NASA died two hundred and three nautical miles above the planet Mars. It died when Daniel Chen, the last surviving crew member of Pilgrim 2, ran out of breathable atmosphere. At that point, Chen pulled himself close to the nearest camera lens. Even though NASA was not sharing the feed, hackers inevitably populated it across the internet. Millions witnessed Chen’s death. He was a beloved figure, a brilliant scientist as well as a twenty-first-century Will Rogers dispensing wisdom and humor on the talk show and lecture circuit, in books and web TV specials.
Chen’s face contorted in gasping agony, veins standing out on his forehead, eyes popping, red with burst blood vessels. He spoke three words on his dying breath: A stupid waste, after which he rolled away from the lens. Five dead astronauts drifted in fisheye perspective. It was the latest in a string of catastrophic failures.
A stupid waste.
Millions heard Chen, but his words were aimed at one person: his sister. Nevertheless, a stupid waste became a popular catchphrase, often heard in Congress and the Senate chamber. Most notably it was invoked by the senior senator from Ohio when he exhorted his colleagues to defund the ninety-year-old space agency, declaring it nothing more than a fiscal black hole into which a substantial portion of the nation’s treasure (at that point less than one quarter of one percent of the budget) was annually dumped without any reasonable expectation of a return on the investment. In short, NASA itself had become a stupid waste.
The Agency continued to operate, if only on the margins of relevancy: paid consultants to private industry, managing historical archives. Even data retrieval for existing satellites and robotic missions was contracted out. For America, except in the private sector, manned space flight was as dead as the crew of Pilgrim 2.
• • • •
Getting there was the best part of the Nova Branson Orbital Resort. That’s what Karie Chen thought. The orbital provided one-percenters with breathtaking views and nude zero-G “tumble bays,” among other attractions. Everyone loved it, even the ninety-nine percent of the population who would never visit the thing. Maybe they enjoyed the idea of movie stars nude free-falling against the real stars.
Karie rode a Nova Branson shuttle launched from a facility in the middle of Ohio farm country. The senior Senator deemed the commercial space port a great boon to the state economy and an invaluable asset to the ever expanding space tourism industry: in short, the exact dead opposite of a stupid waste. It was all of that, Karie supposed, but for her it was mostly a great ride. From inside the launch facility, she couldn’t see the giant advertising displays that placarded the perimeter fence. Nike, Walmart, Time Warner Direct Holo Vision, Amazon’s Everything Experience—whoever had the money. Rocket launches still drew the Earth-bound. They paid for bleacher seats and bought cheap souvenir trinkets mass-produced in China—the last country on Earth with an active manned space program not driven by commercial interests.
Three million pounds of thrust lifted Karie and half a dozen millionaires into a cornflower blue sky. The roar scattered grazing cows in surrounding fields. Three minutes in, the boosters kicked them past seventeen thousand miles per hour, crushing Karie into her seat, flattening her eyeballs—the price of paradise, according to Nova Branson’s literature. Karie’s once-shattered and badly healed knee throbbed in perfect agony. It didn’t matter. Lips skinned back in a fierce grin, she inhabited the pure joy of vertical acceleration. It had been too long.
• • • •
After hard dock, everyone unstrapped. Released from gravity, movers and shakers became floaters and drifters. Karie was a stranger among them. Aside from cordial greetings back at the launch facility and a couple of don’t-you-look-familiar glances, the other passengers had mostly ignored her—the expected tribalism of the rich. The chip on Karie’s shoulder turned it into classism—that’s what Danny would have said. But then, Danny had gotten along with everyone.
Last to leave the shuttle, she pulled herself through the tunnel into Nova Branson’s visitor processing bay. A resort agent in a pale green jumpsuit greeted her with a winning smile. “Welcome to Nova Branson Orbital.”
The agent accepted Karie’s pass card and performed the required retinal identity verification. She’d already gotten the hell verified out of her before lift-off.
“You’re all checked in,” the agent said.
“What a relief.”
“Never mind. Look, I thought somebody was going to meet me.”
“Would you like to talk to customer service?”
“Naw. I think I’ll have a look around.”
Karie pushed off—and almost butted heads with a man gliding recklessly in by the same passage. “Hey—” The man caught her, which changed both of their trajectories. Karie banged her knee on the bulkhead, yelped, bit her lip hard enough to break the skin. A tiny crimson drop drifted by her face.
“Sorry about that,” the man said. “I’m Jonah Brennerman. Alistair’s my father. Are you all right?”
Jonah offered his hand and Karie shook it. He was about forty years old, ten years her junior. He had one of those man-boy faces.
“I’m fine. Can I have my hand back?”
“Of course. Father’s waiting. I’ll take you there. Afterwards, meet me in the rotation lounge. The spin maintains a one-third Earth gravity simulation. Called Forward View. Ask anybody how to find it. You’ll love Nova Branson, at least that’s what Dad is hoping.”
Jonah pushed into the passage. She followed him to what he called the conference room.
“Word of advice? Let Dad do the talking.”
“He likes to be in charge, is all I’m saying. If you want this to happen as much as I do, you need to be ready to compromise.”
Jonah smiled. “Good luck. See you at Forward View. I can’t wait to get this thing started.”
• • • •
Hand straps festooned the padded walls. The northern hemisphere of Earth appeared in a circular view port.
“Hello?” Karie said.
A holographic projector flickered on. A man, aged sixty, appeared. Athletically fit, virile streaks of gray. In reality, the head of Nova Branson Corporation was pushing ninety and had been out of view for decades. Karie checked her temper. A little seeped out anyway.
“Mr. Brennerman, you insisted on a face-to-face meeting.”
“And here we are.”
“Actually, here I am.”
“Alas, my physical limitations preclude me from space travel. But I wanted you to enjoy my orbital firsthand, encourage a change in perspective.
“I’ve been in space before.”
“Perspective in the sense of attitude, Ms. Chen.”
Karie tried to make her smile look natural. She was here for something only a man like Alistair Brennerman could afford to give. “Of course I’m grateful. Getting into space isn’t easy these days—not without a funded mission.”
The projection wobbled. For a moment Brennerman’s voice fell out of sync with his lips. “Tell me why, exactly, you want to go to Mars.”
“To fix what my brother helped break.”
“A morbid contest of sibling rivalry?”
“It has nothing to do with sibling rivalry. The Pilgrim 1 habitat is still on the surface, waiting for someone to unpack it. The crew of Pilgrim 2 is dead, but that shouldn’t invalidate the mission goal: a self-sustaining beachhead on Mars. Mr. Brennerman, America is squandering its potential by playing around in Earth orbit. Until the Chinese last year, no one had even stepped foot on the Moon since 1972—eighty years, for God’s sake.”
“Nova Branson is not America.”
“It is, actually. Along with every other global corporation with roots in the United States. You run everything. I’m just asking you to invest in the pioneering spirit that used to define us. You can push the frontier.” She was talking too much. Worse, she sounded like a used-car salesman. Karie’s pitch lacked the sincerity she genuinely felt.
She tried again: “Listen. After the Pilgrim disaster and congressional defunding, NASA mothballed Pilgrim 3 and 4. But they are viable spacecraft. You could get one at a fire-sale price and cut expenses further by reducing the crew.”
“Are you quite sure you’d be up to the rigors, Ms. Chen, in light of your injury and, excuse me, your age?”
“I’m perfectly fit for the mission.”
“Of course. And Jonah insists on you. I think he’s star-struck by your celebrity. Hero of the Phoenix debacle.”
“Jonah? I don’t understand.”
The holo wobbled out of sync again. “You are not in the least bit impressed by my resort, are you?”
Karie sighed. “It’s an impressive technological achievement.”
“But it doesn’t accomplish anything.” Okay, Karie thought, stop talking. “Earth orbit used to be the frontier. You don’t even do any science here. We have to keep pushing outward.”
“Yes, as I’ve often heard you say. I think you must wake each morning with the words already on your lips. Have you ever, for a moment even, considered you might be mistaken? Because you’re wrong about the frontier. This is the greatest business frontier in history.”
“Not my field.”
“Can you conceive of any circumstance under which you might modify your obvious disdain for Nova Branson and the profitable future of orbital recreation?”
“I’m not disdainful. I’m impatient.” Karie had drifted too close to Brennerman’s holo. Her shoulder interrupted the projection, fracturing organized light. She looped her wrist into a hand strap, pulled back, and the holo resumed its integrity.
“For a round-trip ticket to Mars,” Brennerman said, “will you be capable of recanting your impatience?”
“Renounce your current and often-stated opinion about orbitals. Lend your unqualified endorsement of orbital recreation, Nova Branson in particular. Participate in a public campaign which will include interviews, public forums, ghost-written books, and so on.”
“I thought not,” the holo said.
“My son wishes to go to Mars. He wishes to go to Mars with the hero of the Phoenix. He admires you. Which suggests a lack of admiration for his own inheritance, since you and I are very much at odds. So this is my price for a trip to Mars. You vigorously and publicly embrace what I’ve accomplished, and intend to go on accomplishing, with Nova Branson. Do so and you may orbit the Red Planet as a tribute to your brother. That’s how you will put it. A tribute to your brother. And that will be the end of it. If the Chinese want Mars, let them have it.”
Karie was quiet, then said, “You know what it is, Mr. Brennerman?”
“This kind of wasteful development of Earth orbit. It’s like the prairie towns that sprang up after the frontier moved west. Those towns were mostly saloons and bordellos, places to get drunk and get laid while pretending you were in the midst of something wild. The difference between then and now is the wealth of the customers.”
“Nova Branson has been in business a very long time, Ms. Chen. My grandfather started it, my father developed it, and I have been a loyal steward of the legacy. We did not succeed by indulging romantic notions such as your ‘pushing the frontier’ mantra.”
“So you brought me up here just to slap me back down.”
The Brennerman projection smiled. “I’ll tell Jonah you weren’t interested.”
• • • •
She worked the lecture circuit. People still paid to hear her talk about Phoenix. She had been in command. Mission: to rendezvous with a robotic vehicle that had successfully captured a small asteroid and established itself in lunar orbit. One of Phoenix’s fuel cells ruptured. The explosion crippled the ship and killed Karie’s pilot. Despite her shattered knee, Karie babied the spacecraft back to Earth, saving herself and the three scientists on board. Her knee never healed properly. NASA declared her unfit to fly, even as they praised her heroism. That was ten years ago. Pilgrim 2 should have been Karie’s mission. Instead they selected Danny, the public relations star with no flying experience, two fully functioning knees, and a popular following in the millions. Privately, Danny told Karie he was glad she was grounded. Watching her almost die on Phoenix had been unbearable. When he saw the hurt look on her face, he immediately took it back. “Hey, I didn’t mean it that way.” But it stung. Sibling rivalry, Alistair had suggested. But it wasn’t that simple.
Now, during a Q & A session at Wyoming State University, an old guy in the second row stood up and the usher handed him the microphone. Karie pegged him right away. Leather jacket, cap with “US NAVY Ret.” blazoned across it: aging space buff. Mostly that’s what she got these days.
“I have a comment and a question,” he said. “The comment is: We need NASA back. The real NASA!” Applause rippled through an audience who wouldn’t be there if they weren’t already in the same nostalgia camp. They always wanted to hear about Karie’s heroic save of the stranded Phoenix scientists. She complied, then switched to her message about the future of exploration. At that point she usually took a few jabs at Nova Branson, among others. Tonight she skipped the jabs. Karie had been thinking a lot since her return from the orbital resort.
“And the question is,” the old space buff continued, “how do we get it back?”
More applause. Karie’s anger surged—more at herself than anyone else. The applause wound down. She raised the microphone. “NASA isn’t coming back.” Microphone feedback whined through the hall. Karie winced, held the mic farther from her lips. “The agency that took us to the moon is dead. You should get over the idea that NASA can—or needs to—happen again. Because it won’t.” She paused and let them grumble. “And we don’t need it to come back. The future of manned space flight exists right now, the technology, the infrastructure. The privatization of space flight is here. What our entrepreneurs lack is a vision without dollar signs.”
She talked a while longer, departing from her usual lecture notes, but she had lost some of the audience. People began standing, gathering their coats. Later, when she stepped out into the evening air, Jonah Brennerman was waiting for her.
“Can we talk?”
“I meant over dinner.”
“I’m headed straight to the airport to catch the red-eye.”
“Then let me drive you. You stood me up, you know.” He smiled.
“On the orbital? After talking to your father, there didn’t seem to be any point.”
“Let me try to convince you otherwise. Please.”
She hesitated then said, “The university provided a driver. I’ll have to tell her.”
• • • •
In the backseat of the limo, Jonah offered her a drink.
“My father was pushing you.”
“Yeah, I got that.”
“You understand, it’s about me. You represent a threat.”
“A threat! He’s Alistair Brennerman. I can barely fill a lecture hall.”
“That’s not the point. I’m in your camp. I believe we need to extend the frontier. Dad interprets that as almost traitorous. We’ve locked horns on this since I was a kid. Now he’s old and he wants to groom me to take over Nova Branson. The corporation means everything to him. Instead, I want to fly to Mars with you.”
“I’m a bad influence.”
Jonah laughed. “In his eyes, absolutely.”
“So why are you here?”
“This is the good part. Dad’s changed his mind, or I changed it for him, or I’m not even sure what.” Frowning, Jonah scratched his head. “To be honest, I’m a little baffled myself.”
“Wait a minute. He’s agreed to fund the mission, his tribute mission?”
“Yes, provided I can persuade you to his terms.”
“Let me save you the trouble of trying: You can’t.”
“Hear me out. He’s agreed to back off on the more extreme elements. No ghostwritten paeans to orbital resorts, no public lectures recanting your position. We’re talking about a one-time public statement of support, a willingness to play nice with the press, and passive participation in a program of advertising revenue. And, Karie, he’s agreed to a landing, not just a bullshit tribute orbit.”
Karie held back her elation. A Mars landing! A real chance at exploration. “I can live with those terms. But why is he doing this? I don’t get it.”
“I pledged my loyalty to the status quo, promised when I took over I would adhere absolutely to Dad’s vision, without, as he put it, romantic deviations. Look, our relationship has always been rocky.” His face made an ugly grimace, an unintended glimpse of just how hard “rocky” had been. “Now time’s running out. He wants us to reconcile, he wants his legacy carried forward. We’re compromising around Mars.”
“He didn’t strike me as the compromising type.”
“Maybe in this case we’re both wrong about him.”
“Maybe. Are you really willing to come back and spend the rest of your life pampering rich tourists?”
“Of course not.”
Karie gave him a skeptical look. “But Alistair believes you?”
“He believed me after I signed a legal document binding me to the terms.” Jonah poured himself a scotch. “Of course, there’s no such thing as a contract that can’t be broken.”
The driver spoke. “Coming into the airport now, sir.”
“There’s something off about all this,” Karie said.
“The point is,” Jonah said, “do you want to go to Mars or not?”
• • • •
Seventeen months later, at a prelaunch photo op, Karie turned to Jonah and said, “We look like NASCAR drivers.”
“You look great,” Jonah said.
Joining them were James Krueger and Treva Hilgar, NASA-trained astronauts and early defectors to Nova Branson. They wanted to fly. Krueger was six feet of lean muscle mass and smiling optimism. Hilgar was compact, emotionally self-contained, and fiercely competent. She wore a small gold cross around her neck. Karie was happy to have them along. All their flight suits were emblazoned with advertising patches. Especially annoying was the wearable GIF touting Nova Branson Orbital Resort, winking and shifting like Vegas casino signage.
“Put on your smile,” Krueger said. “We’re going to Mars.”
Later, riding the elevator up the gantry, Karie said, “The last few months, it’s like launching a circus, not an interplanetary mission.”
“Apollo wasn’t about exploration, either.”
“I know. It was about beating the Russians.”
“But exploration was a byproduct of that competition. And this mission isn’t about the NASCAR suits or your endorsement. So cheer up.”
Jonah laughed. “I can’t believe you two are even debating about something that’s already a done deal. Enjoy yourselves, for God’s sake.”
Treva Hilgar, as always, kept her thoughts to herself and watched the booster slip by.
• • • •
Mars rolled out beneath them. After seven months in space, it was time. Karie opened the hatch between the main body of Pilgrim 3 and the landing module attached to its belly. “Go ahead, Jonah,” she said.
Smiling, bearded, excited, Jonah moved toward the hatch. They had really done it. In a few hours, they would be examining the Pilgrim 1 habitat, reporting on its readiness for future missions to occupy. If there ever were any future missions. Karie wished what they were doing felt more like a beginning and less like a swan song—or, worse, a tribute.
She followed Jonah into the LM. Krueger had already begun the power-up procedures. Treva would remain in orbit.
“Here we go, huh?” Jonah said.
“Here we go.”
They were all grinning like kids.
• • • •
Karie separated the LM from the main body of Pilgrim 3. This is where trouble had struck her brother’s mission. Pilgrim 2’s separation maneuver had failed, trapping the entire crew in a landing module that couldn’t land. Pilgrim 3’s separation was flawless. A short burn took them to the edge of the atmosphere. Their speed increased exponentially. Seven miles up, the supersonic chute deployed. Karie and Jim Krueger watched their instruments. A mile from touchdown, the chute separated and the retro rockets fired. Then it began to go wrong. The retros fired too hot, sapping fuel reserves. Still thousands of feet above the surface, the LM doggedly hovered.
“Damn it,” Karie said. “Switch me to full manual.”
“I’m on it.”
Seconds ticked by, then minutes.
“Problem. Hold on.”
Karie watched the fuel gauges drop. They were already depleted below what was necessary to achieve orbit and rendezvous. Being marooned a given, soon they wouldn’t be able to land at all.
“Jim, come on.”
“There. The damn thing wouldn’t let go.”
Karie took them down, radically angling the descent, going for a hard landing while she could still control it. But it was too late. Sixty feet above the surface the fuel gauges flashed red, the engines quit, and they dropped like a stone.
The desert plain came up like a wall and swatted them.
• • • •
Karie dragged Jonah from the wreckage. Her knee collapsed and she fell over, cursing. The landing module loomed against the butterscotch sky, a mangle of abstract junk. Krueger’s severed arm hung from a gash in the bulkhead. There was no need to pull him out. Adrenaline, fear, and pain routed Karie’s rational response. Gasping, she fumbled at her helmet. Then made herself stop. The readouts on her sleeve display indicated all was in order. She bore down, forcing calm, taking deep, slow breaths, then put her attention on Jonah. Behind his faceplate, his eyes fluttered. Blood crept from his hairline.
She shook him. “Jonah, can you stand?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re going to stand.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be sorry, just stand up. If I can do it, you can do it.”
They both stood up, leaning on each other. A wave of dizziness swelled through Karie. She swayed, almost fainted, but held on. The Pilgrim 1 habitat was a mile away. Packed inside was everything they needed to survive—if they could reach it.
• • • •
Except for the lighter gravity, Karie would never have made it. By the time they came upon the habitat, her knee was screaming and her body was drenched in sweat. Jonah, who had recovered quickly, all but carried her the last hundred yards. The habitat was roughly the size of a shipping container. They passed through the airlock, initiated life support. Karie stripped off her helmet and gloves. She powered up the communications rig and sent a message to Pilgrim 3. Treva did not reply. She tried again. Still no response.
“What’s wrong with that thing?” Jonah said.
“I don’t know.”
“Does Treva even know we crashed?”
“She tracked our descent. She knows.”
Karie slipped the headphones on and tried again.
Karie thought she heard something—a voice, so faint and submerged in static she couldn’t be sure it was real. She adjusted the radio, fine tuning, but the voice was gone.
“What?” Jonah said.
“I thought I heard a voice.”
“What did she say?”
“I don’t know. I’m not even sure it was a voice.”
“Let me.” Jonah took the headphones and began broadcasting, listening intently for a reply, broadcasting again. Then his expression changed. He closed his eyes, appearing almost in pain as he listened. After a while, looking disappointed, he removed the headphones. “I thought I heard something.”
For the next hour they traded off on the radio, trying to contact both Treva in orbit and Mission Operations back on Earth, sometimes with the headphones on, sometimes allowing the wash of hopeless static to pour out of the speakers.
“We both heard the voice,” Jonah said.
“We heard something.” Karie’s mind was moving off the radio. There was so much to do.
• • • •
A dust storm came howling out of the desert. They huddled inside the habitat. Dust and grit hissed against the shell. Karie had been working on a protective shield for the life support unit’s loader. Attached to the outside of Pilgrim 2, the loader shipped Martian soil into a chamber, where it was heated and the evaporated water captured. LS apparatus then divided the water into hydrogen and oxygen, adding nitrogen directly from the atmosphere. It produced drinking water and breathable air and was designed to support five people. But the equipment proved balky, in need of constant attention. And then the dust storm drove them back inside before she could fix the shielding in place. What would be left after the storm? Feeling her optimism fray, Karie said, “I’m beginning to think people like your father are right.”
Jonah scooped fruit paste out of a ration cup and sucked the spoon clean. “Dad’s always right about everything. Just ask him.”
“Phoenix was a disaster—my pilot killed, the mission aborted. Pilgrim 2 up there right now with five dead, including my brother. And now Jim Krueger. You want to talk about a stupid waste, there it is.”
“You know, when Danny said that stupid waste thing, he was talking directly to me. He was saying, I know you’re going to try to find a way to come out here. Don’t do it.”
“Well, you did it anyway.”
• • • •
They stood by the loader. Dust and grit had wind-blasted through the mechanism, tearing rubber seals, clogging the armatures and servos.
“We’re going to have to break it down, clean everything, replace the seals, and put it together again. Otherwise we can manually ship the soil, which is more labor than we want.” Karie’s knee throbbed. She ignored it. In the direction of the crashed landing module, something moved. She paused, holding her wrench. A dust devil tracked across the desert, like a fleeing ghost.
• • • •
By now Treva had left orbit, headed back to Earth. Karie had tried everything she could think of to make the radio work, to no avail. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. Possibly their outgoing messages were being heard. There was simply no way to tell. She turned to the hydroponics and other matters demanding attention. Jonah, meanwhile, spent too much time monitoring the useless radio. One morning he shouted, “There’s somebody! I heard somebody.”
Karie, already suited up, was about to enter the airlock. Dust accumulated on the solar panel array if they didn’t keep it wiped off. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes. I was broadcasting to Earth, and then there was a voice. I couldn’t hear what it said, but it was real. I heard it. This time I’m positive.”
Karie switched to speaker. She cleared her throat and spoke into the microphone, “Pilgrim 1 habitat, this is Pilgrim 1 habitat. Please respond.”
Jonah leaned in eagerly.
“Relax,” Karie said. They both knew it would be at least twenty-eight minutes before they received a reply. She was about to stand up when, faintly, a voice spoke through the static. Karie tweaked the noise reduction filter. The voice became slightly clearer. Pilgrim 1 Habitat, this is Pilgrim 1 habitat. Please respond. . .
Like calling into the mouth of a deep, black, empty cave. Jonah looked stricken. After that, he rarely wasted time with the radio.
• • • •
Karie lay on her thin mattress. Many nights she and Jonah shared a bunk, but Karie had been sleeping poorly for weeks and wanted her own space tonight. An amber panel near the airlock provided minimal illumination. Tired as she was, she couldn’t let go, her mind constantly worrying at the myriad of tasks. The hydroponics required constant attention. In nightmares, Karie awakened to discover the plants withered and dead. In reality, the radishes, lettuce, and green onions were thriving under carefully controlled conditions. Still, they were a long way from a bioregenerative life support system.
From where he lay in his own bunk, Jonah said: “We’re never leaving this planet.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My father’s not sending a rescue ship.”
“And you know this how?”
“Somebody reprogrammed the LM computer. Reprogrammed it to burn all our fuel, making sure we’d crash. If Jim hadn’t managed to override it and if you hadn’t been at the controls, we would have all died.”
“I didn’t exactly execute a soft landing.”
“We survived, didn’t we?”
“Two of us did.”
“Dad knew I would find a way to wiggle out of the agreement I signed. I thought it was odd when he suddenly conceded the point and agreed to a landing. I should have trusted my instincts, but I wanted this so bad.”
“What are you saying?”
“Dad saw an opportunity, and he seized it. Think of it. Yet another fatal disaster confirms that manned spaceflight pushing the frontier is too dangerous and pointless. A stupid waste, right?”
“Jonah, it’s his corporation. He didn’t have to kill you to keep you from taking control after his death.”
“That’s exactly what he had to do.” Jonah’s voice contained bitterness like acid. “My ascension was out of his hands. Grandfather liked me. It was in his will that the family line not be broken. Barring death or some kind of certifiable mental derangement, I was next to take charge of Nova Branson. Period. Dad had to sign off on that before the reins of power passed into his hands.”
“You’re being a little paranoid.”
“He’s capable of anything when it comes to getting his way.” Jonah shook his head. “I’m a fool. Look. The retros fail, then the communications fail. That’s pretty coincidental, isn’t it? You’ve said yourself there’s nothing wrong with the radio. That means it has to be the satellite relays. Guess who NASA contracted with to upgrade and facilitate satellite data retrieval? Nova Branson has held those contracts for over a decade. They can facilitate data retrieval from Mars satellites—or subvert it, or filter out what they don’t want seen. We’re dead, Karie, as far as anyone back home knows. Ship crashed, no communication from possible survivors. Done. It’s not paranoia. It’s brilliant. Cold-blooded but brilliant. You see it now, don’t you?”
“Jonah, I stopped counting on rescue as soon as we established the impossibility of communication.”
Jonah was quiet for a minute. “In the old days, didn’t the rovers use high-gain microwave transmissions for direct-to-Earth communication?”
“Find a rover and cannibalize it? Forget it.”
“Because we have no idea where any of them are, and we’re not equipped to go searching.”
“There’s another possibility. The landing module. The locator beacon, it transmits directly on high frequency.”
“Can we adapt that antenna?”
“No. But we can move the beacon.”
“How does that help?”
“All it does now is identify the crash site. Well, crash sites don’t move.”
“But survivors can move the beacon! We have to go get this thing tomorrow.”
“Jonah, I’m exhausted. We’ll talk about it in the morning, okay? Two miles on my knee is going to be a stretch, even if I’m rested.”
“I’ll go alone.”
“Don’t. It’s too dangerous to separate. I really have to sleep now, okay? We can figure out a plan in the morning.”
Karie got up and found her way to the head. With the door shut, she turned on the light, opened the medicine kit, and took a couple of sleeping pills. God bless NASA for deciding the pilgrims might need artificially orchestrated rest.
• • • •
She woke up groggy, her head like something stuffed with wet cotton. Dust and grit hissed against the habitat’s shell. Karie checked her chronometer. It had been more than ten hours since she took the sleeping pills. Jesus. Dimly, she remembered Jonah shaking her, trying to wake her up. She had brushed him off, rolling onto her side. Now she reached for the lights. They came on in sections, flickering at first. Jonah was gone.
She checked the outside conditions. Wind speed was variable, between twenty and thirty knots, the direction changeable. She tried to raise Jonah on his helmet com but the storm shredded the signal. She needed line-of-sight. After a couple of hours, the dust storm began to subside. Jonah was running out of time. Karie loaded up with extra oxygen and headed out.
• • • •
She came to the wreckage of the LM. Her knee hurt but it was tolerable. The return hike would be worse. She had tried to raise Jonah repeatedly on the helmet com, but no luck.
She climbed into the LM. Krueger’s body lay frozen in place, attached at the ragged shoulder to a great dark sheen of frozen blood. His face stared at the twisted bulkhead, unmarred, fixed in a blank expression. Karie observed no inkling of the living man. Krueger’s body was like another piece of the inanimate wreckage.
A tool bag from the habitat sat near a partially removed floor panel. Jonah, going after the damn transponder. Karie picked up the pry bar and ratcheting wrench. The crash had twisted the deck out of alignment. She worked on it for a half hour, finally wrenching the panel aside. The transponder, the size of a shoebox, appeared intact. She detached it from its nest of cables and braces, stowed it in the tool bag, and started back.
The wind buffeted her. Dust churned all around. The bag was heavy. She shifted it from shoulder to shoulder. Her knee and back hurt. She stopped at the midway point and sat on the gritty hardpan, her head down. Jonah was out here. By now his oxygen was depleted and he had suffocated, another piece of human wreckage. Another catastrophic failure.
She got up and went on. By the time the habitat came into view, Karie could barely walk. How would she do this, how would she go on alone, day after day, week after week, year after year? The arid future lay before her. She staggered forward. Inside the airlock she closed the outer door, equalized the pressure, entered the habitat—and found Jonah preparing dinner.
“I was getting worried about you,” he said.
“What’s wrong—hey, is that the transponder?”
“What happened to you?”
“Dust storm caught me. I tried to make it back before it got bad, but it got bad too fast. Wound up digging in behind a hillock. After the storm backed off, I couldn’t figure out where I was for a while. Beyond stupid. My air was pretty low. When I finally got here, you were gone. At that point it seemed dumb to go out again, so I’ve been waiting. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine. I’m just glad you’re here. I’m so glad.”
• • • •
Day five hundred.
Karie woke before Jonah. She turned on a section of light panels, and Jonah’s face emerged out of the dark beside her. He had taken to trimming his beard, after first threatening to shave it off altogether. She was glad he hadn’t done that. She liked the beard, the way it transformed his man-boy features. In repose, Jonah looked like someone Karie might even love. She placed her hand on his bare shoulder and shook him gently.
His eyes opened. “Hey.”
“It’s time,” she said.
They suited up.
The dawn was so cold Karie could feel it even through the insulating coils of her suit. They hiked away from the habitat, Karie limping, and climbed to the top of the ridge. Their feet skidded in the loose scree. Karie had to hold on to Jonah’s arm until they reached the top.
“Okay,” he said, “where do we look?”
She pointed to the horizon, where the sky had turned the color of burnished steel. “There. About thirty degrees above the plain.”
They waited. After a while Karie had to sit down. He helped her and then joined her, and they leaned against each other. They had both lost weight, and they tired too easily, but almost two years in, they were still alive—and not merely surviving. The habitat was designed for expansion. They had deployed the diggers, which tunneled out from Pilgrim 1, allowing them to construct a long underground “greenhouse,” where they planted and nurtured a greater variety of vegetables and fruits. They still supplemented their diets with the supplies brought from Earth, but they were far less dependent than they had been in the beginning. The habitat was nearly a closed system, self-sustaining. Nearly. And if they had to get there, Karie was optimistic that they would. Jonah, an amateur geologist, was even doing some science. Pilgrim 1 was a viable foothold. Now they were looking at the dawn sky. When it happened, it was so brief they almost missed it: A brilliant flash described an arc—and then Pilgrim 2 was gone.
“Hey, Karie? You’re my favorite Martian.”
She laughed. “So we’re Martians?”
“We both know my father isn’t sending a rescue ship.”
“It doesn’t have to be Alistair, you know.”
“Sure. Someday there’ll be a knock on the door.”
“What would happen if everyone thought you were dead and then you weren’t?”
“I don’t follow.”
“Nova Branson is still your birthright. You told me Alistair can’t disown you corporately, not according to the terms of your grandfather’s will. I believe it will be worth it to someone to come up here looking for you. You know, there’s gold in them Martian hills. Maybe that transponder trick worked.”
“Karie, I wouldn’t count on it. Hey, we’re doing all right, aren’t we? I mean as Martians.”
They helped each other back to their feet.
“We’re doing great,” Karie said. “Come on, let’s go home.”
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