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Episode 5 | Missionary To Mars

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Eustis’ tension boiled as the space elevator climbed into the rust-brown sky. Going long stretches without blinking, he watched the world shrink beneath through the glass. He kept thinking the admiral would come soaring through the sky to blow the elevator into bits. That led to visions of what had happened to his friends earlier that afternoon. His stomach turned, and he felt like he might throw up. He cast his eyes out the glass, hoping for a reprieve. 

The blues and greens of the scenery below were laid out in a rich array, reminding him of the beauty and comfort he was leaving. The expanse of black was yawning dark and unforgiving above. A new forbidding rested on his heart and squeezed his lungs into a tight knot. 

“There you are,” Enzo said. The sound of his voice made Eustis jump. “Did you see that fighter craft flanking us? It was weird. Everyone on level one was freaked out. I’m guessing there’s someone on board that—” 

“So,” Eustis interrupted. He was eager to change the subject. “Earlier, when we were talking about scanning your chip, you said I’m like your pet? What did you mean?”

“Well, that was rude,” Enzo said. “Generally, we let each other finish sentences before we change the subject. But you know, whatever. You Earthers do it different, I guess. So, yeah. Pets have to be declared. They are basically considered carry-on cargo. Rudwick’s cats could enter any port in the system, while the rest of the crew is banned from most.”

“Rudwick has cats?” Eustis said. “Wait, did you say the crew is banned from most ports in the system?” 

“You’re one to talk,” Enzo said. “Doesn’t sound like you’ll be getting a welcome party wherever you’re going.” 

Eustis spun to look out at the vast growing darkness and remained silent for a long time. Enzo chattered about various things, but Eustis couldn’t focus on his words. 

He felt something changing over the next few minutes, but he wasn’t sure what to make of it. His body was tingling. His internal organs were trying to move inexplicably upward. His arms, even his fingers, felt like they would drift away. 

“So, why are you in such a hurry to get off-world?” Enzo asked. 

“I need to get to Musk City, Mars,” Eustis said absently as he rubbed his hands together. The friction felt strange against the tingling in his fingers. 

“Yeah, you’ve said that about a hundred times,” Enzo said. “But why?” 

Eustis rubbed his hands against his legs. They were tingling as well. He wrapped his arms over his chest. “It’s a better place for what I need to do,” Eustis said almost without a thought. He put his hand to his stomach. “I feel weird. Do you feel that?” 

“Yeah. We’re coming up on gravity reversal,” Enzo said. “You’re feeling weightlessness. You’re only about ten percent of your normal Earth weight.” Eustis lifted his arm and let it fall. It drifted slowly down. As the weightlessness peaked, he felt his stomach protesting. Don’t puke, don’t puke, don’t puke. The sensation of zero-G did not differ from the feeling of falling except that it had come on slowly rather than all at once. He placed his hand over his stomach, willing his guts to understand the peculiar twisting. 

All over the elevator cabin, people were floating into the open headspace. It was clear who had been on the transport before because they shoved off the former floor, spun, and landed feet first on what Eustis had been thinking of as the ceiling. He tried to do the same, but his motion was awkward. He fumbled the landing and scrambled for anything to grab. Bumping into a lady, he sent her sprawling in the other direction. He grabbed onto the nearest something but released it when he heard a shrill voice shout, “Hey, creep. Let go of my leg!”

“Sorry,” he said. He shouldn’t have opened his mouth. His breakfast threatened to come up.

“I got ya,” Enzo said, soaring comfortably birdlike and grabbing him by both shoulders. He kept his lips locked around his teeth, but he nodded and let him help. 

“Might want to use the foot hook,” Enzo said. He glanced up, but no, it wasn’t up, it was down now. This’ll take some getting used to. He glanced overhead at the ceiling-floor and tried to aim for the bench. “I’ll give you a boost,” Enzo said. Eustis felt the kid’s hands press near his center of gravity, a place he wasn’t comfortable being touched, but he didn’t protest this once. 

He reached a shaky hand for the spot he was torpedoing toward. When his grip found purchase, he maneuvered his body, pressed his foot into the loop, and pulled himself into position. He watched Enzo glide like a swan in a pond of weightlessness. Without touching anything, the kid tucked one leg close to his body which gave him a slight rotation. He revolved effortlessly, and then when he was nearly in position, he stuck out his leg, which arrested his rotation. 

“Wow,” Eustis said. “I need to learn that trick.” 

“Conservation of rotational momentum,” Enzo said as if knowledge of physics was the same as being able to swim in a gravity-free environment like a space fish. “A small mass with high velocity can have the same momentum as a larger mass with lower velocity. Have to be a total throttlebottom not to know that.” 

“Are you sure you’re just thirteen?” Eustis said. “You talk like you’re thirteen and a half.”

Within another five minutes, the ceiling became the floor as gravity, which was really the earth’s centrifugal force, began to grow in the opposite direction. It took his mind only a few minutes to reorient the room. Now the earth was above their capsule, and the gaping chasm of inky void was below. It was strange to have the stars under his feet. 

“What’s all that?” Eustis pointed through the glass at an expanse of shimmering points of light rising from the horizon. 

“That’s why rockets can’t do low earth orbit anymore?” Enzo said. 

“They don’t use rockets to get off earth anymore?”

“Where have you been for the last century?” Enzo asked. Eustis didn’t respond. “There’s too much space junk,” Enzo said. “About a billion chunks of junk turn orbital velocity into a death sentence.” 

In all the history feeds Eustis had seen, space travelers crawled atop giant explosive candles and rode fire into the sky. Strange to think no one left earth in such a blaze of speed. “Dead satellites?” 

“Yeah, some. Others are space mines from the war.” Enzo gestured toward the window. “A big cloud of swirling explosive shrapnel.” He smiled. “It’s pretty tough.” 

“Pretty,” Eustis repeated. He peered at the void, dazzling like a molten black pearl. Little sparkling points of light danced across the horizon for as far as he could see. Strange to think that the beautiful twinkle was a nebula of orbiting death waiting to splinter any pilot’s attempt to venture through the earth’s paper-thin atmosphere. Eustis pulled his jacket tighter at the thought. 

“So there’s no other way to space from earth?” Eustis asked. 

“Nope,” Enzo said. “The elevator is the only way. One shuttle every twelve hours.” 

“Good,” Eustis said, but Enzo didn’t catch the whisper. It was sad, really. The earth was locked away behind a shield of orbiting death. However, since it was that layer of space debris that made it impossible for Admiral Strafe to make a more speedy pursuit, Eustis saw the fragments of shrapnel as a kind of selfish-providence. “Thank you,” Eustis said again in an inaudible whisper. 

“There it is,” Enzo said. Eustis followed Enzo’s gaze through the glass floor. Below, silhouetted by the blackness, the carbonized ribbon pointed to an outgrowth. It was a variety of complex shapes and structures that jutted out in a wide spiral of docking ports and vessels. “Slingshot Station,” Enzo said. He pointed to the far end of one of the spiraling arms. “There’s our ship. The Scuttle.” 

“The Scuttle?” Eustis asked. “That doesn’t instill much confidence. Why is it called that?” 

“Captain doesn’t like me to say. But it has to do with how she got it. She rescued it from a scrapyard.” 

“Again, no confidence instilled,” Eustis watched as Slingshot Station swelled to enormous proportions beneath them. “Do you mean it was in a junkyard?”

“My lips are sealed,” Enzo said. 

“Well, that’s a first.” 

Eustis looked up at the earth, a bold blue ball suspended against the black. He dangled from the glowing orb like a spider on a thin web. Eustis noted the contrast as he shifted, staring between his feet at Slingshot. The artificial glow of manmade lights was a pale comparison to the world above. The station enlarged until it was their entire view. The elevator capsule continued to descend slowing gradually as it neared the geodesic peak of Slingshot. 

The elevator shuttered, hissed, and came to a full stop. Enzo spoke fast. “Keep your eyes on the ground, walk fast, and try to look like you’re going somewhere.” 

“What? Why?”

“There are cameras everywhere. You’re Dr. Gatti, but you’re not looking like yourself today. Also, if you see Captain Marianna or Rudwick, hide.” Enzo stepped quickly out of the sprawling hatch that had just opened. Eustis sprinted behind him making the best of the half gravity.

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