Ready to Stand
Back cover description:
Born with a rare muscular disorder, she's spent her whole life struggling against the crushing weight of gravity and prejudice. Her solution? Eliminate both at the same time.
Original Reedsy prompt:
"Write about a prince or princess who is asked to give up something valuable as part of a deal to escape the world they come from."
In honor of Hans Christian Andersen’s 216th birthday
READY TO STAND
I was never very popular growing up. You'd think I would be. My family was rich. My dad owned an aerospace engineering and technology conglomerate. "The King of California" they called him. He was worth over a trillion dollars by the time he was thirty. And yet, nothing about his net worth could do anything to help my genetic disorder—my special sauce, as he always called it—a funny little walk I have caused by weakened muscles in my legs. I was born that way. It's been a part of me for as long as I remember, so I never thought I was weird until some friends at school let me know. Called me the little Matchstick Girl, because that's what my legs looked like. Little matchsticks.
Teachers always tried to help by telling me stories about the ugly duckling. How someday I'd magically stop being ugly and turn into a beautiful swan. Always smiled, too, like they thought they were doing me a favor. Well, that didn't help anything, surprise surprise. Took years of therapy to rub that one off.
No, the only person who ever really understood me was dad. I came home in tears one day after tripping down the stairs at school—an awful incident that ended with two broken fingers and a lot more nicknames—but dad caught me before I could run off to my room. I tried to make up some excuse about homework or an assignment or something like that, but he saw right through me. After some coaxing, he invited me into the kitchen and poured me a glass of POG (pineapple orange guava juice, my favorite), then put some wet towels on my face to cool me off.
Once I settled myself, he sat me down and gave me one of his famous pep talks, reliably effective, not that I’d admit it to his face as a teenager. “You know,” he said, “have I ever told you the story of the Snow Queen? Once upon a time, there was a dark mirror, one that refused to reflect anything good or beautiful, one that only showed the faults in others. They say the devil tried sending it up to the heavens to ridicule even the angels themselves, but in his eagerness and pride he dropped it, letting it fall back down to the ground where it shattered into a billion pieces, like grains of sand. Those pieces spread themselves around the Earth, getting stuck in people's eyes, causing them to see only the bad in others, to amplify even the tiniest of faults.”
“Well that’s a sad story,” I sniffed, still trying to regulate my tears.
“True, but that’s only the half of it,” he continued. “The story is also an instruction manual on how to deal with people who have been infected by the mirror. When people look at you through glass eyes, you must always react with love. No, wait. Don’t argue. Yes, with love. Not with anger, not with hate. And it must be a love so strong, and so true that it makes them cry the grains right out of their eyes. It’s the only way they’ll be freed.
“Don’t let the faults of others make you think that you’re anything less than the princess you are.”
And so, here we are today. Nearly fifteen years later. Still walking funny. Still the same old nerdy self. And still not popular. Respected, perhaps. But not popular. I work for my dad now as an engineer and as a scientist, something that should earn me some respect on my own merit, but in unfortunate reality is inherited by blood.
“So, I thought you wanted to take over the company? I thought we were going to run this thing side by side,” my dad probes, giving me his trademark pressurized stare.
I fold my arms and match his glare, unaffected. “I did. But things change. I want to be a part of this mission.”
“Dad, you know I’m the most qualified. I have the best knowledge of the mission objectives. Years of experience. Three masters degrees, fellowships with NASA. Hell, I even speak Russian. Do any of your other mission techs speak Russian? Who’s going to chat with Goncharov?”
“He speaks English, too.”
“Look, I’m just saying. I’m the best person for this. And I don’t need to tell you how much this means to me.”
He puts his hand up to his face, defeated. “You know this is a one way ticket, right? This is the foundation of a permanent presence on Mars. You’d be giving up all of your ties here on Earth—”
“Like I had any to begin with.”
“—your home, your position in management. Your season passes to Disneyland.”
“Well, now you’re bringing up good points.”
“It is a park hopper.”
“I know,” I concede. “But I have to do this. This is my chance to fly. To walk! Imagine how easy it will be to walk when my legs only have to carry a third of my weight!”
My dad smiles and nods his head, but then the shadow returns to his face and he sighs. “I’d miss you, you know?”
“You don’t have to prove yourself to anyone, least of all me. You’ve always been perfect. Always been my swan since day one.”
“I know, dad. And I’ll miss you too,” I promise. “But I’m doing this for me.”
“Good morning, Hawthorne. This is Nightingale. We are systems go for EDL. Initiating powered descent to Viking Crater. LOS in thirty seconds. We’ll catch you again in seven minutes with a nice pretty picture of the surface.”
Our pilot, Goncharov, hits the transmit button, then pulls us into a backward roll until our tail is angled down towards the surface. The ruddy planet disappears from sight, giving us an unobstructed view of the stars above, a view that never got old in the six months it took us to get here. “Alright, crew. Get ready for the retro burn,” Goncharov warns.
I grip the arms of the seat tightly in anticipation, tucking myself even deeper into the seat’s cushion. My back groans in protest, stabbing me with what feels like a hundred dull knives. The whole journey here, I just couldn’t get a proper night’s sleep. Something about my sleep sack kept me shifting around every few hours. Got the idea to stuff my sack with jackets and shirts to soften things up—started to look like a swollen cocoon—but no luck. At one point about halfway through the journey, I lost my patience and ripped my sack open, only to find a stray fastener about the size of a pea stuck in between the lining. No idea how it got there, or how I could possibly feel it. All I know is every night after that, I slept like a baby.
The whole ship suddenly jerks as the retro boosters fire up, squishing us firmly into our seats. My teeth chatter and my vision goes blurry, but it doesn’t take clear vision to see the bright plumes of fiery red and orange billowing up outside the window.
“Angles look good. Descent rate good,” the first officer chimes in from his seat beside Goncharov.
“Fuel at five minutes.”
The bulk of the downward journey is a rapid exchange of parameters and equally excessive jolts as the Nightingale fights against gravity and our forward velocity to bring us to a safe landing speed. Eventually the inky black of the cosmos gives way to the burnt orange of Mars’ atmosphere, and our spacecraft levels out into a vertical alignment.
“Fuel at sixty seconds.”
“Ten meters. Forward two and a half. Down a quarter.”
“Just a hair off centerline.”
“Got some dust coming up.”
“Three meters. Two. One.”
“Hawthorne, we have engine stop. Successful touchdown of Nightingale on the surface of Mars."
There's a collective cheer from all six of us in the lander, a rolling wave of applause and whistles, like a long sigh releasing nearly a half year of tension and exhaustion. I can’t say I’d do all of it again in a heartbeat, but it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for all the money in the world.
Well, I guess it is, sort of. It’s pretty much the trade I made to get here.
The next few hours fly by almost unnoticed as we make a flurry of checks and preparations to do what no other human in history has ever done—set foot on another planet. Full shuttle shut down, suit fastenings, site surveys, opening the hatch to regulate pressure. But most of it is routine. We’ve done this all in a simulator practically a thousand times. And Goncharov set us down on a dime. No more than a meter or so off our practiced target. We had all sorts of contingencies from engine failures to crash downs to sensor anomalies, but everything went off without a glitch. Not that I’m surprised. The California King built this baby.
Finally, it’s time for EVA. Goncharov and a couple of the others go down first. Their bootsteps are the ones that will be immortalized (well, there’s wind here, so they’ll probably blow away), and I’m sure they say something historic for the public back home, but I don’t catch a single word of it. All I can focus on is that initial feeling of pressure on my feet. The familiar feel of gravity holding me in place, and yet, it’s such a foreign force, like a shadow of what I know from Earth.
It almost feels like there was nothing wrong with my legs in the first place, rather they were just born for a different planet.
I look down. Red shoes. Martian soil, like everything you’d imagine from seeing all those pictures and videos from the rovers. Except it’s real. And I’m here. This isn’t a dream. And for the first time, I feel like I’m actually living. I feel like I belong. This is my purpose. How can I explain it? It’s like living in a foreign country all your life, and then coming back to where your ancestors are from. And all of a sudden everyone speaks your language, talks the way you do, understands the way you think, loves the things you love.
It feels like home.