10:00 am EST, January 16, 2020

‘The Life Below’ exclusive excerpt: Houston, we have a problem

Calling all sci-fi fans and readers who loved The Final Six: The Life Below may not hit bookshelves until next month, but we’ve got an exclusive excerpt to tide you over until then!

The end of The Final Six was quite a cliffhanger, and for multiple reasons. Not only did we witness the revelation of some of the true nefariousness that plagued the entire novel, but we also saw our two heroes (and the couple we couldn’t help but root for) forced apart.

And then there’s the fact that the Earth is still rapidly deteriorating and becoming more inhospitable by the minute.

Needless to say, our heroes (and our hearts) weren’t in great shape at the end of the first novel.

But, by the looks of this exclusive excerpt from The Life Below, the eagerly-anticipated sequel, things are about to get much, much worse for at least one of our favorite astronauts.

You may be waiting on pins and needles to get your hands on the riveting second, and final, book in the Final Six duology next month, but hopefully this excerpt from The Life Below will be enough to satisfy you until then.

Here’s your sneak peek at ‘The Life Below’ by Alexandra Monir

PROLOGUE

PONTUS to EARTH Live Blog
DAY 43
Astronaut: ARDALAN, NAOMI
[Message Status: Upload Failure]

Some disasters begin with a warning, an iceberg you can spot from miles ahead. Others come on all at once, as violent as they are quick, like the earthquakes and hurricanes that wrecked us back home. But up here, it’s easy to miss the trigger altogether. A wire doesn’t make a sound when it snaps. You don’t know what’s happened until after—when the creeping sense of dread moves beyond your body and takes the form of a flawed ship.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so helpless as I do now, writing to an entire population that will never see these words. We’re going dark and you won’t know why or what it means, but you’ll assume the worst. And that’s what has me wide-awake and clammy with sweat in the middle of the night, afraid that if I open my mouth I’ll start screaming and never stop.

I can’t live with them thinking I’m dead. Just imagining my parents and Sam holding each other in grief at a memorial ceremony, staring at my photo while mourners recite Rūmī, hurts worse than any physical pain. And Leo . . . what will he do when he hears the news? When my emails and video messages come to a sudden halt, how will he react? How will I make it through losing the four of them? I used to think communicating through a computer screen would never be enough, but now it seems like the ultimate privilege. One that I’d give anything to have back.

Maybe that’s why I’m writing now, even as logic tells me it’s hopeless. I have to keep trying, on the off chance that I might press Submit and, this time, hear the whoosh of delivery. The sound of everything returning to normal. Or at least as close to it as “normal” can be up here.

We’d been traveling through space for just forty-two days, three hours, and twelve minutes when it happened. It was seven in the morning, Coordinated Universal Time, and the first thing I noticed when I woke up was the sound of silence. Normally, NASA Mission Control serves as our alarm clock, waking us up at the same time each morning by piping a song through the cabin speakers. You could count on them to choose something on-brand and space-themed, like yesterday’s vintage Coldplay track, “A Sky Full of Stars.” But today there was no song at all. Someone must have fallen asleep on the job. Still, I woke up on cue.

We had half an hour to ourselves before we were due in the dining room for breakfast, and over the past few days I’d figured out how to get ready in ten minutes or less. This way, I could start the day in my favorite part of the ship—the one place where I never felt claustrophobic, or desperate to claw my way out.

I climbed out of my bunk and slipped off my favorite flannel pajamas, which somehow still retained the faintest smell of home. Then I stepped into the tiny shower stall attached to my cabin, which flashed a green light as soon as my feet hit the floor. A timer began, reminding me that the water would shut off in three minutes. Our entire existence here on the Pontus seemed to be dominated by countdown clocks.

After squeezing a dollop of shampoo onto my head and rinsing as frantically as someone with a lice problem, the shower was over. I toweled off and threw on a pair of gray track pants and a peach hoodie, then slid open the door of my cabin to the common room. Usually at least one or two of us could be found in here before breakfast, reading or watching TV, but it was empty this morning.

I jogged through the long module that makes up our crew quarters and rode the elevator pod down to the main hatch, leaving the artificial gravity behind. From there I floated, into a place that comforted and intimidated me in equal measure.

The Observatory is a circular chamber made up of wall-to-wall, indestructible quartz-glass windows, which gives you the illusion of flying untethered through the universe. It’s the high of a spacewalk, minus the danger. The darkness surrounds you on all sides, with a sudden sweep of beauty whenever the ship spirals within view of Earth. This was one of those mornings when I got to see the shock of color—the blue marble of home.

I pressed my palms against the glass, staring in awe. Somewhere on that planet, in a time zone eight hours behind ours, my parents and brother were just now falling asleep for the night, while six thousand miles from them, Leo was waking up and starting his day. I closed my eyes, trying to picture his surroundings, what that day would look like. And that’s when the pain socked me in the stomach. We don’t exist in the same world anymore.

I took a few breaths to steady myself, stopping the tears before they had a chance to start. I turned away from the blue, keeping my gaze fixed on the darkness and trying to pinpoint the stars around me, until it was time to join the others. When I crawled back through the hatch, I found someone waiting for me on the other side.

Jian Soo, crewmate and copilot of our mission, glanced up sharply as I tumbled back into gravity.

“Morning,” I greeted him. “You okay?”

He shook his head, his eyes frantic.

“Communication’s down. Our flight nav software is still working fine, but I can’t get any response from Houston. And then Sydney told me she tried logging on to email and kept getting an error message that said no connection found.” He looked at me intently. “You can fix it, right?”

My first thought was that it was a joke. He was just pulling a prank—probably Beckett Wolfe’s idea—to see how fast they could get a panic attack out of me. But then I remembered who I was talking to. Jian was the honest, solid, good one among us. And as I thought of the quiet this morning, the forgotten alarm from Mission Control, my stomach plunged.

“It—it has to be just a hiccup,” I said, forcing myself to stay calm. “Let me go take a look.”

That was my job, to run all the tech and communications on the ship. It had been easy enough until today, but this was uncharted territory. The Pontus was never supposed to lose its connection, not for a millisecond. It was as vital to the ship as oxygen.

I sprinted past Jian, toward the Communications Bay and its array of computers, where I found each screen flashing the same message in bold red letters.

COMMUNICATION SIGNALS DROPPED—NO CONNECTION FOUND.

“Houston.” My voice came out like a whisper, but it didn’t matter. No one could hear me anymore. “Houston, we’re experiencing a comm failure. I’m rebooting the systems and running diagnostics, and will wait for further instructions from Mission Control.”

By the time the computers powered back on after the reboot, my anxiety had grown into full-fledged panic. The dreaded words returned on-screen—NO CONNECTION FOUND—and my fingers shook as I ran a diagnostics scan, praying the answer would flash in front of me with a simple solution. Within minutes, the problem was staring me in the face. But it was the opposite of simple.

It was our X-band antenna. The single piece of equipment on this ship that enabled all our communication with Earth wasn’t even registering on the equipment scan. It was as if the antenna never existed.

Something was bubbling in my stomach, a nausea-inducing fear, but I forced myself to stay focused and keep moving. I raced out of the Communications Bay and back to the hatch, where Jian was now joined by Sydney and Dev, the three of them looking almost as rattled as I felt. They turned to me expectantly, but all I could do was shake my head.

“I’m going to the payload bay. Something’s up with the antenna.”

“Should we go with you?” Dev offered.

“One of you, maybe. There’s not room for much more. But we’ve got to hurry.”

I yanked open the hatch door and climbed inside, with Dev right behind me. We crawled and then floated our way through two different tunnel passageways, known as nodes, until we reached the center of the ship. The payload bay required a password to enter, which always struck me as odd—was a break-in really such a risk when we were the only six humans for hundreds of millions of miles? It took Dev and me ten minutes of racking our brains and scrolling through the notes on our wrist monitors before we finally cracked it.

The hatch door swung open to reveal the vastest stretch of our ship, towering four stories high and packed from floor to ceiling with rows upon rows of cargo, all sealed in white compartments built into the walls. Attached to one of those walls would be a seven-foot-tall, dish-shaped antenna. It was the focal point of the room, the home base of our comm system.

Except . . . it was gone.

The thumping in my chest tripled in speed, loud enough for me to hear the frenetic beating through my headset. I stared at the giant empty space overwhelming the room, half convinced I was hallucinating. It wouldn’t be the first time an astronaut lost their grip on reality.

“Tell me—how does the biggest, most powerful antenna of its kind just up and disappear?”

“It doesn’t,” Dev says, all color draining from his face. “Someone made it disappear.”

I followed his gaze and that’s when I saw the loose bolt, drifting toward us from the back of the module. It was one of the same bolts used to secure the antenna, only this one was floating free—and heavy enough to kill us with a single strike.

“Move!” I screamed, grabbing Dev’s arm and pulling him away just before the bolt careened into our path. We each seized one of the handrails running up the length of the wall, swinging from one to the next like amateur rock climbers in zero g. My head brushed the ceiling as we reached the top story, a safe distance from the floating weapon below. I looked down at the damaged payload bay in disbelief.

“Someone did this to us. Someone actually snuck in here, unscrewed the bolts, dismantled the antenna, and . . .”

My eyes caught on the payload door, fused into the opposite wall. It wasn’t supposed to open for months—not until the Europa landing. But clearly somebody had opened it, and pushed the antenna through to disappear in space. “Someone wanted us cut off and isolated from the entire world,” I whispered, fighting the bile rising in my throat. “Why?”

“Not just someone,” Dev said, swallowing hard. “One of us.”

It was like every star in the universe gave out at once, plunging us into an empty, pitch-dark world.

We were lost to Earth. And we were trapped, hurtling through space at thirty thousand miles an hour, with an enemy far more dangerous than we could have imagined.

The Life Below by Alexandra Monir

About ‘The Life Below’ by Alexandra Monir

As Naomi lifts off into space and away from a rapidly deteriorating Earth, she watches the world fade away, and along with it, Leo, a Final Six contestant she grew close to during training. Leaving Earth behind is hard, but what’s ahead on Europa could be worse.

The International Space Training Camp continues to hide the truth about what happened to the last group of astronauts who attempted a similar colonization but failed mysteriously. With one shot–at this mission and to Europa–Naomi is determined to find out if there is alien life on Europa before she and her crew get there.

Leo, back on Earth, has been working with renegade scientist Dr. Greta Wagner, who promises to fly him to space where he can essentially latch on to Naomi’s ship. And if Wagner’s hypothesis is right, it isn’t a possibility of coming in contact with extraterrestrial life on Europa–it’s a definite. With Naomi unaware of what awaits, it’s up to Leo to find and warn her and the others.

With all the pieces of their journey finally clicking into place, everything else starts to fall apart. A storm threatens to interfere with Leo’s takeoff, a deadly entity makes itself known to the Final Six, and the questions the ISTC has been avoiding about the previous failed mission get answered in the worst way possible. If the dream was to establish a habitable domain on Europa… the Final Six are about to enter a nightmare.

The Life Below by Alexandra Monir will be available on February 18, 2020. You can preorder your copy now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, or your local independent bookstore. Also, don’t forget to add it to your Goodreads “to read” shelf!

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