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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Relentless Moon

A Lady Astronaut Novel

Lady Astronaut (Volume 3)

Mary Robinette Kowal

Tor Books




John Schwartz, Special to The National Times

KANSAS CITY, March 28, 1963—If all goes as it should—and in space, that is no sure thing—then sometime today, thirteen brave voyagers will cross a Rubicon that no man ever has: the halfway point between our home planet and Mars.

It has been a mission of triumph and terror, of disasters averted and disasters tragically experienced, as thirteen astronauts and astronettes speed across the cosmic void.

The mission has been a test not just of technology, but also of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and the human spirit.

“Like Julius Caesar, we must prepare for the worst,” said Norman Clemons, director of the International Aerospace Coalition, “that is our training. But we also strive for the best, and this wonderful team has trained for almost every eventuality.”

The astronauts and astronettes, a group composed of so many nationalities that “Lady Astronaut” Elma York called it a “World’s Fair in Space,” have prepared years for this moment, and every moment of the months to come.

After tomorrow’s milestone, the spacemen will have just 27 million kilometers to go before reaching the Red Planet.

How many places do you call home? For me, it could mean my parents’ home in Detroit. Or the Governor’s Mansion that I share with my husband, Kenneth. Or my bunk on the lunar colony. But I’ve learned to not ask people where home is because after the Meteor, so many people no longer have their true home.

I have switched to the more innocuous “Where are you based?” which I was busily applying at the fundraiser tonight. While Ella Fitzgerald sang, I smiled at all the powerful men my husband wanted to charm so they would support his policies as governor.

My diamonds sparkled around my neck and made a striking contrast to the astronaut’s wings pinned to the peacock-green taffeta of my evening gown. Being the glittering trophy wife was easier before I’d passed fifty, but I was in better shape than I’d been in my thirties.

I say that, but the arthritis in my feet protested each high-heeled step I took. I kept that masked along with my sigh of relief when Kenneth stopped us on the parquet floor for the umpteenth time. “You remember Mr. Vann, don’t you, Nicole?”

I did not. Mr. Vann was yet another flaccid middle-aged white man with his glittering wife in tow. “How lovely of you to come!” My voice still had all the charm I’d learned in Swiss finishing school.

Thank God they taught us how to hide boredom behind glitter.

“A pleasure, Mrs. Wargin.” His accent was from the Midwest. I’d need another sentence to pin it down, but his vowels leaned that way. “I don’t believe you’ve met my wife, Bethany, yet.”

Oklahoma. It was the only place you got Midwest and Southern twang mixed in quite that way, which meant they probably hadn’t lost a lot of family to the Meteor and also meant that the last eleven years had been enough to remove the urgency from their minds. I smiled at them both. “Such a pleasure. Please do come visit me on the Moon.”

“Now, now … I want Bethany here on Earth, where it’s safe.” Mr. Vann patted his wife’s arm in a way that would have had Kenneth sleeping on the couch for a week. “I’m surprised that you’re letting the little lady go up there, Governor.”

Kenneth laughed, but his hand pressed on my lower back, letting me know that he could field this one. I leaned into him to accept his offer in a silent language that we’ve worked out over years of public service.

He smiled at the man. “I think you’re mistaken, if you believe my wife is a woman that people ‘let’ do anything.”

“Besides, living on the Moon isn’t that different, really. In many ways, the lunar colony is just like being in a small town. Why, we even have an art gallery.” Which I had set up, but the fact remained that it existed and that we had art.

“And you work with Elma York, don’t you?” His wife’s gaze focused on me, and what I had seen as vapidity was actually a boredom as thick as my own.

“Oh yes. Long before she was the famous ‘Lady Astronaut’!” I was in the same class of astronauts as Elma, the first women chosen for the space program, but she would always be The Lady Astronaut.

Mrs. Vann’s face brightened. “How did you two meet?”

“We met as WASPs during the Second World War.” This is true. But the fuller truth is that I don’t remember our first meeting. Oh, I know we were both Women Airforce Service Pilots, but it wasn’t as though she was famous when we met. There were a lot of us. My first concrete memory of her is at a dance on the air base in Palm Springs where she was holding the hair of some hapless young pilot who had had too much to drink and was vomiting out her guts.

But no one wants to hear about that as a first memory of the famous Lady Astronaut.

Mrs. Vann sighed. “I’d join up in a heartbeat, if I were qualified.”

If she were like me, her area of expertise was in planning menus, throwing fundraisers, and walking with a book balanced on her head. If not for being a WASP and having a husband who was, at the time, a senator, I never would have made the cut.

Ella Fitzgerald’s song came to an end. I wanted to yell at the people who did not understand what a gift her voice was to at least pretend and clap politely.

In the pause before she started singing again, distant shouts sounded beyond the ballroom. They pulled my attention to the windows that stretched along one wall of the hotel. Beyond the filmy white curtains, there was a vivid orange glow like the base of a rocket at liftoff.

My spine straightened and I turned to Kenneth, leaning into him as if I were just being affectionate. “Is something on fire outside?”

“Hmm?” He followed my gaze. At the small of my back, his fingers tightened. “Nicole…”


The window exploded in a shower of glass and flame. I grabbed Kenneth and spun him away, dragging us both down to a low crouch as my astronaut training kicked in. Something is exploding? Get low, seek cover, protect vulnerable body parts like your head and chest.

And here I was in an off-the-shoulder gown.

Screams sounded behind us. The haze of ennui that had coated me all evening evaporated. The room with its pudgy middle-aged white men and their glamorous wives and the waiters with their dark skin and white gloves snapped into focus as if I were in the seat of a T-38 jet. The best path to get Kenneth to safety was past the banquet tables and through the service door into the kitchen.

“Kenneth.” I grabbed the sleeve of his tuxedo. “We need to—”

A swarm of black-suited security men, all square jaws and buzz cuts, surrounded us. “This way.” One of them took my arm. Another had Kenneth’s. Frustration at being managed filled me for a moment and it had no place here. These men were doing their jobs, protecting the governor and, by extension, his wife.

Me? I was hauled along the path to safety as if I were no more than a decorative bauble. And when I was on Earth, that was, in fact, my job.

Copyright © 2020 by Mary Robinette Kowal