From the author: Unscripted! Raw! Rocketship rivalry! Reality TV takes to the cosmos
I should have fought harder on the title of my real-vid series. The glittering, animated logo declaring “Space Race: Kat’s Chase” is driving me crazy, always twirling in the corner of the livestream from Hawk Five. On the bright side, the visual pollution does help distract me from my living situation: tiny habitat pod, stale recycled air, chilly and cramped. Physical discomfort is a trifle when compared to this constant, insulting eyesore.
I don’t even like glitter.
Could have been worse, though. Signing off on that dumb title meant I didn’t have to wear the bikini which wardrobe very generously called a “flight suit.” I may be stranded, but at least I’m wearing enough fabric to cover my entire body. It’s been averaging sixty below zero outside, and the pod’s heaters are working full-time to keep me alive.
It’s true, Kat’s Chase did make me—Katrina Shao—a household name overnight. But I never cared about being famous.
If anyone should be famous, it’s Beatrice Soltana. And she will be. Oh, the irony.
I didn’t know her name at first. For weeks before the race started, she was just “the third Lunar ship,” and that was enough. I didn’t want to know any of my competitors too well and risk actually caring about them.
My first sight of Beatrice’s ship was a vid from an Earth telescope, when Jayden—oh boy, Jayden, that’s a whole other story—asked me to comment on the vehicle configuration. We’d been doing this with all the other racers, me wanting to drop some science education on my viewers, Jayden just encouraging me to trash-talk my competition. After several dozen of these “design reviews,” it was starting to get old. But then I saw the rock-ship.
Lunar Three wasn’t built for looks. Not like my sleek, sexy Hawk Five, which had been focus-grouped to death before construction. Beatrice’s ride was a hodgepodge of half a strip-mined asteroid, solar panels jutting out at seemingly random angles, and habitat and engine modules held in place by melted rock flows. There’s no need for aerodynamic vehicles when you live in hard vacuum. I was fascinated. And we got two whole episodes out of Zaprudering those long-distance views of her ship.
I was so focused on the hardware, I didn’t realize what Jayden was doing to my ship’s software. I’d gotten used to just accepting every boring update patch from Earth. And why wouldn’t I trust my own producer and ex-lover?
He knew Beatrice’s ship was close enough to intercept my transmissions back to Earth. He knew she wouldn’t be able to resist eavesdropping on my raw feed when she realized the stream was using an outdated encryption key. And he guessed—correctly—that she wouldn’t immediately check the video data for an embedded Trojan designed to infiltrate her ship’s computer, because my outlandish speculations about her spacecraft design would be too annoying for her to ignore.
While I explained that one of Beatrice’s hab modules could be a hydroponics bubble, the secondary comms display next to my camera lit up. I was hanging upside down at the time—viewers love stupid zero-gravity tricks—and I had to rotate the screen to read her message:
ARE YOU GIVING DELIBERATE MISINFORMATION OR JUST STUPID THAT’S MY WATER CYCLE REPRESS GET IT RIGHT OR SHUTUP
I was a little surprised, thinking she had hacked my comms, but actually felt flattered that she’d gone to the trouble. After finishing my broadcast, I messaged her back: IF YOU CARE SO MUCH, WHY NOT SEND ME SOME BLUEPRINTS?
She replied: SHOULD HAVE BROUGHT YOUR OWN PORN
That was confusing. GET YOUR MIND OUT OF THE GUTTER. WHO SAID ANYTHING ABOUT PORN?
YOU SAID “BLUE PRINTS” ISN’T THAT SLANG FOR DIRTY PICTURES
SCHEMATICS! I MEANT SCHEMATICS OF YOUR SHIP!
OHWELL MY ANSWER IS STILL NO
It was the funniest thing I’d experienced in weeks.
After two days of cajoling, she agreed to talk to me on a live vid link—off the record, of course. I understood her reluctance, and it took a lot of work to convince her, but I was just so bored. I didn’t think I’d feel so lonely, with half the Solar System watching me. But having an audience isn’t the same as having friends.
“So how many markers have you tagged today?” I asked. Finding the radio beacons hidden around the asteroid belt was by far the most challenging part of Space Race.
Beatrice scowled at me. She was lean and dark, with short-cropped hair. “Not-gonna tell you, Earther.” Her voice lilted as her Lunar accent ran words together and emphasized the wrong syllables.
“Come on, I’m not asking you where you found them,” I said. “Just give me a number. I’m curious.”
She stared at me, then said, “Twelve more today. You?”
I did my best to hide my surprise. The scoreboard had shown me in the lead yesterday, but if she was telling the truth, I was now down by four.
“Not quite that many,” I said. “But I’m right on your ass, Bea. Don’t get cocky.”
“Your trajectories are inefficient,” she said. “Perhaps your sensors are also inadequate.”
I folded my arms. “I spent six years at Caltech designing deep space probes. I’m pretty sure I know what I’m doing.”
“I grew up on Luna,” she said, as if that were an equivalent credential.
“Right,” I said. “That would explain the poor social skills.”
“We value privacy. I do-not understand how you can do your stupid show.”
“I’m sorry, do you mean the top-rated real-vid series Space Race: Kat’s Chase? I do it because they’re paying the bills. Who are your sponsors?” I hadn’t seen any logos adorning her rock-ship, but I could understand brands not wanting to be associated with that monstrosity.
“Sitting on a nice trust fund, were you?”
“I don’t-know what that is.”
Now I’m frowning. “How did you pay for your ship?”
“Really. Tell me again how your great respect for privacy led you to hack into my communications?”
She gave me a funny look. “You’re beaming signal straight-at-me with old ciphers. It’s almost like you were asking me to eavesdrop.”
I kept a poker face while cursing on the inside. “Well, you know. Good science is all about sharing information.”
“Very-well,” Beatrice said. “Why-don’t you share your next destination with me?”
I was tempted for a split second—Let’s make an actual race of it!—but then I remembered I was behind by four markers. “I thought I was inefficient.”
“I-just wanted to beat you there and prove-it.”
Not a chance, Lunar. “Oh, hey, look at the time. It’s been real, Bea, but I gotta go do my show. Peace.” I didn’t wait for her to respond before clicking off.
I never wanted to compete in Space Race. It always seemed like just another way to churn content for advertising overlays. But after six years of expensive higher education, I was running out of grants for post-graduate studies and my job prospects were nonexistent.
Then Jayden—stupid, sexy Jayden, who had already talked me into sharing a bed and then an apartment, and was already getting hefty employment offers straight out of film school—suggested I look into Space Race.
Space Race is officially known as the “Gaveshana Spacefaring Foundation Stock Propulsion Time Trial.” Once every ten years, the foundation supplies one hundred identical spacecraft engine systems and runs a lottery to pick one hundred qualified pilots who build the best vehicles they can around each engine, within very strict mass limits. Then Gaveshana makes those pilots run their spacecraft ragged around the asteroid belt until one comes out on top.
But win or lose, you got to keep your engine. That was a golden ticket out of Earth’s gravity well.
Every other door was being slammed in my face. Space Race was the only game in town that didn’t care about your background, as long as you passed all the written tests and qualified in the simulator. Everything was anonymized, color-blind, as purely merit-based as the foundation could make it. Anyone in the Solar System was welcome to try out. The sponsors just wanted some gating factors to minimize the chances that you would get yourself killed.
I didn’t really expect to qualify. I don’t know what I scored on the exams. I don’t know how many other people were in the drawing. All I know is, my lottery number was selected on a live vid broadcast, and the next day I was accepting delivery of my very own Erickson Exotech power plant.
And literally five minutes after that, Hollywood called.
Nobody races without some kind of financial backing. Building a spaceship is a pricey proposition. But the fewer backers you have, the less time you need to spend reassuring each one that you’re doing the right thing every step of the way. Jayden convinced me that we were being smart, signing with Quantum Sheep Entertainment—he would be hired as my producer, and we’d only be dealing with one corporate entity for any ancillary rights and sub-licensing deals. QSE’s studios were even nearby, right in Pasadena.
With built-in cachet as the youngest Space Race competitor and the only woman pilot from Earth, all I had to do was smile for the cameras and let QSE turn my life into whatever narrative they thought would get the most eyeballs.
What’s the old proverb? “Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.”
As soon as I clicked off with Bea, I recorded a profanity-laden vid in which I told Jayden exactly what I thought of him messing with my ship’s communications software. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the expertise to undo his latest patch, so all I could do was yell into a camera lens.
His reply to me—which came long after I had time to cool down—was typical Jayden, soothing apology sliding into empty promises. I knew he was lying through his perfect teeth, but I could never resist those twinkling eyes. And I still needed him to produce my show.
There ought to also be a proverb about sleeping with the devil, because I’ve found that generally doesn’t work out well, either.
I should have suspected something when Jayden asked me to open my next show with yet another visual assessment of Lunar Three’s exterior. He fed me some line about getting an actual thruster count, since the rock-ship’s engines were hidden in shadowed nooks and crannies, and this upcoming retro burn could be my last chance to see them.
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer, right?” he said with a wink. I gave in.
It was day seven, and only nineteen racers were still competing. Beatrice and I were in a dead heat for first place. We had each verified eighty markers on the scoreboard—more than any past winners—and now we had to start thinking about getting to the finish line. If we ended up tied on markers, we’d be judged by how much mass we had burned during the race, and that was secret information. Saving fuel might be more important at this point.
Both Hawk Five and Lunar Three were nearing a large asteroid which we could use as a gravity slingshot to accelerate out of the belt. Beatrice had crept to within five kilometers of me—closer than safety guidelines recommended, but she was one heck of a pilot. Not that I would ever admit it to her face. Or on camera.
I knew something was wrong when I saw Beatrice in her spacesuit, crawling around the outside of her main reactor’s heat sink. I tried to raise her on comms, but she didn’t respond.
The explosion would have blinded me if my screen hadn’t auto-polarized, blotting out the brightest portion of the blast with a shivering black circle. I blinked away tears and read my other instruments, checking for stray debris that might collide with Hawk.
“Confirmed. Lunar Three is completely destroyed,” I heard myself saying. “My readings indicate there was a power surge that caused an overload...”
Except that’s impossible, I thought. The power plant wouldn’t have gone critical; the failsafes would have shut it down. I know this engine inside and out.
And so does Jayden.
I reviewed my communication logs as soon as the broadcast ended. I found the computer virus signature after scrolling back to my first tightbeam chat with Beatrice. It was hidden in the data stream, and only one person could have put it there. Jayden.
I couldn’t even have a proper shouting match with him, since it took a full hour for my messages to reach Earth, and another hour for me to receive any reply. But I unloaded every swear word I knew and threatened to turn him in to the authorities. He reminded me why I couldn’t.
“All your comms go through my control room,” Jayden said, a crocodile smile smearing across his too-smooth face. “Look, it was an accident. I didn’t mean to blow up the ship. I just wanted to cause some engine trouble, slow her down and give you a little advantage.”
“I don’t need your help, asshole,” I sent back. “And I’m the one in control. I can turn off every camera in here and kill the show.”
“You stop the cameras, you’re in breach of contract,” Jayden said. “Come on. I’m helping here. I’ve been reading up on the competition, and all you joystick jockeys have the same blind spot: software. That’s my specialty. Magic fingers, remember?” He held up both hands, palms toward himself, and wiggled his fingers. It had seemed cute once, but now it made my skin crawl. “Bottom line, you’re in the lead now, and your top priority is winning this race. Nothing else matters until you’re back on that carrier. Jayden out.”
I wanted to put my fist through his head, but I couldn’t. Instead, I put on a spacesuit, went outside—we already had plenty of B-roll footage of me doing all kinds of EVA, so I was safe from the cameras for at least a few minutes—and turned off my radio and screamed into the void until I was hoarse.
I had no warning when Beatrice crashed into me from behind.
Gaveshana’s rules for Space Race are simple: one person per spacecraft, stock propulsion system, overall vehicle mass limit, first pilot to rendezvous with the most rally markers and then cross the finish line in time wins. No resupply during transit, no support vehicles, no remote power except for solar panels. If something goes wrong during Space Race, you fix it yourself. If you can’t fix it, you’re done. It’s a test of skill, endurance, and more than a little luck.
This decade’s course was the most challenging to date: starting at the Lagrangian point ahead of Mars in its orbit around the Sun, each racer had just ten solar days to search the asteroid belt for one hundred scattered short-range radio markers, then navigate back out to the Lagrangian point trailing Mars. The Gaveshana carrier from which we launched would take a leisurely trip around the Mars quarantine zone to meet us at the finish line.
During the race, I would stream uninterrupted raw vid back to Earth for Team Kat to edit into daily broadcasts. This was a bit of an innovation on Jayden’s part: most racers jealously guarded their methods, but I wasn’t planning to make a career of this. I had no problem kissing and telling, as long as it didn’t handicap my performance. I still wanted to win.
The first five days saw nearly half the starting racers dropping out, burning out, or simply going missing. There’s a lot of empty space out here to get lost in. And one of the Venus flyers deployed a whole fleet of decoy radio drones in the first hour. It wasn’t technically against the rules—they weren’t directly interfering with anyone’s navigation systems—and a lot of racers ended up chasing the wrong radar blips.
Beatrice and I both had state-of-the-art passive sensors and signal-processing computers—systems which less prudent pilots might have skimped on—and were able to pick out the genuine markers from the fake ones. We flew in meandering paths, so no one else could follow us easily, but kept ending up at the same rocks. It was unavoidable: you add two and two and you’re going to get four, no matter what kind of calculator you’re using.
Beatrice’s inertia toppled us both forward, but my safety tether kept us from drifting away. I spent a few seconds wrestling uselessly in zero-gravity, until she clanged her spacesuit helmet against mine. Her voice vibrated through our touching visors.
“Permission to come-aboard,” she said.
“Beatrice!” I shouted. “You’re—but—how?”
“Opened exterior access right-before reactor blew,” she said. “Hull panel separated and shielded me from the blast. Big-rock’s gravity pulled me in, and suit-jets had just enough juice to maneuver to you. Glad you didn’t change course.”
“You’re alive!” I laughed and slapped her shoulder. She wasn’t smiling. “Oh. God. I’m so sorry about your ship. It wasn’t—I mean, I didn’t—”
She nodded, her lips a tight line. “I-know.”
Dammit. Jayden had never re-encrypted my comms. Beatrice must have seen our entire shouting match.
“He’s a slimeball.” I didn’t even want to say his name. “But I’ll make sure he faces the music.”
“One thing at a time. Let’s go inside. We need to show everyone you’re alive.”
She shook her head. “Heck-no. I don’t want to be on-TV.”
The privacy thing again. “You can’t stay out here.”
“I’d rather stay-here than be on your show.”
“Always nice to meet a fan,” I grumbled. “Fine. I’ll go in first, smash the camera in the airlock, and you can hang out there. But Hawk isn’t built for two people. We need to send a distress call so someone can come rescue you.”
“There’s no-one in-range.”
I was getting angry now. “Fine! Then I need your help to get both of us to the finish line in this ship!”
She shook her head. “That may not be possible.”
“It’s just a stupid engineering problem,” I said. “We’ll find a solution. Let’s go inside and we’ll figure it out.”
There was another surprise waiting for us inside Hawk Five: an alert from Gaveshana cancelling Space Race.
They had located one of the missing racers. Apparently he had convinced himself that several markers were hidden inside a passing comet and gotten stupid in his excitement. He had misjudged his approach and crashed through the comet, breaking it into pieces and deflecting it from its original orbit. Now there was a huge slew of ice and rock headed toward our finish line.
The cometary debris field was too massive for Gaveshana to clear. The carrier had to change course to avoid deadly collisions, which meant all racers had to chase it to its new position if we wanted to catch our ride back to Earth. This wasn’t a contest anymore. This was life or death. Gaveshana would stay out here as long as they could, but they wouldn’t risk an entire carrier for nineteen unlucky pilots.
Like every Space Race vehicle, Hawk was designed to support a single human pilot. Beatrice and I could stretch our oxygen with recyclers, and ration food and water for the next few days, but we just didn’t have enough fuel to push our increased mass to the carrier’s new flight path before our supplies ran out. We were going to miss the mark by several orders of magnitude.
“It’s time for the distress call,” I said after we had spent an hour running simulations and mainlining instant-coffee bulbs. “QSE has a whole team of consultants on retainer back on Earth. Maybe they’ll think of something we missed.”
“Ask them about Mars,” Beatrice said.
I frowned at her. “The what, now?”
She surprised me by pushing herself out of the airlock and floating over to me. She handed me the tablet she’d been using. It showed a new flight plan: instead of thrusting toward the Lagrangian point, she had Hawk diverting into Mars orbit and slingshotting around the planet. We still didn’t make it to the carrier, but we got a lot closer. Close enough for rescue.
“If we jettison some non-essential hardware as reaction mass,” she said, “we may-be able to achieve a high orbit, above the fenceposts.”
The Mars terraforming quarantine was enforced by an orbital grid of “fencepost” satellites which would sterilize—that is, burn with high-powered lasers until nothing organic could survive—any spacecraft attempting to land on the planet. It was going to take a long time to reshape the environment to allow human habitation, and even a few of the wrong microbes could set the project back by decades. Ares Amalgamated wasn’t going to let that happen.
“This is kind of completely insane,” I told her.
Beatrice shrugged. “Go-big or go-home.”
“All right, Bea!” I gave her a friendly punch on the shoulder.
She gave me a dirty look. “Please-don’t do that again.”
“Sorry.” I prepared to record a vid message. “But since you’ve overcome your stage fright, do you want to present this ludicrous scheme yourself?”
“Heck-no.” She pushed herself away and drifted back into the airlock. “I don’t know those people.”
“Right.” I switched on the camera. Imagining the look on Jayden’s face put a big grin on my own. “Surprise, team! Look who’s joined me aboard the Hawk Five. It’s Beatrice Soltana from the Moon, and we have a very interesting math problem for you.”
Jayden’s initial response was not exactly what I expected.
“This is great!” he gushed. “We thought we’d have to cancel the show after that alert, but this is brilliant. You’re not just trying to win a race now. You’re both fighting for your lives!”
He went on for a while, explaining how QSE wanted us to record new promotional footage and schedule exclusive interviews with news outlets. I ignored all that and sent our trajectory calculations for a double-check by the mission control engineers. If Hawk couldn’t detour around Mars, viewer counts would be the least of our worries.
It would take no less than two hours to get a reply from Earth, including the transmission delay and at least one emergency all-hands meeting. Normally I’d have been bored stupid, but now I had someone to talk to. Even if she was a weirdo Lunar who insisted on running words together for no apparent reason.
“So tell me, Bea,” I said, “what made you want to enter this race?”
“Cribbage,” she said.
I shook my head. “Just repeat what you said. Crib-something?”
“Cribbage. It’s a card game. Don’t-you-know it?”
“I’m not really into gambling.”
She looked offended. “It’s not gambling. It’s math and patterns. Easy-fun. I’ll show you.” She unzipped one of her jumpsuit pockets and pulled out a deck of old-fashioned playing cards.
“So do you always carry those with you, or—”
“Good-luck charm. Now shut-up and learn.”
Jayden was considerably less happy the next time we heard from him. So was I, having lost the First Interplanetary Invitational Cribbage Tournament by several hundred points.
“We need your new best friend to sign some releases before we can put her on the air,” Jayden grumbled into the camera. “The eggheads are working on a flight plan. We’ll get you that update in a few hours. But we need Bea’s contract back as soon as possible. We still got a show to make, Kat.” His transmission ended with an attached bolus of legal documents.
“What does this mean?” Beatrice asked me.
“It means you’re going to be famous,” I said, paging through her contract. “And they’re going to pay you. Not as much as me, of course—”
“I don’t-want to be on-TV,” she said, pushing away from me.
“You do realize we’ve been streaming vid this whole time, right? They’ve already got you on camera.”
“They can-not legally broadcast that footage unless I agree,” Beatrice said. “And I will-not sign the release forms.”
I stared at her. QSE’s bean-counters wouldn’t commit resources to our rescue unless they could milk maximum profit from the show, and people weren’t going to tune in for less than full high-def vid of both Beatrice and me. That was the only thing the studio cared about, in the end: whether they could sell more advertising. And ads only work if people are watching.
Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.
I wouldn’t be able to convince Beatrice. I saw it in her stubborn Lunar face; I knew it from her born-and-bred Lunar attitude toward respecting personal boundaries. And even if by some miracle she did sign, I didn’t want her distracted by thinking about the billions of people watching her every move.
I had no idea how Beatrice might react to being under that kind of public scrutiny. I couldn’t have her freaking out. I needed her expertise. I needed her to focus on our problem.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “You don’t have to sign anything.”
Nobody was happy with my solution. I suppose that made it the perfect compromise. Jayden wasn’t happy about all the extra editing to blur out Beatrice’s face wherever it appeared on camera and disguise her voice whenever she spoke. I had to catch myself or record multiple takes more than once to avoid using her name. And Beatrice wasn’t happy that some parts of her body would still appear in the broadcast.
But she was on my ship. Beatrice had yielded any right to privacy when she boarded, for as long as she stayed. The show’s ratings spiked as fans circulated all kinds of theories about who my mystery guest was. Meanwhile, we had even bigger problems.
“The numbers don’t look good,” said Team Kat’s chief engineer, Dima, in our latest message from Earth. “Hawk requires course correction for a proper insertion orbit around Mars, but you can’t spare the fuel—you’ll need that later. So we have a new procedure. It requires you to manually jettison reaction mass. Here’s a list of the equipment on board you need to collect for disposal...”
Text scrolled across the bottom of the screen, listing all the hardware we’d have to dump. My stomach knotted. It was an awfully long list.
“But given the limited velocity you’ll be able to impart manually, that’s still not enough mass,” Dima continued. “You will also need to remove some sections of the outer hull—”
“Are you kidding me?” I blurted.
“—but don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe.” Dima attempted to smile, which only made it worse. “We’ll leave the forward sections intact just in case you run into any dust or debris. There will only be cosmetic modifications to the back half of the ship.”
“Where the actual engines are!” I said out loud.
“We’ve run several simulations,” Dima said. “You don’t have a lot of margin for error, so be very precise when you’re ejecting the mass. The procedure document is attached. Let us know if you have any questions or concerns.”
“‘If’?” Beatrice said from behind me.
I recorded a response for air, putting on my best intrepid-explorer face, praising my support team and expressing supreme confidence in their abilities. After that was done, I turned to Beatrice and said, “We are so going to die.”
Maybe mission control’s plan wasn’t completely insane, but they didn’t have to stand on Hawk’s hull and look into her bare metal guts after stripping the ceramic covering off her amidships and aft sections. It was unnerving to know that a good third of our spacecraft would be unarmored as we plowed into Mars’ upper atmosphere.
And then there was the kicking. I’m sure we looked ridiculous out there, me with my back against the hull, holding on with both arms outstretched, kicking objects away from Hawk as hard as I could. Beatrice crouched next to me and moved each piece into place against my boots until we had jettisoned every last gram we could spare.
We went back inside, and I watched over Beatrice’s shoulder while she ran the numbers again. Either one of us could have done it, but she was faster. I guess growing up in the Moon’s lower gravity really had given her better instincts for flight mechanics.
The news was bad. Hawk was still coming in too steep. We were going to cross the fenceposts surrounding Mars, and they would melt us into an inert mass before we touched the surface of the planet. There was no escape from our fate.
“How much mass do we still need to lose?” I asked.
“By kicking?” Beatrice shook her head. “Too-much. We can’t spare any-more consumables, and there’s not-much of the hull left. You’re strong, Kat, but you’re only-human. We just-can’t-get-enough momentum.”
I tapped some numbers into the console. “What if we could eject this much mass... at this velocity?”
Beatrice blinked at the screen, then looked at me. “How?”
“The escape pod,” I said. “It has explosive bolts to push away from the spacecraft, just in case I’m running from an engine overload or something. Those numbers are just a ballpark, we’ll need to verify them—”
“You-wanna eject me,” Beatrice said.
“No,” I said. “We launch the pod empty. We’re in this together, Bea.”
We got so caught up in the work, we didn’t even think to give mission control an update on our situation. This was probably a good thing: We wouldn’t have wanted their pitiless input on this new dilemma.
The escape pod by itself didn’t have enough mass to complete our course correction. One of us had to be inside. And given the velocity of the pyro charges, Hawk would have to eject her escape pod—with occupant—just as she hit the edge of Mars’ atmosphere.
The pod would fall to the surface, through the fenceposts’ no-fly zone.
One of us was going to die.
“I volunteer,” Beatrice said.
“No,” I snapped. “No. Let’s check this again. If we change the angle and launch the pod earlier—”
“It’s-okay, Kat,” Beatrice said. “I volunteer.”
“No! There’s got to be a way to make this work.”
“It’s-okay,” Beatrice repeated, in that irritating singsong. “We have a phrase on Luna: Hard math. Facts are facts. Like in cribbage—don’t have the right cards, you don’t score. Numbers don’t lie. Numbers don’t care.”
“This isn’t about numbers!” I smacked the console. “And you can still mess up in cribbage, if you don’t see a pattern that’s on the table.” I had proven that repeatedly. “I’ll call Jayden. Get QSE to pull some strings with Ares Amalgamated. They must be able to do a remote shutdown on those fenceposts.”
“Ares-Am has invested trillions of dollars in creating a planetary habitat,” Beatrice said. “You really-think a corporation that size will care if two people live-or-die? We might-have both died in the race anyway—”
“Shut up,” I said. “I’m not listening to your fatalistic crap.”
“You still-have a chance to—”
“LA-LA LA-LA-LA,” I said, sticking fingers in both ears. “I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”
I saw Beatrice’s mouth moving and shook my head.
“I AM NOT RECEIVING YOUR SIGNAL,” I shouted at her. “SENSORS ARE OFFLINE—”
And then I had one last crazy idea.
“—important,” Beatrice said as I opened my ears again. “Stop, Kat. Let-me-go.”
I moved around her and started working the nav console again. “Bea. Question. How many meteors hit Mars every year?”
“Just take a guess!”
She sighed. “Luna sees at-least one meteoroid strike per day. Mars is a larger target, but its atmosphere shields it. I would guess one-third as many impacts there. I’m sure Ares-Am has data from their sensors on-the-ground.”
“Oh, I know they do,” I said. “So why don’t the fenceposts vaporize those meteors before they reach the surface?”
“Because they’re not-spacecraft,” Beatrice said.
“And how do the fenceposts know they’re not spacecraft?”
“Because—” Beatrice blinked. “Hump-me! Because meteors don’t emit radio-waves.”
“Give that girl a cigar,” I said.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Forget it.” The console lit up with the escape pod’s engineering schematics, and I moved aside so Beatrice could see where I was pointing. “We disable the pod’s nav beacon and the automated distress signal, here and here. It’ll look like just another rock to the fenceposts. I’ll survive re-entry, and then—”
“Wait-stop.” Beatrice held up a hand. “I should go. This-is your-ship.”
“You grew up on the Moon,” I said. “Mars’ gravity is twice what your body can handle. Your lungs would collapse in less than a day.”
Beatrice put a hand on my shoulder and spoke slowly. “This is your ship.”
“That’s right.” I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I’m the captain, and I’m giving you an order. You’re a better pilot than I’ll ever be, Lunar. You get Hawk to the rendezvous. You get some help, and then you come back and rescue me.”
Beatrice’s eyes glistened. “Aye, captain.”
“And this is still my ship,” I said. “You’re just borrowing her. Make sure you fill up the fuel tank before you return her.”
Beatrice laughed, squeezing a tear out of one eye. I caught the droplet with my sleeve, soaking it up before it could drift away and into any equipment. “Your producer’s not going to be happy about this.”
“Screw him. He can suck it with a broken straw.” I grabbed a tablet and scribbled down six words. “Here. You give him this message after you’re safely aboard the carrier. Not before.”
I handed Beatrice the tablet. She read it and frowned. “I don’t-get-it.”
“No-worries,” I said, doing my best imitation of Lunar-speak. “He’ll get it.”
And that’s how I wound up here, all alone on Mars.
My spacesuit’s recycling unit can extract oxygen from the atmosphere, there’s enough humidity for my emergency kit to make liquid water, and the escape pod contains a generous supply of awful-tasting but highly nutritious food rations. I’ll be able to survive until I get rescued. And I will get rescued.
My biggest problem is boredom. Fortunately, even though I can’t talk to anyone, my comms receiver is still working. So I can watch my show—no, correction, it’s Beatrice’s show now. Or, as she’s known on air, “Racer X:” a blurry, pixelated head with a gravelly disguised voice.
I seriously love how much Jayden must be hating this.
Beatrice completed Hawk’s orbital slingshot around Mars with fuel to spare, and the constant friction between her Lunar ways and everyone else’s Earther traditions is simply delightful. She won’t take any action unless she understands the rationale behind it, which means someone at mission control has to explain every one of my spacecraft procedures to her, which usually results in a wacky misunderstanding. The best part is, Beatrice wins most of the arguments in the end. And yes, I’m keeping score.
Hawk Five is now just a few hours from the carrier rendezvous. After that, Beatrice will deliver my final message to Jayden. I hope then she’ll understand why it had to be me in the escape pod.
Jayden might not have sent a rescue mission back to Mars for Beatrice—some stranger he doesn’t care about—but I know he’s still carrying a torch for me. Besides, I’m his meal ticket. He won’t let a celebrity castaway die on his watch. Not when he can use me to sell ads. And my helmet-cam’s been recording continuously since I landed.
My message to him was: “Space Race 2: Kat vs. Mars.”
I’m sure we can get a full season out of this lousy place.
This story originally appeared in Playboy Magazine.