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.

 

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