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A Hugo Award nominee and a Nebula award winner, Eric James Stone is also a winner in the Writers of the Future Contest. He has had stories published in Year's Best SF 15, Analog, Nature, and the Blood Lite anthologies of humorous horror, among other venues. Eric is also an assistant editor for Intergalactic Medicine Show. This is his fifth story for Daily Science Fiction. His website is www.ericjamesstone.

Freefall was the best part of a jump.
As she fell, Gina Wright looked down at Earth, half shadowed beneath her as dawn crept toward her landing target in Kansas, and relished the knowledge that she was about to demolish the world freefall record by more than 20,000 miles. This was going to be so much better than her spacejump from the old International Space Station. She would have forty minutes of freefall before she even entered the atmosphere.
Using the gyros in her pressure suit, she turned away from Earth. The space elevator cable stretched like a strand of spiderweb past her toward the rotating hub-and-spoke wheel she had jumped from: GeoTerminal 1.
A brilliant flash behind the terminal forced Gina to blink even as her visor darkened to compensate. After her visor cleared, she saw a ripple moving down the space elevator cable.
Had the cable broken? No--the LED lights strung along it were still on, so power still flowed from the terminal. With a dad who was chief engineer for the elevator and a brother who drove one of the crawlers, she knew more than she wanted to about the elevator. "How high is it?" and "Can I jump off it?" were the only things that really mattered.
She told her suitphone to call her dad.
"What?" he answered.
"What's going on? I saw a flash and--"
"Working on it. No time for idle curiosity." He hung up.
Typical, she thought. If I were Kyle, he'd explain things, expect me to help solve them. But no, I'm the idle child who wastes her life jumping.
She shouldn't let her dad's attitude spoil the thrill of the jump. Activating the gyros, Gina turned her back on the terminal.
Minutes later her suitphone beeped. She answered it.
"Gina?" Her father's voice was strained.
"Sorry about before. We lost the counterweight."
Gina sucked in a sharp breath. The geostationary terminal had to be at the center of mass for the space elevator. Without the asteroid counterweight beyond the terminal, the weight of the cable would pull the terminal--and all the people on it--down to Earth. "How'd it happen?"
"That's for later. What matters is what we do about it."
If the terminal was falling, that meant her dad was falling with it. "Dad, do you have a way to evacuate?"
"No," he said. "But we'll be fine once we detach the cable. Without its weight, the terminal will settle into a stable orbit."
"Oh." Of course they had contingency plans.
"Is there any way you can get over to the cable?" he asked.
"I've got some backup rocket thrusters for maneuvering in case the gyros go out," she said. "Why?"
"You've got a vibroknife that will cut through nanofibers, right? For cutting your chute cords if they get tangled? I remember you telling me that."
"Yeah." Gina was surprised he remembered anything she'd told him about jumping. "Again, why?"
"Kyle's bringing a cargo crawler up. If we detach the cable up here, he'll fall."
Despite the fact she was already in freefall, Gina's stomach seemed to sink inside her.
"I'll let him die if I have to." Her dad's voice cracked. "One life against thousands. But if you can get over there and cut through the cable underneath his crawler, then he can keep coming up and we'll all be safe in orbit until the company sends a rescue ship."
With the gyros, she oriented herself toward the cable. The station's slingshot had flung her in the opposite direction of its orbit to put her into a freefall path to Earth. She hoped she had enough fuel to cross the distance in time.
"Usually it's good old dependable Kyle coming to rescue me after some crazy stunt." She chuckled, trying to laugh away the sudden weight of responsibility. Risking her own life was easy--having someone else's life depend on her was different. "Whose plan is this, anyway?"
"Kyle's. He said if anyone's crazy enough to make it work, it's you."
A few feet away, the cable lights flew past Gina in a continuous blur. But her fuel readout flashed 1% in crimson. It had taken almost all her fuel to change her trajectory enough to get to the cable. But there wasn't enough left to slow her descent relative to the cable. She needed to wait until Kyle's crawler moved past her in any case--she had arrived at the cable above him. But soon her fuel would be gone entirely, and her freefall path would take her away.
Still thousands of miles out of the atmosphere, her chute was useless. There was no way she could stop herself, and that meant she could not cut through the cable--the vibroknife would be torn from her grip if she tried cutting at this speed. She was going to fail Kyle, fail her dad, unless--her mind raced as she saw the possibility--unless she could get Kyle a spacechute.
"Dad?" she said.
"Still here."
"Can you patch me through to Kyle?"
"Hold on."
After a few seconds, Kyle's voice came on her phone. "Hey, sis. How's the view from up there?"
She ignored his banter and began unbuckling her chute. She was falling fast toward his crawler, so time was limited. "You're the only person on board the crawler, right?"
"Yes." Kyle must have sensed her urgency, because his voice became all business.
"You have a spacesuit?"
"Yes. Why?"
"I'm falling too fast to be able to stop and cut through the cable," she said. "But I'm removing my backup chute and I'll attach it to the cable just before I pass you. It'll slam into the crawler at a pretty good clip, but it's nanofiber so it should be okay. Then you can go out and get it."
"I've never done a spacejump," he said.
"I'll set the chute for auto, so it'll release at the right altitude. You'll be fine. Trust me." She used a tiny bit of fuel to get close enough to the cable that she would be able to attach the chute.
A pause. "I trust you."
Gina smiled. "Good."
She set the chute to automatically deploy as soon as it detected atmosphere, then removed the final straps.
She could see the blinking lights of the crawler approaching rapidly from below. Careful not to touch the cable itself, she pulled the chute straps around the cable and fastened them. Then she used the last of her suit's fuel to start moving away from the cable.
The chute hit the top of the crawler as it whizzed past her.
"Your chute is ready," she said. "And Kyle . . ."
I love you, was what she was going to say, but their family had never been one to express maudlin emotion. Besides, he would know she loved him when he found out there was no such thing as a detachable backup chute. "Safe landing."
"Thanks, sis. Same to you."
Gina turned off the phone. Using her gyros, she turned to face Earth one last time. The familiar thrill welled up inside her.
Freefall was the best part of a jump.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Author Comments

A few years ago, my family went to Hawaii on vacation. While we were there, two of my sisters went skydiving. I went along with them -- and took pictures from the ground as they came down. The next month, I participated in a flash fiction contest on the Codex Writers forum. The prompt that led to this story involved picking one item from each of three lists to fill in the blanks of this sentence: Write about a __________ ___________ that ______________. The items I picked were: "cliff-diving," "space elevator operator," and "is looking for love in all the wrong places." The point of story prompts is not that one must follow them exactly, but rather that they spark an idea for a story. So the prompt evolved into a skydiving estranged son of a space elevator operator who has to find a way to save his sister when disaster strikes. And then I realized it was rather rude of me to make the protagonist male when the character was obviously inspired by my sisters' skydiving. So I switched the siblings around.

- Eric James Stone
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