Chapter 25

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The Salutem coasted majestically toward its final destination. The gold of its fuel tanks glittered in the distant remnants of sunlight, and its broad, curved windows reflected a warped image of the ringed planet in all its beige glory. Hues of silver and purple banded the gas giant, and the rings shone pristine white in the sunlight. A dusting of moons lay scattered around the disk of the ring system.

The spaceliner would swing around the huge planet over the next day or so, sending it back towards the sun. Earth was two uneventful weeks away. But the coming hours would be the most spectacular of all, as the Salutem few between the rings of Saturn, among the myriad moons, and skimmed the honey-colored atmosphere.

The tour guide spoke, providing its contextual facts. Saturn, it hummed, was the last stronghold of the UDS before the no man's land of the ice giants and the Kuiper belt. Its moon system was arguably even more diverse than that of Jupiter, sporting such astronomical oddities as Iapetus and Titan. The latter was considered the capital world of the system, and held most of the economic and administrative power. Despite daytime temperatures exceeding minus one hundred degrees Celsius and occasional showers of methane and benzene, the moon was rather successful, profiting heavily on the last extensive hydrocarbon industry in the solar system. The most exciting part of Titan, however, was the booming tourist industry. With a thick atmosphere and low gravity, sports on Titan were unique. One could ski down slopes of methane snow and sail oceans of briny water, pushed by winds of orange haze. Best of all, the Exonavis corporation has recently opened the first wingsuit facility on Titan's surface, allowing those with the courage and the money to fly under their own power. This miracle was only possible on Titan, where the atmospheric conditions allowed humans to generate sufficient thrust for flight with only their arms. Here, men could don wings like those of legendary Icarus, and take to the alien air gliding and swooping like monstrous, rubber birds.

But the Salutem hadn't the time to make any stops on its breakneck sprint around the solar system. There was only enough to let its passengers observe the glory of the cosmos and wonder.

Theodora was quite content with this arrangement as she watched the frozen orb of Saturn from behind several inches of quartz glass. The window was cold.

She turned away and saw John Brannon, reading. He looked up.

"The Yangtze AD has started mobilizing its air forces. There's talk of war!"

"Finally. It's high time for a good war."

"They're claiming the UDS has been limiting freedom of expression in their borders and are prepared to use force to gain independence. There are rumors that the MIAD is prepared to join any conflict that comes up."

"I always loved watching drama unfold. So how is the UDS reacting?"

"They're attempting to pacify the Yangtze military, changing policies and such, but it's near certain at this point that some fighting is going to happen. I'm looking forward to something big!"

"Wonderful."

John smiled in agreement and walked off to his room. The sounds of amazement took his place, emanating from the three dozen other tourists.

The Salutem was quick to traverse the Saturn system, dashing between the moons and asteroids and closer to the giant at their center. It was soon passing by some of the inner moons, and made a close flyby of Iapetus.

Iapetus was simultaneously dull and interesting. Like most celestial bodies this far from the sun, it was covered in ice, and pockmarked with craters. In this, it was unremarkable. However, Iapetus was unique among the celestial bodies due its dichotomous coloration. One hemisphere was grey-black, while the other was white. The two sides were cleanly separated. Explanations for the anomaly varied greatly. Some geologists suggested that it was due to a huge collision event in the past, that stripped the darker materials off one hemisphere. Others thought it was some artifact of the Saturnian magnetic field, or some unknown factor deep within the undiscovered bowels of Iapetus. Either way, the moon made for an intriguing tourist destination, and attracted a small crowd as it slid past the larger disk of Saturn.

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