The Galileo Space Station hung like a massive caltrop over Earth. It could’ve been used in a game of cosmic-scale jacks. At one point, it had been small enough to miss spotting with the naked eye. Now though, it was a shining star nearly a fraction the size of a waning crescent moon. Built of modular pieces, it could expand theoretically expand forever. Given each section’s exterior was covered in radiation shielding, power-collecting solar cells, it would do so without much trouble on Humanity’s part.
Already it had long surpassed the sizes of the ISS and its descendants. In fact, if laid upright by one of the caltrop’s spines, it would be the tallest structure ever to grace the Earth. For now though, the honor of hosting it belonged to space alone. And there the SS Galileo (SSG)– as it was often humorously called– was merely one artificial wonder among the infinite natural ones.
Life on SSG was an exercise in zero-gravity discovery. At least for those whom found themselves on it later in life than usual. Those born there, like all the others, couldn’t imagine eating anything but ultra-processed foods, sleeping strapped to a wall with their bed-bag zipped around them, or moving in a sort of air-swimming they’d developed. That is, of course, to say nothing of the infinitely enhanced activities of courting and sex in zero-G.
But it was, everyone aboard new and old knew, an essential, long-term study of human space-living and its effects and influences. Unlike most newcomers, none of the dozens of children born aboard SSG– in extremely complicated c-sections– had ever felt dirt beneath their feet, true-rain on their face, or real wind on their bodies.
Like them though, Lisa Sterling was as near as normal a little girl growing up in space could be. She’d even managed to build an average set of muscles, that though sinuous and lanky, could’ve allowed her to pass for any Earther without need to hide anything. She’d taken to weight lifting and physical exercise at precisely the ages required by the physicians and enjoyed them. More importantly though, she’d also taken to– and overtaken at that– the knowledge-based courses required for any of the hundred jobs aboard the ever-growing SSG.
At only fourteen, she graduated high-school-level mathematics and language courses to college-level courses. Having found freedom in helping to fix broken bits of the SSG, she was summarily offered a job as a mechanic and carried out her first space-walk at fifteen– the youngest person in history to ever do so, and indeed possibly the only one that might.
It was a short time after her sixteenth birthday that she sat– or rather floated– in her bed, arms out to scribble equations across a digital data-pad. Tablet computers had long been utilized aboard SSG where space was at a premium and only the most important things could be written on their limited paper-supply.
She was scribbling out a series of trigonometric equations when something dawned on her. She suddenly scrolled away from the previous work to start fresh. There she wrote her first theory. Through the course of a full-night, the young girl, brimming with life yet to be lived, scribbled and scrawled and and drew and charted. By morning, she was exhausted, but exhilarated.
She immediately went to the Overseer, a man as old as any aboard and in charge of running every administrative aspect of the SSG. She presented her work to him as she simultaneously shook off lackeys that tried to keep her from his office.
“Mr. Minaret, I have something you should see,” she said in her high, crackling, teenaged voice.
“Hmm? Ah yes, Miss Sterling.”
He waved off his secretary and head resource manager. They turned away begrudgingly, air-swam to the door and out through it. Minaret offered her a place before his desk, sat behind it with a slip of a belt against himself. Lisa followed suit before the desk and settled as best she could against the chair and its restraints.
“Now what can I do for you, Miss Sterling?”
She handed over her data-pad. He looked over the first line with a, “hmm?”
For a long time he said nothing else. In fact, it was so long, Lisa considered excusing herself, but knew she shouldn’t. She needed to be here when he finished. She needed him to look her in the eyes and either tell her she was crazy or brilliant.
Unaware of her inner-thoughts, Minaret instead lowered the tablet to his desk, unconsciously keeping it from floating away. He stared past Lisa with his mental gears visibly at work.
“Ab-so-lutely ingenius,” he muttered.
Lisa felt tension drain from her. She could’ve sworn she felt herself float a little higher off the chair than before.
A few months later, Lisa stood before her completed design– or at least, what of it could fit or function inside the SSG-shuttle she now occupied. The ship looked like a compacted version of the old shuttles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Indeed, if one had had its middle section removed, it would be identical to the ship she stood in. However, in the center of the rear cargo-hold, stood a curious contraption.
It was roughly four-feet tall, a equally as many deep. Its bottom half was like a 3D “X” that formed a plinth. From the X’s straight faces, tubes draped down into floor-panels, through the ship’s hull and into the vacuum outside. Via extensive fuel and electrical lines in them, the tubes fed a battery of engines formed around the shuttle’s rear. All of this was quite common, though not normally found in this section of the ship, nor indeed inside it at all.
Atop the X, stood Lisa’s contribution in a large, transparent cylinder. Through the cylinder’s center a thousand ultra-fine, superconductive filaments connected to a ring, in turn, suspended above a large hole that led into the fuel lines. Held tightly in the ring, was a jagged, blue stone like any other amorphously shaped rock. There was nothing inherently special about its milky, dirty look. It would’ve hardly even been worth a rock-polisher’s time.
It was, in fact, so much more than it appeared. Even a layman understood the importance of a new element added to the periodic table. That it had been created in a particle accelerator aboard the SSG by none other than sixteen year-old Lisa Sterling was little more than one more of its dozens of notable merits. Its most important one, however, was about to be tested.
Lisa double-checked the shuttle’s systems and locked down the its hatches. Seals hissed and inflated as she sat before the pilot’s controls. She’d spent a month alone learning how to fly the ship. The rest of the time– not spent building the contraption and its internal element– was spent convincing various worry-warts to allow her the test-flight alone. Seeing she would not be swayed, they could do little but acquiesce, no matter their arguments.
She ran through her pre-flight, then double-checked the straps that held her g-suited body into the shuttle’s command seat. She readied to decouple from the SSG.
“Everything’s in the green. I’m ready.”
A tense voice replied over her headset, “We read you, Sterling. Decouple when ready.”
She flicked a few switches, fired a short-burst thruster for a half-second. The Shuttle drifted harmlessly from its docking position.
“Coming about to get clear of Galileo,” she radioed.
One, in-built, flat-panel display that took the place of the pilot’s forward-window cycled through external camera views. It came to rest on one that simulated its position as if it were glass. The screen beside it was subdivided into nine views from various, other cameras that altogether gave a full image of the shuttle’s interior and exterior.
Through her forward display, Lisa watched as a few thruster bursts propelled her past the lengthy caltrop and into open space. She drifted aimlessly in vacuum, a slight spin to her momentum. She corrected to an imaginary, level-plane in her mind.
“I’m clear of the station. Preparing to fire the drive.”
“Roger that, Sterling,” the command center replied. “We’re all holding our breath down here.”
“Don’t pass out, Command, I’ll need you to dock,” she joked.
There was a laugh, and Command went quiet. She knew they were watching through an uplink aboard, but it was far from her mind.
With a deep, calming breath, she flicked up a red trigger-guard and threw a switch. Behind her, a hum rose to steady thrum.
“Holding so far, Command,” she radioed. No one replied. They were too tense. She knew why, and only worsened it with her next words, “Opening main fuel line and beginning burn.”
There was a hiss, not unlike a ruptured seal, and the thrum rose with a buzz. With a gentle, forward-press of a joystick, the shuttle lurched forward. Lisa was thrown back in her seat. No-one spoke or breathed.
Suddenly Lisa was shouting a long sustained, “woooh!” and laughing. It bled through her comm, shattered the tense silence. She barrel-rolled, looped, and zig-zagged to test the shuttle’s maneuverability, shouting excitement the whole way.
From an external view she saw Earth and the SSG as mere points on a horizon. Mars inched nearer with each minute. She aimed for it, five minutes later used its gravity to slingshot her around the planet and back toward Earth and the SSG. She was almost near the speed of light– not at it of course, but realistically as close as Humanity might ever get.
When she finally disembarked the shuttle, people were cheering, calling her the girl that conquered space. True as it was, and ecstatic as she was, Lisa thought of only one thing; she was either crazy or brilliant. Whichever it was, she had conquered space, opened its farthest reaches to a people long confined to one tiny planet, its moon, and its skies. No more, she thought, however crazy or brilliant.