The Astronaut and the Star by Jen Comfort

CHAPTER 1

Wes’s off-key rendition of Europe’s “The Final Countdown” crackled over her headset.

Reggie took a long, deep breath. Her exhale misted the visor of her helmet before dissipating so she could see the drab instrument panel she was working on. If she looked up and out into space, her entire field of vision would be swallowed by the vivid blues and greens of Earth, and she’d have to deal with the dizzying but false sensation of falling back down to the surface.

“Wes, how you doing on timeline?” she asked. They’d been allocated six and a half hours for this run-through, but yesterday two of her colleagues had completed the exercise in a record-breaking six hours and three minutes. Reggie could beat that.

After all, astronaut Regina “Reggie” Hayes had done everything else she’d set her mind to do. Before the age of thirty-five, Reggie had graduated with honors from MIT, deployed twice as a combat naval aviator, finished a master’s degree in planetary geology, accumulated over two thousand hours of flight time as a test pilot, and—after being selected for NASA’s astronaut program on her first try—already completed a coveted mission aboard the International Space Station.

Aside from one small incident six months ago, Reggie was—as they liked to say—the best of the best. Above all, she was a Hayes, and the Hayeses didn’t sully their unblemished reputation for excellence by accepting second place. Ever.

If only Wes would cooperate.

His humming cut off. In his languorous southern drawl he replied, “Running a little long, but nothing to worry about.”

Of course he was. Irritation swelled in the back of her throat, but she compartmentalized it before it spilled out. Emotions were an unnecessary distraction in space, where even the smallest screwup could be fatal. More importantly, she couldn’t afford to lose her cool—not with the board narrowing down their Artemis III lunar mission short list this week.

If all went according to plan and Reggie was selected to join the crew, she’d have the opportunity to win the coveted title of “First Woman on the Moon.”

It was a goal she’d been striving toward with single-minded purpose for well over a decade.

A legendary, awe-inspiring accomplishment worthy of history books.

Hell, her mother might even deign to have her secretary send a congratulatory card! Now that would make not murdering Wes during this training exercise worth it. No matter how much he deserved it.

Reggie held up her left arm until the checklist attached to the wrist of her spacesuit was visible. She was on her last task. “I’m almost done over here. Why don’t I head on over?”

“I got this, Hayes.”

Do you, though?Reggie stifled the retort. “Good to hear,” she said instead. Maybe she’d sounded a tad sarcastic—so hard to tell with all the static.

Okay, so she didn’t exactly play well with others, but she’d managed to get this far without winning popularity contests, hadn’t she? Her temperament had only gotten her into trouble one time. That had been an outlier, one she’d continue to overcome by being so damn good at her job that nothing else mattered.

“How about a song request instead? You said no country, right? Wait, I think I’ve got just the song for you . . .” She could almost hear Wes’s grin through the comms.

Reggie ignored him. “Houston, what’s our time?”

A veteran astronaut, Nadine, was playing the role of ground control for their exercise today. “Five hours, twenty-eight minutes. You’re right on target.”

“Copy.”

Reggie tried to refocus on the task before her, but all she could think about was Wes, somewhere out of sight on the aft end of the station, taking his sweet time. Wes didn’t seem to care about beating yesterday’s record; he was one of those guys who’d be genuinely excited to receive a participation trophy. He’d even signed up for the one assignment no astronaut in their right mind wanted—he was going off-site for a whole month to train some Hollywood actor for a movie role instead of getting to do actual science and mission-prep work. Worse, he’d be filmed the entire time, essentially filling the role of on-camera babysitter for some sort of How to Pretend to Be an Astronaut promo special. Who the hell volunteered for that kind of thing?

Wes started up again. He was desecrating Garbage this time. The teenage misanthrope inside her howled at the travesty, and she wasn’t sure if she should be insulted that Wes thought this song would appeal to her or pleased that she’d branded her public image so well. After all, applying heavy eyeliner in zero-gravity took a great deal of effort, but ever since she’d been labeled “NASA’s resident goth astronaut” on a popular podcast years ago, Reggie had decided to really lean into the persona.

It stopped people from expecting too much charisma.

She wrapped up her task and carefully stored her tools so they wouldn’t float away. Loose objects tended to be dangerous when careening through space at 17,500 miles per hour—the same speed at which the Space Station orbited the earth. And of even greater concern: a mistake like that would cost her points.

“Houston, can I get a time check?”

“Five hours, thirty-nine minutes.” If Nadine was irritated at being asked again, her tone didn’t reveal it.

Reggie checked in with Wes.

“Almost done,” he replied.

If his assessment was accurate, there was still a chance they’d finish in under six hours. Not bad. The tiniest thrill of victory zipped through her.

Reggie rotated herself parallel to the handrails bolted to the station and began maneuvering herself toward the airlock. It was a slow process, made slower by her exhaustion. Her pressurized gloves made gripping things hard, and her hands were almost numb from the strain.

Wes had switched to caterwauling through Bon Jovi’s greatest hits. If anything, this was the worst auditory torture of all, because she secretly adored Bon Jovi, and she’d never live it down if her colleagues found out she listened to such optimistic music.

She concentrated on placing one hand over the other. The airlock was thirty feet away. Then twenty. Fifteen.

“Shit.”

She stilled, stomach plummeting. They weren’t supposed to swear on the comms because on a real space walk everything was aired live on NASA TV, but that wasn’t what alarmed her. It was that Wes rarely lost his cool. And that meant he’d screwed up.

Wes grunted. “Looks like one of the vent valves is jammed.”

“I’m heading over,” Reggie told him. She knew those valves inside and out; she’d spent four hours repairing them on a real EVA during her six-month mission aboard the ISS. Wes was all the way on the other end of the truss, but if she started now, there was still the slimmest chance they could match yesterday’s time.

“That’ll take too long, and the sun’s about to set. I can handle it.”

Reggie almost laughed in disbelief. Now he was concerned about the speed? “If you can’t close it on your own, I’ll have to come out there anyway.”

“Hayes, hold position.” He sounded annoyed. Was he concerned with how this exercise would reflect on him? If so, he should have taken it seriously from the start.

Reggie clambered over the truss. Her breathing was coming hard, her visor fogging and then clearing over and over.

Nadine’s voice came back on. “Reggie, I’m getting some elevated vital readings from you. Everything okay?”

“Fine.” Reggie forced strength into the word. “What’s my time?”

A pause. “Reggie, this isn’t a timed exercise.”

“I know.”

This training exercise’s official objective was to complete the assigned tasks and return safely. But unofficially, tests like these were being used to vet astronauts for the lunar mission, using metrics that weren’t explicitly disclosed. Reggie wanted to prove she could exceed expectations, whatever they might be.

She was not going to let Wes and his abysmal singing voice hold her back.

At that moment, the sun’s last rays winked out of view, and her world was plunged into darkness. It would be forty-five minutes before it rose again, and until then she only had the lights on her suit to guide her. The utter blackness of night was disorienting at first, but Reggie had experienced this phenomenon in real life—and in simulation—enough times that she could adjust within seconds.

For her, the space walk was the easy part. It was dealing with someone else’s incompetence that put Reggie on edge.

Finally, Nadine said, “Five hours, fifty minutes.”

Reggie redoubled her efforts. Her heartbeat throbbed against her temple, but she ignored the physical discomfort. She was trained to push her body to its limit. They all were.

Her hands closed over the handrails. When she reached Wes, she’d send him back to the airlock and fix the vent flap on her own. She didn’t need him. He’d only slow her down.

Wes finally came into view when she cleared the solar arrays. He was upside down relative to her position and on the opposite side of the station node. To get to him, she needed to switch to a perpendicular handrail and rotate her entire body by swinging her back legs until they hooked onto the new rail.

She was halfway through the maneuver when she slipped.

The hand that should have closed around the target handrail lost its grip, numb fingers failing for the first time. In gravity, this wouldn’t have been a problem. But in a near vacuum, her momentum carried her forward until something stopped her. In this case, that something was her helmet slamming into the side of the station with an ugly crack.

The jolt rocked her. The muscles in her neck tensed reflexively, and a painful twinge arced through her right shoulder. Alarms blared.

“Hayes, you okay?” Wes asked.

Reggie bit off a curse. “I slipped. Visor is showing damage.”

“How bad?”

Bad.But not in the way Wes meant. Their helmets were constructed of a bulletproof-like polycarbonate material. A fracture that went all the way through was extremely unlikely, and even if she did start losing oxygen, real decompression was far slower and less dramatic than in Hollywood movies.

It was bad because this entire test was a failure. Forget beating the time record and accomplishing mission objectives; now they’d have to walk through accident protocol. She had done nearly six hours of flawless work, and none of it mattered anymore because Reggie had made one sloppy mistake.

She’d let her emotions cause her to do something stupid. Again.

“It’s over, Wes.”

The alarm blared. She fumbled at the buttons on her torso until she found the one that shut it off.

Nadine did not sound pleased. “Reggie, begin recovery actions.”

Reggie started to comply, then stopped, patience depleted. They’d woken up at four in the morning to prepare for this, just like they would have done for a real space walk, and she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. What was the point of seeing this through? Her mistake had just obliterated a perfect run-through and probably tanked her chances of making it onto the Artemis III mission. None of this was worth it if she couldn’t have the moon.

“Reggie,” Nadine prompted. “Take a second. Breathe. Don’t let frustration take over.”

Too late.

Better to quit on her own terms. Salvage what little pride she could before going home, tearing into a sandwich, and licking her wounds in private.

She slapped her hands on both sides of her helmet and twisted until the locking mechanism released. Her ears popped as air hissed out, and Nadine’s voice went muffled. The helmet was heavy. She struggled to lift it off her shoulders, and finally the lab techs came to her aid, whisking it away—and with it, the virtual view of the International Space Station. In its place was a far less spectacular view of the Virtual Reality Lab with its black walls, linoleum flooring, and spacesuits rigged to heavy-duty cables.

The fluorescent overheads were blinding after the nearly total darkness of space, and Reggie squinted down at her gloves as she fumbled at the place where they attached to her suit. Even though she’d only been gripping virtual objects simulated by dozens of wired sensors, the gloves were fully pressurized to simulate a full space walk, and her grip strength was abysmal after wearing them for so long.

Another tech rushed over, his face pinched with concern. “Let us do it. Please.”

“Get me out of here,” she snapped.

Three feet to her right, Wes struggled with his own helmet. When it was off, he angled his head to frown at her. Sweat plastered his dark hair against his forehead. “What’s going on? Everything all right?”

It would have been easier to blame Wes if he were a jerk, but despite being a hotshot pilot who never seemed to take anything seriously, he was unfailingly nice. It was one of the many reasons she hadn’t slept with Wes like she had with several of her other single colleagues.

The nice ones were prone to hurt feelings, and hurt feelings often led to tears, and Reggie had been raised by a bloodthirsty Navy admiral father whose favorite saying was Crying is for cowards and a brilliant scientist mother who could flash freeze Lex Luthor’s tear ducts with a concisely scathing performance review. As she was the sole product of that unholy union, it was highly likely a misplaced teardrop would cause Reggie’s flesh to ignite, and she refused to spontaneously combust before she’d secured a premium spot in the history books. Better to spend her free time with rocks instead; a chunk of lunar granite didn’t ask more of you than you had the capacity to give.

Her gloves came free with a rush of cold air. She flexed her fingers, wincing at the pins-and-needles sensation as blood flow returned. “We failed.”

“We still have to finish—”

“No. I’m done. We failed.” Reggie wriggled down, maneuvering herself in the mock spacesuit until she could slither out the impossibly small hole in the back. It wasn’t easy, and her right shoulder screamed in protest.

When she was finally free, she stripped out of the cooling base suit and down to her bike shorts and sports bra, then marched over to her duffel bag. Nadine came over as Reggie was dressing, her green eyes communicating concern and sympathy. She wore the standard astronaut-casual uniform—a NASA-logoed polo and khakis—which looked fantastic on her curvy frame, as always. But it was her doctorate in orbital mechanics and the way she waxed poetic about lateral thrust that had once attracted Reggie most.

Speaking of ex-hookups who turned out to have too many feelings . . .

“Everything okay, Reggie?”

Reggie stabbed her legs into her old MIT sweatpants. “I’m fine. I screwed up, and I don’t want to talk about it.”

Maybe she could sneak out the back hallway before anyone noticed she was gone.

“If you change your mind, I’m here for you. As a friend, or—”

“Noted. Anything else?” She was a human iceberg. Dead inside, nothing to offer—beware all ye softhearted souls who dare pass betwixt these thighs, for this beast is the product of a Cold and Lonely Childhood™ and has no warmth to spare. She’d always been up front about that; it wasn’t her fault if people didn’t take her seriously.

Nadine’s face hardened. “Right. Guess I’ll just fuck off then. Oh, by the way, Deb wants to see you.”

Ruh-roh.Guess word had spread fast, and now she was in trouble.

Reggie stuffed a sweatshirt over her head, using the brief delay to steel herself. When her head popped out, she knew she looked calm. “In her office?”

Nadine nodded. Reggie swung her bag onto her shoulder and left without another word.

Deb Whitford glanced up from her dual monitor screens as Reggie entered her office. She raised a brow but didn’t say anything.

Great—Deb was pissed off.

The chief astronaut’s office was not glamorous. Like everything else at the budget-strapped Johnson Space Center—with its ubiquitous scuffed linoleum and fluorescent overheads—the room showed its age and had a distinct air of it’s not pretty, but it works. But chief astronaut was the most senior leadership position an active astronaut could hold, so Deb’s office did have a window.

It was a second-story window, but Reggie thought she might have a good chance of making the drop down to the parking lot if she climbed out, and then she wouldn’t have to explain herself to Deb. Reggie had never run away from anything before, but still . . . it was awfully tempting.

Though Deb had taken Reggie under her wing and served as her informal mentor for six years, the woman was still intimidating as all hell. Like many of NASA’s senior astronauts, Deb was former military, so she wore her graying brown hair short and buzzed at the sides, her posture was impeccable, and she’d long since perfected the squadron commander’s art of separating an individual’s soul from their body with a single withering glare. If looks alone weren’t enough to inspire abject fealty, Deb’s accent hinted at her Queens-based upbringing, and she kept a two-foot-tall replica of a Klingon Bird-of-Prey warship on her desk; Deb’s true destiny (as Reggie liked to imagine it) was to be the first person to punch someone who deserved it—in space. She was also the first Black woman to hold this office, and the fact that she hadn’t earned it easily was evident in the exacting standards she held her astronauts—and herself—to.

“You wanted to see me?”

“Go ahead and have a seat.” Deb waited until Reggie did so; then she got up and closed the door. This was both a sign they could speak informally and also a red flag—whatever Deb had to say, she didn’t want anyone else overhearing.

Reggie took a deep breath. “Ending the training exercise early was unprofessional of me. I was frustrated with my own mistake, and I made an emotional decision. It won’t happen again.”

Deb sat behind her desk and clasped her hands atop it. “Spare me the bull, Hayes.”

“Fine. Wes was treating the simulation like a dress rehearsal for a community theater musical. I wanted to beat yesterday’s time, and he was slowing me down.”

“If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” Deb translated.

“Exactly—”

“No, not exactly,” Deb snapped. “I put my ass on the line to convince the higher-ups that you’re not a hotheaded liability, and you go and pull this stunt today?”

Reggie’s face heated. Will I ever live down that disastrous interview? “I didn’t know it was on record—” She saw Deb’s expression and stopped. There was no point in rehashing what had happened six months ago. Her record was otherwise impeccable. “If I’d done that training exercise alone, I’d have completed it in record time. I am the best astronaut in my class, and we both know it.”

“So?” Deb threw up her hands. “You want a medal, Hayes?”

No, I want to be the first woman on the moon. I want to matter. I want to do something so legendary that no one cares that I’m not likable. I want to know that the last fifteen years of obsessive work, dedication, and loneliness weren’t a waste of fucking time.

Reggie bit back the words before they escaped in a projectile vomit of emotion—along with all the other feelings she’d crammed into the back of her skull for later disposal. The problem with superlative compartmentalizing was that she was starting to run out of space in her metaphorical closet, and boxes occasionally fell and exploded at inconvenient times.

She sat back hard in her chair. “I apologize. It’s been a long day.”

“I know.” Fortunately, Deb knew better than to offer pity. “I’d throw in a cute speech about how I see something of myself in you, which is why I continue believing in your ability to succeed, but I won’t waste your time. The real reason I wanted to see you is because I got an email from the Astronaut Selection Board this morning with the short list for the Artemis III mission.”

If it were good news, Deb wouldn’t have let her off so easy about the simulation. Her voice hollow, Reggie said it aloud. “I’m not on it.”

“No, you are not.”

“Okay. Thank you.” Part of her wanted to ask why, but deep down, she knew the answer: not the right fit. (Subtext: arrogant, stubborn, and—if we’re being entirely honest—kind of a bitch.)

She stood to leave.

Then she sat back down. “I don’t accept that.”

“I’m shocked.” Deb did not look remotely shocked. She had to have known Reggie wouldn’t calmly surrender her lifelong dream without a fight—hell, Reggie didn’t surrender anything without a fight.

“How many astronauts are locked in? The mission commander? Probably. Medical? Maybe. But until their first-choice selections formally accept the mission and the roster is announced to the public in February, I still have a chance.”

Deb raised both brows and sat back. “And? What compelling evidence do you plan to provide the board to convince them you’re a supportive, patient team player with whom your fellow astronauts would be thrilled to spend six weeks in a cramped lunar habitat? And that’s not even addressing your disdain for all media- and social media–related activities, which this mission will require in abundance.”

“I don’t disdain social media. I updated my NASA Instagram last week.”

Deb clicked something on her computer screen and swiveled the monitor to show Reggie the post in question. A slightly blurry photo of a lumpy, pockmarked sample of lunar basalt. The caption read: Lunar basalt. It had five likes, and one of them was from user @KVolkov.Roscosmos—Reggie’s best friend.

Only friend, really.

Reggie slid her eyes away from the screen and muttered, “Not my fault if people can’t appreciate the beauty of rocks.”

“Don’t break your heart over this, Reggie. There will be other missions.”

Not like this one. Not the chance to be the first. The best.

Reggie’s right hand strayed into her pocket, feeling for the lump of rock in it. It wasn’t real moon rock, but the jagged anorthite was as close as you could get from an earthborn mineral. This kind of volcanic rock was a rare find because of how easily it weathered under wind and water, but on the atmosphere-bereft moon . . . it was everywhere. She kept it with her as a reminder that there were other worlds out there where the rules were different, but the only way to get to those brave new frontiers was to try really, really fucking hard. Not exactly poetry, but it motivated her well enough; she was a geologist, not a playwright.

The thought dinged an adjacent idea. Before she could think about it too much and muster the appropriate revulsion, she blurted, “Give me the movie-actor-training thing.”

“Wes already volunteered for that project.”

“Only because no one else wanted to do it,” Reggie argued. “I’ll talk to him.” She’d talk him out of it, more like; Wes was so damn polite that he’d fold under the slightest pressure.

As if Deb could read her mind, she pursed her lips. “Do you have any idea what you’re signing up for? The movie’s director has a reputation for going to extreme lengths to film his movies. He originally reached out to our public affairs office about actually training his lead actor to be an astronaut on the Space Station.”

“What? That’s impossible.”

“You’ll be surprised what money can buy,” Deb said dryly. “He didn’t even blink at the price we quoted him, and the only reason we’re conducting this training at our Artemis analog base instead is due to time constraints on his end.” NASA had built the analog base last year in a remote part of the Arizona desert that was meant to simulate the desolate, isolated lunar landscape. The habitat was designed to be nearly identical to Gateway, the actual habitat the Artemis III crew would be building on the moon—not the worst place Reggie could think to visit, given her goals. How bad could this thing be?

Deb continued, “He wanted it to be a truly ‘immersive experience,’ so you’ll be isolated at the base with only the actor and a two-member filming crew for the whole month of December, aside from, I believe, a short break for the holiday weekend. And you know they’ll be filming your entire training experience to make a promotional behind-the-scenes special, right?”

She’d rather bathe in molten lava, but she forced a cheery “Sure, that sounds fine.”

“You’ll also be representing NASA to the media, which means we expect you to uphold our public relations standards at all times, and frankly, given your checkered history in that arena, I’m highly skeptical that you’re up to the job.”

You and me both.“Which is exactly why I need to do it. It’ll prove to the board that I’m media friendly and team oriented.”

Deb gave Reggie a look. “You’d be more convincing if you didn’t sound like you were dying inside every time you say the word team.”

Reggie pasted on the biggest, brightest smile she could muster. “Team,” she chirped. “Better?”

“Worse.”

“Who’s the actor?” Reggie wasn’t sure why she bothered to ask. She hadn’t been to the movies in years.

“Jon Leo.” She must have seen Reggie’s blank expression because Deb added, “The guy from Space Dude? It’s very popular with the ‘cool teens,’ according to my in-house expert. Google his name. He’s not bad on the eyes, I’ll tell you that, and he’s reportedly very easy to work with. Kurt from media relations chatted with him on the phone and said he’s a nice guy.”

Nice guy. Her nose wrinkled. Was she cursed? Would nice people infiltrate her entire life, forever haunting her like ghosts who hadn’t died right? Reggie intentionally ignored the part about his looks (which had never mattered)—along with the doubt creeping its way to the surface. “That’s the dumbest movie name I’ve ever heard,” was all she could think to say.

“I’ll inform Hollywood to call for your opinion next time, since I certainly didn’t ask for it.” Deb shook her head. “See? This is what I’m worried about. I want to believe in you, Reggie, but you can’t cop an attitude like this on camera. If you can’t even hold your tongue for the span of five minutes, how do you think you’ll last a month?”

“I filmed a dozen educational videos on the ISS without issue. It was only that one time that I slipped, and I think you’ll agree the circumstances were very different,” Reggie argued, even though she knew she was merely scraping the bottom of the barrel in desperation. Deb was going to say no. She could feel it. And when backed into a corner, Reggie had a bad habit of lashing out. “Buzz Aldrin punched a guy’s lights out for saying the moon landing was faked, and everyone called him a badass. I just told that sorry excuse for a reporter—”

“Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. You haven’t. And if you can’t learn to control your temper and get along with people, you never will.” Deb rose and marched over to the door, stopping short of opening it.

In that moment, Reggie saw clearly that everything she’d spent her life working for was drowning in a toilet bowl and her own finger hovered over the flusher.

“Give me a chance. Let me prove I can do this. Please.” She never begged. But today, she’d beg. After begging, there was only one weapon left in her arsenal, but she really didn’t want to use it. Don’t make me have to.

Deb didn’t open the door. But she didn’t take her hand off the knob either. “I’ve made up my mind. Wes is a better choice for this project.”

Reggie closed her eyes, choked down her pride, and gritted her teeth against the humiliation to come. She’d never, ever wanted to sink this low, but as they said . . . desperate times.

“My mother will be so disappointed in me,” Reggie said in a quiet voice.

It wasn’t a lie. Not exactly, anyway. It was just that Dr. Hayes was always disappointed in her only offspring. Not that Reggie cared, because she was a grown adult who’d moved past the instinctual need to be seen as worthy in her parents’ eyes. Going to the moon was what Reggie wanted; it had nothing to do with satisfying her mother’s impossible standards.

The important thing was that Deb worshipped Reggie’s mother, who’d served as Deb’s academic adviser at MIT for her quantum engineering master’s program. Even the formidable Deborah Whitman quavered at the possibility of disappointing the Nobel Prize–winning Dr. Victoria Hayes, the world’s foremost expert in both nuclear fusion and making everyone else feel hopelessly inferior. This was the first—and the last—time Reggie would ever play the mother card.

Deb let out a defeated sigh. “I swear, if I didn’t owe my career to that woman . . .”

“I will be on my best behavior from this point forward. Every single aspect of this training will be flawless. No mistakes. No PR gaffes. No complaints from anyone on the film crew.” As she spoke, the confidence she was faking became real. Maybe she really could do this. “I’ll even update my social media regularly!”

For the first time in memory, Deb appeared startled. “You will?”

“Absolutely. I’ll even . . .” Reggie searched for the appropriate lingo. “Hashtag NASA in them.”

Deb’s hand fell away from the door. Victory! “Fine. If you can convince Wes to step back, I’ll talk to media relations. Don’t make me regret this. If there’s a lick of trouble—”

“There won’t be,” Reggie assured her.

“A single complaint—”

“Not a one, ma’am.”

Deb slowly returned to her desk and sat back in her chair, looking a bit like she’d just signed away her fortune to a mysterious man in a trench coat and was quite certain she’d never see it again. “Then good luck, Astronaut Hayes, and Godspeed . . . you’ll need it.”