A gripping science fiction thriller where five women task themselves with ensuring the survival of the human race; perfect for readers of The Martian, The Power, and Station Eleven.
30 Years After
In thirty years, Dr. Naomi Lovelace has never given an interview.
Whenever I asked her to tell me what happened up there, Naomi would say no one who has been to space could ever describe it to someone who hasn’t.
They could use all the pretty language they liked. You might be able to come close, she told me once—she was always complimentary about my writing—but you’d never really know what it was like. Others will judge the choices she made, what she risked, how close she came to utter destruction. Let them, she always said. I’m used to their hatred by now.
Over the years, I’ve often imagined Naomi up there, floating alone, curled up like a white comma against a black sheet of paper. Her bulky spacesuit, the tethering cable an umbilical cord back to the ship. The silence but for her own breathing and the crackle of the comms. Twisting out to gaze at the stars, their reflections shimmering across the gold-lined visor of her helmet.
I don’t know what she thought about the expanse before her, if it changed her understanding of humanity and our place within it. If that led to the decisions she made.
I’ve watched the recording of the court testimony. Even there, she’d said as little as possible. The whole world had been desperate to hear her statement, to put her on trial as much as the others.
Naomi had stood surrounded by the polished wood of the courtroom, all warm browns compared to the white metal of the Atalanta. It must have all seemed so loud, so messy, after so long breathing recycled air, drinking recycled water, seeing nothing organic except for the plants she had grown in her greenhouse.
Naomi had lifted her chin, her posture ramrod-straight in her pressed, stiff suit, her short hair only beginning to grow out again. The scratches on her cheek were still fresh. Thirty years later, they were the barest seams, hidden among the faint wrinkles. Her face was drawn, not only from what she saw among the stars, but what she’d faced when she’d returned.
Dr. Naomi Lovelace has been many things over the years. Scientist. Criminal. Villain. Hero. Famous. Infamous.
Who would she have been, if she’d never gone? In the home clips I watched of her before she left Earth, Naomi was still quiet, but a smile often hovered at the edges of her lips, as if she held a secret she wished she could share. In one clip, taken the year before she left Earth, she’d opened her Christmas presents with the careful, considered way she did everything. A scientist through and through. Lifting the tape with a plum-purple nail, peeling back the shining paper to fold it up and set it aside. Opening the cardboard top, peeking in, the dark wave of her hair covering her face. The slight laugh as she took out the snow globe Valerie had given her, her mentor looking on with her own crooked half-smile. Valerie had bought one years ago at the Kennedy Space Center, and growing up, Naomi had always played with it. They had likely been out of production for years, but Valerie had found another just the same. Naomi shook it, the blue glitter murky and opaque before it settled to reveal the little space shuttle on its little launch pad.
She brought it with her when she left Earth. It still sits on her nightstand, even though the glass is cracked and the glimmer within leaked out long ago.
I never knew the first, early incarnation of Naomi. Sometimes, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her beneath that meteorite mask. Not really.
Every anniversary, journalists try again, begging for just one feature. Or a publisher will contact me on her behalf and offer me an eye-watering deal for her memoir as one of the Atalanta 5. No one understood why she kept saying no.
I do. Naomi has never craved fame or money.
Over the years, people have tried to fill in the blanks, or simply made up lies that further poisoned her legacy. She always claimed that her past was better left forgotten—what really mattered was what happened after. What we built from the remnants and rubble.
You’ll be wondering who I am to her, but I’m not the important part of this story. I never have been.
I’d only meant to stay with her for a week. One of my infrequent visits—always so difficult to get away and see her, and it’s so far to travel. It was easy to let too many months pass. At least I visited her, though. The rest of the family never does. She spends so much of her time alone.
I was meant to leave tomorrow, yet just half an hour ago, at two-thirty in the morning, she shook me awake. She leaned over me, greying brown hair tickling my face, her hands like claws on my shoulders.
Dark eyes wide, she said she’d tell me everything. Her face was red, splotchy with tears, her voice nothing more than a whisper, her sour breath hot on my cheek.
I’ve checked the news long enough to understand what’s set her off. Naomi will have turned off all incoming comms—the journalists are going to be circling and buzzing like flies.
They’ll dredge up all the old pain anyway, so perhaps that’s why she’s finally telling me what I want to know. Better than finding out via the news drones. She owes me that much.
I’ve gone to fetch a pen and paper—an anachronistic affectation, but writing longhand helps me think better, even if decoding my handwriting is a struggle. I’m scribbling my thoughts, trying to untangle them before I go back through.
Naomi had offered me the same silence as everyone else over the years. Given me answers so slantwise to the truth they might as well be lies. I might hear it all, tonight, but will it be worse than what I’ve imagined or managed to piece together over the years?
The night sky is so clear—spilled ink speckled with stars. Naomi always said no matter how dark the night is, you can never mistake a planetside sky for the true black of space.
I’ll start at the beginning, like she wants.
Michigan, USA, Earth
If it had been a normal launch, they would have made a spectacle of it all.
There would be picnic blankets laid out on the parched dirt, legs oily beneath smears of sunblock, faces shadowed by hats and hidden behind sunglasses. They’d lift their filter masks long enough to nibble at packed treats. Kids would suck down juice in silver pouches, pretending it was what the astronauts had in space. Adults would sip something stronger, enough to take the edge off and help the time pass on by.
Ten. Nine. Eight.
If this was a normal launch, the masses would be lined up along the flight path. Excited, fairground chatter would twine around the tinny music blasting from speakers. People would imagine what it must be like for the spacefarers clustered in the cockpit, their hearts in their throats as they waited. Family and friends would group four kilometres from the launch pad—as close as allowed—waving farewell even though their loved ones couldn’t see. Tears would weave salted tracks down their cheeks, and they’d be trying very hard not to remember the footage they’d seen of the Challenger shuttle, fine one moment and a fireball the next.
But this was not a normal launch.
Naomi clenched her hands into fists, then released, tension flowing out of her. She was strapped down to her chair in the depths of the shuttle, her body cocooned in a bulky spacesuit and fishbowl helmet. All her senses were dulled. Nothing touched her skin but the cotton undergarments beneath the fabric of the suit. No smell, her hearing muffled, her vision hedged in. Everything was distant, as if she were viewing herself from the outside and this was happening to someone else.
There was no one waiting around the launch pad hidden on the edge of the Keweenaw Peninsula. It had been the site of secret Cold War rocket launches, and those few who had ever heard of it thought it long since decommissioned.
So there were no picnics. What had once been popular cottage country was now largely bare, acidic bedrock hostile to both vegetation and tourists. No line of cars threaded through the cracked highway that bisected the patches of dead and dying forests. No hopeful faces tilted up towards the clouds, ready to trace the arc of the rocket as it made its way up, up, and away.
That was the point.
They were all alone, the five women in the capsule strapped to this rocket. The launch pad was much larger than the tiny site where NASA had sent up rockets in the late sixties. No one knew what they had planned. The work had been done by robots and AI, the launch sequence fully automated. If the secret leaked, they would be finished before they started. It also meant if something went wrong, they were on their own.
The five of them locked eyes through the visors of their helmets. The others tried to hide the fear that must have been rattling their bones as surely as the engines. Naomi’s muscles were rigid as steel. They had come to this corner of the world in the dead of night two weeks ago. Locked themselves in a makeshift quarantine, done each and every step to ready themselves for launch. Startling at every sound, as the robots crawled along the surface of a rocket. They had to put their entire trust in machines, for humans could too easily betray them.
Right up until the end, she was afraid someone would come. Turn off the robots, disrupt the launch sequence. Pull open the hatch and drag them from the craft just as they were about to finally escape. Naomi held her breath.
The five women chanted along with the robotic voice blaring through the capsule.
“Three. Two. One.”
They’d willingly strapped themselves to a bomb and lit the fuse. Engines roared. Naomi’s teeth shook in her skull, the skin of her cheeks pressed flat against her cheekbones. The rocket rose, shuddering, hovering over the launch pad, frantically burning fuel, battling against gravity. Victory screams came from the four other women Naomi trusted with her life as the capsule veered and accelerated towards orbital velocity. Once they hit it, each second would take them eight kilometres further away from the Earth’s crust. Naomi was crushed against her seat, as if a demon crouched on her chest.
There had been so many close calls, so many setbacks. A year ago, she thought that her life’s work would never culminate in that moment. Never mind her two degrees, the cap tassels and framed certificates at the bottom of a box left behind in storage. Never mind the months of gruelling, invasive physical and psychological tests. The missed parties, dinners, dates. The relationships she’d left in the dust. She was never meant to make it to space. None of them were.
So much had been stolen from them. From all women. Naomi and her conspirators were stealing something back. Conservative politicians and their sock puppets in the media would accuse Dr. Valerie Black, CEO of Hawthorne, and her crew of stealing a spaceship. But the people on the surface were wrong.
The women were stealing a planet.
They were stealing a future.
Far below them, further every second, people would be peeking out from their windows, faces turned towards the capsule as they held their filter masks over their noses and mouths. There wouldn’t be many, in this dry pocket of the world—most had long since moved closer to slivers of green and cleaner water. The journalists would be frantically typing up their clickbait headlines, well behind the news spidering its way across social media. Fuzzy photos uploaded. A video taken with shaking hands, the plume of smoke like a comet’s tail.
The spent boosters separated, the capsule shaking. The shuttle left the last of the atmosphere behind, pushing through the vestiges of the stratosphere. Naomi went from being crushed by acceleration to abrupt weightlessness. The straps of the chair harness whooshed the air from her lungs. The troll doll Hixon had tied to her station as a good luck charm floated, twisting, plastic face frozen in a grotesque rictus.
For an hour, Naomi clutched her chair as they hurtled through space. There were no windows—all they could stare at were the readouts on the screens.
Hixon’s hands were steady on the controls even though their path was automated, her pale skin grey-blue beneath her freckles in the dim light. Valerie emanated calm and satisfaction. Hart and Lebedeva were stiff in their seats, and Naomi was unable to see anything through the reflections off their visors.
Valerie was so many things to Naomi—her boss at Hawthorne, her captain. Long before that, she’d taken Naomi in when she was nine, her father dead and her mother unable to care for her. Once the world found out what they had done, Naomi would never escape the nepotism whispers that had followed every step of her career. Naomi had once moved away from Hawthorne to prove herself but was lured back to Project Atalanta as though by a siren’s song.
Valerie had handpicked the first all-female crew into interstellar space.
Just not the first authorised crew.
The government had dangled the project before Valerie, let her spend her money, her expertise, before snatching it away and replacing the crew with last-minute substitutions from NASA. It was physically impossible for the five men to do as much training, to run through the simulations, to know the ship from the inside out. President Cochran was so determined to keep those five women off the Atalanta and their destination of Cavendish, he was willing to risk everything.
Oksana Lebedeva, lead engineer, the cosmonaut who left the Roscosmos to work for Valerie under suspicious circumstances. Jerrie Hixon, their lead pilot and mathematician, who quit NASA when President Cochran was sworn into office. Her wife, Irene Hart, who followed suit when NASA edged out most of its women a few months later as Cochran’s policies began coming into effect.
It hadn’t happened in a moment, but a series of moments, as slow and insidious as the melting of the ice caps. Women had been ushered out of the workplace, so subtly that few noticed until it was too late. There had been no grand lowering of an iron curtain, with passports voided and bank accounts emptied. There had been a few men in sharp suits quoting scripture with silver tongues, but it was cursory, just enough to wrangle part of the Christian vote. Really, they were afraid of women. Or hated them. Wasn’t that much the same thing? The country saw those angry men as a fringe movement right up until one was elected president.
“ETA to the Atalanta ten minutes,” Hixon said at one point, voice clipped. Naomi could almost feel their brains ticking, their thoughts swirling through the cramped cabin.
Finally, their true ship came into view on the cameras: the Atalanta. Valerie smiled. Hixon allowed herself a triumphant clap, muffled by her gloves. Naomi, Hart, and Lebedeva stayed silent and awed.
It was a beautiful craft, all smooth and white metal. A sleek, bird-like body formed the ship’s central axis, the bow showing the disk of the bridge, quadruple-reinforced windows dark, and the ion and plasma thrusters strapped to the side.
Jutting up from the ship were three spokes that led to the large, round ring—the labs, quarters, and communal spaces—that circled the ship like a halo. If they managed to pull this off and leave Earth’s orbit, the ring would turn, generating gravity. The ring perfectly matched the one built just outside Mars’ orbit and provided a set location via atomic clocks. When they’d figured out how to harvest exotic matter to create negative energy, it meant the Alcubierre theory for warp drive was no longer the realm of science fiction. A spaceship could contract space in front of it and expand behind, travelling faster than the speed of light without breaking the laws of physics.
Though they had sent various probes through the rings and back again, Earth’s sundry countries were too afraid to build the warp ring directly in lower orbit or around the moon. It wasn’t essential for the warp drive, but it helped ensure the craft was in the proper location and their calculations were exact. The Atalanta would make its slower, sublight journey to Mars with the ion engines. Once it slotted neatly into the ring, they could go anywhere.
Their destination was ten and a half light years away.
The Atalanta was still bolted to its construction hub. It was an ungainly host, filled with scrap and the latest model of drone robots originally designed by Naomi’s mother, not dissimilar to the ones that had just helped launch the shuttle. Last week, these ones had still been skittering along the shining hull, tightening every screw, bringing it to life. The Atalanta had been assembled far enough from the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway and the International Space Station that the astronauts on board those vessels would not be able to easily stop the five women.
In two weeks, the new crew was meant to board the Atalanta to head out to Cavendish to determine whether or not it was a viable new home for humanity. Naomi had worked under the new proposed commander, Shane Legge, during her time at NASA. She’d also seen him outside of work more than she’d cared to—he’d been her ex-husband’s close friend. He was brilliant, but a terrible leader. One who deliberately made others feel inferior, who nursed resentments and stoked petty competition. Even if they all managed to keep the Atalanta going from a science point of view, they’d be at each other’s throats by Mars.
The capsule drifted closer to the Atalanta’s docking port. Valerie knew this ship—Lockwood’s veneer over the security systems couldn’t keep her out. NASA and Lockwood hadn’t thought to stop access from orbit, had never anticipated Valerie would be able to take off from the surface without their knowledge. Earth couldn’t stop them, not without huge costs. Even if they tried to interfere with the warp ring at Mars, Valerie could turn off the Hawthorne robots on the surface remotely. Worst-case scenario, they could still use the Alcubierre drive in another location, though it would require a lot of extra calculations on Hixon’s part. And a lot more risk.
The crew held their breath as their craft slid into place. The probe connected, drawing the two vehicles together. A hiss as the seals tightened. Naomi exhaled.
Valerie gave them all a wordless signal and the astronauts unbuckled their seat belts, floating up in the capsule. Naomi moved her weightless arms in wonder.
Lebedeva twisted the latch on the craft, hauling the steel door open. The astronauts glided into the ship. Their ship. Naomi still felt cramped—the airlock wasn’t much bigger than the capsule. All was pitch-dark until the motion detection lights flickered on, too bright after the dimness.
They’d connected to the main body of the ship, the centre holding the loading bay to the back, the bridge to the front, and excess storage along the right side of the connecting hallway.
As they moved into the corridor, Naomi drank in every detail. She had seen this spaceship countless times on the simulators, either on two-dimensional screens or through virtual reality that was almost like the real thing. Almost.
“All clear?” Valerie asked, her voice tinny through the speakers around Naomi’s ears.
Hixon gave a thumbs up.
Valerie’s hands rose, twisting off her helmet. Curly brown hair that normally fell to her chin haloed her face. Her normally stern features opened with a wide, toothy grin.
Naomi followed suit, her helmet hissing. She breathed in sterile, scentless air. She was here, her body untethered by gravity. The closest she’d come was either underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab during NASA training or brief thirty-second bursts at the tip of parabolic flights on zero-G planes. She took off a glove. Touched the cool white wall of the hallway. Solid. This was not a recreation. This was reality.
The others took off their helmets. These were the women Naomi would see every day for the foreseeable future. Soon their features would be as familiar as her own.
Valerie pushed off the wall of the corridor, making her way to the bridge. The others followed, silent as ghosts. It was a small ship, all things considered, just large enough to comfortably fit up to seven crew and all the supplies they’d need to make it to Mars, the ring, and Cavendish. Naomi wanted to swim through the air and explore every corner of the vessel. It was novel, but soon it would hold no secrets.
In the bridge, they paused, hovering above the seats and the consoles.
“Well, goddamn,” Valerie breathed.
Below them lay Earth.
It didn’t look like a marble; it was too clearly alive. The clouds crawled slowly, the planet bisected by the line of day and night. On the night side, the lights of cities glimmered. There was Europe, a gleam of brightness over Paris, Berlin, Kiev, strung together by smaller cities like linked synapses. Southern Europe was largely dark in summer as people who could fled north to places like Finland or Estonia. Lightning flashed over Morocco. Far to the north was the green glow of the aurora borealis. Charged particles from solar wind burning up in the atmosphere. It was Naomi’s first time seeing the Northern Lights. She’d seen the Southern Lights, and thought them beautiful on the expedition to Antarctica during her undergraduate degree, smothered in a parka as she gazed out at the horizon. From up here, it looked like magic.
The day side illuminated what the night could not—there was no ice in the Arctic Sea. The Antarctic wasn’t visible from here—this time of year was constant darkness for the southern pole. In summer, it’d show expanses of black land dotted by large, turquoise lakes, some the size of small European countries, the glaciers melting. She wondered if the lights from the oil rigs recently put up in the Ross Sea would be visible from space. The Antarctic treaties had been broken long before they were meant to run out in 2048.
The land on the other continents was too brown and golden, the green too sparse. There were swathes of land where humans could no longer survive, and the habitable areas were growing crowded. There was even some gold-green in the oceans from dust storms blowing off the continents and fertilising phytoplankton blooms. They’d managed to fish out most of the Great Pacific garbage patch, at least, though even if they hadn’t, it might not have been visible from orbit.
Earth was such a little, vulnerable thing in the grand scope of the universe.
Down on the surface, those mountains were larger than life, but from the ship they were only a ripple. The world she’d known was nothing but a suspended, lonely rock. It’d keep itself alive, in the end, but that didn’t mean large animal life would do the same. Humans were finally confronted with their fragility. Within a generation, they could all be gone. They’d outgrown this world, drained it dry. They needed a new one.
The women held their helmets, gathering around the window. The exhilaration and adrenaline of launch was fading, everyone sobering as what they had just done set in. They knew what they risked, yet that was different from being confronted, so baldly, with what they stood to lose. With what they were so desperate to save, they’d steal a ship.
“We spent so long thinking about getting off the planet, it’s easy to forget this is only the beginning,” Hart whispered, the blue light making her brown skin glow.
How well did Naomi know these women? She’d trained and worked with them, but they were also the only humans she’d interact with for years. Valerie’s chosen aegis.
Tears clung to Hixon’s face, clustering by her nose in a bubble. Hart reached out, wiping them away. Naomi drifted closer, pressing her hands against the window. To her right, Lebedeva was inscrutable as always, her cheekbones standing out in stark relief against her white skin. Both of them had shaved off their hair when they were in quarantine. Hart had taken out her braids and cut her hair short months ago, and Hixon had a pixie cut since she was twelve. The Russian had buzzed her own blond hair into a bristle before snipping Naomi’s dark locks. Naomi had watched them fall to the ground, realising she wouldn’t be able to take gravity for granted much longer.
Valerie gave a whisper of a sigh before hardening. “Hixon.”
The pilot nodded, coming to attention, her military background embedded deep. She pulled herself down to the console and started the sequence to disengage the Atalanta from the construction hub.
An error message blared, harsh and jarring in the quiet. A red flash against the blue-white.
Hixon tried again. Another burst of red.
“They’ve locked the ship to the hub from the ground. That’s a recent spec change.” Valerie pointed to the world with her chin. “Oh, they’re so spitting mad. I love it.”
As if her voice conjured it, a different beep sounded—an incoming message from Houston.
“Do we answer?” Hart asked, chewing at the edge of a fingernail.
“Of course not,” Valerie said. “Lebedeva. Lovelace. Dig out the EMUs.”
Naomi worked through her words. “You can’t mean—”
“Manual override. Worked it into the design. Figured they’d pull this kind of shit. They’re going to send up a Dragon or send people from the Gateway to come arrest us. You want to be here when they do? Now’s your chance to speak up.”
Silence save for the insistent beep from the men trapped on the crust of the Earth.
“Suit up,” Valerie said, giving them another wide, white smile. “Spacewalk.”