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Billion Bright Ambassadors of Dawn

Joyce Kohler said yes.

Gracie Castelle said yes.

Norm Stignolt said, "You betcha!" his wrinkled old face cracking into wide grin.

With Walt Stigman, they had to explain it two or three times—partly because he was a little hard of hearing but mostly out of sheer cussedness. But he understood right enough. He thought for a bit, then said yes.

Niall Dempsey took some persuading, wanting all the details laid out and a chance to properly scrutinize the terms and conditions. He had been a contracts lawyer before retiring ten years ago and hadn't entirely lost his sharp eye for detail. But eventually he said yes.

Reverend Aran Burunda also said yes—which, frankly, took everyone by surprise. But as he said himself, spirituality takes many different forms. There was more than one way to skin a drum.

Mrs Gladys Wendell was appalled by the idea. Ridiculous! Preposterous! What were they thinking of, making such proposals to an old lady? She set aside the crochet shawl on the arm of her recliner and ushered the visitors out of her house with uncharacteristic abruptness verging on rudeness.

A week later she called back. Now that she'd had time to think about the offer, she was prepared to reconsider. Time, she said, is the most precious thing any of us have. And what makes it precious is living a life full of challenge and adventure and fun. "If you stop trying, you stop living. Doesn't matter how old you are." She told them to count her in.

Plenty said no. No's outweighed yes's by at least a hundred to one. But slowly the little group began to grow, becoming a band of like-minded individuals, a statistically meaningful cohort.

How many was enough? No one knew, not even Kade Okibande himself. And aside from the travelers, no one much cared.

They were all likely to die soon anyway.

Which was precisely the point.

The party was getting out of hand. He should have left an hour ago; that would have been the sensible thing to do. Instead, he found himself sprawled on the floor, overwhelmed by the challenge of verticality and the sheer amount of effort required to remain standing in this drunken state. The music was loud, lights pulsing somewhere in the next room, and other students were stepping over him as they shrieked with laughter at some joke beyond his hearing.

And was that the faint whiff of vomit he could smell in the carpet?

The sounds of the party began to fade. Hello unconsciousness, he thought. Come to take me away from all this? Tomorrow there would be lab work, and undergrad classes to teach and the ever-present worries about grant renewals. Standard fare for any engineering post-grad, but it sapped his spirit—constantly reminding him he was nothing special, that he had reached this far not through genius but hard slog at his textbooks and a deep-seated stubbornness. Tonight was about letting go.

And then, when he least expected it, it hit him.

An idea.

Take this—and this! And this! Use this model, combine it with that principle there, use this process to control... In isolation, each step meant nothing. But, oh boy, together...! Alright, so it lacked the inherent beauty of a pure mathematical equation, but this engineering problem had been frustrating him for months. He saw its potential immediately, turning the idea round in his head, examining it from different angles.

It fitted. It worked.

Fortunes had been built on less.

As he marvelled at its elegant simplicity, he felt a terrible wave of nausea sweeping over him. His vision narrowed until the room became patches of color at the end of a dark tunnel. What if he passed out now and forgot it all?

He struggled to stand. Dizziness forced him back down. He felt the coolness of the floor again, the threadbare carpet embossing checkerboard patterns into the side of his face.

He must not forget...

Must not.

Must—

He blacked out.

He remembered.

In the months and years that followed, he found a way to turn that simple idea into a prototype, tirelessly refining and evolving it through countless iterations until at last he had a production model. His timing was fortuitous. When the boom in fusion energy arrived, his tech company was right there to solve a critical problem at the heart of the engineering puzzle. Everyone knew cheap, limitless energy was going to transform global economics overnight. It was going to make the future seem possible again. There was even talk of space commercialization; exploiting new frontiers. Exciting times! His earliest memories were of gazing into the night sky and dreaming of one day visiting those tiny points of light.

The dollars began to flow; slowly at first, then more quickly. He was a billionaire before his thirtieth birthday—and that was only the beginning.

He owed it all to blind chance—and that was hard to come to terms with. Why him, when it could have been anyone working in the field?

Instead of feeling lucky, he felt vulnerable. Fragile. As though he feared the universe might find a way to even out his good fortune sooner or later.

The young man's name was Kade Okibande.

History would not remember that name kindly.

At some point just before the brightening dawn began to spill into the eastern sky, washing away all chance of glimpsing the ghostly speckle, Tani stopped fidgeting in his lap and grew still. An hour before, Kade Okibande's granddaughter had startled him, drifting through the screen door and onto the veranda as though sleep-walking. He made to return her to bed, cursing the stiffness in his joints as he struggled up. That was late middle-age catching up with him, he supposed. But then Tani had insisted on snuggling up to look at the stars and he had relented all too easily.

"It's alright," she told him with all the seriousness in her tone that only a six year old could muster. "I've told Moma she doesn't need to cry any more. I've thought of something. Something that means you won't be able to go on that stupid starship."

"What?" he asked, his heart thudding in his chest as though there really might be some tiny flaw in his plan; some misjudgment, despite all the years of planning and preparation—something that everyone else had missed and only his six year old granddaughter could have spotted.

"You can't go because I won't let you," she said, throwing her skinny arms around his chest and hugging him, crushing him until he thought his tired old heart might give out.

"I must," he said, and those two words felt like the final betrayal. "But it won't be for a while. Maybe years and years. There's a lot to do to prepare. And we have to avoid the mistakes others have made."

Kade looked up to where the faint band of lights had been, now hopelessly blurred, extinguished by the hot wash of his tears. After a moment to compose himself, he pointed towards the east. "Can you see it, Tani? Tiny points of sparkling light, all different colors. Like a faint band that stretches right across the sky. Sometimes it feels almost close enough to touch." And it does touch us. Every one of us, even if we don't know it. Tani screwed up her face in concentration. "You mean the Milky Way? I've seen that loads of times, Gramps."

"No. This is different. Much fainter. More subtle." He held his breath, waiting. So few others could see it. He might be the only one. Had his own need to believe overwhelmed everything, convinced others to see something that wasn't really there?

"Maybe," Tani said at last. He hugged her close. "Keep looking," he whispered into her ear, smelling the soft fragrances of her skin and hair. "Every day. Maybe one day you'll see it too."

She squirmed in his lap and he enveloped her in a fold of blanket to keep them both warm.

"I don't want you to go away, Gramps. I want you to stay here with us."

"I know," he said, his throat suddenly dry and awkward.

"But you're still going, aren't you? Moma said you would, no matter what."

Kade didn't trust himself to speak, so he remained silent.

"Why are you taking so many old people? Everyone says space is for the young and the brave."

"Can't old people be brave too?"

She shrugged. He pointed off towards the hopelessly brightening sky. "Keep looking," he told her. "You'll see it one day, I know you will. Then you'll understand."

The signs were there right from the very start. Subtle, but there all the same. Even the Apollo pioneers gambolling across the lunar surface spoke of 'magnificent desolation.' They were getting a sense of it. Maybe that was why some struggled to adapt upon their return. But the Moon was no distance; a baby step away from Earth.

The failure of the Nova Mars mission made it real. The crew's loss to sudden depressurization on the return leg was officially attributed to a catastrophic accident. Only the flight operations team present in the control center knew the real story—that the crew themselves had opened the airlock to vacuum.

But there were rumors.

There were always rumors.

Both Luna Bases limped on, hemorrhaging funding and support. Crew rotation rates due to mental illness were higher than could be sustained; the suicide rate amongst personnel an uncomfortable blemish. This wasn't the way it was supposed to be.

Undeterred, a new wave of space entrepreneurs built their business dynasties on lucrative robotic capture-and-return programs to the Asteroid Belt. Others quickly followed. There seemed to be a future waiting. Space exploration was within our grasp. With bridgeheads on the Moon, colonies in Earth orbit, from there it was a simple progression to the habitat ships that would first explore the outer solar system and then, with the slow passing of generations on board, journey to the nearer stars.

But the early success of robotic missions was overshadowed by the repeated failure of crewed missions. Far from Earth, something was going badly wrong. The sense of despair and helplessness was too much to bear. Out there, there was no Right Stuff. Out there, the human soul was stripped bare and found wanting. Those who ventured out all reported the same difficulties. So alone. So terribly alone. The few who made it back never fully regained their sanity.

It seemed space was an emptier place than anyone ever imagined.

An emptiness that was literally unbearable.

But Kade Okibande thought he knew how to fix that.

"Old souls," Kade muttered. His granddaughter's slow, regular breathing suggested Tani was sleeping now. He returned his gaze to the sky, trying to conjure the image of a thin blanket of light enfolding the planet. Remove it—and what then? Perhaps its absence felt like the sudden cessation of a background hum; confusing, disorientating—and worse. Without it, did the human soul simply wither?

Kade believed every living human could sense it at some primitive level, yet we never realized. Old souls: they became nothing but a flicker of light in an endless darkness. Yet it was enough to stop the universe from overwhelming the living with its infinitely cold, unimaginably vast perspectives; a universe that neither noticed nor cared if humanity lived or died. Remove that comfort blanket and sooner or later, the living human soul would shrivel and die.

Tani stirred again, restlessly. "One day," he told her, "maybe you and I will join them. Just like everyone who's ever lived. A billion ambassadors for humanity." He smiled to himself. "Sometimes, if you know how to look just right, I fancy you can even see them. A faint ring encircling the Earth in the dawn sky. A billion little scintillating lights."

But not now. Dawn was breaking.

Or perhaps it was all in his head. But he knew what he had seen.

Once.

Long ago.

Tani shifted in his lap and murmured something too faint for him to hear. She had grown heavy, her weight pressing uncomfortably on his tired old bones. He sighed, unwilling to disturb this precious moment. "One day you'll understand," he told her.

Beginnings.

It was the question everyone wanted to ask. When did you first realize? How could you have possibly known?

Sometimes he told them. To be born, he would say, you have first to die.

Which left his questioner more puzzled than before.

And sometimes he told the truth...

The high desert was achingly beautiful in its harsh simplicity: in the arid air that sucked the moisture from all living things, in the searing heat of late afternoon, and the freezing nights that could shatter rock columns which had stood tall for millennia. Though there was life to be found here, it was only the most hardy kind, and scarce with it. Death, though. Plenty of that.

Kade had come to test himself. His fortieth birthday was only months away, and although he possessed everything he could materially wish for, he could think of no other way to shake this sense of futility, this feeling that everything he had achieved had been built on chance. It wasn't that his life had no meaning. His obsession with space commercialization, his business empire—they were proof of his success. But something was missing. By testing himself, maybe he would discover what it was.

He had a simple objective: walk a straight-line path across this inhospitable desert region. He would allow himself two days to cover the 60 kilometers from the drop-off point to an old ranger station still with working comms where he could arrange a pickup. Until then, his only concession to technology was an antique magnetic compass—a splendid hand-crafted specimen in an embossed silver case that one of his people had bought for him at auction. The compass made him feel like some Victorian explorer, setting off in pursuit of adventure and glory, knowing his life would depend on that object. It hung from a leather thong around his neck. Out here, there were no trails to follow and no way-points, just dead reckoning. Whatever obstacles the terrain threw up, he would go over, not around.

As soon as he started walking, he felt a weight lifting. Wasn't it wonderful to be leaving so much behind, even just for a couple of days? The private jets and chauffeured limos and endless meetings and all the people—oh god, the people, all of whom seemed to need something from him: decisions, favors, advice, money. Not one of them knew he was doing this, not even his most trusted staff.

In his backpack were the bare essentials: a pop-up tent, water, dried food-stuffs. No phone, no GPS-tracker. Not even a web-assist strap on his wrist. He supposed it was risky. Self-indulgent, even. But wasn't that the point? This was something he had to do. He needed to understand what he was capable of.

Kade expected that first day to be tough, and reality didn't disappoint. The dust got everywhere; in his eyes and nostrils. He felt it grind between his teeth and itch at the back of his neck. Everything focused down to the struggle against this inhospitable terrain. He scrambled up rocky abutments, over boulders bigger than his car, descended treacherous scree-slopes, sometimes losing his footing and arriving at the bottom on his backside in a cloud of choking brown dust.

As the light began to fade, he looked for a place to camp for the night. He spotted a sheltered gully just below the ridge he had crested. That would do. As he descended the escarpment, free-climbing the forty feet or so, he wondered if his absence had been noticed yet. Even his wife believed he was at an investors' meeting in Houston and wouldn't be expecting him home until the weekend. Not that she cared too much about his whereabouts these days.

In the end, it was fatigue that caught him out. It made him careless. He knew it the moment he felt rock crumbling beneath his grip and his feet flailed for purchase on a ledge that suddenly wasn't there anymore. He fell, thinking: Thirty feet at most. How bad can that be? It's nothing. I'll be fine.

But he wasn't fine. Hard, unyielding rock slammed into him and shock did nothing to diminish the sudden pain. He lay still, sprawled across a granite slab that must have calved from the rock face, laid out like some sacrifice to the gods. Pain flared in his pelvis as though a hot poker was being thrust through the center of his body. He could hear a weird hissing sound. It took a while before he realized where it was coming from: his own ragged breaths being sucked in through clenched teeth. He couldn't seem to move the right side of his body at all; couldn't sit up, couldn't even summon the breath to scream out his pain. Then, when he tried to roll over, he blacked out.

Dusk.

The first stars were coming out already, and heat was bleeding out of the air. So soon? He seemed to have lost an hour somewhere. Movement was even harder now, as though his body had fused with the rock beneath him. Wasn't it easier to lie still and just gaze up at the stars?

Find your backpack. Keep hydrated or you'll die for sure.

He was half-lying on the backpack. Extricating it and then unscrewing the top of his canteen one-handed was one of the most gruelling challenges he had ever faced. But the hot, gritty water he gulped down was the best he had ever tasted.

What now?

Now you die, he told himself. He was alone, off-grid, and would be lucky if he could manage to crawl more than a yard or two. The ranger's station was still a day's walk away.

He had gambled and lost. But the deal he'd made had been a fair one. Now it must be honored.

The night sky was gorgeous; ablaze with light, stars wheeling slowly above him. The beauty of it almost broke his heart. That's where we belong, he thought. Out there. That's our inheritance. We've spent long enough crawling in the dirt. Now humankind is ready to leave its birthplace and venture out amongst the stars. Except we don't seem able to. Physically maybe, but not spiritually. Not without driving ourselves insane with the loneliness of it all. Something ties us inextricably to this cradle that we call Earth.

Kade felt crushed by his own sense of hopelessness. Nobody should have to die alone. For all his cleverness and success and wealth, for all the material things that he possessed, all the people that he surrounded himself with—none could help him now. It was just him, alone in the desert, and that wasn't enough to save him.

As he stared up into the night sky, he could feel his own sanity beginning to fade. Distances were confused: near things were desperately far away, yet it seemed as though he could reach out to feel the stars as tiny pricks of light and warmth if he could only raise his arm. Then the lights were dancing: sending messages in the rhythm of their pulsing.

Fever dreams.

And yet—

A powerful feeling washed over him. He wasn't alone; not here, not anywhere on this planet teeming with humanity. And it was true. There were cities crammed full of people only a hundred miles away. Closer still were planes passing overhead and the scattering of orbital habitats drifting in their low earth orbits. And more, so much more! The essence of humanity permeated every inch of the planet. The only loneliness was the kind he allowed to exist within his soul.

Kade had no time for religion but he recognised something in the profundity of this moment. A sense of oneness, of belonging. Everything we could ever hope to be was formed out of the crumbling bones of our ancestors. Every one of us living in spiritual symbiosis with all of humanity passing before.

Without the dead, no one could be fully alive.

Kade saw it then. He was sure of it. A faint, speckled band of lights, billions upon billions of them, spread across the lightening sky like ambassadors of dawn. Not the milky way, not orbital junk. Something closer and ever-present.

We are here. We have always been here.

We are you.

Everything else followed with a kind of logical inevitability. To journey into space was to step away from this ancestral cocoon. The tangible presence of those ancestors defined the baseline for what it meant to be human and capable of love. We stood on their shoulders to see further. Remove that support and there was nothing left. If humankind wished to journey into the deeper reaches of space, a way must be found to bring a part of them too.

And then, just like that night at the party all those years before, Kade felt the same sense of panic that this insight was about to be snatched from him. He couldn't hope to survive another day in the unrelenting heat with no shade. The inevitability of his death could only mean the revelation would die with him.

Revelation? Or delusion?

His eyelids fluttered closed on what he was certain were faintly scintillating bands of light—just as a new star wavered near the horizon. It brightened steadily over the course of the next few minutes. Soon came the percussive thud of rotor-blades slicing the thin desert air, a spotlight stabbing out across the broken landscape.

The antique compass, Kade thought, as he slipped into a more profound darkness. Some kind of tracking device inside the casing. Even his most trusted aides were capable of deceiving him, it seemed. He would have words about that.

Later.

Of the countless interviews he gave before the shutters came down and he withdrew into reclusivity, one remained firmly in his memory. Afterwards, he couldn't recall the young woman's name, but he remembered her cool, dispassionate manner—and the way she brushed aside his usual dissembling with facts and figures. She came ready-equipped with a line of questioning designed to skewer him and lay him bare.

"Is it vanity that drives your project, Mr Okibande?" the young woman asked.

"Belief. And money, of course. Always that."

"Belief." She repeated the word as though it was unfamiliar. When he didn't respond immediately she said, "You're naming the ship Dawn Treader. Does—"

"I'm sure you're familiar with the fine works of C. S. Lewis."

She blinked at him, her face betraying no expression. "I know that the fictional ship had many voyages and that it first made landfall in a place called the Lone Islands."

Ah. She was a smart interviewer all right. Not many had made that connection. Not yet.

He shrugged. "This Dawn Treader isn't a ship. It's a world; a home. Generations will live and die aboard and know nothing else. There's everything we require: spacious accommodation, schools, gyms, hydroponic farms, medical facilities, eating places, recreational spaces, entertainment zones. Everything is designed for self-sufficiency with multi-redundant, closed-loop recycling."

"Is that why some call it the ultimate vanity project?"

Kade shrugged again. "Some call me insane. Some call me an egomaniac. I have my critics, I know that. It doesn't change anything."

She held his gaze for a long moment. "And your criteria for selecting passengers and crew?"

He held up a hand. "Wrong terminology. There's no distinction. We're all voyagers. Granted some of the inhabitants will have specialist skills and training but that doesn't grant them any automatic status. There will be a ruling council democratically elected from the entire population of nearly one thousand people." He could tell she was starting to tune him out and knew what question was coming next.

"And the old people. What about them?"

"What about them?" he parried. "The population will comprise family groups of all ages. We will have the best medical facilities onboard—skilled doctors and nurses, advanced medical AIs, extensive databanks and auto-surgeons capable of handling the majority of ailments that might arise. People will grow old, no matter what, and we'll have the facilities to care for them."

"Why take so many old people to begin with? And not just old but terminally ill?"

Kade Okibande stood and walked over to the picture-window that formed the entire east wall of his office. Dusk was falling across the city, lit by thousands upon thousands of lights. A living metropolis. He felt the woman's eyes on him, felt the burden of all that ambition and knowledge carried within for so long. He wanted desperately to rid himself of it, to explain the truth for once. If he could make others understand... We need them to be our cocoon, our safety blanket. But he caught himself in time.

"Space is a forgiving environment for old bodies, once you're there. Dawn Treader will spin up to a comfortable 0.8 Earth gravities. So why not? We don't stop dreaming about the future just because our bodies age."

He turned away from the window to see the woman smiling to herself: a little knowing, conceited smile. In that instant he realized most people would never understand what really drove him. He decided there and then this would be the last interview he gave.

"I hope you find what you're looking for out there," the woman said as she closed her e-pad and shook his hand. But her expression said she thought it unlikely.

By mutual agreement, Kade met his granddaughter on neutral territory. Something of the Okibande trait for stubbornness prevented each of them from giving ground—not on their beliefs and principles, nor their choice of meeting place. So they settled for expressos and pastries in the tertiary level café atop the towering Metropole Plaza complex. The views out across this immature, vibrant new city were glorious—but no one who came here was interested in that. Of course, the top-most terrace afforded the best views of the Cable but it also drew all the tourists. Kade preferred the relative tranquility of this lowest viewing level, empty now except for a few launch-complex workers grabbing light lunches after their shift.

"I read your symposium paper," Kade said, working to keep his tone conciliatory. He dropped a perfect cube of sugar into thick coffee and stirred relentlessly as though it would banish the irritation he felt. Tani had failed to conceal her shock when she first glimpsed him in the lobby. Seventy seven was no age really, but he supposed the relentless pressure of the planning and preparations had taken a greater toll on his features than he realized. He really should find time for them to meet more often. "It was a good piece of work."

"Good?" Tani raised an eyebrow as though expecting some ambush behind his words. Kade thought she looked tired herself. Worn down. It was easy to forget this would be hard on those who would be left behind. Families separated; friends never to be reunited. Launch day had always seemed impossibly distant. Yet here it was, a very real and tangible thing just scant months away—and still so much to do.

"You mean you agree with my conclusions?" Tani asked. He felt her gaze on him, bird-like in its intensity, but couldn't find it within him to match it. Softly, he said, "You know we'll never see eye to eye on that."

Tani stayed silent. She seemed distracted, thoughts elsewhere. He wondered what else was wrong, but felt the distance between them too great to ask the question directly.

"I've had an offer," she said at last. "A good one. From the Krisholm Institute. In Finland."

"Finland?" Why would she want to move to Finland? Unless this was about trying to make him feel guilty.

"Their research group is very well respected. Some of their work on perceptual awareness and psycho-trauma is getting international recognition and there are obvious synergies with my own line of research. Everyone's very excited about it. It's a terrific opportunity for me."

Kade shook his head slowly. "You still think big-pharma holds the answers to all this? It's not the body that gets sick in space, Tani. It's the soul. How can any medicine, or behavioral therapy, come to that—"

"Please, Grandfather." Tani clattered her spoon onto her saucer in irritation. It was a harsh, ugly sound. "I don't want to argue about this again. Our views are too entrenched. I try to respect yours. Can't you respect mine?"

"I can't respect what I believe is wrong, Tani. I'm sorry, but I know what I know. There's a lesson that we can't ignore at the heart of all this. We are nothing on the true scale of the universe, not even the tiniest pinprick. Can't you see it? A human mind just isn't adapted to cope out there, all alone. On Earth, we've been nurtured by countless generations of ancestors. There's some essence of humanity that survives physical death—a slow accretion of human spirit like layers of sediment being deposited over the millennia. And we feel its absence in our very core. We are a community of souls or we are nothing. A handful of pills can't make up for that."

"Who said anything about pharmaceuticals—" Tani began, but he rode over her protestations, something he did too easily these days since most of the people he surrounded himself with were expected to defer to his views. Perhaps he had let his wealth and power feed a certain arrogance in him. "I live with people calling me an old fool every day of my life. And maybe they're right. But we'll know in just a few years, won't we? We'll have an answer—and that's all that matters." He gazed out through the mist-smeared window of the café across rooftops and scrubland to the rocky caldera beyond. Here, more than anywhere, the eye always wanted to skip over the natural beauty of the landscape and focus on the artificial. Rough grazing pastures on the lower flank of the mountain gave way to glass-and-polysteel extrusions hinting at a mountaintop hollowed and transformed for an entirely different purpose. Always the eye was drawn to the Cable, seeming to bisect the sky, reaching heavenwards until either cloud or perspective rendered it invisible.

"Your paper," he began again. "It is a good piece of work. Well-reasoned. I'm proud that a granddaughter of mine can produce work like that. Don't ever think that I'm not."

"But you think my conclusions are wrong."

Kade shrugged, feeling in some way defeated—or maybe just inadequate. "How can I feel otherwise? We have such opposing views. The problem is more intractable than it seems. If we voyage across interplanetary distances, we abandon something that is fundamental to human existence, something that nurtures and supports every one of us from cradle to grave. That will never be something you can medicate for."

"Why not? We medicate for all kinds of psychoses and mental aberrations. Brain chemistry is just that. Chemistry."

"Not this," Kade said. "This will always be different. And I'll never get you to see it."

"What then? You really believe it's possible to take some part of this ancestral support network with you?"

"In a manner of speaking."

They both gazed out the window, eyes inevitably drawn to the Cable. A capsule was lifting clear of the cradle below the lip of the mountain, its reflector plate lit by the launch lasers, superheated air nudging it upwards on its long climb. Moments later the underside was too bright to look at, a rising sun chasing the capsule up the Cable towards the orbital terminus. Yet impossible to look away altogether.

"I'll be moving to Helsinki soon," Tani said.

"I know." Kade realized his mistake the instant the words were out of his mouth. Too quick, too casual, as though he had already accepted the implications.

She caught the tone and looked away. "I doubt we'll see much of each other. Not before..." her voice trailed off. Not before you leave for good.

"Nonsense. I'll find space in my schedule. Make space if I have to," he told her, but a part of him was already wondering if he would. There was so much still to do.

"Flattered, I'm sure." Tani made no attempt to hide the bitterness in her voice. She turned to signal a waiter for the bill. "Just go," she told him.

There was a pause, and then she said it again, more quietly and with infinitely more sadness in her voice. "Just go." And he knew that in some small way she was giving him permission to do just that.

Anger got her through the worst of it.

There was no call from her grandfather. No bouquet of flowers delivered to the new apartment, not even a good-luck-with-the-new-job message from him. But she hadn't expected anything. In that respect at least, he didn't disappoint.

There had been talk of him flying out to visit, but with Dawn Treader's departure just weeks away, Tani could not hope to compete for his attention. There was always some excuse: a glitch in the ship's final shakedown checks, meetings with lawyers, a personnel matter that required his intervention. It was hard not to resent always being second fiddle.

The apartment was spacious and well-appointed. Her new work colleagues were friendly and supportive. She itched to make progress, to prove herself—always trying to escape the association with the eccentric billionaire grandfather who believed the future of humanity out amongst the stars depended on dead people. It was her work that mattered most now. And Kade could go to hell for all she cared—though she had to admit with a wry smile, that would be entirely at odds with his own beliefs.

So anger served as a coping mechanism, giving her purpose and direction. But every day she felt it burning a hole a little deeper in her heart. Some evenings she sat alone in her apartment gazing out at the lights twinkling off the harbor, writing long emails to her grandfather so that he would understand—or perhaps so that she could. Some were angry, some sorrowful. In the end, she sent none of them.

She had lived most of her young life with a sense of a clock ticking down to zero. At first, the Dawn Treader was nothing but a dream, then an idea, a design, a prototype—and finally a reality, but still years in the future... One day, her grandfather would be gone, but it always seemed as if there would be plenty of time. Now that gulf of time had flown by, dissolving and scattering like a disturbed flock of starlings. Departure Day was measured in mere days and hours.

And with that realization, anger ebbed into sorrow, sorrow into regret.

Tani made her decision with a little over two weeks left on the clock. She gathered together her research datasets; terabytes of it. Whole databases of peer-reviewed clinical models and treatment pathways, even instructions for synthesizing the latest and most promising of the pharma trials. She knew Kade would only be interested in the raw data, not trusting the analytical methods of others. None of it was hers to give of course, and she was risking her reputation and career if others found out what she had done.

Treat this as your fall-back plan, her note said. If you run into problems, these datasets may help you find solutions. The molecular synthesizers carried on board would be able to handle the fabrication process once the analyses were completed.

She meant it as a lifeline—and a parting gift. Yes, it flew in the face of the whole raison d'être for how Kade had gone about selecting Dawn Treader's population. She knew that. But it was still better to be prepared than not.

The data package was returned almost as soon as she sent it. No explanation. Just a terse note that read: Not required.

Well screw you, she thought.

But Tani had never been able to sustain her anger. Even as a child, her passion might flare brightly but it died swiftly, like a hot coal doused in water. Now she was tired of being angry all the time, tired of the weight pressing on her and sapping her energy. There were too many family ties; ones that couldn't be easily severed. All those times grandfather had sat her on his knee, told her stories, named the constellations on a clear night, told her something of his dreams. He had believed in her. He'd told her all the wonderful things she would achieve when she grew up, and she'd done her best to live up to those expectations. Funny how in the end, it was only stubbornness that broke the relationship apart. They were just too alike in that respect—and too different in their ideas. But was that reason enough to let the inevitable parting be on those terms?

Six days before Departure Day, Tani bought a plane ticket out to Terminus City.

The monorail from the airport ran in a channel cut through jungle for most of the twenty kilometres to Terminus City but every now and then you could glimpse a patch of sky above the cutting and maybe catch sight of the Cable itself. As always, its geometrical perfection took Tani's breadth away. The razor-edged straightness of the line connecting heaven and earth felt wrong on such a grand scale. Nothing in nature was so straight and so perfect. Sometimes she felt as if the Earth was nothing but a glittering blue-and-white bauble dangling from the end of this thread. And if it was to break, would Earth fall and shatter?

A young attendant dressed in company livery was making his way down the aisle. The carriages were full today, as they had been every day in the run up to Dawn Treader's departure. Visitors were flocking from all over the world to glimpse one of the last Cable-lifts ferrying passengers up to their new home, wanting to share a bit of history in the making. There would be no fiery launch for Dawn Treader, already assembled and waiting in orbit; none of the sound-and-fury of the early days of the space pioneers. But people still wanted to bear witness.

"Miss Okibande?" The attendant had stopped by her seat, bending down to check her seat number against his wrist display.

"Yes?"

The young man looked tense and pale. He swallowed before he spoke. "I'm so sorry," he began. "I've been asked to give you the news before it leaks to the public."

"What news?"

"Your grandfather..." At the last moment the attendant couldn't meet her gaze. "I'm afraid your grandfather passed away this morning."

Clear night skies quickly drew heat from the still air, forcing Tani to pull the blanket a little tighter. The house at her back was quiet; empty. Only the soft squeak of the swing chair on its rusty chains disturbed the silence—chains that probably hadn't been oiled since the last time she had sat here with her grandfather.

She knew exactly which sliver of night sky held the Dawn Treader. It was too remote now to be seen with the naked eye. She had grown tired of straining through binoculars to catch the faint fuzz of the ship's ion drive accelerating it to the stars.

Despite a lifetime spent preparing herself for Kade's departure, the suddenness of this parting had caught her unawares. It left her filled with a sadness that was both deep and profound. Her grandfather should have been up there with those other voyagers, lost amongst the faint specks of starlight. Most of his life had been devoted to that one goal and now it had been snatched away. But the aneurysm must have formed over months, maybe years. A different kind of clock counting down the days and hours.

They had both made their choices and held to their beliefs. It was too late for regrets.

And yet—

The eastern sky was beginning to brighten, dawn on its way. Tani felt utterly alone in that moment: a tiny, insignificant speck of life shining for a fleeting instant in a vast, uncaring universe. Was this some echo of how it felt out there in the void beyond the stars, in the vast nothingness that fractured the human soul and drove the mind into insanity?

They would find a way. She honestly believed that. Sooner or later all fledglings find a way to leave the nest—so, too, humankind would find a way to fly to the next tree, and then the next, and the next.

Her mind growing numb with fatigue and cold, Tani felt something relax and slip from her then, like a weight lifting. In its place was a surety of belonging. Loss was not the same thing as loneliness. Her grandfather was gone, Dawn Treader was gone, but life persisted. Humanity pulled itself up by its bootstraps, each painful step into the future supported by the past. Her head lolled with sleep. She fought it, raising her eyes again to the west where the darkness had not yet crept away.

The faint band of light seemed to leap out at her; a billion bright ambassadors of dawn, somehow hiding in plain sight. They had always been there. She understood that now. She just hadn't been looking in the right way before.

And—just for an instant—one seemed to wink more brightly than all the others: a searingly bright point of light and energy and hope, shining like a beacon. Then it was gone, losing itself in the faint smear of light stretching from horizon to horizon above her.

"Goodbye, grandfather," she whispered to it.

About the Author
David Cleden lives in the UK and works in London. Recently he won the Aeon Award for short fiction, and has previously been a James White Award winner, with published work in Interzone, Empyreome, Electric Spec and The Colored Lens. His day job is writing business proposals but turns to writing fiction after hours and is still working hard not to get the two muddled up. He lives in a household with a ridiculously large number of cute cats, as per the rules of all author bios. Complaints and criticism can be directed to him on Twitter as @davidcleden.