T-Minus Two Preview

TMinusTwocoverjaf0218 Any day now … that’s when the ebook will be available, and you’ll be able to follow Mila Todorov and Major Jancey Beaumont in their quest to become the first team to colonize Mars. Here’s your chance to meet them.

Chapter 1

“Ladies and gentlemen, seating in the lecture hall is arranged alphabetically. Please take your assigned seat as quickly as possible so we can begin.”

Mila Todorov scowled at the announcement. So much for arriving early to get a seat near the front. How would she stand out among two-hundred-fifty-six candidates if she was all the way at the top of the room? Not fair at all.

At the doorway to the hall, she was greeted by a Pacific Islander wearing a yellow shirt with the words Tenacity Project stitched above a rocket emblem on his chest. He distributed bottles of water and gestured toward a tray of green capsules, each wrapped in clear plastic. “Energy tablet. Please swallow it when you reach your seat.”

As Mila climbed the stairs to her assigned desk at the top, the din of conversations grew more subdued, replaced by the shuffling of papers in the information packets left at each seat. Clearly her fellow candidates were as eager as she to learn the details of what was in store for them over the next ten weeks.

Equally clear were the stakes. They had converged on the Big Island of Hawaii to vie for two seats aboard Tenacity, the interplanetary vessel that would establish the first colony on Mars—at least the first one known to scientists on Earth. The commercially funded Tenacity Project had drawn over forty thousand applicants from all over the world. Engineers and physical scientists like Mila. Biologists, chemists, behaviorists, physicians. Pilots, soldiers, teachers, architects. Athletes, artists, journalists. Even a politician or two. If this were a reality show, they could call it Dancing With the Planets.

The finalists also included several alumni from space programs from around the world, mostly NASA and the European Space Agency, but also representing Japan, India, Australia and China. It was difficult to imagine beating out those who already had astronaut training, but Mila was determined to give it her all. She was only twenty-seven years old. If she missed out on this wave, there would be others.

“When you reach your seat, please review your profile and confirm the information is correct.”

She found her packet at the third seat from the end, four rows from the top. Pity the poor W’s and Y’s, who were sitting above her in the dark. Already she planned a statistical analysis by last name of those who survived the next cut. Not fair.

Her profile photo — the same one that appeared on the badge hanging from a lanyard around her neck — was surprisingly good, considering it had been taken upon arrival in Hilo at the end of a twenty-eight-hour journey from Berlin. Long hair pulled back in a tie to hide its wilt, making it appear brown instead of dark blond. Mongolian eyes so dark the redness hardly showed. In place of a smile, she’d proffered a practiced look of sureness and satisfaction, as though she’d already been chosen to go.

The man in the next chair raised a mock toast as he swallowed his energy tablet. Even though he was seated, she could tell he was tall — perhaps even too tall to live comfortably in a space vessel. She celebrated that fact because it meant one less contender. On the other hand, the dark yarmulke that sat upon his crown afforded him a distinctive look the selection committee would notice and remember, since everyone was outfitted in the same khaki cargo pants, black shoes and blue microfiber T-shirt with the Tenacity Project rocket logo. Not fair.

“Good morning,” he said, extending a hand. “Isaac Tobias. I saw you at the dormitory.”

“I’m afraid everyone saw me at the dormitory,” she replied sheepishly, recalling the stares when she’d clumsily dropped her well-worn Rubik’s Cube at check-in, scattering colorful pieces of plastic across the hardwood floor. “Not exactly how I wanted to stand out.”

“Don’t worry about it. What they really noticed was how fast you put it back together.”

Mila had gotten a perfect score on the analytical segment of their aptitude test, given almost a year ago during the second qualifying round. Science, technology and spatial relations were her strengths, along with anything else that sprang from the left side of her brain. Not so much with her artistic side, though she’d scored in the acceptable range thanks to her creativity with problem solving.

“I’m hearing an accent,” he said. “Let me guess … Rumanian?”

Most people guessed Russian, but Isaac’s ear was obviously better tuned to Eastern Europe.

“Close. Bulgarian.” Except her Slavic accent was somewhat muted because her mother had taken her at age ten to Berlin when she accepted a position in the philosophy department at Humboldt University. “And you are from … Israel.”

“Too easy.”

“T-minus sixty and counting.”

A nervous chuckle spread throughout the room at the leader’s choice of words to hurry stragglers to their seats.

Mila scanned the hall to assess her rivals. She figured to be among the youngest. The selection committee had made clear the Mars mission was a one-way trip, and though they promised to consider applicants of all ages, the optimum range was late thirties-early forties. Her work was cut out to overcome their bias against youth, to convince them she would eagerly give up her life on Earth for the chance to colonize their neighboring planet.

In her introductory essay nearly a year ago — submitted along with her résumé, university transcripts and a brief questionnaire — she’d described her passion for space exploration, seeded firmly at age fourteen when US Air Force Major Jancey Beaumont set off on what was to be a two-year solo mission to test the potential for long-term survivability in space. Mila tracked her orbit through the NASA website and spent countless evenings on the rooftop of their Berlin apartment building with a telescope in hopes of spotting her spacecraft, Guardian, as it orbited Earth. The thrill of seeing it pass sparked her imagination of being inside — preferably with Major Beaumont, but she hadn’t included that detail in her essay — and watching the world below.

The major’s mission had been cut short in dramatic fashion at the start of her second year in orbit when an experimental Russian vessel lost power, leaving the two cosmonauts aboard only hours of life support. Using Guardian’s emergency thrusters for maneuverability, Beaumont left her assigned orbit to intercept the stricken craft and evacuate its occupants to safety as the world held its collective breath. With two extra souls aboard her tiny vessel, her only course of action was an immediate return to Earth.

It was upon the major’s triumphant return that Mila decided she would study to become an astronaut. She was even more inspired when she read internet rumors speculating that Beaumont was a lesbian, and while none were confirmed, they weren’t denied either. Of course not. The major couldn’t say for certain back then because of the American military’s puritanical rules against gays. It only intensified Mila’s interest, imagining her dashing idol having super-secret affairs with beautiful women.

Everything Mila had done since then — physical fitness training, a PhD in astronautical engineering from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and keeping up-to-date on space programs — was in pursuit of her dream. And now she was on the brink of realizing it.

“T-minus thirty seconds.”

With few exceptions, the other candidates appeared as strong and healthy as she. No surprise, since a medical exam was their third phase of preliminary testing. Mila had inherited her mother’s thin frame, along with her genetic propensity toward low blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol. No allergies, no digestive sensitivities, no disorders of any kind.

Where she’d held her breath was in the fourth phase of evaluation, the last one before being called to Hawaii for the competitive tests. That was the psych exam, an online multiple choice test in which she had to imagine working and living in close quarters with a fellow astronaut. For the rest of her life. Would she prefer to solve a problem this way or that? Was she a leader or follower? Did she read the directions or figure things out on her own?

She was by nature a loner, impatient with the very sort of chitchat Isaac had initiated, and mortified by conversations that required deeper engagement, especially those requiring her to share feelings or personal information. To make the cut for Tenacity, she’d guessed at what traits they were seeking. She had to convince the evaluator she was sufficiently easygoing to live and work harmoniously with someone else, but not so gregarious she would suffer from limited human contact.

At T-minus zero, the hall went completely dark, and in turn, silent. A low rumble emanated from the finely tuned sound system, growing louder as the towering screen brightened to reveal a space vessel clearly marked Tenacity I mounted above a massive rocket and quaking on a launch pad. The roll grew to a crackling roar and the rocket slowly climbed until a billow of orange-tinted smoke filled the screen.

Mila closed her eyes and rode the wave of thunder that reverberated off the walls and ceiling. As the roar gradually faded, it was replaced by a collective din of excitement, as though everyone in the room was as thrilled as she to be here. She blinked to find the room dark again.

“The extraordinary video you’ve just seen was taken three days ago at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, a sea-level launch pad in India.” A formal British accent belonging to a much older man. “Tenacity I is carrying a rover to Mars to prepare the site for a colony. Two years from now, Tenacity II will launch with equipment to construct a permanent habitat, laboratory and hydroponics garden, all underground and safe from radiation. And in four years, Tenacity III will take you and a colleague on an eight-month journey to establish permanent residence in that habitat. At one-year intervals following your launch, two more colonists will join you. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Tenacity Project.”

A spotlight pierced the darkness on the stage below revealing a white-haired man, slightly paunchy with reading glasses perched at the end of his bulbous nose. He wore a dark three-piece business suit with a fat tie and matching handkerchief, and his cane hung from the edge of the podium. Mila recognized him at once. Sir Charles Boyd, the British multi-billionaire space junkie behind the Tenacity Project. After selling the world’s largest food conglomerate eleven years ago, he’d turned his attention toward fulfilling the boyhood fantasy of developing a new colony on a faraway planet. Now in his early seventies, he acknowledged Mars as the only realistic option for a colony that might be established in his lifetime.

“Top of the morning to you all,” he said as a slideshow began with an artist’s rendering of a cylindrical vessel named Tenacity III approaching the Red Planet. “If you will, please examine your boarding pass. Should it say anything other than Mars, I’m afraid you are in the wrong departure lounge.”

Mila’s breath caught at the majestic image on the screen, her eyes drawn immediately to the structural features of the forward-most segment of the ship, the section that would land two astronauts on the surface of Mars. She’d learned of the Mars mission four years ago when Tenacity Project engineers came to Delft to discuss a paper she’d written for a Stockholm conference. It laid out theoretical plans for a hydrazine propulsion system that, once landed on the surface of a planet or asteroid, could be reconfigured to extract oxygen from water, and to route hydrogen to fuel cells. Such an apparatus on Mars, where ice fields were abundant, could sustain living conditions indefinitely.

“Tenacity.” Sir Charles cleared his throat and allowed the word to momentarily stand on its own. “Determination. Persistence. Resolve. These are the human attributes that bring our universe within reach. If it can be done, it will be done.”

Goosebumps rose on Mila’s arms and chest as she absorbed his inspirational words.

Scientists laid the groundwork for travel to Mars over fifty years ago, and had built upon it with each successive program. By the turn of the century, technology had evolved that could transport astronauts across millions of kilometers of space and land their craft on the planet’s surface. Since then, the principal barrier to a Mars mission had been funding.

The Tenacity Project was budgeted at forty-six billion dollars, two-thirds of which was provided personally by Sir Charles. He’d pooled his billions with several private corporations and a handful of wealthy donors who shared his fascination with space travel. Once the colony was established, they anticipated an influx of funding from governments, foundations and corporations all over the world to help it grow.

“Let me offer my congratulations for your achievement, not only for making it this far in the selection process, but also for the contributions many of you have already made in your specialized fields. Space alloys that protect from radiation. Propulsion systems that convert sheets of ice to energy and breathable air. Cloning technology that ensures a sustainable, healthy diet. All of these advancements and dozens of others were achieved by people in this room.”

Mila glowed with pride at the special mention of her work. Surely that gave her the inside track, even if she was sitting at the top of the room. Who needed a yarmulke when she had a bullet point like that on her résumé?

“Indeed, you all are exemplary candidates for this remarkable expedition. I wish you the best of fortune as we determine the final four teams that will train for the Tenacity mission. The challenge before us requires many hands. Every person in this room possesses unique skills and expertise that can ultimately contribute to our success. Those of you who are not chosen to go shall be offered an opportunity to join the hundreds of engineers and scientists around the world already on board. It is my hope you will agree to stay on — perhaps even at our new project headquarters here in this island paradise — in order to help ensure the mission’s success. And there shall be more opportunities to join the colony as the project grows.”

Mila had left Berlin with the clear expectation of moving wherever the project took her, as the training facilities and technology centers were located all over the world — Germany, Japan, Russia and the US. If her youth worked against her this time, she would try again for a seat on a future launch. She possessed the ultimate quality of an astronaut — tenacity.

**********

Jancey Beaumont, seated in her alphabetically-assigned seat near the front of the theater, had no intention of hanging around if she were cut from the candidate pool. Her backup plan was a cabin off the beaten path in Sedona. If she couldn’t return to space, she might as well call it a career — at least when it came to working in someone else’s lab. Her years at elite universities and on the speaker’s circuit had paid well, leaving her plenty of money to get started toward self-sufficiency. It wasn’t as if she needed a lot, since her life’s work was a blueprint for survival on very few resources.

“The greatest challenge you’ll face on Mars is an environment that is hostile to human life,” Sir Charles continued, “with only one other person to share the workload and provide companionship — perhaps for all eternity.”

Companionship … the last thing Jancey wanted. If she had her way, this would be a solo mission like Guardian. Nothing would please her more than to step alone aboard a ship bound for Mars knowing she’d never return. She’d proven twelve years ago she could survive in space without company or replenishment of supplies. As a molecular biologist, she knew how to feed herself, especially given a plentiful water supply like the one on Mars. Coupled with the technical skills she’d gained from Air Force and NASA training, she was by far the most qualified to undertake this mission.

A glance around the hall confirmed her assumption that only a quarter of the candidates were women. The STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — were notoriously biased in favor of men. Though she appreciated the project’s emphasis on equal opportunity during the application phase, there were no guarantees a woman would make the final cut. She’d have liked her chances more had there not been forty-some married couples among the remaining contenders, including three in which one was already a trained astronaut. Couples had been encouraged to apply under the rationale that they were well suited to a long-term life in close quarters. Single candidates like her would have to pair with someone and then prove they could live and work together, something the couples had already done.

That meant Jancey had to take one of these dolts with her if she were chosen.

It wasn’t fair to call them dolts, she conceded, not if they’d made it this far. Some in fact brought a lot to the party. An alloy that deflected radiation could add years to the lives of space travelers. Smart enough, but a metals expert was more useful in a laboratory on Earth than aboard a vessel, at least until the colony was established. The engineer who’d repurposed the propulsion system was far more serviceable. With her luck, she’d pair with him and he’d turn out to be a misogynistic jerk. Just what she needed for an eight-month trip in a mere seventeen cubic meters of living space.

The university science departments where she’d taught since leaving the space program were full of men who thought they were better, smarter and more deserving than any woman. Ditto for the Air Force. The one place she’d always felt respected was NASA, but it wasn’t enough to save her from the budget cuts that gutted programs for long-term space flights. The axe had fallen on everyone.

Sir Charles flashed a cheesy slide of frontier settlers chopping down trees for their log cabin. “Two centuries ago, pioneers set out across the Great Plains of America to make a new life in a barren land. Their days were spent in tenacious pursuit of their very survival, whatever it took to feed their families, to shelter against the elements, to draw from nature and bend it to their will. This is the life that awaits our colonists.”

By the looks of it, Jancey, at forty-three, was in the middle of the pack age-wise. Forty-seven at launch if she were chosen to go first. What she lacked in vigor — assuming she lacked anything — she made up for in experience. Plus she’d already proven her suitability, having spent an extended period in space with no ill effects.

That also was true for Colonel Marlon Quinn, an African-American from Detroit who’d logged five months at the International Space Station. Several other NASA alumni had made the cut for Tenacity as well, but only she and Marlon had long-term space experience. Besides the risk of exposure to increased levels of radiation, the biggest threat from living in zero gravity was inter-cranial pressure that could cause brain damage, loss of vision or pituitary problems. For whatever reason — genetics, metabolism, luck — she and Marlon had been unfazed. If she had to go with someone, it might as well be him.

Sir Charles glanced her way and smiled. “As I noted earlier, the Tenacity Project has already reached out to a number of experts across a variety of fields we deemed essential for success. Many of them sit among you, dignitaries in their own right. You’ll meet some of them today, as we’ve asked them to share their expertise in our overview. The first shall discuss some of the nutritional issues that must be addressed in order to survive on Mars. She made her first and only trip to space fourteen years ago aboard Guardian, setting the endurance record for American astronauts as a mere lass of twenty-nine. It would have been longer had she not deviated from her mission to perform a daring rescue …”

As he droned on with his introduction, Jancey made her way to the stage, marching stiffly, a habit left over from her military days. From her speaking engagements, she was accustomed to public accolades, but humbled by the reception and eager to return to her seat. She’d never been comfortable in crowds. Yet another reason to go to Mars.

“It is my distinct pleasure to introduce Major Jancey Beaumont.”

She acknowledged the applause with a small wave and adjusted the microphone to her five-foot-five frame. “Thank you, Sir Charles, not only for that gracious introduction, but for recognizing the colonization of Mars as an idea whose time has come. Your legacy for all time will be that of a visionary, the man who not only dreamed but made it happen.”

She stepped back from the podium and joined the other candidates in prolonged applause. It didn’t hurt to lavish praise on the man whose word likely carried more weight than any other.

“I’ve been asked to give a brief overview of some of the challenges our colonists will face. It’s true that space travelers are like America’s pioneers, but with far harsher conditions. It will take extraordinary effort to sustain life in a place where you cannot count on the soil. Where the water you drink and the air you breathe must be reconstituted at the molecular level. Where failure to maintain equipment can cost you your life in a matter of minutes.”

On her cue, the slide changed to a small flat of seedlings underneath an LED grow light.

“When you entered the hall, you were given a newly developed tablet designed to boost energy levels. We’ll be taking metabolic measures this afternoon to evaluate its effects.”

A rustling of cellophane suggested more than a few had failed to follow instructions, so she gave them a moment to comply.

“Confession … those weren’t really energy tablets. They were vitamins formulated at the cellular level from the parts of plants we don’t generally eat—the pits, stems and rinds. The plants were grown in a lab using fertilizer made of human feces.” She paused for a collective groan. “And as you may also have realized, you washed them down with recycled urine. There is no such thing as waste in space.”

**********

Want to keep reading? Buy it now from Bella Books. If you have a Kindle, simply email the attachment to your Kindle account — the book shows up alongside all your others.

2 Responses to “T-Minus Two Preview”

  1. Can’t wait to get my hands on the print copy. Space is my first love, even before writing. My first memory is watching the first space walk on my aunt’s television and the first lesbian novel I read was “Daughters of a Coral Dawn”. Must be that space and sci-fi are in my blood! The first chapter sound riveting! Congrats! Ona

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