposed to be dry.

They were partying in what would eventually be the hangar bay for the orbital transfer vehicles. And yes, there was Malisse, trying to demonstrate the steps of a traditional dance in zero-G. It ended up more slapstick than dance.

He wondered how drunk she was. He himself was stone cold sober. The rum had killed his father, and he was not letting it kill him. It seemed, though, that he might be the only one.

Then she had stopped dancing and propelled herself over to him. “We’re almost done here.”

“Yeah. How do you follow a project like this?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

Maybe he could persuade her to retire, go home, have a couple of children. She could even come back afterwards. As long as they were his children. He opened his mouth to make the suggestion and closed it again.

He’d worked out Malisse all right. If you told her not to do something, then that would be the very thing she would do .. and the reverse.

They’d run every test they could think of. An empty pod had successfully made the full ascent and descent. Twelve hours ago, they had started the first loaded pod on its ascent. The stalk was carrying its first passengers. Right now, it took thirty-six hours to climb the stalk, the same to descend, and the pods could only go one way at a time.

Maybe, Marshall thought, that was the answer to what’s next. Six months off to recover groundside fitness, then back up here to work on the second strand and the switching mechanism that would allow them to run down at the same time as up. They’d already talked about it.

Maybe they could increase the speed. Marshall headed to bed. He was not on duty and all the excitement was over. It would take a day and a half for the first passengers to get here. This wasn’t the official grand opening. The three people in the pod were two test pilots and one crazy company official. Had to be crazy, to want to risk being the first up.

In fact, there was pretty much nothing for the workers to do. Once they had the stalk tested, then they would start to leave, crossing the bridge they had built. That was only fair. They could run five or six pods on the line at once, as long as they all went the same way.

So pretty much all there was to do now was play cards. High Terminal was not quite finished, but hey, they had to leave something for the next shift to do. Everyone was tired, everyone was a little grumpy.

Marshall caught up on his sleep, and then went to the observation lounge. Malisse was there, staring out at the stars.

This room was going to be furnished, soon enough, for wealthy travelers. For right now, it was still spartan and still open to everyone up there. The pod would be about a third of the way up now, and why was Marshall so worried? Because one always was, when one opened a new bridge. It was natural.

“Hey, Mal.”

She didn’t turn. “I don’t know that I want to go back down.”

The centripetal force at High Terminal, now that the stalk was tense, created a tiny bit of gravity. The Earth was now ‘above’ them, an odd twisting of world views and concepts. Both terminals were at the bottom of the stalk, and Marshall laughed. “No, it’s not you. I was thinking that ‘down’ equals up and both ends are down and. . . .”

“Giving yourself a headache?” She finally turned to face him. “What will you do?”

“Thinking of coming back up for another shift when they start working on the second ribbon.”

“Me too,” she admitted.

He wanted, for a moment, to reach out to her. He did not. But that might not have been his own hesitation, for at that point the PA system crackled into life.

“We have a problem.”

“Houston,” Malisse murmured.

Houston was what one said when one knew things were bad before anyone admitted it. Malisse was not sure when the word had entered her vocabulary.

#

Houston was a good word for it. The telemetry indicated the pod was stationary. The robots on that part of the ribbon were nonresponsive. So was the intercom to the pod.

Something had gone badly wrong, and they could not even find out what. The robots and the intercom both got their information from wires running up through the ribbon. Maybe that would have to be changed. Maybe a wireless backup would be a good idea.

“Lost power,” Pablo murmured.

She glanced at the Hispanic. That was the most obvious, and also the easiest to fix. In fact, she couldn’t think of anything else. But it was for the engineers. Malisse shook her head. They’d fix it or they wouldn’t. And if they didn’t? She could do nothing about it.

Except that there were three people trapped on that pod.

She pushed through the crowd that had gathered, and out into the corridor. Aha. There was the person she was looking for. Amanda Wilcox liked her for, as far as she could tell, no better reason than the sisterhood of women in the society of men.

“What’s actually going on?”

The blonde turned. “There’s a break in the power beam. We got a robot down to about fifty feet above the pod and it died. We’re sending another to try and find the problem now.”

“How long do they have?”
“Three days. It’s not a rush.”
No, it wasn’t, Malisse thought. “Keep me posted? You

know me, I worry too much.”
Amanda gave her an odd look. “You aren’t thinking of

doing anything crazy, right?”
“Doesn’t seem like there’s a crazy solution.” But all

Malisse could see was Tom falling, falling because she could not hold him. Because a 140-pound woman could not hold a 230- pound man. Nobody else had been near enough to try.

No, she would not cry. But she quietly, quietly made her way toward the bay where maintenance kept the robots. Just checking it out.

There was a guy operating the robot; he was quiet, wearing VR gear and headphones. No, it would take even the robot a little while to get there, unless . . . no. They’d use one already on the stalk.

“Merde,” the man swore. French or Canadian? Quebecois?

“You lost it?” she asked softly.

“I can’t get it close enough to see what the problem is. It’s not a break in the stalk, it’s something to do with the pod, some kind of interference shorting things out.” He said that in Quebecois French.

She understood him well enough. She understood what had to be done.

"Where the heck is Malisse?” Marshall demanded.
“She’s not in her quarters?” Pablo asked.

“I saw her stalk out of the room. I think she’s....”

“She takes accidents hard. She’s probably sulking somewhere.”
Except that Marshall was not convinced by his own words. She couldn’t have done anything too crazy, because the stalled pod was a third of the way down the stalk.

You would need... hell. They had maintenance pods. She wouldn’t have. She couldn’t have. She would have. And maybe she could have. He knew where the pods were kept and he knew it was guarded, but... this was Malisse he was thinking about. And everyone was distracted by the potential public relations disaster. Let’s see, how easy would it be to sneak in?

Easy. The person normally keeping a watch on the pods was staring at a monitor that showed the stalk arcing downward and, of course, nothing else. He walked right in.

There was a maintenance pod missing. “Malisse.” He turned and left the room. He could only think of one person he could talk to. Amanda Wilcox. If anyone knew what Malisse was up to, she would.

He didn’t want to call her on the intercom, and he found her in her office. Maybe things would formal up once they had passengers here, but for now he had no problem just knocking on her door. “Have you seen Malisse?”

“Not for a little while. She seemed worried about the pod, asked if I knew what was wrong.”

“There’s a maintenance pod missing. Somebody’s running the stalk and I can’t find her anywhere.”

Amanda turned pale. “No.”

“What?”

“The stalk has no power within fifty feet of the pod.”

His eyes widened. “So the problem’s actually fifty feet above the pod?”

“No, we think the problem’s a short circuit from the pod itself. We’re desperately trying to contact the occupants, hoping that one of them can EVA. The two test pilot types are both trained.”

He knew now what Malisse was going to do. Had he pushed her to it? No. She had always had that need to prove herself, and ever since Tom had died, she had been even more that way. “She’s going to walk it.”

“She’ll fall. She’ll die.”

Marshall found a confidence he had not known he possessed. Softly, he said, “Mohawks don’t fall.”

The maintenance pod came to an abrupt stop. The lighter the pods were, the faster they ran. The fifty-pound-plus difference between her and any of the men meant she could get here before any of them, and she could use that as an excuse. But the reality was that Malisse had to make up for the past. But the pod had stopped fifty feet above those trapped. And nobody had ever made arrangements for this or even simulated it.

They would now. People always fixed things after the accident. She was in the atmosphere, but at this height, the atmosphere was almost a technicality. Exposure to the cold and the thin air would be lethal, so she put on the construction suit the pod carried. It was designed to be as light as possible. Bracing herself mentally and physically, she opened the outer airlock. The ribbon extended away from her in both directions, smooth and an odd dull gray in color. The only way she could belay herself was a line secured to the maintenance pod. She made sure it was firmly attached to both the pod and her suit.

The wind was tremendous. She had felt wind before, but nothing like this. She knew all about wind that could literally rip workers from a beam and cast them to the ground, but this wind. . . . For a moment she could not move, and she knew that without the suit she would not have been able to breathe. You fall, you die.

It was not quite true. She had a chance of survival if she the line broke and fell: secured between the air tanks of the suit was a parachute. Yeah. Right. If she attempted to skydive from this height, she would be caught by the jet stream, blown only the Great Spirit knew where. The sky above her was still black. Only the wind told her she was not still in space.

She moved down inch by inch. You fall, you die. She embraced her death and made it a part of her life; you didn’t work the steel if you couldn’t do that. The wind was as the breath of God. Bit by bit—you don’t rush these things; you appreciate them. Every moment, she felt more and more alive, more and more real. Her life was this, and there was no way she could give it up. The sky, the air, the edge of the world and a drop so fierce that she could not see the bottom. Could not imagine the fall—and any fear faded away. She would not fall. She could not fall.

Her hand slipped on the line. She caught herself, she let the wind aid her, support her. The descent became an eternity. Fifty feet. A short distance and a long one, and then finally her boots touched the top of the pod. Now she needed to find the problem. Undoubtedly those inside had no clue she was here. She fiddled with her suit frequency. Nothing. A crackle, silence. She was on her own. Fine. She often was. She carefully attached a shorter line to the pod itself and released herself from the long line that had supported her as she descended the ribbon.

The pod’s climbing mechanism looked okay, but it seemed to have stopped in motion, its crawlers touching the ribbon. She hoped nobody had been hurt in what must have been quite a jolt. She examined it carefully. Well, there was no power to the ribbon here. But why? She pulled herself against the wind to the power receiver. That was the first, most obvious check. If the ribbon itself were damaged, that should be visible

She pulled the tools from the suit’s utility belt and got to work, removing the cover—and a brilliant flash of sparks encased her vision.

How she was still alive, Malisse was not sure. The splitting headache was clear evidence that she was. The suit had saved her, but the tint of its visor had not been enough to keep out all of the flash, and in lifting her arm to shield her eyes she had slid across the top of the pod and been saved only by the line, which held.

She clawed her way back to the mechanism. There was the problem—a major surge in the power-receiving unit that must have shorted out this section of the ribbon. But the sheer voltage—had she not been in a suit, she would probably have been electrocuted. And she was a construction worker, not an electrical engineer.

Think, woman, think, she told herself. She forced herself to look at the short. Within the case, it seemed that the flaring was increasing; thin as the air was, it was enough so that the fire was not being extinguished. She had to break the circuit, for starters. Okay. What did she have? She took a wire grabber, but it didn’t seem long enough to reach the contact point—or was it? She had a second one, slightly thinner. Okay. She pulled out the roll of tape used to repair suit leaks, breathing harder. Relax. Don’t waste oxygen. Tape them together, that was it. Could she look in if she squinted?

If she kept her eyes almost closed, she could see where the wires were touching. So small, but it was sending feedback up the ribbon. There. The sparking stopped; the harsh light vanished. She twisted, inching up the tool so she could reach in and tape over the hole in the insulation, and she stepped back. Okay.

The pod sat there. Well, what had she expected? Every circuit breaker had to have been blown by the short. She hoped none of them was inside. If I were a circuit breaker, where would I be?

The wind caught her again. This time it nearly did blow her off the pod, pulling the line so taut that she thought it might snap. She clung on. If she was going to fall, let it be after she got this thing moving.

She clung until the wind slackened a little, and then she inched around the center. There. There was the breaker panel. She eased it open. And yes, there were several breakers in the off position. Flip, flip, flip. She watched, waiting for them to flip back. And then the crawlers began to power up slowly. The short had been the problem—a piece of worn insulation.

As the pod began to ascend, she realized the full measure of her misjudgment.

Marshall was going to kill Malisse. By the time anyone realized she was gone, there was no way to send someone after her. Maybe there never had been. The pod, running at full speed and with its intercom turned off, had sped down the cable, and then stopped at the top of the dead area.

She had to have walked it. Or she was already. . . .

“She may be fine. The suit in the pod was designed for the purpose,” Amanda Wilcox said softly. “And she had a parachute.”

“Which at that height...”

“I know.”

“Mohawks don’t fall.” He was saying that for himself now. As true as it was, nobody had tried to walk the cable. Walk was the wrong word anyway—it was vertical.

He was at the edge of the control center, a place he should not have been, but where he remained by tacit agreement. Because they all knew he had a thing for Malisse.

Then, a ragged cheer came up from some of the technicians. “It’s moving!”

“She did it.” But then someone remembered. “The maintenance pod.”

“That’s not moving—hell, they’re going to collide.” That was strong language from Wilcox. Assistant directors did not use language like that. “It’ll trash the maintenance pod.”

“Malisse...” Marshall couldn’t finish.

“Wouldn’t be in it anyway. I’m sorry, but I don’t really see that she could have stayed on when the passenger pod after it started moving.”

“Somebody is going to pay for this,” Marshall murmured. “Whoever’s responsible for whatever design flaw made her have to go down there.”

“She didn’t have to.”

“She thought she did. One person or three, and a successful test of the ribbon. That’s a simple equation.” He knew he was right.

“We’re going to try and find her suit tracer. She may be retrievable.”

Before she ran out of air? He doubted it. But this was Malisse.

The next ten hours were the worst of Marshall’s life. They still could not communicate with the pod. It was climbing, yes, and the ribbon itself seemed undamaged, but whatever had happened seemed to have blown out a bunch of systems, including communications. They could not find Malisse. They would have no way of knowing anything until they got the passenger pod up there.

Half the station had gathered in the terminal area. They stared at the metal tube the pod would enter, and then the hole would be irised closed around the ribbon and the pod would slide into the docking area.

It arrived. There was blackening on its outside, but it seemed otherwise undamaged. Its airlock did not open.

Two of the station crew moved forward and forced the manual override. The outer door slid aside, then the inner, with a slight pop of equalizing pressure.

And there were four people inside the pod.

"So,” Mal said quietly, “when I made the repair, I realized that if the pod started to move, I would never make it back to the maintenance pod before they collided. Then I remembered—”

“The emergency airlock.” Marshall interrupted her.

“Right. It’s designed to be opened from the outside when the pod is stationery.” She breathed in, then out. “I had about twenty seconds until the crawlers kicked in. We’re going to need to. . . .”

Scott, one of the engineers, cut in. “It won’t happen again. We’re going to do a bunch of redesigns to prevent it, including equipment so that if we do have to get to a pod on the ribbon, nobody will have to risk falling.”

Malisse smiled. “Mohawks don’t fall.”

He laughed. “Yeah, I guess you don’t. But we’re going to make very sure we don’t have to test that.”

Marshall kept looking at her. She could tell he wanted to hug her. Then, quietly, he said, “I can’t ask you to. . . .”

“We have six months before the next shift. We have plenty of time.”

Scott gave her the classic crazy look. “You’re coming back after that?”

“It’s come back or retire.”

“You know,” he said, “there’s going to be another big project starting up about when medical would free you to come back up. We need the facility to build the interplanetary ships. It’s going to be the largest space station yet.”

Malisse glanced at Marshall. “You up for that?”

“How the hell could I not be?” He paused. “Do you mean. . . .”

“It means I’m thinking about it.” That was all she would give him—yet.

She could tell that he had come, finally, to understand that this was who she was. And she knew she could do a lot worse.

 

This story originally appeared in Warrior Wisewoman 2.


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Jennifer R. Povey

Everything from epic fantasy to stories for Analog.