Dress rehearsal for my Jack Chaucer author/space geek appearance at Book Fiend Readers Festival at Norwich Arts Center tomorrow, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. I’m on a really cool sci-fi panel at 11:15 and I’m reading from my new novel MARS COLONY AGATHA at 2:15. I’ll be selling/signing 6 of my paperback titles! Great deals! People in costumes! Come join the party and after party! (Photo credit: My son Lars, 8)
T-minus 3-2-1 … BOOK LAUNCH LIFTOFF TODAY! On the heels of the first two-women spacewalk, Nikki Janicek and her crew blast off for Mars today in Elon Musk’s Starship in my new novel, MARS COLONY AGATHA: NIKKI RED!
CHECK OUT THESE AWESOME REVIEWS FOR MARS COLONY AGATHA: NIKKI RED by Jack Chaucer, which is now available on Amazon paperback ($13.99), Kindle ($2.99) and other major online retailers. That purchase link is at the bottom of this post:
“A futuristic, but a very realistic journey that I think one nowadays can identify with having just heard about the spacewalks that took place at the space station. This novel is very well written and fast paced, taking the reader on an exceptionally exciting journey outside this world and to new beginnings. Highly recommended!”
— 5-star review by Stephanie Haddad on Amazon and Goodreads
“The first half made me cry and the second half made me smile like a fool. The experience of being on Mars was different this time (and I felt it realer than Damien Chazelle’s “First Man” lol). I loved the crew and their interactions. I liked the simple but powerful plot and all of the characters.”
— 4-star review by Lucy Rojas of Venezuela on Goodreads
“What a comfortable, believable, satisfying read this book was. Intelligent science fiction, yet not confusing or overwhelming, simply enjoyable. May be read as a standalone easily, but I would recommend reading the previous novels for maximum enjoyment. I know I’m going to. The author skillfully pulls you on deck with the crew. The other characters in the story are lively, Interesting and easy to care about. I hope Mr. Chaucer writes more in this series because he’s so good with this universe. In this book, the story flowed and didn’t feel forced. His characters were alive and unique; he allowed them simply to be, naturally, not forcing them to fit in a mold. I will be reading anything that has Jack Chaucer’s name on it from now on.”
— 5-star review by Terry Price of Claremore, Oklahoma, on Amazon and Goodreads
“Nikki is a fierce, feminist role model, who in previous books saved her high school classmates from a school shooting and survived nearly freezing to death in Antarctica. Mr. Chaucer writes a very well researched space travel book with realistic dialogue. It is so well written that at times it is hard to remember that it is a work of fiction.”
— 4-star review by Susan Alpert of Vermont on Amazon and Goodreads
“I adored the story! Mars Colony Agatha, although belonging to a series, can be read alone and easily. The story started with a screw-up that could have gone really bad, but instead gave Nikki an adventure of a lifetime. I loved the characters and going to Mars with them, “meeting” Elon Musk (I wish) and his connection to the team, and supporting the group in wanting to strike the stupid media with their “And then there were none.” It was a enjoyable read, with comic relief in the right measure, and while I don’t read much sci-fi spacey novels, I loved this one.”
— 5-star review by Lia Oliveira of Mauritius, on Goodreads and NetGalley
“I had such a hard time gathering my thoughts about this final installment of this series because I knew it was the final book. I have been a huge, huge fan of this series since the first book and each one has gotten better and better. I believe I have stated before that I had thought this series was going in one direction after the first one and the storyline of a school shooting scenario, but it turned into so, so much more. It has been such a roller coaster watching Nikki overcome all that she has been through, it has been a highly emotional journey. Each book, I went from tears to laughing to fear to joy. From the school shooting plot to The Bridge fiasco, her training (which was brutal) to her failed takeoff to now her wildest dream coming true. All the characters along the way have added to her journey and each one was so pivotal in who she has become. While some were left back in earlier books, new ones only added to her journey. In this final book, Nikki is one takeoff away from her dream — landing on Mars. However, her takeoff does not go as planned and she finds herself back on Earth. Until she gets the most unbelievable phone call from, THE Elon Musk. Musk wants her to join his crew in putting her on Mars. Naturally, Nikki wastes no time in accepting and she is on her way. Her crew and her bond immediately and seamlessly and I loved watching them all turn into a family. Their trip from preparation to takeoff to landing and the heartache that follows had me at the edge of my seat. I needed Nikki to prevail. I needed to see her her dream come to fruition. I was not ready for yet another setback or disappointment!! So much happens from takeoff to the end of the book and all I will say is my tears flowed freely and frequently. I smiled until my face hurt and my heart was happy for Nikki. Getting to Mars was her dream of dreams, and getting there she endured more then one person can take, but she stood her ground and pushed on with her head held high. She matured in so many ways and became someone she could be proud of. Her life had purpose and she left no stone unturned. She made some enemies along the way and turned friends into family (including some enemies). She may have left behind Earth but found a whole new world on Mars. It was entrancing to see how life on Mars progressed over time and even more interesting seeing characters from past books popping back up … on Mars!!! The drama!!! I could not have been more attached to this series and I am quite fond of the author. I thank you Jack for this amazing series and taking me along on Nikki’s journey. It was an “out of this world” experience!!! LOL. … I am so very sad to see this amazing story end, but I will say that it couldn’t have ended any better then it did! Ciao Nikki!!!”
— 5-star review by Christine Cheff of Totowa, New Jersey, on Amazon and Goodreads
“It’s been a wonderful ride watching Nikki overcome all that she has been through and keep on moving forward. Each book has had me in tears, laughing until my ribs hurt, truly fearful for the characters whom I had gotten attached to. I admit I sobbed as I read parts of this book. I got attached to the characters, and there were tears of sadness and joy. I could not have been more attached to a series or characters and I am now a lifelong fan of the author. I thank Jack Chaucer for this amazing series and taking me along on Nikki’s journey. I thank him for giving me the motivation to chase my own dreams from step one to my final takeoff. It was a journey I will forever love. I am sad to see this amazing story end, but I will say that it couldn’t have ended any better then it did. I don’t think anyone could have done it better.”
— 5-star review by Christina Jackson of Shawneetown, Illinois, on Goodreads
“I thought this was a really good adventure book. The storyline was interesting and not too predictable, and the base personalities of the characters were easy to relate to. Of course, most of us can’t claim to have survived a failed attempt to Mars, but Nikki had a positive mindset and didn’t let this stop her from achieving her biggest dream. Overall, I recommend this book, even as a stand-alone!”
— 4-star review by Ellie Diggins of Normal, Illinois, on Goodreads and NetGalley
“Mars Colony Agatha is a fascinating story about six astronauts who leave to Earth to colonize Mars, knowing they will likely never return. I would love to be on a team like this and be one of the first people on a distant planet. Some great moments in this story force you to keep reading, and it makes you think about what life would be like. Nicole and Sunny are especially strong characters that brought a lot of life into the story. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in stories about colonizing new planets and the dangers of space travel.”
— 4-star review by Ed Malaker of Carbondale, Pennsylania, on Amazon and Goodreads
“Yet another amazing book by Jack!! I’m really not a big sci-fi buff, but Jack really stole me with the very first book of the series and has kept me wanting more with every book that he published in this series. I look forward to reading more of his work and learning more about his genius brain. #teamnikki”
— 5-star review by Natalie Limardo Wilburn of Pocahontas, Arizona, on Amazon and Goodreads
“Oh this book was a fun read. I’ve grown to really enjoy sci-fi and this book did not disappoint. I loved the character Nikki and I thought the beginning was so touching. I felt really involved with the characters in this book and I loved how the author really brought me into that space setting. The character Nikki is so awesome and such a strong character! Some great humor is throughout the book and I can tell the author knew his stuff about the technicalities of what these characters were doing out in space. Great book!”
— 5-star review by Nicole Pyles of Portland, Oregon, on Amazon and Goodreads
“In Mars Colony Agatha: Nikki Red, Jack Chaucer gives the reader a fun, digestible, entertaining story of space exploration and adventure. He’s done his research, and manages to successfully walk the line between technical descriptions of the material and practices used on an interplanetary voyage and making those descriptions understandable. His characters are relatable and the plot engaging enough to keep a reader entertained even if they haven’t kept up with the adventures of Nikki Janicek. I hadn’t read any of his previous novels and was able to follow along just fine. It’s an imaginative take on colonizing Mars … enjoyable from start to finish.”
— 3-star review by Daniel Edwards of Brooklyn, New York, on Amazon and Goodreads
“An excellent read that had me engrossed from the outset. I enjoy science fiction, but what I really appreciated about this novel was that I was never overwhelmed with scientific jargon, concepts and theories that usually go over my head – often a frustration I have with sci-fi. It has a great pace and the dialogue is great. You quickly become invested in the characters and are willing them on to success. Along the way, the story includes enough flashbacks to add a little darkness and extra tension as you uncover the protagonist’s backstory. I thoroughly recommend this book.”
— 5-star review by Mrs. RJ of Kidlington, United Kingdom, on Amazon UK and Goodreads
“With recent news stories about space colonization, authors have filled the shelves with exciting adventures and new civilizations. Jack Chaucer’s series on the colonization of Mars is no exception. His story, however, gives a fresh new look at characters. The novel is exciting enough to grab attention of young adults while providing sound plots and mystery that any age will enjoy.”
— 4-star review by Mark Smith of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on Amazon and Goodreads
Here’s the Amazon paperback/Kindle link to MARS COLONY AGATHA: NIKKI RED!!
“What a comfortable, believable, satisfying read this book was. Intelligent science fiction, yet not confusing or overwhelming, simply enjoyable. May be read as a standalone easily, but I would recommend reading the previous novels for maximum enjoyment. I know I’m going to.
The author skillfully pulls you on deck with the crew. The other characters in the story are lively, interesting and easy to care about. I hope Mr. Chaucer writes more in this series, because he’s so good with this universe. In this book, the story flowed and didn’t feel forced. His characters were alive and unique; he allowed them simply to be, naturally, not forcing them to fit in a mold.
I will be reading anything that has Jack Chaucer’s name on it from now on.”
July 7, 2023 — Sol 18
Planum Australe, Mars
Unloading the upright cargo ship proved to be a breeze compared to Starship. The freight elevator was intact and had a purpose, for one, and the door at the base of the vessel gave birth to a ramp, both of which were just wide enough to roll the fully assembled truck right onto the Martian surface. It was the same Tesla model pickup but with neon-purple paint this time, drawing cheers from Nikki.
After a few hours hooked up to a portable charging station — time Pluto and Nikki spent conducting an inventory of the ship’s reserves, and loading water tanks and other supplies into the bays of the two vehicles — Nikki’s head-turning, electric space truck was ready to rumble.
“Elon paints everything else black and white, but the reserve truck is purple?” Pluto wondered aloud with arms up in the air.
“You’re just jealous. I love it,” Nikki said as they both opened their driver doors.
“Hey, black suits me just fine … obviously,” Pluto countered, first pointing at himself and then at her. “Remember, no distracted driving and keep it under 25 at all times.”
“Yes, dad,” Nikki replied.
“I ain’t that old,” he grimaced.
“You sound old.”
Nikki climbed into the truck’s beige interior and wished she could get a whiff through her helmet of whatever “new car smell” might be left after a space voyage and a year on Mars. Then she fastened her safety belt, grabbed the smaller-than-average steering wheel, pushed the green ignition button and said, “Drive.”
Slowly she bounced westward, the cargo ship retreating in her rearview mirror and Pluto’s truck an overly safe 30 feet in front of her. The digital dashboard featured neon green lights, showing her she was driving just 21 mph through the Martian polar dust kicked up by Pluto’s tires. Her truck had 184 miles on it, obviously all from testing runs on Earth. Now it was finally doing the job it was designed for, millions of miles away.
“Doesn’t this thing play any music?” Nikki wondered out loud.
“Yes it does,” a voice answered her, causing her to scream and jump in her seat at the same time. She didn’t breathe as she quickly figured out that the voice had sounded an awful lot like Elon Musk.
“My name is Nole, the palindrome of Elon,” the voice replied from the surround-sound speakers.
“O … K,” Nikki marveled.
“What is your name?” Nole asked.
“Nice to meet you, Nikki.”
“Strange to meet you, Nole … only on Mars, of course. So this is a talking vehicle?”
“Pluto’s truck didn’t talk.”
“A human question is needed to initiate the AI function on this class of vehicles,” Nole said. “Also, Pluto is not human. Pluto is a space object in our solar system formerly classified as a planet.”
Nikki shook her head in disbelief as she conversed with a computer-voice clone of Elon Musk.
“True, but in this case, it’s a tongue-in-cheek nickname for a large human whose real name is Ulysses ‘Pluto’ Parker. He’s our trusty engineer and one of four astronauts currently on Mars.”
“Congratulations on reaching your destination, Nikki, and finding me in the cargo ship,” the voice said.
“Thank you … I feel like I just let a genie out of the bottle.”
Elon’s voice laughed, startling Nikki even more.
“You understand jokes?” she asked. “If you can call that one.”
“I understand voice inflections that typically articulate humor.”
“Oh. You really are … futuristic.”
“The year is 2023. Correct?”
“Yes,” Nikki confirmed. “Now Nole, can you play me some music because this is a slow and mostly boring ride, except for you.”
“Yes I can. Which song would you like to hear?”
“What are my options?”
“Every song ever recorded on Earth,” Nole replied.
“No songs have been recorded on Mars yet.”
“True, though we should really record Pluto’s version of ‘See You There.’ That was … special,” Nikki said, struggling to say that last word.
“Why are you sad?”
“How … oh … voice inflection. Got it. … Two of our crew members died because we crash-landed … Commander Xander Vermilyea and Specialist Eddy Etergino. Eddy died on impact and Xander died just hours after we got him to stand up on Mars. He’d suffered brain damage in the crash and we think he died of an aneurysm.”
“Thank you for updating me on the status of your crew,” Nole said. “My condolences to you and the remaining astronauts.”
Nikki nodded quickly, wanting to change the subject.
“Thank you. Music please.”
“I don’t know. You choose, Nole. Something upbeat. Something for this very special occasion — my first drive in a space truck on Mars.”
“Searching,” Nole said. “I found the perfect song.”
“You’re wicked fast, Nole.”
“We had a lot of luck on Venus
We always had a ball on Mars
We’re meeting all the groovy people
We’ve rocked the Milky Way so far
We danced around with Borealice
We’re space truckin’ round the stars
Come on Come on Come on
let’s go Space Truckin’
Come on Come on Come on
Remember when we did the moonshot
And Pony Trekker led the way
We’d move to the Canaveral moon stop
And every naut would dance and sway
We got music in our solar system
We’re space truckin’ round the stars
Come on Come on Come on
Let’s go Space Truckin’
Come on Come on Come on
The fireball that we rode was moving
But now we’ve got a new machine
Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah the freaks said
Man those cats can really swing
They got music in their solar system
They’ve rocked around the Milky Way
They dance around the Borealice
They’re Space Truckin’ every day
Come on Come on Come on
Let’s go Space Truckin’
Come on Come on Come on
Nikki approached base with her truck rocking more from the music than the uneven terrain and parked next to Pluto’s vehicle. The bug-eyed, drop-jaw looks from Jo and Sunny, and then Pluto, as they surrounded her truck would be something she’d treasure for the rest of her life.
“Park,” Nikki told the truck, and then she opened the door.
Just as the guitars were fading, Nikki shouted, “Play that one again, Nole!”
When the song revved up for another go, Nikki laughed and banged her helmet head like she was at a live concert. Her comrades laughed and stared at her in wonder.
“How did you get it to play music? Mine doesn’t!” Pluto whined.
Nikki stopped head-banging for a moment and said, “I just asked the truck if it played music and it started talking back to me … in Elon’s voice!”
“What?!!” they all screamed as the music blared.
“It’s an AI vehicle named Nole — that’s Elon spelled backward!” the giddy junior crew member explained.
“Holy shit!” Sunny shook her. “So cool! Take me for a ride in that thing!”
“Let’s go!” Nikki shouted as Sunny dashed over to ride shotgun.
“Don’t go screwing around like a couple of teenagers and crash it!” Jo warned.
“Yes mom,” a grinning Nikki had to say before closing the door, backing up and heading east again.
“She’s such a smart ass,” Jo said.
“Yeah, she called me ‘dad’ when I told her to keep it under 25,” Pluto scoffed.
“Milennials,” Jo snarled before cracking up.
After watching Nikki and Sunny drive off and take the loud music with them, Pluto was relieved to hear the hum of the heating system.
“Still working. Good.”
“Yup,” Jo confirmed.
“Do you want to see if this one has a Nole in it, too?” Pluto asked, nodding toward the black truck.
“Yup,” she echoed with a smile.
“Get in,” he said as they both did. “So much for getting any work done.”
“All work and no play makes Pluto a dull boy,” Jo pointed out.
“Well then Miss ‘Shining’ … ask it a question,” the engineer told Jo after ordering the truck to drive again.
“Can you play us a song?” the pilot asked, full of hope.
“Yes I can,” the voice replied to claps from an eager Jo.
Pluto realized it wasn’t Elon’s voice, however.
“You’re not Elon … er … Nole,” he said.
“No. My name is Lrac, the palindrome for Carl,” the sort-of-familiar voice said.
“Hey, I think I know that voice,” Jo nodded with a grin. “Can you say ‘billions and billions of stars’ for me?”
Pluto laughed. “No shit?”
“Billions and billions of stars,” announced the voice of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who gained fame with his TV show, “Cosmos,” back in 1980.
Jo screamed with joy and Pluto applauded, risking no hands on the wheel, even as they bounced over some rocks.
“How bad-ass is that? I’m so glad we got this truck,” Jo said. “Those younger girls probably don’t even know who Carl Sagan is!”
“Stop making me feel old,” Pluto chided her with a big grin. “Let’s get Carl … er the mighty Lrac … to play us a tune already! … I’ve got just the request.”
A moment later, they were bopping along on Mars while cosmic-master DJ Carl Sagan — back from the dead and working in space where he always belonged — spun the 1994 gangster-funk classic, “Gin and Juice,” by Snoop Doggy Dogg.
It only took a few hooky beats for Pluto to feel young again.
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.”
September 11, 2022 — Launch-Minus-11 Day
Kennedy Space Center, Florida
Cruising stealthily in a black Musk-designed Tesla sedan from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base toward nearby Kennedy Space Center, Nikki stared out the tinted window at the Atlantic Ocean and recalled her last disastrous visit to Florida in August 2019.
It began with her defying The Bridge leadership’s orders in Fort Lauderdale and nearly ended when she was struck by flying debris as Hurricane Felicia raged in Miami Beach.
But she lived.
And now she was back, and free, and here by her own choice.
She was ready to leave Earth on her own terms; saddened by her parents’ objections, but determined to blast her life so far past the ordinary.
Thirty-eight Raptor engines, quietly waiting on iconic Launch Pad 39A, would propel her beyond her imagination and into a cold, beautiful and deadly reality.
Dozens of Space Shuttle liftoffs had cleared that same pad; two missions had ended in explosions, deaths and parental heartbreaks.
But Nikki truly believed she would survive to see Mars up close.
Her extensive training in Antarctica had steeled her spirit for this all-in mission to deep space, and now Musk’s unexpected lifeline after the Red One splashdown only convinced her further that she was destined to actually land there in 2023 at age 26. Wow.
KSC headquarters rose about 10 stories in the foreground with massive American and NASA flags draped down one side. The boxy building was surrounded by sprawling parking lots dotted with palm trees, but Nikki’s eyes initially were drawn to the sleek, futuristic SpaceX sign on an adjacent rectangular building. The left leg of the X in the logo shot up diagonally and arced away, like the trail of rocket smoke.
Beyond all of that, at the edge of the ocean, the stainless steel Super Heavy Starship gleamed as it aimed toward the bright blue sky. From Nikki’s vantage point more than a mile away, it looked like a child’s toy, and in a way it was. Musk had been experimenting with rockets of all sizes since his aloof engineer father literally left Elon to his own devices during a rough South African childhood split from his mother and siblings. In reality, the full SHS stack stood 387 feet, 82 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.
This was beyond freedom.
Where this rocket would take her, there would be nothing but red dirt, ice and murderously thin air. No government. No police. No trees or animals. No streets, with or without names. Just a brand new, very old and very empty world, apathetic to the arrival of six human beings, one of whom remained an 11th-hour, L-minus-11 stranger to the other five.
Nikki scrolled through their names on her phone one more time:
1. Commander Xander Vermilyea. Really? Internal rhyme? Nikki still dabbled in poetry, but that name in the email Elon’s assistant sent her sounded more like a Muskian prank.
2. Pilot Jo Guigere. Not Joe. Not Josephine. But female, Nikki presumed. Awesome.
3. Engineer Ulysses Parker. She wondered if his middle name started with an S. like the old Civil War general and president who now graces $50 bills.
4. Dr. Susan Wilkes. Nikki tried to suppress her brain’s urge to stick with the 1800s theme, add “Booth” to her name and charge her as an accomplice in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
5. Specialist Edward Etergino. “E Squared” immediately came to her mind as a possible nickname.
And what would they think of Specialist Nicole Janicek, the late and unexpected wildcard crew member with the red streaks in her hair?
If I can find a way to get along with the person who shot me for six months at South Pole Station, I’ll find a way to get along with these people, Nikki vowed.
But first, she was scheduled to meet face to face with the visionary who designed the car she was riding in and the spaceship that would drive her to Mars.
Jane Rushmore, blonde and personable, ushered Nikki into an eighth-floor suite where Elon Musk, hipster-techno-casual in a black short-sleeved shirt and jeans, quickly looked up from his phone and grinned. The SHS pierced the blue horizon in the massive window behind him.
Still star struck, Nikki hesitated for half a beat before crossing the surprisingly drab, outdated carpet to shake his hand in the large, rectangular room.
“Welcome, Nikki. How was your flight?” he asked, guiding her toward a pair of recliners. “Come relax. Can I get you anything?”
“Good, no, I’m fine,” she replied as they both sat down across from one another.
“Most people I know try to avoid flying on September 11th out of, you know, extremely warranted superstition, but we’re L-minus-11, so …”
“It was no problem,” Nikki said, struggling to form more than simple sentences in this surreal moment.
“How old were you in 2001?” he asked, still grinning.
“Four,” she said, finally allowing herself to exhale.
He nodded as if he already knew that. “Back then I was one year away from launching SpaceX in a California office about the size of this room and look how far we’ve come. I’m still renting space … this time from NASA.”
“But now you’ve got a rocket on that launch pad right there ready to take six people to Mars,” Nikki pointed out while gesturing toward the window.
“Can you believe you’re one of them?”
“No … this all seems like a dream.”
“I’m glad you said dream and not a nightmare.”
“Oh, I’m scared,” she admitted.
“So am I. Perfectly normal. This is gonna be big … truly the start of something monumental in human history. Deep space travel and establishing a human base on Mars.”
“What do you see as my role in this mission … other than trying not to die?” Nikki asked, smiling as she realized she just echoed Thomas’ parting words to her.
Elon fed off her smile and practically bounced in his chair as he talked, with his hands in constant motion.
“I really see you as the link, the communications link between Starship and Earth on the burn to Mars, and then between Colony A and Earth from Sol 1 on,” Musk said, referring in space jargon to the crew’s first day on the Red Planet. “You’re considerably younger, more charismatic and less of a technical person than the rest of the crew, so I really see you as the person to help tell the story of this mission, human to human.”
“Wow,” Nikki beamed.
“It’s an important role … getting on camera, wearing GoPros, shooting videos and sending video emails — v-mails — to interact with especially young people and children in classrooms on Earth,” he continued. “Think of yourself as the first travel guide on Mars, encouraging the next generation to want to help set up a city there some day. Because this mission will be far more effective and inspiring if we maintain that human connection with Earth every mile and every step of the way.”
“What can I say? I’m humbled and amazed to do that,” Nikki said.
“Fantastic. Now when I say interact, as you know, there’s about a 20-minute delay in communications between Mars and Earth, so the videos will be more like a one-way video letter, if you will, and then you’ll receive the reply from Earth.”
“The less glamorous role for you would be to get extremely involved in keeping the common areas and cabins clean aboard ship and in the Martian hab environment …”
“Housekeeping?” Nikki asked with a smirk.
“Your word, not mine,” he replied with a laugh. “But essential either way.”
She nodded, biting her tongue and smiling. “Anything else?”
“Oh, there’ll be many other tasks, I’m sure, but one very real thing to keep in mind is you are the most expendable crew member. I know. I’m shamelessly blunt. But that’s a fact.”
Nikki picked up her jaw, tilted her head and understood.
“I know. I totally get that.”
“It just means that when there are dangerous situations or choices or truck runs to be made, you should be the first to raise your hand.”
Nikki’s eyes met Elon’s and didn’t blink.
“I will do that.”
“Good. Even if any of the other five tries to be the hero and insist, you remind them what I’ve told you here today. This mission is all about sacrifice. It has no chance of succeeding without it.”
“I’m so ready,” Nikki told herself and the leader of SpaceX. “You have no idea how awful it felt to come crashing down and lose that opportunity.”
“On the contrary, I know exactly how it feels. I’ve seen my share of exploding rockets. And that’s why I reached out to you … someone who would appreciate this second chance like no one else.”
Nikki took a deep breath and grinned. “I do appreciate it and I thank you for tracking me down. I’m truly blown away by all of this.”
“You’re welcome,” Elon said, standing up and offering her a hug. “And officially, welcome to the mission.”
Nikki accepted his embrace and smiled.
“Thank you. What’s next?” she asked.
“Dinner with your commander and crew. You better enjoy real Earth food while you can get it. And after that, I have a little surprise movie for all of you. It should be an inspirational and bonding experience.”