JAMES WAS RIGHT: the two weeks that follow are the toughest of my life. Training for the ISS was a cake walk compared to the construction of the Janus fleet. I sleep, eat, exercise, and work.
The crew is constantly stressed out, constantly arguing with each other about the best way to do things. I realize now that the lack of friction before was mostly because everyone was in their own sphere, only occasionally coming into contact, and not at close range. We’re colliding now. Making demands of each other—on tight deadlines.
James is the most stressed. Much of the burden of coordination has fallen to him. Though Min is technically flying, James is making most of the calls, setting the deadlines and telling us what needs to get done. There was a time for debate about what to do. We had it, and now we’re all focused on executing as fast as we can. I, along with the rest of the crew, have begun to think of him as the mission commander.
But lately, a rift has developed between us. A week ago, he took some blood samples and gave me an injection to help with my bone density. He upped my exercise regimen to three hours a day, but I’ve been doing only half that. I need to work. We have to get these drones finished. He’s not happy about my cutting corners on my exercise regime. It’s as if we’re an old married couple, bickering silently about something we know neither of us is going to compromise about.
I’m soldering a circuit board when he floats into the lab and grabs the table.
“We need to talk.”
In my experience, those four words never herald the opening of a pleasant conversation. A wisp of smoke drifts up from the board and hangs between us, like the aftermath of a shot that was just fired.
“Look, Emma, your bone density is critical. You’ve got to exercise more.”
“We need to finish the drones.” “And we will.”
“We’re already on the verge of missing the launch date.”
James shakes his head, frustrated. “It’s an artificial deadline. We can push it back.”
“How much? A day? A week?” “If needed.”
“And what if a day is the difference between a million people living or dying on Earth?”
“What if it’s not?”
“In space, every second matters. Of all the people on this ship, I know that the best. This is life and death, and I’m less worried about mine.”
“You should be. If you injure yourself, it hurts all of us.” “I feel fine.”
“You’re not. Do you trust my medical opinion?”
“I do. Do you respect my decision to do what I think is right for the mission and the people back home?”
“It’s not the same thing.”
“It doesn’t need to be. James, this is the best shot we have. I’m going to work my tail off until those drones launch. Okay?”
He exhales. “You are so stubborn.”
“Says the man who won’t compromise.”
We stare at each other. I’m angry. I know he is too. I haven’t known him long, but I’ve gotten to know him pretty well.
Harry sticks his head in the hatchway. His eyebrows shoot up. There are drone pieces floating all over the lab: wires, housings, capacitors—as if a bomb had gone off, and the aftermath of the explosion is hanging in the air. The tension feels about like that. He reads it instantly.
“Hey… James… could I… get your help with something?”
EVERY TIME I float over to the gym and there’s someone using it, they instantly dismount the bike or drop the resistance bands and announce that they’re done. They’re usually not sweaty.
James has talked to them. It’s now a ship-wide conspiracy to make me exercise. It doesn’t work. I exercise less as the deadline approaches. We all do. And sleep less. It’s degrading our productivity, but sleep is elusive. All I think about is finishing.
We miss the deadline. By forty-two hours. But the launch of the Janus fleet is a feat of engineering and teamwork that we’re all indescribably proud of. There’s an electricity in the air on launch day. Everyone is sleep-deprived and stressed, but we’re all giddy as we gather in the bubble and strap in and stare at the wide screen that shows the launch tube. The launcher uses the same principles as the rail gun. Grigory studies his tablet to monitor the reactor, making sure it’s compensating for the launch recoil.
The ship buzzes as the engines build up electricity, and then, Boom! The first drone fires out, so small and fast we can barely see it, like a BB out of a kid’s gun. Another buzzing, another boom, and the second drone is away. And so it goes, one after another until the ship falls silent.
All eyes turn to Harry, who’s studying his own tablet. He looks up and grins. “First comm-patch is in: all stats are nominal. We’ve got a successful launch.”
The cheers in the confined space are deafening. High-fives, a few fist bumps, James turns to me and nods, and I simply reach out and hug him, as if our fight had been flushed out the launch tube with the drones. He holds me longer than I expect, and I don’t let go.
“Now what?” Charlotte asks.
Without releasing me, James says, “Now, ladies and gents, we celebrate.”
Harry opens a cabinet and starts tossing out vacuum-sealed meals. “Kitchen’s open! Place your orders, folks. Steak. Chicken. Mashed potatoes. Shrimp cocktail. Spicy green beans. And freeze-dried ice cream and chocolate cake for dessert.”
James pulls open another cabinet. “And for the night’s entertainment, a plethora of board games. Decided by simple majority vote.”
IN EVERY WAY, it’s a perfect night. No screens. No deadlines. No arguing, just all of us eating together and doing something we’ve never done before: playing.
We’re all stuffed and tired when we finish, but I know there’s one thing on everyone’s mind: a shower. It’s dry in space. We all feel as though we’ve walked through the desert, sweating and accumulating grime, but no one has bothered to shower for over a week. We’ve covered it up with deodorant and kept our heads down, working every spare second.
James extends his hand, palm down, fist closed, holding eight bits of wire. He makes everyone draw. Charlotte, Lina, Izumi, and I draw the longest ones—we’ll get to shower first. Then the four guys. James and Harry are last. They rigged it. I don’t know how, but they rigged it. No one argues. We’re all too tired.
The shower is cylindrical and tight, an enclosed tube with a door. There’s no drain, just a suction device that pulls the water out. My skin feels as if I’ve been rubbed all over with sandpaper and coated in sawdust. The water is like a gentle rain washing it away and coating me in a thin lotion, soothing me.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been sleeping in the lab. Most people have been bedding down near their work. Tonight, I slip into one of the sleep stations: a padded, enclosed cubby like a bunk bed in space. To me, it feels as luxurious as a penthouse hotel suite. It’s soft and comforting, hugging me tight.
There are only six sleep stations on the ship, and there’s not enough room inside for two. But Grigory has already made himself a sleep station in the engine module, and Min has set up a similar alcove at navigation.
I’m almost asleep when James pulls the curtain back. His face is clean, and he smiles. “Good night.”
IT’S the best sleep I’ve had since the ISS disaster.
I wake, wash my face, brush my teeth, and float down to the bubble for breakfast. James is there, tapping at a tablet.
“Morning.” He hands me a water bottle and a tablet. It’s an exercise schedule. For me. This again.
“I’m not telling you, Emma—I’m asking. Please do this. Or whatever you’re willing to do.”
I study the screen. Four hours a day.
“It’s important to the mission,” he says. “And to me.” “Okay.”
THE DAYS before the launch seemed to fly by. The days after drag on.
When contact day arrives—the moment when we should hear from the Janus scout drone—everyone is nervous. We don’t acknowledge it though. We don’t gather in the bubble at the designated time. We’re not that sure about the artifact’s position, not sure exactly when contact will occur, and no one wants to draw attention to the deadline. But I’m acutely aware of the projected contact time arriving and passing with no messages. I think everyone is.
Another day passes with no messages. We’re all struggling to focus on our work.
On the third day, James convenes us in the bubble. “Well, let’s start with the obvious: there’s been no contact from the Janus scouts. The implication is that the artifact wasn’t at the position NASA projected.”
“Or it wiped the drones out,” Grigory says. “Or a malfunction,” Min adds.
“All possibilities,” says James. “What’s the plan?” Lina asks.
“We’re going to figure out what’s wrong, and we’re going to fix it.”