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Inside the habisphere’s “staging room,” Rachel Sexton felt like an astronaut as she slid into one of NASA’s Mark IX microclimate survival suits. The black, one-piece, hooded jumpsuit resembled an inflatable scuba suit. Its two-ply, memory-foam fabric was fitted with hollow channels through which a dense gel was pumped to help the wearer regulate body temperature in both hot and cold environments.

Now, as Rachel pulled the tight-fitting hood over her head, her eyes fell on the NASA administrator. He appeared as a silent sentinel at the door, clearly displeased with the necessity for this little mission.

Norah Mangor was muttering obscenities as she got everyone outfitted. “Here’s an extra pudgy,” she said, tossing Corky his suit.

Tolland was already half into his.

Once Rachel was fully zipped up, Norah found the stopcock on Rachel’s side and connected her to an infusion tube that coiled out of a silver canister resembling a large scuba tank.

“Inhale,” Norah said, opening the valve.

Rachel heard a hiss and felt gel being injected into the suit. The memory foam expanded, and the suit compressed around her, pressing down on her inner layer of clothing. The sensation reminded her of sticking her hand underwater while wearing a rubber glove. As the hood inflated around her head, it pressed in on her ears, making everything sound muffled. I’m in a cocoon.

“Best thing about the Mark IX,” Norah said, “is the padding. You can fall on your ass and not feel a thing.”

Rachel believed it. She felt like she was trapped inside a mattress.

Norah handed Rachel a series of tools-an ice ax, tether snaps, and carabiners, which she affixed to the belt harnessed on Rachel’s waist.

“All this?” Rachel asked, eyeing the gear. “To go two hundred yards?”

Norah’s eyes narrowed. “You want to come or not?”

Tolland gave Rachel a reassuring nod. “Norah’s just being careful.”

Corky connected to the infusion tank and inflated his suit, looking amused. “I feel like I’m wearing a giant condom.”

Norah gave a disgusted groan. “Like you’d know, virgin boy.”

Tolland sat down next to Rachel. He gave her a weak smile as she donned her heavy boots and crampons. “You sure you want to come?” His eyes had a protective concern that drew her in.

Rachel hoped her confident nod belied her growing trepidation. Two hundred yards

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