Casey Ruiz opened the door to the crew barracks to find Captain Michaela Johns sitting in the common room.
“Michaela, get your people together. Now.”
She looked at him with some anxiety. “Seriously?”
Casey nodded. “Yeah. I’ve got VIPs inbound. You need to get going.”
“Okay, but . . .”
“No. Later. I’ve got to get ready.” Casey left to head back to the command center.
T-minus two hours.
As soon as he entered the center, his assistant, Kendra Samara, found him. “Senator Ellis is waiting for you.”
“Is everything as it should be?”
Only the tiniest flicker in Kendra’s eyes betrayed anything. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Have the senator wait for me in meeting room A. We’ve got to get this show on the road.”
“And what show would that be, Mr. Ruiz?” Senator Ellis’s voice boomed off the walls.
Casey kept his reaction hidden behind a polite smile. “Ah, Senator. Nice of you to visit.”
“This isn’t a social call, Ruiz. I have some news.”
“Can it wait? We were going to run a few tests before tomorrow’s launch.”
The Senator shook his head. “This is about tomorrow’s launch. We need to talk. Privately.”
Casey sighed. The Senator always assumed his interests were of the utmost importance, no matter what else might be going on. But he also couldn’t say no. To Kendra, he said, “Call Captain Johns. Tell her to delay the tests but continue prep.”
After Kendra nodded acknowledgement, he turned back to Ellis. “This way, Senator.” He led the man to the meeting room down the hallway.
Once the door had shut behind them, the Senator began without preamble. “I have a crew change for this mission.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have five people that need to be on this flight.”
“Impossible. The team was set over a year ago. There is training to consider, expertise . . .”
Ellis held up his hand. “Stop. This isn’t a request. These people will be on this flight.”
“Who are they?”
“Adrian Fenney and his family.”
“The tech billionaire?”
“Why does he get a spot?”
“Because he paid for it.”
“This jeopardizes Second Home. It’s insane.”
“The mission will be fine. You have . . . what? . . . 30 people on this flight? Add 5 more.”
“Fuel. Resources. It can’t be done.”
“So replace 5 of the current crew.”
“We need everyone. I can’t just replace experts with civilians.”
The senator sighed. “Casey, this comes from the President. It has to be done.”
“Do you understand what we are trying to do? We are establishing a colony on Mars. Before climate disasters make it impossible. We need everyone we can send to make this a success. I won’t destroy that.”
“This is all a fantasy. The climate is not going to go haywire. You can send more people next year.”
“If the climate isn’t a real issue, why does Fenney want on this mission so badly?”
The Senator glared at him. “Are you refusing?”
“Then you are off this project.”
T-minus an hour and 30 minutes.
Senator Ellis stormed out of the room and back to the command center, with Casey right behind him. Half a dozen soldiers were hovering just outside the door and followed the two into the room.
“Ms. Samara. Mr. Ruiz has been removed from this project. Will you follow orders from your President? Or do I need to have these soldiers take over operations?”
Kendra gave Casey a questioning look, but Ellis intervened.
“Don’t look at Mr. Ruiz. Give me your answer.”
“Very well. What are the President’s orders?”
Just before the Senator was about to respond, something caught his eye. “What is that?”
Kendra looked around. “Senator?”
“It’s a countdown.”
“Sergeant! Stop the countdown. Now!”
One of the soldiers walked over to a panel and confidently threw a switch. The countdown stopped at an hour and twenty minutes.
“What was the plan, Ruiz? Delay me long enough to proceed with the launch a day early?”
Casey wore defeat on his face but said nothing.
Senator Ellis turned to Kendra once more. “You will determine the five least critical members of this crew and replace them with the five VIPs that arrived with me. Prep them and get them on board.”
“That will take at least two hours.”
“How long is your window open?”
She checked the clock. “We have roughly five and a half hours left today.”
“Good. Get it done.”
Chewing the inside of her cheek for a moment, she turned to another member of the team. “Go prep the Senator’s people. As quickly as you can.” The man nodded and left. Kendra sat down at a terminal and began reviewing the roster.
Casey tried to appeal to Senator Ellis once more. “Please don’t do this. This is humanity’s best chance at survival. We aren’t going to get another shot.”
Ellis ignored him and spoke to the soldiers. “Take Mr. Ruiz back to the meeting room. Keep him there until I arrive.”
T-minus one hour.
Out of the control center and away from even the possibility of affecting events, Casey paced the room. He needed to get back, to ensure Michaela’s, and her crew’s, safety. To help Kendra navigate this crisis. But he was helpless; he had to rely on the abilities of others. The launch would have begun in just under an hour if everything had worked out. He had rushed things, but there was no help for it. Even before Senator Ellis’s arrival, they had the forecast to worry about. A massive hurricane – Nelson, they had called it – would be coming ashore in the next 24 to 36 hours. Despite his talk of launching tomorrow, if they didn’t get off the pad today, they would have to pull the ship off and protect it from the storm. Then it would be anyone’s guess when, or even if, they would ever get to try again.
Did the President even know what the Senator was doing here? He couldn’t be sure the President would be above this stunt. On the other hand, keeping him under guard may have been Ellis’s way of making sure Casey couldn’t investigate his story. Neither politician had much use for Second Home. They, with too many others, didn’t think the predicted crisis would be so severe. Why not profit from a billionaire’s overblown worries?
T-minus 45 minutes.
Who would Kendra come up with to be taken off the mission? Casey couldn’t even imagine. With the careful planning, the genetic selections, the different expertises, built-in overlaps . . . No one person was so essential that they couldn’t be replaced. But five from this one group? There probably wasn’t enough redundancy to make the choices without serious consequence. He tried to go through the list from memory, but it seemed an impossible task.
T-minus 20 minutes.
Every minute seemed to creep by more slowly than the last. Ellis had obviously brought at least one person with some knowledge of the center’s instruments. He knew immediately which switch stopped the launch countdown. Could he manage things even without Kendra? There was too much he didn’t know, that he couldn’t find out sitting in this room. His guards did not seem ready to relax, and he was unlikely to be able to overpower them even if they did. He had no choice but to wait. And worry.
T-minus 5 minutes.
The human race may not have much longer on this planet. The climate was growing more and more unstable. So he had put all of his efforts into establishing an outpost off-world. When he joined Second Home in 2030, the task of setting up a self-sustaining colony on Mars seemed insurmountable. Now, nearly 15 years later, they were on the verge of making it real. Five ships had already been sent. This mission would have provided the final necessities. More could follow if there was time, but that seemed increasingly unlikely. Now it had all been threatened by Senator Ellis and his well-connected friend.
T-minus 1 minute.
The rumbling began. After exchanging questioning looks, the soldiers guarding him left the room. Casey made his way back to the control center where chaos was in full bloom. Two soldiers were frantically working boards while team members who had been pushed aside watched.
“Stop it! Shut it down!” The Senator was screaming.
The monitors showed smoke, billowing up around the launchpad, and the ship began to rise.
Ellis caught sight of Casey. “What did you do? Bring it back.”
“Sorry, Senator. She’s gone.”
“I disconnected the control room before you got here. Captain Johns has been in charge of this from the beginning. This whole room is a useless show piece.”
“I’m going to make sure you rot in jail for this.”
“Fine. At least the human race has a chance.”