Dare Mighty Things – Heather Kaczynski

A MODERATELY INTELLIGENT robot could do my job. Obviously, letting a seventeen-year-old intern anywhere near actual rockets would be irresponsible, but still—NASA was vastly underutilizing my skills. Not that I was complaining. Because, come on—NASA. I’d mop the floors as long as they let me stay. I mean, this was where they built the rockets that took men to the moon. Not that you could tell by the bland cubicles, the water-stained ceiling tiles, and the dead insects collecting in the light fixtures of this fifty-year-old building. My dad, who was working two floors above, said that NASA’s glory days were behind it. But maybe one day there’d be funding and real history being made again. That was my hope, anyway. I’d grown up in Huntsville, a town nicknamed Rocket City, whose history was so entwined with spaceflight that the two were nearly inseparable. A life-size model of the rocket that took us to the moon jutted out of the landscape like a compass rose, a landmark visible all over town. I’d grown up believing the impossible was possible. There hadn’t been any other path for me but NASA. I’d worked hard to get here, beating out dozens of my fellow high school juniors desperate to pad their résumés.

But “here” ended up being a cubicle in the legal department of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, doing mindless data entry for zero dollars an hour. Sure, I’d made it inside the building, but it was boring. And I hated being bored. To keep my brain from melting, I listened to Beethoven in one ear, memorizing his piano sonatas so I’d be prepared to kick ass at youth orchestra auditions come fall. “Hey, kid!” My coworker Andre, a paralegal who liked bossing me around because I was just a high school intern, came marching toward me. His features were all contorted, like he smelled something rotten. I braced myself. Andre didn’t exactly like me, not since that little incident where I’d corrected his math at a staff meeting. In front of our boss. And the whole department.

He jabbed his thumb vaguely over his shoulder. “Big boss wants to see you. And you’d better take that thing out of your ear.” Hesitant, I slipped out of my chair and popped out my earbud, suspicious that maybe this was Andre’s idea of a prank. Still, it’d be an excuse to stretch my legs. I found Mr. Finley standing outside his office, shaking hands with a large man shaped like a refrigerator, surrounded by an entourage of serious-faced people in suits. The man had the air of a politician, but it wasn’t anybody I recognized. A younger guy, about my age, stood beside the man, dark blond hair gelled to perfection—comb marks still evident—wearing the same serious face as everyone else. I wondered if he was an intern, like me.

Luckily Mr. Finley spotted me before I had the chance to stand awkwardly off to the side for too long. “Ah! Miss Gupta! Let me introduce you to Ambassador Otor Kereselidze, the Georgian ambassador to the United Nations. This is one of our most promising young interns, Miss Cassandra Gupta. Her father is in propulsion engineering.” The ambassador smiled broadly and offered his impressively large hand to shake. While my hand was engulfed in his, I smiled beatifically while mentally trying to place the country of Georgia on a map. The closest I got was “somewhere between Russia and Germany.” “Good, good, very good,” said the ambassador, his vaguely Russian accent thick but clear. He didn’t care who I was in the least; he was just being polite.

He clapped a hand on the shoulder of the younger guy beside him. “This is my son, Luka. About the same age, yes? Interested in space as well.” The blond guy with the gelled hair surveyed me coolly and gave a nod. I did the same, wondering what this was all about. “Ambassador Kereselidze was just taking a brief tour of our facilities,” Mr. Finley explained to me. He turned back to the other man. “It was an honor to meet you, Ambassador.” “Please, the honor is all mine.

My son is very passionate about space! I hope that one day, our countries can work together to return to the stars.” He gave a photo op–worthy smile. Luka didn’t. His eyes lingered on me with distaste, like he couldn’t understand why I was even there. The entourage filed out the door, and when they were gone Mr. Finley turned to me. “I’m glad you got a chance to meet him. Georgia doesn’t have a space program, of course, but it’s always smart to be on good terms with politicians, especially these days. Come on, let’s go to my office.” He led me down the hall and through the twisting cubicle maze while I mentally reviewed what he could possibly want to talk to me about.

When we reached his office, he held open the door for me, ushered for me to sit, and closed the door behind us with a heavy, permanent-sounding thud. A walnut desk large enough for my whole family to eat dinner on filled the space between us. Framed degrees dotted the wall on the space above his head. I knotted my fingers together in my lap. Mr. Finley leaned his forearms onto the desk, peering at me through glasses that reflected a bar of light from the overhead fluorescent. “Sorry about taking you away from your work,” he said. “I’ll try to keep this short.” “It’s no problem,” I said, shaking my head a little too hard. He couldn’t know how grateful I was not to be back at my desk right now.

“I can catch up pretty easily.” Too late, I realized how conceited that sounded. I started to correct myself, but Mr. Finley was laughing. “I know, believe me. Doing rote work for the legal department is below your skill set. But we all have to start somewhere.” I nodded vigorously, my face hot. “You will go on to do something remarkable, I’m sure,” Mr. Finley said.

“Which is part of the reason I asked you here today.” Mr. Finley hesitated, fidgeting with a ring on his knuckle. “I’ll just get to the point. Our friends at JSC are hosting an . experimental program. It’s going to be kept under the radar for now, so don’t mention this to anyone but your parents.” He paused, leveling a gaze at me over his glasses. “This is a chance to go into space, Cassandra.” At Johnson Space Center? Where they trained astronauts? My chest contracted in nervous anticipation.

“Most of the team has already been chosen, but for this particular expedition there is a need for someone younger than our current crop of astronauts. There is one slot for an exceptionally intelligent, intensely motivated, and physically fit young person. Nominations are awarded only through personal recommendation of NASA personnel. And I’d like to submit your name for consideration.” He peered at me over his glasses. “But first, I wanted to make sure this is something that you would be interested in.” “Are . are you joking with me, sir?” Mr. Finley restrained a smile. “No, I assure you I’m quite serious.

But make no mistake. This is a competition; it will be difficult. My recommendation is no guarantee you’ll be accepted. And though the other competitors will be young people as well, you will be the youngest. You’ll turn eighteen on August first, isn’t that correct?” He picked up a file and squinted at it, checking his facts. I nodded. “Yes, sir.” “Then you’ll get in just under the wire. However, we’ll still need your parents to sign off on this before I can send in your recommendation.” I molded my expression into something I hoped was very mature and adultlike.

“Yes, sir. I don’t believe my parents will object.” This couldn’t be real life. I peered at the calendar behind Mr. Finley’s head, just to make sure it wasn’t April Fools’. “Not to seem ungrateful, but aren’t there plenty of more experienced people? Air force pilots? Engineers? Adults?” “Of course they need people who actually know how to operate a spacecraft,” Mr. Finley said. “But the requirements for this mission are unique. I don’t know more than that, unfortunately—just that this competition is only open to gifted individuals between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. I know you don’t turn eighteen until August—but they’ll make an exception, if you choose to go.

And it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. I won’t lie that your designer genetics play a part in this, though you certainly aren’t the only enhanced individual who will be there. But you are also very intelligent, very driven. Your résumé just to get this internship was quite impressive.” “Thank you, sir.” “I have to say I’m a little reluctant to even let you go, as I was hoping we could keep you around this office permanently. Our percentage of data entry errors has decreased dramatically since you’ve come aboard. Not to mention the money we’ve saved since you caught that payroll discrepancy.” Mr. Finley’s eyes twinkled.

I shuddered. Working in the legal office full-time? Doing data entry? “What kind of mission is it?” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “All I know is that it is an unprecedented mission of exploration. I know you’re smart enough to understand that unprecedented means dangerous.” “It’s the best kind of dangerous, sir.” The chance to see something no human had ever seen? To go somewhere humans had never gone? He chuckled. “So, what do you say? I’d have to let them know by tomorrow.” I wanted to jump out of my chair and scream “Yes! Yes!” and shake him until his glasses fell off, but that would probably mean I’d be marked psychologically unfit for space. Instead I forced calm into my voice. “What would I have to do?” “Don’t feel like you have to make your decision right away.

Sleep on it.” “No!” I said, too forcefully. “I mean, thank you, I don’t need to think about it. I accept. What do I need to do?” He smiled and leaned over the desk. “I know you’re athletic. Make sure you’re at the top of your game. If they accept you, of course, that means you’ll miss your senior year of high school. The first few months, at least, even if you aren’t selected. Are you going to be all right with that?” I felt a wide grin split my face and quickly tried to regain a nonchalant expression.

“To be honest, I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do more. Sir.” He stood. “Perfect. I’ll send a packet over to your department with information on how to get the paperwork started. They’ll need your parents’ signatures.” He held out his hand, and I shook it firmly. “Ms. Gupta, this will be a difficult competition. I wish you the best of luck.

” “Thank you. Thank you so much.” I turned to go, and then a lingering question made me stop. “Sir, if you don’t mind me asking. I thought there was no more money for things like this. After Mars, we were done with sending humans to space. I know NASA has, like, the smallest budget in its history.” Mr. Finley’s pleasant expression changed subtly, but I couldn’t read why. “This is coming through different channels than our typical funding.

It’s just how the government works. There’s always money; it’s just a matter of funneling it in the right direction.” I smiled. That sounded like something my dad would say. “Of course.” Like most couples, my parents had trouble conceiving. Unlike most people, though, they had the means to work around nature. When my mother, the geneticist, couldn’t get pregnant on her own, she turned to science. Genetic engineering used to be a moral gray area, but now that infertility was becoming a worldwide epidemic, and in vitro was performed almost as a matter of course, the laws had gone lax. Geneering was safe and effective, and if you were already paying a hefty price tag to have a baby—maybe the only one you’d ever have—might as well make sure it’s the best little embryo it could be.

I was among the first major wave of “designer babies”—along with the standard screening for genetic defects, my genes were specifically chosen for traits of athleticism and intelligence. You still couldn’t screen for cosmetic markers, but anything that related to fitness of the embryo was allowed. So choosing a blue-eyed baby was out, but making sure she could outrun all the other kids on the track was practically a requirement. They’d gone through my DNA with a fine-tooth comb, weeding out any weak links. No genetic illnesses, no predispositions or structural anomalies. Maybe not the most beautiful, but strong and smart and healthy. It had its perks: better than average hearing, eyesight, endurance. I’d probably live longer than my parents’ generation. And I still had my dad’s medium-brown skin and my mom’s frizzy black hair. But my genes were expensive.

I was an investment. By middle school, I spoke more languages than either of my parents. I was first-chair violin in orchestra and was the go-to piano accompanist for all the solo performances at my school, instrumental and choral. I was on track team, chess club, National Honor Society. My parents didn’t just expect perfect; they had paid for it. It used to bug me, their level of expectation. But not anymore. I wanted the same thing they did: to be the best. Being the youngest person in space, even with all the danger involved, was exactly the kind of thing they expected from all my years of lessons and classes and tutors. Unfortunately, my mom and I didn’t agree.

“Cassandra Harita Gupta. You only learned to drive last year. So now you think you’re qualified to pilot a spacecraft?” I steeled myself for the debate of my life. My living room turned into a courtroom. Papa took my side. Mama was against. My uncle relaxed on the couch with a beer, a neutral spectator, watching like this was a game of cricket. Dadi—she was the key. She’d lived with us ever since my grandfather had died when I was six, being first-generation Indian American and still just traditional enough to expect to live with us until she died. Truth be told, she hadn’t much liked it when my dad married my nonIndian mom.

But since her other son wasn’t about to get married and settle down anytime soon—and, in fact, also seemed content to live with us for the rest of his natural life—they were kind of forced to get along. Now they got along so well, they tended to take the same side of any family argument. Which didn’t bode well for me. Dadi, small and round and wrinkled but as imposing as a monument even in her pajamas, sat with perfectly upright posture in the center of the couch. Undecided. Unreadable. No way was I going to Houston without Dadi’s okay. “My car drives itself,” I muttered carefully under the range of human hearing. “This is your daughter’s dream.” My father spoke over my head.

He was still wearing his work clothes, the standard government-civilian uniform of a striped dress shirt, tie, and gray pants. I was sitting in a kitchen chair in the middle of the room, holding the permission forms in my lap. “She has a chance to do something great.” I was counting on my father. He’d turned away from his parents’ expectations to follow his dream. It was how he met my mom: in college, two nerds with big dreams. He’d forged his own path, just like I wanted to do. I only wished my mom could see how similar we were. “Something dangerous, you mean.” Mama’s crown of frizzy graying hair bounced as she shook her head, lines of worry creasing her eyes.

“Aw, let her go,” said my uncle Gauresh. My dad’s younger brother had moved in with us shortly after Dadi. He was supposed to live with us only temporarily, but he never seemed terribly worried about either getting a job or his own place. The only time I’d seen him wear something other than jeans and flannel shirts was at my grandfather’s funeral. But since he helped out around the house, he had Dadi’s protection. Her word was as good as law around here. “You said it was a competition. Maybe she won’t even make it.” I shot him a wounded look. “Thanks for that.

” He shrugged and gave me a lopsided grin. “Just trying to help, beti.” “Enough of this,” Dadi said, standing. “Old people need to sleep.” Dadi crossed the room and laid a sympathetic hand on Mama’s arm. “Your daughter works very hard. Give her a chance. She deserves it.” Whoa. The tide was turning unexpectedly in my favor.

Mama sighed and surveyed the room. “I’m outnumbered.” Her eyes fell on me and hovered there. “Okay, fine. I know you’ll just hold it against me the rest of your life if I say no. Get me a pen.” I grinned and threw my arms around her shoulders. I felt her heavy sigh, what it cost her to say yes. She returned my embrace, reluctance radiating from her body. “Quick, before I change my mind.

” The loud clicking of my suitcase wheels over the concourse floor went silent as I yanked my bag upright. Reluctantly I turned to greet my entourage of two. “We have to say good-bye here. You guys can’t come through security without a ticket.” My mother was all wrinkles—her brow, her frown lines, her wringing, nervous hands. Dadi looked solemn and regal and utterly unperturbed by the fact that she’d only woken up about twenty minutes ago. Gauresh couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed before sunrise, and my father had to be at work. Neither of them said anything. I shifted my weight, anxious to get through this part, impatient to be on the plane even though we’d arrived with plenty of time to spare. Part of me was worried they’d take it all back, change their minds.

“Well, good-bye, I guess.” My mom crushed me to her chest before I even finished getting the words out. “Be careful,” she said, her voice quaking, and seemingly unable to get out more than two words at a time. She held me at arm’s length, eyes watering freely. “Be good. Try hard. Be safe. Make—try to make some friends, huh?” She wiped at my cheek with her thumb as though I was the one crying. I was surprised to feel wetness there. “It’s not summer camp, Mom.

” “I know, I know. But you can’t go through life alone. One friend. That is all I ask. Okay?” She smiled through her tears. “And I’ll see you in a few months.” I was about to tell her this was about space travel, achieving my dreams, not about making friends. And that I wouldn’t be home anytime soon, unless I failed. But I didn’t. I wrapped my arms tight around her, closed my eyes, and counted to three.

I told myself these were the last seconds of my old life. Tried to enjoy them. “It’s okay, Mom. I just want to do something important with my life.” Then Dadi took my arms in her fierce grip and looked deep into my eyes. “You are like your father,” she said. “You go after what you want, no matter what anyone else tells you. It is hard for parents to accept. But for good or ill, you will make your own destiny.” She pulled me into an embrace.

“Good luck,” she said, and kissed both my cheeks. I inhaled deeply, holding the air in my lungs, and imprinted this moment in my memory. Her words felt prophetic. The universe seemed open and waiting for me, and I was ready to meet it. TWO ONE DELAYED FLIGHT, two layovers, three Beethoven sonatas, and five days of exhaustive medical-clearance tests later, I found myself sitting in a chilly NASA auditorium in Houston. It was August first—my eighteenth birthday. I’d left the hotel an hour early so I’d be able to sit in the front row and maybe eavesdrop a little. The first person I noticed was the man onstage. He looked older but no less intimidating than the pictures of him in my textbooks. His closely shaved hair was mostly gray now, but it was him, incredibly real and breathing in front of me: Charles Pierce, the first man on Mars.

I actually gasped out loud, then covered my mouth, embarrassed. He stood in a gray flight suit beside a woman in a pink pantsuit with teased blond hair. The two hadn’t said a word above a whisper, and not even my excellent hearing caught anything interesting. A handful of other candidates arrived shortly after me, each taking seats spaced far from one another. I caught a pair of Desi boys sitting together. A hijabi girl with a deep-purple headscarf and the most precise eyeliner I’d ever seen. A few stereotypical muscle-bound jock types. A room full of sharp eyes and strong bodies and ambitious, hungry faces. A blond girl with a low ponytail, wearing white jeans and a white blouse, stared openly at the other candidates as though they were test subjects she was observing. A white guy who looked like he’d just walked off his father’s yacht was trying to flirt with the blond girl, and she was utterly ignoring his existence.

I was glad to be left alone, even though I was bursting to say it out loud, just to share it with someone else: that’s Charles Pierce! So far, I was unimpressed with my competition. Even if they were probably all valedictorians and had skills that rivaled mine, most of these people wouldn’t have my drive, my connection with NASA. They couldn’t. I’d guess there were some strong candidates—maybe a handful who appeared intelligent, who sized me up like I was doing to them, and there were quite a few impressive physical specimens. But the rest seemed average, watching vids on their cells and texting like they were in class. No different from my spoiled rich prep-school classmates back home. I was familiar with that type: they had the ego, but not the skills to match. Suddenly a kid dropped into the chair beside me, making me jump. It was a Latino guy with a head of black curls. He was wearing a plaid shirt like the ones Uncle Gauresh liked, unbuttoned and loose over a cartoon character T-shirt.

He dumped his bag on the floor, the sound echoing loud enough in the quiet hall to make me cringe. “Howdy.” He stuck out his hand. “Emilio Esteban. You can call me either one, I like ’em both.” Nobody else was talking, at least not above a whisper. After a second of hesitation, I shook his hand. I didn’t want to seem like the cold blonde in white sitting three rows back; that was a fast way to make enemies. From what I could tell, she’d shut down the yacht boy’s advances, and he had moved on to easier prey. My mother’s voice chided me in my memory.

One friend. Just one. “Cassie,” I said. “Cassie . ?” he prompted. “Gupta.” “Nice to meet you, Cassie Gupta. You on board with all this crazy space shit?” I inhaled deeply to give myself time to find patience. “Yes.” “Cool.

Me too.” The door in the far back corner of the room opened and a few more boring-looking kids filed in. Skinny white kid with tattoos on his arms, Asian girl with a pixie cut, tall black guy wearing glasses that displayed a flickering cell phone interface. A couple more brown-skinned girls filtered in. One of them smiled at me; I only nodded back. I quickly counted them up. Sixty-two, counting the last girl taking a seat to my right. A sideways glance told me she was tall and muscular, with long black hair and an intimidating beauty. Possibly Japanese. Sixty-two people I had to beat.

And then the door opened one last time. Tall guy. Dark-blond hair. Dressed like he was going to church, in khaki pants and a crisp button-down shirt with a tie. An actual tie. A spark of recognition—I knew that guy. Luka something. The Georgian ambassador’s son, who’d visited Marshall that one day. I hadn’t paid much attention to him at the time, but now he was right there. Then it hit me.

What had the ambassador said? How his son would help America return to the stars. This must’ve been why they were visiting my center at Marshall. Oh, all the gods in heaven. I was going to have to compete against the son of a UN ambassador. Luka took a seat in the far left corner. Onstage, the woman cleared her throat. She didn’t need a microphone; the room was full of rapt silence. Her bracelets and earrings shimmered as she spoke. “Looks like we’re all here, so I’ll go ahead and introduce myself. I’m Madelyn Krieger, the representative for the Society of Extrasolar Exploration, NASA’s partner for this project.

You may recognize Colonel Pierce to my left, who was the first and so far only man to touch foot on Martian soil and return safely to Earth. We are very honored to have him head up our selection committee. You’ll be seeing both of us from time to time, and I for one am looking forward to getting to know each and every one of you special people.” I’d sat through some cheesy school presentations in my time, but this was almost embarrassing. She smiled wide, her teeth as white and shiny as Miss America’s. “You all know, to an extent, why you’re here. You should have some understanding of the dangers you’ll face should you be chosen. But I hope that you are here because you all share the belief that we at SEE and NASA both hold deeply: that exploration beyond our home planet is vital and necessary to the continuing achievements of mankind.” She paused, looking into each of our faces. Were her eyes really misting, or was that a trick of the light? “You are also here because we believe there is something special about you.

Some potential that we are eager to tap. When the space program was in its infancy, our very first astronauts were selected from a narrow pool of test pilots who were chosen mainly for their ability to operate under incredible stress and for their willingness to risk blowing themselves up.” That brought a few chuckles, but not from me. People had died to advance human space travel. I didn’t think that was funny. Neither, apparently, did Colonel Pierce. His gaze was steely. But Ms. Krieger smiled, indulging the laughter. “But this new team will require a different set of skills.

NASA hasn’t opened the doors to new astronauts since the first Mars landing in 2033. But with our partnership, new doors have been opened. This is an unprecedented opportunity, and I surely hope you understand the dedication it will require.” I found myself nodding and leaning forward, getting a little caught up in Ms. Krieger’s emotions. The colonel, on the other hand, hadn’t moved a muscle. “You may be wondering why you’re here—” she began. “Not really,” muttered Emilio beside me. “—or why the average age of the contestants in this room is a mere twenty-one. I assume I don’t have to tell all of you that you’re the best and brightest of your generation. Or that space is very large, and modern space travel takes a very long time. With what we hope to do, we will have need of your youth, your physical fitness, your determination. NASA and its international partners have recruited you from all over the world: JAXA in Japan, ISRO of India, ISA of Israel, CSA of Canada, and ESA, encompassing twenty-two European countries—just to name a few! We have representatives from over fifteen countries, including such faraway locales as Mongolia and Qatar. I feel safe to say that I am looking at the best that Earth has to offer. I’m proud to be able to call you astronaut candidates. “Technically, it takes two years to earn the title of astronaut. But these are special circumstances. I think a little leeway is allowed.” That earned a flick of an eyebrow from Colonel Pierce, but Ms. Krieger continued unabated. “You may have noticed there are more than sixty candidates in this room. At the end of the selection, only the top two ranking candidates will go on to train with the rest of the crew. One crew member, and one alternate. The selection process will be short and intense, and unfortunately many of you may be flying home before the end of the week. There will be two phases to your training. At the end of Phase Two, we will take the top two candidates on to Phase Three, where they will train with the rest of the crew in preparation for the mission. Colonel Pierce?” Pierce took a step forward, thick arms locked behind his back. “If you make it past the first phase, you’ll be dealing directly with me. I expect you to call me Colonel to my face and Jackass behind my back. Don’t let me catch you getting those two confused.” There were a few laughs. I didn’t dare join them. Colonel Pierce glared and the laughter choked off. “I’m your reward for getting through the next few weeks, so if you don’t think you want that, save yourself the trouble and go on home now. You may have noticed the doors you entered on your way here were painted red. If you choose to drop out at any point, it’s as easy as walking out the big red door. I wouldn’t blame you. Hell, the fact that most of you are sitting here now and not a one of you is older than twenty-five is already a miracle. You’re the strongest, smartest young people NASA could find this side of the sun, but don’t let that go to your heads. You’ll have to get a hell of a lot stronger and braver to be the kind of person we need. Got it?” There were murmurs of “Yes, sir.” Emilio shouted it so loud my right ear rang. The colonel amped up his glare. “Let me just tell you now. Everything you see, hear, and do from this point forward is confidential. The only people who know more than you hold top-secret security clearance. No one outside these walls should hear anything about this competition beyond what you had for breakfast, and I’d be vague on the details of the syrup selection if I were you. If you can handle that, you can hand over your electronic gadgets on the way to your rooms. Absolutely nothing with recording capability will be allowed. “You have four instructors who will also serve as your resident advisers: Dominic Bolshakov, Michele Jeong, Logan Shaw, and Dr. Harper Copeland. They’ll brief you on the rules, so make sure you stick to them. Testing begins tomorrow bright and early, outside on the track.” I was surprised to recognize the names. They were all astronauts. A few years past their prime, maybe, but experienced astronauts. I nodded, heart thumping, fingernails digging into the scratchy fabric of my seat. I can do this. His voice changed tone subtly. He spoke slower. “This isn’t a game, kids. We’re going to push some of you to the breaking point. But it’s not for shits and grins. Everything we do here has a purpose, and our end game is of monumental importance. Just remember that.” Next to me, Emilio’s hand shot up, uninvited. “Yes?” Colonel Pierce said in an arch tone that made it clear he hadn’t asked for questions. Emilio stood up, back straight, suddenly composed. “Just so I’m clear—what’s the purpose of this mission?” I instinctively leaned away from him. Didn’t want my face to be associated with the first kid they kicked out. “I mean, maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t know, but I think it’s only fair. Are we going back to Mars?” Hadn’t anyone told this kid what “top secret” meant? Did he think all that paperwork he filled out was for fun? Colonel Pierce’s mouth became a tight, bloodless crease, but Emilio continued. “Or farther, beyond the solar system? Is that why you need someone young?” “You’ll be informed of the details of the mission before launch,” Ms. Krieger said, forcing an award-winning smile. “If you get that far, of course. Anyone else have questions?” Thankfully, no one else raised a hand. Colonel Pierce looked at Emilio like he knew what the future held for him. “Good. Then I suggest you get to your rooms and settle in. Some of you may not have much time to enjoy them.” I hung back as the sixty-three (including the Georgian ambassador’s son) other kids rushed toward the room assignment list posted on the doors. None of us knew anyone else here—who cared what room you were in? Like Ms. Krieger said, I wasn’t worried about having to deal with roommates for long. When I was able to get close enough to the form to read without being jabbed by elbows, I found my name under Room 4, along with: Hanna Schulz Mitsuko Pinuelas Giselle Ojeda I followed the crowd down the hall to the dorm wing. Room 4 was marked with a black plastic sign and already had one occupant: the blonde in all white, who was already in the middle of unpacking her suitcase of folded clothes onto her bed. We both did a polite nod. As soon as I put my bag down on the bed farthest from the blonde, the door opened again. It was the tall Japanese girl who’d sat beside me in the auditorium, smiling breezily in a sleeveless black tank and shorts, her legs tan and long. I could hear some laughter and shouting from the hall before the door closed. They were acting like this was spring break. I was one of the youngest candidates, but definitely one of the more mature ones. The new girl raised her eyebrows. She must have been a few years older than either of us, maybe even too old to be geneered, and had way better makeup-applying skills than I’d ever hope to acquire. “What’s with the faces? Aren’t you psyched to be here? Look around! We’re at JSC! We’re going to space!” “One of us is going to space,” the blond girl corrected. There was a lilt to her voice, some kind of accent so subtle it could’ve been Canadian or someplace far north. “One. I’m not about to celebrate before there’s anything worth celebrating.” That didn’t deter the other girl. She rolled her eyes like she thought she was dealing with children and smiled. “I’m Mitsuko. Or are we not introducing ourselves in this room?” “My name is Hanna,” the blonde said. “I’m from Potsdam. I took a year off from my studies at Uni Heidelberg to be in this program.” German—that was the source of her accent. And she’d taken off a whole year? Well, that was mighty presumptuous of her. They turned to me. “Cassie,” I said. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Mitsuko said. “So now we’re just missing Giselle.” “Mitsuko Pinuelas?” Hanna asked. “That’s right.” A lock of shiny black hair fell across Mitsuko’s face. She reached up to tuck it behind her ear, and I noticed a telltale ring on her left hand. Hanna didn’t miss it, either. “Really? You’re married?” Hanna asked, her nose wrinkling a little. “Hence the last name.” She laughed but was clearly getting annoyed. “How old are you?” Mitsuko gave her a long look before answering, eyebrows raised. “Twenty-three. You got a problem with that?” Hanna shrugged, but her point was clear even to me. Mitsuko shot her a patronizing glance. “Honey. I’m far from the oldest person here. And I’m multilingual, I have a pilot’s license, and I’m scuba certified. So I’ve had a bit more time to polish my skills.” I flinched inwardly and kept my hands busy with unpacking, far slower than necessary. I didn’t want to get in the middle of this. Five seconds into the first day and already egos were clashing. “That’s not what I meant. I’m sure most of us are in Mensa,” Hanna shot back, the German accent coming on a little strong. “But most of us don’t have a husband at home. You did leave him at home?” “Back in San Antonio,” Mitsuko quipped, setting her stuff down on the bed beside Hanna. “Why, does it surprise you that I’m allowed to be here all by myself?” “Well, you’re older than us. You have a family. I’m willing to bet that neither of those things are going to work in your favor.” Mitsuko smiled, showing perfect white teeth, and bopped Hanna under the chin as if she were a toddler. Hanna flinched away. “It’s sweet of you to be concerned, but I’m not worried about my chances.” This was getting a little much. I tried to deflect Mitsuko’s attention. “So you live in San Antonio?” Mitsuko turned as if noticing me for the first time, and smiled as though nothing unpleasant had just happened. “Just for now. It’s where my husband’s from. I just graduated from the University of Tokyo and was looking for a job. I was actually trying to get a job here, at Johnson.” She laughed. “Worked out a little differently than expected.”


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