Into The Cosmos

“I guess you could call it NASA fan fiction, in a Marvel comic book.”

     by KaiYves


Prologue: Disaster

February 1, 2003, 8:58 AM Eastern Time, over Palestine, Texas

They never knew what had happened. They would never find out why.

The skies were blue over Texas as Columbia, the first United States space shuttle and the pride of the fleet, was 16 minutes from landing after a successful 15 day Earth-observation mission. Dressed in orange pressure suits, the crew joked and passed around a video camera, filming the heat of re-entry outside the shuttle’s windows:

“Look at that. You really don’t want to be outside right now.”

“Yeah, my kids will go crazy when they see that on tape.”

Observers on the ground saw strange flashes of light as the shuttle tore over their heads at Mach 19.5.

Flight Controllers at Houston’s Johnson Space Center guided Commander Rick Husband through the landing checklist. The years of training on both parts were apparent as the team transmitted their latest orders.

“Roger, uh, bu-”

Commander Husband would never finish the sentence.

2:04 PM Eastern Time, Mojave, California

The hangar was unremarkable, giving no hint of what lay inside. Besides, an average observer would have seen nothing more than a very strange airplane, painted white, with a raised teardrop-shaped cockpit that bore a bevy of small round windows rather than one large windshield, looking something like the holes in a wiffle ball, and a very long wing that was supported by two strange “legs” that held the landing gear, with red decals here and there. It looked like something from the future, and, in a way, it was.

A casual observer, however, might have been able to guess that this plane, known as the White Knight, was important by the care with which the workers were poring over it, inspecting every detail of its exotic body, as they had been doing all morning.

“How’s the tire pressure, Tessa?” Asked a worker in a baseball cap decorated with the logo of Scaled Composites LLC, the company that owned the hanger and its unusual contents.

Teresa von Braun, a young woman who was kneeling by White Knight’s wheels, looked up. Her distinguishing feature was the bright shade of green that her hair was dyed. Teresa von Braun, formerly of the X-Men.

“It’s A-OK, Tim, just like everything else. Burt will be pleased to hear that, I’m sure.” She answered, referring to Burt Rutan, the designer and their boss.

“Don’t be so modest, you helped with the design, too. Just think, in a few months, this baby’s going to be carrying our spaceship.”

For that was the secret of White Knight’s strange design. It was built to carry a small rocketplane known as SpaceShipOne that would separate and fly just past the boundary of space, carrying three people along. If the system succeeded, they would be making history as the first non-governmental organization to put people in space. If they failed… nobody wanted to consider that possibility.

But they were still a long way from that, at least a year by Teresa’s best guess. White Knight wasn’t set to fly with the spaceship until May, and they wouldn’t practice mid-air separation until at least August. Still, they were making progress.

And I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world. Teresa thought, as her walkie-talkie suddenly squawked to life.

“Guys, get over here! Something happened to the shuttle!” Came the voice of a co-worker.

“On our way, Mike.” Tim said, picking the walkie-talkie up from the ground. Teresa was already out of the door and headed for the main building. He was glad that Scaled employed superhuman mutants without discrimination, but it was hard to get used to having a co-worker who could run at supersonic speeds.

Could something really be wrong? Nah, Mike probably just caught some documentary on the Challenger disaster. That was this week, wasn’t it, back in ‘86? Gosh, I hope they don’t show that picture of the tangle of smoke and debris. That one still makes me queasy every time I look at it. It looked like the scars those killer jellyfish in Australia leave.

The thoughts flew through Teresa’s head as she pushed open the door to the room where the TV was…

Everybody was gathered around the old set and there was indeed some amateur footage of flaming debris on the screen. But it was in three straight lines, not a tangle, the date at the screen's bottom was today, and President Bush’s voice was playing over the horrible film:

“…A short time later, debris was seen falling from the skies above Texas. The Columbia is lost.”

“There are no survivors.”

“Oh lord, no…”


Vision

January 14, 2004, 3:27 PM Eastern Time

The recovery of Columbia’s wreckage by FEMA teams and the subsequent accident investigation had been the subject of much attention by the press and public. At first, many had suspected foul play. The work of HYDRA, or AIM, or Doctor Doom or Magneto or... the list of “suspects” that were mentioned went on and on.

But when all was said and done, the official report revealed that Columbia’s loss had not been the malice of any villain, but a simple accident.

During launch, part of the foam coating of the shuttle’s fuel tank had fallen off and hit its underside, damaging the sensitive silica heat tiles that lay there. These tiles were specially made to protect the crew from the intense heats created by the friction of speeding through Earth’s atmosphere on their way home, but that was when they were working perfectly and nobody had noticed the damage during the mission…

“If only someone had looked.” The painful sentence was repeated over and over again. If only…

But despite their mourning, the team at Scaled had continued their work. SpaceShipOne didn’t use the tile system, but another, special one, so there was no rational need for them to worry. Yet worry is seldom rational, and the following months often found Teresa and her co-workers crowded around the TV again, following the developments.

They were there now, as the President was due to make another announcement. Teresa pushed back a strand of her hair as she listened.

“Today I announce a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system. We will begin the effort quickly, using existing programs and personnel. We'll make steady progress -- one mission, one voyage, one landing at a time.”

“Who does he think he is, Kennedy?” one of the engineers whispered.

“In 2010, the Space Shuttle -- after nearly 30 years of duty -- will be retired from service.

“Our second goal is to develop and test a new spacecraft, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, by 2008, and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014. The Crew Exploration Vehicle will be capable of ferrying astronauts and scientists to the Space Station after the shuttle is retired.

"But the main purpose of this spacecraft will be to carry astronauts beyond our orbit to other worlds. This will be the first spacecraft of its kind since the Apollo Command Module.

“Our third goal is to return to the moon by 2020, as the launching point for missions beyond.”

“WHAT?” The room collectively shouted in a mixture of elation and disbelief, as if they all had been told they had won the lottery by an untrustworthy cousin. Teresa rubbed her eyes.

“The MOON? The crazy MOON?” they shouted with one voice, seemingly united not by a crazy dream but a hive mind. The overmind suddenly reached a conclusion-

“WAI- BEYOND!?!?”

I mean, surely he can’t be serious… Teresa thought, reeling.

“With the experience and knowledge gained on the moon, we will then be ready to take the next steps of space exploration: human missions to Mars and to worlds beyond…”

“MARS? MARS!

Teresa’s first following thought, the stupid pun that the President’s name wasn’t Shirley, was swiftly swept away. Mars? Sure, people had talked about it for decades, plans had been made, deadlines set and forgotten, projects scrapped… but here was the President on worldwide television, saying that he wanted NASA to send people there… maybe it really was a New Century.

“What do you think Zubrin will have to say about this?” somebody muttered.

“As our knowledge improves, we'll develop new power generation propulsion, life support, and other systems that can support more distant travels. We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this:

"Human beings are headed into the cosmos.”

And now, there was a new thought in Teresa’s head, a simple one:

I want to help.


Doubts and Decisions

October 3, 2004, 11:47 PM, Local Time

The moonlight shone down onto the desert grass, turning everything outside a ghostly blue. Teresa stood by the hangar, thinking. Early tomorrow morning, if everything went well, SpaceShipOne would make its second flight into space, making history and earning the ten million dollars that the Iranian Ansari family was offering.

She kept telling herself that she should go home and get some rest. Being drowsy during the flight was the last thing Teresa wanted, but worry kept her awake, not just about tomorrow, but about the days to follow.

Everything had gone smoothly five days ago on the first flight, as pilot Mike Melvill had rocketed up at Mach 3, cut the engines and coasted into sub-orbit, and even found time to take some pictures before re-entering the atmosphere. It was then that the spaceship had started rolling wildly, spinning like a thrown dart.

Melvill had never been in any danger, he’d landed safely, and they’d all investigated and corrected the problem, but it added to the nerves that the whole team was feeling.

It’s going to be okay. We can do this, we’ve practiced. You’ve worked on this bird since the beginning, Tessa, you know how tough it is. We’re going to succeed.

And then?

That was the question that had been haunting her since the announcement back in January.

Well, Richard Branson’s probably going to have us build spaceships for his airline. I guess I’ll stay here and help with that. Put ordinary people into space. Be part of history.

And yet… she looked up. The moon was up, and if Teresa squinted, she could pick out the dark lava plains called maria, or seas.

Serenity, Fertility, Nectar, Tranquility… Tranquility. That’s where Apollo 11 landed. And who built the rocket that got them there?

My grandfather.

The new moon program will probably go there at some point, check out the old flag, the footprints in the moondust… Oh, who am I kidding? I want to go there! Or at least build the hardware that gets them there, like my grandfather did.

It’s like that old song: “If you get caught between the moon and New York City.” Only I’m caught between the moon and Mojave.

I've got a commitment here, a commitment to Burt, to Scaled, to the whole SpaceShipOne project and whatever comes after, and yet…

There’s another piece of history being made right now, and I want to be part of it.

Burt will understand… At least, I hope he will... I’ll ask him.

She walked into the hangar where SpaceShipOne lay, white epoxy decorated with a blue star pattern and their sponsors’ logos- Virgin, Stark Industries, M&Ms and others. Her boss was standing before it, running his hand gently over one of the wings, like some people do with their cars when they are new and shiny.

“Tomorrow’s the big day, eh?” Teresa asked, causing Rutan to turn around.

“Yes. I can hardly believe it myself.” He answered.

I’ll approach the topic slowly…

“Seen that moon tonight? Nearly full. You can see all the maria and everything.”

“Oh yeah? I’ll have to look at that.” He walked outside with Teresa and looked at the moon.

I don’t have to do this. This guy hired me, despite the whole mutant thing. The press gave him hell for it, but that didn't stop him. He gave me a great job, let me build spaceships, and here I am, wanting to throw it all away and go work for the very big companies he’s competing with. He think's NASA's misguided. And yet- I must!

“So, what do you think of that new moon program Bush was talking about? The Crew Exploration Vehicle or whatever he called it?”

“It’s an exciting prospect. I’ll certainly try to keep up on it. I’m thrilled that we’re going back.”

“Would you like to go to the moon?”

“Of course. I remember watching the Apollo missions way back when. Although I doubt they’re looking for astronauts my age.” He chuckled.

“How about the design work? I-er-you could do that, couldn’t you?” Teresa asked, making a Freudian slip.

“I could, I suppose. But I’ve already got a job. This is the sort of thing I’ve dreamed about doing since I was a little kid. I’m committed.”

Here goes nothing. Teresa swallowed hard.

“Am I committed? I mean, I’m absolutely going to be there for you guys tomorrow, but after that, the partnership with Branson... would it bother you terribly if I went to work on something else, because there are some other projects that-” The words spilled out.

“Other projects? Are you trying to tell me you want to work with NASA for this moon project?”

There, it was out. She’d said it.

“Yes, and I want to know what you think. I already sent out an application to a propulsions contractor in Alabama.”

“What do I think…” Rutan looked back, at SpaceShipOne in the hangar. For a few moments, he was painfully silent. “That rocket in there, that’s my dream. It’s been my dream for years and now I’m making it real. You’ve built it, and I thank you for your help. If people like you and I weren’t doing this, it wouldn’t get done, period. You’ve a great engineer and I’m proud to have worked with you…”

He looked back at the rocketplane.

“But it’s my dream, not yours, and I don’t want you to feel at all bound or enslaved to it. Once it flies, you’re a free woman, Tessa. If the moon’s your goal, go ahead.” He looked her in the eyes now.

“Well, then, let’s light this candle and go home.”


The X-Prize

October 4, 2004, 8:05 AM, Local Time

The sun had not yet risen, and the moon was setting. The sky above Mojave Airport seemed a dull, uniform darkness, the stars drowned out by the floodlights on White Knight.

A few people were crowded around the plane, making last-minute checks. Teresa was one of them. SpaceShipOne sat nestled beneath it, and the configuration looked odd, but complete.

She really is a beautiful old bird.

From behind the perimeter, a few people with cameras snapped pictures. There would be plenty more where they came from today.

A hush fell over the engineers and onlookers as two figures approached White Knight. One wore a navy blue flightsuit, the orange-and-gray straps and connectors of the emergency parachute on his back clearly visible. In his hand, he held the flight plan and a folded American flag. This was the test pilot, Brian Binnie. The other man was older, with gray sideburns, wearing a leather jacket. At first glance, one wouldn’t have guessed he was as, if not more important, than Binnie in the coming events. He was Burt Rutan.

“Hey, good luck up there, Brian.”

“Today’s the day.”

“Break a leg.” Teresa and the other technicians offered encouragement as Binnie climbed into the small graphite-and-epoxy rocket. A cameraman with a huge shoulder-mounted recorder followed, capturing the moment. Teresa hoped he didn’t run out of film. Today would be full of moments.

Rutan stuck his head inside the tiny cockpit to deliver his own words.

“Use a driver. Keep your head down and swing smooth.” He said. That was golf-speak for “Give your best performance, but also be accurate”. While she didn’t play golf, a lot of the others did, and Teresa had gained an understanding of the terms.

As Rutan walked away, the hatch was closed. The cameraman got a “hero shot” of Binnie through the window, wearing his helmet and oxygen mask.

“Everything’s ready, Burt.” Teresa said, walking alongside her boss as he circled the plane, making sure of that fact. Secure in the knowledge that it was indeed true, he sat down for a rest on the yellow portable scaffolding that the pilot of White Knight would use to enter. He looked up at the place along the airplane’s body where the markings showing its past achievements were, like the tally marks showing the number of “kills” on fighter planes from World War II.

“What are you thinking?” Teresa asked.

“Right now? I’m a little anxious. But we’re going to do it. Today’s the day.” He answered, smiling, and starting to climb down.

Teresa nodded. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so anxious. Certainly not since she’d started working for Scaled. Not since her days at the Xavier Institute, on missions with the squad of X-Men-in-training known as the New Mutants…

The sky was lightening, turning a rich blue. The tailfins of jumbo jets on other runways could be made out, silhouetted against the sky. The technicians rolled the scaffolding away.

A voice suddenly jolted her out of her reminiscences.

“Excuse me, but you work here, don’t you?”

Teresa turned to see a reporter with a laptop.

“Yes, I was on the design team.” She said.

“Tell me, what’s the mood of the crew this morning?”

“We’re ready for this. There really was a calm mood, yet excitement- of course.” She said, trying to echo Rutan’s comments.

“Understandably. Thank you.” The reporter said, hurrying away. It was nearly time for take-off.

White Knight started to roll along the runway, picking up speed until it became airborne, taking off into the ever-lightening sky. Two chase planes followed, passing briefly in front of the rising sun and making dramatic silhouettes. One was a strange, white, delta-winged craft known as the Beechcraft Starship, a previous Scaled project. They were there in case anything went wrong, and, next to Binnie and the crew of White Knight, the pilots in the chase planes would enjoy the best view of what was to come.

Hundreds of eyes watched the climbing white contrail through binoculars or the zoom lenses of cameras, both film and digital. Some people in the crowd held signs showing their support. One man wore a blue t-shirt with the words “Go, Burt, Go!” written on it in white.

Two of those eyes belonged to Teresa in the ground control room. In the rough hour it took White Knight to climb to 47, 000 feet, her eyes darted between the view through binoculars, the altitude meters before her and the faces of the others in the room. Everybody was wearing large headphones that were an ugly shade of blue-green.

At 47,000 feet, roughly twice the height of Mount Everest, the atmosphere is much thinner than at sea level, or even at the 2,791 foot elevation of Mojave Airport. You can already see a glowing white haze at the horizon, the first indication of just how thin the atmosphere really is compared to the Earth. The sky above you is a dark grayish-blue. There is a feeling of being halfway to space already.

The order was given. An engineer inside of White Knight released SpaceShipOne. Binnie was now in free-fall, tumbling towards the brown desert below…

For all the spectators, even those without superhumanly fast reaction times, those seconds of free-fall felt like an eternity until Binnie’s shout over the radio:

“Arm and fire!”

The rocket engine ignited.

Binnie was thrown back in his seat by three times the force of gravity as SpaceShipOne shot upwards, kicking out 18,000 pounds of thrust. Within a few seconds, he was supersonic. The craft soared upward, leaving a white vertical contrail of its special fuel- rubber and laughing gas. White Knight peeled away, the two white trails making a crude “v” in the blue southwestern sky.

Soon, the rocket could not be seen with the naked eye, only binoculars. As the 90 second burn came to a close, it was only a speck atop the smoke trail, even with optical aid. From here on, the spaceship would glide.

Teresa’s eyes turned to the altitude meter now, as there was nothing more to see out the window. Now, there was only to imagine, based on Binnie’s reports over the radio. They passed one altitude record… then another… higher than the last flight…

And then, there was perfect peace. The air hose on Binnie’s mask started floating.

SpaceShipOne was in space.

Cheers broke out, before Rutan gave them all a look.

“That’s for when he lands. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Knowing that he was right, the room fell silent once again.

“I’m taking some pictures for you guys.” Binnie’s voice broke the silence. “I can see the Earth curving away and the atmosphere… it’s all so, so beautiful. If only… if only everyone could see this view. Just wait until you see these pictures.”

Almost too soon, Binnie’s three minutes in space were over. SpaceShipOne’s tail moved into the upright re-entry position as it prepared to re-enter the atmosphere. This would slow it down so that the friction- and the heating- wouldn’t be a problem.

We’re coming in at a much safer angle than the space shuttle does, so- why am I thinking about that, anyway? I just hope that spinning doesn’t happen again. Stupid worrywart brain of mine.

Trying to keep her mind distracted, Teresa looked out the window at the crowds watching. She could see Binnie’s family watching eagerly for the first sight of the rocket. It was plunging back through the atmosphere now, the heating at its most intense…

Now it would be exiting re-entry mode, the tail going horizontal again, beginning the glide…

And then, somebody saw the speck. Small and white, so small Teresa wasn’t sure at first if it was just a trick of her eye or a hopeful hallucination. But as it glided in, details came into view in her binoculars- the wings, the tail, the blue stripes on its white body- and small cheers began, in spite of the previous order.

Binnie’s family shielded their eyes against the sun; his wife had her hands over her mouth and her eyes looked watery. His mother was beaming from ear to ear. His brother saluted. The chase planes came in, using special oil that left a trail for visibility so they wouldn’t get in the way.

One thing that SpaceShipOne did have in common with the shuttle was that it was designed to land without using its engines. Gliding in for a landing saved fuel, but it also made the pilot’s job trickier, especially here at the end, when he had to circle around several times to slow the rocket down.

With the loops completed, Binnie began the final descent, extending the landing gear. It looked slightly silly, breaking the craft’s streamlined shape. Cameras started going off like crazy again, to capture this beautiful machine, returning from the edge of space victorious, landing in a world different from the one it had left, changed by its own bold act.

The shadow went ahead, gliding over the desert grass, and then the tarmac, until the rocket and shadow met and pulled to a halt on the runway.

Now the enthusiasm could not be contained. Teresa was out of the door before the other engineers were halfway to it, probably setting a few speed records herself, but they followed at their own, more modest speeds. An Arab couple wearing all black ran toward SpaceShipOne from the other direction, flashing their passes to a guard.

Pretty good sprint, considering she’s wearing heels. I think those are the Ansaris. Well, I hope they liked what they saw.

“That was fabulous! Amazing!” the woman gushed, pushing her designer rimless sunglasses higher up her nose.

My hope was well placed, apparently. Who says I don’t have psychic powers?

“Thanks.” Teresa said, blushing a little bit.

The crowd from the control room was at the runway now, and two mechanics stepped in to open the hatch. Binnie stepped out, with a blinding smile on his face.

“Best ride of my life.” He said, as Rutan congratulated him:

“Nice drive, Brian.”

October 4, 2004, 11: 34 PM, Local Time

The reporters surrounded the group that stood by SpaceShipOne, holding out microphones and bombarding them with questions. It was practically a Who’s Who of the X-Prize: Rutan, the Ansaris, Binnie and his family, Sir Richard Branson, Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder who had been the main sponsor, and Peter Diamandis, the man who had first suggested the prize.

Teresa hung back, feeling a slight pang of guilt in spite of Rutan’s reassurance the night before.

There was a feeling in the air, now, a feeling of history and great importance. Someday, they could all look back on this day and say this was where it had all began. Even though she wasn’t going to be part of “it”, Teresa was sure she’d never forget this day.

“What was it like, Mr. Binnie?”

“It's hard to describe. It's a fantastic experience and it culminates when the motor shuts down and you realize... there is darkness outside the windows and it is contrasted starkly by this- this bright pearl that is the greater California area... It's a fantastic view, it's a fantastic feeling. There's a freedom there and a sense of wonder that- I'll tell you what, you all need to experience!"

It was funny, in all her dread about leaving and her worries about the flight itself, Teresa had forgotten what she hated most about these press sessions. Somebody would want a quote from her. This was fine, if it wasn’t asked with ‘as a mutant’ tacked on. Which it always was.

It wasn’t like mutants in space were news. The X-Men themselves had flown on the shuttle back in the early days, and that radiation-absorber guy Gazer was doing research on the International Space Station at that very moment.

In one sense, she couldn't blame the reporters. Fifty years ago, if she’d been African-American, they would have asked the same questions, mentioned it in the reports, and commented on it just the same. But all in all, she saw herself as an engineer who happened to be a mutant and not a mutant who happened to be an engineer. The whole discrimination issue didn’t really interest her. If it had, she’d have stayed with the X-Men.

So she braced herself for that question, waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. That way, it didn’t hurt as much when it finally came. But it still hurt:

“Mr. Rutan, a lot of people have criticized your tolerant attitudes toward mutants- especially your company’s close relationship with the Xavier Institute. How do you feel about the criticism and do you think it will have any effect on this space tourism project?”

If the question hurt Rutan, he showed no sign of it. He took a deep breath and turned to where Teresa and the other workers stood.

“Teresa, get up here.” He ordered in a quiet voice.

In front of the reporters- I can’t, I won’t, I-

Even as her mind protested, she started walking to the microphone, stopping when she reached her boss.

Rutan nodded, as if to say “Thank you”, and turned back to the reporter.

“How do I feel about the discrimination? Well, I want you to know that at Scaled, we do discriminate. We are blatantly biased in the favor of those who are dedicated, imaginative, and intelligent.”

The spectators laughed. Rutan continued after the laugher died down:

“This young woman next to me is Teresa von Braun. A surname that is familiar to many of us aerospace enthusiasts. Some of you might know her better as X-1 of the New Mutants. I am proud to say that she was a principle member of the team that designed SpaceShipOne. But I didn’t hire her because of her genes or because of her last name. I hired her because she is dedicated, imaginative, and intelligent.”

She felt guilty again. Guilty for leaving when her boss spoke of her work like that.

Proud. He was proud. They wanted her to stay, she couldn’t go, she-

“Dr. Von Braun will not stay on for the Virgin collaborative project. She is leaving soon to seek employment with NASA and I support her. However, her innovations will be included in our SpaceShipTwo vehicle. If somebody refuses to ride a spaceship because a mutant designed it, then that is their problem, not ours.”

“The important thing about today’s accomplishment is that this is not an end. It’s just a- very good- beginning. For everyone.”

Outwardly, Teresa gave a faint smile. But inside, she was beaming from ear to ear.


"The Last Day I Will Cry"

July 25, 2005, 12:36 AM Local Time, Kennedy Space Center, Florida

The large mirror of black granite reflected the noontime sun as Teresa stood before it. She had come to do something she’d wanted to do for two years now.

She was here to remember.

The Space Mirror was a memorial to the 18 astronauts lost in American space flights over the Program’s history. Their names were carved into acrylic panels on the surface of the mirror, seeming to hover in the reflected sky.

“October 31, 1964- Theodore Freeman.” She whispered, reading from a card she’d written the names and dates of the casualties on.

“January 27, 1967- Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White, Roger Chaffee. Apollo 1.” Teresa continued. Her eyes started to cloud up, making it hard to read the card. That didn’t matter.

She had the next one memorized.

“January 28, 1986- Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair…”

The tears started to fall. She remembered the day so clearly, she’d been at Xavier’s, dealing with the Beyonder situation, but she and Kitty Pryde had managed to get away to a television and watch NBC with Henry McCoy, their science teacher. NBC was the only station showing the launch. McCoy had complained about that.

“…Gregory Jarvis…”

Teresa pulled out another piece of paper from her pocket, an old photocopy of a handwritten letter…

“…Christa McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka…”

They’d all been excited about the launch, as science enthusiasts, but Teresa more so than the others, because she’d sent a copy of the letter to the crew’s one female veteran astronaut-

“…Judith Resnik. Challenger.”

The launch itself had gone perfectly, with the orbiter clearing the tower just as it had in all the previous missions Teresa had watched, although the fact that she was-sort of- in contact with somebody on board made it feel unique. And when Ms. Resnik got back to Earth, they’d surely get a letter back. (Teresa and Kitty eventually planned to write to all the female astronauts in the program and get their autographs) She, Kitty and McCoy had been cheering as the commander informed ground control “Go at throttle up!”, indicating that everything was alright…

And then, just over a minute after launch, one of the shuttle’s booster rockets had exploded in that horrible tangle of smoke and metal, sending flaming debris falling into the Atlantic Ocean and killing all aboard…

For the next few months, Teresa and Kitty had worn black armbands as part of their uniforms. Their teammate Colossus, who had lost his cosmonaut brother Mikhail in an accident, had, as well.

She made no attempt to stop the tears now, they came in torrents, as if Teresa’s eyes were connected to Niagara Falls. “Go at throttle up, go at throttle up…” she whispered to herself, sobbing.

Endeavoring to keep the letter as dry as possible, she stooped down, placing it near the edge of the mirror.

“…My friend and I really look up to you. I think you’re an inspiration to girls everywhere and as much of a superhero as anybody in the X-Men, or even the Avengers or Fantastic Four.” She had written in the letter.

There hadn’t been any costumed superhumans at Cape Canaveral that day; they’d all been dealing with the Beyonder. But then, there hadn’t been any for the past few launches either, other threats had been judged to be of higher priority than protecting a vehicle that had previously had only perfect flights. It was routine, Avengers Liaison Gyrich had told the investigation board.

“February 1, 2003.” She managed to choke out. “Rick Husband, William McCool, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla…” The crying started again, remembering Mike’s call on the radio and the images on the TV screen at Scaled.

“…Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon. Columbia.”

She hadn’t cried since that day, but now it all was coming out, gasping for breath before another waterfall began. She was her teenage self again, crying before the TV with Kitty and Dr. McCoy or waking up after the horrible nightmare dreams.

And then it was over. She had run out of tears, cried all that she could cry. And now she reminded herself of the Vision and of her new dedication.

“Rest in peace. You are not forgotten. But this is the last day I will cry. Tomorrow we return to flight. And tomorrow, I return to work, continuing the journey. Honoring your legacy.”

“As you would have wished.”


Heroes

July 26, 2005, 7:00 AM Local Time

This was it. In a few hours, a space shuttle would lift-off from Cape Canaveral for the first time in two and a half years. For the first time since Columbia’s loss.

Discovery was on the pad, waiting patiently, nine miles away. She was a good, dependable ship, the third shuttle orbiter built. She had been the first to fly again after the Challenger disaster in 1988, launched the Hubble Space Telescope back in 1990, docked with the Russian Mir space station in 1995 and flown the hundredth shuttle mission in 2000.

It had taken a lot of begging to get Teresa away from Rocketdyne’s facilities in Alabama, but she wouldn’t have missed this for the world. So there she stood, in the crowd outside of the crew quarters, waiting to catch the public’s last glimpse of the astronauts before take-off.

The crew would fly to the space station to install some equipment and exchange crewmembers. And, most importantly, while attached to the station, check Discovery’s heat tiles for any sign of damage and fix them.

The astronauts stepped out in their orange pressure suits, waving to the crowd. The commander and pilot, Eileen Collins and Jim Kelly, were first, walking slowly to the silver van that would take them to the launch pad. It would be their job to fly the shuttle to the station and land it when the voyage was over. The mission specialists, the ones who would spacewalk and do most of the experiments, followed.

Commander Collins smiled and waved to the crowd as she entered the van, the sort of confident, fearless smile Teresa knew well from her time with the X-Men. A person-especially a woman- didn’t become a shuttle commander without superheroic determination and commitment.

We superhumans face danger all the time. Heck, sometimes we even get to go into space. But we have powers to protect us. What makes people like Collins just as heroic is that they work for the good of the world, they face danger, they go into space, but they do all that without any powers.

And that’s why I’m completely awed by them.

Hey, speaking of superheroes, is that…

Teresa glanced across the road at the two familiar figures in dark blue uniforms. Johnny Storm and Sue Richards of the Fantastic Four were also watching the silver van as the astronauts climbed in. Johnny was saying something over a walkie-talkie, probably talking to the KSC SWAT team.

Dr. Michael Griffin, NASA’s new head, had specifically requested a superhuman presence for the mission, citing the need to have multiple back-up plans in the event of an emergency. (‘Redundancy’, in engineer-speak)

The Avengers hadn’t been able to come. They’d disbanded after all that trouble with the attacks on their mansion, but the FF had answered Dr. Griffin’s call instead. It was fitting, given Reed Richards’ history with the agency.

She slipped over to where the two superheroes stood, using a little super-speed here and there.

“Hey! Um, you may not remember me, but…” Teresa started. Sue looked her over, and bit her lip for a few seconds. Then, her eyes lit up as she vaguely remembered.

“Weren’t you one of Professor X’s students back in the 80’s? The pyrokinetic?” Sue asked.

“That was Amara. I’m Teresa, the mechanic.”

“You mean, the super-speedster!” Johnny said. Teresa winced. She didn’t like it when people called attention to her powers.

“Oh yes, that’s right. We ran into your team during that whole business with the Beyonder. So what are you up to these days, Teresa?”

“I’m actually working for one of NASA’s contractors right now- and on that note, I’m really glad you guys came to help us.”

Us. It feels strange talking about NASA as “us”. At Scaled, it was “them”. Not in the antagonistic sense, just that it was… Other, unconnected to what we did.

But now it’s Scaled that’s unconnected to what I’m doing. Even though I’m still in touch with Burt and the others, they’re Other now… I’m still getting used to that.

“It’s the least we can do. How better to use the gifts we gained on a flight into space than by helping others who do the same?” Sue smiled.

“Yeah, and we get to trail the shuttle from 20 miles away in the Fantasticar and fly circles around the other chase planes!”

Sue gave him a look.

“Chill, Sis. Reed never said we couldn’t have some fun while we look for foam dropping from that, um… big…orange thing… with the technical name… that I forget.”

Teresa chuckled. “That’s the fuel tank.”

“Uh, yeah, I knew that…” Johnny looked at his shoes. “And we can help out if there’s a thermal curtain failure or something.”

“Thermal curtain failure? There’s no such thing.”

“I don’t know, I heard it somewhere.” He looked at his shoes again, abruptly ending the conversation. Sue politely led him away.

Well, there’s still a few hours to kill before launch. Maybe I should check out the museum. Or I could people-watch. The First Lady’s supposed to be here… nah, the museum sounds more interesting.

Her stomach rumbled.

But first, I’ve got to get something to eat. I was in such a hurry to leave the hotel that I forgot breakfast. ‘Stupid one-track mind of mine…

Finding one of the food stations in the visitor complex was easier than she’d expected and soon, Teresa was eating a chicken sandwich near the outdoor displays of historic rocket replicas. Little kids ran to and fro, others stayed close to their parents, clutching rapidly melting popsicles. Parents tried to fit into replica capsules, attempting to act out their childhood dreams.

Such a joyful scene, so far removed from how she had felt yesterday. Teresa couldn’t help but grin between bites.

“Hey, Dad! Look at that big silver one with the red-ladder thingy on top!” a boy in a Captain America t-shirt called, pointing. Teresa turned her head to see which display he was pointing at.

“Yeah, that’s like the one John Glenn rode in, Timmy. Atlas or something.” A red-haired man next to him, who must have been his father, said.

It was indeed. Teresa nodded to herself.

“What about the red-ladder thing! What’s that?” Timmy asked.

“Um, that’s the, uh… argh! I knew it in ’61! I can’t think of it right now Timmy.” The father said, wondering if this was the first sign of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

“Koff! Escape tower. Koff!” Teresa vocalized, louder than she’d intended to.

Timmy and his dad looked at her.

Uh oh. He probably thinks I’m choking. And an impromptu Heimlich is the last thing I want today.

“Um, its okay, I’m fine. I was just saying that the red thing on top of the capsule is the escape tower. It's a mini mini-rocket they could fire to get the capsule out of danger if anything went wrong during launch.” She said, quickly.

“Well, thank you, Miss.” Timmy’s father said.

“Is your hair really that weird color?” Timmy blurted out. His father shot him a “that’s-very-rude-what-have-your-mother-and-I-told-you” look.

“No, I dye it.” Teresa said, laughing.

“Oh, ‘cause I thought you might be like that magnetic girl from the X-Men…” Timmy’s father rolled his eyes.

“Polaris.”

“Yeah, that’s right! She’s cool.”

Well, she’s a bit unstable sometimes… but yeah, she’s a very nice person. We used to play checkers together.

Noticing the pass around her neck, Timmy’s father asked “Do you work here at the Cape?”

“Well, actually, I work in Alabama. I build rocket engines.”

“You’re a rocket scientist? That’s impressive. Isn’t that cool, Timmy?”

“Aerospace engineer, technically-”

“-Have you met any superheroes? I heard the Fantastic Four are here today.”

“You and your superheroes…” Timmy’s father said, leading him away.

“Now and then!” Teresa called after them. In fact, I saw nine of them earlier this morning.


Return to Flight

July 26, 2005, 10: 30 AM, Local Time

It looked like either a human traffic jam of epic proportions or the audience for a very strange rock concert. But binoculars and handheld radios are rarely in either of those situations as numerous as they were here, on the causeway connecting the island where the space center was located to the mainland.

The road over the Banana River was the closest public viewing area for space shuttle launches, six miles from Pad 39 B. Through the binoculars that she was clutching tightly, Teresa could make out Discovery’s orange fuel tank, framed by the pointy-topped white booster rockets, with the white winged spacecraft itself in front, attached to the side of the tank.

“T-minus nine minutes and counting.” Her portable radio reported. “Ground launch sequencer is now in control.”

Well, this is it. Here we go. Deep breaths…

She played with the focus knob on her binoculars, trying to make the view as clear as it could be.

“T-minus eight minutes and counting. The onboard fuel cells have been connected.”

Although she was no Jean Grey, Teresa could tell what everybody else watching was thinking:

Oh, please, oh, please let nothing go wrong this time!

Because she was thinking that, too.

That’s silly, though. They’ve got the foam problem under control, and if anything else goes wrong, they can always abort.

Unless it goes wrong before the boosters fall off.

Don’t think about that. Just don’t think about that. You are such a stupid worrywart sometimes, Tessa.

“T-minus seven minutes and counting. The access arm through which the crew entered the orbiter is being retracted. The arm can be re-extended in a quarter of a minute should the need arise later in the countdown.”

Once solid fuel rockets, like the boosters or ordinary fireworks, start burning, nothing can stop them until they run out of fuel. They normally burn up all their fuel and separate at two minutes after liftoff.

Before that, there is no stopping.

I mean, the FF are here, they’d be able to do something, wouldn't they?

“T-minus six minutes. Pilot Jim Kelly is preparing to switch to internal power.”

Of course they will, Tessa. And from this point forward, I’m going to shut up and enjoy the launch.

Trying to distract herself, she turned the volume on her radio up.

“T-minus five minutes. The Pilot is now turning on the internal units, which will power the shuttle’s hydraulic systems. Commander Eileen Collins is configuring the fuel valve heaters for launch.”

I bet the guys back in Mojave are watching. Kitty’s probably watching, too, wherever she is. We used to watch all the launches together.

I haven’t seen her in ages. I really should shoot her an e-mail sometime, see if we can meet sometime. Maybe see some show in New York or something…

“T-minus four minutes. Hydraulic systems are being prepped.”

…Or maybe she could come to see me in Alabama. That’d be nice, too. Go to the museum in Huntsville and look at the stuff on display. We could talk about machines, just like old times, maybe set off a few model rockets like we did at Xavier’s…

Just not like that one that went through the window of the Headmaster’s office! Man, those were the days.

“T-minus three minutes. The main engines are in launch configuration, the vent hood at the top of the fuel tank is being removed.”

“Well, here we go.” She smiled in spite of herself. Inside of the orbiter, the crew was completing the final items on their checklists, flipping the last few switches. What was going through their heads at this moment? Were they afraid, sitting exactly where the crew of Columbia had been two years before? Teresa couldn’t guess.

Had Brian and Mike been afraid as they’d been inside of SpaceShipOne, waiting to be dropped? She’d never asked them.

I’d be afraid.

But would I let that stop me?

I can’t say.

“T-minus two minutes. The astronauts are being instructed to close and lock the visors on their launch and entry helmets.”

It doesn’t stop them.

Now things were happening fast, Discovery was switching to internal power, and all systems were being prepared. It all was happening so terribly fast now and yet each moment was so significant…

“T-minus one minute. Computers verifying that the main engines are ready for ignition.”

And then, much too soon:

“T-minus thirty-one seconds…”

At T-minus sixteen seconds, there was a crashing roar as thousands of gallons of water poured into the 300-foot-deep tanks beneath the engines to help suppress the intense sound that there would be at lift-off and protect the shuttle from it’s own vibrations.

“T-minus ten seconds, go for main engine start.”

Teresa had a vise-grip on her binoculars now, keeping them trained on the pad.

“Seven, six…”

Go get ‘em, Eileen.

The main engines at the bottom of the orbiter were starting to burn, creating transparent columns of orange flame in a noisy shower of sparks.

“Five. Three engines up and burning…”

The columns narrowed, and inner blue cones of flame known as mach diamonds appeared within.

“Three, two, one… and liftoff!”

The boosters ignited with a roar. For a few long seconds, Discovery was wreathed in humungous clouds of steam as the boosters hit the water in the sound suppression tanks, nearly invisible behind the clouds.

And then the shuttle was off, rising above the smoke, riding a fiery trail hundreds of feet long!

The vibrations were intense, rippling across the swampland and water. Even three miles away, the onlookers on the causeway felt the vibrations shaking their teeth and bodies.

“Liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery, beginning America’s new journey to the moon, Mars, and beyond! And the vehicle has cleared the tower!”

Discovery turned as it rose, helping to get on course. Four seconds after launch, it was already traveling four hundred miles per hour and already at twelve thousand feet.

The engines throttled down as the shuttle went supersonic, the boom cracking across the Cape. Some people covered their ears. Teresa didn’t. To her it was a natural, familiar sound, like the sound of an instrument to a musician who plays it.

Now they were going nine hundred miles per hour.

Discovery, this is Houston. Go at throttle up.”

Teresa slightly winced, as she did whenever she heard that line. Nothing was happening this time. The shuttle flew on, now it was eighteen miles up…

The solid boosters burned out and separated, their parachutes opening as they fell towards the sea to be recovered and repaired for use on a future mission. Teresa breathed a sigh of relief. The crew became able to see the curvature of the Earth for the first time now.

“Altitude sixty-seven miles now.”

Space. They were in space. And after only four minutes. Remarkable.

“All engines operating nominally. Go for main engine cut off.” The tank was no longer needed, it would separate soon.

“We’re back. Our people are back in space.” Teresa whispered, awed despite herself. She was crying again. But this time, it was out of joy.


In Case of Emergency

11:37 PM, October 23, 2005

For the most part, Florida is a good location for space launches. The weather is usually clear and warm, being close to the equator gives rockets a 900 mile-per-hour boost when launched east because of the Earth’s rotation, and used-up boosters can fall safely into the ocean without danger to surrounding communities. There is only one real problem with Cape Canaveral’s location…

Hurricanes.

On average, the Kennedy Space Center will have to close down about once a year because of hurricanes and, on average, damage is usually minimal. The hurricane season of 2005, however, could scarcely be called average, however, and the management was bracing for the worst when Hurricane Wilma was predicted to hit southwest Florida.

And that was why Teresa found herself inside of the hangar with the wind howling outside, watching over Space Shuttle Atlantis. She and the handful of other NASA employees in the ride-out crew were the only human beings at the Cape.

“You know it’s bad when the names get to ‘W’ and hurricane season isn’t over yet!” Jenny, the dark-haired woman next to Teresa remarked, shouting to be heard over the wind.

“It’s over in a week, though. Officially, at least. And good riddance, with what this season’s done.” Geraldo, the other person in the hangar with her, shouted. “After Katrina chewed up New Orleans and then trashed our facilities on the Gulf Coast just ‘cause she felt like it back in August…”

Teresa nodded. Although Discovery had landed safely, the damage to the factories that made shuttle parts meant that nobody could be sure when the next mission would be. If Wilma were to hit the Cape at similar intensity…

Did we return to flight only to loose it all over again?

And, though nobody said it, they all knew that the strength of the recent hurricanes was why Teresa had been called away from Marshall to come here.

Like it or not, with Gazer back in space, I’m the only superhuman the agency has at the moment. And between cleaning up New Orleans and all that stuff going on in Genosha, everybody else is too occupied to lend a hand. So it’s just me.

But hey, help is needed here, and I can give it. Doing anything else would be selfish.

Jenny unclipped a walkie-talkie from her belt and held down the “Talk” button: “Hey, Kenny, how are things going over there with Endeavour?”

“This is Bill. Kenny’s not in here! He went out to count the sandbags and he hasn’t come back in! I’ve been calling his walkie-talkie, but there’s no response!”

“The bloody idiot… if the hurricane doesn’t kill him, I’m going to!” Geraldo muttered “What was he thinking, Category 3 means you don’t go outside!”

Teresa took a deep breath.

“I’m going to look for him.” She turned towards the door. She could feel Jenny and Geraldo staring at her back. “Look, guys, it’s got to be me. The flying debris can’t hurt me if I run faster than the wind is blowing it.”

Not as much, anyway.

“She’s crazy, too.” Geraldo muttered, as Teresa slipped out the door. “Everybody’s going bloody crazy around here.”

Outside, everything was eerily empty. If it wasn’t so loud, Teresa might have compared it to a ghost town. The wind was bending the palm trees over and sending bits of random rubbish flying as fast as cars on the highway.

And this isn’t even the worst of it. We’re miles and miles from the eye walls. I feel sorry for anybody that’s near those.

She took another deep breath and started to accelerate down the path that ran alongside the hangars. The rain was falling diagonally now, hitting her left side first.

To anybody else, this would feel like needles or arrows. To me, it’s like finger pokes. Thank you, X-gene.

Off in the distance, she saw what looked like a dark funnel cloud. Hurricanes were known to spawn tornadoes…

But even I’m not tough enough to survive if that thing hits while I’m out here. So I’ve got to find Kenny and get inside.

She was at Endeavour’s hangar now, and she slowed, her eyes still darting from object to object, looking for any possible hazards.

“Your greatest strength is your reaction time. But it does you no good if you don’t stay alert, Tessa.” She remembered what Professor X had told her years before as she’d dodged projectiles in the Danger Room.

“Kenny? Kenny? Are you okay?” The wind nearly drowned out her words. “Where are you?”

There! Was that…

“Here! Here! Help!” It sounded nearly like a whisper, coming from nearby, by the trees… Teresa sped over, feeling hopeful.

Kenny was lying among the tree roots, his leg bleeding. He looked ecstatic when he saw Teresa.

“I put my walkie-talkie down for a second to count the sandbags and the storm took it away. Yeah, I know, stupid move, I'm totally going to get fired. I chased it over here and then a pipe hit my leg.” He explained “I think it’s broken, it hurts when I move it.”

I can’t run at my top speed carrying him, but we’ve got to get out of here before things get worse!

She grabbed Kenny and braced-

The tree next to them abruptly gave in to the punishment, thick palm branches ripping off and flying in their direction. An image on the news of a thin wire coat-hanger that a hurricane had driven six inches into an oak tree flashed through Teresa’s mind.

It just got worse!

She was off like a shot, across the roots, as branches continued to break off. Behind them, they hit the ground like arrows, as if they had run into the center of an ancient battle.

Back onto the asphalt path, turning to reach the hangar door- all in a matter of seconds. She banged on the hangar door three times before Bill let them in.

“They’re back now, they look okay.” He told Jenny and Geraldo. “Yeah, crazy, I know. But crazy in a good way.”


The More Things Change...

April 16, 2006, 1: 34 PM, Local Time, US Space and Rocket Center, Alabama

A group of nine-year-olds dressed in dark-blue replica shuttle flightsuits ran around the souvenir shop, looking for something to show their families back at home. Anywhere else, the sight would have drawn attention, but not here. After all, the Center was the home of the original Space Camp. The campers didn’t give a second thought to the two “thirtysomething” women standing by a nearby display case. After all, they were old.

“So that’s the prototype you guys will provide the engines for?” Kitty asked, gently taping the glass with her fingernail.

“Yeah, that’s the latest model of the new moon rocket. Of course, the finished product probably won’t look anything like it… not at this stage. Luke Skywalker had a beard in the first character sketches Lucasfilm did, after all.” Teresa answered. Visiting the museum, just a few miles from her office at the Marshall Space Flight Center, with her old friend was a dream come true.

“Did you see Revenge of the Sith? I saw it with Kurt back in May. We have got to go to a convention some time.”

“Yes, I saw it here in Huntsville. Thirty years and the circle is finally complete. I hear they cut some scenes with Mon Mothma in them, though. I would have wanted to see that.”

“What about that scene with Yoda in the Senate? He threw those guards aside with a gesture and then fought Palpatine to a standstill!” She switched to a voice resembling Yoda’s: “Mess with me, do not.”

They both laughed as Teresa led Kitty through a plastic door, flashing her employee badge at a councilor, who nodded and let the friends pass.

“This is the sim floor, where the shuttle and station simulators for the campers are.” Teresa said “It is impressive, isn’t it?”, she added, seeing her friend’s awed expression. It’s like that kid’s book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie- If You Take a Nerd to Space Camp...

It was indeed impressive. Four space shuttle models, near-life size, in various states of completeness and several space station modules, connected like hamster tubes, were arranged around the large room.

A mural of the Earth from space with LED stars decorated one wall. Above the payload bay of one of the shuttle models, two kids in mock space suits were working to “repair” a model satellite.

“Where was this stuff when we were kids, Tessa?”

“It was here, but we were at Xavier’s! Pretty sure we could have copied this in the Danger Room if we’d wanted…”

“Yeah, but the Prof would have given us a lifetime supply of demerits for it!” They both started laughing again. Teresa knocked on another door on the side of the sim floor. A councilor let them in.

“This is Mission Control.” She whispered to Kitty. Seven older campers were seated at computer stations reading off checklists. Black signs above their stations indicated each of the “Flight Controller’s” jobs.

“AOA. Perform an AOA and land in California.” The boy whose sign read “Capcom” read into his microphone. In this case, AOA stood not for “Age Of Apocalypse”, but “Abort Once Around”, or “Land after only orbiting the Earth once”, an emergency scenario.

“Roger that, Capcom.” The “Commander” confirmed. Teresa glanced at the video screen to see which camper was “flying” the shuttle. It was a girl with long red hair who looked vaguely familiar.

Kitty and Teresa watched for a few minutes and then left to avoid disturbing the campers.

“So, what do you want to do now? We could check out the IMAX Theater.” Teresa said, picking up one of the brochures detailing the shows for that day. “Oh, my gosh! The next one is The Dream is Alive!”

“Burr, that’s kind of spooky,

Tessa…"

September 7, 1985, 4:02 Local Time, American Museum of Natural History, New York

“You two have three hours to spend here in the museum while Rahne, Dani and myself visit the Met. You may eat at the cafeteria in the basement, but do not leave the museum.” Ororo Munroe told Kitty and Teresa as they stood in the Roosevelt Rotunda lobby underneath the giant Barosaurus skeleton. “You may not run off to the Marvel offices to have that writer Claremont or whatever his name is sign your Star Wars comics or anything like that, understand?”

“Yes, Ms. Munroe.” They said, nodding to their chaperone, who smiled and walked out with the other girls.

They immediately turned to each other and broke into huge grins. Two hours in the Museum of Natural History, all by themselves? Awesome! They sat down on the wooden bench that encircled the Barosaurus display to look at a guidebook Kitty had bought on her last visit.

Kitty had visited once or twice before when she had come into the city with her teammates, but one can visit a museum dozens of times and still not see everything.

“So, what do you want to see first? The blue whale is really something.” Kitty asked “It’s life-size.”

“Life-size? But aren’t they a hundred feet long?” Teresa asked.

“Yup. And so is the model.”

“Now that I’ve got to see!”

They hurried to the Hall of Ocean Life as fast as was polite. The blue whale model hung from the ceiling, filling the two-level exhibit hall. The model was so lifelike, with wrinkles around its eyes and barnacle markings on its back, that for a moment Teresa felt as if she was actually floating in the depths of the ocean, looking this ancient and marvelous creature in the eye.

“Wow.”

The other dioramas in the room were stunning as well, including a large one of a coral reef in the Caribbean. The diorama stretched across both floors, with the top floor showing the surface, and the bottom, the reef itself, with colorful coral and tropical fish.

Just a few steps away from the coral reef was a polar bear on an ice sheet, hunting seals. It was a bit disorienting to step away from one environment to look at the next after having stared at it for a long time. If you stared at one long enough, you almost felt as if you were there.

When they had finally seen everything in the Hall of Ocean Life, the next stop was the Hall of Meteorites. It was very dark inside, with the space rocks themselves spotlighted.

“Lucky us! There’s nobody else in here.” Teresa whispered. Whispering feels natural in dim light. Indeed, except for the two young mutants, the exhibit hall did seem to be empty. They moved in to check out a 34 ton chunk of iron from Greenland near the room’s center.

“The sign says those supports under it go right down to the museum’s foundation. Must have been a hassle getting it in the front door.” Kitty said.

“Peter could probably lift it.” Teresa offered, referring to Peter Rasputin, Kitty’s super-strong boyfriend at Xavier’s.

“He could!” They giggled.

CLANG!

It was a loud noise, something metallic hitting the tiled floor of the next room. Teresa and Kitty stopped in their tracks.

“Jeez, Joey, you want half the museum to hear you?” A male voice said, from around the corner.

“Sorry, Matt.” Another voice said.

“Now don’t do that again or the guards will hear.”

“Did he just say what I think he said? Because that’s the Hall of Gems and…” Teresa whispered.

They crept to the corner and looked into the next room. Like the Hall of Meteorites, it was almost empty, except for the two men dressed like janitors opening a display case containing a large sapphire. Their backs were to the entrance, and one was placing a small metal box carefully into the plastic trash can on the cart between them. That must have been what he had dropped before.

I’m peeking around a corner with my best friend spying on jewel thieves. Since when is my life a Nancy Drew book?

“They are robbing the museum!” Kitty whispered. “There’s only two. We can take them.”

“Right!”

Matt, the taller thief, felt something suddenly slam into his back at high speed, knocking him to the floor.

“What the-” Dazed, he looked around, just in time to see Teresa grab one of the mops attached to the janitor’s cart and hit him on the head with the handle. That was the last thing he saw before he blacked out.

Joey, the other one, turned to see Kitty reaching for the trash can where he had hidden the diamonds under a layer of garbage.

“Oh, no you don’t, you little…” He tried to tackle Kitty, but found himself falling to the ground as she became intangible.

“@#%^! A ghost!” He shouted.

“Not quite.” She said, taking the mop from Teresa and repeating the process. “Go find a guard before they wake up.”

That wasn’t very hard at all, because the noise of the brief fight had echoed in the hallways, drawing the attention of a guard who shortly walked through the door.

“What’s going on in here?” The guard asked, looking at the open case and the unconscious thieves dressed as janitors.

“Well…” The girls both said, recounting the story, sans any mention of their superpowers.

A few minutes later, Kitty checked her watch “So, we still have an hour to kill, what do you say we celebrate by seeing a movie in the IMAX Theater? I hear they have that new one they shot in space onboard the shuttle.”

“Absolutely!”

April 16, 2006, 2:07 PM, Local Time

Those were the days.

“Do you really think we should go see it? I mean, Judy Resnik’s in it, remember?” Kitty asked.

“Look, she wouldn’t want us to do that. Anybody who goes into space knows they might not come back, Kitty.” Teresa said.

“You’re right.” Kitty said, nodding, as they walked back past the simulator floor. The girl with red hair was now skipping towards the Mission Control room, because it was her turn to be Flight Director.

So they bought tickets and found a seat in the theater behind another group of campers, midway up the seating. The whole theater smelled like popcorn, but they didn’t mind. The lights dimmed and everyone in the theater was silent.

The two friends counted down the launches, cheered at the touchdowns and laughed when the narrator, Walter Cronkite, said “Soon, we will begin to build a space station…”

And when the lights came up, they looked at each other and saw that both of them had misty eyes. But Teresa had kept her promise. She hadn’t cried.

“Hey, um, want to check out the lunar gravity simulator?” Teresa asked, standing up.

“You bet!”

The more things change, the more they stay the same…


Apollo On Food Stamps

May 16, 2006, 2:30 PM, Local Time, NASA Headquarters, Washington DC

Much had changed in the past few months, Teresa mused, as she sat outside the door of the Administrator’s Office. First of all, the skeleton plan that the president had outlined back in 2004 had been steadily filling itself in, gaining timetables and a name: Project Constellation.

Other names had appeared as well- the crew capsule would be called Orion, after the winter constellation, and the launch vehicles would be called Ares I and Ares V, after the Greek god of warfare, who the Romans had called Mars, officially because Mars was the program’s ultimate goal. Unofficially, employees half-joked, for the uphill battle that Constellation had faced getting support in Congress.

It was the Ares vehicles that were responsible for Teresa being where she was. The Rocketdyne company had sent her, along with a company big shot, to negotiate for the contract to build their engines. After all, their rivals at Quest Aerospace would be trying their hardest for the contract as well. Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the second way things had changed…

The room was mostly quiet, though they could hear muffled talking from the office and the song “Calling All Angels” by the band Train was faintly playing from somewhere.

“So,” The representative said, trying to kill time “What do you think of that whole thing in Stamford?”

He was talking about the disaster that had happened a few months before in Stamford, Connecticut. A battle between the superhero team the New Warriors and a group of supervillians had taken place near a school, and an explosion had killed sixty children playing nearby.

The incident had encouraged the government to pass the Superhuman Registration Act. All superheroes had to reveal their secret identities and sign up to become officially recognized law-enforcement agents. The defense agency SHIELD was dealing with those who chose not to comply.

Polite way to approach the subject, but I know darn well he’s only asking because I’m a mutant.

“Those poor kids. I feel bad for their families.” Teresa said, tersely.

“So, uh, did you register?”

She chuckled “What difference would it make if I did? My identity’s already public and I already work for the government. I don’t really have an opinion.”

This response clearly took the representative by surprise.

What people don’t get is that part of my life is over. I haven’t been a superhero since I graduated from Xavier’s in ’91. Just because I once knew all the big heroes, that doesn’t mean I still hang out with them. I hardly follow what’s going on with them, really. This- Orion, Constellation- is my life now.

“Come on, you must have an opinion. Whose side are you on? Who are you with?” He sounded a bit like a parent trying awkwardly to speak in youthful slang.

“I’m on Mike Griffin’s side. I’m with NASA.”

The representative opened his mouth to say something, but the sound of a secretary’s voice from inside the office caused him to pause:

“Maria Hill from SHIELD said she wants to talk to you. She’s going to call in five minutes. What should I tell her?”

“What should you tell her?” A man’s voice repeated, quietly, but with a hint of anger.

“Tell her that I’m fed up with her actions.” He spoke louder now, but still somewhat restrained. His tone could best be described as “passive-aggressive”.

“Is that Dr. Griffin speaking?” The representative whispered to Teresa.

“Yeah, I think so, but…”

“Tell her that my organization had enough budget troubles without all the money her precious registration act is siphoning away. While she’s running around locking up superheroes for no good reason, we’re hard at work trying to finish the station and put people on the moon."

"I am trying to run the equivalent of the Apollo Program on food stamps. Food stamps! This nation cannot adequately fund both Project Constellation and the Registration Act. Something must go. And as long as I’m in this office, it won’t be Constellation that goes, so help me!”

“Remember your blood pressure, sir.” The secretary cautioned. There was a mechanical beep, then, barely audible: “This is Director Hill now.”

“Tell her to wait. I’m busy seeing the Rocketdyne representatives.”

“Uh, Dr. Griffin’s in a meeting. Please hold.” The secretary said, gesturing for Teresa to enter.

“Did he just put the director of SHIELD on hold?” The representative whispered to Teresa.

“Sure looks that way.”

“That’s… impressive.”


Xenophobia

June 8, 2006, 5:03 PM, Local Time, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville

In the past few hours, Teresa had helped streamline the escape tower design for the Ares I, teleconferenced with officials at Lockheed Martin and found time to pop in on the graduation of the latest class of Space Campers.

It was a good day. She reflected, as she walked with some of her co-workers to the parking lot. It wasn’t that she needed to drive home- after sitting behind a desk all day, she needed the exercise- but she did like to crack a few jokes with the others and wish them good night. And since Hank McCoy had sent her that new microfiber speed suit and sneakers, she could really pour on the speed…

The people at Marshall were finally starting to feel like a team to Teresa, just like Scaled or the New Mutants. From one team that worked for the good of an apathetic world to another…

“Hey, look, the Director’s talking to a cop!” The black-haired engineer in front of Teresa, whose name was Francine, pointed out. Everybody turned to see where she was pointing.

A few parking spots away from where the crowd stood, the center’s director was indeed talking to a policeman, near his car. As Teresa moved closer, she could see that some of the paint had been scratched off on the hood and front passenger door.

It looks like some jerk keyed up his car. But why? Francine, who was closer to the vandalism, suddenly got a horrible look upon her face as she read what the culprit had written. Teresa couldn’t quite make it out, so she moved in closer...

There, on the door, in messy capital letters:

     DON'T HIRE MUTANTS

     NO PLACE FOR FREAKS

She gasped. Me. They did this because of… me.

I think I’m going to be sick.

The Director saw Teresa with her horrified expression and mirrored it.

“You- you shouldn’t have seen this. I’m sorry… every town has a few bad eggs, much as most of us here pride ourselves on being modern. This city’s immensely grateful to your family, and-”

“You don’t have to apologize, it’s not like you did it.” Teresa managed to stutter out.

Whoever did this- whoever did this probably lives here, just a car ride from Birmingham and all those other sites from the Civil Rights Movement, but they still… still…

“We’re checking the security cameras. Everything’s going to be okay, the police can send a squad car to your apartment if you’re worried.”

I must stay calm. Professor X always told us never to let things like this get to us.

“Thank you, but I think I can handle myself and I don’t want to put a drain on the police.” Teresa said, turning to leave.

“You sure? Sure you’ll be okay?” Francine asked, gently grabbing her shoulder in a concerned way. On her face was a slightly worried smile.

And that kind gesture, more than the previous ugly one, was what Teresa would remember from that day. Just like on her old teams, there were enemies. But, just like before, she had friends to help her face them.

“Yeah. I think I’m going to be just fine.”


Resolution 5A

August 23, 2006, 10:29 PM, Local Time

Teresa sat on her bed, anxious. She looked down at the scar on her left hand that she’d gotten in a freak zucchini accident when she was six. (Don’t ask.) When she could bear it no longer, called Kitty on the phone by the side of the bed. Her friend picked up by the fourth ring.

“So, they’ve already made the decision, right?”

“Yeah, it’s already done. They’re going to announce the decision tomorrow morning. We always knew it could happen. Especially since that whole mess with the Museum of Natural History back in 2000.”

“I know, they’ve been debating it for years, but I never thought anything would come of it, Tessa. After all, last time they voted not to. But this time, they’re really going to do it.”

“Yeah, it looks like they’re really serious about it this time. But we’ll know by tomorrow. It’s going to be so hard getting to sleep tonight.”

“It’s really only a semantic difference, nothing will really change. It doesn’t really matter at all. I keep telling myself that, but I feel as if I’m waiting for some horrible storm to break. It’s for the better, though. He’ll be in a better place now, with his own kind. He never did fit in, not even in our day.”

“These are his last hours as he is now, then. Well, then, we should embrace change, shouldn’t we? It is for the better. As mutants, we should know that better than anyone. Bye, Tessa.”

“Bye, Kitty.” She hung up and fell back on her bed, trying to sleep. Somehow, after a lot of tossing and turning, it came. Before Teresa knew, it was morning, and the phone was ringing.

Remembering the previous night, she picked it up hesitantly.

“That you, Kitty?”

“Yup. Turn on the TV.”

She did, and saw the newscaster announcing the decision that had been made the previous day.

“So that’s it, then. They changed him yesterday, Tessa. They’ve finally gone and done it.”

“Yes, they have. Yes, they have. They’ve gone and demoted Pluto to a dwarf planet. But we’re going to accept it, remember? Change is the essence of science.” Teresa said, her voice shaking.


Back to Mojave

July 27, 2007, 6:34 AM, Local Time, Huntsville, Alabama

The summer morning was clear and sunny as Teresa sat in the diner, looking out the window. It would be absolutely scorching by mid-day, that was certain, but for now the heat was manageable.

And thank goodness I’ll be in my nice, air-conditioned office by then. You’d think I’d be used to the humidity after working here for three years, but I’m not.

Eh, it’s a nice enough place otherwise. “Sweet home Alabama, where the spaceships are built new…” She thought, alternating bites of raspberry muffin with sips of tea.

Behind the counter, the waitress turned the dial on the scratchy radio, trying to find the news station. There was an item about a flood in the UK, another one about an award being given to the Australian super-team the Iron Alliance, and still another about a gene therapy study the Food and Drug Administration was conducting. Teresa half-listened, finishing her muffin.

“In other news, three people were killed and three more injured in an explosion at an airport in the California desert yesterday.”

What?!?!

Now calm down, Tessa, they didn’t say Mojave…

“According to Tony Diffenbaugh of the Kern County Fire Department, two of the victims died immediately in the blast, while the third succumbed to his injuries at the hospital.

‘Our units arrived on the scene at a remote test site in the northeast portion of the airport. What they found was six victims of an apparent explosion with various traumatic and burn injuries,’ Diffenbaugh said.”

Mojave is Kern Country! Remote test site… Please don’t be Scaled, please don’t be Scaled, please don’t be Scaled, please don’t be-

“The blast occurred on Thursday at 2:34 p.m. PDT (UTC-7) while Scaled Composites was conducting cold flow tests of a rocket engine. Scaled Composites is in a partnership with Richard Branson's company Virgin Galactic to build SpaceShipTwo, which hopes to become the first commercially available passenger space tourism…”

“No!” She shouted, choking on the word. The other patrons turned to look at her. Most people in town worked in the aerospace industry, to be sure, but that reaction still seemed a bit intense…

There was a loud whoosh, and the waitress at the counter turned to see a blurred figure speeding out the door. A few dollar bills were lying on the table where Teresa had been sitting.

July 29, 2007, 12:00 Noon local time, Mojave, California

It was high noon in the western town, but showdowns were the last thing on Teresa’s mind as she walked through the airport gates for the first time in years, headed for the hangar.

What are they going to say when they see me? Hopefully, anything but “Look, there’s the girl who sold out and went to work for the Feds.”

The door was open, and she slipped inside. Nobody seemed to be around.

“I should have been here on Thursday. I could have saved them, I could have done something.” Teresa said, somewhat loudly. It echoed against the metal walls, hopefully to where the three dead workers could hear it.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” A familiar voice said from behind her. Teresa turned around to look at her mentor. He didn’t look as if he’d gotten much sleep in the days since the accident.

“I shouldn’t have left, Burt! Maybe I could have run in and pushed one of the guys out of the way of the shrapnel, I don’t know! And now, I never can know!” She shouted, frustrated. Her eyes were starting to tear up.

“Yes, but- if we’re playing ‘what if’- you might have been killed as well. None of us knew about the faulty valve. You were doing your job down in Alabama; don’t beat yourself up over not having been here.” Rutan told her. “And before you say anything else, yes, we have checked all the other equipment for similar flaws.”

“Will-will this affect SpaceShipTwo?”

“At this point, I’m not sure, frankly.” He sighed. “So, what’s new at NASA? I’ve been following that moon program of yours. You’re using separate launch vehicles for the crew and the lander, I read.” He changed the subject, hoping to cheer her up.

“Yeah, see, the crew go up in a capsule on the Ares I, their stuff goes up on the Ares V, and they rendezvous in Earth orbit.”

“The ultimate in packing. Very innovative… I can guess who thought it up!”

“I can’t take credit. Some other people were suggesting the same thing. How about you guys?”

“Fossett’s going to try and set a land speed record some time in the fall. Maybe you could show up and make it a race.” Steve Fossett was an adventurer friend of the company, an entrepreneur who spent his free time trying to break world records, and Scaled had built an aircraft he’d used to circumnavigate the world a few years earlier.

“Somehow, I doubt the Guinness folks would appreciate that.” Teresa said, laughing.

“Well, come anyway! I’m sure Steve wouldn’t mind the moral support. You’re part of the Scaled family now.”

“I hear SpaceShipOne’s on display at the Smithsonian now. How’s that feel?”

“Seeing it right next to the Spirit of St. Louis is certainly something. And it’s pretty close to the Voyager- your old favorite.”

“Yeah, the Voyager


Anniversary Day

November 5, 1986, 3: 39 PM, Xavier Institute for Higher Learning

Teresa lay on her bed in the room she shared with Kitty, reading her Popular Science magazine. It was mail day, and she had rushed to the front door as soon as the mailman had rung the doorbell. She was still wearing her black memorial armband, and it could be seen on her upper-left arm as she turned the pages of the magazine. Not having space shuttle flights to follow made her feel odd and sort of empty.

There was a short piece near the front of the magazine about Robert Goddard. Goddard was an American scientist who had been born in Massachusetts in 1882. As a child, he had been fascinated by both science fiction stories and the fireworks his family set off on the Fourth of July.

When he was a teenager, a local newspaper had serialized War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells’ classic novel about hostile Martians invading Earth. Not long after, Goddard was told by his parents to climb an old cherry tree and prune off dead branches. He had climbed the tree, but started daydreaming instead, thinking about how wonderful it would be to build his own vehicle capable of flying to Mars.

aving read that section, Teresa turned to the first of the main articles. A large picture of a white airplane, essentially a single thin wing interrupted by a cockpit and twin tail booms, greeted her eye.

What a strange-looking plane.

The Voyager is a unique aircraft purpose-built to complete only one task: to fly around the world nonstop without refueling. Largely built of fiberglass, reinforced carbon and Kevlar, Voyager was built and tested over the course of five years in Mojave, California by volunteers working for a company called-appropriately enough- Voyager Aircraft.

Sometime next month, Voyager will take off from Edwards Air Force Base in California for its attempt at circumnavigating the world. The pilots will be Jeana Yeager (No relation to Chuck) and Richard Rutan, whose brother, Burt, was Voyager’s principal designer.

Around the world in a plane that’s not even made of metal? That’s so crazy that- that-

That I can’t miss it. I’m totally going to follow this. They sure broke the mold when they made that Burt Rutan guy.

Of course, you could say the same for everybody at this school…

Maybe he’d understand us. That’s a crazy thing to say. Hardly anybody understands mutants. But then, hardly anybody would build a plane out of Kevlar…

The magazine printed the address of these Voyager Aircraft guys so you can send fan mail, hmmm…

he found a pencil and some paper and started writing.

Dear Mr. Rutan, I am a high school student who is very interested in aviation. I read the article about your Voyager airplane in the November issue of Popular Science and am writing to request further information about the plane itself and its upcoming flight…

he’d gotten a response, which had led to other letters, including one, shortly before graduation, asking for a job, but that was all in the future at this point.


Missing!

September 4, 2007, 4:12 PM Local time, Marshall Space Flight Center, Alabama

The small metal model of the Ares I stood on its steel pedestal, facing into the cold wind. Dye swirled through the air, flowing over the surface of the object in a strangely beautiful manner.

utside, Teresa and her co-workers peered through a window, watching what was going on inside of the wind tunnel with great pride. Their design was holding up well in the simulation.

Maximum strength and it’s doing fine. Tell Francine to turn it down. We’ve got all the data we need for today.” One of the senior workers ordered. Teresa volunteered and hurried towards the control room, reminding herself to keep at a normal human’s jogging speed. The janitor had gotten so angry last time, and all over just a few little scorch marks on the tiles.

he was halfway down the hall when another worker saw her go past and stuck his head out of a door to yell.

Hey, Tessa! You’ve got a phone call! From Nevada!

he stopped in her tracks. Nevada? I don’t know anyone in Nevada.

Do I?

Are you sure it’s for me?” She asked.

Yeah, and the guy on the other end sounds pretty shaken up.

That doesn’t sound good…

he took the phone. “Hello. Who is this?

Tessa? Thank god, this is Mike, from Scaled.

Why are you in Nevada? Does this have to do with that land speed record attempt Steve Fossett’s doing?

Yes. Fossett’s car is here, and they were going to start tests around here soon.

Were? What do you mean, were?” She asked, feeling a wave of cold worry wash over her. Sometimes there’s nothing more frightening than the past tense.

Fossett took off from this ranch in one of his planes for a joyride yesterday morning, just to unwind. He didn’t come back. The people at the ranch were searching all night. They called Burt at about two this morning.

Why? First that explosion and now this! Does fate have it out for Scaled or something?

We need your help. You have experience in rescuing people, after all. Branson says he isn’t worried, but you know, if he’s in trouble...

Yeah, he can take care of himself, but… just in case… I’ll do everything I can. ‘Bye.

Teresa turned to her co-worker. “Tell the boss I won’t be in tomorrow. I’m taking some vacation days.

September 10, 2007, 7:47 PM Local time, somewhere in the Nevada desert

he sun was slipping below the rugged mountains, the orange-red glow making a landscape that could already pass for Mars even more alien in appearance. Soon the area would be left in cold darkness.

Teresa didn’t look at the sunset as she blazed up the steep slope, sending small rocks and sandy soil flying behind her, catching the fading light. For anyone else, it would have been a hard hike, taking hours. But she stood at the summit within minutes, opening her backpack and pulling out much needed water and high-energy rations. Desert dust covered her orange-and-white microfiber suit.

That’s it, tear the wrapper… oh, it tastes so good. I have to get some carbs back into me; I’ve been going supersonic for hours, ‘same as yesterday. And the day before…

he had been in Nevada for almost a week now, searching for any trace of the downed plane, but without success. Searchers kept pouring in, and satellite imagery of the area was being posted online with the hopes that somebody would spot Fossett, yet morale was starting to decline.

I haven’t run this hard since my days at Xavier’s. I must have set a few personal distance records today, probably endurance records, too.

Teresa lifted her binoculars and scanned the area for wreckage. Sand and rock seemed to stretch on forever in all directions. They had found several other planes in their search, some that had crashed decades ago, but none related to the disappearance.

Nothing. Once again, nothing. I’m trying my hardest, but we can’t find any trace of Fossett! I’m superhuman, but I’m just one person, I can’t do all of this on my own-

he felt her eyes becoming slightly misty.

-then I’ll get help. If I do a big cry now, I’ll only dehydrate myself.

he pulled out her satellite phone and dialed the number for the Xavier Institute. It rang a few times before she heard Hank McCoy’s familiar voice answer. After answering her teacher’s many questions about how she was doing and thanking him for the suit, Teresa requested to speak to Scott Summers, alias Cyclops, the field leader of the X-Men.

Hello, Scott?

Glad to hear from you, X-1. How have things been since you left? I hear you’re working for NASA now.” He said “left” as a person might say “robbed” or “cheated”

Codenames. He always uses codenames.

Just Tessa, please. I’m in Nevada right now, with the group that’s looking for Steve Fossett- I’m sure you’ve heard about it on the news. But we’re stretched to our limits and we really need help. The terrain’s much rougher than we thought it would be.

I’m sure it’s very rough, X-1, but the team’s too busy to come look for a missing pilot right now. I apologize, but-

Again with the codenames. Professionalism is one thing, but I’m asking him as a friend!

You don’t have to send the whole team, just a few people would really help. Peter, he can hike for a long time without stopping, Ororo, she’s experienced in the desert, or maybe Logan, nobody’s a better tracker than he is. Any of them, please.

We really can’t spare anyone. Good bye.” A click.

Scott, I’m begging you! Things-things must have really changed since I was an X-Man, then. Because I thought being in the X-Men was about helping people, no matter what!” Teresa shouted. There was only silence. Scott had hung up.

ingers shaking, Teresa dialed the number for Avengers Headquarters.

Hello, Avengers Tower? I need to speak to Iron Man.

And who, may I ask, is calling?” It was a woman’s voice, and she sounded quite stressed.

Doctor Teresa von Braun. I’m with NASA and I really need to talk to him. It’s very serious.

That’s not a lie. I do work for NASA and this is something serious. The two just happen to be completely unconnected.

Right, then, I’ll get him. Mister Stark, sir!

here was some muffled talking away from the receiver before Stark finally picked up.

Hello. What seems to be the problem?

I’m sure you’ve heard of Steve Fossett’s disappearance, Mr. Stark. The searchers are having a lot of trouble with the rough terrain and we really could use some help.

Look, Miss, with reinforcing the Registration Act and all, I’m afraid the Avengers are busy. So is SHIELD.

No! I will not let it end like this! I won’t take no for an answer!

You do some of that World Record stuff yourself, don’t you? In fact, I think I remember you were one of the biggest competitors for that solo-no-refueling circumnavigation a few years back, weren’t you?

I was, until this Civil War business. But what does that have to do with anything?

You know darn well what it has to do with this.

If you’d gotten lost on one of your world-record attempts without your armor, you’d want the Avengers to come look for you, right?

What I would want in a hypothetical scenario is not the same as what the Avengers are able do in reality, Doctor. Good bye.” Another click.

They’re all so busy fighting other superheroes that they can’t even help a person in distress. Isn’t that what superheroes are supposed to do?

he picked up the binoculars again and resumed searching.


Samaritan Syndrome

October 15, 2007, 3:27 PM

In the airport, Teresa watched the TV screen in the lounge as she waited for her flight back home. They were replaying the interview that Richard Branson had given earlier that day.

Do you think there’s still a chance your friend will be found alive? You wrote that ‘retrospective’ piece for Time.” The interviewer, Karen Tockman, had asked.

I’ve pretty well given up hope. I think the chances are that he’s no longer with us. The authorities out in the southwest that I’ve talked to feel the same.

And it was that simple.

Once again, for all my supposed power, I was helpless. For once, I was in the right place at the right time, and I still couldn’t make a difference!

I couldn’t save Doug Ramsey. I couldn’t save Judy Resnik. I couldn’t save the crew of Columbia. I couldn’t save those guys in Mojave.

And now, it looks like I couldn’t even save Steve Fossett.

Somebody gave this situation a name, didn’t they? Samaritan Syndrome, like that guy in the comic Astro City who was always hurrying to rescue somebody because he couldn’t stand to see anyone suffer? But at least The Samaritan saved Challenger in HIS reality!

Teresa made her right hand into a fist, and started to move it downward, to punch her other hand out of frustration. But she stopped in mid-punch.

Wait, am I getting steamed about my life not being like a comic book? Artists can do whatever they want, have things happen any way they want, art is about imagination. Anything can happen in fiction.

This is reality. No re-dos, no reset button to press. We can’t turn our pencil over and erase all that’s happened in an instant.

Just people doing the best they can.

I can play “what if” all I like, and even if such a world actually exists, like in Alternate Reality books, I’ll never see it.

I have to live in this world, just like everybody else. I can think about the past, but from now on, I’m not going to gripe about it. My job is to make the future, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Oceanic Airlines Flight 714 to Memphis, now boarding.

Teresa stood up, shouldered her backpack, and walked to the gate.

One year later, Steve Fossett’s remains would be discovered miles from where anyone had been searching.

Investigators determined that he had been killed instantly by the crash. There was no chance of rescue.


The Year of the Spaceship

January 23, 2008, 10:50AM, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville

t was incredible, inspiring and a public relations dream. Seven months after the accident in Mojave and five months after Steve Fossett’s disappearance, Virgin Galactic was going to reveal the final plans for SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo in a big, televised event in New York City.

Teresa and some of her coworkers were gathered around her work computer, trying to watch NBC’s live feed, but so many people were viewing the page that the video was stopping and starting annoyingly.

I don’t know how you find the time to check up on what all these private companies are doing. I mean, I know you worked for them, Tessa, but that was four years ago...” Joel, one of the older members of the team, said.

There’s nothing wrong with keeping up with old friends. Why do you think people attend High School Reunions?” Francine defended.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with commitment to old friends, but when those old friends happen to be our competitors…

Competitors? Jeez, Joel, I think there’s enough room for everybody in space. I mean, those Virgin guys aren’t even going into orbit- right, Tessa?

Just a pop shot. Straight up, five minutes of weightlessness, then straight down.” She nodded. “Just like Alan Shepard.

I really have come full circle. To them, Scaled is Other. And with Joel, it’s not even necessarily in the “unconnected” sense… More like Us and Them.

Hey, look, they’re ready!” She pointed to the screen, where Rutan and Richard Branson were standing before a wavy metallic curtain.

Three!” Branson shouted, swinging his fist. They got ready to pull the curtain back.

Two!

One!” He looked over at his friend for a half a second, and then pulled.

large model of a white, two-cabined aircraft with the familiar one large wing was hanging from the ceiling, sporting blue and black detailing, especially on its twin tails. Carried underneath the plane in the same configuration Teresa remembered was a shiny, silver craft looking like SpaceShipOne scaled up with a pointier nose.

It looks so… Buck Rodgers. You can’t tell me that system doesn’t look cool, Joel.” Francine declared, as the two shook hands in the light of flashbulbs.

Eh, it’s okay. But will it be safe? That’s what I want to know. Griffin might trust those private guys, but I’m not so sure. Just look at what happened at their factory.” He said, full of contempt.

You’re cheesing me off. You won’t like me when I’m cheesed off.

It was the valve on some testing equipment that exploded; there wasn’t anything wrong with the spacecraft itself.” Teresa said, clearing her throat. On the screen, reporters were holding out microphones.

How ironic. Everybody criticizes us, if they care to think about us at all, and then he turns around and hates on Virgin Galactic. It’s not government vs. privates. Why can’t I support both? Like Francine said, there’s room for everybody in space.

We’re tremendously excited about the prospects for this system. We’re excited about everything it will be able to do.” Branson said. “Our first WhiteKnightTwo vehicle will be named The Spirit of Steve Fossett, after my dear friend, who, as you all know…

Teresa felt something in her throat.

Everything, everything they went through in this year, this, this… horrible, terrible year... I can’t think of any happier ending than this. Burt’s going to get his dream.

That’s so sweet. He didn’t live to see it, but, symbolically, it’s… wonderful.” Francine whispered.

omebody pointed another microphone at Rutan “We’re going to start construction of WhiteKnightTwo as soon as possible, with test flights as soon as the end of the year. And by next year, we hope to have SpaceShipTwo flying. This will be the year of the spaceship. We’ll be able to carry six passengers and two pilots.

he crowd in New York clapped. Teresa and Francine joined in. They shot Joel “don’t-be-a-killjoy” looks. Reluctantly, he began clapping along.

And as for safety-” Joel perked up at hearing that. “-I guarantee that SpaceShipTwo will be at least as safe as the airliners of the late ‘20s.

The ‘20s? Why not today?” he asked, drowning out what the reporter was saying.

vidently, though, they had asked something to the same effect, because Rutan responded.

That’s not a level of safety we’re comfortable with. Don’t believe anybody who tells you that the entry level of new spaceships will be as safe as the modern airliner…

HA!

… we’re aiming to be hundreds of times safer, and we won’t settle for less.

oel turned slightly red. “Uh, well… well, you won’t catch me riding in one of those spaceships they build in a cave with a box of scraps. And that’s all I’m going to say. They won’t even be official astronauts, will they? I mean, yeah, they’re flying over 62 miles and all, but-…

Yes. Yes, they will be official. They’ll be astronauts just as surely as anybody who ever flies on anything we’ll ever build. I mean, once you get into space, it doesn’t matter who sent you or where you’re from. You’re just a traveler from Earth.” Teresa said. “We’re all from Earth, we’re all flying into space, we’re all in this together.

All who fly up there, fly together.


A Dark Wind Blows

January 31, 2008, 1:03 PM, US Space and Rocket Center

Fifty years ago today, Explorer 1, the first United States satellite, had been launched into orbit, four months after Russia’s Sputnik. Explorer 1 had later discovered the Van Allen Radiation Belts surrounding the Earth. The Space and Rocket Center had chosen this most auspicious anniversary to hold the opening party for their new exhibit hall, the Davidson Center.

They finally restored that old Saturn V moon rocket that’s been lying outside, deteriorating for years, and now it’s in the new hall! “The Mighty Saturn”, they call it. Teresa thought, as she showed her pass to the guard at the door.

The other reason the event was a big deal was that it was the kick-off to the year-long celebrations of NASA’s 50th Anniversary. Somebody had even designed a spiffy logo combining a galaxy and an eclipse that Teresa and all the Marshall employees were wearing on black, long-sleeved shirts. She walked through the door and came face to face with the massive engines.

The rocket was hanging from the ceiling, supported by what must have been very strong steel cables, in separate stages. She could hardly see the people at its other end, more than 300 feet away. Even being so familiar with rockets, even having seen this very one when it was displayed outside; there was still something in Teresa that made her go.

Wow.” “Mighty” seemed an appropriate description indeed.

An older man noticed her expression. “Do you remember any of the landings? Or were you too young?” he asked.

Well, I sort of remember the last one, Apollo 17, but just bits and pieces. I wasn’t even two at the time.” Teresa said. Normally, she wouldn’t have been able to remember it at all, but Jean Grey, a telepathic instructor at Xavier’s, had done some mental probing.

Her parents had held her up, to see the two men in white suits bouncing around on the gray surface. They were in the Taurus-Littrow highlands and smooth gray hills rose behind the crew as they gathered rock samples.

Their names were Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan, and Schmitt was the first trained geologist on the moon, but she would learn all of this much later. At that moment, there were just the white-suited figures moving in that magical, dreamlike way.

She had made appreciative baby sounds.

There was a beep as Schmitt communicated with Mission Control on his headset: “’Never seen anything like this one. ‘Very strange color. ‘One for Doc Silver. I’m picking it up now-”

Teresa’s mother adjusted her grip on her daughter’s body. “I think she likes it, Peter.”

“Oooh, it’s so in-ter-est-ing!” Her father cooed, nodding…

“You’re lucky to remember it, then.” The man said, jarring Teresa out of the memory.

I guess so.” But it wasn’t really luck. Except maybe being lucky enough to meet Jean. She walked underneath the Saturn V to check out the exhibits on the other side. There was a display about her grandfather and his work with a nice engraved-glass portrait by the door.

It’s not the genes that make me a mutant that most people here care about. It’s the ones that make me Wernher von Braun’s granddaughter that they make a fuss over. Sort of like space nerd royalty or something, I guess. But sometimes I wonder if they think my ancestry is really more important than my mutation- or if it’s just what makes them ignore it?

Teresa shook off those thoughts. She was here to celebrate, after all! She looked her grandfather’s portrait in the eye.

We’re going back. We’re building the rockets right now. You’d be proud.” She whispered.

She had barely gotten the words out when she heard the sounds of breaking glass and screams. Teresa turned her head towards the noise, near the podium at the other end of the rocket.

A figure in dark blue armor that had just crashed through the glass wall was standing there. The eyeslits on the mask that covered the intruder’s face were glowing a sickly greeni.

Hey, what’s up with this?

This wasn’t in the event description.

Who is that guy? Some Iron Man pretender?

Single voices, easily picked out, because most people were silently staring just as Teresa was. The long moment hung in the air, full of tension, like the pause before a judge declares a victim’s guilt or innocence… and then it all happened at once.

The intruder thrust their arms towards the podium, creating what seemed like a sudden gale, blasting the podium against the wall, where it splintered into toothpicks. They followed with another wind gust, knocking over the tables and chairs under the Saturn V that had been set up for the guests.

Guests and employees screamed, rushing for the doors. Only Teresa and a few guards ran in the opposite direction, towards the mysterious armored vandal. He let loose yet another blast, knocking a chair into a plastic model of the moon rocket, which went falling towards the floor.

Accelerating, Teresa reached the rocket model as it fell and lifted up her hands to catch onto it, straining from the weight as she lowered it more slowly to the ground.

At least I don’t have to lift the real one, knock on wood. Now I wish I’d brought my suit.

Stop! This is government property!” One of the guards shouted, as a group charged the culprit.

”Stop? Not until they’ve all paid!” The villain shouted, in a computerized voice, propelling a table at the guards and knocking them halfway across the large room. “Fear the power of Darkwind!”

Darkwind, ‘cause he’s a villain who controls wind? Lame. But then, psychos aren’t known for their creativity.

As Darkwind continued his rampage, Teresa sped across the ever-changing landscape towards him, jumping over overturned tables and sometimes on debris in mid-slide.

If he wrecks any of our displays about Constellation, I’m gonna be so ticked…

When she got close enough, Teresa let loose, punching the villain in the back three times before he could respond.

Ouch! No matter how many times I do it, hitting metal never hurts any less!

I should count my blessings- punching metal at that speed would have broken an ordinary person’s bones.

She paused briefly to examine the dents she had made.

Not briefly enough. Darkwind unleashed a wind blast, knocking her back.

Blast it! ‘Shouldn’t have paused! Stupid, stupid, stupid!

Darkwind threw a small object to the ground. Before anyone could react, a horrible-smelling smoke filled the air.

Hurrying to her feet, Teresa squinted, trying to see through the gas, but it was hopeless. By the time it had cleared, the only sign of the villain was several black cards scattered across the floor.

And now the wacko’s gotten away. Bloody-

The cards were about the same size as Pokémon cards, but when Teresa turned one over she was greeted not by a cute Japanese monster but the words “Happy Anniversary” written in blood-red letters. The background looked like a painting of an exploding planet.

People were running over now, calling her brave, looking at the cards. One of the Marshall officials stared at the image on the card for a very long time.

“The police need all of these for evidence.” A security guard reminded him.

Oh, here you go. It just… well, it just looked sort of familiar.” The official responded. “Probably nothing.”


A Request

February 15, 2008, 12:24 PM, Marshall Space Flight Center

Teresa held one of the “Happy Anniversary” cards down to the surface of her desk, examining it with a magnifying glass. If she could just find some trace of an artist’s signature, it might help them find more information about the creep who had called himself Darkwind. The salad she had gotten for lunch lay next to her, untouched.

She went slowly. Two weeks of badgering had finally gotten the police to let her examine one of the cards, and she wasn’t going to blow it. But so far, she hadn’t found anything new. There were some smudgy letters along the side, but they didn’t seem to spell out a name. She couldn’t really make out what the letters said, although it looked sort of like AISP or AIBP.

Give it up, Tessa, you’re not going to find anything the police couldn’t. You’ve been going on and on about this for two weeks now.” Francine said, hovering over her desk.

Teresa looked up to meet her gaze. “Maybe you’re right. So what should we talk about?”

“Um…” Francine suddenly realized she hadn’t thought that far ahead. “Well… uh… are you following any of that election stuff? Any ideas on who you might vote for?”

“Not really. None of the candidates have said what they think of Constellation yet. There’s still a long, long way until election day.” Teresa responded. She wasn’t really into politics.

“Hey, Tessa, the Director wants to see you in his office.” Another worker said, sticking their head through the door.

“What? Oh, sure thing!” She pushed in her swivel chair and hurried out the door, keeping at a janitor-friendly speed.

I know I should be focusing on my work, but it really does bother me that I’m a rocket scientist and I still don’t have a clue as to who that guy was. She mused.

She entered the director’s office somewhat cautiously. This was only about the fifth time she’d actually been inside it since starting her job at Marshall. Framed photographs, both color and black and white, and mostly from the Apollo-era, decorated the walls. Her grandfather’s face stared back confidently from some of them.

Take a seat. I don’t remember the last time I received this much e-mail. The reporters don’t care we’re going back to the moon, but when a supervillian attacks us, they jump all over it. And that construction company, Damage Control? You would not believe now much they charge…” The director sighed.

“Is that why you called me in here? I mean, does it have to do with…” Teresa trailed off.

“…With what happened in the Davidson Center?” He finished. “It does. The police found out that our mysterious friend was wearing a prototype powered armor called the Windburn suit, recently developed for SHIELD for use by their Superhuman Restraint Units.

“It vanished during transit from Stark Industries about three weeks before the incident here. Unfortunately, the details of the suit are classified and intragovernmental sharing of information is not what it should be, so we don’t expect to find out if it has any weaknesses any time soon.”

SHIELD tech? I was beating myself up over not catching him before, but if that suit was really designed to take on superhuman criminals, maybe I should be thankful that I escaped with my life!

“Had they run into him before? Did he commit any other crimes before this?”

“No. Nobody had heard of him before the attack. Between that and the cards, it seems like-”

“-Like he’s targeting NASA specifically!” Teresa gasped.

“Exactly. And Administrator Griffin is worried that he might show up at the next big anniversary event, in Houston on April 12th. The anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight.”

Yuri Gagarin, as Teresa knew very well, was the Russian cosmonaut who had become the first person to travel into outer space in 1961. April 12, or Yuri’s Night, was a popular time for parties among the more hip nerdish portion of society.

“And because of that, considering your, um… abilities, Dr. Griffin has informed me that he would like you to attend in a sort of- what words did he use…‘official troubleshooter capacity’, yes, that’s it…”

“Are you saying… are you saying Griffin wants me to superhero for the Program?” Teresa stuttered, stunned. “I mean, I work for this agency and I’m prepared to help and defend it in any way I can, but I’m really just an engineer, sir. I’m not a superhero.”

It’s not that I don’t want to- I just don’t want this to become a permanent thing. In isolated circumstances like this, or with that hurricane, sure, but my real job is here, designing Constellation.

I do not want to go around saving crashing planes and spaceships when I could build planes and spaceships so that they won’t crash in the first place.

“It’s not like that at all. This is only until this Darkwind character is caught. Your job description is going to stay ‘engineer’ unless you want it otherwise.”

“You’re sure about that?”

“Yes. I know how important this is to you. So, what do you say?” The director reached out his hand for Teresa to shake.

“Right then. You’ve got yourself an official troubleshooter.” She shook his hand.


Panic in the Park

April 12, 2008, 7:52 AM, Challenger Memorial Park, Houston, Texas

A white-armored Imperial Stormtrooper addressed a red-shirted Starfleet ensign.

“So, I give you ten to one somebody’s going to get superpowers from that Large Hadron Collider thing they’re building in Geneva…”

They both broke into peals of laughter.

Several other people dressed in costumes stood around for pictures with the crowds who had showed up for the 5K run that would kick off Houston’s celebration of Yuri’s Night.

I wonder if that guy’s in the 501st? It would be soooo cool if they had a whole troop at the Space Center party tonight. Teresa thought, remembering what she’d heard about the group of Star Wars fans known as the 501st Legion who dressed up like the villains of the film series for charity events.

She was wearing a costume of sorts- her speed suit, plus a white motorcycle helmet she’d bought the day before for disguise purposes and quickly decorated with some orange paint so it would match. All the better for Darkwind not to recognize her with.

A few little kids ran past her, towards a blow-up astronaut balloon. Their parents shouted after them to save their energy for the race. A nearby speaker delivered the sounds of a band elsewhere in the park starting up their next song, Donald Fagen’s IGY.

Everything seemed calm, but there was a slight tenseness that could be felt, hanging over the event. The people who worked at the Johnson Space Center knew about the brass’ fears, and they’d probably told their friends, who had told their friends.

Teresa kept walking, scanning for any sign of anything out of the ordinary. If Darkwind was also disguised, she might have no change of preempting his attack.

A man in a red costume that looked something like knight’s armor was cradling a helmet under his arm while talking on a sat phone.

“I’m Yuri’s Knight, get it?” He asked whoever was on the other end.

A crowd was gathered around a booth where people could sign up for a raffle to fly on a “Vomit Comet” jet. The jet would fly straight up and straight down in parabolic arcs, giving those inside a feeling of weightlessness for several minutes. Of course, there was a reason the plane was called the “Vomit Comet”… many passengers became airsick during the experience.

The next booth down had prints of photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope. She stepped inside to look at them. A salesperson was talking to a client about some posters.

That’s the famous dust pillars of the Eagle Nebula, and here’s the Sombrero Galaxy. Oh, and this one is the Tiger Moth Nebula, M111.

Attention, runners, the 5 kilometer run will begin in five minutes.” A voice announced over the loudspeakers, interrupting the song. “The race will begin in five m-” a loud burst of radio static drowned out the last part of the announcement.

Instinctively, Teresa knew something was wrong. She whipped out her pocket map to find out where the stage was, just as a familiar, synthesized voice boomed through the loudspeakers.

Hello, Houston. You’re the ones with the problem now. Happy Anniversary! Mbwahahaha!

I’ve got to stop him before he hurts somebody- and if he keeps making puns like that, it’s inevitable!

She raced toward the stage, accelerating down the path that had been cleared for the race.

The loudspeaker controls were near the stage in a white tent. Teresa could see Darkwind holding the microphone with some organizers cowering in fear behind him. The cord between the microphone and the speakers snaked across the grass, giving her an idea.

Revenge will be mi-” the villain bellowed into the microphone, the speakers failing to transmit the last syllable of “mine”. He tapped it with an armored finger.

No change. The problem wasn’t the microphone itself.

Blasting through the tent in frustration, Darkwind found the unconnected cable near the edge of the stage, which the frightened musicians had recently vacated. From her hiding place behind one of the large speakers, Teresa watched him get into position.

Now!

Using all her strength, she rammed the heavy speaker, sending it off the stage in Darkwind’s direction. She took a deep breath, sighing from the effort.

‘Good to know I haven’t lost my tou-

At that moment, a full-force wind blast tore into the platform, splintering the boards and sending equipment everywhere. Teresa just managed to leap off in time and catch some flying nails that had been headed in the direction of the crowd.

Thought you could win by being sneaky, did you? I shouldn’t have expected anything else from you backstabbers!” Despite the mask, Teresa could tell that he was glaring at her as he said these words, punctuated by another blast that sent more nails and sharp splinters in her direction.

Look, buddy, I don’t know what you have against NASA, but you can’t go around attacking gatherings of innocent people like this!” She dodged, running away from the stage and booths.

‘Got to get him away from the visitors. And then I’ll… then I’ll… uh…I’ll think of something!

Behind her, Darkwind crashed through trees and bushes, blasting those that were especially annoying.

He must have some sort of strength enhancer in the suit, because it’s got to be heavy and he’s still moving like that- plus the fact that the heavy speaker hardly slowed him down. But he can’t fly, or he’d be flying after me right now, he wouldn’t waste time running.

(A wind-based supersuit that can't fly? Lame.)

Dodging flying debris left and right, Teresa briefly found some shelter behind a large sign displaying a map of the park.

So I’m here, and that path goes to the pond… perfect!

Hey, bozo! Catch me if you can!” She shouted, darting out from behind the sign and racing in the direction of the pond.

Ah, wetlands.

She stopped near the water’s edge, waiting for Darkwind to approach.

They’re good for the environment-

He advanced towards her, until the swampy ground gave way under his heavily armored feet.

-And also for stopping armored supervillians!

Darkwind took another slogging step before realizing the deception.

You think you’re so smart, do you?” He pulled out what looked like several of the gas grenades that he had used in the Davidson Center and activated them.

I’m not going to fall for that trick twice, buster… Teresa charged into the smoke, although she couldn’t see anything.

Out of the smoke, a wind blast hit her face-on. It felt as if she had run straight into a wall at her top speed. Everything went black.

Pathetic. And you all call yourselves rocket scientists.” Darkwind’s synthesized voice came, from somewhere behind the smoke.

By the time Teresa came to, both the smoke and the villain were long gone. More of the cards from before were scattered around. Her helmet was cracked and she had a nasty bruise underneath.

He got away again. I was stupid, I never even considered that he might do something like that.

Look at me, I’m lying on the ground bruised all over and dressed like a Power Ranger. I did this stuff back when I was a teenager. There’s a certain kind of person who can do these things their whole life, a specific mindset.

And I realized a long time ago that I’m not that kind of person. So I left. Got a degree.

Which begs the question-

What am I doing here?


Council of War

June 12, 2008, 2:05 PM, Marshall Space Flight Center

“You see that concession speech Hillary Clinton made?” Francine asked, as she and Teresa walked to the director’s office. Teresa nodded slowly and walked faster, not wanting to get into a political discussion.

I’d rather leave walking down hallways debating politics to the characters from The West Wing.

“Isn’t it so cool how she said she wanted to be an astronaut when she was a kid? Who’d have thought she used to be a nerd girl just like us?” Francine continued.

“Yeah, it’s cool. What exactly did the director say he wanted to see me about, anyway?”

“He just said it was really important. I think it has to do with that whole… thing in Houston.” Darkwind’s attack in Challenger Park had been all over the news, and it was still something Teresa didn’t enjoy talking about.

Teresa pulled open the door and walked in. The director looked even grimmer than the last time she had come to see him.

“The bad press that whole debacle in Houston is giving our organization is unbelievable. Simply unbelievable. Editorials asking how we expect to keep astronauts safe in space when we can’t protect our own organized events on Earth.” He looked as if he had a bad taste in his mouth.

“Was that what you wanted to tell me, sir?”

“No, that wasn’t it. The one bright spot in all this is that SHIELD finally gave us the plans for this Windburn suit, and, as it turns out, it does have one very significant weakness. The prototype that our little friend stole hadn’t undergone weatherproofing yet, so it’s extremely sensitive to temperature. Get the suit cold enough, and it becomes useless. The joints freeze, the electronics shut down, everything.”

It’s that simple? All this time, it’s that simple? I got beat up twice by a guy I could have defeated by locking in a freezer? Razzle frazzle…

“So if I had some sort of weapon shooting liquid nitrogen or something, I could beat him?”

“Apparently. But that’s not all. We also have some idea of where he might strike next. Hey, I kind of like this superhero briefing stuff. I feel like that boss lady from James Bond.”

Teresa looked at him. “Superhero?”

“Sorry, troubleshooter. Anyway, since Darkwind’s goal seems to be ruining the agency’s anniversary celebrations, he’ll probably be at the biggest celebration of all, the Smithsonian Gala in September. If you were there with a cold-based weapon, do you feel that you’d have a chance?”

Teresa was unsure. She flashed back to lying bruised in Houston two months before.

But this time, I have an advantage. I have information about him and information is one of the most powerful weapons of all.

“I’ll be there.” She said. “In addition to all of that sleuthing, did you by any chance find out anything else about who he might actually be?” She added, hopeful.

“No. That painting on his cards looks somewhat familiar, but…”

“Do the letters AISP mean anything to you?” Teresa asked, remembering the smudged writing. “Something something space project? All the programs have official artists, right, people to do conceptions and stuff like that?”

“Yeah, back in the eighties, we even had that artist in space program thing. Before, well, you know…”

“That’s it! Artist In Space Program- AISP! What if the painting was made by one of the candidates in the program?”

“It’s certainly a possibility, but I what would that have to do with Darkwind?”

Whoops. Not everybody thinks as fast as I do…

“Okay, so suppose there’s a painter who submitted the painting. Our committee likes it and makes him a finalist for the spaceflight. Maybe he even does the astronaut training. But then all the civilian programs get canceled for safety reasons. So the guy doesn’t get to fly into space. He gets mad. He loses it.”

“I see where you’re going. He blames NASA and plots this whole thing… So help me, Tessa, I’m going to find out who this guy is by the time of the gala, mark my words.”


One Last Rocket

July 19, 2008, 3:20 PM

Teresa pulled the cardboard box down from the shelf in her bedroom, blowing off the dust. Her mementoes from her time with the New Mutants lay inside. Somehow, she felt the need to look at them again, now that she was preparing to face a supervillian.

She set the box down on her bed, opening it up. Atop the pile was a small object wrapped in old newspapers. She unwrapped it carefully, looking at the white body, the foam-board fins, the plastic nose cone. And, most of all, the multicolored signatures that covered it.

A reminder of the day she had left the mansion.

April 3, 1991, 7:29 AM, Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, New York

The sunlight streamed in through the windows of the Headmaster’s office, turning everything golden. Teresa sat, facing Professor Xavier. Most of her teammates were “graduating” today, joining the main X-Men team or Cable’s X-Force. But not Teresa.

“I see you’ve packed your things. When does your train leave?” Xavier asked, looking her in the eyes.

“Not until four. I’m going to spend the night in New York before flying to California.” She responded. “Are you sure you’re fine with this, sir?”

“You were a devoted member of this team for eight years. If you want to move on now, that’s perfectly alright. I’m proud of you for having the courage to admit that.”

“I’m glad you understand. I really want to thank you for everything. For forming the team, for the training- I met so many people, I had so many experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise.” They weren’t all pleasant, but still… “Thank you.” She got up and headed for the door. There was one last bit of packing to arrange.

The dorm room felt empty with her various posters and photographs taken down. Kitty was inside, as she’d expected, holding the folder that contained The Autograph Project.

“So it’s settled, then? You’re leaving?” Kitty asked. “You’re sure?

“I’m sure. When I was thirteen, it was fun, but I’m twenty now, and I’ve realized-”

“’-how you want to spend you life, and it isn’t doing super heroics’. You’ve said it before. You’re off to see the wizard now. So, no putting it off- take your autographs.” Kitty held the folder open. They’d always known something like this might come, that was why they’d always asked for two photos.

“Ana Fisher… Shannon Lucid… Sally Ride… Rhea Sheldon… Kathryn Sullivan… Mary Cleave… Ellen Baker… We succeeded, didn’t we, Kitty? Almost every name we wanted.”

The “almost” and what it represented hung painfully in the air.

“Yeah, we succeeded. Remember when we first met? I hardly even talked to you!”

“You called me an X-Baby! Until we started talking about computers.” Teresa reminisced. “And they I mentioned model rockets and you asked all those questions…”

Kitty’s eyes lit up. “Your kit’s still here, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I’ll have to leave it. They don’t let you take the engines on planes.”

“Could we do… one last launch? Is there time?”

“Absolutely!” Teresa dashed over to the kit and pulled out an engine about the size of a roll of pennies and a white plastic body with some foam-board fins already hot-glued on. “What sort of paint job should we give it?”

“Let’s have everybody sign it.”

10:30 AM

Kitty, Teresa, their classmates, and a few of the senior X-Men team, as well, were gathered by the mansion’s basketball court, behind a small wall. The plastic rocket sat six feet away, on a small launching stand. A cord ran between the stand and the wall, leading to a box that Teresa held with the firing button on it.

“And you’re sure this is perfectly safe?” Cyclops asked, remembering several early attempts that had broken windows, including his window. That incident had led to a ‘They’re going to blow us all up!’ rant while waving the remains of the rocket under Professor X’ nose.

“Yes, we’re sure.” Kitty and Teresa said, simultaneously. That was years ago. We’re better at this now. “Is everybody behind the wall?”

Everybody responded that they were.

“Well then, here we go. Leaving our past behind and rocketing to new adventures. Everybody count- ten…” Kitty started.

“…nine… eight…” The group joined in. Teresa looked around at the faces of her friends. Rahne… Sam… Dani… Illyana… Xi’an… Amara… Roberto. They felt like family now.

“…seven… six… five…”

I’ll keep in touch. I’ll have to.

“… four… three… two…”

he felt like a runner crouched for the starting gun, her finger lightly touching the firing button.

Who knows, perhaps they’ll come to Mojave someday. Maybe they’ll need our help to fix the Blackbird or something.

“…one… GO!”

Teresa pushed the button, sending an electrical charge down the wire to light the engine. For a few long moments, nothing happened.

WHOOSH! The rocket soared off the stand, leaving a trail of smoke as it climbed higher and higher. Soon, it was higher than the top of the Mansion.

So this isn’t really goodbye. It isn’t really an end.

Just the beginning of all of our new journeys. Our launch, if you will.

At about 150 feet, an ejection charge blew with a pop, separating the rocket’s nose cone from its body. A small red-and-white parachute pushed its way out, blossoming out as everything floated gently down.

Teresa looked back at her friends.

And wherever we fly…

She looked back to the rocket and parachute.

…I hope that we all will land safely.


Vengeance and Victory

July 10, 1976, 11:00 AM, National Air and Space Museum, Washington D.C.

The new museum looked impossibly large to five-year-old Teresa as she walked up to the pink marble entrance with her parents. The official opening had been nine days before, but there was still quite a crowd outside.

“We’re going to see the airplanes, we’re going to see the airplanes!” she sung to herself, holding her mother’s hand as she picked up a map from the help desk. The lobby was dark after the bright sun outside on the National Mall.

The first gallery, however, was full of light, with the roof and far wall made entirely of glass. The shadows of the panes fell across her face as Teresa’s eyes darted around, drinking in every detail. The room was full of airplanes.

A bright orange plane, small and shaped like a bullet, caught her eye. Orange was her favorite color.

“What’s that orange one, daddy?”

“That was the first plane to break the sound barrier, honey. Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1.”

September 24, 2008, 7:30 PM, Smithsonian Udvar- Hazy Center, Chantilly, Virginia

Multicolored spotlights shone down, sometimes blocked by the airplanes hanging from the ceiling, giving the museum a slight air of mystery and excitement. Formally-dressed guests crowded the halls, some talking to each other, some trying to make out the display signs.

At the center of the Space Wing, Teresa was admiring one of the museum’s prized artifacts- Space Shuttle Enterprise. Used only for landing tests in California, it had never flown in space, but it was still technically the first space shuttle, and, as such, very cool.

I remember seeing this fly on TV. They were going to call it Constitution at first, but then all the Star Trek fans wrote in. Enterprise is a much better name, anyway.

This new center had been built to hold objects too large for the building on the National Mall she had visited as a child, such as the Enterprise or the Concorde jet and SR-71 Blackbird in the Aviation Wing. (Now that plane brought back memories…)

She checked her watch. The speeches were supposed to start in a few minutes, and the rest of the guests were filing out of the Space Wing.

I’d better hurry. If our little friend decides to strike, he’ll do it where most of the people are. Plus, Neil Armstrong’s going to be giving one of the speeches. And, seeing as he’s such a private guy, that’s big. ‘Can’t blame him, though- if I was in his position, I’d probably want my privacy, too.

Teresa found a place to stand near the back of the seating area. Most of the people were already seated. Administrator Griffin would be first to speak. She surveyed the area, looking for any sign of trouble. In a second, she might have to spring into action, so she was wearing her speed suit underneath her pantsuit. In the distance, there was a faint whine as a jet took off from the nearby Washington-Dulles Airport.

The spotlights dimmed, except for the ones pointed at the stage. Griffin stepped out to a black podium bearing the anniversary logo. He was skinny, with graying brown hair, and he wore reading glasses. There was a picture of a spacewalking astronaut on his blue tie.

If I hadn’t heard that rant in Washington, I wouldn’t believe he could yell that loudly. He doesn’t look as if he could. He looks like a Math teacher.

People like to talk about doing the jobs they’ve always dreamed of. Well, when I was a child, I aspired to be a part of this agency. Now, I am thrilled to be leading it, despite our trials and tribulations.

Applause.

And today? Today, we are doing well. We are completing the space station. This is the greatest engineering project yet undertaken by the human race. We have three spacecraft functioning on Mars- the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and the new Phoenix polar lander. Dawn is going to the asteroid belt. New Horizons is going to Pluto. Messenger is going to Mercury.” He turned each statement into a bold bullet point, confident in defiance of the fear he knew that Darkwind wanted him to feel.

Yes, today we are doing very well.

Suddenly, everything went black. The spotlights had been cut.

Mbwahahaha!” The familiar evil laughter echoed through the museum. “That’s what you think!” Something fell to the ground with a thumping noise. Loud shrieks erupted from the guests.

Where is he?

Teresa squinted to see in the dark, her eyes adapting faster than those of the other guests, but not as fast as she needed. A few points of light indicated people using their cell phones, probably using emergency speed dials.

There, in the direction the thump had come from- there was a shape, a standing human in armor just beyond the seats.

He must have jumped down! I can see him, but over here, I probably look like just part of the crowd to him, even with night vision! The ball’s in my court!

Let’s play.

Darkwind was advancing toward the stage, moving down the aisle while the guests were still in shock. None of them could stop him. Even if they called the police, he would have succeed long before any help could arrive. His target was there, behind the podium, as confused as the guests.

He would destroy their dreams as they had destroyed his.

Griffin’s eyes became adjusted in time to see the figure standing just below him. They extended their arm, towards him as he heard the machinery charging up for a bone-crushing blast.

Happy Anniversary, Doctor Griffin.

WHAM

Darkwind was knocked down by the sliding table Teresa had slammed into him at full speed.

“Look, buddy, I don’t think that armor falls under ‘Business/Festive Attire’ like the invite says.”

“You!” He shouted, in that computerized voice. “I’ll destroy you, too!

“I don’t think so.” The object she pulled out looked like a large, industrial strength hairdryer. Darkwind started to stand up just as she pulled the trigger, surrounding him with superchilled gas.

There was a grinding sound of gears failing and the loud pops of electronics suddenly shutting down.

And then Darkwind lay helpless on the ground, weighed down by his dead equipment. Not even Darkwind anymore. Just Seth Knutt, former artist, failed supervillian.

“You horrible, little-” he protested. Without the aid of the computer, his voice sounded small and whiny.

“Me? You’re saying I’m horrible?” Teresa asked, her voice rising. She let it all out: “You’re really pathetic, you know that? You were going to kill this man, ruin our anniversary and destroy our property, all because of something that happened twenty years ago! I mean, seriously! Do you realize how pathetic that is? It sounds like a joke! Like something from a bad movie! Get. Over. It.”

A janitor found his way to the fuse box and the lights flickered back on. Teresa surveyed the crowd, pleased to see that everyone was safe. She turned to make sure that Administrator Griffin was, also. A thing like that could give a person a stroke for sure, and he was nearly sixty.

Griffin was calmly straightening his glasses and dusting his suit off.

“Thank you, Doctor. Now, where was I…”


ISS Interlude- Election Night

November 4, 2008, 7:31 PM Central (Houston) Time, International Space Station

Most people hardly give a second thought to the fact that every second of every day, there are humans in space. And on this day, that was perhaps understandable, as it was the date of one of the most hotly anticipated presidential elections in living memory.

Yet, nonetheless, it was still up there, two hundred and fifty miles above the tousled heads of the people on the ground as they thought of politics. Silently, as it had for nearly a decade, the International Space Station continued to orbit.

And, as below, voting was on the minds of those aboard.

“And we’re sending them to you now.” Dr. Greg Chamitoff announced into the radio. “They” were two electronic absentee ballots that would, once the people at the Johnson Space Center received them, be counted in the state of Texas.

“We’re receiving them now and sending them on to the clerk’s office. We’ll keep you guys posted on how things are going down here.”

“Thanks. Over and out.”

Turning from the radio, he looked at the other American on board, Commander Mike Fincke, who was floating by the window.

“So, Mike, who’d you vote for?”

“Sorry, Greg, I can’t say.”

“What do you mean, you can’t say?”

“We both have to be up here another month until the shuttle comes, and I don’t want to spend it arguing over politics.”

“Come on, that’s silly. For all you know, I could have voted for the same person you did.”

“Well, that is possible… But just in case, I won’t tell you, and I’d like it if you didn’t tell me.”

There was silence. A pencil floated by.

“You sure?”

“Positive, Greg.”

“Because I voted for-”

“Uh, uh, don’t want to hear, not listening, fingers in ears, let me leave the room!”

“A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin- a world was connected by our own science and imagination.”


Ladies and Gentlemen (And Members of the Press)

November 14, 2008, 3:10 PM, Marshall Space Flight Center

“Okay, we’ll take a few questions.” The division representative said, having finished the wrap-up of the progress made on the various projects related to the Vision that had been made at the different NASA centers in the previous few months. The incident in the Smithsonian had given reporters a new interest in Marshall and its work, and many were gathered at the press conference.

He called on a blond woman near the front of the room.

“Michele Peters, sir, Associated Press. I understand that you’re going to crash a probe into the moon to look for water. Will this affect the werewolf community in any way?”

“You’re referring to the LCROSS probe next year, I presume? We’ve actually researched that possibility very extensively, and our resident expert, Mr. Jameson, has assured us that LCROSS will be completely harmless in that respect.”

The reporters scribbled down the answer in their notebooks as the representative called on a short man with dark hair on the left side of the room.

“I’m with Space.com, sir- what do you believe we have to gain from returning to the moon?”

“Well, with the Apollo missions, we returned a lot of strangely-colored, superpower-granting rocks that unfortunately were stolen from the Lunar Receiving Lab before they could be analyzed. If we could recover more samples to study in greater detail, think of what that could do for our energy crisis.”

“Mr. Representative, what are some of the difficulties faced in going to Mars?”

“One of the biggest is the amount of time the crew would be exposed to cosmic radiation. From prior experience, we have learned that in the event of a severe radiation event without proper shielding, astronauts would stand a one-in-four chance of being turned into a rock creature, a risk level we find unacceptable.”

“Sir, our readers want to know- on future sample-return missions, what precautions will be taken against hostile lifeforms within the extraterrestrial material?”

“All samples will be examined under the strictest security in isolated quarantine labs, possibly even in orbit. In the event that a Symbiote is encountered, sonic and heat-based weaponry will be available to all the researchers. However, in all of our previous sample-return missions, not so much as a single extraterrestrial microbe has been returned, so rest easy, you’re not going to catch Mars germs.”

Is that all? Usually there’s one guy asking something totally off-the-wall…



Earth Rise

December 23, 2008, 4:29 PM, Marshall Space Flight Center

"Feliz Navidad, Feliz Navidad. Prospero ano y felicidad!"

It was the last day before Holiday vacation and Marshalls employees were enjoying the end of their office party. Genna from Station Systems was singing the familiar bilingual carol and accompanying herself on the guitar as everyone clapped along, except for Joel, who was pigging out on gourmet popcorn.

"From the bottom, of my he-art!" The song finished, and applause broke out. Francine stepped in to announce the last remaining event, the "Cubicle Gift Swap".

"Everybody got your boxes?" Affirmative sounds came from the crowd. She herself was holding a relatively small box with silver wrapping paper that she had gotten from Teresa.

"Okay, good! Let's all open them at once. On three, because we hardly ever count up around here..."

"One.. two.. three!" The sounds of tearing paper filled the room as everyone dug into the gifts they had received from each other.

"The Clone Wars animated series on DVD?" Teresa gasped.

"A replica Star Trek communicator? You shouldn't have!" Francine exclaimed.

"You're the best!" Tension between Trekkers and Star Wars fans is really much rarer than the media makes it out to be.

Taking their gifts, they began to walk towards the door.

"So, they say Griffin's submitted his resignation. His term's up in January, isn't it?" Teresa asked, pulling on her coat. I mean, that whole thing* was embarrassing, but everybody ended up okay. We did pretty darn well if I do say so myself.

*Into the Cosmos #17-22- Kai

"That's what they've all done when a new president takes office, Tessa. Its just a formality. Im sure Obama will let him stay on."

"Hey, Tessa, you've got another phone call!"

She tensed up, remembering the call about Fossett.**

"Is it from Nevada again?" She asked, hurrying to take the phone.

** ItC #14 - Kai.

"Nah, Canada." The other worker responded, leaving. He was eager to begin his vacation.

Canada?

"Hey, when you're done, let me use the phone! I've got to call my grandparents in the Philippines." Francine called after her.

"Hello? Teresa von Braun speaking. Who is this?"

"Nikki. Nikki Howlett. I don't know if we've met, but my husband said you used to go to Xavier's..."

The name sounds familiar of course, I remember seeing it in the papers- shes the one Wolverine married! Dont they have kids or something like that?

"Yes, thats right; I did know Logan back in the day."

But what could she possibly want with me?

"Logan and I are going to a holiday party in your area tomorrow night. We needed somewhere for our kids to stay for a few hours and he remembered seeing your face on TV a few months back..."

"Uh how many kids?"

"Five. Lana, Vincent, Gabrielle, Shawn and Tayla."

Five kids? She must be superhuman.

There is no way on Earth that I am going to be able to babysit five mutant kids on Christmas Eve. I just can't... What am I, Scrooge?

'Tis the season and Im going to do the right thing, even if it gives me a few gray hairs.

"Are they... behaved?"

"Oh, yes. They're very well behaved."

With Logan as their dad, they probably are. "Eat your veggies or the claws come out!" And its going to be nighttime, and they'll have been traveling, so they'll probably all be really tired.

"Sure, I can do it. My apartments at..." She started rattling off her address and then signed off.


December 24, 2008, 8:40 PM (music)

It hadn't been as hard as Teresa had feared. Shawn and Tayla, the real babies, were already asleep in the bedroom and Gabrielle was starting to yawn as she lay on the floor, drawing scribbles. Lana and Vincent were playing Sorry! at the table in the kitchenette. The radio was on and softly playing seasonal tunes in the background.

"At home, there's lot of snow. Does it ever snow here?" Gabrielle asked, sleepily.

"Not a lot. North Alabama's pretty warm. Never more than four inches since I moved here." Teresa said, focusing on her reading.

"11! I get to swap places!" Vincent declared.

Lana rolled her eyes, coming to notice the calendar hanging on the wall beside the table.

"What's 'A8 + 40'?" She asked, noticing that Teresa had scribled that designation over today on the calendar.

"Today's the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission." Teresa said, looking up from the old National Geographic she was rereading.

"Apollo 8? Was that the one they made the old movie about with Tom Hanks in it?" Vincent asked.

"Uh, no, that's Apollo 13. Teresa laughed. And its not an old movie- it only came out in 1995. Looks like I have to go into "teacher mode" here.

"Apollo 8 was the first time people traveled beyond the Earth's orbit. They didn't land on the moon- that happened on a later mission- but they did become the first people to see the far side." Far side, not dark side. Its not always dark there, only sometimes.

"So they were away from home on Christmas Eve? 'Must have been rough." Lana said.

"How did Santa bring them their presents?" Gabrielle asked, lifting her head.

"Well, the commander did say at one point 'Houston, please be informed that there is a Santa Claus.', so I think that was taken care of." Teresa laughed. "You know that picture of the Earth rising over the lunar horizon, the famous one? Not the one with Africa in it, the other one? Well, they took that picture on Apollo 8, exactly 40 years ago today."

"Yeah, I think I've seen that..."

"Teresa dashed over to her desk and wiggled her computer mouse to make the SETI@home screen-saver go away. A short search later, she had the famous photograph up.

"This one." She said, as the kids came over to look. "I think there's an animated comic about it the mission on the main NASA site, too, if you'd like to see that."

"Sure thing!"

"It was 1968, and the clock was ticking on President Kennedy's challenge to land on the moon by decade's end." The narration began.

How did the people feel as they followed the mission on TV? Pretty much everything else about 1968 stunk, according what my parents told me. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot earlier that year and the war was still going on in Vietnam.

They must have felt so glad to be watching something so positive on the news for once. To see the Earthrise image, a world with no borders, all alone in space, it must have given them hope. Hope that we could all unite instead of fighting.

"Anders snapped the iconic Earthrise image, which gave humankind a new perspective on their home planet. And, the crew took turns reading from the Book of Genesis..."

They must have been all together around the TV screen, kids and adults sort of like we are, right now!

"...Before closing with a holiday wish." The animation switched to a recording of the voice of astronaut Frank Borman: "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth!"

Something about the way Borman had said those last few words, the emotion conveyed in this message from a man looking back at humanity's only home from two hundred, forty thousand miles away made Teresa shiver.

God bless all of us, he said. All of us. Not just one country or one race. Everyone. Men, women, black, white, mutants- all of us on this good Earth.

This latest notion may have other consequences. Formed as it was in the minds of heroic voyagers who were also men, it may remake our image of mankind. No longer that preposterous figure at the center, no longer that degraded and degrading victim off at the margins of reality and blind with blood, man may at last become himself.

"To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know now they are truly brothers."- Archiebald MacLeish, December 24, 1968.


This series originally appeared on the Marvel.com fan fiction forums.

The series continues with Earthrise.

KaiYves was 16 at the time. We look forward to her future writings.