Off Nominal

Alison Wilgus


The recorded face of a pleasant-looking Chinese woman smiled at them from the laptop screen. Her eyes flickered down to a teleprompter. “Olivia, you said in your July Fourth Line post that you miss your neighborhood barbecues back home. Did you and Oscar do anything special to celebrate American Independence Day?”

Olivia looked straight into the camera, just as she’d been coached. “We had a little party up in the Cupola,” she said. “It’s hard to miss the fireworks with a view like the one we have out here.” She smiled. “Russ made us up some tofu burgers, and we had fresh lettuce and onions from the farm.”

Su Yan leaned over to tap the spacebar again, once at each end of the question. “How does it feel to be so far away from home?”

“Well, we have a little joke about that, actually,” said Oscar, all easy Duke City charm. “Whoever’s in the forward section of the Command Module is the furthest away from Earth that any human has ever been. It’s a pretty strange feeling, but we love it. That’s why we’re here. To go where no one else has.”

“Valentina, we keep hearing about the work that you’ve done on the Baochuan to make it more like a home for all of you. Do you have any plans for the habitat?”

Valya had been surreptitiously reading something over on her clipboard, hidden out of view behind Ruslan’s back. At her name, her head snapped up so quickly it made her short ponytail slap against her neck. “Right now, we are most concerned with prep for the Descent Module,” she said. “We initiated the startup sequence yesterday, and we’ll be monitoring its systems very closely as we make our final approach. As you know, the descent vehicle will also be the core module for our surface habitat, so this process is extremely important. We’re hoping for nominal operation of the Descent Module itself, followed by smooth capture, a quick transfer of crew and equipment and a gentle descent. Once we have touched down, then I can worry about decorating.” Olivia poked her in the hip with one finger, reminding Valya to flash a quick, practiced smile. “It should be an interesting challenge. I can’t wait to get started.”

“Valya has done a great deal to make this place feel like home,” offered Su Yan, her full lips turning up at the corners. “We’re all eager to see what she will do with little bit of air and gravity to help her.”

“Yan, you and Olivia have both written quite a bit about how difficult it is to be away from your kids. Has it helped to have each other to talk to?”

Su Yan bobbed her head, her close-cropped hair swaying very slightly. “We all miss our loved ones very much. This is an exciting time for all of us, but we are sad not to be able to share the experience with our families. So of course, we try to support each other. The crew has become another sort of family, and I am grateful for that.”

“And finally, a question for everyone: you’re only a few days away from entering Mars orbit. What are you most looking forward to?”

“A chance to further human knowledge,” said Gao Lie, his smile and his enunciation carefully formed.

“Getting answers to some very old questions,” said Oscar.

“Setting up a greenhouse with gravity again,” said Ruslan.

“Going for a walk,” said Olivia, and the others laughed around her.

“Well, that’s all the questions I have for you today. So, from all of us here at BTV, thank you so much for your time. And good luck!”

As soon as the little red light beside the camera went out, Olivia and Valentina let out identical sighs, their bodies relaxing out of their stiff on-camera poses as they leaned back into the micro gravity.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Oscar chuckled.

Valentina only sniffed and crossed her arms, but Olivia said, “Sure, for you it wasn’t!”

“Oh come on, Martini, you did great! Everyone loves you.”

Olivia waved him off. “They’re just nosey.”

“Is that the last interview?” asked Valya.

“It is,” said Yan. She pulled herself over in front of the laptop to package the interview, her short fingers flicking windows closed and then banging away at the email they would send along with the video. “The camera is finished with us today.”

“Thank goodness,” said Olivia. She unhooked her foot from one of the bars on the floor and gently pushed off with her toes. In seven months of gathering for interviews exactly like this one she had moved from the ease of habit to the reflex of muscle memory; an instinctive twist of her ankle spun her just so, and her clipboard was directly in front of her as she reached the opposite side of the Command Module’s aft section. She pulled the clipboard off its velcro with a tug, one hand against wall to counterbalance the force, and clicked out the tip of the marker she’d tethered to it.

Olivia skimmed her checklist for the day, occasionally pausing to scribble a note in the margins. Materials science had given them dry-erase sheets that never stained and markers that had no fumes, both in service of a routine that typified life on the Baochuan: cutting-edge technology for the handwritten sheets on their clipboards, paired with laptops with hardware keyboards and USB connectors. Olivia understood the reasoning behind this, of course, but it had proved difficult to explain to the various interested reporters. They used outdated laptops because they were easily serviceable and conveniently modular, and could be repaired in transit; wireless networking caused too much interference, so all computers were physically docked to the Baochuan’s Command and Data Handling system; the crew needed a portable and easy-to-use device to allow them to run through their checklists and take notes without being tethered to any one terminal, and handwritten lists had proved the most versatile solution; they couldn’t afford to haul reams of blank paper out of Low Earth Orbit and into deep space, so reusable sheets were substituted; the usual fumes from dry-erase markers would be intolerable in a closed environment, so new ink was formulated.

Luckily, even the ruthless confines of their inventory had still left room for an extra pen per crew member. Olivia had lost her first allotment to a carelessly tied string within a week of boarding the Baochuan, and no one had seen it since.

Olivia felt a hand on her shoulder as Valya leaned in to peer at her checklist. “Good, we’re in the farm together,” she said, and let go of Olivia to make a mark on her own sheet. “I could use a little peace this morning.”

Olivia flicked her eyes toward Oscar — who was just then checking readouts for Atmospheric Control and Supply—then raised her brows inquisitively. Valentina’s mouth tightened into a grimace, and Olivia held up a “wait a moment” finger as she pushed off from the wall.

Ruslan was trying to open a protein bar, his clipboard clenched between his teeth, as Olivia floated up beside him. “Hey, Russ,” she said, and plucked the clipboard from his mouth. “Take your time with breakfast, okay?”

Ruslan chuckled. “Surely by now she realizes we all know?”

Olivia pursed her lips and arched one brow. Ruslan set the protein bar aside and took the clipboard back from her, shaking his head with genial exasperation. “I have a few items left to hang on my Line. I suppose the farm can wait until afterward.”

“You’re an angel,” she said.

Ruslan scribbled a few cyrillic letters in his margins. “Hmm.”

“It’ll get better once we’ve down there.”

“Of course,” said Ruslan. He plucked his breakfast from where it hung in the air beside him. “And I’m sure your pen and my left shoe will turn up as well.”

Valentina was exactly where Olivia had left her, one foot hooked under a handle bar and her back angled toward Oscar. Six crew members, five habitable modules and seven months did not allow for a great deal of subtlety.

***

Valya breathed long and deep, in through her nose and out her mouth, as the muscles in her shoulders unwound. The farm was kept at a slightly higher humidity than the other modules, with a flexible plastic curtain loosely separating the two environments, and slipping into that warm, green cave of earth-smells and blue light was the prize that lured her through the blacker days.

The gossip, as far as she could guess from overheard conversation and the gaps in Olivia’s polite advice, was that she was desperately homesick. The windows of her grandmother’s Star City apartment had looked out on dense pine forests, and she’d spent her childhood in a grass-stained pack of girls and boys, running wild through the woods within the city’s fences. Of course, Valya had lived for more continuous time in space than anyone else in the crew beside Yan, and resented the implication that she would crack after less than nine months away from Earth. But she kept her mouth shut and accepted their offer of therapy shifts in the farm. Homesickness was embarrassing, but the truth was so much more so that she welcomed any and all misdirection.

The end result of all of this was that Valya had done almost as much work as Ruslan to prepare the Biomass Production Module for their big move to the lander. And as he wanted to put off sealing up the crops for transport until the last possible hour, the majority of their work so far had been an exhaustive inventory of the farm, down to each individual organism.

As Valya had already worked through the various salad greens earlier that week, that morning she’d been assigned the navy beans, and Olivia the peas. The plants were easy to differentiate, each sprouting from a small hole in the netting that held the clay rooting matrix in place. Valya ticked off sets of five strokes for the character 正, a habit she’d picked up from Yan and the other taikonauts on Tiangong-5.

She was barely through her third tray when Olivia sighed loudly and said, “Valya, I love you, but if you don’t tell me what’s up I’m gonna call Russ on the com and ask if I can swap shifts.”

Valya started, her hand darting out to catch hold of the rack so the movement didn’t send her drifting into the trays behind her. “It’s nothing,” she said stiffly. “I just needed a break.”

“A break from Oscar Gutierrez, you mean.”

There really wasn’t any point in arguing. “I think he knows I’m avoiding him,” she said. Olivia only arched her brows, and Valya sniffed with exasperation. “This isn’t actually funny.”

Olivia rolled her eyes back to the plants and started to tick them off again. “Never said it was.”

“He keeps asking me if I’m ‘all right,’” Valya went on, tapping her pen against the clipboard. “What does that even mean, ‘all right’? How could anyone be ‘all right’ in a place like this? You’re fantastic and excited, or you’re living in a can. Neither of those is ‘all right’!”

“He’s the doctor, he’s just checking up on you.”

“If he knows I’m avoiding him, why does he keep following me around?” Valya snapped, counting out another row of 正s with furious little stabs of her pen. “You Americans, you just can’t leave well enough alone. Always sticking your noses in everything and smiling and telling me to have a good day. Maybe I don’t need to be told how good of a day I should have!” She blew out a frustrated puff of air, enough to make the bean stalks sway. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean you.”

“Of course.”

“Olivia, he’s everywhere. It’s like he’s part of the ACS, circulating around through every room!”

Olivia’s face, heart-shaped with high rounded cheekbones and smooth brown skin, was extremely well-suited to impishness. “That charming smile,” she said, “lying in wait through every airlock.”

“Don’t start.”

Olivia shook her head and pulled herself up to the next row of trays, labeled “Zucchini - Кабачок - ‭夏南瓜 with marker and masking tape. “You could tell him,” she said as she flipped to the next sheet of the inventory.

Valya snorted. “Because that went so well for you.”

“That was different.”

“Different only because you didn’t think you would get caught. And you knew that she was interested.”

“Because I asked!”

Valya scowled down at the inventory. “Some questions are fair for Antarctica that aren’t fair out here.”

“I’m not suggesting that you actually do anything,” said Olivia. “You’re right, I went and learned that lesson for all of us. But come on, Valya, you know how it is with crushes. If you pretend they’re not happening they only get worse. Just tell him, agree it won’t go anywhere, and then move on once the mystery’s gone.” Valya didn’t look up from her clipboard, but a moment later she felt Olivia give her shoulders a quick hug. “I know this feels like it’s different, but that’s just the isolation talking. Space makes you crazy. We’ve all been through it, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

“Not all of us,” Valya muttered.

“Valentina, come on. I know for a fact you’ve been with at least one man, because Yan was the one who had to tell him it was over.”

“Fine, you’re right!” Valya snapped. “I’m being ridiculous. Forget I said anything.”

“This is the worst of it, I promise,” said Olivia, softer than before. “Once we’re on the surface, we’ll all have other things to do and more than five rooms to live in. And on the way back, we’ll be too busy combing through data and talking to reporters to worry much about each other.”

Several unkind and unfair thoughts flitted through Valya’s mind, mostly regarding Olivia’s own track record and the nerve of her telling anyone else to meet their romantic problems head on. She swallowed them all and tried her best to smile, though she suspected it turned out more like a wince. “It really does feel like he’s around every corner,” she grumbled. “Shooting smile rays at me.”

“Pew pew,” said Olivia, clipboard drifting as she fired off double finger pistols.

“Yes, ‘pew pew.’” Valya laughed and clapped a hand over her heart. “Taken out by a cowboy!”

The two of them were still laughing when Ruslan slipped through the plastic divider. Half of another protein bar was sticking out of his mouth, and he grinned at them around it as he yanked a clipboard off the velcro by the hatch.

“Looks like we’ll have another crop of Zucchini before we pack everything up,” said Olivia. “Any plans for the farewell dinner?”

“Ratatouille, I think, since we are drowning in squash,” said Ruslan once he’d swallowed. “Though it makes me wish I had smuggled a bottle of Rioja in with the olive oil.”

“Just wait till we land,” said Olivia. “I’m sure you and Valya will have a bootleg operation going in the greenhouse before the month is out.”

“A month?!” Ruslan shook his salt-and-pepper head. “Do you think so little of us?”

“A week, at most,” said Valya. “We are professionals.”

***

Olivia switched off the compact vacuum cleaner and bent to untangle the cord, which had wrapped around the foot that wasn’t holding her steady as she worked. They’d been lectured many times about the dangers of straining electrical plugs, one of the myriad ways in which being an astronaut could make you feel like you were visiting your grandparents’ house, full of breakable objects and strange unpalatable food.

Gao’s head and shoulders appeared above her, poking upside-down through through the hatch that connected the Service Module to Node 2. “Were you planning to do the CM next? I’m finishing up my FFQ, but I can move to another terminal if I’m in the way.”

Olivia waved him off. “After lunch,” she said as pushed herself over to where the cord was plugged into a Utility Outlet Panel. “Still have all those photos to hang on the Line, and PA’s been on me to catch up.”

Gao nodded and popped back up into the node, leaving Olivia to her own thoughts as she packed the vacuum cleaner away. At home in Brooklyn, she would have left it sitting out while she ate lunch and checked her email, but here it had to be stowed immediately after every use. Anything too large to stick to a strip of velcro was too large to leave out in the cabin.

Like any other astronaut candidate, Olivia had spent two years of her life in ASCAN basic training just to make it into the corps proper, and months after that learning every centimeter of every vehicle she might find herself in—Orion, Soyuz, Shenzhou, Tiangong—as well as the more general lessons in orbital mechanics, Earth observation, space medicine and psychology, and immersion-level courses in Russian and Chinese. She’d served four months aboard Tiangong-6 because she’d needed the flight time to qualify for Mars, and gone through another year of training to prepare for a Chinese-led mission. That plus her interview skills and a doctorate in Planetary Geology had secured her a spot in Antarctica, where she’d lived through the long, dark winter with her future crew mates, holed up together in a gravity-friendly variant of the Baochuan.

Olivia knew the ins and outs of this ship better than any other place she’d lived, including the house outside New Orleans where she’d been born and the Crown Heights apartment her family had rented through middle and high school. But then, so did everyone else. And unlike Oscar and Valya and Ruslan and Su Yan, who all had specialized jobs on board, her expertise wouldn’t be of much use until they’d set up their habitat on the surface.

Once they’d landed, her days would be swallowed whole by sample collection, photo documentation, map-making, on-site lab work and arguing with US Mission Control over where to send their new rovers. Until then, her time was divided between social media obligations and an enormous amount of housekeeping. Particularly now, as they prepared to leave the Baochuan behind for their seventeen month stay on the surface of Mars.

The galley was in the forward section of the Command Module, with a divider that could be closed when Russ was cooking so the smell and inevitable bits and pieces wouldn’t invade the rest of the ship. His unusual kitchen was along the port wall, with its own microwave and convection ovens, refrigerator and freezer, potable water dispensers and sterilizer. He had all the best equipment, but it was understood that no one but him touched any of it without having been recruited into food prep for the day.

As such, Olivia gave it a wide berth and kicked herself over to the “dining room” on the starboard side. A quick rummage through the crew refrigerator unearthed the serving of leftover meatloaf (actually tofu) that she’d claimed a few days back, which she popped into the food warmer along with a pouch of coffee. Then she slid into her usual place at the table, hooked her feet under a bar on the floor, and angled the galley terminal to face her.

Yan had set things up so that the laptops were mostly dumb terminals, which the crew used to log into their accounts on a central server. The time delay and limited bandwidth meant they couldn’t use the Internet normally—low-priority content was sent and received once an hour; whenever the crew wrote an email or composed something to hang on the Line, it would go into the queue for the next transmission.

Olivia had signed up for a public-facing Clothesline account back when she’d first started as an ASCAN—a move which had both impressed and irritated her kids—and had updated it at least once a week ever since. Once a day, now that they were nearing the end of the trans-Mars leg and the pace was picking up again. Most of what she hung on her Line were annotated images from the aging rovers and Martian weather satellite, peppered with photos she’d taken herself of the growing red dot among the stars. But her Line’s basket, which the Public Affairs Office required her to leave open, was forever brimming with notes and questions from her followers back home. And if she didn’t answer the letters that her PA Officer had selected, weeks of sob stories about disappointed schoolchildren and public disengagement would follow, none of which was worth saving the time it took to bang out cheerful replies to questions about how excited she was to land, how they made pizza in space, or how they used the toilet.

Public Affairs had flagged five questions since yesterday and they sat at the top of her basket of unread letters, their subject lines charming and ominous in turn. The one that read “Plans for the landing?” pinged as particularly dangerous, for reasons she wouldn’t have been able to articulate. She cringed and clicked around it, explaining how the micro g dishwasher worked, describing the seventh-grade Earth Science teacher who had turned her on to geology, and opining on which of the ASU Sun Devils teams were the most exciting that year.

When four replies sat in her queue and the delaying tactics of lunch and coffee had been consumed, she surrendered to the inevitable and opened the damn thing.

Olivia,

Do you and Su Yan have any special plans for when you’re finally on Mars? Will you have your own room on the surface? You’ve said there isn’t a lot of privacy on the Baochuan, so I hope you two can finally have some time alone! It must be so romantic to be able to share this adventure!

—Marcy from St. Louis


About as bad as she’d expected. With their arrival only days away, she had hoped for a drop in curiosity about the ongoing details of her love life. If anything, the opposite had proven true. Olivia had asked PA to lay off on the gossipy questions, but they all knew being gossip-worthy was half her job out here, and at least one of these things would make it through every week. She ran her hand over her short, tightly-curled hair and considered precisely how dense she felt like being today.


Hello, Marcy!

We’re all incredibly excited about the landing, and we have lots of ambitious plans for what we’ll do once we’re on the surface. But it’ll be a while before we have any privacy! The lander will form the core of the habitat, and at first it will be much smaller than the Baochuan! But once we’ve inflated the Bigelow modules and the greenhouse tent, we’ll have a little more room to stretch our legs and spend some time alone with our thoughts. Which will probably be all about Mars!

—Olivia



“Hey, Martini!”

Olivia looked up from the screen to see that Oscar and Su Yan had appeared at the far end of the module. With all the background noise, the crew were forever sneaking up on each other, accidentally or otherwise.

She sent the note to her queue and logged out of her account. “I’m just finishing up here. Did you need something?”

“Any idea where Valya is?” asked Oscar. “We’re getting some weird readings from the lander’s MCA that I wanted to run by her.”

“Weird how?” asked Olivia as she gathered the dirty dishes.

“Too early to say,” said Oscar. “Probably nothing. Hopefully Valya will tell me I’m just worrying too much.”

“Well, she was in the farm when I left her,” said Olivia, repressing a rueful smile. “You can probably find her there.”

Oscar waved his thanks and pulled himself back through Node 1, leaving Olivia and Yan to regard each other from opposite sides of the room. Olivia slid the plate and utensils into the sterilizer under the table, which bought her a few more seconds to think.

“I still have a quarter hour left of my break,” she said. She tugged a rag off its velcro square on the wall and gave the table a quick wipe down, a perfect excuse for not looking Yan in the eye. “I thought I’d go out to the Cupola and enjoy the view for a while.”

“Ah,” said Yan. Olivia glanced up at her, then, but her eyes were averted. “I will say to look for you there if you are needed, then.”

Olivia watched her disappear through the hatch, then sighed and banged her head against the galley rack. “Why don’t you join me?” she mumbled under her breath.

Resigned to a lonely viewing, Olivia pulled herself through the Cupola hatch and closed the blackout curtain: a thick panel of velvety fabric held taut between two rails, which swallowed the light and sound of the module behind her. Her reflection disappeared from the glass; she could see the tapered forward section of the Command Module, extending a few feet past where the Cupola was berthed. Beyond it, the ancient, unwavering pinpricks of distant stars.

On the old ISS, the Cupola module had been a small dome berthed to the Tranquility Node, with controls for the Canadian Mobile Servicing System and a view of the Earth side of the station. This Cupola was more of a sphere that jutted out from one side of the Command Module, with five-paned fused silica windows that barely distorted the view. Design documents and Public Affairs officers emphasized the Cupola’s excellent lines of sight for the Canadarm4, Centrifuge and photovoltaic blankets; during the months-long monotony of transit, the crew cared far more for its view, though it had changed very little since Earth had diminished to a blue pinprick.

Olivia spun in place in her little sphere of windows and the Baochuan spread out before her, stark white and gold and steel, the silvery bones of the solar array wing gleaming with caught sunlight, all of it bright and perfect in the vacuum. Beyond them, framed by the spinning halo of the Centrifuge, hung a mottled, rusty coin.

Nose against the glass, hands cupped along her cheeks and temples to block reflected light, she drank in the craters and mountains and bruise-purple valleys of a alien desert. Places she would cross with her feet, touch with her hands; dusty air that would push back against their light, slim compression suits; gravity that would heal their bones and muscles. A real place where she would stand and see and feel.

***

“I’m sorry, Gao, I don’t know what to tell you,” said Oscar. His face, olive-skinned and pleasantly rugged, was more worried than Valya had seen it since the launch. “It’s called a ‘Major Constituent Analyzer’ for a reason. It’s really just supposed to monitor oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, not trace contaminants. The spike at 231.1 could mean a lot of things, or it could just be instrument error.”

The crew had gathered in the Command Module, as it was the only space on the Baochuan large enough to hold all of them comfortably. But their usual habit of sitting around the “dinner table” felt too claustrophobic when tensions were this high. The need for fidgeting room had spread them all around the aft section of the module in a ring, just close enough to each other to be heard without raising their voices above the ventilation fans.

“But do we need to be worrying about the TCCS?” Gao pressed. “Would we be seeing a spike like that if the filters were working?”

“Hard to say,” said Oscar. “The shirtsleeve compartments of the lander were sterilized before launch, pressurized with pure nitrogen and sealed. There shouldn’t be anything on board that the Atmospheric Revitalization Subsystem can’t handle.”

“But there could be,” said Ruslan.

Oscar scratched the back of his neck. “Stranger things have happened.”

Valya sighed and wedged herself into the vestibule where Node 1 was berthed, shoulders and slippered feet pushing against rubber seals in a way that wasn’t particularly comfortable but felt satisfyingly surly. She lay her fingers along the metal hatch ring, which conducted the thrum of the Baochuan’s pulse through her own bones.

Only a handful of systems had been taken off-line for orbital insertion—Valya knew this better than most, as she had powered nearly all of them down herself—but the Baochuan still felt quieter to her. Ridiculous as it might be, she sometimes imagined she could hear the whisper of photons against PV blankets; and now that the Solar Array Wings had been stowed, she felt like an old-world frigate with its sails furled, left to drift in ocean currents.

“What about those numbers from the flowmeter?” she asked, a little too harshly. She had a tendency to overcompensate where Oscar was concerned.

“They’re barely off-nominal,” he said. “Well within the range of-”

“They should not be off-nominal at all,” Valya snapped. “The AVS has been running for a week, and we have not even boarded the damned lander yet.”

“If there’s a problem with the atmosphere, we can’t risk docking,” said Su Yan, who was floating cross-legged in front of the Cupola, kept steady by a bit of blackout curtain held between her thumb and forefinger. “We’ll have to capture it with the Canadarm and access it via EVA.”

Oscar frowned. “That sounds a little extreme. We know the CO2 and O2 levels are nominal, and the CBA would’ve scrubbed anything dangerous.”

“Unless the CAT OX isn’t working,” said Valya.

“Well, that would be delightful.” Ruslan chuckled darkly. “Open the hatch, flood the module with carbon monoxide and die in a heap.”

“So instead we’ll expose the whole lander to vacuum?” said Valya. “It’s supposed to be a shirtsleeve environment, most of those systems can’t handle complete decompression, let alone being frozen to one hundred degrees kelvin.”

“I don’t know what choice we have,” said Su Yan. “It doesn’t have an airlock. Either we berth it at the Docking Port as planned, or we decompress the interior and enter via EVA.”

“An EMU doesn’t have enough mobility to do real work in there!” said Valya. Yan was a very smart woman, but she was an electronics engineer, not a mechanic, and had performed only the minimum number amount of Extravehicular Activity to quality for selection. “You’d be lucky if you could get any of the ECLSS racks open, let alone figure out what’s wrong with them, let alone repair anything.”

“Come on, Valentina, we’re just tossing ideas around,” said Olivia quietly, speaking for the first time since they’d gathered an hour ago. “Go easy.”

Valya grimaced, reached inside herself and tried to ratchet her irritation down a couple of turns. “I told them to send us with two airlock modules,” she grumbled, her eyes on the deck to avoid glaring at anyone. “One for EVA, one that could mate with the Descent Module’s hatch. But no! Too much weight, too much fuel, so instead we have one airlock and a poisoned lander that we cannot go inside-”

“We don’t know that it’s poisoned,” said Oscar, with a kind gentleness that was entirely undeserved and brought a wave of heat to Valya’s cheeks. “It’s just one spike on a mass spectrum and a slight irregularity in a flowmeter.”

“The Challenger had only one faulty O-ring,” muttered Valya, which won her another “this isn’t helping” look from Olivia.

Gao held up both hands, palms flat and silencing, in a rare gesture of authority. “There’s no use in arguing about this. When Flight Operations gives us a new berthing and transfer checklist, we will follow it. Until then, we will complete MOI and our related responsibilities, of which there are plenty.”

“Responsibilities?” Valya snorted. “The insertion burn’s completely automated. We’re along for the ride.”

“The EPS-”

Valya waved him off. “Gao, you know I got those systems in order hours ago. The farm is stowed, our belongings are packed, Ruslan has emptied out most of the kitchen and Olivia has destroyed every hair or particle of dust outside the air filters. We flipped for the insertion burn weeks ago. Until the rendezvous with the lander we have nothing to do but watch and wait. So I would prefer to make obvious preparations to berth and investigate the lander, instead of sitting by the window like a tourist.”

Olivia glanced down at her wristwatch, another of the many bizarre anachronisms of spaceflight. “Look, I love you all, and I know this is a real shit situation,” she said. “But Gao’s right. It’s gonna be a while before we’ve sorted out the new ops, and in the meantime it’s out of our hands. We will figure out what to do,” she emphasized, her eyes meeting Valya’s. “But for now, there’s a big, beautiful planet that’s about to be right outside our window. I think I’m okay with being a tourist for a while.”

Valya looked at her own watch. “Already?”

As they all realized how much time had gone by, the tension in the module temporarily eased, replaced by the nervous giddiness that characterized every cosmonaut’s most surreal moments. Valya had felt it many times in her life: the first time she had watched the Earth fall away beneath her, the first time she had passed through an EVA hatch and into an impossible world of clouds and continents and sea, the first sunrise after months of Antarctic night, the first morning on the Baochuan when the Earth was too small in the star-field to easily pick out.

In a brief flurry of activity, folding crew couches were pulled up from where they’d been stowed in the module’s deck, each neatly labeled with the crew member for whom the custom foam padding had been designed. They locked upright with metallic clicks, and Valya and the others quickly settled into their places, their eyes flicking between the adjustment of their straps and the large monitor that had been mounted on the forward wall of the galley.

This was not how Valya would have wanted to watch the final approach. The Cupola’s sphere of windows had been shuttered for insertion, but there were aft-facing views in other modules, and even the best video was no match for seeing it right there in front of you through glass. With a ship as large and relatively delicate as the Baochuan, deceleration would be about as violent as a metro train car with an overeager driver.

But Flight Ops had insisted on the couches, and this was not a battlefield that any of them were willing to die on. Better to save their leverage of distance and access for more important disagreements.

“We’re here,” Olivia murmured in the couch beside Valya’s, her knuckles pale as she gripped the armrests. Her expression was almost panicked in its excitement.

“Almost,” said Valya quietly.

The monitor blinked to life, displaying the joined-hands logo of the World Coalition for Mars Exploration. “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Baochuan,” began a tinny, compressed version of Flight Director Sarangerel’s voice. “By the time you hear this, you will be moments away from an inspiring milestone in the history of human spaceflight. Mere minutes from now, the Baochuan’s CECE-2 engines will begin their final deceleration burn, and when it finishes you will be the first men and women ever to enter into orbit around another planet.”

The logo disappeared, replaced by a cratered persimmon landscape that grew perceptibly as she watched, its features impossibly sharp through its suggestion of an atmosphere. Valya stopped listening.

The nozzles of the rockets were dark arches along the bottom of the screen, having been pitched 180º to point “forward” several weeks ago. Now they burst to life with blue-white flame, and Valya gasped as her own momentum pushed her into the foam behind her, the highest G she’d felt since leaving Earth half a year ago. She fought against these forces with space-withered muscles to lift her arm, found Olivia’s hand with her own, and squeezed it tight between her fingers.

***

Valya kept her hand steady on the controls for the Artificial Vision Unit’s cameras, though her shoulders’ complaints were loud and insistent. The Cupola wasn’t particularly cramped, but Valya had a tendency to slouch when she concentrated, and since beginning maneuvers this morning she had curled around the Remote Manipulator System’s workstation as if it were her only source of warmth. One millimeter at a time, the lander’s black and white target drifted sideways across her screen, easing into alignment with superimposed crosshairs on the AVU’s enhanced video display. “SVS Target acquired,” she muttered into her headset. “Do you verify?”

She was dimly aware of the sounds of typing beside her. “Copy that,” said Su Yan a moment later. “You have a go.”

“Flight Ops, this is Red Star One,” said Valya. Even without Mission Control walking them through procedures, the custom of constant narration remained. The archivists loved it. “I have the target on the enhanced AVU. Locking in a solution and switching to auto. Standby.” Her eyes flicked over the readouts on the “Red Star Two, please verify all is nominal for capture.”

“Copy that. Self-collision potential checks out. Verify speed as slow. Auto capture is a go.”

For the first time in hours, Valya looked up and out of the Cupola’s windows. The bullet-shaped rigid aeroshell of the lander hung above and beside them with its photovoltaic blankets unfurled, barely sixty feet away and seeming even closer in the vacuum. She had never seen a descent vehicle on such a large scale—the Baochuan itself was functionally more of a space station, only able to operate outside a planet’s atmosphere—and even now she found it hard to believe something so massive could be captured and held in place by the spindly Canadarm.

Yet as impressive as the lander might be, her field of vision was dominated by the immense, alien bulk of Mars itself. She didn’t know the planet’s geography as well as Olivia, but she recognized the vaguely spiral-shaped depression of Kasei Valles, and beyond it, the dark smudge of Chryse Planitia. If she’d had the time and a pair of binoculars, she could have found the inert, dusty corpses of the Pathfinder and Viking 1 landers on the volcanic plain in between. In a few hours, they would pass over the In-Situ Resource Utilization plant that hummed in the Martian lowlands near the equator, where the atmospheric pressure was just a shade higher. For a year it had waited with perfect mechanical patience, transmitted weather reports from their intended campsite, gulped down the thin Martian atmosphere and converted it into oxygen. Fuel and breathable air, squeezed from a poisonous desert, ready for them to arrive.

Less than a week to go. Four days, if they managed to stay close to planned procedures. The checklists were becoming almost comically unreal.

Valya’s eyes returned to darting between the Remote Workstation displays, a task of patient vigilance which took up very little of her attention. “Olivia must be excited,” she said, innocuous enough for the headset still hooked to her ear. They’d promised to stay “on box” for any and all procedures outside the nominal routine, and capturing the lander in orbit around Mars absolutely qualified.

“I’m sure she is,” said Yan.

Valya pushed a little harder. “Have you been able to talk to her about it?”

“She should enjoy the moment in her own way,” said Yan, her tone opaque. “There’s only one first time.”

Valya frowned at the feed from the shoulder camera, momentarily distracted. “Hang on. I don’t like how close Boom B is to the SA. Switching to manual. Confirm elbow checked on PCS.”

“Copy, I confirm.”

“Moving Boom B into the zenith.” For the next several minutes, grilling Yan was forgotten as Valya curled even more tightly around the RWS, her whole arm rigid as she eased the Canadarm’s boom up a few degrees away from the Solar Array, and from the planet below them. “Canadarm position corrected.”

Yan leaned forward as she surveyed the bank of displays. “Flight Ops, I can confirm that.”

Valya released the rotational controller, her palm already cramped. “Resuming auto capture,” she said, and typed in the quick series of commands. She loosely gripped a bar by her shoulder and shook the tension out of her other hand. “We’re all in the moment together,” she said, as if there had been no interruption.

“Another reason to leave her some privacy,” said Yan. Her voice was quiet.

“Is that what she wants?”

“She knows I’m here.”

Their time together on the Chinese space station, and their friendship in the years since, had won Valya a degree of fluency in Su Yan facial expressions. A glance at the other woman’s profile now confirmed that the conversation had run into a wall she was not going to get past, particularly not while on the record. “We’re in the grapple envelope,” she said. “Time to get the family together.” She rolled her shoulders as she uncurled herself from the controls. “Flight Ops, this is Red Star One. I’m stepping away from the RWS. Red Star Two will supervise.”

“Copy and confirm,” said Yan.

Her slippered feet still hooked into the foot loops, Valya leaned back until she was nearly horizontal, far enough to give her a clear view of the Command Module. In the hours since she and Yan had first begun the capture checklist, the module’s velcro strips and bungee cords had filled with an intriguing cross-section of tools and materials that the others had drug out of stowage, some of which Valya had forgotten was on the Baochuan to begin with. Ruslan and Gao were both wearing headsets and floating in front of the laptop in the galley, still immersed in stilted conversation with Flight Ops and the Mission Evaluation Room on Earth. Olivia was going at a canister of foam sealant with the velcro gun. Oscar was checking their haul against a list on his clipboard.

“It’s time!” Valya called to them, then pulled herself back into position at the RWS. By the time she had finished informing Flight Ops that she had retaken her post, she could see her crew mates’ reflections in the glass above the AVU monitors, two eager faces on each side of the Cupola vestibule.

The Canadarm itself blocked much of her view of the target through the windows, but on the AVU she could see the Latching End Effector was centimeters away, drifting with aching slowness across the gap that remained. A moment later, she felt a slight tremor vibrate through the ship. “Latch has made contact,” said Valya. “Trigger is hot. Red Star Two, verify we are still go for capture.”

“Copy that.”

Valya tapped the trigger with her finger. “Verify close. Flight Ops, we are latched.” She heard a burst of cheers behind her, followed by the distinctive slap of the Americans “high-fiving” each other. Valya grinned. “Red Star Two, do you confirm Descent Module capture?”

She glanced over in time to catch Yan’s smile. “Copy that, I concur.”

“Transitioning from operational to keep-alive.”

“Copy that.” Yan’s fingers skipped over her keyboard. “Flight Ops, this is Red Star Two. Capture is complete.”

Valya blew out a long breath and rolled her shoulders. “Now we only have to board it.”

Olivia laughed. “About that…”

“Valentina, can I borrow you for a moment?” asked Gao.

“We have to run through the post-capture checklist,” said Valya, then looked to Yan. “Do you mind?”

“Not at all,” said Yan, so quickly that Valya wondered if her plan was to hide out by herself in the Cupola until dinner.

Valya took off her headset, bundled up the cord and tucked it under a strip of elastic on the side of the RWS. She nodded to Yan, then pulled herself out into the Command Module-turned-workshop.

Gao held up a clipboard fat with dry erase sheets, the stack threatening to either break the clip or launch out from under it in a stream. The top sheet was covered in Chinese characters written in his neat, tiny handwriting. “MER has worked up a checklist for docking,” he said. “These are just my notes, they’ll send the full text via uplink once they’ve done a run-through in the NBL.”

“What’s all of this, then?” asked Valya, her gesture encompassing the whole collection of miscellany.

“Supplies,” said Gao.

Valya poked at a bolt of ceramic fabric. “For docking?”

“The engineers had to get a little creative,” said Olivia.

Valya laughed and grimaced at once. “What are we going to do to the lander?”

“Nothing that won’t burn off in the atmosphere,” said Oscar.

“With the materials available, this was their only option,” said Gao.

She took the offered clipboard from him and flipped through the pages. Her Chinese literacy wasn’t fantastic, but the general shape of the plan was clear enough. “I suppose that I’ll be the one mangling our air lock,” she said as she examined a sketchy diagram.

“With my assistance,” said Gao.

She thumbed quickly through the rest of the checklist. “Am I reading this wrong? You’re going to take the Crew Lock off? And put it…where?”

“The folks down at Mission Control are still hammering that part out,” said Oscar. “Probably we’ll just clip it onto the starboard side of Node 3.”

“So we egress from the crew lock, but what about the return?”

“We’ll empty out the equipment lock and depressurize it along with the crew lock,” said Gao. “After that, it will be our primary egress/ingress lock during off-nominal EVA operations.”

Valya shook her head as she handed the clipboard back to him. “At least our commander will be beside me when I freeze all the systems in the equipment lock and punch a hole in the lander’s insulation.”

“Valya, be realistic,” said Oscar. “Gao’s much more likely to destroy the lander than you are.”

Even Gao smiled at that, but their laughter had a vaguely manic edge to it that Valya knew well. She remembered it from the old Tiangong days, most often in the moments before the Caution and Warning alarms blared to life.

***

Of all the elements developed for the Baochuan’s construction, the Centrifuge had been the most frustrating by far. It had presented hundreds of problems to solve—what type of lubrication would withstand the stresses involved, how best to kick-start the ring’s spin, how to keep it spinning at a constant pace, what rate to spin it at, how to keep it connected to the electrical power system and information architecture without starting a fire, how to keep its atmosphere circulating in the centrifugal gravity, how to maintain access to modules further down the truss when it wasn’t in use—a list so enormous that the idea had nearly been abandoned.

But the benefits of even a little bit of gravity were well-documented. And in the end, once a demonstrator unit had been tested on Tiangong-6 without destroying the station, the doctors had won out.

With sleeping quarters and exercise equipment strung out along the ring, the bone and muscle health of the Baochuan crew had met all but the most optimistic hopes. Olivia could feel the difference between how her body operated now and how it had felt at the end of her stay on Tiangong-6. Like the rest of the crew, she exercised for hours every day in the fight to hold onto as much strength as she could, but in the Centrifuge those efforts felt less Sisyphean than they once had.

Unfortunately treadmills and stationary bikes, even with laptops mounted on the wall in front of them, were deadly dull and inherently solitary, and offered mediocre relief from the antsiness born of long confinement.

A month into transit, Su Yan had recruited Valya to help her move the crew quarters and equipment into slightly different positions. A straight shot around the ring would unbalance the mechanism, but they had managed to carve a gently undulating path through the obstructions. After several days of patient experimentation, Yan had perfected a quick, shuffling stride that would get your heart beating without pushing you off the ground in one-third g.

Oscar had immediately christened this maneuver the “Su Yan Shuffle,” and for everyone but Gao—who was a semi-serious cyclist between missions—it had become both the exercise and stress relief of choice.

So when Olivia had had enough of watching Valya ricochet between hassling Mission Control for updates and glowering at the lander through the Cupola windows, she had suggested that maybe it was time to take a walk.

The sensation of climbing the ladder down through the transit tunnel was a strange one. When Olivia floated into the hub, the round mouth of the tunnel rotated around her at the dizzying rate of seven revolutions per minute. They all had their own techniques for this first bit, but she preferred to grab hold of the rail at the top of the ladder with both hands, tuck up her knees and then pull her lower body around and down. As soon as her feet were clear, she’d extend her legs and find her footing on the ladder itself, and once she’d had a moment to acclimate to the spin she began her descent out toward the ring.

At first, the force of the rotation pushed her downward against the ladder, such that she had to hold herself away from the wall of the tunnel with her arms. As she climbed, the pull slowly rotated down toward her feet, and by the time she reached the bottom of the ladder she was standing upright on the “floor” of the ring’s interior.

The ring was only twelve meters wide, and the space it enclosed was just barely tall enough for Olivia to stand upright. This had the unsettling effect of only allowing her to see a couple of meters in front of her, and it had taken her longer to get used to Mars-equivalent g than she would have expected. But sleeping in gravity of any kind was fantastic, and having nearly forty meters of “track” to shuffle along in the style of that old Kubrick movie felt luxurious. She had no idea how they would have managed without the Centrifuge. Probably someone would have locked themselves up in their sleep compartment with all of the chocolate by now. Probably her.

“I don’t see why they won’t let me move the crew lock on my own,” Valya muttered, now shuffle-jogging a half-meter ahead of Olivia along the ring.

“Gao knows what he’s doing,” Olivia said. “And I thought you said you wanted to de-mate the interior connections?”

They scooted past the gym—stationary bike and treadmill mounted on the deck; a few small free-weights tucked under a bungee cord. Gao had pinned up photographs of the Tour de France along the wall. “I could do both,” said Valya.

“Sure, if you want to make it a twelve-hour EVA. And let someone else jury rig that hatch.”

“Don’t even joke,” Valya snapped.

“Valya, they know you’re the expert,” said Olivia. “Gao’s only going to assist.” This was not flattery. Valya was a veteran of EVA maintenance work—arguably the best living micro g mechanic of any kind—and that experience was reflected in the procedures the Mission Evaluation Room team had worked up. Once she’d disconnected the crew lock from the inside, she would help Gao wrap it with thermal blankets to keep it from damaging the Baochuan’s exterior, move it along the length of the ship’s main truss to the starboard side of Node 2, and strap it down with tethers. Then the two of them would return to the equipment lock, and Gao would hang back and serve as her support while she did the bulk of the hands-on work. They would have to modify the hatch while still wearing their suits, and the space would be far too narrow for two crew in EMUs to accomplish anything side-by-side.

But all of that was still hours away. Days, possibly, if Mission Control decided their schedule could absorb the delay. The Crew and Thermal Systems Division wasn’t going to send them out on complex, multi-stage EVAs without rehearsing the entire procedure multiple times in the Neutral Buoyancy Tank, and the WCME wouldn’t let Valya mangle their ¥250 billion lander without MER testing every element in a Thermal Vacuum Chamber, both individually and in combination.

“I would stay in that EMU for twenty hours if it got us into the lander more quickly,” said Valya. Olivia doubted she was exaggerating.

“You can’t blame MER for being careful,” said Olivia. “They don’t want us to die in a half-assed air lock.”

Valya snorted. “They don’t want us to break anything.”

“Either way, worrying about it won’t make it happen any faster,” said Olivia, to herself as much as to Valya. She’d been sidling along the edge of another round of “we’re never going to land” panic for hours. “So let’s just try and enjoy the free time, okay? We’ll be on Mars in a couple of days. It can’t hurt to savor the wait a little.”

They passed by the crew quarters, a series of soft-sided compartments that reminded Olivia of sleeper cars on a train—a bunk and a laptop and a few photographs tucked into a cramped little box. The only pocket of genuine privacy that any of them had in this place.

Valya glanced back over her shoulder, her eyes narrowed. Her auburn ponytail swung with exaggerated buoyancy. “That reminds me,” she began, in a tone that made Olivia immediately nervous. “What is going on with you and Yan?”

“Nothing anyone else needs to worry about,” said Olivia automatically.

Chush’ sobach’ya.

“It can wait until we’re on the surface.”

“No it can’t.” Valya shuffled harder. “I’m bored and I’m cranky and I’m tired of dealing with both of you.”

“So let’s talk about Oscar.”

“Olivia Gibson, I am a dangerous woman. Do not fuck me.”

“Don’t fuck with me,” Olivia corrected.

Ne yebut so mnoy,” Valya grumbled, and Olivia could tell she wasn’t entirely joking. She didn’t usually swear this much.

Olivia sighed. “What’s going on is nothing’s going on.”

But Valya had sniffed out the trail. “In Antarctica, you were always together, always smiling, very close,” she said. “Now, you barely talk. That isn’t nothing.”

They had made several laps of the ring by now, although Olivia had lost count. They finished another before she spoke again. “It wasn’t supposed to be anything at all,” she said quietly. “That’s the point.”

“How do you mean?”

“Alike and I had just split up. Yan’s husband had been dead for years, and by then she never really talked to anyone who wasn’t in the program. Neither of us had been home in at least six months. She’d missed her daughter’s graduation, I’d missed…basically everything since I’d been picked as a candidate. My girls were barely talking to me.” Olivia looked down at her feet in their soft-soled shoes, sliding noiselessly along the floor. She’d used to run, back when she’d still lived in Bed Stuy. She and Alike had put the girls in jogging strollers, headed down to Prospect Park and run long hilly loops for hours on pleasant afternoons. That had been ten years ago.

“We were lonely,” Olivia said. “We were just keeping each other company.”

“You and I were company,” said Valya. “You and she were in bed.”

Olivia scowled. “Don’t even start with me, Valentina. You’ve flown enough to know how these things work. You go up, you have an ‘arrangement,’ everyone looks the other way, you come back home, it never happened.”

“I know,” said Valya, now deliberately gentle. “I only thought it was more than that with you two.”

“The reporters caught on to it,” said Olivia. “After that, we were cornered. What else were we supposed to do? We were getting fan mail, you remember that? People thought it was great, two cute single moms kissing in the snow. That’s the only reason the Coalition didn’t wash us both out of the program. The numbers were too good.”

“Fine. I understand,” said Valya. “But why now?”

“What do you mean?”

“You wanted to go to Mars. You did what you had to. We all did such things to get here. But why don’t you stop? You are on the crew, whatever happens. They can’t put you on the autobus back home.”

Olivia’s gaze unfocused. She stared through and past the deck as she walked, through time and distance to a small, warm room, tucked into a landscape of ice and windy darkness. Curled up under layers of blankets through the howling winter nights, mugs of wolfberry and chrysanthemum tea cooling on the bedside table, they had lain together and whispered about the cliffs of Olympus Rupes.

She blinked the stinging from her eyes. “It isn’t worth making a scene,” she said.

“I would rather have a scene!”

“It’ll sort itself out once we’re on the surface,” said Olivia. “We’ll have more to do and more room to do it in. Until then, Yan and I have an understanding.”

“And of course you have talked to her about this understanding.”

Olivia smiled a little, unable to resist. “As much as you’ve talked to Oscar.”

“That’s completely-!”

A tone sounded, and both women stopped mid-stride to listen as Gao’s voice boomed from the intercom. “We have the final berthing procedure. Valentina, please meet me in the Command Module. We’re scheduled to begin the pre-breathe checklist in two hours.”

***

Valya was not a sentimental woman. But even she had found it difficult to concentrate on repairs to the Tiangong station with the Earth right there beneath her, achingly beautiful and profound no matter how many times she saw it. She had scoffed at older cosmonauts and their philosophical ramblings, dismissing such talk as self-indulgent and unprofessional. But when she’d gone back and read the transcripts of her own first spacewalk, every other word out of her mouth had been “wow.”

Determined to maintain her dignity this time around, Valya had clamped her mouth shut when she’d pushed open the EVA hatch and slipped out into space. This had worked at first—they were on the night side of the planet, and in the darkness Mars was little more than a shadow against the stars, its atmosphere glowing dimly along the horizon. Gorgeous, as every spacewalk was whatever she might say, but not all that different from what she’d seen before. She had turned her attention to the final set of connections between the two airlock segments, confident that she had this under control. Plus, her nose had started to itch, and her hands were already beginning to ache, both of which reminded her that this was a job to be endured and completed.

Then dawn had broken, the glass of her faceplate darkening as sunlight swept across the landscape below her. Her world had exploded with light and color and depth and stupefying detail, too much to be taken in and understood all at once. Her had breath caught. The view blurred. She blinked, and spheres of moisture had clung to her eyelashes, cool in the recirculated air of her helmet.

“Well, fuck,” were the words she had murmured into posterity.

After that, she tried to keep her back to the scenery (as absurd as it was to even think of it that way) and her mind on her work, which was the sort of tediously dangerous task that typified EVA activity. She and Gao had to maneuver the detached segment without allowing its momentum to maim or destroy anyone or thing. And while they had rehearsed similar EVAs hundreds of times in the neutral buoyancy tank in Jiuquan, enough to make them feel almost routine, this particular task was unique to her experience. Normally, they would have used the Canadarm to lift the crew hatch away from the Baochuan and move it to its new location, but the whole RMS was still tied up with holding the lander in place. She and Gao would have to complete the entire process manually, and though the lock was easy to move in the micro g, the consequences of losing control were severe—as if she were moving furniture around her apartment, with the awareness that even a moment’s inattention could result in a couch going straight through the wall.

A few hours earlier, while she and Gao were camping out in the equipment lock for their prebreathe, the others had formed an assembly line of sorts in the Command Module. Long strips of material were cut to described specifications and held taut with clips, then the layers were coated with two-component epoxy and carefully sandwiched together: thermal blankets for insulation, ceramic fabric for strength, urethane-coated nylon for impermeability. They’d been lucky to have the last of those, too—the waterproof nylon had been designed for use on Mars as well as in transit and could tolerate extreme changes in temperature, while a normal tarp would have quickly crumbled to dust. All in all, an elegant solution to a messy problem, and Valya looked forward to reading the attached reports as soon as she had the time.

Now, she checked the time on her heads-up display, which at the moment was a small translucent rectangle, tucked just above and to the right of her eyes inside her helmet. They’d been out here for seven hours. She’d break her personal record today.

As Valya and Gao were wrestling with the crew lock, Su Yan had moved the lander, still latched onto the end of the Canadarm, into place just outside the still-open hatch of the equipment lock. The hatch on the outside of the lander—which they had originally planned to berth at the Docking Port on the forward end of the Command Module—was twenty centimeters wider than the hatch that had separated the crew and equipment locks. The arm now held the two hatches exactly ten centimeters apart, and Valya glimpsed the stars and the solar arrays and the planet below through the gap.

She turned her head to take a sip of water from the little straw by her cheek. Even this newer, more cooperative model of EMU glove made it felt like she was squeezing an orange whenever she made a fist. Her hands were beginning to cramp.

“Next strip,” she said, and Gao handed her another laminated section, twenty-five centimeters wide and just under a meter long. Valya leaned back against the tether that connected to the EVA handle in front of her, braced her legs against the rim of the hatch as best she could, and took the strip from him with both hands. Her movements were careful and deliberate; as she twisted her shoulders around and lifted the material into place, she made constant adjustments to how her weight was angled. Momentum was a constant problem in micro g.

The plan had been to fit the strips into the gap between the vehicles, curved to follow the contour of the two docking ports and pressed into the insides of the exterior hatch seal assemblies. Valya could wrestle them into the correct shape and position on her own, but the strips had some memory to them, and it took both hands and a fair amount of strength to keep them from springing back out again. Thankfully, Gao had figured out how to snake his way around Valya’s limbs, hold himself in place with his feet hooked under EVA handles and his life support backpack wedged against Valya’s legs, and run the nozzle of the canister of patch kit sealant foam along the seams where the laminated strips met the docking rings and each other. They must have looked completely ridiculous, and if past experiences were any indication, several screen grabs from the equipment lock camera would be hung on the Line by the end of the day.

“Valya, Gao, this Red Star One.” Olivia’s voice buzzed in her ear, transmitted over Space-to-Space UHF. “Can I get an update?”

“Strip number six is in place and we’ll have it sealed in just a minute,” said Valya. “Previous strips seem to have set in position.”

“Sealant supply is good,” said Gao. Talking to her “buddy” on an EVA was always a little disorienting for Valya—no matter where they were physically, they always sounded like they were just behind her. “Final strip has been sealed along all edges.”

“Copy that,” said Olivia. “Valya, once that last round of foam has set, both of you should go ahead and move to the starboard end of the equipment lock. Get your crew lock bags organized and your tools stowed. MC wants us to let the foam set for thirty more minutes before we try to re-pressurize the lock.”

“Copy,” said Valya. She unhooked herself from the EVA handles, taking care to keep her limbs and her drifting collection of tools from disturbing the foam, and pushed herself aft to make it easier for Gao to extricate himself.

She had already stowed her Pistol Grip Tool and spare equipment tethers in her bag when she’d returned to the equipment lock. The waist tether she left, however—she’d have to hook herself to one of the starboard-side rails before they re-pressurized the lock. There was a non-zero chance that the cone of laminated sheets and foam would be blown out into space, and she would prefer not to be dragged along for the ride.

“Go ahead and finish up with housekeeping,” said Olivia. “We’ll have updated procedures from Flight Ops in just a minute.”

“Copy,” said Gao. He had tucked the emptied foam canisters into one stowage bag and the unused ones into another. Only two went into the latter bag, that Valya could see—she hoped they wouldn’t have many actual leaks that needed sealing for the next three years.

“Gao, are you still positioned in the hatch?” asked Olivia.

“Yes, I am.”

“They want you to use the handheld camera to get some close up video of the entire assembled collar.”

“Copy.” Gao unhooked the camera from his belt—as large as his hand and three times as thick, so they could use it with clumsy EMU gloves—and switched on his helmet-mounted lamp.

Valya had almost forgotten about her own camera. She spent so much energy focusing on her work, she seldom remembered to enjoy the odd moment of easy tourism. Smiling, she unclipped it now and held it up so she could see the little display, insulated beneath half an inch of hardened transparent silicone. This was only Gao’s second EVA since launch, and the first had been a routine replacement of a malfunctioning bus. Valya suspected that parents, both retired Party officials in Beijing, would love having a few shots of ‘Gao Lie: Space Engineer’ to show off to their friends.

The white, fluorescent-lit interior of the equipment lock; the just-completed collar, its silvery rectangular sections bordered by caution-yellow foam; the black insulated hatch of the Descent Module, silhouetting Gao’s suit with the WCME logo on its sleeve. Even viewed through her little camera screen, it made for a dramatic picture.

She and Gao had never become particularly close. Their time on the Tiangong stations hadn’t overlapped, and since Antarctica his demeanor had been pleasantly professional. He would talk with Valya and Ruslan about the differences in taikonaut and cosmonaut training, and in his free time he often studied up on Bacterial Paleontology under Oscar’s tutelage. But she knew very little about his family or his personal life beyond the sort of information one listed in their Clothesline profile.

Looking down at the photograph she had taken for his parents, she wondered how they felt about the bargains he had made to come here. Their only child was unfathomably far away—like so many urban Chinese of his generation, Gao had no brothers or sisters—and they would never have grandchildren. Their legacy would be one of accomplishments and fame, not of blood. The Gao family would end with Lie.

Of course, Valya didn’t know how her own mother and grandmother felt about that prospect, either. She had long refused to discuss the topic with either of them, and they had given her up for a spinster years ago, resigned to never see grandchildren even before her own bargain with the WCME had been made. They had never asked her how she felt about that sacrifice. Probably, like everyone else in her life, they’d assumed it had been easy for her to make.

And it had been, at the time.

The speaker in her helmet crackled to life again. “This is Red Star Two,” said Oscar. He had taken second chair in EVA ops so that Yan could manage the Canadarm. “We’ve sent Gao’s footage back to Mission Control for evaluation. How’re things on your end?”

“Nominal so far,” said Gao.

“Waiting on you,” said Valya, a little curt.

“Well, while we’re killing time I should probably tell you,” said Oscar, his tone sly. “Looks like your EVA crashed the Coalition website.”

Valya was genuinely taken aback. “What? How?”

“We hung a few stills on the Line with a quick run-down of what you were doing, and it looks like it got re-hung by some Korean pop star. After that, a few million viewers started piling into the live stream, and the servers choked about five minutes later.”

“Also, your inboxes are both full,” said Olivia. “It’s midnight in Jiuquan. I feel sorry for whatever PA intern is stuck there trying to sort through all those notes.”

“Which reminds me, Valya,” Oscar went on, “Your Mom was smart enough to just go ahead and call the PA office directly. She sent us a photo…want me to forward it to your HUD?”

“Oh. Well…yes. I suppose.”

A moment later, a translucent photograph appeared on her faceplate. It seemed to have been taken in front of Star City’s planetarium building at night. A crowd of people were assembled on the steps, most of them faces Valya recognized as cosmonauts and support staff, both active and retired. Her mother and grandmother stood together at the front, holding a cardboard sign between them. It read, “Валенти́на экономит день!” Valentina Saves The Day.

Valya’s cheeks were warm as she swiped the photo away, embedded chips in the fingertips of her gloves allowing her to directly control her display. “Gutierrez, if you hang that on your Line-”

“Too late,” said Olivia.

“Sorry, can’t help that you’re amazing,” said Oscar, who did not sound even a little bit sorry.

Valya shot Gao a look. He smiled back at her with the serene expression of a man who had gotten off very, very easy.

“Only an American would congratulate someone for doing their job,” she grumbled.

“Tell that to your mom,” said Oscar.

“He’s got you there,” said Olivia.

Gao tilted his head back and forth in an EMU shrug.

“What’s our status?” Valya asked pointedly.

“Standby,” said Olivia. “We’re just finishing up a few more items on the checklist.”

“Copy,” said Valya.

On a nominal EVA, this would have been the point where she relaxed—her work done, she had only to wait for the lock to pressurize so she could get out of her suit and wipe herself down in the lavatory. But nothing about this entire procedure had been nominal, and Valya had to concentrate hard to keep herself from fidgeting. Nominally, they wouldn’t be waiting in the equipment lock, which wasn’t designed to be exposed to space like this. However much the engineers at MER had reassured them it could handle the strain, Valya was not comforted. She knew better than most of her crew mates all the myriad ways it could fail to return to normal functioning after being left cold and airless for so many hours.

And then there was the collar they’d just built. She would never admit as much aloud, to be recorded and commented upon for the rest of her life and beyond, but she found every aspect of this most off of off-nominal EVAs completely terrifying. Her only comfort was that a glance at Gao’s expression through his faceplate confirmed he wasn’t doing any better.

“All right, enough of that,” said Olivia. “Mission Control has given us a go to re-pressurize the lock. Valya, are you ready?”

“Ready,” said Valya.

“Gao?”

“Ready.”

“Verify all restraints are secure?”

Valya and Gao regarded each other’s tethers. “Verified, Red Star One,” said Gao. “We are ok to go.”

With one hand gripping a bar near the Node 1 hatch, she felt the whir of pumps and fans through her EVA glove, the only hint that anything had changed from one moment to the next. Minutes later, the atmosphere had thickened enough to push gently at loose straps along the walls and ceiling, all of them leaning gently into the current of air as it flowed through the lock.

“We’re at 30 kPa,” Olivia buzzed in her ear. “How’s it looking?”

“Fine,” said Valya. She studied the panels of the collar, which had bowed out ever so slightly with the force of air pressure. “Collar distortion within tolerances.”

A pause of a minute or so. The atmosphere was now thick enough to carry sound, but Valya’s suit blocked out all but the faintest hum of machinery. She listened to herself breathe.

“40 kPa.”

“No change,” said Gao.

The already cautious procedures for repressurization had been slowed even further, and the minutes between each update from Olivia seemed to stretch out for hours.

“Doing all right?” Oscar asked at one point, but Valya was too exhausted from stress to even think of a sarcastic response.

“Great,” she said, still locked in a stare-down with the gently bulging collar.

“70 kPa,” said Olivia. “Almost there.”

Neither Gao nor Valya answered. She replayed the entire collar installation in her mind, looping it over and over as she searched for some fault, or a mistake they may have made.

The collar’s shape held fast. Nothing appeared to have decompressed, explosively or otherwise.

“All right. 85 kPa,” said Olivia. “Congratulations, you’re back at ship pressure.”

“We’ll run through a couple more leak checks,” said Oscar cheerfully. “Then you can doff those suits and start in on the interviews we’ve got queued up.”

“Copy that,” said Gao.

“How many?” asked Valya.

“If I tell you that,” said Oscar, “you’ll never come out of the airlock.”

***

According to the original transfer procedures, the crew would have been consuming only pre-packaged meals throughout the transition from the Baochuan to their camp on the surface. The farm, neatly stowed in stacks of plastic tubs in a temporarily sealed-off module, was to stay in refrigerated semi-stasis until the time came to move it to the lander. No fresh food or “home cooked” meals until the new kitchen was unpacked and the greenhouses were operational.

Of course, had they been following the original transfer procedures, they would have been in the final stages of their preparation for descent, instead of sitting in the galley making notes on yet another brand new checklist, regarding yet another unscheduled EVA to complete yet another task that none of them had rehearsed in the Neutral Buoyancy pool themselves.

“We can’t do our jobs if our hearts aren’t in it,” Ruslan had said. “And we can’t lift our spirits with that sad, shelf-stable mess they send us out here with.”

Olivia and Valya had been recruited into helping him “break in” to the farm and “liberate” a half dozen tomatoes, a handful of parsley and a head of cabbage—his terms, used with conspiratorial glee—as well as unearthing several items from the boxes they’d packed his kitchen into. A few hours later, Valya was outside the equipment lock prepping for another EVA, and Olivia sat at the table with the checklist open on the galley laptop, reading aloud at the top of her voice while Ruslan pulsed tomatoes and herbs in a food processor.

“Line eleven,” she read. “Powering on UHF Two. Communications and tracking, UHF, remote power and control mechanism ST1B D, remote power controller four. Check close command is enabled. RPC position, command close. Verify close.” She took a breath and scrolled down. “Item twelve, enabling UHF Two cyclic input/output…”

“All of this is from the standard checklist that we have already reviewed,” Ruslan grumbled. “We don’t need to go through it again.”

“They want us to go through everything…”

“Then run a comparison between the two documents. Whatever has changed, we will address that part specifically.”

Olivia leaned back into the micro g and shot him a sidelong glance across the galley. “Russ, I’m not gonna have this EVA fail because we were too lazy to go over the checklist properly.”

“It isn’t a matter of ‘laziness’, it’s a matter of efficiency.” Ruslan waved the matter off and reached for a spatula. “Either way, it can wait. A hand, please?”

Olivia unhooked her feet and pulled herself into an easy glide across the galley. She caught a bar on the kitchen wall to stop herself, and Ruslan handed her an empty microwave bag. She hooked her feet and held the bag open for him as he scraped in pureed tomato. “If you’re worried about efficiency, why’re you in here cooking?” she teased.

“Strategy,” he said. “We have given years of our lives to reach this place, and I don’t intend to be sent home without leaving our footprints all over that smug, aloof ass of a planet.”

“What’s that have to do with stuffed cabbage?”

“Golubtsy is Valya’s favorite,” said Ruslan. He took the bag from her, popped it into the microwave, hit a few buttons and turned to check on the rice cooker.

“Yeah, and Gao likes congee, so you made that for breakfast.”

Ruslan began to scoop the sticky, steaming rice into a high-walled bowl he’d velcroed to his workspace. “Valya does not like golubtsy,” he said. “Valya is spiritual about golubtsy. While other cosmonauts are watching Beloye solntse pustyni and urinating on bus tires and singing Trava u Doma, Valya is eating golubtsy. She eats it before every launch. She would bring it with her in little packets when she stayed on the Chinese station. It is her water from the well in Glushino.”

“So you’ve decided to spoil her a little?”

“This golubtsy is insurance,” said Ruslan, more serious than Olivia would have expected. “Whatever mess they find on the lander, we all know who is going to be the one to fix it. And I want her to be at her best. I want the smartest, strongest, more courageous Valentina Leonidovna Popovich there is to be the one to open that hatch.”

Olivia chuckled. “Don’t you think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself? The airlock’s just a precaution. We don’t even know if there’s a real problem over there. Ozzie thinks it could just be an instrument malfunction.”

“Trouble never comes alone,” said Ruslan ominously.

“And pessimism doesn’t help anything.”

“Of course it does!” said Ruslan. “What is the saying? Hope for the best and plan for the worst. I am planning to fuel our genius mechanic for when she has to build a heat shield out of clipboards and shoe rubber.”

“Well, now you’re being silly.”

“Only in the details,” he said. “I am telling you this: If we manage to land on Mars at all, it will be because that woman delivered us there.”

Olivia smiled. “You’re probably right…I just feel badly about putting so much pressure on her…”

“She can manage. You have met her mother and grandmother, they’re all iron women in that family. Only Valya and her grandmother flew, but they all have cosmonaut hearts.”

“I’m not worried about that,” said Olivia. “She’s a pro. She can handle anything. I just wish this whole stupid mess with Oscar wasn’t making things harder than they have to be.

“Is it really such a stupid thing?”

“It is right now. This has to be the worst possible time for an office crush to be reaching its peak.”

Ruslan side-eyed her as he threw pinches of herbs at his bowl, relying on velocity to keep things neat. “Better to be letting it lie fallow?”

“Aren’t you the one who’s always on the Line saying this is a job, not a vacation?”

Ruslan stuck the spice jars to velcro strips along the wall, rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and thrust his hands into the bowl. “Did I ever tell you how I met my wife? She recruited me from the Moscow Timiryazev Agricultural Academy. And after that, she was my supervisor in the cosmonaut program.”

“Ugh, Russ, you know that’s not the same thing! For one, that was on Earth - ”

“Like you and-”

“Don’t even start. And for another, you weren’t about to perform your second EVA in forty-eight hours.”

Ruslan shrugged, still up to his elbows in the bowl of rice. “They could have sent a robot, but they did not. They sent us because we’re alive. Because we’re humans, and we do human things. We’re here to work, but we’re also here to live. And what is life without love?”

Olivia barked out a laugh. “Simple.”

***

“All right, now…go ahead and open the MPEV. Five counter-clockwise rotations should do it.”

“Copy,” said Valya. Her feet braced with straps on the floor, she squeezed the trigger on her Pistol Grip Tool. The bit spun with typical NASA patience, the red line on its side tracing one revolution per second. Through the helmet of her Surface Mobility Unit she could hear a sharp hiss of air as she completed the last rotation.

Oscar took a small square of dry erase sheet, which he’d tucked under a strap in his EV crew ops kit, and held it up in front of the Manual Pressure Equalization Valve. When released, it twirled away from the hatch. “Verify negative pressure in the EL. Atmosphere from the lander is flowing at the expected rate. No smoke or discoloration that I can see.”

“Copy that,” said Olivia, back on space-to-space CAPCOM again. “All right, we’ve got a few minutes while the pressure equalizes. Valya, you can reconfigure the PGT for the drive hole. Oscar, stand by.”

“Number eight hex on Setting B3?” asked Valya.

“Exactly.”

“Copy.” Valya opened her tool kit and looked over the array of PGT attachments.

Despite thousands of hours of practice, on a nominal EVA with its bulky “gas bag” suit and gloves, it would have taken her several long minutes to switch out the bits and correct the settings on her PGT. With the SMU’s slim gloves and skin-tight compression matrix, the task was finished almost as quickly as if she were in shirtsleeves. They’d never quite managed to perfect a “squeeze suit” that was safe for working in open space, but Mars’ dusty skim of atmosphere was enough to make them viable for surface work. For a job like this one, working in a pressurized but possibly toxic environment, they were honestly overkill—oxygen masks and sterile gloves and shoe covers, followed by a thorough wipe-down in the lock, would have been enough in her opinion. But Mission Control had given them their procedures, and Oscar had insisted both as ship’s physician and life support systems specialist, and arguing with either of them wasn’t worth the energy.

It also didn’t hurt that the cut of the suit was quite flattering on Oscar’s frame. He was almost as religious about exercise as Gao, which showed, and Valya saw no reason not to enjoy the view while they were waiting for the go ahead from Olivia. If she was going to be an eccentric spinster cosmonaut, at least she could be the variety that leered inappropriately at her coworkers when they weren’t looking.

Oscar was flipping through the checklist velcroed to his arm. He floated with one foot hooked under a bar, his legs half-bent as if he were sitting in an invisible chair. The only evidence that he wasn’t his usual, unflappable self was the rapid, regular bouncing of his free boot.

“Nervous?” she asked.

“Hmm?” He looked over at her, then down at his own jiggling foot. “Hah! Yeah a little bit. I helped put these life support systems together, after all. If we lose Mars because I didn’t dot my i’s and cross my t’s with the ACS, you all should just blow me out the air lock and be done with it.” He laughed. “Hell, I’d help you.”

Ignoring how inexplicably charming she found his strange American sayings, Valya said, “Hundreds of engineers checked and re-checked everything on this lander. If there is a problem, it wasn’t yours to find or to solve.”

“Well, now it sure is,” Oscar chuckled. “We’re a couple of Space Detectives, aren’t we?”

“It’s probably an instrument glitch,” said Valya. “The mass spectrograph is one thing, but there is no reason for the flowmeter to register those numbers.”

“Unless some punk engineer stuck their gum in the hose.”

Valya arched her brows, unsure if she was supposed to laugh or not. “That seems unlikely.”

“Stranger things have happened!”

“Nothing could possibly be stranger than sitting in orbit around Mars,” said Valya.

“True.”

“Every time I look out a window, I wonder when I am going to wake up and think, ‘What a silly dream! That could never actually happen!’” She shook her head. “When I was a girl, I never thought it would. We had landed on an asteroid, we had begun the space elevator, we had returned to the Moon. All things my grandmother had given up on years ago. I thought that was all I would get. I would grow up to be a mechanic like my mother, and fix Chinese space stations for a few years, and then I would retire to a little dacha somewhere with a cow and too many cats.”

“Not Star City?”

“I didn’t think the city would survive. It had been so long since the ISS years…what did Russia have to do? The Chinese didn’t need us anymore. The Americans were wrapped up in themselves…” She stopped, her face warm.

“No, you’re right,” said Oscar. He smiled at her through the glass of his helmet, so much more bubble-like than their EMU cousins. “We pretty much were. Too busy with LEO commercial flights and astroid mining prospects…I’d given up on Mars, myself.”

“I am sorry, I must be misremembering…I thought you went to medical school? To be a doctor?”

“I did. Undergrad at UNM, MD from Vanderbilt. See, I was pretty sure I could never be an astronaut, but I thought maybe I could help them out in my own way. Take care of them, make their lives a little easier. That’s how I ended up at NASA, as a resident physician. I’d help the men and women who were coming back after a year in micro g and needed to be rehabilitated. Few years later, I was working to figure out how to keep them from losing so much bone and muscle mass in the first place. Program director kept hinting I should apply for the corps, and well….the rest is history. Literally, I guess, for better or worse.”

“But you said you had given up on Mars,” she said. “When were you hoping for it? I had assumed you were like Ruslan. A life going in one direction, pulled in another by actually living it.”

Oscar laughed. “Have I really never talked to you about this? I feel like I’ve yammered at anyone who’ll sit still long enough to listen.”

“We haven not talked much,” said Valya, somewhat stiffly. “Outside of work.”

“I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s high desert in that part of the country, don’t know if you’ve ever been there. When I was a kid, I’d ride my bike up past the north end of town to the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, and I’d just walk around for hours. At least a couple times a year, I’d talk my parents or my uncle and aunt into driving me up to El Malpais so I could scramble around on the lava flows. I was a real nut about it…don’t tell Olivia, but I used to fancy myself a geologist. Bored my poor brother and sisters to tears.” He grinned at her lopsidedly through his faceplate. “I liked it best when I was all on my own. No one else in sight, no roads or buildings or fences between me and the horizon. Even better when the land was mostly rock and sand, with only a couple of scrubby little pockets of bunchgrass and maybe a juniper or two. I found a perfect spot about an hour’s ride away from my house, and I’d go up there after school whenever I could. Cause you see…” He laughed again. “Sorry, I don’t usually beat around the bush like this, you just have me all embarrassed for some reason.”

“Don’t be,” said Valya. “Go on.”

“Well, you see, mostly I just stood out there with the stone and the sky and imagined that I was on Mars. Specially right around sunset, when the sky was all yellowy pink and the Sandias lit up like a fire. Reminded me of those old rover photos of Gale Crater.” He chuckled a little. “My folks told me NASA was a dead horse. They said the Chinese would be the ones to leave orbit again, if anyone ever did, and they wouldn’t fly some Burqueño kid across the world to help them. So.” His smile was tighter, now. “Medical school.”

“Oh. I didn’t…I had no idea.”

“Russ tells me things were a little less roundabout for you.”

“Well…” Valya shrank back in on herself, suddenly ashamed of her life of easy assumptions. “I was born in Star City. I watched the final launch from Baikonur, before they closed the Cosmodrome for good. I felt it was my place to build rockets as my mother did, or to ride them into space as her mother did. It did not occur to me to do anything else.”

“That’s some pretty impressive dedication.”

“Bullheadedness.”

“We’re all pretty bullheaded out here,” said Oscar. “That’s how we made it this far, right? Everyone else just plum gave up.”

Valya looked at him, so hilariously dashing in his suit, smiling at her with that open, honest friendliness, blue light from the fluorescents above pooling on his cheeks and chin and nose, and on the curve of his lower lip. How absurd that he had come to this life by chance, when he so looked the part; every inch the dashing, gregarious astronaut hero.

Oh fuck I’m staring, she thought, because she absolutely was.

And as had so often been the case these past few months, Olivia came to her rescue.

“Oscar, Valya, this is Red Star One,” she said into their ears. “We have the go ahead from Flight Ops. Let’s get acquainted with the new place.”

The last time Valya had opened a hatch between vehicles had been seven months ago, when their Shenzhou capsule had rendezvoused with the Baochuan in orbit around Earth. As the PGT’s bit slowly drove open the mechanism holding this hatch shut, she felt a shivery thrill of excitement.

“This is it,” said Oscar.

Valya grunted a tense affirmative.

With the pressure already equalized, there was no hiss as the hatch swung away from her. Su Yan had brought up the module’s interior lights earlier that day as part of the pre-EVA checklist, and Valya’s first glimpse of its cabin was intensely surreal.

First, how assembly-floor pristine it looked, all its fixtures carefully secured for its journey from Earth, its sleek surfaces of metal and plastic unmarred by fingerprints or shoe soles or wandering bits of dinner. Second, how strange it felt to enter a shirtsleeve compartment that she had not already lived in for over half a year.

This module, although by far the largest object ever built for entry into the Martian atmosphere, nevertheless contained only a fifth of the Baochuan’s volume of habitable space. It would have to not only land safely on the surface with a two-stage aeroshell and supersonic retropropulsion, but also launch itself back into High Martian Orbit again once their stay was over. Weight had been a major concern, and the engineer’s solution had been to design the module as a compact nexus of life support, information systems architecture and basic power generation, capable of keeping the crew alive in a bare-bones capacity in case of disastrously off-nominal circumstances. Once they were safely on the surface, they would begin the process of establishing their long-term home on Mars, building out from the lander with inflatable Bigelow modules that had been sent ahead of them with the ISRU plants.

Immediately beyond the open hatch was the main crew cabin, where the six of them would strap themselves into their couches to weather the descent. Valya tamped down a fresh wave of giddiness and went over the module’s layout in her mind: crew cabin, then the lavatory and temporary sleeping compartments, then a narrow hallway lined with stowage lockers.

“That’s the ARS,” said Oscar, pointing to the third rack from starboard on the densely-populated aft wall of the cabin—the Atmospheric Revitalization Subsystem. He reached down to unhook a device that resembled a small vacuum cleaner from his belt. “I’m gonna take an air sample from here, and another from right next to the rack.”

“Copy,” said Olivia. “Valya, can you do a visual check of the ACS?”

“Standby,” said Valya. She pushed off from the lip of the hatch with both feet and floated across the crew cabin, past the still-stowed couches to the bank of racks. She had a diagram of the ARS in the checklist velcroed to her arm, but she didn’t need it. The Atmospheric Control and Supply systems on the Baochuan and the lander were identical, and Valya had tangled with a twin of this particular rack more than once. “Local readouts match what was transmitted STS,” she said. She lifted her eyes and scanned the bulkhead between the racks and the ceiling. Every few feet was a white, rectangular duct, through which the atmosphere was alternately pulled or pushed around the shirtsleeve compartment. Squinting, Valya pulled herself closer to the duct above the ARS. “I’m seeing some minor discoloration on the CCAA ducts.”

“What?” said Oscar, across the cabin but also right there in her helmet.

“Valya, we’re having trouble making out the discoloration on your feed.” Olivia’s voice had an anxious edge to it, now. “Could you describe it?”

“It looks like….dust,” said Valya. “Or maybe cobwebs. Black. Only on the exhaust ducts that I can see.”

“I’ll get a sample,” said Oscar, uncharacteristically sober. He floated up beside Valya, popped a new canister into the sampler and held it a few centimeters away from the vent. It whirred as it took in a puff of air. A few of the wispy black tendrils were drawn into its mouth.

Valya’s pulse had started to climb.

Several seconds passed before Olivia spoke again. “All right, obviously we don’t have procedures for this. Valya, Oscar, take as many photos of the ducts as you can, both intake and exhaust. Get air samples from the other compartments, too, if you have the canisters to spare. Check to see if the ducts outside of the crew cabin have been affected. We’ll run some tests in the lab when you get back…after that, we’ll have to wait to see what MER comes up with.”

“Copy that,” said Oscar.

Valya had stared at the speckled duct while Olivia spoke, half-listening as she made her own internal calculations. “Red Star One, this is Valentina,” she said quietly. “I’m going to open the ARS rack for visual inspection.”

Another pause from Olivia. “I’m sorry, Valya, can you repeat that?”

“I’m going to open the ARS,” said Valya. “We cannot work up procedures until we know what’s happening in there.”

“Valya, Flight Ops wants us to -”

“The ECLSS system has been running for days,” said Valya. “Whatever left that garbage on the vents, it has been going on for almost a week. I don’t want to give it any more time to get worse.”

“Then we’ll flush out the atmosphere and -”

“I will document the situation so that new procedures can be designed, but I am going to open this now.”

Olivia made a wordless sound of exasperation. “Oscar, can you talk to her?”

Through the glass of their face plates, Oscar and Valya’s eyes met. His lips were pressed into a grim line. “No, I’m afraid she’s right,” he said. “Whatever it is, if it’s in the CCAA then the crew cabin’s already contaminated. We’re gonna have to crack this nut open eventually. May as well find out how rotten it is sooner rather than later.”

Olivia sighed into her mic. “Flight Ops, this is Red Star One. Be advised that the EVA team, using their best judgement, is making an emergency deviation from procedures.”

Valya and Oscar lowered themselves back to the floor, hooked their feet under handle bars and stared at the rack in silence. Their tools drifted gently on their tethers. The pages of their checklists, now laughably irrelevant, fanned out in the circulating air.

“Go ahead,” said Valya. This was his baby, not hers.

She watched as he reached out, lifted the three thumb latches on the Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly access door and swung it aside. Without having to be asked, Valya moved so she could hold it open—they hadn’t had a chance to install the little custom-made hooks and velcro tabs that smoothed the rough edges of working in micro g. Oscar fitted a new bit onto his PGT, firmed up his stance so the torque wouldn’t send him spinning, and began removing the bolts that fixed the cover of the CDRA assembly in place. This, too, was held aside by Valya, and with a few sharp tugs Oscar slide the whole assembly forward.

Valya let out a harsh, bitter laugh before she could stop herself. In the full light of the cabin, the enormity of their problem was obvious.

The CDRA assembly looked as if it had been left underneath someone’s couch and forgotten about for a year. A dusting of black filaments, the same as what they had seen on the ducts, covered every fixture.

Many years ago, while waiting for a rendezvous inside a Shenzhou capsule, a micrometeorite had struck the outside hull and caused a minor leak. The capsule’s cramped, cluttered interior had made it extremely difficult to locate where the atmosphere was escaping from, and almost an hour had passed before she and her two taikonaut crew mates had managed to hunt it down.

Later, when the press had asked her how it felt to live through such a rare emergency, Valya had told them—truthfully—that she had been extremely calm. “When the worst happens,” she had said, “you put your emotions aside. You can be upset later on. In that moment, there is a job to be done, and you do it. That’s the most important quality for a cosmonaut, I think. Being able to stay clear-headed when you and your crew are in danger.”

Valya had not felt that chilled, adrenaline calm in many years.

She felt it now, as intensely as ever, as she scooped a small sample of black dust into a bag.

***

Oscar sat back from his field microscope and rubbed his palms against his eyes. “Mold,” he said.

“You’re sure,” said Gao.

“Unfortunately,” said Oscar. “Looks like it’s probably in the apergillus genus, but this isn’t really my specialty. Russ, you wanna take a look?”

Ruslan shrugged. “From the photographs alone, you can see what it is. Unless it is growing on wheat or potatoes, I cannot tell you more.”

“It must have spread when we oxygenated the atmosphere,” said Oscar.

“But how did it get there to begin with?” asked Gao, a frown creasing his square features. “That lander was a completely sterile environment.”

“Demonstrably, it was not,” said Yan.

Gao’s frown deepened, and he turned back to Oscar. “How long will it take to clean the ACS?”

Oscar chewed his bottom lip. “I’m not entirely sure. I didn’t have time to do much more than take a quick peek inside the fan assemblies, AVV, ASVs and the flow meter, and you saw what those looked like on the feed. Couple of the fans were barely turning, there was so much crud wound up around the shaft. We’d have to disassemble the whole ARS rack just to find out how much of a mess it is, and even if we did know….” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure we have the tools to clean up something like this.”

“We have shut down the ARS rack and the CCAA, yes?” asked Valya. She had said very little since doffing her SMU in the airlock that morning.

“Yeah, but I think the damage has been done, as far as the rack’s concerned,” said Oscar. “We have replacements for most of the major components, but not everything. Especially not all those pipes and hoses. They don’t have moving parts to break down, so we never thought we’d need to swap more than a couple of them out. And there’s no point installing a new MCA or CAT OX if it’ll just get gummed up when we flip the switch back on.”

“But is it possible, Ozzie,” said Olivia. “Could we possibly manage to clean things out enough to make it habitable?”

“I don’t know…maybe? But it doesn’t really matter what I think, does it? What matters is what Mission Control thinks. What the WCME thinks. Hell, what three countries worth of taxpayers think.”

“Ugh…” Olivia rubbed her eyes. “Of course, I hadn’t even thought of that…”

“Do we know what they showed on the live feed?” asked Oscar, turning to Yan.

“Enough,” she said. “Your photographs of the rack and exhaust ducts weren’t released, but there are multiple screen captures from both helmet cameras in circulation.”

“I’m surprised they didn’t cut the feed,” said Olivia. “Won’t this mess be a disaster for the PA office?”

“It seems the viewership was too large to turn away,” said Yan.

“They keep worrying we’ll end up like the late Apollo missions,” said Oscar. “Their worst nightmare is that folks’ll get bored of watching us float around out here.”

“I cannot imagine that mold makes for very good television,” said Ruslan.

“Perhaps not,” said Yan. “But our expressions at the moment of discovery certainly did, if Clothesline is any indication.”

“Thank you for the interesting information,” said Gao witheringly. “But I am not seeing what social media trends have to do with our repairs to the lander.”

“In the old days, the Roskosmos could have decided what the public did or did not need to know,” said Ruslan. “As such, in a situation like this one, they would have had many options as to what risks they felt were reasonable. They could have decided to hide or downplay the problem, to have us clean up as well as we could and hope for the best on the surface. Now?” Again, he shrugged. “Now, there are three agencies to fight over such things. Now, there are photographs of the problem on the Internet before we have even been given new procedures. Now, if we all die of toxic shock in our bunks, they cannot pretend it was an unforeseeable tragedy.”

“A little bit of mold is not going to kill us,” said Gao, scowling more furiously than ever. “I’m sure we can clean the system sufficiently such that none of us are poisoned in our sleep.”

“We’re only half the problem,” said Oscar. “Remember what got this program the go ahead to begin with.”

Olivia remembered. The Mars Science Laboratory rover had sniffed out promising organic compounds when she was still only a baby; in the decades since, a parade of vehicles and satellites—MAVEN, InSight, ExoMars, NUWA, Beacon—had uncovered more of the rich but tragic history of the Martian biosphere. Humanity knew of its early promise, somehow derailed as it spiraled away from wet, warm cradle of life to frozen, irradiated desert. They knew, with unprecedented certainty, that alien bacteria had once chewed through the Martian soil and swum through Martian lakes and rivers.

“Minor problems with the ACS are not going to prevent us from discovering and documenting fossilized bacteria,” said Gao.

“You assume that’s all we will find,” said Yan quietly. “But what if we are lucky?”

She didn’t elaborate, but there was no need to. Though stated in every bulleted list of the mission’s science goals, they spoke very little of it to each other, partly out of superstitious fear of “jinxing” things and partly as an attempt to manage their own expectations. Though remote, there was a chance that Mars was not an entirely dead world; that some shadow of the ancient ecosystem might still thrive in sheltered places where the the tides of cosmic and solar radiation couldn’t reach it.

“Exactly,” said Oscar. “We all know it’s not impossible. But if there’s even a sniff of a chance that we contaminated our own work, it’ll be a nightmare. Landing a biohazard on Mars could potentially discredit whatever discoveries we make here. Not just for this mission, but for everything that comes after us.”

Gao waved his hand dismissively. “That doesn’t make any sense. Whatever bacterium we might find in the regolith would not be-”

“It doesn’t have to make sense to you!” Oscar snapped. “It just has to make sense to whatever idiot congressmen are voting on our budget! If they think we’ll scrap hundreds of billions of yuans of investment by landing, then they won’t let us land! Definitely not before making us spend three months re-sterilizing the Descent Module with wet wipes, and maybe never!”

“Ozzie, come on,” said Olivia. “Let’s not get angry about this, it isn’t constructive. Let’s just try and stay calm while we wait for the new procedures. For all we know, none of this will even be an issue.”

“It will,” said Ruslan darkly. “Oscar is right. This may be the furthest we’ll go.”

“Only if short-sighted American politicians decide to -”

“No,” snapped Yan, her voice harsher than Olivia had ever heard it. “None of that, Gao Lie. Not here.”

The six of them floated in silence for several seconds, each wrapped up in their private anxieties. Olivia felt as if a fist were clenching in her chest. In her own mind she had allowed for accidents; for mishaps in transit, in orbit, during descent. She had accepted, many years and a half-dozen flights ago, that her career might end in her own death at any moment. But she had not considered, until a few minutes before, that Mission Control might abandon the lander entirely. She had never pictured a scenario where they were launched back out of Mars’ gravity well and sent on their way without ever having made an attempt at the surface.

“Are we off box?” asked Valya, so suddenly that Olivia jumped. She grabbed a handlebar to steady herself.

The aft end of the Command Module was often used for media appearances and group meetings with the ground team, and so was one of the few locations on the Baochuan with special noise-filtering microphones incorporated into its systems, alongside the cameras that documented their movements throughout the ship. Yan leaned over to peer at the laptop closest to her and pecked out a few brief commands. “Yes,” she said. “Visual transmission only.”

“No more of this defeatist talk,” said Valya. “We are going to transfer to that Descent Module, and we will land on the surface within the tolerances of our schedule.”

“Did you speak with Mission Control while I wasn’t paying attention?” asked Gao irritably.

“No need,” said Valya. “I have a set of procedures planned. I will write them out formally once we’re finished here, but I can outline the basics of it now. They will eliminate any significant chance of contamination, as well as any unacceptable risk to our own health.”

“Valya, I know you got a lot of dirty work done back on the Tiangong-5, but we can’t just do whatever we feel like out here,” said Oscar, gentle but confused.

“We have been waiting for new procedures for hours,” said Valya cooly. “Listen as a way to kill the time.”

“What do you think that we should do, Valentina?” asked Ruslan. “How shall we repair the ARS rack?”

“We won’t,” she said, the words clipped. “We’ll replace it.”

“There aren’t enough spares-” Oscar began.

Olivia waved him off. “No. Not replace in part,” she said. “I will replace the entire rack.”

“With what?”

Valya pointed to the wall behind Gao, where the Baochuan’s own ARS rack hummed unobtrusively.

“Valya, you can’t just yank out a major life support system,” said Oscar, exasperated.

“I can,” she said. “The racks are designed to be maintained individually. We have emergency CO2 scrubbers and portable CAT OX systems. Other contaminants would not build up significantly in the time it would take us to transfer to the lander. As I said, I will write out the procedures. You can review them yourself.”

“Mission Control will review them,” said Gao. “And Mission Control will test them on the ground. And Mission Control will run simulations. And Mission Control will decide if they are the best solution. Not you, Valentina. We are here at the indulgence of the WCME. It is not our place to live our hero fantasies at its expense.”

“It is our place to ensure that expense proves worthwhile,” said Yan.

Gao sighed. “Write up your procedures. Make whatever preparations you feel are absolutely necessary. Do not interfere with the Baochuan’s ECLSS system without approval.”

“I did not realize we had become a military crew,” Ruslan mused.

“I am the commander of this mission,” said Gao. “And I will act as such when cornered into it.”

“Valya’s only trying to salvage a bad situation,” said Olivia. She looked to her friend, wondering if the younger woman would defend herself. But Valya was no longer paying attention. Having delivered her news, she had floated over to the galley laptop to type out the procedures she had in mind, her face rigid with concentration as her fingers struck the keys.

***

If Valya were being responsible, she would have gone out to the Centrifuge ring with Gao and Oscar to exercise while she waited—she’d been awful about meeting her daily quota since they’d captured the lander, and she was feeling fidgety as hell. But she was tired of arguing with Gao and furious with Oscar for disagreeing with her, however unfair that might be. A retreat to the still-just-familiar Biomass Production Module proved too much to resist. And when Su Yan elected to come along, Valya could see no reason to disagree. If she wanted to sulk in total solitude, she could do so in her crew quarters.

With its racks of greenery deconstructed and packed away into boxes, the farm was not as soothing as it had been a few days before. But habit itself brought a sort of comfort, even when that habit had slipped out of synch with relevance. Valya had accepted the decision to wait for word from Jiuquan, but she would do it in the place of her choosing, even if it had regressed into a bare white cylinder with plastic boxes strapped to its walls.

The lights still glowed a cool, quiet daylight blue, and it smelled faintly of wet rooting matrix and herbs. But without the neat rows of green things, all breathing and growing, it had lost its power to smooth out the knots and tangles of her moods. Staring at the translucent boxes, she tensed as waves of twitchy anxiousness broke over her. And with the Su Yan Shuffle out of her reach, she regressed to decade-old-and-gone habits and began to spin herself in place, cartwheeling around the axis of her grip on a handle bar.

“You’re going to make me space sick,” said Yan, who knew better than to suggest that Valya might also be susceptible.

“It’s this or punching,” said Valya tersely.

“Punching what?”

“Everything.”

Yan laughed. “Valentina, you were never one for waiting.”

Valya stopped spinning, braking her momentum with both hands so she wouldn’t tweak her wrist. “The waiting I can manage,” she said, turning herself around to face Yan again. “I have waited many times, for many things. If it were only waiting, all of us together, we would drink the vodka and the baijiu we’ve been hoarding and look down at Mars and cry about our troubles. But we are not only waiting! We are also being told by out mission commander that we are selfish children with hero complexes!”

“Gao has been put in a difficult place,” said Yan.

“And we haven’t? Why does he-” Valentina caught herself, ran a hand through her loose hair—which stood out around her head in a halo in micro g—and tried to calm herself into civility. “Please go on.”

“How much do you know about Gao Lie?”

“Some. He is from Beijing. Only child. Beihang University, then Moscow Aviation Institute. Never married. Party member.” She grinned a little at that. “No surprises.”

“Exactly,” said Yan. “His life has moved along a straight track. He was born into a family with connections, and into a city that happily nurtured him. He is handsome and intelligent and obedient, and many doors were opened for him. Some that he may not have even noticed. You joke about the Party, but it has served him very well. He believes the system will take care of him, because it always has.”

“I am hardly an outsider,” sniffed Valya.

“Your grandmother and mother worked at the Baikonur Cosmodrome as it was crumbling around them. Our Mission Control is not located in Korolev. We did not launch on board a Soyuz rocket. Through your family’s eyes, and through your own, you have seen what happens when the system does not take care of us. You see it as a tool; you will use it to get where you want to be. But you don’t trust it.”

“Of course I do.”

Yan shook her head. “You trust the people in the system. As angry as you are, you trust Mission Control. You trust Flight Ops. You trust MER. You understand they want for us to succeed as badly as we do. But you don’t trust the system they work within. Or the people they answer to.

“As for Gao…he has only known a world in which that system has grown and grown. His China has risen to a prominence that his own grandparents would never have imagined. Why would he doubt it? Why wouldn’t he trust it to lift him to even greater heights?”

“You speak as if you weren’t Chinese yourself.”

Su Yan grinned crookedly. “To some, I only barely am. Did you know that I was born in Xinjiang? To a Muslim Hui family?”

Valya blinked at her in honest surprise. “I don’t mean to offend, but how in hell are you here?”

“I was an extremely bright child with generous parents,” said Yan. “When I was a girl, the Party was making a great push in our region to accept women’s equality, to educate every child, to become atheists and join the Party. It made an impact on my parents, and they sent me away to school in Ürümqi, the closest city. I loved to learn, and I understood that I had to be the very best in order to move on. I joined the Party, and worked very hard, and when I was presented with an opportunity I took it. I took every scrap that the Party would give me. The system was a tool that I taught myself to use.”

Valya often forgot how much older Yan was—though in her early fifties, the lines that creased her ochre skin were light, and months spent in micro g had smoothed them even further. But as she spoke now, she looked every year her age. “It isn’t benevolent,” said Yan. “It isn’t cruel. It’s indifferent. It provides opportunities, and you must take advantage of them yourself when you have the chance. Because it does not care about you. It will not come to ask you a second time.”

“There is nothing to use here,” said Valya. “Nothing. Radio silence and yelling at each other. We cannot access your ‘system’ at all!”

“Valya, you know better than that,” said Yan, frowning at her seriously. “We’re shielded from it here. It’s hidden from us, behind filtered Line baskets and screened interviews and PA handlers. But it sent us here. It paid for this mission, for our training, for the atmosphere we are breathing right now. We made a bargain with it years ago, to live this life and be in this place. We made the sacrifices it asked of us and took what it offered. And now we are at its mercy.”

Valya knew. Another version of herself would have confided in Gao and Oscar about the darkest of those sacrifices, the detail never mentioned in interviews or articles. Their childlessness was noted only in contrast to the biographies of their crew mates; a politely ignored absence. No spouses waited at home to field awkward questions about alternate plans. No questions of relief or regret were ever raised.

“So you think they’re going to fuck us, then?” she asked, not really joking.

“I think that Gao has good reasons to believe in Mission Control,” said Yan. “I think it’s reasonable to hope the WCME will not interfere with them. Beyond that? My life has taught me not to gamble on politics.”

“Valya?” The two women turned their heads in time to see Olivia poke her head through the hatch to Node 1. She froze at the sight of Su Yan, immediately retreating back into the vestibule. “Sorry, I can come back later-”

“No need,” said Valya.

“Please stay,” murmured Su Yan. “We are only passing the time.”

Olivia and Yan shared a long, impenetrable look. Then Olivia sighed and pulled herself the rest of the way into the farm, tucking up her legs so she could roll a quarter-turn and orient herself to match Valya and Yan. Neither of them asked if there had been any word, as she would obviously have told them by now if she had news to share.

“I only got halfway through the checklist for the day before I had to take a break,” said Olivia quietly. “Most of it was transition housekeeping. Packing up crew quarters.”

Valya groaned in sympathy. “I haven’t even opened the checklist. I helped Ruslan clean the galley, I checked on the Canadarm and the airlock collar, I looked over the video feeds from the lander. Then I wanted to knock my own head in with a PGT, so I came out here to stare at boxes instead.” She shrugged. “I have already done all I can to prepare for the next EVA. I would like to keep busy while I wait for MER to approve of my procedures, but…” She made a vague gesture. “You see how it is.”

Olivia hummed her agreement, but her face was troubled. She twisted her fingers in the hem of her shirt. “And what if they don’t?” she asked finally.

“Don’t what?”

“Approve your procedures.” Olivia met Valya’s eyes across the module. “What if they decide to abandon the lander? Or tell us we’re spending the next three months cleaning it out?”

Valya frowned. “They won’t.”

“But what if they do?”

Valya crossed her arms and stared hard at her feet. “Then I will do whatever is necessary,” she said.

“Okay, that sounds an awful lot like, ‘I’ll go ahead and do what I want,’” said Olivia.

“I would never go against the wishes of my crew mates,” said Valya.

“So then your plan is to talk us into mutiny.”

“My plan is to land on Mars.”

“It would be extremely difficult for Mission Control to interfere,” said Yan mildly. “Because of the communications delay, any effort they might make to stop Valya’s repairs would run the risk of damaging the lander or injuring the crew.”

Olivia looked stung. “I wouldn’t have thought that you’d be on her side with this.”

“If I’m on anyone’s side, it is the side of the people,” said Yan. “We were sent here with the people’s money. We owe it to the people to go where they cannot. To live their dream for them, and to deliver on the promises we’ve made. We did not promise them that we would sit meekly and do as we were told. We promised them we would stand on Mars with our human legs, see it with our human eyes, touch it with our human hands. We promised we could learn what robots and satellites cannot. Those promises mean more to me than helping the WCME save face.”

“So we’re just vessels of the people’s will, then?” asked Olivia, sarcasm not-quite-hiding the hurt in her voice.

“Of course not,” said Yan. “We are people as well, with our own dreams. And we have given up so much to be here. We have given years of our lives. If it were only me, I could consider turning back. But it would break my heart to see you lose this chance.”

“You mean ‘us,’” said Olivia.

Yan’s reply was soft. “That as well.”

“Good,” said Valya. “I like this plan. Everyone loves Olivia. We can rally around her. I have you, and Ruslan will agree, and Oscar if it’s for her and not for me. Gao could be a problem…”

“Tell him you’ll build him a Martian bicycle?” Yan suggested.

Olivia laughed. “You’re both being ridiculous.”

“I could use the spare mesh wheels for the MSV.” said Valya. “It would have to be belt-driven…too much dust for a chain, it would immediately seize up.”

“The first Tour de Mars,” said Yan.

“But would the high-oxygen SMU atmosphere count as doping?” asked Olivia. “Gao’s so upstanding…”

“In this scenario, not too upstanding to be bribed with a bicycle,” said Yan.

The three of them were laughing heartily when the intercom crackled to life. Valya’s mouth snapped shut, muscles winding tight again as all mirth evaporated.

Gao’s voice drifted up from the speaker. “Please return to the Command Module. A transmission is coming in.”

***

No image was transmitted. Only the exhausted voice of their Flight Director, an older woman who spoke with a gentle Mandarin accent.

“Baochuan, this is Sarangerel Min in Jiuquan. I’m not usually on CAPCOM, but I’ve spoken to several of you previously. Due to the urgency of your situation, as well as some difficulties here on the ground, we’re broadcasting at 02:00 local time.

“We have reason to believe that the Deep Space Network is having performance issues at this time, and is not functioning nominally. We may not receive all transmissions. We also cannot guarantee that our own transmissions will reach you. I repeat: due to the off-nominal status of the Deep Space Network, we may not receive any or all transmissions from the Baochuan, and you may not receive any or all transmissions from Mission Control.

“We understand that this complication has come at a difficult moment for you. If you cannot communicate with Mission Control regarding time-sensitive matters, you are advised to proceed using your own best judgement, in whatever manner allows you to achieve mission goals.

“We apologize for these unavoidable difficulties. And we wish you the best of luck.

“Due to unreliable communication channels, an identical copy of this message will be transmitted every hour until the DSN returns to nominal operations.”

The playback finished. Olivia stared at the laptop screen, helpfully displaying the length of the recording and the time of its reception. She turned to the others, who looked back at her with the same bemusement that she felt.

“Are we off box?” asked Gao. From where she floated just to Olivia’s right, Yan checked, double-checked, and nodded.

“Before we take any action, we must be in complete agreement as a crew,” he said, his voice carefully controlled. “We must agree on what we think it means. We must agree as to how we will act. We must agree as to what we will say afterward.”

“Absolutely,” said Oscar.

“Of course,” said Valya.

“Yes,” said Olivia, Ruslan and Su Yan. All understood the need for complete clarity. In moments like this one, with so many cultures intersecting and so much on the line, even a nod was too ambiguous.

“Su Yan, have there been any disruptions to our communication with Jiuquan?” asked Gao.

“They have confirmed reception of all of our transmissions. I have no reason to believe that any of theirs have failed to reach us.”

“Would it be possible to temporarily disconnect or disable the main antenna?”

“Yes,” said Yan. “I could disable it in such a way that my actions would not be recorded in the logs. We would receive no further transmissions via the DSN until the process was reversed.”

“You think they’re telling us to fake a communications blackout,” said Oscar.

“Why would they do that?” asked Olivia.

“Plausible deniability,” said Ruslan. “We cannot obey orders that we have not received.”

“Would we lose any data?” asked Gao.

“When we receive data from Mission Control, we transmit a confirmation,” said Yan. “Without that confirmation, the DSN will store and re-transmit all data packets once per sol. Backups are also maintained on the ground, and routinely compared to our logs to check for inconsistencies. There may be a delay of several sols, but we will not lose anything.”

“I suggest that we disable the antenna as a precaution,” said Gao. “Are there any objections?”

No one moved or spoke. All eyes flickered over to Yan.

“It will take a moment,” she said. “I have to disconnect the TRC from the antenna manually.”

“We’ll wait,” said Gao.

She pushed herself over to the space-to-ground communications rack, lifted the thumb latches to open its access door, and pulled out the Ku-band Transmit/Receive Controller. They watched her work in nervous silence. Olivia’s heart fluttered against her breastbone, anxious as a trapped bird.

The TRC slid back into place, and the door shut with a click. She spun to face the rest of the crew. “I believe I know what is happening,”she said.

“Same here,” said Oscar quietly. “But you first.”

“Mission Control is responsible for monitoring and directing the activities of this crew and the operation of the Baochuan, the Descent Module, and any habitats and support systems on the Martian surface. During off-nominal situations, they are to work with MER to create new procedures that allow us to achieve mission goals. However, according to the WCME charter, the officers of the Coalition may step in at their discretion and ask for a reevaluation of risks and benefits in off-nominal circumstances.” Yan frowned. “I believe the WCME has exercised that option. I believe they are reviewing the options presented to them by Mission Control, and that disagreements within the Coalition are preventing a timely decision. I believe this is now a political problem, not a scientific one, and that Mission Control is aware of this fact and troubled by its implications.”

“But they can’t do anything about it,” said Olivia. “Because they’re further down the chain of command.”

“Yes,” said Yan.

“Let’s assume you’re right about all of this,” said Oscar. “Honestly, I’m pretty sure you are. So. They put the Flight Director in the CAPCOM seat to send that message to us. They even woke her up in the middle of the night.”

“Assuming she ever went to bed,” said Ruslan.

“So what are they trying to tell us?” Oscar held up a splayed hand, and ticked items off on his fingers. “That we should take the message seriously. That they’re pretending to have a communications problem. That the real problems on the ground are serious enough that they can’t explain the situation directly. That we should disable our own antenna to prevent new procedures from coming in. That we should ‘use our best judgement’ to decide how to move forward.” He looked around at the others. “That sound about right?”

“Very clever of them, really,” said Ruslan. “We cannot be dismissed from our positions, but they certainly can. It is prudent for them to stay at their stations and hope that we manage to make the repairs on our own.”

“I’ve worked with some of those men and women for a decade,” said Oscar. “We’re all a team, ground and crew together.”

“They have given us a loophole,” said Su Yan. “And they are telling us to go ahead with Valya’s plan.”

“Are you certain of that?” asked Gao. “With so little information?”

“MER would have run simulations in the tank and on the dry mockups already, to pass along to the WCME,” said Oscar. “If the procedures didn’t work, they wouldn’t have told us to ‘use our best judgement.’ They know that Valya is our best judgement.”

Gao turned to Valya, who had listened to all of this in agitated silence, as if worried that defending herself would backfire. “Valentina,” he said. “Are you completely confident that your procedures for the ARS rack swap are as safe as possible?”

“Yes,” said Valya.

“Are you also confident that this swap is the best possible solution to the contamination of the Descent Module’s ACS?”

Valya squared her shoulders. “Yes.”

“Are we agreed, then, that the Flight Commander has told us to use Valentina’s procedures to swap out the ARS rack?”

“Yes,” they all echoed.

“But I must be clear,” said Valya. “Once we have made the swap, we have committed. There is a small possibility that the ARS rack from the Baochuan will be contaminated as well. If this happens, we may not have sufficient consumables to maintain atmospheric control long enough to decontaminate the rack and reinstall it on the Baochuan. Our emergency CO2 scrubbers and CAT OX system are not intended for long-term use.”

“We’ve all read your report,” said Oscar. “We know the risks. We trust you.”

“Are we in agreement?” asked Gao.

Again, they all said “Yes,” nearly in unison.

“Good,” said Gao. He turned to face Valya once more. “Valentina. The crew of the Baochuan authorizes you to proceed with your repairs. Please assign support tasks as you see fit.”

Olivia took a deep, unsteady breath. Then she looked toward Yan, who was smiling at her, small but warm.

Olivia smiled back.

***

Valya held her arms out in front of her, bare hands extending from the squeeze suit’s corded sleeves. “Remember,” she said, “once the ARS on the Baochuan is disconnected, the window of habitability is very small. Wait as long as you can to-”

“I know,” said Olivia, friendly but forceful. “Valya, I’ve read over all the material you gave me. We just went over the checklist. You don’t have to tell me again.” She slid a glove onto one of Valya’s hands, clicked the locking ring into place, checked the seal, and plucked its mate out from under a bungee cord on the wall. “You’ll be fine. I’ll be fine. Everything will be fine.”

“Please do not patronize me,” said Valya. She watched as Olivia slid on the second glove.

“I would never,” said Olivia. “I’m confident. That’s different.”

“I cannot see why. None of us have any idea what we’re doing.”

“You’re a brilliant woman, Valentina, and I have every reason to think you can do this.”

Valya winced. “You sound like one of our fans on the Line.”

“Now who’s being patronizing?”

“Listen. I am thankful for your belief in me. Of course. But…” She would have gestured, but Olivia was still busy with her gloves. “It can make me feel a little….a little cornered, maybe? Trapped.”

Olivia arched her brows.

“Listen. Mission Control is confident. You are confident. The rest of the crew is confident. If I argue, it’s false humility. If I remind you of the uncertainties, you tell me not to be pessimistic, and I feel I’m letting you down. Do you see?”

Olivia sighed as she sealed the second glove with a click. “Yeah. No, I think I do.”

“Of course I’m going to do my job. And I’ll do it as well as I can. But.” Valya tilted her head back and forth. “Have you heard the story of Jerome Apt?”

“Sure,” said Olivia. She tugged the Communications Carrier Assembly cap over Valya’s head, tucking in stray wisps of hair at the sides. “STS…hmm, 47? The palm bar in his glove shattered. Punched right through the bladder.”

“STS-37,” said Valya. “He was using the edge of the palm bar as a hammer.”

Olivia laughed as she connected the CCA to the SMU’s electrical system. “Oh come on, really?”

“The shards cut his hand open,” said Valya. “It bled so much that it filled the puncture, and then froze when it came into contact with the vacuum. That’s what kept his suit from decompressing.”

Olivia was still chuckling as she did a visual check of Valya’s helmet, holding it in both hands to turn it this way and that in the florescent light. “A hammer?”

“How have you not heard about this? You are in the American space program!”

“Guess we aren’t as eager as the Roskosmos to dig up old NASA humiliations,” said Olivia. “I’m not clear on what this has to do with you, though. That was his first EVA, and he made a stupid mistake. It’s pretty apples and oranges.”

“Maybe,” said Valya. “But I am sure that Apt thought he was being very clever. Inventive! Something needed to be hammered, he didn’t have one in his tool kit, but ah! The rigid bar in his glove would do the trick.” Again, Valya did a little head-tilt shrug. “Who’s to say I’m not about to do the same thing?”

“Apt didn’t have the whole team on the ground telling him to whack things with his glove.”

“And Apt did not disconnect his antenna to prevent anyone from telling him not to.”

“I can’t believe you’re comparing yourself to a rookie shuttle-era astronaut.” Olivia rolled her eyes affectionately, then lifted the helmet up above Valya’s head. “Ready?”

The helmet connected with the plastic ring of her SMU’s collar; the ambient noise of fans and machinery dropped away, replaced with the moderately claustrophobic rasp of her own breathing. Olivia hung a headset on her own ear, positioned the microphone, and plugged it into the space-to-space UHF radio on the wall. Valya heard a soft pop and a hiss of static, then Olivia’s voice hummed beside her. “How’s the connection?”

“Perfect,” said Valya. She smiled a little. “Thank you. I’m ok to go.”

Olivia grinned. “So. Excited about your big date with Oscar?”

Valya snorted as she flexed her arms, legs and fingers, testing that all was in order. “Stretch suits and fungus on a rogue EVA. So romantic!”

“Love blossoms in the face of adversity?”

“I think his mind will be on other matters,” said Valya, but she kept smiling anyway. It felt good to be talking about something other than filters and racks and decontamination timelines, or astronaut brushes with death in the void.

“So what’s the first thing you’ll do when we land on the surface?” asked Olivia.

Valya resisted the reflex to remind her it was more of an “if.” Aloud, she said, “Go through the post-descent checklist.”

Olivia mimed punching her in the shoulder. “The first thing that isn’t a checklist.”

“I will put this suit back on, go outside, and walk in a place with no walls or ceiling.”

“And look at the sky,” said Olivia.

“And play with the one-third g,” said Valya. “I want to see how far I can throw a rock.”

“Don’t throw it before I can catalogue it.”

“We’ll be on the surface for almost a full Martian year. You will have plenty of time to catalogue plenty of rocks.”

Olivia patted Valya’s helmet affectionately. “I will,” she said. “Because this is all going to work out just fine.”

Valya chuckled, surrendering for the moment to her friend’s good cheer.

Thank goodness for Olivia Gibson.

***

“Where are we on the checklist?” asked Gao. He was buried up to his arm pits in the access panel above the Baochuan’s ARS rack, and both his hands were holding a shirtsleeve PGT steady on the Major Constituent Analyzer Isolation Valve.

Olivia glanced at her clipboard, the first six dry erase sheets flipped over the top and held in place with her fingers. She and Gao had been at this for hours. “Two fourteen,” she said. “Thirty items left to go.”

“Time?”

She checked her watch. “About seven minutes ahead of schedule.”

“What about Valya and Oscar?”

“Ten minutes ahead, last time I checked in with Ruslan and Yan.”

Gao grimaced. “I don’t want them waiting on us.”

“She drew up the procedures. If she’s here early, that’s her own fault.” Olivia flipped ahead to the following page, refreshing her memory as to the next several items, then said, “All right, check if your PGT is on setting A2, clockwise. Then go ahead and turn the valve for as many rotations as you can at that torque.”

“Copy,” said Gao. His head disappeared beyond the upper edge of the rack, and Olivia took a moment to survey her surroundings, the tidy order of which she had systematically destroyed over the course of that afternoon. She was glad all over again that they’d disabled the antenna and prevented further stills from being hung on the Line—she could only imagine what the public would make of the cluttered semi-chaos the Command Module had descended into.

The emergency CO2 scrubber and catalytic oxidizer had been designed as supplementary, temporary systems, only ever dragged out of storage when maintenance or repairs of Atmospheric Control and Supply would last for more than a couple of hours. They were meant to operate independently of the ACS subsystem, and so were equipped with expandable white plastic ducts ribbed with semi-rigid rings, which kept the atmosphere circulating through the ship in micro g. The ducts looked like enormous, accordioned caterpillars, and for the last several hours Olivia and Gao had dragged intake/exhaust pairs of them through every node and module of the Baochuan except the Centrifuge and the machine room beyond it, both of which had been sealed off for the time being. Looking at her handiwork now — the snaking root system of ducts that crowded the vestibules and caught on their feet and roared with barely soundproofed fans, the clean modern lines of their ship hidden beneath cables and translucent plastic — Olivia was vividly reminded of the Mir documentaries she’d watched as a girl.

Olivia and Gao had activated the emergency systems nearly an hour ago. Now they had reached the final stage of the disconnection procedures. Time passed in the particular squash-stretch of high-tension, low-excitement maintenance, sweeping and semi-permanent changes broken down into checklist units that only intimidated in aggregate. Under Olivia’s guidance, Gao methodically closed the valves and uncoupled the hoses that tied the ARS to the rest of the Baochuan’s Environmental Control and Life Support System, connections that hadn’t been touched since the ship’s assembly in Low Earth Orbit.

A quarter hour later, still well ahead of their planned timeline, all that remained for Gao to disengage were the Upper and Lower Attach Mechanisms. Olivia stuck her clipboard to the nearest velcro strip and pulled herself over to spot him. The micro g notwithstanding, the rack had considerable mass and could easily crush a hand or a foot once it was free of its frame.

“I wonder what they’ll make of this when the video finally gets back home,” said Olivia. “You don’t see this kind of Wild West, seat-of-your-pants Outer Space Adventure anymore.”

“Hmm. Exciting footage of a man disengaging an equipment rack,” said Gao dryly. He flipped open the attach mechanisms, one after the other, his left hand gripping a bar and his right knee propped against the front of the rack to hold it in place.

Olivia moved to open the lower attachments, her hand on the same bar that Gao had hooked his left foot under. “No, I’m serious,” she said. “My girls were always so disappointed when I told them how things really work out here. I explained that most of the time we’re just following checklists written by other people, always on the radio with the ground waiting for instructions. My oldest used to joke that they may as well send robots, if they’re gonna tell us how many times to turn a bolt. They’ll be thrilled when they find out we’re just making all of this up.” The attachments looked completely nominal, undamaged by installation or use, and Olivia unfastened them one after the other. “LAMs open. Let’s try a lateral move, just a couple centimeters.”

“Copy,” said Gao. The two of them shifted such that they each gripped one of the handles on the front of the rack, their feet and free arms braced. “On three,” he said. He counted down, and together they pulled with smooth but serious force. The rack stuck for one tense moment, then overcame friction and shifted forward, its face protruding from the surrounding frame by about the width of one knuckle.

The rack slid the rest of the way along its tracks without incident, its progress smooth and free of any alarming noises, Gao and Olivia pushing against the frame and the floor with slow, steady pressure. Olivia felt and heard a final metallic click, and the resistance against her arm disappeared. As Gao maneuvered the rack out into the middle of the module, Olivia unclipped a short equipment tether from her belt, ducked down beneath the rack, and anchored it about half a meter off the deck.

Earlier that afternoon, Olivia had snagged a roll of biopolyethylene tarp from the garden and tucked it under a bungee cord on the module wall. Gao reached for it now, and Olivia held the rack as steady as she could as he began to wrap it in translucent plastic, which would protect it from damage or contamination as they wove it through nodes and hatches to its new home.

“How old are your daughters?” asked Gao.

“Eleven and thirteen,” said Olivia. She chuckled. “Old enough to be trouble.”

Gao sighed. “At times like this one, I envy you,” he said, unexpectedly wistful.

“Oh?”

“These are the moments you dream of telling your children about. As you say, it’s an adventure on the frontier. Overcoming great obstacles. Seeing amazing things.”

“I don’t know,” said Olivia. “I’m not sure the girls are all that impressed.”

“Of course they are,” said Gao. “And when they are no longer teenagers, they will tell you so.”

Olivia chuckled. “Fair enough.”

“I cannot regret the decision I made,” said Gao. “I understand why sterilization was necessary. And this experience is worth that sacrifice. But.” He handed her the roll of excess tarp, then cut it loose with a pair of scissors from his belt. “It would have been a good thing. To have a child at home to tell this story to.”

Olivia pulled a heat sealer off its velcro on the wall; as she ran it along the seams between sheets of tarp, she thought about what Gao had said. She didn’t quite know how to reply. All six of them had undergone that particular procedure—even Yan, though at fifty-one she was already on her journey through menopause—but they almost never spoke of it to each other. They had been sat down individually and told what would be done, and why; they had listened to explanations about cosmic and solar radiation, about the unknown risks of pregnancy in micro g, about the strain an infant would place on their tightly budgeted consumables, about how promises to abstain from sex or reliable contraception were simply not enough insurance against the potentially disastrous consequences. They had all signed the paperwork, as they were all here. Yan and Olivia had cried a little, and raged a little more, and mourned the corridors of life they were going to close forever. Until today, Gao Lie had never mentioned it to her at all.

“You should come to Brooklyn and tell it to my daughters,” she said, finally. “I’m sure they’d much rather hear it from a dashing young taikonaut than their mom.”

“We are the same age,” Gao chuckled.

“Being Mom adds ten years.”

Ruslan stuck his head out of the Cupola, his hand cupped over the microphone of his headset. “Valya and Oscar have finished stowing the contaminated rack,” he said.

Olivia pushed herself back from the plastic-wrapped ARS rack, spinning the heat sealer around one finger as she evaluated their handiwork. “We’re ready for ‘em,” she said.

Gao checked his watch. “Ten minutes ahead.”

“See? We caught up.” Olivia pulled a headset out her pocket, hung it over her ear and double-tapped its power switch. “Miz Popovich, this is Assistant Shrink-wrapper Gibson. You copy?”

Valya chuckled over the UHF. “I copy.”

“We have a package waiting here for you.”

“Do you?”

“I hope you brought some help,” said Ruslan, back in the Cupola. “It’s a little unwieldy.”

“If what I just saw on the lander is an indication,” said Oscar into Olivia’s ear, “I think we all better stay out of her way.”

Valya appeared in the Node 1 vestibule, then, dramatically framed by the snaking white vents, and Olivia immediately understood what Oscar had meant. Dressed as she was in the slim-fitting SMU, you could see the powerful bulk of her thighs and arms, and there was a confident, comfortable solidity to her stance, even in micro g. When Oscar swung in behind her, he looked awkward and ungainly by comparison; a quick glance at his expression, glimpsed through his mask, made it pretty clear that he knew it. Although he seemed more awed than chagrined, which Olivia could easily sympathize with. Silly as it was, Olivia couldn’t help but feel a little swell of pride in her friend, so fierce and so competent, and so at home in this kind of work.

Her suit-restricted movements careful and deliberate, Valya pulled herself over to the floating rack and inspected it from all angles, then peered into the hole where it had been a few minutes before, shining a small flashlight from her belt into the darker corners. “Perfect,” she said. “Oscar, how do the emergency systems look to you?”

Oscar had crouched at the heart of the caterpillar nest, in a small square of empty deck between the CO2 scrubbers and CAT-OX boxes. He peered down at their screens, pushed gently on the vent rings and watched how they sprung back into place, tugged to check the connections, then straightened and gave Valya a thumbs-up. “Looking good,” he said. He turned, a little clumsily, to look at Olivia. “How does the air smell?”

“There was some outgassing when we first turned on the scrubber, but that seems to have cleared up.” She took a deep, thoughtful sniff. “A little musty, maybe.”

“Su Yan, did you hear that?” asked Gao, raising his voice a little to be heard as far as the Cupola. “Are we okay to go?”

“If it all checks out with Valya, then I have no objections,” said Yan.

“Good,” said Valya. “Then let’s move on to item three fifty-two of the EVA procedures.”

Olivia double-checked her clipboard, although she didn’t really have to. “Spot me,” she said to Gao. Then she tucked down to floor-level again, found the equipment tether, and unclipped it from the bar mounted on the deck.

She kicked herself back toward the module wall, well out of the way of Oscar and Valya and their helmet-inflicted blind spots, before popping up out of her crouch again. In time to see Valya grab hold of the rack with both hands and rotate it to the desired orientation. She checked to make sure her path was clear, bent her legs beneath her, then pushed off of the floor bars in a slow, deliberate movement. She soared through the vestibule and into Node 1 with fluid grace; at the last moment, one foot darted out to catch another handle bar, and she came to a gentle stop a few centimeters short of the wall. Oscar, ostensibly her buddy for this maneuver, hung back at a safe distance and watched.

Olivia trailed them through the ship, close enough to help if there were a problem but not so close as to be in the way. Valya’s navigation was flawless, bordering on the supernatural. She reached the equipment lock with patient efficiency, and threaded the rack through its hatch after only the barest hint of a calculating pause.

Oscar followed Valya into the lock, and Olivia waited just outside it as the two of them tethered the rack, examined it for damage, and did a quick check of their own gloves and each other’s life support packs. Once they were satisfied, they radioed back to Yan and Ruslan to run through a few, final items on the checklist before the lock was sealed.

“All right,” said Valya a few minutes later. “Olivia, we are okay to go.”

“I copy,” said Olivia. She’d already gone through most of the procedures for sealing the lock, from closing intermodular ventilation to shutting off various caution and warning alarms. Now she pulled the airlock hatch closed, peered through its small, round window to check once more than everything was nominal, and closed the pressure equalization valve. Then she braced herself with her left arm and both feet, gripped the stowage latch handle and pulled it up and over into the “latch” position.

“That was some pretty slick maneuvering,” said Oscar, uncharacteristically quiet.

“I’ve had a lot of practice,” said Valya.

“We all have,” said Olivia. “But you really are something special.”

Valya smiled ruefully, but for once declined to argue.

Minutes passed. The lock depressurized, cycled, repressurized again. Her part in this finished, Olivia lay her hand against the glass of the hatch window. “Hey, Valya.”

“Hmm?”

“Good luck, baby. Do us proud.”

“I’ll try.”

Olivia waited at the window as Oscar pulled open the hatch to the lander, as Valya untethered the rack once again, and as the two of them maneuvered it out the far end of the lock. She couldn’t have done much of anything to help if there had been a problem, but she felt compelled to watch over them regardless, her fists tight on the handle bars that flanked the Baochuan’s hatch.

The moment they slipped out of view, she kicked away from the airlock and started yanking her way back through vent-clogged nodes and vestibules, banging her knees and elbows on hatch rings and handle bars in her rush to get back to the Cupola. Over her still-active headset she could hear Valya grunt with effort, or frustration, or both, as Oscar clarified some detail of the checklist.

In the Command Module, Gao was diligently working his way through the dregs of Valya’s checklist, which had been pasted in from standard procedures for running the emergency atmospheric filters. As she passed him, Olivia caught a rail and pulled herself to a reluctant stop. “Do you need a hand with-?”

“No,” said Gao. “Go watch the feed. I can finish on my own.”

“I don’t wanna just leave you out here with that many pages left to go through.”

“When I’m checking on the status of intake valves, I’m not worrying about what will happen on the lander.” He glanced up from the checklist and offered a quick, tight smile. “I will call if I need help.”

Olivia wanted to hug him, then, but overcame the urge and nodded instead. “Thanks, Lie.”

Yan and Ruslan were still seated at the first and second chairs of the Space-to-space Command Station, a sort of miniature mission control. It consisted of a bank of small AVU monitors displaying feeds from the air lock and lander, an STS UHF radio, two open laptops loaded up with checklists and technical diagrams, and clipboards fat with handwritten dry erase sheets that had been stuck to every available surface.

As Olivia’s eyes adjusted to the much darker space, her gaze was inexorably drawn by the umber bulk of the planet below. Her breath caught, knocked out of her by the sight of it and by the raw ache of longing that followed. They were passing over the volcanic bruise of Syrtis Major Planum. She felt a prickle at the corners of her eyes.

She listened to Yan’s smooth deep voice, in her ear and behind her in the Cupola at once. “Valya, this is Red Star One. It looks like that access panel may have shifted during launch. Try resetting your torque to 4 and see if that unsticks it. It should not be enough to strip the threads.”

“Copy,” said Valya. A moment later, Olivia could hear the faint whir of a PGT motor.

“Remind me how many of these disinfectant wipes I can use per ventilation segment?” asked Oscar.

Olivia heard the plastic rip of velcro as a clipboard was pulled down off the ceiling. “Two,” said Ruslan. “That will leave you with four extra, in case any of the segments need a second pass.”

The planet turned. Elysium Mons crawled over the horizon.

“This bolt isn’t cooperating,” said Valya. “I’m going to hit it with WD-40 and switch to a manual wrench. See if I can jiggle it out.”

“Copy that.”

The pockmarked ridges of Phlegra Dorsa fell into shadow. The northern polar region glittered with carbon dioxide frost. The sun was swallowed by the planet’s western curve.

“How long does this tubing have to be?” asked Oscar. “I’d like to cut off as much of the exhaust end as I can before we reattach the CAT-OX intake valve.”

“Standby,” said Yan. Olivia heard the clatter of laptop keys.

She closed her eyes, turned her back on the Martian sunset, opened them again. “Here, I can check that,” she said. “You keep your eyes on the feed.”

Yan glanced over, mouthed a silent “Thank you,” then bent over her work again.

A third laptop sat unused beside Ruslan, and Olivia pulled herself toward it. She pecked out her login and brought up the relevant maintenance diagrams. She did not look at the planet behind her. She tried not to mourn what she hadn’t yet lost.

***

The summer after Valya’s second year at the Moscow Aviation Institute, she had gone home to Star City to help her mother and grandmother move. Their apartment building, which had begun its slow but relentless decomposition in the Soviet era, had finally reached the end of its life. As Valya’s mother was still a working Roskosmos engineer, and her grandmother a respected cosmonaut veteran with decades of flight behind her, they were allotted a generous space in a modern building, nestled picturesquely between a stream and a copse of pine trees. The change was not an entirely unwelcome one. But after thirty years of occupancy, the Popovich apartment was dense with physical history, three generations of clothes and toys and yellowing paperbacks and figurines and souvenirs and ancient computers and DVDs without a player to watch them on and unsorted shoeboxes of photographs, all stacked on shelves or stuffed into closets or hidden away beneath beds and end tables. And despite all the collective efforts of the household, much of this was nestled beneath a blanket of dust and detritus when eighteen-year-old Valya came home to unearth it, sort it into piles and pack it away into boxes and garbage bags. In the weeks before her arrival, they had organized their professional papers in the office and packed up most of the kitchen. They had fetched her from the train on a Friday night, and the movers had come that Sunday morning.

Twenty years older, dressed in an SMU and floating through a cramped crew cabin in orbit around Mars, she had the same feeling of harried excavation. Four hours into their second EVA of the day, two biowaste bags had been filled with moldy disinfectant wipes and contaminated fixtures, and Valya was beginning to despair of ever seeing the end of it. Her hands ached. She had a dehydration headache from too many days in a row of trying to avoid peeing in her suit. Her Maximum Absorbency Garment itched. The mold seemed infinite and eternal. The checklist stretched out into a murky, impossible future, and she had begun to hate her past self. What had that cocky idiot been thinking? How could she have decided that any of this was a good idea?

She hooked her feet around a bar, set one elbow against a handle on the next rack over, and fit her PGT’s bit over the next bolt to be tightened. She squeezed the trigger, and her shoulders ached with the effort of pushing back against its torque. The bolt turned, but didn’t catch. She felt the PGT shudder as it encountered unexpected resistance. She stopped, not wanting to strip the threads.

“Fuck,” she said. “We are fucked. I can’t do this.”

“We aren’t,” said Yan in her ear.

“You can,” said Ruslan.

Beside her, Oscar paused in reassembling the vents to smile at her through his helmet. “You’re doing great,” he said. “We’re almost there.”

Valya took a deep breath of bottled air, sucked a mouthful of water from the straw beside her cheek, and unclipped the socket wrench from her belt.

***

Between airlock decontamination and repressurization, suit decontamination and stowage, waste documentation and disposal, and helping Valya and Oscar wipe down their exhausted bodies and change back into shirtsleeve clothes, the post-EVA checklist had taken the crew nearly five hours to complete. They had agreed beforehand to delay reestablishing contact with Mission Control until they knew whether or not the new ARS rack had done its job—if the air was safe to breathe, if the newly cleaned vents were still clear, if the valves and pipelines were unobstructed by mold or anything else. Oscar had insisted they wait for at least two full days, time enough for any remaining spores to make themselves known.

They had spent the first night in sleeping bags strapped with bungee cords to the walls of the Command Module, all exhausted enough by then not to care. They’d awoken to the smell of Ruslan and Oscar cooking breakfast in the galley, soy scramble and grilled zucchini with a generous helping of the green chili sauce that Oscar had brought from home. Afterward, they’d tried their best to get a little exercise, but with the Centrifuge, the farm and the Crew and Service Modules pumped full of nitrogen and sealed off, they were left with only the Command Module and the three nodes stung out along the truss to mill around in.

Two hours or so of this had been enough to snap what was left of Valya’s patience. She had unearthed a box of solid-fuel oxygen generators and a portable CO2 scrubber from stowage, hung a Prebreathe Hose Assembly oxygen mask around her neck, announced that she was going for a run, and kicked herself into Node 1 without looking back or waiting for an answer.

SFOGs – oxygen candles – dated back to the Soviet era. Their main advantage as an emergency system was that they were entirely self-contained, and would function even in the event of a total loss of power. An igniter tablet set off a chemical reaction that burned potassium perchlorate, and a battery-driven fan pushed the oxygen that resulted out into the cabin. Olivia had learned their basic concept and how to operate one during her emergency survival training as an astronaut candidate, but had not really thought of them since. She had never actually seen one used in the field.

Yan had looked up from her laptop by the galley table, where she’d been organizing video and photographs for their first post-blackout transmission. “What do you think she’s doing?”

“The Centrifuge is that way,” Olivia had said.

“It’s sealed off,” Gao had said. Olivia had turned to watch his face as various implications sunk in. “Wouldn’t she have asked first?”

“Not today,” Ruslan had said.

Olivia had been reviewing the procedures for their post-quarantine mold check on the lander, for which she’d be on box with Valya and Oscar. On impulse, she had stuck her clipboard to a square of velcro on the wall. “I’ll go help,” she had said.

Yan had clattered through a final burst of typing, then logged herself out of her workstation. “So will I,” she had said as she pulled herself around the galley table.

Oscar had looked torn. “Should I..?”

“Yes,” Olivia had said.

Gao had floated into the spot that Yan had just vacated. “I’ll continue with the archival work,” he had said as he logged himself in.

Ruslan had made a gesture that encompassed the kitchen. “Lunch,” he said.

Olivia had chuckled. “Cowards,” she had said, and grabbed a handle to launch herself through Node 1. Yan and Oscar had caught up with her as she was unearthing three more prebreathe rigs from the temporary EVA stowage locker they had set up outside the airlock.

They had found Valya midway through the process of equalizing pressure between Node 3 and the Centrifuge hub. At first she had eyed them all suspiciously, as if waiting for one of them to try and stop her. When they had only floated there in silent expectation, she had fitted her oxygen mask over her nose and mouth, unlatched the Centrifuge hatch, and signaled for them to follow her through.

They had disconnected the Centrifuge from the ship’s Common Cabin Air Assembly when they’d sealed it off. But due to the particular problems of maintaining air circulation in the only module of the ship with artificial gravity, it had a specialized CCAA of its own. By then, absurdly off-nominal modifications had become the norm aboard the Baochuan, and no one had questioned Valya’s mask-dampened instructions as they patched in an oxygen candle and the CO2 scrubber. After their adventures with the air lock, Olivia had been relieved that the systems were actually designed to work with one another.

Once the modifications were complete, Valya had immediately excused herself and gone tearing off down the ladder and out toward the ring of the Centrifuge, her mask still in place and her expression unreadably stiff. Olivia, content to wait until the atmosphere was oxygenated again before starting her afternoon shuffle, had settled herself in to wait in the hub. Yan, at least as wise as she in the ways of Valya’s moods, had decided to stay as well. As had Oscar, although Olivia suspected that he simply didn’t know what else to do with himself.

Now, they floated in a little half-circle in the hub, their backs to the ship spinning behind them and their knees drawn up to their chests, feet or hands occasionally darting out to correct their orientation.

Oscar stared down the empty passageway to the ring, his eyes unfocused. “How long have you known Valya?” he asked in a muffled mask-voice.

“Hmmm…” Olivia pursed her lips. “I met her once when I was in Star City for wilderness training, back when I first joined the Corps. I think we were both attending the same presentation. But I didn’t see her again after that until you did, actually. During WCME selection.”

“And you met her on…Tiangong-5?” he asked, turning to Yan.

Yan nodded. “We were stationed there together for six months. Before that, I had helped to train her on Chinese systems at Jiuquan.” She smiled. “I was one of two women with flight experience in the taikonaut program at the time. Perhaps I sought Valya out for that reason. I’m very glad I did.”

“She’s incredible,” said Oscar. He looked surprised by his own earnestness, but not embarrassed. “Obviously, I knew she was something when she was sent to Antarctica. We all had to be, to make it that far. But I didn’t realize just how…” He made a vague gesture, looking for the right word.

“Resourceful?” Yan suggested. “Intelligent?”

“Relentless?” Olivia offered.

“Yes,” said Oscar. “All of those things.”

“She kind of sneaks up on you,” said Olivia. “Growing up like she did, with a family like hers…I don’t think she really understands how she comes across.”

“Well,” said Oscar. He laughed. “Very well. Distractingly well.”

“Have you told her that?” asked Yan quietly.

Oscar knit his brows and thought for a moment. “Hmm.”

“Hmm,” Olivia agreed, smiling a little lopsidedly.

Oscar looked down the transit tunnel again, visibly weighing his options. “All right,” he said, and rotated so that his legs were properly aligned with the ladder.

“Good luck, Ozzie,” said Olivia.

“Page me if you need anything,” he said, the wall of the hub already past his shoulders. Olivia and Yan watched him until he was out of sight.

The silence was a comfortable one, and for a time they sat and waited together, listening to the hum of the CCAA. After a time, Yan lifted her PHA mask, drew several deep experimental breaths, then took the rig off entirely and velcroed it to the wall.

“So do you think they’ll sort it out?” asked Olivia, once she had done the same.

“Perhaps,” said Yan. “If Valya can be convinced to try.”

“I thought she was only worried about it being awkward, but it seems like there’s more to it than that.”

“If she feels this strongly, I can understand her caution,” said Yan. “But I hope she does not stay silent out of concern for him. He can make his own choices about what he wants.”

Olivia tensed. “Yan…”

“I wanted to apologize,” said Yan, soft but forceful. “I have not been fair to you.”

“What? How?”

“I have made the same mistake I am concerned that Valya will. I worried that you were regretting the choices you made in Antarctica. I tried to make it easier for you to disentangle yourself, if that was what you wanted.” She closed her eyes; shook her head. “I should have asked.”

Something tightened in Olivia’s chest. “Yan, that’s not how…” She swallowed. “That isn’t how I felt at all.” She laughed a little, quick and nervous. “You’d never been with a woman before. When we started, no one was supposed to know, and that was fine. I didn’t blame you for wanting to experiment. I thought you were wonderful. I was happy to spend the time with you, while it lasted. And then…” She trailed off.

“Then,” said Yan, both prompt and affirmation.

“I just thought… with the media and everything, and the interviews, and all the letters…” Olivia felt her face grow warm, and thanked her stars for dark skin that wouldn’t show it. “I was worried you must feel so cornered. Or… I don’t know, obligated?”

Now Yan laughed, although she flinched as she did it. “Oh, Olivia… I have given my life over to other people. To the Party, to my parents, to my husband, to my children, to the Taikonaut Corps, to the Coalition. I have done everything asked of me for many years. I have fulfilled every obligation.” She reached out across the space between them; pressed her flat palm to Olivia’s breastbone. “This one thing. This is mine.” She smiled. “This is just for me.”

Olivia’s vision blurred as tears collected on her eyes, held in place by surface tension. She blinked, wiped them away, chuckled at the small indignities of micro gravity and covered Yan’s hand with her own.

“For us?” Olivia murmured.

Yan leaned forward, slow and a little hesitant. Olivia remembered the engineering camera in the hub, its fisheye lens positioned to catch any irregularities. As they kissed, she reached up to cover it with her hand.

***

The drawbacks of completing a series of off-nominal procedures, with only tacit approval from Mission Control and no ground support whatever, were numerous and varied. Foremost in Valya’s mind as she lapped the ring was the massive, terrifying void that so far described their fallback plans. Whatever flattery the others might shower her with out of some misguided effort to keep her spirits up, Valya’s entire body was drawn taut with anxiety as she contemplated the truth: that she had known just enough to get them into this mess, but hadn’t the first idea what to do if it all began to fall apart again.

Her mind cycled through disasters as she rushed past the crew quarters. What if the Baochuan’s ARS rack was contaminated just as the first had been, leaving them without a clean system to scrub their air? What if the airlock collar failed from the strain of so many pressurization cycles and permanently damaged the lander’s hatch, stranding them with nothing but a patchwork of emergency systems to keep them from suffocating? What if the Canadarm’s LEE locked up, and they weren’t able to release the Descent Module? What if part of the module’s complicated atmospheric entry systems had been undetectably damaged by one of her absurd improvisations, and they were doomed to a macabre echo of the Columbia disaster a half-century before? What if she had already killed everyone on board, and they simply didn’t know it yet?

A pair of man-sized shoes appeared on her horizon. In a burst of panic, Valya considered pretending not to have seen him, backtracking to her crew quarters and hiding there until he lost interest. In this mood, however, the prospect of shutting herself up in a tiny bunk was even worse than pretending not to be out of her mind with exhaustion and anxiety in front of Oscar. Resigned, she kept up her pace, and the shoes became legs, and the legs a full torso, until the entirety of a politely concerned New Mexican emerged from the corridor ahead of her.

He flashed his wide white American smile behind his mask. “Mind if I shuffle with you?”

“No.” It sounded harsher out loud than she’d meant it to, so she amended it with a, “I don’t mind at all.”

“Great,” he said. “Good. Well.” He gestured for her to go ahead of him along the narrow track. “After you.”

They shuffled, and filled the silence with trivialities. They passed by the gym, and chatted about Gao’s attempts to draw Oscar in to the world of cycling enthusiasts. They remarked on Ruslan’s cooking, and their suspicions regarding the giant dish of golubtsy that had appeared in the kitchen a couple days before. After a time, they removed their masks, and wondered aloud what might be causing the slightly stale smell in the air. It was all completely harmless and pleasant; so much so that she began to suspect Olivia had sent him out here to lure her back from despair with his resonant voice and charming manner. Which would have been a not particularly sneaky but demonstrably effective plan, as Valya no longer felt the urge to claw her way through the Centrifuge wall and out into the vacuum.

“You did quite a job yesterday,” said Oscar. He was behind her on the track, so she couldn’t see his face, but something in his tone suggested the words had been carefully chosen.

“As did you,” she deflected.

“I’ve been working with astronauts for a long time,” he said. “I’ve watched them train on the ground, and I’ve flown with them in space. Hundreds of men and women from a dozen different countries.” He paused. “And I’ve never met anyone quite like you.”

She chuckled self-consciously. “That’s lucky. One Valentina Popovich is more than enough for anyone.”

Another pause, followed by a hesitant, “Maybe we should stop somewhere for a second…”

“No,” she said. “No, I have to keep moving or…” She shook her head. “Sorry.”

“Would you rather I leave you alone?”

“No!” she said, too quickly. “It’s good to have you here. Please stay.”

They had made another full lap before he spoke again. “Valya, you’re an incredible woman,” he said quietly. “I feel very lucky to know you.”

“That’s kind of you to say.”

“It’s the plain truth,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you knew it, is all.”

Valya flashed through a lifetime of exasperated lectures on how to take a compliment. “Well… thank you,” she said.

“Look, I don’t want to make things awkward for you. I understand the situation’s pretty tense right now, and out here everything’s… complicated. But there’s something I really have to ask.”

“And what is that?” she asked, although the answer was beginning to come to her with terrifying clarity. She resisted the impulse to bolt for her room, but only barely.

“I’d like to get to know you better,” he said. “Spend some time with just the two of us… see where that goes.” She couldn’t think of any way to stop him from continuing that wouldn’t make her look completely crazy, so he went on. “No pressure. No expectations. Just… hoping that if I’m lucky, maybe we can make that big, red planet a little bit less lonely.”

Valya felt like her chest was in a vice, her heart and her lungs battering the inside of her ribcage. “I don’t know what Olivia said to you. But you do not have to do this.”

“I know that,” said Oscar, his tone still impossibly kind. “I want to. Anything that means I can see more of you is golden in my book.”

“You don’t know me very well,” she said. “I am not good company.”

“I’d like to be the judge of that.”

A small, panicked moan escaped from Valya’s throat. Oscar’s footsteps quickened behind her, and she felt his hand on her shoulder, gently, more a tap for attention than an effort to hold her back. “Hey, are you all right?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry. I can go…”

“No!” She sniffed and ground the heel of her palm against her eye socket. “Chyort voz’me.” She stopped walking, ran her hands back over her untidy ponytail, and tried to figure out what to say and how much with the weight of Oscar’s gaze on her back.

He watched silently as she sat down on the floor of the ring, her legs stretched out in front of her and her back against the wall. Without looking at him, she patted the deck beside her, and he obediently settled himself a half-meter away, a confused and worried frown on his face.

She took a deep breath. She hadn’t smoked since she was a teenager, but damn did she want a cigarette now. “During your interview… did they ask if you ever wanted to have children?”

“Yeah, they did,” he said.

“Hmm. I’d wondered if it was the same for the men.” She glanced at him, but he was politely staring at his own folded hands. “What did you say?”

“I said that it would have been nice, but I understood if it wasn’t in the cards for me.”

She tilted her head back until it clunked against the wall. She could feel the tears welling up again. “Do you want to know what I said?”

“Of course,” he said. Then, more softly, “If you want to tell me.”

“They were smart to ask us that question so early,” she said. “Before they told us we would have to be sterilized. They wanted honest answers. They knew that some of us might lie, if it meant improving our chance to reach Mars.”

“I might have,” said Oscar. “It’s hard to know.”

“Maybe,” said Valya. “Who can say? But for me, it was different. My mother and grandmother are well connected women. They had friends in the Coalition, and they warned me. Gave me time to prepare, so that when I said ‘No’ it would be convincing.” She swallowed. “I told them ‘No,’ and here I am.”

Oscar said nothing, and didn’t look up from his hands. He waited as she marshaled her resolve.

“I lied,” she said. “I had always wanted children. I had always wanted a husband to come and live with me in my own apartment in Star City, and to have babies, and to watch them grow up in the same woods and the same playgrounds that I knew when I was a girl. T’fu, it sounds so insufferable, saying it out loud.” She sniffed again, angry at herself for saying these things, angry at Oscar for listening to her so politely, angry at the cursed ARS rack for straining her badly enough that she was willing to have this conversation at all. “I was almost thirty-five years old. I was not married. I had never even been in a serious relationship. I thought, ‘Valya, you have already lost your chance. You will never meet a man that you wish to raise a family with. Why give up Mars for something that you know you will never have?’ It was not really a sacrifice. I thought I was accepting the inevitable. I would be a spinster engineer. I would go to Mars. That was enough.”

Oscar was completely silent beside her. She couldn’t look at him, but she imagined he was awkwardly twiddling his thumbs, waiting for her to set him free of this conversation but too polite to just stand up and leave. She swallowed and licked her dry lips.

“Then I met you,” she said. “How to even feel about that? Glad that it happened too late for me to change my mind? Sad that I have already closed that door behind me?” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. You don’t need to hear any of this.”

“Valya… when I said I want to get to know you better, I didn’t just mean the cheerful, easy parts. I meant everything. The whole Popovich package.”

She made a broad gesture that took in her whole body, head to slippers. “Well, this is it,” she said, laughing without much humor. “Excellent company.”

“Honest company,” he said. “Brave company.”

Valya snorted.

“Valya, if being around me is too much trouble for you, just tell me,” he said kindly. “I’ll leave you alone, as much as I can. It’s the least I can do.”

“No!” She shook her head, irritated by the tears that kept welling at the corners of her eyes whenever he spoke. “Oscar, are you listening to me at all? You’re wonderful. The problem is that you’re wonderful. If you weren’t I could just ignore you.”

She chanced a look at him, now, and he was smiling down at his folded hands. “I guess I don’t understand why that’s a problem,” he said.

“You don’t want to deal with someone like me,” she said.

“I do, if you’ll have me.”

“You don’t! I’m a mess. I’m impossible. And the ground will find out, and then you’ll be stuck.”

“If I’m so lucky.”

“I’m not joking!” she snapped.

“I’m sorry. I know you aren’t.” He turned and looked at her, then. Cautious and hopeful. “Valya, I’m a little hardheaded sometimes. I like to figure things out on my own. I’m just asking you to let me.”

Valya thought for what felt like a very long time. She listened to the ventilation fans. She felt the deck vibrate beneath her. “We don’t tell anyone until we have agreed,” she said.

“Sure.”

“That includes the rest of the crew.

He chuckled. “Of course.”

“Even Olivia.”

“She’s your friend, Valya. You tell her in your own time.”

“All right.” She drew a deep breath, held it, and blew it out again. “All right.”

“Yes,” he said. “It’s all right.”

***

The pre-recorded image of a young Arab man grinned at them from the screen, an “Al Jazeera Entertainment” press badge pinned to his shirt. Yan tapped the space bar to play through the first question. “Valentina, we’ve all seen the footage of your repairs to the lander’s atmospheric systems. And they tell me you had to wait two full days before you could evaluate whether the mission had been a success?” Tap.

“That is accurate, yes,” said Valya. “But I would point out that I did not make those repairs alone. Oscar was my partner throughout the process. And we were supported by the rest of the crew from the Space-to-space Command Station. I designed the procedures, but I could not have carried them out on my own. And I am grateful that I didn’t have to try.”

Tap. “How did it feel, when Oscar gave the lander a clean bill of health?”

“I felt relieved. And then I slept while Olivia and Gao wrote up a report.”

“How about the rest of you? Were you worried?”

“I was terrified!” said Olivia. “I trusted Valya and Oscar completely, but these things aren’t always under our control.”

“I was not worried,” said Ruslan. “I met Valentina when she was a girl, while I was completing my first year of training in Star City. Even then, she was so confident. And with good reason! If she cannot do a thing, it isn’t possible, and there is no point in worrying.”

“I had no time to worry,” said Gao. “The people of Earth were counting on us. My mind was on the work that needed to be done. As Ruslan says, worrying would have been pointless.”

“Looking back on it now, the communications blackout came at the worst possible time. How did it feel to be on your own?”

“We were lucky, in that Mission Control had already made their confidence in our plans very clear,” said Yan. “It is unfortunate that we were forced to make so many decisions without official word from the Coalition, but we hope our actions made them proud. We are honored to have been entrusted with this mission, and we have worked very hard to ensure that trust was not misplaced.”

“Now, I know you have a lot of preparations you need to make for landing, so I won’t take up too much of your time. But I have just two more questions

“First, all of us on Earth understand how crazy the last few weeks have been, but we miss getting regular updates from the crew about their experiences on this journey. Do you anticipate having more time to talk with your fans after the landing? Will be be seeing more photos and journal entries hung on the Line?”

“Absolutely,” said Oscar. “Keeping everyone up to date is a real big priority for us. We see it as our responsibility to share as much of this adventure with folks back home as we possibly can.” He grinned. “But we’ll talk more about Mars than ourselves. We’re all pretty boring, unfortunately! I know it doesn’t make for great TV, but we all get along just fine.”

“We’re like a family,” said Olivia. “And the best families aren’t much to write home about. We’ll just take things one day at a time, and try to be good to each other.”

“Last question: what’s the first thing you’ll do when you get to Mars?”

“Oh, we have a pretty long checklist to get through once we land,” said Olivia. “It may be two or three days before we can even leave the Descent Module. But after that… well, I think we’ll be getting right to work! Seventeen months may sound like a long time, but it’ll go by very quickly for us. And if we want to meet our science goals for this mission, as well as documenting the Martian landscape for everyone at home to enjoy, there won’t be much time to relax!”

“I hope you have a chance for a little bit of fun! Maybe some Martian football?”

“American football or real football?” asked Gao.

“Hey, now!” Olivia laughed.

“We’ll do our best to stay fit and happy,” said Ruslan. “That’s part of our job, too, or I would not be here.”

“Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me this afternoon! Everyone here on Earth is so happy and excited for you. We wish you all the best of luck!”

“Thank you,” said Gao. “It’s been a difficult week, as you say. But I believe the worst of it is behind us.”

***

The four of them stood together inside the temporary air lock, which they’d constructed in the crew cabin the day after they’d landed. Once they had inflated and assembled the other modules of their permanent camp, this lock would be moved to the “muck room” at one end of the geologic laboratory. For now, it was a huge plastic cylinder that took up most of their living space.

Valya’s hand hovered over the latch of the exterior door. “Are you ready?”

Olivia laughed. “No?”

“Tough,” said Oscar.

“I don’t know, it just feels like there should be more build up!” said Olivia. “Not… open the door, and Mars!”

“We have been standing in this lock for over an hour,” said Yan.

“You want Valya to cut a ribbon?” asked Oscar. “Make a speech?”

Olivia rolled her eyes. “Ugh, you’re terrible.”

“But really, can I open this?” asked Valya irritably.

“Yes!” the other three cried in unison.

Her heart rate started to climb. “Red Star One, this Valya. We are unlatching the exterior door.”

“I copy,” said Gao in all of their ears.

“Have fun,” said Ruslan, similarly transmitted. “Or we’ll be angry that we sent you out first.”

The door swung open. A thin shaft of sunshine flooded in. For several seconds they stood and looked, drinking in the sight: the rusty, broken landscape of stone and dust; the jagged crater wall of Orcus Patera just over the horizon; the anemic disc of sunshine in a butter-yellow sky; a world that hadn’t seen rain in millions of years, where change was measured on a geological timeline, now their home and their laboratory and their challenge.

This moment was historic on a scale that was difficult for Valya to internalize. And like the Moon landing a century ago, the first seconds had been aggressively scripted and choreographed, every detail reviewed and rehearsed for hours that morning. In the original plan, as drafted by a special subcommittee of the WCME, Gao Lie was to have been the first person to step on the Martian surface—as commander, and as a native of the country that had funded so much of this mission, it had only seemed appropriate. But two days ago, as they were finishing preparations for the descent, they had gotten a last minute call from Public Affairs. “In light of recent events” there would be a change of plan.

Unlike Gao, Valya had not given even a moment’s thought to how one should carry oneself when one was taking a historical footstep. She had tried to argue her way out of it, both with the crew and with her PA officer, but no one had been even a little bit swayed. Olivia had described it as “The Badass’ Burden,” a term which made absolutely no sense to Valya but which Oscar found hilarious. After the briefing, Gao had taken her aside and said that while he had complete confidence in her professionalism, she should understand that if she misspoke she would be asked about it in every interview for the rest of her life.

Valya stepped out of the air lock. The Martian atmosphere was too thin to carry small noises, but she could feel the crunch of gravel under her boot, and the sensation sent an overwhelming tremor of joy right through her.

She spoke the words she had been given in a trance, not hearing herself at all. No one laughed or groaned or glared at her through their faceplates, so she must have gotten them right.

Very slowly, she crouched down in her SMU, reached out, and brushed her fingers along a small stone by her feet. The dust came away, revealing the slate gray surface beneath. She picked it up and stood. In the low gravity, it felt like it was made of paper.

“How far do you think I can throw this?” she asked. She was starting to feel giddy.

“Twenty meters,” said Olivia.

“Ten,” said Oscar. “We’ve been in micro g a long time.”

“Why don’t you see?” said Yan.

She threw the stone, feeling ridiculous and thrilled and impulsive and heroic, like a kid with a new toy and like Neil Armstrong stepping out of the Eagle. It landed at least fifteen meters away, raising a cloud of dust. Valya laughed aloud and picked up another.

Behind her, Yan reached for Olivia’s hand.

*