Date Point: First Contact Day, 6y AV
HMS Sharman, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“I’m glad that’s out of the way.”
Powell chuckled. He’d worked under Admiral Patrick Knight before, when the man had been a Commodore. Knight was his opposite in many ways: where Powell was wiry, intense and shaven, Knight was a slender beanpole who wore a white moustache and a relaxed demeanour. They had in common a hatred of needless ceremony—both were men of deed rather than pomp. “It was a good speech.” he reassured the admiral.
“I should damn well hope so.” Knight chuckled. “Interest you in a drink, Major? You really shouldn’t accept a promotion without celebrating it somehow.”
“I don’t really have enough mates for a wetting down.” Powell said.
“Hence a snifter of Brandy with a posh old dinosaur like me instead.” Knight winked.
“…Aye, alright. Got to mark the occasion sometime.”
“Knew you’d come around.” Knight fished out some cut glass tumblers and a decanter. Knowing the admiral, they’d been among the very first things he’d unpacked. “You must be pleased with yourself. This is quite a command you’ve landed.”
“Oh aye.” Powell agreed, watching him pour. “A promotion and five times as much paperwork? I’m living the dream.”
Knight chuckled quietly. “That you are. Do you have any idea how much there is to do in upgrading this camp into a full blown HMS?”
“Why d’you think I’m volunteering to go through a couple of years of hard training instead?”
This got a full-fledged laugh, and Knight handed him his drink. “I appreciate that you’re the only man with ANY experience of commanding the kind of operations this Regiment of yours will be conducting” he said “but are you absolutely SURE you’re up to this, Powell? Those men are going to need somebody they can respect and follow without question, and that means you’ll need to keep up with them in training. Physically speaking…”
Powell raised a hand. “I’m not as young as I once was.” he agreed. “But I’ll either clear that training or die trying, you can bet your life savings on that one, sir.”
“Knowing you, you mean that literally.” Knight raised his glass. “To the former, then.”
Powell met the toast. “Aye.”
Date Point: 6y 5m AV
“Miss Ava Rios,
20 Delaney Row,
I am delighted to offer you a place on our BA Journalism (Hons) course, reflecting the glowing praise given by your senior school teacher Dr. J. Olmstead and the high academic performance you have been able to demonstrate. While we regret not being able to interview you in person, we felt that your application letter showed you to be erudite and charming, and we hope to see you at the start of the semester on September 17th of this year.
Please find enclosed your full admissions package and the details of what you will need to do in order to confirm your place on our course.
Jennifer Roberts, Admissions Officer
City University London.
Date Point: 6y 6m AV
Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, USA, Earth
“You realise you guys are crazy, right?”
Adam looked up. Like most of the others, he’d been examining the maroon beret in his hands for most of the evening, scarcely able to believe he was finally holding it, gently feeling the fabric, and just appreciating it.
Tony Collins high-fived him. Collins was one of the majority who were staying on as full-time PJs, and Adam had a huge amount of respect for all of them. They took the creed seriously.
“Guess we are.” he agreed. Baseball was on Skype to his mother back in LA, but there was no doubt who the other half of the “you guys” plural that Collins had used was meant to be.
“You’re gonna be old men before you’re even done training.” Collins added, sitting down. “I don’t know how you’ve got the patience for it.”
“Twenty-three ain’t old.” Adam told him.
“It’ll fuckin’ feel like it by the time you’re mission ready.” Collins retorted. “Where are you shipping out to next, anyway?”
“Got some comprehensive armament training and then it’s on to Alabama. Astronaut training in Huntsville.”
“Fuckin’ space cowboys.” Collins chuckled, then held out a hand. Adam stood, shook it, and Collins slammed into him in a vigorous guy-hug. “Hey, you ever decide you want to come back down to Earth, you let me know, Hoss.”
Adam smiled. “Go save lives, man. It’s been a privilege.”
Date Point: 6y 9m AV
“Wow. You really don’t have a lot of stuff, do you?”
Ava’s worldly possessions, in fact, consisted of one suitcase full of clothing, a backpack, and two modest cardboard boxes. Adam owned even less, and most of that had long since been put into storage in the bottom of his dad’s wardrobe, or given to charity.
“Most of the plates and stuff came with the house.” She said, looking around it for probably the last time.
Delaney Row was the last holdout of the little compact portable houses that had been Array-jumped to Folctha during the early days of the colonisation, and those were only holding out while the next housing plan was built. They were marvels of efficient use of space, squeezing two bedrooms, a kitchen, living area and bathroom into a mere double-digit of square footage.
“You’re going to miss this place, aren’t you?” Gabe observed.
“Yeah. I’ve got so used to how everything just sort of hides away or pulls double-duty.” She agreed, demonstrating how the steps up into her bedroom were also the bookshelf and the fridge door. She sighed, and took down the last thing—an oval of varnished Pinkwood with the word “EDEN” pyrographed into its surface that had been hanging from the door ever since they’d first arrived.
She put it on top of the smaller box, the one full of things she was leaving for Gabriel and Jess to look after, then stood in the middle of the room and flapped her arms, once. “Goodbye, house.”
They walked her to the Array terminal and watched through the glass as it activated while she was mid-wave. A cuboid of perfect blackness filled the jump room, and when it collapsed out of existence, it took her with it.
Gabe sagged, the instant she was gone.
Jess just took his hand and walked him home.
Date Point: 6y 9m AV
Huntsville, Alabama, USA, Earth
“Aw man, you guys got here first? I was hoping for a good bed!”
There was some laughter, and the four men from Delta Force who had been squaring their stuff away dropped what they were doing to welcome Adam and Baseball.
“They’re all good beds.” One of them promised. “So you’re our PJs? Jeez, you guys look like you could rip a steer in half.”
“We both got plenty of gains in us yet.” Baseball noted. “You guys’re on the Crue-D too, huh?”
“We all are.” The one with the name ‘Stevenson’ on his chest declared. “You think we’re gonna get bigger?”
“Shit yeah!” Baseball enthused. “Warhorse here’s gonna be the fuckin’ freak, though. Stumpy-ass midget fucker’s got the mechanical advantage.”
“Warhorse?” Sergeant Akiyama gave Adam a questioning look, as Adam gave his friend a cheerful middle finger.
“Cause he can carry a lotta heavy shit.” Baseball told them, sparing Adam’s blushes for once.
“We’re gonna need it.” Vandenberg commented. Adam got the feeling that where the other three had sized him up—as he had to them in turn—Vandenberg was evaluating him. Not maliciously, but it was telling that Stevenson, Sikes and Akiyama glanced at him as if to gauge his opinion. It was a subtle, deferential bit of body language that Adam almost missed. They shook hands. “You guys heard anything about the suits we’ll be wearing yet?”
“Only a guesstimate of the weight.” Adam told him.
“Yeah, I did some digging. Word is the designer’s a guy called Andrew Cavendish, and everything I could find about the guy says that’s not a guesstimate. He’ll have had the weight of that suit down to ten decimal places long before they built a prototype.”
“You dig up our itinerary for the week in all that research?” Baseball asked him
“Nope. Guess nobody’s made an extravehicular special forces unit before, so it’s all being played by ear. Heard we’re all arriving today though, and my guess is we’ll be doing some PT after everyone’s in and stowed away. Maybe a speech from the old man first, you know how it goes.”
There was some nodding. “Guess we’d better get our shit away.” Adam said.
“Top bunk!” Baseball called, dashing towards an unclaimed dorm room. The others nodded, waved and wandered off to carry on their chores.
“…He knows we’ve all got our own room, doesn’t he?” Akiyama asked.
“Ah, that’s just a tradition of his.” Adam replied, flinging his own bag over his shoulder and heading for the door next to Baseball’s. “I got the top bunk in basic, he reckons it should have been his, ‘cause he’s taller, so… ”
“So he grabs it first. Right.”
“I’ll be right back. Better unload my stuff.”
“Sure. We’ve got a couple hours before the Controllers and the Brits arrive, we were gonna watch Zombie Shark Three. Sound good?”
“Sounds fucking terrible.” Adam replied. “I’m in.”
Date Point: 6y 9m AV
London, England, Earth
Ava had been dreading what the halls of residence might be like. There had been horror stories all over the Internet, which was why she’d saved up her teaching money to get herself some of the really good ones in the colourful new building.
Frankly, the space could have been put to much better use. If it had been designed with the same efficiency and folding-away that “Eden” had boasted, she could have had a whole house in that room. But it would do, if kept tidy.
She’d been hanging up her clothes when the ‘hello?’ had arrived simultaneously with a knock on the door, which, being ajar, swung inwards cautiously.
Ava waved hello. The girl who’d opened the door was tall, somewhere upwards of six feet, every inch of which lived in her thistledown-light long limbs. Between her straight ash-blonde hair, dazzling blue eyes, nordic skin and the diaphanous, layered pale blue summer dress she was wearing, she would have been intimidatingly pretty if not for her unreservedly friendly smile and bare feet.
“Hi.” Ava said, offering a cautious wave.
“Hello.” the blonde girl greeted her. She had a high, musical voice and a cultured accent. “How are you setting in? Have you been here long?”
“I just got here.” Ava revealed, indicating her suitcase and cardboard box on the bed. “I don’t have a lot of stuff with me.”
“Oh, you are so lucky, my parents wouldn’t let me leave home without…everything! My room’s a tip!”
Ava laughed, and stuck out a hand. “Ava.”
“Hi Ava! I’m Charlotte.” came the reply, along with a handshake that was every bit as delicate as the girl herself. “You’re American!”
“Cimbrean, actually.” Ava told her, deciding that first introductions were probably not a great time to mention San Diego.
“…As in, the planet Cimbrean? Oh my God!” Charlotte scooted into the room and sat eagerly on Ava’s desk chair, immediately confirming Ava’s suspicion that she was the kind of person who made friends instantly, whether or not the friend in question agreed.
Fortunately, she was in a mood to make friends, and Charlotte seemed nice.
Charlotte leaned forward eagerly. “Deets.”
“Details! What’s it like living on another planet? Are there aliens?”
Ava giggled. “Yeah, there are aliens. They’re Buddhists.”
“Oh yeah. And you can get high off the local tea. And the capitol city’s called Folctha, which is the Irish word for ‘bath’, because the lady who named it walked half-way round the planet to get to that bath and was in it when the soldiers arrived to found the colony.”
Despite Ava’s best efforts to make it all sound incredible, Charlotte looked like she believed every word without question. “Okay,” Ava asked her. “Where are you from?”
“Newcastle. Up north, I know I don’t sound it, we moved up there when I was seven.”
“I wouldn’t know the difference.” Ava confessed. “I’ve never been to England before.”
“Oh. Well, it sounds…” Charlotte cleared her throat, and spoke in a rounder, impenetrable accent. “…’Ahreet, ahya coominoot thaneet?”
Ava raised a hand to cover her laugh, and decided that she liked Charlotte, who’d bobbled her head and made a silly face during her imitation. “Okay, what did that mean?”
“Darling, you simply must come and have a drink with me on the town this evening.” Charlotte explained, employing a bourgeois motion of the hand and a toss of her head to punctuate the word ‘must’, and beamed when Ava giggled. “Daddy wanted me to be an actress.” she revealed. “I think he’s a bit put out that I’d rather be a midwife.”
Ava nodded. “I’m doing journalism.” she replied.
“So, are we having that drink?”
“We…? Oh. Yeah. We can! I keep forgetting I’m old enough to drink in this country.” She nodded. “Can I have a few minutes to finish putting my stuff away? Then sure, let’s go have fun.”
“Don’t be too long!” Charlotte told her, and skipped out of the room to grab her coat, shoes and handbag.
Ava watched her go, smiling, and hurried to finish hanging up her shirts.
Date Point: 6y 9m AV
Huntsville Alabama, USA, Earth
Baseball lost it, covered his face with one hand and writhed in his seat, wheezing a laugh deep in his gut. “Oh my fucking…”
“He’s actually milking the giant cow.” Adam noted, folding his arms and throwing his head back to stare at the ceiling rather than the farce on screen. The whole movie was bad to the point of hilarity, leaving all six of them in varying stages of laughter, from Baseball’s high-pitched Muttley snicker, to Vandenberg’s nasal explosions.
Stevenson wiped away a tear. “Man, fucking…oh my God.” his voice had gone up about an octave. “This has GOT to be deliberate.”
“Of course it is.” Vandenberg said. “Come on, you don’t think they took this shit seriously do you?”
“Just be tragic if they had.” Akiyama agreed.
“Ah, shit…” Adam grabbed the remote, spying movement out the corner of his eye through the window. “I think the old man’s here early.”
There was a general looking-around and standing-up as it became apparent that he was right, a group of men were on the path round the side of the dorm building, carrying bags.
They were up and waiting when the door opened therefore, to admit four men that Adam didn’t recognise and, bringing up the rear, Legsy.
“Wa-HEY!!” the huge Brit pounced on Adam and tried to hoist him up in a hug, only just managing it. “Fuckin’ look at you, pal!” He delivered a friendly punch to the arm. “Knew you had it in you!”
Adam laughed and returned the show of affection with a high-five that turned into a shoulder-barging hug, which was interrupted by a cry of “Room, ten-SHUT!”
Everyone snapped to attention.
“Stand at ease.”
Eleven boots shifted sideways by a synchronized shoulder-width as Major Owen Powell nodded his satisfaction and strolled into the middle of the room, the very picture of a confident and seasoned officer inspecting his subordinates for the first time. He looked good, Adam realised. Powell had never looked frail, but presumably he was on the Crue-D too—he’d gained some serious muscle mass, and several of the lines in his face were gone, or much reduced. He looked younger, fiercer and stronger.
“Arés. Burgess.” he greeted them, favouring Adam with a nod. “Settling in well?”
“Good.” The major turned and addressed everyone. “Stand easy, lads.” He ordered.
Everyone unwound a little bit, adjusted their clothes, and settled into a relaxed but alert posture with their hands resting lightly in the small of their backs, paying attention.
“I won’t keep you long.” Powell told them, finding a spot where they could all face him and be faced in turn. “Today’s a rest and social day, just get to know one another. We’ll be doing intensive PT throughout the rest of this week and some confidence-building, but for now, introductions.”
“For those who don’t know me, my name is Major Owen Powell, Royal Marines Special Boat Service. My service history includes the Persian Gulf, Operation Elder Grove, Kenya, and Cimbrean. I am, for the time being, the only commissioned officer in the SOR: When and how that changes is still being discussed. Master Sergeant Jones here-” he indicated Legsy “Is your NCOIC.”
He looked around. “I appreciate that with eight of you being American, you may not be certain about having a British commanding officer. I intend to demonstrate that I can hang with the best of them and that I got this position on merit. By the time we’re done here, I’ll have certified to operate a spacesuit alongside you, and will have undergone Crue-D aggressive training just like everyone else.”
Adam nodded slightly, pleased to hear it. He’d guessed that Powell would stand for nothing less, but it was good to hear the major confirm it.
For his part, Powell seemed satisfied that he’d said enough. “We’ll be discussing our full itinerary tomorrow after morning PT. This whole project is uncharted territory, so you’re going to be heavily involved in getting things set up, figuring out what roles we fill and how we’re going to set about getting the best of our training opportunities. We’ll get it right, and between us we’ll set up a unit that’ll be the pride and envy of the galaxy. Arright?”
There was a chorused. “Yes sir!”
“Good. Legsy, you know how to reach me if I’m needed. The rest of you—As you were. Have fun.”
Everyone relaxed once the door closed behind him.
“So yeah, that’s the old man.” Legsy commented, grinning. “Relax boys, I’ve worked with him for years. We’re in fuckin’ good hands.”
Vandenberg nodded. “I was wondering what he’d be like. Nice to meet you, Master Sergeant.”
“‘Ey, I’m Legsy to everybody, even my Nan, God rest ‘er.” Legsy protested, though he shook Vandenberg’s hand, and those of the other Deltas.
The other four men that Adam didn’t recognise turned out to be their two Combat Controllers—Scott Blaczynski and Christian Firth—and two more Special Boat Service operators, Leo Price and Robert Murray.
“So…no offense to you guys or anything, but how come we don’t got no Seals in this unit?” Sikes asked. He’d so far been the quiet one of the Deltas, content to let everyone else do the talking.
“USN didn’t sign up to the Regiment.” Murray said. He too was a quiet one, a soft-spoken Scot with a nasty scar down the length of one forearm. It must have been an old one, maybe even pre-dating his military career, or else the Crue-D treatment would have softened and faded it.
“They got a rationale for that, that you know of?” Vandenberg asked.
“What I heard was that we’re goin’ tae need more than one kind of operator out there.” Murray shrugged. “Us here? We’re all goin’ tae be bloody huge by the time we’re done. That’s no good for a Seal. They need to stay normal-sized. But on the other hand, they’ll have the stickin’ power for long deployments, which we won’t.”
Vandenberg nodded. “Right. I don’t care if we find a Class Three where squirrels made of peanut butter jump into our mouths, we’re not gonna be breaking even for calories on any op we do.” He nodded towards Adam. “Especially not the PJs.”
“Bloody right.” Murray agreed, looking to Adam. “You’re volunteering to carry the rest of us? You’re fuckin’ crazy, pal.”
Adam gave a self-deprecating little shrug and looked around the room. Legsy was unpacking an old PS3, which Baseball, Firth and Akiyama were practically salivating over. Stevenson and Price, meanwhile, were setting up in the kitchen ready to prepare their first barracks dinner, an occasion which Stevenson had marked by donning a pink gingham apron.
“…I think we all are.” he said.
Date Point: 6y 9m AV
Saddlers Bar, CULSU student bar, London, England, Earth
“So…not a wine fan, huh?”
Ava shook her head apologetically and handed over the glass. “I think I’ll keep it in church.” she said, licking her lips to try and get rid of the aftertaste. If that was alcohol, she was beginning to wonder what the appeal might be.
Charlotte nodded, finished the wine, then spied something over Ava’s shoulder and did an admirable impression of a magpie catching sight of something shiny. “Ooh! Boy candy!”
Ava turned reflexively to frown at whatever Charlotte was staring at, not really seeing anything. “What?”
“The two in the waistcoats by the bar?” Charlotte insisted, though she sounded more amused than impatient.
Ava finally saw them. “Oh.” she turned back to Charlotte, who rolled her eyes.
“Really?” she demanded.
“They’re pretty!” Charlotte insisted.
“They’re stick thin!” Ava objected.
“What, don’t tell me you’re into fat guys?”
“I’m into a guy who can pick me up.” Ava replied, allowing herself the luxury of a boast and a sly smile. That little experiment had been especially fun. Charlotte rewarded her with a mock-scandalized pantomime, raising her fingertips to her open mouth, mimicking a little gasp and raising her eyebrows.
“Okay.” she demanded. “Deets.”
“What? My boyfriend can pick me up.” Ava feigned innocence, then relented and allowed her sultry smile to show. “Against a wall. For, like, half an hour.”
“You’re making that up!” Charlotte scoffed.
“Well…It felt like half an hour, anyway.” Ava conceded. She hadn’t exactly been watching the clock for an objective assessment.
“Wow…” Charlotte drifted off into a fantasy fugue for a second. “Still…I want that blond one.” she looked over Ava’s shoulder at the ‘boy candy’ again.
Ava examined Charlotte’s choice. He was about six feet tall, well-groomed and sporting some slightly retro stubble and the kind of fashionable haircut and makeup that would have looked very strange ten years ago. Good-looking, but in a kind of slim, metrosexual way. His sleeves were rolled up, revealing tattoos that looked like they went all the way up.
His friend was taller, darker of hair and paler of skin with a distinctively straight nose and a square jaw that looked a bit out of place on his otherwise rail-thin frame.
As Ava watched, the oriental dragon coiled around the blond’s left arm moved its head and flicked a serpentine tongue.
“Wait, what the fuck, his tattoo’s animated?” she asked
“Yeah! Nanotattoos! Don’t you have those in space yet?”
“We don’t even have the old-fashioned ink kind in Folctha.” Ava revealed. “So, what, he’s got nanites under his skin?”
“Yep. And you can upload pictures and designs from your phone.” Charlotte tugged down the neck of her dress slightly, revealing a fairy on her breast, who flapped her wings and ran a hand through her hair. She plucked her phone from inside her bra and fiddled with it, cycling the decoration through a cluster of hearts, a butterfly and a fish before returning to the fairy. All of the different designs were animated.
“Are those even safe?” Ava asked, still reeling from the revelation that they even existed.
“Safer than the ink kind, they’re all hypoallergenic and stuff. And you can just turn them off if you want to be neat for a job interview or something.” Charlotte said. “You should get one!”
“Boy candy, remember?” Ava changed the subject.
“Oh, right!” Charlotte knocked back the last of her drink and adjusted her dress some more so as to ensure that her tattoo (and more importantly its canvas) was prominently on display. “Would you be a darling and fly wing-girl?”
Ava froze. “I’ve never flown wing-girl in my life!”
“It’s easy, just talk to his friend.”
“How do I…?”
“Relax.” Charlotte gave her best winning smile. “I’ll break the ice.”
She grabbed Ava’s hand and towed her to the bar, and interrupted the ‘boy candy’s conversation with a friendly. “Hi! I’m Charlotte, I’m from Newcastle. This is Ava—she’s from outer space.”
Ava could only give them an apologetic smile and a shrug.
Up close, she had to admit that Charlotte was right: they were pretty. The taller one with the dark hair, who was wearing a silver waistcoat and bottle-green jeans, shook their hands smiling a relaxed and amused smile. “Hello Charlotte from Newcastle and Ava from outer space.” he said, “I’m Sean from Finchley, and this is Ben from…actually where are you from, Ben?”
“Southampton.” Ben replied, treating Charlotte to a handsome half-smile that was the exact masculine answer to her own flirtatious stance. Sean looked between them, then caught Ava’s gaze and rolled his eyes. “I’ll get the drinks in then, shall I?” He offered.
Ava suppressed a laugh. “I’ll join you.”
They left Ben and Charlotte to go through the motions of getting to know one another and retreated to the bar.
“So…Outer space?” Sean asked.
“Really? Dench!” He beamed. “What’s it like out there?”
Ava sighed. “It was beautiful.” she said. “Right now it’s all, kinda like…being built or regrown. All the native plants near Folctha have died and the Terran imports are so young, y’know? It’s going to be a forest eventually but right now it’s just a whole bunch of saplings.
“What really happened to it anyway?”
“What did you hear?” Ava asked.
“That somebody took a dump in the woods.”
“Yep. That’s what really happened.”
Sean burst out laughing. “You’re taking the piss!”
She shrugged. “Nope. That’s what happened. Crazy, huh?”
Sean laughed again and shook his head. “Mad. Anyway: buy you a drink?”
“Sure, but I’m…kinda taken.”
Sean laughed again. He had an easy, light laugh that he seemed to deploy often. “Relax duck, I’m not like them two.” he jerked his thumb toward Ben and Charlotte. “I don’t go from ‘hi there’ to ‘let’s rock the sheets’ in two seconds. What’s yours?”
“My–? Oh, my drink. Uh…Iunno, I’ve never really drunk before.”
“You like cranberry?”
“Right, Amaretto and cranberry and a Corona and lime then.”
Ava inclined her head. “Why’s that?”
“I like them both so whichever you decide you like, I’ll have the other.” Sean said. He caught the bartender’s eye and placed the order.
“So what’s your other half’s name?” He asked upon turning back to her.
“Adam. Airman Adam Arés, United States Air Force.”
“Yeah? Your bloke’s military? Blates dench.”
Ava shook her head, a little incredulous of the slang. “Okay, okay, what the HELL does ‘Plate stench’ mean?” she demanded.
Sean laughed again as he received the drinks. “Blates. Dench.” he enunciated. “Blatantly awesome. ‘I say old thing, that really is rather amazing’. You see? Anyway, have a sip of these, tell me which you prefer.”
Ava accepted the amaretto-cranberry first and sipped it. It was pleasantly sweet and sort of…nutty? Pastry? The beer on the other hand just made her stick out her tongue and make a sort of ‘nghah!’ sound and she thrust it back into Sean’s hand, drawing another of those easy, light laughs out of him.
He was good for lifting her mood at least, she decided. Her life could do with more laughter.
“What about you?” she asked. “Where’s Finchley?”
“Oh, about ten stops away on the Tube.” he smiled. “Bit closer than Cimbrean.”
“Just a bit!” she agreed.
“What’re you studying?” Sean asked.
“Yeah? Same here!”
“Oh, thank God.” she sighed. “I’ll have somebody to sit next to in class.”
“Am I literally the only person you know, then?” Sean asked, then glanced up. “Besides…Charlotte, was it?”
“That’s right. And, yes.”
“What’s she doing?”
“Uh…Midwifery. I think.”
Sean laughed again. “Her? Ditzy.” he declared. “Those babies are gonna come into this world and the first thing they’ll see is her tattoo waving at them.”
Ava glanced across at Charlotte, who couldn’t have been flirting harder if she’d been giving Ben a lapdance. “Hey, she knows what she wants and she goes for it. I kind of admire that.”
“Shall we get back over there before they head back to the dorms?” Sean indicated the drinks.
Ava nodded, pleased to have made a friend. “Good idea.” she said.
Date Point: 6y 10m AV
Bankhead Parkway NE, Huntsville, Alabama, USA, Earth
“Fuckin’ Christ, Arés. How heavy’s that ruck?”
“Tell…you what…” Adam took a few huge breaths to try and force down his panting breath, leaning on his own thighs. “You wanna…wear it? Try and…beat my time?”
He shrugged said pack off, and lowered it to the ground, restraining a sigh of relief. The bag was at least half again as heavy as his spacesuit was eventually going to be and he’d just finished a twenty click forced march that had, through sheer competitiveness and bloody-minded macho stupidity, become a twenty click jog, and then a twenty click run. He was fucking beat, but also determined not to show it.
That was probably true of everyone, however. Every last one of them had taken the opportunity, upon crossing the finish line, to ditch the bags and start inhaling sports drinks, and all of them, to his trained eye, were nursing something or another that was causing them pain. Most were staring off into the distance beyond the ground between their feet, in the meditative way of the truly exhausted.
“Not this year, thanks.” Price smacked him on the shoulder in a friendly way, and looked back down the path, wiping the sweat off his brow. “And hey, you beat the Major at least.”
“He’ll make it.” Adam said. “Can’t expect him to keep up with guys who are like two thirds his age.”
“Oh, I know he will, mate. I was on Operation Elder Grove with Powell.” Price said. “And to be fair, he only started on the magic potion like three months ago. He’s come a long way, fast.”
Adam looked back down the trail they’d just run just as Powell finally came into view.
He looked in a bad way. He was limping, his whole head was red with exertion and his scalp and nose were dripping with sweat, but there was a ferocious scowl on his face, the expression of a man who was doggedly telling physics and biology to go fuck themselves.
The Deltas to a man, plus Legsy, Burgess and Firth, hauled themselves stiffly to their feet and started whooping and hollering, inspiring their CO to put his head down a bit more and pick up his pace on the final straight, just by a little.
The cheering faded when his leg suddenly gave out under him, totally failing to hold his weight any longer. Powell nose-dived into the dirt and rolled, clutching at his calf and gritting teeth that were suddenly covered in the blood that was pouring from his nose.
Adam took off running just ahead of Baseball, and they arrived as Powell rolled over and started to lever himself upright.
“Fook off.” The major tried to weight-bear on his left leg and nearly fell over again—there was no strength left in it at all. “Ee, ya fookin’- Aaargh!”
“As your medic—” Baseball began.
Powell grabbed the front of Baseball’s shirt…“I’m finishing. This fookin’ run.” he snarled, pausing for emphasis, “If I have to fookin’ HOP.”
Powell did exactly as he’d described, bouncing on his good leg to the edge of the trail and drawing his knife to cut the base of a thumb-thick branch from one of the hundreds of trees that had lined their trail. He tested his weight on it, then set off hobbling, pinching his nose to stop the bleeding and with two concerned pararescuemen exchanging worried glances in his shadow.
He was barely managing a walking pace, but true to his word, he finished the run, swearing and chuntering away to himself every inch of it before he finally crossed the line and sank down onto the concrete divider that marked where the path met the road, his face pinched and his teeth clenched. The men were all watching with expressions of mixed concern and admiration.
“Arright.” he declared. “NOW you can fookin’ medic me.”
Baseball set to work, examining the enormous bruise that was already spreading across Powell’s calf. “Crue.” he demanded, sticking out a hand.
Adam had already prepared an injector, which he duly handed over. Baseball had a soft and efficient touch with needles. He also handed Powell an anaesthetic lolly. “stick that under your tongue for thirty seconds, sir.” he ordered.
Powell did as instructed, popping the little white painkiller wand into his mouth and then began to count aloud, though the stick under his tongue hindered the attempt slightly. “One michichippi , two michichi—”
“We’re in Alabama, sir.” Legsy joked. This earned some chuckles from the men, and the kind of feigned unimpressed look from Powell that the major reserved for bad jokes, but after a second he made an amused harrumph and started to count again, the crow’s feet wrinkles at his eyes deepening just a little. “One awagama, two awagama, free awagama…”
The chuckles became a ripple of laughter. Adam let him reach a twenty count before taking the stick back.
“You’re gonna need an hour or two for the Crude to work, major.” Baseball declared, using one of the many nicknames they’d adopted for Crue-D. He stood up. “Your nose—”
“Has been broken before, Burgess, thank you.” Powell shrugged. “I already fookin’ sorted it.”
“Yes sir. You should probably still put a slap patch on that.” Baseball replied, cutting little triangles out of one so that it would fit over the major’s nose properly.
“I’ll save it for my fookin’ beauty sleep.” Powell told him.
“Wear it now, sir.” Baseball insisted.
Powell tried to sigh through his nose, only for a thin trickle of blood to start flowing back out of his nostril. He frowned, took the slap patch and pinched it to the bridge of his nose, wincing slightly as he disturbed the break. “Anyone get my time?” he asked.
“I got it, sir.” Sikes produced the tablet computer he’d been recording them on.
“Right.” Powell looked at it, made a noncommittal grunt, and then looked around. “That, lads, is the worst time you’re ever going to do in this unit. Keep that time and look at it every now and again, because by the time we’re up to operational readiness? You’ll look at the time you just did today and think ‘bloody hell, how was I ever that slow?’ Arright?”
A chorus of “Yes Sir.” answered him.
“Good. Firth, call the barracks, get them to send our ride, will you? I don’t really feel like walking back, now… ”
Date Point: 6y 10m AV
Regent’s Park, London, UK, Earth.
“Is everyone on Cimbrean as into fitness as you are?”
Ava and Sean were out for a mid afternoon walk. Ava would have preferred to jog, but Sean had vetoed it, and was complaining about the pace too, despite having longer legs.
“You have to be.” Ava explained, “The gravity’s so low that if you don’t spend time in the gym at least three times a week, all sorts of things go wrong.”
“Muscle wastage, brittle bones, heart problems…all sorts of things. And then you get so used to it that NOT exercising just feels bad, you know?”
“I can’t say that I do, duck.” Sean shrugged.
“You’re not interested in getting fit?”
“I am fit!”
Ava restrained herself from laughing, with difficulty, but she couldn’t let that pass. “You’re not.” she said.
“Look at me! No fat on this anywhere!” Sean protested, lifting up his t-shirt. He was right. There was nothing on him but some dark hair, and his ribs, but Ava still snorted.
“No muscle, either.” she told him.
“Oh, like you’re the she-Hulk.” Sean grumbled, tugging the shirt back down again.
“I don’t need to be. I’m not in training for anything, I don’t want to run marathons or anything. I just want to be able to live on a low-G world without getting health problems, and have energy to do stuff.”
“And look good naked.”
“Please. I’d have to work at it to look bad naked.” Ava joked.
“So would I!” Sean retorted.
Ava just shook her head smiling, and they walked in silence for a bit.
She became aware that he was breathing heavily as they started round the second side of the park, where huge cheering was just audible from Lord’s Cricket Ground. Sean fished his phone out of his pocket.
“What?” Ava asked him.
“Just checking…Oh, nice!”
“Patel’s gone for a duck.”
“That’s good.” Sean agreed, running his hand through sweat-heavy hair. “Here, can we slow down?”
“For crying out loud!” Ava rounded on him. “You can’t even walk round the park without getting out of breath, and you claim to be fit?
“Well what do I need to be fit for?” Sean objected.
“Not getting short on breath when you go for a stroll? Better sex? Having something to show off under that shirt besides ribs and fur? Take your pick!”
Sean frowned at her. “I have great sex!” he objected.
“I’ve had five girlfriends, they didn’t complain.”
Ava laughed. “Fine, whatever.”
Ava ignored him and drew her—Sara’s—camera from its by-now habitual spot on her hip. She’d found the custom-made quick-draw leather camera holster on Etsy, had treated herself to it, and had not regretted the decision for a minute. It earned her the occasional strange look, but a rather larger number of looks that said ‘that’s so cool’, though she was frankly past the point where either kind of look really mattered to her.
Sean didn’t have to wait long. The camera was out, focused, took a series of seven rapid-fire photos, and was back in its holster inside five seconds.
“Aren’t you going to check those?” He asked.
“Nope.” Ava shrugged. She wasn’t pushing the pace at all, but still Sean seemed to be scurrying to keep up despite his longer legs, and he was short on breath.
“But how do you know they’re okay?”
“I took them okay.”
“How do you know though?”
Ava shook her head. “Because I took them okay.” she repeated.
“Sean!” she stopped to glare at him again, then softened when he raised his hands defensively. “…Look, this was my best friend’s camera. Her parents gave it to me when she died. I was already pretty serious about getting good with it before Adam left for basic training, and since then I’ve had no social life, I’ve had nothing to do but study and practice with this thing. For a while there it was literally the only thing I had. So trust me: if I say I took a picture okay, I took a picture okay. Okay?”
“…Do you do anything with those photos?” he asked.
“Not really.” She shrugged. “Not yet.”
“Maybe you should. If you’re going to make a living from it, you need to start getting your name out there, and if you’re that confident that what you’re taking is good…”
Ava considered it as she started walking again. “Maybe you’re right. A blog maybe? My own website?”
“Go with the website.” Sean recommended. “My mate Dave can set you up, if you want. He’ll code the site, host it, get you social media awareness, the works.”
“Yeah? What’s the catch?”
“No catch.” Sean promised. “It just costs a bit. It’s his job, after all, but he’s good at it, and he might give a discount to a mate. Interested?”
Ava shrug-nodded. “Okay.”
Date Point: 6y 10m 3w AV
Huntsville Alabama, USA, Earth
The SOR perked up as their instructor arrived and claimed their immediate full attention. He was a wiry, tired looking man who Adam immediately spotted had some kind of facial nerve palsy, or who had maybe suffered a stroke at some point.
“M’names Drew Cavendish.” he introduced himself. “I’m a co-founder of C&M Extravehicular Systems, a member of the Hephaestus LLC, but right now I’m here as your extraterrestrial environment instructor.”
“Mr. Cavendish here has more EVA experience than anybody else in the history of the human race.” Powell told them, shaking Cavendish’s hand. “He’s also responsible for designing our spacesuits. You will treat every word he has to say as Gospel, is that clear?”
They were outside of a formal context, so he got a slightly asynchronous rumble of nevertheless clearly-enunciated ‘yes sir’s. Satisfied that the lads were listening and switched on, he deferred to Cavendish again.
Cavendish nodded, and scribbled a note on the back of his own hand.
“Right. Welcome to zero-G one-oh-one.” he said. “That room through there is this facility’s variable-gravity training room, one of three. A few things to know before we get started.”
“First of all, I’m an easy-going type, but I’ve been training people in this field for a while now, and we’re dealing with stuff that’s essential to your safety and that of others. Out here in the corridor, I’m Drew. In there…” he nodded towards the large doors with the light over them “Keep it formal, attentive and promptly obedient, please. I won’t be deliberately putting you in harm’s way, but equipment failure is always an option. Clear?”
The team nodded their understanding, and Cavendish checked his tablet computer.
“Right. Cavendish’s Rule Number One: Altered gravity is dangerous.” he told them. “Those rooms can be configured in ways that could kill or seriously injure anyone who enters them at the wrong moment. That light above it is colour-coded. If entering the room would pose an immediate danger to your health, it’s red and the door will be locked. If it is somehow open while the light’s red, do not enter. That light’s never supposed to be off: If it is, assume that it’s red and contact the controller immediately.”
“Yellow means the safe zone around the door is fine. The room’s controller will need to admit you, and you must not leave the yellow demarcated zone without permission. Green means that the room is active but that no part of it should pose a health risk—you must get the room operator’s permission to enter, but may move freely once permitted. Blue means that the room is not drawing power, and you may enter freely because it’s exactly like out here in there. With me so far?”
There was another chorused confirmation: “Yes, sir.”
“Finally, under no circumstances, not even if the light is blue, may you enter that room without one of those helmets.” Cavendish indicated the rack by the door. “Find one that fits and put it on now.”
The team stepped smartly to obey, and had all soon found one that fit.
“Right. As you can see, the light is yellow. That means–?”
“Don’t leave the yellow zone without permission.”
“Good. As that room’s operator, I’m now granting you permission to enter.”
He filed in behind them. The room was a cube about a hundred yards to a side—the yellow zone occupied only about the first ten, followed by a green zone, a blue zone, and the rest of the floor was black. Sitting just inside the black zone, somebody had set up twelve kettlebells.
There were some murmurs of surprise and interest as the men crossed the threshold, and Cavendish smiled. “Earth standard gravity is known as one G: What you’re experiencing right now, gentlemen, is about two thirds of a G, which is somewhere toward the middle of the Galactic Standard Gravity range. That’s the range of gravity settings that are used in space to be comfortable for most species. Take a moment to move around, get used to the difference. Jump up and down a bit, do some pushups, whatever takes your fancy.”
Legsy and Adam beamed at one another. Cimbrean fell inside the Galactic Standard Range, and they’d guessed that something like this might come up, and had secretly come up with a little stunt.
As planned, Legsy stooped, then launched himself off the ground in the highest explosive jump he could manage, achieving his own impressive body height at apex and landing neatly on Adam’s raised hands, which the younger man had thrust above his head.
Even Cavendish seemed taken aback. “I…see you two have experience with low gravity.”
“Yyyep.” Adam shifted his right hand so that he was holding Legsy aloft one-handed, and dropped his left hand casually to his side.
Even at two thirds gravity, he was still holding up a fairly impressive amount of weight, and it was an effort to remain stable and steady—Legsy was wobbling alarmingly, and jumped down after a second or two, landing lightly.
“Show-offs.” Burgess muttered.
“You got that out of your system, lads?” Powell asked.
“Good. I know you’re both used to this, but focus. You might still learn summat.”
Adam and Legsy both straightened up and nodded their understanding and agreement. “Yes sir.”
Cavendish gave them all a few minutes to move and grow accustomed to the conditions before indicating the rest of the room. “The rest of this room is in microgravity, sometimes called zero-G. Does anyone here remember Newton’s laws of motion?”
The Deltas, CCTs, Adam and Powell raised their hands. Cavendish gestured to Adam. “Alright mister showoff, go on then.”
Adam cursed inwardly, but focused his memory. It had been a few years and he’d never expected to need them.
“The…first law defines inertia, stating that an object’s velocity will remain unchanged unless it’s influenced by a net force.” he said.
“Nice.” Cavendish nodded his congratulations. “The second?”
“Uh… whenever one object exerts a force upon another, it is in turn subject to a reaction force of equal magnitude with an opposite vector.”
“That’s the third law.” Cavendish corrected him. “What’s the second?”
Adam scowled in thought, but finally had to shake his head. “I can’t remember.”
“Force is equal to…?”
Adam’s memory snapped back into place. “Mass times acceleration!”
“Good lad. For the rest of you who didn’t follow that, and because academic knowledge of something’s not the same as intuiting it, here’s some practical demonstrations.” Cavendish pulled a tennis ball from his pocket and tossed it lightly in his hand a few times. “What goes up, comes down. That’s because this ball is being acted on by gravity. Catch.”
He tossed it lightly to Murray, who caught it easily, then tossed it back. “The arc the ball describes through the air…” Cavendish told them, gently throwing the ball to Blaczynski, who threw it to Sikes, starting a slow game of catch that circled the unit “…is called a parabola, and it only describes that arc because it’s constantly under the effect of a net force. There’s no magnet on the ceiling pulling it up or anything like that, just gravity pulling it down. Back to me, please.”
He snatched the ball easily out of the air when Vandenberg threw it to him. “If there’s no gravity, however…”
He tossed the ball over the edge of the yellow zone. It described a perfect parabola just like before, right up until the moment it crossed the threshold, and was suddenly moving slowly in a perfectly straight line, spinning eerily. They watched it bounce forlornly off the ceiling at the far end of the room.
“As sergeant…Arés explained,” Cavendish said, peering at Adam’s name tag “the first law means that an object’s speed, and the direction it’s moving in—collectively known as its velocity—remains unchanged, unless a force such as gravity acts upon it. The third law’s simple enough to not need an explanation—when you push on something, it pushes back. Simple enough, but that’s why that whole cartoon thing of going boating by blowing into the sail doesn’t work. You’re pushing that air forward, and yes it’ll push on the sail, but by blowing you’re also pushing yourself backwards just as strong, and pushing back on the boat through your boots. Follow?”
There was nodding.
“Next, a practical demonstration of the second law in action.” Cavendish tapped on his tablet computer, and an electric hum that had been pervading the room so subtly that they hadn’t noticed it suddenly became obvious by a change in its texture. “You may now enter the green and blue zones. The areas beyond are still microgravity, so don’t enter them yet. Be careful, the gravity’s even lower over that end.”
They walked cautiously. Sure enough, the gravity halved, then halved again as they passed into the green then blue zones, until they were each standing next to a kettlebell, anticipating what was to come.
“Now, those are twenty-five kilogram kettlebells, and we’re currently in lunar gravity, one-sixth that of the Earth.” Cavendish explained. “When I tell you to, I want you to pick them up, slowly and carefully. Don’t swing them or anything, just lift and hold them in one hand. Okay? Pick them up.”
They did so. Adam practically overbalanced. His kettlebell felt like nothing, and to judge from the expressions and utterings around him that was true for everyone.
“Light, aren’t they?” Cavendish asked, rhetorically. “Why don’t you swing them around a bit, same way as you would normally.”
Adam gave his an experimental swing and suddenly understood where Cavendish was going with this. The kettlebell may have been light to lift, but in motion it still put the exact same forces as always through his limbs. More so, actually—he had to fight to hold it down rather than hold it up, as the natural apex of each swing was now much higher.
“You’re now receiving a practical demonstration of the difference between weight and mass.” Cavendish told them as they swung. “In low gravity, those things have a light weight because there’s less gravity pulling on them. But their MASS hasn’t changed, and the second law of motion means that the force you’ve got to exert to make that unchanged mass accelerate is the same regardless of whether you’re in full Earth gravity, Galactic Standard, or Lunar.”
“Now.” Cavendish grinned and rubbed his hands together happily. “I notice that every single one of you is struggling with your swing. You’re overextending, you’re having a hard time holding on, those weights are going higher than you want. As you will have by now gathered, working in low gravity is remarkably tiring. So. Stop swinging and listen.”
He let them stop. “Cavendish’s Rule Number Two: Altered gravity is demanding.” he announced. “Your bodies are evolved to work with gravity to aid them. You are used to pushing against a surface, you are used to having things be pulled down as they come up. Your every instinct is built around the fact that if you are bringing something down from a high place, you let gravity do the work and your muscles are the brakes. In null gravity, that does not apply. In null gravity, if you want to get something down from above your head, you have to drag it down, not support it, and in doing so you’ll also drag yourself towards it. Everything you do is an exertion, without exception.”
He tapped his tablet, and the gravity went away. The door locked, loudly, and an alarm hooted through the room. “Start swinging again!” he ordered.
Everyone immediately found themselves being dragged around by their weights—to a man, they parted ways with the ground. Firth actually wound up in a spin, hugging his weight to his chest.
“Alright, you, hugging the ball. Push it away from your chest, arm’s length!” Cavendish told him. He was hanging comfortably only a half-inch or so off the floor, and seemed perfectly happy.
Firth obeyed, and his spin became much slower.
“That was a demonstration of angular momentum!” Cavendish declared. “We’ll get to the academic bit of how it works later, but for now, understand this—if you’re spinning fast, spread yourself out to slow down. If you’re spinning slow, make yourself small to speed up. Which brings us to Cavendish’s Rule Number Three—if you are spinning, spread out and slow down! Everyone throw your weights away from yourselves, gently now.”
They did so. One of the guys—Adam didn’t see who—yelped as the weights, upon being thrown away, launched their prior owners in the opposite direction. “And there’s Newton’s third law in action!” Cavendish announced. “You’ve just performed rocket propulsion—throw something out the back, and you accelerate yourself!”
He gave them twenty seconds to tumble and flail in mid air, all drifting in random directions across the room at a glacial pace, before finally relenting. “Hug your limbs in, protect your face, and go limp.” he ordered. “I’m about to turn the gravity back on, gently. Don’t throw your hands out to arrest your fall or anything—just relax and let it happen.”
Gravity came back, and Adam’s slow trajectory to the ceiling became a gentle fall to Earth, a surprisingly high bounce, and then a gentle skid as the gravity ramped up to galactic standard over a few seconds. It didn’t hurt at all, but like all the others, his dignity was a bit battered, especially when he saw that Cavendish had alighted gently on his feet.
Cavendish hooked his thumbs into his belt and looked thoroughly pleased with himself. “Hopefully, gentlemen, I have now broken any illusions you may have had that Extra-Vehicular Activity will be easy. How about you get up, and I start with the actual instruction now?”
Date Point: 6y 10m 3w AV
Finchley, London, England, Earth.
“Lazrik’s coming up behind them here, this could be—He sticks one Elder Curse, instant cooldown, sticks the second, that gets two—FOUR down with Agony—FIVE! SIX!! Is he about to-? HE HAS!!! SEVEN DOWN!!!! Lazrik just got a TPK as a Godsinger with Thronefall and Universal Core, versus a team using Void Blades and Law of the Jungle…So much for the banner meta!”
“Yeah, that was some old-school instakill meta, but a lot of skill on show there, keeping Loss of Clarity subdued with Universal Core and two ECs, and I don’t know how LOC are going to come back from that…”
“…They are speaking English, right?”
Sean, being seated sideways across the easy chair, flipped a sort of lazy salute to Ava as Charlotte dashed across the room and jumped onto Ben’s lap. To everyone’s surprise, they’d turned out to be a good match, and had kept on going beyond their first weekend. Mercifully, they’d also toned down the making out in company. That had earned them a great many thrown objects those first few days.
“Drinks are in the fridge.” he said, by way of a hello. “Mine’s a Desperado.”
“Sweet of you.” Ava smacked him playfully on the top of the head as she made a bee-line for the kitchen. Sean glanced at Ben and Charlotte to make sure they weren’t paying attention, then helped himself to a good look at those tight jeans Ava liked to wear.
“How did you afford this place, anyway?” Charlotte asked, wriggling around in Ben’s lap to sit upright, interrupting his sightseeing.
“It’s my Gran’s old place.” Sean told her. “She left it me.”
“Dench of her.” Ben commented.
“Yeah. Mum wasn’t happy, she wanted to sell it, but it was right there in the will, so…”
“So what the hell are you watching, anyway?” Ava asked, handing Sean his asked-for beer and sipping down something colourful that had been on offer in Bargain Booze as she dragged through one of the dining chairs from the kitchen and sat on it. Sean had quickly figured out that Ava’s taste in drinks were fairly simple – so long as it was brightly coloured and sweet, she liked it.
“MLG. Mythos Arena championships.”
“Wh–? Actually, never mind.” Ava sipped her drink and watched the screen. “Pretty cool.”
“I’ve got ten quid on Happy Place Gaming to win the finals.” Ben said, squeezing Charlotte round the waist.
“Nah, cause it’s DTE versus Vangion in the quarters, and HPG lost seven of their last nine games against DTE.” Sean declared.
“It’s just a tenner, and I’m getting seven to one.” Ben replied.
“Fair enough, then.”
“You follow esports, Ava?” Charlotte asked.
“No live streams on Cimbrean.” Ava shrugged. “Besides, Papa watched baseball and football, that’s what I grew up on.”
“You’re like the archetypal country lass, you know that?” Sean asked.
“Me?! Sean, how the hell am I a country girl? I was born and raised in San Diego!”
Everybody looked at one another. That fact hadn’t yet come up in conversation—it was hitherto unknown to Sean, and judging from their expressions, to Charlotte and Ben too.
Sean cleared his throat. “…You were?”
Ava’s expression was the awkward look of somebody who’d not intended to share that particular information. “Uh…yeah. We were on vacation in Florida when…well. Yeah.”
“Ava—” Ben began.
“No sympathy, please.” Ava sighed. “I’ve dealt with it, okay? I lost my family and my friends, and the only reason I’m not dead too is because I was on vacation with Adam and his dad, but I’ve…I’m dealing with it. I don’t need sympathy.”
“…If you’re sure.” Sean agreed.
“Let’s just…HOW am I a country girl?”
“Just like…not having live streams, not knowing about nanotattoos. That sort of thing.” Ben told her.
“Yeah, but Cimbrean’s not, like…we’re not yokels!” Ava protested.
“Yeah, but you know how the country always gets the new things way after the cities do, and the cities have got new new things by then? Phone network coverage, broadband, digital radio, that kind of thing? That’s what it’s like with Cimbrean and Earth.” Sean told her.
“No it’s not!”
“Darling, it’s like that.” Charlotte agreed.
Ava stood her ground. “We had lots of stuff first!” She insisted.
“Like what?” Sean asked.
“First solar energy force field, First xenobiology lab, first interstellar jump array, first variable-gravity gymnasium…”
“Those would all be the Scotch Creek facility.” Ben corrected her. “Except for the Gym, that was the Extraterrestrial Environment Training Facility on Salisbury Plain.”
“Oh come on, how do you know that?” Ava demanded.
“He’s a giant fucking nerd, that’s how.” Sean grinned at his friend, who just inclined his head in a please sort of bow and tipped an imaginary hat, as if Sean had pointed out that he was immaculately dressed.
“Well…we’ve got….” Ava floundered, then deflated. “Small school, small church, walks in the woods, swimming in the lake…Oh Christ, I’m a country girl.”
“There’s no need to sound so bloody despondent.” Sean told her, as Loss of Clarity slumped to a decisive defeat and on screen the players stood, shook hands and parted ways to make room on stage for the next two teams, saving a round of backslaps and high-fives for Lazrik.
“Don’t forget the flannel shirt and boots.” Ben added, earning a playful smack in the upper arm from Charlotte.
“I can’t be a country girl.” Ava sulked. “I’ve never even seen a horse! I listen to R&B!”
“And Dean Roscoe.” Charlotte added, referring to a chart-topping country musician who even Sean had to admit as a straight guy, was thoroughly fuckable.
“I thought you were taking her side!” Ben complained.
“What kind of R&B?” Sean asked, sparing Ava’s discomfort.
“Huh? Oh, uh…Santos, Leila Perez, Manny B…”
Sean shrugged, not recognising any of them.
“Maybe not such a country girl after all, then.” Ben commented, nodding.
“What about you?” Ava asked him.
“I like anything.” Ben said. “But I guess metal’s my favourite? Soldiers and Queens, uh…Buying Time…Bring Me The Horizon, Granuloma…”
Sean nodded vigorously before Ava could ask him, so they all looked expectantly at Charlotte, who smiled sheepishly. “I like all the stuff my grandma was listening to.” she confessed. “The Beatles, and the Beach Boys and the Who and….”
“Anybody whose name started with ‘the’?” Ben teased, and smiled at another playful slap in the arm.
“Dean Roscoe, though?” Sean asked.
Ava looked defiant. “He’s hot!”
“Thought you only had eyes for this Adam of yours.” Ben teased her.
“Oh come on everyone’s allowed to think a celebrity’s hot.”
“Actually, what’s he look like?” Charlotte asked.
Ava frowned at her. “I’ve shown you. Haven’t I?”
Charlotte just shook her head, as did the guys when Ava looked to them, so she dug into her pocket and pulled out her phone—a slightly old touchscreen one—and swiped through her photo gallery.
“Here.” she handed the phone to Charlotte. “I took this at Christmas.”
Charlotte studied it, doing her ‘boy candy’ face again. “Ooooh…”
“Hey!” Ben and Ava objected simultaneously, prompting her to hand the phone to Sean with an apologetic smile for Ava and a kiss for Ben.
Sean examined the photo, a selfie. Adam was shorter than Ava, but BIG, as broad as two Seans across his shoulders and it took Sean a second to realise that he was actually holding Ava in his arms with the same easy strength as Sean himself might have lifted a large book, smiling warmly.
“…He looks like a nice guy.” he conceded. He also looked handsome in a military-fit, stubble-headed kind of way.
“Yeah!” Ava took the phone back and stared at the picture for a second, then a second longer. Sean was about to get her attention when she blinked and put the phone away.
“You okay?” He asked.
“…yeah.” She nodded a little too vigorously, only barely getting the word out.
Sean glanced at Ben, who delivered the most subtle little head-shake, and so the matter was dropped. Instead, Sean just extended his bottle, and Ava tapped her own off it.
“And we’re off, looks like GOC and Splitting Hairs are ignoring what happened in the previous round ‘cause they’re both still going with a banner build team, Looks like plenty of angels on the field there, and GOC take an early rush on Bravo…”
Date Point: 6y 10m 3w 1d AV
Huntsville Alabama, USA, Earth
Drew Cavendish actually accompanied the SOR in PT the next morning. Obviously, he couldn’t perform at anything near their standard, but he took part and did surprisingly well for a civilian engineer. Then again, as he had ably demonstrated in zero-G training, operating a spacesuit required fitness, and he was an experienced spacewalker.
They were all motivated and alert therefore when they were shown into a lecture theatre and sat down in the front row.
“I’m told there’s a grand military tradition called ‘death by Powerpoint’.” Cavendish said, once they were all settled. “Fortunately, we’ve got something better here.”
He played with the computer for a second, and a life-sized spacesuit materialized next to him, forming like a ghost in mid-air, and then flickering into apparent solid reality, spinning slowly on the spot.
“You know, most of the idiots at this school STILL just use the holographic projector for Powerpoint slides?” Cavendish joked. “Looks bloody silly to me when they do that.” There were some chuckles, but everyone was looking at the suit. “Anyway. This is ExtraVehicular Military Activity Space Suit. EV-MASS.”
Adam studied it. It looked like a comparatively ordinary modern suit of body armor, borrowing elements from several different armor systems. Really, anybody wearing one wouldn’t have stood out among a lineup of soldiers in combat gear, except for the mask that covered the nose and mouth, and the sturdy metal ring around the jawbone and base of skull that was the dock where that mask and the helmet were joined to the rest of the suit.
“EV-MASS is designed with the mission profile of allowing you to deploy, and fight, in zero-G and vacuum, as well as on space stations, starships, and the ground, and to be able to translate from one to the other without vehicles if need be. Originally, we toyed with the idea of including a power-assisted exoskeleton, but…well, that one’s still science fiction for now. The suit is moved exclusively by its operator, which is why you gentlemen need to be so strong. There is no such thing as a light spacesuit.”
He clicked something, and the holographic suit became three suits, standing shoulder to shoulder.
“The system comprises of three suit components: under, outer and mid.” Cavendish said. He stepped over to and grabbed one of them, physically turning it around as if it were a real object, and leaving Adam thoroughly impressed by just how far holographic technology had come in a short space of time.
“The outersuit consists of your camouflage, load carrying equipment, and the rigid structures on your helmet, forearms, shins and thighs which are designed to receive mission-specific modules and equipment. It also includes the control panel mounted on the inside of your left wrist-” he raised the holographic suit’s arm to demonstrate “-though the modular system allows that to be worn on the right arm instead, for left-handers.”
“It also includes the environmental systems-” he indicated a football-sized pack mounted on the suit’s pelvis “-the heat exchanger and forcefield emitter-” both of which were mounted horizontally on the shoulders “-capacitor bank-” which ran down the spine “-and kinetic thrusters and gyroscopes.” he indicated surprisingly small protuberances at the shoulders and waist.
“Any questions about the outersuit before I move on?”
Sikes raised a hand. “Sir, is the helmet considered part of the outersuit?”
“No, the helmet and breathing mask form part of the midsuit. What you’re seeing here is the digital camo skin of the helmet.” Cavendish answered.
Baseball had a question. “Sir: Gyroscopes?”
“You remember Firth’s demonstration of angular momentum yesterday? Well, gyroscopes exploit that same phenomenon to keep you stable in space. They’re spinning weights, controlled by an optical tracking system mounted on your helmet that tracks visible features around you—the walls and floor, or distant stars, whatever—figures out your movement, and stabilises it. So long as the gyroscopes are powered, it’s literally impossible to throw yourself into an uncontrolled tumble or spin.”
He gave a second for any further questions, then moved on.
“The midsuit. This is the actual pressure suit and armour, built in several layers. The outermost is kevlar-aramid fabric, offering first-layer defence against bullets and micrometeorites.”
The hologram’s outer skin vanished, revealing a dull silvery fish-scale layer. “Below that is the scale layer, which is your most serious protection. It’s a layer of metallo-ceramic composite fine scales, designed to resist penetration and to distribute impacts across a wider area.”
“Below that? Padding and impact gel, for further protection and to help with the weight of the scale layer. Below that are the insulation, pressure and environment layers, all of which keep you from being exposed to vacuum, and finally the heat-activated memory gel that conforms to your body contours for compression.”
He tapped something the size of a smartphone installed under the helmet’s hard armour layer, on the back of the head. “The CPU for all of the suit’s active components is housed here, below the armour, on the basis that a penetrating hit to either CPU or skull is going to kill you anyway so we may as well put them both in the same place. And in the event that the CPU hit WOULDN’T kill you, then the extra protection it offers might just save your life.”
He looked around at them. They all were giving him their full attention. “Again. Any questions about the midsuit?”
Firth raised his hand. “Sir, how much protection does this thing offer?”
“Its SAPI rating is somewhere upwards of level four.” Cavendish told them. “The mechanism for that being that those scales are small, and they deform rather than shatter. The impact is conveyed to the padding and gel layer underneath that’s hugging you so tightly. In destructive testing, the midsuit withstood sustained rapid-fire seven-point-six-two at point blank without breaching. We emptied an AK into the bloody thing and the worst an operator would have suffered was some bruising.”
Nobody actually spoke, but the impressed changes to their body language made a gentle susurrus around the room.
“And against nonhuman weaponry?” Powell asked.
“Effectively invulnerable to kinetic pulse and electrical discharge weapons.” Cavendish told him. “There’s no known protection against nervejam, and coilguns and plasma weapons are classed as heavy weapons, which the suit’s not rated for anyway.”
He waited. No further hands went up, so he turned to the final holographic mannequin.
“Finally, and most importantly, the undersuit.” he said. “Without this, the whole system would not be viable.”
The undersuit looked like something Superman might wear. It was skin-tight, and covered in an arterial network of wide, flat structures that echoed the load-bearing mechanical lines of the human body. Aside from a zipper up the thoracic vertebrae and a pair of inlet/outlet ports just below the kidneys, it was otherwise featureless.
“This thing performs five hugely important roles for you, the first of which is orthopaedic pressure. That suit hugs you better than skin-tight, keeping your muscles and joints compressed and supported, reducing the risk of strain and injury while using EV-MASS. Second, it whips sweat away from the skin, and into those transport structures you see all over it.”
“Now, this is where it gets clever. Those structures are made from a polymer invented for us by the Corti according to our specifications. It’s flexible and squishy, but only in certain ways and up to a point. It’s dynamically compressible, in other words, AND it’s watertight. The practical upshot of all of that is that it A: further helps to support and distribute heavy loads and mechanically assist your legs and back, and B: it transports water, pumping it with the motion of your own body.”
“That water serves three roles. One, it’s part of the support structure too, because it’s incompressible. Two, it passes through the heat exchanger and is refrigerated before returning to the conduits around your body, nice and cold, so it transports heat away from your body. Third, pumping it passes it through filters—it comes out the other side completely potable, and is connected to a sippy straw in your breathing mask. In other words, you will ALWAYS have cool water on tap while you’re wearing this thing. The mask can load cartridges of electrolyte powder, sports drink mix, whatever.”
He paused, and with a few clicks of the mouse, recombined the three sub-suits into one unit.
“One thing you lads are going to have to learn and learn well is resource management.” he said, coming out from behind the lectern. “Your own body heat is an environmental hazard, you’re going to sweat out all of your salt and electrolytes while using this thing, and every sports scientist on our design team all agreed that there is no way to do anything at all in this suit and break even for calories.”
“But:” he added “They also all agree that it IS possible to move and be effective in this suit. Thanks to the therapy you’re already receiving you’ll get there rather quickly, but by the time you’re fully up to standard to use the suit in the field, you’re going to be large enough that those concerns about body heat will apply even outside of the suit, at least while at very strenuous activity. Fortunately, the suit solves that.”
“Without the suit, you will overheat and fail quickly. Without you, the suit is just an inert lump of technology. The two of you together can accomplish things the likes of which nothing else in the galaxy can even conceive. And I look forward to training you in its use and operation.”
He rubbed his hands. “That concludes the introduction. Any questions, before I start breaking it down component-by-component?”
Date Point: 6y 11m AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
“Oh, Mr. Byron! We were all so pleased to hear you were coming, the project’s really starting to find its feet!”
“So I heard.” Moses replied. The VP in charge of Cimbrean Development—Levaughn Thomas—was one of the more…interesting people that he employed, being both a rare example of somebody who had managed to remain overweight while living on Cimbrean with its mandatory exercise schedule, and as camp as a Hollywood manicurist.
He was also so much of a brown-noser that it was a wonder he could smell his own Paco Rabanne, but Byron didn’t mind that when it came attached to a keen organizational mind. “You’re all doing a good job out here.” He commented, glad that he’d sent one of his three AW609 tiltrotors out here. The vehicle was surprisingly quiet on the inside, easy enough to have a conversation in. “Three weeks ahead of schedule, well done.”
“Yes sir!” Thomas beamed happily, cleaning his spectacles. “Everyone’s so rising to the occasion.”
Byron reflected that sparing no expense had probably helped there. if he was any judge, the project’s wastage was going to border on the scandalously high, without being high enough to warrant a stern response.
Still. It would prove to be worth it in the end. Cimbrean definitely WOULD profit, and probably sooner rather than later, but even if he never got to enjoy those profits himself, he’d go down in history as the ultimate philanthropist. A win-win.
He looked out of the tiltrotor’s window as the pilot pushed it into horizontal flight mode and circled round Folctha’s western districts, where the bulk of his construction work was happening—the huge agricultural depots were already in place, the workshops and factories and dozens of small grain silos. Yes, a handful of immense ones would have been more cost-effective for bulk storage, but the engineers had produced some rather neat graphs to show that the energy costs of jumping that much volume back to Earth through Array technology would have caused the originally-planned huge silos to fill faster than they could be emptied.
Sending little and often, on the other hand, kept on top of predicted growth for nearly ten years before an expansion became necessary. Little surprises like that had kept the project truly interesting, but as they picked up speed and set course for the real crown jewel of this plans, fifty miles out of town, he found his attention drawn upwards.
“When do they arrive?” he asked
“They’re already in orbit, Mister Byron. Their shuttle should be landing at about the same time as we do.”
Byron looked back down, satisfied.
“That’s native flora down there, isn’t it?” He asked. Cimbrean native plants were chlorophyll-based, just like plants on Earth, but they had a slightly paler, blueish cast to them. Earthling flora was evolved for an atmosphere which was nowhere near as effective at blocking UV, and was darker as a result. You could really tell the difference.
“I only really start to appreciate just how big this is when I see it from up here. A whole planet, Levaughn. All of its native life, doomed, all of it now becoming humanity’s property, all because somebody got caught short in the woods.”
“I know. It’s terrifying.” Thomas nodded.
“Awful.” Byron said, as if agreeing. He chose the word extremely carefully—the thought really did leave him full of awe.
If a lone and ignorant human could do something so momentous accidentally…
Byron’s mental filing system had, for most of his life, included a folder he thought of as ‘moon laser’ projects—ideas that were simultaneously both technically possible—as in, the math checked out and there was no real obstacle to his making it happen—but obviously absurd. He COULD have afforded to establish a permanent manned installation on the moon equipped with a giant laser.
Sure, the idea had been to use it for laser propulsion of interstellar probes equipped with solar sails, rather than some idiot James Bond villain thing like blowing up the New York Stock Exchange, but…why? It wasn’t like they’d come back, and when probes like New Horizons and Voyager had done just fine with old-fashioned reaction mass and gravity boosts…
Nobody needed a laser on the moon. What they needed was…civil engineering projects, small-business investments, energy or…hell, maybe just a cooler fridge, a smarter phone and a carbon-neutral car. They needed an ethical mogul, a world-class multibillionaire who used his money responsibly and for the betterment of the common man.
Moses knew that he was not that man. He just did a very convincing impression of that man.
Hence the moon laser folder. It was where he stuffed all the amazing things that a little boy had once imagined that billionaires did. After all, Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne were billionaires. Lex Luthor too, even if he was the baddie.
And that little boy was still very much alive in there, and adamant that at least ONE of those things would get done.
Fifty years on, the little boy knew you didn’t just build a laser on the moon. First, you laid the groundwork. You got the logistics in place, prepared a plan, got everything as ready as it could be…
Then you made the world need a laser on the moon, and they’d pay for it for you.
Moses shook off his thoughtful fugue. “Hmm? Oh, I’m sorry Levaughn. That was rude of me.”
“It’s nothing important sir. I’m just saying that…the shuttle’s alongside us.”
Moses glanced out the port window. Sure enough, a grey vehicle with all the aerodynamic grace and aesthetic beauty of a breezeblock was keeping pace with them, held aloft by forcefields and kinetic thrusters. It was a fair bit larger than the tiltrotor, and a damn-sight uglier.
“Looks like we got us a convoy.” he drawled, and stood up to cross the cabin for a better view. This did little to improve the shuttle’s appearance, and he couldn’t see the pilot through the black canopy, so after a moment or two he returned to his seat and looked back out the window.
Sure, the agricultural facilities back in Folctha might be more finished, as was the spaceport, but it was this facility that held his real hope for Cimbrean’s future. It was a compound, three overlapping rectangles on the ground, one of which was already the drained-abscess wound that would form the basement and foundation for the regional office building. ‘regional’ meaning the whole planet, for the foreseeable future. It wasn’t pretty, but he’d see the architectural plans—it would be. Especially once the ornamental monoliths, fountains, reflecting pools, lawns and trees were in place.
The important building, however, was very much finished.
They set down some five minutes after the compound and its hive of busy yellow vehicles came into view, the shuttle politely allowing Byron’s tiltrotor to alight first, tucking its engine nacelles up into the vertical and spinning them down like a crow settling its plumage.
True to form, the shuttle’s own landing was graceless. It wallowed down onto a forcefield cushion and thumped up a cloud of dust as it cut power to the engines and relied on the fields to handle the last few inches. If not for the stabilisers inside it, it would have been a rough jolt of a landing.
Moses adjusted the cuffs of his shirt and jacket as he crossed the grass. The aliens had been quite clear that they didn’t plan on staying a moment longer than was necessary to make the delivery.
They were Guvnurag, as big as backhoes themselves, but still able to stand side-by-side in the cavernous shuttle, carrying something between them. Huge, dark brown, shaggy and rippling with colour along the bioluminescent lines that began in the middle of their huge foreheads and spread out along their spines and flanks, they rolled down the shaking ramp on sturdy, elephantine leg, each with one thick-fingered hand hefting the handle of a crate as big as their torsos.
“Gentlebeings! Welcome.” Byron spread his hands in hospitality, reminding himself to keep the smile on his face closed-mouthed. Bared-teeth grins unnerved and frightened aliens, as a rule. He hoped that the translator that Thomas was carrying was up to the job, but it seemed that it was, as it chugged out at length a string of syllables that sounded something like long-winded Japanese being spoken by a double bass.
The slightly smaller of the two aliens replied in kind, and Byron blinked as the translator cancelled out its words with phase-shifted noise and replaced them with a startlingly high-pitched piccolo woman’s voice. The translators allegedly tried to find an equivalent match for vocal pitch and mannerisms, suggesting that this particular Guvnurag was a young and ebullient female.
“Mister Moses Byron!” she exclaimed, and glanced at her bodyguard, patterns of light pulsing all over her skin. Moses searched his recent memory, having studied Guvnurag bioluminescence in depth just that morning. The young female was…nervous. Intimidated? Or perhaps just inexperienced and jittery. It was hard to tell. “It is good to meet at last.”
“The beginning of what I hope will be a profitable relationship for us both.” Moses declared, extending a hand. After a moment’s hesitation, the Guvnurag trader extended her own hand, which was a good triple the size of Moses’ own, and shook hands. He made a point of not gripping anything. Her immense mitt may have been warm and soft, but the bones inside it weren’t a patch on the human skeleton, and it would not do to injure a trading partner.
“Speaking of which…” the other Guvnurag rumbled, being given a deep, phlegmatic voice.
“Of course. Levaughn?”
Thomas nodded and waved two men forward, each dragging a wheeled suitcase.
“Original human artwork.” Moses said, as the first one was opened. “Ten paintings, three sculptures. Unique and, thanks to your Confederacy’s quarantine field, otherwise almost impossible to export.” he smiled. “I suspect that this case alone will pay for our purchase in full, if you find the right auctioneers. As to the other case…”
It opened, revealing a neat rack full of glass phials and little plastic boxes.
“Terran organic compounds. Medicines, mostly—acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, codeine…There are also samples of caffeine, tea tree oil, mint oil, pimento berry oil, olive oil, xanthan gum, cumin, black pepper, cocoa, latex.…A full list is in there, along with instructions for what they can do, a comprehensive assessment of which ones may prove to be hazardous, and the formula for some of the simpler ones. Oh! And please accept this with my compliments.”
He offered the bottle that Thomas had just handed him. “A personal gift. California Cabernet Sauvignon, two thousand seven. The last really good vintage year before the Long Drought and, I’m assured, entirely safe for Guvnurag biology.”
He suspected, from the hues that pulsed down their lengths, that the aliens were taken aback
“Such generosity!” the female exclaimed. Moses smiled benevolently.
“You’ll find a spiral device amidst the artwork.” he said. “It’s not an abstract sculpture, it’s called a ‘corkscrew’, and you’ll need it to get the bottle open. You’ll figure out how, I’m sure.”
“Thank you. And…well, here is our end of the trade.”
They picked up the object they had been carrying between them, set it down again in front of them, opened it, and took out its contents, which they set atop the carrying case.
“Oh my God.” Moses breathed and leaned in, pleasantly surprised. “It even looks the part!”
“Excuse me?” the male alien asked.
“I’m sick of technology like warp drives and gravity field generators and whatever looking like something out of a ham radio catalog.” Moses indicated the object he had just purchased. It looked great: enigmatic, black, festooned with alien runes and pulsing lines of light. “Look at this thing! This is what I always imagined a scifi gizmo like an FTL comms relay would look like!”
The Guvnurag traders exchanged glances and then, sheepishly, the male stepped forward and opened what turned out to be the box that the actual FTL comms relay came in.
Moses deflated. The object inside was plain old technology after all. Wrapped in static-free plastic and a cradle of packing foam. It was drab, metallic and functional: all bare screw heads, electrical connectors and data ports, and the alien runes were probably warnings, warranty void stickers, and the serial number.
“…Figures.” he sighed. “Why the flashy lines?”
“Those are…emotional indicators. They tell Guvnurag that the object inside is delicate and should be handled carefully.” the female explained.
“They’re emoticons.” Thomas translated.
“Thank you Levaughn.” Moses only barely stopped himself from sounding nettled, and forced himself back into a good mood. It was stupid to be so disappointed by something so trivial when he now had a brand new interstellar communications device to play with. Or, more accurately, to pay people to play with.
He straightened. “Well. Thank you very much indeed. I do hope you found our business satisfactory.”
“We did!” the female enthused, echoed by an assenting rumble from her counterpart.
“If you need any help getting that stuff onto the shuttle…”
The aliens tested the suitcases, assured him that everything was fine, and retreated up the ramp, wishing him fond farewells and promising to try the wine at their first opportunity.
Levaughn had already handed the relay off to the technicians and engineers, who were bustling it towards the communications building as fast as they could without jolting it. “That seemed…to go smoothly.” he observed, bringing his exquisitely plucked eyebrows together in a frown.
“You’re not a believer in smooth business transactions, Levaughn?” Moses asked him, wryly.
“So not.” Levaughn retorted, rolling his eyes. “Daddy always told me, there’s always a catch.”
Moses chuckled, and looked up at the shuttle as it lurched into the air and away. “Why introduce a catch where it’s not needed? All that stuff cost me…what, a few hundred dollars? My investment portfolio made that much just standing here. And in return….”
“We can talk to the galaxy.”
Byron smiled. “For starters, Levaughn.” he agreed. “For starters.”
Date Point: 6y 11m 2w AV
Folctha, Cimbrean, The Far Reaches
‘Eden’ had been sold, of course. There was always a demand for housing in Folctha these days: it was a boom town in a huge way, being equal parts scientific goldmine, private-sector wet dream and a retirement paradise where the gravity weighed just a little less on wealthy old bones.
Thousands of idealistic libertarian dreamers had flocked in, and Sir Jeremy Sandy had taken a convincing win in Cimbrean’s first ever democratic elections to remain as colonial governor thanks in part to his adoption the most progressive, fair-handed and logical social policies that modern political theory could invent.
Businesses had flooded in alongside the people, investing billions. Folctha’s skyline was all cranes and scaffolding as buildings popped up like mushrooms, each one outdoing its predecessors as the architects fought for prestige and to make the most creative use of the opportunities afforded by low gravity. The forest line had been pushed back for miles, and the farmers seemed to be making more money just buying up the land and then selling it for development so they could buy more land further out, than from the actual agriculture.
Hotel space was also cheap, and much nicer than Eden had been. Besides, it wasn’t like Adam had many opportunities to spend his salary on much else. Most of it went straight into savings.
Dipping into those savings to spend Christmas and the New Year at the brand-new Folctha Star Hotel had been his idea, and a genius one. The walls were thick and soundproofed, the bed was measured in acres, the bath was big enough for two, and the windows were thick, sturdy, and completely opaque from outside, in part thanks to the solar-gathering forcefield that meant the hotel was a net contributor to the city’s power grid.
All of those should have been gratefully, enthusiastically and repeatedly exploited to their maximum erotic potential.
They had had sex, oh yes. Powerful, athletic, gasping sex. Legs wrapped around him so hard that her knees creaked sex. Fingernails down his back drawing blood sex. The cold glass of that huge sturdy floor-to-ceiling window against her back and buttocks sex, made all the better by the scandalous illusion of exhibitionism.
That had all been one ride. A mind-blowing reunion fuck that had promised more and even better to follow, but failed to deliver. Adam was…Busy.
How the hell somebody could keep so busy on their Christmas break was beyond her, but he got up at four in the goddamn morning, span through the shower, then vanished to the gym, returning around sunset aching and exhausted and full of willing spirit but empty of actual energy.
Naturally she’d complained. He’d explained that he HAD to keep his training regime up, that every gram of muscle mass was a target he had to hit. When she’d suggested dinner, he’d pointed out that his every calorie and vitamin was tightly controlled.
And he was so stealthy. There was no hope of waking up to at least get a few minutes with him in the dark of the early morning, because he’d slip out of bed like a dream, shower like rain on the window, and when he slipped out of the room the door closed behind him with a click that was quieter than the wall clock’s ticking. When he came back, she could snuggle up to him all she liked, she’d get kissed, maybe some happy nose-nuzzles and all that good stuff…for the few minutes until he fell asleep, completely drained by his regimen.
All things considered, spending her lover’s birthday alone at noon in a dry-dock sized bathtub and treating herself to a Mojito jug intended for two wasn’t how she’d envisioned their time together going.
And she had two weeks of this to look forward to?
She abandoned the drink, threw on clean clothes and buckled on her camera with the fierceness of a rancher gal of the old west fixing to fight off bandits.
There were photo opportunities going begging all over this town, material to fill her website for a year. She’d sell her photos to agencies, news organisations and private buyers. A camera in the right hands could be a money engine.
If she wasn’t going to get laid, she may as well get paid. She could sort out Adam later.
A productive afternoon and evening showed Folctha at its best: the sterile filth and colourful greyness of the building sites, the way Cimbrean’s star—still unnamed—just had that slight bit more magenta in it than a Sol sunset as it painted the first extraterrestrial human city. How Folctha at night was both the same as and different to any other city, with all the hue and splendor of its nightlife playing out under three tuberous, irregular moons.
She’d almost forgotten about Adam by the time she got back. There was no ignoring him when she insert-tugged their keycard in the room lock, though. He was asleep with the blanket draped over one leg and everything else naked to the night air, a study in masculine geometry, and as fast asleep as King Arthur under the mountain. All of her frustration with him came right back, and the devilish idea for waking him up that had just occurred to her was drowned out by the much louder voice of irritation.
There was nothing for it but to sigh, strip, and climb into bed next to him, wondering what the hell she was going to do.
A fitful night’s sleep full of that question was answered when, to her astonishment, she rolled over in the morning to find that it was full daylight outside and that he was still there, dozing on his side facing her with a half-lidded, sleepy and loving expression.
“…Hey.” He barely whispered it.
“Hey…” she replied, as two distant parts of her brain embroiled themselves in a tug of war over whether to voice her discontent now, or wait until after she’d screwed him senseless, then voice her discontent.
He kissed her, ending that argument. He was so strong, she could feel it even though his touch was light, and they didn’t need long before she was straddling his hips, grinding and gasping and eagerly working towards the moment when she’d be ready to get around him properly.
“Oh god…So, what’s so special about today?”
He was too busy sucking on her nipple to reply properly, so just made an inquisitive “hmm?” noise.
“You didn’t sneak out this morning…”
He chuckled, and kissed the hollow where her throat met her collarbone, dropping his hands to her hips. “It’s my rest day.”
Ava blinked, and stopped moving. “Your…rest day?”
Adam frowned, confused. “Yeah. Weekends are rest days.”
“…You-?” Her mood evaporated, and she scooted down his thighs a bit, sitting on his knees. “You scheduled this?”
Adam’s expression had gone from confident lover to confused boyfriend to kicked puppy in a matter of seconds. “Well…not this, but, like, the day…”
“Jeez!” She seethed, and surged to her feet. “Well, I’m glad you could fit me into your busy goddamn schedule!”
“Ava… !” The exclamation was a hurt and confused one.
“No, seriously, what’s your thought process here?” She demanded. “Let’s hear it!”
“Well…Look, Ava, baby, I need to keep this up. Like, it could be dangerous for me to not keep my exercise going while I’m here. Even if it’s not, it could undo a lot of hard work!”
“And what the hell am I supposed to do when you’re gone all day?”
“I figured…I mean, it’s a nice hotel, there’s a spa, there’s like-”
She interrupted him, practically spitting lightning bolts. “No he venido aquí para admirar el paisaje, perrita!”
Adam’s jaw went slack. “What did you just-?”
“I called you a little bitch you fuckin’ idiot!” she snarled. “Or did all that exercise squeeze the Spanish out of your brain?!”
There was a long moment of silence, chilly on her part, hurt and confused on his. He stood up at about the same time as she sat down, and started to get dressed.
His boots were laced and he all but had his hand on the door handle when she spoke to him. “Adam, I’m sorry.”
He paused and looked back at her. Her ankles were crossed, her hands were hugged at her waist and she couldn’t hold his gaze—she looked away almost instantly, shaking and chewing at her lip.
“We’ll…Let me just…” he began, then started over. “We both need to…we’ll talk when I get back.”
“Don’t be long. Please.” she begged him.
In the end, he was barely gone half an hour, and returned with little more than a glow of sweat to show for the run he must have gone on. She’d dressed, but then sat down on the bed again and pulled the blanket around her shoulders, waiting.
She summoned a weak smile for him. “Hey.”
“God, Ava, I’m sorry.” he sat down next to her and engulfed her shoulders in his right arm, skin like a furnace against hers. “You’re right, I didn’t have a thought process there, I just…I didn’t think about you at all, did I?”
She rubbed her eyes, and nuzzled into him. “I love you,” she said. “but you can’t just…I’m not a videogame, Adam. You can’t just load me up and carry on from where you left off, you know? It’s been a year. A year, Adam. And then you come back and pencil me in for the weekends?”
“I know, I…I’m sorry.”
“And I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have called you that, but…” she sighed. “Look, can we put it behind us and salvage the second week of this break? Just you and me, every day all day until you have to go back?”
He hesitated, and her heart sank. “I…Baby, I wish I could promise that.” he said. “But I wasn’t kidding about it being maybe dangerous.”
“…Fine.” She declared. “Fine. What can you promise?”
“I, uh…what would you like?”
“What I’d like is-” she stopped herself, and moderated herself. “Look, just…wake me up before you head out. Talk to me. Involve me. Get back here as early as you can and spend time with me! Hell, you’re fresh in the morning? Get some of that exercise in right here in this bed! And if you have to control what you eat, can we at least eat together?”
“…I can do all of that.” he said.
“So, um…where were we, before…?”
“Forget it, cabròn.” she told him. “You killed that mood stone dead, you’ve got a lot of cuddling to do before we’re back there again.”
After a silent second, he got the hint and finally, finally put his arms around her and nuzzled up close.
After a while, it even started to feel natural and safe again.