rocket sailboat airship
Alison Wilgus has been a writer and artist for comics and animation since she clawed her way out of film school ten years ago. She lives in Brooklyn, is still making comics because she physically cannot stop herself, and is the sort of person who tears up while watching NASA TV.

Off Nominal

The recorded face of a pleasant-looking Chinese woman smiled at them from the laptop screen. Her eyes flickered down to a teleprompter. “Olivia, you said in your July Fourth Line post that you miss your neighborhood barbecues back home. Did you and Oscar do anything special to celebrate American Independence Day?”

Olivia looked straight into the camera, just as she’d been coached. “We had a little party up in the Cupola,” she said. “It’s hard to miss the fireworks with a view like the one we have out here.” She smiled. “Russ made us up some tofu burgers, and we had fresh lettuce and onions from the farm. It’s not quite the same without real buns, but I guess settling for tortillas is better than picking crumbs out of the air filters.”

Su Yan leaned over to tap the spacebar again, once at each end of the question. “How does it feel to be so far away from home?”

“Well, we have a little joke about that, actually,” said Oscar, all easy Duke City charm. “Whoever’s in the forward section of the Command Module is the furthest away from Earth that any human has ever been. It’s a pretty strange feeling, but we love it. That’s why we’re here. To go where no one else has.”

“Valentina, we keep hearing about the work that you’ve done on the Baochuan to make it more like a home for all of you. Do you have any plans for the habitat?”

Valya had been surreptitiously reading something over on her clipboard, hidden out of view behind Ruslan’s back. At her name, her head snapped up so quickly it made her short ponytail slap against her neck. “Right now, we are most concerned with prep for the Descent Module,” she said. “We initiated the startup sequence yesterday, and we’ll be monitoring its systems very closely as we make our final approach. As you know, the descent vehicle will also be the core module for our surface habitat, so this process is extremely important. We’re hoping for nominal operation of the Descent Module itself, followed by smooth capture, a quick transfer of crew and equipment and a gentle descent. Once we have touched down, then I can worry about decorating.” Olivia poked her in the hip with one finger, reminding Valya to flash a quick, practiced smile. “It should be an interesting challenge. I can’t wait to get started.”

“Valya has done a great deal to make this place feel like home,” offered Su Yan, her full lips turning up at the corners. “We’re all eager to see what she will do with little bit of air and gravity to help her.”

“Yan, you and Olivia have both written quite a bit about how difficult it is to be away from your kids. Has it helped to have each other to talk to?”

Su Yan bobbed her head, her close-cropped hair swaying very slightly. “We all miss our loved ones very much. This is an exciting time for all of us, but we are sad not to be able to share the experience with our families. So of course, we try to support each other. The crew has become another sort of family, and I am grateful for that.”

“And finally, a question for everyone: you’re only a few days away from entering Mars orbit. What are you most looking forward to?”

“A chance to further human knowledge,” said Gao Lie, his smile and his enunciation carefully formed.

“Getting answers to some very old questions,” said Oscar.

“Setting up a greenhouse with gravity again,” said Ruslan.

“Going for a walk,” said Olivia, and the others laughed around her.

“Well, that’s all the questions I have for you today. So, from all of us here at BTV, thank you so much for your time. And good luck!”

As soon as the little red light beside the camera went out, Olivia and Valentina let out identical sighs, their bodies relaxing out of their stiff on-camera poses as they leaned back into the micro gravity.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Oscar chuckled.

Valentina only sniffed and crossed her arms, but Olivia said, “Sure, for you it wasn’t!”

“Oh come on, Martini, you did great! Everyone loves you.”

Olivia waved him off. “They’re just nosey.”

“Is that the last interview?” asked Valya.

“It is,” said Yan. She pulled herself over in front of the laptop to package the interview, her short fingers flicking windows closed and then banging away at the email they would send along with the video. “The camera is finished with us today.”

“Thank goodness,” said Olivia. She unhooked her foot from one of the bars on the floor and gently pushed off with her toes. In seven months of gathering for interviews exactly like this one she had moved from the ease of habit to the reflex of muscle memory; an instinctive twist of her ankle spun her just so, and her clipboard was directly in front of her as she reached the opposite side of the Command Module’s aft section. She pulled the clipboard off its velcro with a tug, one hand against wall to counterbalance the force, and clicked out the tip of the marker she’d tethered to it.

Olivia skimmed her checklist for the day, occasionally pausing to scribble a note in the margins. Materials science had given them dry-erase sheets that never stained and markers that had no fumes, both in service of a routine that typified life on the Baochuan: cutting-edge technology for the handwritten sheets on their clipboards, paired with laptops with hardware keyboards and USB connectors. Olivia understood the reasoning behind this, of course, but it had proved difficult to explain to the various interested reporters. They used outdated laptops because they were easily serviceable and conveniently modular, and could be repaired in transit; wireless networking caused too much interference, so all computers were physically docked to the Baochuan’s Command and Data Handling system; the crew needed a portable and easy-to-use device to allow them to run through their checklists and take notes without being tethered to any one terminal, and handwritten lists had proved the most versatile solution; they couldn’t afford to haul reams of blank paper out of Low Earth Orbit and into deep space, so reusable sheets were substituted; the usual fumes from dry-erase markers would be intolerable in a closed environment, so entirely new categories of ink were formulated.

Luckily, even the ruthless confines of their inventory had still left room for an extra pen per crew member. Olivia had lost her first allotment to a carelessly tied string within a week of boarding the Baochuan, and no one had seen it since.

Olivia felt a hand on her shoulder as Valya leaned in to peer at her checklist. “Good, we’re in the farm together,” she said, and let go of Olivia to make a mark on her own sheet. “I could use a little peace this morning.”

Olivia flicked her eyes toward Oscar — who was just then checking readouts for Atmospheric Control and Supply—then raised her brows inquisitively. Valentina’s mouth tightened into a grimace, and Olivia held up a “wait a moment” finger as she pushed off from the wall.

Ruslan was trying to open a protein bar, his clipboard clenched between his teeth, as Olivia floated up beside him. “Hey, Russ,” she said, and plucked the clipboard from his mouth. “Take your time with breakfast, okay?”

Ruslan chuckled. “Surely by now she realizes we all know?”

Olivia pursed her lips and arched one brow. Ruslan set the protein bar aside and took the clipboard back from her, shaking his head with genial exasperation. “I have a few items left to hang on my Line. I suppose the farm can wait until afterward.”

“You’re an angel,” she said.

Ruslan scribbled a few cyrillic letters in his margins. “Hmm.”

“It’ll get better once we’ve down there.”

“Of course,” said Ruslan dryly. He plucked his breakfast from where it hung in the air beside him. “And I’m sure your pen and my left shoe will turn up as well.”

Valentina was exactly where Olivia had left her, one foot hooked under a handle bar and her back angled toward Oscar. Six crew members, five habitable modules and seven months did not allow for a great deal of subtlety.

 

Valya breathed long and deep, in through her nose and out her mouth, as the muscles in her shoulders unwound. The farm was kept at a slightly higher humidity than the other modules, with a flexible plastic curtain loosely separating the two environments, and slipping into that warm, green cave of earth-smells and blue light was the prize that lured her through the blacker days. A weakness which even she realized was no secret from her crew mates, and which explained why she had pulled a disproportionate number of biomass inventory shifts in the past few weeks. Nothing short of the fans in the Waste Control System breaking down was worth pulling her out of the farm when she was in a mood, and she had been in a mood every waking hour since June.

The gossip, as far as she could guess from overheard conversation and the gaps in Olivia’s polite advice, was that she was desperately homesick. The windows of her grandmother’s Star City apartment had looked out on dense pine forests, and she’d spent her childhood in a grass-stained pack of girls and boys, running wild through the woods within the city’s fences. Of course, Valya had lived for more continuous time in space than anyone else in the crew beside Yan, and resented the implication that she would crack after less than nine months away from Earth. But she kept her mouth shut and accepted their offer of therapy shifts in the farm. Homesickness was embarrassing, but the truth was so much more so that she welcomed any and all misdirection.

The end result of all of this was that Valya had done almost as much work as Ruslan to prepare the Biomass Production Module for their big move to the lander. And as he wanted to put off sealing up the crops for transport until the last possible hour, the majority of their work so far had been an exhaustive inventory of the farm, down to each individual organism.

As Valya had already worked through the various salad greens earlier that week, that morning she’d been assigned the navy beans, and Olivia the peas. The plants were easy to differentiate, each sprouting from a small hole in the netting that held the clay rooting matrix in place. Valya ticked off sets of five strokes for the character 正, a habit she’d picked up from Yan and the other taikonauts on Tiangong-5, and tried not to think about Oscar Gutierrez or his infuriatingly handsome face.

She was barely through her third tray when Olivia sighed loudly and said, “Valya, I love you, but if you don’t tell me what’s up I’m gonna call Russ on the com and ask if I can swap shifts.”

Valya started, her hand darting out to catch hold of the rack so the movement didn’t send her drifting into the trays behind her. “It’s nothing,” she said stiffly. “I just needed a break.”

“A break from Oscar, you mean.”

There really wasn’t any point in arguing. “I think he knows I’m avoiding him,” she said. Olivia only arched her brows, and Valya sniffed with exasperation. “This isn’t actually funny.”

Olivia rolled her eyes back to the plants and started to tick them off again. “Never said it was.”

“He keeps asking me if I’m ‘all right,’” Valya went on, tapping her pen against the clipboard. “What does that even mean, ‘all right’? How could anyone be ‘all right’ in a place like this? You’re fantastic and excited, or you’re living in a can. Neither of those is ‘all right’!”

“He’s the doctor, he’s just checking up on you.”

“If he knows I’m avoiding him, why does he keep following me around?” Valya snapped, counting out another row of 正’s with furious little stabs of her pen. “You Americans, you just can’t leave well enough alone. Always sticking your noses in everything and smiling and telling me to have a good day. Maybe I don’t need to be told how good of a day I should have!” She blew out a frustrated puff of air, enough to make the bean stalks sway. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean you.”

“Of course.”

“Olivia, he’s everywhere. It’s like he’s part of the ACS, circulating around through every room!”

Olivia’s face, heart-shaped with high rounded cheekbones and smooth brown skin, was extremely well-suited to impishness. “That charming smile,” she said, “lying in wait through every airlock.”

“Don’t start.”

Olivia shook her head and pulled herself up to the next row of trays, labeled “Zucchini - Кабачок - 夏南瓜” with marker and masking tape. “You could tell him,” she said as she flipped to the next sheet of the inventory.

Valya snorted. “Because that went so well for you.”

“That was different.”

“Different only because you didn’t think you would get caught. And you knew that she was interested.”

“Because I asked!”

Valya scowled down at the inventory. “Some questions are fair for Antarctica that aren’t fair out here.”

“I’m not suggesting that you actually do anything,” said Olivia. “You’re right, I went and learned that lesson for all of us. But come on, Valya, you know how it is with crushes. If you pretend they’re not happening they only get worse. Just tell him, agree it won’t go anywhere, and then move on once the mystery’s gone.” Valya didn’t look up from her clipboard, but a moment later she felt Olivia give her shoulders a quick hug. “I know this feels like it’s different, but that’s just the isolation talking. Space makes you crazy. We’ve all been through it, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

“Not all of us,” Valya muttered.

“Valentina, come on. I know for a fact you’ve been with at least one man, because Yan was the one who had to tell him it was over.”

“Fine, you’re right!” Valya snapped. “I’m being ridiculous. Forget I said anything.”

“This is the worst of it, I promise,” said Olivia, softer than before. “Once we’re on the surface, we’ll all have other things to do and more than five rooms to live in. And on the way back, we’ll be too busy combing through data and talking to reporters to worry much about each other.”

Several unkind and unfair thoughts flitted through Valya’s mind, mostly regarding Olivia’s own track record and the nerve of her telling anyone else to meet their romantic problems head on. She swallowed them all and tried her best to smile, though she suspected it turned out more like a wince. “It really does feel like he’s around every corner,” she grumbled. “Shooting smile rays at me.”

“Pew pew,” said Olivia, clipboard drifting as she fired off double finger pistols.

“Yes, ‘pew pew.’” Valya laughed and clapped a hand over her heart. “Taken out by a cowboy!”

The two of them were still laughing when Ruslan slipped through the plastic divider. Half of another protein bar was sticking out of his mouth, and he grinned at them around it as he yanked a clipboard off the velcro by the hatch.

“Looks like we’ll have another crop of Zucchini before we pack everything up,” said Olivia. “Any plans for the farewell dinner?”

“Ratatouille, I think, since we are drowning in squash,” said Ruslan once he’d swallowed. “Though it makes me wish I had smuggled a bottle of Rioja in with the olive oil.”

“Just wait till we land,” said Olivia. “I’m sure you and Valya will have a bootleg operation going in the greenhouse before the month is out.”

“A month?!” Ruslan shook his salt-and-pepper head. “Do you think so little of us?”

“A week, at most,” said Valya. “We are professionals.”

 

Olivia switched off the compact vacuum cleaner and bent to untangle the cord, which had wrapped around the foot that wasn’t holding her steady as she worked. They’d been lectured many times about the dangers of straining electrical plugs, one of the myriad ways in which being an astronaut could make you feel like you were visiting your grandparents’ house, full of breakable objects and strange unpalatable food.

Gao’s head and shoulders appeared above her, poking upside-down through through the hatch that connected the Service Module to Node 2. “Were you planning to do the CM next? I’m finishing up my FFQ, but I can move to another terminal if I’m in the way.”

Olivia waved him off. “After lunch,” she said as pushed herself over to where the cord was plugged into a Utility Outlet Panel. “Still have all those photos to hang on the Line, and PA’s been on me to catch up.”

Gao nodded and popped back up into the node, leaving Olivia to her own thoughts as she packed the vacuum cleaner away. At home in Brooklyn, she would have left the it sitting out while she ate lunch and checked her email, but here it had to be stowed immediately after every use. Anything too large to stick to a strip of velcro was too large to leave out in the cabin.

Like any other astronaut candidate, Olivia had spent two years of her life in ASCAN basic training just to make it into the corps proper, and months after that learning every centimeter of every vehicle she might find herself in—Orion, Soyuz, Shenzhou, Tiangong—as well as the more general lessons in orbital mechanics, Earth observation, space medicine and psychology, and immersion-level courses in Russian and Chinese. She’d served four months aboard Tiangong-6 because she’d needed the flight time to qualify for Mars, and gone through another year of training to prepare for a Chinese-led mission. That plus her interview skills and a doctorate in Planetary Geology had secured her a spot in Antarctica, where she’d lived through the long, dark winter with her future crew mates, holed up together in a gravity-friendly variant of the Baochuan.

Olivia knew the ins and outs of this ship better than any other place she’d lived, including the house outside New Orleans where she’d been born and the Crown Heights apartment her family had rented through middle and high school. But then, so did everyone else. And unlike Oscar and Valya and Ruslan and Su Yan, who all had specialized jobs on board, her expertise wouldn’t be of much use until they’d set up their habitat on the surface.

Once they’d landed, her days would be swallowed whole by sample collection, photo documentation, map-making, on-site lab work and arguing with US Mission Control over where to send their new rovers. Until then, her time was divided between social media obligations and an enormous amount of housekeeping. Particularly now, as they prepared to leave the Baochuan behind for their seventeen month stay on the surface of Mars.

The galley was in the forward section of the Command Module, with a divider that could be closed when Russ was cooking so the smell and inevitable bits and pieces wouldn’t invade the rest of the ship. His unusual kitchen was along the port wall, with its own microwave and convection ovens, refrigerator and freezer, potable water dispensers and sterilizer. He had all the best equipment, but it was understood that no one but him touched any of it without having been recruited into food prep for the day.

As such, Olivia gave it a wide berth and kicked herself over to the “dining room” on the starboard side. A quick rummage through the crew refrigerator unearthed the serving of leftover meatloaf (actually tofu) that she’d claimed a few days back, which she popped into the food warmer along with a pouch of coffee. Then she slid into her usual place at the table, hooked her feet under a bar on the floor, and angled the galley terminal to face her.

Yan had set things up so that the laptops were mostly dumb terminals, which the crew used to log into their accounts on a central server. The time delay and limited bandwidth meant they couldn’t use the Internet normally—low-priority content was sent and received once an hour; whenever the crew wrote an email or composed something to hang on the Line, it would go into the queue for the next transmission.

Olivia had signed up for a public-facing Clothesline account back when she’d first started as an ASCAN—a move which had both impressed and irritated her kids—and had updated it at least once a week ever since. Once a day, now that they were nearing the end of the trans-Mars leg and the pace was picking up again. Most of what she hung on her Line were annotated images from the aging rovers and Martian weather satellite, peppered with photos she’d taken herself of the growing red dot among the stars. But her Line’s basket, which MC required her to leave open, was forever brimming with notes and questions from her followers back home. And if she didn’t answer the letters that her Public Affairs Officer had selected, weeks of sob stories about disappointed schoolchildren and public disengagement would follow, none of which was worth saving the time it took to bang out cheerful replies to questions about how excited she was to land, how they made pizza in space, or how they used the toilet.

Public Affairs had flagged five questions since yesterday and they sat at the top of her basket of unread letters, their subject lines charming and ominous in turn. The one that read “Plans for the landing?” pinged as particularly dangerous, for reasons she wouldn’t have been able to articulate. She cringed and clicked around it, explaining how the micro g dishwasher worked, describing the seventh-grade Earth Science teacher who had turned her on to geology, and opining on which of the ASU Sun Devils teams were the most exciting that year.

When four replies sat in her queue and the delaying tactics of meatloaf and coffee had been consumed, she surrendered to the inevitable and opened the damn thing.

Olivia,

Do you and Su Yan have any special plans for when you’re finally on Mars? Will you have your own room on the surface? You’ve said there isn’t a lot of privacy on the Baochuan, so I hope you two can finally have some time alone! It must be so romantic to be able to share this adventure!

—Marcy from St. Louis

About as bad as she’d expected. With their arrival only days away, she had hoped for a drop in curiosity about the ongoing details of her love life. If anything, the opposite had proven true. Olivia had asked PA to lay off on the gossipy questions, but they all knew being gossip-worthy was half her job out here, and at least one of these things would make it through every week. She ran her hand over her short, tightly-curled hair and considered precisely how dense she felt like being today.

Hello, Marcy!

We’re all incredibly excited about the landing, and we have lots of ambitious plans for what we’ll do once we’re on the surface. But it’ll be a while before we have any privacy! The lander will form the core of the habitat, and at first it will be much smaller than the Baochuan! But once we’ve inflated the Bigelow modules and the greenhouse tent, we’ll have a little more room to stretch our legs and spend some time alone with our thoughts. Which will probably be all about Mars!

—Olivia

“Hey, Martini!”

Olivia looked up from the screen to see that Oscar and Su Yan had appeared at the far end of the module. With all the background noise, the crew were forever sneaking up on each other, accidentally or otherwise.

She sent the note to her queue and logged out of her account. “I’m just finishing up here. Did you need something?”

“Any idea where Valya is?” asked Oscar. “We’re getting some weird readings from the lander’s MCA that I wanted to run by her.”

“Weird how?” asked Olivia as she gathered the dirty dishes.

“Too early to say,” said Oscar. “Probably nothing. Hopefully Valya will tell me I’m just worrying too much.”

“Well, she was in the farm when I left her,” said Olivia, repressing a rueful smile. “You can probably find her there.”

Oscar waved his thanks and pulled himself back through Node 1, leaving Olivia and Yan to regard each other from opposite sides of the room. Olivia slid the plate and utensils into the sterilizer under the table, which bought her a few more seconds to think.

“I still have a quarter hour left of my break,” she said. She tugged a rag off its velcro square on the wall and gave the table a quick wipe down, a perfect excuse for not looking Yan in the eye. “I thought I’d go out to the Cupola and enjoy the view for a while.”

“Ah.” Olivia glanced up at her, then, but Yan’s eyes were averted. “I will say to look for you there if you are needed, then.”

Olivia watched her disappear through the hatch, then sighed and banged her head against the galley rack. “Why don’t you join me?” she mumbled under her breath. She had never been shy about asking for the things she wanted—she wouldn’t be out here if she was the kind of woman who waited for life come to her. And yet. And yet! With Yan, it was worse than high school, worse even than before she’d come out to her friends. Not always, of course, but now very much so. Her only luck was that the whole damned mess was so sad, none of the others dared tease them about it. You couldn’t make a joke out of something this depressing.

Resigned to a lonely viewing, Olivia pulled herself through the Cupola hatch and closed the blackout curtain: a thick panel of velvety fabric held taut between two rails, which swallowed the light and sound of the module behind her. Her reflection disappeared from the glass; she could see the tapered forward section of the Command Module, extending a few feet past where the Cupola was berthed. Beyond it, the ancient, unwavering pinpricks of distant stars.

On the old ISS, the Cupola module had been a small dome berthed to the Tranquility Node, with controls for the Canadian Mobile Servicing System and a view of the Earth side of the station. This Cupola was more of a sphere that jutted out from one side of the Command Module, with five-paned fused silica windows that barely distorted the view. Design documents and Public Affairs officers emphasized the Cupola’s excellent lines of sight for the Canadarm4, Centrifuge and photovoltaic blankets; during the months-long monotony of transit, the crew cared far more for its view, though it had changed very little since Earth had diminished to a small, blue dot among the stars.

Olivia spun in place in her little sphere of windows and the Baochuan spread out before her, stark white and gold and steel, the silvery bones of the solar array wing gleaming with caught sunlight, all of it bright and perfect in the vacuum. Beyond them, framed by the spinning halo of the Centrifuge, hung a mottled, rusty coin.

Nose against the glass, hands cupped along her cheeks and temples to block reflected light, she drank in the craters and mountains and bruise-purple valleys of a alien desert. Places she would cross with her feet, touch with her hands; dusty air that would push back against their light, slim compression suits; gravity that would heal their bones and muscles. A real place where she would stand and see and feel.