Ky felt a slight tremor beneath his feet as the balloon climbed steeply. From the glass windows of the enclosed compartment he watched as the things he knew disappeared slowly from view. First Hampton, then Virginia, and finally America shrank away into nothing. Everything that used to seem huge had become merely bumps and blurs of geography.
Ky’s world was a small one – just a city, a crumbling neighbourhood and an apartment building with temperamental electricity. Now that world had vanished.
He bit his lip. He’d never even been outside Virginia before, much less on an airplane. Ky thought of his mother, somewhere beneath him, her neck hurting from standing so long staring into the sky. Her dreams were tied up with his now.
“He’s a smart kid,” Mr. Lewis, the man in charge of interns at NASA’s Langley Research Center had said. “Why don’t you give him a chance, Eli?”
That was two months ago. Now he was on a prototype air balloon heading into space with none other than Eli Rush. Even the guys on his block – the ones who made fun of his astronomy posters and bent for physics – had heard of the scientist. Ky didn’t know much about their mission, only that he was to man the balloon while Dr. Rush worked in his lab.
Ky dragged his gaze away from the window and wiped his sweating palms on his Captain America T-shirt. He was barely in his twenties, lanky, with rich dark skin and black hair tied in a short ponytail. His face was thin and alert – his eyes quick. He was used to fighting for what he wanted because up until now he’d never been handed anything.
Ky jumped. Eli Rush had entered the control room, watching him with indifferent eyes.
“Sir, thank you again. This is amazing –”
“I have no time for wasted words, Mr. Hamilton.” Dr. Rush moved to the control panel. His voice was slow, deliberate.
Ky ducked his head. “Yes sir. But –”
“Let me guess,” Rush interrupted. “You want to know exactly why we are here. What does Eli Rush have left to prove? Sure, no one’s made it past the earth’s exosphere in a balloon, but what would doing so achieve?”
Rush picked up that morning’s paper, dated April 6, 2065. Ky had brought it on board as a souvenir. “Famous scientist plans to launch lab in the stars,” Rush read the headline aloud mockingly. “Yes, I suppose that’s part of it. To conduct research in peace amidst the galaxies – who wouldn’t want that? But mostly I’m just tired of earth. I guess this is an escape.”
“We’re going to be one step ahead of them, you and I.”
“Yes, but –” Ky hesitated. “How long will we be up there for?”
“What, already homesick?” there was a faint sneer in his voice. Dr. Rush turned away, glancing out the window. He was a narrowly-built man with greying hair and broad cheekbones that carved furrows in his face. Ky was physically taller, but Eli Rush’s impassive face and unruffled intelligence somehow dwarfed him.
Ky bit his lip, saying nothing as Rush took a shiny four-leaf clover sticker out of his pocket. He peeled off the back and stuck it on the control panel.
“For luck,” he said, in response to Ky’s unasked question. “Now make yourself comfortable.”
Rush disappeared inside his lab, leaving Ky alone in the control room with his thoughts. He surveyed the compartment, once again appreciating the attention to detail. It was compact and well-designed, with a built-in oxygen ventilation system.
Two of Rush’s inventions – a miniature atmospheric green house and an advanced mechanism that uses compressed hydrogen and oxygen to produce water – were installed in the storage space below.
The large, pressurized silver balloon above them had been checked and rechecked. As long as the interior density remained lower than the ambient density, they would rise.
Hours passed; Ky lost track of time. The balloon jerked violently and he lost his balance. Sliding forward he hit his elbow painfully against the wall. Eyes watering, he crawled towards the control panel. The balloon was careening dizzyingly; they were losing speed. And altitude.
Swallowing back the panic rising in his throat, Ky clutched at the wall, trying to find a hold. Another jolt knocked him down again. The turbulence made it hard to concentrate.
Just then, Dr. Rush stepped over him calmly, bracing himself against the control panel. His long fingers danced rapidly over the buttons and his lips moved silently as though he were carrying out a long-rehearsed manoeuvre.
Gradually the balloon levelled out. “A slight miscalculation,” Rush clarified. “We should leave the earth’s exosphere any moment. Buckle up, Mr. Hamilton.”
At first, nothing seemed to change. Then Ky stared, awestruck, as a lone sheet of paper rose off the control panel and floated around the room. They’d done it! He felt as though he were both motionless and flying simultaneously. Ky let out a hollow yell of triumph.
Rush remained silent. Both men watched as the earth curved below them – a perfect orb of blue and green. They were surrounded in endless nothingness. Ky strained to expand his view beyond the limiting rectangular strip of glass.
The closest he’d ever felt to this was seeing a dim version through the cheap telescope he and his mom built on the balcony of their rented apartment. But being here was another thing entirely. It was other-worldly.
Ky wanted to say something clever like those first astronauts who waxed eloquent as they saw their planet from space. But he just started babbling idiotically.
Rush stared out the window hungrily. “Beautiful as ever,” he muttered.
Space travel was not uncommon for the rich or famous, Ky remembered bitterly. “I always wanted to see this myself,” he said. “Pictures were never enough for me.”
On the control panel the gleaming four-leaf clover winked benevolently, perhaps signalling a better future. Ky imagined his mom somewhere on that blue planet, looking up at him through their telescope. He felt an ache somewhere deep inside. “This is for both of us,” he whispered.
Then he turned to Rush. “I’ve never had anything like this before. I’m not even very good at making friends.”
“We have something in common then,” Rush said sardonically.
“Why did you choose me, sir?”
The scientist studied him. “I could be generic and say it’s because you’re smart, or because you have guts. But really, I wanted someone who would appreciate being here – someone who needed to be here. That’s why I chose you.”
A tiny idea buzzed in Ky’s brain. “Is there something you’re not telling me, sir?”
Rush didn’t respond, and Ky cleared his throat. “Um sir, the contract I signed never specified the length of this mission.”
“Didn’t it?” Rush looked up a little sadly. “That’s unfortunate, Mr. Hamilton.” He caught the floating sheet of paper and handed it to Ky. “This may make things clearer,” he said.
The words blurred, and the only part Ky saw distinctly was the end date.
Rush smiled thinly. “Don’t worry, we have enough supplies on board to last us very, very long time.”