The Cretan Eye majestically hung in the green-blue sky like a toy space station suspended above a crib. One kilometre in diameter, with a circumference of 3.141592654 kilometres, this vast satellite was a homage to nature’s most mysterious figure: π. A one mile diameter torus-style space-station orbited Mars, because Mars still used the imperial system of measurement.
As Chuck Marley waited for Zeen Crawdex, he realised how much useless knowledge he had acquired. But finally he was going to revisit the Cretan Eye. He had only been there once, ten years ago with Olan. The last time he’d been in orbit was five years ago, a one-day test flight for his twentieth birthday.
The Cretan Eye served as both an observation post, a vast satellite trading station, and a zero-G entertainment complex. Artificial gravity was generated by the centrifugal force distributed around the diameter, while entering the spokes of the wheel offered a variety of reduced gravity environments.
Marley wasn’t after any zero-G fun today. He wanted to see the refurbished craft docked around the Eye. They would be in orbit, ready to go. Additional boosters could be fitted later if he needed to pilot to the surface of a planet, or moon.
He waited in the terminal atop Hello World, the 110 storey construction that housed his condominium, protecting him from the elements and, to the greatest extent possible, shielding him from the struggle that was life on Crete.
Thick raindrops splattered against the glass that looked out onto the takeoff and landing platforms.
Zeen lived in the elegantly named Tower Ninety-N, six kilometres away. Tower Ninety-N was taller than Hello World, with its vehicle bay between the 70th and 71st floor. These floors were separated by 70 metres of empty space, the storeys above supported by carbon composite cylindrical pillars.
Marley saw a Jovian Sports Coupe exit Tower Ninety-N’s vehicle bay and head in his direction. Zeen would arrive in less than ten minutes.
Five hundred metres from Hello World the Jovian Coupe banked left, then sped off west towards Kelvin’s Gap, a vast sulphurous pit providing spectacular views, provided you weren’t sucked into its eddies.
That Coupe evidently didn’t belong to Zeen Crawdex. Marley steadfastly watched Tower Ninety-N’s vehicle bay for the departure of another Sports Coupe.
The viewing glass shook slightly as a black Thundercat M30, modified to make the engine obnoxiously loud, descended onto Launchpad 6 of Hello World.
Two figures descended from the vehicle and into the segmented tunnel that connected with the craft and extended to the private terminal. One almost certainly looked like Zeen. The other hid inside a knee-length overcoat.
The figures emerged into the terminal five minutes later. One was, as Marley had guessed, Zeen Crawdex. The other turned back the collar of his overcoat to reveal himself as Milton Moszkowksi, his old professor.
Marley brightened. “Professor Moszkowski, what a surprise! And Zeen, I thought you piloted a Jovian craft. You didn’t say anything about a Thundercat?”
“I wanted to surprise you. So did Professor Moszkowski!”
Moszkowski bowed. “It’s not often you get a ride a Thundercat. Chuck Marley, long time no see.”
It was over a year since Marley had seen the professor. He looked of indeterminate middle-age; only a couple of grey hairs were present in his magnificent twirling moustache.
The inside of the Thundercat was spacious. It could fit up to eight passengers compared to the Jovian Coupe’s four.
“You and Professor Moszkowski are lucky. Only my sister Zeb has been in this.”
Marley was about to say he didn’t know Zeen had a sister. “Zeb doesn’t like Crete?”
“She was here to check up on me. You know older sisters?”
“I’m the only Crawdex on Crete. I dropped her off at Nutol and she flew back to Knossos last week.”
Marley wanted to find out more about this mysterious sister. He wondered if she was as beautiful as Zeen was good looking.
As they entered the hatch, Zeen pressed his thumbprint on a reader, then punched a six-digit code into a number-pad below it. A series of lights flashed in sequence above them.
Zeen strapped himself into the captain’s seat on the left and smugly looked around.
“After you,” said Moszkowski. He gestured Marley towards the co-pilot seat. “I’ll sit there for the reentry.”
Marley sat beside Zeen and looked around the cabin. It measured 10x5m, with an aisle down the middle separating the seats. In the early 3000s, spaceflight was still not a daily activity: a large percentage of people never left their home planets, even their home cities. You could live your entire life in your condo-complex – many of them provided everything required for a semi-fulfilling life.
Marley strapped himself next to Zeen. Professor Moszkowski sat behind Marley so he could see Zeen at the controls.
“I’m afraid there’s little for you to do Chuck. Other than take over if I have a heart attack.” Zeen thumped his chest.
Professor Moszkowski started coughing.
Marley looked around. “I haven’t been to orbit in five years. It always look so close, yet so far.”
“It’s what dreams are made of,” said Moszkowski recovering.
“Chuck Marley here,” said Zeen, “is looking to go into the space business himself.”
“Slightly considering it,” said Marley.
Zeen tapped a switch above his head and the hatchbay door closed. Another tap and the touchscreen panels came to life. To the left of his seat a portion of the floor opened and two sets of levers emerged. Zeen eased the nearest two gently backwards, activating two auxiliary thrusters on the outer edges of the wings.
Even from inside the craft, the crackling of engines made Moszkowski reach for noise cancelling headphones in front of him.
The Thundercat vibrated ever so slightly as the liquid-fueled auxiliary thrusters shot their combusted propellant at the exhaust shields on the tarmac. Slowly it rose off its padded landing gear and inched forward over the edge of Hello World.
Marley looked down at the miniaturised city hundreds of metres below. Hovertrains snaked their way through business districts, disappearing into tunnels and reappearing in entertainment quarters. Monorails slid down the centre of smoggy streets towards smoggier smokestacks. Thousands of private terrestrial vehicles proceeded at what seemed a snail’s pace down the two main highways of Reticulum, disappearing into lanes overshadowed by skyscrapers.
Zeen flicked a red wheel notched in between the auxiliary engine levers. The Thundercat tilted up and sped off.
The sudden change in velocity caught both Marley and Moszkowski by surprise as they were forced back into their seats.
It would have been nice to appreciate the receding scenery below, but the acceleration of the Thundercat made this very difficult. Marley perceived several helicars whose radars had received advance warning of Zeen’s ascending flight path, but a few stray drones were forced to rapidly swivel away.
It took only a minute for the Thundercat to reach twice the speed of sound, and less than two minutes to hit mach 3.