A Sky without Smoke

Steven really was sick. Early September was far too early to play sick just because, or to avoid a test. He was at home from middle school with a legitimate cold, which left him slightly tired, bored, and with a strange sense of not being quite on balance.

At the moment, he was lying on the couch in the living room. A comic book was spread over his chest, but he wasn’t reading it. Instead, he was staring off into space, dreaming of space.

At mid-morning, his mother, who often worked from home, called up from her office.

“Steven!” Her voice echoed through the house, the corners and walls distorting it into a strained, thin whine. “Where are you?”

“In here!” he called back.

She appeared in the doorway, her eyes darting around the room. “I need you to find your brother.”

“I’m sick.”

“You’re not that sick. Now go outside and find him. And do it now.” His mother yelled at the end, her nerves frayed by some event beyond his understanding.

“Okay, okay.” Steven knew better than to argue when his mother was in a mood. He wavered on his feet, but his mom didn’t notice. He sniffled loudly, partly to clear his nose but also for effect. Again, his audience was unimpressed, and in fact, no longer there. Grumbling, he put the comic book aside and went to hunt down his little brother.

A few years ago, testing proved what the family already knew. Kevin was a genius. Their parents kept him out of primary school, instead having private tutors come over most days. But whenever he wasn’t studying, he was outside. Though only six, Kevin could spend all day outside, living off the provisions in his backpack.

He had to stay within sight of the neighborhood. But he would be at the hill. He was nearly always at the hill when the weather was fine. He loved the vantage point there, because it was there that he could watch the rockets.

Williamsburg was a rocket town, existing solely because of the aerospace industry. It was one of the places where interplanetary ships were designed, built, and launched. Steven’s parents met there, both new employees at Uplift. She was a propulsion engineer. He was a software designer. Dad joked that when he saw Mom for the first time, fireworks literally went off around her. They married two years later.

True, the Williamsburg spaceport was only of secondary importance, with nothing like the traffic of the huge ’ports further south along the ocean. But enough ships launched from here that Kevin felt justified in staking his claim to the hill.

Steven walked through the back yard, past Dad’s workshop (really more of a shed), through the long grasses of undeveloped land past the subdivision, and up to the hill. He basked in the still-hot sunlight of the day. Summer was not yet over.

“Incandescent,” he muttered, his mind far away from his current errand.

Earlier that week, he learned the types of electric lighting, in order of efficiency: incandescent, fluorescent, electroluminescent. He liked incandescent best, though it was old-fashioned. He liked the way the word sounded: incandescent. It reminded him of Candace, who sat three seats over and two up.

“Candace is incandescent,” he’d blurted out on the day of the lesson. She blushed and buried her face in her hair, and the rest of the class burst out laughing.

But the teacher nodded in approval. “That’s right, Steven. Candace’s name and the word incandescent both share a root, meaning light, of course. Now does anyone remember the root of fluorescent?” The giggling subsided, the lesson went on, and Candace glanced back at him, twice, so Steven felt the class had gone well.

But Candace was at school today, while he battled snot and wandered in search of his brother. He finally reached the base of the hill and was sweating by the time he climbed to the top. A grove of large trees graced the crown of the hill, stopping only when the steeper slope began. Kevin would be sitting in the shade of the trees, watching the ’port below.

He was easy to spot. His t-shirt was all broad horizontal stripes of green and yellow, a pattern nature never thought of. Like Steven’s, his messy hair was in need of a cut. He looked over when he heard footsteps.

“Hey, what are you up to?” Steven asked.

“Only three,” his brother replied. “It should be higher.”

“What do you mean?”

“Three rockets. The launches stopped about an hour ago. There hasn’t been anything since ten after nine.”

“Well, they’re probably just having a slump.” Steven sat down beside his brother. The early autumn air was as sweet and as clear as any day in June. Incandescent, he thought. “There will be another in a minute.”

“You think?”

“Sure. Mars may be full of hot air now, but they still need hot chocolate.” The colonies could produce a lot of their own air and water, along with some basic goods and some fresh food. But all luxuries and other supplies still had to come from Earth, ensuring the livelihood of spaceports like Williamsburg.

The boys waited. The sound from the ’port was muted, as if it had not merely paused in operations, but stopped. Steven knew that was unlikely. He saw cars moving, and even the tiny figures of humans far below. A launch would happen soon. One slender supply rocket was vertical already, snug next to the launch tower. All set to take off, loaded with raw elements for the moon.

“It’s quiet out,” Kevin said. “Birds are the loudest things now.”

The twittering did sound closer, more vibrant. Steven listened for a moment, and then grew a little annoyed at the chatter. Unlike Kevin, he didn’t spend a ton of time outside. He lay down on the bumpy ground, staring at the sky through the still-green leaves.

“I wonder what Rose is doing right now,” Kevin said, also staring up, as if his vision could pierce the atmosphere.

Their next door neighbor had moved to Mars with her family last year, and the pics she sent back filled Steven with longing. Not so much the red soil and black sky…he’d seen that before in hundreds of pics. It was the clarity of the light on the people in the picture, so strange to happen to people he was used to seeing every day. Rose’s blond hair tinted pink by the reflection, the folds of everyone’s clothing so crisp and sharp. They were different already, just by stepping onto the planet. Steven hoped he could visit someday.

They waited. The minutes stretched and grew into an hour. Still the spaceport was eerily silent. Cars drove in and out, but no rocket launched. The sky, so often striped with thick white vapor trails, arched solid and silent overhead. There weren’t even clouds to break up the blue. The sun grew hotter. Both boys stayed under the dappled shade from the trees.

Steven sat up, sneezing hard. “You got any snacks?”

“Sure.” Kevin nodded to his bag.

Steven raided it and came up with a big green apple. Biting into the crisp flesh, he winced at the tartness but kept chewing. He looked again at the port. “This is weird, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” said Kevin. “It’s never this quiet.”

“Something must have happened.”

“A fire, maybe.”

“Or someone died.”

“Traffic control might be striking.”


Kevin giggled at that, but soon stopped. “You think Dad’s okay?”

“Of course. Uplift would tell us if something happened.”

Go find your brother. Do it now.

Steven shrugged the words away. Mom would have said if something bad happened. She would have said.

Kevin was blinking up into the sky. “Hey, that’s what’s wrong.”


“There aren’t any planes.”

“Not right this minute…”

“Not for an hour at least. No contrails. No engines. I knew something was funny, but I didn’t know why. The planes stopped. Just like the rockets.”

Steven paused, searching the deep blue dome for some hint that Kevin was wrong. He could find nothing. It was spotless, a perfect bowl of clear sky. “We’ve been out in the sun too long,” he said, uneasy. “And I’m sick. Let’s go home and get some lunch.”

Kevin agreed, though he kept glancing over his shoulder at the ’port. They walked home under the noonday sun, their shirts sticking to their skin by the end. Mom was waiting on the porch, fire in her eyes.

“Where have you been?” she asked in a voice too calm for comfort.

“You said find him,” said Steven. “You didn’t say haul him home right away.”

“What did you think I meant? Both of you have to stay in the house for the rest of the day!”

“I want to go to the woods after the tutoring,” said Kevin.

“Your tutor isn’t coming today. And you have to stay inside.”

“You always try to kick me out of the house,” Steven said.

“You’re sick, or you said you were this morning. Stay inside. Play video games.”

That was when Steven got worried. Mom never said that.

Mom vanished into her office again. He made sandwiches for himself and Kevin, and they destroyed a bag of potato chips.

As they sat in silence, Kevin’s forehead grew pinched. “I want to call Dad.”

Steven shook his head. “You know they don’t like that unless it’s an emergency. He’ll be home in a couple of hours anyway.”

“He’ll know why nothing’s taking off.”

“He’ll tell us over dinner. It’s probably something boring.”

After eating, they wandered over to the main screen in the living room. Kevin’s viewer account was locked to the kid-safe level. “Mo-om,” he whined softly. It always took him an hour to break through the blockers. When Steven was that little, it had taken him three or more. Kevin sat down, cross-legged, and got to work, typing furiously.

Steven woke his ’puter for the first time that day, and saw a string of messages waiting to be read, some blinking urgently. He only read a few before he started coughing, his heart speeding up.

He called, “Hey, come here. Kev!”

Steven showed his brother the screen and read the story out loud. The main space launch at the primary ’port down the Cape, the one that provided most of the interplanetary passenger service, had blown up that morning, taking the rocket ship with it. At first, it was assumed to be an accident. A shocking, impossible accident. Then only a few minutes later, the auxiliary launch blew up too, hurting even more people, emergency workers and medtechs. Sabotage.

“Everything’s been shut down,” Steven breathed. “All the spaceports, everywhere. The airports too. That’s why we didn’t see anything take off. They’re trying to find who did it and how they did it. They think it could happen again.” He felt dizzy.

Kevin’s eyes rounded. “Why would anyone do that? Hurt all those people?”

“I don’t know. Some people don’t like the off-planet settlements. They say the colonies are imperialistic.”

“What does that mean?”

Steven shook his head, not entirely sure himself. “Like an empire. Like Rome.”

“But people need places to live. And we have to push out, proliferate. If we don’t spread out, humanity will die. Mars won’t terraform itself.” Kevin often spoke like an adult, the result of his quick brain and his careful attention to their parents’ conversations.

“I know that,” Steven said. Everyone knew that.

But not everyone cared. Steven saw a live clip, one he didn’t show Kevin, who had now doubled his efforts to break into his account. They had killed colonists. People brave enough, desperate enough, excited enough to leave Earth for the rest of their lives. People like Rose. Not Rose, but maybe Rose, if she had gone today instead of before.

He watched a clip of the first explosion, over and over. The skeletal structure of the tower reaching into the deep blue sky, the massive spaceship looking like a toy at its base. A moment of stillness, and then a bloom of fire exploding out, engulfing everything, obliterating the ship, the tower, the world around it. He watched the clip cycle through again and again, trying to find the catch, the thing that would stop the fire blooming, breaking the world into before and after, fine and not fine, whole and broken. He couldn’t find it. The world kept breaking.

Steven left Kevin in the living room and went down to their mother’s office. One screen displayed a rotating model of an engine, but she wasn’t looking at that. She was reading the ’casts, while an audiocast chattered in the background.


She hit the blackout button and swiveled around. “What?”

“I know what happened. Some kids at school sent notes. I saw some video.”

“Did you tell Kevin? I put the blocker on,” she said anxiously.

“I told him. He’s breaking the blocker now.”

She rolled her eyes. “That kid!” She looked at Steven again. “I didn’t want you boys to worry.”

“Is Dad okay?”

“Of course! It was all at one place, the ’port at the Cape. Uplift said none of their sites were hit. But the all the employees are helping out today. Scanning footage, checking logs. Volunteering too. Some of them are going to the Cape to help rebuild. After…things get cleaned up.”

“Is that why you want us inside? Is something going to happen here?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Stevie. After this morning, anything could happen. How is Kev?”

“Confused. He’s never been to the Cape, so he doesn’t really know how big this is. How many people died?”

“They’re not sure yet. One of the rockets was full.”

The biggest rockets held 8000 passengers and crew. If it was one of those…Steven sucked in a breath. “Wow.”

“It’s bad,” Mom said quietly, holding out her hand to take his. “And we just don’t know anything yet. So just…stay calm, all right? Don’t look up stuff. And don’t worry Kev about it. He’s way too young for this. You both are.”

Steven promised. No one could prevent Kevin from getting into the system, but Steven did his best to distract his brother until Dad came home. Kevin asked endless questions. Most Steven could only answer with “Dad will know.”

Later, when they heard the car pull up, Kevin shot up and flew to the door. “Dad! Dad! Dad!”

“Where’s my boy?” Dad knelt down and gave Kevin a big bear hug. “You okay, sport?”

“What happened? Who blew up the rockets? How did they get into the towers?”

Dad stood up. “Hold up. Let me get changed. We’ll talk about it over dinner.”

Mom was very firm about family dinner. No phones, no screens, just the four of them talking about their days. Usually, Steven was bored before dessert. Tonight, there was only one thing to talk about.

“No one really knows anything,” Dad kept saying. “It was terrible, but let’s not get too emotional. It never helps to panic.”

“Was it really terrorists?” Steven asked. He’d read more ’casts, despite Mom’s warnings. They repeated the same news over and over. Several groups claimed credit, but most had to be lying.

“Yeah,” his dad said, sighing, tiredness rolling over his features all at once. “Angry men—well, mostly men—who want to scare the world into listening to them. Which isn’t going to happen, of course. You can’t win people to your side by hurting them. You have to listen to them, help them.”

“Did we not help them?” Kevin asked.

“We don’t know who them are yet. But it’s likely that they’re a group that has an ideological reason for hating progress. Ideological means—”

“I know that one,” said Kevin. “They follow one idea no matter what.”

“Yeah, kind of. Or they say they do. Sometimes they just want something else. Like money. Or they like to scare people.”

“It worked today,” Mom muttered. She hadn’t eaten much on her plate. “Everyone’s scared.”

“We’re not scared,” Dad said. “It’s okay to admit that something is scary without being scared of it.”

“Like the closet monster.” Kevin had identified a monster in his room several months ago. He slept with Steven for a week, until he got a nightlight for the room, and a sign posted on the inside of the closet which stated the main bedroom was a restricted area. Dad had gotten the sign from Uplift, and it had worked so far.

“Like the closet monster.” Dad smiled at them all. “Not so scary if you take reasonable steps. Right, honey?”

Mom started, then smiled too. “That’s right. Now, who wants mint ice cream?”

They ate large bowls of ice cream and watched Duck Soup, which was the one movie the whole family always agreed on. They watched it about once a month. Steven laughed until his sides ached, and he forgot about the weirdness of the day for a beautiful hour.

They drifted to the porch for a little while, until Mom took Kevin to bed. Steven got sent up a little later. He wasn’t sleepy, though. In passing, he noticed that his sinuses finally cleared. He was all better. When he heard his parents still talking on the back porch, he went to the window to listen to them.

He almost couldn’t hear them for the crickets, which were setting up a last summer serenade that drowned out the distant highway. The heat of the day had faded with the sunset, and a fat yellow moon getting to full rose in the east, illuminating the spaceport and the town at the bottom of the hill. A slight haze in the air made the moonlight scatter, so that everything glowed a bit.

Below him, the murmur of his parents’ conversation shifted as Mom’s voice rose.

“How can you be so cavalier?” she said. “That attack could be the start of a war. We could be next.”

“Honey, I don’t think Williamsburg is going to be the next front in any kind of war.”

“It has a spaceport!”

“Barely,” he said.

“Our sons were out there all day!”


She took a long breath. “Out on the hill. Watching for rockets.”

“Oh. Well, they didn’t see any, that’s for sure. Everything’s going to stay grounded until security measures can be established.”

“You’re not worried?”

“What’s the point? If war comes to Williamsburg, you think I can stop it? Am I rated for counterterrorism tactics?”

“We can get ready.”

His voice rose too. “We’re not going to get ready for anything. They want us to react. We are going to keep on keeping on. That is the only sensible response to this sort of thing. If we change, we lose.”

“Darwin would disagree.”

“Darwin knew shit about civil society.”

They kept talking, arguing, though the volume subsided. Steven looked at the moon again. People were up there, looking down at him. The settlers of Selene City. They saw an Earthrise every night. What kind of things were they thinking? Maybe they didn’t even care who blew up the spaceport. They might only hear that shipments weren’t coming. Steven wondered if there would ever be crickets on the moon.

Mom got up to go to bed. She kissed Dad on her way. Steven could hear it, the sound of a truce. His father stayed outside, the rocking of the chair a soft, rhythmic creak against the wooden porch floor. A few fireflies winked on and off in the long grasses, heedless that their season was ending. Steven started to breathe easier, his eyelids drooping. If Dad could sit out like this, how bad could it be?

There was a scrape. Steven’s eyes flew open, and he watched though the window screen. Dad got up from the chair and walked off the porch into the backyard. He headed all the way to the workshop he occasionally puttered in on Saturdays.

As he went, crickets were silenced until he passed, and then started up again, as if a circle of quiet radiated out from him. Even if the now white moonlight hadn’t been shining down, Steven would know where he was.

He heard the shed door open. Then a light blazed on, marking the outline of Dad’s body in the doorway. He disappeared inside.

It was a weird time of night to go to the shed, and it had been a weird day. So Steven watched, wondering what Dad was doing. Maybe he couldn’t sleep. Dad often worked through insomnia.

But he didn’t stay in the shed long. He only wanted to find something. The light showed what he carried for only a second before he hit the switch. Steven shivered.

Dad held the one thing Steven was scared of. He knew it lived in the shed, and he knew that he must nevernevernever touch it. Never pick it up. Never pull the trigger. Never load it with the bullets that lived in their own hiding spot in the shed. Never.

Why did Dad want the gun?

Steven watched his father return to the house. The screen door squeaked open, squeaked closed. Then the heavier door closed too, despite the evening breeze. The lock clicked.

He tiptoed back to bed and watched the path of the moonlight march over the floor until he drifted off. Not even the weight of the gun in the house could hold him forever. He didn’t remember any dreams, but when he woke up in the morning, the blankets had tangled themselves around his feet.

Breakfast was the same as ever, except for the audiocast constantly updating them on the disaster. Airports would resume domestic service today, but passengers should expect delays and rigorous security checks. Spaceports, subject to the rules of an international body, would remain shut down until further notice, with the exception of limited emergency flights from designated military ’ports. Williamsburg was not one of those.

“Your lunch is packed,” his mom said hurriedly, nudging him away from the ’cast. “Why aren’t you dressed yet?”

“Do I have to go back to school?”

“Of course you have to. Why wouldn’t you?”

“Because of what happened.”

Dad looked over. “We don’t change our lives because someone tries to scare us. If we let them change us, it means they got away with it. Everything has to go on.”

He did not mention the gun, and Steven didn’t say he’d seen it, didn’t tell that he knew it was here, being too heavy in the house, in the bedroom, in the drawer too close to Dad’s pillow.

“Get dressed,” Dad prompted him. “You don’t want to miss the bus.”

“I always walk.”

“The bus is safer.”

“It’s longer,” he said, sullen. “I’ll miss it anyway. It comes by in two minutes.”

But he got dressed. At the front door, his mom gave him a hug and kiss. “Be careful.” She usually told him to have a good day.

“Yeah, Mom.”

Steven walked to school. There were a few people around. One man cutting his lawn. A woman walking two dogs. They both waved and said hello, and watched him even after he nodded back. Another man was stuffing flyers into mailboxes. He gave one to Steven. It was an ad for camping and survival gear. Little flags marched around the borders of the page. Steven folded it up and put in his pocket.

Just when he hit the main road from the street of the subdivision, he heard a hissing high in the sky. Everyone around stopped what they were doing and tilted their heads upward, looking for the source of the sound. A plane flew overhead, followed by a thin ribbon of white smoke slicing the perfect blue. Back to normal. Except that everyone was looking up.