During the flight to rendezvous with Venus, there wasn’t much to see except for the blinding, oscillating brightness of the sun, which swung into view every fifteen seconds. They kept the porthole covers retracted most of the time, relying on video feeds to show them what was going on outside the station. Which wasn’t much. Aside from the routine status checklists, and an occasional minor repair, there was little to do.
Sergei, who was designated the Captain of the vessel, established a regimented training routine, which Lili and the other junior crew found tedious and boring. But Lili had to admit that on days off—they still observed twenty four hour days and seven day weeks, more out of habit and to stay in tune with Mission Control than any practical reason—she grew restless.
As they approached Venus for the first of several gravity assist maneuvers that would eventually slingshot them to Saturn and Titan, Lili spent more and more time floating in the near zero-G of the core, tending to the main telescope. She could have done most of her astronomy from the comfort of the Gamma capsule, but since the forward portholes were not oriented towards the sun, she could make direct observations with her eyes, while adjusting the telescope and high resolution digital cameras from the co-pilot’s chair.
Her usual experience with astronomy was that the naked eye view was an abstraction. If a star or nebula or galaxy was visible at all, it was just a tiny dot, or a smudge. It became real when she magnified it, and could detect shape, or shadow, or depth. But here, it was the opposite. The view through the telescope was magnificent, but it was like looking at a photograph. When she looked out of the porthole in front of her, regardless of the constant spinning, she saw a three-dimensional sphere, lit up brightly on one side by the sun, and dark on the other. It wasn’t just pixels on a screen. It was the real thing. A huge mass, nearly the size of Earth, floating in space. A planet where no human had ever set foot. She and her father, sitting in the front of the Christiaan, were the closest anyone had ever been to the second planet.
In preparation for maneuvers around Venus, they stopped the spinning, so it was comfortable to spend more than a few minutes at a time in the core with the seats facing forwards.
“Hey Dad,” Lili said. “If there are Venus Flytraps on Earth, are there Earth Flytraps on Venus?”
“There must be,” said Sergei. “Did you know that Freddy Mercury, Venus Williams, and Bruno Mars all walked into a bar? But they didn’t planet that way.”
“Am I supposed to know who those people are?” she asked, making a skeptical face. “And that reminds me, do you know how to organize a party on Venus?”
“You stole my joke,” Sergei protested.
“Yours was obscure. Like the sky on Venus.”
At their current approach angle and distance, Venus looked somewhat like a half moon from Earth. The sun was to their left, shining brightly on their extended solar panel arrays, which would soon be retracted as they fell into the gravity well and accelerated. The Christiaan, including all four capsules, was being powered entirely by the sun. The RTG units in the central core were being redirected to provide heat, but that was an excessive energy source after the station’s many battery packs were fully charged. Some of the heat simply had to be dissipated into space, even with the RTG modulators engaged.
“Let’s align the scopes and run another simulation,” said Sergei.
“Again? We just ran a sim two hours ago.”
“This is our last chance to adjust the flight path before the assist. The closer we are to perfect, the less power we consume on the trip back by Earth.”
“Ok. Wanna guess how far the primary guide scope has drifted from Alpha Scorpii?”
“I would have to say… three arc minutes.”
Lili squinted out the front porthole for a moment while unlatching her belts. She tilted her head and said “Close. But I think it’s closer to four. Maybe four and a half.”
“You think you can tell that from looking out the window at Venus?”
“Ok, smarty. At what angle?”
“Ninety degrees. Almost exactly.”
“Ok, so in the last two hours, you think my ship has yawed four and a half arc minutes to starboard?”
“Yep,” she repeated, and swung back behind her chair. “What do I get if I’m right?”
“An ice cream cone.”
“Just the cone? Or will there be ice cream in it?”
“Lots of ice cream. And a cherry on top.”
“You’re on,” she said.
Aligning the scopes was an operation that needed to be done at the eyepiece itself. Lili pulled up a reference star chart on the display next to the scope and then put her left eye up against the rubber eye guard. She made small adjustments with a yellow joystick mounted to the bulkhead and then pushed a green button.
“Mark it,” she said. “Four-point-four-two arc minutes at ninety-three degrees.”
“Not bad,” said Sergei. “You might make an astronaut someday.”
“Where’s my ice cream cone?” she asked as she climbed back around her seat.
“I’ll buy you on the next time we’re in Sochi.”
Tao joined them in the core after a few minutes of silent flight.
“Mr Schultz,” said Sergei. “What brings you to the bridge?”
“The bridge? When did we start calling it the bridge?”
“Well, I am the captain, and where the captain sits on a ship, that’s the bridge.”
“I thought we were supposed to call it a station? I called it a ship once and Jay Talbot got grumpy.”
“In Russian we say kosmicheskiy korabl, and that means space ship.”
“Don’t you have a word for station?” asked Tao.
“Of course,” said Lili. “But that sounds more like a train station.”
“What about the ISS? That’s a station.”
“It’s not the same,” said Sergei.
“What about spacecraft? What the Russian word for craft?”
“Sudno,” said Lili. “But we use that when we say ‘boat’. If we called the Christiaan a boat, I know Jay would get grumpy.”
“Sudno means other things too. What’s it called in English, the thing you pee in when you are in hospital?”
“A bedpan?” Tao made a face. “Well, it smells like a bedpan in Delta capsule.”
“Don’t complain because it’s your day to clean the toilet,” said Lili. “I had to do it yesterday, and it was gross.”
“Ok, let’s change the subject,” said Sergei. “Nice weather we’re having.”
“Yes, partly cloudy with a chance of acid rain,” said Lili.
Tao stared out at Venus for a minute.
“Hey, Captain, um—I was wondering. Since we have to distribute the weight evenly during the burn, and we have extra people in Alpha—“
“Let me guess,” said Sergei, glancing from Tao to Lili and back again. “You are thinking that maybe you could ride along in Gamma with Lili?”
“Um, yes—yes sir.”
“Ok with me, if Julia doesn’t mind.”
“I was going to ask her, but I heard she wasn’t feeling well.”
A quick look of concern crossed Sergei’s face. “It’s just the lack of gravity, after a few months of spinning. I think we all felt it a little.”
“Yeah,” agreed Tao. “I felt a little weird for a while too. I’ll see you later, Lili.”
“Actually, Lili, you should head down now,” said Sergei. “We need to start securing the ship.”
The Interview Room—Axel Svensson—Junior Astronaut
“I don’t like the ‘Junior’ Astronaut title. I don’t feel junior at all. I have been in space longer for a long time, and I spent years training. The other juniors—they are still acting like children most of the time. We need more discipline on this station. That’s what my parents say, and I agree with them. We have a long way to go, and if we want to accomplish the mission, we have to focus. It’s time to grow up.”
Their descent into the gravity well of Venus was uneventful. They plunged down to the dark side of the planet, less than a thousand miles from the atmosphere. There was little to see except for the occasional flash of lightning from the swirling clouds that covered the surface. They emerged back into the sunlight on course for another swing by Earth. They spent several weeks observing the normal routine, and then began preparing for their first resupply.
The crew was gathered around Sergei in Gamma capsule, with the exception of Isabelle and Axel Svensson, who were in Alpha capsule. It was standard practice to never have the entire crew assembled in one place.
Sergei was using the large video display as a whiteboard.
“This is Earth,” he said, drawing a circle on the right side of the board. “This is the moon, and this is us.” He made a small dot on the left.
He drew a large oval shape around the Earth and marked an X intersecting it between them and Earth. “The transport has been maneuvered into a wide orbit around Earth, and we will intercept it in two days. Our supplies are holding out well so far, but this is a critical mission, because we have to prove that we can perform this kind of a resupply without any mistakes. If it does not go well, we will execute the abort burn and return to Earth orbit next month. I will be piloting the ship, and Gottfrid will be in the copilot seat operating the docking ring.”
“It’s all automated, though, right?” asked Max. “We shouldn’t have to actually do anything.”
“Correct,” said Sergei. “But we have to be ready to take over manual control. We can fly the transport ourselves, and we could also dock using the Christiaan’s thrusters, if the transport is not responsive.”
“That would waste a lot of fuel,” said Max.
“Yes, so it’s the last choice. We also might need an EVA, if we have trouble engaging the docking clamps. Helmut and Min will be suited up and standing by at the airlock. Everyone else will position themselves in the capsules to give us a complete view of everything that is happening.”
“What about the drones?” asked Max. The Christiaan had several small robotic drones, equipped with video cameras, that could be flown in close proximity to the station to make observations.
“I authorize you to launch and operate one drone,” said Sergei. “Just keep it clear of the transport—we don’t want any accidents.”
“I’ll be careful,” said Max.
Back in the capsule, Max donned his VR glasses and gloves before launching the drone. Lili sat next to him and monitored several views of the transport. She had trained the telescope on it when it was still thousands of kilometers away, and now she had her choice of angles. Max made slight gestures with his hands and the drone detached from the station. It was only a few centimeters wide, just big enough for a fuel tank, small wide-angled cameras, and attitude thrusters. Max circled around behind the transport as it executed a spin to align the docking rings. Flashes of propellant shot out from various nozzles on the transport as the onboard computers made adjustments to the trajectory.
The automatic guidance systems seemed to be performing flawlessly, as the transport edged closer and closer to the Christiaan’s front facing side, and the view from the center of the dock showed a nearly perfect alignment. Lili heard a faint scraping noise as the two spacecraft made contact. The transport seemed to become motionless for a moment, but then status lights on the monitors went red, and Lili could see a small space growing slowly between the docking rings.
“Automatic docking failure, taking manual control,” said Gottfrid over the intercom.
After a few seconds, the delayed response from Earth reached them. Anita Bell was the CapCom for the docking. “Roger docking failure.”
“We’re not sure what went wrong,” said Gottfrid. “Stabilizing position of the transport.”
“Advise increasing separation to assess the problem,” said Anita.
Gottfrid made delicate adjustments using attitude thrusters and backed the transport off by ten meters. Max flew the drone in between the two to inspect the docking rings, which looked to be unharmed.
Julia, who was sitting next to Lili, began to play back the failed dock from several angles. After a few minutes, she keyed her microphone. “I think I see the problem,”, she said. “Replay video feed six from time stamp zero-four thirty-seven. Looks like the transport didn’t have enough momentum to engage the clamps.”
Her voice took just over three seconds to reach Earth, and their reply took another three seconds, so it was a while before they heard Anita confirm the transmission. And then a few more minutes as crew on the ground and on the station argued about Julia’s judgment of what had happened.
Finally a decision was made to re-engage the automatic systems and increase the intercept velocity to fifteen centimeters per second. This time, there was a noticeable jolt on the station when the two craft met; the spring-loaded clamps engaged, and they were able to complete the maneuver, retracting the powerful docking hooks and achieving a vacuum seal.
Gottfrid then operated the station’s grappling arm to connect a fuel hose from the transport to the station. Refueling the booster engine was a critical part of the resupply missions, since they would need enough fuel for corrections during gravity assists, and then when were finally ready to depart Titan, enough fuel to achieve an escape velocity from Saturn’s gravity well.
Max commanded the drone to return to its nesting place on the hull, and then stripped off his goggles and gloves. “Mom, will they make us abort the mission because of that?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “We were able to complete the dock, after all.”
“But we never had that problem before. What if there’s something wrong with the docking ring?”
“It’s possible. But more likely it was the transport. We’ve practiced more than a dozen docks with the Christiaan.”
“I hope they don’t make us abort. It would suck to come all the way and just go back home.”
“Let’s worry about that later,” she said. “For now, we have to complete the resupply.”
Max began to unstrap from his seat. “Who’s going to get stuck in the transport feeding supplies through the hatch? That was never very much fun during training.”
“I don’t know. It makes sense to assign that job the smallest crew member, and you’re starting to get pretty tall. That hatch opening is really tight.”
“Probably Nicklas then. He still hasn’t hit his growth spurt.”
Nicklas was becoming self-conscious about his height. The rest of the junior crew members were firmly in the grasp of puberty, but he had not changed much since the days of the candidacy. They met up with him in the core, near the docking ring.
“Hey Nick,” said Lili. “You ready to dig for some treasure?”
“I guess so,” he said in a resigned voice.
“What have you been up to lately?” she asked. “I haven’t seen you out of your capsule much.”
“I’ve been working on something. A program.”
“What kind of program? A VR mod?”
“No, it’s—it’s nothing. Just an experiment.”
Lili shrugged. “Ok. Well, if you want to show it to me sometime, I’d love to see it.”
They formed a bucket line to move the food, water and supplies out of the transport. As they moved packets out, they traded them with accumulated trash and a few carefully packed scientific experiments—unlike most transports, this one was going to be retrieved in Earth orbit, so that the crew on the ISS could analyze the contents, to include waste materials.
Lili was positioned at the junction between the Gamma tube and the central cube. Olivia was near the docking ring, taking packets from her mother and then launching them through the open air down to Lili, who caught them and then passed them down the tube to Axel, who was at the top of the Gamma capsule.
They had a steady rhythm going, but Lili started to fumble as packets came from Olivia closer and closer together.
“Slow down a bit,” said Lili. “We’re not on a clock here.”
“What’s wrong, Putin? Can’t keep up?” said Olivia, smirking. She grabbed two waiting packets and tossed them at the same time. Lili had to block one with her chest to stop it as the caught the other, and then immediately there was a third packet, thrown harder than the first two. It struck her in the face, scratching her left cheek.
Lili looked at Olivia incredulously as she rubbed her cheek, but Olivia just smiled at her and reached around the corner for another food packet, which was hurled at Lili even harder than the last one had been. Lili caught it deftly and then juggled the four packets, trying to keep them from flying off in random directions.
Axel appeared at the top of the tube. “You Ok?” he asked Lili somewhat impatiently, and then glared up at his sister, shaking his head. He helped steady Lili by holding her arm so she could gather the errant packages.
“Stop screwing around,” he said to Olivia, before disappearing back down the tube.
Lili was surprised that Axel had come to her defense. And she had felt a curious shudder go through her when he had held her arm. He had a very firm grip. She tried not to make eye contact with him during the rest of the resupply. But she couldn’t avoid Olivia’s gaze. She was passing packets down at a deliberately slow pace, even after Isabelle complained and urged her to speed up. Olivia’s face was expressionless but her eyes were locked on Lili’s.
Lili focused on the job and tried not to think about how many years she had left to spend living on the station with the Svenssons.
The Interview Room—Maximillian Putin—Junior Astronaut
“I was so worried they were going to scrub the mission. It was such a relief when Mission Control gave us the go-ahead to burn for the Earth gravity assist. Whew.” Max wiped his brow with the back of his hand dramatically.
“It got kind of boring on the way to Venus, but I’m still having fun. I do a lot of simulations in VR where I’m the captain, in my dad’s seat. Maybe if everything goes well and we stay in orbit around Titan for a long time, he’ll retire and I can take over. I think I would make a good captain.”
Max considered for a moment. “I don’t know where he would retire to, though. It’s not like he could take one of the capsules and move to Sochi. Maybe we’ll end up building a colony on Titan and staying there forever. That would be cool.”
The duo of the Earth and Moon spun in a wide loop outside Gamma capsule’s open portholes. Sergei’s voice came over the intercom. “Did everyone hear about the new restaurant they built on the moon?”
Julia rolled her eyes, but Lili smiled in anticipation.
Sergei keyed the microphone again. “The food is great, but there’s no atmosphere.”
Julia groaned. “He knows he’s broadcasting live to the whole world right now, right?”
Lili laughed. “Of course he does.”
“Well, we have two days where we’ll be close enough to Earth for near-live transmissions. Maybe he’ll run out of terrible dad-jokes before he embarrasses us all to death.”
“He won’t run out. He never does.” Lili unhooked her belts. “I’m going to see if I can get everyone together for some gaming online. It’s our last chance to hang out in VR with the Bells for a long time.”
Max reached for his goggles. “I designed a track for Dune Buggy Mayhem 7, it’s really fun. I’ll get the server set up.”
Lili pulled herself up the ladder, and when she was halfway up the tube, she kicked off with a practiced maneuver that propelled her to the core. She did a neat somersault as she rounded the corner and fell slowly down into the Alpha tube, coming to an easy stop midway down.
She pressed the small green access button, which acted as a doorbell, and waited for the permission light to tell her it was ok to open the hatch. There was a slight rush of warm air as the hatch pivoted down out of the way. The Schultzes liked to keep their capsule slightly warmer than the rest of the station.
Inside, Helmut was chatting with relatives in German on the main screen in front of his chair. Min sat next to him, engrossed in what looked like a complicated technical manual. Nicklas didn’t even notice Lili come in. He was tapping away at the keyboard on his laptop, sitting cross legged on his bed.
Lili hopped down from the bottom of the ladder into a seat between Jing and Tao. “We’re setting up a VR session with the Bells.”
“Who’s hosting?” asked Jing.
“Max. He’s got a new dirt track set up.”
“Awesome,” said Tao. “He makes the craziest stuff.”
“It’s always racing with him lately,” said Jing.
“He’s still sore about losing a level the last time we did a dungeon crawl.” Lili looked over at Nicklas. “What about you, Nick?”
Nicklas didn’t respond. He had a somewhat annoyed look on his face, and kept tapping the same keys repeatedly.
“Don’t bother,” said Tao. “He’s obsessed.”
“With what?” asked Lili.
“He won’t tell us,” said Jing. “Some program he’s been working on for weeks.”
Lili stepped over Tao and sat next to Nicklas on his bed. He closed his laptop and reached for his VR gloves. “Going to join us?” asked Lili.
“Huh? Oh, uh—no. I need to do some 3D modeling. It’s easier in VR.”
“Oh, come on, Nick. We won’t be this close to Earth for years. Take a break and play with us.”
“Maybe later,” he said noncommittally. “I don’t want to lose my train of thought.”
Lili sighed. “Ok. I you change your mind, you know where to find us.”
Jing was adjusting her goggles, while Tao was digging under his seat to find his gear.
“What about the Svenssons?” asked Jing.
“Oh. Yeah. I guess I should ask them too.”
Tao looked up from the floor. He had found one of his gloves. “Do we have to?”
“Be nice,” said Min, looking up from her manual.
“Ok, I’ll call Axel,” said Lili, pressing a button on a wall mounted console.
“No, don’t call,” said Min. “Go in person. You kids need to spend more time actually spending time with each other.”
“What’s the difference?” asked Tao. He had found his goggles but was still missing a glove.
Min glared at him. “Digital projections aren’t the same. It’s a proven scientific fact. Face to face interactions are better for psychological well being.”
The climb to Alpha capsule took Lili past her father and Gottfrid Svensson, who were on the bridge.
“How long are you staying here?” she asked.
“Not much longer,” said Sergei. “Once we get confirmation that our trajectory is sound, we’ll get back to the capsules.”
“So we’re good to keep spinning for the assist?”
“Yes. This flyby is much further out than Venus, and if everything goes well, we won’t need to burn any fuel. Why are you here, but the way?”
“I’m heading to Alpha. Setting up a game with the juniors.”
“What are you playing?”
“A racing game. And then maybe a dungeon crawl if that gets boring.”
“Adults not invited? Why do the kids get to have all the fun?”
“Grow up, dad.”
“Nyet! I refuse!”
Lili rang at the Svensson’s capsule and it took almost a minute before she got an answer.
“Who is it?” asked Isabella.
Another long pause.
Lili spun the access dial and rotated the hatch door downwards slowly against the hydraulic resistance. The air in the capsule was cold and dry. She lowered herself into the increasing gravity and dropped onto the floor. The capsule was spotless, in contrast to her own and the Schultzes, where the evidence of busy families was everywhere in the form of wrinkled clothing and half-empty food packets. In Alpha capsule, there wasn’t a thread out of place.
Olivia, Axel, and Isabelle were all sitting straight up, side-by-side. None of the chairs were configured as beds, and no sleeping gear was visible. Lili sat next to Axel and saw that their screens had all been cleared. They were looking at her expectantly.
“Um—I—we were setting up a VR session. With the Bells. On Earth.”
“Yes, the Bells are on Earth,” said Olivia. “We know that.”
“Anyway,” said Lili, “you and Axel are invited, if you want to play.”
“What’s the game?” asked Axel.
“Dune buggies,” said Lili.
“I’m in,” said Axel.
Olivia glared at him.
“Another chance to beat Miles in a race,” he said.
“These games are silly,” said Olivia. “We have more important things to do.” She looked to her mother, but Isabella had already reactivated her screen and gone back to reading a book, which was written in Swedish.
“Suit yourself,” said Lili. She started to climb up out of the capsule.
Axel called to her just before she reached the hatch. “Look for me in the blue car with gold trim,” he said. “I’ll be the one out front.” Just as she passed out of sight, she thought she saw him wink at her.
They lined up at the start of the track on a tropical island, sun shining brightly in a blue sky. Most of the scene was hyper-realistic; wind-blown beach sand, an osprey circling high over lush inland forests, the sound of waves crashing in the distance. But the players and vehicles were anything but realistic. Each of them had an avatar, some of which had undergone extensive personalization. Max was a diminutive skunk sporting an old fashioned racing helmet. Tao was a bizarre four-legged creature with a bulbous pink head and three eyes. Lili was a tall feminine figure, robed in black, with elegant horns sprouting from her head. Axel didn’t depart much from reality, as a blonde racer with long flowing hair, but with absurdly excessive biceps. Lili was surprised to see his sister next to him. Olivia’s character was feline, with golden fur and black stripes. The front of her vehicle looked like a snarling cat.
Virtual fans screamed from the stands as they were announced in grandiose tones over a crackling loudspeaker. Lili looked around to get a feel for the layout, but she couldn’t see much beyond a think stand of palms that lined the side of the track. Max always came up with unexpected twists in his game designs, so Lili knew there was really no way to be prepared. She strapped on her racing goggles—which felt strange, since she was wearing a pair of goggles in real life—and seated herself in her dune buggy, an outlandish five-wheeled design with tall, roaring exhaust pipes that spewed flames in the shape of monstrous faces.
Miles and Milly were sharing a two-seater that looked like a tank, complete with a turret that Miles would be operating while Milly drove.
“What are you planning to shoot out of that thing?” asked Lili.
Miles was dressed in a military camouflage uniform to match his sister. He came to attention and saluted crisply. “This vehicle is armed with the Mark-III hyper petrochemical viscosity dispersement unit, Ma’am.”
“Uh—so it shoots oil slicks? How original.”
Milly was getting situated in the driver’s seat. “Man your turret, soldier!”
Miles climbed up the back of the vehicle and dropped into the turret, which was pointed backwards.
Lili shook her head. “You know you actually need to be in front of someone to use that thing, right?”
“It’s a three lap race,” said Miles. “We’re already in front of everyone.”
Lili made a mental note to be prepared for the entire track to be covered in oil after the first lap. The Bell’s vehicle would be slow and lumbering, but it had large, knobby treads that would keep it moving.
Engines began to rev as the lights around the track flashed yellow. Lili strapped in and checked her gauges. She looked up at a video screen the size of a billboard that showed an overhead view of the vehicles lined up across the track. The countdown began and then the starter, a burly tiger standing on his hind legs and wearing a referee cap, dropped the green flag.
Engines screamed and sand flew up in torrents as wheels spun and the comical buggies shot forwards. There were collisions and spinouts before they even reached the first corner. Lili managed to get out ahead of the fray, along with Max and Axel. They climbed a sand dune and got a quick glance of the surroundings. They were on a small island that seemed to be entirely covered in lush trees and undergrowth. It had little evidence of a race track, which confused Lili for a moment until she rounded the next corner and saw an ominous cave opening. They were headed underground.
Max had imported a replica of their dungeon crawl and adapted it into a track. After a series of roller-coaster hills and valleys, the track flattened out into a wide cobblestone road with wandering monsters: goblins, oozing balls of slime, and even a dragon circling near the roof of the cavern.
Lili and Axel were fighting for the lead. She turned hard into him and pushed him into the path of a large squad of goblins, which he knocked over like bowling pins. One of the goblins hung on to his buggy, bashing him on the head with a wooden cudgel. He fell behind as he fought off the attack. Max was laughing hysterically as he crossed in front of Lili and released a swarm of marbles that covered the track. She spun out and crashed into a pit of lava that smoked and hissed around her tires.
The game was designed to make it easy to recover from crashes, and the hazards increased exponentially as you gained a lead, so it was impossible for the field to get too far spread out. Lili watched Tao and Jing speed by as the Bells brought up the rear, steadily spewing out blobs of oil behind them.
Olivia drove over a shining star emanating from the ground and her car was instantly covered in a protective force field. She swerved over towards Lili, plowing over a roaming goblin, and rammed Lili back into the lava pit. Lili fell into last place as the Bell’s tank trundled by. Now she was forced to dodge Miles’ oil cannon shots. He seemed thrilled to have an actual target.
Lili deftly maneuvered around them and released her favorite weapon, a large red grenade that hissed ominously as the fuze burned down. It attached magnetically to the tank and Lili yelled “I hope you brought imp repellant!” as she sped away. The grenade exploded and a flurry of small, winged imps emerged from the smoke. They had wicked grins on their red faces, and they latched on to Miles and Milly, pulling at their helmets and goggles. One of the imps grabbed the controls in the turret and spun it around, shooting oil directly ahead.
A shimmering mass of oil arced high in the air and landed directly on Lili, covering her goggles and making it impossible to see. She crashed into a stone wall and bounced backwards. The Bells collided with her and they sat for a moment in a heap of imps, oil, and broken car parts.
“Serves you right,” said Miles, swatting away an imp.
The imps disappeared, the oil dissipated, and the cars magically repaired themselves. Lili shifted gears and accelerated away, trying to catch up to the pack. She climbed a tall hill and then shot out into daylight. She could see the other racers rounding a curve towards the grandstands, where virtual fans were clapping and yelling with delight. Lili crossed the start-finish line well behind the pack and caught a glimpse of the video screen, which was showing a slow motion replay of the collision she had just experienced.
As she started the second lap, she drove over an accelerator strip and shot forward, catching up to the others. Max was out font, emitting large clouds of putrid green gas that slowed down anyone unfortunate enough to pass behind him. Max had a huge advantage, having designed the track, but that advantage was weaker now that everyone else knew what to expect.
Lili kept her eye out for oil slicks and managed to pass several others who had not been so attentive. She launched another imp grenade at Olivia as they reached the dungeon, but it bounced off and exploded in the middle of a pack of goblins, causing mayhem on that side of the track.
Axel launched a fat, blue missile with yellow stripes at Max, and it blew him off the track, where he came to rest upside down. They wouldn’t have to worry about dodging his skunk spray for a while.
As they finished the second lap, Lili was neck and neck with Axel and Olivia. Max had recovered and was speeding past the Bells, who were moving steadily, continuing to douse the track with oil. Tao and Jing were hopelessly mired behind them.
On the last lap, the dragon swooped down and started to spray the track, and the racers, with gouts of fire. The oil slicks lit up and became even more hazardous. Flames engulfed the right side of Lili’s buggy, but didn’t slow her down. She launched her last grenade at the dragon and bought herself a few seconds to move past it into the narrow caves where it was too big to follow. Olivia and Axel fell into single file behind her.
As they emerged from the caves, Lili was in the lead, but Olivia hit an accelerator strip and moved out ahead of her. They were rounding the corner to the finish line, where the tiger referee was waving the checkered flag. Lili slammed her hand against the dashboard in frustration. It didn’t look like there was any way she could pass Olivia in time, but suddenly a rocket flew by within inches of her, covering her with its exhaust. When the smoke cleared, she could see Olivia’s car wrecked just a few meters from finish. Lili saw Axel out of the corner of her eye, just behind her and to the side as she crossed the line in first place.
As they all emerged from their battered vehicles, a replay of the final moments of the race played above them. Olivia punched her brother in the arm as the video zoomed in on her surprised face when his missile had ruined her chances at winning.
“I was aiming for her,” her said, pointing at Lili and shrugging.
Tao and Jing were covered in oil from head to toe. A stray imp was still clinging on to Max’s helmet, gnawing at it ferociously. Miles’ uniform was charred black from dragon fire, and it was still smoking.
They all burst into uncontrollable laughter.
The Interview Room—Zhang Nicklas Schultz—Junior Astronaut
“I really don’t have a good reason for being so secretive about my project. It’s no big deal. At first I was little embarrassed because I thought everyone would make fun of me. But then it became this big mystery, so I just played along.”
Nicklas adjusted the camera downwards so that it would be centered on him.
“It’s a design for a submarine drone that we can launch from orbit. It flies down, drops into one of Titan’s lakes, and swims around by itself taking pictures and samples. Then it flies back up into the atmosphere and transmits the data to us. It’s really small, less than half a meter long, so we can print it from supplies that we have on the station.
“The official mission plan lets us land a capsule on the surface just once, since we’ll have to burn so much fuel to get back into orbit. We’ll land near a lake, but we don’t have any way to actually explore it. If there’s life on Titan, that’s where I think it will be.
“I’ve been transmitting my plans back and forth with ground control, and they actually like the idea—there’s a whole team of Space Union engineers working on the project now”
Tao was helping Lili with the post-processing of images from the Christiaan’s main telescope. “There must be a wobble in the rotation, I can’t get the stack to align. I don’t understand why they didn’t design the telescope on a rotating mount.”
Lili was monitoring the spinning view of Mars, which appeared now to the naked eye as a barely discernible disk, rather than just a distant point of light. It was currently at perigee with Earth. Through the main telescope, it was large and detailed enough to make out the polar ice caps and dust storms. But it was spinning in a constant circle due to the fixed mount of the telescope on the front of the station, which made combining images with software for a sharper view very challenging.
“It’s the same reason the capsules don’t rotate around a stationary central core,” said Lili. “Too many moving parts. On a mission this long, something would give out eventually.”
“Well, doing it this way is impossible. We should just wait for a de-rotation and take photos then. The shutter speed is so short, we have to stack a thousand images to get anything worthwhile.”
“Maybe we could ask Nicklas for help.”
“Nicklas who?” Tao asked sarcastically. “He’s been lost in VR for months.”
“Did he tell you what he’s working on?”
“Yeah, the submarine thingy,” said Tao. “It sounds kinda cool. I asked if he needed my help but he just laughed at me. I think my little brother is getting a big head.”
“Well, we should be able to solve this problem ourselves—we have access to every piece of image stacking software ever written.”
“Yeah, but they were all written for telescopes sitting on Earth, not on a space station rotating at four RPM.”
“We don’t have another resupply for three weeks, so there’s no reason to spend the fuel on de-rotating. But I really want to be able to post a time lapse of our approach to Mars.”
“The internet will go nuts for that. They loved your image of sunrise over Venus.”
Lili smiled. She was gaining recognition on Earth for her photography, and had millions of people following her social accounts. “Maybe that’s the solution. If we asked online for help, I bet someone could come up with a program that worked for us.”
“Why didn’t the Space Union think of this?” asked Tao.
Lili laughed. “How many times a day does someone on this mission say those exact words?”
“Hey, you know what? We should do a video,” said Tao. “Instead of just posting a note online.”
“Can we do that? I mean, the TV network controls all the videos and interviews. Can we just post our own thing without going through them?”
“Who’s going to stop us?” he asked. “We’re all allowed to have a private internet connection. They won’t know until it’s too late.”
Lili looked at him skeptically. “Do you really think our connection is private? Seriously?”
Tao thought about it for a moment and his eyes widened. “I hope so.”
Lili shook her head. “With the light speed delay, our whole connection has to use special internet connection software written by the Space Union, and it all goes through a proxy server that’s run by the Space Union. And paid for mostly by the network, who makes money from broadcasting everything we do.”
“But you post photos to your social stream yourself. They don’t control that.”
“And there’s a big advertisement for the network right underneath every single one of them. And that’s just photos of planets and nebulae. They would freak out if videos of us went online without all their stupid editing. I hate how I do a twenty minute interview and they only put the most embarrassing thirty seconds on the show.”
“Me too,” said Tao. “So let’s do it. We’ll just log in to the video sharing site and post it and see what happens.”
Lili nodded. “I’m in. Let’s hurry up before my Mom and Dad come back from the staff meeting.” The senior crew members assembled once a day for a meeting. It irked Lili that the junior crew members weren’t included.
“One sec,” said Tao. “I want to grab my Christiaan model.” He disappeared up the tube and came shooting back down a minute later, performing an acrobatic flip at the bottom of the ladder. He was holding a small replica of the station, complete with all four tubes and capsules, that he had built with the 3D printers.
Lili activated the video camera that she used for interviews, and Tao crowded into her seat.
“Hey, watch it,” she complained.
“I have to get close so we both fit in the view.”
“You don’t have to sit in my lap.”
“So should we, like, write a little script? Or just start talking?”
“Just start talking,” he said. “We can edit the video later.”
“Yeah, we need to take this part out.”
“Oh, it’s recording already? Wait, let me get pretty.” Tao made a show of adjusting his hair and smoothing out his eyebrows.
Lili rolled her eyes. “Are you ready, princess?”
“Ready,” said Tao.
Lili faced the camera and said, “Hello, World!” Tao waved at the camera and Lili shoved his hand away playfully. “Liliana Putin here, with my good buddy Tao on the Christiaan.”
“Zhang Tao Schultz, Junior Astronaut,” Tao said dramatically, putting his hands on his hips and looking up at an angle as if posing for a heroic portrait.
“As you probably already know, we’re halfway to Mars—“
“Adrift in the big black,” said Tao in a whispery voice. Lili elbowed him.
“Anyway, we’re halfway to Mars, and we’re trying to take some photos of the red planet.”
“But we’re having trouble aligning them,” Tao said, holding up his model. “The station—“
“The station rotation—“ Tao rotated the model, and one of the capsules clipped Lili’s cheek.
“See, that’s another reason to call it a ship. Then you don’t have to sound silly rhyming station and rotation all the time.”
“I like it,” said Tao. Then he sang, “Station rotation, station rotation.”
“We are totally editing that out,” said Lili.
“Whatever,” said Tao. “Back to the broadcast. So here’s the problem—we’re trying to take photographs from a telescope mounted right here—“ he pointed at a small bulge next to the forward docking ring. “And it rotates around the center at four revolutions per minute, so we have to use a really short shutter speed. Even with a wide aperture and a super high ISO rating, we can’t gather enough light in one exposure.”
“That’s right,” Lili continued. “So we stack multiple images on top of each other, but the software we use was written for telescopes sitting on Earth.”
“So, we’re hoping that some of you whiz kids watching this video can help us out and write some code to align the images for us.”
“It should be a contest,” said Lili thoughtfully, looking at Tao.
“A contest? Hmm—what’s the prize?” Tao squinted and scratched his chin. “How about an autographed print of Mars, signed by Lili, and also by yours truly of course.”
“A print? Umm—how exactly are we supposed to deliver that?”
“Oh right. We’re in space. There’s no post office in space.”
“Ooh, I know. A free tour of mission control.”
“In Houston? What if the winner doesn’t live in Houston?”
“And a free plane ticket to Houston.”
“Plane tickets are expensive. Who’s going to pay for that?”
“Oh, the Space Union has lots of money.”
“And who’s going to give the tour.”
“I vote for Carmen.”
“Carmen?” Tao made a face. “As a tour guide? Here is my office, and here is my desk, and oh look, here is the little box where I keep my feelings.”
“That’s mean,” said Lili. “But maybe she’s not the best choice. How about Miles and Milly?”
“Ok, so it’s settled. The person who wins the contest gets a free ticket to Houston, and a tour of mission control with junior CapComs Miles and Milly Bell.”
Tao held up the model of the station and rotated it as he passed it in front of the camera. “And so we wait, patiently, floating—through the blackness—of spaaaaaace”.
Lili laughed as she said “Goodbye, World!” and then ended the recording.
“Ok, let’s play it back,” said Tao. “Are you any good at video editing?”
“I always get my sister to help. Jing is really good at it.”
“She’s on duty right now, though.”
“Well, how hard could it be? Let’s figure it out.” Lili opened the video editor and the screen filled with a confusing array of buttons and sliders.
“Click that button right there to preview it,” sad Tao. “No, not that one!”
“What did I push?”
“Umm… uh-oh. I think you just posted it.”
“What do you mean? Like, posted it to the internet?”
“Can I undo?”
“Too late,” said Tao. “We’d have to wait for it to get to Earth, then wait for it to appear on the site, and then remove it. I bet we’ll have a thousand views by then.”
“Great,” said Lili, pressing the preview button so they could watch what they had just posted. She was blushing and shaking her head by the end of the recording.
Tao was laughing. “I think it’s awesome the way it is. No point worrying about it now.”
The Interview Room—Liliana Putin—Junior Astronaut
“I feel like I have a purpose now. A real purpose. Before I started posting all of these photos, and helping Dad with navigation, I felt like—well, like baggage. Like I was just along for the ride because my parents were important. But now I feel like what I do actually matters. It makes me feel good that people on Earth can look at my photos and sort of explore the solar system with us.”
The video Tao and Lili posted quickly went viral, and they got a stern lecture from both Carmen and their parents. But it had the desired effect—an amateur astronomer from Belgium provided them with the code they needed to stack and align the images of Mars, and Lili was able to compile a dramatic time lapse of their approach.
And the video was so popular that they were actually encouraged to do more like it—albeit published with conspicuous advertisements from the network.
They de-rotated the ship for the gravity assist, and they had a few days of near real-time communications with the Mars colony.
Lili opened the hatch to the Gamma capsule and saw her mother sitting up in front of a screen talking to Dr. Patel, the chief medical officer on Mars. She looked at Lili and paused, then told Dr. Patel she would call back later.
“You’re looking better,” said Lili. Julia had been spending more and more time lying flat in bed lately.
“The de-rotation helped,” said Julia.
“Were you talking to him about the motion sickness?”
“Yes. Mostly. I think—well, it should get better with time. I’m going to try some new medicine and see if it helps.” Julia smiled weakly.
“It’s weird that you never had any problems during training.”
“I know. Some things you just can’t simulate.”
Later that day, they completed another resupply mission, this time with a capsule called The Nerine. It was the first spacecraft to be wholly constructed on Mars. After docking to deliver supplies, and to collect trash and blood samples from the crew, it detached and re-entered Mars orbit, headed for a landing back at the Martian space center in Hale Crater.
After supplies had all been stowed, Lili propelled herself up the Gamma tube, enjoying their last day of zero G before spinning up for the long voyage to Jupiter. She was about to go around the corner to the bridge when she heard her parents talking in urgent whispers.
“It’s too late,” she heard Sergei say. “We are committed to Jupiter at this point.”
“I wouldn’t want to go back anyway,” said Julia.
“If I had known before the Mars assist, I would have turned back. I would not have given you the choice.” Lili heard uncharacteristic emotion in her father’s voice, and he was no longer whispering. Julia shushed him and they were silent for a moment.
Lili had the feeling that she was intruding on something very private, and though she wanted to hear more, she felt wrong for eavesdropping and slowly backed away around the corner towards the Alpha tube.
What had happened? Was there something wrong with the ship? If that was the case, why would it have been her mother’s choice? Then it dawned on her. The blood samples. The doctor on Mars Julia had been talking to before they docked with the Nerine. Her mother was ill. It wasn’t just motion sickness. It was something worse.
She tried to stop herself from crying. Crying in zero G was very awkward. The tears didn’t drop down your cheek the way they were supposed to. They just built up in your eyes and blinded you until you wiped them away.
She was halfway down the Alpha tube when Axel floated around the corner and came towards her. She tried to turn away quickly and conceal her face, rubbing her sleeve against her eyes. But Axel had noticed.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Leave me alone,” she said in a shaky voice. This was the worst possible timing. She didn’t want him to see any weakness in her. He would probably go tell his sister that he had caught her crying and they would have a good laugh other expense. She faced away from him, towards the closed hatch of Alpha capsule, and waited for him to leave the tunnel. But then she felt his hand on her shoulder. She batted it away and turned to face him, a flash of anger crossing her face.
“Why don’t you—“ she paused when she saw a genuine look of concern on his face. None of the usual superior smugness.
“It hits me sometimes too,” he said. “It all a lot harder than we thought it would be.” He tapped the wall. “Trapped in this tiny place.”
She looked at him in confusion for a moment. Was he actually confiding in her her that he was homesick? Claustrophobic? She almost started to tell him why she was upset. What she suspected. But then she remembered all the snide remarks during training, all the times he gloated about beating her in a competition, the time he and his sister had belittled her family, and other families.
He reached his hand out to her again a she shoved him aside, pushing herself up the tube. At that moment she saw Olivia staring down at them from the core. Her face was unreadable but her eyes were fiery as she looked back and forth from Lili to Axel. What did she think had just happened? Lili didn’t care what she thought. She just wanted to be alone, so she rounded the corner and made for Delta capsule.
When she got to the hatch she checked the console and saw that the latrine was currently occupied. She groaned with frustration.
She went back to her own capsule, drew the curtains around her bed, and strapped on her VR goggles.
She didn’t take the form of an avatar, or load a game to play. She was herself, and sat alone on a quiet beach, under the shade of a palm tree. After a few minutes, she was able to calm her breathing and relax. She needed to convince herself that she was really here, that it was truly possible to escape the confines of the ship from time to time.
What was wrong with her mother? How bad was it? Would they have to abort the mission? Would there be enough time to get her back to Earth for medical care?
She closed her eyes and leaned back, wishing that her VR gear could add the smell of the ocean, to cover up the antiseptic smell of the recycled air in her capsule. When she opened her eyes again, she saw a figure in the distance approaching along the shoreline. She grunted in annoyance; this was her program, her island, and there weren’t supposed to be any other people here. She suspected for a moment that it was her brother, hacking his way in to work some mischief, but then she saw the flowing dress and red hair, and recognized the figure as her mother.
Lili got up and walked down the beach, meeting her mother halfway. Both of their feet were in the water, being washed over with small waves.
“You overheard me talking to your father.”
“There aren’t many secrets on the Christiaan.”
“How much did you hear?”
“Not much. Enough to make me worry. Should I be worried?”
Julia looked out over the ocean, pushing a strand of hair back over her ear. She sighed. “Yes,” she admitted. She looked back at Lili. “I have cancer. Leukemia.”
Everything felt wrong to Lili. Out of place. She couldn’t bear mixing the unreal environment of VR with the real, too real, reality of what her mother had just told her. She stripped off the goggles without bothering to follow the recommended slow transition out of the environment. She rubbed her eyes, which were blurry and beginning to fill with tears. She opened her curtain to see her mother stripping off her goggles and crossing the room. They embraced and neither tried to hide their emotions, sobbing loudly in a ship that was a nearly invisible speck floating in the quiet, cold vacuum of space.