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Down to Dirt: Dirt and Stars, #1

Down to Dirt: Dirt and Stars, #1

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Down to Dirt: Dirt and Stars, #1

357 pages
4 hours
Jun 21, 2016


Dirt is for losers.

"DOWN TO DIRT is YA hard science fiction with an attitude, full of technical details as engaging as the characters. I was immediately drawn into the story." ~ Kevin J. Anderson, New York Times bestselling author of ETERNITY'S MIND

It's 2021, and humanity has been in space for half a century. Giant space stations are hubs of scientific and industrial research, colonies are spreading across the moon and Mars, and sixteen-year-old Mara Duval, born and raised on Tombaugh Station, is training to be part of humanity's first mission to the moons of Jupiter.

Life is full of possibilities—opportunities denied those deemed unfit for life in space. The unintelligent, the diseased, the mentally unstable, and the criminal—all who have been rejected by the Space Service—are condemned to live their lives on dirt, a planet everyone knows but no one mentions. Every spacer has relatives on dirt, family members who failed to qualify for space. Some are remembered, some are forgotten; but all are left behind.

To Mara's horror, her parents have mandated she understand her past before she can pursue her future. If she wants to follow her dream to Jupiter, she must leave the safety of space and get to know her uncle, aunt, and cousin confined to dirt. Given no choice, she submits to medical procedures and intense physical training—bracing herself to survive weeks of exile amid violence, disease, and dangers she can only imagine.

But nothing could prepare Mara for what she discovers when she goes down to dirt.

EVOLVED PUBLISHING PRESENTS the first book in this critically acclaimed, timely, young adult science fiction adventure that's sure to keep you riveted. [DRM-Free]

Books by Kevin Killiany:

  • "Down to Dirt" (Book 1)
  • "Life on Dirt" (Book 2)
  • "Rise from Dirt" (Book 3)
  • "For the Stars" (Book 4) [Coming Fall 2019]

More Great Sci-Fi from Evolved Publishing:

  • "Star City" Series by Edwin Peng
  • "Noah Zarc" Series by D. Robert Pease
  • "Panhelion Chronicles" Series by Marlin Desault
  • "Uploaded" Series by James W. Hughes
  • "Whitewashed" Series by Adelaide Thorne
  • Two Moons of Sera by P.K. Tyler
  • The Silver Sphere by Michael Dadich

Jun 21, 2016

About the author

I was raised in the heart of Florida in the 1950s and ’60s, growing up in a pink cinderblock house in a community hemmed by orange groves against the edge of a swamp and the shore of a lake. I didn’t read anything not assigned by a teacher until the summer of 1967, when an injury—the outcome of an idea that looked good at the time—laid me up for several weeks. In an effort to keep me sane my mother brought me armloads of books from the library, which I used to build forts… until the red-and-yellow cover of Have Space Suit, Will Travel lured me into looking inside. To my surprise, I read it—twice—and was hooked. In later years, I read and loved mysteries, fantasies, and historicals, but my reader’s heart first imprinted on YA science fiction. I left Florida for California in 1973, and wandered a bit before settling on North Carolina’s coast. Along the way I became a husband, a father (three times), and in 2013 a grandfather. I’ve had a half-dozen careers in those forty years, working in education or mental health. These days, when I’m not writing I’m teaching English at a community college. Oh, did I not mention writing? I began in 1967, right after I started reading, and—if you overlook thousands of rejections and thirty-three years of practice—was an immediate success. Since my first sale in 2000 I’ve sold three novels, a half-dozen novellas, and thirty-one short stories. I’ve also co-written or co-edited nineteen role-players’ resource and rule books. My writing is fueled by two questions: “What happened?” and “What if?” The first motivates my exploration of lesser-known history, and the second drives my speculations about how our world would be changed if we had chosen differently. From those two streams my stories flow.

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Down to Dirt - Kevin Killiany

1030 / 30 August 2021


It’s blowing child abuse.

It’s not abuse, and don’t curse, Momster answered. Again.

We’d had this conversation—with and without the cursing—about two hundred times in the last few weeks. Okay, maybe only one hundred. I’d come home from sophomore cycle final exams on Friday, ready to do absolutely nothing for the two weeks before my junior cycles began, only to discover my parents had completely ruined my life.

They were sending me to dirt. I shouldn’t have been surprised because they’ve been talking for years about sending me down to visit my only living relatives who don’t share our apartment. I just never’d thought they’d be cruel enough to follow through on the threat.

But here we were in Dr. Kelso’s waiting room—

Yes, room. Where every other doctor on Tombaugh Station had folding benches in the corridor, she’d been authorized to waste what looked like at least twelve cubic meters just to impress her patients. Of course, Dr. Kelso was one of a kind. Disease-infested people aren’t allowed in space. All the other medicos specialize in injuries or nutrition or dentistry or OB-GYN stuff. Dr. Kelso is the only doctor on Tombaugh certified in infectious diseases.

Which is why Momster and I were rehashing—or, rather, she was reading and I was rehashing—our dead-end debate while waiting for my weekly physical update and battery of vaccinations. Vaccinations as in shots, battery as in many, and weekly as in fourth of six multiple-shot sessions to which I had to be subjected if I was to have a fighting chance of surviving on dirt. If sending your only child to a place so teeming with deadly bacteria your life depends on dozens of painful and potentially dangerous inoculations isn’t child abuse the definition needs to be updated.

But how to explain updated to a parent who’s actually reading about the history of dirt? For fun? As in what she was ignoring me to read—for the nth time—was about the invasion of Japan. She takes that one personally because (1) she thinks it was wrong and (2) her grandfather won a Silver Star for doing it. The Silver Star has five points about one centimeter across and is set in the middle of a four-centimeter star of yellow metal. I know because it’s mounted on the wall in our cabin’s communal room. I’m pretty sure Japan is an island, but I have no idea why Momster’s grandfather invaded it. But—and this is the important part—he did it in 1947. 1947. As in three-quarters of a century ago. As in ten years before the first manned space flight. As in prehistory. Sometimes I think Momster thinks fusion rockets are new fangled. (Newfangled is one of the Pops’s funny phrases.)

But useless as it seemed, I still had to try. I just don’t—

Mara, shut up.

I shut up. Hadn’t heard my mother use her I’m-this-close-to-hitting-you voice since I was six. Eight. Whatever. I slid her a quick glance out the corner of my eye, but instead of glaring at me Momster had stopped reading while I was fuming about her reading and was giving the door to Dr. Kelso’s inner sanctum a really worried looking look.

Okay, this section is one of the places where Commander Tenafly said my writing failed to meet the editorial standards required for this journal to earn academic credit. In this case I assumed universal knowledge—that a hypothetical reader already knows everything I know—and did not provide said reader with essential context information. (I will provide any hypothetical readers with essential context information about Commander Tenafly when I get to her part.) So while most of this journal will be written as it happens—well, before lights out the day it happened—there will be big chunks of context I’ve added days or even weeks later.

Like these next four paragraphs:

Tombaugh Station is in a stable orbit around dirt at Lagrangian Point Four (L4), which is more like a zone than a point. Lagrange (whoever she—he?—was) used math to figure out areas in space where the gravity of dirt and the moon and the sun all cancel each other out. Anything in these zones stays in place without wasting energy and is protected from gravitational stress. The two useful ones are in the same orbit as the moon. L4, where we are, is sixty degrees ahead of the moon, and L5, where Brahe Station is, sixty degrees behind.

Tombaugh Station became self-sustaining thirty-six years ago in 1985, twelve years after the first lunar colony. At that time the station was a simple torus, a ring, connected to a central axle by support pylons—think a wheel with spokes and a really long axle going through the middle—and a population of eight hundred United States Space Service personnel. The wheel part spun around the axle so that angular acceleration (or centrifugal force, depending on how you like your math) generated 0.294 gravities of force to hold everything in place—making the axle in the middle up and the outer rim down. Today Tombaugh Station is two kilometers across and the ring is five decks deep. (Really it’s five tori, rings, with what the Pops calls lots of springs and pulleys between them to absorb micro variations and keep everything in dynamic balance, so from the outside the ring looks more like a disk.)

Tombaugh Station has a permanent population of 16,863 residents (The database says this number does not include Space Service personnel on short-term assignment or children under four who have not earned resident status.) About forty percent of those residents are contract employees, like my parents, who do all the jobs necessary to keep Tombaugh Station running so the Space Service, scientists, and engineers can all do their jobs. Of those permanent residents, 6,207 were born on the station. Counting me, 1,483 of those 6,207 are minors between the ages of four and eighteen.

All of this context boils down to this: a space station is an enclosed, densely populated world where ninety percent of the interior walls are lightweight carbon fiber. Personal privacy pretty much depends on everyone making an effort not to look at or listen to anyone else. Which is why, when Momster shushed me, I could clearly hear what she’d already been listening to: the conversation Dr. Kelso was having with the people in her office.

But you’re saying the tests are inconclusive, a man’s voice said.

Individually, yes, said a woman in professional tones—Dr. Kelso. But the presence of abnormally high levels of pregnancy-associated plasma protein-A and human chorionic gonadotropin in combination with the results of the nuchal translucency screening indicate a very high probability of Down Syndrome.

What did the ultrasound show? a much more anxious-sounding woman asked.

The nuchal screening was the ultrasound.

Nothing for a moment, then the man—the father, I guessed—asked, So, what are our options?


Any other time I would have rolled my eyes. Every cubic centimeter of volume and every gram of mass on Tombaugh is devoted to research, exploration, manufacturing to pay for the research and exploration, and keeping sixteen thousand-plus healthy people alive to do the manufacturing, researching, and exploring. A space station doesn’t have the resources to accommodate anyone’s special needs. That’s why no one needing special supports or carrying a communicable disease is allowed into space. That’s why kids under four weren’t residents—it took four years for the medicos to weed out the ones who weren’t up to being part of the station and send them down to dirt. But hearing how much that father really, really wanted any answer except the one he already knew... well, it wasn’t an eye-rolling situation.

Dr. Kelso was all business.

Termination is an outpatient procedure at any med station—

We’re not terminating, the woman—the mother—said.

In that case you’ll return to Earth for the third trimester. Once you have placed the child with a relative or agency—

We’re not giving up our son, the father said.

Well. Pause. Dr. Kelso hadn’t expected that.

Medically, the sooner you’re on Earth, the better it will be for the baby’s development. She didn’t sound official. But a week or two won’t make a significant difference. Take as much time as you need to make arrangements.

Thank you, Doctor.

Momster had planned ahead and had her nose stuck to her padputer, pretending to be engrossed in her prehistory of the great grandPops invading Japan, when the inner office door slid open. All I could do was smile brightly at the obviously blank screen of my turned-off journal and pretend I didn’t see the couple as they squeezed past my knees.

Dr. Kelso nodded us into her office.

I sat silent through Momster’s update on my faithfully doubling my calorie intake and being only moderately rebellious about my twice daily torture sessions—a.k.a. exercise sessions—on Deck Four. The shock of people willing to give up their only chance at a life worth living just to keep their defective child had me thinking that maybe there are worse things than having your parents force you to spend six weeks on dirt.

But I am worried about this hiking on Deck Five, Momster was saying when I tuned back in. Is the stress of that extra weight really necessary?

Zero extra weight, Mom, I reminded her. In orbit all of us weigh zero all the time.

More context for hypothetical readers (who, if they’ve passed primary physics, can skip the rest of this really long paragraph): an object’s mass—mass mass, without any qualifiers—is the measure of how much matter is in the object, but an object’s inertial mass is the measure of the energy required to move the object. People freshly freed from dirt tend to call inertial mass weight but most—unlike Momster—stop after a while. Plain old mass never changes. Inertial mass depends on how much force is already being exerted on the object. One gravity (G) is the amount of force pressing everything on the surface of dirt into the ground. When something like Tombaugh Station is spinning, angular acceleration (or centrifugal force) increase the farther you get from the center. On Deck One it’s 0.294 Gs; on Deck Three—the primary habitat deck—it’s 0.56 Gs. On Deck Five, at the outer edge of the ring, centrifugal force generates 1.1 Gs—more than the surface of dirt and nearly twice what I grew up in. An object with an inertial mass of one hundred kilograms on the surface of dirt would have just under thirty kilos of inertial mass on Deck One, about fifty-six kilos on Deck Three, and 110 kilos on Deck Five.

But you gain inertial mass, Dr. Kelso said, coming to Momster’s defense, which your muscles and bones experience as weight and adapt accordingly, which is the point. Good to have you back, Mara. For a moment I thought we’d lost you.

I was just thinking.

Good. She looked like she thought she’d just been funny. "To answer your question, Mrs. Duval, we are moving quickly because we’re getting Mara as acclimated as we can in half the recommended time. However, we are not doing anything that will cause long-term harm."

I noticed she didn’t include short-term harm in that assurance.

Let’s get your vitals, shall we? Dr. Kelso said. Then we can see about your next round of boosters.

She sounded blowing cheerful about stabbing me with more needles.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021


I made a face at the saleslady. She didn’t blink. I stuck out my tongue. Same lack of result. I was standing four steps from her, maybe twenty degrees to the right of her direct line of sight on Jael, and she couldn’t see me.

Invisibility was one of the underappreciated benefits of being the white half of our twinship.

Okay, technically Jael and I aren’t twins—or even related—but except for being two different races and her being three months older than me and me being three inches shorter than her and my eyes being blue and hers brown and my longish hair being mildly reddish blonde and her definitely short hair being intensely black and only one of us having freckles, we’re practically indistinguishable. Our dads had been partners—like cop buddy–movie partners—for years before we came along, so us being raised in each other’s pockets was more a continuation of tradition than anything else. All of our lives anyone who knew one of us knew both of us came as a set, and nine out of ten times that was fine with everyone concerned. Maybe closer to four out of five. But definitely usually.

We can expect it to not be fine when we’re doing something people aren’t used to seeing in a place nobody knows us. Like shopping together at a-little-too-proud-of-being-upscale Brennan’s, which catered to the professional woman.

Under normal circumstances Jael and I would never set foot in Brennan’s. Not only are we half the age of their usual shoppers, as sophomores in high school we’re both still amateur women. Well, I am. Jael has this professional look she does when she’s doing serious shopping and ignoring people like this blank-faced saleslady watching her like a hawk with no intention of offering to help.

We were here today because Jael’s mom, a.k.a. my Aunt Elizabeth (who’s not my aunt), and my mom, a.k.a. Mom, a.k.a. Jael’s Aunt Renée (who’s not really her aunt), had convinced Jael that a solid foundation of classic clothes augmented by more trendy pieces would be a good investment for a young woman with ambition attending the Pembroke Home for Wayward Academic Overachievers. (Which is probably not what I would have been calling Pembroke Accelerated Academy if I’d passed their entrance exam with the same flying colors Jael had and been accepted instead of waitlisted.)

Only Mom was with us on the actual expedition because one of Aunt Elizabeth’s clients had been hit with some sort of tax-audit emergency and called for help. At the moment Mom was off on her own, scouting possible finds for Jael while Jael worked her way methodically through olive and algae and not-found-in-nature green blouses.

Having established that non-selling saleslady keeping an eye on Jael was as oblivious to mocking as she had been to broadly pantomimed imitation shoplifting, I dismissed her as a source of entertainment and headed over to Jael with my find.

Try this.

It was a gauzy overshirt with a subdued tropical motif—mostly a turquoisey blue with flashes of other colors. Bright, but washed out enough not to be too bright.

Jael gave me that one-arched-eyebrow look she knows I hate because I can’t do it.


Over a white tank or spaghetti, I said.

"It’s a summer top," she pointed out.

On seventy-five percent off clearance, I agreed. Buy it now, wear it in May.

Jael just shook her head and turned back to methodically working her way through improbably hued microfiber—silk, I autocorrected, catching one of the labels—tops. She already had two dull tops, a cream and a beige, over her arm and I was getting concerned she thought classic meant pass for thirty.

I held the summer top up against her shoulders, checking how it looked against the back of her neck. I tilted my head, inviting the saleslady watching Jael to admire how the turquoise came alive against Jael’s carob skin, but her expression didn’t budge.

Carob. That’s what Jael has called her color since we were seven. When we were little her dad had named us chocolate and strawberry, and for years that had been everyone’s name for the pair of us—especially when we’d been up to no good. (So, basically every day.) Then one day Jael announced that she wasn’t chocolate any more, she was carob. I’d pointed out carob looks just like chocolate and argued carob and strawberry didn’t sound right, but Jael never budged.

She’s like that.

I sighed dramatically, winning no sympathy from Jael or the saleslady, and eyed the distance I’d have to trudge to put the shirt back on the clearance rack.

Pembroke does not have a thirty-and-over dress code. Accelerated academies are public schools with the same rules as every other school. Anything that was clean, devoid of words or symbols, and covered everything that should be covered would do. However, what all accelerated academies do have that are seldom found at pedestrian high schools like Franklin (from whence we’d come and to which I’d be returning) is a lot of rich kids. An AA diploma gets a student into high-power universities that lead to high-power careers, and rich families hire tutors to prep their kids for the entrance exams (though I hear helping with the homework is frowned upon). And a high school full of rich kids means all the not-rich kids have to kick their wardrobes up a few notches. Because it’s high school. This goes up by a factor of ten for Jael: she’ll be the only carob girl on campus this year.

A nice blue might work. Mom had reappeared bearing a selection of sharp tops she’d liberated from a rack labeled Egyptian cotton.

These Jael liked. She picked a sort-of periwinkle pastel one and another the color of almost-faded jeans that looked better against her dark skin than my tropical turquoise, and one that looked more like a sort of celery green than blue to me. Sage, maybe?

Mom relieved Jael of the dull beige and duller-green tops but let her keep the cream and pointed her toward the fitting rooms. Of course the saleslady who’d ignored my camaraderie started to follow her.

Excuse me, Mom said in her authority voice.

I used to imagine her spending years in a secluded monastery (abbey?) mastering that tone like an arcane martial art. I suspect there was some sort of blood sacrifice involved. Mom didn’t use the authority voice often, but when she did—well, I’m pretty sure it could stop bullets.

In this case the voice made the stony-faced saleslady spin around and not-quite-run back to Mom. Ma’am?

Mom handed her the tops Jael hadn’t taken from her and the ones she’d taken from Jael. If you’d be so kind.

She headed toward the fitting rooms without waiting to see how kind the saleslady actually was. I dropped the turquoise overshirt on top of her armload and followed my mother.

Jael’s final total wasn’t astronomical—though it was seriously stratospheric—but in the end, by listening to Mom instead of me, she had a versatile wardrobe with a few skirts (including a dramatic-but-not-too-tight pencil), two jackets that could go causal or dressy, a few of pairs of professional-grade (lined) slacks with a "you-will-not-check-my-butt, you-will-admire-my-style" cut, and enough tops to mix and match her way through a few weeks without duplication.

I’d have been more jealous of her new wardrobe if I didn’t know I’d be borrowing most of it.

The saleslady—a different one—gave Jael’s ID the briefest glance before running her credit card. The effect of Mom’s presence. On our own Jael and I have stood at registers for hours while the bank verified her credit card or the system confirmed her ID. (Once, a store manager questioned whether Jael even knew the name on her ID because it clearly said Jay-el and she kept saying Zha-el. He got straightened out by not one but two FBI agents. Very satisfying.) Me, I get the ID scrutiny maybe once a month, and no one has ever called a bank about my card. Jael goes through the whole routine every time she buys anything more expensive than a burger.

It’s 2021, people. 2021. Not the dark ages. The twentieth century ended decades ago. Catch up.

The saleslady’s eyebrow went up a quarter-inch when Jael told her she wanted everything delivered and where, but she promised it would be there, protectively packaged, by the end of the day.

We decided on a light lunch before tackling the quest for shoes. Well, we decided on lunch, Mom decided on light and steered us away from Pizza Piazza and into a sit-down place that looked remarkably smug about serving nothing but salads. Fortunately, there were meat and cheese options to counteract any healthful effects of the fresh greens and crisp veggies.

While waiting on our orders—honestly, how long does it take to make a salad?—I pulled my padputer from my bag and made half the screen a keyboard so I could update my journal while Jael and Mom plotted stores to hit after lunch.

You okay?

I looked up and realized I’d missed Jael going to the restroom or wherever, and it was just Mom and me.


Mom can’t arch just one eyebrow, so she raised both and waited.

Getting a new upscale wardrobe of my own would be cooler, I admitted. But I’m okay.

Being waitlisted doesn’t mean you’re out of the running for this year, Mom began.

And being out this year doesn’t mean I won’t get in next, I finished. I get it. I just really thought I’d make the cut.

"You did make the cut, Mom said. That’s why you’re on the wait list."

I read the gee-you-almost-made-it letter too, Mom, I said. As soon as enough people flunk out, I’m in.

Story or journal? Jael asked, sliding back into her seat.

Journal, I said. I still poke at story ideas, but I haven’t written anything with a beginning, middle, and end since that horrendously cringeful horror of a romance about my eighth grade crush (whose name shall be forever stricken from the record). When you’re a legendary outer space explorer, the tell-all memoir of your spunky lifelong sidekick should be worth quite a bit.

You’re not my sidekick.

Less ambiguous than ‘lifelong companion,’ I pointed out. Plus, trust me, your sidekick’s tell-all memoir will sell more copies than the diary of your biologically unrelated twin.

The arrival of our salads—mine looking much less salady than theirs—derailed the conversation.

The fact is, I keep a journal because Jael does. She determined years ago that she was going to accomplish great things, and no one who knows her doubts for a second that she will. And at some point someone, I suspect either my dad or hers, told her she’d better take notes so she’ll have all the facts right when she wrote her autobiography. I’m pretty sure it was meant as a joke, but Jael, being Jael, took journaling as seriously as she takes everything else and has been writing about her life ever since. Hang out with someone while they write and you’ll eventually start writing, too. Well, I did, anyway.

1440 / 02 September 2021


From hairline to jawline and across from ear to ear Derrick’s face was one bright-red, first-degree radiation burn. Sitting at a table with a half-dozen admirers on the far side of the common he glowed like a beacon. (Commons, hypothetical reader, are public eating and socializing areas with tables, chairs, and dispenser stations offering a variety of specialized foods and drinks. In a crowded environment where everyone works hard at ignoring everyone else, public spaces where it’s okay to socialize are pretty important. Tombaugh Station has forty-two commons.) Somehow he saw me above the crowd and grinned—his teeth shone white against the raw red background of his face—which had to hurt. He waved me over and I waved back, pointing to the row of dispensers to indicate I was going to pick up my protein pack first.

Derrick’s face burn meant he’d passed his EVA exam.

Here’s another Commander Tenafly–mandated information dump for hypothetical readers who are hypothetically unfamiliar with life in space or how the Space Service Junior Officer Training program relates to the Space Service Academy. If you already know all of this, skip the next seven paragraphs. (Really. It’s over five hundred words.)

EVA (hypothetically pronounced ee-vee-ay) stands for extravehicular activity—a term only used in safety warnings, training manuals, and performance evaluations. EVA means everything you do in space when you’re not on a station or

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