Sarah pushes the Pintail’s flight stick forward and the aquamarine sky rolls away. Below, the cloud deck is an impossible swirl of cinnamon and gold with pockets of flickering lightning. Thunder rumbles in bursts, its audio out of sync with the light show. Through the cockpit windows great banded rings fade into the horizon and the scale of it is almost too much to take in at once. Motion catches her eye as a silver glimmer carves a vapor trail across the sky. It changes course, the vapor trail bending, then corkscrews a white spiral before matching her altitude. Saturn’s moons are an audience of bright stars behind it.
“Well, now you’re just showing off,” Sarah says to her helmet mic.
Her heads-up-display brackets the other ship as James speaks over comms. “Just stretching my legs. Besides, I’ll bet you can do better.”
“Oh,” she says, drawing out the word, “all right then, game on. Keep up, if you can.”
Sarah breaks hard to the left and the sky rotates ninety-degrees. She’s diving, picking up speed, watching the giant cumulonimbus cloud grow nearer and nearer until it blots out the small disk of the sun, then she pierces it and a dark fog envelops her with the jolt of thermal turbulence. All of the cockpit lights dim and change to amber, their illumination casting colorful patches. She glances at the three-dimensional plot of cloud schematics and wind vectors showing James’s relative position. A push of the stick and she’s diving again, down through the base of the cloud with distant lightning flashes momentarily breaking up the fog, then she bursts through the bottom and pulls up to level out. The Pintail throttles back and Sarah takes a moment to breathe and just watch the sights. Overhead, the cloud stack is a roof the size of the Grand Canyon, flattened, stretching off into an infinite dappled orange ceiling. Sunlight shafts create drifting havens in the twilight.
James emerges from the cloud bottom and accelerates to her starboard. His Pintail is white with silver wings adorned by the two-tone Hayden-Pratt logo. Its strobes paint her cabin like a blinking neon sign outside a city window.
“Well that was fun,” James says. Sarah can see him in his cockpit, his helmet turned toward her. He lifts a gloved hand and gives a thumbs up.
She smiles. A thumbs up from James means something to her, and, for just a moment, she can’t believe that she’s really here, flying one of the first two production Pintails over Saturn’s ammonia clouds, looking over her shoulder and seeing the only person to fly near light speed tucked into her wingman position. “Hey,” she says, “what’d you think of the view?”
“It’s like an Arizona sunrise,” James says. “Smile, I’ll take your picture.”
Sarah gives a thumbs up as he snags the image from his wing cam.
* * *
Cassini Station is an azure jewel dangling from the golden necklace of Saturn’s F Ring. Strobes blink from space traffic gliding in and out of the station. It’s a work-in-progress, great swathes of framework exposed to vacuum, modules partially in place, and a building-block-like matrix of alloyed plates hinting at the future bends and curves of the structure. Sky blue interior lighting transmits through the habitat’s translucent domes, and, even from this distance, Sarah can see movement. People. In front of it all, taupe-and-twine-hued rings span back towards her.
Sarah lands her Pintail at Cassini’s lower dock, gets cleaned up and changes out of her flight gear. A shuttle connects her with the commercial decks. Microgravity appears when she enters the station’s rotation, growing in strength until she’s under a full gee. When the shuttle door opens, she steps into Cassini’s shop-filled Promenade.
James sits at their favorite table in front of the Panorama. Saturn emerges behind him like a full moon rising, sideways, its rings bisecting the view top to bottom. Smoothly it glides up with stars trailing in its wake. Two glasses of amber beer wait on the table.
“Hey,” Sarah says, sitting. She motions to the beer. “You know they brew that stuff from Titan’s lakes, turn the ethane into ethanol.”
James smiles. “Sippin’ the universe. You want something else?”
She grabs the glass, lifts it, and clinks it against his. “Here’s mud in your eye.”
It’s cool and bubbly, tasting like a mixture of wheat beer and rubbing alcohol. Sarah grimaces and scrunches her eyebrows, forcing herself to swallow.
James laughs and wipes his lips with the back of his hand. “Holy hell.” He coughs and slides the beer away.
She smacks her lips. “I know I was one-upping you back there a bit, but I didn’t think you’d try and kill me.”
“We should bring back a liter for Will.”
Sarah points. “Now that’s an idea.”
James chuckles and glances at the slate. Her eyes follow. “There’s something I want to show you,” he says, pushing the slate over.
Sarah leans in. A standard engineering schematic glows blue on the slate. The top view outlines a flattened wedge-shaped ship, an arrow of cockpit windows at its front. Sixty-two meters nose-to-nail. She’s never seen this configuration before.
“What’s this?” Sarah asks, engrossed.
James waits and smiles.
She pinches and zooms the screen. Her mouth opens. “Three terawatt reactor! Damn, James, what’re you going to do with that?” And then she sees it, the halo of emitters configured in a sphere of interlocking rings tucked behind the reactor. Riggs wave generators. This ship has a Riggs drive.
James reads her expression and says, “The best Bernard’s Beauty will ever do is ninety-eight percent light speed, but this…” He points to the blue print. “This will reach ninety-nine point nine. Full hab deck, max crew of six, enough fuel for three months.”
“Woah.” She does some quick math in her head. “So, her range will be almost three light-months? You could get to the Oort Cloud.”
“Ah, see, I did the same thing on my first Bernard’s flight. Three months ship’s time is sixty-six actual months. At ninety-nine cee, that’s five-and-a-half light-years.”
She processes that a moment, searching his eyes. “You can get to Proxima Centauri. Hell, the entire Centauri system.” Now she’s excited, indexing star charts from memory. “You could almost reach Barnard’s Star.”
“Yup, but it’d be one way. Realistic range for there-and-back is half that.”
“That’s incredible! Are you going to build it?”
James nods. “MEO2 shipyard is setting up as we speak. Construction starts end of this month.”
Her eyebrows raise and she laughs, nearly a giggle. She feels like a kid who’s gotten a sneak peek at the world’s coolest toy. Her fingers brush over the screen. Without looking up, she asks, “What are you going to call it?”
James turns up an open palm. “That’s up to you.”
Sarah meets his eyes. “Really?”
“She’s yours, Sarah,” he says, leaning in. Butterflies cascade through her stomach. “You’re the best pilot I have. I want you to fly her.”
* * * *