Monthly Archives: July 2016

Child of Titan – Chapter 3

Lili floated up against the restraints in her seat, watching the large video monitor with Max and the Schultz children.  They were in capsule Gamma, named after her family’s designation.  It was the capsule that had brought her to the International Space Station, which was coupled with the nearly complete Christiaan Saturn Station.  The Christiaan was not yet spinning, as it would be after they disconnected from the ISS in less than three weeks time, so there was no artificial gravity.

Her seat was a full sized adult seat, as was her jump suit.  During their training on Earth, she had gone through a dramatic growth spurt, and was now taller than her mother, although much thinner.  She was holding hands with Max on her right, and Jing on her left.  She was also holding her breath.  On the screen was an image of a large rocket booster, topped with Taurus capsule Alpha, which held her friends, Miles and Milly Bell, and their parents.

This was the last crew launch for the Titan mission.  The Schulz family had arrived on the station a month prior.  Helmut and Min were with Sergei and Julia at the central control station, monitoring the launch and preparing for the docking procedures.

They had access to feeds from mission control, so several side monitors were set up in Gamma capsule to display the control room and telemetry charts.  Audio from various sources competed over the speakers as they listened to the final countdown.  It was a clear day at the Cape, with no clouds and very little wind.  A perfect day for a launch.

White clouds of rocket exhaust billowed out from the booster’s nine powerful engines, and was redirected to the side as the rocket cleared the tower.  Tao and Nicklas cheered and clapped behind Lili.

Lili wasn’t ready to relax yet.  Nothing had prepared her for her launch, despite countless VR simulations.  The g-forces had been incredibly strong, and the shaking of the rocket had quite honestly scared her like nothing had during the candidacy or training.  She was glad she didn’t have to do that again any time soon.

“T-plus 1 minute.  Speed 300 meters per second.”  A few moments later the announcer said “Vehicle supersonic.  Vehicle has reached maximum aerodynamic pressure.”  Lili was starting to breathe easier.  “Downrange distance 200 kilometers.”

The image of the rocket was getting smaller and a bit hazy as the cameras on the ground struggled to stay focussed on the craft as it flew further and further out over the Atlantic.  Suddenly there was a wide puff of white smoke from the booster.

“Was that booster separation?” asked Jing.

“Too early—“ Tao began.

Sharp cries of  “Abort” sounded over the audio channels.  A final dramatic plume of hazy gray smoke filled the screen and then there was no rocket.  Not even any large pieces of rocket.  The camera panned back a refocused.  A few small fragments could be seen trailing off at the lower end of the view.

After a few long seconds the announcer stated the obvious.  “We appear to have had a launch vehicle failure.”  The screen showing the feed from inside the capsule had turned to white noise.

Lili felt her throat close up.  Jing held her hand so tightly that it hurt, but she made no effort to withdraw it.  There was a long, sickening stretch of silence that seemed to press in on them physically.

Then the audio stream crackled with static.  “Confirm abort.  Escape rockets fired.”

“Whose voice was that?” asked Nicklas frantically.

“Shh—“ Lili strained to hear.

The main camera panned back and then zoomed in on a fragment.  Three parachutes blossomed out of it.  “Escape rocket shutdown confirmed, parachutes deployed.”  It was Timothy Bell.  They were alive.

The cameras adjusted and then framed the Taurus capsule perfectly with its brightly colored parachutes forming a perfect trio of semi-circles.  There was a wisp of smoke coming from the side of the capsule but it looked unharmed.

Gottfrid Svensson was the acting CapCom that day.  His smooth, calm voice came over the radio.  “Taurus, confirm crew status.”

“We took a good jolt there but we got away clean.”

“We’ve lost telemetry from the capsule, Taurus.  Can we get a verbal from all of you?  Copilot?”

“Ok,” said Anita, is a strained voice.  “Maybe a broken rib.”

“Miles?” asked Gottfrid.

“Yeah.  Yes.  Ok,” he said, sounding very shaken.

“Milly?”

Silence.

“Something’s wrong,” said Miles.  “She’s leaning over, I think she’s unconscious.”

Lili and Jing were openly crying, still holding hands.  Tao and Nicklas were also crying, but tried to hide it.  Max was busy switching feeds, trying to get more data from mission control or the Taurus.  He added an audio feed from the rescue ships, which were frantically changing course and speeding to the predicted splashdown site.

“Turn that off!” demanded Lili.  Max muted the audio so they could hear what was happening on the Taurus.  He stabbed at buttons on the control panel and suddenly the video feed from the capsule came back on screen.

“I’m unhooking to check on her,” said Miles.

“We advise against that,” said Gottfrid quickly.  “You will enter the ocean in a few minutes, you need to be strapped in.”

Miles ignored him, as did Timothy.  Anita stayed in her seat, clutching her side.

“Bio-monitor is green,” reported Timothy.  “She’s breathing.”

“Dad, look at her arm—be careful,” said Miles.

Timothy sat in the empty seat next to Milly and carefully straightened her arm, which was flopping over at an odd angle.  She woke up with a scream.

“Sorry Milly,” Timothy said quickly.  “Sorry sweetie, I’m sorry.”

“What happened?” she asked.  “Why does my arm hurt, why—?”

“We had to abort,” said Miles.

“Where are we?  Why aren’t you strapped in?  Are we on the ground?”

Gottfrid broke in.  “Approximately 30 seconds to splash-down, please strap in immediately.”

Miles and Timothy complied, quickly securing themselves into the seats.  The view from the cameras at the Cape were almost completely obscured by the thickening haze of the atmosphere over the ocean.  Max switched them to a video feed from the closest ship in the area, which gave them a view of a perfectly gentle touchdown in what were luckily mild seas.  The capsule bobbed contentedly and Lili breathed a sigh of relief.  She watched it intently, hoping that there was no damage that would cause it to leak.

Julia and Min floated into the capsule together.  Lili unstrapped and pushed off her seat to meet her mother in mid-air, hugging her tightly.  Min took Lili’s seat next to Jing.  Tao and Nicklas moved up to be closer to them, and Max moved out of his seat to make room.  He pushed off towards the wall where Lili and Julia were clinging to ladder rungs, but he continued to follow the video feeds intently.

They watched together as the ships closed in on the capsule, and the Bells were safely retrieved.

#

The Interview Room—Zhang Min Schultz—Software Engineer

A corner of one of the capsules had been dedicated to interviews.  Min floated in front of the camera with her foot hooked into a rung on the bulkhead.

“That was hard on the kids.”  She shook her head.  “Hard on all of us.  I’ve been told that I come across as a bit dispassionate.  But the Bells are like family to me now.  I love them all, I really do.”  Her voice started to break, and she hid her mouth with her hand.  “I thought they were dead.  I thought about Miles and Milly.  They are so young.  And then I thought about my own kids, and I wondered what the hell we were all thinking.  When you’re on the ground it’s easy to look at the numbers, the probability of this accident happening, and accept it.  It’s just a number.  But when there are lives attached to that number—people you care about—it’s totally different.”

#

“The launch of the Delta capsule will proceed as scheduled,” explained Julia.  The  crew of the Christiaan was gathered around the central core in the cubical junction between the tubes that led out to the connected Alpha and Gamma capsules.  “It will be crewed by replacements for several of the astronauts currently on board the ISS.  And then, three weeks after that, the repaired Alpha capsule will launch in time for us to meet this year’s window for the Christiaan to leave Earth orbit.”

“Is that enough time for Milly and Anita to recover?” asked Lili.  “Milly told me that her arm still might need another surgery.”

“The Bells aren’t coming,” said Julia flatly.  “They’ve been replaced by a backup team.”

“Which team?” asked Lili.  She didn’t need to ask.  She knew what the answer would be.

“The Svenssons,” said Julia.

Everyone was silent for a moment, and then Helmut spoke.  “It makes sense.  Their skills line up with the Bells.  They are very capable.”

Lili thought that sometimes Helmut went too far out of his way to be polite.

“It isn’t fair,” said Lili.  “Tim was the best pilot out of all the candidates.  No offense, Dad.”

Sergei waved it off.  “None taken.”

“And Milly was good at everything.  Miles too.  Why can’t we wait?”

“Wait another year?”asked Julia.

“Why not?”

Julia glanced at Sergei.  “It would put the mission at risk to wait that long.”

Sergei nodded.  “The timing of the resupply missions would be thrown off.”

“I don’t think that’s the real reason,” said Tao.

Everyone shifted to look at him.  He was clinging to a handhold at the top of the tube leading to the Beta capsule.  For Lili, Tao was down below her feet, but for others, they had to look up over their heads to see him.

“There are a lot of people down there saying we shouldn’t go.  That it’s too dangerous.”

“People have been saying that since they announced the candidacy,” said Sergei.

“But they’re saying it a lot louder now.  This one guy online, he’s really popular, he says that the whole mission is just for TV ratings, and that the networks are sending us out there to die so they can sell advertisements.”

“You don’t believe that, do you?” asked Min.

Tao hesitated for just a moment.  “No.  Of course not.  But people on Earth do.  If we wait a year, they might cancel the mission.  We have to go now.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Lili.  “We have abort points after the gravity assist with Venus, and then with Mars too.  If they want to cancel it, it won’t matter if we’re still here.  We’re not at the point of no return until we get to Jupiter.”

“There’s something else,” said Julia.  “The Bells were part of the decision.  They insisted, actually.”

“But why?” Lili was shocked.  “They wanted this so badly.”

“Not all of them,” said Julia.  “Not anymore.  Not after the failed launch.”

“Are you saying they lost their nerve?  I refuse to believe it.”

“Lili, they nearly died.  It’s actually remarkable that they didn’t.  Based on the telemetry and the audio, Tim had less than two seconds to pull the abort handle.  The automated system would not have kicked in for another three or four seconds and by that time the capsule would have been in pieces.”

“And it’s not just about recovering physically,” said Helmut.

“Will they still be part of the ground support team?” asked Max.

“Yes,” said Julia.  “They’ll be part of the CapCom rotation, and they’ll be in the simulators supporting us the whole way.”

Lili thought she would need all the support she could get.  She did not look forward to spending years in space with Olivia and Axel, or with their icy parents.  Over the last year or so, she was finding it harder to bottle up her emotions, and she was tempted to keep pushing the issue, but she had also learned a lot during training about being a professional.  About being a proper astronaut.  So she let it go, and accepted her fate.

#

The Interview Room—Julia Bledsoe Putin—Surgeon

“When you consider the facts, and list the wide range of skills we will need to accomplish the mission, I can’t argue with the Space Union’s decision.  Gottfrid is a good pilot.  Isabelle is an exobiologist, which may not turn out to be relevant at all, but if it is relevant, it will be the most important job any of us has.  And Axel and Olivia are both brilliant.  So I have to accept it.  I just hope we can all get along.  These kids will become adults together.  We don’t have enough room on this station for rivalries.”

#

When they opened the hatch to welcome the new Alpha Team, everyone did their best to be civil.  Handshakes and hugs were exchanged, and the three teams gathered around the core to chat for a while before they continued with their busy schedules checking items off the list for their imminent detachment from the ISS.

Olivia and Axel had unzipped the tops of their jumpsuits and tied the arms around their waists, which Olivia thought was unnecessary.  She noticed that both of their undershirts seemed to be a size too small.  Axel was beginning to get some shape to his shoulders and biceps.  And Olivia had a shapely bosom to match her curved hips, neither of which Lili could claim.  They looked like carbon copies of their parents, and were not far off from equaling them in height and weight. Their wispy blonde hair wafted lazily about their heads.  Lili had let her hair grow long but kept it tied tightly in a bun so it would disturb her or get caught anywhere inconvenient on the station, which was a tangle of cords and angled devices sprouting from every wall.

Axel was still unfamiliar with the zero-G environment, so when he moved to greet Lili and Max, he launched himself a bit too hard and ended up colliding with Lili.  Max had a firm grip on a handhold and steadied them both.

Axel laughed it off.  “Sorry about that.”

Lili blushed.  He was uncomfortably close to her.  “No problem,” she said, giving him a gentle push.

Lili tried to find a spot that was away from the crowd of people floating in the cramped core area.  She looked out of a small porthole that was oriented so that she could see the newly docked Alpha capsule.  Two crew members from the ISS were outside performing an EVA, securing long support poles from the station to the corners of the capsule.

Just behind Lili, Max was showing Axel the pilot’s and copilot’s chars.  They were situated on the side of the central cube that would face towards the front when the booster was firing.  That side did not have a Taurus capsule attached to it, only a small docking port, so the portholes on that side would offer a generous view after they detached from the ISS.  The chairs were mounted to the outside of the central core, which was another cube, supported by diagonal struts at the corners.  The central core housed the power supply for the station, a cluster of radioisotope thermoelectric generators.

Now that all four of the Taurus spacecraft were attached to the Christiaan in a symmetrical formation around the central core, they could begin the final preparations for their departure.  They had been assigned a grueling schedule that left very little time for anything that could be considered a leisure activity.  They would run endless tests on the electrical and mechanical systems, stow away supplies as transports met with the ISS, and practice docking procedures by detaching capsules and the re-attaching them to both the Christiaan and the ISS.

Julia called to Lili from the other side of the core and Lili pushed herself down behind the pilot’s chair and landed neatly, placing her foot in one of the few open spots available on the surface underneath the seats.  “Lili, take some time to show Olivia around the station, and the ISS.” Julia checked the time on the display mounted to her left forearm.  “It’s almost time for status checks, so go ahead and do those for the hour.  Show her the ropes.”

“I’m familiar with the checklist routine,” said Olivia.  “We’ve done it a million times in the simulator in Houston, after all.”

“You haven’t done it in zero-G yet,” said Lili.  “Follow me”.

Olivia took a moment to orient herself correctly as Lili swung around the corner and down the the Beta tube.  Lili waited at the hatch, looking up the tube at Olivia, who pushed off a bit too hard from the core.  Lili had to catch her to keep her from crashing into the bulkhead.

“Don’t push off from the batteries,” said Lili, pointing back up the tube.  “Make sure you always use the footholds, or you’ll end up breaking something.”  Sturdy, U-shaped brackets were positioned at regular intervals around the station, all painted in an obvious, bright green and striped with a tacky black tape for grip.  Delicate components, such as the lithium ion battery packs mounted to the outside of the core, had yellow warning tags that said “NO STEP”.

Lili spoke into the left sleeve of her jumpsuit.  “Open status checklist.”  A long rectangle illuminated, showing a long list of checkboxes with codes next to each of them.  She pushed a button on the hatch leading to Beta capsule, which was now the living quarters for the Schultz family.  The monitor lit up with a list similar to the one on Lili’s wrist, with green status lights all along the left side.

“We don’t usually go in the sleeping quarters, since they do their own checks from inside.  But since everyone is awake, we could go in if we want to.”

“No need,” said Olivia.  She pulled up the top of her jumpsuit and zipped it, then enabled the same checklist on her wrist as Lili.  “I don’t see the point of these status checks anyway.  We have redundant systems reporting within the station and telemetry to the ground.  I think the manual checks are just to keep us kids busy while the adults do all of the important work.”

I think this is important,” said Lili, spinning around and grabbing a handhold near a monitor on the wall of the tube.  “Sometimes telemetry is wrong.  You need a human’s eyes to really see what’s going on.”  She spoke into her wrist.  “Beta Capsule Green.  Beta Tube Reactive Shield Green.”

Olivia carefully launched from a foothold to the side of the tube opposite Lili.  “Beta Tube Power Supply Green,” she said.

They worked together to check off the remaining items from the Beta quadrant, and then Lili positioned herself with both hands on handholds at the junction between the tube and the core.  “Let me show you a trick,” she said.

Lili pushed off with both of her feet and swung upwards, tucking in her feet to avoid hitting Olivia, and then flipped over neatly into the core.  Just as she went past vertical, she let go with her hands and somersaulted in the air.  Her momentum spun her to an identical set of handholds at the top of the Alpha tube, where she stabilized herself and then turned around to face Olivia.

Olivia mimicked Lili perfectly and wound up face to face with her in the Alpha quadrant.  She had a satisfied smile on her face.  Lili was surprised, since it had taken her several awkward tries to master the maneuver, but she didn’t show it.  “Nice job.  Well done,” she said, and then moved down the tube towards the capsule which had just brought the Svenssons into orbit.

“Why is this hatch open?” asked Lili.  “We’re supposed to keep them closed as often as we can, in case of depressurization.  And what’s that smell?”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Olivia.  “I’ll close the hatch.”

Lili was already halfway into the capsule before Olivia could reach for the handle.  “It smells like vomit.  Did someone vomit during liftoff?”

Olivia’s face went red.  “It’s none of your business.  Come on, we don’t need to be here.”

Lili decided to let it go, but she got a moment of pleasure from knowing that someone in the Svensson family had been sick. She helped pull the hatch closed and then checked the display.  Several boxes were blinking red.

“They haven’t fully connected the capsule to the station yet.  I’m sure it’s fine,” said Olivia.  She pushed a button on her wrist.  “It’s not on the checklist yet, anyway.”

They made their way around to each of of the quadrants in turn.  The outer wall of the core, the tube, and the Taurus capsule were collectively called a quadrant, even though the core had six sides.  The side with the docking ring and pilot’s chairs was called the nose section, and the booster side as called the tail section.

Once the checklist was complete, they made their way to the airlock in the nose and keyed the intercom to ask permission to enter the ISS.  They were greeted by a short, stocky man with puffy red cheeks and a heavy slavic accent.

Privyet, Dmitry,” said Lili, greeting him in his native Russian.

“Hello Liliana,” he said cheerfully.  “And who is this beauty that you have brought to my station?”

Lili shook her head.  “You know who it is, Dmitry.  Olivia Svensson, meet Dmitry Olevkin, chief scientist on board the ISS.”

Ochen priyatno,” said Olivia, giving Dmitry an awkward upside down handshake around the docking probe.

When did she learn to speak Russian?, thought Lili.

“The pleasure is mine,” said Dmitry, returning the compliment in English.  “I will give you a tour.”

Lili and Olivia squeezed themselves around the conical docking probe at the junction between the Christiaan and the specialized mating adapter that had been built specifically for the Titan mission.  They emerged into the Harmony node, and Dmitry waved for them to follow him.

“This is Columbus, the European lab, where we are working on some fascinating experiments.”  He tapped a large glass tank that had a dark, foul-looking liquid bubbling inside it.  “Fascinating, but smells bad,” he said apologetically.

Lili wrinkled her nose.  “What is that in there?” she asked.

“Do you really want to know?” asked Dmitry.  “The experiment has to do with recycling trash, and certain—ah—waste products.”

“Ok, that’s enough,” said Lili.

Dmitry laughed.  “It’s actually too bad we don’t have more time before your departure.  Something like this would be very useful for an extended journey.  Ok, let’s go see the Kibo.  Fly with me now.”  He centered himself and pushed forward, spiraling down through the center of several junctions.  The Kibo was the Japanese section, which was very clean and uncluttered, except for little origami cranes, which seems to sprout from every crevice in the bulkheads.

A tall man with black hair was pedaling on an exercise bike in the middle of the module.  The man gave them a polite nod as Dmitry showed them an array of science racks.

“Lucky for you that you will not have to spend so much time exercising,” said Dmitry.  “Very annoying to waste hours every day on the bike, or on the treadmill.”

“We won’t have full gravity, once the Christiaan is spinning,” said Olivia.  “We still need exercise to keep our bones from getting weak.”

“Yes, but not so much.  And maybe those new pills we developed will help—but we won’t know until you have been in space for a few years.  Such a great experiment, the Titan mission.  I can’t wait to see the data.”

They made their way through the Unity and Destiny sections of the station, and then had to squeeze through another tight docking module to enter the Russian section.

“Can you believe this module has been in space since the last century?” asked Dmitry, tapping on the bulkhead with pride.  “The whole station was supposed to be decommissioned fifteen years ago, but here we are.”

This part of the ISS was darker, and more cramped, and moving from one section to another required contorting oneself to crawl through a maze of storage bins.

“And here is the pond,” said Dmitry, pointing to a compartment that was full to the brim with water storage bags.  “We have enough water here to last us for a few months, even without the recycling system.”

“And let me show you my own sleeping chamber.”  Dmitry lowered himself into what looked to Lili like a small coffin.  There was a sleeping bag, and a laptop computer, and a few personal items velcroed to the walls, but little else.

“It’s so small,” said Olivia.

“It’s not so bad when you get used to it,” said Dmitry.  “I can even slide the door closed for some privacy.”  He shut the door on himself and Lili saw Olivia shudder.

Dmitry slid the door back open and swung out.  “No so spacious as a Taurus capsule, maybe.  But better than riding in a Soyuz.  I will be riding in one in just a few days, in fact, now that my replacement has arrived.  Would you like to see it?”

Lili nodded enthusiastically, and Dmitry led them past a table where a sandy haired young Russian astronaut sat, eating from a silver food pack.  He smiled at Olivia as she passed.

The tunnel leading to the Soyuz was less than a meter wide, and there were several thick air tubes snaking down to the capsule.

“One at a time here,” said Dmitry.  “It’s a tight fit, but if I can make, it, it will be easy for you.  My belly is much bigger than yours.”  He quickly lowered himself down.  Lili followed him but Olivia stayed put.

“I’ve seen the Soyuz,” Olivia said.  “In VR.”  She looked back at the man sitting at the table.  Above his head were faded prints of Russian space legends—Sergei Korolev and Yuri Gagarin.

Lili followed Dmitry and they sat for a few moments in the cramped cabin of the re-entry vehicle.  Compared to the Taurus, it was minuscule.  She could hear snippets of conversation from above.

Dmitry sat silently for a moment, then sighed.  “This will be my last time in space, I think.  I am getting too old.  In a few days I will return to Earth, and that will be it.”  Olivia’s laughter sounded through the tunnel, like a clear bell.  Dmitry smiled.  “Time for a new generation.”

Lili didn’t know what to say.

“You know, you were my favorite,” he said.  “During the candidacy.”

“Why?  Is it because my Dad’s Russian?”

“Well, of course, with a name like Putin, how can a man who grew up in Moscow not favor your family?  But you—you are very humble.  You are capable of more than you think.  Barely a teenager and already a hero of Russia.”

“I don’t feel like a hero.  I haven’t even gone anywhere yet.  And I grew up in the US.  People don’t usually think of me as Russian.”

“Russians do.  And you have come this far.  To the biggest space station ever created.  And you will go further than any human has ever gone.  There is an old saying, byez muki nyet nauki, do you know what it means?”

Lili made a face.  “No science without torture?  That sounds awful.”

“That’s maybe too literal.  I think in English, it should be ‘adversity is a good teacher’.  When things are hard for you, remember Dmitry, and remember that.  Now, let’s get back up there before Andrei gets too friendly with miss Olivia.”

“There is one more thing on the station that you have to see,” said Dmitry when they were gathered back in the Russian common area.

“The cupola?” asked Lili hopefully.

“Yes, the cupola.  The jewel of the International Space Station.”

The cupola was a dome that protruded from the bottom of the station as it flew over the Earth.  Above the entrance to the cupola there was a bright yellow sign that read “Speed Limit 25,000 kph”.  It took their eyes a few seconds to adjust to the brightness of the light, and then their breath was taken away by the vista.  Lili experienced a moment of vertigo, as she no longer felt that she was stationary inside of a metal container—it was suddenly and forcefully obvious that they were in fact flying above the globe at a tremendous speed.  And what she was thinking of as ‘up’ as she climbed into the cupola was now very much ‘down’.  She heard Olivia breathing heavily beside her, and thought for a moment that she might need to retrieve the barf bag that they all kept stashed in one of their pockets.

They were passing over the continent of Africa, which was mostly covered in lumpy white clouds.  Great swathes of green and brown land gave way to the azure blue of the Indian Ocean.

“I spend many hours here,” Dmitry said in a quiet, almost reverent voice.  “I never tire of it.”  He paused for a moment beside them, staring out one of the windows silently.  “I will leave you now.  I trust you can find your way back to the Christiaan.  I am needed at the Uzlovoy module soon.  The EVA is almost finished.”

Lili craned her neck to the side of one of the cupola’s seven windows, and she could see one of the astronauts in his white space suit maneuvering the last of the support poles into place between the core cube and the newly arrived Taurus.  This was something she had practiced in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab.  It was a very tricky task. The couplings between the poles and the spacecraft had to be strong enough to withstand the G forces created by the booster rocket that would propel them towards gravity assists with other planets on their way to Titan.  But they had to be engaged with a mechanism that allowed the capsules to break free in an emergency, so there was a finesse required that was very difficult to achieve in space gloves.

“Olivia,” Lili said after several long minutes of contemplation.  The sound of her voice was almost too loud, like she was yelling in a church.  “When did you learn to speak Russian?  Do they teach Russian in Swedish schools?”

“No,” answered Olivia.  “I began to study after the candidacy.  When we first started training.”

“But why?  And when did you find the time?”

Olivia laughed.  “Backup teams had a lot more free time than you primaries.  I was training to be a CapCom, and my job would be to communicate with the crew. Your family speaks Russian, so I thought it was a good idea.”

Lili was stunned.  “How did I not know about this?  I never saw you studying.”

“You were busy.”

“Russian is a tricky language.  I heard you back there with—what was his name?”

“Andrei.  He’s the youngest astronaut—cosmonaut—ever on the ISS.  Well, before us, of course.  And Russian is a lot easier than English.”

“You speak both of them really well.  And Swedish, so you know three languages.”

“I speak French too.  And a little German.”

Lili was surprised at how much she didn’t know about Olivia.  She had been in training with her for years.  She started to feel a little guilty, and, yet again, outclassed.

“You could have asked for help with Russian,” she said, somewhat sheepishly.

“I didn’t need it,” said Olivia flatly.  “Come on, let’s get back to the Christiaan.”

#

The Interview Room—Olivia Svensson—Junior Astronaut

Olivia’s hair floated up around her head as she looked into the camera with a satisfied smile on her face.  Lili had told her in passing that she looked like a medusa, but Olivia preferred not to tie her hair back.

“Finally, we are here.  We are in space, where we belong.  My mother told me for so long to be patient.  That good things happen to those that deserve it.  I had lost hope, but now all of our dreams are coming true.  Today in the cupola, when I looked down on the Earth from orbit, with my own eyes—“ she sighed.  “It’s an experience I will never forget.”

#

The weight of gravity was almost oppressive after so many weeks without it.  Lili had been looking forward to the time when they would separate from the ISS and begin to test out the operation of the Christiaan as an independent station.  Zero-G was fun at first, but it had also been an annoyance.  After the jets had fired to begin the rotation, she felt herself being pulled down into her chair, and oddly enough what she noticed the most was how heavy her cheeks felt.

They were strapped in to their capsules as if for a launch from Earth, since this had never been done before and nobody knew exactly how it would go.  The central cube had never been subjected to the stress of four heavy Taurus capsules pulling at it as the entire station rotated.

Lili got nervous when she thought of all the unknown attached to this mission.  That was part of the fun of exploration, of course, but at the same time, space was a very dangerous place.  They had all been warned about the multitude of abort points in this mission.  Today was one of them—if the station reacted badly to the spinning, or later, when they were scheduled to boost to a higher orbit, the whole thing would be scrubbed.  Years of training, wasted.

If it turned out that the Coriolis effect associated with a spinning ship caused them all to get dizzy and nauseous, the mission would be scrubbed.  There was some debate over how many revolutions per minute could be tolerated; they were hoping to sustain four, which would give them roughly half of normal Earth gravity.  If, after a year in space, when they were nearing Mars, their bone density levels had dropped from normal levels, or their eyesight had deteriorated, it would be scrubbed.  If, at any point before the Jupiter gravity assist, the political winds shifted and support waned for their very expensive mission, with the requirement of ground support and constant high-velocity resupply transports, it would be scrubbed.

While she did feel reassured that there were plenty of opportunities to retreat back home if things went badly, she wanted to go to Titan.  She wanted it more than ever, now that they were this far down the road.  Since the beginning of the candidacy, she had passed so many abort points that now, after separating from the ISS, it felt for the first time to be truly real.  The Christiaan station was now its own independent spacecraft.

Lili was in the Gamma capsule with Julia and Max.  Sergei was in the pilot’s chair next to Gottfrid.  They were in control of the separation from the ISS, but everyone else at least had access to telemetry and video feeds.  In fact, Lili knew that Max could, at a moment’s notice, take over the station from his chair next to her, which made her father’s elaborate pilot’s seat seem superfluous.  But astronaut pilots, especially the older ones like Sergei and those who had designed the Christiaan, insisted on a traditional cockpit with an actual view port.

They spent an hour strapped in, waiting to see if any systems would fail, or if there would be any obvious signs of structural damage from the spinning.  Max had a dizzying combination of video feeds on screen from various angles inside and outside the station, so Lili focused on the porthole nearest to her, where she could see the ISS and Earth below swing in and out of view every fifteen seconds.  Her head felt a little strange whenever she turned it, so she tried to keep it steady.

The adults were allowed to unstrap first, and they began making a sweep of the capsules first, and then the tubes, and finally the central core, checking off all of the routine lists to make sure nothing had gone wrong.  Everything checked out, so Lili and Max, and the others in Alpha and Beta capsules unstrapped and began a scripted training routine to re-learn how to move.  Half gravity was a completely different experience than zero or full gravity.

Instead of launching herself from the floor of the capsule up towards the tube, Lili was forced to again use the ladder, as she had in the simulator on Earth.  But as she climbed it, the effects of centripetal acceleration grew less and less.  It was a bizarre feeling.  By the time she reached the core, where her mother was waiting for her, it felt almost as it had when they were attached to the ISS, but she could feel a slight force tugging her back.

“Ok, remember,” said Julia, “the most dangerous aspect of this is the entry into the tube on your way back to one of the Taurus capsules.”  Lili, and everyone else, had heard this exact speech many times before.  But training was all about repetition (another phrase they had heard many times), so they listened patiently.

When the station wasn’t spinning, it was natural to just fly down the tunnel head first and then catch yourself on a handrail, or simply fly down to land on one of the chairs, which were often extended to be more like beds.  But with increasing gravity the further down the tube you went, a graceful zero-G glide turned into a dangerous fall.  They had to remember to go feet-first, and use handholds the entire way down.

They practiced going up and down several times, and then split up to conduct more status checks.   The crew was adjusting surprisingly well, except for Tao, who had apparently banged his head into something.  Lili tried to ask about the newly applied bandage, but he turned red and ignored her, pretending to be busy with his checklist.

Then it was time for everyone to strap back in and prepare for their first boost.  They took a few minutes to spin down the rotation, since they needed to be neutral to properly control the large rocket engine that sprouted from the tail end of the cube.  They made adjustments to their modular chairs, to orient them in what felt like a sideways configuration.

Mission Control in Houston counted down to the launch just as they did for a launch from Earth.  Julia responded to requests for go—no-go decisions, which were echoed by the commanders of each Taurus capsule.  Lili could see her friends in Alpha capsule on one of the smaller screens.  Helmut gave an enthusiastic thumbs up each time he said “go”.  Gamma capsule, with three Putins inside, had to be weighted down with extra supplies to even out the mass from the Alpha capsule opposite them, which had all five Schultzes.

When the rocket fired, they experienced several Gs of force, but it was gentler than the trip into orbit.  The ISS dwindled to a speck in the video feed from the tail section, and the Earth grew a little smaller as they increased their orbital altitude by several hundred kilometers.  After cutting the engines and running through another series of systems checks, they reoriented their chairs and again rotated the station to simulate gravity.

Timothy Bell’s voice came over the audio channel.  He was acting as CapCom from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.  “Great job everyone.  That’s one more big step towards Titan.  Go ahead and unstrap and relax for a while.  You have a few days until the fuel resupply reaches you, so enjoy the view while it lasts.”

Lili and Max both moved to the portholes and watched as Earth swung by—Lili imagined that they were stationary in space and the planet was rapidly revolving around them.  It was hard to focus on it for long, since they nose of the station was pointed in the direction of their orbital motion, and they were rotating ninety degrees relative to the surface.

“Mom, is it Ok if I go to the core?  I told Tao I’d meet him.”

“Sure, just stay out of your father’s way.  He and Gottfrid will still be busy for a while.”

Lili reached up and grabbed the bottom rung of the ladder, pulling her self upward into weaker and weaker gravity.  Tao was waiting for her at one of the portholes in the tail section.  From this vantage point, Earth was flying in a wide circle that went from full view, then behind the cone of the booster, and then back into view again.

“I have an idea,” said Tao.  They were both floating, but they could feel a very slight amount of force pushing them down into the corner of the cube.  Tao put his face in front of the window and then pushed off, spinning his body around the axis of his head.  His legs crashed into Lili and knocked her back into the bulkhead.

“What the heck was that?” she asked.

“Ok, that didn’t work so well,” he admitted.  “Let me try again.  I’ll scrunch up my feet this time.”

“What are you trying to do?”

“I’m trying to stop the Earth from spinning so I can just look at it for a while.”

“Stop the Earth from spinning?”

Tao folded his legs and bent himself into a fetal position.  “I mean spinning myself—here, just spin me.”

Lili suddenly understood what he was trying.  She looked out the porthole for a second to gauge the speed and then pulled down on Tao’s elbow to start him spinning.

“Too fast!” he said.  She reached out and accidentally pulled his hair to slow him down.

“Ow!”

“Sorry.  Hold on, let me try again.”  She gave him another shove and got the rotation just right.

“That’s it!” he said.  “Perfect.”  He spun in a tight ball for a few moments with his face inches from the glass, spinning at the same speed as the station, but in the opposite direction.

“Ok, my turn,” said Lili.  She crouched into a ball and Tao spun her around.  She was rewarded with a few seconds of a completely stable view of the Earth—but the station was spinning twice as fast as it should’ve been, and she quickly got dizzy.

She and Tao were laughing hysterically when Min came around the corner.

“What are you monkeys up to?” she asked suspiciously.

“Nothing,” said Tao, straightening up.  “Just—um—orbital mechanics training.”

Riiight,” Min said slowly.  “Whatever.  Just don’t break anything.  This station has to last us for a few years.”

#

The Interview Room—Zhang Tao Schultz—Junior Astronaut

“Once upon a time, there was a sad, lonely boy named Tao.  He was a junior candidate.  But then, he became a famous astronaut!”

Tao read his arms out wide and laughed.

“In fact, I’m the most famous junior astronaut named Tao who ever lived!  It’s because of all the super important, heroic deeds that I do on a daily basis.  Like—“

He made a show of sniffing the air in the capsule and made a face.

“Like cleaning the toilets—excuse me, I meant personal hygiene stations.”  He waved his hand in front of his nose.

He lowered his voice.  “But don’t tell anyone about the toilet.  We wouldn’t want to public to know that astronauts have to go poop.”

#

After several days of living on the station at four revolutions per minute, they all found that they were perfectly comfortable as long as they stayed in the capsules, at the very edges of the rotational circle.  And at the core where it was practically a zero-G environment, there was no discomfort, as long as you didn’t spend too much time staring out the windows.  The only uncomfortable place was the tubes, and they weren’t supposed to stay in them for long anyways, since they had the least amount of radiation shielding.

In conversations with Mission Control, the subject of motion sickness, nausea, and dizziness came up so often that Lili started to lose her patience with the CapComs.  She called Milly on a private channel when she had a few minutes alone in her capsule.  Her quarters amounted to a few thin curtains mounted up around her chair, which had been extended and combined with another chair to form a comfortable bed.

“Milly, I swear, if they ask me again if I’m nauseous I’m going to throw up!”

Milly laughed.  “Yeah, I know.  I’m not supposed to tell you this, but everyone is worried you’ll all lie about it, and then it will be too late once you leave orbit and head for the gravity assist with Venus.”

“Why would we lie about that?”

“Well, apparently, it’s like a stigma or something for an astronaut to admit he’s motion sick.  There was one guy back in the Mercury days who barfed in his helmet and he never flew again after that.”
“But that’s half the reason we’re here, isn’t it?  None of us get airsick easily.”

“Everybody gets airsick eventually. We—they—want to make sure—“

“Wait a minute, are you in on it, too?  Are you going to ask me if I’m nauseous?”

Milly hesitated.  “Well, yeah.  I am.  Nobody has ever lived in a spinning ship before.  Once you commit to Venus it will take six months to swing back by Earth on the way to Mars.  I’d hate for you to feel like throwing up for six months.”

“Seriously, I’m fine!  We’re all fine.”

“Ok, cool.  I won’t ask again.  Hey, wanna play some VR?”

“Yeah, sure.  It’s been a while since I’ve had time for games.”

Lili dug her goggles and gloves out from a compartment under her bunk and turned on the game console.  While they were still this close to home, the connection was fast enough to play a game together without any lag.

She stood next to Milly’s avatar in a blank white space with no walls or sky.  Several colorful three-dimensional icons floated between them.

“So, what do you want to play?” asked Milly.

Dungeon Crawl VII?”

“Yes!  We almost got to level twenty last time.” Milly poked the icon with her virtual finger and their surroundings morphed into the dark, mottled walls of a cavern.  A torch stuck out from the wall next to a thick oaken door.  Milly was suddenly adorned with a long flowing purple dress.  She had a beautifully crafted staff in her right hand, with a glowing green orb at the top, and a small wand clutched in her left hand.

Lili was clad in shining silver armor, and carried a sword and shield.  “Let’s do this,” she said, and opened the door.

They were immediately attacked by a vicious three-headed beast that breathed fire from its fanged mouths.  Lili jumped in front of Milly, who was playing a more fragile wizard.  Flames licked at her shield, and she began to beat the monster back with her sword.  She heard chanting, and the room filled with a familiar blue glow as Milly cast a spell.  The beast faltered for a second and Lili leapt in, swinging the sword and quickly lopping off one of its heads.  It turned and ran away down the corridor howling.

A giant number five materialized in midair, with a plus sign in front of it.

“Not as much experience as if we’d killed it,” said Milly.  “But not bad.  I should have cast Ice Hammer.”

“You would have hit me with it.  The corridor is too narrow.  Besides, with just two of us here, we get a bigger share of the points.”

“We might wish we had a rogue of we run into any locked doors.”

“I’ll just bash them down.  I bought a strength upgrade last time we played.”

They continued down dark corridors and into cramped dungeon rooms where they were met with an array of fantastical enemies.  Some of the them were easy targets, like goblins, who went down with a quick slash of Lili’s sword, or a lazy flick of Milly’s wand.  Others, like the three-headed dog they had faced earlier, were more challenging.  Eventually they came to a place where the corridor widened out until they could no longer see the walls.  The echo of their footsteps told them they were in an enormous chamber.  The increased urgency of the background music told them they were in for a serious fight.

A red light emerged from the far end of the chamber and a series of torches came to life, revealing a deeply hued red dragon.  There was enough room in the cavern for the dragon to stretch out its wings to their full width.  It looked very angry.

“Um—are we ready for this?” asked Lili.

“A red dragon?  I’m not sure.  I’ve never fought one.”

“If we die, we end up back at the door again.  I don’t want to lose all this progress.”

“I know.  We’re almost at level twenty.”

“Maybe if we just back out slowly—“

They were startled by a noise behind them.  It was a short, slender halfling—Max’s character.  “I can’t believe you’re playing without me!”

“Sorry, Max, we thought you were busy.”

“Whatever, no time for talk, looks like we have a dragon to fight.”  He started moving past them into the chamber.

“That thing will swallow you whole,” said Milly.

“Well, you better cast an invisibility spell on me before it does.” He smiled and pulled out a small dagger.

The dragon was advancing on them.  It was too late to back out now.  Milly started casing spells and Lili ran out to the center of the room to distract the dragon, her shining knight’s armor drawing its attention.  Her shield deflected a vicious flame attack, and even though there was no tactile component to her VR gear, she could almost feel the heat.  She lunged and got in a good swipe across the dragon’s belly, but it casually reached out and flung her across the room into the far wall.  It then began to advance on Milly, who was frantically casting protective spells. The dragon launched an assault, revealing a glowing sphere of energy around Milly that started to shrink under the flames.  Lili saw a flashing red bar in front of her eyes that indicated her health was very low.  This encounter was not going well.

When it seemed like Milly’s defenses were about to fail completely, Max suddenly appeared on top of the dragon’s head, shouting and laughing.  He plunged his dagger down and the dragon’s eyes started to go dark.  The girls both breathed a sigh of relies the dragon fell, and Max hopped off gingerly to the floor.

“I’d be willing to bet there’s some great treasure in this room somewhere,” Max said.

“I need to get healed up before we do anything else.”

Milly chanted a quick spell and Lili’s health meter went green.

“Why haven’t we got the XP yet?” asked Max, as he playfully poked at the dragon with his dagger.  Suddenly, the dragon’s eyes lit up and it clamped it jaws down over Max.  The girls screamed, and immediately sprung into action.  Bolts of lightning flew from Milly’s wand, and Lili hacked repeatedly at the dragon’s neck until it was most definitely dead.

But it was too late for Max.  An icon hovered over his character’s body with a red skull inside a circle.  Green XP points appeared and the girls both heard a satisfying ding that let them know they had leveled up.

The room disappeared and they all stood again the white staging area.  Max was livid.  “What the heck was that?  You’re both level twenty, but I died and now I lose a level.  I’m back to eighteen.  This stinks.”

“That’s what you get for jumping on a dragon’s head,” said Milly.

“Want to play another dungeon?” he asked.  “I’ll be more careful next time.”

“No, I have to be somewhere soon,” said Milly.  “Later, Max.”

“Later.”  Max disappeared, and Lili took off her goggles.  On the video screen, Milly took off her goggles and rubbed her eyes.

“Well, that was pretty crazy,” she said.  “Max is always a wild card.”

“I think we both would have died without him, to be honest.”

“I had a few tricks up my sleeve still.  But yeah, we were in a bad spot.”

“At least we made level twenty.  I think I’ll upgrade my dexterity this time.  So, where is it you have to be, anyway?  I thought we could play for longer.”

“Um—well—“ Milly hesitated and looked off camera.  “I have to meet my Mom.”

“Why?  You’re not on duty until tomorrow, are you?”

“No, but—listen—I have to go.  But, hey, you know how sometimes you play really intense VR game and you feel a little weird, you know, sort of dizzy afterwards?”

“Wait a minute,” said Lili.  “Did you just play with me to see if I would get motion sick?”

“No!  I mean, I did want to play but, yes—“

“You said you weren’t going to ask me about that again!  I told you I was fine.  I’m not dizzy.”

“Sorry, Lili.  They’re just making a really big deal about it down here.”

“Well, you tell them that they need to trust us when we tell them something.  We’re not the ones being sneaky.”  She was upset with her friend but she could never stay mad at Milly for long.  Lili was still heartbroken that they weren’t going to get to go to Titan together.

“Let’s play again tomorrow, ok?”

“Ok, sounds good.  I’ll try to set aside a few hours.  It’s going to be our last chance for a long time.  Once you boost out past the moon, the lag will be too much.”

“We’ll just have to play slower games.  Remember I promised to teach you how to play chess.”

“Sounds kinda boring, but it’ll be better than nothing.”

They said their goodbyes and disconnected.  Lili pushed aside the laptop and lay back in bed.  The interrogation about motion sickness was annoying, but she refused let that bother her.  She smiled wide as she thought about that fact that she was an astronaut.  And she had just fought a dragon.  In space.

Child of Titan – Chapter 2

 

NASA Space Flight Operations Facility.

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena CA.

13 years before the announcement of the candidacy

Mike Simmons walked into Amit’s small office and sat down next to him on a creaky office chair that was missing one of its arms.  “Did you get that email I sent you this morning?”

“Yes, I did.  I just opened up the files a few minutes ago.  The data don’t make sense.  This is all from the April flyby?”

“Yes.  April 22nd, when Cassini was at the closest point to Titan.  About a thousand kilometers.”

“Do you think it’s interference from the on-board radar system?”

“No, the frequency is wrong.  And the intervals don’t match.”

“Was the radar malfunctioning?”

“No, check the other file I sent.  Here—“ Mike reached over and clicked Amit’s mouse, almost knocking over his coffee.  “Sorry.  Yeah, so this is radar telemetry.  It all checks out.  And we have some decent radar images of the surface from that day.”

“This is really bizarre.  It must be a long range signal.  Something from Earth, or Mars orbit maybe?”

“There’s no way the signal would be that strong.”

“Have you found this signature anywhere else?”

“I started running a search last night.  I don’t have enough hours on the analytics cluster to really dive into the data streams, though.”

“You can use my time.  I still have to pay up on that bet we made.”

Mike smiled.  “Yeah, I told you the probe would survive passing through the rings.  They’re just not that dense up close.”

“I calculated the odds at 23%,” said Amit.

“Then why take a two to one bet?”

“I guess I’m not much of a gambler.”

“Well, I am.  But I’m not willing to bet my career on this until I have more data.  I’ll go talk to the boss and see if we can try to do some triangulations before we plow this thing into Saturn.”

“There isn’t much time left.  I can’t believe we’re two weeks away from the end.  I’ve been working this mission for half my life now.”

“And you’ll spend the other half writing papers about it.  Especially if we can confirm this.”  Mike tapped the screen.

“Hey guys,” said a voice from the doorway.  It was Oleksey Borodin, Mike and Amit’s supervisor.

“Speak of the devil!” said Mike.  “I was just about to come beg you for some radio time.  We found an interesting signal that deserves another look.”

“Nobody’s getting any more radio time,” said Oleksey in a defeated voice.  “We lost telemetry on Cassini.  We don’t know what happened.  It’s just gone.”

“Maybe I won that bet after all,” said Amit. “Traversing the rings of Saturn is dangerous business.”

#

After the isolation of the candidacy, they were all shocked at how popular they had become.  The reality show had the highest ratings of any broadcast on the planet.  When the day came for the final selection, the entrance to the space center was a media circus.  The nightly news anchor from NBC was the announcer for the event, which was filmed from the primary training room.  The candidates sat in the first few rows, while behind them sat members of the press and those fans lucky enough to score tickets to the event.

The final taped episode aired on the large screen and Lili watched with her usual sense of dread.  She was always so embarrassed when they focussed on her, and it seemed like she got more attention than anyone else.  They played what she felt were the most awkward moments from her interviews, when she forgot that it wasn’t really a private conversation between her and the interviewer, whose voice was never included in the actual broadcast.  The interviews were made to seem like the candidates were just talking, un-prompted.

There was a great deal of speculation about who would be selected as the primary team for the mission.  There were fan clubs, and web sites that rated the families, and rampant gambling around the next batch of cuts.  Most of this went over Lili’s head.  She was still very young, and her mother discouraged her from spending too much time on the internet.

The Svenssons did not seem to mind being cast in the role of the villains, but even Lili thought they went a bit too far sometimes by accentuating every snide remark made by someone in the attractive Swedish family.  Lili had watched Olivia stop to sign a few autographs as the families filed into the auditorium.  She thought that was ridiculous at first, but then she felt a stab of jealousy when she reached her seat without anyone asking for her signature.

Her brother Max absolutely loved the attention.  During the introduction to the show when they flashed his portrait on the screen along with some of his statistics, he jumped up on his seat and faced the crowd, raising his hands and waving.  He got raucous applause and a stern look from Julia.  When they put Lili’s picture on the screen, he stood up again, this time pointing at her in the seat next to him, and got another round of applause.

Carmen took her usual place at the podium after being introduced, and a series of still photos accompanied her speech.

“One year ago, the Space Union announced the Titan mission to the world.  This mission is humankind’s most ambitious endeavor yet.  We have, in little more than half a century, gone from tentative orbits of the Earth in tiny, primitive capsules, to colonizing the moon and Mars.”

A bright, crisp image of the Mars colony appeared on the screen, with a clear sky framing several habitat structures and colonists in their suits, standing proudly in the orange-red dirt of the fourth planet among a collection of national flags representing the people who had made that place their home.

“And now we step beyond the inner planets.  Beyond the asteroid belt and even beyond Jupiter.  We go to Titan.”

A stunning image of Saturn’s moon, with the ringed planet in the background, replaced the image of Mars.  Titan was closer to yellow than the rusty hue of Mars.  And where Mars was dry and barren, Titan had clouds, lakes, and oceans.  Not of running water, but of chemicals like methane and ethane.  The rocks and mountains of Titan were made of frozen water.

“Titan has intrigued us all since the historic Cassini-Huygens probe visited Saturn and its moons in the first decades of this century.  Titan is the only satellite in the solar system with a substantial atmosphere.  Life as we know it, water-based life, may very well exist in a subsurface ocean.  And an entirely new kind of life, one based on liquid methane, could exist on the surface.

“But why not send a machine?  Why not send a robot instead of humans?  A second Cassini probe is already en route to the system.  Isn’t that enough? Why take the risk?”

She paused a moment for effect.  “If I may be so bold as to quote the man who launched this country on its quest to the moon, we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.  We are explorers.  Our home is the Earth, but our destiny is the stars.  Titan is the next step.”

She waited a few moments for the audience to stop clapping.  There were many detractors of the mission, but they were not here in any great numbers.  Those in attendance were for the most part hearty supporters of sending humans, families with children, into deep space.  There were even groups of them in the upper rows of seats dressed in costumes from popular TV science fiction shows.

“And now we come to the selection.  The nine families sitting here in the front rows have been through a grueling ordeal, as you have all seen this year.  The Space Union has received its share of criticism for its methods, and a good deal of it has been aimed at me personally.”  She stopped and smiled as people laughed.  She had been cast as the unforgiving headmistress of the competition.  “I won’t make any attempt to deflect the criticism, or to apologize.”  She addressed the candidates directly.  “We put you through hell.  But you were up to the challenge.  And we had to go to the lengths that we did to make sure we were making the right choice.  This journey will not be easy. This is the most hazardous, most complex trip ever embarked upon, and I am determined to see the day when our chosen teams—our chosen families—all return safely to Earth.

“Before we make the announcement, I want each of you to know that you are the finest, most upstanding people I have ever worked with in my whole life.  I speak for the entire selection committee when I say that choosing among you was splitting hairs.  In my opinion, you have all won. Please, everyone, let’s give all of our candidates a warm round of applause.”

The applause turned into a standing ovation that lasted almost a full minute before the room calmed down and Carmen flipped to the last page in her notes.  The screen now showed all nine families, each one bordered by a square with rounded corners.

“The Christiaan station will be manned by three teams.  And three teams will be designated as backups.  I will start by announcing the families who have been chosen as backups.  Those teams will have the designations Delta, Epsilon, and Zeta.  When your names are called, please come up and take your seats on the stage.”  Lights illuminated two groups of seats, one set off to the side opposite from Carmen, and another group slightly raised and situated in the exact center, just under the main screen.

“Backup Team Delta is—“ she paused.  The room was completely silent. “the Akintola family.”  The Akintolas rose and waved to the crowd as the climbed the stairs to the stage.  The Putins had shared dormitory space with them early in the candidacy.  Lili and Max waved to their friends, Samuel and Joy.

After the Akintolas were seated, Carmen announced the Ocampos, a Filipino family, as Backup Team Epsilon.  Lili envied them somewhat, not necessarily for being chosen as backups, but because they now knew their fate.  Her stomach was filling with more and more butterflies as the evening wore on.

“The third and final backup team, Team Zeta, is the Svenssons.”  The room erupted in a combination of cheers, jeers, groans, and laughter.  The Svenssons themselves all for a moment sank down into their chairs, deflated by not being chosen as primaries.  Gottfrid stood up, forced a smile, and his family followed him up the stairs, where they took their seats and exchanged handshakes with the Ocampos and Akintolas.

“And now for the primary candidates, those families who will represent the human race as we reach to the outer solar system.

“Primary Team Alpha,” Carmen said into the microphone, regaining the attention of the room.  “Primary Team Alpha is the Bell Family.”  There were no looks of surprise anywhere after the Bells were announced.  Out of all choices, they seemed to be the closest thing to a sure bet.  A group of people in the audience began to chant “USA! USA! USA!”  This was an international mission, but there was still a great deal of national pride attached to the selections.

“Primary Team Beta is the Schultz Family.”

A spotlight shone down on Helmut, Min, Tao, and Jing.  They shared looks of genuine surprise.  They had not been overly optimistic on their chances of being selected, so it took them a moment to recover from the reality and make their way up to the stage.  Helmut stopped in the middle before sitting down and raised both hands, a huge smile on his face.  He grabbed his wife’s hand, and Tao’s, and raised them in the air.  Tao took Jing’s hand and they stood there soaking un the adulation of their fans.  The Schultzes were apparently very popular with the broadcast audience.

Lili cheered wildly.  Her closest friends had been chosen, and for a moment she forgot that she was still in a painful limbo.  There were four remaining teams, four families.  One of them, in a few short moments, would be sitting on the stage next to the Bells and the Schultzes.  Three of them would be rejected.  Lili sat down and quickly scanned over the remaining competition.  They all seemed so perfect—smart, strong, and confident.  She could imagine her parents among them.  Even Max.  But herself?  She felt like she was always hanging on by a thread, like she didn’t deserve to be here.  She silently resigned herself to be among those not chosen.

And yet her heart was beating as though it would explode from her chest.  Carmen’s words came to her as if through a thick, soupy fog, in a foreign language.  There was more applause, cheers, whistles, and she was confused as she looked up and saw her family standing.  Max was tugging at her arm.  They had been chosen.  She was going to Titan.

#

The Interview Room—Isabelle Svensson—Exobiologist

“I feel so insulted.  Insulted that we were not chosen as a primary team, when everyone knows we won the competition.  In every category.  We deserved to be the first pick.  And now they want me to train Anita Bell in exobiology.  Train her?  She is a firefighter.  Did she even go to university?  I have spent decades studying.  I have published a dozen papers and written two books on the subject.  And now she is the mission’s exobiology expert?  Ridiculous.  Insulting.”

#

It was surreal for Lili to be at home again.  The space center had begun to feel like home, and now everything here was strange to her.  There was a musty smell in the air, and all of her things seemed old.  She was sorting through her belongings, treasured toys that were her favorites less than a year before, but which now seemed uninteresting.  She felt that she had outgrown them.  It was for the best, because they would not be allowed to bring many possessions on the voyage.  Every spare kilogram cost a surprising amount of fuel.  Food and water had a premium over dolls and coloring books.

Even during their upcoming training period, which would last several years, they would not be afforded much in the way of personal items.  They were being moved into a newly constructed housing complex at the space center in Houston that was not much bigger than the cramped dormitories that they had called home during the candidacy.  Her father had commented that it was ironic, how the selection meant they were being paid astronomical sums of money—Sergei had nudged Lili when he said “astronomical” and winked at her—but they would have little opportunity to enjoy their newfound wealth.  Training was to be their focus, not expensive new cars or lavish lifestyles.

Lili was digging through boxes in the basement with a pad of sticky notes, labelling her things into one of three categories: Houston, Storage, and Trash.  Her father was there also, sitting cross legged, paging through an old photo album.

Lili came across her telescope.  “Dad, do you think we could go out observing one more time before we move to Houston?  I never did finish checking off the last of the Messiers.”  Lili had become obsessed with astronomy before the candidacy.  She had printed out a checklist of all the Messier objects, 110 of the most easily seen astronomical targets, like the Orion nebula and the Andromeda galaxy.  Spotting them all was a rite of passage for budding astronomers.

“I suppose we could,” he said.  “You could bring your scope to Houston if you like.”

“It’s too big for the station, though, right?”

“You won’t need it there.  The station is being equipped with some very nice optical equipment.  In fact, I have a feeling they will train you to be a navigator, so it will be your job to operate the scopes.”

“Cool!” said Lili.  “But it won’t be the same.  There won’t be hot chocolate.”  Sergei always brought a thermos of hot chocolate with them when they drove out to the remote site to gather with other amateurs to escape the bright lights of the city.

“Why can’t we have hot chocolate in space?  I will refuse to fly without it.”

Lili smiled up at him.  “What about marshmallows?”

“Especially the marshmallows.  Marshmallows are light.  They can’t complain about the extra mass.”  Sergei pulled his phone out of his pocket.  “Let me check something quickly.  Oh, perfect,” he said.

“What is it?” Lili asked.

“Saturn is at opposition right now.  I had lost track while we were candidates.  It will rise just after sunset.  And it looks like it will be a clear night.  And not too cold.”

“Cold enough for hot chocolate,” she said.  She picked up the telescope and carried it upstairs.

She almost collided with Max, who liked to skip as many steps as he could while coming down to the basement.

“Watch it!” said Lili, protecting the telescope.

“Lili, guess what I just heard?” he asked.  He didn’t wait for her to reply.  “Mom was talking to somebody at the space center, and they said they were going to install all the video games on the station.”

“What do you mean all the games?  Which ones?”

“I mean all of them.  Every video game ever!  And they will even transmit new ones to us as they come out.”

“You mean all the new VR games?”

“No, I mean every game ever.  Even the old silly ones they had when mom and dad were kids.”

“Why would you want to play those games when you have VR?  Don’t they just play on a flat screen?  Were they even in color back then?”

“Hey!” protested Sergei.  “I’m not that old.  They had video games way before I was born.”

“I know,” said Max.  “I played them all in VR.  There’s a retro ‘game game’ that I bought with my allowance.”

“Seriously?” asked Sergei.  “You play video games inside a video game?”

“Yep.  I even played one called Pong, on a tiny little TV.  It had an antenna on the back because they didn’t even have the internet yet.  When you go in the room, the first space shuttle launch is playing on the TV.  And then you have to play Pong and beat the computer to get to the next level in the game.”

“What’s the next level?”

“A game called Atari.  Actually it’s a bunch of games.  They came on little cartridges that you have stick in the front.  But at least the TV was color.”

“Atari,” Sergei mused.  “I remember my father bought one, an old used one, when I was your age.  He said he always wanted one, but when he was a child, Russia was the Soviet Union, and anything from America was strictly forbidden.”  Sergei thought for a moment.  “What about all the controllers?  We don’t have room for all the different controllers for every video game ever.”

“We don’t need them all,” said Max.  “We can just use one of the recent ones and emulate the older ones.”

“It won’t be the same,” said Sergei, shaking his head.

That night, Sergei and Lili packed up the car with her telescope and a thermos of hot chocolate.  They drove away from the suburb where they lived until the street lights gave out, and the roads went from being neatly paved to gravel and dirt.  Sergei turned off the headlights and navigated into a large, open field with parking lights, to avoid ruining the night vision of any other astronomy enthusiasts who had made the trek to the observing site.

It was a perfectly clear night, and the Milky Way was easily visible to the naked eye.  Lili and Sergei spent a few minutes observing with binoculars before they set up the telescope.  Lili quickly found all of her favorites: The Orion Nebula, The Andromeda galaxy, and the Pleadies.  She saw that Saturn had risen, and she tried to make out the rings with the binoculars, but they weren’t quite powerful enough, so she set them aside and helped Sergei wire up the controls to the telescope’s control panel.

The scope came to life with a beep and a whirr of finely tuned motors, and Sergei quickly went through the alignment routine.  “This always feels like cheating to me,” he said.

“Why?” asked Lili.

“When my father taught me astronomy, we had a Dobsonian, like that one.” He pointed to a very large telescope that sat directly on the ground.  It was being used by an equally large gentleman who had on a pointy wool hat with a ball at the end—Lili thought he looked like Santa Claus.

“Our scope had no motors.  You had to use your star charts and find things yourself.”

Lili pushed a few buttons on the control panel and the telescope began slewing towards the Eastern horizon.  “Well, back in my day,” she said with an elderly voice, “we had to walk ten miles in the snow to see Saturn.”

“Uphill, both ways,” said Sergei, laughing.

Lili chose an eyepiece from a holder mounted to the tripod and slipped it in to place.  She had to stand on a stool to get here eye up to the right height.

“There it is,” she said with satisfaction.  “The seeing is really good tonight.”  She moved aside so Sergei could take a look.

“The rings are really opening up.”  The first time Lili had ever seen Saturn, its rings were facing edge-on to Earth, so she had been a bit underwhelmed.  But now they had opened up to give the planet a three-dimensional look.  Lili felt like she could reach out and touch it.

Lili went back to the eyepiece.  “And there’s Titan,” she said.  “I think I can make out one of the other moons.  I always get the names mixed up, though.  Rhea?”

Sergei leaned back and looked up at they sky.  “I can’t wait to be there and see it up close.”

“How long will we orbit Saturn before we go to Titan?”

“A few weeks,” said Sergei.

“How big will it look?  Bigger than our moon?”  Luckily for them, Earth’s moon was not up yet.  Its bright light made stargazing difficult.

“Yes, much bigger, but the atmosphere is very cloudy, so it would have to be a clear day to see Saturn from the surface.  Even then it might not be visible at all.  Nobody really knows.”

“We’ll just have to go there and find out.”

#

The Interview Room—Sergei Putin—Astronaut Pilot

“Lili loves astronomy.  She loves space.  But she is only a child.  It is easy to forget that, when she is so smart.  So capable.  I wonder sometimes if I am not being a good parent.  Maybe when she is an adult and she is a million miles from home, she will be angry with me.  She did not choose this, the way her mother and I chose it.  I have to hope that it is worth the risk.  That she will respect the choice, in the end.”

#

After the hectic pace of the candidacy, the training schedule was like an extended vacation.  Lili actually found it to be quite boring at times, since most of it was spent in the classroom.  It wasn’t very much different than middle school, and in fact the Space Union had a hired several teachers from the local area to conduct mundane classes that had nothing to do with space travel.  The parents were attending classes on how to teach basic subjects, so that the education of the children could continue after the long journey began.  It seemed pointless to the children, when all they really wanted to learn was how to be an astronaut.

Lili had seen an old movie where the students at a rural school had all fit into a single classroom, and had just one teacher.  She looked around and thought that her current situation was very much like that movie.  There were fourteen children, from the six chosen families, within a relatively small range of ages.  The youngest was Nicklas Schulz, who had turned nine years old just days before training began.  And the oldest was Angel Ocampo, who was thirteen.  Lili thought she looked like she was twenty—she had full hips and breasts already.  She made Lili feel very self-conscious.

The current lecture, on a rainy Tuesday morning in February, was on western civilization in the 18th century.  This was one of the classes where everyone was on equal footing, unlike the hour spent on mathematics every day, when Lili and half the class struggled to complete problems in basic algebra and trigonometry; meanwhile the other half, including Nicklas and Tao, breezed through orbital trajectory calculus equations.

The teacher, Mrs. Greensmith, wore an American flag on her lapel.  Her hair was cropped in a close wedge, she wore a dark gray wool skirt, and heavy-looking pair of clogs.  She spoke with great fondness of the founding fathers of the United States.

“I would like everyone to tell me who is their favorite historical figure from the American revolution.  I have to say that I find Thomas Jefferson to be most intriguing figure.” She put her had over her heart when she said his name.

Joy Akintola raised her hand.  “Thomas Jefferson owned slaves.”

Mrs. Greensmith looked at her silently for a moment, as if expecting her to finish the sentence with something more.  “Well… yes, that’s true.  He did own slaves.  It was a—a different time.”

“I like Abigail Adams,” said Joy.  “And her husband, John.  They didn’t own any slaves.  Also, John Adams wrote the constitution.”

Mrs. Greensmith took in her breath sharply.  “Ah, no, Joy, that is not correct.  Everyone knows Thomas Jefferson wrote the constitution.”

“But John Adams wrote the Massachusetts constitution, which they basically just copied.  I mean, Jefferson, like, physically wrote the US constitution, I know that, but he had the best hand-writing, so he got to hold the pen.”

“Well, you seem to be very well informed for a girl from—ah—where are you from again, Joy?”

“Liberia.  Do you know where that is?”

“Of course, dear, it’s on the African continent.  I must say your English is quite good for someone who is not from the states.”

“English is the official language of Liberia.  Our country was formed by freed slaves.”

Mrs. Greensmith found her attention diverted by Max, who had been patiently holding up his hand.  “Yes, Max, and who is your favorite?”

“Ben Franklin.  Because he invented electricity.”

“Excellent, yes, that’s correct—“

Olivia Svensson looked up from a chemistry book she was reading and laughed out loud.  “Nobody invented electricity.  Electricity just exists.  He invented bifocals, and the lightning rod.  Very clever fellow.”  She went back to her book.

“Well, perhaps, Olivia, it would be safe to say that he discovered electricity.”

“No,” said Olivia flatly, not looking up from her book.

Mrs. Greensmith decided to change the subject again.  “Tonight I would like you all to read chapter twelve, and write a short essay comparing the American revolution to the French revolution, which followed later in the same century.”

Lili’s shoulders sank.  She had time scheduled in the Christiaan simulator after dinner, and she didn’t want too much homework to cut into an opportunity to do something that actually felt like astronaut training.

#

The Interview Room—Milly Bell—Junior Astronaut

Milly twirled her finger in her curly, tightly packed hair, smiling politely at the camera.  “I try to like everybody.  There’s no sense in hating people.  My Mom says hating somebody is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die.  Everybody’s trying to be good, even if they seem bad.  But, I guess if you want to know who I like like—“ she giggled and looked away.  “I don’t want to say.  Everybody will know!  We all watch the show too.  And besides, I’m supposed to be focussing on training.  And one of us is going into space for years and years and the other one—oh wait, did I just give it away?”

#

The replica of the Christiaan station that occupied the center of Building 9 was almost a perfect copy of the version currently being constructed in orbit around the Earth, with a few notable exceptions on the account of gravity.  The central hub of the station was a mostly hollow cube that served to connect the four Taurus capsules with a booster on one of the remaining two sides.  Opposite the booster was a docking ring.

In space, while on their way to Titan, the cube would be the center of rotation, as each capsule faced outwards at the outside of the circle to create the forces necessary to keep them from floating.  Lili had learned that besides being an annoyance once you got over the novelty of zero-G, a person’s bones deteriorated after too much time in orbit.  Hours of exercise per day could stave off the effects for a few months, but over the long term, what a body needed was gravity, or a semblance of gravity produced by a spinning craft.  Also, exercising for hours each day burned a lot of extra calories, which means increasing the mass of the cargo necessary to sustain them.

Of course, the Christiaan station, even including four large capsules, could not carry enough food to get them all the way to the outer planets and back.  The Space Union had already begun launching cargo on small, fast vessels to meet them along the way.

There wasn’t much they could do to simulate the odd transition from half of Earth gravity in the bottom of the capsules, to the total lack of gravity in the very center of the docking cube, so there were various replicas staged in close proximity to one another.  If you wanted to practice going from one capsule to another, first you started in an upright simulator, with a docking tube attached to the top, and you climbed a ladder to the top until you emerged on a platform.  After hurrying down a set of stairs, you then climbed up a short tube into the central docking space.  You had to pretend that the stairs weren’t actually there, and you had made one uninterrupted trip.

Tonight Lili was with Tao and Jing conducting blindfold drills inside the capsule and connecting tube.  Jay had instructed them to all strap in to their seats, applied a blindfold and then gave them various tasks to perform.

“Ok, astronauts, on my mark, I want Lili to retrieve a bandage from the first aid kit; Tao will reset the circuit breaker on the main bus leading to the cube, and Jing will power up the backup navigation system.” Jay had stopped calling them candidates—they were astronauts now, even though they hadn’t yet been to space.  Max wanted to be called a cosmonaut, and they humored him, although astronaut was the official term, English being the agreed upon language of the Space Union.  Jay held up a stopwatch and said “Mark!”

Lili quickly unbuckled and sprang up from her seat, in the opposite direction from Tao, who she noticed had a tendency to bump into her a lot more than would be expected, regardless of the blindfolds.  The candidacy was over, but she couldn’t shake the competitiveness, especially since she knew that Olivia was still secretly keeping score.  Tao’s clumsiness around her always cost them a few precious seconds.

Lili knew exactly where the first aid kit was located.  There were rungs built into the bulkhead just behind and to the right of the back row of seats.  A few feet up and to the left was a metal box with a latch.  She couldn’t see through the blindfold but she knew it was painted white and had a large red cross on the front.  She had never opened it in the real simulator, but she had studied its location and contents, and she had opened it in VR.  As she expected, the kit was inside the box, strapped in with flexible webbing to keep it from falling out.  She quickly popped open the container, retrieved a large, soft bandage, and neatly stowed the kit back into place.  She hurried back to her seat, to be followed a few seconds later by Jing, who dropped from the ladder above the seats, and her brother Tao, who flung himself roughly back into his seat and wound up leaning against Lili’s left side.  She shoved him off and heard Jay click the stopwatch.

“Great job, astronauts.  That’s your best time yet.  Ok, let’s remove the blindfolds and call it a night.  I hear some of you are behind on your homework assignments.”

#

The Interview Room—Helmut Schultz—Diplomat

“I am starting too see some signs of, well, let’s call it ‘teenage drama’ between the kids.  That is to be expected.  I don’t want to discourage it too much.  Of course, we wouldn’t want anyone to get pregnant during training, but they will have to learn how to navigate relationships if we are going to succeed on such a long mission in space.  It’s just human nature for them to develop feelings for each other.”

#

The parents from primary teams Alpha, Beta, and Gamma were gathered in a small meeting room in the Space Union’s headquarters building.  On a small video monitor on one wall, there were various graphics displayed.  One was a chart of the Saturn system, with glowing green lines pointing towards Titan.  A visual representation of what looked like an audio recording.  A photo of the Cassini probe.

Carmen Tindall, whose job title had changed from Chief of Candidate Selection to Chief of Staff for the Titan Mission, sat near the head of the table.  Sitting next to her was a compact, well-dressed man with a round face and rosy cheeks.  His name was Oleksey Borodin, and he was the Director of the Space Union. The astronauts were all staring at him.  No one spoke for several seconds.

He broke the silence, his voice husky, with only a hint of an accent betraying his heritage.  “We will give you some time to consider everything that we have just told you.  We will understand if you decide to withdraw yourselves from the mission.”

“Withdraw?” said Timothy Bell, surprised.  “Why would we withdraw now?  This makes me want to go even more.”  He looked around for agreement, and a few parents were nodding their heads.  But there were also concerned, even worried, looks from Julia and Helmut.

“This adds an additional element of…” Oleksey paused for a second, searching for the right word.  “…risk, or at least the unknown, to the mission.  Since your children are involved, it’s only fair to give you a chance to reconsider.  We could swap you out with a backup team, or replace you entirely if that is your desire.”

“Why didn’t you tell us this long ago?” asked Julia.  “Why not during the candidacy?”

“This is very sensitive information,” said Oleksey.  “The fewer people who know about it, the better.  None of the data are confirmed.  We don’t know how to interpret this, and we don’t want it to become public.”

“How is it not public already?” asked Helmut.  “NASA has always published all of its mission data online.”

Oleksey answered.  “The first Cassini mission was managed by NASA, and they did publish the data.  The findings were not obvious, so no one noticed.  But the second probe was the first official Space Union project.  And the Space Union does not operate strictly under NASA guidelines.  Even still,” he said, pointing to the screen, “the data are not conclusive.  That is why we are sending you.  That is why we are not satisfied by just  sending probes.  Something this important, this significant, requires the presence of a human mind.”

Sergei sat with his arms crossed.  “Or maybe the Chinese are involved.  I think that’s a more likely explanation.”

“Perhaps,” admitted Oleksey without enthusiasm.  “But what do we know of their program?  They are very secretive.  Their efforts to colonize the moon have been less than successful, so it’s doubtful that they could have reached out so far into the solar system.”

“But you want to make sure that we reach out before they do.”

“The Space Union does not admit to being in a competition with the Chinese.  This is not the cold war.”

“What about the children?  What do we tell them about this?” asked Julia.

Carmen and Oleksey looked at each other.  Carmen said, “We feel that it would be best to wait.”

“Until they are a bit older,” said Oleksey.  “Perhaps even after the journey has begun.  Children are not so good at keeping secrets.”

“Neither are adults, when everything they do is broadcast on a television show,” said Timothy.  “This is something we need to talk about.  Prepare for.”

“You will be prepared,” said Carmen.  “For the most part, you already are.  We selected you very specifically for your suitability to this type of mission.”

Helmut laughed.  “I was wondering why on Earth you chose me.  I’m still wondering, to be honest.  I think it’s because my wife is so wonderful that you had to take me along for the ride.” He put his arm around Min dramatically.  Min blushed and shook her head.  “But I understand.  I am still ready to go.  We all knew we were signing up for a risky job.  What do you think, Min?”

Min put her hand on Helmut’s arm, which was still around her shoulders.  “This is exactly what we signed up for.  I wish you had been more up front with us, but I’m still in.”

“Same here,” said Timothy.  “The Bells are ‘go’”.  He did not look at Anita when he said it.

Sergei was nodding.  Then he looked at Julia, who was scowling, and said, “Maybe we will discuss it privately.  We have come a long way.  I would not want to quit now.”

“We will discuss it privately,” said Julia.  “What worries me the most is that we have established a precedent of hiding information from the astronauts, and I’d hate to think we have to spend the next decade, or more, second guessing everything we hear from mission control.”

Oleksey shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

“We could have waited until you arrived at Titan,” said Carmen.  “It’s not fair to say we’re hiding information from you.  We’re telling you.  Now.  Weeks into a multi-year training program.”

#

The Interview Room—Zhang Jing Schultz—Junior Astronaut

“I wish I could just be an adult already.  I’m so sick of being treated like a child.  The grown-ups go off and have secret meetings and they act like we’re babies.  We’re astronauts!  We qualified just like they did.  We can handle anything.  I’m going to be the first person the get their Phd in space.  I want to be in charge of all the experiments.  We don’t really have a scientist on the crew—I mean, Lili’s Mom is a surgeon, so she studied medical science, and Mrs. Bell is a chemist, even though everyone calls her a firefighter—she was a volunteer firefighter, in her spare time—but really she worked for a big company that makes industrial chemicals.  That doesn’t really count.  Mrs. Svensson is an exobiologist, which is so cool!  But she’s not going.”  Jing paused her rapid speech to get a breath.  “Maybe I’ll study exobiology too, she could help me, since she’s on the backup crew.  Or maybe regular biology.  But anthropology is neat, and psychology—a long trip in space will be a good chance to study human behavior.  I’ll have to start designing some social experiments—but my Mom is a computer scientist, and there’s lots of computers on board the Christiaan, but that’s more like engineering than science—“

#

Lili was breathing heavily as she rounded the last corner of the outdoor track for the fourth time.  Her legs were starting to burn, but she was feeling confident that she could beat her personal best in the 1,000 meters.  And Olivia was actually behind her, for a change.

“TRACK!” Both Miles and Axel gave the warning just before they flew by on Lili’s right.  They were in lockstep, Miles just barely ahead of Axel.  Miles drifted back to the left-most lane and Axel made a move to his right in an attempt to pass.  Lili was silently rooting for Miles, although the rivalry seemed pointless now.

Just as they came out of the corner onto the straight, Axel abruptly cut to the left and collided with Miles, who went down hard and tumbled into the grass.  Without a glance backwards, Axel continued to power forwards.  Miles came to a stop and clutched at his knee, which was badly scraped and bleeding.

“Are you all right?” Lili asked breathlessly as she stopped next to him and offered her hand to help him up.  “He just knocked you over, that was not cool!”

Lili had to step aside quickly as Olivia passed them, still running at full speed.  Lili drew in a sharp breath and let it out in frustration through clenched teeth.  She again put her hand out to Miles.

Miles pressed his lips together and narrowed his eyes as he watched Axel rounding the next corner.  He brushed Lili’s hand away, jumping to his feet and trotting down the track.  He was limping, and Lili could tell he was in pain.  “Miles, you should stop, you’re hurt.”

“I’m fine,” grunted Miles.  He started picking up speed and said “watch this”.  Lili started jogging again, realizing that her chance at a decent time was ruined.  She worried that Miles might be seriously injured, and now he was going to make it worse by trying to catch up to Axel, who had what looked like an insurmountable lead.

Lili watched Miles pass Olivia like she was standing still.  He was running as if it was a hundred meter sprint, even though he had already run over a kilometer, and he was gaining ground quickly.  Axel glanced back and for a moment a look of surprise crossed his face as he realized Miles wasn’t still on the ground.  He bent forward and picked up his pace.

Miles passed Axel with less than ten meters to go before the finish line.  Lili wanted to cheer but she didn’t have the breath for it.  She still had a half lap to go herself, and she was gaining ground on Olivia.  A quick glance at her wrist showed a time that was still well under her personal best if she could sustain it through two more corners.  After Miles slowed to a stop he turned around and began to cheer Lili on.  Axel was hunched over, retching into a drainage ditch.  He had pushed himself too hard trying to stay ahead of Miles.

Lili thought it would be perfect justice for the Svenssons to both lose.  It seemed like the perfect story, but it wasn’t to be.  Olivia put on a great burst of speed at the end, and Lili came up short.  To make it worse, she missed her best time by three seconds.

She didn’t bother with a cool down lap.  She doubled back to Miles and said “You need to report that.  He deliberately tripped you.”

“What’s the point?” asked Miles.  “I still won.”

“Look at you, you’re bleeding.”

“It’s just a scratch.  Don’t worry about it, Lili.”

“If you won’t say something, then I will.”

“Please don’t.  It won’t solve anything.  Besides, I’m a little embarrassed that I let him trip me up.  I should have been ready for that.”

“You should at least confront him about it.  Don’t let him get away with it.”

Miles laughed and pointed to where Olivia was crouching next to Axel, who was lying prone and groaning miserably after emptying his stomach.  “I didn’t”.

#

The Interview Room—Olivia Svensson—Junior Astronaut

“I told my father we should drop out of the program.  There are business opportunities on Mars, and if we wanted, we could book passage on a transport later this year.  We would get to space before any of the others, even the primary teams.  I don’t think I could stand to be on the ground crew for the whole mission.  And I don’t like Houston very much. It’s too hot.  I miss Stockholm.  And skiing.  We used to go to the resort at Vemdalen a few times every year.”  Olivia had a wistful look on her face.  “If we go to Mars we won’t get to go skiing, but at least we won’t be stuck in this place forever.  And we also won’t be stuck in some dreary little capsule for years and years.  I never really wanted to go to Titan anyway.”

#

Lili had never actually held the controls of an airplane before.  Not in real life. She sat in the front seat of a shiny white and blue T38-D, with her father riding in the seat behind her.  Sergei’s voice came over the small speakers in Lili’s helmet, which had been made specially for her—it was bright yellow, with her name etched in bold green letters on both sides.  “I’m going to take my hands away from the stick now.  Are you ready?”

“Ready,” she confirmed.  She didn’t feel ready.  Flying in a simulator was one thing, but this was a completely different experience.

“You have the stick.”

Lili felt the aircraft wiggle a bit under her grip, but she kept it straight and steady.  Her feet put even pressure on the rudder pedals, and her left had rested easily on the throttle.

“Ok, Lili, I want you to execute a banked turn 90 degrees to the left, nice and easy.”

She applied pressure to the stick, and adjusted her feet, just as she had been taught in the simulator, and the aircraft eased into a turn.  She had an expansive view from the bubble cockpit.  “Oh wow, is that Galveston?  We’ve got a great view from up here.”

“Watch your altitude, Lili,” warned Sergei.  “Give it a little more throttle when you turn.”

She pushed forward on the throttle and the jet shot upwards more than she had intended.

“Hold the stick steady,” said Sergei in a calm voice.  “Go ahead and straighten it out.”

“Sorry,” she said.

“No worries, you’re doing fine.  Now let’s go back to the right until the heading reads 110 degrees.”

She managed this turn with a bit more finesse.  “Max is going to be so jealous,” she said.

“You’re right,” said Sergei.  “He’s worried he won’t meet the height requirements before we launch.”

“That would be a shame,” said Lili.  “All he’s ever wanted was to be a pilot like you.”

“If they made smaller planes he would be already.”

They were headed out over the water, and everything was blue.  Lili felt a sense of freedom like she hadn’t felt in a long time.  Like anything was possible.  She weaved the small jet back and forth in easy curves and began to get a feel for the controls.

“I could get used to this,” she said after they had spent a half hour conducting basic flight maneuvers.

“It’s in your blood, Lili.  It’s in your blood.  Now let’s get back to base.  You think you’re ready to land this thing by yourself?”

“What?  Land?  Really?”

“No, not really.  I was joking.”

“Not funny, Dad.  You’re supposed to tell funny jokes.”

“Ok, how about this: what do you get when you cross a snake and a plane?”

“Um, I don’t know.  I haven’t heard that one.”

“A Boeing Constrictor.”

“Ooh, that’s pretty bad, even for you.”

“Hey, don’t criticize.  I’m your flight instructor, it might cost you a few points.”

“I flew perfectly today.  Well, almost.  But you can’t take points for not liking your jokes.”

“You know what, Liliana?”

“What?”

“If you had flown through a rainbow, you would have passed with flying colors.”

“A rainbow—?” she paused for a second, and then she got it.  “Oh, right.  Flying colors.  I get it.  Ok, that’s not bad.”

“Ha ha, see, my jokes are always funny.”

He let her take the controls again on their way back, and she handled the communications with the tower on their approach. He didn’t take back the stick until they were a few hundred feet from the ground.

After they landed, Max greeted them and peppered her with questions.  Rather than show any jealousy, he was very excited about her day, and wanted to hear every detail.

“Did you do a barrel roll?  Or a loop?”

“No, silly, I never went upside down.  It was my first flight.”

“Oh.  I would have.”

“Not if I had anything to say about it,” said Sergei.  “A good pilot is not over confident.  Maybe in the movies it’s Ok for pilots to have—what’s the word?”

“Bravado”, said Lili.

“In real life those types don’t last so long.”

“I do loops and rolls in the simulator all the time,” protested Max.  “What’s the difference?”

Sergei laughed.  “Hitting ground hurts a lot more in real life.”

#

The Interview Room—Liliana Putin—Junior Astronaut

“I remember that day,” she said.  “It seems like so long ago now.  Back when things still felt new.”  Lili stared at the camera in silence for a few seconds and let out a long sigh, shrugging her shoulders.  “I don’t know what else to say.  Really.  What can I possibly say that I haven’t already said before?  It’s all getting so repetitive.  Everything.  The training, the interviews—can we just go to space already?  Let’s go.  I’m ready.”

#

Child of Titan – Chapter 1

CHILD OF TITAN, by Eric Z. Beard

 

Chapter 1

Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, Houston TX

“Let’s go, Lili, rise and shine!”  Julia tapped the light switch and the closet-sized cubby that served as Lili’s bedroom was illuminated by a soft glow that came from the ceiling, walls, and floor panels. Lili rolled over and buried her face in her pillow, groaning indistinctly.

Julia was dressed in light blue, tight-fitting pants and shirt, her curly red hair bobbing just over her shoulders.  Over her shirt she wore a vest that was covered in zippered pockets.  High on the left side of her chest, a brightly colored patch was emblazoned with the flags of several countries and the letters “TEC”.  The letters leaned forward as if moving swiftly.

Lili had not inherited her mother’s hair.  She took after her father, Sergei Putin.  She had fine blonde hair and was tall for her age.  Julia worried that she might end up being too tall to qualify for the mission, but it was hard to tell how much more she would grow when she was only ten years old.

“We were up so late last night,” Lili said as she rolled onto her back, blinking her eyes.

“That’s part of our training, sweetie.  We have to prove that we can operate without a full night’s rest.”

“How do we even know that it’s daytime?  We haven’t seen the sun in, like, two weeks.” Lili sat up and started to tie her hair up behind her head.

“We have to get used to that, too,” said Julia.  “By the time we get to Saturn, the Sun will just be a bright star in the rear view mirror.”

“Mom.  The Christiaan isn’t a car.  It doesn’t have a rear view mirror.”

“It’s just a figure of speech.  Besides, with the radiation shielding, we won’t be able to look outside much anyway.”  Julia opened a drawer and pulled out a fresh set of clothes for Lili and tossed them onto her lap.  They were identical to what Julia was wearing, only smaller.  Blocky green letters along the chest patch read her name : “PUTIN—LILIANA”.

“I’ll see you in the kitchen,” said Julia as she turned and walked away.  “Max is already there.”

“Tell him to stay away from my chocolate milk.  He already drank his ration.”  The door slid shut and Lili began to dress.

A few minutes later as she walked down the narrow corridor between her room and the kitchen, she could hear a quiet buzz of activity.  Max was seated at the table prying the wrapper from a protein bar.  Julia was standing next to Sergei sipping coffee as he pressed buttons on the small microwave oven.  A video camera mounted on the ceiling in the corner of the kitchen swiveled discreetly.

Zhang Tao Schultz, a diminutive boy with jet black, short cropped hair entered through the opposite hallway and brightened when he saw Lili.

“Good Morning,” he said in oddly accented English.  His mother, Zhang Min Schultz, was Chinese by birth, and his father, Helmut Schultz, was German.  To complicate things further, Tao was born in London.  His parents had met while on diplomatic assignments to the United Kingdom.  Lili was confused by the fact that Tao had two last names, with his given name in the middle.  And that his name was pronounced “dow” event though it started with a T.  “What are you having for breakfast this morning, Tao?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” He shrugged, looking over her shoulder at his choices in the cupboard.

Lili pivoted to the refrigerator and said “I think I’ll have an egg sandwich.”

Tao followed her lead.  “Yeah, eggs sound good.  Me too.”

Sergei pulled his steaming bowl of oatmeal from the microwave, moving over to make space for Lili.  He glanced from Tao to Lili and gave his wife a knowing smile.

“Where’s your other half, Tao?” asked Sergei.  He blew on his spoon and tried a small bite, grimacing from both the temperature and the flavor.

“Mom’s giving her a talking-to,” Tao said matter-of-factly.  She stayed up too late playing in VR and fell asleep with her goggles on.”

Jing and her younger brother Niklas walked in a few minutes later, followed closely by their parents.  Jing looked slightly annoyed, and rubbed self consciously at the the faint red imprints around her eyes left by the VR goggles.  She grabbed a small container of orange juice from the refrigerator and sat down silently at the table.  Niklas looked like a clone of his father.  They both had wiry, unkempt hair, pudgy cheeks, and consistent, drowsy-looking smiles.

“I would like a big plate of bacon this morning,” said Helmut.  “How about you, Niklas?”

Niklas’s eyes widened.  “Can we?” he asked hopefully.

“Of course you can’t,” said his mother in a clipped tone.  “Bacon has too much fat.  It’s not healthy.”

Niklas’s shoulders dropped.

“Bacon is so healthy,” said Helmut in an offended tone.  “It made me the man I am today.”  He held his arms up and flexed his muscles, leaning over to kiss one of his biceps.

“Especially around the middle,” said Min, poking him in his slightly bulging belly.

Helmut opened his eyes wide and made a sound like a train whistle.  All the children laughed.

Min poured herself a tall cup of coffee and immediately started to drink it, without adding any cream or sugar.  “I’ll be in the library studying, in case anyone wants to join me.  Today is our first day of capsule testing.  Briefing is in one hour.”

“She seems a bit more wound up than usual,” said Julia, handing Helmut a cup of yogurt and a small packet of granola.

“Ja, she worries too much about the selection.  She thinks we’re due for another cut after the capsule testing.”

“I think she’s right.  The tests are getting more and more—what’s the word—elaborate.  The staff can only handle so many families.  Lately they seemed more stressed than we are.”

“But that’s what you would expect, right?” asked Julia.  We got this far because we can all handle the stress.  Why would they do another cut now?  They could drag it out all the way to launch day.”

“For three years?” Sergei’s eyebrows raised.  “I hope not.  That’s a lot of time to waste if we don’t actually go on the mission.”

“It’s the same if we’re selected as backups.  We would have to train for the duration as if we were going.”

“That’s different,” said Sergei.  “At least then there’s a chance.  And then we would stay on staff to run the simulators to support the chosen team.  We would still be a part of it all.”

Helmut was stirring his yogurt without much enthusiasm.  “I don’t think they can afford to keep so many families.  Judging by the quality of the breakfast, the budget is getting thin.  Like me.”

“Please,” said Julia. “The Space Union has more money than it knows what to do with.  Between the Mars contracts and the broadcast rights, we won’t be running out of granola anytime soon.”

#

The Interview Room—Sergei Putin—Astronaut Pilot

“Perhaps some people, they think that my father maybe had some influence to get me into the competition.”  Sergei shrugged and smiled.  “They can think what they want.  My country does not have so much influence with the Space Union.  I am an experienced cosmonaut—excuse me—astronaut.  They want us to say astronaut.  My wife, she is not an astronaut but she is a great surgeon.  Max will be a great pilot someday.  And Lili—“ He paused for a moment.  “Lili will surprise you.  We are a very strong team.”

#

Twelve families attended the briefing that morning.  The briefing room was an enormous indoor theater, with semi-circular projection screens and hundreds of comfortable seats, each equipped with a foldout console linked to the network.

As Lili sat down, Tao rushed to take the seat next to hers.  There were no assigned seats, but families tended to cluster together, usually alongside families that shared living space in the dormitories.  Mission Control moved them around often, to observe interactions between various families when confined to close quarters.

Lili looked behind her to the rows of empty seats, remembering some of the friends she had made earlier in the candidacy.  Friends whose families hadn’t made the last cut.

Carmen Tindall, Space Union’s Chief of Candidate Selection, approached the podium set to one side of the stage as the screens lit up with large photographs and animated diagrams of a conical spacecraft.  From the outside it looked a lot like its predecessors, the Orion and Dragon capsules that were still taking colonists and tourists to Mars.

“This is the Taurus deep space capsule,” said Carmen.  She was a small woman with a rigid posture and her hair was pulled back severely against her head.  She stood at the podium with her arms crossed behind her back.

“It looks simple from the outside, but once you peel back the skin and look inside, it’s very much different than the simple craft that took the early astronauts like Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepherd, and John Glenn into space.”

The image on the screen shifted to reveal a cutaway diagram of the Taurus.  Carmen pointed a small handheld laser at the diagram as she spoke.

“I will remind all Titan Exploration Candidates that you will be tested on the material covered by this lecture, both in written form and in practical application.”

Lili thought it was annoying how Carmen always said that.  Of course there would be a test.  There was always a test.

“Directly under the aluminum shell are several protective layers.  Who can tell me what is the greatest danger to an astronaut in deep space—I’d like one of the junior candidates to answer, please.”

Carmen never called them “children” or “kids”.  They were “junior candidates”, and their parents were “senior candidates”.

Axel Svensson raised his hand.  Carmen recognized him with a nod.

“Micro-meteorites,” he said, tripping a bit on the pronunciation.  Miles and Milly Bell, sitting in the same row, giggled under their hands.  They got stern looks from Carmen and from their parents.

“Incorrect,” said Carmen.  An unlucky meteor could jeopardize the mission, but the solar system is a big place.  The odds of being struck are very low.  Anyone else?”

Lili raised her hand while suppressing a grin.  She loved to show up the Svenssons.  They were always at the top of the rankings, and they made sure everyone knew about it.

“Go ahead, Lili,” said Carmen.

“Cosmic rays,” she said with satisfaction as Carmen nodded.

“Partially correct,” said Carmen.  Axel Svensson shot her a quick glance over his shoulder.  “Can you elaborate?” asked Carmen, still looking at Lili.

Lili was caught off guard.  She had read all about how cosmic rays were so dangerous outside of Earth’s atmosphere, away from its protective magnetic field.

Olivia Svensson, Axel’s younger sister, answered without being called on.  “High energy particles,” she said confidently.  “Cosmic rays are just one kind.”

“Correct,” said Carmen.  “The first attempt at a manned mission to Mars had to be aborted due to an SPE—a Solar Particle Event—that almost killed the crew.  So in the Taurus we added these layers,” she said, pointing with the laser.  “Copper, plastic, an active electrostatic shield, and waste water storage.  In addition, just in case you are in fact struck by a micro-meteorite, we added a self-healing gel mesh that can seal the craft in case of a puncture.”

“So, the Taurus capsule will protect you from the vacuum of space, but who can tell me the disadvantage of all those layers?”

“The weight,” answered Gottfrid Svensson, Axel and Olivia’s father.  He was tall with wispy yellow hair and smooth, pale skin.  Axel and Olivia very much took after him and their mother.  They were Swedish, and all spoke several languages perfectly.  Lili’s mother had explained to her how important it was to make friends with the other junior candidates, but Lili found it very difficult to hide that fact that she did not like the Svenssons.

“Correct,” said Carmen.  “The additional mass in the hull means less mass for things like water, and fuel, and scientific instruments.”

“And food,” said Helmut Schultz.  His wife shook her head and sighed.

“Food is in fact our biggest challenge,” said Carmen.  “For a mission that could, under certain scenarios, be extended to as much as two decades, storing sufficient calories to keep you all alive is a very complex problem to solve.  We will discuss that more when we cover the Saturn Station itself.”

Carmen continued as the screen shifted to an inside view of the Taurus.

“Each capsule has nine seats.  Four of them are sized for senior candidates, five for junior candidates.  When the day comes to launch into Earth orbit for assembly, each family will launch separately.  Who can tell me why we have the extra seats?”

Miles Bell raised his hand.  “In case one of the capsules breaks.  Then two families can share.”

“That’s correct,” said Carmen.  “The Saturn Station will consist of four connected capsules for three families, and each capsule can comfortably hold two families.  In an emergency, three families could fit into one capsule for a short duration.”

“For how long?” asked Sergei.  “How long would the oxygen last for that many people?”

“The Taurus capsule was designed for long term independent missions to deep space, so for a normal crew compliment it would last for months if fully supplied.  For maximum occupancy—we account for up to fourteen—it could last for several weeks, if nothing breaks down under the addition stress.”

Lili imagined being stuck in the capsule with a dozen people for weeks.  Not a pleasant thought, especially since they would not have room to build the private “hygiene station”.  She didn’t like the idea of going the bathroom in front of everyone.  She resolved to just hold it if she ever ended up in that situation.

One thing she wasn’t worried about was claustrophobia.  That had been one of their first tests when the candidacy started.  Everyone got closed up in a tiny little chamber with no door and no windows for several hours.  Eight families had been cut that day.

Lili’s family had passed the time telling each other jokes.  Her father Sergei was especially fond of English puns.  Lili remembered him telling one of her favorites.

“Hey Lili,” Sergei said, “Where did Napoleon keep his armies?”

Lili had pretended not to know the answer, even though she had heard her father tell the joke at least a hundred times.  She leaned over and looked past her mother at him, which was difficult since there was so little room between her face and the blank panel in front of her.  “I don’t know, Dad, where did he keep his armies?”

“In his sleevies!”  The joke sounded even more ridiculous when told in Sergei’s slavic accent, which he seemed to emphasize when he told jokes in English.

Her mother tolerated the jokes because she said they were a great way to learn the subtleties of a foreign language.  Lili couldn’t think of a family in the program that spoke only English, although it was the official language of the Space Union.

#

The Interview Room—Gottfrid Svensson—Entrepreneur

“I think this competition has gone on for too long,” said Gottfrid confidently, in smooth English.  “It is clear who is the best, and who are the amateurs.  It would be shocking, for me, for my family, for everyone who is watching, if the Svenssons are not selected.  I made my millions as a businessman, and I taught myself to fly as a hobby.  Yet I fly better than those who are pilots by career.  My children fly better than some of them.  And my wife is the most intelligent woman here.  There is no doubt that we will be the Alpha Team.  No doubt.”

#

After spending the morning listening to lectures about the capsule, they assembled that afternoon in Building 9, a large warehouse-like structure that featured replicas of spacecraft and space station components.  Several full size Taurus capsules lined one of the walls.  Outside each of the capsules were workstations brimming with display monitors.  Cables of all colors and sizes snaked along the floor.

The families took turns boarding the capsules for a quick tour to get acquainted with them, while the waiting families were shown the consoles that replicated what would be in Mission Control while they were in space.

A burly man with a close crew cut and a bushy mustache introduced himself to the families gathered around one of the capsules.

“My name is Jay Talbot, and I will be your CapCom for the day. CapCom stands for capsule communicator.  While you are on board the Taurus, my voice is the one you will hear.  Since the early days of NASA and other space programs, the tradition has been to put a fellow astronaut in charge of communications with the crew.  You will have the confidence of knowing that the person on the other end of the line has gone through all of the same training as you have.

I was the pilot for the very first Taurus launch that docked with the international space station.  Your simulation today will recreate that experience.”

#

The Interview Room—Jay Talbot—Astronaut Pilot

“I have to admit I am jealous of these candidates.  Super jealous.  I would love to be on this mission.  All the way to Saturn!  To Titan!  Just think of it.  It makes me regret my choice to remain a bachelor all these years.  Except the part where I’d have to get married.”  Jay laughed heartily and smoothed out his mustache.

#

Inside the capsule, large screens covered the view ports.  A high resolution video showed a blue sky with wispy clouds, a nearby shoreline, and far below, the launch facility at Cape Canaveral.

Jay’s voice came over the intercom.  “Now that you are all strapped in, we will set the countdown to T-Minus one minute.  A display centered over their seats featured a large digital clock in green letters that started to count down from 60 seconds.

Lili felt a rush of excitement in the last few moments before liftoff.  Even though it was a simulation, she let herself enjoy the experience as if it were real.  She could barely hear her father’s short exchanges with the CapCom as the sounds of engines roaring filled her helmet.  The horizon fell away in the images over the view ports and soon the clouds were gone, and only an even blue sky was visible.  The journey to space did not take long.  Jay instructed them to practice with the small touch screen control panels mounted to each seat.

“Remember that in a real launch, you would be experiencing gravity that is three times what is normal, from the acceleration of the booster engines.  There will also be a significant amount of vibration, so you have to be very deliberate and precise with your movements.

The sky outside slowly turned from an azure blue, to a deep navy, and then finally to black as their trajectory evened out to a parallel course over the earth.  Lili could see weather formations and land masses passing by below as the Taurus rotated so that the view port on her side of the capsule faced the Earth.

“Confirm booster separation,” said Sergei as a bright flash outside indicated that the booster rocket had been forcefully ejected away from the capsule.  Lili called up the rear view camera on her console and watched as the booster tumbled for a moment and then fired its engines to begin its controlled descent back to the launch site.

There was very little for them to do as they watched the small speck on the main display that was the space station grow steadily larger.  They were just starting their capsule training, so at this point Lili felt like they were more observers than real participants.

They appeared to be about 100 meters from the station when Jay’s voice came over the speakers.  “Ok, at this point we would like Sergei and Julia to exit the pilot and co-pilot seats.”

“Is the simulation over?” asked Julia in a puzzled voice.  “I though we were going through the entire docking procedure.”

“We are,” said Jay.  “You have just felt a violent shaking and heard a loud bang.  Something has gone wrong with the capsule.  Sergei and Julia, your suits have malfunctioned and you are both unconscious.  Please take a seat in the back for the duration.”

“Seriously?” asked Julia.  “This is our first time in the capsule, is this—“

Jim cut her off.  “I am disabling your comm link to the junior candidates.  Please unbuckle and move away from the controls.”

Julia and Sergei exchanged a look and shook their heads.  They complied with Jim’s request and awkwardly climbed back around Lili and Max.  Once they were out of the way, Jay came back on the line.

“Lili, you are now the mission commander.  Our telemetry shows that you are approaching the station at one half meter per second.”

“Should we abort?” asked Max.

“Not recommended,” said Jay.  “If the capsule is damaged, your reentry may be compromised.”

Lili had no idea what to do.  She panicked for a moment as she did some quick math in her head.  They only had a few minutes before they slammed into the station.  This was a test.  She should have seen it coming.  Another test.  If she failed, would her whole family be cut from the candidacy?

She had to get to the pilot’s seat to control the capsule, so she began to tug at her buckles.  She had help from the ground crew to get strapped in, and she realized that she hadn’t actually paid much attention when they explained how the mechanism worked.  She felt like she was tightening the straps instead of loosening them.  Her helmet made it almost impossible to see what she was doing, and the bulky suit limited the movement of her arms.

She was beginning to think she would never get free when Max reached over and twisted a large knob at the center of her chest.  She heard a satisfying metallic click and the straps fell away.

“Thanks Max,” she said as she scrambled over the seat back in from of her.

“What should I do?” he asked.

She stopped for a moment to consider.  She was the commander now.  Max was looking to her for guidance, but she could tell that he was itching to jump into the pilot’s seat.  He had always loved flying, and had idolized his father for being a fighter pilot more than for being an astronaut.

The station was not only getting closer, but it was drifting out of the front view, which meant that they were spinning off course.  She was wasting precious seconds.

“Max, go check on Mom and Dad.  Maybe there’s something you can do to fix their suits.” Was that the test?  If they could revive her father, then he could pilot the capsule.  She wasn’t sure what Max could actually do since they were just pretending to be unconscious.  Max looked from Lili to Sergei.  Sergei shrugged and tapped his helmet over his ear.

Max and Lili couldn’t hear it, but Jay admonished Sergei and Julia over a private channel to play along and not offer any assistance.

Max looked longingly at the pilot’s controls for a brief moment and then followed orders, hopping over to the last row of seats.  He began to dutifully check over their suits as Lili secured herself in her father’s chair, which was too big for her.  She took a moment to adjust the position of the controls.

“Life signs are stable,” Max announced.  “Suit pressure levels are very low, but so are levels outside the suit.  I think we lost atmosphere.  Don’t take your helmet off!”

Lili was actually considering it.  Operating in the suit was like trying to run under water.  All of her movements were slower and more clumsy than she needed them to be.

“Ok Lili, stay calm,” said Jay.  His voice had become crackly with static and she had a hard time understanding him.  She thought she heard him say something about the autopilot.  The original docking program had shut down after the incident.  The onboard systems were smart enough to analyze radar signals to re-establish a safe flight path.

Lili reached up to push the flight control button on the screen but her gloved fingers missed the mark and the life support system popped up instead.  She took a moment to register the flashing warnings about atmospheric pressure and oxygen levels inside the capsule and then cycled back to the main screen.  After a few more errant taps, she determined that the autopilot was offline permanently.  There was nothing she could do to bring it back up.

“Autopilot negative,” she reported.  She almost said “the autopilot’s not working” but she wanted to sound more like a grown-up.

“—manual control—out of time” she heard through a growing background of static.

She saw the station spin past the view port to her left, and then back into the forward facing video feed.  She put her hands on the controls and tried to remember the very brief amount of time she had spent at the controls of a similar craft in VR games.

She could rotate on the capsule’s axis, move it forwards and backwards, left or right, or swivel it from side to side.  She just had to remember which control did what.  She experimented gently with the stick in her right hand and managed to keep the station from slipping out of view.  But it was still spinning, so she twisted the control in her left hand, but then she ended up spinning twice as fast in the other direction.  “Small moves!” yelled Max from behind her.  “Don’t push too hard.”

Lili took a breath.  It’s just a game, she thought.  Stay calm.  She tried to convince herself that she was lying in bed with her VR goggles on, and the worst thing that could happen was that she would have to go back to her last save and try again.  It’s not real.  It’s just a simulation.  But it was real enough.  Her family had put more than six months into the candidacy so far.  She knew how much her parents wanted to be chosen.  How much Max wanted it.  How much did she want it?

The station was still growing larger and larger in the forward view.  She felt like she was getting ahead of the controls, but she didn’t know much about how to actually dock with the station.  She needed to slow down and give herself time to think, so she eased on the reverse thrusters, but then had to fight a few more seconds of spinning.

“One direction at a time,” said Max as he jumped into the seat next to her.  “And adjust the intensity with these,” he said, pulling back on a lever next to the right stick.  “You’re too jumpy.”

With Max’s help she finally stabilized around 20 meters from the station.  It looked like they were both hung frozen in space, but the view out the starboard view port showed the Earth racing by below.  The capsule was flying close formation with the station at thousands of miles per hour.

As she paused to regroup and take stock of the situation, she could hear Jay trying to get through to her despite the static.  “—intermittent—confirm your position”

“Steady at 20 meters”, said Lili.  She wasn’t sure if Jay could hear her.

“—fuel levels.  We show a warning in the aft—“

How was she supposed to check the fuel levels?

Max was standing in his seat so he could reach the screens suspended in front of them.  He punched a flashing button and a simple diagram of a fuel tank appeared.  It was only a quarter full and dropping.

“Why is it going down?” she asked Max.  “We aren’t even moving.”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “Maybe there’s a leak.”

“How do we fix it?”

“We can’t from in here,” he said.

“Can we go outside?  Do an EVA?”

Apparently Jay could hear them.  His voice cleared up for a second.  “No time for an EVA.  Dock now before the fuel runs out.”

Max quickly called up a screen that was meant for the docking procedure.  It combined video feeds from the capsule and the station to see the docking port from several directions.  Lili found it confusing.  She wished she just had a window in the front that she could see out of.  But the front, above their heads, was where the docking port was located.

“Get us moving forward before the fuel in that tank runs out,” said Max.  “There’s plenty of fuel left in the other tanks to maneuver.”

She eased forward on the stick and immediately alarms on the docking screen started to flash.

“Too fast!” said Max.

She eased back and then turned to him.  “You should be flying.  Take control.”

Max didn’t hesitate.  He had a hard time reaching both the left and right side controls at the same time, and he had to kneel awkwardly in the seat.  He was shorter than Lili by at least twenty centimeters. But he quickly stabilized their movement so the warning flashes stopped.  She watched as the fuel level in the aft tank ran all the way to zero.  Red lines lit up around diagrams of controls that would no longer respond to Max’s commands.  He seemed to be unfazed as he fine tuned the capsule’s motion and lined up cross hairs in the main monitor.

Max had an exultant look on his face as they passed the one meter mark.  Everything seemed to be lined up perfectly but at the last second, the cross hairs drifted off to to the right.  Max gasped as his right hand slipped and he tried to make a last second adjustment, but it was too late.

The docking cone made contact off center with a loud clanking sound, ricocheted off the docking ring, and the capsule’s remaining forward motion took it into the station.  They spun wildly as they careened off the hull and into an array of solar panels.  The screens all went black.

A moment later, Jim appeared on the monitor.  “Sorry guys, but the Putin family didn’t survive this one.  Climb out of there and let’s get you debriefed.”

#

The Interview Room—Maximillian Putin—Junior Candidate

“I was so close!” Max said dramatically, grabbing his hair with both hands and leaning back in his seat.  “I wish I could go again.  I would totally nail it this time.  It was still fun though.”

He flashed a playful grin at the camera.  “I’m not really mad at Lili.  She did her best.  I wish I was as tall as her.  Can I go now?  Or should I talk some more?”

#

The families were crowded into a conference room on the second floor of Building 9 after the simulation was completed.  They had all been put through the same trial.  Carmen and Jay stood at the front of the room sharing the podium.  There was a good deal of muttering among the adults, who were obviously not happy.

“It wasn’t fair,” said Julia in a half whisper to Anita Bell, a chemist who was married to Timothy Bell.  Anita and Timothy were both strongly built—they had met as volunteer firefighters—but they were otherwise very different.  She was quiet and generally went unnoticed, while her husband was the epitome of a cocky sports jock turned pilot.  He had very dark skin and dark curly hair that he kept in a neat, squared-off high and tight.  She was a Latina with light brown hair.  Their children, Miles and Milly, had beautiful chocolate skin, and seemed to be perfectly balanced between their parents’ extremes.  On the rare occasion that the Svenssons did not top the charts in athletic competitions, it was the Bells who beat them.

“We were totally unprepared for this,” said Julia.  “How do they expect 10 year olds to be able to do something like that?”

She was interrupted by Carmen clearing her throat pointedly.  The lights dimmed and the projector screen lit up with a video of an actual Taurus docking maneuver.

“We threw a very difficult scenario at you today,” she said.  “In particular, we threw it at the junior candidates.  For the most part, we were very pleased with your performance.”

“But we crashed,” blurted out Max.  Then he realized Carmen had said “for the most part.  “Was I the only one?”

“No, candidate Max, you weren’t the only one.  In fact, you and Lili actually came closer than most.”

“You couldn’t possibly have expected a successful docking in that situation,” said Julia.

“No, we didn’t,” said Jay.  “We expected you to fail.  We expected most of you to spin off into space.  What we wanted to see was how you reacted.  We were pleasantly surprised at how many of you managed to make contact with the docking ring.”

“We were testing your reactions to a chaotic situation, for which you had no training.  We can’t predict everything that will happen between here and Titan.  We will train you for everything we can think of, but the true test of an astronaut is how they handle the unexpected.”

“Did anyone dock successfully?” asked Sergei.

“Yes,” said Jay.  “Actually, two families did it.  Congratulations to junior candidates Svensson.”  He motioned to Axel and Olivia. “And the Bells.”

Julia looked at Anita with her mouth hanging open.  Anita shrugged.

Lili was sitting behind Axel and Olivia, so she couldn’t see their faces.  But she was sure they were both sporting smug grins.

“And now I’d like everyone to get comfortable,” said Carmen.  “We’re going to play back every moment from all twelve families, and we’re going to critique every decision you made.”

Lili put her hands over her face and heard groans from several other children.

Zhang Tao Schultz looked like she might bolt for the door.  “In front of everyone?”  Apparently she had not performed very well during her test.

“Yes, candidate Tao.  Get used to it.  If you are selected for the mission, everything you do for the duration will be under a microscope.  Every action you take will be judged.  It goes with the territory.”

The debriefing was brutal.  A team of evaluators was in the back row of the conference room with their note pads at the ready.  They shadowed the families everywhere.  Every time Carmen or Jay pointed out a mistake, a bad decision, a missed detail, they scratched at their pads.  Every time one of the kids hung their head or started to cry, they scratched at their pads.  They were an ever present force that constantly reminded the families that they were being judged.

Two families had decided to abort the docking and re-enter the atmosphere.  They had both correctly programmed the capsule to enter at a safe angle, and if the craft had not been seriously damaged, they might have made it back to the Pacific Ocean safely.  Jay pointed out the screens where it was obvious how badly damaged the heat shielding was.  And then he played a video of what looked like a fiery meteor burning up in the atmosphere.

As difficult as it was, Lili was learning a lot.  And after she watched how some of the other kids had completely panicked and lost control of the capsule, she didn’t feel so bad about how she had done.

When it was her family’s turn on the screen, Carmen paused the video at the moment she had ordered Max to check on their parents.

“Why did you make that decision?”  Everyone in the room turned to look at her.  She suddenly felt very self conscious and her heart started to beat loudly in her chest.  Her voice cracked a bit when she started to talk and she cleared her throat.

“I almost told Max to be the pilot,” she said.  “But then I changed my mind.”

“Why?” Asked Carmen.

“Well, I—wait, why did I change my mind, or why did I want Max to be pilot?”

“Both.”

“Max is good at flying.  At least in games.  In VR.  Better than me.”

“So why not let him fly?”

“But I did, later.”

“But not right then.  Why not?”  Carmen was unrelenting.  She never accepted a candidate’s first answer.  Even if it was correct.  She always dug deeper.  And then kept digging until you ran out of easy answers.  Then you really had to start thinking.

Lili thought about it for a moment.  “Because Jay—I mean Mr—Astronaut Talbot—he told me I was commander.  So I thought it was my responsibility.”

“A commander is just that—in command.  That doesn’t mean the commander has to do everything himself.  Or herself.”

“So was I wrong?”

“Well, let’s fast forward a bit.”  Carmen toggled the controls on the podium and moved forward to the moment Lili relinquished the controls as they approached the station.  She resumed normal motion and they watched as Max struggled to stabilize the capsule.  “Max is obviously a capable pilot, but why did he fail?”

“I couldn’t really reach the controls,” said Max.  “But still, I thought I had it.”

“You were forced to basically fly one half of the controls at a time,” said Jay.  “If you had firm control over both sticks at once, I think you would have succeeded.”

“So I should have kept control?” Asked Lili.

“At that moment?  Yes.” Carmen rewound back to when Lili was struggling to stop the spinning.  “The first time you made the decision you had no idea how you would perform at the controls.  But you knew your brother had more skill than you.  You also did not know he would struggle to reach the controls. At that moment, you should have ordered him to be pilot.  But I do want to commend you for considering your parents—that was actually very smart.  If it were possible to revive them, this would have been a great decision.  You were the only junior candidate to think of that.”

“Hey, that’s not fair,” said Helmut Schultz.  Jing came to check on us while Tao and Niklas took control of the capsule.

“She only did that because she had nothing else to do, and even then it was too late.  You were seconds away from station before she thought of it.” Carmen turned back to Lili.

“So, at first, I was wrong to be pilot, and then later I was wrong again?”

“Yes.  Later, you had proved that you could fly well enough, and Max was a capable co-pilot.  You should have stayed at the controls.”

#

The Interview Room—Liliana Putin—Junior Candidate

Lili sighed.  “Being an astronaut is hard.”  She self consciously pulled at a strand of hair that had fallen in front of her face and tucked it behind her ear.  “I used to watch videos of people on Mars in their space suits, or blasting off from the Cape, and it looked like so much fun.  This isn’t fun.  And then there’s Olivia.”  Lili growled.  “I just want to beat her.  If she makes it and I don’t, I’m just going to die.”

#

It was getting very late when they finished reviewing the Svenssons’ video.  Aside from consistent bickering between Axel and Olivia, and arguing over who would be pilot, their performance had been almost flawless.  Olivia noticed every warning light and seemed to be directly plugged into the simulator.  She didn’t miss anything.  Axel took to the controls like he was born with them in his hand.  By the time the docking clamps eased into place, it felt like an effortless, routine exercise.  This was in sharp contrast to the previous family, the Bells.  Miles and Milly had succeeded, but it had been a barely controlled chaos.  The outcome seemed like it was more luck than skill.  And yet they had come out alive.

Lili was hungry, but mostly she was tired.  She wanted nothing more than to stagger back to the dormitory and crawl into her bed.  The next day was Sunday, and they usually let everyone have a bit of a break.  She looked forward to sleeping in.  Her hopes faded as Carmen stepped off the stage for a moment and then came back in carrying a large box.

“We will assemble at 0800 tomorrow morning,” she said as she started pulling out a dozen similar packages from the box.  They looked like electrical components that were all badly damaged, or not quite complete.  “Before you go, each family will come up and take one of these navigation consoles.”

“I don’t like the sound of this,” Sergei sighed as he got up and climbed the stairs to the stage.  He picked up one of the consoles.  It was broken in half and badly scorched.  Wires hung out of it randomly and it seemed to be missing a few parts.

“Full schematics for every component of the Taurus capsule have been copied to the workstations in your dormitory.  When we meet tomorrow morning, we expect each family to have repaired the console to full working order, or to have constructed a new one.  You may only use spare parts and equipment that will exist on board the Christiaan.”

Sergei looked at his watch.  “It’s after midnight already,” he said.

“Then you better get busy,” said Carmen.  She and Jay left the stage.

#

The Interview Room—Carmen Tindall—Chief of Candidate Selection

“I am hard on them.  I admit it.  I’m not supposed to be nice.  I’m supposed to get them ready.  I’m supposed to make sure we make the right decision.  I may not be making any friends here, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if we sent a family that wasn’t prepared and something went wrong.  There will be very, very little we can do from Earth to help them, aside from launch resupply missions every few months, and give advice.”

She crossed her arms and stared motionless at the camera.  “I’m going to make sure we send the finest example of humanity on this mission.  No compromises.”

#

As they rode the shuttle back to the dormitory, they passed the Bells, who were trotting in single file along the sidewalk.  Building 9 was just over a kilometer away from the dormitory, so when they had went outside to find that the shuttles had not yet been summoned, a few families decided to run back to save time.  It had obviously backfired on them, and Sergei commented that the delay with the shuttles may have been intentional, just to see who would take the bait.

Sergei, Lili, Max, Jing, Tao, and Helmut were all huddled around their dining table when Timothy Bell entered with Miles and Milly in tow.  They seemed none the worse for their jog, and were breathing normally.  They were all in excellent shape, but seemed a bit harried by being behind everyone else.  Timothy’s eyes widened a bit when he saw the two broken consoles splayed out on the table.

“Are you all working together on this?  I thought it was a family challenge.”

“They didn’t say we couldn’t cooperate,” said Helmut.

Tim considered them for a moment, then looked at Miles and Milly.  “The Bells are going to tackle this one alone.  I think you all might lose some points for not doing the same.”

“Or you might lose points for not working with others,” said Helmut.  “If you get stuck, don’t hesitate to call.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Tim.  Helmut shook his head as the Bells continued down the hallway to their family’s quarters.  He knew Tim was too proud to ever ask for help.  They would solve it themselves if they had to stay up all night doing it.  A moment later, Anita Bell hurried by with a large box overflowing with parts.  Soon, after, she was followed by Julia and Min with similar boxes.

“This is all we get,” said Julia, dumping out her box on the far end of the table.  “This and a few dozen spools of material for the 3D printers.”

“It looks like we’ll have to fabricate the casing, at least this side of it,” said Min, holding up two pieces of hard plastic together, lining the up along a messy crack where the casing had cracked in half.

“Do we have any glue?” asked Lili.  “Why do we need to make a new one?”

“Glue won’t work,” said Niklas, not looking up from the tangle of wires that he was straightening out in front of him on the table.  “It will just break again when someone puts weight on the handles.”

Lili stared at him.  “Why would anyone put weight on these handles?  Actually, why does the console have handles at all?” Lili looked at the video screen in the kitchen where a diagram of the inside of the Taurus displayed a cut-out view of the console, which was mounted above in the wall adjacent to the co-pilot’s chair.

“Because in zero gravity, you have to have something to hold on to when you’re floating around the capsule.”  Niklas still didn’t look up from the wires, which were starting to line up in a neat row.

“Niklas is right,” said Julia.  “Remember our ride on the Vomit Comet?”

“Don’t remind me,” said Helmut, holding his stomach.  The Vomit Comet was the name of the zero-gravity simulator used by NASA to train astronauts, and sometimes by movie studios to make it look like actors were in space.  It was a large aircraft that flew in a high, arcing parabola, which gave the occupants a few seconds of weightlessness.  This process was repeated dozens of times during the flight.  Several families had been cut due to their extreme vulnerability to motion sickness.  Helmut struggled with the challenge, but had just managed to keep his lunch down.

“If we can find the engineering schematics for the console, it shouldn’t be too hard to print a new facing,” said Julia.  In fact, I think that’s something the kids could handle while we sort out the electronics.  I wish Tim had decided to join us.  This is right up his alley.”  Tim Bell was an electrical and mechanical engineer.  After an all-star college football career, he had flown fighters for the Air Force, and then designed avionics systems for a major defense contractor, while also doubling as a test pilot.

“They would need the CAD program on the main workstation, though.  We’ll need that for analyzing the circuit diagrams,” said Sergei.

“We can just use VR,” said Jing.

“Yeah, no problem,” said Tao.  “We’ll be in our room.”

Sergei looked puzzled.  “VR?  Seriously?  I thought that was just for games.”

“It is,” said Min.  “But there are 3D design elements in those games that are more complex than that old CAD program.  They can import the plans for the Taurus and then export components to the printers.”

“But how do they manipulate the models without a keyboard and mouse?”

“Have you ever actually played any of those games, Sergei?” asked Min.

“Well—no, actually.  I haven’t.”

Max followed Tao and Jing, cupping the broken pieces of the console facing to his chest.  Niklas remained with the adults.  He was holding a bundle of wires and staring intently at a connector.  It looked like someone had ripped the wires loose with their teeth.  “Dad, can you find me some wire strippers?” he asked.  “And that thing that shows   where the colors go?”

“Yes,” answered Helmut.  “The pinout diagram.  What’s that, an RJ45?”

Niklas shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It’s got 8 wires, and they go in a little rectangle.  The red and orange ones gots ripped out so I’m not sure where to put them.”

“Does he need help with that?” Julia asked Min.

“No,” replied Min.  “To be honest, I think we could all go to sleep and Niklas would have this sorted out by himself within an hour.”

Julia cocked her head skeptically at Min, but Min shrugged.  “This is his thing.  There’s nothing in our house he hasn’t taken apart and put back together.  If only I could get him to make his bed and eat his vegetables.”

By 3 AM, they had printed out the facings and reconstructed the damaged cables.  they were feeling confident after running a few data transmission tests by plugging the cables into the workstation.  All that was left to do was wait for the printouts to cool, so they sent the kids to bed.

#

The Interview Room—Julia Bledsoe Putin—Surgeon

“I don’t think I can put into words how much I want this.  I can’t even tell you why I want it so bad.  I think I want it for my kids more than for myself.  To see them be a part of history, to be a name everyone recognizes.  To see the rings of Saturn with their own eyes.  There are so many reasons.  During these challenges I have a hard time concentrating on the task at hand, because I can’t stop thinking about what we will miss out on if we fail.  Which is ironic, because being distracted makes it more likely that we’ll fail.  I think we did fine on this challenge, though.  The kids came together like a real team tonight.”

#

The second pot of coffee was already half depleted as the Putins and Schultzes finished breakfast.  Their repaired consoles were neatly boxed up and ready for the short ride back to Building 9.  Niklas looked at his wristwatch and said “Miles just messaged me.  He says they didn’t sleep at all, and they’re having trouble with their console.”

“Uh-oh,” said Helmut, scraping the last of his yogurt out of his bowl diligently.  “There’s not much time left.”

“Can I, maybe, go help?” asked Niklas.

Helmut looked at Min.  She shrugged and said, “I don’t think they would accept the help, to be honest.”

“Even if it meant failing?” Helmut put his bowl in the sink.  “Come on, Niklas.  Let’s go see your friend.”

After winding their way through a series of maze-like corridors, they reached the Bells’ common area, where the family was clustered around the table.

“How’s it going?” asked Helmut in a friendly voice.

Tim looked annoyed.  “We got this,” he said.

“We need to board the shuttle in 20 minutes.”

“I’m aware of the time, Helmut.”

Milly was slumped in her seat, a cold bowl of uneaten oatmeal sitting in front of her.  Miles was holding half of their console in one hand while rubbing his eyes with the other.

“We almost have it,” said Anita calmly.  The electronics test out Ok.  We just can’t fit these last two pieces together.  I think it was a flaw in the 3D printout.  They just don’t quite line up.”

Tim carefully bundled a strand of wires and tucked it into a recess in the larger half of the console that he was holding.  He took the other half from Miles and twisted it into a slot on the back of the facing and then pressed it firmly.  He let go and it held together for a moment but then the smaller half fell.  Milly, despite half closed eyes, snatched it from the air before it hit the ground.

Tim took the piece from Milly and slapped the components down on the table, then leaned back in his chair shaking his head.  He crossed his arms and said “We’re so close.”

“Do you have a file?” Niklas asked Miles quietly.

“A file?”

“Yeah, like a metal file.  The long pointy one with three sides.”

Miles pivoted in his chair and dug through a drawer under the coffee maker, which was still on but completely empty.  The smell of burnt coffee was almost stronger than the smell of body odor.  None of the Bells had had time to shower.

Miles handed Nicklas the file and then Niklas sat down at the table.  He looked at Tim, then Anita.  “Can I?” he asked as he reached for the console.

Tim rubbed his face, which was rough from not shaving.  He looked at Anita, who nodded.  He let out a long breath and said, “Fine, but I don’t think that file is going to help.”

Niklas picked up the front facing of the console, threaded the file through one of the rectangular openings, and made two quick back and forth scrapes.  He then picked up the other half and neatly clipped them together.  “Ok, all good,” he said, then got up from the table.  “I’m going back to our rooms. I need to pee before we get on the shuttle.”

Anita patted him on the head as he left.  Tim sat with his mouth hanging open.

“Don’t feel bad,” Helmut said sympathetically.  “All I did was fetch tools for him last night.”

#

The Interview Room—Zhang Niklas Schultz—Junior Candidate

“I’ve always liked to build things.  When I was 5 I built a tower of blocks in the living room so high that it touched the ceiling.  I had to make a robot arm out of legos just to reach the top.  And then my Dad came in and it tipped over and collapsed right on him.  He fell over and pretended to be dead and it kind of freaked me out, but then when I came to check on him he jumped up and started tickling me.  We laughed so hard, but then Mom came in and yelled at us to clean up the mess.”

#

Most of the adults gathered in the conference room at Building 9 were clutching coffee mugs, while several of the children leaned against their parents, snoozing.  Carmen and Jay were accompanied by a technician with a laptop and diagnostic equipment.  They called up the families one by one to examine their repaired consoles.

The Putins, the Schultzes, and the Bells all passed.  The technician complained about an intermittent connection when the Svenssons hooked up to their console, but ultimately passed them.  A few families brought jumbled piles of plastic, wires, tape, and glue that barely resembled the original, but somehow performed as expected.  Three families failed completely.

Lili looked over at Priya, a girl who was a few years older than her, one of the oldest in the competition.  She was openly crying.  Her father sat stone-faced with his arms crossed, and her mother covered her eyes with her hands.  They had also failed the capsule simulation the day before.

Carmen dismissed the technician and then stood behind the podium.  “We can’t predict what will happen to you on your voyage to Titan,” she said.  “If something goes wrong, the best we can do is give you advice, with a delay that gets longer and longer the further you are from Earth.  And if something goes wrong with communications, you will be completely on your own to solve the problem yourself, with the tools you have at hand.  Challenges like this,” she said, pointing to the arrangement of consoles on the table, “are routine in space.”

She stepped away from the podium and stood in the center of the stage.  “I have a question.  How many of you tackled this challenge alone?  With no help from other families?”

Lili looked at Axel and Olivia.  They quickly raised their hands along with their parents.  Priya and her family sheepishly did the same.  Miles Bell started to raise his hand, but his father stopped him, shaking his head.

“And now those families that cooperated, please raise your hands.”

Timothy Bell raised his hand with a quick nod to Helmut and Niklas.  Lili noticed that the survey roughly followed success and failure on the project.  Those who had went it alone, aside from the Svenssons, had fared poorly.

“While it’s true that this is a competition,” said Carmen, “it is also true that we are not sending one family on the mission.  We are sending three.  In order to succeed, you will have to draw from a wide variety of skills, experience, and training.  You will have to use every resource at your disposal to succeed.  To survive.”

She paused and looked out at them for a moment.  The room was silent except for a sniffle from Priya.  Carmen walked back over to the podium.  “Please report to the dormitories.  We have no further activities scheduled until this evening at 1900 hours, in the main training hall.”

Helmut exhaled deeply and patted Niklas on the thigh.  “Let’s go back and get some sleep.”

The Bells approached them as a group.  Timothy reached out his hand to Niklas and Niklas shook it.  “Thanks for the assist, young man,” said Tim.  “You really came through for us.”  He also shook Helmut’s hand.

As they filed out of the conference room, Olivia walked next to Lili.  “Looks like we won again,” said Olivia.  Walking next to each other, Lili and Olivia were remarkably similar.  Both were tall and blonde, although Lili seemed a bit thinner and more gawky.

“What do you mean, you won?” asked Lili in an annoyed voice.

“We beat the challenge on our own.  We were the only family to do so.  You needed help.”

“Didn’t you hear Carmen?  She said were were supposed to work together.  You probably lost points.”

Olivia shook her head.  “No, you were only supposed to ask for help if you needed it.  We didn’t need it.  And besides, I heard about Niklas.  I bet you just went to bed and slept while he did all the work.

“I did not sleep,” protested Lili.  “At least not at first.  I helped with the 3D printer.”  Lili admitted to herself that she really had not done very much at all.  Zhang and Tao had done the designs in VR, while Lili’s brother Max had operated the printers.  Lili had ferreted out spools of materials from the storage cabinets.

Olivia gave her a skeptical look and then moved forward to join her parents and Axel.  Lili made sure to board the second shuttle after she saw the Svenssons climb onto the first one.

#

The Interview Room—Timothy Bell—Test Pilot

“I have to admit, it was a blow to my pride,” said Timothy, not looking squarely into the camera.  “We succeeded.  We turned in a functional console.  But—at the same time—we failed.  We failed twice, if you think about it.  First, we tried to go it alone.  Then, we weren’t able to solve it ourselves.  That doesn’t happen to me very often.  It doesn’t happen to the Bell family very often.”

He straightened up and looked into the camera.  “But you know what?  When we get knocked down, we get right back up.  We’re still in this.  We’re the Bells.  We’re going to win this thing.”

#

In the center of the dormitories there was an open space, 30 meters across, with a skylight several stories above that allowed filtered sunlight to fall on a patch of grass with a few benches and playground equipment.  It wasn’t often that the families were given free time, and the adults encouraged the children to get out and stretch their legs.

Max usually complained that he would rather spend time in VR, but Lili enjoyed the sunshine.  She knew that if her family was chosen for the journey, they would go many years with the sun growing smaller and smaller in the viewports, and she would have more than enough time for VR.  She often sat with Tao, Jing, and Milly behind one of the benches where a small bed of flowers grew; blue-eyed grass, and butterfly pea, and tropical sage.

Axel and Olivia Svensson were on the monkey bars, timing each other to see how fast they could swing across.  Miles Bell was playing with them, beating both of their times by skipping several bars at a time.

Other children were squealing as they chased each other around the courtyard, forgetting for at least a few moments the stress and gravity of their current situation.

“Do you want to go to Titan?” Lili asked Jing.

“Of course I do,” said Tao.  “Why would I be here if I didn’t?”

“No, I mean, we all want to be astronauts and go on a mission, but Titan?  Wouldn’t you rather go to Mars?  They have a school there now.  And you can put on a suit and go outside and walk around.”

“But Mars is dry and boring.  Titan has lakes and oceans.  There might even be life there.”

“There’s life on Mars,” protested Tao.

“Just a bunch of old bacteria, and that didn’t even count, they have the same kind of DNA as we do.”

“What do you mean it didn’t count?  It was life!  Growing on Mars!”

“It was probably just an asteroid or something that spread it from Earth.  If there’s life on Titan, it will be totally different.”  Jing absently picked at a blue flower with small, delicate petals.

Lili leaned back and looked up toward the glass ceiling, closing her eyes at the brightness of the sun.  “But if there’s life, we might never find it.  We won’t even be able to get out of the capsule when we land.”

“What if there are giant sea monsters in the ocean?” Tao asked, opening his mouth wide and grabbing Lili playfully with clawed hands.

Lili swatted him away.  “There won’t be any sea monsters.  Maybe turtles.  I bet there are millions and millions of turtles, swimming all around Titan.  Purple ones and pink ones.”

Tao laughed.  “Pink ones!  Well, my sea monster is going to eat all the pink ones.”

They looked up to see Olivia standing next to the bench, staring at them with her hands on her hips.

“You are all so immature,” she said.  “Don’t you think you should be doing something more useful with your time?”

“We’re socializing,” said Tao.  “My mom said it’s good to socialize.  If we’re going to spend half of our life living in space together, we need to be friends.  Here, sit down.”  Tao patted the open spot of grass next to her.  Olivia hesitated for a moment, then sat down.

“Are we friends?” she asked quietly.

“If you want to be,” said Tao.

Lili tried to turn her face into a stone mask.

Olivia picked a flower, a trumpet-shaped one with bright red petals. Its leaves filled the air with a hint of aroma that smelled like home cooking.  “Do you know what species this is?” she asked.

“Um—“ said Jing, scrunching up his mouth, “Reddus flowerus?”

“No, silly,” Olivia said, throwing the flower at him.  “It’s a Salvia coccinea.  It’s native to Florida.”

“What’s its real name?” asked Jing.

“That is its real name.”

“I mean the name normal humans call it.  People in Florida don’t sit around in their palm trees, drinking pineapple juice, saying, ‘my, what a lovely Slovenly cochlea’.” He pretended to drink, holding out his pinky.  Everyone laughed.

Salvia coccinea,” repeated Olivia.  “I think they call it a tropical sage.  Or a blood sage.”

The sun was climbing higher in the sky over the courtyard, and most of the children had peeled back the top half of their jump suits and tied the arms around their waists.  It was a cloudless day but hazy with humidity.

A group of children was sitting on the low, curved branch of a live oak when their parents called them in.  Priya was among them.  “But mom, it’s not even lunch time yet.”

Priya’s mother looked annoyed.  “Come in at once,” she said, curtly motioning with her hand.  “And bring your brother with you.”

Another boy was called in at the same time from another doorway.  Lili thought his name was Caleb, but she wasn’t sure.  He was very shy, and rarely talked to the other children or joined them in play.

Lili flattened out the wrist of her left sleeve and looked at the digital display weaved into the cloth, to see if she had a message from her mother.  She was worried that she would also be called in soon, no doubt to be subjected to another trial.  The message log was blank.

“Let’s go grab that branch,” she said.  “It’s getting hot.”

“The sun feels good,” said Olivia.  “I’m going to stay here.”  She laid back in the grass and put her arm over her eyes to shield them.

Jing got up to follow Lili, but Tao stayed where he was.  She looked from Lili to Olivia and then said “I’m going to get some more sun, too.”  He laid back next to Olivia and Lili saw Olivia smile for a moment, though she did not look up or move her arm.

Cameras mounted to the walls of the courtyard hummed as they pivoted, ever watchful.

#

The Interview Room—Zhang Tao Schulz—Junior Candidate

“There are lots of pretty girls in the competition.  Lili is pretty.  My sister is pretty,  I guess, but she doesn’t count.  Olivia is the prettiest, though.  That was cool when she came and sat with me today.  But she’s kind of—I don’t know—sort of mean sometimes.  She makes me feel like a real dork when I’m around her.  I try to be funny but I just sound like an idiot.  Lili doesn’t even laugh at my jokes when Olivia is around.  Lili usually likes my jokes.”

#

That night when they gathered in the conference room, it was obvious that their numbers had shrunk.  Carmen stood at the podium, rigid and neatly groomed as always, with her hands behind her back.  She clicked on her microphone and a moment of static was enough to hush the buzz of nervous whispers.

“Today we released three families,” she said, wasting to time in getting to the point.  “The Carsons, the Mendez family, and the Durranis.”  She paused for a moment and Lili realized that Priya had been cut.  She was at the same time happy to still be in the competition but also sad for her friend, and also for the others who were no doubt packing their things and saying goodbye to their dreams of being the first humans to venture beyond the orbit of Mars.

“And so you are now nine teams.  The next two months will be the most intense combination of training and competitive evaluations that you have yet experienced.  At the end of those two months, there will be a final cut.  Three more families will be sent home.  Of the remaining six, three will be chosen as primaries for the mission.  The other three will be designated as backups and will undergo the same training regimen as the primaries.  The backups will not only stay on during the preparation phase before launch, but will have the option to remain as CapComs and simulator crew for the duration of the mission.  The final six families will be guaranteed, in one way or another, a full career with the Space Union.”

#

The Interview Room.  Manoj Durrani—Surgeon.

“We will hold our heads up high.  Of all the peoples on Earth, only a few thousand applied.  And here we are, in the top twelve.  Of course we are disappointed.”  Manoj looked down at his hands and said quietly, “Of course.”  He sighed and looked down for moment longer and then looked back at the camera.  “We are Durrani.  We are very brave.  And very proud.”

#

The next two months passed in a blur for Lili.  The intensity of the program never let up, but nonetheless it began to settle into a routine.  There were hours of classroom lectures every day, and written tests, and physical exercises.  She had always been active in sports, but she had never before felt the competitive spirit wake up in her like she did when she was pitted against one of the other girls at her age, especially Olivia Svensson.  Maybe she was being too paranoid, but the constant fretting of her parents at night as they reviewed and compared scores from the day’s events kept her always mindful of the game they were trying to win.

It was the social aspect of the selection process that complicated everything.  When there was a written test, the scores were posted for all to see.  When there was a physical contest, it was usually very obvious who finished first and who finished last.  And mechanical challenges were also obvious: the device either worked or it didn’t.  But where were the social scores?  They never saw a friend count posted on the candidate intranet.  They never saw the results of the psychological exams that probed into their emotions and motivations.  They never got to see the staff’s reaction to their interviews.

Lili was getting thoroughly annoyed with the interviews.  She knew that they were a big part of the funding for the mission, but she hated the thought of being on national—worldwide—video streams.  The interviewers pestered her endlessly to open up and reveal her feelings about what had happened that day, or what Olivia had said to her during lunch, or if her brother annoyed her when he showed off his superior piloting skills.

In a normal competition, sportsmanship mattered, to a certain extent.  But what really counted was winning.  Who cares if the other team likes you or not?  But she heard repeatedly from her parents that the most important question to ask about an astronaut was “how do they get along with their crew-mates?”

Normally, the Space Union staff did not give them much advance warning of their schedules. The candidates never knew when they would get time off, or when they would be thrown into a brutal physical challenge—sometimes they were cut off in the middle of a meal and forced to suit up for EVA simulations, or report to the track to run a timed mile with a full stomach.  But on a brisk Tuesday afternoon in early December, Carmen told them that they would have three full days off to prepare for a weekend of trials.  They even called it “The Trials”, as if they were jedi padawans.

#

The Interview Room—Miles Bell—Junior Candidate

“When they said we would have a few days off, I was looking forward to catching up on my sleep.  But you know my Dad.  We’re working harder than normal.  He had us up at zero-dark-thirty for calisthenics.  The only other family up that early was the Svenssons.  I saw Niklas and Max in the kitchen around 9 AM, and they were still rubbing sleep out of their eyes.  They asked me to play some VR with them after breakfast but my family had time reserved in the simulator.  I wish I could relax a little bit sometimes.  My Dad says we can’t relax if we want to win.”

#

Carmen gathered them very early Saturday morning in the conference room, where she presented what looked like a large bulletin board on the view screens.  On it were detailed, hour-by-hour schedules for all candidates throughout Saturday and Sunday.  After a quick glance Lili saw that there was little if any time left over for sleep.  She scanned the lists looking for her family’s name and noticed that many of the trials were assigned to individual candidates, not whole families.

Then she saw a line that set the tone for the rest of the day:

Saturday.  0700.  EVA Repair Task.  Building 9.  Liliana Putin, Olivia Svensson.

“The schedules on display here have all been emailed to you.  It is your individual responsibility to be on time for each event.  As you have no doubt noticed, you will be evaluated separate from your team members for much of the schedule.  Junior candidates take note—you will not be able to always rely on the senior candidates to make sure you are on time.  Shuttles are waiting outside to take you where you need to go.  Good luck to you all.”

The remainder of the schedule didn’t mean much to Lili.  She thought it through and reached the conclusion that it was between her and Olivia to decide the fate of their families.  If she won, her family would be selected to go to Titan.  If she lost, they would get cut and it would be all her fault.

Olivia seemed to sense it, too.  They did not speak as they filed out of the conference room and made their way to the shuttles.  Neither girl showed a sign of nervousness.  They both made a point to sit next to each other on the shuttle, for some reason that Lili could not place.

When they arrived at Building 9, Jay Talbot was waiting for them in the center of the large room, where a replica of the Christiaan station had been built.  The station consisted of a central hub with large tubes that connected to the four Taurus capsules.  The capsules would spin in a circle, while perpendicular to them, a rocket provided propulsion.  Lili had to do some mental gymnastics to comprehend the haphazard collection of replicas, since they were not connected as they would be in space.  The assembled station was not actually very attractive, and looked nothing like the elegant star ships in science fiction movies.

EVA, or Extra Vehicular Activity, was not something the Space Union ever wanted children to have to do in space.  But they would be in space for so long, that by the time the mission was over, they would be adults, and it would be their responsibility.  So they had constructed small suits for them and taught them the basics.  Lili assumed that she would have to race Olivia as both of them struggled to complete a task, but Jay shocked them both.

“After we get you settled into the suits and zero-G harness,” he said, pointing to the large, spider-like contraption hanging from the ceiling.  “You will work together to replace a faulty cable.  The task cannot be completed alone, and there is a strict time limit due to your supply of oxygen.”

Olivia and Lili looked at each other.

“You will each be issued the same score on this challenge, regardless of your individual performance.  This one is all about teamwork.”

“Ok,” said Olivia.  “Let’s do this.  High five,” she said, turning to Lili and putting up her hand.

Lili had a million thoughts go through her head at once.  Work together?  With Olivia?  When so much was on the line?  And a high five? Really?  She hesitated.  She didn’t want to look like she wasn’t a team player.  But what if Olivia was going to pull one of those tricks where she moved her hand at the last second and said ‘too slow’, like her brother Max always did?  But then another part of her mind felt excited at the prospect of Olivia doing something friendly.  Wouldn’t life be so much easier if she could forget about rivalries and just be friends?  Maybe Olivia wasn’t so bad after all.  All of this and more went on inside her head for what felt like forever but was actually less than a second.  She returned the high five, and Olivia did not pull her hand away at the last second.

It took nearly an hour to get them suited up and rigged to the harness that made it feel like they were weightless.  They were staged just outside of the airlock together, as if they had just climbed out from the central node of the Christiaan.  Lili looked up at the ceiling for a moment and imagined that it was the Earth, curving away and meeting the blackness of space.

Coiled around one of Lili’s arms was the replacement cable.  She could see that the original cable was pulled loose from the station and frayed in the middle, with a jumble of wires hanging out as if they had been cut with scissors.

Olivia was tasked with unscrewing the cable from it mount.  She had a collection of tools tethered to her belt, and she struggled for a moment with the stiff arms of the suit to find the correct one and position it in her right hand.  At first she could not see the mount, so she lowered herself down at bit and started trying to unscrew it.  Each time she rotated the wrench she found herself floating away from the station, so Lili grabbed onto a handhold with her right hand and steadied Olivia with her left so that she could stay in position.  Soon Olivia had one end of the cable freed, and Lili secured it to her left arm.

They began slowly and carefully moving down the length of the tube that led to Taurus capsule C.  They meticulously unhooked and hooked their tethers as they had been trained.  An astronaut never wanted to be free floating during an EVA.  It was preferable to always have two, if not three tethers attaching yourself to the station.  Lili remembered one of their training lectures when they learned that an EVA like this was usually something that astronauts trained towards for years.  At one point Lili got one of her tether lines tangled with the cable, which she was wrapping around her left arm as they went.  Olivia quickly untangled it and they continued down to a point that was just a meter from where the capsule would be, if this were the real station.

This time Lili handled the wrench, and she started to get nervous when she realized it was taking her quite a bit longer to unscrew the cable than it had taken Olivia.  The wrench keep slipping off the nut, and she had a hard time keeping her helmeted head tilted in the right direction to actually see what she was doing.  When she finally got it loose, she then unwound part of the fresh cable and reversed the process, attaching it and screwing the nut into place.  It went quicker this time, as she gained confidence with the task.

Then they made their way back down the tube to where they had started, securing the cable to clamps as they went.  Lili felt relieved as they reached the end and stretched out the cable to put the end in place and finish the task.  When Olivia bent it to attach it into place, she came up a few inches short.  She gave it a firm pull, but the movement launched her into Lili and they collided, losing their grip on the station for a moment.

Lili could barely contain her frustration.  They were so close, and now Olivia had messed it all up!

“What’s the problem out there, candidates?” asked Jay.  He was inside the station, playing the part of the crew.

Their tethers pulled tight and they bumped back into the tube.  Lili took a moment to secure herself and gave Olivia a glaring look.

Olivia spoke through her headset.  “We didn’t pull the slack out of the cable.  It won’t reach.”  By ‘we’, Lili was sure Olivia meant ‘Candidate Liliana’.

“How much time do we have remaining?” asked Lili.

“You’re doing fine. 15 minutes of oxygen remaining.  Just stay calm and work the problem.”

Lili focussed on the cable and started to pull the slack, making sure it was still firmly attached to the station.  She and Olivia worked their way back to where they had started, and when they were in position with the end of the cable, it was clear that they had enough slack to pivot it into position and get it secured.

Jay had an odd look on his face as he helped them out of their suits.  “Well done, you two.  Seriously, you did great.”

“Thanks,” said Olivia.  “Could have been better.  But we did it.”  She gave Lili a tight smile.

Jay shook his head.  She wasn’t sure what he was thinking, but she was glad that they had at least passed the exercise.

She didn’t have long to dwell on the first challenge, since the next two days were packed full of them, and she found that half the battle was just getting to the next location on time.  She raced from practical tests in Building 9, back to the main training center for written exams, and then to the track for physical fitness evaluations.  She barely had time to eat, and sleep was never really an option.  By the end of the evening on Sunday, she felt like a zombie, and she saw other candidates openly crying in the corridors.  Not just junior candidates, but adults too.  At one point after a test that paired up all the married couples, she stepped around a corner to find her parents, Julia and Sergei, having a vicious argument in Russian.  The fact that they had lapsed into Russian, when it had been made clear to them that the official language of the candidacy was English, shocked Lili as much as the fact that they were arguing.  When they saw her, they immediately stopped, and Julia stormed down the corridor away from them.  Lili remembered how her mother had said that Russian was a more satisfying language for arguments than English.

Sergei looked at her apologetically.  “It’s been a long day,” he said.  “That last trial did not go so well.”

Lili felt very awkward at detecting a weak moment in either of her parents.  She had actually been hoping for a moment or two with her mom to vent about how hard the trials were.  She watched her father leaning against the wall, scratching at the stubble on his chin.

“Hey Dad,” she said.  “Why can’t you hear a pterodactyl go to the toilet?”

Sergei let out a long breath and closed his eyes, smiling.  He looked at her kindly.  “I don’t know, Lili.  Why?”

“Because the ‘p’ is silent.”

He laughed, then tousled her hair and said, “Ok, let’s get going.  We don’t want to be late for our next appointment.”

#

The Interview Room—Anita Bell—Chemist

“For me, what’s important is the mission.  If we are the best, then yes, I’ll be thrilled to go to Titan.  But they have to send the best.  If we’re not the best, then we shouldn’t go.  Either way, I’ll do whatever is asked of me.  I’m here to serve.  And to make sure my kids eat their vegetables.  And to make sure my husband’s head doesn’t get too big.”

#

They assembled after noon on Monday.  Exhausted as they had been when they were released late the evening prior, few of them had slept.  Stomachs growled audibly, as they had not found their appetites in the morning.  Every mistake they had made over the weekend was replaying in their minds.  They were all dreading the next cut, which they knew was coming soon, and as a direct result of the exams the had just taken.

Lili looked around and saw that everyone was still present—normally when a cut was made, the released families simply were not at the next meeting.  Cuts were made discreetly and quickly, never in the presence of other candidates.  Were they making an exception today?  Would three families be shamed in front of the entire group?  She thought this was the case when the screens lit up with ranked scores before Carmen began to speak.

There was a buzz of conversation, and Carmen was trying to get everyone’s attention, but Lili was oblivious.  All she could see was her name at the top of one of the lists, right next to Olivia’s name.  Their names and scores on the EVA were in bright green, on top of the scores for all the other paired junior candidates, which were in red.

Carmen began to review the results, but she was fighting to be heard over incessant whispers between the candidates.  Lili looked over to see her father frantically calculating something on his wrist display.

“Excuse me!” said Carmen loudly.  “I am trying to review the results of the trial.  I would have thought that this would hold your interest.  Let’s show some discipline here, people.”

Sergei stood up and spoke.  “Where are the overall scores?”

“What do you mean?” asked Carmen.

“I mean you have scores for all the individual events up on the screen, but we can’t tell where we rank overall.  We know there’s a cut coming.  Who made the final six?”

“We aren’t ready to make that determination yet,” said Carmen.

“But these were the final exams,” protested Sergei.  “I thought that was the whole point.”

“Just tell us and be done with it,” agreed Helmut.

“We have not decided,” said Carmen flatly.  “Each of the trials was scored separately.  They will be taken into account, along with many other factors, in making our final decisions.  Decisions which will not be made public, or announced to candidates, until the end of the month.”

Now Julia stood up.  “The end of the month!  We take our final exams and you make us wait more than three weeks to get the results!  Why?”

Carmen was silent.

“I know why,” said Anita Bell.  Her voice was quiet but everyone heard her regardless.  She leaned back and shook her head.  Everyone turned to her in anticipation.

“It’s for the show,” she said.  “The reality show runs a few weeks behind us.  They want to do it live.”

The group turned back to Carmen.

“Is that true?” asked Julia.

“Yes,” admitted Carmen.  “You all know that the broadcast rights are a critical part of the funding for this mission.  But that’s not the only reason,” she continued as she was faced with disgusted noises from the candidates.  “This is not an easy decision, and while the results of your trials are a big part of the equation, there is a great deal more to consider.”

“Like the ratings,” said Helmut.

“Like your attitudes,” said Carmen sharply.  “And your demeanor.  And your enthusiasm, and willingness to cooperate, and ability to coexist with your crew-mates.”

Carmen waited until the grumbling had subsided.  “I realize that this has been a very difficult few days for you all.  But we will continue our custom of conducting a full debriefing and critique of your actions during the most recent evaluation.  We will start with the EVA simulation.”  She turned the floor over to Jay.

“Ok, so I’d like to start with the junior candidates first.  We put them through the same trial as the seniors, albeit with a slightly longer time limit.  As you can see from the scoreboard, the red indicates failure to achieve the objective.”  All but one line on the children was red, and all of them were red for the adults.

“I think maybe you didn’t estimate the time limit very well,” said Gottfrid Svensson.  “It wasn’t possible for us to repair the cable that quickly.”

“Yes, I know,” said Jay.  “That was the point.  We didn’t actually care how long it took you.  We wanted to see how you would react to being paired up with an unexpected partner and put into a difficult situation.  The cable was shorter than the real one on the station, making it extremely difficult to fasten, and yes, the time limit was unreasonable.  We would never do an EVA with so little oxygen.  Which is why that,“ he said, pointing his handheld laser at the green letters with Lili and Olivia’s successful time, “is so impressive.  Well done to both of you.”  He began to clap, and the room joined him.  “They even had a slight mishap, due to the short cable, but it only cost them a few seconds.  They recovered brilliantly.”

They watched video of the EVA trial and the other practical trials, pausing to re-watch both good moments and bad, discussing what had worked and what had gone wrong.  Lili hated these reviews, because they were often so embarrassing, but she had to admit that they were very good learning experiences.

And then it was over.  Carmen announced, unceremoniously, that their candidacy was at an end.  No more tests.  No more trials.  They were all being sent home to await the final selection, which would be aired live for all the world to see on New Year’s Day.