NASA Johnson Space Center
There was a large mirror on the wall of the white room. Dr. Nevaeh Patel sat in a hard plastic chair, leads from a lie detector machine hooked to her left hand, a thick cord wound around her chest.
She was the one who’d insisted on the lie detector. After the embarrassment of having her mission cut short, being replaced by another astronaut and brought back to Earth, two weeks on the ground of tests, physicals, conversations, polite glances, and outright stares, she’d gotten tired of their disbelief and insisted on being tested.
Still, this final indignity was almost too much for her to bear. All she’d done was tell the flight director and flight doctor the truth about what she’d seen during her EVA—extravehicular activity—outside the International Space Station, what she’d heard. It had been real, they had been real, and the powers that be didn’t believe her. On board the space station, they’d subjected her to batteries of tests, extensive psychological profiling, and concluded she had been suffering from zero-gravity-induced hallucinations. They rotated her off the ship and grounded her in Houston so they could do it all again.
Which was an affront to everything they claimed to want from their mission—NASA’s ultimate goal was to find exoplanetary life, for heaven’s sake. Which she’d done.
The flight director himself, Dr. Franklin Norgate, now sat across from her, a clipboard in his hand. He wore a gray plaid short-sleeved button-down and a skinny black tie, his normally kind eyes guarded. He was as smart as she was, maybe more so. She’d always respected him, seen him as quietly intimidating.
To his right was the examiner, a blank-faced man introduced only as Jim, in his fifties, bald as an egg, a mustard stain on his black tie, like a Rorschach blot. There had been Rorschach tests, too, earlier today and during the innumerable conversations with NASA’s psychiatric team over the past two weeks.
What was wrong with them? They were being idiots. Nevaeh had successfully made contact with an alien species. The Numen, they were called, gentle, kind, fascinating beings. And NASA was treating her like she was insane.
Franklin asked, “Are you cold?”
“It’s chilly in here, yes.”
“I’ll see if they can make it more comfortable for you.” He stared at the mirror, and a moment later, she felt the air-conditioning kick off. She nodded her thanks.
The examiner gave her the same strangely blank polite smile all the other experts had been giving her.
“Ready to begin?”
“Good. As I mentioned earlier, only yes or no answers. Are you comfortable?”
“All right then. I’m going to ask you some control questions in order to develop a baseline. Is your name Dr. Nevaeh Patel?”
“Is your first name—Nevaeh—‘heaven’ spelled backward?”
Silence, scribbling, then, “Did you attend Stanford University?”
“Did you study physics and astronomy?”
“You received your Ph.D. in astrophysics from MIT?”
“Are you an astronaut?”
“Do you live in Michigan?”
“Do you live in Texas?”
“Are you being truthful with me?”
“Did you speak with an extraterrestrial being on the International Space Station on your last mission?”
A pause. The men shared a glance.
“And did this extraterrestrial being tell you to harm anyone on Earth?”
“No. No, of course not.”
“Dr. Patel, I must remind you, yes or no answers only.”
“Were you paid by a foreign government in the past two years for any services?”
“Yes or no only, ma’am. Were you paid—”
She was starting to sweat now, why, she didn’t know. She regretted asking them to turn off the air. “No.”
“Did the alien being you spoke with have a foreign accent?” She had to think for a moment. Were their words accented? Or did they sound very much like her own voice, an echo of something kind and gentle, but in chorus, as if there were hundreds and one, all at the same time? “No.”
“Were you stationed on the International Space Station for almost six months, beginning in October 2010?”
“Were you the chief science officer on the mission?”
“Did you lose your tether on an EVA outside the ISS?”
“Yes.” Her heartbeat spiked, she couldn’t help it. She was hurled back to the moment when she knew her life was ended. She clearly saw the tethers breaking, her gloved hand missing the handhold, felt her body flood with adrenaline. She was in space, floating away from the space station. Her jet pack didn’t respond. She was so royally screwed, she was dead.
Then the strong, gentle hand caught her, and a hundred melodic voices spoke as one in her mind. You are not going to die today. But you must tell them we’re here.
She shook her head, refocused on the room. It happened so often, her drifting back to the moment the Numen had saved her.
The examiner was watching her closely. “Did you encounter an extraterrestrial being on this EVA?”
“Did you speak with this alien?”
“Did the alien tell you to come back to Earth and tell us of its existence?”
“And the alien then led you back to your port so you could rejoin the crew.”
“Are you forty-nine years of age?”
“Do you have blond hair?”
“Do you believe extraterrestrials are trying to communicate with us?”
Silence. More scratching, then the man nodded and the machine’s lights went off.
“Thank you. We’ll unhook you now.”
Norgate said, not unkindly, “You can wait in the hall.”
She started to speak, then shook her head and left the room. They thought she was crazy, she’d gone off the deep end and couldn’t be trusted. Space madness. Hallucinations in a stressful moment. They weren’t going to believe her, no matter what she said, no matter what the machine indicated. She could see it in their eyes.
She went to the hallway as instructed. She was good at following orders, it was one of the reasons NASA recruited her in the first place. Brilliant, compliant Nevaeh. So respected for her leadership, so adored by her peers.
She knew everything was about to change.
Norgate said, “So? Did she pass?”
Jim Carstairs, the examiner, said, “Yes. Yes, she did.”
“Let me see it.”
Norgate took the sheets of paper, saw the spikes and flat lines, so much like the EKG he’d had at his last physical.
“I don’t understand. She really passed?”
Jim said, “With flying colors. Either she’s telling the truth, or she’s convinced herself what she saw, what she heard, was truly an alien species. I’ll write it all up for you, but she wasn’t lying to us. Whether she’s relating what really happened is a whole different matter.”
Franklin Norgate raked his fingers through his hair. “The press is going to have a field day with this.”
The door to the exam room opened and Dr. Rebecca Holloway entered. Tall and thin from an extreme running regimen, Holloway was the lead psychiatrist for this NASA facility. In the end, she was responsible for deciding whether Dr. Patel could go back to space or was finished as an astronaut. Norgate was relieved he didn’t have to make the call. He knew he was a coward, but he was grateful it wouldn’t be on his head.
“I did. Dr. Patel absolutely believes she communicated with aliens.”
Norgate said, “I would hate to lose her, Rebecca. She’s brilliant. Capable. One of the best astronauts we have in the program.”
“She also seems to be suffering from serious delusions, Franklin. You know we’ve seen this happen before. Not to this extent, of course, but we’ve had astronauts topple over into madness. It’s why we screen them so carefully to start with. I can’t believe she made it this long without showing her mental issues. She is brilliant, which is probably why she’s been able to control the visions. Until now, at least. The stress of the incident has made it impossible to hide her problems any longer. I’d say it broke her, irrevocably. Maybe it was inevitable, given who and what she was.”
Norgate rubbed his chin. Given who and what she was? She was an astronaut. What did Rebecca mean? “You’re being aw- fully harsh, Rebecca. I don’t know if we should give up on her so soon. Maybe some therapy, some time off—”
Holloway shook her head. “Sorry, Franklin, but there’s no way I’m clearing her for flight. I suppose she did show some skill during the incident. It appears she kept her head about her, managed to get reattached to the ISS against all odds. But she shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. In my professional opinion, the stress of the incident has manifested into something bigger and deeper. The delusions she’s having about these aliens—it’s entirely possible she’s had a psychotic break and is going to present with a severe mental illness after more testing. She’s sick, Franklin, and I’m grounding her.”“Either she’s telling the truth, or she’s convinced herself what she saw, what she heard, was truly an alien species. I’ll write it all up for you, but she wasn’t lying to us.”
He sighed. “All right, I’ll tell her. Can we at least keep her attached to the next mission, for publicity’s sake?”
“I don’t think you’d be doing her any favors. Think this through, Franklin. What it looks like is she tried to commit suicide. She unhooked her tether—”
“A mischaracterization, you saw the tapes. Her tether got tangled with her fellow astronaut Gary Verlander’s and they were trying to get themselves straight.”
“That’s what you think you saw, what she claims, too, but what I saw, what others saw as well, was an astronaut unhook herself and kick off into space, Franklin. It was a miracle she was able to turn around and reattach. Now she’s back on Earth talking about meeting aliens. I know you believe in her, always have, but I don’t. Not now. She’s not stable. I can try some new therapies and reassess in six months, but I can’t guarantee you she won’t be worse. Psychopathy like this, she could very well be more embedded in her delusions.”
Dr. Holloway left the room, the door closing behind her. The click rang of finality. Norgate stared at the closed door. Holloway hadn’t ever liked Dr. Nevaeh Patel, he’d known it immediately. Jealousy? Had Nevaeh known the extent of Dr. Holloway’s dislike? He doubted it. Before this fiasco, Nevaeh had been totally focused on being an astronaut, readying herself to go to the space station. She probably hadn’t even noticed Holloway. But, of course, her entire future had been decided by one person. Not that it mattered now. Rebecca Holloway’s word was final and he’d lost his best astronaut.
Now he had to break it to Nevaeh that she was grounded.
In the hall, Nevaeh stood erect, hands behind her back, legs shoulder-width apart. She looked—resigned. When she met his eyes, he shook his head slightly, and she bit her lip.
Norgate said, “It’s only six months.”
Nevaeh gave an ugly laugh. “We both know I’m finished here. What I don’t understand, Franklin, is this: I’ve given you the information NASA’s been searching for since its inception, and instead of doing everything you can to confirm what I’m saying, you’re kicking me out.”
“It’s just six months, Nevaeh—”
It was Rebecca Holloway, she knew it. “I quit.”
And with that, she walked away, shoulders back, heart break- ing in two. And the Numen, silent until now, said in a soft, sibilant, and single voice, It will be all right, Nevaeh. We chose you. You will find us again. We will help you.
TIME TO LAUNCH: T-MINUS
The Guiana Space Centre (CSG) is a French and Euro- pean spaceport to the northwest of Kourou in French Guiana. Operational since 1968, it is particularly suit- able as a location for a spaceport as it is near the equator, so that less energy is required to maneuver a spacecraft into an equatorial, geostationary orbit, and it has open sea to the east, so that lower stages of rockets and debris from launch failures cannot fall on human habitations.
Launch of the Galactus 5 Rocket
July 14, 2018
Dr. Nevaeh Patel was always nervous at a countdown, but this wasn’t an ordinary launch. She’d taken great care to ensure no one on the ground had any idea how very important this payload was to her. All they saw was the same calm, cool, collected CEO and president they always saw, an omnipresent figure during launches, a well-liked, hands-on manager, intelligent—a woman to admire. After all, she’d spent almost six months aboard the International Space Station, one of the few female astronauts to achieve the honor in the new millennium, and was spoken of with awe by many of the aerospace experts who spent their days and nights sending rockets to space. Many. Not all.
She tapped a pencil against the computer station, listening to her launch commander run through the countdown check-list. She looked from screen to screen, focused, assessing. The forty-foot wall was broken into five massive squares—the large center screen showing the Galactus 5 rocket on the launchpad, flanked by two more screens on either side. Top left, the launch sequence; bottom left, the orbital planes surrounding Earth; top right, the elliptical they selected for the satellite insertion; bottom right, the interior specs of the rocket itself, laid out in a 3-D rendering from engines to fairing, running systems checks of each component. Above was a smaller horizontal screen running the computer programming codes now taking over from human flight control.
She watched every screen with the intensity of a hawk. Nothing was left to chance. Nothing. Even the smallest anomaly would scrub the launch. And she prayed.
Her launch commander spoke in her ear: “This is Flight. Everything looks good. We are all go for launch. Repeat, all go for launch. T-minus two minutes.”
The rocket’s computers took over, and all she could do now was watch and wait as the team leads ran the various preflight tests and reported back. She heard the magic word in her ear over and over.
“Flight systems nominal.”
“Oxygen burn nominal.”
“Launch processing system nominal.”
“Payload test conductor nominal.”
“Telemetry nominal.”Nominal meant more than normal in space talk. It meant everything was performing perfectly. With as many moving parts as it took to send a rocket into space, nominal represented the triumph of human achievement.
Nominal was the only word she ever wanted to hear during a launch. It meant everything was going according to plan, the launch sequence wasn’t meeting with any problems. Nominal meant more than normal in space talk. It meant everything was performing perfectly. With as many moving parts as it took to send a rocket into space, nominal represented the triumph of human achievement.
There had been a time when she was the one strapped into a tiny capsule and hurtled into orbit, the powerful thrust of the rocket taking her from zero to seventeen thousand miles per hour in less than eight minutes. But those days were past, and now Nevaeh ran Galactus Space Industries, a low-cost private provider to the European space arena. Launching telecommunications satellites into orbit was their bread and butter. She was responsible for eight launches a month, mostly sending European telecom satellites into a geostationary orbit, where they would boost signal strengths to increase cellular and Wi-Fi coverage for whichever company was sending up the satellite. With the success of Galactus, these nominal moments had become ordinary. Almost. But this time nominal was all she wanted to hear.
“This is Flight. T-minus one minute.”
Nevaeh couldn’t help it, she always held her breath. So much could happen in a single instant, so many things could go wrong.
In her ear, “T-minus ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five—”
The engines, already running in preflight mode, roared to life, billowing steam and fire, and lifted the rocket into the sky, making the ground shake. Nevaeh’s heart pumped hard as she watched the rocket—her special rocket—her focus now on the launch commander running through his postlaunch checklist. Cheers nearly drowned out his voice, but she listened carefully as he ticked off each benchmark.
Less than a minute later, the rocket was supersonic; another minute and the booster engines throttled back and separated from the main capsule that contained the twelve-foot-wide comms satellite.
Eight minutes after launch, the capsule was in orbit, and the fairing—the protective shield above the satellite—opened. The satellite was propelled into space, where it would take its place among the more than two thousand other satellites sending radio signals back down to Earth.
When the final stage broke away, there were cheers from the engineers in the flight center. Relief coursed through her. They’d done it. She looked down, saw that sometime during the launch she’d broken her pencil in two.
She grinned at the launch commander and rose and raised her fist to the rest of the room. She gave them a small bow and some applause of her own.
She called out, “Success. A beautiful launch. Thank you all for your hard work.” She gave them all a thumbs-up and added, “Merci beaucoup.”
Nevaeh walked from the command center to her small office. Her primary office was, of course, at the Galactus headquarters in Lyon, France, but she maintained space in French Guiana when she was able to be here for launch supervision.
It now fell to her team of engineers to activate the satellite and triangulate it into its final position.
She smiled. Not one of the engineers, not one of the technicians, no one except Kiera Byrne, her bodyguard and companion, knew she’d altered the computer code to put this particular satellite into a spot selected by her—not the company who’d paid for it to be launched. There was a special payload on this run-of-the-mill satellite, and only she and Kiera knew. No one else needed to know what was in the lead-lined box. Not until she was ready.
In two weeks’ time, her nuclear bomb hidden aboard the satellite was going to set off an electromagnetic pulse that would change the world, and Nevaeh would remake it in her own image.
From THE LAST SECOND. Used with the permission of the publisher, Gallery Books. Copyright © 2019 by Catherine Coulter and J.T. Ellison.