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  • Published: 29 October 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761343490
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $34.99

This Kingdom of Dust

The stunning new novel from the author of The Midnight Watch

Extract

Woman is born free, and everywhere she is caged. If she accepts her confinement you might see sorrow, or resilience, or even wisdom, but if she struggles against it – ah! – it’s then that you’ll witness true miracles of strength and cunning.

So thought Aquarius, who, in a contemplative mood on a hot July day in 1969, was carefully watching one woman in particular. Her cage, he suspected, was one of the strangest ever devised by history, for as she leaned against a doorframe in her living room in Houston, her husband was a quarter of a million miles away in a spacecraft descending towards the surface of the Moon. The landing was imminent, and soon the spacecraft would enter the ‘dead man’s zone’ – that phase of the descent in which it would be too late to abort. From that point on, the craft must either land or crash, and the woman watched by Aquarius must become either wife to a hero, or a widow.

Poor woman! She was trapped in her cage, and the whole world was watching.

Before this day he knew of her only what all of America knew: her name was Joan, she was thirty-eight years old, and she’d given up her acting career to marry an astronaut. But during that afternoon he’d quickly learned more. He’d spoken to her father, her three children, the family reverend, an eccentric uncle, a group of astrowives, and an astronaut with red hair. The wives had taught him the most, for they’d been able to describe how terrifying it was to have a husband in space, and to tell him about the ways in which they supported each other whenever someone’s husband was ‘up’. Today they’d brought to Joan’s house cigarettes, coffee, ham, a turkey casserole, sandwiches, a cake with American-flag icing, and, as a symbol of good luck, a pretty orchid in a champagne glass.

And now, at last, the critical moment had come. Everyone was looking at Joan, and because he was a writer, Aquarius also attempted a description. ‘Big eyes, big hair, big teeth,’ he wrote in his notebook, starting as he always did with the simple and the physical. It was not much, but in these strangled, tight seconds it would have to do. He’d have plenty of time later to come up with more.

‘The rate of descent is looking real good.’

The voice came from a special loudspeaker on the telephone table that, Aquarius had learned, was called the ‘squawk box’. It was connected by a special telephone line to Mission Control’s air-to-ground communication loop and it relayed in real time everything said by Mission Control and the two men in the spacecraft. Aquarius was surprised he could hear them so clearly.

‘Altitude’s right about on.’

Rusty, the red-haired astronaut, sitting close to the squawk box, had been given the task of translating any technical jargon.

‘That’s good,’ he said. ‘So far so good.’

‘You say “that’s good” if it’s good, but will you say “that’s bad” if it’s bad?’ asked one of the astrowives.

‘I will,’ said Rusty.

But Aquarius knew that if anything was ‘bad’, Rusty would in fact have nothing at all to say, because the squawk box’s green ‘comms’ light would immediately go out and the box would fall silent. This had happened years earlier, to the wife of Neil, commander of the current mission. When her husband’s Gemini flight had run into trouble, Mission Control had at once disconnected her squawk box. When she’d rung to demand it be reconnected, they’d refused to take her call, and when she’d turned up at the building itself, they’d not let her in. ‘If the men are dying, the wives must stay away,’ a NASA official had explained to Aquarius. ‘That’s the rule.’

In Joan’s house, the squawk box’s green light burned steady and bright.

‘You are Go,’ Mission Control could be heard saying. ‘You are Go to continue powered descent.’

The spacecraft would be on the surface in mere moments, and Aquarius began to feel the weight of history upon him. In his notebook he made a quick sketch of the room, showing the people, doors, windows, armchairs, a table of food and the large servery alcove that connected the living room to the kitchen. It was all very ordinary, but as he looked up he did notice one unusual thing. From the living room’s central chandelier hung a short, thick rope.

‘That was for Popo,’ whispered a young woman who’d drifted close.

‘Popo?’

‘Joan’s husband’s monkey.’

‘I see,’ he said, annotating his sketch with ‘monkey rope’ and wondering what other oddities this afternoon might bring. To keep her near, he offered some small talk. ‘Your husband is also an astronaut?’

‘Oh no,’ she said, taking a sip from her glass of milk. ‘I’m Jeannie.’ She seemed to think she’d answered his question, but when, by his expression, he invited her to say more, she clarified. ‘I’m the widow.’

She may have been about to explain further, but now the attention of the room turned back to the squawk box. Rusty, leaning in, was holding up a hand and begging for silence. There was something wrong. The signal had become distorted, and all that could be heard was an astronaut’s voice urgently calling out numbers.

‘Twelve-o-two,’ Aquarius heard, and then again, ‘It’s a twelve-o-two.’

‘That’s a computer alarm,’ Rusty explained.

‘Is that bad?’ someone asked.

‘I don’t know,’ said Rusty.

Yes, thought Aquarius, it was bad. For this assignment he’d learned much about the machine that was now trying to land on the Moon – the lunar module – and one thing that had surprised him was just how much it depended on its computer. No computer, no landing.

‘Houston, give us a reading on the twelve-o-two program alarm.’ The signal had improved and now Aquarius recognised the voice. It was Neil, mission commander.

‘Houston?’

There was no reply.

Aquarius was certain they could not land with a malfunctioning computer, and he listened carefully for the order to abort. But when more seconds passed with no response from Mission Control, a fearful realisation came. It must be too late. The spacecraft must already have entered the dead man’s zone.

He looked once again at Joan. She was standing perfectly still inthe doorway, but it was easy for him to imagine her raging against her cage with all her might.


This Kingdom of Dust David Dyer

Like the moon landing itself, a feat of enormous ingenuity imagining the lives of the Apollo mission heroes, and those on planet earth in the tumultuous 1960s.

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