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“I’m telling you, it’ll be garbage detail.”

One of Marshall’s classmates, a petite brunette named Roberta McCall, hopped up from a well-used recliner to grab a pair of beers from the minifridge behind them. She wasn’t much taller than when sitting down and wore her hair in tight curls that were almost as bouncy as she was, highlighting her round features. She was like a wound-up spring anxious to release its energy. “You worry too much, dude. Nothing is promised to us, not even the next sunrise,” she said, tossing one of the longnecks into his lap.

Marshall jerked upright as it landed a little too close for comfort. “I busted my first check ride and threatened my IP,” he argued. “I think I worry just about enough.”

“You aced your second ride and he got reamed for painting you into a corner,” she said. “Sounds like justice to me.”

Marshall turned sour, still in a slow burn over a thought that wouldn’t stop nagging at him. “He had to get in a dig about my dad, and I let it get to me.”

Roberta blew out a frustrated sigh in sympathy. “Not something you want to hear on a check ride. That’s supposed to be about your competence, not someone else’s reputation. IP’s will throw all kinds of curveballs to put you off balance. He was baiting you.”

“If he was then I took it hook, line and sinker.” He took an angry sip from his bottle.

“That’s not the first time someone’s brought it up,” she continued. “We’re about to head out into the fleet, so face facts. Your old man’s a legit hero. He pulled off some epic feats with bleeding-edge spacecraft, twice. He stuck his neck out and saved lives.”

He sat quietly, contemplating the unwelcome reminder of his childhood. What had started as a search for a missing colleague ended with his father in a desperate chase around the far side of the moon. While Ryan Hunter was fighting to stop a hijacked spacecraft from deflecting a shattered comet toward Earth, Marshall and his mother had to survive its aftermath at home. “Dad said he knew it was going to get sporty when the Marines reactivated his commission. He was happy to go back to civilian flying when it was over. If he’d stayed in, I’d have probably joined the Peace Corps in protest.”

“Good thing you didn’t. We have much better equipment. And get over Wylie, word is they sent him back to wherever his last duty posting was.” Marshall had in fact gotten points for recovering the spaceplane, even if it had been out of service for three days.

“So I passed the makeup test. Now I’ve got a rep nobody’s going to touch. How can you be so sanguine?”


“Optimistic. Hopeful.”

“I forgot you were the one who always paid attention in freshman Composition. You’ve got to stop throwing those fifty-dollar words at simple girls like me.”

“I’m on a mission to get you cultured before we graduate, so at least one of us has a decent chance of getting a crew assignment.”

Roberta grinned and took a pull from her bottle. “Then why create competition for yourself if you’re so worried about getting stuck with the scut work? It’s not like we’re in the Navy cleaning bilges, or whatever they stick the new guys with. Anyway, we’re officers.”

“So we’ll at least be in charge of the poor schlubs cleaning bilges?”

“That’s my point,” she said. “We won’t be, no matter what. The worst job in the Space Force is still better than anything in the other branches. Launching rockets? Controlling satellites? Sign me up.” She tapped her temple with a finger. “Adjust your attitude. None of this is boring.”

Some of it is, Marshall thought. “I took this instead of the Air Force because I want to fly spacecraft.”

“Which you knew was a gamble. There’s a lot more slots for drone pilots and satellite jockeys than there are Starlifters or patrol cruisers. I’m cool with that.”

Marshall was about to protest when the TV in the background caught their attention: old video of a dramatic nighttime Falcon Heavy launch, followed by an animation of the orbits of Earth and Mars superimposed over the image of a middle-aged Asian couple. He turned up the volume.

“. . . Jasmine Jiang reports they ‘feel great’ and are enjoying their extended time away from the pressures of running their far-ranging business empire. Prospector mission control in Palmdale, California, reports the spacecraft remains on track for an extended encounter with the asteroid 2023 RQ39 next month, en route to the first human flyby of the Red Planet. NASA spokesmen . . .”

Roberta reached over and muted the newsfeed. “NASA spokesmen struggled valiantly to continue grasping at straws to appear relevant,” she mocked. “They really got left in the dust this time.”

“They did most of the trajectory work,” Marshall said, taking the remote back from her.

“Only because Planetary Protection was crapping bricks that they’d screw up, crash into Mars and contaminate it with human cooties.”

Marshall ignored her and turned the volume back up as a diagram of the spacecraft appeared. “Just zip it and let me indulge myself, then.”

“. . . following what is known as a ‘free return trajectory,’ they will have limited course-correction ability. Other than their launch-and-entry capsule, the spacecraft is composed of an inflatable habitation module, over half of which is devoted to food storage and life-support equipment for the five hundred day journey. Before passing within one hundred kilometers of the Martian surface, their path will coincide with that of the asteroid 2023 RQ39. This is a particularly enticing target for the Jiangs given their already substantial investments in lunar mining technology. In an interview recorded before launch, Maleko ‘Max’ Jiang explained some of his reasons for embarking on such a hazardous journey.”

The interviewer adopted a knowing grin for the camera. “Your given name, Maleko, roughly translated, means ‘Pledged to Mars.’ Do you somehow feel fated to undertake this journey?”

A slight man with a shock of jet-black hair appeared on screen. His words were measured, though his eyes flared with an energy which animated every gesture: “Only in that I have long held the conviction that it is well past time for someone to demonstrate serious long-duration spaceflight is possible. The journey we are undertaking now as civilian entrepreneurs could have been accomplished with Apollo technology in the 1970s.” He held up a finger, eyes glinting mischievously. “But I will say this: Mars free returns of this sort only occur about every eighteen years—for it to share a common orbit with that of a promising new mineral resource only strengthens my conviction that humanity is meant to expand into the solar system.”

The interviewer struck an inquisitive pose. “To preserve the species, perhaps?”

Jiang smiled patiently, no doubt having answered hundreds of variations of the same question. “In some ways, yes. It’s better to extract valuable minerals from the space environment than to take them from our own environment on Earth.” He paused, taking on a somber tone. “In other ways, I admit to a bit of raw survival instinct. No one can forget the destruction Comet Weatherby visited on the American East Coast. I want to improve our understanding of what’s out here.”

There it was again. Was that all anybody ever talked about? He ignored the sideways glance from Roberta; the billionaire explorer’s offhand remark dredged up deep and unpleasant childhood memories. Standing with his mother on their rooftop, he’d never imagined water could roar like a freight train, that something so tranquil could bring such destruction.

“. . . but we are building a Space Guard fleet to deflect those kinds of threats,” the interviewer contended.

Orbit Guard,” Roberta shouted at the screen, suddenly animated. “Geez, can’t anybody get that right?”

“That is only one piece of the puzzle. I am a businessman,” Jiang continued. “I improve lives by creating wealth, which provides people with jobs and the government with revenue. Ill-considered technological advances and uncontrolled debt are putting both of those in jeopardy. In fact I’d argue either of those threaten our civilization as much as any planet-killing rock.”

The interviewer looked amused now. “And you believe mining asteroids will solve those problems?”

Jiang leaned into the camera with earnest. “We have to expand our economic sphere off-planet. That doesn’t mean we can’t also grow here; it just means I don’t think we have time to waste. We must grow our economic base to avoid devaluing our currency.”

“You’ve accumulated quite a bit of currency on your own since emigrating from mainland China.”

Jiang adopted a lecturing tone, responding to the interviewer’s subtle barb. “Some of America’s most successful children are its adopted ones, because we appreciate that which we craved so badly. Think of America’s westward expansion, the Transcontinental Railroad, transoceanic air travel . . . how much wealth did they create? Now think of how many rare-earth minerals are contained on a single average-sized Class-M asteroid, and how beneficial it would be to bring those metals back to Earth once we’ve solved the problem of getting there.”

“Some speculate the value of a single asteroid could be in the trillions of dollars. You’d like to be the world’s first trillionaire, wouldn’t you?”

Another patient smile, ignoring the implication that he was motivated by greed. “Someone’s going to be eventually. If I can do that while providing something of immense value to others, then sure. It might as well be me.”

Roberta muted the television. “So there’s gold in them thar ’roids,” she drawled.

“You don’t think they’re serious?” Marshall asked. “Because closing yourself up in something the size of a Winnebago for a year and a half sounds pretty serious.”

“Sure it is—seriously messed up. Look, it’s not that I don’t want people to go to Mars. I just think this is a publicity stunt while they’re out staking claims.”

“Publicity stunt, or proof of concept?”

She waved her now almost-empty longneck at the screen. “When this many people are watching, is there a difference?”

Marshall was about to argue when both of their tablets pinged with messages which were mirrored on screen: NOTICE: ASSIGNMENTS TO DUTY.

Space Launch Complex 37

Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Nicholas Lesko craned his neck upward, straining to take in the full stature of the rocket he was about to board. It stretched in a spire two hundred feet overhead, creaking and groaning like a living thing as it vented excess liquid oxygen into the humid Florida sky. Even through the hiss of air in his helmet, he could sense the beast straining with the loads inside of it.

As his companions gathered around the base of the launch gantry, Lesko unconsciously tugged at the neck ring of his pressure suit, searching for relief from an itch that had developed almost as soon as they’d locked down their faceplates to begin acclimating to the spacecraft’s environment. The suit insulated him from most of the outside world’s noise, though it was impossible to ignore the cacophany from the north as a Polaris Clipper spaceplane thundered away from Kennedy Spaceport’s runway on its way to low Earth orbit.

That’s the way to do space travel, he thought. He’d have by far preferred the Clipper’s first-class accommodations over being so much “Spam in a can” in one of these gumdrop-shaped Stardust passenger capsules. Launched by an old-fashioned Vulcan rocket, at present it remained the only way to reach the much higher geosynchronous orbit.

Nick studied his travel companions with carefully masked disdain. One, a young hacker named Billy Burns who insisted on being called by his handle, “Xenos,” particularly annoyed him. Too pudgy, too chatty, and too full of himself. Did he truly not consider the fact that there were a thousand other black hats who could’ve been recruited for this op?

As if he’d been listening to Nick’s own thoughts, Billy/Xenos caught his eye and gave a cocky thumbs-up. The kid had barely made it through the spaceflight participant training they’d been required to finish before taking this job. He’d soon find out if it had been worthwhile. Nick had his doubts, though it had been the only way to charter a Stardust all to themselves without having to rely on a safety pilot assigned by the launch company. The flying duties would be handled by their own pilot, Clint Whitman, who impatiently shifted his weight and flexed his arms as he waited for his moment to take control of their spacecraft.

So much had become automated now that they could almost completely rely on it with only occasional input from the company’s control center, which didn’t really matter since none of those dweebs would be onboard with them. He’d already worked out a way to get around the interior cameras, and all the real work was going to be either on the kid’s laptops or outside during EVAs. The outside work would be handled by their fourth crewmember, Giselle Dumont, a former astronaut whose lithe frame and long legs gave her away despite the bulky pressure suit, thus her nickname “Gazelle.”

An attendant tapped his shoulder, pointing him to the base of the gantry where another attendant recorded each of their names on a manifest before leading them one by one into an open elevator cab.

The elevator ride to the top was slow and clunky, drawing a sharp contrast between it and the ride they were about to take. As Nick allowed white-room technicians to strap him into his flight couch and hook him into Stardust’s cabin systems, he knew the difference would be dramatic in ways his companions did not suspect.

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