Ascent by Kelly Wright

NASA

Spinning, twirling, falling. Arms outstretched like wings, cupping the air, embracing it as if it were not streaking past at terminal velocity. There was time, for now, to come up with something. But in this moment, the sensation–the wind, ripping, tearing, clutching, a rough embrace, an unwilling lover. It grabbed at her as she passed through it, ever downward, leaving the air behind her gasping to fill the void of her passing. So savage, this unkind atmosphere, yielding and yet punishing, as if it were her fault she was forced to fall through it. Blame gravity for pulling her against her will. Blame evolution for not giving her hollow bones and feathered appendages. Blame Father for pushing her from the near-space platform. But surely it wasn’t her fault. She did not choose this. And yet she must find a way to stop it.

A wind curled its fingers through her hair; another tugged at her clothes. They resented her, feared her, and were yet fascinated by her.

She had been falling–sailing, soaring–for some time now. There had been panic at first, but the charms of free-fall seduced her, and now a calm clarity filled her. Free-fall was brutally peaceful, but soon it would be replaced with impact, if she did not act.

The streamers of wind continued to grab at her. She grabbed back. Startled, the first gust of wind she grabbed pulled back in alarm, and if she could have fallen faster as a result, she would have. The wind turned skittish, tugging at her briefly before pulling away again.

She hadn’t time to woo it. Had she an eternity of free-fall and no sudden impact awaiting her, she could tease the wind gradually, flirt with it and then coyly turn away, as though shy and unsure. The wind would be unable to resist her. It would hold her aloft of its own free will, anxious to hold her close.

Another day, another free-fall, she would woo the wind. But not today.

Fast as thought, her hands darted out, snagging thick strands of the nervous wind. The wind panicked in her hands, twisting and writhing, but her grip was strong. She began to braid the strands together, adding more wisps and tendrils as she went. It fought her, each strand of wind desperate to pull away, but their struggle merely tightened their bondage. Soon, she had a rope of squirming wind several feet long. She gave it a quick tug, to be sure it could hold her weight, and then began to climb, humming softly to herself and braiding as she went.

Her fall to earth slowed as she climbed the growing braid of air, until at last her direction of travel reversed. She made quick progress at first. The wind was terrified of her now, but curious and unable to stay away. Every puff of wind that crept near was incorporated into the growing plait. Her humming turned to song, and soon the captive strands were thrumming in reluctant harmony, charmed despite themselves. Steadily she climbed and wove, arms growing tired, voice gaining strength, hard earth receding below.

But as she climbed, the atmosphere grew thin. The air was anemic and listless, too lethargic to flee from her busy hands, but nearly too thin to support her weight. She climbed until the wobbling braid was as thin as three threads before pausing. The near-space platform was just visible above, still well out of her reach. She considered a flying, soaring leap, a daring stunt, clutching with fingertips on the edge of a railing before triumphantly climbing up and into the airlock, but discarded the idea as unlikely to succeed from this distance and foolhardy to boot. There was no need to show off for the snared wind–already it was a charmed snake tied to her will, dancing to her tune.

No, this called for a more practical solution. She braced herself against the braid, twining it around her feet, and reached down to grab at the long rope that fell away below her. She pulled, and as she pulled, her song changed, from breezy seduction to shanty, a hardworking song that cajoled the braid for its laziness and sloth. Come along, you shiftless wind, pull your own weight, it said.

The braid’s extreme length made movement slow and unwieldy, but it strained to answer her call, mindlessly surging up as she tugged. Her arms were water from the long climb, her fingers blistered and frozen into hooks from the delicate braiding. But her song was strong and true, and the wind was mesmerized. It could not escape, and so it no longer tried. Undulating coils of air-rope struggled to reach her, straining to be near her song. Once they reached her, with nowhere else to go, they wrapped around her body, layer upon ephemeral layer draped around her arms and torso. Soon she was cocooned in air, the translucent bonds making it hard to move. She felt a moment of panic–now the air could once again seize control, crush her or drop her–but no. It was her tame pet now, with no though of rebellion. She took a few moments to rest, now singing a lullaby to the coiled strands that nestled close. Her arms burned and shook, but she had one more task for them. With luck, the tame wind would do most of the physical labor for her. But the timing had to be perfect.

She eyed the platform above. It was still a good distance away, much too far for what she had in mind, really, but there was no other option.

The entire braid from her climb thus far was curled against her body, cozily drowsing. Slowly, softly, she moved her hands from strand to strand, gently tickling them into alertness. Her song changed once more, back to rousing work song, chivvying the wind into action. Wind should not be still! Wind does not rest! It does not sleep! There are clouds to push, mountains to erode, birds to buffet, waves to whip. Move, wind–move!

The entire length of the braid began to writhe, a boa constrictor in danger of crushing her. She held the bottom end fast in one hand. It squirmed in her grip, ready to unravel and soar. It was filled with purpose now, electrified and anxious. To channel that strength, to let it unravel and burst forth in just the right way–probably impossible, she knew. Father would be all the more gobsmacked.

“Now,” she whispered to the wind, hurling the fraying strands up and toward the platform above. With one hand, she clutched the braid as it flew, though it was near to disintegrating in her hand. The gusting wind exploded, the force of it jerking her up, up, up–and then the wind began to dissipate, scattering to the four corners. The section of braid she held fast squirmed and fought in her hand, longing to explode. That last bit of fight carried her up, almost close enough–one arm outstretched, fingers grasping, brushing a hard metal edge, curling around a cold, biting lip of railing–and as the braid finally escaped, abandoning her, she found herself dangling by two fingers from the outer edge of the airlock door.


Kelly Wright is an editor and writer living almost, but not quite, in Chicago. When she isn’t busy earning a paycheck by editing anything and everything sent her way, she splits her time between writing, making music, reading good (and not-so-good) books, parenting twins, and — whenever possible — lounging on a Lake Michigan beach.