Welcome… to SkyTours!
I roll my eyes as the promotional video ends, though it was more a collage of advertisements. The screen retracts into the ceiling and lights slowly come back on. I have been wanting to do a SkyTour ever since they premiered their trans-atmospheric pods, but the cost is prohibitive to say the least. The only package I can afford comes with a litany of ads overwhelming the mandatory video introduction, turning a ten-minute affair into two hours. The window for viewing other media ends when the ceiling swallows the screen, so I guess the “included” documentary of Earth’s space travels is only for those who can pay.
Looking out the small viewport, I see the line of identical pods in front of me arc through space until they are so small as to be nearly invisible. The bright, crackling yellow tether line connecting us reflects off their smooth grey exteriors, creating a dazzling lightshow visible from Earth’s surface. I used to spend hours watching the lights, dreaming of my turn among the stars.
Now, the experience is underwhelming me. The SkyTours employees strapped me down within an inch of my life in the cramped little pod’s only seat. Smooth grey plastic dominates the interior, its overwhelming sameness marred only by small speaker embedded into the wall beside me. The ceiling is seamless where the screen retracted, and I feel like I am in an egg save for the single window in front of me. I am facing skyward, and while I appreciate the crystal-clear view of the stars I am impatient. The brochure promised a view of Earth I will never forget, life-changing in its beauty. I specifically chose a view of the Americas, so next time I call my grandfather I can say that I saw his house from space.
The speaker beside me crackles to life, and a low, muffled voice breaks through the static.
“Hey there, my name’s Dick and I’ll be your tour guide today. How’re you doing up there?” the voice asks, sounding tired. Who knows how many tours he has given today.
“I’m doing good, thanks. So, you’re ground-based, right?” I ask, knowing he is on a timer but unable to contain my curiosity.
“Well, yes, I am. Why do you ask?” he replies, puzzled.
“How do you know what part of the tour I’m on?” I crane my neck towards the speaker, wondering if I sound as fuzzy to him as he does to me. He laughs slightly, and I can almost hear him shaking his head.
“Don’t worry, I know where you’re at. As long as you’re on the tether, we’ll stay in constant contact” he reassures me. The emphatic robotic of a well-rehearsed narrative monologue replaces the tired amusement in his voice. “Now, if you’ll direct your attention to the viewport, your pod should be making the ‘big turn’ now…”
The small pod smoothly rotates ninety degrees, and I gasp as Earth comes into view. I ignore Dick’s narration as I stare dumbfounded at the view below me.
The world at night is dark, save for clusters of light smattered across the continents. I can see cities gleaming bright as the sun, the long stretches between them pitch black. Neon-hued tethers lace around the planet, landing in bunches at various space ports dotting the coastlines. Tears stream down my cheeks, and I must remind myself to breath.
This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Then, I blink, confused. The cities begin to flicker and fade away, the now utter lack of light spreading from their hubs. Civilization disappears below me in a wave, and I hear Dick panickily talking to someone through the speaker. He starts breaking up, until I hear nothing but the quiet. I feel a silent scream building in my throat, suddenly realizing just how far I am from safety. I can still see the tethers, though, locked in place to the ground.
The lights in my pod flicker off, and the suppressed scream in my throat breaks through in gasping sobs. The pod shudders violently around me, making my teeth rattle in my skull and cutting off my wails.
The pod shakes for what feels like an eternity, until I pass out.
I slowly blink awake, the pod seat’s restraints holding my head upright. The lights on Earth are back, the tethers still spreading out like a web from the planet’s surface. I laugh in relief, and choke on the phlegm coating my raw throat. I tilt my head towards the speaker, my voice a strained croak.
“Hello? Hey, what happened?”
“Hey, hello? Dick?”
Panic creeps up the back of my skull, and with every ounce of might I have left in my lungs I project my voice into the speaker.
“Hello? Hello, can anybody hear me?”
I watch through the window as the pod slowly rotates, revealing the bright, crackling yellow tether line. A line securely attached to distant pods that are not my own. The might in my voice flees, replaced with a tiny, weak mewl.