A Karman Gift
This is the 2021 Starmoth Christmas special. The 2020 Christmas special was Christmas at Star's End.
“Elora ground control, this is Mori, asking permission to go open box in the designated area.”
“Solid copy, Moreena. You’re good to go. Happy flying.”
Moreena moved the throttle of her Alsephina Courier up to the military power setting and the spaceplane responded in kind. She pushed the engine to the edge of its operational envelope, and it swallowed the crisp icy air of the stratosphere as its scramjet reached its optimal altitude.
Josie’s smile was painful.
“Yes...it’s radiation-induced glaucoma. My ophthalmologist says that it is due to a short episode of heavy exposure. It’s old. Slow-burning but inevitable. I’m afraid it goes back to my time on the Migrant ship. My vision will slowly degrade and I will become fully blind after a few years. It was detected way too late.”
“Hey, Josie...we’re in the interstellar age. Your optic nerve can be replaced. You’ll see again, don’t worry. I promise you.”
“Mori, I know. I know. But...you know how this works, right? They burn your optic nerve with lichens, then they reconstruct them with stem cells and algae seeds. I’ll be blind for a year at least. Twelve months of darkness.”
When the Courier reached the mesosphere its engines started losing power as the air in front of its gaping maws became too thin to sustain the scramjet. Moreena flicked a switch and the Dagger-class drives went from open-cycle mode to closed-cycle mode. The Alsephina Courier had ceased to be a plane and had become a winged rocket. Underneath the dark fuselage gleamed icy clouds, stretching their tendrils from one side of the horizon to the other. Elora’s nascent space elevator filled a small part of the sky with thirty thousand kilometers of carbon needles. Moreena’s voice was sweet and calm, barely troubled by the Courier’s engine humming through the hull.
“Are you alright, Josie?”
Her passenger nodded. Moreena pulled the stick towards her and the Courier reared up in the freezing sky, hungry for the void.
Orange leaves dangled in the wind which rustled the pseudotrees underneath the snowy mountains. Elora was plunged in a long stellar autumn. Local life had slowed down and even the four-winged birds had stopped chirping. Moreena gently stroked Josie’s ashen hair.
“Hey. It’s getting cold. We should return home, lest the birds start taking us for trees...” Josie smiled and nestled in Moreena’s arms.
“I’d like to be a tree. They don’t have to worry about anything. They’re just trees.”
“Careful, now... Eloran trees can think and dream. Perhaps they could even hear you, if they were to spy on us.”
“Do they have eyes?”
Moreena extended her arm towards a furred pseudolizard that slithered towards her and hopped on her shoulder, snuggling against her neck in search of warmth. She patted the small creature on the head.
“The trees, no...but everyone else in the forest, yes. You know, maybe this lizard is going to report to the trees. Who knows what they are up to? Conspirators, the lot of them.”
Josie blushed, though Moreena couldn’t tell if it was sincere or one of her deeply charming acts.
“Oh...so you mean that when we make love in the forest...they...”
“I am sure they are well-educated trees that know when to look away. Elora is a civilized world.”
The lizard had fallen asleep.
The Alsephina Courier was now followed by the bright candle of its rocket drive. G-forces pushed Moreena and Joséphine against their seats like a giant’s palm leaning on their chests. Freed from the shackles of air-breathing propulsion, so close to breaking the limit of the atmosphere, the Courier exulted.
The warmth of a short stellar spring undulated within the wind that flowed around the hills, curving wheat fields and pseudo-oaks in its wake to create a shifting landscape. Two bicycles had been left alone on the side of the old path that meandered between hill and dale. A few steps further, under the shade of young pseudo-hornbeams, Josie’s colorful dress hung to a tree next to Moreena’s well-worn flight suit. For the past hour, Elora’s well-educated trees had indeed been looking away.
Josie kissed Moreena on the forehead, then on the lips.
“You have been getting better and better at this.”
“I have had a very good teacher...”
Moreena kissed her back. She felt happy and exhausted, drunk on her lover’s perfume and the sweet scent of spring. The pilot gave the exobiologist another kiss.
“Now...if you’re not too tired, I would like to bring you somewhere.”
“Oh...I assume I’ll have to get dressed again.”
“Probably. It’s fairly cold up there.”
Moreena kept an eye on the altimeter’s needle which seemed to be willing to race against the nearby speed meter. The Alsephina Courier was now close to Elora’s escape velocity and skimming the Kármán Line. Moreena was running out of time. In a few seconds she would have to choose between throttling down the engines to remain in the atmosphere or pushing the Courier further and enter the outer void. Such was the fate of any vessel trying to straddle the Kármán Line. It was a crossroads. A place that defined one’s nature, and today the Courier’s vocation was to join the great beyond.
A slender ship rested in the middle of the dusty hangar, grazed by the golden afternoon light pouring through the bay windows. Josie’s hand ran alongside the edge of the vessel’s short wings, feeling the silky smooth surface against the palm of her hand. It reminded her of a sea creature accustomed to the abyss, even though it was obvious this ship was made to rise towards the stars.
“You never told me you had an Alsephina Courier...”
“Technically it’s not mine. I am just keeping it in good shape for a friend who might fly again one day if she ever finds her way back to Elora.”
“Oh, do I know her?”
“Jyothi? No, I don’t think so. It’s a shame, by the way, you’d get along great. Now, you may notice something peculiar with this Courier.”
“It’s a two-seater?”
Two hundred kilometers above the Eloran surface, Moreena cut the engines of her Courier and microgravity took hold of the cockpit. The aircraft was now in low planetary orbit, falling endlessly through a continuous escape of the curved ground below.
Josie took Moreena’s hand in silence, and, eyes wide open, turned her gaze eastwards. A bright sky shone through the canopy. The Courier’s ascent in the troposphere was incredibly gentle, the vessel guided by the hand of an expert pilot.
“And, Mori, where are we going?”
“To the edge of space. I have a gift for you.”
The world had become a color chart displaying every shade of blue that the human eye could see. The ocean gleamed in lapis and cobalt that turned into teal and sapphire where the ancient continents would draw closer to the surface. At the other end of the vertical horizon, the planet was spread across a sea of ultramarine blue that dissolved into underexposed darkness where sunlight came to die. In between, the atmosphere shimmered in suzerain blue, a hue born out of the fiery Rayleigh scattering of photons pulsed away by Elora’s peculiar sun. For as long as Moreena could keep the Courier straddling the edge of space, Joséphine kept watching.
She gazed and gazed and gazed, gorging herself on colors she knew she would soon lose for a whole year, the infinite hues of space intertwined with the fragile envelope of a garden world.
A Kármán gift.
Illustration: US Air Force public domain.
All content in the Starmoth Blog is © Isilanka
Written content on Starmoth is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 4.0 license