A bright sunset hovered above the steppes near Baikonur. Horses waited in the wind, their forelegs pawing the short grass. Above the horses were the monumental ruins of Baikonur, launch towers finally rusting in the middle of nowhere - except that they were fake, that the original Baikonur was now almost six hundred years old and had since long been dismantled, sold for scrap, abandoned in the chaos of the early Low Age. The massive structures surging towards the setting sun weren't made of steel. They were built in modern carbon compounds, and they would stand the test of time way better than their predecessors. They would remain here for millennia. Pretend ruins. Ghosts of something that had once been one of the world's main launch centres, a gateway to the stars. Time had passed. Five centuries and the centre of gravity of human civilisation had moved south, towards the dispossessed of the ancient world. Baikonur had been forgotten. Cape Canaveral had disappeared in the great swamps of what had once been the North American east coast. Kourou had returned to the rainforest. The world's great launch centres were now all located alongside the equator, in Africa, South America and Eastern Asia - and in a few years, the space elevator would make most of them obsolete, finally freeing Earth from the sweet tyranny of the rocket equation.
Zenya sat on the remains of an ancient railway piled up beneath one of the mock launch towers. She looked at the sky, an old portable tape player in her hands. She listened to a very old tune, one that probably dated from before the Low Age. A short, hypnotic piece of electronic music endlessly remixing the original Sputnik's radio signal - like little stars made of sound that went up and down, carrying eerie nostalgia for a time that had never truly been. Zenya had abandoned her old clothes and her composite bow next to the horses, relinquishing her earthly attributes in the cold air of sunset. She wore a long-sleeved flight suit instead. It was made of bio-engineered plant fabric whose white outer side caught the last light of the day like dying coral. On the right sleeve was the emblem of her nomadic commune, a stylized steppe horse. On the left sleeve was the emblem of the Moon Communes, gleaming slightly in the coming darkness. Zenya focused on the music. It carried her away, away from Baikonur's ruins and towards the endless black-purple darkness stretching lazily from one side of the horizon to the other. She didn't feel nervous, just hungry. Her last meal went back to the day before. Everything felt alright, she just didn't feel like eating. Didn't feel like speaking, too. Her lips were dry and sealed.
When the shuttle appeared Zenya couldn't say if the tingle that ran down her spine was fear, awe or something in-between - a new feeling entirely. Holy terror, except it was entirely profane. She took off her speakers and put the music player in her bag. Sputnik's ancient tune kept dancing in her mind as she watched the shuttle land in the steppes. It was all white and bore only a moon crescent on its side. Shaped like a smooth, elongated cylinder, the shuttle landed vertically, its engines screaming in the steppes like a howling beast. When the engine light finally disappeared the shuttle was standing in the middle of the ruined Baikonur area. Zenya stood up and walked towards the shuttle, alone. Two Moon Communes pilots were waiting for her in the white light coming from the shuttle's ground-facing projectors. They were taller than Zenya, as they were true moon-dwellers, having been raised in 1/6th Earth gravities. They saluted her with a smile and Zenya answered in kind before climbing aboard the shuttle.
The inside of a Moon shuttle was comfier than what Zenya was accustomed to and she strapped herself to the seat that was the closest to the cockpit. The shuttle was structured alongside a perpendicular axis relative to the ground - logical, thought Zenya: that way the acceleration would push the passengers towards the floor and not the walls. Logical but slightly disorienting. Zenya was more accustomed to the horizontal layout of high altitude planes.
"This is your first orbital journey, right?" asked one of the two pilots, a woman with white hair and dark skin. Zenya nodded, holding to her music player. She had never gone above thirty kilometres in altitude.
"Our ascent is going to be rather smooth." continued the pilot. "It will be fine, just relax and calm down. Oh, you've got music? Good."
Zenya nodded again and the pilot climbed towards the cockpit.
Zenya's mind closed up during the first stage of the ascent. She felt a surge of raw power run through her body when the main engines ignited and the shuttle started climbing above the steppes. She tried to look downwards through the viewport next to her seat but the engine plume drowned everything in light. The g-force pushed her against her seat, but she was used to this feeling from her high-speed jet flights. She just closed her eyes and let the shuttle carry her far in the high atmosphere.
Then at one point, there was peace. The engines had stopped. Zenya felt her body lose all of its weight in an instant. Another familiar feeling, this time coming from parabolic zero-g flights above the ocean - but it was different here. It was different because it didn't stop. Twenty seconds. Thirty seconds. One minute. Two minutes. Five minutes. It kept going on and on. Zenya unstrapped herself and floated above her seat. Naturally, without even thinking about it, she reached for her music player, put on the earpieces and let Sputnik's song fill the sudden silence. The shuttle ignited its thrusters and pivoted alongside its axis. A vast blue crescent filled the viewport. Yes she had seen this a million times in videos and photographs, yes it was now something common, something a million persons experienced every year, yes, yes, but for a split-second Zenya felt an incredible feeling take control of her mind.
It wasn't power. It wasn't humility. It was something in-between. For the first time in her life she physically saw the world in its entirety. It was the genuine article. Photons filtered by her eyes without a screen or a picture in-between. The Earth. Millions of layers of space intertwined with each other, all of them grasped in a single look, in a single second.
Zenya was a shaman, a woman who linked the elements of the physical world, between spirits and humans, between local and global, between layers of space and time, all aligned on top of each other. And there, four hundred kilometres above the ground, she had never felt her art and her religion be more important, more justified.
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