“We want to give you the sky.”
That’s what they told Rafael LaMont when he was still living on Terra. They showed him paintings, photographs, and some decade-old video footage of a distant planet. Blue skies, violet sunsets, untouched landscapes filled with deserts, forests, plains, mountains, canyons - all the things Terra supposedly once had. Rafael had never heard of Thaeta before, but he recognized the pictures the J. P. Graham men showed him. They were the fantasy landscapes seen in all those television shows and described in all his storybooks.
It wasn’t difficult to win over the heart of a ten-year-old, particularly one belonging to a family so destitute and so unimportant. He had scored higher on the aptitude test given to him and his classmates than anyone else in his age bracket. Rafael thought his dreams would never leave the screen of a television or the pages of his books. J. P. Graham said they wanted to make his aspirations real.
The engineering industry is flourishing on Thaeta-6, they explained. There are imaginative new machines and amazing cities being developed in the distant solar system. We’re still in the process of learning about a lost alien civilization even as we’re beginning to establish our own. You’ll have to grow up in the darkness of space, but when you arrive on Thaeta, you’ll be prepared and equipped to improve our society, to rule the skies and lead our young world to shining new horizons. We need pilots, they said. We want you to be one. Help us build a better place to live.
Rafael didn’t understand or care about any of that. They told him he could fly, and that’s all he wanted to do.
Fourteen years later, he sipped his coffee as stared out over a wine stained sky from the stern of the Auberon. The late evening sun, having grown large and heavy, was gradually sinking toward the cracked landscape below. Long shadows and magenta light stretched across the red canyons below, carved by rivers long dried out. Sitting at just above the choking CO2 layer, at least according to the dials on their instruments, the ground below looked more like a haphazard maze of cracked mud rather than miles and miles of deep ravines and sheer cliffs.
A lofty, biting wind scraped itself continuously against open deck of the airship, grazing its fingers across Rafael’s cheeks and through his short, dark hair. He scratched his neck again, a vain attempt to sooth the tickling of his jacket’s fur-lined collar against his skin. It grew bothersome on these windier days, but he was loath to wear anything else to protect against the cold. It was a relic from his past, emblazoned with symbols of an intrepid hawk on his back, chest, and right sleeve - the insignia of the Hawkins Airman Academy. The birthplace of the dreams that brought him and his family to Thaeta-6.
And despite destiny’s strongest efforts to sabotage him, his dreams came true. Perhaps not the way he thought they would, but here he still was, gazing out at the world that once only existed to him in faded pictures.
A longhaired cat rubbed itself against Rafael’s ankles, then hopped up on the railing where he rested his arms. It didn’t seem to mind the several-hundred-yard drop to the ground if it happened to slip. Rafael scratched it behind the ears as he took another sip of his coffee.
“They’re taking their time, aren’t they, Gulliver?” Rafael leaned back off the railing, plucking a device off his belt and holding up to his mouth. Two forefingers depressed a lever to open the radio channel. “Hey Captain, you almost done down there? It’ll be dark in about an hour and I don’t want to fly through these canyons with only spotlights and radar.” Gulliver settled down on the railing, his tail flicking idly as Rafael smoothed down his fur. “Also it’s way too quiet up here. It’s starting to get a little creepy.”
Rafael was mostly used to it by now, being left to babysit the airship while most of the crew was on the ground with oxygen tanks. It was the Captain’s policy; unless they were safely in port, either the first mate or the Captain had to remain on board at all times. It was a good policy, but Reggie was usually far too ambitious to task herself with staying onboard. Rafael got the short end of that deal.
It wasn’t all bad. He wasn’t fond of being on the ground anyway, and the constant hum of the Auberon’s engines were a source of comfort, but he loathed being left out of the action.
Ah well. At least he didn’t have to share his coffee with six other crewmen. His cup now empty, Rafael turned from the horizon and descended back to the main deck, intent on making a quick trip to the mess hall.