I know, this isn't The Tank. But I've been in the midst of my MFA residency since Saturday, I'm revising as fast as my fingers can fly for Pitch Wars, and I'm writing another novel that I'm trying to finish by the end of the month. And whenever I'm home, it's kidlet time, because I miss her even if she seems perfectly happy with daddy.
My brain is exhausted. I needed a break from something today, so I'm giving you an excerpt of Evergreen, an m/m sci-fi novella that was previously published in an anthology with LT3, like, six years ago? And basically nobody read it? So this will be new for almost all of you! I'm republishing it early next week on Amazon, so...keep your eyes open, it'll be coming down the pipe.
The premise is near-future, preparing for a one-way mission to Mars.
The International Space Agency (ISA) welcomes you to your new position as a candidate for Project Evergreen, the next stage in humanity's cooperative exploration of our closest planetary neighbor, Mars. Congratulations on everything you have accomplished in order to make it to our advanced training program. Now that you're an official candidate, we recommend you assess your commitment to the goal of Project Evergreen, which is permanent residency for all crew members at Martian Base One (MB1). If this is incompatible with your expectations, please remove yourself from the candidate pool before we continue to invest in your training. We want only the most motivated candidates available. Remember, for every one of you who reaches this stage of training, ten thousand others are vying for your place. –ISA Project Evergreen Handbook
Cyril's first week in the space program wasn't at all what he'd expected.
He had anticipated plenty of tests, naturally; the governments and corporate sponsors in charge of the program only accepted the best of the best, and that meant you didn't stand a chance of getting in unless you knew your specialty inside and out. Competition in the private sector was stiff, but competition within the military was insane, which was why Cyril was glad he'd spent the past three years not just boning up on aerospace propulsion engineering, but going all out on his fitness as well. All those agonizing 5:00 a.m. runs felt a lot more gratifying now that he was the only person still standing after the two-mile sprint.
"You call that running?" Sergeant Malloy shouted from her place on the side of the track as she watched the last of the brand-new military recruits stagger toward the finish line. "I've seen better times out of eight-year-olds! You are supposed to be the best, the brightest, the most motherfucking capable that six different nations have to offer! And this is what you give me? China, nine minutes? Really?" She stood over one of the gasping men and glowered at him. "What's your name, soldier?"
"Commander Xiao, ma'am."
"At least you can get it out without vomiting, unlike Captain America over here." She gestured to the soldier who was bent over retching in the aftermath of his run. "Or maybe that's just because it took you nine fucking minutes to run two miles! Honest to god, I am embarrassed for your home countries, soldiers.
"And here comes Australia and India, joining the class at last," the sergeant yelled sarcastically as they stumbled in. "Ten goddamn minutes, which is two minutes too long as far as I'm concerned. No, don't lie down!" she added as both the soldiers dropped to the ground. "You don't get to lie down and take a break for getting the worst times in the group! Did you think I'd go easy on you because you're a woman, Flight-Lieutenant Brown? Both of you, take another lap."
The sergeant cast her eyes to the sky. "This is what we're manning missions to Mars with now? Sad. Just sad. You all better make the most of your ability to suck wind while you can, because breathable air's gonna be in short supply once you get to MB1. You'll have to work, you'll have to think, you'll have to fucking live with the constant threat of running out of oxygen, so remember that when you're cursing me for being a hard-ass about this. You're soldiers, not civilian scientists. You don't get to play by their rules. If there's a sacrifice to be made, you'll be the ones at the front of the line, which means you have to be ready! You have to be better! You have to be the best!" Sergeant Malloy crossed her arms. "And as of right now I see only one person who I would even marginally qualify as acceptable. Russia! Come here!"
"Yes, ma'am." Cyril stepped forward, very aware of his fellow recruits' attention. He squared his shoulders and looked straight at the sergeant. He didn't care what they thought of him. They could hate him, he could handle that. He was never going to do less than his best for anything.
"Lieutenant Commander Konstantin, correct?" Sergeant Malloy asked.
"Well, whatever that stick up your ass is made of, boy, don't pull it out just yet. It might be all that's holding you up."
Stick…what? Cyril had split his time evenly between the US and Russia as a child, but he hadn't heard that particular expression before. It had to be old. He heard the man referred to as “Captain America” snicker, and forced himself not to react. "Ma'am," Cyril said evenly.
"Exactly." Sergeant Malloy cast her gaze at the two stragglers who were just now finishing their extra lap. "I think it's time for a nice, long hike. Get your packs out of the shuttle and meet me at the foot of Flagstaff Mountain in five." She waited for a second for it to sink in, then yelled, "Now, soldiers!"
The ones on the ground hauled themselves, groaning, to their feet, except for the American, who looked over at Cyril and held up a hand. "Help a mate out?" American, with a British accent? It shouldn't have been surprising, everyone here had multiple nationalities—it was one of the major requirements for every member of the fourth mission to Mars—but for some reason that accent made Cyril start. He stared blankly at the man.
"I know I'm pretty, but there's no need to stare, now," he said cheekily. "You'll get plenty of chances to ogle me later, luv. Gimme a hand before our little reprieve is up."
Cyril walked over, took his hand, and helped him to his feet. The man moved easily, despite his ostensible exhaustion and the fact that he had at least twenty pounds more muscle than Cyril. "I'm Scott Andrews. Captain Scott Andrews of the USAF, if we're being specific about it, but you can call me Scottie."
"Lieutenant Commander Cyril Konstantin, Russian Air Force," Cyril said. "Um, call me Cyril."
"Well, I would, but you don't really look like a Cyril to me," Scottie said brightly. "Bit too prissy, despite what our dear sergeant says about that stick in your ass. How d'you feel about Cy?"
"No, I'm not meant to respond to it, you are," Scottie said with a wink.
"If you children are done holding hands and playing nice," Sergeant Malloy thundered at them, "may I remind you of the schedule you people are on? Get your asses up the mountain!"
"Will do, Sergeant!" Scottie called out, then gently disengaged his hand from Cyril's grip. Cyril flushed. He'd completely forgotten he'd been holding on. "Now, Cy," Scottie said. "You're a lovely sprinter, but I'll wager I can make it to the top of Flagstaff before you can." He turned around and took off toward the mountain.
After a moment, Cyril swore and ran after him.
We expect mission candidates to maintain high levels of physical, emotional and psychological fitness. You will be tested weekly on whether or not you adhere to the wellness guidelines listed in Section 2.A. Refusal to follow any of the guidelines, but most specifically those concerning mandatory meetings with your assigned psychologist, is grounds for removal from the program. –ISA Project Evergreen Handbook
In that first week on base, Cyril spent more time with a psychologist than he had since his mother's death ten years ago, and it wasn't going to let up anytime soon. His shrink was a forthright civilian doctor named Sabine Granger who told him, flat out, that she wasn't there to coddle him.
"After the events of Tadpole, we're not willing to risk leaving anything to chance with our recruits," she said at their first meeting. "It's my job to ensure you have the coping mechanisms you'll need to live a healthy, productive life on a world where you won't even be able to step outside without suiting up. You will have little to no fresh food, you will have to conserve water, you'll breathe recycled air and you'll see the same people over and over and over again, every day, for the rest of your life. The prospect of that is more than enough to make most people unstable."
"I think I can handle it," Cyril said confidently.
"Everyone thinks that at first," Dr. Granger replied, not unkindly. "Let's start by talking about your military service. I'm particularly interested in knowing why you chose to go into the military at all, given your family connections."
Cyril frowned without meaning to. Of course that would have to come into things. "I have nothing to do with my father's company."
"I understand that you and your family are estranged, but keep in mind that Konstantin International Corporation is one of the major funding sources of this particular mission. It's only natural that some of your colleagues are going to assume that it was your father's influence that got you your place here, not your own skill. How do you think you'll handle that?"
"By ignoring them," Cyril said tightly.
"Is that how you handle everyone here that you have disagreements with, Cyril? By ignoring them and hoping they go away?"
"It works with most people," he replied. Then, in the interest of not having his therapist drag it out of him, he added, "Except for one."
"Ah, yes." The psychologist laced her fingers together and sat back in her chair. "I was wondering if you would mention Captain Andrews. Do you know he's the only person you've spoken more than five words to since you've been here? Apart from me, that is."
Cyril shrugged. "We've only been here a week. There are two hundred and fifty-nine more to go before our mission is scheduled to leave. I think that gives me plenty of time to get to know people."
"But you and the rest of your squad will only spend half of that time with each other," Dr. Granger pointed out. "The rest of the time you'll be learning to integrate with the civilian science teams. One would imagine a sense of camaraderie would be important, given that it's the twelve of you who'll be taking on the most difficult environmental challenges on Mars. Now is the time for you to learn to rely on each other, to trust each other. Why not make more of an effort?"
"I just… " After a moment, Cyril shrugged again. He didn't know what to say to make her feel any better about him. "I understand what you're getting at. I'm just slow to warm up to people. Captain Andrews approached me first, and that made it easier."
"He's a rather gregarious person."
"Everyone likes him," Cyril agreed.
"How do you feel about that?" Dr. Granger asked. "About sharing his attention when you get so little from anyone else?"
"I’m happy for him," Cyril replied. Dr. Granger sat in silence and looked at him for a long moment, then straightened up.
"Back to your military career, then."
Yes, fine, that was something that Cyril had no problems talking about. As soon as he'd been old enough, he'd left Moscow behind and moved to New York, where he'd promptly enlisted in the air force’s joint training program with Russia. It was one of the only ways he could think of to remove himself from his father's influence, and even then the shadow of Konstantin International Corporation followed his aspirations into the space program.
Cyril counted it a blessing that he'd been selected for Evergreen. His father's company might be bankrolling ten percent of the mission (perhaps as much as fifteen percent, if you included KIC's proprietary plasma rocket technology) but that was for purely mercenary reasons. A lot of money stood to be made from a successful mission to Mars. Two of the first three had led to major breakthroughs in space technology, and the one that had gone poorly had been bloody and salacious enough that news companies had clamored to buy rights to broadcast the videos sent back to Earth.
The first mission to Mars had led to the establishment of MB1, humanity's first Martian enclave. There had been ten astronauts, eight men and two women, from three different countries. They had been the best and brightest that the early twenty-first century had had to offer, but due to a shielding error, they'd all died of radiation sickness and cancer within five years of arriving on Mars. The technology didn't exist to send them back to Earth, not then, and so they'd drawn their experiments to a close, done the best they could with the radiation shielding so the next team would be better prepared, and then, one by one, died.
The second mission to Mars had been marred from the very beginning. It was wholly funded by corporations who had been more interested in the notoriety of having their own mission than the brutally hard work that went into making it successful. The crew of the Tadpole had been small, only six people, and halfway to Mars their pilot had quietly lost his sanity, waited for his fellow astronauts to fall asleep, and then attacked them in their bunks with the spare fire extinguisher. He'd killed three outright, wounded the other two, then holed himself up in the pilot's capsule. After a seventeen-hour standoff, he'd opened the outer hatches. The civilian-built vessel hadn't had the safety features to prevent him. Everyone on board had been sucked into space, their bodies lost forever.
After the Tadpole disaster, private corporations were banned from conducting their own missions as a clamor for government oversight resurged, and the next mission had been a joint venture between the US and China, to the exclusion of everyone else. It had been highly successful, transporting fifty-two scientists, all with military backgrounds, to the remains of MB1, where they repaired the base, set up their own new experiments and generally made their tiny claim on Mars' surface fit for living. Fifteen years later, almost all of the crewmembers were still alive, and they were more than ready to welcome some growth of their colony.
The Third Wavers, as they were called, were currently building expansions to MB1 in anticipation of the hundred and ten prospective colonists readying their own mission to Mars right now. The fourth, and most current, one was meant to be more evenhanded, with crewmember inclusions from all over the globe. Many of the scientists were backed by corporate sponsors and academic institutions that wanted a piece of their future research.
Cyril probably could have made it in as a civilian scientist with his father's backing. But he had never relied on his old man to help fulfill any of his dreams, and he wasn't about to start with something as important and all-consuming as Project Evergreen.
With regards to interpersonal relationships, candidates are very strongly discouraged from engaging in intimacy with fellow candidates. The training period you are currently undergoing is meant to prepare you for the rigors of life on another planet, and all of your attention should be dedicated to achieving this goal. If your personal relationships become a stumbling block on the path to successfully completing your training, be advised that you may be asked to leave the program. –ISA Project Evergreen Handbook
Scott Andrews was unique among the military recruits in that he had a civilian family member tapped for Project Evergreen as well. A few of the married scientists were going with their equally competent spouses, but there were no other sibling pairs. Dr. Sophie Andrews was an astrobiologist whose proposal to do an in-depth study on the tantalizing evidence for life sent back by previous expeditions had caught the interest of several pharmaceutical and gene-therapy companies. She and Scottie had worked their asses off to get accepted to the program together. They were far closer than Cyril was with any of his own siblings, and when he heard Scottie talking about Sophie, about how brilliant she was and how amazing her research, he couldn't help but feel a little jealous.
Not that he wanted to be Scottie's brother. Not with the way he was feeling.
"She's already promised to name the first organism she finds after me," Scottie boasted in the mess hall three months into training. "Cryofilis scottus."
"You'd think any bacteria named after you would require a lot of hot air to survive, not sub-zero temperatures," Cyril said dryly.
Scottie pressed a hand to his chest. "Cy, did you just make a science joke at me? I'm honored! Do tell, mate, what other funny little bits of Latin have you got stored away in that big Russian brain of yours?"
"You only get one freebie," Cyril replied.
"Mmm." Scottie's eyes glittered as his lips curled. "Then tell me what I've got to do to buy some more, because nothing gets me going like brains and brawn combined."
Cyril hid his smile. It was harder to do than he'd anticipated. "I don't think you could afford me."
"Perhaps not." Scottie sighed. "It's not like any of us can afford anything other than our bloody right hands right now. Left hand if you're Shekar."
"I like to use both for self-pleasuring," the Indian recruit said from where he was delicately peeling a tangerine.
"I can't be happy without my toys," Mona Brown put in. "Thank god for long-last batteries and solar chargers, otherwise I'm sure I'd go mad on Mars."
"Once we're done with our preliminary testing, you can have a relationship again, remember?" Scottie said. "You won't need toys on Mars."
"Oh, I figure I'll always need a little something to remind my lovers how to do it right," Mona said with a grin, and even Cyril laughed along with the others.
The alarm sounded, and all twelve of them groaned. "That's it for lunch, then," Scottie said mournfully, looking at his empty plate. "Off to the gym. I swear, I've eaten more bloody chicken here than I've had total before in my life. Whole flocks of fowl are giving up their lives so that I can build bigger muscles."
"It seems a little excessive, given the ones you’ve already got," Cyril agreed as he stood up.
"Was that another backhanded compliment out of you?" Scottie marveled as he stacked Cyril's plate on top of his own and placed them both in the autoclave. "Twice in under an hour? I didn't dare hope I'd get that twice in one lifetime when we first met." Scottie leaned in close. "Tell me what I did to warrant it, so I can do it again."
"Oh, it's not you, it's me," Cyril said, letting the obvious sarcasm overshadow his sincerity. "It's how I get over my psych sessions, I fixate on the nearest jerk and let loose."
"And whisper sweet nothings into their ear?" Scottie asked, doubt clear in his tone. "I don't think you're telling me the whole truth, Cy. Rest assured I'll get it out of you sooner or later."
"You'd have to put it into me first," Cyril deadpanned, and Scottie's laughter echoed through the empty mess.
"Did someone replace you with a new model when I wasn't looking?" Scottie wondered. "Are you an android after all, and did you get an upgrade? I must say, I like it."
They were alone, the flirtations were tantalizing and for once, Cyril felt like he might be able to hold his own. Then Sergeant Malloy came over the comm. "If the two of you aren't in the gym with the rest of your squad in the next minute, you can both look forward to wind sprints before dinner this evening."
Scottie paled. "Not on your life," he muttered, and headed quickly for the door. "Quick, Cy, before she changes her mind and halves our time!"
Moment lost. Cyril sighed and ran after Scottie toward the gym.