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The Last Astronaut

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The Last Astronaut

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Author: David Wellington
Publisher: Orbit, 2019
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

Sally Jansen was NASA's leading astronaut, until a mission to Mars ended in disaster. Haunted by her failure, she lives in quiet anonymity, convinced her days in space are over.

She's wrong.

A large alien object has entered the solar system on a straight course toward Earth. It has made no attempt to communicate and is ignoring all incoming transmissions.

Out of time and out of options, NASA turns to Jansen. For all the dangers of the mission, it's the shot at redemption she always longed for.

But as the object slowly begins to reveal its secrets, one thing becomes horribly clear: the future of humanity lies in Jansen's hands.


Excerpt

Periareion

It's a grand old flag, it's a high- flying flag..."

"The crew of Orion wish you back on Earth a happy and safe Fourth of July. We may not be able to set off any fireworks out here, for safety reasons, but we want everybody to know we haven't forgotten what this day means to America."

"That's right, Blaine. And here on Orion, we have two reasons to celebrate. Today we passed the orbit of the moon. Today we can officially announce that the four of us have now traveled farther than any human beings in history."

"USA! USA!"

"That's Mission Specialist Ali Dinwari holding the flag we're going to plant on Mars in just a few short months. Next to me here is Flight Surgeon Blaine Wilson, who's keeping us all healthy--"

"Keep it up, keep it up, twelve more minutes and then you can have a hot dog!"

"Blaine's a cruel taskmaster, but it's true--you see Science Specialist Julia Obrador back there on the treadmill, she's waving for the camera. We have to exercise for two hours a day each because there's no gravity on Orion. We need to keep our bones in good shape so when we get there, we can walk on Mars instead of crawling."

"You forgot to introduce yourself, Sally."

"Right! Good thing you're here to remind me, Blaine. I'm Sally Jansen, mission commander--"

"Gonna be the first woman to walk on Mars, what what!"

"--Ha, yeah--mission commander on Orion 6. We're going to finish this exciting special meal of hot dogs and fruit punch, and then we're going to get back to work. But we couldn't let the day go by without letting America-- and everyone on Earth-- know that we're--"

"...And forever in peace may you wave!"

"--right on course, headed for a historic moment on the red soil of Mars. Happy Fourth, everybody!"

"OK, Orion. Returning to normal communications. Great job up there--the media people are all smiling, which is a good sign."

"Thanks, Houston." Commander Jansen looked back at her crew and gave them a thumbs-up."You got it," Ground Control said. " Though--I'm getting a message. It looks like Julia has been neglecting her social media. Remember, you all need to post at least three times a day. If people back on Earth don't hear from you regularly, they start to worry about your mental health. It looks bad."

"Obrador?" Jansen asked.

"I'll do better, just... Jesus. Can I get off this thing?"

Blaine Wilson gave Obrador a nasty grin. "Another nine minutes."

Jansen shook her head, though. There was work to be done. "Forget it, you're done--and don't worry about InstaChat, either, we've got things to do. Wilson, I don't want to hear about it. Houston, this is Jansen, this is MC. Have you found an explanation for that anomalous reading I told you about? On my board I still have a red flag for blowthrough pressure in the number six fuel tank on the excursion module."

"Orion, we're assuming it's some kind of faulty relay. Those systems are all locked down for this part of the mission. Blowthrough was never requested, so there's no reason for a red flag, or any kind of flag. Everything else looks good, it has to just be a glitch."

"It's been showing red since we finished our orbital transfer burn. I don't like it, Houston. Maybe I'm being paranoid, but--"

"It's your call, MC. You tell me what you want to do."

Jansen glanced around the HabLab at her crew. They were in good shape, a little pumped from having a chance to call home, even if it was just a recorded message. "This is a good time to check it out. I'm asking for authorization for an EVA so I can evaluate the tank with my own eyes. We good?"

"You have authorization for EVA. Just be careful, MC."

"Understood, Houston."

SALLY JANSEN, ASTRONAUT: Are we really doing this? I don't want to talk about that day. I... OK. OK. Back then, NASA had us do pressers and media ops constantly. I mean, all the time. The Orion program cost billions, and they felt they needed to show American taxpayers what they were getting for their money. They wanted us all to be rock stars, to be TV people. I was never comfortable with that. Jesus. Can we take a minute? Just a minute, let me collect myself. The thing you have to understand is that July fourth, 2034, was the worst day of my life.

Wrestling into the extravehicular activity suits was hard enough in the close confines of the HabLab; climbing through the soft lock afterward was enough to leave Jansen breathing heavily. The HabLab module--where the astronauts lived and worked--was a seventeen- meter-long inflated cylinder made of two flexible walls with the ship's water supply circulating between them. The water kept the habitat cool or warm as necessary, and provided shielding from the radiation environment of deep space, but the module bounced and shook every time you shoved against it, like an air mattress, in a way that did not inspire confidence.

The habitat's airlock was a narrow fabric tube that you had to wriggle through in slow motion, every twist and turn careful and premeditated so you didn't snag any of your space suit's hard parts on the thin walls. One tear in the soft lock and they would have to scrub the EVA until it could be repaired.

Somehow she managed to climb out onto the side of the module, where she helped Julia, the mission's science specialist, make the same transition. Obrador's face was white as a sheet behind her polycarbonate faceplate, with sweat beaded across her forehead. She gave Jansen a nervous laugh and clutched the ship as if afraid she would fall off. It was no surprise she was nervous--Obrador had done plenty of EVAs in simulators, but had never actually been outside the ship since it left Earth. Jansen patted her on the arm to reassure her.

Hell, Jansen wasn't exactly frosty herself. Around them the universe stretched off in every direction, empty and dark. Jansen fought down a sensation of vertigo. This time was different, she thought. Different from all the EVAs she'd done on the Deep Space Gateway station while she'd trained for this mission. It took her a second to realize why.

There was nothing below her. Nothing on either side, nothing above her... nothing at all, just nothingness... forever.

In space, in microgravity, there were technically no such things as up and down. Yet human brains were so well adapted to gravity that you couldn't think like that, you couldn't ever accept it. It had been easier on the space station because the Earth was there, enormous and bright. The curve of the planet was down, your brain could accept that. It could learn to accept that you were flying, that the ground wasn't rushing up to meet you, because there was a down to point to. Not anymore.

Fifteen days out and the Earth was behind them, bigger than any star but far enough away that it offered no psychological relief. Jansen's head started to spin as it tried desperately to find a reference frame--and failed.

"There's always something to hold on to," she told Obrador, who nodded gratefully. "You never have to let go, OK? Just grab something and hold tight."

Inside her helmet, Jansen's voice sounded small and tinny, as if she were hearing herself over the radio. As if it were somebody else offering this good advice.

She looked at Orion, at the spacecraft, and somehow found her bearings. There were four modules in her ship, each with its own function. At the back was the service module, which housed the
ship's main engine and its fuel supply. Forward of that was the conical command module, the only part of the ship that would go back to Earth once they were done on Mars. The long cylinder of the HabLab was wrapped in an insulating shroud of quilted silver fabric, dazzling in the sun, and then at the far end, pointed right at Mars, was the spherical excursion module, with its landing legs sticking out in front of it like the antennae of a bug. The lander that would set down on the red dust and was where she and Ali would live in close quarters for two weeks while they collected rocks and took meteorological readings.

That was still months away. If she couldn't find the source of the fault, if everything looked fine but the red flag persisted, she knew it was going to irritate her for the rest of the mission. Best to get it cleared up now.

"Hand over hand," she told Obrador as she climbed the side of the habitat module, pulling herself along. "Little by little." She had to be careful not to go too fast, or she might launch herself right off the side of the ship. She wouldn't go far--her safety line would catch her--but she had no desire to find out what that felt like.

"Understood," Obrador replied.

Her helmet radio crackled and spit at her. Just noise on the channel, probably cosmic rays, charged particles hitting her transceiver as they blasted through the solar system at nearly the speed of light. If she closed her eyes right now she knew she would see green pinwheels of fire spinning behind her eyelids. They were exposed out here, practically naked to the invisible energies that filled what looked like empty space. But as long as they were back inside within an hour, they should be all right.

"Wilson, I want you to crack open the excursion module," she called. "I need your eyes on the inside to help me trace this problem."

"Understood," the flight surgeon called back.

"Where do you want me?" Dinwari asked.

"You head down to the command module and strap yourself in." He could keep an eye on their suit telemetry from there, and run the entire ship if he needed to. Putting him back there was just a safety measure, but NASA loved safety measures most of all. "I'm not seeing any damage to the exterior of the spacecraft. That's good. Obrador, how are you doing?"

"All good," Obrador called back. "You think this is a wiring problem? The bus that connects the... the excursion module and... the..."

She could hear the fatigue in Obrador's voice. Every move you made in a space suit was exhausting. They might be weightless, but they still had mass, and every movement, every meter forward meant wrestling with the bulky gear. "Don't try to talk. Save your breath for the climb."

"Thought there would be... stars," Obrador said, ignoring her.

Jansen looked out at the black sky around them, the empty stretch of black velvet that could feel so close sometimes it was smothering you and at other times made you feel as if you were dangling over a bottomless pit. "You don't see stars out here for the same reason you don't see stars on a clear day back on Earth," she said. "The sun's light drowns them out." A wave of fatigue ran through her muscles, and Jansen stopped for a moment, stopped where she was and just... breathed.

When she'd recovered enough she started climbing forward again. She was almost level with the excursion module. "Blaine, do you have the forward lock open yet?"

"Just about," Blaine called back. "I'm equalizing air pressure between the excursion module and the habitat. It's taking a minute."

"No way to rush it," she told him. "OK. I've reached the number six fuel tank. I'm going to start a visual inspection." A broad, flat belt of metal ran around the excursion module where it mated with the HabLab. The fuel tanks hung off that belt like a ring of bells, each of them nestled in a tangle of pipes and wiring.

The tanks on the lander were separate from Orion's main fuel system--they would be tapped only when the crew was ready to return from Mars. The hydrazine propellant inside them would be used to launch the lander back into Mars orbit, where it would reconnect with the HabLab and the command module for the trip home. For this outer leg of the journey those tanks were completely shut down and inert. They shouldn't be showing up on her control panels at all, much less reporting a low- pressure condition. It was a real mystery.

She could see most of the tanks from where she was, and they all looked fine. Some of them were obscured by the shadow of Orion's big solar panels, though, and number six just had to be one of those. She sighed and switched on the lights mounted on her helmet. "Wilson, how are we coming along in there? I'll need you to crack open the FPI inspection panel."

"Uh," Wilson said, "FPI?"

"Fuel pressure indicator," Jansen said. NASA loved its acronyms, and there were a lot of them to remember. "The sensors are indicating that this fuel tank has lost pressure, which doesn't make any sense. I want you to open up the FPI panel and check the wiring in there, to make sure it isn't the sensor that's broken. There should be a diagram inside the panel showing how things are supposed to look. Just make sure the wires all match the diagram."

"I'm in the excursion module now," he told her. "I'm waving, can you see me?"

She wasn't close enough to any of the lander's tiny viewports to look inside. "Don't worry about me, I've got my own job to do out here. I--"

She stopped speaking. Everything went into slow motion. What she'd seen, what her light revealed--

"Boss?" Obrador asked from behind her.

Jansen licked her suddenly dry lips.

This was bad.

Number six tank was cracked. A big, jagged hole had opened up where it connected to the side of the module. Maybe a micrometeor had struck the tank, or maybe a piece of space debris. Either way it looked as if someone had fired a rifle bullet right through it.

She saw a pool of wetness all around the damaged area, a round, wobbling mass of liquid hydrazine adhering with surface tension to the excursion module's skin.

Then she saw bubbles form and pop in the middle of the glob of fuel. Air bubbles. Air that had to be coming from inside the spaceship. There had to be a leak--the same impact that tore open the tank must have cut right through the hull of the module. Hydrazine was leaking into the crew compartment of the excursion module. The module that they had just filled up with air. With oxygen.

"Wilson," she called. "Blaine, get out of there--"

"There's a funny smell in here," Blaine said, as if he couldn't hear her. As if she were in one of those nightmares where you shouted at someone to stop, to turn around and see the monster right behind them, but they couldn't hear you at all. "Kind of like cleaning fluid, maybe left over from when they sealed this module up. It's an ammonia-y kind of smell."

He was smelling raw hydrazine. Raw rocket fuel, which had aerosolized and filled the tiny module. He was standing in a cloud of flammable gas.

GARTH UDAHL, ORION PROGRAM FUEL TECHNOLOGIES SUPERVISOR: Hydrazine is very hazardous stuff. It's a simple chemical, but it's incredibly corrosive. The smallest amount, if you breathe it in, can burn the lining of your lungs. It can also self-ignite, given the proper catalyst. Say a patch of rust on the inside of a panel. It's my opinion that once Dr. Wilson entered that module, he never stood a chance.

"Wilson!" she screamed. "Move!"

She pulled herself along the side of the excursion module, pulled herself level with one of the viewports.

"Boss?" Obrador asked again. "What's going on?"

Through the viewport Jansen could see him burning. Hydrazine flames were invisible, but she could see Blaine smashing his arms against the consoles, trying to put out the flames. She could see his hair curl and turn black, could see his mouth open in a horrifying silent scream. He reached toward the viewport, reaching for her. Begging her for help.

Some cosmic mercy had killed his radio. She couldn't hear him, didn't have to listen to him burn. She saw him slam his hand against the viewport, over and over, maybe he was trying to break it, to get out, to get away from the fire--

In a second that fire was going to spread through the hatch. It would spread down into the HabLab. It could spread through the whole spacecraft. It wouldn't stop until it had consumed everything. Somebody had to get the hatches closed, to contain it. But the only person close enough to do that was Wilson.

There was another way.

Sally Jansen had trained for a million different ways things could go wrong in space. She had drilled endlessly for every possible contingency. She knew exactly what to do in this case. It was right there in her brain, ready to access. All she had to do was open her mouth and say it.

If the two modules separated, their hatches would automatically slam shut. It was a safety feature.

It was the hardest thing she had done in her life. But she was an astronaut.

"Dinwari," she said. "Ali, can you hear me? Jettison the excursion module."

"Commander?" he asked, his voice very small. He might as well be back on Earth, shouting at her through a megaphone.

"Do it!" she said.

"I can't! Wilson's in there!"

Jansen had no time to waste arguing. She scrambled along the side of the excursion module, moving as fast as she dared. She found an access panel between two fuel tanks and tore it open. Inside was a lever painted bright red, marked CAUTION: EMERGENCY RELEASE.

She pulled it, hard.

Explosive bolts connecting the excursion module to the HabLab detonated instantly, one of them going off right in her face. Light burst all around her and she was blinded for a second--a very bad second, during which she heard her faceplate start to crack. The explosion threw her bodily away from the module, swinging out into deep space on her tether, out of control and tumbling.

She could barely see anything as she went flying head over heels. She got only a glimpse of her spaceship coming to pieces.

A billowing cloud of condensing water vapor jetted outward from between the two modules, air rushing out of the HabLab. The cloud was cut off instantly as the hatches between the two modules slammed shut.

The excursion module tumbled as it accelerated away from the HabLab. The flexible habitat module sprang back and forth in an obscene motion that Jansen barely saw. She was spinning, spinning out to the end of her safety line, and then it snapped taut and she doubled up, her arms and legs flailing. She grabbed at the line and tried to stabilize herself, tried to get a grip as she looked back over her shoulder.

The excursion module was still moving, still flying away from them, tumbling wildly into empty space, its landing legs whipping around crazily.

Hands grabbed the shoulder joints of her suit, hands that pressed down and pushed her against the side of the HabLab, her cracked faceplate buried in the silver fabric even as ice crystals started growing across her view.

It was Obrador, crouching on top of her, protecting her from the debris that pelted the side of the HabLab all around her.

"Boss! What did you do?" Obrador screamed, but Jansen barely heard her. "What did you do?"

There was only one thought in her brain.

Jesus, God, whoever, please. Let Blaine die fast.

SALLY JANSEN: No. No. Stop-- that's a lie. That isn't what I was thinking at all. I... I'm not proud of this, but if we're doing this, if we're going to be honest... my thought at that particular moment was just, you know. This is over. This is it. I'm never going to Mars.

Copyright © 2019 by David Wellington


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The Last Astronaut

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