A New Shade Of Sky
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There are always some who cannot go, of course - space travel is physically demanding, even with the new shuttles with their shielding and more sensitive g-force antagonists. The International Human Health Commission, therefore, advises that persons less than 18 years old, greater than 75 years old, or who are suffering from heart disease, chronic respiratory disease, seasonal affective disorder, any form of congenital connective tissue disorder, or have otherwise been advised by their doctor limit their shuttle travel and take at least three-week rests between transports, while those younger than five, pregnant women, and anyone with hydrocephaly or a clinically-observable neural tube defect cannot leave atmosphere at all.

But cannot is not the same as will not, and if you really wished, you could sign on to one of the interchanges - even on Oria Station, in the small bases setting up on the blue meads of Indomel, in the bowels of Medea's mining installations, secretaries are needed. A thousand pieces of bureaucratic paper do not become less of an archival difficulty when set in comparison against the three hundred billion stars of the Milky Way. Go see your brother, as they shove him from base to base investigating the administrative procedures on a thousand different worlds - so easy for humans, when they are far away from everyone they know and anyone who might hold them to account, to slide into alien ways of social, economic, political organization. So difficult, to figure out whether any of these new paradigms actually works, and if it does, at what cost.

But you haven't. It is quite a strange thing, already, and becoming stranger. That is how the world works as well: things, like space travel, get cheaper and cheaper, and so more people take advantage of them, and so the proportion of people who have left planetside at least once has grown and grown. You think it now hovers somewhere around 95%, with obvious variations for background, class, and such, which leaves only 5% of people in the same state as you - never left atmo at all. Earth-bound, your entire life.

No, you get in the habit of saying, even before people have finished their questions. No, I haven't seen the "architectural marvel" that is Oria. No, I never dream of being a colonist, or the first person to set foot on any world. No, getting rich off potential shares in a mining company doesn't really interest me at all.

No, I don't know why. How deeply will you have to dig, in order to be sure that you have examined this feeling thoroughly enough? Feelings are not always or necessarily explicable, and there is really nothing you can say about it other than that the idea of stepping off this soil, this world makes you sick. Your friends in college had tried to drag you to one of those visits from the internship recruiting officers - you don't even remember the company, but their pamphlets had been covered in pictures of stars and smiling young people drifting around in the bellies of stations, and you had ripped your hands from their grip and ended up a sobbing, fetal-position ball in the hallway, after mentally placing your own body there.

I'll die if I leave, you gasped once, trying to find some kind of explanation, which - that one was, technically, a lie. Even if you did get off the ground, when your mind was spiralling down into the deepest void and every fibre of you screaming for green plants and blue sky and home home home, somebody would probably be able to sedate you before you actually suffocated to death on your own panic. Somebody would probably be able to stop you slashing your own throat in a desperate attempt to get out of the void, in whatever way you could.

But it would be pretty unfair to force them to, also. There is no-one that would not be made miserable, if you left atmo - so there is no reason to do it, if you already know.

I just - this world is enough for me.

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They say that humans are by nature curious, always by nature want to know more, do more, be more. They say the destiny of mankind lies among the stars. They quote that thing by Plutarch, and draw glorious rhetorical pictures of a pan-galactic humanity, a brave frontier, a future perfectly balanced against the resources now within a shuttle's reach; talk about a yearning for the heavens, an inbuilt human drive -

It's enough to make you doubt, sometimes, that you are human, if as they say all humans look up, and dream of the stars.

But what else would you be? In the Chinese creation myth, humans were formed out of the clay of the ground by the goddess Nü-wa; in the Norse, carved from the ash and elm tree rooted on a beach; the Haida, discovered in a clam shell resting in sand. And even to those who do not believe that, mankind as we know it evolved 300,000 years ago, and has lived on one earth all that time.

From the matter of this world I was made, you want to snarl, sometimes, when the questions have been too pointed, too pressing. Why should I leave? There's nothing for me out among the stars but mankind.

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No administration, not even the International Space and Exoplanet Jurisdictional Authority ("'seya", to everyone who wasn't interested in finding out just how many syllables they could cram in their mouth at one time), would stop its employees from contacting their families entirely. So your brother moves, celestial body to celestial body, and every week sends you a message on his "Personal" allotted ansible bandwidth. That was your accession: he would talk, and you would sign, despite the outrageous markup, to one of the telecommunications companies that permitted private ansible intermediating.

He sends you back pictures from the surface of moons, craggy grey landscapes with no depth cues until you reach the pure black of space above the horizon, spotted with stars even in the mid-day. A video of the red fire that lingers about the sunrise and sunset in Aphion's neon-rich atmosphere, slightly blurry, cut with the silhouettes of its strange trees. Boring orange hazes, on dwarf planets large enough to cling to some gases but not enough to have more than one latitudinal convection cell per hemisphere.

His wife Maria and daughter Isabel, waving at the camera and smiling hugely in front of the latticed window of Oria Station. It's a classic picture, everybody who has ever left atmosphere has the same one, from I-did-a-week-internship-at-the-shuttle-hub young students to ain't-touched-stone-in-a-decade permanent workers, but they're cute, nonetheless. There are a lot, like that, actually - Maria and Isabel, against a thousand different backdrops, with him eternally behind the camera.

She's growing so big, you send back.

The grav is lower there, only 0.6, and so in the next image their hair floats out around them like a cloud at the apex of their jump. (That one is a classic picture too.) When you close the picture, and then the window, and lean back, yours just flops lifelessly over the back of the chair.

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Eceon V475H is a gas giant, and the base there is suspended within its atmosphere only by its density - floating like a boat, he says, on the thicker, more metallic layers beneath. There is no horizon, in the image he sends you from there, just columns of purplish-orange clouds marching off into an infinite mist. You have to plant your feet very firmly onto the floor, and curl your fingers under the seat of your chair, viewing that one - it feels like riding one of those theme park elevators, your stomach falling as you imagine tumbling off the surface, and forever, into those clouds.

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Aren't you bored, stuck here on Earth?

Gosh, I mean, even in our grandparents' time, most people would never cross the Kármán line even once in their lives. It's so weird, to think like that. What situations about our lives today are going to seem totally foreign to our grandchildren?

You could probably get therapy for that, you know. You're really missing out.

Don't you feel so empty, though?

(No.)

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The pictures are all saved within a folder on your desktop, labelled with your brother's name. Sometimes, when you are that warm, pleasant sort of bored, you will open it and look back through them.

Coptis has seven moons, all with different orbital periods - as planets go, it is fairly young, and has not become tidally locked yet. He managed to catch them all in the sky at once, matching slivers of fingernails hanging above the mountains black with carbon below.

On Nuneth, it is the sunsets that are blue, because of suspended dust from the single continent's vast interior desert, and the noontides that burn yellow, and umber.

Hemone hangs vast and ringed in the sky of Miktis, its moon; its gravitational pull drives the tidal range in its ammoniacal oceans higher than fifty meters. The swirling greens, yellows, and ambers make it look slightly like a fat, miraculously-suspended melon - you smirk, and trace the bands with your fingertip on the screen.

You never copped to that twin telepathy thing, where sometimes siblings can see out through each other's eyes. But you wonder if he is thinking of it, when he sends them. That though you cannot be together in the flesh, you can still share a life, still look upon the same skies.

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It is almost blackberry season, here, you write, in response to a picture of clouds that stain the same purplish-black in the light of their red dwarf as the juice. The rain had been beating against your windows all morning, but it has tapered off to just a few droplets - good for ripening fruit. Remember how we would always go out and pick them, around this time?

I remember. The words are just text, but you think you can feel the smile in them, from 200 light-years away. I kind of miss it.

You can imagine, that the hydroponic stacks are not the same. Come back, then. Come settle with me, and we can do that.

Five years still on the commission. It's rueful. I don't think I told you we fly out again in five days. Blainn-835a. It's pretty terrestrial, apparently, habitable zone and everything. Station there is only a couple of years old, so I don't know why they think they need an entire workup. I'm just going to be grateful to go outside without a SAS again. This place is getting a little claustrophobic.

Be safe, you write back, and say hello to Maria and Ellie for me. You give him your sympathies on the proportion of Pleurotus-dependent food items at his current base - planetside agriculture can get away with slow-growing fruit, or even some livestock-based food production, but moon bases do not have that luxury - and finish with I love you. XOXO.

And you press send, and when the confirmation beeps you let yourself rise, and stretch, and mosey out through the screen door onto your small porch. The rainstorm has scrubbed the world clean, and immediately you are enveloped in a wave of petrichor; your Crocosmia glitter like cut topaz under the hanging droplets, and the maple overlapping peridot sheets. But one step down, and the loam cradles the soles of your bare feet as you go out into your garden, absently flicking drops off the Lunaria, the spiny Eryngium, the trailing profusion of purple sweet pea that has sprawled from its trellis into the lawn.

Above you, the wind shreds the clouds into glittering silken threads. Below, your Artemesia and lavender reflect the tint, and when you bend down to smell them, a whole world comes with the inhale - every grain of soil, every leaf and root, the worms and insects that crawl beneath the surface and whirr over your flowers, every bloom and every drop of rain - all drawn down into your breast.

And you are so, so full.

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You go out, that night, and lie down upon the still-damp grass. The camera is heavy in your hand - it is an old thing, hovering somewhere in the no-man's-land between obsolescence and heirloom-hood, but for this, sometimes the old ways are the best.

The world breathes around you, in the faint chirping of crickets and the rustle of a breeze in the treetops. Breathes until you line up the lens, and press down on the capture, and hear the faint click.

He will open the transmission to see what people have seen for 300,000 years: the thirteen-mared moon, and Cassiopeia upon her throne, and, striding up over the horizon towards the zenith, Gemini, their hands clasped across light-years.

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