Coming of Age Science Fiction Teens & Young Adult

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

Elise only ever wanted one thing in life; to take to the stars and soar. While other kids decorated their rooms with posters of pop stars and footballers, she collected models of the ships of the System Defence Squadron. When her classmates were busy partying or studying, Elise dragged her parents to conventions filled with starships, shuttles, and spacesuits. It was on one of those trips that she first laid eyes on the Low Orbit Combat Simulation Instrument—LOCSI, for short. The machine that would change her life.

It was love at first sight—no, scratch that—it was love before first sight. The moment Elise heard about that machine, she knew it was her destiny. The young pilot with the highest score at the end of the convention would get free entry into the National Academy of Space Exploration. Her dream.

In the weeks building up to the event, it was all she would talk about. ‘When I get the high-score I get to move into the academy as soon as I graduate! No entrance exam, no tuition fees, nothing! Isn’t that great!?’

‘Settle down,’ her father had said. ‘I’m sure there are lots of other children with the same plan. Try not to get your hopes up too much, just in case.’

Elise only laughed. Sure, other kids probably wanted to win the prize, but she was different. She needed it. 

On the day the convention opened, she leapt out of the car and sprinted towards the LOCSI, only vaguely aware of her father calling her name. It was happening. It was finally happening. All that time spent watching sci-fi dramas and movies, all those hours playing video games and reading books on the history of space travel, it was all leading up to this moment.

Elise sprinted along the corridors of the convention faster than the speed of sound, barging over cardboard cutouts of astronauts, knocking ice creams from the hands of preschoolers, and leaving her dad to clear up the wreckage she left in her wake. Oh, she’d get the mother of all telling-offs later, and likely be grounded until she left for the academy, but Elise didn’t care. Every second she spent apart from the LOCSI, was a second spent not living her life the way it was meant to be lived. 

Ignoring the shouts of angry adults, and the cries of now ice-creamless children, Elise darted between a corn dog stand and a display on the Mariner 2 space probe and into the simulator room.  

There it was. The LOCSI. It didn’t look like much—a simple white cuboid made of advanced plastoids and suspended on a bed of tubes, gyros, and cables—but to Elise, it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. 

She took her place in line, never taking her eyes off the contraption in front of her. Some part of her mind became vaguely aware of her father stepping up beside her, but her focus remained solely on the LOCSI. She’d been waiting for this moment for so long and now it was finally here.

One by one, the people in front of her took their turns. Elise watched their attempts on a large screen at the other end of the room. The LOCSI simulated a battle against the Beasts from Beyond—a mysterious race of giant extraterrestrial creatures who came from outside the solar system with the goal of destroying and consuming all life. With their leathery skin, masses of tentacles, and countless dagger-like teeth, they looked horrific—like something out of her father’s HP Lovecraft books. Elise wasn’t afraid, though. In her starfighter she could take them all on. 

That being said, she was glad that most of the people before her in line weren’t responsible for the defence of Earth. Some of them did okay, but most were absolutely hopeless. One spotty-faced boy wearing a football jersey didn’t even manage to blast a single Beast. Elise would put them all to shame. Her score would be in an entirely different stratosphere to theirs.

‘Next,’ the attendant running the simulator said. 

At last, it was her turn. Elise shot forwards and dashed up the steps leading to the entrance. She poked a head through the doorway and—

She froze. The inside looked… different to how she’d been expecting. Spaceships on TV seemed so sleek and open. This… didn’t. The simulator consisted of a single padded chair crammed in front of a control panel, and there was barely enough room inside for even those. 

‘Awesome, isn’t it?’ the attendant said. ‘It was designed to mimic the interior of a Helios Mark V Starfighter.’

‘This is what the cockpit of a Helios 5 looks like?’ Those were the main ship flown by the SDS. When Elise went to the academy, it’s the ship she’d train with, and would most likely be what she’d fly as a pilot. Elise had known that. She just hadn’t expected the interior to be so… small. 

The attendant nodded. ‘Yeah, get in. Try it out. You’ll feel like a real SDS pilot.’

‘I… I don’t know,’ Elise said. She’d been waiting for this day for ages, but now, some part of her brain was telling her she shouldn’t go. Staring into that tiny, cramped space, she felt… nauseous, and hot, and cold, and sweaty, and dry, and—

The attendant nudged her back. ‘It’ll be fine. Go on.’

Still, Elise hesitated.

‘Look, kid. There’s a line. Either get in and get on with it, or get lost. Everyone wants a go on this thing. I don’t have space in the schedule for time wasters.’

Elise’s body trembled. Her heartbeat rose and rose and rose.


‘Last chance. Get in the simulator, or get out of line.’

Despite every ounce of her being telling her to do otherwise, Elise climbed into the LOCSI and slipped into the chair. 

‘Great. Sit tight, go through the interactive tutorial, and give it your best. The controls are pretty intuitive, and a lot like some of those video games all you kids are playing.’

‘Wait, I—’

But the attendant was already gone, and the hatch was closing. 



The hatch shut, leaving Elise alone in the darkness.

Okay, it wasn’t actually dark. It was actually pretty bright, lit by a few strips of fluorescent lighting that changed colour depending on the status of the ship. Elise would have found that really cool if it wasn’t for the growing black spots in her vision, and the way her chest felt like it was being crushed by the steel gauntlet of a mech suit. 

What was wrong with her? Elise didn’t understand. She wanted to cry, scream, and throw up all at once.

Are the walls getting closer? They are. They’re shrinking!

The attendant’s voice crackled out of a speaker. ‘What’s wrong, kid? The tutorial’s started.’

Elise hadn’t noticed, hadn’t even looked at the controls. There was a tingling in her bladder telling her she needed to use the loo, even though she’d gone right before leaving home. There was a tightness in her chest telling her she couldn’t breathe, even though she could feel air being pumped in through vents.

All the while, the black spots in her vision grew larger and larger, darker and darker, until—

Her body trembling, Elise passed out. 

She found out later that she’d wet herself in the LOCSI, meaning the simulator had to be shut down for the rest of the day to get professionally cleaned. It was embarrassing. Humiliating, even. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. Not by a long shot. 

Her father took her to a doctor, who diagnosed her with something called claustrophobia. He said that she could live a perfectly normal life, but that it’s possible she’d always have to avoid tight and confined spaces. That included starfighter cockpits. To Elise, that meant she couldn’t live a perfectly normal life at all. Her dream lay in tatters.


Elise jolted awake as a fist hammered on the door to her room. 

‘Elise, get up. The Saturn Patrol just got back and there’s a ship on platform three with a burnt-out plasma connector. Oh, and take a wet repairs kit. The pilot’s waste disposal pipe malfunctioned.’

Mike Thomas, Head Ground Technician at the North Montana SDS Airbase, never was one to mince words. Still, it was Elise’s duty shift, so up she got and slipped on her overalls. 

It had taken her a long time to come to terms with the idea that she’d never be a pilot. She spent many nights crying into her pillow, and many more with stomach cramps from the numerous experimental medications she tried. After she blew her life savings on a third attempt at hypnotherapy, her family and friends held an intervention. They drilled it into her that she had to accept she might never be a pilot and had to stop wasting her life chasing a dream that would probably never come true. First, Elise swore at them and accused them of hating her. Then she cried. And cried. And cried. Finally, when every drop of moisture had left her body, she made a plan. If she couldn’t be a pilot, she’d have to find another way to be around starfighters.

She went to college and studied aerospace engineering, throwing herself into the work with a rabid enthusiasm. It might not be the same as flying the ships herself, but at least she’d get to touch them. To do her part. After years of rigorous exams, extensive coursework, and a growing mountain of student debt, Elise got a job as a ground technician at the SDS base in her home state. It wasn’t her dream, but it was a good second choice. 

At least, she thought it was.

As Elise headed for platform three, she passed a trio of laughing pilots. ‘Watch out Techie,’ one of them said. ‘O’Brien had bean paste in his rations, so you’re walking into a real biohazard.’

Techie. Techie!? She’d worked on this base for three years and that was still all she was to them. A faceless pair of overalls and a spanner. 

She could name them all. There was David Jackson, who had been the captain of his highschool football team and whose home town virtually threw a parade every time he visited; Ranjit Agrawal, whose Hinduism never seemed to stop him from enjoying a grass-fed steak; and Jacob O’Brien, who pretended to be a massive Black Sabbath fan, but who Elise had caught listening to One Direction more than once. Elise knew everything about them, down to the tiniest details of how they liked their ships calibrated, but to them, she would always just be a techie.

Once she got to platform three, Elise knew the repair it was an easy enough fix. She clambered aboard the ship and got to work under the floodlights. All she had to do was replace the old plasma connector and run a few simple diagnostics. It wouldn’t take long. As for the ‘wet repairs’, they were disgusting but all part of the job. Aside from the pilots themselves, only qualified technicians were allowed near the starfighters, so it fell to them to handle all aspects of the ships’ maintenance. 

Less than half an hour later, Elise was just finishing up and glad of it. She still wasn’t entirely comfortable in the tiny cockpits, but as long as she kept the hatch open, it was usually okay. The problem was, she hadn’t slept well the last couple of nights, and growing exhaustion wasn’t exactly great for keeping the irrational part of her mind at bay. 

As she ran her final diagnostic, Elise noticed a figure looming over her. An all too familiar figure. 

‘What do you want, Brad?’ she said.

Brad Thorn, a fellow ground technician, grinned at her. ‘Just to see how you were getting on. I know interior repairs can get a little… difficult for you.’

Of course he did. A short while after she’d started working at the base, Elise had had an… incident. She’d been trapped inside a broom closet and panicked. By the time someone found her, she’d fainted twice and was drenched in sweat. A few of her colleagues treated her with sympathy, but many laughed. And who was the one who laughed the most? Bradley. Fucking. Thorn.

‘Well I’m fine, so get lost.’

Of course, he didn’t move. ‘Say, all those overcomplicated games you play, you must know how to fly one of these, right?’

‘In theory.’ 

‘It must kill you that you’re stuck down here doing repairs instead, huh?’

‘Not really.’ It did, of course, but she’d sooner take a one-way trip into a black hole than confess her innermost feelings to Brad Thorn. 

‘If you say so.’

Elise didn’t see it until it was too late. His hand. He’d been distracting her so she wouldn’t notice it drifting towards the mechanism that would close the hatch. 

‘Don’t you dare!’

He dared. The hatch slammed shut, and Elise was right back in the box she’d been in all those years ago. Immediately, the walls began closing in. Just as before, her chest tightened and her vision became patchy and distorted. 

Outside the cockpit, Brad laughed, but Elise barely noticed. She took a series of gasping breaths. She could feel the air going in, but it was like it had no effect. Slowly but surely, her consciousness faded. 

Her hands dove to the control panel, but with her vision spotty, she couldn’t find the hatch release. 

The walls got closer and closer. Her chest tighter and tighter.

Just before she passed out, Elise’s fingers found the right button and the hatch burst open again.

One deep breath. Then two. Then three. As soon as she regained her balance, Elise got up, climbed out of the cockpit, and punched Brad in his laughing face.

He dabbed at his lip. ‘Jesus. What the hell, you psycho! It was just a joke.’

‘It wasn’t funny.’

Elise wheeled around and made to go back inside. Why did people think it was okay to treat her like that? Just because they didn’t experience things the way she did, they thought it was funny. They were pricks. All of them. 

The doors to the base slid open and the three pilots from earlier came sprinting towards her. Behind them, a blaring alarm echoed out.

‘Is the ship ready to go?’ O’Brien asked.

‘Yeah. What’s happening?’

‘Beast sighting. A big one. Huge. Bigger than anyone’s ever seen before.’

Elise wanted to ask more, but O’Brien was already gone, following his comrades to their ships. She turned around. Watching the ships take off was always the hardest part of working here. 

But rather than the roaring of engines, it was the thump of flesh striking the ground and the scream of a man in agony that reached her ears. 

Her head whipped around. O’Brien lay on the ground next to a slick patch of oil, clutching his wrist. Ranjit and David stood over him, the latter swearing profusely. 

‘Shit. Shit shit shit. We can’t fly a man down. Not against a monster this size. We need to call up a reserve.’

‘We don’t have any reserves,’ Ranjit said. 

‘Shit.’ David glanced at Brad, who stood gaping like a horny teenager seeing his first pair of breasts. ‘What about you? Can you fly?’

‘No.’ And then realisation lit in his eyes. He thrust a finger at her. ‘But Elise can.’

He whirled on her. ‘You can?’

‘Y-yes. But not—’

‘What is it, yes or no?’

‘I know how to, but I’ve never actually done it.’

‘It’s easy. Just like in the simulations.’


David frowned. ‘What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you blabbering like a lost toddler?’

‘She’s got claustrophobia,’ Brad said. ‘She can’t handle being in the cockpits. They’re too small.’

Instantly, David’s expression softened. He approached Elise and laid a hand on her shoulder. ‘Hey. If you really can fly, we need you. I’m going to teach you a little trick I learned to deal with anxiety.’

‘You don’t think I’ve already tried that sort of thing?’ She’d tried all the techniques. Everything. It wouldn’t work. It had never worked. 

‘This is different. This one only works in times of extreme need.’


‘Remember who you’re doing it for. You have family?’

She nodded. There were her parents, her sister, and her little nieces and nephews. 

‘Right now, Elise, they need you. Everyone on Earth needs you. When you feel the pressure rising, just remember that.’

Elise didn’t know. So much could go wrong. She wrung her hands, a trickle of sweat carving a path down her cheek. 

David gazed into her eyes. ‘I swear to you, if you do this, I won’t rest until we get these ships redesigned to not trigger your claustrophobia. I know what I’m asking is hard. I know it isn’t fair. But if there is the tiniest chance you can fly that ship, I need you to try. Please, just get into the cockpit.’

Elise had never really believed in God. if she had, she’d probably have spent most of her life cursing his name. But at that moment, she felt something. A force that seemed to say, This is your moment. Seize it.

Elise nodded. She would try. 

This time, when the walls began closing in, she pictured her father, her mother, her sister. She pictured the little ones. She pictured her friends. Everyone who loved her. Everyone who needed her. 

Alone, she wasn’t strong enough to fight the fear. But she wasn’t alone. Not then. Not ever. They were with her. All of them. Elise wouldn’t let them down.

The walls stopped moving. 

‘Elise, you with me?’ came David’s voice through the comm link.

‘I’m with you. Let’s fly.’ 

October 12, 2023 10:45

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Tom Skye
11:19 Oct 19, 2023

Nice story. You brought a lot of depth the the MC by making her a bit selfish and overeager at the beginning. Pushing past other kids, etc. You also made her a little bitter throughout, which prevented her from being a Mary Sue. I suspect this was written as children's fiction. It would serve as a nice educational piece about claustrophobia (and phobias) in general. I enjoyed this very much. Thanks for sharing.


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17:17 Oct 16, 2023

Daniel, this was a very interesting focus for a sci-fi story! I could empathize with Elise's frustration, having built her future around flying only to realize that her body was rejecting her dream. I appreciate that David wasn't dismissive. While he came on harshly initially, he recognized the actual fear and anxiety that she was dealing with, and quickly shifted gears to help her instead of just be angry or turn it into a joke. I think a powerful message of the story (whether you meant it to be or not) is how often the response to our s...


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Michał Przywara
02:09 Oct 13, 2023

Good YA sci-fi, and the claustrophobia was a great twist! I had a suspicion when as soon as she actually saw the cockpit, and the way her discomfort was dragged out was great. She gets a second chance, and it looks like she makes good use of it. She's almost certainly flying into hell, but in this story, that's a happy ending :) The only thing that's not super clear to me is what happened to O’Brien. It seems like he tripped, and perhaps broke his wrist, but I'm not sure. With "David stood over him, the latter swearing profusely", it's pos...


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Mary Bendickson
15:05 Oct 12, 2023

Hey, she overcame her fears.


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12:43 Oct 12, 2023

Great story, was really hoping she'd win at the game, and didn't see that twist coming. It makes sense that the real job could be different than her dream. It was nice to see Elise take a big step toward conquering her fear at the end.


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Daniel Allen
10:50 Oct 12, 2023

Haven't posted anything here for a while because I've been busy working on my debut novel, which is now finally out! It actually deals with some similar themes to those in this story, so here's the link if you'd like to take a look (it's FREE on Kindle Unlimited!). https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0CKR4SCYD


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