Mary Robinette Kowal continues her Hugo and Nebula award-winning Lady Astronaut series, following The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon.
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.
Please enjoy this excerpt of The Relentless Moon, available 7/14/2020.
MISFIRED ROCKET SHAKES CAPITAL AREA
KANSAS CITY, March 29, 1963—An International Aerospace Coalition rocket exploded during a routine flight to the Lunetta orbital station early this morning. After a flawless liftoff, one of the giant engines of the Sirius IV rocket appears to have misfired, sending the spaceship tumbling off course. The emergency Launch Escape System separated the crew module from the rest of the rocket before the tanks detonated over Kansas in a stark reminder of the explosive power in the rockets that pass on a regular basis over our nation’s capital.
In the briefing room at the U.S. Capitol downtown, I nursed a cup of coffee as Kenneth got an update from presidential staffers. Across the room, the door opened and Director Clemons from the International Aerospace Coalition strode in, trailing cigar smoke like a rocket. A little bit of the tension in my gut relaxed. They wouldn’t have been able to pry him out of the IAC if there had been any fatalities.
He shook hands with the president, who was a trim, handsome white man in the Clark Gable mold, with dark hair just going silver at the temples. “Director. Thank you so much for coming out.”
“I appreciate your offer to join the press conference.” Clemons’s plummy British accent made it sound as though everything were under control, but his eyes were pinched with worry. “Although I fear I may have made a tactical error in sending my two best spokespeople off on a three-year mission to Mars.”
Stetson Parker and Elma York. The First Man in Space and The Lady Astronaut. I was always amazed at how well Elma hid the toll that being in the spotlight took on her. It’s not a problem I ever had—other problems, yes, but anxiety was not one of them.
Setting my coffee cup down, I slid out of my chair. The joint of my big toe twinged as weight settled on it. I’d wager no one could tell that it hurt to walk, any more than you could tell how much pain my pointe shoes used to cause. I walked toward Clemons, wishing that I’d brought my blue IAC flight suit with me so I could represent the astronaut corps, if needed, instead of the sober navy blue pencil skirt and jacket that I’d opted for as Governor Wargin’s wife. Still, I had my astronaut wings and could pin them on if the director needed me.
I paused just outside the social arc created by the two men and waited to be noticed, which gave them the illusion of being in control of the situation. The president was still talking to Clemons and glanced briefly at me, acknowledging that I’d approached. “What does the Mars Expedition crew think about this?”
“We aren’t telling them.” Clemons turned the cigar over in his hands. “There’s nothing they can do and I do not want to cause them undue worry.”
“Wish that were an option for us.” The president reoriented his body, taking a step to the side to invite me in. “Ah, Mrs. Wargin. Does the governor need anything?”
“He’s being well taken care of, thank you, Mr. President.” I smiled and took a step into their sphere of influence. “Though I thought I might offer Director Clemons my assistance.”
“Oh?” Clemons raised his brows as if he were baffled that I might have some use.
“If it would help, Elma and I have comparable spaceflight experience. I’m not ‘The’ Lady Astronaut, but I am ‘a’ Lady Astronaut.” I gave a smile, calibrated to be warm but also acknowledging the somberness of the situation. “I’m available to do any publicity that would be useful for the corps.”
“That’s very kind of you, Nico—Mrs. Wargin.” Clemons looked around to the door. “But Cristiano Zambrano is arriving shortly and was CAPCOM on this launch. I know how valuable you are to Governor Wargin and don’t want you to split your attention.”
“Of course.” That sounded entirely reasonable, but I still wanted to scream. I could be useful if he’d let me. I was good at shaping public opinion and I was very good at press conferences. “Well, I’ll let you two get back to it, then.”
Turning, I thought that checking in with Kenneth would be the next intelligent thing. If nothing else, I could at least fetch coffee for him.
Behind me, Clemons murmured, “Honestly, if she were a bit younger it might not have been a bad idea, but the original six are old hat now.”
The amount of self-control it took to keep walking instead of turning around and slapping him was a testament to my finishing school education. Old hat. Old hat?! Cristiano was a year older than I was, for crying out loud. But men apparently don’t age in the same ways . . . Old hat.
By the time I got to Kenneth’s side, I was able to keep most of my outrage behind my smile. I wrestled my fury back down into its usual spot, because despite the injustice of his words, the reasoning behind having the CAPCOM for the flight there was sound. I hadn’t been on the base. I didn’t have anything but the most cursory understanding of what had gone wrong. All I really knew was when it had occurred. Cristiano would have more current information.
Of course, if he didn’t arrive, then there was still an opportunity for me. There are times when I am appallingly callous, because I was thinking about this near tragedy as an opportunity for advancement. It is hard, sometimes, to spot the line between a desire to help and ambition.
Kenneth gave me a tight smile as I approached. “Learn anything?”
“Cristiano Zambrano is coming in. He was CAPCOM.”
Kenneth winced and pursed his lips for a fraction of a second. “He’s a good man.”
“Oh, just wondering about the pros and cons of reminding the American public that this is an international partnership. I think it’s probably the way to go, but . . .” He shrugged. “You know me. Always thinking about angles.”
“Well, he’s not here, so—”
Cristiano walked into the room. He could have been a movie star back home in Mexico, with a cleft chin and thick, glossy hair above eyes that naturally smoldered. I swear, all of the original male astronauts seemed to have been selected, at least in part, for their photogenic qualities. The same was true of us, which always bothered Elma. To me it seemed completely reasonable. We were symbols.
“Nicole . . . What we talked about in the car.” Kenneth was going to ask me to stay here. In this goddamned room, doing nothing of any use. “Would you mind—” He stopped when Cristiano spotted me and made a beeline for us.
My fellow astronaut gave a weary smile. “Thank God. I thought I’d be the only astronaut here.”
“Clemons says he doesn’t need me.” I delivered that line with a laugh—a cheery coating around my bitterness.
He snorted and glanced over his shoulder to where Clemons and the president were engaged in what looked like an intense conversation over a folder of papers. “That seems short- sighted, given the fact that you’re in the next launch crew.”
Behind me, Kenneth sucked in a breath. I had known where I was in rotation, but had not thought through to the fact that I would be in the next group to ride a Sirius IV.
I drew Cristiano away before he could say anything else that would distress my husband. I’d flown a half-dozen missions as Cristiano’s co-pilot back in the capsule days. This close, I could see the strain in the fine lines around his eyes. I murmured, “You okay?”
“I will need a martini of significant size at the end of the day.” He glanced down and showed me his right hand. The tremor that had finally grounded him was much worse than usual, as if I needed a reminder about what happened to an astronaut who admitted that their health was less than perfect. Cristiano balled it into a fist and shoved it casually into his trouser pocket. “But everyone is alive. Search and rescue was right on top of them as they came down.”
I heaved a sigh of relief at that confirmation. “Well, come over tonight and I’ll mix up some martinis.”
He winked, and a dimple flashed for a moment at the corner of his mouth. “Thank you. But I should go home to Giulia and the boys. Even though I wasn’t up, she will worry.”
“Of course. Who was the crew?”
“Randy Cleary was piloting. He had Isabel Sophia Dieppa Betancourt for Nav/Comp and—”
“Ladies and gentlemen!” One of the staffers stood by the door to the press room. “We’re ready to begin. This way, please.” The press room at the Capitol building was built specifically for briefings and had a dais at one end of a square room. The walls were covered with heavy blue velvet drapes to muffle the sound in the room. They were green during Brannan’s administration, but Denley tended toward more military trappings.
I did not go out on the dais. No, I stood in the gallery with the First Lady and some of the other politicians’ wives. All of us had our practiced “supportive and attentive” expression engaged. It came in handy as a politician’s wife and as an astronaut.
President Denley strode up to the podium and regarded the reporters. “Thank you all for coming. Let me answer first the question that is on everyone’s mind. The Sirius IV rocket explosion this morning resulted in no loss of life. The passengers and crew aboard are now receiving medical treatment as a safety measure, but all appear to be in good health. We give thanks to God for their safe delivery. I’ve brought Director Clemons from the IAC out, and he will be available to answer your questions about that later.”
He shifted a paper on the podium. “Of more immediate concern to most citizens in the capital are last night’s riots. Let me say, right away, that we will not be cowed by terrorists.”
And then he began a series of one-liners about the riots and civility. He had a half-dozen variations on the line “we will not be cowed by terrorists,” which were disingenuous coming from a man who wanted to slash the United States’s contribution to the IAC. Honestly, I tuned out, paying just enough attention to be able to nod appreciatively at the right spots in case one of the cameramen wanted a B-shot of the wives.
He droned on for a good fifteen minutes saying nothing of substance but promising an undefined “strong action” until he finally opened the floor for questions.
“Gerrard St. Ives of The Times.” The British journalist was a portly white man in a rumpled gray suit. “Is there a link between the Sirius IV explosion and the riots last night? Specifically, was the explosion due to sabotage by the Earth Firsters?” The president gestured to Clemons. “No, but I’ll let Director Clemons explain why.”
That caught my interest. He’d known this question was coming, which meant they had at least considered the possibility of sabotage.
Clemons sat forward, folds of his neck creasing over his collar. “The security at the IAC is very tight and reinforced by the UN. But setting aside the notion that someone might have been able to sneak onto the campus, there is no part of the rocket that a person could reach to damage. These spaceships are thirty-six stories tall as an example.”
By dint of long practice, I did not react externally, but internally I sat up and stared. True, the Sirius was thirty-six stories tall once it was erected for launch. But there were ample opportunities for sabotage before that, to say nothing of the fact that it was surrounded by a gantry designed to allow you to climb it. If sabotage were actually not a concern, I might cite some evidence that was a bit more substantial than the height of the rocket.
The next reporter was a lanky blond man in the same rumpled gray suit they all wear. “Altus Oosthuizen of Volksblad. Given the ongoing trial of the Cygnus Six and the FBI’s investigation into the possibility that Negro astronauts deliberately sabotaged that rocket, will the agency be involved in investigating this crash?”
This again. About two years ago, one of the Cygnus spaceships coming back from the Lunetta space station had misfired and come down way off course, in Alabama instead of Kansas. That was bad, but the pilots compensated and everyone was unharmed. The problem was that a group of six hunters—the so-called “Cygnus Six”—had decided to take advantage of the situation. They beat rescue and recovery to the ship and took everyone hostage. Including the famous Lady Astronaut, Elma York, which meant that it got even more press than it would have.
The even bigger problem was that they had been Black men and members of Earth First. Guess which one got more press? The allegations that Leonard Flannery, the only Black man on the First Mars Expedition, had been involved with the crash of the Cygnus rocket were founded on nothing more than the fact that he was a passenger and Black.
Director Clemons leaned into the microphone. “I’m unaware of any such plans.”
“John Schwartz, National Times. This is the third failure of a rocket in the past two years. What about the danger to the capital residents of so many rocket crashes? Will the agency consider relocating the launch site?”
Rockets were as safe as the IAC could make them, but nothing changed the fact that every time we launched, we were sitting on top of a giant bomb.
You didn’t need a saboteur to be at risk, you just needed an anomaly.
“I feel as if this is rather like asking, ‘Governor, is it true that you stopped beating your wife?’ With apologies to Governor Wargin.” Director Clemons paused while the roomful of reporters chuckled. “Our flight paths are across the Kansas prairies and not over the capital, so there is no danger to Kansas City residents. As for relocation . . .”
My husband leaned into the microphone. “I should hope that the IAC does not relocate, because that would pull thousands of jobs away from hardworking Kansas citizens. I pray the protesters from last night come to realize that space is the biggest industry, by far, in Kansas and also in our neighbor Missouri. Losing that would be devastating to our economy at a time when we are just beginning to recover from the Meteor. Besides, if Kansans were the sort of people cowed by fear, they wouldn’t live in tornado alley.”
Inside, I applauded the way my husband had turned the question to his own ends. Otherwise, I stood there with the same smile of quiet support that all of the speakers received. The questions continued on, with one man in a rumpled gray suit after another asking about changes in safety measures—too soon to tell—about causes—too soon to know—about when launches would resume—too soon to know—a different version of wanting to know what happened—still too soon to tell.
It was not too soon to tell that these heels had been a mistake. Oh, I could stand in them. I could run in them if I needed to. But as the questions wore on, my feet slowly slid forward until the shoes’ pointed toes squeezed my arthritic bones together. The balls of my feet burned, as the entire weight of my body pressed into the floor.
Did it hurt as badly as being upside down in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at the end of a long day, with the fiberglass of my spacesuit digging into my clavicle? Maybe. Certainly, neither was pain that I could admit existed, but at least in the NBL, I had things to do to distract myself. Here I just stood and listened to men answer questions.
A reporter cut through my train of thoughts. “Governor, what about the ways in which your family, personally, profits from the space program? Your wife is an astronaut, which besides the federal paycheck, also puts her first in line for relocating to the Moon or Mars.”
“To be clear, it’s hard to live in the capital area without hav- ing a job that the government pays for directly or indirectly. My wife earned her astronaut wings as one of the first six women.” Kenneth hesitated, with those weighted pauses that made him seem so thoughtful. The room leaned forward a little into that gap. “I’m proud of the work that my wife is doing to create a new home for humanity on the Moon, and she’s doing so without any expectation of benefit to herself because we are not in line to permanently relocate. As you know, we have no children of our own so we have made the decision to stay here on Earth, until everyone is off the planet who can go. So yes, she’s an astronaut, but the only benefit we derive from that is knowing that we are helping humanity.”
My smile stayed steady and I nodded as if I agreed with him. As if we’d had this conversation. But the truth was that I had angled for a spot on the First Mars Expedition and was going to push to be seated on the second.
Director Clemons had already written me off as old hat. I didn’t need Kenneth helping him decide that I was happy staying on Earth.
Copyright © 2020 by Mary Robinette Kowal
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