Ascent to the Void

… continued from Decisions and Departures


The island rapidly dwindled with distance below them, the sparkling sea stretching away to distant horizons in all directions, while the sun hung low to the west in a blaze of fiery orange and pale yellow. Directly overhead, the sky quickly took on a deep blue tone, set against the now familiar pale turquoise to north and darkening east. Other mountainous island chains dotted the sea in the distance, tiny, as if on a relief map.

Acceleration pushed at them all floorwards, but only gently, and only for a few minutes. Ca-Tren squawked in surprise and wobbled on her feet, Laxmi and Jaci both squatted slightly and reached to the low furniture for support, while Anna held onto the main control console. After the initial rush, they all found their feet, and in less than five minutes the acceleration eased and the cabin assumed a constant, smooth, and noiseless velocity as it climbed the interior of the cable.

The interior. Of course, Anna realized. The twenty by eight-meter curved elliptical cab fit neatly inside one half of the thirty-meter diameter cable. The cable itself, which had appeared mirror-like from the outside, was almost completely transparent from the inside, and it was only when Anna looked for it that she could detect its inner surface outside the cab windows, moving past too quickly to truly see anything. She couldn’t quite yet determine the mechanism by which the cab climbed the cable; whatever it was, it was entirely silent and smooth. She made a note of the time on her tablet.

“How fast are we going?” Laxmi asked.

“Too soon to tell. There are several readouts on the console that are changing, one of them rapidly. At a guess, I’d say that’s probably some measurement of altitude, though of course I cannot be sure.”

Similar to the control dials, the gauges were circular, and they were themselves arranged in a circle, with another circular gauge in the center. That one, Anna noticed, had been rapidly changing when they first began their ascent, but then settled down to a consistent display at the same time the acceleration eased, showing a script in the center and a swath of turquoise color consuming about two-thirds of the dial, with the remainder yellow. So, that had to be velocity, which was now steady. The outer ring of dials were mostly yellow, but the one immediately counter-clockwise from the top was the one with the rapidly changing script in the center, while a turquoise color bar swung through its dial too fast for Anna’s eye to follow. The next dial counter-clockwise from that one exhibited the same behavior, but at a slower rate. Digits? Or simply a different unit of measure? It was not completely clear, though Anna suspected the latter. Other dials on the right-hand side of the large circle remained steady, with their dials mostly turquoise with a small band of yellow, most likely measuring environmental factors or power levels. As long as they remained mostly turquoise and with no red showing, Anna would assume that meant they were in good shape. Best to keep an eye on that, however.

Ca-Tren remained practically glued to the windows, looking out at her world falling away below them. What must she be thinking about this? Anna supposed she could just ask her, but for now she chose to leave the young avian alone, most likely processing some emotional response to this very new experience.

Within fifteen minutes the horizon took on a slight yet visibly curved aspect, and at approximately half an hour into their ascent the blue-green sky finally gave way to the deep black of space everywhere except close to the now definitely curved horizon. Anna checked her tablet.

“I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached the Karman line.”

Jaci looked at her with a slightly puzzled expression. “The what?”

“The Karman line. A somewhat arbitrary definition, not at all precise, marking the official edge of space. When we arrived, we estimated that for Kepler 62f it was likely somewhere between a hundred twenty-five and a hundred-fifty kilometers above the surface. Based upon the curvature of the horizon, in my entirely unofficial and completely seat-of-the-pants professional estimation, I’m going to call it a hundred-fifty. But I’m probably wrong.”

“So we’re…”

“In space, yes.” Anna felt some tension ease from her shoulders, some of it immediate, but some of it tension that had been there since landing on the planet nearly three months earlier. “And we’re still breathing, and not freezing, so I guess we can trust the gauges that the environmental controls really are working.”

Laxmi looked up sharply. “Hang on, was that really a concern? Should we have put on the e-suits? Or at least two of us?”

“Probably. Sorry, I should have mentioned that earlier. But I think we’re safe now. Well, relatively safe, anyway.”

Jaci asked, “So we’re ascending at something like three-hundred kilometers per hour?”

“Something close to that, probably, yes. Though again, this is just a wild estimate.”

“Like a bullet train back home. Ok. So we’ll be there in…”

Anna could practically see the numbers churning in Jaci’s head. She grinned. “About five days or so. Might as well make ourselves comfortable. It’s a long way to geostationary orbit. We may already be in space, but we’re not yet even to a typical low orbit altitude. We’ll pass that in about…” She checked her tablet. “Maybe another hour.”

Anna took one last look at the dials on the console, satisfied that nothing was obviously a warning indicator, then stepped over to the windows, next to Ca-Tren. The Kwakitl youth did not turn her gaze away from the view when Anna came up beside her, continuing to watch the vast blue-green expanse of her world’s surface stretched out below them, surmounted by the blackness of space above, filled with its countless stars. Their launch point of Ar-Makati had already dwindled from view, the island too small to make out from this great height, though the sensation of rapid ascent had faded, the planet no longer visibly falling away from them. Eastwards, at the edge of the terminator dividing day from night, another of Kepler 62f’s frequent cyclonic storms was forming, the storm’s eye already discernible.

Anna crouched down beside Ca-Tren and tentatively placed a hand across her back. Ca-Tren finally turned away from the view to look into Anna’s face and blinked once, slowly. Close up, Anna realized for the first time that Ca-Tren’s eyes were not completely black, as she had thought, but in fact had flecks of hazel and blue in a thin iris surrounding a large, dark pupil. The small feathers surrounding her eyes continued the blue theme onto her cheeks, beside her prominent beak, and hazel above to the line of her brow-ridge, above which they became larger and blended into the mottled brown of the top of her head and running down her neck until disappearing beneath her leather tunic. Her brow-ridge feathers lifted slightly, then dropped again to lie flat, and Anna realized that she was seeing the play of emotion across Ca-Tren’s subtle facial expressions, a detail she had not previously noticed. Was she finally learning to read Kwakitl faces?

“An-na,” Ca-Tren croaked. “Tank… thank you.”

With a start, Anna realized that Ca-Tren had spoken in Englese, not Kwakitl, forming recognizable vowels and consonants familiar to Anna’s ear. Of course, the Kwakitl had always formed vowels and consonants, but it usually took Jaci’s trained linguist’s ear to discern them out of what sounded to her like whistles and squeaks and croaks.

“You’re welcome, my friend.” She smiled and gave Ca-Tren’s wing shoulder a gentle squeeze, then removed her hand and returned her gaze to the outside view.

By this time the terminator had advanced westwards to obscure the forming storm, darkening half the planet. Unobscured by atmosphere, the stars blazed in full glory, and Anna’s heart sang to see them so. How long she had waited to be back among them, unbounded by gravity, though they had not yet ascended high enough for the elevator’s centrifugal force to counteract the planet’s pull. How desperately she had wished to escape to her true home in the dark void of space which she knew to be full of light and color.


… continued with The Climber

header image credit: Official SpaceX Photos / via CC BY-NC 2.0

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