The most fearsome Viking in history retreated to the vaults of Varrich castle, the sacred place where mortals proved their ascendancy to the gods. Warrior faced child, the light fading in the aurora of their green and gold eyes, the last breath bestowing the secret, the last command, returning the son to Svalbard, land of the banished Viking.
The reign of the Viking was over, and the Ancient Order of Aquila was born.
Gold is the falsest of friends. Gull er den falskaste venen.
Online personas were easy to fake. Runa Erikson’s team only knew what she wanted them to know. That was the way it had to be, and that was why gaming was good. But this was different—this was real.
“Dårleg start gjev ein dårleg slutt. That which has a bad beginning is likely to have a bad ending,” Candidate Viking sensed a trap. Runa placed her palms against the door, her voice as cold as its hardened steel. “I wish I had the axe.”
“It didn’t help us in Season Nine,” Candidate Highlander grumbled. Scott McMurdo stared through the bars at the smoldering wreckage outside.
“So you don’t think NASA will keep their promises?” Runa asked her conspirators.
“Dude, last time NASA offered a rescue, they dropped a hellfire on us.” Candidate Mariner reached for his inside pocket. “But this isn’t a game anymore. Besides, last time we didn’t have this,” Chase Hudson patted the mother of all weapons.
“You’re full of it Chase,” Scott said, fighting the fatigue from his international race to Texas.
The teenage environmentalists studied the small metal room at Ellington Air Force Base. Runa Erikson, their leader—already acquainted with the man holding them captive—beat against the bolted door.
“They’re taking too long. Why the lockdown?” Runa asked, peering through the holding cell’s circular window into the dimly lit corridor. She avoided her reflection in the reinforced glass, flexed her fists and glared at the cameras.
Everything she’d worked towards—they’d worked towards, Runa corrected herself—Groundswell, their environmental movement, came down to this opportunity. And they weren’t going to waste it, regardless of the odds.
“That’s the problem with you Vikings,” Chase remarked in his American drawl, “Y’all have no patience. Need to chillax, dude.” His confidence ended with her elbow in his ribs.
“I’ve been waiting to do that for years,” Runa said, half smiling.
Scott looked at his two best friends in the artificial daylight for the first time in his life. “Weird to think we’ve never physically met before? Weirder still what’s happened to us over the last forty-eight hours thanks to NASA?”
“Dude, by all accounts, you’re both fugitives?” Chase nursed his side.
“And you’re not?” Scott countered with his Highland wit. “Best not mention your brush with the Norwegian Navy then?”
“Man, without my cunning repairing the chopper’s landing gear, I wouldn’t be here,” he said, motioning toward the smoke coming from the runway.
“And what a great job you did,” Scott said as Runa resumed her assault on the door.
The cameras twitched as the hours passed. The lenses tracked the teenagers as they paced around the cell. “How bad could this get?” Runa slumped next to her team, her back against the wall.
“Well, NASA’s interns risked their lives getting us here,” Scott said.
“All because we shorted the Game? Season Nine?” Runa clasped her talisman, the Nordic birthstone she wore around her neck bearing the Viking hallmark. She pressed it against her lips and concentrated. Her mind flashed back seven days to the moment she rejected NASA’s prize. “We won their stupid game and we walked.”
“And we left them asking nine million questions,” Scott added, a hint of regret at the loss of the cash.
“Gull er den falskaste venen. Gold is the falsest of friends.” Runa faced the camera and quoted from the Viking Creed enshrined in their playbook. But who played who? She asked herself.
The Creed was Groundswell’s gameplay. Compiled by Runa, its wisdom had been authored by the hand of her ancestors a millennium before. Of the two prized possessions she brought to Texas, the book was the one thing she declared. The other she wore around her neck.
Chase, resigned to his fate, slapped the cold concrete floor. “Dude, we set a trap, lit the fuse. This is the consequence.”
“Det er ikkje langt til ulvens tenner der ulvens øyrer er. Where wolves' ears are, wolves' teeth are near.” Runa cautioned him. She drew her knees to her chest and spoke to the camera aimed at them. “Our intentions were honorable. It was all about Groundswell going viral. Driving environmental awareness. It’s what defines our movement.”
But it was so much more.
Groundswell craved controversy, and its membership depended on it. Runa needed it to change the way the world thought. Her ancestors weren’t marauders; they were explorers who had found new worlds and achieved the impossible. With the passing of millennia, fact blurred into fiction, creating a macho Viking legacy that Runa aimed to crush. It was the injustice of it all that flowed through her veins like fire and made her who she was.
And then there was the Ark. The plight of her homeland—Svalbard, four hundred miles from the North Pole, it protected the world’s most valuable treasure. Hidden deep inside the Plata Berget Mountain, it was under threat from Russian mercenaries. But nobody believed her.
“Maybe shorting the world’s most popular game wasn’t so smart,” Scott said.
Chase sat up. “Dude, telling GameMaster-NASA—whoever the hell was behind Season Nine—to eat their nine-million-dollar prize money was genius.”
The trio was in Texas at the pleasure of the National Aeronautics Space Administration—this much they’d agreed to. There was no doubt in Runa’s mind that NASA was behind the hijacking of Season Nine, the most successful Game on the planet. The question that itched at her was: why all the secrecy?
“Genius? You think?” Scott challenged Chase, his voice eking doubt. “In front of two million observers?”
“Ten,” Chase corrected him.
“I suppose it was blood money,” Scott said.
“Betre pengelaus enn ærelaus. To be without silver is better than to be without honor,” Runa replied.
“You and your wisdom,” Scott said.
“The Viking Creed,” she replied fiercely, feeling for the playbook, her diary.
Chase glanced sideways at Scott. “Season Nine’s been offline for days since we took them down. The Gamers on our dive ship Harrier reckon it cost whoever was behind it a hundred million dollars in lost revenue.”
“So we’re off their Christmas list,” Runa scoffed.
“Guess it is the season for giving,” Chase said. “We’ll find out in a couple of weeks if we’re on the naughty list.”
“Reckon we’ll find out sooner,” Scott stretched and yawned, jet lag goading him. He studied Runa’s face for signs of fatigue, marveling at her eyes—one as green as amethyst, the other as yellow as Inca gold. “Talking of presents, what did NASA promise Svalbard for Christmas?”
“Same as you guys—the world,” she replied evasively, “and stop staring.”
“Harrier’s getting a new titanium crane,” Chase said quickly. “The prototype Canada Arm from the International Space station. And Finkle—your village Scott, it gets its first ever cellular tower, right?”
“And some,” Scott replied, still blushing at her accusation.
Nothing had been said about Groundswell’s mission, thought Runa. Fueled by controversy, its currency gaming, its growth viral since the collapse of Season 9. Their offline follies had gained local notoriety but now they had a world stage. They had to take the Ark’s plight global to save her homeland.
Scott lowered his voice to a whisper and beckoned his friends. “Hey Cap, did you make the Big Ask?”
“No, but I will,” Runa replied. “When the time is right.”
2 Friend or Foe
She who travels widely needs her wits about her. Vit ho treng som vidt skal fare.
The buzzer sounded as the internal door opened.
“Candidates Viking, Mariner, and Highlander take a seat,” the voice of Huck Chambers instructed over the pa system.
The trio entered a mess hall, Runa’s suspicions heightened.
“Boy, they must want us badly,” Chase shouted at the cameras. He yawned. He’d endured twelve bone-shaking hours as a passenger on the Sikorsky helicopter, which now lay abandoned and smoldering on the runway.
Scott sprung to his feet, wavering after his fifteen-hour flight on NASA’s Super Guppy—the world’s largest and most uncomfortable aircraft. Its fuselage still bore the protestors’ graffiti—NASA go home.
“Vit ho treng som vidt skal fare. She who travels widely needs her wits about her.” Runa cautioned her team as she led them into the stainless steel room,
“Isn’t it he who travels widely?” Chase asked before he could stop himself.
Runa’s glare answered his question. She replayed the events since sunrise in her mind. Held captive in NASA One until her friends landed, she’d detonated the jet’s emergency exit to escape. Groundswell’s rendezvous was then overshadowed by the arrival of the Triple-A squad—their competition—in a fleet of Apache attack helicopters. “They want us so badly they’d deliver the other team in a billion dollars of military machinery. Nobody said we had to fight for the interview?”
“I think they let it slip to me on Harrier,” Chase replied nervously. “But there was no mention of them being armed forces. Guess it will boost Groundswell’s ratings.”
“Assuming they let us vlog,” Scott added.
“Dude, ask for forgiveness, not permission,” Chase said.
“Vlog with what?” Runa asked.
Chase checked his pockets. “Snap. I left my cell phone on the ship.”
“So, no comms. It makes us blind, dumb, and vulnerable,” Runa said.
“The Triple-A military squad,” Chase said sarcastically. “What about the first guy out of the helicopter? Piece of work that one, landing on all fours. Weirdo.”
Runa fidgeted with her talisman and glared at the camera. “Cat Man. I have a bad feeling about him. Make no mistake - we’re the underdogs.”
Chase scooted over to Runa, sensing her impatience. “Exactly what I was thinking, boss. If not for the lengths NASA went to get us here. Let’s hear them out. Give them a chance to deliver on something. Anything.” The American’s optimism rescued Runa’s darkening mood.
Runa grabbed Scott’s wrist, checking his watch. They’d been waiting for over an hour, again.
“You need to get one of these, Cap,” Scott tapped his wristwatch.
“I use the sun by day, and the stars by night,” she remarked, half-joking.
“But the sun doesn’t shine for six months at the North Pole.” Chase said.
She flashed the remains of her watch, having smashed it on the evacuation slide. “Requiring this. And it’s three months of total darkness, and four hundred miles from Svalbard to the Pole, thank you,” she corrected Chase.
Scott circled the room to stretch his legs, studying the faded images adorning the walls. He marveled at the pictures of aeronauts, astronauts, and test pilots, posing next to their exotic craft. “Maybe these guys aren’t so bad after all?”
“Looks like a macho boys’ club with zero gender balance,” Runa scoffed.
The sound of a deadlock opening was the only warning they got as Huck Chambers entered the mess hall. The swing door clipped his intern as she followed, carrying three agency backpacks.
“No accompanying parents or guardians and only one passport took some explaining.” Chambers said, holding Runa’s paperwork, trying not to stare at her eyes. “Friend or Foe? I’d be asking the same question.”
Scott and Chase traded glances; Runa’s stare remained fixed, unblinking, at the athletic-looking man in his fifties. He spoke with a Southern drawl and chose his words carefully.
“Consider me a friend. As Head of Human Space Flight and NASA’s Mission-X program, I represent Building 9. From this point forward, we, Nine, exist only to serve you. Without you, there will be no human space program. There are forces within NASA already working against us. Trust no one outside the Building 9 organization. You can address me as Chambers.”
Runa kept her questions to herself, studying the man from NASA, examining his gestures, mining his motives. Groundswell was in touching distance of its goal. And she was even closer.
Chambers continued, motioning to the intern by his side to place the packs on the table. “At this point, questions will only lead to questions, so now is not the time. You met our interns during your extractions.”
Easily mistaken for teenagers, the three NASA interns, Pearl Washington, her twin Fox, and Sing, had been instructed to return to Houston with their respective candidates. Click and collect, according to Chambers, their mentor. The reality could not have been more different.
“—while the experience of prying you from your domains has taken its toll, Pearl here appears to have endured the least. So, she’ll play chaperone until Chase and Fox are released from sickbay.”
Runa exchanged glances with the girl. “Ho veit kvar vegane går som har sett og lidd mykje. She who has seen and suffered much, knows the ways of the world.”
Pearl’s smile quickly vanished. Fox’s encounter with a polar bear and Chase’s involvement in a sonic explosion offshore had left them with superficial wounds and a bunch of paperwork. Pearl’s injuries on the Talmine mudflats were invisible, so as the last person standing, she played point.
Scott McMurdo’s chuckle was met with Pearl’s scowl as she tossed the pack hardest at him. The recruitment of candidate Highlander had almost cost her life, saved from the riptide by Scott’s quick thinking; she failed to disguise her embarrassment.
“These packs contain a change of clothes, agency handbook, secure cell, smartwatch, and ID tags.” Pearl ignored Scott’s smirk. “Wear the ID and watch at all times, dial only the pre-programmed numbers. I will escort you now to Johnson Space Center, ETA thirty minutes, where you’ll proceed directly to the JSC tram-tour reception and join the blue line. The trolly will take you on a sixty-minute familiarization tour of NASA’s facility, also known as Space City.”
Huck made to leave, giving Pearl a knowing look. “Groundswell, we’ll intercept you on location. Gives us time to locate the professor. Briefing in two hours. All will be explained.”
At the door, he pointed to the cameras and whispered. “Your every move will be watched. There’s a new guy allocated to our Mission-X training program, Drill Sergeant Grind. He’s got history with NASA but compared to Director One he’s a pussycat. You’ll meet them both this afternoon. I advise you to draw on your collective strength, hold your nerve, and trust only Nine.”
Grind, or Cat Man as Runa had branded him, was one of a kind. He’d excelled in the physicals, but flunked NASA’s class of 1991 on soft skills. Snapped up by the air force, he’d never looked back, until the opportunity to avenge himself with the space agency presented itself through Director One.
Runa opened the backpack and slipped the security lanyard over her head, checked the phone signal, and avoided the tracking watch. Shadowing Pearl, she stopped her friends before entering the Texas daylight. She spoke quietly. “We need to find out who’s running this outfit?”
Pearl stopped on the sidewalk, removed her Oakleys and looked Runa in the eye. “The Professor. Make no mistake about that.”
3 Tram Tour
Friday 5th December: JSC. Space City Houston TX
Warriors do not show their heart until the axe reveals it. Krigarar syner ikkje kva dei har på hjarte før øksa blottar det.
Pearl pushed the minivan hard along Houston’s Gulf Freeway as the candidates inspected their gear.
Runa was the last to select home from her cell’s authorized contacts, fearful of the mess she’d left behind. “Typical,” she cursed as the line to Kjell Harry Observatory was killed by static. She pictured the chaos she’d left four hundred miles from the North Pole and dialed home-2—EISCAT radar station. Nothing but a deadline. What did she expect with the two mountaintop stations separated by a mile? Both facilities were likely devoured by a storm the size of a continent. She selected work after tiring with redial and cracked a smile at NASA’s classification of the most valuable place on earth—The Ark—Svalbard’s subterranean fortress protecting the global seed bank and the world’s food source. She braced herself for the voice of the Ark’s environmental scientist, her mentor Saskia Galin, only to find another flat dial tone. Forced to listen to the soundbites of others on the journey to JSC, she sighed and pressed call back.
Chase’s machinegun laughter filled the car, lightening her mood, as he chatted long-distance to Blades, or was it Ace, on the dive ship he called home.
Scott repeated the word, “No,” as he listened to a Scotsman called the Keeper, yell the names Badger and Constable McFearson.
Runa flinched as her cell vibrated, its screen flashing work.
“All kinds of complicated,” her mentor confirmed. Svalbard’s governor himself had apprehended Sergei the Cossack—Runa’s friend, ally, and the only reason she and NASA’s intern Fox Washington had managed to escape to Houston. Accused of being a foreign accomplice, Sergei had been charged with conspiracy in the kidnapping of a Norwegian minor—Runa Erikson—and incarcerated in the most remote jail on earth. His bail refused, an appeal had been lodged not by the Russian Embassy, but the European Space Agency, ESA. They demanded diplomatic immunity for the Cossack, who’d assisted NASA, insisting he was on a mission of national importance on behalf of two space agencies.
NASA’s donation of a plasma telescope to its launch partner ESA and an injection of capital for Svalbard’s polar research sites helped to oil the wheels of diplomacy and miraculously secure his release.
All this for an adolescent’s interview with NASA?
Saskia confirmed the matter was closed by all but the Governor of Svalbard—Odin Berg. He swore to speak to the fourteen year old upon her return. But it was the message from Sergei the Cossack that stopped Runa’s breath; one word—Armageddon. The sinister name given to the Ark by the Russian Mercenaries. Its meaning left nothing to the imagination—the place where the last battle on earth would be fought.
Pearl darted through the commuter traffic arriving on Saturn Lane outside Johnson Space Center in record time, guaranteeing Groundswell a seat on the first tram ride.
Runa sprang from the van as it rolled up outside the facility and dropped to one knee, reeling from Saskia’s two-minute lecture—she blamed Pearl’s driving.
The lines zig-zagged outside NASA’s JSC visitor center, despite the early morning hour and it being low-season. Excited crowds shuffled in the shadows of the spacecraft, waiting in expectation. Necks craned, mouths gaping at the mighty Independence Shuttle hitching a ride on top of the Boeing 747.
“Independence Plaza. Never seen anything like it, right?” Pearl said, escorting the trio past the lines.
Runa stared at the intern’s heels as they approached JSC’s glistening entrance, her friends gazing skyward. The haunting word rang in her mind, Armageddon. Runa ignored the excited tugging on her backpack and motioned toward their chaperone with a flick of the chin. I’m wasting time, Runa thought, they’re coming—the Russian mercenaries. Surely NASA could help? Her thoughts were in turmoil.
“Take the blue line, don’t fall asleep, and rendezvous at the mission brief,” Pearl reminded them, offering the overdressed teenagers some advice on beating jet lag before dialing Building 9 to confirm they had a problem.
The trio entered JSC visitor arrivals, sailed through security, and cruised past the lines of envious kids. Their turn to stare and Runa’s opportunity to forget as they approached NASA’s cosmic centerpiece. Immersed in the spirit of space exploration, they stood in the place between magic and wonderment, silence and awe, staring at the glittering array of spacecraft hanging from the celestial ceiling. Only when the doors burst open, and the turnstiles spun did they stir as the hordes descended.
Runa broke into a jog and pointed towards the Martian exhibit, “Blue line’s this way,” she shouted at Chase, heading for the soda machine. Groundswell slid to a halt in front of the tram tour departure point, pursued by the stomping of hundreds of enthusiastic feet. Chase sweated, posing awkwardly with Scott for a selfie, as Runa winced and looked away. The trio raced through the queue-busting system to take up position at the rear of the tram, directly in front of the smiling teenage guide. With the trolley filling in seconds, the guide tapped the microphone, waving at the driver ten cars ahead. A honk confirming the open-top tour was about to commence.
“Hi, folks. My name is Barney, and I’ll be your guide on this unique journey through NASA’s Johnson Space Center this morning,” announced the supercharged youth perched on the elevated seat at the rear, regaling his passengers with fun facts. “Known as Space City, NASA’s fifteen thousand employees would rather skip a Superbowl final than miss a day working with the world’s coolest stuff.”
Shaking and snaking its way past the Long Horn bullpen, the trolley approached a film-set sized facility on their right. Barney sounded excited despite it being his fiftieth tour that season.
“Folks, this is Rocket Park. That warehouse contains a real-life Saturn Five; at three hundred and fifty feet long, the largest rocket ever made. Until now, folks. NASA’s SLS or Space Launch System beats it by—”
Chase responded with an involuntary carbonated belch, amplified by the guide’s microphone. Holding the soda bottle high like an apologetic trophy, he attempted to admonish the guide before his aftershock rumbled, prompting stares from the adults as they reprimanded their giggling children.
“This is no theme park, folks,” Barney continued; “it’s a working government facility. Built in the 1960s on land gifted by the Rice University, this campus was designed to support our manned missions to the moon.”
Chase nudged Runa as the tram trundled on. His attention fixed on the approaching five-story building on their right.
“Home to a hundred government buildings, folks. Referred to by number only, each one more secret than the next,” Barney said, delighting the clapping tourists. “On your right folks, Building 30. Our Mission Control Center for over fifty years.”
“Here we go,” Chase whispered.
Barney orated at full speed. “Named after NASA’s first Flight Director, Christopher C. Kraft Jr., this building was awarded national historic status for its role in the Apollo moon landings.”
“There!” Chase said as if waking from a deep sleep, “GameMaster’s mission control for Season Nine, that’s where it all went down a week ago. That’s where they killed us.”
“You sure?” Scott questioned.
“Hundred percent,” Chase beamed, pointing at the top floor. “Sing says NASA highjacked Season Nine just to recruit teenagers like us. That’s where we told them to shove their nine million dollar prize, right there.”
Every head under the age of fifteen turned to face the rear of the tram. And half of the adults too.
“Gaming is Good,” Chase chanted, his audience repeating Groundswell’s catchphrase.
Barney held his hands high at the rear of the trolley, shooshing the trio, and switched his commentary to describe Building 21 as they drove over a crosswalk in the form of a DNA string. “NASA’s Astronaut Bio-Medical facility. Folks, the building on our left is where we unravel and study DNA. The secret code of life. Note the entire side of this ultra-modern building painted with a spiral-shaped mural.”
“Looks like graffiti to me,” dismissed Chase loudly, receiving a playful push from Scott, shunting him perilously close to the tram’s edge.
The teenage driver scowled and sped up.
“Mate, you need to start showing your smarts if you want to stay on the junior astronaut program,” Scott said.
Runa elbowed him. “Ikke gjor det. Cool it.”
Disapproving heads stared at the trio. Three rebels in the next row, stared, puzzling at what they’d just heard, refusing to follow their parent’s instruction.
“You speak funny,” accused the smallest kid.
“What’s wrong with your eyes?” asked the rudest, pointing.
“Yeah, you’re dressed funny too,” teased the shyest, joining the attack and staring at the girl in the fur-lined hood.
Runa groaned silently, thinking back to the Norwegian mainland and remembering the ridicule and cruelty of kids. Set upon the moment they’d arrived from the frozen north, she’d been bullied for carrying the mark of the Viking Eric the Red—her strange and alluring eyes. In the land where children were suckled on myth and legend—Lore made it true. The attacks relentless, they had returned to Svalbard, fleeing like her ancestors to the land of the banished Viking.
“She’s a descendant of the most fearsome Viking that ever lived,” Chase said, “and if you don’t turn around, she’ll roast you on a spit.”
The parents stirred; their kids stared defiantly.
“Ein krigar syner ikkje hjarte før øksa blottar det. Warriors do not show their heart until the axe reveals it.” Runa quoted from the playbook, savoring the Viking Creed.
The kids’ eyes widened.
“Building 14 folks, on our left, is the Electro-Magnetic Compliance Lab,” Barney announced.
Scott tapped Chase on the shoulder, yawning, “I wonder what they’d make of Chirp now?”
Chase burst into hysterical laughter, giddy on lack of sleep, as he whipped out the latest version of the stolen technology, holding it skyward.
Barney and the tourists fell into stunned silence as Groundswell recounted how the device ended up in their hands.
Devised in Building 14, tested by the Navy, reportedly lost by the Seal team, Harrier had hotwired Chirp. “More powerful than any Naval sonar, it warned the whales, scared the bears, defended the dolphins, and pretty much any endangered species from the hunter’s scourge.” Chase recounted.
“I can’t believe you brought it—I thought you were kidding!” Runa exclaimed, elbowing him again. Chase feigned agony as passenger’s heads lolled back and forth, eager for more controversy.
Barney looked into the distance for inspiration, support, anything.
The rosy-faced tram driver sped up. “Building 32 on our right, NASA’s Space Environment Simulation Laboratory. Those tanks simulate the temperature of space by holding frozen nitrogen at minus three hundred degrees centigrade.” Barney held onto the roof bars as his colleague floored the trolley to its top speed of ten miles an hour. His voice accelerated, as he failed to stick to the script.
The statistics prompted a howl and a promise from Chase. “Dude, I’m wearing my onesie on our flight to the ISS. That temperature’s a summer’s day at home for you in the North Pole, right Runa?”
Barney struggled to shield his mic from the trio’s banter and deliver his memorized pitch as the tram traveled twice its scheduled speed, pelting past Building 17. “On our right, NASA’s Space Food Systems—Bye!”
“Reckon NASA does Gluten-free?” Chase shouted to Runa.
“My diet isn’t a choice. It’s a medical necessity. And if NASA can’t cater, then I won’t be ready to go fly.” The remark prompted more suspicious looks.
Barney nursed his head as the tram hit a storm grate at full speed. “NASA’s Planetary Analog test site for Moon and Mars roving equipment,” he continued, the tram hurtling passed the Rock Yard nearing their first official stop.
“Like!” Scott said, admiring the hilly terrain. “No contest if I had Badger. He’d out-maneuver any of those,” he pointed at the exotic vehicles assembled on the horizon.
“What, your dirty diesel 4x4?” Chase remarked.
“Gas-converted Landrover,” Scott replied. “Did it myself, with a little help from YouTube. It already saved NASA once this month. Dare say it won’t be the last time.”
The trio’s bravado and storytelling left the tourists divided. Half of them tutted, scoffing at their Hobbycraft VIP tags and dismissing them as wayward adolescents. The others googled and practiced Groundswell’s three-fingered salute.
The tram arrived with a jolt—ten minutes early—outside the iconic structure every space-faring kid dreamed of entering: Building 9. Barney raced to fill the silence before the walking tour could commence. The tourists eyed the teenagers with a mixture of contempt and curiosity.
“The astronaut program’s elite nature requires candidates to possess doctorate degrees, commitment to years of training, and unwavering dedication to NASA. At the cost of over thirty million dollars per graduate, it attracts the best of the best of the best.”
“They’re gonna have to change the recipe if they’re sending us into space,” Chase remarked.
Friday 5th December: Building 9
Better to be betrayed than to trust no one. Bedre forrådt enn ingen å stole på.
“Exit the trolley from the right side only.” Barney said urgently as parents scooped up their children like wayward cubs. The tour guide avoided the Groundswell adolescents, darting through the sea of whispering tourists gathering outside the spaceship mock-up facility.
Runa was first off the tram, then Scott, with Chase last, laughing. His enthusiasm was infectious, but Runa’s mind raced, her burden growing. NASA’s big ask loomed. The Ark’s peril demanded it. She’d tell her friends the real plan soon, she promised herself. Her concern dulled with fatigue. Bedre forrådt enn ingen å stole på. Better to be betrayed than to trust no one. She replayed the Creed recorded in her dream diary.
“Somebody was in a hurry to leave?” Scott said, pointing at the long black tire marks on the tarmac.
“Arrive. Those marks aren’t straight. That’s deceleration, not acceleration,” Runa corrected him.
It was a week to the day since Director One had screeched to a halt outside Building 9, he and his security detail intent on shutting Mission-X down, once and for all.
Barney ushered the visitors into the reception area, grabbed the mic, and avoided eye contact with the trio. He lowered his voice to a whisper and started the high-octane film showcasing the cosmic technology that awaited them. “This is where the magic happens people. Building 9. Also known as NASA’s spaceship mock-up facility,”
“A windowless giant, where echoes have echoes. This six hundred foot long by one hundred foot high structure—” The Hollywood intro continued.
The teenagers wove their way through the mesmerized crowd, knowing what to look for and where to find it.
For one of the two teams of candidates, the ISS would be home for the duration of NASA’s most controversial experiment of all—Accelerated Evolution.
Barney frowned, watching the adolescents push through the crowd. He killed the trailer, skipped to the safety brief, and beckoned the tourists early. His voice sounded breathy and rushed as he ascended the thirty-four steps, two at a time. “Follow me or wait at the elevator with the driver for assistance. Spanning the full length of the facility, a three hundred foot long glass gallery awaits us—”
Chase eyed the elevator.
“Race you,” Scott challenged.
Barney urged his tour to follow faster towards the viewing deck.
Scott scaled the stairs in ten wild strides, and waited for his friend to arrive.
Runa watched with concern as Chase knelt, gasping for air.
The tourists followed the guide, spacing out over a third of the concourse. Assuming the troublemakers had stayed with the driver, Barney sighed with relief and reached for the intercom.
The trio crouched out of sight at the top of the stair, eye-level with their prize. Palms pressed against the gallery window. Chase wiped the fog from his breath off the glass. All three stared at the full-sized mock-up of the International Space Station.
With the little that NASA had told them during their extraction, Groundswell had qualified for a try-out on the junior astronaut program. If successful, they’d help the space agency protect the future of human space flight. Quite how was still a mystery, but one thing was sure: it involved the spaceship directly in front of them.
“You’re looking at the ISS ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” Barney announced over the intercom. Returning to his fun-facts: “As big as a football field, flying at fourteen thousand miles an hour—” The tourist’s ooh-ing and aah-ing competed with his script, their eyes feasting on the frenzy of activity below.
A hundred awed faces watched the astronauts battle through their emergency containment exercise as the ISS interior filled with white-clad scientists and smoke. Blue-suited supervisors marshaled orange-coveralled engineers blasting fake gas from above. The astronauts moved cautiously from module to module, studied by the men with clipboards. A pack of paparazzi at the tail of the column jostled for the best shot.
The tourists followed Barney like the Pied Piper, streaming past the crouching trio. Most gaped at the Mars-Moon rovers, the rest gawked at the asteroid catchers.
The impatient crowd moaned as Barney spied, then summoned, the adolescent stragglers from the end of the gallery. The trio moved in slow motion, staring at the astronauts as they entered the ISS Harmony module. Runa leaned forward, within touching distance of the American module had it not been for the bulletproof glass. Her lanyard kissed the window, followed by her talisman, splintering it in a thousand directions.
The blue-coveralls froze, glaring up at the frosted gallery.
Scott exchanged glances with Chase. Their hands held high in innocence. Runa fiddled with her lanyard, slipped the talisman under her shirt, and looked apologetically for the person in charge below.
The containment exercises resumed in earnest.
Runa scanned the facility floor, spying an older woman sandwiched between the mighty ISS and the towering Shuttle simulator. The woman saw Runa and smiled, then waved.
Runa waved back, drawn by her power. She turned to her accomplices, intrigued. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
The tram driver sprang out of the elevator. “Barney! We’ve got a whole bunch of trouble heading our way.”
Barney wavered, his presentation long since destroyed. His mouth opened, but nothing.
Both ends of the corridor exploded simultaneously.
Heavily armed men from NASA’s Building 110 security poured into the gallery. Their leader snatched the mic from Barney’s hand.
“Everyone stay exactly where you are!” He demanded.
“Jeez, it was just a window,” Chase muttered to his friends.
“Groundswell, identify yourselves immediately!” The commander yelled.
A breeze of solidarity as unexpected as the raid swept through the corridor. Half the queue raised their hands slowly. Scott nodded approvingly. Chase perspired. Runa stood firm, eying the threat wearing NASA insignia.
The commander repeated his demand. “Junior astronaut candidates, Runa Erikson, Scott McMurdo, Chase Hudson. Identify yourselves now!”
The Groundswell trio raised their hands as the hordes filmed.
“You’re under arrest for the theft of top-secret government property. Search them, find that gadget!” The oversized commander delivered the charge over a whispering chorus of Gaming is Good.