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.
“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.
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.
“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.