By David Canfield
November 05, 2019 at 11:00 AM EST
Tor Books

Mary Robinette Kowal has been winning prizes left and right for The Calculating Stars, one of the most acclaimed sci-fi debuts in recent memory. Now, EW has an exclusive first look at what’s coming next: The Relentless Moon.

The Calculating Stars, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novel, introduced Elma York, an experienced WASP pilot and mathematician in 1952 America. She was put on the team to help put a man on the moon, but soon developed a drive to become the first Lady Astronaut.

The Relentless Moon continues the Lady Astronaut saga. The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The International Aerospace Coalition’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened. And Elma is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is stationed on the Moon, using her considerable political and flight skills to help keep the program on track.

EW has an exclusive look at the new novel, in the form of a cover reveal and first excerpt. Check out the cover above, and read on below for a taste of what’s inside. The Relentless Moon publishes July 14, 2020, and is available for pre-order.

Excerpt from The Relentless Moon, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Part I:
Chapter One

HALFWAY TO MARS
March 28, 1962 — John Schwartz

If all goes as it should — and in space, that is no sure thing — then sometime tomorrow, thirteen brave voyagers will cross a Rubicon that no man ever has: the halfway point between our home planet and Mars.

It has been a mission of triumph and terror, of disasters averted and disasters tragically experienced, as the dozen astronauts and astronettes speed across the cosmic void.

The mission has been a test not just of technology, but also of ingenuity, resourcefulness and the human spirit.

“Like Julius Caesar, we must prepare for the worst,” said Norman Clemons, director of the International Aerospace Coalition; “that is our training. But we also hope for the best. And this wonderful team has been prepared for almost every eventuality.”

The astronauts and astronettes, a group composed of so many nationalities that “Lady Astronaut” Elma York called it a “World’s Fair in Space,” has prepared years for this moment, and every moment of the months to come.

After tomorrow’s milestone, the spacemen will have just 27 million kilometers to go before reaching the Red Planet.

#

How many places do you call home? For me, it could mean my parents’ home in Detroit. Or the governor’s mansion that I share with my husband, Kenneth. Or my bunk on the lunar colony. But I’ve learned to not ask people where home is because after the Meteor, so many people no longer have their true home.

I have switched to the more innocuous “Where are you based?” which I was busily applying at the fundraiser tonight. While Ella Fitzgerald sang, I smiled at all the powerful men that my husband wanted to charm so they would support his policies as governor.

My diamonds sparkled around my neck and made a striking contrast to the astronaut’s wings pinned to the peacock green taffeta of my evening gown. Being the glittering trophy wife was easier before I’d passed fifty, but I was in better shape than I’d been in my thirties.

I say that, but the arthritis in my feet protested each high-heeled step I took. I kept that masked along with my sigh of relief when Kenneth stopped us on the parquet floor for the umpteenth time. “You remember Mr. Vann don’t you, Nicole?”

I did not. Mr. Vann was yet another flaccid middle-aged white man with his glittering wife in tow. “How lovely of you to come!” My voice still had all the charm I’d learned in Swiss Finishing school.

Thank God they taught us how to hide boredom behind glitter.

“A pleasure, Mrs. Wargin.” His accent was from the Midwest. I’d need another sentence to pin it down, but his vowels leaned that way. “I don’t believe you’ve met my wife, Bethany, yet.”

Oklahoma. It was the only place you got Midwest and Southern twang mixed in quite that way, which meant they probably hadn’t lost a lot of family to the Meteor and also meant that the last eleven years had been enough to remove the urgency from their minds. I smiled at them both. “Such a pleasure. Please do come visit me on the moon.”

“Now, now… I want Bethany here on Earth, where it’s safe.” Mr. Vann patted his wife’s arm in a way that would have had Kenneth sleeping on the couch for a week. “I’m surprised that you’re letting the little lady go up there, governor.”

Kenneth laughed, but his hand pressed on my lower back, letting me know that he could field this one. I leaned into him to accept his offer in a silent language that we’ve worked out over years of public service.

He smiled at the man. “I think you’re mistaken, if you believe that my wife is a woman that people ‘let’ do anything.”

“Besides living on the moon isn’t that different, really. In many ways, the lunar colony is just like being in a small town. Why, we even have an art gallery.” Which I had set up, but the fact remained that it existed and that we had art.

“And you work with Elma York, don’t you?” His wife’s gaze focused on me and what I had seen as vapidity was actually a boredom as thick as my own.

“Oh yes. Long before she was the famous ‘Lady Astronaut!'” I was in the same class of astronauts as Elma, the first women chosen for the space program, but she would always be The Lady Astronaut.

Mrs. Vann’s face brightened. “How did you two meet?”

“We met as WASPS during the Second World War.” This is true. But the fuller truth is that I don’t remember our first meeting. Oh, I know we were both Women’s Air Service Pilots, but it wasn’t as though she were famous when we met. There were a lot of us. My first concrete memory of her is at a dance on the air base in Palm Springs where she was holding the hair of some hapless young pilot who had had too much to drink and was vomiting out her guts.

But no one wants to hear about that as a first memory of the famous Lady Astronaut.

Mrs. Vann sighed. “I’d join up in a heartbeat, if I were qualified.”

If she were like me, her area of expertise was in planning menus, throwing fundraisers, and walking with a book balanced on her head. If not for being a WASP and having a husband who was, at the time, a senator, I never would have made the cut.

Ella Fitzgerald’s song came to an end. I wanted to yell at the people who did not understand what a gift her voice was did not even clap politely.

In the pause before she started singing again, distant shouts sounded beyond the ballroom. They pulled my attention to the windows that stretched along one wall of the hotel. Beyond the filmy white curtains, there was a vivid orange glow like the base of a rocket at lift-off.

My spine straightened and I turned to Kenneth, leaning into him as if I were just affectionate. “Is something on fire outside?”

“Hmm?” He followed my gaze. At the small of my back, his fingers tightened. “Nicole…”

“What–“

The window exploded in a shower of glass and flame. I grabbed Kenneth and spun him away, dragging us both down to a low crouch as my astronaut training kicked in. Something is exploding? Get low, seek cover, protect vulnerable body parts like your head and chest.

And here I was in an off-the shoulder gown.

Screams sounded behind us. The haze of ennui that had coated me all evening evaporated. The room with its pudgy middle-aged white men and their glamorous wives and the waiters with their dark skin and white gloves snapped into focus as if I were in the seat of a T-38 jet. The best path to get Kenneth to safety was past the banquet tables and through the service door into the kitchen.

“Kenneth.” I grabbed the sleeve of his tuxedo. “We need to–“

A swarm of black-suited security men, all square jaws and buzz cuts, surrounded us. “This way.” One of them took my arm. Another had Kenneth’s. Frustration at being managed filled me for a moment and it had no place here. These men were doing their jobs, of protecting the governor and, by extension, his wife.

Me. I was hauled along the path to safety as if I were no more than a decorative bauble. And when I was on Earth, that was, in fact, my job.

#

In the back seat of our government car, Kenneth’s hair gleamed silver gold in the sodium vapor street-lights. He held my hand tightly and stared out the window looking for more rioters as if he could do anything about them. But then, that’s Kenneth to a T. He never sees a problem that he doesn’t want to fix.

“Sweetheart.” I put my free hand on the thigh of his tuxedo trousers. Don’t fault me for finding my husband at his most attractive when he was concentrating. “I’m sure that the UN has this well in hand.”

“It’s my state.”

“Technically…” Both Kansas Citys had been carved out of their respective states and redistricted to replace Washington D.C.. Not that you could replace Washington.

“Don’t even.” But he smiled a little.

I leaned against him even though it was too warm for snuggling. “The food shortages are not your fault.”

“I’m the one who authorized sending our surpluses to other sta–“

The driver slammed on the brakes. I slid forward in a hiss of tafetta, tightening my legs as if I could brace. We swerved onto a side street and I thought Kenneth was going to break my hand squeezing it so hard.

Out the side window, I saw why the driver had swerved. Protestors with flaming trash barrels stood outside the highrise where we had our pied-à-terre in the nation’s capital. He looked in the rear-view mirror. “Sorry, sir.”

“Quite all right, son.” Kenneth looked over his shoulder as the conflagration faded behind us. “Maybe we should try to head back to Topeka…I trust you to find the best route.”

Biting my lower lip, I stared out the window as the driver wound through tree-lined older neighborhoods. “We could go to Cedar Air Park.” I kept my Cessna in the 99s hangar there. Turning, I planted a kiss on his cheek, careful not to get lipstick on his collar. “I can fly you home.”

“Or we can just check into a hotel.”

“And have reporters hound you? Nonsense. Besides, I have to be back out at IAC in the morning for training anyway. This will save me from taking the commuter train.”

“Which you wouldn’t have to if we–“

“Reporters. Rioters.” I leaned forward to address our driver. “Do you think the governor should take the train tonight?”

“Um. No, ma’am.”

Kenneth had the nerve to shake his head at me. “Now ask him if he thinks you should fly us to Topeka.”

“Don’t pressure him.” Kenneth wasn’t wrong. It would save me some travel if we just checked into a hotel, but the idea of having those people hounding my husband was intolerable. Besides, I would take almost any opportunity to fly. “It’ll take no time at all to nip back to Topeka, so hush and stop arguing with your betters.”

“See, this is why I do so well in debates. No one else has you to prepare them. I have another idea.” Kenneth leaned forward and gave the driver our friend’s, the Lindholms’, address.

The driver looked up sharply. “Sir, that’s in the black part of town.”

“Son, I’m going to do you the kindness of pretending you didn’t say that as if you were cautioning me against black people.” Kenneth’s smile had all the disappointed weight of the grandfather he’ll never be. “Dr. Martin Luther King is a personal friend of mine.”

I shot him a glance, because that was true, but also not the address that he’d given the driver. I murmured, “Now this child is going to think he’s taking us to Dr. King’s house.”

“Eugene Lindholm looks nothing like him. But he and Myrtle are staying far enough from downtown that I’m not worried about the riots getting out here.” He kissed me on the cheek. “And you’re right that checking into a hotel will call reporters down on us.”

“Kenneth–“

“People were hurt tonight. I need to be here.” He squeezed my hand with a sad smile. “Besides, tomorrow is poker night with the Astronaut’s Husbands Club. I’d be back regardless.”

“Tomorrow night.”

“And tomorrow morning, you have to be back at the IAC anyway. I can continue on with my list of reasons to stay. Coordinating a response between the state and the City’s police force. Visiting victims of the riots. Soothing our guests. Damage control at the UN. And upon reflection, I’m almost certainly going to have to do a press conference. If I’m here in the national capital, then I can share the stage with the president which will be useful when I make my bid.”

“Fine. You may stay.” I compressed my lips and settled back in the seat. He hadn’t announced it publicly, but becoming President Wargin was his next goal, which meant he was already laying the groundwork for 1964. Even post-Meteor, election season was a never-ending battle for politicians and he was right about needing to do a press conference. And right about the power of linking himself to the presidential stage. “As soon as you set the press conference time, let me know and I’ll see if I can shift my training so I can be there with you.”

Kenneth settled into his seat, lulling me into a false sense of security. You would think, as long as we’ve been married, that I would know better. The driver had nearly reached the Lindholms before Kenneth spoke again.

He started by clearing his throat, which is never a good sign. “Nicole…”

“You already won this argument.”

“This is a different argument.” Kenneth never looks uncertain, even when he’s completely stymied, the line of his jaw and the steadiness of his dark brown eyes always seem confident. The way you can tell he’s uncertain is in the pauses between his words. They carry a weight then, which other people mistake as gravitas. I know that he’s feeling his way forward on uncertain ground. Each word was a slow inch forward. “I think… it would be…for the best. If. You sat out this press conference.”

“It will be fine. Clemons knows how important your support is to the program.”

“That’s… that’s just it.” He swallowed and the pause stretched between us. “That’s… that’s just it.” He swallowed and the pause stretched between us. “I’m — Lord knows, I’m proud of your work at the IAC…”

“I’d be able to hear this ‘but’ from the moon.”

He laughed, kissing me on the cheek and then sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m getting some pushback. A few people tonight raised the question…They wanted to know if my support of the space program was nepotism.”

“Oh for crying out loud. The goal is to get everyone off the planet. Do they call that nepotism?”

“But we won’t, in fact, be able to save everyone. So…you see.” He gave me that goddamned kindly smile of his. “I might need to be more circumspect in my support. We’re trying to get the tax reform bill through… and. Well.”

I know my job. I fly planes and rockets and smile for the cameras. “Well. I certainly don’t want to be a problem.”

“Nicole…”

“It’s fine.” The car rolled to a stop next to the tidy home that Myrtle and Eugene shared with their eldest son when they were home from the moon. I let the driver open my door.

Just audible, sirens wailed in the distance. We had worked so hard to make the space program viable and it was all coming apart. Not on my watch, it wasn’t.

Chapter Two

KANSAS CITY RIOTS SWEEP CAPITOL CITY
2 REPORTED DEAD
Night of Terror in Kansas City Claimed by the Organization Earth First After Civilians Attack UN Guards
Kansas City, US, March 29–Heavy fighting has broken out between UN troops and civilians in the United States capital city of Kansas City. Unconfirmed reports said two persons had been killed and about 80 wounded in the fighting, which began Thursday night.

#

The morning light gleamed on the white linoleum counters of the Lindholms’ kitchen. Myrtle lifted a bright blue plate with the last piece of toast on it. Her curls formed a close cap framing her light tan face. When we’d met, she’d had a cute bouffant, which she’d abandoned on the moon. Turns out that black women have to use lye and heat to straighten their hair and that’s not friendly at 1/6 gravity. For that matter, I’d switched to a pixie cut, too. Not all of the women in the astronaut corps did, but it did make things easier when living and working without showers.

She held out the toast. “Would you like–?”

The low rumble of a rocket pushed into the room. The rumbling grew to a roar, and even inside a house ten miles from the launch site, I could feel the sound waves crashing into me.

“Sirius IV?” Eugene asked the window.

It was a heavy lift rocket, which meant it was probably carrying people and supplies, although I couldn’t tell you whether the crew was stopping at the space station or continuing on to the Moon. There was a time when I attended every launch, before the IAC added Brazilian and European spaceports. But now they were so frequent that I lost track of what was launching, to say nothing of who. There had been a score of us at the beginning and now there were hundreds of people living and working in space.

Next to me at the Lindholms’ breakfast table, Kenneth scanned the Lindholms’ newspaper while remaining oblivious to the rocket. It was easy to tell which of us were astronauts and which was not. Kenneth wasn’t being rude — well, I mean, by strict etiquette rules he was — but we all understood because he had to be ready to hit the ground running.

Across from me, Myrtle offered the toast again, raising her voice over the sound of the rocket. “Don’t let this go to waste.”

Eugene reached for the toast. “Happy to help.”

She smacked his hand away. “Was I talking to you?”

“See, don’t complain next time that I don’t help around the house enough.” Eugene lowered his plate with a comically loud mournful sigh.

Myrtle rolled her eyes at him and held the plate toward me. “Nicole?”

“Oh, I’m fine.” I picked up a slice of bacon and waved it like a magic wand. “And I still have eggs.”

Kenneth looked up from the paper and I could feel him study my plate to see if I was eating. I took a bite of bacon and let it fill my mouth with salt and fat. Beside me, he thumped the paper with the back of one knuckle. “Two people died last night.”

Eugene winced. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

I didn’t want anyone to be dead, but I was terrified that it would be some of our guests. “Earth Firsters or…?”

“A bystander got trampled and a store owner who was trying to keep looters out.”

“That’s horrible.” Sighing, I set my bacon down. “They say that they’re protesting your policies, and then go after an innocent shopkeeper. It’s just an excuse for looting.”

“Earth First will deny involvement with the looting.” Kenneth picked up his fork. “Now, Eugene… when you make your bid for lunar mayor, you’ll have to be ready to talk about this. How would you respond to last night?”

Eugene lowered his toast and wiped his hands on his napkin. When he concentrated, you could still see the fighter pilot that he used to be, especially with his hair cropped so short you could see the gleam of his dark skin through the tight curls. His brows came together in a way that made him look concerned, rather than worried, which was a fine line and a good feature for a politician.

“I’d probably say something about how we grieve for the loss of life and are listening to the cries of help for our homeworld.”

I tilted my head. “That sounds like you’re sympathetic to the rioters.”

“That’s because I’m sympathetic. Not to their methods, but to their fears.” He pointed to a spoon rattling on a plate from the ongoing sound of the Sirius IV. “Most people see this as a disruption. A reminder that they aren’t going into space.”

“Good point.” Kenneth speared his last bite of eggs. “Sure I can’t pry you out of the space program to be on my staff?”

Myrtle shook her head, pushing her chair back from the table. “Not a chance. I’m still not sure I should welcome you in my house after you talked him into running for mayor.”

“Dr. King talked him into it. I just offered coaching.” Kenneth passed his plate to her and looked pointedly at the eggs I still had left. “Your cooking sure is wonderful, Myrtle. No danger of anyone wasting food at your house.”

I love him and hate him all at the same time, but I picked up my fork so I could be a good guest and present her with a clean and empty plate. I said, “I still think you have to be careful about sounding sympathetic to rioters. It might be a good line for using on the Earth, but when the Moon starts being self-governing, the people who vote for you will be the ones who have the least patience with Earth First.”

Eugene nodded. “I know. But I also know that all my speeches will get transmitted downplanet. And, to be honest, I think it would be a mistake to ignore the Earth Firster fears. The number of applicants to the IAC has dropped.”

Myrtle snorted and picked up Eugene’s plate. “We’ve got more applicants than we have spots.”

“Eugene’s right. It’s about the trend.” Kenneth leaned back in his chair and settled his hands over his paunch. “Declining application numbers give us an indicator that the larger population is losing interest in the space…”

I lost the rest, because the sound of the rocket stopped. It shouldn’t do that.

An explosion cracked the air.

I was out of my chair and halfway to the kitchen door before the rumble ended. Eugene was behind me, only because my chair was closer to the door. Myrtle sprinted for the radio, leaving Kenneth frozen at the table.

“How long?” I ran across the living room to the front door, while Eugene dove for the phone.

How long had we been talking while the rocket rose from the Earth? Two minutes? Three?

“Not sure.” This mattered because it told us which mode of abort the crew would be in. Mode one bravo got deployed between 3,000 meters to 30.5 kilometers into flight. The Launch Escape System would haul the crew module away from the main rocket. Eugene continued, “We could hear it, so they were still in atmosphere.”

Which meant that they hadn’t gotten to a Mode two abort. So the LES would have deployed. I threw the front door open and ran into the yard. You can’t see the launch site from the Lindholms’ neighborhood, but you can see the rocket trajectory. Up and down the street, people tilted their heads back to look at the smoke trail rising to disappear into the ever-present clouds. They were looking at the column as if the part of the trajectory we could see was significant.

I was looking for a parachute.

My fingernails dug into my palms. Clouds. Unbroken clouds.

Kenneth came out onto the Lindholms’ front porch. “Who–?”

“I don’t know.” My voice hurt. “I should know. I don’t know!”

He went behind me to wrap his arms around my waist to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

The clouds are constant now and it’s hit a point where you think of a high silver overcast as a beautiful day. But that damn cloud ceiling meant that everything that was happening was hidden behind a layer of cotton.

We waited.

Eugene walked onto the front porch. “Circuits are busy. Anything?”

“Clouds.” I realized that my hands were digging into Kenneth’s wrists. I tried to unclench them. “What’s on the radio?”

“Just that there was an explosion.”

Eugene grimaced and jerked a thumb back to the house. “I’ll try again.”

I don’t know why I stayed in that yard, waiting. There wasn’t a damn thing I could do. I just remember when the Meteor happened, how I had been at my parents’ Detroit home and we just sat by the radio and the room had seemed to get smaller and smaller as the reports rolled in. I couldn’t bear to be inside right now.

Someone shouted. A black man down the street was pointing at the sky — at brilliant orange and white envelopes breaking through the clouds like the sun bearing a chariot. I tightened my hands on Kenneth’s and shouted toward the house. “Eugene! I see chutes!”

Behind me, Kenneth bent his head. “Dear heavenly Father. Thank you for delivering these brave men and women–“

I bit the inside of my cheek and let my husband pray. If there were a God, he would not have blown the rocket. He would not have slammed a Meteor into the Earth. But it gave Kenneth comfort and I would not deny him that, even if what saved those people was science. Redundancies and methods and practice had saved them.

Eugene burst out of the house, with Myrtle close behind him. “Chutes?”

I nodded, stepping away from Kenneth and wiped my eyes. “About fifteen miles downrange.”

“Oh, praise God.” Myrtle raised her hands and closed her eyes for a moment. “Thank you, God for this miracle.”

“And thank the IAC for their training.” I try not to get in the way of other people’s faith, honest, I do. “Did you get through?”

Eugene shook his head. “Lines are busy, but we can go in.”

So help me, I wanted to go with them. “You go on. We’ll lock up.”

Just because there were parachutes, that didn’t mean the crew was going to make it to the ground safely. But there would have been nothing that needed me specifically. Kenneth though, I could help him prepare to talk to the press. I couldn’t tell him what to say about the riots, but I could coach him on the rocket failure.

I took Kenneth’s arm. “Come on, love. We need to get you cleaned up and downtown.”

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