on Day -129:
"The Explorer" by Rudyard Kipling
"The Wind's Message" by Banjo Paterson
on Day -23:
"The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats
"Ulysses" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
on Day -14:
"Death of the Hired Man" by Robert Frost
To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides.
Day 0: Entering black sun's immediate sphere of influenceController Paul Morrow:I'm playing the guitar and waiting to die.
Alan would give me a very hard time about that, if he knew. "Playing the guitar?" he'd say. "Like you've no cares in the world. Who are you trying to fool?"
Who, you ask? Well, that would be me, Alan. And in a way, I have to do it simply because he would take me down so over it. I owe it to him, to be me up to the end.
Tanya came in, asking if she could share the music. I don't mind. If she's looking to share something else, I'm sorry. I can't do that. Maybe, if we live... maybe. I doubt it, though.
I wish the commander had let me stay in Main Mission. I know, he was right, there was nothing else for me to do there, but it's not as though there's anything for me to do here, either. I'd more or less planned on making passionate love with Alan and, with any luck, falling asleep in his arms, hearing his heartbeat, and either not waking up at all, or waking up with him. But... the commander had that notion about saving a handful of people. Six, with eight weeks' supplies, in an Eagle, going... somewhere. And I knew the moment I heard the idea that I'd be denied my plans.
Because of course Alan would be the pilot. He not only knows Eagles inside and out, he can fly rings around any other pilot we've got, with one hand tied behind his back and one eye closed. No matter how they chose the six, he was guaranteed to be one of them.
And I wasn't. In fact, the only way I would be would be if we did it by random chance and I got lucky. I'm the quintessential executive officer, and they won't need that wherever they end up. I had to send him away. I did. That he was my lover and I wanted, desperately, for him to survive had nothing to do with it. Nothing.
And then... That Aussie fox, or whatever they have Down Under. He pushed his way in and took all semblance of choice from me. He knew he'd be picked. As soon as he heard about the damned ship, he knew. That look he gave me in Control... he knew I'd known. And he knew I'd do just what I had been doing... finding some way to wonder if maybe I wasn't cheating, maybe if there was some way I'd rigged the choice, some way I was managing to get what I wanted, not what was right. And worrying, too, that he would be worrying about walking away when he'd said he wouldn't... I can do both, and he knows it. Knows me...
Dear God, has anyone ever known me so well? Will anyone ever again, assuming we have an ever again? Because he took it off me, took it all. He confronted the commander and forced the issue, and took it all on himself. "I care about dying," he said. "If anybody goes, I should. Because I'm the one who has the best chance of getting them somewhere."
So everybody stared at him, and then they were all thinking much the same, except without his simple conviction that they were in fact the best. And without his motive.
And now he's gone. I was ready to die with him, but this is better. He won't die. He's quite correct: if anyone can get them somewhere, that mad Aussie is the one. So I can die knowing he's still alive...
And if by some miracle Bergman's forcefield holds, and by another miracle actually does the trick and prevents us from going the way of poor Mike Ryan, then I'll have to go on without him. But I can do that, knowing that he's alive.
Captain Alan Carter:"I'll send you a post-card."
What kind of good-bye is that? He came down with Sandra, and stood there and looked at me. And I said, "I'll send you a post-card." There wasn't anybody else there, and if Sandra was still close enough to hear, she wouldn't care... her Mike was dead. She wouldn't have grudged anybody love. And especially not Paul, as close as they are. I could have said "I love you" to him, even silently. Or I could even have said, "See you around, you Pommy bastard"; he knows what that means. But no.
We stood there and looked at each other for what, five seconds? Then I said that, and he gave me a thumbs-up, and... I walked away.
And, God. The look in those eyes.
Those eyes. That Pom. His eyes are so clear, so easily read. He thinks he's so damned taciturn, so English and hard to make out. He's about as hard to figure as a day-old pup. He couldn't even look at me in Main Mission, when I came in and braced the commander about the survival ship. He had guilt written all over him in six-inch letters. What a galah he can be sometimes; it makes me laugh.
Made me laugh anyway.
I think I hate Koenig. This damned survival ship. I couldn't refuse to go. I couldn't. I can get us somewhere, if there's anywhere to get, and I couldn't let six people die who didn't have to, but why in bloody hell did Koenig think this up? Six people... my old dad raises prads and he'd have never thought to have three mares and three studs to start all over again. We might as well have all stayed at Alpha.
I was telling the truth. I was ready to die with them all. And of course it's the truth that I don't want to die if I don't have to. But I'd rather be at Alpha right now, with Paul, seeing myself in his eyes and forgetting about the bloody black sun. Forgetting about anything but him. Everything but him. For a while, anyhow. With luck for long enough.
I hate that he's going to die. I hate not being there when he does. I hate being the one who lives, the one who walks away. Again. Ah, damnit, Paul. Chook...
I know he's glad I'm not there, but... damn. I know they're all banking on the old prof's forcefield, but I know what a no-hoper that is. I was at the test, so-called. I know not even Koenig and Bergman really think it's going to work. It was just something to do, whistling past the graveyard.
I know he's going to die. And I can't pole on this, because not only are the other five counting on me, but Paul is. Paul is sitting there being brave because I'm not. Not there. I can't let the man down.
Paul... Bloody Pom. What am I going to do, wherever we get, without him?
And why didn't I ever tell him that?
"Captain, we're landing at Alpha in five minutes."
Alan Carter, Captain, Royal Australian Army, Joint Astronautics Command liason officer to the International Lunar Commission's Moonbase Alpha, looked up at the stewardess. "Okay, thanks," he said. She smiled at him, and he knew why; even he could hear the strong Strine twang in his voice, okiy, thynks. Her golden skin and sloe eyes came with a Scots accent you could cut with a knife and she and the co-pilot, another Geordie, had been tossing him looks and giggling together for half the trip. Alan didn't mind that; what he needed to get a grip on was the emotion that was bringing New South Wales out in his voice. The accent was always there, of course, but muted mostly after fifteen years' service around the worldand off of it. The Snowy Mountains tended to surface only when he was emotionally disturbed: angry, passionate, annoyed. And he was annoyed now, and needed not to be.
He took a deep breath and looked out the window, automatically critiquing the approach and landing (overshooting a bit, overcorrecting, three-point instead of four, not too bad, rate him at 3.5...) while he reminded himself that he had, in fact, agreed to come, and that, given he wasn't eligible for flying the Meta probe, this was a chance he couldn't pass up. Even if that careerist bludger Gorski came with it.
Especially as Gorski was here, he reflected. Wouldn't do to let him get his fat ignorant fingers all over the Meta probe... The thud of the walkway's mating with the Eagle's door cued him to pick up his briefcase, but he didn't stand up yet like the rest of the passengers. This was Moonbase Alpha, after all; it would be several minutes before the seals were secured and the airlocks cycled. He looked out the window at the view of a half earth hanging over the lunar horizon until the door opened.
Gorski wasn't there to meet him. He was so glad of that he nearly missed the man who was. That tall, elegant, dark-haired Englishman whose name was on the tip of his tongue held out a hand in the red sleeve of Operations. "Carter? Paul Morrow."
"Of course," Alan said. "Operations, isn't it?"
"That's right," Morrow nodded. "General dogsbody for the commander."
Administrative head and in charge of operations, as Alan remembered. "Sorry to hear that."
Morrow laughed. "Yes, well, somebody has to... Welcome back, by the way."
"Thanks. Where'll they put the luggage?"
"It'll be delivered to your quarters," Morrow said. "Don't worry about it. I thought you might like to see your work section?"
"Yeah, I would. I can find my own way, though, you don't need to come along."
"It's no trouble. And you're out in one of the additions that wasn't here two years ago." He gestured for Alan to precede him through the doorway into the travel tube and apparently recalled why he was holding a commlock. "Oh, sorry; this is yours." He held it out to Alan, who took it and clipped it to his belt. "It's set for your labs, workspaces, quarters, and all general admission areas already."
"Thanks," Alan said; on Alpha, without a commlock you were effectively stuck in whatever room you were in until someone else came along or Computer released all doors to manual.
"Of course," Morrow said, falling in beside him. "Are you back for another tour?"
"Nope," Alan shook his head. "Just for the Meta probe."
"Well, a year then, if you're staying for the whole mission. Are you?"
"I dunno." Alan shrugged. "I'm here to put the ship construction back on track. Do a bit of mission training for the pilots. Don't know if I'll be here after lift off."
"Commander Gorski isn't too pleased you're back."
"Well, that makes two of us."
"You really didn't want to be here?"
"Come on, Morrow, you remember how I left."
The dark-haired man laughed. "Actually, I do... It was something of a ninety days' wonder."
"I suppose it was."
"Carter, you punched him." The Englishman sounded scandalized.
Alan reflected on the circumstances and said, "He's lucky I didn't kick his bloody teeth in."
"Well, he is."
"You, too, then." That was serious.
Alan looked at Morrow, really looked at him, for the first time. The dark eyes were warm with genuine welcome. "Yeah," he said. "I s'pose. Still, the Meta probe's not really his concern."
"Except insofar as everything here is, no, it's not," Morrow agreed.
It was actually quite amusing, how very much Gorski did not want to deal with Carter. The commander had never actually told anyone why the Australian JACLO had decked him two years ago, and Carter wasn't any more forthcoming, but clearly the Russian felt an encore wasn't out of the question. Someday, I'll have to ask, Paul thought.
That wasn't farfetched, as Gorski's avoidance of the Aussie meant that Paul dealt with him on a near-daily basis. He didn't remember him well from his last tour, but he was considerably more flexible than the last JACLO, even though he was also considerably more annoyed by the way the Meta probe's construction had been bogged down by Gorski's tendency to divert its personnel to Alpha's concerns. A month after Carter had arrived, he had come into Main Mission at shift change with a long list of infractions that "simply must stop, now."
"Look," Paul protested. "I quite understand your concerns, but the fact is I didn't have a chance to eat lunch today and I'm starving. Join me, why don't you, and we can go over this over a decent meal. I'll even spring for a bottle."
"Are there any decent wines up here?" Carter asked.
"I could run to a nice little Côte du Rod Laver," Paul ventured, "or a what is it, Perth Pink?"
Carter didn't blink, merely said, "You didn't say we were being joined by the commander."
That was so matter of fact that it took a few seconds to register and for Paul's automatic negative to dissolve in laughter. Carter joined him, adding, "Just don't call me 'Bruce' and we'll get along fine."
That was true. By the end of the meal they had become 'Alan' and 'Paul'. They had also found something to talk about besides Meta: Rugby Union. Alan's club seemed to be Warratah, though names like Warringah, Southern Districts, and Wallaby also featured prominently in his conversation. Paul, of course, was an Oxford Blue and followed Sussex religiously, despite the extreme unliklihood of his going back there to live in the foreseeable future. The equal unliklihood of Sussex ever facing Warratah made the conversation distinctly unfraught with emotion, and they stayed off of England versus Australia, at least for this evening.
"It's too bad there's not enough room up here," Paul said, "for football. Or interest," he added honestly.
"I haven't played since I was sixteen," Alan said. "Catch me against an Oxford Blue."
"Haven't played myself since then," Paul admitted. "Handball or raquetball nowadays, if I can find an opponent."
"Handball?" Alan's eyes lit. "That's my game. You can always find room for that; all you need's a wall."
They made a date for the next evening, and after that Paul found himself playing the Australian three times a weekand getting beaten as often as not, despite his age advantage. Alan was definitely in shape; he could have probably flown the Meta mission himself. He was certainly capable of running Paul ragged on the courts.
Especially since Paul found himself distracted fairly frequently by the lean body displayed so nicely in old teeshirts and shorts. It was crazy, he told himself sternly time and over again: Alan was here for six months. He was military. He was straight. It didn't matter. He just answered himself that looking never hurt anybody, and besides, he and the Australian were friends. Just friends.
He was capable of keeping his emotions under control.
Alan pulled his chocolate cake to the front of his tray and began eating. Paul, already finished, was leaning forward, elbows on the table, and telling him something about Gorski and the ILC. Alan wasn't interested in the details, but he appreciated the intention, so he was listening, after a fashion. Using skills honed by more than a decade of sitting in military briefings and morning meetings where at best ten percent of what was being said applied to him, he'd set his mind to pay attention every thirty seconds or when some key word was spoken, and thought about something else while Paul talked.
Today he was thinking about Paul. Specifically, he was wondering why other man spent so much off-duty with him. Not that he minded itPaul was a good friendbut the two of them had almost nothing in common. The Englishman was a decade younger and from another world altogether, not military, not a pilot, a man who treated being on the moon like being in, say, America. But, now that he thought about it, Alan realized it didn't matter that his conversation had, in the past ten years or so, dwindled down to flying and not much else, because Paul didn't let him get away with it.
Oh, sure, he'd listeneven participatewhen Alan talked astronautics or jets. But he brought up other topics, relentless as smart ordnance, until he found those they could both discuss with pleasure. They'd gone from rugby and cricket through horses to music and movies... Alan had lost track weeks ago of how many topics had been discarded along the way, but it was truly amazing how many had proved fruitful. He hadn't had real conversations in so long he'd almost forgotten what it was like. It was good.
Of course, a large part of that was Paul. He was a good conversationalist; for all that he could be the reticent, stoic Englishman when he tried, at heart he was much more, well, chatty. And he listened well. He could pull things out of Alan that he'd never thought of saying before. Not personal thingsalthough the temptation was certainly there Alan knew once he started that he'd probably not be able to stop, and not only was Paul English enough to keep his private life just that, and so most likely to not want to hear about anyone else's, but he was just too bloody young to be exposed to Alan's demons. Those he kept to himself.
But take last evening: they had sat on a catwalk in one of the Eagle bays looking out at the earth and they had talked for three hours about weather. Just weather. Snow and rain and thunderstorms through the Snowy Mountains and the splendour of a Sussex autumn...lying in bed that night Alan had hardly believed it. They'd chaffed each other the required bit about whether spring properly came in September or May, but then Paul had listened, almost rapt, as Alan talked about the mountain springthe birds, flowers, torrents of creeks rushing toward the Murray and the Darling. And then Paul's, the subtler greening of the great grey Downs and the birds that filled the nursery rhymes of Alan's childhood... If anyone had told him he'd spend hours talking about the weatheron the moon no lesshe'd have laughed.
But what he didn't understand was, why him? Why did Paul make the effort with him?
Then again, did it matter really? Perhaps it was just that he was somebody new and different. Whatever, Paul was good company on a long temporary duty, and Alan wasn't going to quarrel with it or make it more than it was. Or less. At the next appropriate moment he inserted himself into the conversations. "It sounds like nobody on the Commission can actually stand him."
Paul grinned. "I don't think any of them can."
"So how does he keep his job?" That was less a real question and more a complaint.
Paul treated it as such. "I'm beginning to believe he has photographic evidence."
Alan laughed. "That would explain it. I don't know how you work for him."
"Oh, Nikolai Petrovich isn't as bad as he might be," Paul shrugged elegantly. "Compared to Renfrew, he's a dream date."
Alan snorted at that image. "Renfrew I missed."
"Like you missed the Black Death. It doesn't mean much. I'll outlast Gorski, too."
"How many have you seen go?"
"Three, if you count Andersen, though I came up here her last month so I'm not sure I should."
"Oh, count her. It sounds more impressive."
"It will look good on my c.v.," he nodded.
"You're not staying with the Lunar Commission?" Alan asked, surprised.
"Oh, probably yes, but it doesn't hurt to pad the old c.v. a bit," he said. "And I doubt they'll let me extend again. Perhaps I can get a position in Houston."
"Houston? Paul, you wouldn't last a month there." Not that he had ever been there himself, which was how he intended to keep it. "It's twice as bad as Nairobi ever dreamt of being," he continued, "as far as heat goes. It's damned near tropical... if you don't want to go back to Europe you should try for Baikonur."
"Ah, yes," said Paul. "The desert. A hundred-plus in the summer and under ten in the winter. Thank you so much for your advice."
Alan laughed. "I could say Canberra."
"Yes, you could, and thank you for not," Paul grinned. "But I've read up on Houston and it's quite tolerable for a long part of the year. And for the rest, well" he gestured at the window. "I am used to staying inside."
Alan smiled and finished the last bite of cake. They deposited their trays and left the dining facility.
"What about you?" Paul asked in a desultory manner. "What are you doing next?"
Alan shrugged. The future was something he didn't spend any time on. A hard lesson, to be sure, but he'd learned it: the future didn't exist, you couldn't count on it, and it was an ultimately painful waste of time to plan for it. "I'll go wherever they send me," he said.
Paul laughed a little, his oh-I'm-sorry-I-screwed-up laugh. "I forgot for a minute. Everyone's a civilian up here but you."
"And the probe astronaunts when they get here," Alan nodded.
"When... I can't imagine what it's like," Paul said, his oblique way of asking a personal question, "not having the choice."
"I have choices," Alan pointed out. "I can always resign my commission. But it is, in a way, liberating."
Paul's dark eyes were dubious.
"You're free not to worry about where you'll be in ten years," said Alan. Which wasn't what Paul was asking about. And in fact Alan had once made plans for the classic near, middle, and long term, wondering what he'd do when he made major, planning on being a colonel... And then the other plans, for getting out, for civilian life, the plans for happiness. Not for a long time now. And Alan wouldn't have told him if he had been asking about that, he was just too young. Instead he said, "You don't have to worry about whether you'll be employed. I mean, look at the way I left here, and I'm still a captain."
"True," Paul agreed. He might have said more, but they were interrupted.
"Paul!" Sandra Benes, the petite Bornean data analyst from Main Mission, called to them. They turned; she came out of the recreation room they'd just walked past and walked down the hall to join them. "Alan, too," she said. "You are just the people we are looking for."
"Oh, really?" asked Paul, looking down at her with a warm smile. They made a nice-looking couple, Alan thought, though he wasn't sure she was interested in Paul. "You need an administrator and an astronaut? Or just two bodies?"
"Bodies, of course, though yours are such nice ones," she smiled back. "But you cannot play Cluedo with only three."
"I'm Colonel Mustard," said Alan.
"Oh, Lord," Paul groaned. "I don't have to be Miss Scarlett, do I?"
Sandra and Alan both laughed; it was a hell of a picture. Sobering, she said, "Of course, not, Paul; if we were to do that, we would be in difficulties. Alan and I could not both play," she tapped her own yellow sleeve, "and Ouma could not play at all... and the commander would have to be dead."
"Not such a bad thing."
"Alan," she reproved him while Paul looked on, wearing his 'I'm shocked, shocked' expression.
"Back home, he's Mr. Boddy, anyway," Alan said. "None of your Doctor Black nonsense."
She smiled. "Well, here we have an English version. And I am Miss Scarlett."
"Of course you are," Paul agreed at once. "And if I can be Professor Plum, I'm in."
She smiled, turning to accompany them back to the rec room and saying, "That is not a problem." She linked arms with them both. "Come along; we have a murder to solve."
"You want to go, don't you?" Paul discovered.
"To Meta? Hell, yes," Alan said as though it were a given, like a natural law. Perhaps it was, for him...
"Why on earth?"
"Because it isn't," Alan answered. "On Earth. It's new, Paul, can't you feel what that means?"
"But it's not permanent," Paul protested. "It's ephemeral. It's passing through. We'll never be able to make any use of it."
"Does everything have to have a use?" Alan shook his head. "Some things just are. And I want to go have a look-see."
"Go and find new and interesting ways to get yourself killed, you mean."
"Sometimes I wonder what you're doing up here. You ought to be back in England, with your roots planted so deep in that green and pleasant land you couldn't be torn up without dying."
Fortunately, his eyes were looking out the window or he might have caught the involuntary flinch that greeted that pleasantry. All he meant to do, of course, was chaff Paul for his conservativism. He didn't know, how could he, how very much Paul wanted to go home, back to the Morrow family estate, the Morrow family... and how very firmly the doors were shut against him. The United Kingdom was a civilized country, its laws were progressive... but you couldn't legislate tolerance in the human heart. No government ever created could make Anthony David Morrow accept a perverted son..
Paul was proud of his tone when he answered. "Just because my ancestors were devoid of criminal tendencies"
"Independent tendencies, Pommy," Alan rejoined automatically.
"doesn't mean I can't take a job someplace like Alpha, which is real and settled and permanent."
"And pays well."
"And, as you say," Paul grinned, "pays extremely well. But seriously, Alan, Alpha isn't the new frontier anymore. We've been here going on twenty years now. It's closer, in some ways, to London or Washington or even Sydney than some places in South America are, or a lot of places in Asia. But going to Metathat's quite the horse of a different color."
The blond shrugged. "Dunno. I s'pose I'm just the type who wants to go and see."
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!" Paul quoted.
"But some that heard the whisper clear were filled with vague unrest; the breeze had brought its message home, they could not fixed abide," Alan countered.
Paul shook his head. "Sorry, who?"
"Banjo Paterson, you ignorant Pom," he said indulgently.
"I should have known," Paul grinned at him. "Australia's only poet, isn't he?" He dodged Alan's mock blow and hoped he'd hidden how very glad he was that Alan wasn't going.
Paul, Alan, and Sandra were eating dinner after their shift was over, making plans to take in the showing of the latest Mel Gibson filmjust in from Earthsidethat evening when David Kano and his boss, Benjamin Ouma, joined them at their table, putting down their trays and continuing their conversation.
"I fail to see why the UN is even involved," said David, his soft Jamaican accent registering extreme disapproval, rare for him unless someone was attacking the central computer's veracity or usefulness.
"Because," Ouma said, reaching out his arm in its IT-brown sleeve for the salt shaker, "the Indonesians have been repressing the East Timorese."
"But East Timor is geographically part of Indonesia," objected David.
"And Kalimantan is on Borneo," said Sandra. "Surely you do not mean to suggest that Indonesia is therefore entitled to the rest of Borneo? To Malaysia? Or to Brunei?" she added pointedly.
"Of course not," said David. "But Timor is Indonesian."
"And many think Brunei is Malaysian. The difference," she said, "is that when the British left Brunei they signed a treaty with the sultan. The Portugese merely left."
"Because East Timor was never an actual country, like Brunei."
"No," said Alan. "It never got the chance. It was a Portugese colony, and the minute the Porties left the Indonesians marched in and annexed it. It's not part of Indonesia; it was just grabbed."
"Yes, but western Timor"
"Okay, right." Alan obviously regretted having spoken at all. "Let's not talk about it."
"Yes, but, Alan, it makes no sense. I mean, what kind of country can a place like East Timor be?"
"David," Paul said, catching the warning signs from Alan, "why don't we just agree to disagree on the subject and talk about something else?"
"Because I'd like to know why Alan's so set against Indonesia. Or for East Timor, whichever it is"
"David, don't even get me started on East Bloody Timor," said Alan.
"Now whyever not?" David asked.
"Because I was there twelve years ago," Alan said, and stood up. "And I'd just as soon forget the whole damned thing." He left.
"What did I say?" David looked around.
It was Sandra who answered. "He was a pilot in the Australian army then," she said, her precise tones worried. "Not yet an astronaut, David. And if he was in East Timor twelve years ago, I'm sure he was in the UN Peacekeeping Force, and he may have been in combat. Which I am sure would not be a pleasant memory."
"I'm going to go find him." Paul said.
"Paul?" Sandra half rose.
"No," Paul said, knowing without knowing how. "He won't want anyone, but I'll bring him to the film."
"If you are certain" she said.
"It'll be all right," Paul reassured her. He wondered if that was more than Sandra's usual concern for her coworkers but then put it out of his mind. Alan didn't seem interested in her, at any rate. Not that he should let that encourage him... Alan was Australian, after all. Wasn't 'no poofting' their national code? And didn't a lot of military men have failed marriages in their background?
He shook his head, dismissing the line of speculation as unprofitablearen't you supposed to be keeping your emotions under control, Morrow?and went looking for Alan. He found him in the Meta lab, printouts spread all over the desk.
"Hallo," he said.
Alan looked up. His green eyes were unrevealing. "Sorry," he said. "Thought of something."
Paul snorted and sat on the edge of the desk, crossing his legs at the ankle. "Of course you did: how awkward it would be to leave here after decking David Kano."
Alan smiled at that, apparently involuntarily.
"You know him, Alan: I believe officially they call it Asperger's syndrome, but what we called it in my childhood was incredibly tactless and self-centered. I gather you don't want to talk about East Timor"
"No. I don't."
Paul shrugged. "But you shouldn't let David's foot-and-mouth disease stop you seeing your illustrious compatriot kick arse all over Los Angeles."
That made Alan laugh and shake his head. "I s'pose you're right."
"Of course I am. Besides, Sandra's worried."
"All right, mate. I'm coming." He swept the printouts in the drawer. "I'm coming."
What kind of an idiot am I? Paul thought as he headed for the gym. It wasn't as though he hadn't seen it happen to others before. The cardinal rule was, Don't fall in love with a straight man.
And he'd broken it. Smashed it into smithereens, more accurately. He had quite willfully ignored every warning sign and twinge until he'd woken up and realized that he had, as the saying went, been and gone and done it. That his day wasn't complete without an encounter with Alan. That he needed to see him to feel grounded in reality. That hearing himself called "you ignorant Pom" in that casually affectionate tone was better than "beloved" in any of his handful of lovers' most caressing voices had ever been.
In short: he was sunk.
So sunk he didn't even care. He would sit on his bed at night and play Bach or Scarlatti because the complex Baroque music was the only thing that adequately reflected the joy simmering inside him, and then fall directly into minor-keyed Celtic or Appalachian folk songs when he considered how Alan would be going back to Earth in a few months, but even then, even when playing 'Man of Constant Sorrow' or 'Ayrshire Lament', he knew he'd hunt out the Australian in the morning for coffee before work... What did Othello say? "Perdition catch my soul, But I do love thee!" That was about it.
Sunk? No, not exactly, he decided, opening the locker room door. He always got there early because he didn't think he could handle watching Alan change, just as he always hurried in the shower while Alan soaked his 'aging muscles' (his lovely muscles) for the same reason. No, he wasn't sunk. Sunk implied loss, it implied hopelessness, it implied an end.
He wasn't sunk. He was entirely too gin-fizzed for that. Too full of that joy, on the boil. No. What he was, was riding for a fall. It was going to be a spectacular smash-up when it happened, but for the time being the gallop was too exhilarating to quit.
And at least Alan would be back on Earth when he fell. With luck, they'd stay in touch. At any rate, the blond would never know.
Sparkman and Warren. The names blinked back at Paul from the Medical Center's critical list like warning lights. Two days ago Geordie Mitchell, yesterday Nance Tucker and Bert Arayano. Dr. Russell had quarantined them; Paul hadn't spoken to her, but Dr. Mathias, her assistant, had said something vague about a virus. Today, one more Area Two worker. And the Meta astronauts.
Paul wasn't a virologist, by any means, but he did rather think there needed to be some sort of contact for viruses to spread. That four Area Two workers were ill made sense, but the Meta astronauts came in contact with none of the nuclear waste workers, and none of the rest of the Meta team was ill. At least, Alan hadn't mentioned it if any were. And given the way he'd trounced Paul at handball the previous evening, he was feeling fine.
What was most puzzling, though, was Russell's recommendation that Area Two be temporarily shut down. For a virus? Paul didn't think that made any sense. People at Area Two worked in space gear, breathing their own air. There couldn't be anything at Area Two allowing a virus to spread. It would make as much sense to shut down the incoming cargo areas where the nuclear waste was unloaded, and she wasn't suggesting that, or quaranting the workers' locker rooms here at Alpha... Just Area Two. And he rather doubted Gorski was going to go for that: nuclear waste disposal was Alpha's main cash cow, after all, what with people on earth so fond of cheap power and so afraid of the genie... and so far no one had been able to come up with a fool-proof plan for just tossing it out into space that would appease the SETI folks and not scare the you'll-blow-up-the-Sun contingent.
Ten minutes after he'd delivered the night's reports to the commander, he received the proof of that, as Gorski ordered him to have Dr. Russell in his office as soon as possible. Paul would have loved to be a fly on the wall for that meeting. The new American chief of medical services already didn't like Gorski's corner-cutting, and the commander didn't approve of anything that might cost time or money. Was she as much the irresistable force as she seemed to think? In Paul's opinion, the smart money was on the Russian, but he'd have covered himself with a little side bet on the Yank. Just in case.
When the cool blonde medico stalked out of the commander's office an hour later, Paul watched her leave with the distinct impression that Gorski had won going away.
"Pavel," Gorski called.
"Yes, sir?" Paul turned.
"Come in here."
Paul went in, the door closing behind him. "Yes, sir?"
"I'm implementing communications protocol Orange," the commander said. He shook his head, sighing. "Dr. Russell has some... alarmist ideas which she can not back up. I don't want her making a, how do you say it, end run around me. All communications with the ILC are to go through this office."
"All?" Paul asked neutrally. "Captain Carter, and the astronomics section as well?"
Gorski blew out a breath and ran his hand over his thinning black hair. "No. Only from the Medical Center, or anything medically related. Understand me, Pavel?"
"Yes sir," he said and went back out into Main Mission to pass the word to his assistant Tanya Alexandrova, wondering just what these alarmist ideas were. And whether he ought to be alarmed.
That feeling grew over the next several days, as more Area Two workers became infected by the "virus"he felt the quotes were justified by the situation. Especially when Dr. Russell began consulting with Professor Bergman, and running tests at Area Two. The Cambridge astrophysicist wasn't alarmist, though he was occasionally outré; if he'd had something substantial to report, he would have, but Paul read his outgoing ILC traffic and there wasn't anything in there relating to the medical situation. Still, he consented to run Dr. Russell's tests, and he had taken to walking around looking worried.
Gorski was looking worried, too. Three disposal workers had died of the "virus" and four more had caught it... and all of the affected personnel were incommunicado in the critical care section. Alan was driving Gorskiand Paulround the proverbial bend over his astronauts (his phrasing); Gorski was refusing to allow the backup crew to begin any training and wouldn't let Alan see the primary crew and wouldn't tell him anything beyond the, as far as Paul was concerned, increasingly suspect virus story.
Which meant Paul had to stick to that, too; he wasn't completely sure Alan was buying it. There was a cynical look in those green eyes that said the Aussie knew he was being kept in the dark, but, thank God, he never pushed Paul for information.
As the days went by, coded communications were flying back and forth between Gorski and the ILC. Paul, feeling increasingly caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, wondered what was really going on, and what would happen next.
What happened was that the ILC sent John Koenig to Moonbase Alpha.
Paul was paged away from an after-game beer. When he got to Gorski's office, the commander was packing up his few personal items in a carrying case. "Ah, Pavel," he said. "I've just heard from Geneva. They've decided to replace me."
"Oh?" Paul was startled. "Did they say with whom? Or why, sir?"
"John Koenig," he said. "So we pass again."
Paul only nodded; he'd be glad to work with Gorski's American predecessor again, but he had told the truth when he'd told Alan he didn't find Gorski that hard to take.
"As to za chem," Gorski shrugged. "They feel I am letting the Meta project slip. I wish Koenig luck with it. I'm not sorry to be away from that."
"When is he coming?"
"He is on his way now."
"That's just a bit abrupt, Nikolai Petrovich," Paul said. "They could have given you more notice than that."
Gorski smiled. "You are a nice boy, Pavel Antonich. Have a drink with me." He pulled out a bottle of Stoli. "Na zdorovye! ... Anyway," he went on after he'd drained the glass, "I don't worry about it. I am going to Star City, to take command of cosmonaut training. I'm, what is the phrase, in pig's heaven?"
"It's an American phrase," Paul said, finishing his vodka more circumspectly, "but I believe it's 'hog heaven'." Star City was quite near Moscow, he remembered; Gorski was probably very happy in fact to be going there.
"Yes. Svinoye nebo. What does that mean, actually?"
"I really couldn't say. It's an American saying, and they don't really speak English in America."
"Huh," Gorski nodded. "Well, he will be here in an hour. Perhaps less. I will meet him, but Bergman wants to talk with him."
"Do you want me"
"No, Pavel, I only wanted to tell you what had happened and say goodbye. You go back to what you were doing. He can talk to you in the morning. You and Carter too most likely." He put the bottle in the carrying case and latched it. "I am sure he will have things of his own he wants done."
"Yes, I'm certain," Paul nodded. "Goodbye, then, Nikolai Petrovich. Good luck at Star City."
"Do svidanya, Pavel Antonich, i tebye tozhe vsevo horoshevo." The Russian offered his hand and then pulled Paul into one of those Slavic bear hugs.
Paul didn't rejoin Alan. The Australian would hear the news soon enough, and he didn't feel like pretending he had no idea why ILC wanted a new man in place. But, as he sat on his bed playing Bach lute suites on his guitar, he wondered what Koenig would do.
Alan looked up to see Commander Koenig entering. He sent Young off to work on his data and greeted the commander.
"Good to see you again, Alan." Koenig gestured at the view of the probe on the main monitor. "Is she ready to go?" he asked.
"Yeah," Alan told him, wondering if anyone read the reports he kept sending. "We can start the countdown as soon as you give the word. Every hour's delay only reduces our chances of success," he reminded the other man.
Koenig walked past him to study the monitor. "How long to get the backup crew ready?"
"Oh, seven days" Then the words registered, and he turned sharply to demand, "Backup crew? What do you mean?"
"How long will it take?"
Alan stared into the cold blue-grey eyes. Koenig had always been an honest man. But he'd been here nearly an entire day without talking to Alan. Like he was avoiding him, or the project. And now he was saying they'd have to go with the backup crew? Just like that? Frank and Eric had missed nearly twelve days with that virusGorski hadn't let Mike and Phillip do anything; there was no way they could be ready in anything like time enough to still make Meta. No way to get any sort of new launch window waiting on them. Celestial mechanics just didn't allow it, it wasn't like putting off your holiday excursion, Meta and the moon weren't standing still in relation to one another. Koenig had to know that. What in bloody hell is going on here? he thought. "Well, we can't do it," he said flatly. "I mean, calculations, coordinates" He broke off. "Come on, Commander. You got a problem that you're not telling me about?"
Koenig said, "Captain, I'm here to get the Meta probe launched. All I want to know is, crew excepted, are you ready to go?"
If that was the way he wanted to play it... "Yeah," Alan said. "We're ready to go."
Koenig nodded once and left. Alan stared after him, seething inside. He looked around at his crew. "All right, then," he said, "you heard the man. Ready to go."
The minute Alan slammed his first serve into the wall, Paul knew he was going to be in trouble. Something had definitely pissed the Australian off. Paul had a guess... Koenig had, after all, been sent to replace Gorski "to get the Meta probe back on track", but Bergman had hijacked him with Dr. Russell's concerns about the alleged virus that had killed waste area workers and laid out the Meta astronauts, and the commander had only paid his first visit to Alan's section, where all the work on the ship and the voyage itself was being done, this afternoon. And Paul, who was himself not privy to everything that was going on down in the Medical Center, was fairly certain that Alan was, still, even more in the dark than he was.
Which was, as he'd have said himself, bloody unfair. And it was no wonder he was so angry. Paul just hoped he could survive the game: Alan had ten years on him, but he was in great shape... wonderful shape, he caught himself thinking. Oh, don't even start thinking like that, Morrow. You don't have that luxury today.
And he didn't. The match was by far the most physical one they'd ever played; by virtue of not seeming to care if he crashed into walls or not Alan made spectacular shots and saves that racked up points. He also didn't seem to care if he crashed into Paul or not. Somewhere in the third game of the match Alan sent him flying into the back wall and they both ended up sprawled on the floor.
"Alan, for God's sake," Paul gasped, "if you want to kill me, just throw me out an airlock."
Alan glared at him for a moment, and then subsided and lay flat, staring at the ceiling. "Sorry, mate," he said, sounding almost sincere.
Paul grabbed a handful of his sweat-soaked teeshirt and fanned himself with it. "What's got your knickers in a twist today, anyway?"
"Everything," Alan said. "Koenig, JAC, the ILC, Dr. Russell, you name it." His accent was very strong, Paul noticedyew nime it. He'd learned that was a bad sign. "You."
"Me?" Paul protested, propping himself on one elbow to stare at the other man with what he hoped was a reasonable facsimile of injured innocence. The sight of the blond pilot lying there with his own teeshirt clinging to him, his shorts-clad legs only inches from Paul's, was a powerful distractor. He tried to focus. "What have I done?"
"Don't lie to me, mate." The edge of anger in Alan's voice sharpened. "You know more than you're saying."
"Alan, I can't tell you everything I know"
"I'm not asking, I'm just saying, don't lie to me." Oy'm just syyin', don't loy t'me. Oh, yes; he was royally pissed off. "You know what's goin' on."
Paul admitted, "More than you. I don't know why Koenig hasn't told you."
"Back-up crew," Alan said savagely. "We can't make it with the back up crew. Not after Gorski refused to let them do any training at all after Eric and Frank took sick. No need, he says, the regular crew will be back in no time. No time, all right."
"Koenig told you the backup crew was going?" Paul couldn't decide if that surprised him or not. One thing he did know was that Dr. Russell wanted to scrap the entire mission. He didn't think Koenig leaned that way, but he did know how Alan would take it.
Not at all well.
Not to mention, there wouldn't be any reason for him to be on Alpha any more...
"Koenig asked how long it would take to get them ready, yeah. I told him we couldn't do it with them, and he gets all pissy and asks if I'm ready, 'crew excepted'."
"What did you tell him?"
"What could I tell him? Yeah, we're ready. Fat lot of good it does us, having the bloody ship all built, programmed, fueled and set, with no goddamned crew."
"Alan..." That trailed off as Paul realized there was literally nothing he could say.
Alan sat up and ran his hands through his hair. The movement pulled his damp teeshirt up revealing a patch of ribcage and flat stomach. His green eyes stared challengingly at Paul. "Things are going on I'm not being told," he said. It fell short of being an accusation. No, it overshot it: it was a flat statement of fact. "How the bloody hell am I supposed to get my job done if everybody keeps secrets from me?"
That was pretty unanswerable so Paul didn't try.
"Koenig tells me he's up here to get the probe launched, but he doesn't want my input. And I tried to call Earthside, and JAC referred me to the ILC and nobody there would talk to me. And Russell and Mathias get as secretive as bloody Masons when I so much as ask how're Eric and Frank... Gorski lied, Koenig blows me off, and you don't talk at all...I mean, damn it all to hell, Paul. What do you people bloody want from me, anyway?"
And Paul heard himself say, "I don't know about anybody else, but all I want is you." What the hell... talk about bad timing, Morrow.
There was a silence. Alan's eyes were shuttered completely; Paul had no idea what he was thinking. Well, no. He did have an idea. Damnation, he thought and started to get to his feet. Before he could, Alan's hand was fisted in his damp teeshirt and he found himself yanked to the floor.
"You bloody Pom," Alan said, his voice shaking with some strong emotion Paul couldn't identify, "every time you do this. Every time. Get close, then close up. But thisyou think you can say something like that and then just leave? Just act as if nothing had happened?"
Ah, Christ, Paul thought sadly. "What do you want me to do? I'm not big on self-immolation." He couldn't believe himself. Wry and flip to the end, eh?
"I'd rather," Alan said, not letting go, "you explained yourself."
Paul blinked at him.
And Alan pulled him forward and kissed him.
He was a very good kisser, Paul thought dazedly as he ended up on his back, Alan leaning over him, taking most of his weight on one hand and holding Paul's face gently but firmly with the other. Paul sighed, his mouth opening to the blond man's probing tongue and feeling all his defences melt like ice in sunlight. A very good kisser...
His hands found their way under Alan's untucked teeshirt, feeling the lean body for the first time, pulling him closer. Alan pulled away for a moment, just far enough and long enough to say, "Maybe a little hands-on?"
Hands on, Paul thought. I can do that... He thought he managed to say so another eternity later; at any rate, Alan chuckled at him before moving in for yet another kiss.
And then, suddenly, Alan straightened, sitting back on his heels with his knees alongside Paul's hips, breathing hard.
"This is a bit of a public place," Alan said, his Strine accent making it plice. "I think we'd better go somewheres else."
"Oh." Paul was breathing hard himself. "Yes. Yes, you're right."
Alan stood up, offering Paul a hand and pulling him in for another long kiss when they were both on their feet.
Paul pulled away after a moment. "If we're going, we'd better while I still can."
Alan nodded and turned toward the door, and then back to ask, with a crooked smile, "Your place or mine?"
"Mine's closer," said Paul, thinking that, and less time for Alan to change his mind.
"Mine's got no neighbors," said Alan.
"Yours, then," Paul said, following him into the locker room where they simply shoved their uniforms into their bags and left, Alan carrying his commlock while Paul left his stowed away. They didn't say anything, in the corridors or the travel tube, and Paul's mind was whirling. No neighbors... He wasn't sure what that meant; oh, it was true his own quarters were smack in the middle of the senior staff warren, while Alan's were out by his working area, but once a door was locked what did it matter? He kept his eyes on the other man, remembering the kisses, and tried not to worry about potential ramifications. Was this an experiment? A one-off? God, he hoped not; he'd sworn off one-nighters long ago after discovering he really didn't enjoy feeling sleazy... this wouldn't be that, this was Alan... but it could ruin their relationship, make it hard to work together. He didn't know if he could go back to the way it had been. A one-off would be stupid, it would be painful, it would be dangerous, it would be so much better than a never...
Alan shut the door and tossed his commlock onto the table, and then reached for Paul, who very willingly came into the embrace, sliding his hand into that fine dark blond hair as he slid his tongue into the open, eager mouth.
"I'm going to have to get used to this," Alan said after a moment.
"The mustache?" Paul managed to stop himself before he offered to shave.
"I think I've about got used to that," Alan shook his head. "Being the short one."
"You won't notice once we get off our feet," Paul hinted.
"S'pose not," he agreed, and pulled Paul down onto his bed.
God, yes, a very good kisser...
Soon enough, though, Paul's innate greed surfaced. A locked door, a soft bed, a willing partner: kissing wasn't enough. His hands had already found their way back under Alan's teeshirt, but now he disengaged long enough to pull the crumpled garment off and toss it to the floor, followed by his own. He took a moment to satisfy his sense of sightthe lean body filling the promise of the way it moved under clothing, the pale scar high on the right shoulder (find out about that...)and then touch and taste made their demands and he pulled Alan down next to him, hands and mouth both exploring, and incidentally satisfied his sense of hearing as well as Alan reacted.
He was a bit startled that Alan didn't seem to be as straight as he'd supposed, though he didn't have any complaints about it. God, no, no complaints, he thought as Alan regained position, kneeling above him and finding the spot on his shoulder that made him whimper. Alan's hand stroked down his stomach to tug at the waistband of his shorts, and Paul put his own on Alan's back, pulling them together, reveling in the angular strength, hungry for more, growing a bit demanding.
Alan shuddered in his hands, and he said, so softly Paul almost missed it, "It's been so long... God." Paul immediately tossed out his half-formed regrets that they weren't in his room, where he had lube and condoms tucked away, just in case. Even if this turned out to be a one-off, the Aussie's emotion-driven exploration of somewhere he wouldn't want to go back to, Paul needed it to be good for Alan for it to be good for him. And if it wasn't, if it was the start of something that would last (he ignored the question of how long), then they'd have plenty of time to possess each other, time for taking and being taken...
And hands and mouths were enough, were more than enough, to take them both to someplace Paul had never been before, not even in that first dizzying intoxication of Colin. Someplace he wanted to stay.
He ran his hands over Alan's back and wondered how long he could. Alan nuzzled the hollow of his throat and made a contented sound that warmed Paul's heart. Maybe he could stay for a while. The night anyway...
Now that he was rational again, he realized his hand was stroking over more scars. Carefully, trying not to disturb Alan, he raised his head and looked, and bit back a curse.
Apparently, though, he didn't bite it back hard or fast enough. Alan sighed against his throat. "You can ask."
"What happened?" Paul did, quietly.
"East Timor," Alan said. "Bloody Indonesians... never ask me to be nice to one."
He started to answer, and then sighed and shook his head. "Not now, Paul. Maybe never... please?"
"Of course," he said quickly.
Alan pulled away and lay on his back, reaching for Paul, who came to rest on his chest willingly enough. "Never meant to do this again," Alan said softly.
"Do what?" Paul asked, because it was best to take your medicine right away and not let the fantasies get too real.
Alan was quiet for a minute, threading his fingers through Paul's hair. "Letting someone in," he said finally.
"Are you regretting it?"
"No," Alan said, sounding a little surprised. Then, more definitely, he repeated it. "No, I'm not."
"Oh, good," Paul said, relaxing.
"Very good," Paul said, "in fact, excellent." That was half swallowed in a yawn. "Sorry."
Alan laughed softly. "Go to sleep," he said.
Paul woke up once, deep into the night. He was disoriented for only a moment, and then remembered. He raised himself on one elbow, looking. Alan lay close to him, profoundly asleep. His quarters had a window, and the light from the earth spilled in and turned everything it touched to a cool dim blue. It would be hard to sleep during the long day, even with the pane polarized, but he'd never heard Alan complain. He smiled to himself; presumably a lit room was the least of what he'd had to put up with over the course of his career. Then the smile faded as his eyes adapted enough to see the lines across his bedmate's back...
East Bloody Timor...I'd just as soon forget the whole damned thing. Alan's words from more than two months ago came back to him. You'd just as soon, surely, but you haven't. Paul reached out but caught himself before he actually touched those scars, thin lines crossing and criss-crossing... his imagination flinched from thinking about that patterning. Later. He sighed to himself and lay back down, putting one arm over Alan and closing his eyes.
A little lower than the angels, he thought. We go to the moon like it's down the street. We go to Jupiter, we're going to Meta... and we do this to each other. No wonder no one else wants to know us; we're the yobbos in the neighborhood, aren't we? To shake off the midnight melancholy he slid closer to Alan, snuggling a bit. Alan sighed deeply in his sleep and pushed closer himself. Paul smiled and rested his forehead on the blond's shoulder and drifted back to sleep.
|1: Voluntary||2: Breakaway||3: Black Sun|
|Autumn Afternoon | Ilya's Wedding | Something... | Last Corner | Morgans|
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