The ferry sped across Moreton Bay. Sarah looked over the side, watching the dolphins as they swam alongside the boat, surfing the wake and chattering playfully. It was hard to imagine she was leaving Earth. When would she see a dolphin again? Or a cat? She wondered how much she would miss Misha. Terry had promised regular video updates.
There were perhaps 15 to 20 people on the ferry. Most were likely fellow passengers who would accompany her during the flight to Mars, while others were friends or family members making the trip to the launch pad with them, so they could say goodbye at the last minute, or see the launch from up close. She examined the small knots of people on the boat’s deck, wind blowing in their hair, and tried to guess who was going to Mars and why.
For the past few days, surface-to-orbit spacecraft had been collecting passengers from spaceports and smaller launchpad terminals all over Earth, and carrying them up to the Japan Spaceways spaceship Sakura in preparation for the trip. This was the last one to depart Brisbane.
As the electric catamaran sliced through the white-capped waves of the bay, the tall, red-and-white Japan Spaceways rocket became visible. Perched on top of the rocket was the sleek shuttle that would transport her and the other passengers to orbit. At first appearance, the rocket appeared to be standing on its tail in the ocean, but as the ferry approached, the launchpad became clearer: an enormous slab of concrete sitting a meter above the water, waves lapping lazily against the hard, gray, vertical faces. Its form was a long, narrow rectangle, like an airplane runway. At one end was the passenger terminal; a simple, utilitarian building with a tall control tower rising up from its center. In front of this structure was a broad open area, like a car park, where ferries, aircars, and helicopters delivered passengers. A chainlink fence connected the passenger terminal with the edge of the launchpad, effectively separating the open area from the rest of the runway. Dozens of children clung to this fence, peering through it and pointing excitedly, exclaiming at each new thing, their parents patiently standing nearby, all waiting for the launch. Thin white clouds scudded across the blue sky.
A large white-and-red drone bus approached from above, the Japan Spaceways logo emblazoned across its side, its propellers beating the air loudly and drowning out the catamaran’s electric motors and the chattering children. It landed on the open area in front of the passenger terminal, and about 30 passengers alighted. A robotic system fed bags from a storage compartment beneath the vehicle, while friendly Japan Spaceways staff calmly assisted passengers in collecting their bags, and directed them towards the passenger terminal.
Sarah dragged her well-traveled blue suitcase off the catamaran, with her woven, varicolored canvas tote bag slung over one shoulder. She’d worn white shorts, a light blue blouse, and her favorite canvas shoes with short socks for the short flight to orbit. The travel agent had recommended that she not wear a skirt or dress for the shuttle flight, which was in microgravity. She declined an offer of assistance from one of the small robotic carts that were milling about trying to be helpful, and carried her bags across the open area towards the terminal building.
Sarah squinted in the bright sunlight. Through the chainlink fence, she could see the rocket at the other end of the launch pad, surrounded by an enormous steel gantry. She entered the passenger terminal, dropped her suitcase on a conveyor belt, and walked through the busy terminal to join a short queue of passengers waiting to enter a large elevator. As they stepped into the glass box, the group spoke little. There was a palpable air of anxiety and anticipation, and Sarah surmised that most of them hadn’t flown to space before. As the elevator began ascending, Sarah looked through its glass walls at the glittering bay and the shining Brisbane skyline in the distance, as she tried to make herself relax.
The small group rode up 15 floors and the elevator door opened. One by one, they stepped onto the travelator that would transport them several hundred meters to the open hatch of the rocket’s passenger cabin.
* * *
The cruise ship Sakura was parked in a circular orbit five hundred kilometers above Earth’s surface. In less than an hour, it would perform a trans-Mars injection burn that would send it on its 12-week journey to Mars.
The surface-to-orbit shuttle slowed and began to yaw under the control of the automatic pilot. Sarah’s stomach was in her throat due to the unfamiliar weightlessness, and she turned her head to look through the towards the closest window, straining slightly against the canvas webbing of her harness. Through the rounded rectangle, she saw jets of cold nitrogen puffing into space from the reaction control thrusters, as the shuttle gracefully rolled into the correct orientation and trajectory relative to the cruise ship.
Beyond the captivating, silent ballet of docking spacecraft, unimaginably distant, an uncountable number of stars hung against the infinite blackness of space.
The salient feature of Sakura was a large torus about two hundred meters in diameter. Four tubular spokes connected this colossal donut with a central hub, which was a long cylinder about twenty meters in diameter and perhaps six times as long. One end of this cylinder was roughly coplanar with the front edge of the torus, and it was towards the circular end of this section that the shuttle now drifted. An enormous red logo with “Japan Spaceways” in bold, dynamic letters was emblazoned along the length of the rod-shaped hub. Sarah gazed through the porthole with the wonderment of a child, absorbing every detail.
She silently thanked Terry for acquiescing to her requirement to fly on the Japanese spaceship. He had originally purchased a ticket for her on a SpaceX Starship, which was significantly cheaper, but three months of living in zero gravity didn’t appeal to Sarah at all. Her online research had turned up far too many stories about people arriving at Mars with wobbly legs, and having to spend weeks in the gym building their muscles back up. Sakura was a new spaceship model developed as a joint venture between Kawasaki and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. It provided artificial gravity and had been designed especially for travel between Earth and Mars, although it was also perfectly capable of reaching Luna and other worlds of the System.
Sakura was capable of transporting several hundred passengers. Only a handful of the ships had been built thus far, but the rapid escalation in traffic between Earth, Luna, and Mars during the past few years meant that dozens more had been ordered by various companies and were being fabricated. Since the construction of large commercial spaceports in Singapore 2, Lisbon, and Los Angeles, numerous major airlines were scrambling for market share in the new interplanetary transport industry. Flights to and from Luna were now almost daily, and Boeing, SpaceX, Ripple Aerospace, STAR, and many other companies were developing new interplanetary ships. Others were developing ascent and descent vehicles, environment control and life support systems, spacesuits, surface vehicles, modular space habitats, and more, all contributing to the booming space industry.
Sakura was one of several ships now flying routinely between Earth and Mars. Every twenty-six months, as the distance between the two planets approached its minimum, a flotilla departed each world, headed for the other. Most trips between the two planets occurred at these times, because it was faster and cheaper, and required less propellant. However, the market for travel between Earth and Mars had grown rapidly, spurring investment in small, efficient, fast ships that could make the trip in half the time or less, and could travel between the two planets at almost any time.
Beyond the passenger transit room, Sakura’s cylindrical hub section housed enormous propellant tanks containing liquid methane and oxygen cooled to cryogenic temperatures. A white tanker ship bearing the distinctive turquoise Planetary Resources logo was docked to the underside of the hub, while propellant was transferred. It appeared upside-down from Sarah’s perspective. At the far end of the hub was a cluster of seven powerful rocket engines. Extending from the sides of the hub, near the center, like the wings of some great, space-dwelling bird, were two enormous solar arrays, their panels angled towards the Sun. Perpendicular to these were enormous radiators, which helped prevent the spaceship from overheating.
The shuttle docked neatly with the cruiser’s central hub section and a circular door irised open at one end of the shuttle’s passenger compartment. The “Fasten Seatbelt” indicators dotted around the walls all switched off simultaneously, and the cabin filled with click-clacks and chatter as dozens of passengers unbuckled their harnesses, gathered up their belongings, and attempted to corral floating, excited children.
“Welcome to Sakura,” came the female voice over the speaker system. “Please unbuckle your seatbelts and exit via the forward hatch. For your safety, hold onto the handles and rails at all times. Check that you have all your belongings and that all hand luggage is closed, as loose objects may float away from you. Your checked baggage will be delivered directly to your cabins. We hope you enjoy your flight to Mars, and that you’ll join us again soon. Domo arigato. Thank you for flying with Japan Spaceways.”
The fifty or so passengers began unstrapping themselves from their seats, grabbing at various objects that had escaped their owner’s grasp — tissues, food wrappers, scarves, bags, books. The experienced cabin crew comprised a half dozen young men and women in pristine white-and-red jumpsuits, who good-naturedly helped everyone gather their things in the weightless environment, and guided them gently towards the opening that led into Sakura’s passenger transit room.
Sarah patiently hung back until most of the passengers had exited. Then, using the grab handles spaced along the sides of the cabin, she pulled herself through the open hatch into Sakura. Her long dark, hair floated around her head, and she wished she’d had the foresight to tie it back before leaving her house.
The passenger transit room was an entirely unfamiliar and mildly chaotic environment, filled with exclamations, squeals, laughter, and lots of “excuse me!” and “where do I go?” and “Dad, over here!”. Without any sense of up or down, dozens of people flailed about the large, cylindrical chamber as they sought to orient themselves, figure out their next move, and keep track of the others in their party. Friendly staff floated around, expertly flying from one side to another, catching adrift passengers, and calmly directing each towards whichever of the four tubes that led out of the room would lead them most directly to their cabins.
Sarah’s cabin number was 74, and she gently pushed away from the wall towards the tube labeled “50–75”. A crew member nodded at her, nodding and smiling politely — “Thank you, Foster-sama, enjoy your flight!” — as she glided past. She gently deflected a rotund, red-faced man who inadvertently collided with her — “Excuse me, sir” — reached the entrance to the tube, grabbed the first rung of the ladder that ran its length, and began pulling herself along, now one in a steady stream of people, most of them talking with their traveling companions, excited for the new experience and the journey head.
The passengers spilled one-by-one out of the tube and into a hallway with a square cross-section, about two meters wide and tall, which ran the center of the torus. Although they still floated in microgravity, the floors, ceilings, and walls were all covered in a soft, cream-colored fabric covering an inch of compressible foam, which served to prevent bumps and bruises. Cabin doors were evenly spaced along the hallway, just like a hotel or cruise ship, and each was numbered with large red digits, which provided a sense of up and down. The main anomaly was that the hallway curved upwards in each direction, almost as if one was at the bottom of a valley. Railings ran the center of the walls between each door to help people stabilize and orient themselves.
Disoriented, Sarah grabbed a railing and pulled herself down so that the tube entrance was above, and the doors oriented such that she could read the numbers. She pushed away from the wall just as a pair of giggling boys floated down into the hallway a little too quickly, thumping into the floor. Grinning, unexpectedly buoyant, Sarah used the railings to pull herself gently in the direction of her cabin.
The door to her room slid smoothly open automatically as she approached, and she pulled herself inside. The lighting panels in the walls and ceiling brightened, and the door slid shut behind her.
Sarah had opted for a compact, single cabin. Most passengers flew economy class, which meant sharing a cramped cabin with up to five other people, but she couldn’t conceive of 12 weeks living this way. She had patiently explained to Terry that they’d have to spring for the more expensive business class cabin. He’d grumbled, but had been able to get the additional expense approved.
“Welcome, Foster-sama.” The AI voice was warm and polite, with a slight Japanese accent. “Your luggage has already been stowed beneath your bunk. Artificial gravity will be enabled in approximately five minutes. Please do not eat or drink anything until then. To avoid injury, please do not unpack any luggage or open any drawers, and keep all loose objects in your pockets until artificial gravity has been fully restored. If you require assistance, please ask. I am here to help. You may also listen to music, watch movies, play games, or surf the Internet. Our trip will begin shortly. Domo arigato. Thank you once again for choosing Japan Spaceways. Trans-Mars injection in twenty-five minutes.”
The cabin was small and cubic, only about two meters on each side. Still floating, Sarah pushed herself here and there around the tiny space, investigating everything. About one-third of its width was taken up by a comfortable sofa-bed, padded with a layer of soft material several inches thick. She played with the controls, converting it to a bed and then back again to a comfortable armchair. Opposite the sofa-bed was a narrow desk, and in the corner of the cabin was a small sink and mirror. The entire cabin, including the bed frame, desk, drawers, sink, and cupboards, seemed molded from a single piece of light, strong material.
Sarah gently pushed herself towards the far side of the small room and tapped a softly glowing blue button. A thin panel covering a large ellipsoidal window slid silently into the wall, revealing an immense crescent of Earth’s horizon. The atmosphere was a soft, glowing nimbus of pale blue, floating above swirling white clouds, patches of thick green vegetation, fractaline mountain ranges, and great stretches of brown desert. The view was westward and most of Australia could be seen from this angle. She marveled at how much its shape had changed since she was a child. It was dusk, and lights glittered from the fledgling cities being built on the shores of Lake Simpson, the large inland sea that had appeared during the rapid last phase of the melting of the polar ice. Where had formerly been a dry, red, dusty, and largely uninhabited desert was now a vast body of fresh water that bordered four states.
“Activating artificial gravity,” said the AI voice. “Please do not be alarmed. You may wish to hold onto something until you feel steady. Thank you for your patience. Trans-Mars injection in twenty minutes.”
Sarah began to sense a slight effect of gravity, and floated gently down to place her feet on the cabin floor. Through the porthole, Earth began sliding sideways, as the toroidal section of the spaceship began to rotate.
A large screen was sent into the wall above the desk, which displayed various options for using the Internet, playing music or movies or games, or learning more about Sakura, space travel, Mars, or Japan Spaceways. In a sidebar were displayed environmental details: date and time on both Earth and Mars; temperature; atmospheric pressure and composition; and the current level of gravity. Feeling herself gradually getting heavier, she watched the gravity indicator slowly increase towards Earth-normal. She bounced her knees a few times, pleased with the feel of her own weight. Her guts churned a little. She wondered if she needed food and decided she probably did.
Smiling to herself, excited for the flight and feeling upbeat, Sarah opened her canvas bag and spilled the contents onto the small desk: an AI tablet, stylus, two notebooks, several pens, a highlighter, a newish paperback copy of Urban Design in Space Settlements that she’d purchased online, a small case containing AR/VR lenses, haptic gloves, a packet of travel tissues, two nutrient bars, and a small toothbrush. She decided to sort it all out later.
Suddenly feeling excited, hungry, and curious, she resolved to explore the ship. She pulled out her suitcase from under the bed, extracted her toiletries, brushed her hair, brushed her teeth, pulled on a fresh top, and exited the small cabin. The door slid shut automatically. She walked along the corridor, enjoying its gentle upward curve and smooth, clean walls, the colorful lighting and art, and the familiar feeling of gravity. She smiled and nodded cheerfully at other passengers as she made her way towards the lounge.