Tag Archives: space travel

Thistledown Sky, by Stephen Case


I. Ghost

The sky is crowded with ghosts.

They pilot ships named after our rivers: Indus, Euphrates, Danube, Mississippi, Amazon, Tigris, Nile. My daughter’s is the Potomac, which she says is ironic and self-referential. It will be the eighth American ship, but only the third that has been piloted through our nation’s gate.

I have not seen my daughter since the day she became a ghost, though my wife and I speak to her face in the screens of our empty Midwestern home each week.

“Did you get any coffee?” my wife asks when I walk in the door. I like to bike the town near sunset. Our daughter calls at any time, cycles in orbit having little correspondence to diurnal patterns below, but in the evenings my wife watches the screens. If she’s not chatting with our daughter, she is watching the progress of the gates.

“Yes. But all they carry now is ground. No whole bean.”

She makes a small sound of disappointment.

Our daughter was ghosted four years ago. There was no reason for her to stay, all of the jobs in orbit now or beyond the gates (if there is anything beyond the gates). The last legislation limiting ghosting among American citizens was repealed when the Indo-Russian gate came online and the Chinese threatened even higher tolls for theirs.

I went with my daughter to the ghosting station, a vertical city rising out of the Illinois prairie. Its massive components had all been ghosted, particles disentangled from the gravitational embrace of the Higgs field so they floated at various altitudes, a weightless stairway into orbit. There were thousands of citizens passing through each day.

When my daughter came out of the station, we had a few minutes together before she left. We were told the ghosting process had no lasting effect on the delicate play of particles we called human consciousness. She was still my daughter. All that had changed was gravity.

All that had changed was everything.

Her movements were different. Weights at her waist held her to the ground, and when she walked it was as though she barely touched the surface. She stood straighter, like her bones were itching to be in the sky.

My wife had not come with us. She regrets it now, but some felt felt ghosting was a betrayal, that ghosts had forsaken the covenant of mass, the sanctity of gravity. Our children were not only leaving us: They were rejecting communion with Earth itself. They were prodigals, taking their inheritance and drifting into the universe.

It felt, in a way, like a death.

It felt like being left behind.

II. Slingship

I get a beer from the basement and walk onto the back patio. Agriculture has moved into orbit along with the jobs; they harvest crops from agricultural platforms in the sky now. It means the cornfield that used to begin a few steps from our back door remained fallow this year. Daniel Whitebone’s children are running through it, picking the heads of dandelions and other red and purple weeds I don’t recognize.

From the moment she was ghosted, our daughter began training for placement on one of the slingships. She was thrilled when she called to tell us she had gotten a placement on the Potomac.

My wife cried for days.

I sip my beer, an IPA with undertones of pine and grapefruit. Daniel Whitebone is in his backyard. For a moment I think he has a lawnmower overturned and is working on the blade. But it is only another one of his sculptures. They look like conglomerations of bone and industrial debris. Half a dozen line his driveway.

Our daughter could still come home. A few have already; they return to the surface and after spending several months eating surface-grown food, their bodies start to regain gravitational mass as ghosted particles are replaced through normal metabolism. They can feel the tug of gravity, over the years, if they choose.

Our daughter does not.

For Father’s Day this year, she sent us the information and credits to print a high-resolution model of the Potomac in ebony plasteel.

“She might as well have sent us a picture of her coffin,” my wife said, when she found the words to say anything at all.

It is a beautiful model. The Potomac started as an asteroid, as did all the slingships. It is maybe two miles across at its narrowest, but the border between stone and city is flawless, a cluster of skyscrapers and agricultural domes blooming out of broken rock like crystals. Without the pull of gravity, architecture runs riot.

I showed it to Daniel Whitebone, who turned it over in his hands and whistled slowly.

“A gift from the sky?”

“From my daughter.”

The model sits on the railing of the patio. The Potomac is next in line to pass through the gate, scheduled to go out in a matter of days.

Though hundreds of thousands have passed through the slinggates, no one is sure they work. In theory, gates make near-instantaneous travel beyond the solar system possible. You align the gate with an exoplanet, sling a ship through, and a fraction of a second later the ship has covered the distance and begins a few years of deceleration toward the target. Our children are catapulting themselves out into the Big Empty.

It is a one-way trip; it would take at least a generation to build a slinggate on the other side of the journey to sling themselves home. It had taken us the manpower and resources of an entire planet to just build the handful of gates we had. It would take a few centuries for the travelers’ signals to reach us, if they survived.

The problem is that the gates have a minimum range. You have to pass ships through at a certain speed unless you want them to tear themselves apart.

I explained it to Daniel Whitebone once, using his daughter’s hula-hoop and the Potomac model.

“Here’s the ship,” I said, “and here’s the gate. As the ship passes through, it gets accelerated.” I pushed the ship through the hoop. “But if you don’t want to travel too far, you’ve got to go through slowly. But if you go through that slowly, portions of the ship are accelerated at different rates and the whole thing tears itself apart.”

“A catch-22,” Daniel Whitebone said.

I nodded. “You’re either several trillion miles away or you’re nowhere. No in-between.”

We could have been more patient. We could have built our gates and waited a few centuries to make sure the first ships actually arrived at their new planets before sending more. But in an international race to claim new worlds, no one was going to wait that long. Certainly not our children.

And certainly not our daughter.

III. Whitebone

“Cultural suicide” was what some called it. Others used the term “voluntary genocide.”

I just called it death.

“There’s no other way to look at it,” I tell Daniel Whitebone. It is two beers later. His kids are still in the prairie, accompanied by crowns of fireflies. Whitebone has left his sculpture for the night and joined me on the patio. “I watched my father die. It was peaceful. He left, and I tried to believe he was still living on somewhere else. That’s what death is. An unknowable transition. You have hope there’s something on the other side.”

Daniel Whitebone nods.

“So it doesn’t matter whether the gates actually rip you apart at a subatomic level or whether they sling you to another star. Either way, from my perspective she’s gone. Forever. And either way, all I do is hope she’s still out there.”

“A horizon,” Daniel Whitebone offers. The horizon in front of us is wide with clouds and the syrupy light of sunset. “Do you know her destination?”

“Not the exact designation. My wife does. It’s someone’s name and a string of numbers.” I shrug. “Nothing you can see in the night. A spot on a survey, but it has a system of four planets. Two in the habitable zone. Water vapor and oxygen in the atmosphere of the innermost of the two. And seasonal variations they think indicate vegetation. A good target.”

“They are all good targets,” Daniel Whitebone says, taking a long drink of his beer. “The sky is rich.”

I nod. The sky is studded with wonders, from the clouds above our heads to the cities our children are building and onward to the varied worlds beyond them, those planets we may or may not reach through the slinggates.

“But none of you are going,” I say, tipping the top of my bottle toward his kids in the field. “Not a single American Indian ghosted.”

“Not true,” Daniel Whitebone says. “Many of our young people from White Earth have ghosted. A few from other nations are already stationed on slingships. Beware generalizations.”

“But your kids are the only children in town now. And I know there are more families moving off the reservation and into empty houses. Most of your young people are staying.”

He shrugs.

“Why?” I ask.

“Because the Earth is rich,” he says softly, “and because we are part of it.”

“You’ll be left behind. You won’t get any of the new planets.”

He grins, and there is no malice in it. “We already have one.”

IV. Slinggate

When I walk into the house that evening for another beer, the gate is on every screen. It is a ring, flattened and simplified with distance so that its network of lights and hundreds of miles of coiled metallic lattice looks solid. It is an artifact, a torus hung in space and picked out by beacons like jewels along its perimeter.

It seems like something discovered, like a leftover of another civilization, not something our children, the ones who left these empty houses, have created.

My wife stands before the largest screen, the one mounted on the wall above the fireplace. “They’ve moved the departure time up,” she says in a tight and tired voice. “It’s tonight. She’s going now.”

“Did she call?”

My wife shakes her head. “Messaged. Apologized. Said there wasn’t time. A last-minute adjustment.” She takes a long shuddering breath that is almost a sob.

There is nothing to see when a ship slips through the gate that I have not seen before. A ship, looking like little more than a stone in the view of the camera feeds watching at a distance, passes through a ring. There is a play of St. Elmo’s fire as it goes, disappearing like a rock into a pond, without ripple or wake.

It is just gone.

“How long?”

“Seven minutes.”

I touch her shoulder, but she pulls away.

I walk back onto the patio.

V. Ghosts

The sky is crowded with ghosts.

Some of them are disappearing forever.

In the growing twilight Daniel Whitebone’s daughter plucks a dandelion and blows, the thistledown seeds invisible in the darkness. The reality of those seeds is a hope alone. They will land and grow, or they will not exist at all. In the dimness, I cannot be sure.

When it is completely dark, Daniel Whitebone’s children go inside, laughing and singing words I don’t understand.

I wait alone on the deck, staring at the first stars and at the dark spaces between, until I make myself believe I see seeds drifting among them.

Stephen Case teaches at a liberal arts college in Illinois. His short stories have appeared in places like Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine ShowHis book reviews appear with some regularly on Strange Horizons. He has published a science fiction novel, First Fleet, with Axiomatic Publishing, and his first work of non-fiction, Making Stars Physical: the Astronomy of Sir John Herschel, was released this spring from University of Pittsburgh Press. You can find him on Twitter @StephenRCase.

Published Shimmer #46, November 2018, 1900 words