The Astronaut Tier – Jonathan Laidlow

The Astronaut Tier – Jonathan Laidlow

Farren opened the door to the bailiffs and let them in. They pushed into the apartment wordlessly, and began to itemise her former life, ticking boxes on clipboards while they opened drawers and rifled shelves. The last to enter was a wiry middle-aged woman who, with a kind smile, invited Farren to sign, thus demonstrating her understanding that her possessions were now the property of Ares II’s creditors.

She asked if the coffee in the pot also now belonged to the creditors.

“The coffee?” the officious lady replied. “No. Drink it up, hon. We’ll take the pot when you’re done.”

Farren filled her mug and then added her signature. It was just another piece of paper; she’d signed so many for Ares II, what was one more?

Everything the bailiffs touched, they colonised. The framed prints of movie posters for Apollo 13 and The Martian had belonged to a different Farren, an earlier version, and so giving them up felt like nothing at all.

The coffee had stewed, so she left it. Let them have the dirty mug. She picked up the holdall containing those personal items she was permitted to keep, then stopped to allow the boss-lady to rifle through it. On command, she emptied her pockets.

They patted her down and questioned her about the phone, registered to her brother, and the key to the car owned by her mother. They confiscated her old cassette Walkman with its headphones and her box of mixtapes. The male bailiff said, “Vintage! You were cool, lady.” He wrapped it carefully in bubble-wrap and added it to a box.

The clothes and toiletries in her bag seemed to pass whatever test this had become. Or maybe she had failed, and just hadn’t realised. She waited for them to manhandle the television out into their van, then stepped outside.

She had been renting the apartment for a few years prior to Ares, so she was surprised to feel nothing as she handed over the key. It should have felt more like home, but then nothing did anymore.

The battered Ford was parked down the hill, along the old dry-stone wall of the village post office. She hoped they’d watch her go and think well of her, saying to each other, “Didn’t cry, didn’t beg or try to smuggle her shit out. That’s how you get repossessed with style. Classy.”

She stifled a sob on the steering wheel. How had she come from the dome in Australia to being homeless in the north of England?

She recovered herself enough to start the engine and pull out into the road. In the rear-view mirror, she could see the repo boss-lady standing on top of the hill. She couldn’t see her former home, and for that she was thankful.

Farren’s mum had encouraged her to sell all her belongings to friends and family rather than let them be taken, but that wasn’t how it worked. The bailiffs would have argued she didn’t have the right to sell them, then sued her friends to recover them.

The car from her mother had been an act of kindness, as had the phone from her brother. Not so long ago, in the dome, she would have rejected their attempts to buy back her love. Now she was just happy to have a place to go. She set off to her mother’s house, and turned on the radio.

She listened to a call-in show as she drove. The topic was the Ares II project. Most listeners couldn’t understand how anyone had believed that a crowd-funded mission to land on Mars was possible, or worth joining. Farren understood, though.

A caller from Exeter said that the Ares people — people like Farren — were despicable, and had joined the project knowingly. Farren snorted at the absurdity, inviting the radio to look around at her worldly possessions and then tell her she was a devious bitch who’d known exactly what she was getting into. She turned the radio off in anger, then immediately turned it back on.

An internet caller from Missouri opined that the cover-up was massive, and went as high as the ‘Secret World Government’. “Well I thank you for your charitable thoughts, mister!” Farren said aloud to the empty car. Every day of her life before she joined Areas had felt like she was slowly being poisoned, and so she forced herself to listen every day, to try to understand whether it was all a lie.

The presenter interrupted the callers to go live to the siege in the Australian desert. Nothing had happened, or changed. It was wasted airtime, really. They must surely be getting tired of Ares II by day forty?

Farren braked to avoid a rogue sheep. It was drawn and frail, and stumbled off the tarmac slowly. She slowed again to clatter over the cattle grid and then accelerated up the hill and onto the fells. They had always been desolate, but the blight made everything far worse. There were patches of lifeless soil where once there had been gorse.

The phone rang, so she drew to a halt and flipped it open, saw that it was her brother, and answered.

“Jeff, hi. Yeah. Just gone. On my way to see Mum, taking the shortcut over the fells.”

They talked for a few minutes, but everything he said felt like a platitude that she’d already heard. Jeff’s voice crackled as the signal degraded and eventually she dropped the phone onto the passenger seat and set off again, concentrating on making each turn as the road meandered its way up, round and over the mountain. She regretted not listening to the end of the phone-in, no matter how infuriating it would have been.

It was dark when she crossed the cattle grid on the other side and entered the village where her mother lived. The old Ford spluttered as she changed into first gear and she felt a pang of concern as she manoeuvred it tightly into a space near her mum’s Land Rover. The car was her home now, she thought.

Farren let herself in and found her mother in front of the television, watching the latest rolling updates from the dome. It was one thing for Farren to listen and watch obsessively – she had been there, been part of Ares – it was quite another for her own mother to gawk.

“Mum!” she said, “Can’t we just live for five minutes without seeing what those cretins are saying?”

Her mum raised her eyebrows, then got up and kissed Farren on the cheek, asking in her soft Geordie accent, “Tea, pet?”

While the sixty-year old bustled around the kitchen, Farren turned off the sound on the television. Her mother returned with two mugs and a plate of biscuits.

“Did you ever meet that Director fella, the one with the beard and the sexy voice?”


She had indeed met Doyle, repeatedly. Once her application to join the project had been accepted, she had been invited to pay for a seminar where Doyle had talked about the desert installation and the crew preparing to simulate life on Mars there. After that she was invited, for another fee, to an exclusive testing event where the crew for the second training and evaluation installation was to be chosen. She’d lived in the Martian simulation dome for three months, learning hydroponics, basic engineering, agriculture, and how to handle space technology. She was supposed to be in Alaska now, for another fee, of course. Her contributions had raised her to the Astronaut Tier.

In keeping with the crowd-sourcing ethos of the project, Doyle had pitched in with the recruits and sponsors. He spent weeks in the dome, venturing outside only to attend to corporate business, procurement meetings with companies like Lockheed and Virgin Galactic, and the like. She’d come to think of him as a mentor: he’d often taken the same work details as her, and her posting in the Vacuum Survival team had meant they worked side by side. Her mum might have thought he was dishy, but Farren’s relationship with him had always been purely professional. What she’d admired had been his leadership of the project, and what she’d really approved of had been his vision of the people bootstrapping themselves into space, independent of national interests.

Farren thought the harassment charges were trumped up, and the warrant for his arrest a case of blatant Assangeing.

The biscuits were home-cooked, the tea reassuring. Mum filled her in on her cousins and the various illnesses of her aunts and uncles. Farren responded with innocuous childhood memories of the cousins — once, twice, and thrice removed — whom she barely knew as adults.

The coverage of Ares II moved to aerial shots of the compound, then studio discussion of the fire and the first shootout. Farren picked up the remote and turned on the subtitles. The fire was at the mysterious silver ‘doughnut’ building. She’d never had clearance. You had to be on the Mission Specialist Tier to get inside there. They cut to an investigative journalist, with shots of the Alaskan compound, unfinished and deserted. There was another silver structure, this one incomplete, and federal investigators were shown climbing over the half-built walls with clipboards and flashlights.

While her mum droned on and on about the medical complications currently affecting Uncle Somebody-Or-Other, Farren took stock. She had been convinced that six months in the cold in a simulated space habitat would eventually take her off-world. Instead, she was back in her mother’s house and the country she’d been trying to leave since she was a child.

A British scientist came on screen to offer an expert viewpoint. She explained that the designs for the interplanetary vehicle that, it now transpired, had never been constructed, were fundamentally flawed, and the craft would have killed every astronaut upon take-off if they’d ever had the funds to build it. The money taken from “Martianauts” like Farren had vanished, and now they were liable for Ares’ debts through some quirk of their contracts. Doyle had been in regular contact with everyone in the group right up until the media exposé and the ensuing raids. Would he get back in touch?

She heard the back door, then her brother’s voice, “Hello! Fozzy Bear here yet?”

“I’m here, Juicy,” she called back. Then, “Why are you bothering your dear old mum on this fine northern evening?”

Jeff stood in the doorway, rain dripping from his long white hair. “Are you having a laugh?” he replied. “Looking for my poor destitute sister, I’ll have you know!”

He sat down, and let Mum scurry around making more tea. Jeff was older by three years. He’d never been a particularly protective sibling, offering her wisdom and perspective when she needed it, but never rushing to impose. He had, however, been strongly opposed to Ares II. He’d identified with their goals, but hated their secrecy and the personality cult that followed Doyle everywhere. He had scoffed when she talked about making the application, and refused to help out when she made the personal video required of all applicants. He’d said that space travel was not a TV-talent show, nor should anyone sell the rights to such a programme. As she gradually got more involved with the meetings and the levels, they had clashed repeatedly, and eventually ceased to speak.

Since the day she’d called him from LAX and begged for help to get home, Jeff had treated her with kid gloves, helping where he could, like getting the phone, and he’d looked after her flat all that time she was away. Now he offered more assistance.

“If you don’t want to stay here, you can come over and take our couch, sis.”

He owned a bungalow with his wife in the village. It was cramped with the two children, but had always felt like a refuge to Farren. Even when they weren’t speaking, she’d visited her nieces and hung out with Sara. It felt like home. But it wasn’t, and the thought of living in the same village as Mum and everybody they had grown up with filled her with dread. Sleeping in the astronaut bunks in the cool filtered air of the dome had been much more soothing.

She needed to go, to go far away. If not Mars, then as far as she could manage. She jangled the keys of the Ford in her pocket.

“I’ll stay here tonight, and maybe come see you tomorrow, but after that I’m out of here. The roads are safe again, apparently, and Mum gave me wheels, so…”

“Well my couch-a is your couch-a,” he said, with a smile that was really concern. “Oh hey, did you see this?” He brandished a printout. Jeff thought of himself as an old school “white knight,” and he was always trying to hack things, discover what was behind the encryption. “Somebody from Ares has something going on. It hasn’t leaked yet; I just track these things.”

“Geek,” she said, and took the paper he held out. A photograph: black and white, grainy. A satellite image, maybe. The rocks and grassland of what had to be a British valley. Standing in the rain, a bulky ex-NASA spacesuit reaching down into a stream. The name DOYLE was spelled out in the font they’d all voted for when crowdsourcing everything was a novelty. Farren had even attached the nameplate to that suit.

Farren spent a few more days at her mother’s house and allowed her to fuss, which meant that she received many cups of tea and frequent homilies on finding a good job and making no more trouble.

Embarrassed but not yet ready to talk, she ventured out to the library to use a public and anonymous internet connection. After setting up a temporary encrypted node, she ran the background on the satellite photo through a series of image searches, cross referencing against open access geo-location directories. Eventually she had some GPS coordinates: an anonymous valley in Yorkshire. This was do-able. The exact spot was off-road, but she could take the car as far as it would go and then hike the rest if she had to. She deserved an explanation. She had been travelling between the Australian dome and the Alaskan bunker when her ticket had been cancelled with no explanation. She had been stranded in LA, watching the authorities move on the compound on the airport lounge TV. And now this. Was the mission still on?

She drove to the supermarket and filled the boot of the car with dried and canned food, a cheap sleeping bag, a tent, and lots of bottled water. She charged it to Jeff and promised to pay him back. She didn’t tell him what it was for, but over the phone she just said, “Doyle”. She hoped the line wasn’t bugged, but her brother had always been good at end-to-end crypto.

She lit out before dawn, heading for the A66 and Newcastle instead of the more direct route to Yorkshire. She had a reputation for aggressive driving, so she deliberately drove like her instructor had wanted her to, like Jeff the family man, so that she wasn’t pulled over.

There was a service area that looked down on the River Tyne and the burned-out ruins of Newcastle, so she stopped to rest. She’d seen no obvious signs that she had a tail, and she didn’t think a drone would have the range to follow her. If they had enough clout to use satellite tracking, well, there was nothing she could do about it. She wasn’t sure whether the bailiffs would pursue her for money, or leads on Doyle. Some people thought the repo company had been working for the government, and it was odd that the British authorities hadn’t yet questioned her.

She called Jeff, just to make sure he’d talked to Mum. After pleasantries and reassurance that Mum knew she was safe, he said, “There was a bit more on the Darknet. Conspiracy nuts, to be fair, but there’s a buzz about Doyle, so be careful.” Then, “Did you know they had guns, Fozz?”

“Don’t be silly. I was gonna be an astronaut, not a space marine!” she laughed.

Of course, they’d all had weapons training: daily target practice in the secret caves under the dome and weekly asymmetrical tactical response through the arable zones. She wanted to tell him, but the words would not come. There were no words for the way Ares II had changed her life.

“If you need me — I’m sending a digital key — you can get a message to me without being traced. Use it if you have to.” She laughed it off, but he sent the key anyway. She memorised it, certain she wouldn’t need it.

She looked down on the quarantined ruins of the city, desolate but no longer burning. The daily radiation forecast had been constant throughout her childhood: the blight that threw the country into recession had started here. The eventual clampdown, evacuation, and quarantine had brought the first realisation that she needed to escape.

She ate, drank, and then set off for Yorkshire, without looking back. A couple of hours later, she ran out of road. The GPS had taken her to abandoned grazing fields, but the location lay ahead, so she opened the gate and drove on.

It was a dull and overcast afternoon and the thin grass was slick with rain. Several times she lost control of the little car, churning up the wet soil and sliding down the valley, but she got further than she thought she would, and she only abandoned it when she reached the stream, with just half a mile to go.

She put on her pair of wellingtons, then locked the car and waded into the stream, splashing against the current. It wasn’t deep, and she remembered paddling in the rock pools at Allonby with Jeff when she was a kid and the world was very different. Before the accident at the Scottish nuclear site, before the blight, before Ares II promised her a beginning on another planet.

She rounded the corner and there it was: the spacesuit, walking in the water about a hundred yards in front of her, just as in the photograph. It seemed to be digging or fishing for something under the water. On the other side of the bank she saw a mixture of tents, mobile homes and Winnebagos, all clustered around a long silver caravan. All around her she could feel and hear a throbbing hum, emanating from that last caravan. A sequence of five thunderous pulsations startled her, but she kept on walking.

“Doyle?” she said to the spacesuit.

It wobbled slowly to face her, moving like astronauts in the old footage from the Moon landings. She’d worn one like that and knew how heavy it was under normal gravity. It was one of the ex-NASA designs that she’d worked with at the training camp. It raised its hand, wielding a soil-sampling tool, but she could not find it threatening; her training told her it was meant for low or zero gravity and she could easily outrun it.

“Doyle?” she said again, then, “What the hell, man?”

The gold mirrored-visor retracted and a woman stared back at her from Doyle’s spacesuit. She had short dreadlocks and her face was decorated with tattoos. Everyone in Australia had been so well groomed, clean-cut, so Right Stuff. Who was this and why was Doyle allowing her to do Farren’s job?

“What the fuck is going on here? Where is Doyle?”

Then they were all around her, pointing weapons.

She carefully raised her hands. Behind them, she caught sight of her bearded leader stepping out of one of the caravans.

They locked Farren in a camper-van that was joined to the silver thing by a thick trunk of cabling. The motley group all displayed a similar fervour, ignoring her demands for an explanation, but speaking calmly among themselves, as though there was a secret they all shared. She recognised one of them: a guy called Caspian whom she’d always dismissed as a hipster. She’d never hung out with him because he had only reached one of the lower technical tiers. She was outraged that he was here.

Doyle acknowledged her with a nod as they led her past, as if to tell them she was a fellow traveller, potentially a co-conspirator. His hair, once groomed, was long and ragged. His face was lined, but it was still the kind of face that won over investors; the kind that attracted followers and disciples.

The camp was a far cry from the polished Ares compounds and domes. The collection of battered vehicles and aged habitats bore no relation to the branded and logo-ed equipment in the desert. Those had all been leased, she now knew from the exposé on the news. Furthermore, the scientists on TV had said there’d have been no way to lift so much mass into orbit. They had claimed that all those items of equipment were just props to fool investors and members.

The valley was barren, the grass short and blighted, just like her mum’s home on the other coast.

The hum of the silver caravan was audible inside the camper-van and it made her restless, particularly the thundering, which cycled every twenty minutes. She paced, then sat on the uncomfortable sofa, and then paced some more. Her phone had no signal. Either they were in a coverage dead-zone, or the cell towers had been disabled somehow. There was one last message from Jeff on there: “Fozz. Bailiffs came for Mum’s house. Some legal shenanigans about the proceeds of crime, but it’s nonsense. We’re on it, stay safe.”

She felt bad for her mother’s house, but it hadn’t been where she felt at home for a very long time.

Doyle came to her a few hours later. He wore an ex-NASA one-piece and seemed older, haggard, dirty. He used to wear such sharp suits, she thought.

“Farren. How did you find us?” he said.

She lost her composure and snapped, “Where did you go? What did you do to my life? I was on my way to Alaska when the ticket was cancelled. I had to call my family, do you know how humiliating that was?”

He stepped back and chuckled, looking at her with the coldest of eyes. “The mission is more important than any of us. We taught you that. The doubters are trying to take everything.”

“You bastard,” she said in disbelief. “It was all a lie, all the money’s gone and now they’re going through our accounts to get it back. Did you know that?”

He sat down and pulled out a hip flask. She shook her head but he waited until eventually she took it and gulped down the cheap vodka.

“It’s something else, Farren. Something important. That thing outside — we couldn’t tell anyone.”

“So what is it?” she retorted.

“I can’t tell you, yet. Stay with us. Become one of us again and then you’ll find out. Trust me.”

“Again? Sod off.”

“Think about it. You were one of our very best. But you only made it as far as the Astronaut Tier.” She fumed, for Astronaut was the most prestigious level available to the recruits and she had struggled in every way to reach it. Ares II had woken a need in her, and when its promise to meet that need had proved to be false she’d been left empty and desperate.

Doyle’s offer scratched that itch. She wanted to leave this blighted land behind, but talking to Doyle reminded her of how much she’d enjoyed being part of something bigger than herself. Of how good it felt to be in the inner circle instead of out in the cold. Now she could be again. He added one last temptation. “Work with us here and you could join the European Tier,” he said, and his smug smile showed that he knew she would find another level impossible to resist.

She slept fitfully, and then, in the morning, Caspian unlocked the door and invited her to join them on a scavenging trip. Seeing him made Farren sick with jealousy, sick that she was now excluded from something to which he still belonged, and so she meekly went with him and played her part.

She worked with Doyle’s crew for a week. They foraged supplies from some of the abandoned farms near the valley, then she helped to check the cabling that ran to the mysterious silver trailer. The tasks she’d completed at astronaut camp in Australia proved vital, for she knew how to maintain machines that she didn’t really understand. Once, NASA had trained scientists and pilots to live and work in space. Farren wondered whether the lunar astronauts had learned their systems by rote just as she had in the desert.

They were supervised by a watchful older woman with a shaven head and a doctorate – possibly two — named Professor Curtis. She barely acknowledged Farren. Their only conversation was when she demanded Farren’s phone. Farren handed it over without a word, or a thought for Jeff or Mum.

Caspian knew little more than Farren, but he shared water, showed her the supplies, and helped her make friends with some of the others. After a few nights, she was welcomed around the campfire for a sing-song, where every melody tried to incorporate the rhythm of the mysterious machine. She found that the others had all worked at different locations and had risen to different levels based on their abilities and their funds. None had risen to as high a tier as Farren and yet here they were. At first, she felt heartbroken that Doyle had invited them onto this new, secret, and exclusive tier, but not her. Then she made it her goal to achieve it herself.

Curtis and Doyle were thick as thieves, but Doyle didn’t speak to Farren much. He nodded as he passed, sometimes clasping her shoulder or arm. She wished he wouldn’t treat her like his love-struck ex-girlfriend. She didn’t feel that her behaviour warranted it, and she didn’t want the others thinking they’d ever had a relationship of that nature. It cheapened her, and she was quickly coming to believe in the mission again. It felt right, as it had before. Whatever it was.

Vehicles better equipped for the terrain arrived in the night, driven by the girl with the tattooed face, and then they spent time joining three more silver trailers to the first, until eventually they had a doughnut like the one in Australia. Some began calling it the ‘toroid’ but Curtis referred to it simply as the Engine, and that was the name that stuck.

They moved into a new phase of testing, and Farren started to show them how adept at such work she had become at the habitat in the desert. They might have been in a north Yorkshire wasteland, but it stood in for a hostile space environment quite acceptably. She ran tests with a battered old laptop and found that the suits still held their oxygen, their heating and cooling systems were nominal, and their radiation shielding intact. The laptop was the type they’d used in the dome, encased in thick rubber and allegedly vacuum-proof.

A few days later, Curtis walked stiffly from her Winnebago to the fire and said, “We begin a new phase of the project tomorrow.“ As she turned to leave, she took Farren to one side and told her, “Doyle is really proud of how you’ve joined us. He wanted me to give this back to you.“ She handed back the cellphone, fully charged. It had even miraculously found a signal.

The phone wouldn’t ring out, but then she wasn’t sure whether this was a test, and she did not want to break their trust. Nevertheless, she hooked it up to the laptop and used the data connection to scour the net for news about Australia.

The siege was over. Many members were dead, imprisoned or in hiding. The authorities across the globe continued to swoop on the poor idiots, like her, who’d funded and joined what they were now describing as a ‘terrorist space cult’. There were lurid claims of orbital weapons platforms and blackmail demands.

There had also been more raids on the families of members, and while there was no news of Mum and Jeff, she shivered at footage of bailiffs in black SUVs breaking down doors and confiscating belongings. What had Ares II done that was so wrong? They had only dreamed of taking the solar system for people, not governments. The idea that someone as ordinary as Farren could have been one of the first to colonise a new world had driven her this far and she realised that her own commitment was more important than ever, now that the state machinery was painting them as criminals and closing them down. Farren felt newly wedded to her cause, zealous to find out what they were working towards. Did they still have a secret launch site somewhere? She hoped they did.

Doyle drove into the valley at six with a trailer of cables. He instructed his followers to run them through the camp to a series of outlets on the Engine, and Farren finally caught a glimpse inside the main silver caravan.

The interior was lined with mirrors, and so she saw a vertigo-inducing reflection. The dizzy sensation reminded her of zero-gravity training in the Ares II jet. She had been humbled by the reality of it, as though before she had been somehow lacking in substance.

They had cleared the rocks and flattened out the ground about a hundred yards from the Engine, and they laid the cables to that area. Curtis brought out one final piece of equipment, something none of them had seen before.

It was a semi-circular object, also mirrored, about two metres in diameter and a foot tall, lashed to a standard British power in/out setup with brown parcel tape. It winked and glistened with curious lights. Looking at it induced the same sense of queasy inversion that she’d felt earlier, so she put her head down and resumed work on the power and data lines.

Once the cables were laid and connected, Doyle and Curtis began to test them with a laptop hooked up to the generator.

The early evening brought drizzle, and the two leaders worked on in the rain. Farren sat around the fire with the others. There was no more camaraderie, no more singing. “The Engine has stopped,” she said eventually. It was true, but nobody reacted except Caspian, who got up and walked back to his tent.

Doyle joined them and ordered Farren to accompany him to his Winnebago. She obeyed without question. Perhaps it was time to join the European Tier, she thought.

As they walked, he called for Caspian and the three of them went inside. Two of the spacesuits were laid out ready, and she helped Doyle into the bulky and dirty NASA suit. She had personally ensured its viability and she was pleased that he respected her talents. “Help Farren into the second unit,” Doyle said to Caspian, and she glowed in the warmth of Doyle’s approval.

Caspian lowered the helmet over her head and leaned in. “Don’t worry,” he whispered. They stumbled carefully back outside and waddled slowly to where Curtis waited with one of the laptops and the new machine.

Curtis pressed a key on the laptop. The air above the new device began to shimmer, to flicker, like an old television set. Farren saw herself reflected in the static, a great, galumphing, mouldy, off-white lummox, outlined in the snowstorm of white noise. The hum and the banging returned, and it sounded as though someone were knocking at a door.

She gazed at her image, transfixed, for she was both subject and object. Then Doyle walked straight past and into the distortion field.

He vanished.

And then the grey sky lit up as though it was morning. She gazed upwards and it was filled with silent black drones, like airborne spiders, hovering over the camp, their spotlights illuminating everything. Sirens began to wail and she saw black uniforms sweep down into the valley, torches wavering as they made their way over the uneven ground. In the lead she thought she saw the officious lady who had accompanied the bailiffs.

Professor Curtis abandoned Farren and Caspian, leaving them by the laptop. Farren grabbed his wrist awkwardly and said, “Open me a link to this location,” and reeled off Jeff’s key. Caspian quickly entered it on the laptop.

The connection opened and she snatched the computer, activated the oxygen regulator on her suit and stepped into the white noise after Doyle, trailing data and power cables behind her. It was the only thing left she could do.

She closed her eyes as she pushed through her distorted other. It felt as though she had lost her balance, as though she were stuck in the moment just before falling.

Then she was through, staggering to regain her footing on unfamiliar ground. She opened her eyes and blinked in disbelief. She felt lighter, sensed the heater in her suit kick in, and heard the radiation monitor beeping furiously.

At her feet, strange red and grey rocks on a vast expanse of ice, glistening in the light. To her left, Doyle. He stood still, swaying unsteadily. Dominating the horizon were the coloured stripes of Jupiter, the great red storm-spot visible just on the edge of the skyline, seeming only a few miles walk along the icy wasteland in front of her, but in actuality thousands of miles away. The sun was a bright star in a black sky.

She trigged her radio and found Doyle praying. She had not realised he had any spiritual impetus. Ares II had been her own sole authority, yet now that they were millions of miles further than Mars, Jupiter’s shadow seemed a far higher god.

After the prayer he said, “I lied, Farren, it’s not the European Tier, it’s the Europa Tier, the highest level a member can reach.”

“So Ares II was always a cover story?” she replied. “That’s amazing! We’re in space, Doyle, space!” She was so happy she began to cry. It was all possible, she could leave it all behind.

He turned to her, huffing and puffing as he adjusted to the ultra-light gravity, a tenth of that back home. “That’s right,” he said. “Our hackers found the plans for the Engine in an old Soviet dossier. They cross-referenced it with NASA, and that’s what we spent the money on. The theoretical stuff is all good and that’s why we think they shut us down.”

“So… We were never going to Mars.” Comprehension set in. It didn’t matter where they went in the solar system, just that they were going. It would be impossible to stop them now.

“That’s correct. A Jovian satellite! Europa. We can open up the outer planets.”

Farren started to laugh. “They really had no idea what you were doing? This is brilliant.”

“So much better than Mars,” he added.

“Absolutely.” She wanted to caper and dance, impossible though it was in the spacesuit. She felt vindicated and justified. It was all worth it.

Doyle said, “Just think what we can sell this for! Portal technology. Can you believe it?”

Farren thought she had misheard. What we can sell this for? As she realised what he had said, she felt a lump rising in her throat. She looked at him and all she could think about was the wasted time in the desert, the fundraising, the selection videos, losing everything, her mum’s house, the police swarming into the valley — the sacrifices she had made to make space travel possible for herself and other futureless people.

“Sell? What about opening up the planets for humanity? What about the crowd-sourced dream?”

He laughed and his teeth chattered. Their gear was old, and she wasn’t sure it was rated for these radiation levels. Red warning lights blinked on Doyle’s chest panel.

“Come on, Farren. We can get all the money back. Look at what we’ve done! It’s the Jupiter system! The water on Europa alone can provide oxygen and fuel to keep exploring further. We’ll be the richest people alive. The Feds out there? I called them. You and I are only here because I wanted to be the first man in the Jovian system.”

“You called them?” she spat back at him. “I thought they followed me. Why would you contact them after everything they’ve done to us?”

“You’re the first woman on Europa, Farren. Think of what that will be worth. They can’t arrest us now. We’re already celebrities.”

The laptop was still in her hand, and despite all of her doubts, its space-proofing seemed to have worked, for the data and power were still live. She roughly pushed at the keys until she hit enter, opening the stream to Jeff. She hoped he’d be able to take any plans and files from the laptop, and then she dropped it and ran at Doyle.

She ran as fast as anyone can in a spacesuit, and bowled him over. The burst of activity set off every warning light and alarm on both their suits. Leaning on top of him, she picked up a rock.

“I believed in this, you monster. You made me believe in this. How can you fucking sell it?” She slammed the rock down, smashing it into her reflection on the golden visor until it cracked, and he grew still.

She struggled off him and sat down, her back to the beautiful gas giant. She looked at the iridescent portal. Should she go back? Or wait for them to follow? How many more spacesuits did they have? How long before they came through and spread out to the stars? Which government would be the first, and would they care that she’d marked their discovery with a blood sacrifice? She doubted it. Her only hope was that Jeff would find the plans and do a Snowden with them. Otherwise the solar system would become everything she hated about Earth.

All strength left her. She turned, feeling cold as her suit began to fail, and marvelled at the landscape before her. The barren icebound surface of Europa was like nothing she had trained for, and yet it was everything she needed. She walked carefully and slowly across the white expanse toward the horizon and Jupiter’s watchful eye, leaving Doyle’s body and the portal far behind.

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