As James hikes north along the rocky flats, a translucent map on his faceplate rotates so that his forward position is always up. It’s a bit like playing a video game. Pulsing icons show Ava and Hitoshi’s positions beside him. Overhead, the sky is crystal blue with a hint of aquamarine, the sun just a touch brighter and larger than Earth’s. One moon and the speck of another follow the extended line of the ecliptic to the sky’s apex. Behind James’s group, the rocky landscape slopes back towards the ship. Even from two kilometers, it’s still prominent. They’ve lost sight of the red team, last seen descending west from the ship behind some plateaus.
Late-day sun drenches asphalt as the motorcycle winds along the coastal highway. James banks right and the sky leans left. Kate’s arms encircle his waist, her chest rising and falling with each breath. To their left, the Pacific is a tapestry of shining diamonds with a single sailboat silhouetted against a goldenrod horizon. They watch the boat bob against the waves for a moment before James rotates the throttle, the motorcycle’s engine whining, veering them off the highway onto a dust-soaked road.
“Going somewhere?” Kate asks over her helmet mic.
James glances back over his shoulder. “I want to show you something.”
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.
Jia’s stomach burns and she jolts awake. She flails against the suffocation as if she can beat it away with her own two hands. Tears well in a weightless film across her eyelids and she scrubs the back of one hand across her face while the other fumbles with the harness release. Her head throbs. When she sets her hand to the site of the pain, it returns sticky and red. Thoughts spark and fizzle in an overlapping jumble of competing primal urges. Air. She needs air.
Kyan Anders drifted in a room brimming with a hundred billion stars. Radiant golds spanned familiar constellations, but it was what lay between the stars that captured his attention. Smudges of galaxies against ebony sky. Glowing stellar lanes dusted with rose. Objects no man could see from Earth, but here they were impossible to miss. It was like seeing, truly seeing, for the first time.
James Hayden smiled as his dream died. It was the polished, charismatic smile that had glossed the feeds of Frontier and Momentum. In the silence he could hear the soft pulse of Hayden-Pratt’s logo spinning on the wall behind him. He paused and gripped the podium. A room full of tuxedos and gowns looked back.
“It’s gone, James,” a voice in his earbud said.