On May 28, 2056, the Strato Circus would dazzle the world with a special show highlighting the approach of the blue-hued Comet Stephan–Oterma. And at CBB News, one reporter needed to go up to cover it. Camille was determined it be her.
When she was in the third grade, her parents bought her a glossy astronomy book. She was the only Black kid in her grade at Love Elementary, but she was not the only kid interested in the stars, so after Xiomara—supposed friend—almost ripped one of the pages, Camille took to reading it only over breakfast at home. With her dad grumbling about Pluto (“Dwarf planet, my ass. Ya’ book is wrong”), every morning that spring she flipped through the pages as he served breakfast. Devouring whatever he made with a grin, her heart would beat fast as she looked at photos of the planets, photos of earth from the star-studded black of space, reading how small humans really were in the grand scheme of things. Camille wondered at charts of planetary mass (Jupiter was 1300 Earths’ big!) and marveled at human ingenuity to the point of putting drones on Mars and sending satellite explorers out into the Oort Cloud.
Even now, Camille had her telescope manual memorized, and emails regularly peppered her inbox to remind her of upcoming astronomical appearances.
She didn’t grow up to be an astronaut, and the Strato Circus wasn’t technically an opportunity to go to space. But at thirty-seven years old, she knew this was the closest she’d ever get. From a visual perspective it was still a perfect emulation, even if she wouldn’t be weightless up there.
So Camille fought hard for and won the assignment. Even so, it was a battle to get hazard pay upfront. “What if I die up there?” she asked her supervisor pointedly. She knew for a fact that James McLennon, the white journalist who’d covered the rocky debut of the Strato Circus five years prior and nearly died along with the whole circus crew as he did so, had fought hard for front-loaded hazard pay… and won.
Her supervisor took it up the chain when she cited that fact. The hazard pay was deposited in her bank account three days later. While most of it would go into savings, she considered using some of the money to buy a full 81-key Smart keyboard for her daughter’s birthday instead of the smaller 69-key one that was wrapped up in the closet.
“Half of the time, their interest fizzles out after they get a gift like this—guitar, snowboard, whatever—it’s hard work to get good, and if we don’t get her a coach, she won’t continue after the initial shine wears off,” her wife, Li, argued. She’d gotten Shuri a new VR game with that exact logic. “Besides, she’s only seven. An 81-key monster might be discouraging since Shuri’s arms don’t even go out that wide.”
“Says the woman who was playing concertos at that age.”
Li had sighed and said, “I love my mother, but I hate the piano now and it’s hard enough to even let Shuri have one. It’s not like I ever became a professional pianist, anyway.”
They’d named Shuri after Camille’s favorite superhero growing up, with an additional nod to a classical novelist Li enjoyed, Zhao Shuli. Plus, Camille secretly hoped that her daughter would follow the mathematical, science route that she herself hadn’t pursued. At the moment, it seemed like Shuri would defy both her parents by loving music best.
Three weeks before the event, a Circus athlete was injured, which postponed the date. The new date meant Camille was going to miss Shuri’s eighth birthday.
Li side-eyed her something fierce when this came up, and Shuri cried because she was worried about Mama going up at all, but Camille wanted this assignment and wasn’t going to miss out. This was her chance. She smiled just thinking of the view. Sometimes she still kicked herself for not pursuing physics. Though the math might have gotten her to NASA and to being an astronaut, journalism was taking her close enough.
Besides, Camille was tired of covering the election cycle. Let someone else talk about poll numbers for a minute. Mama was going to see space.
In preparation, Camille watched the historic Red Bull Stratos jump. An outspoken neo-Nazi Austrian daredevil floated up in a weather balloon back in 2018. That man jumped thirty-seven years before the days of her research, but the video quality was good enough to make her nauseous as she watched his leap from the open bottom of the metal balloon basket.
And yet, compared to that nauseating clip, her actual assignment would be much more dangerous. Not as dangerous as a warzone, perhaps, but dangerous enough that she’d be wearing a protective suit of her own, equipped with a parachute—just in case—and given a ‘crash course’ (they thought they were hilarious, but the pun only pissed her off) in knowing how to skydive in case the balloon failed to descend properly.
Additionally, this year, the azure-haloed Stephan-Oterma Comet in the background of the Circus would add another layer of spectacle… and danger. Camille reached out to multiple sources for comment, and one astronomer, Dr. Bannerjee at MIT, warned, “Normally comets keep their distance, but ah, no, not this one. Whatever respect the Circus usually pays to atmospheric conditions needs to triple. Comets come with their own gravity, their own magnetosphere, their own dust and debris, and the atmosphere levels above the Circus offer incomplete protection to its athletes.”
With two weeks before lift-off, The Ringleader, a white man in his forties with an athletic build, a handlebar mustache, and a failed tan that aged him prematurely said, “The show must go on. And the Circus, why, it’s all about skirtin’ danger, ain’t it? Always has been. We’ll do as much prep’ration as we can on the day of to make sure our staff and facility can safely lift off, ‘n we will continue to take precautions as we fly ‘n as we descend. But at the ind of the day, there will always be some randim eliments that we cannot account for. I’ve asked! But we cannot predict how, when, or where this comet may affect us.”
That was a broadcast interview, and it made Camille squirm internally; she’d been raised in Texas, and while it had plenty of idiots, there were also plenty of good and intelligent folks, regardless of education level, and she squirmed because his response reinforced that ‘reckless Southerner’ stereotype.
Camille was familiar enough with comets at this point in her research and personal hobby that she believed the astronomer over the Ringleader. But it intrigued her that the acrobats put their faith in the Ringleader anyway.
Finally, Camille researched the history of circuses, looking for tidbits she could slip into her reporting to establish context for audiences or hook them with intrigue. Naturally, Romans and colonialist Europeans showed up first in her search. She skipped Sarah Baartman and other so-called ‘freak shows’—too painful to read about, and also not TV-friendly for reporting on the Strato Circus, whose only freaks were the acrobats bold enough to participate. Phillip Astley and Jane Jones’ equestrian tricks in the 1770s looked quaint next to the Strato Circus, where the athletes jumped and danced with mecha-enhanced suits from one platform to another, the fall a distance of 38,000 meters instead of just one.
On the morning of lift-off, the quiet buzz of activity vibrated in her bones. She readied herself in front of her small news crew. It wasn’t lost on her that she was the only Black person onsite with CBB, the shade of her warm-brown skin neared only by Ria’s coppery tones. Everybody else was white or passed for it.
Spring mornings in the desert were cold. Camille’s wool blazer and white-collared shirt didn’t keep all the chill away from her skin. The microphone in her hand was frigid. She stepped back and checked her looks in the camera van’s window. Her “warrior” goddess braids (Shuri’s term) shone with silver cuffs matching Shuri’s for the occasion (“Like stars,” her little girl had said reverently). She stepped forward in place again, testing the mic. The soundman nodded. Ria, her camera-lady, gave her the thumbs up.
Then, in her earpiece, she heard the anchor in the newsroom introduce her. “As promised, Camille Luo-Jones is at the Roswell International Air Centre in New Mexico, our bravest correspondent. I’d take a thousand war zones over flying up to space like you, Camille.”
She laughed for the red dot of the camera and code-switched to her news reporter voice. “You’re too kind, James. And while I’m certainly here for the view of space, the name says it all: Strato Circus. The stratosphere isn’t technically space, but it is above the Armstrong Limit, where water boils at body temperature. It doesn’t get more space-like than that for non-astronauts. And this year, we’ll have the view of a comet to top it all at the big top.
“Preparing for ascent behind me, you can see dozens of weather balloons being inflated by those cherry-picker-looking machines. They’ll all float up together tethered around that white, netted drone kite that the Circus calls ‘the big top.’ Up there, it will serve as their stage and also a way of keeping the balloons from knocking into each other.
“Thirty minutes from now, twenty-four acrobats, five circus managers, ten spectators, and five reporters like myself will board and begin checks for lift-off. They’ll check cameras, radios, and most importantly, the air and pressure-management and life-sustaining systems on board.”
“Camille, since you’re one of the reporters going up, what have they told you to expect?”
“Well, like the acrobats, I’ll be wearing a full-pressure suit, hooked up to umbilical air supply for ascent…”
Camille went on just as she’d practiced with her notecards, eyes firmly on camera, smiling every few seconds, determinedly not looking over at her wife or their little birthday girl touring the premises.
“And what are you looking forward to most?” Now Camille was interviewing Timothy Grandrix, arrogant British billionaire she not-so-secretly hated.
More than circuses of the past, the Strato Circus audience could get in on the danger. Wealthy spectators went up solo in their own re-fitted weather balloons billed ‘skyboxes.’ Tickets went for millions, and every returnee got a commemorative pin in the shape of a rocket-like hot-air balloon.
Timothy Grandrix went every year, and every year on TV, he purposefully mispronounced “Skybox” as “Skyboss,” just as he did now with a grin. His pink fingers tapped the last five years’ pins on his lapel and said, “This’ll be my 6th Skyboss year, and I’ve never been more excited. No light pollution to fight with to see the comet up there.”
If it weren’t for him, Camille would actually have been more excited to receive her own pin. A bubble of envy and determination floated up in her belly, looking at his six pins. Well, she’d have one, and that was more than most people in the world could say. And hers would be a special year, with not just the weather balloon insignia but also the emblem of a comet flying over in blue and red.
“We’ve got to move on, but we’ll check back with you when you and the acrobats start loading up for the stratosphere! Thanks, Camille.”
“Can’t wait, James.”
The truth was, now her nerves were getting to her. She handed the mic off to the recording crew, put on her coat, and walked the desert gravel towards her family, trying to distract herself by simply observing the things around her. Underfoot, sand and stone crunched beneath her boots. The sky was dawn cerulean turning paler and paler. In front of a blood-red weather balloon, she saw Timothy Grandrix laughing with Nikhi Patel, a tech magnate with only a slightly better personality than Grandrix. North of them, the famous Macedonian acrobat Mihaela Janevski stood with her solar-themed team, gleaming in their golden suits and posing for photos with the small crowd of fans.
When she found Shuri and Li, Shuri was bouncing up and down, waving her arms in front of one of the mecha animal kites that had lifted up and buoyed at the end of its tether in the air. It looked like a crane, and she heard Shuri asking Mommy to remind her the Chinese word for it. Camille watched them for a moment. Camille had her secrets, but she was a performer, never shy. Those two, though, had in common that they blossomed in the wild, away from crowds.
Camille walked up to her daughter, whose skin was just a shade lighter than hers and glowed in the sunlight. She crouched down. “Hi, Shuri,” she said gently. Shuri turned, beamed, and before she could lean in for a hug, Camille wiped crumbs from her daughter’s mouth, laughing. “Mug cake,” she said, and Shuri laughed adorably. Before leaving the house, they had made a spontaneous dessert because breakfast hadn’t quite hit the spot.
Camille squeezed her daughter tight and grinned up over her gemmed braids at Li, who smiled down softly. When Camille stood up again, Li surprised her with a brush of her fingers across her cheek. Li wasn’t big on PDA.
Camille grinned and pushed that envelope. “No cameras, Li-li. Don’t I get a kiss before my life-threatening trip to space? If you say no, you and Shuri better be comin’ up there with me.”
Li rolled her eyes, mumbling, “You’re so embarrassing.” Her cool beige skin faded to dark bags beneath her eyes. She wasn’t the type to say she was worried or beg Camille not to go. But she must have been worried anyway. She scanned for onlookers. Seemingly convinced she wouldn’t really be embarrassed, Li pulled Camille’s face closer and kissed her sweetly.
Camille’s nerves came back. Sweet as that kiss was, it just reminded her that if the right things went wrong up in stratos, it could be her last. She pulled back a bit and rubbed her nose against Li’s. Li smiled, then frowned.
“Be safe up there and come back to us, ok?”
“Mama, Mommy, can I go, too? Please?”
It was about the eight hundredth time her baby girl had asked. “Maybe next time, Shuri.”
Camille smiled and checked at her watch just as Ria hollered her name. “Camille! It’s time!”
She gave them each one last hug and tried not to cry.
Inside a tent, she changed into a special wet-suit-looking garment, then into the heavy full-pressure suit itself. The cameras were on her— “a more relatable view than the acrobats” was the strangest sort of compliment James had ever tried to pay her, but she decided to take it as one. This was her job, in a way. Showing newsworthy events. She let herself be a little more clumsy than she liked on-screen. Giggled a little more than strictly necessary. It was an act, but it helped with her nerves.
“This thing is heavy. If you’ve ever been pregnant, or worn those weight suits to simulate it, think about twice as heavy. Thank goodness I’m not one of the acrobats. All I have to do is sit in a bucket floating up there. They must be benching and squatting a lot to get to this strength and do jumps and dances up there.”
“Having second thoughts?” James asked in her earpiece.
“Not a chance,” Camille said.
Last of all came the helmet. Good thing she wasn’t claustrophobic, as this would have been the coffin lid closing.
A big, reflective number twenty-one was painted on her weather balloon. She stepped inside and sat down as they instructed.
They buckled her in to the air and fluid-supply systems and showed her the different controls she needed to know. Hatch release, untethering, monitors, comms, camera angling, heat, air, outside mirrors, lights. Then they closed the door with only Camille inside.
James and other anchors kept engaging her with chitchat every few minutes while she waited. Her fishbowl-like window, which was two times as wide and tall as her face, showed her a smaller view of the outside than she wanted. She did have a monitor, which would let her see and comment on the acrobatics once they were in stratos.
Outside, the Circus tech in front of the CBB camera crew faced her and counted down with their hands from 10, and Camille vocalized it for the camera and mic on her chest looking out.
“Three, two, one, lift-off!”
This time, her giggle was real glee. Her stomach dropped as her balloon began ascending. It was like being on a Ferris wheel, only this one just kept climbing up and up, stopping once not far off the ground to be tethered to the kite drone, then up and up again.
The ascent was singular, but only because of what she knew was occurring, the height she was climbing from her seat in this little capsule. Alone. That was frightening. But otherwise, the two and a half-hour climb proceeded like a slow airplane flight. She stopped looking out the window in glee, scanning the clear blue sky and the desert landscape below. Initial excitement led to boredom, and she cued up a podcast in between check-in times with the news crew. She started to get cold, then between the suit and the weather balloon, she was warm again. Her first pee in the space-diaper (her word for it) felt embarrassing and gross, but the second one felt much more matter-of-fact.
The view shifted gradually, but finally, she got what she came for. At just over 37,000 meters up, she looked out the fishbowl window. She stared at the curve of the blue earth against the black mouth of space. The sun was behind her and to the right, lighting up the west coast below and chasing the dark from the Pacific. The comet was nowhere to be seen yet, but she expected that. They told her it would likely be out of sight from her window for a bit, but the cameras would catch it.
Clouds nearby cast long shadows, while clouds far away dazzled in the light. They rotated and expanded gently like pinwheels remembering a long-ago summer breeze. Deep, inky blackness as far as the eye could see. The moon not any bigger or closer, half-gleaming in the far distance. She felt at peace. She felt like she could stay here forever.
She struggled to remember the lines of an Anne Spencer poem, “Earth, I thank you,” but the words didn’t come, only the sense that the feeling from that poem was so similar to what she felt now, the title so apt for this experience.
But work called. Camille blinked a few times and sighed as her earpiece played music. The Strato Circus was starting, the old Blazes and Thunder theme revamped with electronic inspiration. They didn’t play the music out here, relying instead on everyone’s helmet speakers for timing, though they did their best at lighting and recording. The AV crew on earth added the sound, and that’s what she was hearing.
It all felt like crashing chaos, an insult to the quiet moment of awe she’d just experienced.
“You’re up,” Ria from CBB told her. On the monitor, she saw James in the newsroom. His brown beard was gone, and Camille thought he looked like one of those cherubs from the Sistine Chapel. She pushed a button on her helmet to make the face shield clear instead of tinted with the camera facing her.
“Our very own Camille has a front-row seat to the Strato Circus,” James said. “Camille, how was the ascent?”
She composed herself as best she could sitting in her own pee. “It was uneventful, which is a blessing for an operation as delicate as this one. The real danger, though, begins now…”
Camille repeated the same highlights as before. This part of broadcast reporting annoyed her. You had to assume you were catching an audience member entirely new to the subject, and the repetition bored her.
She signed off after and watched the monitor.
A pre-recorded clip of Ringleader and performers down on earth introduced the event. “Welcome to Strato Circus 6, 2056!”
Camille leaned back to see the monitor, which flicked to and from the different weather balloons tethered together around the drone kite like spoke ends on a wheel. “This is a special year, with the Stephan-Oterma Comet lighting up the night sky. Even without a telescope, you can see it!”
Camille laughed to herself, hearing that. Plenty of those places with clouds wouldn’t see anything. But then, across the monitor, a lightly jostling view of the blue-white comet over one of their weather balloons chilled her to the bone. It really was stunning. But it was also really big and close. Bigger than the moon. She remembered historical illustrations of comets, folks fearing their lives were about to end, the world going down with them. She understood why.
The Ringleader went on and on, but Camille was trying to remember her emergency instructions, looking for the handle that (heart attack) she could pull to open the hatch of her weather balloon to descend to earth.
If the comet was that big, that visible, its magnetosphere was many more times that and could easily interfere with their communications and with the atmospheric conditions they were relying on.
She was a fool coming up here.
Eyes closed, ignoring the debut information of one of the Strato Circus performers, she remembered something from that book—the book her parents got her, which was on display in a place of honor on her bookshelf at home. The section about comets described a flyby near Mars forty-some years back. Earth had just sent a satellite out that way and it was clear that the comet’s coma stretched a million kilometers in every direction. The comet fly-by literally blew away part of Mars’ upper atmosphere and messed with the planet’s own magnetosphere.
Mars is different, she told herself. Thinner atmosphere. No reason to panic.
She confirmed that her weather balloon’s cameras were responding to cues from Earth as the first acrobat stepped up. Xinyue Wang, decked in silver like the other moon acrobats, appeared in sight of the monitors. This was the new recruit. They made it out like it was a hazing ritual to send her out first alone, but actually, it was safer that way. No one to bump into, or be bumped by, right before your 38000-foot drop to Earth. On the monitors and flashing in her fishbowl window, one of the mecha animal kites prepared to join Xinyue, this one shaped like a hare, chrome hind legs gracefully bounding as Xinyue’s weather balloon opened.
Camille held her breath, watching. The music in her ears stopped. Xinyue leaned out and plummeted. It was like she vanished.
Camille looked to the monitors and breathed again as the percussion alone drummed up and led into violins while the mecha kite hare’s cameras and Xinyue’s bodycams watched each other descending to earth.
Ria cued Camille up to give a word about this.
“Absolutely breathtaking,” Camille reported truthfully. “To watch this kind of bravery first-hand, it’s terrifying and exhilarating. Xinyue will descend another three minutes or so before engaging her parachute, where she’ll have a controlled descent for another three or four minutes. She had a beautiful jump, no spinning—for those used to ground circuses you might think that’s poor performance, but spins can be fatal in skydiving from here. That kind of smooth jump is difficult to arrange from up this high.”
Music in her ears indicated she had to wrap up, so she did, and the Ringleader’s pre-recorded voice again introduced the next acrobats.
“Mario Deido and Taiwo Solarin, the sun brothers—watch them step out onto the big top and bound off the edge of the world!”
Camille felt sick with worry. She shouldn’t. She knew how this went. But still, her stomach clenched as she watched. Weather balloon doors in the east and west swung outward, and the red and gold-suited ‘brothers’ leaped forward. As they landed on the big top, the whole kite drone rocked, her weather balloon jostled, and she screeched, clasping the handrails in her capsule.
On her monitors, she watched the sun brothers grasp at the net on the top of the drone kite and climb across its surface towards each other in synchrony. All the weather balloons around the big top jiggled as they did.
“I’m gonna die,” she said to herself. It was as much a statement of how she felt as of what she feared.
The light show began when they reached the center and paused. Her balloon stabilized like a boat in a gentle current. Red and orange flame-shaped light projected onto the kite, the light shifting, fanning out from their bodies like a classical sun illustration. Mario and Taiwo’s bodies mirrored each other in stiff dance moves, like two halves of a sun as the lights flashed around them. Then they moved on, each to the opposite direction. They must have had some beat-keeping measure in their earpieces to keep them grasping the net at the same time, opposite places, to keep the bouncing of the big top to a minimum.
Two more mecha kites, one dragon in crimson, the other in gold, unfurled from their tethers and descended first, letting out plumes of gold and red gas behind them. The brothers each stood at the ends of the big top and in Camille’s ear, the music stopped again. The brothers leaned out and plummeted.
Chasing their dragons, they did spin. Mario, in red, even flipped, and Camille gasped. She didn’t think it was on purpose. She remembered the Romans, the creators of the original circus, the original way to feel sick to your stomach but unable to look away at the breakneck race before your eyes.
The producers spun it well. They left Camille and the audience on a cliff’s edge and jumped back to Xinyue, showing clips both of her in free fall, then launching her parachute, then finally gliding to a mecha-powered sprint on the ground. When she finally stood still, she pumped her fist in the air as her silvery-white parachute pillowed down. Then she dropped to her knees and let the EMT’s and Circus techs inspect her.
The ground team whispered to Camille that she was fine, no injuries, and Camille beamed for the camera. “Xinyue Wang is the newest member of the Moon wing of the Strato Circus, and she exacted her jump with perfection. I’ll never get over watching the acrobats land and do their bow or their curtsy, and then just let the adrenaline out by falling to the ground those last few inches. I can only imagine how difficult it is to stand after falling to earth for nine minutes straight.”
The music changed, she signed off again, and the Ringleader began introducing the Star Twins.
But the big top started shaking again. Unlike when the brothers had been out on the kite, now, no one was out there and the rocking was consistent. Camille radioed to her team below. “Any updates I’m missing?”
The music went grainy and faded in and out like weak radio reception in the woods. She could hear Ria from the CBB news team speaking, but the signal kept cutting out, chopping words in half.
Camille tried to breathe calmly. But if she couldn’t communicate with the team below or hear the production, the performers couldn’t either. She remembered that they planned for this, that the Ringleader made the ultimate decision with either blinking red or blue lights on the outside of his weather balloon. Blue lights signaled the show would be canceled and they would begin a slow and controlled descent back down to earth. Red lights indicated immediate abortion of the operation, and in order, the balloon occupants would all descend to Earth by free-fall.
Minutes passed. Camille felt more and more uneasy as her balloon continued to shake and then bob in tandem with the others tethered to her. All audio stopped, nothing but static clogging her ears, so she turned the volume down. The monitors were blank. There must not have been any communication with the satellites.
She looked through her fishbowl window and watched the mecha kites remaining. A wolf. A dolphin. A crane. She wished she could see her fellow humans’ faces, but the balloons opposite her were half a football field away, behind their own fishbowl windows and helmets.
The big top rotated and finally she could see the comet firsthand, not through a camera monitor. Only it didn’t look the same… It looked muddled, amorphous, wider… Had it split up? She remembered reading about Shoemaker-Levy 9 breaking up into dozens of pieces and hitting Jupiter back in 1992.
Difficult as it was to take her eyes off the comet, she looked over at the Ringleader’s weather balloon, painted with a shining number one, but no lights signaled, yet.
Audio crackled in her ear and she turned it up. “I read. This is Camille of CBB News, over.”
“Jump-jump-jump—copy? You-….-time. Jump. Roswell out.”
“What? I have to jump? We’re supposed to go in order-”
“-s no time. Jump. Over”
Heart. Attack. She was going to die of a heart attack before she died of anything else. She looked up at the comet, almost out of view as her balloon rocked more and more and twisted. Camille wondered what the matter was exactly, the journalist in her seeking answers. She wondered if she should listen to the person cutting in and out.
“Who is this?”
That was a stupid question. Her eyes went wide as she watched weather balloons opposite her swing open, occupants of numbers eighteen and twenty, both acrobats in metallic suits, jump one after the other. They must have heard the announcement, too. Now it was her turn.
Camille froze. Even as her balloon bounced and swung on its tether and she knew she needed to jump sooner rather than later, before this thing upended itself or worse—burst somehow. Camille felt tears well up in her eyes. She was alone. She was about to plummet to the earth alone or else—what? Die up here first? Why couldn’t she just float down in the slow, controlled two-and-a-half-hours like she was supposed to? She’d been overreacting earlier—no way the comet was that close, and if it were, would it make that much of a difference if she were back on earth?
Yes. Yes it would, she knew. She just didn’t like what that meant.
“Roswell to-…ning balloons, you need-…now. Jump now. Press the-….n to open the-”
They were reciting the instructions. She was stiff as a board, unmoving, until she thought of Shuri and Li. She began breathing deeply. She remembered that today was her baby girl’s birthday. And she let out a giant exhale. Shuri’s birthday would not be Camille’s death day if she could do something about it. And according to the annoying folks at Roswell, it seemed that she could.
Camille let that annoyance take primary place in her mind as she began trying to stabilize her balloon by shifting her weight counter to its wobbles. She took one brief last glimpse at the velvet backdrop of space behind the blue-white curve of Earth. She pressed the button and hydraulics pushed the hatch open. Her stomach flipped, looking down at the earth below. All she had to do was press the button to release the drone kite tether and step out.
It’s simple, she thought. We’re making a mug cake. Just mix-
“-have to jump-…know it’s scary-”
She felt annoyed again and slammed the right button. She felt a distant scrape along the hull of her weather balloon reverb through her boots. The kite drone tether was released, her weather balloon stabilizing a bit more now that it wasn’t hooked to the others, but it still swayed in an unexpected wind.
–and pop it in the microwave.
Camille leaned out, swallowed bile, and plummeted.
Or, she thought she plummeted. Strangely, it felt more like swimming without feeling water against her skin. Or like flying, for a time. She may as well have been treading water. A part of her relaxed at this. Even as wind whistled past her helmet distantly, and her mind was screaming at the reality it recognized, she also knew she had a few minutes before she needed to release the parachute, and it looked like she got her weightlessness experience after all. All simulated. She was very weighted and very much plummeting towards the earth, she knew that. But she counted her lucky stars that she was flying right, as far as she knew: belly down, hands forced up, knees bent. No spinning.
Camille wondered if the cameras back in the capsule and on her suit were running local storage or if they only streamed using satellite. Footage of this incident, at some point, would surely end up in the news cycle. Camille knew that she should try narrating for that benefit, but she was barely able to keep it together as the features of the earth became less blurry and much closer.
“Hello? Can anyone hear me?” She was greeted by static and choppy words that just made her more nervous, so she turned the speakers down again.
In descent, the suits and parachutes were automatic with manual overrides as necessary. Camille was not an expert, so she hoped she didn’t have to do this manually. She cued the helmet visor to display the altitude, just in case. She waited like they told her to, feeling far calmer than she expected to at first, marveling at the landscape, but she grew more nervous as time passed. There were no clouds beneath her and the ground became visible in greater detail faster and faster.
A beeping from the speakers inside her helmet signaled that the parachute was about to deploy. When it did, it yanked her back suffocatingly, straps across her thighs and chest digging in like seat belts in a car crash. She’d be bruised. But hopefully, she’d be alive.
Her free-fall suspended, she glided towards the ground. Her heart wasn’t done pounding. The ground met her sooner than she imagined, coming up faster and faster and her abs hurt holding her legs out in front of her, toes pointed up like they told her to do. She was no acrobat. She had to land in the safest possible way for a rookie, and this was it.
Camille landed. It felt like running into a glass door as the bottoms of her thighs and butt skidded across gravel. She was thankful the suit was thick, thankful for everything that got her here alive and in one piece.
Her forward movement slowed and stopped. The yellow parachute puffed around her, gently falling.
Finally still, Camille gasped like goldfish on the counter. Her heartbeats were the wheels of a train, whirring then breaking as they came in to the station. Her hands shook wildly and her arms weren’t strong enough to lift them.
Like a flash, she recalled the ‘crash course’ training in skydiving. They’d said that, in case of an accident, she should still descend somewhere in New Mexico.
Still chugging air, she swallowed and coughed. Her mouth was too dry. She looked around her. Desert. Sand. Cacti. A soft breeze blowing shadowy dust around. Plateaus and strange rock pillars in the distance. They must have been right.
She flopped to her back, trying to calm her breathing, but her body hadn’t done anything to really work the adrenaline out, so it kept pumping through her. Looking up, she squinted against the sun and slapped the button to tint her face shield, hands still jittery and frail.
The remnants of the Strato Circus descended nearby. She saw two parachutes deploy, blue and red, the people attached small as ants. Part of her thought she should move. One of the other jumpers might land on her. But the grown-ass woman side of her was tired and felt that most likely, nothing would land on her and if they did, they did. It wasn’t like she was bound to be any luckier moving fifty feet north or south. It wasn’t like she could outrun anything dropping from the stratosphere, even if it were slowed down by a parachute.
So Camille laid back on the ground like she was star-gazing, hoping that the impact of her fall had scared any scorpions away, hoping that if they did come near her, this thick-ass suit would keep them off, at least.
She remembered a train trip her family had taken when she was in middle school to go to the White Sands Park in New Mexico. From Houston, it was only a three-hour bullet train ride. The sand there sparkled like snow, the world quieter than she’d ever known. But the best part for Camille had been the Perseid meteor shower, viewed from where they lay on yoga mats outside their tent.
This felt a lot like that as she closed her eyes and remembered the fantastic view she’d seen from the stratosphere.
Camille wanted a cold shower and a hot bath. She wanted cuddles and kisses and sex. She wanted to make her daughter a belated birthday breakfast and wrap up everyone she loved in the biggest bear hug. She wanted to sleep for a million years and take the longest, laziest vacation ever.
Part of her was tense and afraid to find out what it meant that the comet had come this close to Earth. Had it broken up, like Shoemaker–Levy 9? If it had, what would that mean for their already unstable climate? What would it mean days or weeks from now as they continued to orbit the sun and eventually passed through that debris?
Why had the Ringleader failed to signal? Why had Roswell Air Center told her to jump so adamantly? What was happening up there?
But all that, she decided, would come later. For now, she felt twelve years old again, opening her eyes to track the comet, its dissipation less noticeable down here, just looking like a tiny, light smudge against the bright blue sky. She watched the last of the mecha kites glide down, parachutes behind them. The crane her daughter had admired parked itself just a hundred feet away, looking silly with both wings and a parachute. Supposedly they had GPS on all these things, but the satellites had been out, so…
Her radio blared, the sounds of the rest of the world demanding her answer, demanding she report if she were alive, what was her condition, what was her location?
Camille sighed, admiring the comet for one last moment. She was exhausted, and reporting back to these people in a voice they expected of her was a more noticeable process than usual.
“CBB News correspondent Camille Luo-Jones here, seemingly alive and well. I’ve landed in the desert, middle of nowhere, Earth. Over.”
She tried to think of a not-uncool way to get Shuri and Li to call her ‘Skyboss’ even just once, remembering with a smile the comet-blazing Skybox pin they had to give her now and the view of space she’d gotten to see up close.