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Book excerpt: 'The Relentless Moon' explores the challenges of lunar habitation

"The Relentless Moon" by Mary Robinette Kowal.
(Image: © Tor Books)

When Mary Robinette Kowal imagined a world in which the Apollo program never ended, she was careful to keep other aspects of space exploration precisely how they unfolded in history — like astronauts' wariness of anything that could get them grounded.

That's where this excerpt from her new book, "'The Relentless Moon" (Tor Books, 2020) begins, with protagonist Nicole Wargin dodging questions about a chin injury incurred while training new astronauts. (Read an interview with Mary Robinette Kowal about the new book.)

Wargin is bound for the moon base, where she spends large chunks of each year, but something went wrong with the most recent launch from the space program, and things are more complicated than they seem.

Related: Best space and sci-fi books for 2020

The Relentless Moon
Tor, 2020 | $16.19 on Amazon
In the third installment of Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut series, follow the drama unfolding on Earth and the moon as space exploration accelerates.View Deal

Excerpt from Chapter 5

UN REFUGEE COMMISSIONER MAKES NEW APPEAL ON PANAMA

KANSAS CITY, March 29, 1963—(Reuters)—The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, made an appeal for nations to accept refugees from Panama. Prince Sadruddin said that 1,800 refugees had been accepted or were in the process of being accepted by twenty different countries. The majority of these refugees are Kuna, an indigenous people whose homelands in the Panama islands are flooding under rising sea levels.

The flight surgeon wanted me to go home. Can you imagine? Ha. As if one of the boys would do that after a little bump on the chin. I took the time to put on a clean shirt and headed to Clemons's office with all seven of my brand-new stitches. I held a clipboard in one hand because they fool people into thinking that you are serious and busy.

When I walked into the outer office, his secretary Mrs. Kare looked up with a smile that quickly went to shock. "Good heavens!"

"I was wrestling a goose." There's a game pilots play, where we never give a straight answer to an injury question to anyone except the flight surgeon and then only enough to get back to flying. "Is he in?"

She almost rolled her eyes at me, and I admired her professionalism that she managed to stop it. "Yes, he's expecting you."

In his office, Clemons had his feet up on his desk with a report propped on his expansive belly. A cloud of his ubiquitous cigar smoke surrounded him. I swear, the only place he didn't smoke was in the clean rooms. "Ah, Wargin. Can you — Lord. That's from the hydraulic failure?"

"Head-butted by a goat." The skin under the bandage pulled and stung with each syllable. "But I won. You wanted to see me?"

"Er … yes." He lowered his feet and stared at my chin. The floor supervisor at the SVMF would have called Clemons to let him know about the accident, but I was not going to let him dwell on the injury, which is why I'd brought the clipboard. I sat down as if nothing were untoward.

"Halim told my class about the new schedule. I've got their current assessments ready for when you need them."

"Ah … thank you." He shuffled some papers on his desk and pulled out a pair of stapled sheets. "I do apologize for not mentioning it at the press conference today. You know how those jackals are. But yes, we are accelerating the next launch."

"Absolutely." I swallowed and felt the bandage tighten on my skin. "When did you need us to launch?"

"Ten days."

"I see." On the one hand, I was delighted to head back to the moon, where I had some use and where, honestly, life was simpler. On the other hand, I was supposed to have another month at home with Kenneth. I was furious with him for that comment at the press conference, but that didn't make me love him any less.

"Malouf thinks that's the absolute minimum time you need to prepare." He held out the paper. "Before you say yes, look this over. I'm shifting your role, and this lays out the revised crew schedule."

Please let it be pilot. Please let it be pilot. I took the sheet and clipped it to my board. Next to my name it said "secretarial staff." He had transferred me out of the astronaut department completely. It felt like I had been punched. It was one thing to have someone say you were old hat and another to be sent out to pasture. I suppose I should be grateful he was still letting me launch. "Secretarial … It's not my strength, but I'm happy to do what the IAC needs."

"Excellent." Clemons looked past me. "Ah, Malouf. Good."

Mary Robinette Kowal.

(Image credit: Mary Robinette Kowal)

"Sorry. I got caught by a colonist." Halim walked in carry- ing a file folder, and his expression was tight. He sat in the chair next to mine. "We've got one who doesn't want to launch despite it being a different class of rocket."

"I expect we'll get a few others, which will make … One moment." Grimacing, Clemons got up and went to the door of his office. "Mrs. Kare. No calls. Icarus program."

"Yes, sir." She glanced over her glasses at me and continued typing as if nothing unusual were happening.

The Icarus program? I spent six months out of the year on the moon, and it was easy to lose track of Earthbound projects. I had no idea what Icarus was. Ship? Station? Training protocol?

Code phrase?

Related: A Mars journey before computers? A Q&A with 'The Fated Sky' author Mary Robinette Kowal

Clemons shut the door. He ran a hand over his hair and stared at me. At my chin. "Tell me about the accident."

"I … " Both of my bosses were in the room. Even if Halim hadn't seen the accident, this was not the time for games. "I was doing a POGO demonstration. While I was in the harness, the hydraulic sprang a leak."

In the chair next to me, Halim shifted and glanced at Clemons. I could feel an entire unspoken conversation between them, but the subject matter was beyond my guess. Finally, Clemons sighed and stared at the floor. "I've conferred with my security officer and am going to read you on information based on your security clearance and your new need to know. This is TS/SCI."

"I see." I stayed sitting calmly in my chair, but my insides tightened. For a variety of reasons, some due to being one of the first astronauts, some due to my work in the war, and a little bit due to my husband, I had Top Secret clearance. I had no idea which piece of my history Clemons was referring to from my file. With the IAC, my TS clearance had only ever been related to rocket details, and this did not feel like we were about to talk rocketry.

You have to be "read on" for each SCI — Sensitive Compartmented Information. The government does love its acronyms. My voice was quiet and steady. My posture was perfect. Inside, was one long clenching of my guts. "May I assume there is no actual Icarus program?"

"You may." Clemons settled back in his chair. "If someone asks, the Icarus program is a theoretical project for navigating solo in space."

"I question that name choice for a space program."

"It makes perfect sense for referring to people who are trying to make us fall back to Earth." His face was haunted like I had never seen before. "I believe the launch was sabotaged and that it is not the only instance."

Years of practice at conversing with my husband's constituents allow me to sound calm even when I'm not. We had just had a press conference. People had asked about this. "Why aren't we telling the public? That would clear up the perception the IAC is at fault."

"The FBI has asked us not to, because they believe they are close to identifying the culprits. Publicizing this would, potentially, scare them off."

Internally, I made note of the fact that the FBI was involved, which meant they thought the sabotage was coming from a U.S. citizen. If not, it would be the CIA or the UN. "Scaring them off does not sound like a bad consequence."

"They would regroup and return with a different plan that we couldn't see coming."

A rocket had blown up this morning. I was not convinced they were seeing anything coming now. "So how are we handling it?"

You can buy "The Relentless Moon" on Amazon or Bookshop.org.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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