Official twilight was in 40 minutes, sunset was pending, and the sky glowed violet in anticipation. Cid listened patiently over the radio as his crew chattered, checking systems, checking numbers, checking, checking and double checking again. Shera's voice spoke coolly over it all, reading numbers off a computer screen in a dark room somewhere several stories down below him, her voice a gentle monotone over the excitement.
It had taken him thirty years, but once again he sat at the highest apex of a rocket, the tiny capsule fit only for him. He could already feel the trembling, the flip in his heart as blue turned to the deepest cobalt turned to black and diamonds awoke before his eyes, showing him everything the universe had to offer.
He could finally return to space.
The rocket was flawless, the systems were perfect. He'd built it all, had his hands in every pore of this vessel: he knew it better than anything else in his life. There had never been anything he was more intimate with, except perhaps the creeping black, the slow decay that the doctor had warned him was inevitable.
The glass on the windows was tinted dark, nobody could see the flare as he lit a match, his first cigarette in almost ten years. Sure, he'd quit, but it was an effort that could do nothing against the decades - a whole lifetime- of dust and the smoke of burning oil and powdered aluminum, paints sprayed into mist and the solvents that thinned them. He'd always known he would rot like so much iron left naked to the weather, so what would one more smoke hurt now? Nothing was built to last, after all.
"All systems are go, Captain."
Shera sounded anxious, like she didn't trust the readouts. She'd written the computer programs herself, entire systems built simply to double check other systems that checked the core programs that checked to make sure the rocket worked perfectly. There was no room for anything to go wrong, and she'd ensured there wasn't a single chance of anything slipping her notice.
Cid took a long deep drag off his cigarette, smoothly exhaling and leaning back into the seat he was so thoroughly strapped into, like so much precious cargo. He listened to the countdown and closed his eyes, more at peace than excited.
An immense rumble shook his entire world, moving beyond sound and sensation into something deeper within him, and he felt the first vestiges of movement like his own birth: felt the final lurch into the blue as he was yanked away from the planet, thrust skyward out of the tyrannical grasp of gravity.
Below him, far, far below, flames thrust downward, awing his crew and dazzling the people of Rocket Town and as the second stage of the Rocket kicked in. Cid took another long drag off his cigarette and slowly opened his eyes. He'd looked just in time to see the enormous vessel crash through the highest layers of stratus, delicate fluffs of scattered cotton, and then the horizon grew dark and up above him the stars started peeking out of the blue sky, glittering excitedly as he reached out to them, and the sky passed below him, the deepest cerulean he'd ever seen, scattered with pearls.
The backdrop turned black at last, and the vessel fell almost completely silent as the rockets finally burned themselves out and he and his little capsule were all alone in the vastness of space, lazily tumbling over so that he could look back down at the tiny glittering planet below. He sighed, and finally touched the controls, gently stabilizing the craft with perhaps the most natural ease of his career as a pilot. Computer consoles all around him glowed softly against the black of space, telling him all was well and how it should be. The glow was dulling the glitter of the stars as Cid opened sensors, sending out probes into the night, settling into the routines he'd been rehearsing for months and months. There were things still to be known about space, even so long after the birth of the Space Program, and it was Cid's job to send the knowledge home.
Out of his window, watched sunset fall over the Planet, watched lights sparkle as night fell on those still enslaved by gravity, and then again as dawn broke, bathing the entire world in a wash of almost blinding gold.
It was oh, so beautiful, and oh so alien. He'd learned the first time just how insignificant he and his little planet were, but the message was driven home all over again. No man could ever return to walking among those bound to the earth when he'd seen them all from God's point of view.
"Excellent work, Captain Highwind." The radio crackled, feeble over such an enormous distance. "We'll be awaiting your return home. Standing by for thruster one. We're sending you your vectors for re-entry."
"I am home," Cid whispered, hands moving once more over the controls, deviating from his plotted course in orbit around the Planet.
"Captain?" The voice crackled again, sounding somewhat concerned when Cid gave no audible reply.
He'd built this ship with his own two hands, he knew where every nerve, every connection was. He knew just what to do to change everything so that the computers didn't notice, baffling them and letting them lie to the people watching him from below. He pitched away from the planet, giving his thrusters one mighty pulse, and reached below the console and yanked a single wire he knew already by feel alone. One of the many monitors flickered and went dark.
"Captain?! What's wrong, sir? We're reading a system malfunction."
Cid touched another wire and didn't answer as the radio momentarily burst into violent static.
"Sir?! Can you hear me?"
Cid took a long breath, and lit another cigarette and sat back into his seat, reaching over his head to flip a few switches, many more computers going dark.
"Send my wife my love," He said, knowing Shera was listening. He spared a moment to hope she wouldn't mourn him like the others, hoped that she would know better. She probably did. He flipped a few more switches and the last of the glowing screens vanished against the black of night and the stars sprang out in their full vibrancy all at once.
"Sir-!" Cid yanked one more wire, and the radio was destroyed. The ship was completely silent as the last of the systems, shut down for good. Cid smiled, the happiest he'd ever been.
"I'm coming home," He replied to the stars.
Earth below us,
Calling, calling home