Preflight by P.G. Streeter

She runs mile after rain-soaked mile, winding along roads and paths and the gravel trails that weave through the woods at the facility’s perimeter. The cold bites into her with each raindrop, pattering an uneven rhythm against the steady backbeat of her stride.

Rounding a bend, she taps her wrist with two fingers, calling up her stats: just under seven minutes per mile. She pushes harder, feet padding through the slush of half-melted snow.

She flies through a clearing, and the world that greets her as she approaches the lake is a wash of white: the water’s frozen surface gives off a pall of mist as the rain hisses onto thin ice.

Her feet carry her onto the esplanade, the long, elevated concrete footpath that follows the lake’s curving edges. To the right: a steep bank, overhung with tree limbs. To the left: white mist meets white ice, afternoon sun hanging low and refracting through it all like a prism.

Nearby, a bird startles from a low branch and takes flight.

When she was young—maybe ten—her older brother said her head was so far up in the clouds she might float away. “Kite,” he called her, a simple swapping of vowels he evidently found clever.

She didn’t know if the name was spoken in endearment or with derision, but she resented the idea of being wafted about by the wind, subject to strong breezes and the whims of whosoever held her, tethered, at the end of a string.

She remembers stewing on this unwanted image, letting it half-distract her from her calculus tutorial. But Aunt Quinn called her over from across the room and, as she approached, pulled up a display in the air between them.

It was a bird, majestically clad in stark white and dark, steely gray, perched on a limb, two long tail feathers dangling like sheathed knives. Aunt Quinn flicked through the air, displaying the bird in flight. Its split tail was graceful, its body streamlined and powerful, an accipiter’s uncompromising build.

Kate’s own fingers swept upward to reveal the image’s caption:

Swallow-tailed kite.

She pushes herself even harder, clocking her next few miles at under six-and-a-half minutes each. The frozen lake is mere feet below her concrete footfalls; the white mist swirls visibly mere feet before her face. She cuts through it like a knife.

By fifteen she earned her first degree, by seventeen a master’s in engineering. Then: a year off to focus on flying, obsessively training in outdated machines, plotting transatlantic excursions with little but stick and radio.

Evidently, she caught someone’s attention in the process: when she returned from one such trip, Unified Aerospace offered to fund her doctoral studies if she simultaneously enrolled in their spaceflight training program.

Her first lunar mission came just shy of her twenty-first birthday; her first three-year stint on Mars ended well before her thirtieth.

Yet, she wanted something more.

Now, years later, that something awaits.

Mile ten. Mile twelve. The six-minute pace feels like an asymptote—a point she can approach, but not quite reach. She pushes herself until her lungs burn, until the mist around her transforms to particulates of glass, slicing away at her pulmonary tissue as she breathes them in.

A chirp cuts through the mist, indicating she’s reached her target distance. She taps her wrist three times to end the run, closes her eyes, and swipes away the display before she can see her time.

Panting, she braces on her knees and looks out. By the afternoon’s fading light, the lake looks like the frozen surface of another world—

—but she has visited these before. The image is a reassuring one. She slows her breathing, steadies her body’s rhythms. Makes the long walk back to her quarters, ready for what tomorrow brings.

At night, by the light of her dreams, she walks out onto the surface of that frozen lake, aware of the moment’s unreality even as she takes the first step.

The ice does not crack, does not buckle under her weight. Even as she recognizes the nightmare she’s walked into, she does not fear a fall into the icy water below. Does not fear being trapped. Does not fear her lungs’ collapse or a world consumed by black.

Yet, as she steps across that frozen surface—fifty yards out, a hundred—she cannot deny she is afraid. The ice and mist stretch endlessly in all directions now, and it seems that no number of steps can bring her back to solid ground.

She wanders the ice for hours, for days, for centuries. Or maybe it is no time at all—it is impossible to calculate by the time she is sitting bolt-upright in her cot, heart racing in the pitch-black room.

Ultimately, it is the dark that comforts her: darkness like the black stretch of star-dotted space she’s spent so much time observing through all-too-thin panes of glass.

She has imagined the cold, the hypoxia, the final seconds of helpless awareness that would come as she drifts out into the sea of black. It is a known risk, and it therefore does not frighten her.

But tomorrow, she will strap herself into a vessel that is little more than a closed hull. A place to sit. Life-support systems. A store of food and water. Little more.

This tiny box will propel her across the cosmos, farther than any human being has ever gone. Or, she reminds herself, it will pinch the fabric of spacetime, bring the far reaches of the universe to her, allowing her to cross countless lightyears in an instant.

But how long will the moment last for her, subjectively? Will it pass in a blink, or stretch out for eons?

It is a legitimate concern. She will be the first sentient being to make this trip, and the theoreticians behind it all, who have run countless simulations and plotted every detail of what will transpire, cannot answer the question.

She cannot help but think of white mist on white ice, a blurred horizon, untold miles in all directions. Not of slipping under—but of going on with no end in sight.

She wills another image into focus, a bird perched, muscles tensed in the moment before flight. It does not anticipate, does not mark the passing time. When the moment is right, it simply opens its wings.

It is lofted by currents of air but propelled by its own strength—its own desire to soar.

Tomorrow, as she approaches her vessel, decked out in a pressure suit, helmet under one arm, she will place a hand on the single decal adorning the outside of her small hull: the silhouette of a bird in flight, split tail trailing like an arrow’s fletching.

Kite Simmons will travel beyond the Milky Way. She will traverse distances others have only dreamed of.

It will take a single eyeblink or a thousand lifetimes; she will not count the seconds as they pass.

P.G. Streeter lives with his wife and two sons in Maryland, where he teaches high school English and philosophy. His previous publications include stories in Daily Science Fiction, Pulp Literature, and Cast of Wonders, among others. Follow him on Twitter.