Earth Bound: Prologue

black box with the words: "dukes have curricles, bad boys have motorcycles, these guys have big rockets."

We’re only eight days away from the release of Earth Bound, a book of which I am fiercely proud. And to make sure you’re sufficiently excited about it, I’m going to share the prologue with you today.

Prologue

February, 1962

Charlie Eason hadn’t been able to eat that morning, and the shakiness of her hands was the result.

She’d told all her colleagues to eat a proper breakfast, to get a decent night’s rest, to go easy on the coffee—to be as ready as they could for the launch today. But she hadn’t been able to follow her own orders. Her eyes hadn’t closed once last night, she couldn’t bring even a spoonful of grape-nuts to her mouth, and the refills on her coffee had been endless today.

The countdown clock told her it was T minus five minutes.

Charlie had spent a decade and a half making herself into one of the preeminent computer scientists in the country. She’d been at the American Space Department for a year. And in five minutes, she and everyone else were going to find out if they could put a man into orbit.

She did yet another check of her things—pencils, notebook, slide rule. She looked to the dark data board that would relay the information coming from the capsule. Attitude, altitude, and speed would light up the analog display once the capsule began to move. The data was also being fed into the electronic computer via the cable snaking across the floor. Her own stopwatch was set next to her notebook in case the main countdown clock failed.

She poked her head into the simulation room. Behind a glass door Dave, the operator, waited next to the room-sized electronic computer he ran.

“Ready?” she asked.

He gave a jerky nod, looking as jittery and sick as she felt.

Great. The computing department was ready for launch then.

She turned back toward the main floor, finding Dot and Beverly. “Are you two ready?”

They nodded, their expressions more resolved than Dave’s had been. They would be doing a manual backup calculation along with the electronic computer.

“T minus one minute,” came over the loudspeaker.

She clapped her hands for everyone’s attention. “It’s time.”

Charlie took up her own position at a desk next to Hal Reed. Hal was the Director of Computing for ASD. Officially, she was the deputy director. Unofficially, she was in charge of the female computers and programmers, and she was a damn sight smarter than most of the men they’d brought on.

If there were any justice in this world, she’d be the director instead of his underling. But there wasn’t, and they were thirty seconds from ignition—she needed to focus.

“Ten. Nine. Eight…”

With each count that rapped out of the loudspeaker, the tension ratcheted up yet another notch. Sweat bloomed on her palms.

And then: “Ignition.”

She couldn’t hear the roar of the rocket fuel as it ignited, since she was in Houston and the launch was at the Cape, but it felt as if the floor were vibrating beneath her feet.

“We have lift off.”

The observers on the ground at the Cape would be smiling and applauding. She did neither of those things. Her gaze flicked from the clock to the dark data board and back again.

Almost time. It was almost time.

The board lit up, flashing the capsule’s information to the entire room.

“Is this coming through?” she called to Dave.

A pause, long enough to have her heart stopping.

Dave finally said, “Yes.”

She pressed the button on her own stopwatch, the hand starting its revolution. She began to calculate madly, trying to beat the electronic computer as she traced the flight path of the capsule.

This was the most critical part of the entire mission. If the capsule wasn’t traveling fast enough, wasn’t flying straight up, the massive hand of gravity would catch it and pull it straight back down. It could crash right into a place filled with houses and families.

They had only a few seconds to do the calculations, to ensure the capsule was on the correct path. If it was, the mission was go for orbit.

If not, the mission had to be aborted.

“Done,” Dave called from the simulation lab right as the printer began to spit out paper.

Hal pulled it out and handed it to her. “All good?”

She double-checked the printout against what she’d calculated as allowable paths several weeks ago—and had calculated again yesterday—then checked those numbers against what she’d just calculated.

Dot came up behind her and set her own sheet of calculations next to Charlie’s. A quick check of those numbers, and then Beverly’s.

“Good.” She met Hal’s eyes. “We’re go.”

Hal cupped his hand over the microphone of his headset. “We’re go for orbit.”

She hit the button on her stopwatch, stopping the sweep of the hand. A few seconds longer than she’d anticipated. Not bad. Well within the time limit.

The most critical moment was over, but there was still plenty to be done, all the million and one things necessary to keep the capsule in orbit and Kit Campbell from crashing down to earth.

She let herself sag in her chair, while relief filtered through her body. This first mission was going to work out, but they had so many steps, so many missions, to go before they might get to the moon. She pulled her spine straight and shoved her shoulders back. Time to return to work.

“Let’s review the programming sequence we were working on yesterday, Jack.”

Jack was a good-looking kid and computer engineer a few years out of MIT. He thought he knew a great deal more about programming than he did, but she liked him in spite of his arrogance.

His brows knit together. Obviously he’d thought they’d take a moment to celebrate—but they didn’t have an extra moment. Not if they were going to beat the Soviets.

Jack swallowed his disappointment. “Sure. Let me get my notes.”

Two hours later, she was fully in the rhythms of her work when Hal interrupted her.

He wants to see you.”

She set her pencil down with slow deliberation. She didn’t ask who he was—only one person at ASD was ever referred to like that. “What does he want?”

Hal merely shrugged.

She probably shouldn’t have expected more of an answer. He never called people up for anything good, but she couldn’t think of what might have set him off. The calculations were all correct, the mission was a go… What had she missed?

She stopped in the ladies’ room on the way to his office, studying herself in the mirror. A tweak here and a tuck there so her curls looked perfect. She shifted her hips and settled her dress more smoothly into place. Her makeup looked fresh, but a touch of lipstick never hurt.

Graduate school had taught her an important truth about being an intelligent woman, one she hadn’t been able to learn growing up in Princeton: It helped to be stunningly beautiful, especially when dealing with the Zeppelin-like egos of scientific men. They never saw her coming; it was only after she’d outthought them that they realized they’d been flanked.

Not that her beauty, cultivated as it was, ever seemed to help with him. But it couldn’t hurt, so she checked the mirror anyway.

Satisfied, she went down the hall to his office.

Eugene Parsons, Director of Engineering and Development.

If it weren’t for the name on the door, she didn’t think she would have ever discovered his given name. He was either he or him or simply Parsons—no first name required.

Or any name at all, most of the time.

She kept her knock brief but firm, then opened the door before he could summon her.

“You wanted to see me?”

Perhaps that was what irritated him the most. She didn’t cower before him like the other engineers, or defy him like the astronauts. She met his every sharp remark or cutting word with the coolest of aplomb.

Parsons looked as he always did, the sleeves of his white button-down shirt half rolled up to his elbows, the thick frames of his glasses framing his intense gaze. With his dark coloring, the shirt and glasses only just kept him from being swarthy.

She didn’t want to parse all the things that went through her at the sight of him.

He studied her for a moment, never offering her a seat.

“Why did it take you so long to confirm we were go for orbit?”

Uninvited, she crossed over to one of the chairs, studiously arranging herself in it. Once she was situated to her advantage—legs crossed at the ankles, arms draped casually—she answered. “I confirmed the mission status within the established time parameters.”

“Yes, the absolute safety parameters.” He adjusted his glasses, the movement somehow ominous. “But you promised you’d have the calculations done in twenty-two seconds. Not thirty.”

She wanted to clench her jaw, the arms of the chair, his throat—but she didn’t move a millimeter. “I projected I would complete the calculations in twenty-two seconds. But the safety limit for aborting the mission was determined to be thirty-five seconds. I was well within the range.”

“Why did you take longer than twenty-two seconds?”

This was the problem with working with engineers. Scientists were precise, yes, but there was room for improvisation. An engineer took precision and turned it into torture.

“I don’t know.” The probabilistic nature of the universe, perhaps? But she didn’t want to anger him any further.

“Find out why.” His words were as hard as steel, and as cold. “Go through your processes and give me the time you promised.”

She’d never promised any such thing. “Of course.” It was the last thing she wanted to do, but once this mission was concluded they’d have to review all the processes anyway. She rose. “If that’s all?”

“Now,” he said, quietly. “I want you to do it now.”

He always had to twist the knife, didn’t he? “Even with all the critical tasks I’m overseeing?”

“Are you refusing?”

Sometimes she thought he hated her as much as he hated the astronauts and anyone else who failed to live up to his standards of how an ASD employee ought to perform.

But only sometimes.

“No. I’ll have it finished by the end of the day.”

He didn’t question that, since he knew she hit her deadlines. Her estimation of the time to complete the calculations this morning hadn’t been anything like a deadline, and they both knew it.

“When will that be?” Softer then, his intense gaze turned toward the papers on his desk.

Her skin tightened. “Before 9 p.m. I’ve an… appointment then.”

He nodded. “I’ll expect it.”

She left then, carefully shutting the door so it made no sound. And hung onto the handle for several seconds longer.

* * *

Everyone was at the party celebrating the safe return of Commander Campbell from his mission to space—everyone except the man most responsible for that safe return. They probably didn’t even notice he’d bolted early.

Eugene Parsons pulled into the lot of a seedy motel. One so seedy that not even the astronauts used it for their assignations. Which was the point. No one would see him here.

The powder blue Dodge he was looking for was parked in front of room nine.

He released the breath he always held until he saw the car. That was his fear: one day he’d show up and the blue car wouldn’t be there. He’d enter the room and it would be empty.

That was the agreement. Either one of them could end their arrangement at any time. But Parsons didn’t want it to end. Not yet. No, he wanted these meetings with a force that scared him sometimes.

How far would he have to push her before she decided it was no longer worth it? Before he pushed her completely out of reach?

He didn’t think he wanted to find out.

He parked his own car and went up to the door of room nine, gingerly trying the handle. Unlocked.

He slowly opened the door, walked in, and searched the shadows.

“How was your day, dear?” a voice asked from the darkness of the bed.

She was here. Even though he’d seen her car, a small part of the fear held on until he knew for certain she was here. Waiting for him.

“All right.” He closed the door and began to strip off his tie.

“Make any astronauts cry?” she mocked. “You’re smiling, which means you must have.”

He could see her now, his eyes having adjusted. She was propped up on the bed, her blouse half unbuttoned, her skirt hiked to mid-thigh, her legs bare. Her curls were black in the low light as they tumbled about her shoulders. She had a beer in her hand, and she took a long swig as she studied him.

It had been quite a day, with the stress of thinking Campbell might not make it. For hours Parsons had calculated the odds of the entire mission burning to a crisp in the sky. But it had all ended well.

“Actually no,” he answered. “But that’s on the agenda for tomorrow.”

He unbuttoned his cuffs, rolled his sleeves up to his elbows while she watched. She took another swig, her throat working, her gaze shuttered.

He got onto the bed and climbed over her, enclosing her body with his own. She merely stared back, her bronze eyes defiant. Daring.

She never gave anything easy, this woman. He had to wrest everything from her. Which made it all the sweeter.

She lifted the beer to her mouth, took another swallow. As if he bored her. When she moved the bottle away, a drop of liquid clung to her swooping upper lip. He bent forward and licked it off.

“Hey,” she protested quietly. “That was my beer.”

He took it from her hand. “It’s mine now.” He set the bottle on the side table, lowered his mouth back to hers. “All mine.”

In this room, in the dark, with this woman, everything else fell away. There were no Soviets here. No faulty switches. No recalcitrant flyboys.

“That’s what you think,” she whispered against his lips.

Oh, but the struggle for control was just as real—and so were the rewards.

* * *

She never lingered afterward.

Not that Parsons expected her to. Half the time, he didn’t even expect her to show. And he never expected she’d stay.

She was already out of the bed and in the bathroom. Although the door was wide open, he didn’t watch her. Not that there would have been any point without his glasses.

He checked his watch. Seven hours until he had to be back for the debriefing on Campbell’s successful orbit.

She came out of the bathroom then, snatching up her girdle from the floor as she passed him.

He wished he could put on his glasses for this part, could catch all the fine details of what she was doing. But he already looked ridiculous enough without his clothes on—adding glasses would be putting a bow on it.

Even so, he saw enough. She shimmied into her girdle, going through the motions as if he weren’t even there. Not because she felt comfortable with him, but likely because he’d ceased to exist for her once he’d completed his usefulness.

She was the capsule here, serenely making her orbits, while he was the rocket casing, jettisoned to burn up in the long fall back to earth.

She lifted her leg, set her fine-boned foot on the chair, and rolled her stockings up. First one leg, then the other. It might have been a performance for him, if not for her air of utter impenetrability.

On went her dress next, her arms twisting behind her back as she pulled the zipper up. She didn’t ask for help. He didn’t offer.

He ought to get ready himself. He propped himself up on his elbows, the sheet falling away as he did. The world came back into sharp focus as he slipped on his glasses.

She chose that moment to stare into the mirror, giving herself that look. Assessing. Judging. As if cataloging her faults for future eradication.

He never quite understood that look. What did she see wrong with herself? He could find no flaws. And he was a man who was never satisfied.

Although it was eleven at night, she began to reapply her makeup. This was an intimacy he’d never shared with a woman before her. He’d seen women with makeup and women without, but he’d never before seen the transformation from one state to the next.

When she was done, the woman who’d been tangled in the sheets with him a few minutes ago was entirely gone. She caught his gaze in the mirror then.

“We were in the middle of a mission.” Her words bounced off the mirror. “Why did you want me to do that… busy work right then?”

He snapped the sheet off his legs and swung them over the side of the bed. “The agreement was that we don’t talk about that here.”

They didn’t talk about work here, and they didn’t talk about this at work. They’d both made that clear, they’d both understood. Or at least he thought they had.

Never once did her air of impassivity waver. “I’m only trying to understand your reasoning.”

His reasoning for giving her the task? Or for coming here? He couldn’t tell which she meant. He could answer one, but not the other. For a man as rational, as rigid as he was, that terrified him, the blank space where his reason should have been where she was concerned.

“I have to be back in a few hours.” He reached for his pants lying crumpled on the floor. “So do you.”

He pulled his pants on with a jerk, keeping his back to her all the while.

The latch of the door shutting behind her was the only goodbye he got from her.

Chapter One

Thirteen Months Earlier

January 1961

Eugene Parsons checked the clock, the gesture as unconscious as the beating of his heart. Five minutes until the interview. He picked up the CV on his desk and scanned it one final time…

It’s delicious how they work their way around to the prologue (and how they get from there to happily ever after). If you’re so inclined, you can preorder Earth Bound (for both e-book and print!) at AmazoniBooksB&NGoogle Play, and Kobo. You can also add it to your Goodreads shelves, join the series’ mailing list, or visit the book’s Pinterest board.

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