by KG MacGregor
It’s the boldest conquest of our time—the colonization of Mars.
Of the thousands who clamored for a one-way ticket to the Red Planet, only a fraction remain in the running. Now they’re converging on Hawaii’s Big Island for a nail-biting competition to be the first to launch.
Mila Todorov has prepared for this moment throughout her young life. With her revolutionary propulsion design already built into the Mars vessel, she likes her chances—especially if she can team with her all-time idol, Major Jancey Beaumont, a former NASA astronaut whose last space mission made her a worldwide hero.
Jancey is desperate for a return to space, but the margin for error is razor-thin. Can she afford to gamble her destiny on a woman so distracting as Mila?
Lambda Literary Award Winner ““ KG MacGregor
GCLS Goldie Awards
T-Minus Two — Winner, Lesbian Romantic Suspense/Intrigue/Adventure, GCLS Goldie Finalist, Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award.
Well-written, delightful reading and a charming romance based on wonderful, modern women competing at the highest level… what more could we want to entertain us?
…is an enjoyable read. The chemistry between Mila and Jancey is real, and when they finally do get down to business, it's hot.
The Lesbian Review
I love the premise and the characters, and with a romance to boot, what's not to love? Read it! If you think it's too sci-fi for you, it really isn't. It's a novel about science and it's fiction, but it definitely isn't what I'd call hardcore sci-fi.
More Praise for KG MacGregor
"Readers have come to expect great reading material from a KG MacGregor novel..." —Frivolous Views
"Well-written, solid stories..." —Just About Write
"Winner, Romance! Winner, Romantic Intrigue!" —Lambda Literary Awards, Golden Crown Literary Society
“Ladies and gentlemen, seating in the lecture hall is arranged alphabetically. Please take your assigned seat as quickly as possible so we can begin.”
Mila Todorov scowled at the announcement. So much for arriving early to get a seat near the front. How would she stand out among two-hundred-fifty-six candidates if she was all the way at the top of the room? Not fair at all.
At the doorway to the hall, she was greeted by a Pacific Islander wearing a yellow shirt with the words Tenacity Project stitched above a rocket emblem on his chest. He distributed bottles of water and gestured toward a tray of green capsules, each wrapped in clear plastic. “Energy tablet. Please swallow it when you reach your seat.”
As Mila climbed the stairs to her assigned desk at the top, the din of conversations grew more subdued, replaced by the shuffling of papers in the information packets left at each seat. Clearly her fellow candidates were as eager as she to learn the details of what was in store for them over the next ten weeks.
Equally clear were the stakes. They had converged on the Big Island of Hawaii to vie for two seats aboard Tenacity, the interplanetary vessel that would establish the first colony on Mars—at least the first one known to scientists on Earth. The privately funded Tenacity Project had drawn over forty thousand applicants from all over the world. Engineers and physical scientists like Mila. Biologists, chemists, behaviorists, physicians. Pilots, soldiers, teachers, architects. Athletes, artists, journalists. Even a politician or two. If this were a reality show, they could call it Dancing With the Planets.
The finalists also included several alumni from space programs from around the world, mostly NASA and the European Space Agency, but also representing Japan, India, Australia and China. It was difficult to imagine beating out those who already had astronaut training, but Mila was determined to give it her all. She was only twenty-seven years old. If she missed out on this wave, there would be others.
“When you reach your seat, please review your profile and confirm the information is correct.”
She found her packet at the third seat from the end, four rows from the top. Pity the poor W’s and Y’s, who were sitting above her in the dark. Already she planned a statistical analysis by last name of those who survived the next cut. Not fair.
Her profile photo—the same one that appeared on the badge hanging from a lanyard around her neck—was surprisingly good, considering it had been taken upon arrival in Hilo at the end of a twenty-eight-hour journey from Berlin. Long hair pulled back in a tie to hide its wilt, making it appear brown instead of dark blond. Mongolian eyes so dark the redness hardly showed. In place of a smile, she’d proffered a practiced look of sureness and satisfaction, as though she’d already been chosen to go.
The man in the next chair raised a mock toast as he swallowed his energy tablet. Even though he was seated, she could tell he was tall—perhaps even too tall to live comfortably in a space vessel. She celebrated that fact because it meant one less contender. On the other hand, the dark yarmulke that sat upon his crown afforded him a distinctive look the selection committee would notice and remember, since everyone was outfitted in the same khaki cargo pants, black shoes and blue microfiber T-shirt with the Tenacity Project rocket logo. Not fair.
“Good morning,” he said, extending a hand. “Isaac Tobias. I saw you at the dormitory.”
“I’m afraid everyone saw me at the dormitory,” she replied sheepishly, recalling the stares when she’d clumsily dropped her well-worn Rubik’s Cube at check-in, scattering colorful pieces of plastic across the hardwood floor. “Not exactly how I wanted to stand out.”
“Don’t worry about it. What they really noticed was how fast you put it back together.”
Mila had gotten a perfect score on the analytical segment of their aptitude test, given almost a year ago during the second qualifying round. Science, technology and spatial relations were her strengths, along with anything else that sprang from the left side of her brain. Not so much with her artistic side, though she’d scored in the acceptable range thanks to her creativity with problem solving.
“I’m hearing an accent,” he said. “Let me guess…Rumanian?”
Most people guessed Russian, but Isaac’s ear was obviously better tuned to Eastern Europe.
“Close. Bulgarian.” Except her Slavic accent was somewhat muted because her mother had taken her at age ten to Berlin when she accepted a position in the philosophy department at Humboldt University. “And you are from…Israel.”
“T-minus sixty and counting.”
A nervous chuckle spread throughout the room at the leader’s choice of words to hurry stragglers to their seats.
Mila scanned the hall to assess her rivals. She figured to be among the youngest. The selection committee had made clear the Mars mission was a one-way trip, and though they promised to consider applicants of all ages, the optimum range was late thirties–early forties. Her work was cut out to overcome their bias against youth, to convince them she would eagerly give up her life on Earth for the chance to colonize their neighboring planet.
In her introductory essay nearly a year ago—submitted along with her résumé, university transcripts and a brief questionnaire—she’d described her passion for space exploration, seeded firmly at age thirteen when US Air Force Major Jancey Beaumont set off on what was to be a two-year solo mission to test the potential for long-term survivability in space. Mila tracked her orbit through the NASA website and spent countless evenings on the rooftop of their Berlin apartment building with a telescope in hopes of spotting her spacecraft, Guardian, as it orbited Earth. The thrill of seeing it pass sparked her imagination of being inside—preferably with Major Beaumont, but she hadn’t included that detail in her essay—and watching the world below.
The major’s mission had been cut short in dramatic fashion at the start of her second year in orbit when an experimental Russian vessel lost power, leaving the two cosmonauts aboard only hours of life support. Using Guardian’s emergency thrusters for maneuverability, Beaumont left her assigned orbit to intercept the stricken craft and evacuate its occupants to safety as the world held its collective breath. With two extra souls aboard her tiny vessel, her only course of action was an immediate return to Earth.
It was upon the major’s triumphant return that Mila decided she would study to become an astronaut. She was even more inspired when she read Internet rumors speculating that Beaumont was a lesbian, and while none were confirmed, they weren’t denied either. Of course not. The major couldn’t say for certain back then because of the American military’s puritanical rules against gays. It only intensified Mila’s interest, imagining her dashing idol having super-secret affairs with beautiful women.
Everything Mila had done since then—physical fitness training, a PhD in astronautical engineering from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, and keeping up-to-date on space programs—was in pursuit of her dream. And now she was on the brink of realizing it.
“T-minus thirty seconds.”
With few exceptions, the other candidates appeared as strong and healthy as she. No surprise, since a medical exam was their third phase of preliminary testing. Mila had inherited her mother’s thin frame, along with her genetic propensity toward low blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol. No allergies, no digestive sensitivities, no disorders of any kind.
Where she’d held her breath was in the fourth phase of evaluation, the last one before being called to Hawaii for the competitive tests. That was the psych exam, an online multiple choice test in which she had to imagine working and living in close quarters with a fellow astronaut. For the rest of her life. Would she prefer to solve a problem this way or that? Was she a leader or follower? Did she read the directions or figure things out on her own?
She was by nature a loner, impatient with the very sort of chitchat Isaac had initiated, and mortified by conversations that required deeper engagement, especially those requiring her to share feelings or personal information. To make the cut for Tenacity, she’d guessed at what traits they were seeking. She had to convince the evaluator she was sufficiently easygoing to live and work harmoniously with someone else, but not so gregarious she would suffer from limited human contact.
At T-minus zero, the hall went completely dark, and in turn, silent. A low rumble emanated from the finely tuned sound system, growing louder as the towering screen brightened to reveal a space vessel clearly marked Tenacity I mounted above a massive rocket and quaking on a launch pad. The roll grew to a crackling roar and the rocket slowly climbed until a billow of orange-tinted smoke filled the screen.
Mila closed her eyes and rode the wave of thunder that reverberated off the walls and ceiling. As the roar gradually faded, it was replaced by a collective din of excitement, as though everyone in the room was as thrilled as she to be here. She blinked to find the room dark again.
“The extraordinary video you’ve just seen was taken three days ago at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre, a low altitude launch pad in India.” A formal British accent belonging to a much older man. “Tenacity I is carrying a rover to Mars to prepare the site for a colony. Two years from now, Tenacity II will launch with equipment to construct a permanent habitat, laboratory and hydroponics garden, all underground and safe from radiation. And in four years, Tenacity III will take you and a colleague on an eight-month journey to establish permanent residence in that habitat. At one-year intervals following your launch, two more colonists will join you. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Tenacity Project.”
A spotlight pierced the darkness on the stage below revealing a white-haired man, slightly paunchy with reading glasses perched at the end of his bulbous nose. He wore a dark three-piece business suit with a fat tie and matching handkerchief, and his cane hung from the edge of the podium. Mila recognized him at once. Sir Charles Boyd, the British multibillionaire space junkie behind the Tenacity Project. After selling the world’s largest food conglomerate eleven years ago, he’d turned his attention toward fulfilling the boyhood fantasy of developing a new colony on a faraway planet. Now in his seventies, he acknowledged Mars as the only realistic option for a colony that might be established in his lifetime.
“Top of the morning to you all,” he said as a slideshow began with an artist’s rendering of a cylindrical vessel named Tenacity III approaching the Red Planet. “If you will, please examine your boarding pass. Should it say anything other than Mars, I’m afraid you are in the wrong departure lounge.”
Mila’s breath caught at the majestic image on the screen, her eyes drawn immediately to the structural features of the forward-most segment of the ship, the section that would land two astronauts on the surface of Mars. She’d learned of the Mars mission four years ago when Tenacity Project engineers came to Delft to discuss a paper she’d written for a Stockholm conference. It laid out theoretical plans for a hydrazine propulsion system that, once landed on the surface of a planet or asteroid, could be reconfigured to extract oxygen from water, and to route hydrogen to fuel cells. Such an apparatus on Mars, where ice fields were abundant, could sustain living conditions indefinitely.
“Tenacity.” Sir Charles cleared his throat and allowed the word to momentarily stand on its own. “Determination. Persistence. Resolve. These are the human attributes that bring our universe within reach. If it can be done, it will be done.”
Goose bumps rose on Mila’s arms and chest as she absorbed his inspirational words.
Scientists laid the groundwork for travel to Mars over fifty years ago, and had built upon it with each successive program. By the turn of the century, technology had evolved that could transport astronauts across millions of kilometers of space and land their craft on the planet’s surface. Since then, the principal barrier to a Mars mission had been funding.
The Tenacity Project was budgeted at forty-six billion dollars, two-thirds of which was provided personally by Sir Charles. He’d pooled his billions with several private corporations and a handful of wealthy donors who shared his fascination with space travel. Once the colony was established, they anticipated an influx of funding from governments, foundations and corporations all over the world to help it grow.
“Let me offer my congratulations for your achievement, not only for making it this far in the selection process, but also for the contributions many of you have already made in your specialized fields. Space alloys that protect from radiation. Propulsion systems that convert sheets of ice to energy and breathable air. Cloning technology that ensures a sustainable, healthy diet. All of these advancements and dozens of others were achieved by people in this room.”
Mila glowed with pride at the special mention of her work. Surely that gave her the inside track, even if she was sitting at the top of the room. Who needed a yarmulke when she had a bullet point like that on her résumé?
“Indeed, you all are exemplary candidates for this remarkable expedition. I wish you the best of fortune as we determine the final four teams that will train for the Tenacity mission. The challenge before us requires many hands. Every person in this room possesses unique skills and expertise that can ultimately contribute to our success. Those of you who are not chosen to go shall be offered an opportunity to join the hundreds of engineers and scientists around the world already on board. It is my hope you will agree to stay on—perhaps even at our new project headquarters here in this island paradise—in order to help ensure the mission’s success. And there shall be more opportunities to join the colony as the project grows.”
Mila had left Berlin with the clear expectation of moving wherever the project took her, as the training facilities and technology centers were located all over the world—Germany, Japan, Russia and the US. If her youth worked against her this time, she would try again for a seat on a future launch. She possessed the ultimate quality of an astronaut—tenacity.