This world makes me feel as if I’m always falling sideways. Which may be appropriate, because falling sideways is routine in my line of work.
Up here I float, mind and body. The stark emptiness of the void offers the utmost peace and quiet. Inside, facing no one but myself, I can make an allowance for fragility. Instead of being impenetrable and unknowable, I can be sad, fearful, and hurt. Instead of existing merely as the monster of someone else’s obstinate preoccupation, I can be insignificant, with nothing to prove. I can be forlorn in a sea of stars.
Outside, sealed in this carapace, I float on the bridge of my voidcraft. My limbs are free from the bondage of gravity, and I feel like I can disconnect from just about everyone and everything. It’s a peaceful existence for a sapient organism in a gently curved spacetime. The universe and its few simple rules govern you, and nothing and no one else does.
Ours is a ship that incessantly orbits our lunar home; itself circling a gas giant which revolves around an orange dwarf star in turn. And that star embraces several brethren both brighter and dimmer, larger and smaller. Joined together, they perform a ballet among billions of undying fires and light an endless circuitous path through the galaxy. Circles within circles, dances embedded within dances, forever spiraling into control. Enough order to make you nauseous if you think too hard.
Puking inside my helmet would be very bad.
Vertigo imminent in the distemper of freefall, I listen for the sudden wisp of air in my helmet as I draw a deeper breath. The peace it brings me is ephemeral, but welcome. Here, as I breathe in and out in determinative cycles, eyes glistening, the poignant empathy of nihilism works for me. There is only the void. I exist as but a dust mote falling along a geodesic. I don’t have to put on a show here. I don’t have to pretend I’m stronger than I really am. I don’t have to prove anything. The catharsis of entropy keeps me together in its own strange way. I must be psychotic. Many are convinced that I am. But up here in microgravity, I’m the only one who gets to decide that.
I drift in this obsidian sea and I wonder if those enigmatic ancestors of ours—the ones that brought us here so long ago—had ever considered that there’s just too much emptiness for humanity to fill. And if that’s okay.
My drowsy eyes catch a glimpse of the small azure numbers projected at the extremities of my visor. They’re out of focus as I regain consciousness. I blink hard a few times in an attempt to clear up my vision, since I can’t exactly reach up and rub my eyes. I’ve been drifting in and out since we last took a respite to eat something of substance, and I curse myself for it. I’m supposed to always be at the ready. Perhaps darkness is just too comfortable a blanket.
Windsong is on a safe and idle trajectory. Recent efforts by the government have cleaned up most of the worrisome millimeter-sized hypervelocity litter and debris in close orbit; the dreck and dust hazards we can’t detect. I just hope I didn’t miss anything important like I did when we first got up here. We really need this patrol to be a success. But running on fumes would do us no good, either.
Cutting our losses has crossed my mind twice already. Luck is the most abusive temptress.
Even subtracting the breaks my crew and I took to eat and do our, uh, biological business, we could hit a record number of revolutions on this stakeout. A normal watch is three rayspans; one hundred and eight hours, or about seventy-two orbits at this altitude. We’ve certainly exceeded that. If nothing else, it’s bragging rights for a future meeting of the Guild, until some killjoy points out there’s no such thing as a standard orbit, and mission time elapsed is the only reliable measure to gloat about.
The mission timer flashes a cautionary orange-yellow. We have spent over one hundred fifty hours—four whole rayspans and change—up here circling our homeworld. The absence of gravity is causing my body to approach a critical point where I won't be able to counteract any deterioration simply by heading back down the well. For our health and safety, we’ll have to either return to port or land back home before long. The drugs trickling through our veins can only do so much to stave off bone embrittlement, muscle weakness, and vascular atrophy in zero-g. I could fall among the stars forever. But I can’t ask that of my crew.
I don’t want to leave. Do my fellow citizens milling about upon the dark orb looming overhead appreciate what they have up there? And why am I shepherding them, anyway? Is the solace I find up here just a defense mechanism; a reaction to the rejection and despondence I experience when I mingle with any significant number of my fellow supposed equals?
Great, I’m definitely awake. Now that I’m lucid, I’m thinking too much. I take another deep draw of oxygen, placing a hand over my breast, making sure that I’m affixed to several layers of mortal shell. The human body and mind aren't engineered for freefall. Microgravity has a way of etherealizing every experience. Doubly so when encased in the soft polymerized carapace of an intravehicular vacuum suit. Anxiety creeps in unexpectedly. I’d rather not be fully dressed up, but explosive decompression is a hazard we have to consider up here. We’ve been hit by debris before. And our cabin just can’t safely cycle through the life support tanks fast enough the moment we need to make a move, anyway.
I’m present. Time to get back to work.
Gradually, I’ve resolved the shimmering of a giant dull crescent far beyond the flight deck’s viewpanels, matching the surface area of my outstretched hand. Light is just about to break from beyond that horizon, striking our homeworld, enveloping our ship, and signaling the end of syzygy: the astronomical alignment of the celestial bodies around us. For our scrappy little interplanetary kingdom in this infinitesimal nook of the galaxy, that signals the start of a new gyre.
I suspect we’ve been up here long enough for the gas giant Dowager to significantly perturb our orbit. There are so many moons in the Dowager system that it’s kind of amazing that anything is orderly at all. They taught us about orbital resonances sometime later in secondary school, and then once again when I did theory as a pilot, but I’d be lying if I said I could keep my head on straight while explaining them. And it’s not something I often need to concern myself with. We have computers.
Dowager is a behemoth with one hell of a namesake, I always thought. She holds an interplanetary monarchy together. We call her our Anchor, our Tether, our Matron, and other ridiculous epithets. She is the legendary glue that keeps the very social fabric of our homeworld from tearing. Her mass mercifully grants us the all-too-easily revocable salvation of an orderly civilization itself. Without her embrace of her surroundings, there would be no form or structure to the celestial relationships in this system, there would be no heat, and there would be no us. She nurtures and mediates all those relationships: celestial and societal. That’s the mythos behind her name and pronouns. Maybe it makes sense if you’re a poet. I appreciate that, but I can’t bring myself to wistful thoughts about cold hydrogen and helium gas. Not like I can about the emerald-turmeric forests that lie above.
But there’s no denying that she is beautiful when the light of Astrild comes out to play.
Our foremothers and fathers who made the perilous voyage here certainly must have praised her for their deliverance and for those celestial organization skills. She juggles a dozen petulant moons. As an inheritor of human legacy, she keeps us terrified of her favor. Like children nervously showing their grandmother a scribble; that incessant childhood craving for attention, beseeching approval of their foremost matron.
Dowager is now positively glowing with a bright technicolor crescent smile about her face.
“Hey Ash, wake up, mooncakes. I’ve got an unknown return on sensors,” a sororal voice blares noisily into my helmet. I wince a little in the twilight and try to orient myself away from my repose.
Of course, she knew I was asleep. She’s in charge of every sensor and scope on this vessel, life support included. Sometimes I wish I could put her on mute without her knowing. At least she didn’t poison me with stimulants… I think?
Groggily, I reply, “Send it up to me, Tea. Do you have a positive I.D. and vector yet? Or are we going to be chasing terrified civvies again?”
“Easy, Captain,” the crackling, compressed voice replies into my careworn headset. I envisage the cute dimples of a grinning, freckled copper face somewhere in the cabin behind me. “Next time a passenger charter forgets to update their clearance codes, we’re going to hold them ransom until our fuel’s paid for.”
“You know that’d be the end of our interdiction career. Or possibly our lives,” I grunt, not finding her joshing about such things the least bit palatable this early in the… morning, I guess? What’s with her? She sounds particularly excited about this blip. Tea is the ebullient sort, but not when I’m making her work.
With a gentle push against the canopy frame, I fall backward, crumpling into the pilot’s seat with the dull thud of my tailbone. Flailing a bit haplessly, my feet find their way onto the yaw controls under the navigational column. Now steadied against the obelisk, I strap in with a four-point harness. My hands lower to my sides habitually: left hand over the throttle, right on the stick like a second set of gloves. The whole process of strapping in at the helm feels like waking up in reverse.
“No beacon from them yet?” I inquire, inviting Tea to tell me anything useful as I re-situate.
She replies in the negative, just as my visor lights up an incomprehensible set of raw astronavigational data, quickly resolving into an only slightly more meaningful mess of dots and curved lines that represent thousands of individual orbits around a facsimile of our lunar homeworld overhead.
I recognize the vast majority of these shapes. The big square behind our position marker at a slightly higher altitude is Port Arsalan, a sprawling mass of transshipment easily visible from the surface with the naked eye. Larger open circles represent freighters likely loitering to defer their harbor fees. Smaller closed circles flood the space around us with some automatically approximated trajectories running in a mess of directions, but they all greatly increase in density toward the celestial plane, where the very rotation of Mother Moon herself reduces fuel consumption and makes transfers easier. This new track of Tea’s that she’s marked for me in yellow is clearly diverging off-plane.
“Showed up over the horizon,” she says. “Arsalan Port Authority has no data on it. Not so much as a transponder. I could have missed it on our last orbit. Dim IR and that radar return is weaker than I’d expect, too. More than enough probable cause to run it down.”
I wake additional panels in front of me.
“They’re running cold in an inclined orbit? Yeah, that’s something alright. See what else you can get on them,” I command.
“Workin’ on it. Calling up the lawsats. They’ll give us a better profile.”
Outside, the creeping of Astrild’s stellar echo through the rarefied atmosphere of Dowager extinguishes what few dim fireflies I could make out of her distant brethren earlier. Primordial amber light slices through the void, enveloping the flight deck. Appreciating a rayrise from orbit should be the best part of my job, particularly now during the beginning of a new gyre around Dowager. No time for that now. I take what precious few seconds I can to admire the deep violet, red, and amber kaleidoscope of the gas giant’s terminator inching towards us before I move to lower the re-entry shielding over the flight deck canopy. It secures with a beat that is only felt as a soft rumble across the deck.
The beauty of the universe is directly proportional to its dangers.
Our ship’s external cameras come online, transmitting a nearly identical perspective to my helmet, which goes ahead and effortlessly processes and superimposes the imagery over the canopy shielding. A new, much less impressive rayrise appears. If it wasn’t for the lack of star glow in the cabin, or the slight flickers caused by camera apertures adjusting, maybe… just maybe I could mistake it for the real thing.
“Got ‘em fixed, Ash,” an excited Tea hollers. She’s way too cheery for her typical demeanor this late into a job. She must want off the ship. Suppose I can’t blame her, but setting a new orbital record would have been nice. “She’s a clipper-type single-stage vessel, though I can’t make out the model. Her altitude is a bit higher than ours, but she’s descending. We can fly inside their track and catch up. But we gotta move fast. With that projected course of theirs, if they continue descending, they might be headed for The Pearls, and if they touch down—”
“They can only hope for fair weather if they want to make it to Farsleigh or Lodestone with their limbs intact. Matron’s tits, that’s really desperate,” I finish, punching buttons and flipping an assortment of switches to fire up the last of our ship’s systems. “We’ve got the fuel. Going hot. Prepare for retrograde burn. I’ll need a plane change calculation, Tea.”
"On it," she dutifully replies.
Along with an adjustment to our east-northeast course, we need to slow down to speed up and catch the target, such is the oddness of orbital mechanics. It’s kind of like passing someone on the inside of a running track. You end up running a shorter distance than your competitor and that’s why the starting blocks are staggered. But you also have a sort of gravitationally influenced turning radius to consider, as your speed directly affects your orbital trajectory, so you can’t simply go too fast or slow or you’ll fall off the track itself.
With a controlled flick of my wrist, the vessel’s hull draws around its center of mass, hesitating against the sudden whimsical push of cold gas reaction control thrusters. Dowager falls behind us and our homeworld swells in front of me. The shift in our orientation confuses the context-sensitive features of my helmet display, causing it to highlight various political and geographical features on the glistening globe before me.
We’re in just the right orbital phase—passing over the most densely populated equatorial region and traveling prograde—for the cartography module to go a bit haywire with the highlights. Active volcanism and increased tidal heating reported: avoid this zone, it warns in a menacing red haze, for the safety of civilian captains. Hej, there’s the mighty Metriche River, it asserts much more calmly. And the Ymir mega-glacier from which it begins its journey. The cherished and protected temperate zone of the Aveline Forest to its flanks; landing prohibited. Outlined in blue, the Raina Mare, the primary source of freshwater for… our capital, Tencair, passing almost directly to our nadir as I complete the ship’s inversion. For a fleeting moment before I straighten out the craft and align it to the horizon and the retrograde marker, I reflect on the connectedness of it all.
I still love this world, this Mother Moon. For all the trouble she brings me, I know none of it is her fault. That is why I haven’t up and left and forgotten her like Tea did with her homeworld. I have the bank by now to hitch a ride anywhere else, but I can’t bring myself to it. A good mother prepares her children for their lives ahead, no matter what they will face. She did that much, I’ll admit. She’s the bedrock of my experience. And what an experience. I lost myself for whole rayspans at a time hiking among those lush evergreen forests.
Sibyl is my home, and she needs guardians. I can be that up here, without being accosted by the rabble dwelling upon her bosom. Win-win.
The fly-by-wire system corrects for the slight waver of our ship’s nose to the side and signals its readiness for our descent.
“What do you think, Tea?” I blurt out. I can see the various trajectory projections on one of the flight panels and a subset of that information in my helmet, but I want her opinion. We can only do this maneuver once. Interdiction is as much about predicting what the suspect vessel will do in advance as knowing where you’re going ahead of time.
“Well, assuming the sensor return is correct, they can outrun us if they get horizontal down in the atmosphere. I don’t know how long they'll sustain it, but they’ll smoke us in a flat. Let’s use the atmosphere to our advantage. Maybe come straight down from on high and give ‘em a spook?”
Like a raptor lurking, then barreling toward prey.
“Sounds good,” I say. “We’ll overshoot and go down hard. Send that plane change maneuver over and give the word. I’ll execute in a single burn.”
It’ll save on fuel, which isn’t cheap.
With some dismissive swipes of my fingers, I filter everything else out on my heads-up displays. Now it’s just us, some estimations of where we could be after deceleration, and also where our target could end up. Uncertainties compound as the atmosphere gets thicker. That’s where my profession becomes an art.
While we’re waiting for our orbit to carry us further, as we purposefully pass over the target to ward off any suspicion, I can feel my palms begin to tingle and sweat inside my gloves. With a ginger touch disconnected from the tension I feel in my bones, I keep our bow pointed at Tea’s compound maneuvering vector with the reaction control. To the uninitiated, it looks like we’re in a drift along our yaw axis. But it’s actually going to be a precise maneuver I need to nail on the first attempt, and the navigational node will be a moving target.
A blip around their position marker informs me that the clipper has dropped below us. Soon they will hit the atmosphere and aerobrake. Their descent is shallow and controlled; making the most of Sibyl’s atmosphere to slow down through a gentle fire. Our descent will be steep and brazen, embracing an inferno.
Homeward re-entry will be hot.
“Three… two…,” Tea counts down.
Several rayspans loitering in freefall, waiting for this one moment.
My muscles tense with anticipation.