Another full chapter excerpt from MARS COLONY AGATHA: NIKKI RED by Jack Chaucer, which drops Nov. 1:
September 11, 2022 — Launch-Minus-11 Day
Kennedy Space Center, Florida
They entered the crew lounge together, but Nikki felt all eyes on her, not Elon. What a strange new world she had crossed into, and she hadn’t even left Earth yet.
“Hey Martians, here’s your sixth crew member, Nicole Janicek,” Musk said casually with a playful bow and a sort of game-show-host hand gesture that made Nikki blanch.
“Nikki is fine,” she managed to say, her own frozen attempt to keep it casual.
“Indeed you are,” a tough-looking, short-haired woman quipped unabashedly as she was the first to shake Nikki’s hand. “Jo Giguere. Welcome aboard. Are you ready for Round 2?”
Nikki nodded at the shorter woman, who seemed like she’d hold her own in a boxing ring.
“I am … more than ready to actually escape Earth’s atmosphere this time.”
“We will,” the pilot said, her confidence reassuring to Nikki. “This is Commander Xander,” she added, hooking her thumb at the next crew mate in line to greet her. He stood a foot taller than Jo and rocked a black SpaceX T-shirt while the others wore white.
“Welcome aboard,” Xander Vermilyea declared, shaking her hand firmly. “We’ll get you up to speed on the mission straightaway,” he added in a South African accent that reminded Nikki of her old Bridge nemesis, Dr. Peter van Wooten.
“Thanks … I can’t wait get started,” Nikki said while noting Xander’s hair was even shorter than Jo’s. She felt utterly out of place with her long, wild and red-streaked look. “Should I cut this?” she asked.
“What?” Jo gasped.
“Well I’m looking around at all of you with short hair …”
“Or no hair,” a strapping, bald black man interjected with a hearty laugh, which rippled through the rest of the crew. He bypassed the hand shake and went straight for a bear hug. Nikki rolled with it and smiled. “I’m Ulysses, but everyone calls me Pluto because they can’t handle my size and they don’t know how to classify me.”
“Nice to meet you, Pluto,” Nikki said, trying to loosen up a little. “Or should I call you Jupiter instead?”
“Oooh, I like that,” he replied. “I love her already, Commander X,” he added, putting his arm around Xander, who nodded but clearly wasn’t that comfortable with Pluto’s touchy-feely approach.
An Italian-looking man, his dark hair graying above the ears, and a tall Asian woman flanked Nikki next. Edward Etergino and Susan Wilkes both shook her hand and welcomed her to the crew.
“Call me Sunny,” Susan said with a radiant smile. “How are you feeling after what happened the other day?”
“Better than I expected, especially after getting the call from Elon,” she replied, nodding toward a suddenly aloof Musk, who was snacking on potato chips out of a bowl on one of the long, rectangular tables. His mind seemed to be elsewhere.
“Well, he is full of surprises,” Eddy said, his voice loud and friendly.
“Hopefully you don’t all hate me for taking someone else’s spot,” Nikki said with a cringe.
“How can we? We know it’s all Elon’s fault,” Eddy bellowed at Musk, but in a jovial tone.
“You guys get all the glory and I get all the blame … I know how it works,” Elon chimed in, not even knowing what the topic was from half a lounge away.
But that did seem to stir him from being deep in thought because then he came over, stood next to Nikki and put his hand up to quiet the room.
“I just want to say a few words before you eat and then I have a special world premiere film for you to watch after dinner,” Elon said.
“Oooh,” Pluto responded as the others clapped.
“Any hints?” Jo asked.
“It’s not a ‘Rocky’ movie,” Musk waved her off with a grin.
“I like MMA, not that prehistoric fake boxing shit,” she shot back.
Everyone laughed. Nikki was so relieved that the crew seemed so loose and fun. If they were rocketing to their deaths, at least they’d be cracking some jokes along the way.
“Seriously, there will be no more crew changes,” Elon continued. “This is the group that will make history next June and land on Mars. I’m tripping balls just thinking about it and I’m not even going, so I can only imagine the adrenaline you guys are running on right now. Just remember … it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
“Wait, we’re only going 26.2 miles?!” Pluto asked with a look of feigned horror. “I want a refund!”
“Metaphors are lost on these creatures,” Elon told Nikki as the kitchen crew entered and began setting up a buffet on one of the long tables. “I can’t compete with food,” he added to the whole group. “As I told Nikki earlier, chow down on the real Earth food while you can get it, and I’ll be back later to introduce the special film.”
“I bet it’s soft porn,” Jo blurted out to laughter.
Elon’s grin couldn’t get any wider, but he just shook his head and exited the lounge.
The six astronauts soon were helping themselves to a Sunday buffet of roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans and buttered rolls. They all sat together at one table and Nikki fielded questions in between bites.
“How rough did the ejection go?” Xander asked.
“Pretty violent,” she replied. “The side-to-side jolts at first made me feel like my rib cage was going to crack, and I just figured this is it — the rocket’s going to break apart any second. I was totally in shock while we were coming down and it got more gentle, and I realized all that training and anticipation were for nothing.”
“Until now,” Pluto said, finally looking up from his plate.
“Where did you train?” Sunny asked from directly across the table.
“South Pole Station, McMurdo Dry Valleys and The Bridge has a launch complex in South Africa. Then I had my Red One training in the Netherlands and Norway.”
“What was your favorite?” Jo asked.
“Hmm … probably South Pole Station.”
“Really?” Eddy piped up.
“Yeah, that place just changes your life … complete darkness … it’s like you’re already traveling through the stars there … then the slow-motion sunrise over weeks,” Nikki said wistfully. “You never see Earth the same way again. You already feel so detached from what everyone considers normal.”
“A good preview of what’s to come for us,” Eddy nodded. “I’ve done a couple of spacewalks on the ISS and that detached feeling is quite the high …”
“Why didn’t you just slash your umbilical tether, Eddy?” Xander ribbed him with a grin.
“Yeah, but NASA would’ve fired me for that,” he deadpanned.
Everyone cracked up.
“Are all of you single?” Nikki asked with a smirk.
“Oooh,” Pluto jumped in his chair. “Skip right to the good stuff, girl.”
Nikki fought through her blush. “I’m asking more out of curiosity because we’re leaving people behind.”
“Oh,” Sunny nodded.
“Elon wouldn’t let us come into this mission with a significant other,” Jo said with no hint of a joke. “That was part of the deal. He wanted us totally focused, with no chance of regrets or backing out because we might never come back home to that special someone.”
“Seriously?” Nikki asked.
“It’s true,” Xander confirmed.
“Did he ask you if you were with someone?” Jo asked.
“That’s bullshit,” Pluto declared, throwing down his napkin in exaggerated disgust.
“I guess he just assumed I was single and he’s right,” Nikki said. “I was already supposed to be on my way to Mars right now anyway.”
“How old, or should I say, how young are you?” Jo asked.
“Wow, I’m no longer the baby of the group,” Sunny replied.
Nikki guessed her new comrades were in their mid to late 30s or 40s. Sunny seemed next youngest, likely in her early 30s.
Elon then popped back into the lounge.
“Hey, it’s time to fire up our movie.”
Nikki’s crew mates clapped.
“This is an exclusive premiere of a film that will be seen by the rest of this world in December, when you’re all well on your way to Mars,” Elon said as his assistant, Jane, passed out virtual reality headsets to each of the astronauts.
“VR, cool,” Jo said.
“Yes, put them on and go grab a comfortable seat,” Elon instructed.
They all headed for nearby sofas and recliners.
“Do we need to be far apart so we don’t punch anybody?” Jo asked.
“It’s not that kind of film,” Elon replied with a grin.
“Too bad,” the pilot lamented.
“This movie will whet your appetite for our Mars mission,” Elon predicted. “It was made by one of the artists, an American film director, who traveled on our six-day trip around the Moon in March as a guest of Japanese billionaire Yusaka Maezawa.”
Nikki and her crew mates cheered.
“He incorporated music by the musician in the group, still photos from the photographer in the group, narration from the writer in the group … you get the idea,” Elon said. “It’s called ‘dear Moon.’ Enjoy.”
The VR headset now firmly in place, Nikki settled into a recliner and prepared for liftoff to the Moon.
The rumbling of the Raptor engines slowly increased, but the screen remained black until a clip from the 1950s comedy “The Honeymooners” flashed in front of her. “To the Moon, Alice!” portly Jackie Gleason shouted with a faux upper cut at his unimpressed, red-haired housewife. It was so unexpectedly inartistic that Nikki and the other astronauts laughed out loud.
Then snippets of President John F. Kennedy and Apollo-era astronauts from the 1960s talking about going to the Moon peppered the VR screen as the rumbling sound intensified.
That was followed by a montage of liftoff images from the Apollo rockets, and finally, a Go Pro-type view of Maezawa and the artists waving while strapped into their launch seats as the SpaceX rocket vibrated toward full thrust.
The deafening roar of the actual liftoff blasted Nikki’s ears, and the camera atop the nose of the ship gazed down at fire and Earth, the former separating from the latter at an exponentially rapid pace.
A series of audio communications between the commander and Kennedy Space Center control chirped intermittently as the rocket cleared the launch pad and raced into the crisp, blue sky. Those radio bursts soon faded and a beautiful piano melody took over, serenading the spaceship and its crew on the ride out of Earth’s atmosphere and toward the blackness of space.
The music continued as the ship jettisoned its reusable first-stage rocket, sending it on a graceful fall back toward the Atlantic Ocean below.
“And so it begins,” a Japanese man’s voice said. “A six-day, 240,000-mile journey to the Moon and back.”
The second-stage engines then revved and erupted, accelerating the spaceship on its burn toward what now filled the screen — a half-lit, half-shadowed, fully cratered lunar masterpiece.
“Dear Moon,” the man’s voice continued. “We are your humble guests. We have felt your pull — from the tides in our oceans, from your radiance in our eyes. We need to see you up close. Show us your beauty. Inspire us to create. Teach us more about who we are and our place in this spectacular frontier we call the universe.”
As the blue-and-white Earth slowly spun smaller, the Moon drew the ship and its now jubilant, free-floating artists ever closer. GoPro cameras captured Maezawa and his friends smiling, laughing, tumbling and dancing in zero gravity on the cruise of their lives. Still-frame close-ups of each of their faces, and then zoomed-in shots of their eyes gazing out the ship’s massive windows, eventually transitioned into what seemed like hundreds of amazing views of Earth, space, the stars and ultimately the Moon.
The luminous lunar surface nearly blinded Nikki until the shadow of its dark side slowly rotated into view. A woman’s voice then sang Cat Stevens’ classic hit, “Moonshadow,” as the ship made its slow, wide turn around the Moon and started the journey back home.
The remainder of the film featured images of the return voyage, the artists aboard ship and the works they created — paintings, poetry, sculptures, clothing, multimedia art — all set to an original score of classical music that pushed Nikki to the brink of tears. She loved the film’s pure, real, understated beauty, and she freed herself to truly believe she was on the verge of experiencing space, too.
When it was over, and the Mars crew had finishing clapping and hugging each other, Elon Musk stood proudly in front of them and gave them one last thing to think about.
“There are no limits to what we can do,” he said. “We are destined to be a multi-planet species. You six will prove that very soon. Complete your final days of training together with the belief that Mars not only is within our reach, but also will be ours to populate, terraform and resuscitate from dead and desolate to alive and kicking.”
The crew clapped and Eddy pointed at Elon.
“A Simple Minds reference, nice,” he said, in reference to the band’s 1985 song, “Alive and Kicking.”
Elon nodded and smiled. “I guess we’re both men of a certain age, Eddy, but truth be told, I’m more of Sinatra “Fly Me to the Moon” guy than an ‘80s music guy.”
“Makes sense. You really are an old soul, boss,” Eddy laughed.
“Regardless of musical taste, I won’t be satisfied until I hear a live band jam in a bar on Mars,” Musk said.
“Oh boy … looks like we better start practicing,” Pluto said.
“Who here can sing?” Jo asked the group.
“Not me,” Sunny said with a chuckle.
“Nikki’s definitely got the right hair to lead the band,” Elon noted with a grin.
She shook her head. “I’m not much of a singer.”
Pluto put his arm around her like he had known her for years, not a couple of hours. “Don’t worry, Nikki. We’ll sing backup for you.”
“Pluto, you can sing lead,” Eddy said. “I’ve heard you.”
“Only if you pay me like a lead singer then,” he quipped.
“Controversy already,” Elon chimed in.
“We’ll need a name for this band of ours,” Xander pointed out.
“The Nikki Six,” Eddy blurted out, a reference to Motley Crue, another 1980s-era rock band whose bassist is Nikki Sixx. Coincidentally, the guitarist’s name is Mick Mars.
“She just joined this crew, Eddy, so let’s not give her top billing just yet,” Xander said, winking at an embarrassed Nikki.
Eddy waved him off and suddenly acted like he came up with another brilliant band name.
“That’s fine,” he said. “I’ve got it, people. How about Red Zeppelin?”
“Good one,” Elon agreed as they all clapped.
“Clever, Eddy. I like it,” Jo said, grinning and slapping him on the back. “And I think we’ll be just far enough away to escape Led Zeppelin’s lawsuit.”
“Elon, can you have your guys slap some red paint on Starship before liftoff?” Eddy asked, chuckling.
“Yeah, a hot fire-engine red,” Jo saucily piled on.
“Absolutely not,” the SpaceX chief replied. “The ship is stainless steel with white interior, the spacesuits are white with black trim … if you want red, you’ve gotta earn it and reach Mars.”