"Now you're going to find this fascinating," Jonathan said excitedly as he lead Jamie up to a building that reminded her of pictures of the Coliseum in Rome. The exterior was as equally decorative as the rest of the buildings in the Academy, sporting a style that seemed to mix the imperious opulence of classical architecture, the sheer immensity of Gothic styles, and with just a touch of the sleek, forward-seeking hopefulness of art deco in a fashion that blended and complemented each other without looking like a haphazard mess. Again Jamie wondered just who were the people that built this place and what prompted them to create such a style to represent themselves. Before she could contemplate this any further Jonathan had quickly ushered her through the door, past the guard who seemed to recognize the exuberant feline on sight, and into the massive domed chamber inside.
Jamie stood in openmouthed amazement at the sight that greeted her. Once, while traveling cross-country on a family vacation as a cub, her family made a stop at the Federal Air Force Museum just outside of Dayton, Erie. Inside were aircraft of all kinds and sizes, ranging from airplanes that made historical firsts, to the workhorses of modern transportation, to weapons of war throughout the Age of Aviation. It was a massive place, far too large for anyone to see everything in one go, so they opted to breeze through one of the sections and then go see the hanger where the space exhibit was kept. They had just put the retired space shuttle Discovery there last year, so it was a real treat for her to finally see the actual shuttle with her own eyes. It was a massive craft, especially to a nine-year-old, and she drank in all of the details, down to the last weathered tile in the heat shield. She spent the rest of the day daydreaming about being in space, flying the shuttle, dancing in zero-gee, and exploring new worlds and discovering alien civilizations, just like in the old science-fiction operas that Uncle Ben loved to watch. She had resolved right then and there that she would be an astronaut when she grew up, a dream shared by many children her age ever since the space age began, but as she grew older, she realized just how difficult it was to become one. She turned away from math, science, and engineering and found her true love in linguistics and anthropology, but those dreams of dancing amongst the stars never left her entirely.
All of those dreams suddenly came flooding back to her as she gazed at two massive aircraft sitting in what she now realized was a hanger.
No, not aircraft, spacecraft. There was no mistaking it, even to her untrained eyes. It was as though they flew right out of a science-fiction movie, one bulbous and strangely shaped, the other sleek and appearing to fly a million miles per hour even while sitting motionless. She had seen magic spells being cast before her eyes, had visited an alien world by stepping through a portal, and talked to creatures that she had only thought existed in the imagination, but none of them made her feel this excited before. It was though she was nine years old again, eager to speed off into the final frontier and see what no Earthly eyes had ever seen before.
She looked at Jonathan, who was grinning from ear to ear. Their excitement resonated between them, causing them to grow more giddy with each passing second. "These..." Jamie said, "these are spaceships, right? Right?"
"Oh, yes, they are," Jonathan beamed. With a wave of his arm he indicated the two giant craft. "Jamie, may I present the Tengoku no Maru and the Wave Runner."
Jamie almost said hi to both of them, so wrapped up was she in the moment. She gazed longingly at them, taking in their heavenly designs, wishing desperately to see more.
Jonathan leaned in close to her, whispering softly into her ear. "Would you like to take a look inside?" he asked.
Jamie tore her gaze off of the ships and stared at the feline, her eyes full of hope. "I...I can? Really? That would be okay?"
"Sure, it's okay!" he replied. "Come on, let's go inside!" He grabbed Jamie by the paw and practically ran over to the open ramp leading up into the Tengoku no Maru. They entered what looked to be the ship's hold, a large rectangular chamber of uniform metal grey filled with various containers secured to the walls and floor. Jonathan breezed through here, leading her to a spiral staircase in the back. They quickly ascended the stairs and entered what appeared to be a ballroom parlor. The floor was furnished with soft, red carpet, the walls were lined with inviting leather couches, and a fully-stocked bar sat in the rear-starboard corner.
"Looks more like a space liner," Jamie noted with a trace of confusion in her voice. "I was thinking that this was a warship or a science vessel or something like that."
"Well, there is an interesting story about how my parents, er, acquired the Maru," Jonathan said. "In short, this was a pleasure yacht owned by a small-time gangster, and Mom and Dad commandeered it when they ran afoul of the local authorities."
"I see, so this is some gang-banger's pimp mobile," Jamie replied. "What happened to him? I don't think he would've liked the whole 'commandeered' thing."
"He was killed by a third party in a meeting gone bad, so he didn't have any say in the matter," he said matter-of-factly.
"But you are right, this ship was initially designed to be a pleasure craft, but don't let its interior design fool you," Jonathan continued. "This ship was very nimble and well-armed before my parents had it modified to suit their needs. She's now one of the most advanced spacecraft that you'll find anywhere, and I do mean anywhere." He winked knowingly. "But while the Maru is faster, and better armed and armored, my parents decided to keep most of the interior as it was. A bit of a romantic sentiment, I suppose, though I certainly don't disagree with them. Sometimes it's nice to travel in style, wouldn't you agree?"
"Some style," Jamie said. "Well, I suppose it's easier on the mind than stark metal hallways."
"Oh, no doubts there," he concurred. "Come on, let's take a look at the cockpit."
Jamie's ears perked up, and she suddenly remembered that she was on a spaceship, not just a futuristic dining car. She followed him towards the bow of the ship, pausing only briefly as he pointed out the master stateroom, which contained what had to be a king-sized bed, far larger than what she would've expected on a spaceship. The cockpit, however, looked exactly like she was expecting. There were numerous displays, dials, and switches everywhere, though surprisingly it was nowhere as overwhelming as she had seen on an ordinary airliner back home. Still, it was an impressive sight, and the windshield offered a commanding view at the hanger's interior.
"Here, have a seat in the pilot's chair," Jonathan said, swiveling the seat towards her. Jamie hesitated for a moment, still not quite believing that she was in an actually, real-life spaceship and that she was about to sit at the controls of it. No disembodied mockup, no mere shell of a decommissioned craft that had been made safe for tourists, this was a no-kidding, honest-to-God push-the-wrong-button-and-you're-zooming-off-to-Planet-X spaceship. She was practically trembling with excitement as she sat down in the seat. The cushions conformed to her form for maximum comfort, supporting her in a way that likely could keep her from being ground into paste from high acceleration. As Jonathan swung the chair back to facing forward, Jamie resisted the almost overpowering urge to reach out and grab the control yoke in front of her.
So this is what being an astronaut feels like, she mused to herself. True, it was literally worlds apart from the space shuttle resting back in Dayton, but for a young cub with a dream, it was close enough.
"So," Jonathan said after a while, "what do you think?"
"It's like I'm already amongst the stars," Jamie replied a bit breathlessly. Jonathan said nothing; when Jamie glanced up at him, he appeared deep in thought.
"Hmm, maybe..." he murmured to himself. "Excuse me a moment..." He pulled a cell phone from its belt holster and walked a few steps away as he held it up to his ear.
"Hi Dad, it's Jonathan!" he said cheerful into the phone. "I'm doing very well, just showing Jamie around the campus a bit. Say, I was wondering, would it be all right if I took the Maru up for a quick spin, give it a systems check and make sure that everything is working properly?" He was quiet for a moment and Jamie could hear the indistinct sound of the Headmaster's voice coming from the phone. "Yes, I know, Dad." Another pause. "Yes, I understand, Dad." The voice on the other side of the conversation spoke some more. "I won't go far. I can be back home in less than an hour if an emergency crops up, that's plenty of time before the response team is even ready. Besides, it's not like she's a hanger queen anyway. She can handle two trips in a row." Jonathan was quiet for a few more moments, then finally spoke again. "It would be a perfect opportunity to field-test the remote manipulators we installed, and besides, you have been meaning to get Satellite 3 repaired for a month now." There was another pause, and even though Jonathan's back was towards her she could see the smile forming on his muzzle. "Thanks Dad! I'll be careful, promise!"
He switched off his phone and turned to face her, a huge grin on his face. "Jamie, how would you like to go into space?"
The hyrax blinked. "What? Space? Right now?" she asked, a bit bewildered. She had sensed why he had called his father, but it was a crazy, wild hope, one that she didn't expect to come true. But now Jonathan was asking her if she wanted to go into space, something she had been able to only dream about for so long.
"Hell yes, I want to go!" she shouted excitedly.
"Excellent!" Jonathan declared. He quickly helped her get herself strapped in before he sat down in the copilot's seat. His paws flew across the panels, pushing buttons and flicking switches as the ship rumbled to life.
"Minerva, this is Jonathan aboard the Tengoku no Maru, come in please," he said aloud as he continued his preflight checks.
"Minerva here," the impassionate voice of the Academy's resident AI replied.
"I'm going to take the Maru up into orbit and see what I can do about patching up Satellite 3. Open the hanger doors, if you please."
"I see no scheduled flight for today," Minerva said. "Does the Headmaster know about this?"
"I just spoke with him, he's given the go-ahead," Jonathan said. "Ask him if you wish, I still have a few more items left on my checklist."
The comm was silence for a few seconds, so Jamie assumed that she was checking with Jonathan's father. "Very well, Maru," Minerva finally said. "Opening the hanger doors."
Above the Maru the dome that covered the massive hanger opened up, revealing the blue sky above. It was an impressive sight in itself, a marvel of engineering, but for now Jamie could only think about flying up and out into the wild blue yonder and beyond. After what seemed like an eternity the dome retracted fully.
"Maru here, all systems green," Jonathan said.
"You are cleared for launch, Maru. Have a safe flight."
"Thanks, Minnie!" Jonathan replied cheerfully and quickly shut off the comm before the AI could protest the nickname. He carefully grabbed the control yoke in his paws and glanced over at Jamie. "Ready?" he asked.
Jamie found that she couldn't help but smile eagerly. "Ready!" she replied.
"Then here we go!" The entire ship trembled slightly as she rose slowly from the ground. She floated gently up and out of the hanger, giving her crew a breathtaking view of the Academy grounds and Puertia Liberia. Jonathan pointed the Maru out towards the ocean and opened up the throttle. Jamie only felt a gentle push and she sank a little into her seat, but outside she could see the world zoom past underneath them. Jonathan pulled back on the yoke, aiming the nose towards the sky. They flew past several clouds, soaring higher and higher into the heavens. Jamie felt herself lying on her back and knew that they were practically vertical now, yet the ship did not shudder violently as she expected, but trembled ever so slightly, as though the Maru was purring with delight, eager to be free from the atmosphere as she was.
Then, finally, they emerged into the heavenly void of space.
It was though the blue sky had opened up, fading away to reveal the starry expanse beyond. The stars shone brilliantly, far brighter than even the clearest terrestrial night ever could be. It was simply awe-inspiring; Jamie had no idea how many stars there were in the space. Back planetside on the clearest and darkest of nights, it seemed that there were as many stars as grains of sand on the beach, but up here, Jamie realized that she was gazing up into the vastness of infinity. For a long while she could not speak or even blink, staring in awe at the sheer immensity of forever.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Jonathan said after a long while. "I never get tired of visiting space, no matter how many times I come up here. Every time always feels like the first time, it never loses its mystery or its beauty." He sighed happily, taking in the magnificent sight.
Finally, he undid his harness and stood up. It took Jamie a moment to realize that he actually stood up, and was not floating freely in zero-gee. It was a bit of a disappointment, but it was to be expected, she supposed. After all, this was a highly-advanced spaceship, not a clunky shuttle built in the 1980s.
"Here, let's get you unstrapped," Jonathan said as he undid Jamie's safety harness and helped her to her feet. "Amazing, isn't it?"
Jamie gazed out the forward viewport again and felt herself become captivated by the sight of all those stars. "Yes, simply amazing," she said dreamily. "I am actually in space, yet I can scarcely believe it. I mean, it's the real thing, right? My mind's not playing tricks on me or anything, right?"
Jonathan chuckled. "Need more proof, I see. Don't worry, I know just the thing to finally convince you. Come on!" He led her back into the ballroom and walked over to a computer terminal in a corner. "Remember how I said that my parents left the Maru's interior mostly unchanged because of their romantic sentiments? Well, there is one feature that they definitely could not bring themselves to remove, even though there are many valid reasons for them to do so. I, for one, am glad they kept it, and I'm positive that you will feel the same." He punched a few commands into the terminal then looked up. Jamie looked up as well, and was amazed by what she saw.
The vaulted ceiling opened up, revealing a clear view of the sky above, or rather, the planet below. The massive blue and green orb turned below them, covered in swirls of white clouds and lined with mighty mountain ranges and rivers. It was simply beautiful to behold; not even the most talented artists in all of history could create a ceiling more breathtaking that this. Jamie could stare at this glorious sight for hours, and she would still be as enchanted by its beauty.
The Maru circled around the planet in her orbit, and soon they passed the line that divided day from night. Jonathan oriented the ship so it faced the stars, giving them a good view of the planet's two moons, still so far away, as though she had only taken a single step towards them. But she was amazed to see for herself that the night side of the planet was completely shrouded in darkness. Back home, she had seen satellite photos of Earth's night side, dotted by millions of lights that illuminated its most populous cities. But here, there was nothing. Jonathan had mentioned earlier that the Academy's explorations thus far had revealed no other sign of intelligent life. As far as anyone knew, the Academy and Puertia Liberia were the only inhabited places on the entire planet. It made it feel...very lonely, somehow.
"Convinced yet?" Jonathan said with a smile, gently bringing Jamie out of her revelry. Jamie didn't speak; indeed, she had no idea what to say. Everything in the past hour had been so utterly amazing, so fantastic, she was simply speechless. She tried to say something, but all she could do is gesture vaguely.
"Ah, perhaps you need one last bit of proof," the feline said, a bit of mischief in his eye. He walked over to her and led her to the hallway leading up to the cockpit. A handlebar had been mounted along the wall, and Jonathan indicated that she should hold on. Mutely, she did so, her mind unable to fathom what he had planned. The feline walked back to the terminal and grabbed another nearby handlebar.
"Hold on tight!" he said, and punched in a command.
Jamie felt her feet rise up from the floor. She gripped the handlebar tightly out of surprise; the motion caused her to tumble as her feet left the floor and swung out to the side. For a moment it felt like she was underwater. Her limbs moved freely, hanging loosely in the air, as though she was floating. Then she realized what was going on: she was weightless.
Jonathan pushed off of the wall and floated towards her, grabbing a hold of her handlebar and swinging around to a stop. "Having fun yet?" he asked.
"This is amazing!" she cried out, suddenly feeling extremely giddy.
"Here, take my paw." Jamie took hold, and Jonathan gently pushed himself to the far side of the ballroom, pulling her along with him. Jamie was ecstatic; she was in space, floating in zero-gravity! Only in her wildest dreams did she ever think that this would be possible! She started to laugh, a laugh of a child who was having the time of her life. Jonathan joined in, and they spent the next hour laughing and tumbling around the ballroom.
They slowly settled down, floating in the middle of the room as they watched the planet rotate back into day beneath them. It was a joyous thing, to simply float effortlessly and observe the world below you. Jamie didn't want the moment to end, even though she knew that they had to return to the Academy sometime.
"Oh hey! You can see where the Academy is from here!" Jonathan said, pointed towards the planet below. "See that continent? It's along that smooth part of the eastern coastline."
Jamie wasn't sure where he was pointing, and frankly didn't really care. With the entire world to see before her, what was a tiny piece of it? She glanced over at the feline floating next to her. "Jonathan?"
"Yes, Jamie?" he said as he looked towards her.
"Thanks for bringing me up here. This...this is something I've been dreaming about for a long, long time, and to finally experience it for myself, it's..." Her voice faltered, and instead reached out a paw. Jonathan took it in his, and she pulled him to her and gave him a tight hug. "Thank you."
"My pleasure," he purred as he returned her embrace.