Chapter 22

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The EXN Salutem floated away from the Lionsgate space station. It carried with it several hundred tons of fuel, and a significantly smaller quantity of food, water, and human biomass.

The Salutem was a luxury liner, designed to service a few wealthy passengers, and show them the wonders of the universe from the comfort of an armchair. On this flight, it would complete the classic Grand Tour of the solar system. It would pass by Luna, coming within viewing distance of many large cities while doing so, then go on to Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It could finish the route in slightly under two months. To travel such immense distances in so little time was nothing less than miraculous, and required a wonder of technology to be done.

The fusion drive was not an especially novel idea; the basic principle had been in use for eons. What made the Salutem and her sister ships special was sheer power. While most ships made do with VASIMRs, EXN cruise liners used the mighty energy released by fusing atoms into larger ones. By using a basic, lightweight tokamak reactor, it could generate immense temperatures within its core. A thin stream of hydrogen was then pumped across the superheated reactor, causing the liquid to violently evaporate and expand. The ship surged forth on the shockwave of the resulting explosion, allowing it to reach phenomenal speeds, at impressive fuel efficiency.

Most of the Salutem's mass consisted of pill-shaped fuel tanks. They were sheathed in gold foil to reflect the light of the sun and keep the hydrogen from boiling off. A long, tapering engine nozzle poked out from behind the fuel tanks. Attached to the front of the vessel, as if merely an afterthought, was an elegantly sculpted cabin module. This contained the promenades and restaurants that any respectable cruise liner was expected to have.

It was all very impressive, but the main attraction was the view. That was why the Salutem was equipped with huge observation windows, ready for a tiny fleck of debris to shatter them. At the very least, they offered a dramatic look at the impossible distances waiting outside.

Theodora stared at the crescent Earth through the wide observation windows. A faint ring of shining particles hung about its equator, superimposed on the spattering of stars. Luna stood beside the arc of its mother planet, forming an identical saber of white metal beside it.

The promenade deck was filled with passengers, floating in the microgravity of orbit. They made breathy noises at the quartz glass, each held rapt by the blue sphere. It was a sight to see all on its own, grown men and women hanging like ornaments in a glass cage. Theodora smiled.

A synthesized voice cut through the miniature existential crises. "Greetings, treasured passengers. I regret to inform you all that our burn will begin soon. We recommend that everyone returns to their cabins until further notice. Thank you for your understanding."

There were unsatisfied grumbles, but the suspended figures gradually slipped back to their personal spaces. Some of them were obviously out of sorts, flailing their arms uselessly through the air in an attempt to swim through it. Theodora herself found some trouble in regaining her space-legs, but managed to get to her room without issue.

The room itself was uninspiring, more white plastic and rounded edges, with a standard microgravity hammock strung from wall to wall. A screen masqueraded as a skylight on the ceiling, beautifully framing the moon.

The Salutem launched itself away from the sun. The universe grew dimmer around it.

About a week later, the Salutem coasted near the orb of Mars. It was the polar opposite of home. Where Earth was painted blue and white, speckled with patches of brown and grey, Mars was a nearly uniform red. The surface was cratered and webbed with chasms. Fortunately for the sightseers, it was not sandstorm season, and the ancient geological features were clearly visible. They could gaze upon the unmarred face of the god of war.

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