Chapter 1: Countdown
Fifty-three Years Later
The Earth Station space dock floated just a thousand meters from the main habitation ring of the L5 space station, humanity’s port city on the edge of the vast ocean of space. Mission Commander Angela Okonkwo steered the lander Aldrin away from the sprawling expanse of the space station. Once clear of the superstructure, she turned toward the orbital dry dock.
Inside the dock’s latticework — her flight engineer, Maazin Barlas, liked to call the great structure a giant flying erector set — technicians, a small army of them, were putting the Internal Space Agency Ship Michael Collins through her final pre-launch tests.
Her ship. They were testing her ship.
Angela had personally inspected the Collins more times than she could count. She’d taken her first fly-by when only one module had been in place, the long, girder-laced tube that would become the Engineering module.
She’d taken her second when the first of the great main engines were added behind it.
She’d taken her third when the remaining two mains were installed, along with the massive fuel cells.
She’d flown by when each of the six secondary engines were added, one by one.
She’d flown by when they’d added the storage modules, the labs, and then the habitat module, with the crew bunks and galley.
She’d flown by when they’d added the flight deck module, and again as they added layers of shielding, bulky maneuvering thrusters, with their clusters of cones pointing in five different directions, and, last of all, when they began installing the communications antennae and scientific instruments.
She’d flown by again, because she’d come up with a better way to configure the port and starboard docking arrays to provide better protection for the twin landers during the months-long rigors of deep space flight. She’d submitted the redesigns, and flown by again to see them implemented. That was necessary, but she’d done it anyway.
Strictly speaking, none of those flybys had been necessary. Neither had any of the dozens of inspection tours.
The Collins was the most advanced deep space craft ever constructed, but with the possible exception of her flight engineer, Angela Okonkwo knew every nut and bolt better than anyone. She ought to. She’d designed much of it herself. That was the main reason she’d been given this assignment. That, and the fact that despite her youth — she was still in her forties, albeit barely — she was one of the most experienced astronauts in the corps. If she wanted to fly by, she’d damn well fly the hell by.
Space was in her blood. Her grandmother had immigrated to the United States from her native Nigeria with a single goal — space. She’d never made it; she’d found her budding academic career at MIT and Georgia Tech far too appealing. Her daughter, Angela’s mother, had been the one to achieve the space dream. She’d liked to joke that she’d been the first African American woman to command Jupiter Station. The truth was, she was the first person of any nationality, man or woman, to command anything at all in the Jovian system, even if the “station” had only consisted of a single module in those days. It was still there, that first module, and it still bore her mother’s name. Angela had taken the torch from her mother proudly, and she was going to carry it farther than any human being had ever carried anything.
She was going to do it on the ISA Michael Collins. Her ship.
One of the twin landers, the Armstrong, was already docked and secured in place for the long mission. As soon she docked the Aldrin, and the rest of her crew arrived, the Collins would be ready for launch. Countdown was underway.
Maazin Barlas was already aboard; the pilot and the two mission specialists would arrive in a few hours.
There hadn’t really been a need to bring the Aldrin back to the station for provisions, and there hadn’t really been a need for Angela to pilot it herself. There certainly hadn’t been a need to keep it on manual all the way. But blast it, she was the Mission Commander, and she’d damn well wanted to. Besides, once they were underway, Mission Pilot O’Brien would take the controls. She’d have other responsibilities. This might be her last chance to finger the controls herself. That was the true burden of command; others got to do most of the truly fun stuff.
The Aldrin was large, large enough to carry mobile labs, bunks, and even a truck-sized rover. Heck, the cockpit of the lander — the lander! — was larger than the whole flippin’ flight deck on the old Hobbes-class explorer ships that had taken humanity as far as Saturn just a few decades before. But for all its size, the Aldrin handled like a dream. It had the most advanced autopilot system ever programmed. In an emergency, it could return itself to the Collins with the touch of a single bright red button. She didn’t bother to turn the autopilot system on. She didn’t imagine O’Brien would, either.
The craft was too large, really, for landing on a moon like Triton. The spider-like landers they’d taken to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn would have been more appropriate. Angela was glad the public didn’t seem to have noticed that. She was even happier that her own crew hadn’t questioned it.
She didn’t like to lie.
Especially not to her crew.
# # #
In an elementary school classroom in Decatur, Georgia, in the United States, third and fourth grade students watched a news broadcast, eyes wide and mouths open. The immersive holographic projection made it seem to the class as though the reporter and her subject were both right there, sitting in the room with them.
In Times Square, passers-by paused to watch the same broadcast on giant 3D monitors, three stories tall.
In a pub in New Bankside, London, men and women looked up from their plates and pints to watch.
In Tokyo, commuters watched on tiny screens in their train cars.
In an office building in Kenya, workers gathered in a conference room, their eyes glued to the immersive monitor that covered the entirety of a long wall.
In every nation in every corner of the globe, men, women, and children alike watched, together, united, with rapt attention.
The reporter adjusted the tiny microphone pinned to the corner of her smart jacket and smiled. “We’re less than twenty-four hours away from the launch of the International Space Agency Ship Michael Collins. The voyage will take a crew of five international astronauts to Neptune’s moon Triton, taking humans to the edge of our solar system for the very first time.”
The woman sitting next to her shifted uncomfortably in her seat and pushed a stray stand of black hair away from her eyes. She cleared her throat. “Actually, it’s not really the edge of the solar system.”
The reporter blinked. She speaker was a Chinese woman, pretty and fit, in her late twenties. She wore her hair in the neat, practical ponytail, except for the one lock continued stubbornly to escape. She was dressed for her mission — a flight suit and jacket with a mission patch on the left breast, an ISA logo on the left shoulder, and the Chinese flag on the right shoulder. It was a practical and comfortable uniform, but with, the reporter had to admit to herself, more than a touch of romantic flair.
The reporter blinked again. This interruption wasn’t on the teleprompter in her contact lens. She wasn’t sure what to say.
The Chinese woman fidgeted again, as if embarrassed by her outburst. “It’s just, uh, that there’s a lot more to the solar system. It doesn’t end at Neptune.” She shifted again. “Uh, I mean, Pluto and the dwarf planets, and the heliosphere … and … and you don’t really want to know this, do you?”
The newscaster returned to her script. “This is Mission Specialist Kim Chang from the People’s Republic of China.” She turned from the camera to look at Kim and smiled again. “This is your first deep space mission, right?”
Kim looked away from the newscaster and down at her hands, folded in her lap. She tried not to shift or twitch. She did both anyway. “I was supposed to be on the last Jovian mission, but … you know.” She shrugged without taking her hands out of her lap. “Budget cuts.”
“But lots of people have been to Jupiter. No one’s been as far as Neptune.”
Kim looked up and smiled. “That’s certainly true.”
# # #
Inside the Michael Collins, the scene was precisely choreographed chaos. As the countdown clock ticked steadily closer to zero, Angela Okonkwo floated back and forth in the tight confines of the Engineering module, checking and rechecking her systems. She did so while trying to keep a surreptitious eye on Flight Engineer Maazin Barlas.
The support team loaded the last of their heavy plastic supply crates onto the Collins and headed back to the space elevator capsule. Moments later, the tube-shaped platform was descending back toward the landing platform in low earth orbit. Once it docked with its platform, it would start the journey down its taut cable back toward New Kennedy Station, floating at the equator in the Atlantic Ocean on Earth.
Maazin used the handrails to pull himself over to the crates.
Just stow it, Maazin. There’s no need to look at it too closely. No need—
The young Pakistani man tapped a band on his wrist and projected a holographic display. Crap. The manifest
Awww, crap and crap again. He was looking.
Maazin checked the crates again, and then looked back at his display. His frown deepened and he shook his head. “This doesn’t match the manifest. Angela, you need to see this. It must be more than twice—”
Angela looked away, turning to a monitor that was showing a news broadcast. “Just see it stowed, Flight Engineer.” She didn’t look back at him; she kept her attention focused on the monitor.
Maazin blinked twice. Angela could almost feel his surprise. He’d never heard her use that tone before. “Yes, Flight Commander.”
Inside, Angela winced. It was the first time Maazin had called her by her title. She made sure he didn’t see. She heard him working in the cargo module. She didn’t look back. She didn’t want to meet his gaze. Instead, she watched the news.
On the screen, she saw a small army of reporters following Mission Specialist Dominic Vance and Mission Pilot Jack O’Brien to the platform on Kennedy where the second space elevator was already waiting to lift them up to the Collins.
Angela felt her jaw tighten. The Agency didn’t like to put Jack and Dominic in front of the media when they could help it — at least not when their responses weren’t carefully scripted. Both men were handsome, older than Maazin but not by much. And charismatic, certainly that. They were good at their jobs, damn good. In fact, both were among the very best the ISA had to offer. But there had been … incidents. Incidents that the Agency liked to keep out of the media. That’s why the agency had kept them in mission briefing until the last possible second. If they had to run to the elevator, they wouldn’t have time for questions.
It had almost, almost worked.
But there were a lot of reporters, and they were pressing closer.
Dominic, the British scientist, was smiling and waving off questions.
Okay, that’s not so bad. Maybe—
One of the reporters was a woman. An especially attractive woman.
The camera followed her as she shoved through the crowd to get closer to the walkway. “I’m trying to get a word with Pilot Jack O’Brien and Mission Specialist Dominic Vance.”
Don’t do it, Jack. Don’t do it, Dominic. Come on. You’re just fifty stupid meters from the stupid platform—
Jack stopped and smiled at the pretty reporter. “Hi there,” he said. He offered her his hand to shake. “I’m Jack.”
Angela closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. Uh oh.
The reporter smiled. “I know who you are. You men are legends. You hold the ISA’s record for commendations—”
Jack beamed. “Just doing our jobs, Miss Brown.”
Angela sighed. At least they both had the decency to try to look chagrined. Even if neither of them actually pulled it off.
# # #
Jack O’Brien unzipped the vintage leather bomber jacket he wore over his flight suit. He’d never be able to take the worn relic into space, of course, but he liked to wear it to the space elevator, anyway. It had been in his family for generations. His great, great-something grandfather — the storied World War I flying ace they’d called The American Eagle — had been its first owner. He’d been a legend, before and after the war. The gold pin on the right breast, an eagle carrying an American flag, had been a gift from President Woodrow Wilson. As far as Jack was concerned, that made the jacket a good luck charm. Besides, the ladies seemed to like it. Ladies like this pretty reporter with the big eyes and the toothy smile. If only her questions weren’t getting all … awkward like.
The reporter smiled again. “Like your little maneuver over Mars?”
“Technically, that wasn’t against the rules,” Dominic pointed out with his crisp, precise British accent.
Jack nodded. “Technically.”
The reporter lifted her eyebrows. “It is now, though, isn’t it?”
“Well, yeah,” Jack admitted. “But it wasn’t then.”
“Technically,” Dominic repeated.
“And the Jupiter decent?”
Jack looked back at Dominic. “Yeah. That one was against the rules.”
The pretty reporter smiled that toothy smile again. Her teeth were very, very white. “I’m surprised they didn’t drum you two out of the corps for that.”
Dominic sighed. “They did, actually.”
Jack nodded and shrugged. “Yeah, we kinda hold the record for that, too.”
“And a couple of universities,” Dominic added.
“More like four,” said Jack.
“I wasn’t counting the ones that let us back in,” said Dominic.
“Me, either,” said Jack.
# # #
Back on the Collins, Angela switched to a different channel. She sighed and shook her head. They were showing the same feed. She sighed again. Jack was going into damage control mode, just like they’d been taught in media training. She shook her head again. Yeah, that wasn’t going to be pretty.
On the monitor, she saw Jack smile. “But really, the whole thing was kinda, uh, exaggerated.” He was still talking. Why didn’t he stop talking?
Maazin looked over Angela’s shoulder. “Remember, you asked for them.”
Angela closed her eyes and shook her head. “They’re the best.”
On the screen, Dominic, too, was in damage control mode. “Honestly, we never got a chance to tell our side of the story—”
The reporter smiled again. “Would you like to do that now?”
Both men answered quickly, together: “No!”
“At least they stopped talking,” Angela said. “That’s something, anyway,”
Maazin shrugged and floated away, back to his work. “They’re your problem now. Mission Commander.”
Angela winced again and turned her attention back to the monitor. Two ISA officials were hurrying Jack and Dominic along and shooing the reporters away. Okay, that wasn’t so bad. Angela allowed herself a sigh of relief.
But then, Jack stopped and turned back to the pretty reporter. “Say, are you, uh, seein’ anybody?”
Dominic rolled his eyes. “Here we go.”
Slowly, deliberately, Angela began beating her head against the monitor screen.
Jack ignored Dominic. “Seriously,” he said to the reporter. “You should give me a chance. I’m an astronaut. I’ve got a space ship and a ray gun. Seriously. You don’t get cooler than that.”
Dominic shook his head and rolled his eyes again. “He doesn’t have a ray gun.”
Jack turned and gave him a glare. He was smiling again when he turned back to the reporter. “I have a ray gun.”
“What are you thinking to shoot on Triton, then?” Dominic asked innocently. “I’m sure the frozen rocks are all trembling in fear.”
The reporter smirked. “Let’s see the ray gun.”
“It’s on the space ship,” said Jack. “But I totally have one.”
Angela turned the monitor off. “This is going to be a long flight,” she muttered to herself.
# # #
Inside the space elevator platform complex, Kim Chang stood waiting for Jack and Dominic. When the two men managed to escape the reporters and the gate closed behind them, their expressions changed instantly. The grins were gone, like somebody had thrown a switch.
Kim shook her head, and had to brush the stray lock away from her eyes again. Brrr, she thought. It’s gotten way, way chilly in here all the sudden.
She tapped her wristband impatiently. “Elevator to the Collins in less than two hours. Where have you two been?”
They walked past her without answering. Kim shook her head and hurried to catch up. She wasn’t sure what was happening. She wasn’t very good at reading people, even under the best of circumstances. Besides, these didn’t exactly feel like the best of circumstances.
Dominic took a deep breath. “Look, Jack, we should really—”
“No,” said Jack.
“You know,” said Dominic, “sooner or later—”
“No,” said Jack.
Dominic stopped, but Jack kept going without looking back. Kim stopped with Dominic, looking back and forth between them blankly, wishing she could think of something witty or insightful to say, something to ease the tension a little, or at least to help her understand the strange new dynamic. Nothing came to mind. “You guys okay?” she managed at last.
“No,” said Dominic.
Dominic started walking again. Kim followed, shaking her head. “This is going to be a long flight,” she muttered to herself.
# # #
The space elevator car detached from the platform at the end of the tether cable and its momentum carried them on to the fifth Lagrange Point. No one spoke. When the platform reached the space dock at last, the airlock access tube extended out to the Collins. When it was secure and pressurized, Maazin opened the hatch and beamed. “Welcome aboard!”
Jack floated past him with barely a look. “I’ll be on the flight deck.”
Maazin scratched his head and watched him drift by. “Nice to see you, too,” he said.
Dominic floated in next and offered Maazin a hand to shake. “Hi there, mate. Need help? Uh, maybe somewhere far away from the flight deck?”
Kim caught Maazin’s eye and shrugged.
Maazin frowned. “It’s not a very big ship….”
Kim pulled herself out of the airlock and through the hatch just as Angela floated in from the Engineering module. “Welcome to the Collins,” she said. “Where’s Jack?”
“Flight deck,” said Maazin.
Angela nodded. “Good. Maazin?”
Maazin tapped his wristband. “Countdown at t minus a hundred and twenty minutes. All systems are green. We’re go for launch.”
“Not quite,” said Angela. Just then, two technicians floated in from the airlock, pulling more plastic supply crates after them.
Maazin felt like his eyes were going to pop out of his skull. “More! Angela—”
“Find a place to stow it, Mr. Barlas,” said Angela. She pushed herself away from the airlock, floating toward the flight deck.
“I don’t think there’s any more room,” Maazin protested. “The cargo module’s about to pop as it is.”
Angela knew how much gear was coming, and she knew the cargo module down to the last micrometer. “It’ll fit,” she assured him.
Maazin grabbed the manifest from one of the technicians and scanned it. Then he followed Angela. “There’s an inflatable boat in here!”
“There’s two,” Angela said without looking back. “They’ll fit on the landers. There’s a spot for them in front of the rovers. You’ll see it. They’ll fit perfectly.”
“Angela, we don’t need boats!”
Angela didn’t answer. Maazin pushed himself along, following her toward the flight deck at the fore of the ship. Vaguely, he was aware of Kim and Dominic following. Behind them, the two technicians pushed the last of the crates aboard, returned to the elevator platform, and sealed the airlock docking ring.
“You know this Neptune and Triton thing … those are just names, right? There’s no actual water there….”
Angela didn’t look back. “We’re not going to Triton.”
Not going to—! Maazin stopped. His mouth fell open, but he couldn’t make words come out. He shook his head. He opened his mouth again, but no words came.
Behind him, he heard Dominic speak with his crisp British accent. “Wait. Say again, please?”
Maazin turned back to Dominic and Kim. He saw Dominic turn to Kim and followed his gaze. Maazin realized then of the three of them, only Kim didn’t look surprised. She looked mildly embarrassed, and she wasn’t meeting anyone’s gaze, but she didn’t look surprised. She simply nodded once and shrugged, a slight motion that Maazin almost missed.
Angela called back from the galley. “Mess table. Everyone. Now.”