Paul woke. He knew at once where he was, but he was alone in the bed. Shaking his head to rid it of morning cobwebs, he heard the shower running. Several months of not looking urged him to his feet, and he pushed open the door to the bathroom. "Alan?"
"G'day," he answered. "I was wondering if you were ever going to wake up."
"I'm awake now," he sidestepped the morning-person problem (later) and pushed back the shower door. "Wash your back?" he offered deliberately.
"Sure," Alan said, after a beat.
Paul stepped into the steamy stall and poured some of the liquid soap on the scrubber and began, more a massage than a washing, really. Alan's muscles were tense as iron under his hands; the water ran off his shoulders and cut rivulets through the lather, streaming along the old white scars that made his skin seem darker than it was. But the longer Paul worked the more Alan relaxed, and the more, oddly, Paul himself did, the more he was able to stop seeing the stripes, stop thinking about their regularity, the pattern that spoke of cruelty beyond his desire to comprehend, and the more he saw only the man under the scarsunder his handsthe man who'd survived to be here, now, with him...
"Don't stop that... what?"
Paul resumed what was now, frankly, sensuous and with any luck actual foreplay. "What happens now?" he asked.
"That probably depends on when you have to be in Main Mission," Alan said.
"I was thinking long-term," Paul said, but he kissed Alan's shoulder.
Alan shrugged under his hands. "I don't really think long term any more," he confessed. "What do you want?"
"You," Paul said.
"That you have."
The gin fizz bubbled over inside. But still"What about the army?"
"I don't plan on telling them."
"I thought not. But"
"Paul," Alan turned around, linking his arms around Paul's waist. "You worry too much, chook."
Any answer Paul might have made was lost in the kiss. And Alan was a good a kisser as he had remembered... To hell with long term, Paul thought. He turned off the water, and wished he hadn't as the insistent chirp of a commlockoddly muffledfinally reached them.
"I think that's yours, chook," Alan said, laughing a little.
Chook? Smiling like, he was sure, an idiot, Paul grabbed a towel and found his commlock in his gym bag.
"Paul." Koenig looked at him, taking in his damp condition. "Good. You're awake. I was hoping you could come in early. We've got things to discuss."
"Yes, sir," Paul said. "I'll be there shortly."
"Busy day?" Alan asked from the doorway.
"Looks like it," Paul said, glancing up at him. "I don't know exactly"
"Yeah." Alan smiled wryly at him. "Stop looking so worried. I understand need-to-know."
Paul smiled back in relief and pulled his uniform out of the gym bag. Fortunately the knit material didn't wrinkle easily, and his job wasn't physically demanding; it was still quite presentable.
Alan dropped a towel over Paul's head and dried his hair, and then ruffled it. "Go on and hold the place together," he said. "I'll be yapping at your heels soon enough, I reckon. Maybe we can find a nice bottle and unwind tonight, have that talk you're wanting so."
"All I want is you," Paul said. "But that sounds like a good agenda." He pulled on his shirt and zipped up the red sleeve. After all, he thought, it's not so very long-term after all, your going back to earth... Christ, Morrow, what have you done? But he didn't have time to think about it now. Later... He grimaced to himself. When later finally gets here, it's going to be interesting. He looked at Alan pulling his own shirt on. But worth it.
He travels the fastest who travels alone...
Alan pushed his coffee aside and pulled over the latest figures on recomputing the flight path to Meta. He looked at them, but he didn't see them. Instead, he saw big dark eyes, elegant hands, a mouth he could spend the rest of his life kissing...
He'd said, sworn, he wasn't doing it again, laying himself open like that. And now this Pom... But he'd let it happen. He'd ignored so completely, so deliberately, every sign and every little warning voice that asked 'why? why is he spending time with you? why does he care?..'
And you couldn't miss that. Paul's eyes were dark and honest and loving as a dog's. He cared, all right. More than Alan had thought anyone ever could again. And he'd got in. And, not really overnightwhat had happened yesterday hadn't really been that sudden or that unexpected, not if he was honestso not exactly overnight but still of a sudden, there was someone. And Alan knew he didn't want to go back to being only him.
You might travel faster alone, but would you like the journey half as much? Or the destination, for that matter? Good job his subconscious was smarter than he was.
And now he was thinking about Nairobi. Lovely city, Nairobi, but he had no desire to be there a month from now, looking up at the pale moon riding high in the African skies and wondering. Regretting...
Alan looked at the piece of printout he'd been scribbling stick figures and crescent moons on and gave it up as a bad job. Pushing it aside, he activated the commpost beside the desk and put a call in to JAC Canberra, asking for the RAA personnel liason officer.
"G'day, Nigel. Glad you're still in."
"Alan! How's tricks? Alpha holding together?"
"Alpha's fine... I suppose you've heard about the delays to the Meta mission?"
Nigel's eyes flickered. "Alan"
"Don't fret, mate," Alan said. "I'm not calling about that. I've got that message... I'm calling about something else."
"What, then?" Nigel said in relief. "Anything I can do for you... You're coming back next month; want some leave before Nairobi?"
"Cut me orders to stay up here another year," Alan said. "Meta a go or no."
"Alan," Nigel said, "JAC had someone else in mind, considering Gorski"
"Gorski's not here," Alan shook his head. "John Koenig is. Give me another year."
"Gorski's gone? A bit sudden, that, wasn't it?"
"Hour's notice, I think. I'm not in that loop, though."
"No... ILC top brass keep things close to their vest, that's for damned sure. Koenig? You know him?"
"We've worked together," Alan said. "We get along. He won't mind."
"We've cut orders for Marc Powell"
"Nigel, you know Powell doesn't want to come here. Nobody wants to come here, you know that." And that was painfully true; ironically, the moon was the last place an astronaut wanted to come, unless he was scheduled to fly a moon-launched mission like Meta. For a JACLO, it was a boring job in a place that tantalized with might-have-beens but was full of, basically, lorry drivers in space.
"Well, now, Alan, you said that yourself; you said you wanted to go to Nairobi."
"I don't anymore. Send Powell. Or Sharif. Or anybody. Look, Nigel: give me another year here and you can send me to Houston."
"Houston?" Nigel repeated.
Alan nodded. He understood the disbelief; he'd resolutely rejected any attempts to send him to America since he joined JAC, which, since JAC NASA in Houston was the main mission control and administrative center, and Kennedy Canaveral one of the four main launch sites, was a nuisance. "Yeah, Houston. I figure I can live with it."
"You know we wanted you in Houston four years ago."
"I know. I'll go. Next year."
"A full five year tour?"
"Okay, Alan. Can do... In fact, will do and you're not getting out of it."
"Don't want out of it," Alan said, knowing it was the truest thing he'd said in more than a decade, possibly in his whole life.
"Right, then. I'll cut your orders today. Dunno what you've got into up there, and I reckon I don't want to know, but watch yourself."
"I always do." He cut the link and watched the commpost go dark, experiencing a faintly thrilling fear at making a plan again. Paul had just over a year left here, and then he was going to Houston. ILC's Earthside tours were three years, but if at the end of that, they were still together and he didn't want to stay in Houston, Alan would think of something... If they weren't, if they hadn't lasted, well, JAC NASA and the ILC Houston Center weren't in the same bulding of the complex, they wouldn't have to see each other. If they were, he wondered... he knew Houston was a big city, but it was in Texas; surely you could have horses there. Paul would like that... if they were still together. If. Bloody hell, I'm thinking about ifs again.
He shivered slightly. It was a quick plunge, no doubt, but he knew himself well enough to know if he didn't make it, he'd come up with too many good reasons not to: strange waters, too cold, too long since he'd been swimming, sharks...
He closed his eyes and shook his head. That wasn't going to come up. They weren't at war, and even if a big war cropped up and he got pulled into it, Paul wasn't a soldier. It wasn't going to happen again. Alan wasn't going to have to be there again when he died... blood, pain, delirium, beautiful eyes almost not knowing him, broken fingers trying to hold him, broken voice begging him for relief, for comfort, for surcease....
Alan took a deep breath and ran his hands through his hair. It wasn't going to happen. Paul wasn't going to die. He just wasn't.
He pulled the printout over again and began preparing his report for Koenig.
It wasn't going to happen...
His commlock sounded. He reached over and turned it on, still focused on the schedule modifications. "Yes?"
It was Paul. Alan felt everything else fade into nothingness for a moment. "Yes?"
"The commander would like you to come over to Main Mission."
Duty reintruded. "Now? I need another fifteen or so"
Paul shook his head. His dark eyes were grave. "No, you don't. Trust me. Come on over now."
"Oh?" He put down his pencil. "All right. On my way." He clipped the commlock to his belt and headed out of the lab.
Koenig wasn't in his office, but over by Paul's position. Alan headed over there, reading bad news in the men's body language. It was a good thing he'd already called JAC, he thought. "Commander?"
"Alan, bad news, I'm afraid," Koenig said without preamble. "It's time you knew what was going on. Astronauts Warren and Sparkman died this afternoon."
Alan stared at the commander, feeling sucker-punched. "They died?" he asked. "Eric? Frank? Of what? I mean, I was told"
"You were told lies," Koenig said flatly. "They died of a disease no one can understand. Earth Command wanted you to think it was a temporary setback."
Bastards. That was no surprise. The shock had passed; the soldier in him, who knew that men might be expendable but missions weren't, began reassessing. "But the Meta probe?" he began.
"Forget the probe, Carter," Koenig said sharply, cutting off the monitor which was displaying the ship's graceful shape. "Before we do anything more I'm going to find out why those two men died."
"Yes, sir," Alan said, his mind already occupied with spec changes as he walked back to the lab. Koenig might be ready to forget the probe, but he wasn't. Not yet.
He looked up to see the commander striding over from Ouma's displays of the last training flight taken by Warren and Sparkman, the Kenyan following him with puzzlement on his face.
"Check out all the figures on Area One for the past ten days," Koenig said.
Paul reached out and toggled the switch. "Sandra? Check ten on Area One, please, and bring it in."
"Right away, Paul."
Koenig said, "Shuttle pilot Collins took us over Area One on his way to Area Two. Does he always fly that route?"
Paul folded his arms and said, "Four or six times a week." It was SOP.
Dr. Russell joined them, her expression worried. The commander asked, "It's a turning point, right?"
"It's one of the few constructions on the dark side," Paul explained, using the common, if not entirely correct label for the far side; it was part of Alpha's vernacular. "It's a clear landmark for going to Area Two."
"And the probe astronauts?"
"Well, they do their training flights on the dark side. Away from Alpha traffic," he added.
"They fly over there regularly," Koenig ascertained.
Paul nodded. "But there is a minimum altitude regulation."
"Yeah," Koenig said softly.
Ouma interrupted. "And that's where the flight recorder blanked out in their last training flight!"
That was news to Paul. He was beginning to really sympathize with Alan: Gorski had been keeping secrets from more people than one, it seemed.
"I had Collins fly low over that area this morning to get a good close look," Koenig said.
And now Collins was in critical condition in the medical center...
"Paul?" Sandra came in from Data Analysis, saw Koenig and said, "Commander, there is a steep rise in heat levels in Disposal Area One. This is impossible," she concluded in her precise accents. "All indications show that the radiation level is normal but the heat continues to rise."
Koenig looked at the printout she'd handed him and then raised his commlock. "Victor? I think we've got a connection, a correlation."
"Right," Bergman said, "I'll be with you."
Koenig looked up at Paul. "Bring in Area One on video."
Paul switched the feed, and Sandra turned on the monitor from the position next to Tanya's. The scene was surreal, like something by Heironymus Bosch out of van Gogh: the huge waste disposal piles glowing red, with bolts of electrical energy discharging like reversed lightning leaping toward the sky.
"That is incredible," said Sandra. "Heat, but still no radiation."
"It's incomphrehensible," Koenig crossed to stand behind her, looking up at the monitor. "Heat without atomic activity."
"Here," Bergman entered Main Mission. "Let's have a look at that." Sandra and Koenig handed him prinouts and he hmmmmd over them.
With a harsh flare of static, the picture went out on the monitor, drawing all eyes. "Burnout. Camera gone," Sandra reported.
"Second camera, please," Paul said, maintaining calm in the face of the nerves manifested by the rest of Mission staff, who were crowding in to look.
That camera lasted about three seconds. "All visual contact lost," Sandra said precisely.
"Paul," Koenig turned to him. "I want an Eagle of the pad for immediate liftoff. We've got to see what's going on out there."
Getting the Eagle ready was easier than getting her a pilot. Koenig insisted on going, though both Bergman and Russell were against it. "I'm not sending someone out there," Koenig said.
"So you're going yourself?" asked Russell. "That's very noble, but it's not very smart."
Paul listened, taking no part, reflecting on how those flat American accents, especially Koenig's, seemed made to carry anger, and wondering if those two had known each other before. Russell hadn't been on Alpha when Koenig had been here three years ago, but their interaction seemed fraught with subtext... He punched up an alternate flight path and refrained from bringing up Alan's name.
Finally, though, Koenig was on his way to Area One. Russell was hovering at Paul's shoulder and Bergman was staring at the monitor. "Approaching Area One," Koenig's voice came over the speaker. "Check data systems ready?"
"Data systems functioning," Paul acknowledged.
Flares and bolts laced through the vacuum between the storage piles.
"It's getting more active," Koenig reported. "I'm increasing altitude."
Flares reached out and the telemetry from the Eagle skittered all over the place. Paul was very glad that Alan wasn't out there.
"I'm in trouble," Koenig's voice was strained. "You still getting data?"
As Paul answered in the affirmative, Bergman crossed to stand in front of his postion. His voice was low as he said, "The magnetic field's expanding. We can't measure it. Get him away from there quickly."
Paul flicked the Eagle onto remote. "Hang on, Commander, we're going to try to blast you out of there." There was no response from the controls. "Switch to onboard backup systems, Commander. We're losing you." He was peripherally aware of Dr. Russell moving even closer to him, but the backups had come on line and he was too busy saving the commander's life to worry about her concerns at the moment. The further Koenig could get from Area One and whatever was building there before he crashed, the better.
"Backup failing," Koenig said, static crackling through his feed. "All systems out."
Paul tripped two more switches, and then said, "Rescue ship, move in."
"I'm at four-nine, altitude three-five. Switching on rescue location beams now; impact ten seconds."
But Area One blew before Koenig's Eagle hit the lunar surface a good twenty klicks away. The brilliant light burnt out the remaining functional camera, and the shock travelled through the moon to shake Alpha like a lunar quake.
Two hours later, with Koenig returned to Alpha in one piece, despite Dr. Russell's manifest annoyance with him, and Area One a blackened slagheap, Area Two was the first, probably the only, thing on everyone's mind. It held 140 times the waste as had Area One; if it went up the same way who knew how much damage it could do. Koenig and Russell were shut in his office, arguing the feasibility of sending out another Eagle, when Bergman came into Main Mission, holding a piece of equipment. "Look at this," he invited Paul and Alan. Alan took the printouts from him with only a cursory glance at the equipment, which could have been anything. While he was reading, the professor was explaining that it was an old magnetic field monitor from Area One.
Alan interrupted. "There was a twenty-fold increase in magnetic energy."
Which could not be good.
"And that was before it burned out," Bergman nodded. "We've been obsessed with radiation. Wrong." He headed into the commander's office.
And the upshot of that was, a remotely-controlled Eagle was sent to monitor the magnetic fields in Area Two, an Eagle that crashed when the field surged again.
"Paul," said Koenig in the silence that followed. "Contact Commissioner Simmons immediately. Pass emergency code 'Alpha One'."
D -25 (Sep 13 1999): Breakaway
The attempt to spread the waste from Area Two over a wider areaa slim hope but their only onewas underway. Commissioner Simmons hovered uselessly in the background, getting on Alan's nerves. Not that that was hard; he wanted to be doing something, not standing around in Main Mission monitoring telemetry like any of a dozen other people could do. Listening to Paul's calm voice"disperse to grid sector six-eight"helped, but he was still fidgety.
"Alan," Koenig said quietly, "do you have any Eagles left over?"
"No, sir, they're all committed," Alan answered.
"Take Commissioner Simmons's Eagle and see what it looks like from orbit," Koenig said.
"Yes, sir," he said gratefully. He could feel Paul's eyes on the back of his neck as he left.
He suited up as quickly as he could and ran the barest minimum preflight. "Control, Eagle One," he said. Paul's face came up on his screen. "Liftoff completed," he said professionally, ignoring the worry in Paul's dark eyes. "Trajectory computed and programmed. I'll be in orbit in four minutes."
"Right," said Paul, as professionally, and cut the circuit.
From that altitude, the other Eagles weren't visible, but the surging lightning bolts, or whatever you called magnetic bolts, were. He could hear ControlPaul's calm voicetelling the pilots to gain altitude, and then, suddenly, to abort and return home. Less than a minute later, the entire far side was bathed in a light so fierce that he was blinded for several minutes.
When he could see again, the sight that greeted his still flash-shocked eyes was incredible. In the true meaning of the word. He blinked at it four or five times before he had to accept it: the moon was accelerating away from the earth. He was suddenly aware that he was no longer hearing Alpha... Paul!
"Alpha, can you hear me?" Alan kept his voice as calm as he could. "Alpha, do you copy?"
Nothing. "Alpha, I'm not receiving you, but you may be receiving me. The moon is going out of the earth's orbit. That explosion... it has pushed us out of the earth's orbit. Alpha, can you hear me?"
Nothing. He checked the fuel gauges. Just enough to reach Earth if he left now. Just enough... He gunned the Eagle after the moon. "Alpha, are you okay? Alpha, I'm not receiving you. Alpha, what's happening to you down there?" He took a breath and steadied himself. "Alpha, we've lost contact. Can you hear me, Alpha? I'm open on all channels..."
He lost track of how more times he called before, suddenly, Koenig's strained voice came over the speakers. "Carter? Can you hear me?"
"Commander! Thank God you're okay... What's happening down there?"
"Tremendous G forces... We can barely move."
Sure. Acceleration mimicked gravity. God, they must have been flattened...
"Wait a minute," Koenig said. "We seem to be decelerating."
They weren't. But they weren't picking up any more speed. The explosion must have burned itself out and the gravity towers that kept Alpha at near earth-normal were now beginning to compensate. Thank God, they work either way...
"Carter? Do you read me?"
"Read you loud and clear," Alan answered.
"Can you make it back to the base?"
"Yeah," Alan said, smiling at the stars. "I can make it. I'm closing now. I can make it," he repeated.
"Good, Captain," said Koenig. "Get back here as quick as you can."
He didn't bother to unsuit but headed into Ops carrying his helmet. He passed injured people heading for medical but none of them were from Main Mission. When he slipped in through the door in the middle of Koenig's announcement, he was only half-way listening; he already knew that trying Exodus was a fool's gambit. He needed to see Paul, alive and well.
"As we are, we have power, environment, and the possibility of survival," Koenig was saying. "If we were to try to improvise a return to Earth without travel plots, without resources, it is my belief that we would fail. Therefore, in my judgement, we do not try."
If there was more, it faded into nothing at the sight of the tall, slender red-sleeved man standing at the central console and looking at him. They'd made it.
"D'you know what you look like, chook?" Alan said.
"A what? A dog?"
"Yeah. You've got those worried eyes, and," he touched Paul's face between his eyebrows, "that little furrowed thing going on here. All worried and trying to watch out for me."
"I love you," Paul said simply.
Alan knew what he ought to say, but he couldn't. Not so soon, he excused himself. Instead, he laid his hand on Paul's cheek and said, "I'm a big boy, Morrow. You can't keep me inside. I've got a job, and sometimes it's dangerous, but I know what I'm doing."
Paul sighed, his handsome face still worried, that beautiful mouth, framed by his mustache, marred by those expensive white teeth biting the lower lip. "I know," he admitted, "but, Alan, you can't blame me for worrying about you when God knows what might happen."
Alan wasn't sure what to say, so he said nothing.
"I guess I'm just going to have to become resigned to being scared all the time," Paul said.
"I'm sorry," Alan said. "I don't know how else to be."
"My soldier," Paul said, and Alan relaxed. That didn't sound angry; it didn't even sound regretful. "I wouldn't want you to be otherwise. Just damn well keep getting back, do you hear?"
"Back to you?" Alan said. "I don't know how else to do that, either."
"I'm holding you to that, you mad Aussie," Paul said.
"That's not the only thing you're holding me to," Alan said, half suggestively and half invitingly.
"Hmmmm?" Paul said.
Alan took that as a 'yes'. Paul cooperated enthusiastically enough, but afterwards he stayed awake for a long time. Alan wasn't sure, this was only their third night together, but he thought Paul was worried about somethingwell, honestly, what could he possibly have to be worried about? Alan admitted. But still... Alan awoke late in the night, alone. He sighed. The Englishman was the type to make himself sick, taking on too much. He'd have to watch out for that...
He closed his eyes again and, with the soldier's facility for sleeping whenever the chance presented itself, drifted off again.
Tanya had brought coffee around, as she usually did once a day. Paul didn't drink it often, but he took some today; there was an extra cup because Tanya had automatically brought one for Ouma. She blushed as she realized what she'd done, biting her lip. "I can't keep it in my mind," she said. "I keep thinking I will look up and see Benyamin standing there."
Sandra settled in a chair next to the Russian woman. "I know," she said. "It is hard."
Paul decided the hell with it and sat down as well. They could all use a break, and it wasn't as though there were scheduled flights or comms sessions or anything whatsoever. Seeing him join the women, Alan and David did too. It was odd, having them there in Main Mission, but the loss of the Meta probe had left Alan completely jobless for the momentwhat did a JACLO do when there was no JAC to liaise for? Koenig had put him to keeping track of Eagles, Hawks, and pilots for the time being. If they were ever to find another world, they'd need all the flying stock they could get.
And David was now senior IT tech, since Ouma was among theso farnine fatalities of Breakaway, as it had begun to be called. Paul was sorry for that on several levels; he'd rather liked Ouma for himself, and certainly, though a private person, the Kenyan had been far easier to get along with than the single-minded David. Also, he'd been less prone to treating Computer like some sort of demi-god. Instead, he'd behaved as if the mainframe were a somewhat willful child genius. At the least, he'd thought Computer was there for Alpha, not the other way around.
But Ouma had died, and it was David they'd have to work with now. And Computer wasn't a desktop with a simple OS; its multifaceted AI had an interface few could properly manipulate beyond the routine tasks. Much as Paul sometimes wished for a few more, much dumber systems, he had to admit that now they might all be glad for Computer's complexity.
"Nothing about this is easy," Tanya was saying.
"That's God's own truth," Alan said. "What was that American TV show'Wagon Train to the Stars'?"
Paul shook his head. "I'm not cut out for this," he said almost without thinking.
"For what?" Alan asked, his green eyes concerned.
"Being a pioneer," Paul said, smiling. "We don't go places in my family."
"The English are always going to other places," David said, "though usually someone else is there."
Paul hunched a shoulder. "I'm not 'the English'. My family stays put and lets others go... The last time anyone in my family moved, it was a Saxon making a four-hour jump across the bloody Channel, fourteen hundred years ago."
"Poor Paul," Sandra said, her eyes sparkling with mischief. "Just think of it as an adventure, a glorious adventure."
"I don't like adventures," he said. "Adventures are dirty and dangerous."
Tanya smiled half-heartedly, but it was Alan, unexpectedly, who said, "That's what I don't like. You could dieany of you," he added.
"People have died already," David pointed out. Unnecessarily, of course, but that was David.
"Yeah. And they were, you all are, civilians."
"Alan, you don't have to watch out for us simply because you are in the army and we are not," Sandra said. "For that matter, you are not, really, not any more."
Alan shrugged. "But I signed up for it."
"You didn't sign up for this, surely," she said.
Tanya nodded, clutching her coffee cup as if trying to warm her hands. "You could die, too, Alan."
Now it was Alan's answer that came as though he weren't really thinking about what he was saying; they were all, Paul thought, clinically shocked still. "I always walk away," the Australian said.
"Before the crash?" Paul had to ask.
Their eyes met and held as if they were the only two at the conference table. Then, "No. After it."
Something else on the pile marked 'later'. "Well," Paul said, shrugging, "that's luck."
"Oh, yeah; I'm lucky."
"Of course you are," David snorted. "You're here."
"Yeah," Alan said, looking away from Paul.
"Do you know, had it been two days later," David continued, oblivious, "I would have been in Kingston. Home leave. Now I will never see it again."
"I was in Sevastopol eight months ago," Tanya contributed. "My sister got married. She will be having a baby in December. I will never see my nephew."
"What about you, Sandra?" David asked; as usual, when he managed to include others, it was for sharing misery. "When were you last in Brunei?"
"I just came back from Home Leave last month, David," she said, smiling. It was so like him not to have noticed. "I spent a month with my family in Bandar Seri Begawan, and I was happy. But I am also happy to be here, now, alive." She smiled again, a cat in the creamery smile. Michael Ryan was the cause of that, Paul knew. A nice sort of man, if you liked them bluff and hearty... chacun à son gout, he thought, looking at his own choice.
"Well, I'd rather be alive than dead," David nodded. "But I'd rather be alive in Kingston than Alpha. Alan's rightI didn't sign on for this. What about you, when were you last home, Alan?"
Alan said, "Just before I came up here I got to New South Wales for a few days, in fact. Things were busy, autumn stock roundups, but I saw my dad and all my brothers. Bry had just moved back from Adelaide, so I know he'll be keeping an eye on the old man... there was always the chance I'd never get back, so I'd stopped thinking of the station as home a long time ago, though."
"I always forget," Tanya said, "that seasons are backwards in Australia. I mean, you came here in April. That's spring on the Crimea."
"April is spring most places," said David.
Sandra answered before Alan. "Much of the world would not agree."
"There really is not that much in the Southern Hemisphere," David shook his head. "Parts of Africa and South America. Australia. Some islands."
"I don't think the Kiwis would appreciate being lumped in with 'some islands'," Alan grinned.
"Let's not be arctocentric," Paul said mildly; the word threw David long enough. "After all, Alpha has no seasons at all."
"What about you, Paul?" Tanya asked. "When were you home last?"
He stopped his first two responseslast night and nine years agoand said, "I haven't been to Sussex in so long, I've stopped thinking of it as that. Like Alan. I suppose Alpha was home as much as anywhere."
"You were in the last tour they'd let you have," Sandra said, "or you'd risk being like Bergman... Were you going to London?"
"No. Houston... at least I'd put in for it." He looked at Alan again. So had the Australian. His orders had come in before it all went to hell... That had done a lot to reassure him. He smiled at the thought, and then shrugged and said, "I suppose we're all like Bergman now. Alpha is home."
"It's where we're hanging our hats, anyway," Alan said.
"For the time being," said David. "We'll find somewhere."
"I hope so," said Sandra.
They were all quiet for a few minutes, and then Tanya said, abruptly, "I miss green."
"What?" asked Paul.
"Green," she said. "I miss it. Menye khochetsya... there is no green anywhere in Alpha. No green sleeves, no walls, no floors, no green at all. I suppose there is some sound psychological reason for that, but I miss it. The Crimea is very green."
"So's Kingston," David said. "Jamaica is very green, with many trees and much rain."
"Brunei, too," Sandra sighed. "And the birds! I miss the green most, though."
I've got my green, Paul thought, looking at Alan's eyes, but he said, "Sussex is green, too; no jungles, but the Weald is a nice forest. My part is the Downs, but they're green, rolling and drifted with sheepbells... Australia's not green much, though, is it?"
Alan shook his head. "You ignorant Pom," he said, and Paul's heart skipped a beat. "Sure, part of Oz is desert, but New South Wales is as green as you could ask."
"What are the odds any new planet we find will be green?" Paul asked.
David shrugged. "I could ask Computer."
Tanya said, "Chlorophyll is green. But some plants on earth have red or purple pigments that mask chlorophyll. And I suppose there is no reason to assume that alien plants would even have it."
"The red, red grass of home," Paul said experimentally. "It doesn't sound right."
"The kids would get used to it. You do, get used to songs and stories that don't match what you see every day," Alan said.
"That's true. You Aussies did. And I remember a Yank telling me once how startled she was to see an English robinapparently they've got a robin in America that's got an orange breast, and she always wondered about the 'red-breast' nursery rhymes."
"People adapt," Alan said briskly. "We will."
"If we live," David said.
"We will live," Sandra said firmly. "You will see, David. We have lived so far; we will live on."
That seemed to Paul a good point to end this talk and get everyone back to work, which he did simply by finishing his coffee and saying, "Thank you, Tanya; I think we all needed a break." When he stood up, the others did, too.
"Think again," Alan said again, loudly and with a rap of his knuckles against the desktop.
"What?" Paul looked up at him, clearly only just aware of his presence. His eyes were tired and bruised looking, his skin pale.
"I said," Alan repeated, "if you think you're staying here all night again, think again. You're not."
Paul blinked at him, and then looked around Main Mission, at the skeletal night shift. "Alan," he started to say.
"Nope," Alan interrupted. "It's not going to happen. These blokes all have your commlock code; if they need you, they can find you. You need sleep. You won't do Alpha any good staying up till you pass out. Come on."
"Alan," Paul shook his head.
He interrupted again. "Paul, take it from me; I'm a soldier, remember? I've seen crises before. The immediate problem is over, we're settling into long-term crisis management here and you need to sleep. And you're going to, if I have to arrange it with Bob Mathias."
Paul grinned, though tiredly, at the threat of medical intervention. "You would, wouldn't you?"
"In a heartbeat. When was the last time you did sleep, and don't tell me last night because I doubt you got an hour and you probably came right back here when you left."
Paul glanced around, but nobody was close enough to hear, or looked as if they cared, for that matter. Everyone on Alpha was walking wounded, still. They had their own concerns. The Englishman sighed. "You're right," he admitted. "Right now, I'd kill for sleep. But I'm too tired... if that makes sense."
"Makes a lot of sense. Don't fret; come on. I'll make you sleep."
Paul smiled, still wearily, but with a slight gleam in his eyes. "Promises, promises..."
"I keep mine," Alan said, seriously.
"Thank God," Paul said, as seriously. "I need you to."
"I will. Including getting Bob to knock you out if you don't come. Now."
Paul grinned and nodded. "All right, Alan. I'm coming. Besides," he said, walking around the console, "I wanted to ask you what you meant this afternoon."
"Good," Alan said, moving quickly to deflect the questions he didn't want to answer, especially not while Paul was still fragile from Breakaway and not enough sleep. "Because I wanted to ask you something, too."
Paul waited until the door of the travel tube shut behind them before answering, "What?"
"Who walked away from you?"
Paul paused. "What?"
"Who walked away from you?" Alan repeated.
"What do you mean?"
"I said I walk away, and you asked 'Before the crash?' That sounds like someone's walked away from you."
"Oh." Paul sat quietly for a minute, and then shook his head. "No one important," he said.
The doors opened onto the corridor outside the now abandoned Meta labs and they stood up, Alan following Paul out of the car. "Really?" he asked.
"Really," Paul answered, starting to walk towards Alan's quarters. "No one I wish had stuck around."
Yeah, right. But he let it go. At least Paul wasn't asking him anything. And Paul wasn't in shape for this conversation now. Probably neither of them were, Alan admitted. Everything that truly mattered to him was here, but back on earth were things, people, he'd cared deeply about once and might, now that Paul was making him live again, care about once more. He'd cast them offcast himself off, more like but it wasn't that simple, not really. They were still his blood, no matter how far away he took himself. So... tonight he wouldn't talk about anything or think about anything. Except Paul.
And that was easy.
It still scared him, how deeply he'd feared for Paul's life during Breakaway... He hadn't cared about anyone, hell, anything, that much in years. But it was too late to be safe, and safety wasn't that appealing to him anyway. Never had been, if he was honest. Only when someone like Paul (not that there was anyone like Paul) was involved did safety have anything to offer.
The door shut behind themhe must be tired; when had they reached his quarters?and Paul put his hand on Alan's arm. "You're the only one I want not to walk away," he said. "You know that. Don't you?"
Alan touched Paul's face gently. "I know, chook," he said. "And you have what you want: I'm not going anywhere. You, however," he moved his hand and pushed Paul onto the bed, "are going to Nod, PDQ."
"You come, too," Paul said, sounding more like a sleepy child than a grown man.
"Sure," Alan stripped them both efficiently and joined him in the bed, pulling the blanket up over them both. "Now, sleep."
After a few moments, Paul kissed his throat softly and said, "You promised..."
Alan laughed. Then he kept his promise. And when Paul was sleeping, deeply and exhaustedly, he held him and thought, briefly, about the future. Briefly, then Sod the future, he decided. If ever it was pointless to worry about the future, now is then. He ran his fingers through Paul's hair and closed his own eyes. Get some sleep yourself, Carter, or you won't be any use to him.
Another day of learning to accept. Another day spent wondering just how this could be happening in the first place, how an explosion could break them out of orbit yet not shatter them into smithereens. Bergman and the rest of the science staff were going mad trying to figure it out, and the professor's mystic streak was beginning to seem like rationality.
Another day of figuring out how little control they had over anything. Another day of bad news and worse. Two more people dying of injuries sustained in Breakaway, bringing the total so far to eleven, including Commissioner Simmons, and likely to be more. Three people unable to accept it; two killing themselves and the third slipping into catatonia. Four, really, because Harawa's attempt to steal an Eagle and fly back to Earth had to fall under not accepting it...
If they hadn't needed the Eagles, Alan said over lunch, they ought to have let the stupid sod go.
"Alan," Paul remonstrated.
"I mean it. What are we going to do with him now? We haven't got a jail, after all."
Paul was forced to admit that was a problem, but, "Koenig and Russell think all he needs is some heavy-duty therapy."
Alan snorted. "Who doesn't?"
"I must admit you have a point about that, as well... I'm losing this conversation."
Alan laughed. "It's not all competition. Besides," he added more seriously, "your career is all about keeping everything running right. Mine's all about what to do when it all falls apart. I've got the advantage."
"That's true." Paul sighed, pushed his food about on the plate, and decided he couldn't face another bite. "You must be in what Gorski called 'pig's heaven' now. God knows it is all falling apart. 'Turning and turning in the widening gyre the falcon cannot hear the falconer; things fall apart; the center cannot hold...'"
"'Come, my friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world... my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars, until I die'," Alan rejoined.
"To sail beyond the western stars..." Paul smiled slowly at him. "You think we'll find a new world?"
Alan shrugged. "I dunno. Seeking doesn't guarantee finding, but it beats sitting around waiting to die, doesn't it? 'It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: it may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, and see the great Achilles, whom we knew.'"
Paul found the words coming to his own lips. "'Though much is taken, much abides; and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are"
"'One equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.'"
They looked at each other for a few minutes. Then Paul laughed softly and said, "Well, we're damned sure likely to become 'a name for travelling', though I'd still really rather not."
"I don't remember being asked," Alan shrugged.
"Oh, me, either," Paul agreed. "But we seem to have been drafted. I just hope that the damned ship doesn't run into the rocks and drown us all."
"That would be nice," Alan agreed.
Paul nodded. "I'd best get back to Main Mission. We're still patching up the hull, to continue the metaphor possibly beyond bearing." He stood up, paused, and said, "I thought maybe we could get in some handball this evening? I've a lot of nervous tension, for some reason."
"How extraordinary," Alan grinned. "I'll get us a court."
They both had nervous tension, Paul decided halfway through the first game. Alan wasn't trying to kill him, as he had been four days agoonly four days ago?but he was certainly running him hard all over the court. They did collide once; Paul held the other man in place with a hand in his shirt for a brief moment, saying softly, "I have news for you; if you think this is going to wear me out, you're wrong."
Alan's teeth flashed in a grin, but he didn't answer in words. After all, they'd picked up an audience.
"I can't believe you're letting that old man run you ragged like that, Paul," Mike Ryan said as they finished their third game.
"He's tough," Paul said.
"I can take you, Yank," Alan challenged, "thirteen years or not."
"Please," Paul said, leaning over with his hands on his knees. "I could do with a spot of breather."
"Nah," Ryan shook his head. "Too much like work. Besides, getting physical with Carter's not my idea of fun. If I could talk Sandy into playing, now"
"She'd destroy you," Paul said. Especially if she hears you call her 'Sandy'.
"Yeah, maybe so," Ryan admitted. "But what a way to go... having her deck me would be worth it."
It wasn't as though Paul couldn't empathize, but the conversation was close to getting out of hand. "Did you actually want something, Mike, or did you just come here to add to my humiliation?"
"Actually," Ryan produced some printouts. "I wanted Carter to take a look at these."
Paul caught his breath and watched the two astronauts, whose conversation was too technical for him to care about. Only four days, he thought again. That can't be right. But it was... even though he'd been in love with Alan so much longer than that, it was in fact only four days ago that they'd realized it. Almost four days to the hour, in fact. It seemed like a lifetime... of course, he had to admit, even without Alan factored into it, it had been the most jam-packed, as Ryan would say, four days of his life. Not that keeping Alan factored out was easy... or desirable. Paul wanted Alan factored into every day, every part of his life, for the rest of his life.
And that meant, he was going to have to get Alan to talk to him. Even stopping asking wouldn't work, because whatever it was had happened in East Timor was too big to ignore... what was that American phrase, an elephant in the dining room?
Ryan took himself off and Alan hiked an eyebrow at Paul. "Want another game?"
"No," Paul said.
"Tension all worked off?"
"Let's just say, I don't want to play any more handball."
Alan laughed. "You have some other way to work it off in mind?"
"I could think of something if I put my mind to it, I believe."
Alan laughed again.
"Alan..." Paul said as they walked from the travel tube to the Australian's quarters.
"What you said the other day? Was East Timor the first place you walked away and somebody else didn't?" He figured that was the heart of it.
Alan went all quiet, and then shook his head as he opened the door. "No," he said as Paul followed him in. "Actually, it was in Sydney."
Alan nodded. "We were in Sydney for a Bank Holiday weekend and there was a smash-up. Mum died."
"My god," Paul said. "I'm sorry."
"It was thirty years ago," Alan said. "And I've still got my dadstill had him, anyway, and my brothers."
Paul wasn't sure what to say.
Alan cocked his head and said, "What about you? I never heard you mention family."
Paul paused. "Oh, well..."
"Because you said no-one walked away from you you wanted to stay, and that you hadn't been home in so long it wasn't, anymore..."
"I meant that," Paul said. Exactly how this had become about him instead of Alan, he wasn't sure. Some sort of RAA verbal self-defense course, most likely. Conversational jiujitsu. He made an effort to regain control. "Alan"
"So, we're both alone in the world? Orphans of the storm, so to speak?" Alan was suddenly very close, and his hands were doing some very distracting things.
"Well, yes, I mean, not quite... oh." He gave up, for the moment. "Not exactly alone."
"No," Alan whispered. "Not alone..."
Another day, another lesson in being out of control and at the mercy of whatever was out here, whatever had flung them onto this journey. If it was God, it was an Homeric god, Paul thought, staring at the intransigent readouts. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport... Lear might have been mad, but he wasn't wrong. Or was that Lear? Maybe it was Richmond... He shook his head. As if it mattered.
The more optimistic among them, including Koenig, had pinned their hopes on Meta as a new home. Alan had reminded Paul that Meta, just like the moon, was careening through space and offered less as a home, so he hadn't put too much stock in the 'Maybe Meta' answer, despite the regular radio signals they were picking up. After all, any radioastronomer worth the name knew radio could be natural. But nobody had expected what had happened.
"The line between mysticism and science is just that, a line," Bergman was fond of saying. "And we can cross that line."
But can we get back? Paul wondered. He finally looked away from the monitor. Alan was nearby, but he was turned and looking out the windows in Koenig's office, at the spattery starfield that Alpha was suddenly in the midst of. Just what the hell had happened when they drew near to Meta, Paul didn't know. It rather sounded like nobody knew. The radio signals had suddenly spiked, and there had been a gut-wrenching moment of acceleration before the towers kicked in and held them at only about three geesonlyand then they had all lost time. The clocksAlpha's quaintly analog-faced timekeepers, the legacy of a decision by some long-forgotten ILC bureaucrathad shown a five hour passage of time where no person on Alpha thought more than a second had gone by.
And here they were.
Wherever the hell here was. The astronomics department was in pig's heaven (to use the phrase Paul could not forget), but they hadn't pinpointed Alpha's position yet. Computer was no help; either it truly couldn't comprehend the question or Kano hadn't figured out how to put it. And two more people had died, outside the tower-generated gravity field they had apparently been vulnerable to ... whatever it was that had happened.
Paul stared at the wonder on Alan's face, the man who wanted to go and see. At least somebody was deriving some pleasure out of it all. As for Paul, he wanted to go to bed and wake up, back in Earth's orbit, safe and happy.
He sighed. He'd settle for just going to bed.
And not attracting the attention of any more cosmic jokers with nothing better to do with their time than swat at a handful of human flies...
"His name was Colin. Colin Fielding. He was quite charming, a few years older than me and very sophisticated. I thought."
"And you weren't?" Alan asked amusedly.
"Good Lord," Paul said. "At eighteen? Not in the slightest. Gawky would be kind. Painfully shy more accurate."
"Well, you've improved."
"Thanks," Paul said drily.
"So, what happened with this Colin bloke?"
Paul shrugged. "Several people told me, but I didn't believe them. He was on the make, with an eye to the main chance."
"And you weren't main enough for him, chook?" Alan said.
"Not after I told my father I was gay," Paul said. Nine years was enough that he'd gotten over that rejection; well, nearly over it. Come to accept it, anyway, though he still missed his home. Missed it fiercely, at times... well, now he could pretend they were all sorry and missing him. He laughed.
"Let's just say," said Paul, "Oxford was more of an education than I'd expected. Fortunately my grandmother had left me enough money of my own to finish my degree. Colin hared off somewhere and I never heard from him again. But I can't quite bring myself to be truly annoyed with him. He did introduce me to myself, after all; did me quite a favor there."
"Can't quarrel with that," Alan agreed.
Paul reached out and pushed the blond hair back out of the green eyes. "Nor I." Then he dropped his hand to the ragged scar on Alan's shoulder and said, deliberately, "Alan"
He pulled away, and then stilled. "You want to hear about East Timor." His voice was flat.
"No," Paul said honestly. "I probably don't. But, AlanI need to hear about it. I love you, and this is important..." And we are going to talk about it.
Alan was quiet for a while. Then he sighed and looked out the window, wrapping his arms around his knees. "Okay," he said. "I'll tell you... The Porties moved out of East Timor in '75 and the Indonesians went in almost at once. It wasn't pretty. Eleven years later, things finally got to the point the UN voted to go in. WeAustraliaput ground troops into the first PK force. The Indonesians didn't believe the UN would actually go in... which is why there's still an ETFOR on the ground there."
He paused. Paul hadn't wanted a history lesson but he didn't say anything. Alan would have to tell this in his own way. Besides, he'd been fourteen in '86, and not precisely paying attention to foreign news. Not that he wanted to remind Alan of that... so far the decade between them hadn't really come up, and he'd like to keep it that way.
"Anyway," Alan said, "the Indonesians had a bloody great lot of American arms, American advisors. They were ready to take on the UNPK from the beginning of it; s'pose they thought the UN would back down some, hand them half the country. Hell, why not? It worked in Korea, Palestine, Pakistan... Nobody knew what was happening. Peace-keeping, my arse. It was a police action, plain and simple, just like bloody Korea, only they weren't admitting it right off. It was a royal fuck-up." His voice was bitter and every one of his vowels was so Australian Paul had to concentrate to make sure he was getting the words right. He shifted his position slightly, so that his knee touched Alan, but didn't speak.
"I was flying a gunship," Alan resumed. "Ground fire support. Five days in, a couple of klicks west of the supposed FEBAforward edge of the battle areathe grunts ran into a heavy concentration of Indonesian infantry. They called for help. The Indonesians had bloody Stingers... the Yanks make good stuff, y'know? I was flying a Blackhawk, myself... we went down."
A long silence followed, long enough Paul almost told him to forget it, he didn't need to know. Only the thought that if after thirteen years it was still so hard to say, and then he needed to say it, kept him quiet. The starlight silvered Alan's hair, made his skin pale against the crisp sheets; he was a chiaroscuro, remote and still. Paul swallowed and kept silent himself.
Abruptly, Alan began again, his voice now eerily calm, as remote as he seemed to be. "My crew chief was a bloke named Denis Thatchervery funny we all thought then. Gave him all sorts of hell about it." He tightened his grip on his knees. "Denny and me had been together about eight months then. He was the first man I'd ever loved. The only, till you." A quick sideways glance and he was back to staring out the window. "We were all wrong, of course, from the army's point of view; he was a sergeant and I was a lieutenant, for starters. And both men. We'd planned on getting out as soon as possible without getting ourselves thrown out... Denny was coming up on twenty years, he'd have had a nice little pension for us to start a bush-pilot business with. We had plans... and then one Stinger changed it all."
Another silence, and then the calm voice started again. "The four of us who could walk were taken prisoner. They tossed us in a cozy little prison camp, just us then. They wanted to know, well," he half-laughed, "anything. And they were a bit... creative in how they asked. We had a real nice kid in the crew, a gunner. Bluey Maddox. Eighteen, very blond... Strung us up and made us watch while they took turns at him, and when they were done, they blew his brains out. I was the officer, so right in front of me... I had his blood all over me. Damned flies. I hate flies," he added almost conversationally. "One of the things I like about Alpha. No flies."
Paul swallowed hard. You read about this sort of thing in history, but you didn't know people it had happened to...
"Still, they do say maggots keep wounds clean... One of the bastards was a right artiste with split bamboo. Like that bloke in the Errol Flynn movie. Liked to lay it on very precise." He shrugged. "After a couple of days, one of 'em got playful. With a rat. And my shoulder. Denny lost it. I still don't know why they didn't shoot him, 'cause he did some damage before they brought him down. But then they beat him three-quarters to death and left him to it. It took five days. At the end... he was broken. When he knew me, he was begging to die." Alan shuddered and his voice faltered. "He never begged in his whole life, but he begged me..." He stopped talking, abruptly, his breath coming in deep gulps as he regained control.
"A couple of days later they brought in half a company of Kiwis, and things eased up a bit. Two months later the camp was overrun and we got sent back to Oz. Happy endings..."
"Alan." This time Paul was reproving.
Alan shrugged slightly. "Happy enough. After hospital, they offered me a chance to cross-train into ground attack fighters and while I was there, JAC came around, I applied, and the rest, as they say, is history."
"Alan, look at me."
Reluctantly, he did. Even in the dim room his eyes were bright with unshed tears.
Buried in there had been the closest thing to a declaration Alan had yet managed to say, but this wasn't the time to worry about which words were used. Paul reached out and laid his hand gently on the side of Alan's face, stroking it gently with his thumb. "I am so sorry," he said.
The tears fell, and Paul pulled Alan into a tight, close hold.
|1: Voluntary||2: Breakaway||3: Black Sun|
|Autumn Afternoon | Ilya's Wedding | Something... | Last Corner | Morgans|
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