We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Relentless Moon, the third novel in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series! Look for it July 14th from Tor Books.
The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.
Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.
Food For Peace
KANSAS CITY, March 29, 1963—The United States Post Office Department has merged the Federal “Food for Peace” effort with the current “Freedom From Hunger” campaign of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The United States Stamp, planned as a promotion for the American effort to aid hungry people around the world, will begin with the World Food Congress.
After the press conference, my driver dropped me at Building 3, where the astronaut offices were. Gritting my teeth, I jogged inside, which I can still do in heels, thank you very much, because I was just barely going to make it for the training session I was scheduled to teach. I only had ten minutes to change and get across campus. I kept a change of clothes at the office—a couple of changes, actually—so it took only a few minutes to strip out of my stockings and into a pair of trousers and sneakers. The joints at the balls of my feet throbbed, but standing flat on the floor eased a lot of the pain. If I used one of the ubiquitous bikes that dotted the campus, it would take more of the strain off. I went outside, grabbed one from the rack, and cycled over to Building 9.
On the way, I passed four deer, a family of wild turkeys, and a duck. All of this wildlife had moved into the IAC campus as Kansas City had pushed outward. We had vast stretches of undeveloped land to keep clear flight paths for launches. No one bothered the animals, so they just made it their home. It was hard to see them and remember how bad things were outside of the IAC.
The humid air of an early summer coated me liberally with sweat. Among the things I do not miss on the Moon is humidity in summer. I do not miss it at all.
When I ran inside, the air-conditioning chilled the sweat and turned it clammy. Building 9, aka the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, is a giant building the bulk of which was given over to one large open chamber filled with—and I know this is shocking—space vehicle mockups. Naturally, the IAC takes a perfectly descriptive name and turns it into an opaque acronym—SVMF.
As I rounded the enormous Cygnus 4 cockpit mockup by the door, I spotted Halim Malouf waiting for me under the great blue A-frame of the POGO zero-gravity simulator. I winced and slowed to a walk. It is always unnerving when the head astronaut turns up randomly.
He was studying a binder and squinting at the page. I wasn’t sure if that was concern or if he’d forgotten his reading glasses. His shoulders were a little higher than usual, so I was betting on concern, but he smiled at me when he looked up from the binder. “I’m going to need to hijack part of your training session. Schedule changes.”
“Understood.” He and the other department heads had undoubtedly spent the morning in meetings, rejiggering the schedule after the accident. I hurried to the table where my harness was laid out and took a breath to slow down before donning it. Some things I could rush, some things I shouldn’t. Slow is fast. “How’s the crew?”
“Alive.” He closed his binder. “But they did a ballistic reentry. Cleary said they pulled eight Gs coming in.”
“Oof.” I remembered that from the centrifuge. It was like your entire body was shoved into one of those new mammogram machines. “But everyone is okay?”
“Mm… mostly. A couple of fractures and more than one concussion. It was a hard landing. Like the old capsule days.”
I winced. Parachutes only slowed you down so much. It still felt like a car crash when a capsule hit into the ground, even when everything was nominal.
The connectors on my harness all looked good, so I lifted it off the table and carried it over to the hydraulic lift.
Halim set his binder down. “Want a hand?”
He knelt on the floor, holding open the harness so I could step into it. “After you’re done here, Clemons will want to talk to you.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “I just saw him at the press conference. He didn’t say anything.”
“Probably didn’t want to risk a reporter hearing.”
“That’s it? Not even a hint?”
“Also a schedule change.” Over the hum of the equipment and fans, the babble of a group of people talking inserted itself into the room. Halim cocked his head to the side. “Sounds like they’re here.”
Gah! Why did Clemons want to talk to me? In the best case, this meant a flight assignment. But it could also be a random drug screening. Schedule change, though… I wrangled my hopes back down to sit with my fury. They were not going to let me pilot one of the big rockets. And especially not after an accident like this. I squashed my curiosity and tried to drag my head back into the game. We had colonists approaching. “Aw. Sounds like the babies are excited.”
Halim snorted. “Babies. Most of them have PhDs.”
“Hell, I don’t even have a master’s.” If I applied to the IAC today, I wouldn’t have qualified. Shit. What if Clemons was going to pull me from rotation? After all, I was old hat. “Besides, it’s more endearing to think of them as babies than as rookies or stooges.”
“You needed training too.”
“And that’s why I think of them as babies.” I shrugged the black leather harness up to my shoulders. People think black leather harnesses are sexy, but this was like the ugliest apron you’ve ever seen. “Babies are smart and just need their hands held. And diapers.”
He laughed and strapped the leg garter around my calf. “Hey, now. Astronauts don’t wear diapers.”
“We wear MAGs.” Maximum Absorbency Garments. They’re diapers, but no self-respecting fighter pilot could admit to wearing a diaper. They’re such babies about their egos. I shifted my weight to allow him to strap the other garter around my thigh. “Speaking of training… I’m happy to do any additional training you need, if that would benefit the corps.” Like, for instance, if he wanted me to train on one of the new big rockets. I lifted the safety helmet and slid it over my pixie cut, which was another reason to give up on the bouffants.
“Noted. Thank you. Some of the other veterans balk at running training sessions, but I think it’s good for the rookies to interact with the original corps.”
“Oh—” I caught myself before I explained his mistake about my intention. I’d meant that I was happy to take additional training, not that I was willing to teach more classes, but… the secret to brown-nosing is to not push too hard for your objective in a single pass. I side stepped into the gap he had offered. “I completely agree. And listen, if the boys are balking about doing any of the Sirius training, feel free to throw me in the simulator.”
Someday, the IAC might let a woman fly one of the big rockets, but so far, the duty roster kept us firmly in the co-pilot or Nav/Comp roles. Apparently, my boobs got in the way of firing thrusters. I loved my job, but there was no possibility for advancement. Unless—
Unless Clemons wanted to ground me. Old hat. I wasn’t that much past fifty. Old hat. Shit.
I bit my lower lip and forced my mind away from that gravity well. What were other possibilities? Halim had said there were multiple people with fractures and concussions. If any of them were pilots, maybe they actually needed to let one of the women fly. With Elma gone, I had the most flight time.
Oh… Oh shit. That was plausible. My heart had kicked up in my chest and I would have been hosed if I’d had biomedical instrumentation attached to me. As it was, I had to consciously slow down my breathing. Plausible did not mean probable.
The crowd of young colonists rounded the corner of the Sirius IV mockup, led by their astronaut escort, Curtis Frye. The young American pilot was new to the corps and never saw a fact that he could pass by. That might have been his background on the Annapolis debate team or it might have been that he was a fighter pilot before the IAC. Either way, when he saw Halim with me, he immediately slowed the group. Curt recognized the change in routine and stopped them just outside the yellow caution lines painted on the floor around the POGO.
Halim nodded. “Good morning. I’ll try to be brief, so you can get on to your training session today. Now, the first thing you’ll want to know is about the incident this morning. Everyone aboard made it down safely, but I shall take this opportunity to remind you to review emergency procedures and to keep your arms tucked next to your body during launch and reentry. My second note… We’re making changes to the schedule, which will involve asking some of you to launch on the next ship.”
The young people standing opposite from us represented the best that Earth had to offer. They were all fit and smart and the product of rigorous testing criteria in their home countries. Black and white and every shade of brown mixed together with one common goal—getting off this doomed planet.
Even though they were part of the IAC, they were only colonists, without full astronaut training, and I could see the beginning of fear as their eyes widened or their breathing quickened. I stepped in to be Halim’s wingman. They would be frightened about the spaceship and I needed to redirect them. “I’ve had the chance to work with you over the past several weeks, and I would say something if you weren’t ready to go. You are.”
“Absolutely.” Halim’s smile was utterly charming. “We’ll cover all of this in more detail later, but knowing how rumors fly, I wanted to make certain that you were aware that changes were coming. With the expansion into the Marius Hills cave habitats we’ll need all hands to stay on schedule. If there are any issues, any at all, let me know and I will resolve them.”
At one end of the group, Ruben du Preez, from South Africa, asked, “Any word on what happened to the rocket?”
“We won’t know for certain what caused the explosion for months, but preliminary data suggests an overpressure event.” He held up a soothing hand. “However, that was a Sirius IV. We’re launching you in a Cygnus-class glider while we investigate this incident.”
“Thank you, Halim. I know you’ve got a lot of work to do. We appreciate you stopping by.” To keep him from being trapped by questions, I turned to the students with one of my prettiest smiles and patted the harness I wore. The world’s ugliest apron was designed to support me as if I were in one-sixth of Earth’s gravity. “Now, I’ll be putting you through your paces with the POGO. That stands for Partial Gravity Simulator and, yes, I know. If the IAC were consistent it would be the PGS, but that’s asking too much for an international governmental agency. This collection of servos, air bearings, and gimbals is not to be confused with Pogo oscillation. Any guesses on what that one is?”
A tan young woman with straight dark hair pulled back into a ponytail raised her hand. Aahana Kamal, of course. She was always fastest with answers in this group.
Her voice sounded as plummily British as Clemons’s did, which meant she’d done English-language schools, not Hindi, and ergo probably came from money. “Pogo oscillation is a self-excited vibration in liquid-propellant rocket engines due to combustion instability. The variations of engine thrust that result cause corresponding variations of acceleration on the vehicle, stressing the frame, and in severe cases can become critical.”
“Well done.” I smiled, while feeling outclassed by a rookie. “The similar names originate from the same concept. Has anyone been on a pogo stick?”
Halim had paused to watch us and raised his hand. “I have.”
I didn’t quite roll my eyes. “You named this thing, didn’t you.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny.”
Laughing, I turned back to the colonists and gestured to the harness I wore. “You’re going to use the POGO rig to run an obstacle course in simulated lunar gravity. I’ll start by demonstrating what that looks like.”
Another hand went up. Birgit Furst, from the Swiss contingent. “I had understood that the Neutral Buoyancy Lab was better at simulating zero-g.”
“The NBL is better for spacewalks, yes, because we’re simulating wearing a spacesuit. However, the water also generates drag so the POGO is better at giving you a sense of moving on the Moon.”
It also didn’t involve nearly the number of expensive resources as putting someone in the NBL.
Curt hooked the hydraulic line to the large swivel on the back of my harness. The line went up to the enormous A-frame that towered over us like a big blue Erector Set. “Ready?”
He grinned, stepping to the side, and powered up the POGO. The line tightened until it counterbalanced my weight. Even simulated lunar gravity made my feet happier.
“The first thing to know is that you weigh so little that it’s hard to get traction. You’ll note that when I start moving, I lean forward significantly. Walking is basically a controlled fall. Any questions so far?”
Another predictable hand shot into the air. Vicky Hsu, from the United States. “May I go first?”
Oh, clever girl. Going first makes you look eager and any mistakes you make are chalked up to being first. The middle of the pack disappears. The person to go last, if done right, can look polite, but most of the time they just look reluctant. Sure, this group was going to the Moon, but we all knew that if you wanted to go to Mars, you had to excel on the Moon. I winked at her. “Absolutely.”
I stopped leaning and did a normal Earth walk. “Notice how much I’m bouncing?” My feet cleared the ground a little too much as all the force meant to support my body on Earth shoved me upward in the one-sixth gravity of the Moon. “When you lean forward, your force goes backward, transferring into momentum. But be careful. Your goal is precision and economy. It is not speed. In space, slow is fast. Moving quickly can cause you to overshoot your mark. Watch.”
I got to the far side and turned to come back. Leaning nearly to forty-five degrees, I propelled myself into the lunar lope. I tightened my buttocks and legs to get a nice long, lean shape as I bounded across the floor. It helps with momentum but it also makes your ass look amazing. There’s something very—
The floor slammed into me.
Forearms. Chin. Knees. Shoulders. I don’t know what hit first, they all lit up with red alerts of pain. The air evacuated from my lungs. My vision went red and a roaring filled my ears like a rocket launching. What the hell?
“Nicole!” Curt was by my side, pulling the support crossbar off my back. If I hadn’t been leaning forward in a lope, it would have slammed into my head. Helmet or no, that would have been… not a good day.
Beyond him, the babies looked horrified. Two of them had stepped forward, or maybe the rest had stepped back, because one of the hydraulic lines had breached and vented fluid all over the place. Some of it had soaked the front of my shirt.
My lungs burned as I dragged air into them. Wheezing is unglamorous, but I’d had the air knocked out of me before. “I’m fine.”
At my back, Curt was undoing buckles on the harness. “You’ve split your chin open.”
Halim appeared with the first aid kit. “That is going to require stitches.”
“Oh.” I looked down as if I could see my own chin, and the front of my shirt was a vivid red. So, the dampness hadn’t been hydraulic fluid. Noted. “Well. I suppose my modeling career is over.”
Excerpted from The Relentless Moon, copyright © 2020 by Mary Robinette Kowal.