A Tour of the Solar System

Prologue to Act I of 2100 CE.

“For as long as humanity has looked to the stars, man has dreamt of ways to shape other worlds in his own image—or more precisely, in the image of our homeworld, the Earth, a process called Terraforming,” the image of Walter Elias Disney said, “literally, ‘earth shaping.’  The process has remained the hypothetical domain of science fiction—until now!  Experimentation on such an idea began in the twentieth century, when technological advances at last began to keep pace with human imagination.”  The screen changed to show glass roofs of buildings surrounded by sand, like gigantic greenhouses in the middle of the desert.  “Projects like Biosphere 2 in the American Southwest or the BIOS-3 project in southern Siberia acted as proofs-of-concept in demonstration of mankind’s cultivation of nature for his needs.”

            The screen at the front of the classroom changed to a distant view of the red sphere of Mars, alone in the black void of outer space.  “When humans first set foot on Mars, we likewise began the process of adapting the environment around us to our needs.  The Red Planet is hostile to life as we know it, so it must be tamed.”  The image changed again to a room of people gawking around a hologram miniature of a Martian city within a crater.  The naturally high-rimmed walls of the crater were noticeably altered, both heightened and compacted through the addition of Martian soil excavated from around the crater’s base, forming a sort of moat in which hovered a white-grey mist.  This same mist, the former’s origin, overflowed the crater’s rim in a constant waterfall of atmospheric gases.

            “The same team of Disney Imagineers who first proposed covering parts of Valles Marineras have more recently designed and created more advanced visions for a future Mars.  This new model Metropole benefits from gravity in keeping internally produced atmospheric gases at the bottom of the crater, within which a city may be built.  The constant production of atmospheric gases means excess is guaranteed, dissipating into the Martian atmosphere.  A gradual approach to terraforming.”

            Someone yawned loudly in the darkness of the eleventh-grade classroom, a sentiment which had been echoed by others throughout the video lecture, and even by the teaching assistant chosen to be in charge of the classroom for the day.  The novelty of space settlement had worn off for most second and third-generation space residents, but to Emile Morales, nothing could have been more interesting.  Among his earliest memories were seeing newsfeed footage of the colonies under construction in high Mars orbit.  He recalled asking if they were part of a holiday display because of their red and green running lights, which outlined their strange silhouettes against the black of space.

            “We turn to Ganymede, arguably mankind’s greatest success in environmental manipulation,” and the image on the screen changed in turn.  The bright blue orb of Jupiter’s moon filled the screen, spinning slowly to reveal the green/white artificial islands which dotted its globe-spanning ocean.  “Ganymede was not always so beautiful.  Indeed, it was once a barren, frozen world known only for its resource value as a source of water in the form of ice.  Some of the earliest settlers in this part of space would regularly stop to resupply here, while today it is the center of learning and engineering in the outer rim.  A public/private partnership of scientists and engineers undertook the process of terraforming the moon as part of the international Second Earth Initiative,” a twinkle came to the simulation of the old man’s eye, “a part of which the Disney Corporation can proudly say to have sponsored.  The process began—”

            The school bell toned, and the video automatically stopped, cutting off the A.I. lecturer and replacing it with a static image of the teacher’s homework assignment.  The yawns turned to groans, stirring the dozing teaching assistant.  He walked to the front of the room just as the lights came up.  “We will pick up where we left off next Friday,” he said.  “For homework, do the worksheet for sections four, five, and six, and complete the short answer essay”—there were even more groans—“the short answer essay, that you will have to turn in as you come in the door on Monday.  Ms. Tanner will be here on Monday,” he warned.

            Ms. Tanner was the school’s Biosciences teacher.  She used to visit about once a week, but after Mr. Gupta the Astrosciences teacher was conscripted, Ms. Tanner found herself busy covering fourteen classrooms.  Most schooldays the designated teaching assistant administered the classroom, activating the electronic lectures which represented the core of actual instruction, and then assisting the students with their assignments.  Students would turn assignments in to the teaching assistants, who would grade them and hand them back—except for essays.  Essays were always graded by the teacher, and Ms. Tanner usually said really good things about Emile’s writing.

            Emile was probably the only one who looked forward to the essay…

            The students gathered their belongings and started for the door and the hallway beyond.  Weaving his way past students jostling and laughing, he reached his locker at the far end of the school at the end of the Technology Wing hallway.  He knew a lot of students who would hate having their locker so isolated, but far from the confusion of so many people, Emile had room to gather both his things and his thoughts.  The inside of his locker was blank, not like the walls at home.  It was just easier to take down the pictures of Uranus and Neptune he had put up in his locker the first day of middle school than to keep hearing the ridicule.  Now it was habit to leave it bare.

            He took off his vest—the one bit of school uniform they were all required to wear—and hung it up inside the locker.  He missed the hook, and the heavy ballistics material rang loudly as it struck the bottom of the locker.  He frowned and put it back up, before then pulling his backpack from the opposite hook.

            Inside the pack he had carefully put away his gym shoes and sweaty gym clothes from the morning’s class, to which he now added his electronic notepad.  There was another scuff on the back of the notepad’s case, he noticed, and he frowned again.  His mom had bought it for him used, but Emile had done his very best to take care of it.  Seeing it get damaged troubled him—his family didn’t have money for a new e-pad like everyone else.  He had seen some of the wealthier students literally throw their phones or computers against the wall or the sidewalk outside, shattering and destroying them over minor irritations.  They trusted in their family’s ability to immediately replace anything they broke, and so they willingly threw away perfectly good things.

            He slammed the locker shut and started for the school’s main doors.  By now most of the school had cleared out—it was the weekend, and students always rushed to get out of the school more quickly on Fridays.  He liked to take his time walking the hallways this time of day, looking at past class photos and the old trophies won by nameless, faceless students years ago.  The Ratings team and Speedrun team were the most prolific, encompassing two walls together, while sports and other activities were left to line the walls beside the main office.

            The main office.

            He picked up his pace as he went by that one long window, through which he could see the offices of the school’s five principals and the full-time teachers.  He tried his best not to look in that direction, but movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention—and he saw him take notice.  He ducked his head and tried to hurry without running, but the old man was faster and cut him off, using a door that connected the office with the school’s main foyer.

            “Emilio,” Mr. Greene called out to him, even before his door was all the way open.

            Emile froze midstride and turned.  Mr. Greene was the School Senior Vice Principal, and though Emile had nothing to do with the man here in school, Mr. Greene was also a teens minister at Great Ridge Baptist Church.  He flashed a well-rehearsed smile and mechanically raised a hand in greeting the way he had done for years.

            “How are you?”  The man closed in, putting his arms around him in a hug.  He smelled of cleaning fluid and cheap cologne.  “You were not at Sunday School this week,” he said reprovingly, though did not release him.

            Trying to keep the discomfort from being communicated, he made to reach in his pocket—breaking the unwelcome contact.  “I’m well,” Emile said, forcing a smile.  He showed Mr. Greene the screen on his phone, which displayed his calendar.  “I was visiting my grandparents in Florida.”

            Mr. Greene took the phone from his grasp, closing the distance Emile had created between them to stand nearly touching him with his side.  “Where do they live?”


            “Did they go to UF?”

            “I don’t think so.”

            “You don’t know?”

            Emile shook his head.

            After a pause, Mr. Greene handed back his phone, and when whatever conversation he had expected to materialize was not forthcoming, he said, “Aren’t you going to ask me how I am?”

            Emile took a breath.  “How are you?”

            The skin of the old man’s lips peeled back, a grin that put Emile more in the mind of a snarling dog than a smile.  “I am well, thank you for asking,” he said.  “You know, college is right around the corner.  We should talk about your scholarship potentials since you will want to start looking at that before winter break.”  He leaned in towards Emile’s face, his breath smelled of stale coffee.  “You have a lot of potential, Emilio.  I want to help you find that potential.”

            Emile nodded, not meeting the old man’s gaze.

            He had known Mr. Greene for some time now—he had been his family’s sponsor when he had applied to Hermitage Collegiate Academy.  It had been a contact made by his mother through the church they attended, one in which they had been active since they moved here from Chesapeake.  Mr. Greene was likewise just as active, taking a personal role in leading the kid’s activities on Sundays and Wednesday nights.  And the kids at the church seemed to love him.  When he was promoted to senior vice principal at Hermitage, his responsibilities had expanded at work so that he could no longer lead the Wednesday night Bible Games, he instructed that they should all form a line so they could give him a hug goodbye.  It had been optional, and Emile had opted to stand out, very nearly alone in his decision.

            Mr. Greene had taken notice, scolding him that Sunday after pulling him aside.  He explained to his mother after choir practice how rude Emile had been to him and to the other students the prior Wednesday.  How did Emile expect to be able to advance in life if he wasn’t willing to express his love?  That had been six years ago, when Emile was in the sixth grade—and the word Hermitage thereafter became synonymous with correct behavior and future success.

            “Have you started practicing for your BST yet?”

            “No,” Emile admitted, feeling a little foolish.  The BST was one of the many acronyms foreign to Emile when he arrived at Hermitage, one of a variety of tests he would have to take in order to get into a good university.

            His left hand moved around Emile’s shoulders, bringing them to stand side-by-side.  The old man’s groping fingers felt at his right bicep.  “We need to work on that.  Do you have the practice materials?”


            He was still smiling.  “Why don’t you stop by on Monday morning before class, we’ll say at seven o’clock, and we can start looking at them.”

            Emile hesitated, feeling pressure growing in his throat.

            The smile vanished from the old man’s face at Emile’s hesitation, replaced by a scowl.  “What would your father say?”

            Emile grimaced inwardly.  His father had left them many years ago, claiming a divine calling to the cause of equanimity and God’s will on Ganymede, supposedly among the political acolytes of Junius Zanscar.  But if there was any truth to that, Emile had yet to see it.

            “Monday morning at seven o’clock, Emilio.”

            Emile swallowed against the lump in his throat and nodded.

            “Put it in your calendar.”

            The old man’s grasp did not relent as he watched over his shoulder as Emile entered the appointment into his calendar.

            The smile crawled back onto his face.  “Good.”  His hand squeezed Emile’s bicep again.  “I will see you then.”

            Emile stood silent and statuesque as the old man at last released him and returned to the door from which he had emerged, leaving behind only the lingering scent of cleaning fluid.

            He had only crossed the schoolyard and off the private campus when his phone buzzed with a text message.  He smiled when he saw who it was from and read the message: Wanna go 2 Air/Space?  I gotta write a paper…

            It was from Julia, one of the few friends he had who didn’t make fun of him for being smart.  Emile tapped back, Right now?


            Okay!  Be there in 30, and he added an astronaut emoji.  Julia understood him, or at least she tried.  Julia did not pretend to understand everything Emile was interested in or everything he said, but she was always open to new things and seemed to enjoy listening to Emile talk about science and the universe.  In the summertime they would just lay out in the grass together, gazing at the stars overhead while Emile traced constellations or explained the process of stellar evolution.

The Virginia Air and Space Center was on the other side of the bay, a fifteen minute’s ride across the bridge-tunnel to the city of Hampton.  The city itself spanned the coastline so that standing at the entrance of the Air and Space Center, Emile could see up and down Hampton’s beaches and across to the distant coastline of Norfolk.  These two stretches of beach were where the wealthiest of Hampton Roads’ residents lived, residing in large mansions with private docks, boathouses, and even live-in staff.

            Julia lived here.

            He met his friend at the entrance café—Julia was sitting at a table by herself, bent over her phone.  Her black hair hung in lightly-curled ringlets which hid her face.  Emile smiled to see her and started into the café—only to be stopped when something suddenly reached out and grabbed him by the arm, bodily bringing her to a stop.

            He half expected to find Mr. Greene but instead found himself face to face with the angry expression of a community police officer.  “Your identity,” he demanded, releasing his arm but making it clear he should make no move to leave.  “What are you doing here?”

            Emile handed him his phone and the officer tapped it against his own, activating the verification tab built into his device—but he did not hand Emile’s back.  “I’m meeting a friend,” he said, his voice a practiced monotone.  He had seen what happened when you showed even a hint of attitude towards the Downtown Community Police, and it never ended well.

            The officer frowned at his phone and swiped through a screen.  He then held it out in his palm, the screen facing Emile with a small square at its center.

            He had done this before and without thinking pressed his thumb against the square.

            The officer retracted his phone and frowned again.  “You’re from Marina Villa.  In Norfolk.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “What are you doing here?” he asked, more pointedly this time.  He put his own phone away but continued holding on to Emile’s.

            “I’m meeting a friend,” he repeated, and for a moment even considered trying to wave Julia over, but remembering how jumpy community police here could be, he chose to stand still and instead elaborate.  “My friend lives here in Hampton—”

            “Who’s your friend?” he cut in.

            “Her name is Julia Kwan.”

            The officer scoffed.  “Your friend is a Kwan.  You expect me to believe that?”

            “It’s true,” Emile said, fighting the frustration seeking to enter his tone.  His father had told him, over and over again for the brief time he had known him, that nobody respected a cry baby, and his mother had echoed that sentiment ever since then.  “We go to school together—”

            “Where do you go to school?”

            “Hermitage Collegiate Academy.”

            The police officer squinted at him, but something seemed to click there—clearly not to his satisfaction, but within the bounds of what was acceptable.  He looked Emile’s phone over critically, his thumb lingering on the cracks and chips peppering its exterior.  “This is an old model.  Harder to trace.  Where did you get it?”

            “My mom bought it for me,” Emile replied.  “I don’t know where she bought it.”

            He shook his head and handed the phone back.  “Okay.  Don’t overstay your welcome.”

            Emile took the phone and dropped it into his pocket.  “Yes, sir.”

            The community officer rolled his eyes and walked away, leaving Emile a statuesque form at the entrance of the café.  Local residents who had been at the nearby register throughout the encounter gawked at him, reminding him of how old his clothes were compared to theirs, and just how out of place he was.  Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and thought of why he had come here in the first place.  When he opened them again, he was looking at Julia, bent over her phone still—she hadn’t noticed what had happened.

            “Hi.  I’m sorry I’m late,” Emile said, sliding into the chair across from his friend.

            Julia looked up and smiled.  Her large emerald eyes sparkled whenever she smiled.  “It’s okay!  I know it was last minute.”

            Emile gave an awkward smile.  “Thanks for thinking of me.”

            “Who else is going to geek out with me over the Space Race?”  She motioned to her phone on the table between them.  “I was just reading something Mr. Greene posted on the school’s blog about adding an astronomy section next year, and that he’s going to teach it.  Isn’t that great?”

            All at once space exploration seemed a little less exciting.  “Oh.  I didn’t know.  I haven’t looked at the blog today.”

            Julia shrugged and put her phone away.  She knew that Mr. Greene and Emile had some kind of connection through church, but she had never asked for details—and whenever it came up, Julia would soon after change the subject once she noticed how uncomfortable Emile would seem.  “So, what do you want to do?”

            It took Emile a second to return to the moment—to the reason he had come to the museum.  “Oh, yeah.  Well, in class today we watched that lecture on colonization and we started on terraforming—what?

            His friend was grinning from ear to ear.  “You.  You’re so cute when you get excited.”

            Emile felt himself blush and looked away.  She was a grade ahead of him, and although they were separated in age by three months, for some reason her seniority made him nervous whenever she teased him.  The fact she was now a senior about to start nursing school at Hampton University did not help the matter.  “Stop it.”

            They sat in silence a moment before Julia cocked her head.  “Terraforming…?”

            “Yeah…  We started on terraforming,” he said after a heartbeat spent forming his thoughts, “but the bell rang before we could actually get into it.  Can we start at Jupiter and go through the Galilean moons and then Saturn and Titan?”

            Nobody ever seemed to visit the Air and Space Center except for school groups and families on Sundays.  But with just an hour before the museum closed, the two of them all but had the museum to themselves.  Emile took his time with each exhibit, reading every placard and caption he found, while Julia would swoop in to read something of interest and then proceed to wander.  There were exhibits with pieces of rock from the various Jovian moons that she entertained herself with while Emile finished reading the last placard for Callisto and started toward Titan.

            It made him sad, what he read.  The first experiment at terraforming on Ganymede had been a spectacular success, but with each subsequent attempt something would go wrong.  He had heard on a science podcast that more and more shortcuts were taken by the companies in charge of the projects, pushing for faster turnaround times and fewer expenses.  Ganymede had become an ocean paradise, while something in the effort on Europa did not go as planned, transforming the moon into a subarctic environment which the placard described as Scandinavian in character.  If there had been any warnings or lessons gleaned from the radical differences in result between Ganymede and Europa, they were ignored or simply overlooked, for with the third attempt, Callisto, everything seemed to go wrong.  Instead of replicating the success of Ganymede or even the partial success of Europa, Callisto was transformed into a hostile frozen world which commentators compared to an unending Siberian winter.  People settled there, but not all willingly—most were there because they could not afford to go anywhere else.

            While the project to terraform Callisto was underway in the Zeosphere, a simultaneous project likewise attempted to replicate earlier successes on Saturn’s moon of Titan—and it, too, was an abysmal failure.  Whereas Callisto was rendered an icy wasteland, Titan was made a freezing desert of ever shifting sands and hidden canyons.  Whatever process had been taken to one extreme on Callisto was taken to the opposite extreme on Titan, signifying two different reactions at the failure to replicate Ganymede’s success.  And just like Callisto, Titan too had its population of settlers, and once more they were of an economic demographic who could not afford residency elsewhere.  The dual Callisto/Titan project had rendered the practice of terraforming untenable.  Citing the exorbitant costs and the high likelihood of failure, all future projects were tabled.  It had been because of those failures that the focus of human settlement in space had shifted from settling on celestial bodies to the construction of large-scale artificial habitats, like those Emile had seen on the news as a child.

            He was still staring at the placard below the holographic image of Titan when Julia slowly snuck up behind him.  When he felt her fingers touch his hips, he jerked at the unexpected touch, and as a reaction whipped around—only to find themselves face to face with her friend.  Her eyes sparkled in the artificial lights of the exhibit hall, and she smiled.

            Emile smiled back, and as if that were some cue, Julia wrapped her arms around his neck and drew him close.

            Emile froze.  He felt an unwanted phantom sensation on his arm.

            Impatiently Julia closed the distance, and when their lips met, Emile forgot all about Mr. Greene or Monday or the BST.  A warm sense of euphoria washed over him, running up and down his body like static electricity.  Emile pressed herself against Julia, and Julia pressed herself back against her, embracing Emile with every ounce of strength she could muster—together falling into the warmth of their embrace and their kiss.

The guard at the door frowned when she saw them come down the stairs into the lobby.  She looked at her watch impatiently but chose to say nothing to the two teens making their way out of the museum.  She instead simply motioned them to a door, which she opened for the purpose of letting them out, and which she immediately locked behind them.

            Julia led the way to the museum’s outdoor café, a very expensive little restaurant with an outdoor bar surrounding the museum’s Fountain to Rocketry.  Emile looked in admiration at the accuracy of the fountain’s rendering of the Saturn V and Soyuz rockets, as well as the beauty of the others which he could not immediately identify.

            “Do you want anything?” Julia asked.

            Emile shook his head.  Even if he wanted something, he could never afford it here.

            Julia shrugged and placed an order for herself from the table’s automated server.  It confirmed the order and the screen disappeared from the tabletop, resuming the appearance of wood uniform in appearance with the table around it.  “How’s your dad?” she asked after a little while.

            “I don’t know,” Emile responded without looking from the fountain.

            Julia blinked—she did not understand what it meant to not know how her parents were doing or even where they were, but she at least tried.  “What are you looking at?” she asked, changing the subject.

            “The fountain,” Emile said halfheartedly.  “In the middle there, with the astronaut, those pillars are rockets.  One of them is the Saturn V, another is the Soyuz, but I don’t know the other two.”

            Julia studied the fountain a while, seemingly considering her options, before shrugging instead.  “Maybe one of them is the Chinese?  They were the third ones in space, right?”

            Emile nodded.  “Yeah, maybe.  That would make sense.  What about the fourth?”

            Julia shrugged.  “Should we look it up?”  She motioned for her phone.

            Emile shook his head.  He liked the challenge.  “Not yet.”

            Julia grinned at him and looked about to say something when the server brought her order.  The server smiled at them both and said, “Green tea oatmeal smoothie?”

            “Me!” Julia said and took the glass.

            Emile looked up and made eye contact with the server.  He recognized him.  He was one of the boys who lived in his building—Gerardo?  He looked Emile over quickly, not pausing to stare, but he felt the resentment behind those eyes.  Here he was, his neighbor, serving him and his rich friend.

            He looked down at his feet and tried to clear his mind—but no sooner had he done so than something else caught their attention when someone screamed from the other side of the café.  Over by the bar, a few people were crying and wailing at something they had seen or read on their phone, while other patrons and the bartenders looked in evident confusion.

            “Some people take their sports too seriously,” Julia said as the wailing persisted.  “They really need to calm down.”

            “Yeah,” Emile said, trying to make out what was playing on the screens behind the bar.  One looked like a baseball game, the other might be a video newsfeed—

            “They did it,” somebody at the table next to them said.  “They finally did it!”  He was motioning to his phone and waved it for the friend across from him to see.  “They did it!”  They were both from among the wealthy population, local residents of Hampton by the look of their pressed trousers, leather boots, and haircuts.

            From somewhere else in the restaurant, somebody else started shouting—but this shouting was more along the lines of her neighboring table’s elation than the wailing from the person at the bar.  In a second the entire restaurant exploded, first in pockets and then finally a single mass cheer, overwhelming the wailing from the bar.

            “Zanscar dead, Peacekeeping Forces take Tannenberg.  No enemy combatants survive,” Julia read aloud from her phone.  “Wow!  That’s great news, isn’t it?”

            Emile blinked at what he heard.

            No enemy combatants survive.

            And in response, he could only muster a weak, “I guess.”

Continues with Julia.

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