Winner: 2014 Hugo Award for Best Novelette
Thirty years ago, Elma York led the expedition that paved the way to life on Mars. For years she's been longing to go back up there, to once more explore the stars. But there are few opportunities for an aging astronaut, even the famous Lady Astronaut of Mars. When her chance finally comes, it may be too late. Elma must decide whether to stay with her sickening husband in what will surely be the final years of his life, or to have her final adventure and plunge deeper into the well of space.
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About the Author
MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL was the 2008 recipient of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a Hugo winner for her story “For Want of a Nail.” Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and several Year’s Best anthologies. She also writes the Glamourist History series, which began with Shades of Milk and Honey. A professional puppeteer and voice actor, she spent five years touring nationally with puppet theaters. She lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and many manual typewriters.
Read an Excerpt
The Lady Astronaut of Mars
By Mary Robinette Kowal, Richie Pope
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 Mary Robinette Kowal
All rights reserved.
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife. She met me, she went on to say, when I was working next door to their farm under the shadow of the rocket gantry for the First Mars Expedition.
I have no memory of this.
She would have been a little girl and, oh lord, there were so many little kids hanging around outside the Fence watching us work. The little girls all wanted to talk to the Lady Astronaut. To me.
I'm sure I spoke to Dorothy because know I stopped and talked to them every day on my way in and out through the Fence about what it was like. It being Mars. There was nothing else it could be.
Mars consumed everyone's conversations. The programmers sitting over their punchcards. The punchcard girls keying in the endless lines of code. The cafeteria ladies ladling out mashed potatoes and green peas. Nathaniel with his calculations ... Everyone talked about Mars.
So the fact that I didn't remember a little girl who said I talked to her about Mars ... Well. That's not surprising, is it? I tried not to let the confusion show in my face but I know she saw it.
By this point, Dorothy was my doctor. Let me be more specific. She was the geriatric specialist who was evaluating me. On Mars. I was in for what I thought was a routine check-up to make sure I was still fit to be an astronaut. NASA liked to update its database periodically and I liked to be in that database. Not that I'd flown since I turned fifty, but I kept my name on the list in the faint hope that they would let me back into space again, and I kept going to the darn check-ups.
Our previous doctor had retired back to Earth, and I'd visited Dorothy's offices three times before she mentioned Kansas and the prairie.
She fumbled with the clipboard and cleared her throat. A flush of red colored her cheeks and made her eyes even more blue. "Sorry. Dr. York, I shouldn't have mentioned it."
"Don't 'doctor' me. You're the doctor. I'm just a space jockey. Call me Elma." I waved my hand to calm her down. The flesh under my arm jiggled and I dropped my hand. I hate that feeling and hospital gowns just make it worse. "I'm glad you did. You just took me by surprise, is all. Last I saw you, weren't you knee-high to a grasshopper?"
"So you do remember me?" Oh, that hope. She'd come to Mars because of me. I could see that, clear as anything. Something I'd said or done back in 1952 had brought this girl out to the colony.
"Of course, I remember you. Didn't we talk every time I went through that Fence? Except school days, of course." It seemed a safe bet.
Dorothy nodded, eager. "I still have the eagle you gave me."
"Do you now?" That gave me a pause.
I used to make paper eagles out of old punchcards while I was waiting for Nathaniel. His programs could take hours to run and he liked to baby sit them. The eagles were cut paper things with layers of cards pasted together to make a three dimensional bird. It was usually in flight and I liked to hang them in the window, where the holes from the punch cards would let specks of light through and make the bird seem like it was sparkling. They would take me two or three days to make. You'd think I would remember giving one to a little girl beyond the Fence. "Did you bring it out here with you?"
"It's in my office." She stood as if she'd been waiting for me to ask that since our first session, then looked down at the clipboard in her hands, frowning. "We should finish your tests."
"Fine by me. Putting them off isn't going to make me any more eager." I held out my arm with the wrist up so she could take my pulse. By this point, I knew the drill. "How's your Uncle?"
She laid her fingers on my wrist, cool as anything. "He and Aunt Em passed away when Orion 27 blew."
I swallowed, sick at my lack of memory. So she was THAT little girl. She'd told me all the things I needed and my old brain was just too addled to put the pieces together. I wondered if she would make a note of that and if it would keep me grounded.
Dorothy had lived on a farm in the middle of the Kansas prairie with her Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. When Orion 27 came down in a ball of fire, it was the middle of a drought. The largest pieces of it had landed on a farm.
No buildings were crushed, but it would have been a blessing if they had been, because that would have saved the folks inside from burning alive.
I closed my eyes and could see her now as the little girl I'd forgotten. Brown pigtails down her back and a pair of dungarees a size too large for her, with the legs cuffed up to show bobby socks and sneakers.
Someone had pointed her out. "The little girl from the Williams farm."
I'd seen her before, but in that way you see the same people every day without noticing them. Even then, with someone pointing to her, she didn't stand out from the crowd. Looking at her, there was nothing to know that she'd just lived through a tragedy. I reckon it hadn't hit her yet.
I had stepped away from the entourage of reporters and consultants that followed me and walked up to her. She had tilted her head back to look up at me. I used to be a tall woman, you know.
I remember her voice piping up in that high treble of the very young. "You still going to Mars?"
I had nodded. "Maybe you can go someday too."
She had cocked her head to the side, as if she were considering. I can't remember what she said back. I know she must have said something. I know we must have talked longer because I gave her that darned eagle, but what we said ... I couldn't pull it up out of my brain.
As the present day Dorothy tugged up my sleeve and wrapped the blood pressure cuff around my arm, I studied her. She had the same dark hair as the little girl she had been, but it was cut short now and in the low gravity of Mars it wisped around her head like the down on a baby bird.
The shape of her eyes was the same, but that was about it. The soft roundness of her cheeks was long gone, leaving high cheekbones and a jaw that came to too sharp of a point for beauty. She had a faint white scar just above her left eyebrow.
She smiled at me and unwrapped the cuff. "Your blood pressure is better. You must have been exercising since last time."
"I do what my doctor tells me."
"How's your husband?"
"About the same." I slid away from the subject even though, as his doctor, she had the right to ask, and I squinted at her height. "How old were you when you came here?"
"Sixteen. We were supposed to come before but ... well." She shrugged, speaking worlds about why she hadn't.
"Your uncle, right?"
Startled, she shook her head. "Oh, no. Mom and Dad. We were supposed to be on the first colony ship but a logging truck lost its load."
Aghast, I could only stare at her. If they were supposed to have been on the first colony ship, then her parents could not have died long before Orion 27 crashed. I wet my lips. "Where did you go after your aunt and uncle's?"
"My cousin. Their son." She lifted one of the syringes she'd brought in with her. "I need to take some blood today."
"My left arm has better veins."
While she swabbed the site, I looked away and stared at a chart on the wall reminding people to take their vitamin D supplements. We didn't get enough light here for most humans.
But the stars ... When you could see them, the stars were glorious. Was that what had brought Dorothy to Mars?
* * *
When I got home from the doctor's — from Dorothy's — the nurse was just finishing up with Nathaniel's sponge bath. Genevieve stuck her head out of the bedroom, hands still dripping.
"Well, hey, Miss Elma. We're having a real good day, aren't we, Mr. Nathaniel?" Her smile could have lit a hangar, it was so bright.
"That we are." Nathaniel sounded hale and hearty, if I didn't look at him. "Genevieve taught me a new joke. How's it go?"
She stepped back into the bedroom. "What did the astronaut see on the stove? An unidentified frying object."
Nathaniel laughed, and there was only a little bit of a wheeze. I slid my shoes off in the dustroom to keep out the ever present Martian grit, and came into the kitchen to lean against the bedroom door. Time was, it used to be his office but we needed a bedroom on the ground floor. "That's a pretty good one."
He sat on a towel at the edge of the bed as Genevieve washed him. With his shirt off, the ribs were starkly visible under his skin. Each bone in his arms poked at the surface and slid under the slack flesh. His hands shook, even just resting beside him on the bed. He grinned at me.
The same grin. The same bright blue eyes that had flashed over the punchcards as he'd worked out the plans for the launch. It was as though someone had pasted his features onto the body of a stranger. "How'd the doctor's visit go?"
"The usual. Only ... Only it turns out our doctor grew up next to the launch facility in Kansas."
"The same. Apparently I met her when she was little."
"Is that right?" Genevieve wrung the sponge out in the wash basin. "Doesn't that just go to show that it's a small solar system?"
"Not that small." Nathaniel reached for his shirt, which lay on the bed next to him. His hands tremored over the fabric.
"I'll get it. You just give me a minute to get this put away." Genevieve bustled out of the room.
I called after her. "Don't worry. I can help him."
Nathaniel dipped his head, hiding those beautiful eyes, as I drew a sleeve up over one arm. He favored flannel now. He'd always hated it in the past. Preferred starched white shirts and a nice tie to work in, and a short sleeved aloha shirt on his days off. At first, I thought that the flannel was because he was cold all the time. Later I realized that the thicker fabric hid some of his frailty. Leaning behind him to pull the shirt around his back, I could count vertebra in his spine.
Nathaniel cleared his throat. "So, you met her, hm? Or she met you? There were a lot of little kids watching us."
"Both. I gave her one of my paper eagles."
That made him lift his head. "Really?"
"She was on the Williams farm when the Orion 27 came down."
He winced. Even after all these years, Nathaniel still felt responsible. He had not programmed the rocket. They'd asked him to, but he'd been too busy with the First Mars Expedition and turned the assignment down. It was just a supply rocket for the moon, and there had been no reason to think it needed anything special.
I buttoned the shirt under his chin. The soft wattle of skin hanging from his jaw brushed the back of my hand. "I think she was too shy to mention it at my last visit."
"But she gave you a clean bill of health?"
"There's still some test results to get back." I avoided his gaze, hating the fact that I was healthy and he was ... Not.
"It must be pretty good. Sheldon called."
A bubble of adrenalin made my heart skip. Sheldon Spender called. The director of operations at the Bradbury Space Center on Mars had not called since — No, that wasn't true. He hadn't called me in years, using silence to let me know I wasn't flying anymore. Nathaniel still got called for work. Becoming old didn't stop a programmer from working, but it sure as heck stopped an astronaut from flying. And yet I still had that moment of hope every single time Sheldon called, that this time it would be for me. I smoothed the flannel over Nathaniel's shoulders. "Do they have a new project for you?"
"He called for you. Message is on the counter."
Genevieve breezed back into the room, a bubble of idle chatter preceding her. Something about her cousin and meeting their neighbors on Venus. I stood up and let her finish getting Nathaniel dressed while I went into the kitchen.
Sheldon had called for me? I picked up the note on the counter. It just had Genevieve's round handwriting and a request to meet for lunch. The location told me a lot though. He'd picked a bar next to the space center that no one in the industry went to because it was thronged with tourists. It was a good place to talk business without talking business. For the life of me I couldn't figure out what he wanted.
* * *
I kept chewing on that question, right till the point when I stepped through the doors of Yuri's Spot. The walls were crowded with memorabilia and signed photos of astronauts. An early publicity still that showed me perched on the edge of Nathaniel's desk, hung in the corner next to a dusty ficus tree. My hair fell in perfect soft curls despite the flight suit I had on. My hair would never have survived like that if I'd actually been working. I tended to keep it out of the way in a kerchief, but that wasn't the image publicity had wanted.
Nathaniel was holding up a punch card, as if he were showing me a crucial piece of programming. Again, it was a staged thing, because the individual cards were meaningless by themselves, but to the general public at the time they meant Science with a capital S. I'm pretty sure that's why we were both laughing in the photo, but they had billed it as "the joy of space flight."
Still gave me a chuckle, thirty years later.
Sheldon stepped away from the wall and mistook my smile. "You look in good spirits."
I nodded to the photo. "Just laughing at old memories."
He glanced over his shoulder, wrinkles bunching at the corner of his eyes in a smile. "How's Nathaniel?"
"About the same, which is all one can ask for at this point."
Sheldon nodded and gestured to a corner booth, leading me past a family with five kids who had clearly come from the Space Center. The youngest girl had her nose buried in a picture book of the early space program. None of them noticed me.
Time was when I couldn't walk anywhere on Mars without being recognized as the Lady Astronaut. Now, thirty years after the First Expedition, I was just another old lady, whose small stature showed my origin on Earth.
We settled in our chairs and ordered, making small talk as we did. I think I got fish and chips because it was the first thing on the menu, and all I could think about was wondering why Sheldon had called.
It was like he wanted to see how long it would take me to crack and ask him what he was up to. It took me awhile to realize that he kept bringing the conversation back to Nathaniel. Was he in pain?
Did he have trouble sleeping?
Even, "How are you holding up?" was about him. I didn't get it until Sheldon paused and pushed his rabbit burger aside, half-eaten, and asked point-blank. "Have they given him a date yet?"
A date. There was only one date that mattered in a string of other milestones on the path to death but I pretended he wasn't being clear, just to make him hurt a little. "You mean for paralyzation, hospice, or death?"
He didn't flinch. "Death."
"We think he's got about a year." I kept my face calm, the way you do when you're talking to Mission Control about a flight that's set to abort. The worse it got, the more even my voice became. "He can still work, if that's what you're asking."
"It's not." Sheldon broke his gaze then, to my surprise, and looked down at his ice water, spinning the glass in its circle of condensation. "What I need to know is if you can still work."
In my intake of breath, I wanted to say that God, yes, I could work and that I would do anything he asked of me if he'd put me back into space. In my exhale, I thought of Nathaniel. I could not say yes. "That's why you asked for the physical."
"I'm sixty-three, Sheldon."
"I know." He turned the glass again. "Did you see the news about LS-579?"
"The extrasolar planet. Yes." I was grounded, that didn't mean I stopped paying attention to the stars.
"Did you know we think it's habitable?"
I stopped with my mouth open as pieces started to tick like punch cards slotting through a machine. "You're mounting a mission."
"If we were, would you be interested in going?"
Back into space? My god, yes. But I couldn't. I couldn't. I — that was why he wanted to know when my husband was going to die. I swallowed everything before speaking. My voice was passive. "I'm sixty-three." Which was my way of asking why he wanted me to go.
"It's three years in space." He looked up now, not needing to explain why they wanted an old pilot.
That long in space? It doesn't matter how much shielding you have against radiation, it's going to affect you. The chances of developing cancer within the next fifteen years were huge. You can't ask a young astronaut to do that. "I see."
"We have the resources to send a small craft there. It can't be unmanned because the programming is too complicated. I need an astronaut who can fit in the capsule."
"And you need someone who has a reason to not care about surviving the trip."
"No." He grimaced. "PR tells me that I need an astronaut that the public will adore so that when we finally tell them that we've sent you, they will forgive us for hiding the mission from them." Sheldon cleared his throat and started briefing me on the Longevity Mission.
Should I pause here and explain what the Longevity mission is? It's possible that you don't know.
There's a habitable planet. An extrasolar one and it's only few light years away. They've got a slingshot that can launch a ship up to near light speed. A small ship. Big enough for one person.
Excerpted from The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal, Richie Pope. Copyright © 2014 Mary Robinette Kowal. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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