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The Moon is beautiful, thought JJ Wren, staring with fascination at the stark landscape on the viewscreen. And someday I’m going to go there, instead of being stuck behind some desk in Mission Control, watching.

Beside JJ, her station partner Madison Leslie sounded frustrated. “C’mon, JJ, it’s not rocket science. Just tell me what you need next.”

From the desk behind theirs in Mission Control came the voice of JJ’s best friend, Tony Vasquez. “Actually it is rocket science,” he teased. “At least it was until you two got involved.”

JJ—short for Jenny June—tore her gaze away from the front monitor long enough to flash her friends a cocky smile. “Science, rockets … whatever it takes, I’m going there someday. Ah, Moon, sweet Moon. I’ll leave my footprints there, just you watch. Even started taking lessons already.”

‘Moon walking lessons?” Madison asked.

“I think she means the flying lessons she’s getting from her mom’s third cousin or whatever,” Tony answered.

“Uncle,” JJ corrected. “My dad’s brother.”

Madison rolled her eyes. “Oh, that. I don’t really think learning to pilot an antique crop-duster counts toward astronaut training.”

“You bet it does. Everybody has to start somewhere.” JJ shrugged and frowned down at the control screen, where an unexpected message had just popped up. “Wait a minute … something—”

Red lights flashed and alarms whooped throughout the Mission Control room. On screen, the startled scientists at the moonbase looked around for the source of the problem. JJ flicked on the communications microphone.

“Moonbase, this is Earth Mission Control. Our sensor technicians are getting some unusual readings in your vicinity. Take a look around and tell me what you see, over.”

A voice came through the speaker. “Uh, Mission Control, this is Moonbase—what kind of readings? What should we be watching for? Over.” It was strange to hear her brother Dylan’s voice distorted by the speakers on the wall. JJ glanced at the communications screen again and consulted her mission handbook to figure out what to do next. The other team members at their own stations in Mission Control scrambled to give her an update.

Beside her, Madison flipped to the correct page in the three-ring binder and skimmed down their list of emergency protocols. Her brows drew together. “That can’t be right. According to this, what we’re seeing is a—”

“Meteor shower!” Tony’s voice broke in from behind them at the sensor station.

“Right, meteor shower!”

JJ toggled the communications switch again. “Moonbase, this is Mission Control. Prepare for meteor shower. Over.”

“Meteor shower?” Dylan sounded more excited than frightened. “When? And how big is it?”

Flight Director Buchheim moved in front of the lines of computer stations, looking intent. “Communications officer, it’s your responsibility to make sure the moonbase team takes appropriate action.”

JJ felt a prickle of sweat on her forehead. The pressure was on. Leaning over to look at Madison’s emergency procedures, JJ scanned the instructions and spoke into the microphone again. “We’ll have time to answer any questions during debrief. Right now, protocol says to leave your stations. Take shelter in the bunker. Over.”

Dylan’s response over the wall speakers sounded impatient. “You realize how many experiments we’ve got running here, don’t you? Medical sciences, biosciences. The probe team is—”

JJ was so involved in the crisis that she let frustration filter into her voice. “Dyl, I’m telling you what the manual says. Just follow instructions. Get to the bunker—now! Over.” Her voice sounded harsh, and she gave herself a mental kick. A communications officer in Mission Control was supposed to stay calm and professional.

“Roger that. Over and out.” When Dylan’s freckled face appeared on the screen, JJ gave him a thumbs-up. Despite the current emergency, he looked so happy, so different from when they had first arrived for training ….

No one had expected an opportunity like this, especially so early in the school year. However, when their Earth Sciences teacher at Ellison High asked who wanted to go on a field trip, the entire class had been enthusiastic.

“It’s an interactive high-tech center, designed to get students interested in engineering and science—especially space science,” said the teacher, Mrs. Koslowski.

Is that hard? JJ wondered. Her interest was already piqued, since she had long been a space buff. “What do they do there?”

“The Challenger Center uses state-of-the-art technology and simulators to show us what it’s like to explore space. There are centers all across the US, Canada, South Korea, and the United Kingdom, and we’re lucky enough to have one nearby.” Mrs. Koslowski smiled. “You’ll actually feel like you’re on a real moonbase.”

“Sounds good to me!” JJ said.

“It’s sure better than a day of quizzes and reviews,” Tony added, and everyone chuckled.

As they had prepared for the field trip, JJ thought that maybe ninth grade would turn out to be fine after all, in spite of the fact that her little brother Dylan was in four of her classes this year. Sure, there were some advantages—they could study together—but it had been an irritation to JJ since the moment she heard about it. Who wanted their brother in class?

It wasn’t Dyl’s fault, she supposed. He hadn’t asked to be run over by a nineteen-year-old driver more interested in her cell phone than in steering her car.

JJ remembered it all as if it had happened last week, not two years ago—the Sunday afternoon phone call, her mom turning ghostly pale, JJ biting her lip and trying not to cry as her mom drove at breakneck speed to the emergency room, the two of them finding Dyl covered with blood on a narrow bed in a curtained-off area where ER staff bustled around him. She could still see it so clearly: their mom’s hands shaking as she signed some hospital forms, a doctor murmuring “He needs surgery immediately,” her eleven-year-old brother looking all crumpled and small as they wheeled him away on a gurney to the operating room ….

The accident had messed up not just her brother’s body, but his placement in school. He spent four months in a wheelchair after his release from the hospital, then graduated to leg braces and forearm crutches. During Dyl’s long recuperation, he was homeschooled by the Sutros, a retired couple who lived down the hall from the Wrens’ apartment. Fortunately for Dylan (and unfortunately for JJ), the Sutros were such excellent teachers that when he returned to school the next fall, he was able to skip a grade, even though he was a year younger than his sister.

Dylan no longer needed leg braces. He still limped and used crutches, but he was quick on the uptake and hadn’t lost his sense of humor. What he had lost, however, was his nerve. He didn’t ride his bicycle any more, much less do jumps on it. Dyl stopped trying new things, didn’t like to fly, and flinched whenever their mother drove faster than forty miles an hour. In other words, he was the exact opposite of JJ, who had been a daredevil since she learned to walk; she could never go fast enough, even when she was flying with her uncle in his airplane.

The day of the field trip to the Challenger Center for their space simulation, Dyl had looked typically nervous in the bus. “Just don’t volunteer me for anything,” he said. “I’d rather not be a redshirt.”

“You’re wearing green,” JJ pointed out, purposely misunderstanding him. “Goes really well with your copper hair and freckles.”

Dyl shot his sister a dirty look. “I mean, I don’t want to be one of those characters on a TV show who ends up getting killed before the opening credits. On the original Star Trek series the disposable characters always wore red uniforms, so people started calling them redshirts. How can you not know that?”

JJ grinned. “Your life is not a book or video game or TV show, Dyl. This is just a field trip, a perfectly normal activity. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

Dyl looked away and crossed his arms stubbornly over his chest. “Tell that to the girl who hit me with her car.”

Ouch. JJ winced sympathetically. She knew she shouldn’t push her brother’s buttons, but sometimes he was such a worrier that she wanted him to let go and have fun.

“I’m going to volunteer to be a mission commander or something,” Tony said from the seat behind them. “An important job.”

“Or maybe captain of the Mars gymnastics team,” Madison teased. “At least you’re qualified for that.” Tony ignored her. Fortunately, the bus pulled up to their destination, so the banter was cut short.

When JJ saw the building sitting on the fringe between a business district and suburban homes, she didn’t know what to think of it. The squarish tan-brick building looked deceptively like a post office or school. But in front, towered a model of a rocket—life sized?—as well as a solar-power panel, and a large satellite dish much more powerful than anything needed for a home TV setup. An etched metal sign out front read: Challenger Center for Space Science Education.

While the students filed off the bus, JJ remained in her seat, staring out the window in a daze. “Hmm,” she murmured. “Moon mission.” Gazing beyond the window to the sky, she daydreamed about how light she would feel, skipping over the surface of the Moon in the much lower gravity. She grinned at the thought of her feet kicking up Moon dust.

“Hey, you fall asleep back there?” the bus driver called to JJ. Startled, she looked up to see that everyone was off the bus and jostling their way toward the building. Blushing, she jumped up from her seat and hurried down the aisle, brushing her blond hair away from her face. She muttered an apology to the driver, slipped off the bus and ran to catch up with the rest of the group.

Madison always calls me a Pollyanna wishful thinker—what if she’s right? she wondered. Mom can’t even afford to send me to college, so how can I become an astronaut in NASA’s elite space program? Then again, she would never get anywhere thinking like that. Raising her chin, she shoved away such discouraging thoughts and stomped down on her self-doubt. Someone’s got to be the first woman on the Moonmight as well be me.

The entry hall looked pretty much like any other school building, until Mrs. Koslowski gathered her students in the lobby and they all noticed the displays of miniature rockets, as well as posters of space shuttles, moonbases, space stations and stars.

“Now we’re talking,” JJ said in approval.

“Sure beats going to math class,” Tony said with a laugh. He had never been good at the subject, and since he needed help, JJ often did math homework with him.

Dylan had come in with their classmates, though he lagged behind because of his crutches. JJ was glad to see that her brother was talking to his friend George and seemed to have forgotten all about being nervous for now.

A tall, brown-haired woman wearing a blue flight suit met the class in the entryway. She gave them a bright, welcoming smile. “Hello, I’m your Flight Director, Commander Buchheim.” She gestured beside her to a dusky-skinned man also dressed in a flight suit. “This is Commander Zota.”

JJ’s gaze was drawn to him. He had a mysterious presence about him. She didn’t know how else to describe it.

Commander Zota, who looked as if he might be from India, spoke in a low voice. “Greetings.” His deep gray eyes seemed old and wise, though there were no wrinkles around them. He was handsome—despite a jagged scar down his left cheek—and if it hadn’t been for his pure white hair, he could have passed for a man in his thirties.

“If you’ll come with me, we can start your mission briefing,” Buchheim continued. Zota directed them toward a door in the nearby hall.

In the mission briefing room, which looked like a normal classroom to JJ, she sat with Madison and Tony. Her brother and George sat several rows away.

“Your teacher should have already gone over some background material with you,” Commander Buchheim said. “So who can tell me how far the Moon is from the Earth?”

“A million miles?” Madison said.

“Not a bad guess,” Commander Zota said. “But a bit high.”

A snort erupted on the other side of the room, and Dyl’s friend raised his hand. “384,000 kilometers, give or take,” George said when the Flight Director called on him. “That’s just under a quarter of a million miles.”

“Good. And how big is the Moon compared to the Earth?” Commander Buchheim asked next.

JJ knew the answer. She raised her hand. “About one-fourth the size, but Moon gravity is only one-sixth of Earth gravity. So if a person weighs a hundred pounds here, they’d only weigh about seventeen pounds on the Moon.”

“Thank you. That was very thorough,” Buchheim said. “Did you also know that the same side of the Moon always faces Earth? Some people think that the side of the Moon that faces away from us is the dark side, but there’s no such thing as a permanent dark side—just the far side. Both sides get periods of light and darkness, night and day. Does anyone know how long day and night are on the Moon?” No one answered. “A Moon day is about two weeks long, followed by two weeks of night. What color is the sky on the Moon?”

“There’s no atmosphere, so it’s like being out in space,” said Dyl, who loved science fiction. “The sky looks black even during the day.”

After sharing more background about the simulated adventure, the Flight Director gave everyone job assignments: medical technicians, life-support scientists, isolation specialists, data officers, robotic scientists, and other jobs. JJ and Madison were assigned to the communications team.

The group was split in two and sent to separate rooms-one a mockup of a base on the lunar surface, the other a replica of Mission Control. JJ watched Dyl go through a painted door with the moonbase team to catch their “transport” to the Moon.

While JJ was at first disappointed to be “stuck on Earth,” she quickly became engrossed in her tasks. Each team in Mission Control worked with their counterparts on the moonbase side of the simulation. Mission Control was a large room that held rows of workstations with computers built into them. Glass observation windows covered one wall. On the front wall, a massive video screen was split into several sections of data labeled Eco, Bio and Geo, along with a view of the Main Control Center, or MCC, at the moonbase.

It all felt incredibly authentic. Why couldn’t classes be more like this? The scenario held JJ’s attention better than learning from a book, and she was completely swept up in it. By the time the meteor shower emergency occurred, she actually felt alarmed for her brother and the rest of her classmates, who were really just on the other side of the wall.

After the meteor shower adventure, the moonbase crew returned to Earth, while JJ, Madison, Tony and the other half of the students took their turn at the moonbase as a relief team. When the mission was over, JJ felt exhilarated. “That was the next best thing to really being there,” she said.

At the end of the field trip, she saw that even Dyl looked satisfied with what he had accomplished. It was disorienting to board the school buses for their return to the real world. Looking through the bus window at the Challenger Center, JJ made up her mind that she wanted to go back.

When JJ and Dyl got home from school that afternoon, their mother was changing clothes, getting ready for her second job as an evening desk clerk at a local hotel. “I can see you’re both excited, and I want to hear all about your field trip,” she said, looking harried. She pulled her blond hair (a shade darker than JJ’s) back into a ponytail. “But I’m late for a staff meeting. You two will have to fix your own dinner—sorry, but my shift ran long at the coffee shop.”

Dyl sat down on the sofa beside their tuxedo cat Spock and gave him a skritch behind his pointy ears. “No problem, Mom.”

“Got it covered,” JJ said. The Wren kids knew the routine by now, and rarely complained. They could fend for themselves when it came to dinner. They had to. After all, their mom worked two jobs and could still barely afford the rent on their little apartment. They didn’t have luxuries, but they had enough.

JJ, for whom speed was the most important cooking ingredient, stuck to basics like tuna melts or mini-pizzas. Dyl had learned to cook as part of homeschooling, in a class Mrs. Sutro called “Applied Chemistry.” He enjoyed perching on a rolling stool in the kitchen while he made complete meals from scratch.

“I’ll make chicken fajitas if you’ll clean the kitchen,” Dyl said.

JJ jumped at the offer. “I’m in.”

Their mother grabbed her purse, gave each of them a kiss and headed toward the door of their small apartment. “Love you both whole bunches,” she said, opening the door to go. “Don’t forget to feed Spock.” She paused to look down at an unmarked envelope lying on the Welcome mat in the hall, then bent over to pick it up. “What’s this?”

JJ walked over to take a look. “Wasn’t there five minutes ago when we came home.”

“Probably pizza coupons or something,” Dyl said.

JJ glanced up and down the hall, but saw no envelopes in front of the other apartment doors, which were closed. There was nobody to be seen.

Dyl petted Spock, who purred loudly. “What’s it say?”

Preoccupied with fishing her car keys out of her purse, their mother handed the envelope to JJ, who tore it open to find an elegant printed invitation, complete with the Challenger Center logo at the top. She read aloud with growing amazement and puzzlement.


Jennifer Juniper Wren & Donovan Dylan Wren.

Your interest and potential have been noted.

You are cordially invited to join a select group of students for

a private advanced mission at

the Challenger Center.

This is a one-time-only offer to participate, free of charge,

in an extraordinary, exciting adventure.

The date listed was that coming Saturday, from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, and the invitation was signed by Commander Benjamin Zota.

JJ handed it to her brother and let him read it for himself.

“Weird,” Dyl said. “We just left the Center an hour ago. Why’d we get picked out of the whole class? And how could the message have gotten here so fast?”

“Maybe they sent everybody an invitation.” JJ’s brows pulled together.

“But how did Commander Zota know our names and address, and that we’d be interested?” Dyl asked.

JJ hoped she had been chosen for her own merit, but there was no doubt in her mind about whether she wanted to go. “Either way, I’m in. How can we pass it up?”

Mrs. Wren shook her head, looking worried. “You know we can’t afford extra activities like this for you right now. We’ve still got medical bills and rent, and my hours might be cut back—”

JJ showed her the invitation. “Mom, it’s free!”

Their mother looked unconvinced, so Dyl chimed in. “We didn’t get to tell you much about our field trip today, but it was the most fun I’ve had since the accident. For a while, I even forgot about it.” Obviously uncomfortable being so serious, he resorted to humor then, his favorite method of coping with life. Although there was a twinkle of mischief in Dyl’s eyes, his lips gave a mock quiver, and his voice cracked with melodrama. “Please, Mom? You wouldn’t say no to your only son, would you?” Their mother tried to suppress a laugh at his fake manipulation. Good. She was almost convinced.

Spock jumped down off the sofa and rubbed himself against their mother’s ankles, apparently doing his best to help.

“It’s this Saturday,” JJ prodded. “You can drop us off on your way to work. We’ll make our own lunches and everything.”

When Dyl quietly added, “I really want to do this,” that sealed the deal. Their mother agreed, and as far as JJ was concerned, Saturday couldn’t come fast enough.


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