The most fearsome Viking in history wiped the tears from her face in the vaults of Varrich, the sacred place where mortals proved their ascendancy to the gods. While the light faded in the green and gold of her eyes, she bestowed the secret, forced her kinfolk from the crypt, and sealed the tomb for eternity.
Present Day, Location: VLO, Very Low Orbit
That which has a bad beginning is likely to have a bad ending. Dårleg start gjev ein dårleg slutt.
Runa Erikson knew she was dead the moment the airlock closed behind them. They all did. Banished to low earth orbit to salvage the satellite, Groundswell floated outside the command module while their military competition mocked from within. Runa did the math: sixteen sunrises a day, one every ninety minutes. In the Cold-G suits, NASA’s teenage candidates had forty-five minutes before the sun broke the earth’s horizon, and space either fried or froze them.
Candidate Viking cursed the Triple-A squad laughing in her headset, their enemy watching as the three teenage environmentalists clawed their way along the lifeline. Runa flew the bird at her camera.
“We’re listening too, Erikson. Recover the runestones, or else,” Sergeant Grind menaced.
Runa reached the supply module and yanked on the cargo bay release wheel. There were no locks in space, no laws, only the fact that everything wanted to kill you—especially Grind, the guy who’d spaced them at gunpoint. She knew what to get and where to find it, motioning her team to wait as she donned the device of last resort—the jetpack.
Groundswell had crammed four years of astronaut training into four weeks. And despite failing each stage of the program, they were still NASA’s preferred team for the professor’s insane orbital experiment. The agency’s future was in the hands of the three tough, competent teens, with their leader, Runa Erikson, descendent of the most fearsome Viking in history, leading as always from the front.
“Dårleg start gjev ein dårleg slutt.” That which has a bad beginning is likely to have a bad ending. Viking quoted the creed to her co-conspirators, Highlander and Mariner, before descending after the rogue payload.
“Here we go again,” said Scott McMurdo to Chase Hudson, watching their leader target the payload hurtling back to Earth at fourteen thousand miles an hour.
Runa read from the life systems panel on her arm. “Guys, you need to chillax and let me do this.” Her team’s vital signs were off the scale, but nobody cared in low Earth orbit. With all Earth comms jammed by the hijackers, NASA was as helpless as Groundswell.
Give Grind—Cat Man—what he wanted, and he’d let them live. That was the trade.
Runa convinced her team the recovery of rogue satellite Thirteen, containing the most valuable prize in the galaxy, was nothing more than a snatch and grab. They’d trained for it a dozen times underwater in NEEMO, NASA’s extreme environment mission operations. She had this.
Highlander’s gruff Scottish accent interrupted her concentration. “If NASA could do this in the ‘60s, we can do it too,” Scott stammered unconvincingly.
“Dude, only one of us has flown the jetpack before,” Chase complained. Me.”
“And remember how well that went.”
Mariner shut his radiation visor, disguising his embarrassment. His trademark machine gun laughter was absent.
“Guys, shut it. I’m on Thirteen’s tail,” Runa snapped.
“I’ve got a bad feeling,” Scott said. “Abort and return, Runa.”
“Bro, we’ve got nothing to lose. We’re dead anyway.”
“Negative,” Runa retaliated. “Hevn er ein matrett best servert kald.” Revenge is a dish best served cold. We stick to the plan.
Groundswell heard Grind whisper to his team. “We’re approaching Thirteen. Prepare for retro burn.”
Viking watched Pilgrim maneuver, the boys hugging the fuselage as the spaceship shook with deceleration.
“Recover Thirteen. What are you waiting for, Erikson?” Cat Man demanded.
Chase gestured rudely at Scott’s camera. “Military not got the guts to recover the payload, despite its nine hundred billion dollar budget?”
Scott searched for the satellite, distracted by the radiating blue planet. “It still looks a ways off. Have you ever seen anything like it?”
“Looks like the death zone to me. NASA calls it VLO, very low orbit.” Chase replied, but the beauty beneath hypnotized even the American.
“Valhalla!” Viking redlined the jetpack yelling the battle cry, smashing the exchange, and overshooting the target.
NASA Mission Control. Building 30. Johnson Space Center. Houston
From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord. Frels oss Herre, frå nordmennene sitt raseri.
“Pilgrim, this is Houston, do you read? Over.” NASA’s spaceship communications officer Capcom repeated the question for the tenth time.
The digital darkness continued.
Capcom searched for the Flight Director in the room full of specialists. “Flight, it’s no use. Whoever hijacked the mission is jamming all orbital comms.”
The men behind NINE stirred—Huck Chambers and Professor Cornelius Allbright, the founders of NASA’s secret organization, sworn to protect its future as a peaceful pioneer of space exploration. But it was the woman who broke the silence.
“Houston, this is Sky Symphony, Florida launch control. Do you copy, over?”
Chambers grabbed the mic from Flight. “How is this even possible, Sky? You’re meant to be up there with them?”
“Sergeant Grind and his goons grabbed me in the launch tower. He took my seat.” Groundswell’s trainer and NASA’s youngest flight controller was in no mood for explaining. “The military has gone too far this time seeking flags of conquest on the Moon, Mars, and Beyond.”
The four-star general standing next to Chambers loosened his tie and ignored the red emergency phone ringing in front of him. “This is not our doing,” he said, slumping into his seat, ignoring his attachés banging on the viewing gallery window.
Chambers waited for a nod from Professor Allbright, the force behind NASA, before breaking the news to Sky. “This has nothing to do with the US Spaceforce or any division within the military. Get your hide back here. Fly Valor yourself if you have to. Emergency briefing in Sanctuary in five hours.”
Chambers’ protégé grunted acknowledgment before the line died.
Capcom called Flight and found they were speaking directly with Huck Chambers; both voices echoed around mission control. “Pilgrim is in VLO. I repeat, the ship is maneuvering in very low orbit.”
“How long before Pilgrim makes a ballistic re-entry?” asked Chambers.
“Thirty minutes, sir. Pilgrim appears to be shadowing Thirteen, the payload satellite suffering orbital decay.”
“Time until Pilgrim jettisons the Artemis supply module and makes her emergency return to earth?”
“Assuming they don’t recover Thirteen and proceed to the international space station—fifteen minutes.”
“When will it be impossible to jettison the supply module?”
“Sixteen minutes, sir. After that point, she’ll be unable to detach, meaning both craft will re-enter earth’s atmosphere and be incinerated.”
“Frels oss Herre, frå nordmennene sitt raseri.” From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord, muttered professor Allbright under his breath.
The only person in the room who had guessed right—Aquila, the most fanatical treasure hunter on earth—had highjacked Pilgrim on Canaveral’s launchpad 39 and now controlled the mission from their fleet of five Ula class submarines. Aquila sought more than a return to the old order when the Vikings ruled the world. They craved the prophecy of the talisman.
Day 1: Very Low Orbit
When arrived at the goal, one should not turn back. Snu ikkje attende om målet er nådd.
“For Odin sin kjærleik.” For the love of Odin, Viking yelled as she spiraled past Thirteen’s vapor plume. Runa needed to rescue the precious payload to fulfill her destiny.
Aquila craved more—the precious runestones, and the talisman the girl wore around her neck. Combined, they made the galactic compass, which would allow the ancient order to conquer the universe.
While Viking had duped Cat Man, passing off the talisman with a fake, he’d vented her into space to fetch the runestones. She fretted, spinning in space. It was a zero-sum game without the mystical cargo, as her quest would die along with Aquila’s.
Mariner yelled after his leader, “That thing you shout when you do crazy—Valhalla. I’m getting sick of it!”
‘Exterior temperature rising,’ Runa’s suit warned, as she regained control of her trajectory. Her green and gold eyes fixed on the prize as the jetpack maneuvered her into position.
“Easy on the juice, Viking,” Mariner said from the outside of the supply module.
“Cap, I think you should abort,” Highlander urged, tugging on Mariner’s lifeline.
“Negative, Groundswell!” Sergeant Grind hollered. “No payload, no return.”
“Guys, it’s like Season Nine’s finale all over again,” Runa referred to the game that had brought them together and landed them in space.
“Need I remind you how that ended?” Highlander replied.
“Just keep out of the sun,” Runa urged. “These IEVA suits are for emergency EVAs only.”
“Entirely appropriate then. Dude, don’t overshoot again, else your next stop is a fiery re-entry or a bath in the sun.” Chase laughed nervously before Scott hauled him inside the supply module.
“Thirty minutes of air left,” Mariner warned. “Think turnaround time, just like back home at the pole. Return in fifteen minutes, with or without the prize.”
“Negative, Groundswell,” Sergeant Grind ordered. “Pilgrim leaves in ten minutes. If the payload isn’t in the Artemis supply module by then, I’ll jettison it.”
Runa redlined the nitrogen powered jetpack, catching, closing, then careering past the torpedo-shaped canister. “Nei!” she yelled. Disoriented, she rolled. With no up, no down, she searched the dark horizon as her heart pounded. Breathe, she scolded herself. Where is it? The glint of moonlight on titanium betrayed Thirteen’s position. Easy, easy this time. She stalked the satellite, lunging after its tail.
“I have it,” she declared, snapping her carabiner to its fuselage.
“Negative Runa!” Scott yelled from the hatch. “It has you! You’re cartwheeling. Abort!”
Viking engaged the jetpack’s retro thrust, blasting nitrogen to break her speed.
“You’re making it worse, boss.” Chase joined Scott hanging out the supply module. “You’re descending too. Ditch it before it’s too late.”
No way was she bailing now. If she couldn’t salvage the satellite, she’d retrieve its sacred contents. Runa grabbed Thirteen’s tail cap and twisted with both hands, cursing at the same problem they’d had at the Scottish launch site. “It’s welded tight. It won’t budge.” She crawled to the cobalt-colored nosecone, grasping its rough surface with both arms. “Lefty loosey,” she yelled. How could she have been so stupid stashing the runes in the rocket, she screamed at herself.
‘Suit compromised, return to habitat.’ the Cold-G suit’s computer warned.
“Leave it, Runa!” the boys pleaded. “Five minutes and the jarheads will jettison the supply module.”
“I’ve got this,” Runa lied, slapping the emergency patch on the air venting to space. She couldn’t abandon the cargo, not now. Without the runes, her life was over. She’d programmed the talisman for Altair like the prophecy demanded. Yet she alone knew it pointed to Mars. Without reprogramming, the voyage would be suicide.
Runa rode the rocket, worsening Thirteen’s orbital decay. Her actions would define Groundswell’s fate. She slammed her helmet against the nose cone, smashing her camera; ‘Equipment malfunction,’ the computer warned.
“Runa, talk to us!” shouted her friends.
“Erikson, we have lost your visual. Confirm you have the payload,” Cat Man demanded.
“Ja!” Yes, Viking hollered, kicking off the satellite. She spun toward infinity, catching a glimpse of Thirteen, and groaned. Runa fired the jetpack, slowing her rotation. She floated in the half light and watched the payload nosedive toward Earth.
All the planning, all the pain and just like that it was over.
The mother of all failures was on her.
“Three minutes!” Scott shouted over the sound of Pilgrim stirring its booster rocket. The command module release warning sounded in Artemis. “We’re for it now.”
“Least we’ll die together.” Chase looked urgently for his leader.
‘Maximum exterior temperate exceeded,’ Viking’s suit warned. Her jetpack coughed the last of its nitrogen as she aimed at Pilgrim. “I have the runestones. Keep the supply hatch open,” she announced.
“Like we’d leave you,” Chase replied.
“Sixty seconds before we space you,” the girl’s voice from within Pilgrim corrected him.
“Malice,” Runa muttered the name of her nemesis in Triple-A before slamming against the hatch plate.
“Ditch the jetpack, else you won’t fit.” Chase scrambled to help Scott unbuckle the backpack and haul Viking through the hatch. “Where are the—”
“Behind me,” Runa said, as Thirteen hit Earth’s atmosphere, rooster-tailing frigid blue flames.
Groundswell’s astronauts were coated in a sheet of ice while they struggled to close the hatch. The teenagers braced themselves as the spaceship engaged full thrust.
“Take this,” said Runa, for the benefit of the cargo cameras, handing Chase the frozen jetpack.
“Can’t see jack.” Chase scraped the ice off his visor.
Scott shivered, staring after Thirteen’s blue halo through the porthole. “Those weird flames look familiar?”
Viking pressed her helmet against the glass and stared after the fireball descending to earth. She dared not say what she was thinking: Cat man and his Triple-A team were listening. She’d lost the compass again, but this time forever. Viking dug deep, battling her darkening thoughts. She’d failed in her destiny, but Groundswell’s mission remained the same: shepherd the world’s food source—the Ark—to the Moon. The game must continue. At least they were alive.
Disappointment transformed Chase’s face as he rubbed the frost off the jetpack. “This isn’t the payload?” he whispered.
Scott silenced his friend with a punch.
Chase protested; he’d risked his life getting this far. “But that means we’re going nowhere?” Scott bought his silence with an elbow.
Runa referred to the creed. “Snu ikkje attende om målet er nådd.” When arrived at the goal, one should not turn back.
But first, they had to escape.
Day 1: NASA. Building 30. Johnson Space Center. Houston
Capcom sounded nervous as she called Huck Chambers. “Flight, Thirteen’s orbital decay is complete. Ballistic re-entry has commenced. We project impact over the North Pole, minimal debris.”
“Copy that,” Huck’s only response.
“Sir, Pilgrim remains in VLO. Very low orbit,” she stressed for the benefit of everyone listening.
Chambers hesitated at the news. The stakes were high, the risks out of control. NASA’s head of human space flight had hijacked Season Nine, the world’s favorite online game, to identify candidates for the professor’s Accelerated Evolution—AE, the theoretical experiment that morphed an adolescent who had their growth spurt in zero-G. Designed to cheat Mother Nature, it mutated their DNA to survive the rigors of deep space exploration. Groundswell’s environmentalists had agreed to participate in return for NASA’s help protecting the Ark. Still, the teenagers’ plan was more insane than the experiment. Steal, launch, and hide the Ark on the Moon before the Russian marauders could hold it to ransom.
Groundswell should have bailed at the launch. Even the professor, NASA’s chief scientist Cornelius Allbright, would have forgiven them. Two teams, one civilian, the other military, all adolescents, competing against mother nature to become the new breed of deep space pioneers—one in the name of humankind, the other craved flags of conquest on the Moon, Mars, and Beyond. But NASA was as helpless as the US military against Aquila, the Northmen who had seized control of Pilgrim.
“Keep the chatter down, people, and return to your stations; we could regain control of the ship at any moment.” Chambers demanded, ripping off his headset. Mission control ceased arguing. “Only NINE and Aquila knew the contents of Thirteen, and that was the way it had to stay. Make no mistake, unless Pilgrim jettisons the Artemis supply module in sixty seconds, she’ll be following Thirteen, and we’ll be watching a human catastrophe, not just the loss of some cargo.”
Chambers pointed at the one person in the room who could tell if they were alive. “Surgeon, confirm life signs.”
“I’m as blind as you are, Flight,” NASA’s chief medical officer stammered.
NINE’s nemesis approached the group. Director One, Wade Carrera, NASA’s chief bureaucrat. The career-aholic stood inches from Chambers. He craved the position of Space Overlord and the swallowing of NASA by the military’s newly formed US Spaceforce. The only thing that stood in his way was Accelerated Evolution. The professor’s insane experiment had to succeed to secure the President of the United States of America’s re-election. “Dead kids in space will not win votes. Where’s the General?” he demanded.
Chambers pointed to the man in the viewing gallery, surrounded by people waving paperwork.
Director One snatched at the red emergency telephone ringing its way off the command desk and shouted down the line at the head of naval rescue command. Sixty seconds later, Carrera slammed the phone in its cradle and slumped in the General’s empty seat. He stared at mission control’s screens as they showed Air Force Strike command’s orbital satellite. “Who has control of Pilgrim? Terrorists?” he hollered at everyone.
“Negative,” Chambers replied. “Worse. The fanatical treasure hunters Aquila.”
“A bunch of bankers?” Carerra asked, considering his enemy’s enemy. “They control the world’s most valuable sovereign wealth fund.”
“Two trillion dollars will buy you a lot of hardware,” Allbright muttered under his breath.
“Unclear,” Chambers lied. He couldn’t let the military learn what was up there. The professor had only revealed the truth to him the day before. Chambers watched Thirteen’s ballistic re-entry. The priceless cargo burned blue in the atmosphere.
“Recognize the color of the comet’s tail?” the professor whispered to his second in command.
“Cold Gravity flames.” Chambers smiled wryly.
“Correct. Thirteen’s heat shield was fashioned from the same meteorite that cocooned the runestones on their journey to Earth a millennia ago.”
“Flight, Pilgrim is on the move,” Capcom confirmed, punching the air.
The professor disappeared into his hoodie and left for his retreat beneath Building 9, hailing Chambers. “Call me when Sky Symphony arrives.” No amount of discussion would help Groundswell now. They were on their own. Space travel was neither safe nor easy, but that’s why he’d chosen the tough, competent teens from a pool of half a billion.