Have you ever hoped you could leave everything behind?
Have you ever dreamt of a better world?
Can a dream sustain a lifetime?
A century ago, an astronomer discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting a nearby star. She predicted that one day humans would travel there to build a utopia. Today, ten astronauts are leaving everything behind to find it. Four are veterans of the twentieth century’s space-race.
And six are teenagers who’ve trained for this mission most of their lives.
It will take the team twenty-three years to reach Terra-Two. Twenty-three years locked in close quarters. Twenty-three years with no one to rely on but each other. Twenty-three years with no rescue possible, should something go wrong.
And something always goes wrong.
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He had developed the habit of tapping his thumb against the tips of his fingers. The index first, three, four, five again and again, perfected to a quick, quiet art. He had read online that it was a test of neurological agility. When the neurons in his brain began to pop out like lightbulbs he would no longer be able to perform this minor feat. Nor would he be able to roll a two pence coin over his knuckles forward and then back in one fluid motion so the penny slid across his lissom hands – another skill mastered over years of staring out the window during tutorials, watching blossoms fall and thinking about death.
Jesse thought about death a lot, in the beginning, with the same detached curiosity roused by the sight of a car accident. He had been told that he would die before he turned twenty.
During a trip to Indonesia, a medicine man had taken his sister's hand and told her she would fall sick but not leave this Earth, and then stared down at the lines of Jesse's own palm and said that in nine years he would.
It was only after his sister's preternatural recovery from cerebral malaria that Jesse began to give some thought to how he might die. He'd been eleven, then. Young and relatively healthy, it was unlikely to be an accident of genetics or something insidious and tragic like leukaemia. He hoped that, when death came, it would be quick as a knife. Something as dramatic as a car accident or gunshot wound seemed, to him, romantic but unlikely. Jesse believed that if anything was going to kill him it would be his brain. A tumour, an aneurysm, a sudden unexplained blow to the back of the head.
Whenever his mother or the family paediatrician intervened – promising that he was a healthy and unlikely to die – he would remember the sight of his sister's green eyes flying open in that humid hospital room just after the doctors had told his parents there was nothing more they could do.
Jesse sat in class, tapping his fingers and imagining the buildup of intracranial pressure. His anxious, overactive brain swelling like a sponge against the cage of his skull. By the time his family left Indonesia and returned to London, life was like a fickle lover, leaving him guessing and sick and wanting more time.
A few more years was not enough. He might never go to Argentina, never have sex, never ride in an open-top convertible along the California coastline with the wind in his hair and shadows at his back. All these things had never been his and yet he felt as if they'd been taken from him. The future, the freedom to hope for it.
His suffering – made ineffably worse by the fact that no one believed him – grew so bad that by age thirteen he was a morbid recluse. He spun away from his classmates like a satellite in a doomed orbit. Lay in bed, tallying all the time he had already lost, too tired to get up, to cut his nails, to get dressed. His older sister would stand over his bed in her crumpled school uniform and shout, 'Some people have real problems, you know.'
But when applications to the Off-World Colonization Project opened up, Jesse saw his salvation.
Like most people his age, he had grown up with dreams of Terra-Two. Built papier-mâché models of the habitable exoplanet in kindergarten. He had been seven or eight when the Search for Life on Terra-Two had started, with unmanned satellites landing on alien shores and sending back images of the verdant earth, clean-water lakes, a thriving ecosystem and no humans. By the end of the twentieth century, many countries had mastered interplanetary travel and set their sights on neighbouring stars. When the grainy footage of this new and beautiful planet was broadcast across the globe, Terra-Two ignited the imagination of every child Jesse's age.
The tabloids had declared it habitable long before NASA issued an official statement, and soon after that the race to colonize T2 truly began.
The UK Space Agency put out a nationwide call for healthy 12–13 year olds with an aptitude for physics and biology to join a team of experienced astronauts on the twenty-three-year-long journey to the new planet. The group would be called the Beta, and they would be chosen from a pool of students enrolled on an accelerated course of study at the Dalton Academy for Aerospace Science in the suburbs of London. A school founded to train a generation of astronauts, engineers and employees of the UK Space Agency. Jesse was eating dinner one night when he heard that the organisation were looking for people his age. It occurred to him, then, that perhaps he was not destined to die at twenty after all. Perhaps leaving Earth on board a space shuttle had been the prophecy instead.
The application process involved several months of interviews and physical assessments, and several rounds of gruelling exams. Jesse was thirteen when he was finally admitted to the Dalton Academy. The main building was a repurposed sanatorium, the words 'New Addington Home for Incurables' still conspicuously etched into the crumbling stone architrave.
The initial adjustment was difficult for Jesse, who had been the brightest in his school – two years ahead of the other students his age – but was now amongst his academic peers. His days began before the first glimmer of dawn, at 5.30 a.m., with a compulsory run around the training facility, a cold shower before breakfast and then classes that began at 8 a.m and finished at 8 p.m. That first year involved cramming four years' worth of exams – GCSEs and A-levels – into thirteen punishing months. He staggered through those weeks, along with the still starstruck students in his class, only to find that there was no time to rest on the weekends. Saturdays were for training and tutorials, and after lunch on Sunday they were herded into the library for six hours of silent study. With only three weeks a year of summer holiday, months ran drearily into each other. Every vacation, every summer's day, every light-limned afternoon was sacrificed to the laminated textbooks he hauled around like bricks. Scribbling up flashcards. Tackling incomprehensible worksheets. Watching his sister sunbathe out in the garden as he memorized tables of data. Tempted every hour by the mid-August barbecues and the sweet smells of sizzling beef, the sounds of his parents' laughter drifting through his bedroom window as he rewrote and rewrote and rewrote specific biochemical pathways so many times that they became muscle memory.
The stress was sickening, and many of the school's students broke under it. During his first term, Jesse had been grouped with a team of six called an 'expedition', and by the end of the first year one of them had dropped out voluntarily and two had been expelled after failing an exam. When he returned to Dalton the next year, at age fourteen, their initial cohort of 300 had halved. They began studying aeronautics, degree-level physics, geology and propulsion engineering. Two months into the new term, Jesse returned from a weekend away to find that his roommate had been in bed for three days, sheets soaking wet, eyes vacant and haunted. 'I just can't do it anymore,' he told Jesse, 'I can't even move.' He'd been collected an hour later by his parents and a mental health officer. That same year, a boy drowned in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab and, although there was an investigation, Jesse was horrified to find that life at Dalton went on as normal. Classes continued the next day without interruption, although one morning run was cancelled, and the flag above the observatory flew at half-mast for the rest of the week.
In spite of all this, every time his parents asked if he wanted to drop out, Jesse was surprised to find that he did not. He had never been in love, but perhaps this was close to it. He had never wanted anything more than he wanted to go to space. Dalton pushed him to his limits. Each completed chapter of a book was a new triumph of understanding – after staring at a genetics text until the words began to blur he would gain a happy, tentative understanding of Okazaki Fragments or the Shine-Dalgarno sequence, and his heart would rejoice. And etched on the school's front gates were the words, 'It is better to fly like a falcon for half a year than to crawl like a turtle through a lifetime.'
The hope of being one of the six students chosen for the Terra-Two mission made it into his every waking thought. He plastered his walls with diagrams of spacecraft, manoeuvres and constellations, so he could memorize them as he lay on his back. The prospect sustained him. Kept him running laps across the frosted grounds when his fingers were prickly and numb with pre-dawn cold. He could stand all of it because he knew that leaving Earth was not merely his destiny, it was his only chance to live beyond his twentieth birthday.
The first four years of work paid off. Jesse passed his exams and was selected to be an astronaut candidate in a group the students liked to call 'The Final Fifty'. Everything was different by then. Two hundred and fifty hopefuls had been culled: friends, confidants. Jesse felt isolated. For the first time, he doubted himself. Every one of the brilliant students who remained in his cohort believed that the sky was their destiny also. They could study forty-eight hours straight in their dorm rooms and ace the impenetrable weekly exams. Everyone was became more acutely aware of the competition, of the fact that years of toil could so easily amount to nothing. That more than half of them would never make it to the shuttle, would ache forever with private longing, Earthbound and wretched. Students Jesse had once considered friends became cool and suspicious, leaning over his work to smile at errors only they could see. Dalton became a lonelier place, and Jesse began to wonder how much he belonged after all. Every now and then his mind would swell to great heights of tenuous certainty (of course he would make it, hadn't it been prophesied?) only to slip again and again into nailbiting anxiety.
When the result finally arrived, it was in the form of a letter, two weeks before graduation. The students chosen for the Beta and the back-up crew would stay on and train for ten months until the launch. But everyone else would be discharged, free to seize the rest of their lives. But, what lives?
Jesse opened it alone, behind the Weightless Environment Training Facility, watching the silver July light on the surface of the water, fingers cold with dread.
His name was printed at the top: JESSE SOLLOWAY. The subject heading was 'Off-World Colonization Programme'. The first word which grabbed his attention – the first sickening word – was Unfortunately.
LATER THAT DAY, HE SAW the six who made it on the BBC news. There was the one everyone suspected: Harry Bellgrave, who stood waving for the crowd in the shadow of the school's boathouse, smiling under a golden coronet of curls. And the weird but determined Ara Shah, who sang in the corridors and came top in most of the botany and hydroponics exams. While she radiated an air of effortless brilliance, Jesse had caught her, more than a few times, hunched over her laptop for so long in the library that she'd look up at the sunrise and blink in confusion as if she had no idea where it came from. There were people no one expected: Poppy, a hyper-polyglot who reputedly spoke twenty-three languages. She was a year older than everyone else and if she gave the wrong answer when called upon in tutorials, she would slip down in her seat, her cheeks flaming the same crimson as her hair. Eliot, the reclusive programmer, with whom Jesse had shared a dormitory for six weeks. Kenyan twins Juno and Astrid, the former studious and dour, the other prone to fits of breathy giggles in the back of assembly. When Jesse saw them all together the first time that day, and every time after, it stung. 'Why them,' he would hiss, 'and not me?' When he spotted them on the cover of TIME at a local newsagent's, his stomach turned. He tossed the stack of magazines in the dustbin and the shop assistant demanded he pay for all of them.
His nineteenth birthday was fast approaching, and his escape from death had been snatched from him at the final moment. 'It was amazing that you made it so far in the first place,' his mother reminded him and – after all – it was not a rejection. Jesse had been assigned to the backup crew. This meant that he had to forgo his final summer to train with the Beta. Only, after graduation the school was like a vacant fairground. Disconcerting, to live out his days in this place that was usually hectic with life. Only fourteen students remained, the crew and the backup crew. Practicing with them was a miserable experience. In less than a year, they would all be in space. And Jesse's job would be over. He felt like a shadow boxer, learning to maintain a shuttle that his feet would never touch. It had all been for nothing, he'd lie awake and consider. Forlorn insomniac nights as the summer vanished. Occasionally, though, Jesse allowed himself to imagine it, leaving Earth and the risk of dying young behind, his name echoing down the halls of history on everyone's tongue. Neil Armstrong had served as backup commander on the Apollo 8 mission, he remembered. It could still happen. A member of the Beta could be taken ill or fail to comply with the UK Space Agency and he would be called upon. It could still happen, he whispered with clenched fists into the darkness. But then he would catch himself counting the number of days he had left to live, and the old dread would settle like frost.CHAPTER 2
(T-MINUS 10 MONTHS TO LAUNCH)
The day the news broke she was on her way home from school, and the sun was already setting on her mother's street. The fences were razor-edged in the last of the light and Poppy savoured it as she walked, letting her fingers clatter along the chain-link. She usually found a reason to stay behind after term ended; something she had forgotten, a second drama rehearsal, Arabic Literature homework, an hour frittered away in her dorm after everyone packed up and left. But this time, there hadn't been much to do. It was the final half-term before their class graduated, and the high point of the summer where the air was thick and wet as tar.
As always, Poppy had booked the long train home at the last minute, because it was always a miserable affair, leaving behind the sweet-smelling tree-lined avenues near Dalton and returning to her hometown on the outskirts of Liverpool. Part of an urban sprawl that had been condemned by the city's mayor. She'd taken the coach a thousand times from Lime Street Station, and watched from the window as glass towers slumped down. It took about forty minutes for the bus to wind down ghost-streets of boarded up shops, victorian terraces destined to be demolished, and post-WWII social housing screaming with spray-paint.
It was downhill from the urine-scented bus shelter to her mother's flat. Poppy reprimanded herself if she ever turned up her nose at the cracked pavements that spewed dandelions and flattened cigarette butts. This was where she came from. The run-down town-houses carved into flats. Where she grew up.
And these people, the teenagers on children's bikes who catcalled and whistled when she past, these were her people. For five years, she had believed that when Dalton ended – when she was no longer allowed to lounge in the ivied quad reading books – it was to these streets she would return. To hate this place would be to hate herself, her mother would remind her during every visit home. Her mother vetted Poppy's speech for a new word or turn of phrase, and teased her mercilessly about it. 'Ohhh, Mrs Dalton,' she'd say with a curtsey, 'Too good for us these days,' and Poppy would blush and bite her tongue.
On Monday she had discovered that she had been chosen to go to space. In the quiet week after she found out, Poppy walked around in numbed surprise, certain a mistake had been made. It had been a dream to get into Dalton in the first place, to live and study amongst the neat, brilliant students who were unlike her in every way.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Do You Dream of Terra-Two?"
Copyright © 2019 Temitoyen Ochugboju.
Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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