Chapter 22: Warhorse Part 3—The Third Year
Date Point: 7y 1w AV
London, England, Earth
“You’re back!” Charlotte was a huggy person anyway, but she especially liked hugging Ava—Ava always reacted first with a little awkwardness and then with genuine delight, as if she wasn’t really used to being hugged but really enjoyed it when it happened.
She took a step back after giving her friend an especially big squeeze, and examined Ava with an expert eye. “You had sex!”
Ava laughed. She must have been exhausted, flying from Vancouver and then catching the tube across town with a big suitcase in tow, but there was no mistaking that satisfied glow.
“Okay, how did you know?” She demanded. “Do I smell or something?”
“Nope! You’re just…relaxed.” And how. Ava wasn’t tightly-wound or anything, but she did have a kind of sadness about her that was totally gone right now. She was so pretty when she smiled, too. It was nice to see.
Ava shoved her suitcase into her room, while Charlotte bounced on her toe-tips, eager to hear all about Cimbrean and Adam.
“So, come on! Deets!”
“Charlotte, I’m not telling you everything about-”
Charlotte deployed her best pout, the one that Ava had never been able to resist, and Ava sighed, rolling her eyes. “It was…once he remembered I was there, it was great.” she confessed.
Charlotte inclined her head. “Once he remembered?”
Ava nodded. “Oh the…big idiot tried to keep up his training regime. I barely saw him the first week. I had to…” she paused and scratched at her upper arm, absently and awkwardly. “You know what, it’s in the past, he apologised, and yeah, the second week was amazing.”
Charlotte watched all that relaxation and happiness just flicker and die, like the time she’d gone camping with her parents and Dad’s firewood had been too wet. He’d been able to get it burning, but it was never long before the flames crawling over the wood became little, desperate domes of fire before giving up their ghosts in streams of white smoke.
”…cup of tea?” she asked. Cups of tea were Charlotte’s way of trying to make things better, and she knew that Ava knew it.
She threw together a mug of tea so strong and full of sugar that by all rights the spoon should have got stuck, and presented it to Ava, who was looking increasingly troubled.
Ava looked up from inhaling the steam and shrugged. “It started off great. Met each other, checked into the hotel and…wow.”
”…Then in the morning he snuck off to the gym, got back late, fell straight to sleep, snuck off to the gym again…”
“What a-!” Charlotte began.
“No.” Ava interrupted, surprisingly vociferous. “No, I understand. I got real mad at him, but…I mean, he’s right. He’s committed to this, he needs to keep at it. I can’t ask him to…I won’t ask him to stop, even if I could.”
“Darling, you’ve got to have a good relationship with him though!” Charlotte told her.
“Well, I got his head round it.” Ava said. “Made him see what he was doing and he…scaled it back. We had a great time in the end. He got up later, we went to the gym together, we ate together…it wasn’t exactly what I’d planned, but I gotta say, I kinda like being bench-pressed by my boyfriend.”
“Is that what they’re calling it these days?”
Ava snickered, and sipped her tea, which was still much too hot for Charlotte’s taste, but she seemed to like it that way. “So…yeah. I actually had a great time, after that. You said it yourself, I came back all relaxed and stuff, didn’t I?”
Ava seemed to think that settled the matter, but Charlotte knew better. Ava had only ever dated one boy after all, she probably didn’t know something that Charlotte had learned at the age of fourteen, which was that boys might give you a week or a month of improved behaviour when they got in trouble…but it took a lot more than that to permanently fix them, if it was even possible.
“Darling…what if he’s not really learned?” She asked, after a delicate interval.
“Then I’ll…” Ava tailed off, then shrugged. “Then maybe I need to learn.”
Charlotte gave her time to think, until their drinks were finished and Ava sat back, looking away, looking defeated.
“Is he worth this?” Charlotte asked her.
She’d known Ava was tough, but this time, when Ava looked her dead in the eye, she really saw the steel in there. “Worth what?” Ava demanded. “Worth a few tears? Worth feeling like I’m less important than his mission? Less important than saving lives? Less important than stopping what happened to our home from happening somewhere else? Happening here?”
She surged forward and flung her arm out to punctuate her conviction. “Well…he’s right! I AM less important than that!”
“Maybe he is, but do you need to be doing this to yourself to make that mission happen?” Charlotte persisted.
Ava deflated. “…I think I do, yeah. I think he needs me.”
“Are you sure?”
Ava didn’t answer.
Date Point: 7y 2w AV
Huntsville Alabama, USA, Earth
“Now there’s something you don’t see every day…” Vandenberg was musing. Adam had to agree. There was just something…unique about an oil drum tumbling lazily in place, perfectly in the three-dimensional centre of the room fifteen meters up in the air.
The variable-gravity training room had been overhauled, in a somewhat makeshift way. The walls had been covered in freeclimb handholds, the ceiling layered in recessed monkey bars, and the floor covered in shin-deep beach sand, lit by colored projections into a gradient—light to dark—of blue at one end of the room, and red at the other.
Clearly some kind of game or sport was going on here, but what the hell a floating oil drum had to do with it was beyond Adam’s ability to guess.
Major Powell was wearing the subtle little almost-smile that indicated he was pleased with himself. “This, lads, is gravityball.” he said. “It’s a training tool Cavendish and I worked out, and he thinks we’ve now got the basics of moving in variable gravity down and it’s time to start putting us through our paces.”
“How’s it played?” Sikes asked.
“All the best bits of rugby, hockey, wrestling, parkour, beach volleyball and strongman competitions in one package.” Cavendish replied, and tossed a red impact-ball to Sikes, and a blue one to Akiyama. “The objective is to get the red ball into the blue zone, and vice versa. The deeper in you go, the stronger the gravity gets, but the more rapidly your score increases. Winning team’s the one with the highest score at the half hour mark, or the first one to double the other team’s score once you’re both past three hundred.”
“And the oil drum?”
“That’s the goal.” Powell said. “But: the goal only WORKS if it’s inside the scoring circle in your team’s target endzone. So if you’re the blue team, you need to carry that thing deep into red territory, get it in the circle, and get either ball into it, and that ball has to start in the blue half of the field or else it’s offside and doesn’t count. Scoring is worth twenty points, but if you can score and then get the goal back to the home circle in YOUR endzone, then you get a permanent score multiplier.”
“Sir…how do we get the goal in the first place?” BASEBALL asked.
Cavendish grinned. “You have to climb, gentlemen. Oh, one small point—most of the room’s in microgravity, it’s just the two meters at the floor and ceiling that aren’t, and if the goal’s being held up in the scoring circle, then the gravity at the ceiling turns off.”
The team looked back and forth at one another, trying to take all of that in. Cavendish just smiled even wider.
“Alright, Arés, Burgess, you two are the Protectors.” he said. “Your job is to carry and protect that goal. Stevenson, Akiyama, Sikes and Vandenberg are the Defenders, your job is to defend the Protector and your zone. Finally, Jones, Price, Murray, Blaczynski, Firth and Major Powell are Aggressors, your job is to steal the ball, score the goals, raid into enemy territory and all that. One Protector, two Defenders and three Aggressors per team. Alright? And I’m your referee and coach.”
Adam raised his hand. “Sir…what’s legal with, like, tackles and stuff?”
“No punching, kicking, or biting.” Powell told them. “Otherwise, fookin’ anything goes. Sikes, Akiyama, you’re team captains. go ahead and pick. Line up, lads!”
Everyone hustled to the wall.
“You know we need to stick some Feet on that goal, right?” Adam muttered to BASEBALL.
Green feet were a Pararescue tradition dating back to Vietnam and the CH-3E “Jolly Green Giant” helicopter. As unit legend had it, saved air crews had taken temporary green feet tattoos on their buttocks to symbolize the PJs ‘saving their asses’. Whatever their origins, the Feet had become a badge of pride among Pararescumen and the preferred emblem for any kind of prank, especially ones where the PJs claimed ownership of something.
SOR or not, Adam and BASEBALL were still PJs, and if it fell to them to move that goal, then goddammit, that goal was going to have green feet on it. No power on Earth or any other planet could stop that.
“Uh…Burgess.” Sikes said, making his first team selection. Adam took the initiative and joined Akiyama, who picked Vandenberg, leaving Stevenson to join the red team. Three more votes, and the blue team were joined by Legsy and Price, leaving Murray to grumble about being picked last as he joined Major Powell on the red team.
“Everyone got all those rules, right?” Adam asked
“I did.” Vandenberg said. “Just go up the wall, monkey along the ceiling. Burgess should be doing the same, so try and knock him off. Grab the goal and bring it back down to earth, and we’ll just try and scrum straight up the middle. Okay?”
“Thought I was the captain?” Akiyama joked, clearly not annoyed.
“Still a good plan.” Vandenberg protested.
“Yeah, but I reckon you can go help Arés up on the ceiling.”
They put their fists together, grunted a “HOOAH!” and, at Cavendish’s direction, set up in their midzone. Sikes’ team set up opposite, there was a moment’s waiting, and then the whistle blew.
Adam darted sideways with Rebar, and together they swarmed as fast as they dared up the free-climb wall. It wasn’t hard going, and the transition onto the ceiling would have been easy…except that nobody had mentioned it was set to 1.2G. Adam very nearly lost his grip, but together they managed to grab onto the ceiling bars and began to manoeuvre—slowly—across the ceiling, circling around Burgess who’d been sent aloft alone and clearly looked like he wanted to swear about it.
“Go for the drum, I’ve got BASEBALL.” Vandenberg said.
Adam made a grunt that was supposed to be confirmation, and angled for the spot directly above the goal drum. Burgess and Vandenberg collided, resulting in the Delta man hanging off BASEBALL, gripping his legs. It didn’t seem to actually make a difference.
“I can take both your asses!” Burgess was calling defiantly, though the extra weight was slowing him down. But Adam saw an opportunity.
“Rebar! Go for the drum!”
Vandenberg looked down, grinned, and swung off BASEBALL’s leg. He dropped out of the ceiling’s gravity zone instantly with a cry of “heads up!!” for anyone below, and stopped accelerating as he entered the microgravity volume, drifting at a comparatively slow speed. He actually landed on the drum and jumped off it, kicking it down into the sandy arena floor and himself back up towards the ceiling as if he’d been playing this game all his life rather than for only a minute and forty seconds.
By the time he hit the ceiling gravity field again, Adam and Burgess were wrestling, each holding themselves aloft by one hand. Adam had got his legs around BASEBALL’s waist and was trying to pry open his friend’s grip, an attempt hindered by BASEBALL’s long arms.
In the end, BASEBALL’s boast about being able to take them both was proven false. Rebar had just enough speed on re-entering the gravity field to latch on to his ankles, and their combined weight was more than his grip strength could handle.
Unfortunately, that jolt was also more than Adam could handle, and the three of them fell twenty meters together, separating in mid air to make little craters in the soft sand. They hardly felt a thing and were soon up, trying to wrest control of the now-grounded oil drum and get it safely behind a pair of Defenders to try and move it up.
Everyone ducked involuntarily as Legsy vaulted them, actually using Stevenson’s shoulder as a stepping stone, and leapt up above the gravity field and into the weightless volume, where he coasted out above the red zone, carrying the blue ball. He’d judged his trajectory beautifully, and latched onto a handhold on the back wall, from which he dropped down onto the sand and began to score a point every two seconds for the blue team.
The blues took advantage of the distraction, shoving and forcing the opposition aside and sending them spinning away helplessly in the microgravity of no-man’s land. Holding on to the wall and each other for leverage, they were able to force the drum into the gravity field, and Adam hoisted it, groaning at the weight, and staggered into a run that only got harder as he transitioned from galactic standard, to Earth standard, to 2G in the far endzone. he was grateful to finally be able to drop it into the scoring circle, high-fiving Legsy as he dropped the ball triumphantly into the goal.
Nothing happened. They were still staring at Cavendish who was watching them patiently and expectantly when Powell burst in among them like an artillery strike, coming down from the ceiling with the red ball and delivered a ringing slam-dunk.
Cavendish blew the whistle. “Red scores twenty points, no multiplier!” he declared
“Offside rule, lads.” Powell explained. “Your ball needed to start on that side of the line AFTER the goal was in the circle, to be eligible to score.”
The team deflated, muttering things like ‘right, yeah…’ or “oh…derp.‘
“Reset the goal!” Cavendish ordered.
“Hey, other than that…” Akiyama commented “…we did great. We’ll get ‘em.”
“You’re damn right.” Adam grinned, hoisting the drum and carrying it back toward the middle. “Payback time.”
“Gentlemen, I’ve got to hand it to you. That was the most brutal thing I’ve ever seen.”
The whole SOR was pretty badly beaten up, and the whole SOR was grinning and riding on an adrenaline tsunami. High-fives were exchanged as they waited for the final score.
Drew smirked. “So, the winners, with four hundred and seventy-six points, versus their opposition’s score of four hundred and eleven is…the red team!”
The blues groaned, and were commiserated with by the reds, after a round of hugs and high-fives. “Standout plays for my money-” Drew continued “-were Vandenberg jumping off the drum to catch Burgess. Really good awareness of relative mass, there. Legsy vaulting the team and jumping the length of the playing area above the gravity field, excellent spacial awareness. Burgess, that throw from the ceiling to the red endzone was superb, and so was that bit where you threw Arés at the ceiling slowly enough that he was out of play for more than a minute. That was well done.”
Burgess grinned, and Powell stepped forward. “Learning point there lads.” he said. “You have to be aware of your mates drifting out of handhold range of anything, and if you can, help them get back. Usually the Protector’s job, I know, but if your Protector’s in trouble himself, then see to him.”
“Right.” Powell nodded .“Take a shower, slap on a crue patch and grab lunch, and we’ll meet in the lecture room at fourteen hundred to continue our briefing on the Hierarchy. Go on.”
The lads jogged out, beaming and playfully insulting one another. Powell took a cleansing breath and then turned back to get his instructor’s opinion.
“Any further thoughts?”
Drew licked his teeth thoughtfully as he checked his tablet. “The only one whose performance I’d call merely ‘acceptable’ rather than excellent was Arés, but he’s got a significant handicap: He’s much shorter than the others. He could have saved himself from that throw Burgess got him with if he had longer arms.”
“There’s nowt we can do about his arms, Mr. Cavendish.”
“Oh I know.” Drew conceded. “And in fact that same handicap may prove to be an asset when they play this wearing the spacesuits. He’s the strongest on the team, no doubt about it. He should find the suit more comfortable than the others.”
“We’ll have to weigh him down more, then.” Powell said. “I want them ALL to be doing merely ‘acceptably’. Acceptable means they’re on their limit, and learning.”
“Right. This is training, not a sport.”
Powell chuckled. “You sound like you’ve got plans to turn it into one.”
Drew smiled wryly at how well he’d been skewered there. “We’ve got spaceships, forcefields, holograms and I used to be a mining foreman on an asteroid base.” he said. “We should have a scifi sport to go with the…I dunno, the hoverboards and whatnot.”
Powell nodded absently, rolled his shoulder and examined a nasty bruise on his upper arm. “Bloody hell, I’ve got to hand it to them. I wouldn’t have smacked my CO as hard in training.”
“Is that a good thing?”
Powell shrugged. “On one hand, it means they like me and feel comfortable wi’ me. On t’other, there’s such a thing as too close and personal. I’m not sure where the right balance between those two is, myself.”
“Why’s there such a thing?” Drew asked, curious.
Powell thought about it. “the lads…look, this may sound bloody obvious, but they’re military, right? They’re operators.”
“Operators get killed. They wouldn’t BE operators if they weren’t doing a job which carried that risk. You do everything you can to keep them alive of course, but the whole point of the service is that you see a job that needs doing and you put good, honest, innocent young men in harm’s way to get it done, because fookin’ evil as that is, that job’ll make the world even worse for not being done.”
Drew was always serious and sombre—his expression became more so as he listened, and he nodded. “You’re worried about tipping too far either way, between caring for them as people, and being able to do the right thing?”
Powell shrugged the question off. “It’s my problem to worry about, Mr. Cavendish, and I’ve been dealing with it for years now.” he said.
“Fair enough.” Drew nodded, not surprised that Powell wasn’t the kind to just open up. In any case, they had other things to discuss as they left the gravity room and hung up their helmets. “In that case, has there been any word about my idea?”
“Fitting an emergency recall jump drive to the EV-MASS? We had a strategy review about it…” Powell’s tone of voice didn’t sound promising. “it’s a bloody good idea, and I’ll be welcoming of it…but.”
“There’s always a ‘but’. It’ll save lives, Major.”
“If only it were that cut and dried.” Powell wrinkled his nose, and fished a Crue-D patch from his pocket. He peeled the back off and stuck it to his shoulder, right over the bruise. “Like I was saying, the job’s got to come first. Sometimes a man’s life is worth less than that, and those suppressors they’ve got to keep the jump from popping out like a flare on sensors aren’t small enough to fit on the suit, are they?”
“No.” Drew conceded.
“Right, well there’s your sticking point.” Powell said. “You put that thing on a suit, the temptation’s always going to be there to use it, and if you’ve got a way to evac a dying man and you don’t take it…that’ll just be too hard, if not for the commander then certainly for that man’s mates. But if that’d give away your position and scupper the mission…”
“It won’t ALWAYS scupper the mission will it?” Drew pushed.
“Not always.” Powell agreed. “In fact it creates possible mission plans, so we’ll be using it, no doubt. But it’s going to be optional-use, as needed, not something that’s on there as standard.”
He waited as Drew scowled thoughtfully.
“I can see the logic…” Drew finally admitted. “It just seems, morally…”
“Moral? Mate, you yourself were used as a puppet by an alien organisation bent on nuking us out of existence. We’re dealing with cannibals and mind control here.”
“All the more reason to keep the moral high ground.”
“You think we wouldn’t be?” Powell asked. “The hard truth is, we can’t save everyone. There’s no moral damage done in sacrificing one man to save ten.”
“Why not save all eleven?”
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch, that’s why.” Powell shook his head. “You only go all or nothing when there’s no alternative. Otherwise, you’ve got to know when to take your winnings and leave the table.”
Drew sighed, went silent and scowled at his shoes. “I feel like there’s a counter-argument there somewhere, but I don’t know what it is.” he confessed.
Powell smiled grimly, clapped him on the shoulder, and headed off towards the showers. “You ever figure it out, mate, let me know. I’ve been wanting one for years.” he said.
Date Point: 7y 3m AV
London, England, Earth
“BBC News, today’s headlines this lunchtime: The unthinkable ship: Four hundred million kilometers from Earth, the first of the new V-class spaceborne destroyers is launched, but opposition MPs say that the cost of the new fleet harms Britain’s domestic security…Dominic Hill has confirmed that he’ll be stepping down as leader of the Awareness Party after he was filmed using an obscene and sexist term to describe the deputy prime minister…The Port Authority of San Diego votes to end its charter, ending years of uncertainty and sinking any hopes that the city might be rebuilt…and from riches to rags, how the declining price of oil threatens to bankrupt the Saudi royal family. “
“Good evening. The Prince of Wales has launched the first of the Royal Navy’s new starships, HMS Valiant.”
“In a naming ceremony on the dwarf planet Ceres, Prince William dedicated the vessel to the memory of his late grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Second, and declared that the ship marked the beginning of a new age not just for Britain, but for all of mankind. Our extraterrestrial affairs correspondent, Dariusz Jagoda, was on Ceres to watch the ceremony…“
Charlotte sighed and wriggled in her chair a bit, folding her legs under her more comfortably. “ZF moment.”
“Hmm?” Ava hadn’t been paying attention. Running her website, keeping her blog updated and basically doing everything she could to push her photography on social media was nearly a full-time job in its own right, that she squeezed in around her lectures, coursework and social life. She hadn’t been watching the TV at all.
Fortunately, Charlotte didn’t mind. She was eating a mixing bowl full of Shreddies and chasing it down with a bucket of coffee, all while wearing her favourite anime pyjama bottoms and no bra, nor makeup. It was that kind of lazy afternoon. “ZF moment!” she repeated, waving at the screen.
“A wha-?” Ava shook her head, confused.
“ZF Moment!” Charlotte insisted. “It’s like…that feeling you get when you realise you’re living in the future?”
Ava put her phone down. “I’ve not heard that one before.”
“It’s from some German word everyone was using for a while. Zukuf…Sukun… something.”
Ava picked up her phone again and Googled the term. “Zukunftsgefühl?” she asked.
Charlotte nodded. “That’s the one. Come on, Wills just launched a star destroyer, that’s a total ZF moment!”
As her housemate scarfed down the last of her cereal, Ava examined the footage of the balding future king speaking on a podium alongside the starship’s hull, under the huge letters “HMS Valiant”. The V-class destroyer’s size was hard to judge on a TV screen, right up until the moment when the report cut to a wider-angle camera from the back of the crowd, and that podium and its royal occupant became little more than a colourful speck in relation to the huge dark grey chunk of metal.
Valiant didn’t look much like a spaceship. In fact it looked most like a submarine, albeit more angular and studded with surprisingly small guns. There were no running lights, no glowing bits, nothing to hint that this thing was cutting edge technology. Just lots and lots of matte-dark painted metal that should be invisible once it was out in open space.
The crawl along the bottom of the screen shared some facts about the new ship: Its approximate mass (ten thousand short tons, whatever they were) length (a hundred and sixty meters) crew compliment (up to two hundred and sixty) and maximum speeds (four Gs of sublight acceleration, and a cruising speed at FTL of one hundred and twenty kilolights).
“It fits.” she agreed.
On screen, the prince’s speech was still playing out. “…Together with our friends and allies, creating a fleet that will be greater than any one nation’s contribution, and able to defend not only human lives and interests, but those of any innocent person regardless of creed, race, or species.”
Charlotte stifled a burp. “What do you think he meant by that?”
“Who knows?” Ava shrugged. “Maybe the USA’s got something in the works too? It just wouldn’t be like us to let you take all the glory.”
The news moved on to the segment about some politician or another in whom Ava had zero interest, so she returned her attention to her phone. She was just composing a careful reply to a positive comment on her profile when the phone hummed in her hand and, with a twinkly little noise, informed her that she had a message.
She had to read it three times before she began to believe it.
Charlotte pulled a strand of hair out of her mouth. She was prone to chewing on it when thinking. “Yeah?”
“I just got an email via my website. Somebody from Cimbrean Agri-Urban Development’s marketing division wants to buy all the pictures I took over Christmas! Exclusive!”
“Wh- really?!” Charlotte scrambled out of her seat and across the floor to get a look at the message, fetching up with her elbows on the arm of Ava’s chair.
“Yeah, look! They’re offering me three hundred pounds for sole use and ownership, with full image credits to me.”
Charlotte frowned “Is that good?” she asked. “That’s not a lot of money…”
“It’s amazing!” Ava enthused. “CAUD’s the group responsible for building Cimbrean’s infrastructure—you know, the water, the power lines, the sewerage, all that stuff. This is huge!”
“They could be offering you more, then.” Charlotte suggested.
“Darling, this is huge!” Ava said. “Forget the money, my name’s going to be all over the civil engineering project posters and websites and stuff, right where people can see it! This is…People are going to notice!”
Charlotte hugged her. “Don’t forget us little people when you’re doing royal portraits.” She requested.
Ava hugged her back. “Of course not.”
“The interim Port Authority for the city of San Diego has voted to close the port’s charter, putting an end to years of ambiguity over current and future shipping contracts, but also damaging hopes that the city might one day be rebuilt. Our American correspondent, Dean Savage, has more…”
Date Point: 7y 5m AV
Huntsville Alabama, USA, Earth.
Technical Sergeant Martina Kovač was…distracting, for all the wrong reasons.
For starters, she was intimidatingly intelligent and skilled, having excelled at technical courses Adam would have flunked. For another, she was an athletic powerhouse, lean and strong as an MMA fighter under her ABU, which was not normally a flattering garment. For third, she was gorgeous, with a diamond face and Slavic genes.
Adam would usually have not even noticed these facts about her. Loyalty to Ava aside, Kovač was a fellow NCO and, he knew, had an academic education on top of her military training that put most rocket scientists to shame. He had nothing but the utmost respect for her, professionally.
But the fact was, she was about to measure his junk, and at moments like that, certain thoughts became…insistent.
She had, admittedly, a very good reason for doing so. It was part of the necessary plumbing for his EV-MASS undersuit unless he wanted to use a catheter which…no thanks.
But it was pretty hard not to chicken out and go with the catheter, in the face of the mischief dancing around in those blue eyes.
“Do we not…isn’t there a male technician who can do this?” he asked, fidgeting. Skinny-dipping as a teenager and the many indignities of military life had robbed him of most of his hangups about nudity or general undress, and his fellows weren’t far behind, but this was different. He’d regularly been called on to pee into a bottle under close scrutiny for routine tests throughout his career, but he’d never done so under the scrutiny of somebody pretty before.
“None of them are qualified.” Kovač shrugged. “Relax, staff sergeant. I’m a professional.”
“That’s…I guess that’s comforting.”
Kovač finished assembling her tools—a cloth tape measure, a clipboard and pen, and disposable gloves—and knelt on a cushion. “Come on, sooner they’re down, sooner I’m done.” she told him.
Adam squeezed his eyes shut for a second, stepped forward, and unzipped.
To her credit, Kovač was entirely as businesslike and professional as promised, securing quick, neat measurements without comment.
He was just thinking that hadn’t been so bad when she nodded. “Okay. And now erect.”
“Gotta make sure the, ah…receptacle we’re making for you fits in all circumstances.” Kovač said.
Adam rubbed his face and looked around for something to distract him, or convince him this was just a weird dream. “Me cago en la leche…” he muttered.
“Language.” she chided. “Come on, sooner it’s up, sooner I’m done!”
“You’re seriously kidding me, right?”
“Nope. This thing has to fit properly no matter what.” Kovač grinned up at him and winked, which from that angle was just downright sinful. “Need some help?”
Adam swallowed involuntarily, feeling his heart jump up three gears at once. Okay, sure, fraternizing between NCOs who weren’t in the chain of command was perfectly fine, but she couldn’t seriously be suggesting-?
She tilted her head sideways to point with her eyebrows at the tablet, the tissues and the bottle of lube sitting on the table to his left. “I was talking about the porn.”
“Oh! Oh, right!” Fuck his face for going so red, fuck it, fuck fuck FUCK his face.
Kovač just glanced down at…him…and smiled with a devilish little lip-bite. “Maybe once I’m off-duty though…”
The mental image finally sunk in, and did its work. He couldn’t have stopped himself from hitting full mast if he’d plunged it into ice water.
“Woop! There we go…”
Adam jerked as clever gloved fingers quickly and efficiently lassoed him with the tape measure and…that was it. Measured.
He was still processing what had happened when she stood up and got rid of the gloves into a bin. “Thanks, staff sergeant. You want me to leave you alone for a bit while you compose yourself?”
“I, ah…” Adam got his brain back on track with a head-shake mental reset and hurriedly (and painfully) tucked himself back in. “You enjoyed that way too much.”
Kovač laughed. “Yep!”
“I could…I’ll sort myself out elsewhere.” Adam cleared his throat.
“Hey…if it makes you feel any better, the others couldn’t wait to whip it out.” Kovač told him. “You’ve got that going for you. I appreciate it.”
“No problem. So, uh…interested?”
“Wait, you were serious?” Adam blinked at her.
“Hey, you’re cute and you were respectful and…let’s face it, I just spent an afternoon staring at dicks, this wasn’t exactly easy for me either.” Kovač shrugged, a little embarrassment finally showing under that flirtatious demeanour. “Interested?”
“Oh, uh…I’m…kinda taken.”
“Damn.” Kovač shrugged. “Good for her.”
She laughed. “Don’t be! You’re a nice guy Arés, that’s why I offered.”
”…Thanks.” Adam had already subsided enough that he could adjust himself and retreat to his room. “I’ll uh…see you around, Kovač.”
“Have fun!” she winked at him again.
He let himself out and managed to make it back to his room without anybody smirking at him.
Ten minutes later, after using an ancient technique to purge the mental image of a blonde head bobbing back and forth level with his belt buckle, he guiltily decided that his next letter to Ava would definitely not be mentioning today’s events.
Date Point: 7y 6m AV
Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, Earth.
”…It was hard for me to reconcile the knowledge that the men and women who ran those businesses could be so intelligent, and yet so stupid at the same time. I looked at years of…factories dumping their waste into rivers and lakes because it was cheaper to pay the pollution fines than to properly dispose of their byproduct. Minimum wages that could only support ONE person if they worked a fifteen hour day, let alone a young family. Thereby laying the burden of looking after that family on the state. I would always look at such businesses and ask myself—‘can’t they see that they’re making less profit by keeping their own employees poor?’“
*“That was the foundation of my business dream. The idea that a company did not have to be, uh, selfish in order…to…*ah dammit, how’s that go again?”
“That a company did not have to be cruel in order to be self-interested. That a successful business could…” Moses paused and sighed. “Dang it all, I need a break.”
His secretary stood up. “Coffee?”
“You’re an angel, Rachael.” Moses rubbed his eyes and stretched, pacing the half of the jet that was his private flying office. “Anything different come in to distract me for a minute or two?”
“Trevor Cardwell asked for you to call him first chance you get.” Rachael told him.
She connected the call, handed him the tablet then disappeared through the rear door into the staff half of the plane.
Moses threw himself onto the couch as it rang, and greeted Cardwell with his best smile, not that it needed faking. “Trevor! How goes the testing?”
“We have a working prototype.” Cardwell announced, looking pleased with himself. “We sent Levaughn our test image, he sent back a selfie of himself WITH the test image. Burst communication between Earth and Cimbrean.”
Byron laughed. “Outstanding work.”
“Not without some caveats, boss.”
“As always.” Moses agreed. “Fire away.”
“Power requirements are huge. That’s not a design flaw, it’s just how the damn thing works, so your hopes of developing a light version for ships…” Cardwell shrugged “Sorry Moses. Not happening. Not unless you wanna make the ships twice as big and fill all that space with capacitors.”
Cardwell was one of the few people who used Moses’ given name. It was refreshingly straightforward, and he never strayed over the line into disrespect.
“Oh well.” Moses looked up as Rachael returned with his coffee, accepted it with a silent thankyou, and sipped it. “Can you take the principles and work towards something smaller?”
“We could, yeah. How much smaller are you thinking?”
“How much information would you need to send to be able to schedule jump exchanges and synchronise clocks?”
Cardwell raised an eyebrow. “Moses, you’ve been doing your homework!” he said.
“I was kind of expecting this.” Moses agreed, and sipped his coffee again. “How much?”
“Not much. And if we do that, there’s nothing stopping us sending bulk data through a jump array on a hard drive or something. Wouldn’t be real-time, but it’d sure be close enough for your news network idea.”
“Good enough for me.” Moses nodded. “I’ll leave you to work out the technical specifics. I have a feeling the hiring is going to need a personal touch.”
“Will do, boss. I’ll be in touch.”
The call ended. Moses drank the rest of his coffee, set it aside and looked to Rachael. “Where were we?”
Your speech to the graduates. Foundation of your business dream.”
“Mm. The idea that a company did not have to be cruel in order to be self-interested. That a successful business could also be a selfless one. That an enlightened business leader is one who welcomes and nurtures their competition and their colleagues equally…”
Date Point: 7y 9m AV
Huntsville Alabama, USA, Earth
“Man, FUCK the plumbing in this thing.” BASEBALL was fidgeting and frowning, trying to adjust his EV-MASS undersuit for comfort, an exercise that Adam was beginning to suspect might be doomed, at least until the water was pumped in.
“Hey, Sergeant Kovač went through a really stressful day getting those measurements.” He pointed out, grinning.
“Riiight, real stressful.” BASEBALL rolled his eyes. “And she was dumb enough to hit on the only guy on the team who’s got a steady girl.”
“I can’t help it if I’m pretty.” Adam grinned.
“Man, you ain’t the pretty one. The Major’s the pretty one.”
Adam’s eyes widened a little, his expression became serious and he glanced over BASEBALL’s shoulder.
BASEBALL shut his eyes. “…He’s behind me, isn’t he?.”
There was a tense moment, then Adam cracked up laughing, and the rest of the crew joined in. “Gotcha!”
“Aww, fuck you all!”
“Hey, y’ain’t wrong.” Sikes agreed. “The old man’s looking good on the C-juice.”
Price drawled an exaggerated imitation of Sikes’ Georgia accent “He shore is purdy, y’all.”
Sikes’ retaliation, as it always was, was a strangled received pronunciation mockery that bore no resemblance at all to Price’s Essex accent. “Oh yes, delightful, wot?”
“Good to see you lot’re in a good fookin’ mood.” Powell commented, joining them already wearing his undersuit. As ever, his delivery was level and could have been taken as gruff if they hadn’t been able to see the relaxed humour in his eyes.
“Good morning, sir.” Legsy greeted Powell as the room turned toward him and straightened up.
“Morning, Legs. How’re you all finding the suits?”
“The plumbing’s a bitch, sir.” Burgess told him.
“You just be glad the plumbing at the back didn’t need any measuring.” Powell told him, opening his own locker and throwing his bag into it. “Technical Sergeant Kovač might have enjoyed that job a little too much.”
There was a round of laughter, but Stevenson was suddenly looking worried. “So…she wasn’t kidding about that thing needing to go in our butts, was she?”
“Alas, she was not.” Powell told him, shutting the locker again.
“And on the day we have to use it, I will take comfort from knowing I won’t be alone.” Vandenberg added.
Even Stevenson chuckled at that.
“Arright.” Powell told them. “Tech team’s ready for us, get on through there.”
They hustled at the order, stowing the last of their stuff in their lockers and bustling through into the suit lab, where the midsuit and outersuit of the EV-MASS systems were stored and maintained by a team – two for each Operator—of technicians.
The techs may not have been a physical match for their operators—after all, the SOR was training them to the point where, once they hit operational readiness, they would be brushing the limits of what the unaugmented human body could achieve—but they still took part in training and team-building exercises. The result was that everyone already knew their techs, and had grown to respect them. The technical crews tried to hang with the Operators in training, and made a damn good attempt at it. That was worth a lot.
Adam’s technicians were Senior Airman Raymond Doyle and Petty Officer Dean Hargreaves, USAF and Royal Navy respectively. That was a pattern repeated across the whole SOR—one tech from the operator’s parent service, and the other from somewhere else. It seemed to work well.
Doyle was the more meticulous of the two when it came to interpersonal interactions, and greeted him with a neutral “Good morning, staff sergeant.”
The sentiment was echoed by Hargreaves, whose rank was roughly equal to Adam’s own, in a rather more relaxed manner: “Hey, Horse.”
They’d both earned it, as far as Adam was concerned, even if Doyle preferred not to exercise that privilege. Where Doyle was undeniably the orderly, logical and meticulous mind of the pair, Hargreaves’ intelligence was more hands-on. Doyle would have drawn up a blueprint down to a half millimetre fare-thee-well, but Hargreaves was the one to build it. They were a good team, and had between them planned out and enacted several minor modifications to the suit so that it should, in theory, fit Adam perfectly.
All under the watchful note-taking eye of Drew Cavendish, of course.
“We ready?” Adam asked them.
“We are indeed.” Hargreaves nodded, handing him the throat brace that Adam dutifully buckled on: without it, the suit would constrict his throat and choke him. “I just finished modifying the sleeves last night.”
Adam nodded his thanks and stepped forward onto the two once-yellow feet on the floor in the middle of Doyle and Hargreaves’ working space. Naturally, he and BASEBALL had soon corrected the colour of those feet during the dead of night, earning them both an immediate “motivation” session from Legsy (who had quite astutely pointed out that there were no other pararescuemen anywhere on the facility, which didn’t make for a long list of suspects when twelve pairs of yellow feet were mysteriously painted green) but the new colour had stuck.
One man alone couldn’t possibly have put on an EV-MASS. Even if there hadn’t been equipment that needed mounting on the back where even the world’s most flexible contortionist couldn’t reach, he would have needed at least a couple of hours to manage it, by the end of which he’d have been too exhausted to actually do anything with it.
The midsuit’s torso was all one object which needed lifting up and lowering over his head and raised arms. Once that was in place he could then—awkwardly bent forward—lift his feet up and insert them into the legs and boots, wriggle them down, grit his teeth as he forced them past an uncomfortable stricture, and finally push them fully in until he was entirely contained and had his ass hanging out of an otherwise complete suit of armour. Then, the torso and sleeves could be pulled down, with Doyle’s hands carefully inserted to protect his ears as the collar constricted his skull, until he suddenly popped out of it like a turtle, with the rigid attachement points for the helmet and breathing mask sitting at the back of his skull and along his jawline.
The top and bottom halves of the midsuit met at a shaped docking ring that ran around his hips and above his buttocks. Before it could be closed, Doyle had to reach awkwardly up from below past Adam’s butt, and connect the undersuit’s waste and water ports to the midsuit by touch.
That done, the docking collar could be snapped together and sealed, leaving the full weight of the heaviest part of the suit bearing down on him.
Weirdly, though, the worst part was almost over. Hargreaves attached a water hose to the inlet port, turned on the pressure, and five seconds later, the inner suit’s water system had filled. Its reactive polymers activated in response to getting wet and SQUEEZED, shrinking the inner suit down until it was tighter than his own skin and the load-bearing structures were taking the worst off the weight.
The midsuit did something similar in response to his body temperature – its innermost padded gel lining expanded, and that was like getting a full-body bearhug from BASEBALL. It served a purpose, though—the suit’s incredible tightness both counteracted vacuum precluding the need for a pressurized internal environment except around the face and mouth, and made it an extension of his limbs rather than just something he was wearing. It wasn’t comfortable at first, but that was what the five minute acclimation break was for. Technically, he was already exercising – under that compression, merely breathing became an exertion and all of his muscles were forced to flex a little. He should have been sweating profusely—instead, the undersuit’s stillsuit system went to work, whipping the water away from his skin and adding it to its own circulating and cooling reserves.
After that came all the technical bits—the life support system that went on his hips, the capacitor bank up his spine, the forcefield emitters that ran down his arms, the heat exchanger at his shoulders, all of which again needed Doyle’s delicate touch to hook up.
Then there was the outersuit, which was basically just a digital camouflage cover, plus the framework of carrying systems for his backpack, ammo, grenades, medical equipment, and any auxiliary armour plating or mission-specific tools he felt like carrying.
The final step—his helmet and breathing mask—were almost anticlimactically simple. He could—and was required to—put them on himself. They snapped on simply and easily, having a pressure-sealed locking system of Cavendish’s own design that was allegedly foolproof.
And that was it. He was wearing EV-MASS, Extra Vehicular Search and Rescue System variant.
The first few times had been way worse. Hell, the first time they had done nothing more than put the suit on without the “plumbing” and just walked around wearing it for half an hour, and even that minimal activity had beaten the crap out of them.
Then there had been a few minor modifications, then wearing it again, this time for forty minutes. Then again for an hour. Then again for a light PT session.
This was Adam’s seventh time in the suit all told, but he was now starting to feel acclimatized. The extra inch in the sleeves that Hargreaves had added, and a few tweaks to the water circulation rate courtesy of Doyle had made all the difference. When he stood up and bounced lightly on his toes, he didn’t feel like he was wearing a heavy, constraining lump of technology any more. He felt like Adam, except…more massive.
It almost felt comfortable.
To judge from their expressions, the rest of the team were feeling similarly more at home in their suits. Even Powell was moving with assurance and calm, rather than the red-faced scowl that he’d worn the first few times.
“Right.” the major declared, as soon as it became clear that everyone was suited up. “Training time.”
“What are we doing today, sir?” Firth asked.
“Today, lads…we’re playing Gravball in the suits.” Powell grinned.
Date Point: thirty minutes later.
“So. Observations about today’s session?”
“Well, the suits are up to spec.”
“Aye, that they are. Anything else?”
“WARHORSE needs more weight on him in training.”
“Oh come on-!”
“Agreed. Anything else?”
“We’re going to need a new goal.”
“I did rather get the impression that an oil drum half full of concrete isn’t quite heavy enough nowadays, you’re right.”
”…Bet that’s a sentence you never thought you’d utter, sir.”
“Mm. Any more observations? No? Arright, let’s go get these fookin’ suits off. And…Arés?”
“Find us a suitable replacement for the goal, will you?”
Date point: November 5th 7y 10m AV
Southwark Park, London, England, Earth.
Sean had always preferred cold weather to hot. You could always pile on layers, make a hot drink, turn up the heating, light a fire or snuggle up to somebody in cold weather.
Ava was the other way round, he knew, which was why she was insulated under a thick coat, a woollen hat, gloves, a scarf, and why her cheeks and the tip of her nose were red, highlighted by the flashing lights of the Bonfire Night fairground they’d decided to come visit, seeing as it was a clear and dry November 5th for the first time in years.
She was enjoying it immensely he could tell, and it only made her look prettier. A curl of hair had escaped from the hat and was bouncing at her cheek as she watched Ben throwing away his money on some stupid rigged game, lured by the lie that he’d get a little plushy animal as a consolation prize for Charlotte even if he lost.
Sean had figured out instantly that it was actually impossible to lose and earn that consolation prize, which meant that instead you won and got a pointless little plastic keyring, five of which could be traded for the big plushy animals after you’d paid far more than they were worth, but he knew that wouldn’t have stopped Ben, so…
So he watched Ava instead. Ava, her breath steaming in the November darkness. Ava, smiling in the carnival light. Ava who it hurt to even think about, let alone look at.
It just wasn’t fair.
Sean didn’t think of himself as a bitter or jealous kind of guy. If it had been a happy relationship that Ava had with her boyfriend, then he’d have just shrugged it off, been her friend, no problem. The occasional idle speculation, nothing more.
But it was a shitty relationship, an absent relationship where they only saw one another a few times a year, when Adam took some of his leave time to visit and they just…vanished. Ava would spend the week prior to the visit fretting about it and talking about nothing else, then Adam would arrive and nobody would see Ava for the duration, until one day she was back, radiating equal parts afterglow and frustration.
It was abuse. She was’t being harmed in any physical way, but she was being neglected, taken for granted. Treated as something for Adam to do when he needed a break from being a soldier.
And the very worst part of it, the part that made Sean hate the bastard’s guts more than anything else, was that it was clear he wasn’t doing it deliberately. He was just a fucking moron, and that was enough for Ava to keep forgiving him.
She caught him watching and gave him a little smile, brushing that stray hair back behind her own ear. She’d been doing that a lot, lately. She probably wasn’t even aware she was doing it, but Sean was: he noticed every time.
“You okay, breadstick?” she asked.
“Getting cold.” Sean lied. Well, okay, he WAS, but that hadn’t been the source of his frown.
“Me too!” she nodded. “Isn’t there anywhere warm round here?”
“We could grab a cup of tea?” Sean suggested. “Ben’s going to need another five goes to win anything, at least.”
Ava nodded. “Hot chocolate!”
They picked a fast food van and grabbed their drinks, before sitting on a bench to watch Ben and Charlotte, who seemed to be enjoying themselves at least.
He became aware that she was sitting right up close to him, and sat back on the bench, casually draping his arm along the back of it.
He was surprised and delighted when she sat back too and wriggled up a little closer. “God damn it’s cold.” she grumbled.
Sean nodded “It’s November, and they’re saying this year’s going to be the coldest ever.” he said.
“Uuurgh.” Ava shivered even more inside her coat, and took a huge scent of the steam coming off her drink.
Sean gripped her upper shoulder and pulled her a little closer still. She was tense—no, check that, she was shivering. “Fuck, are you okay?”
She turned a little more towards him. “Yeah, I’m…you’re warm.”
This much was true, and explained everything. Still, when Sean tried to remove his hand from her upper arm, she made a protest noise and wriggled closer again, so he put it back.
Some sips of her drink and several minutes later, she’d stopped shivering and seemed a lot more comfortable, but she stayed where she was. She even let out a big contented sigh.
Sean tried to gauge if she was conscious of how intimate she was being right now, and decided that she probably wasn’t. Ava was fiercely intelligent, but her one long-distance relationship didn’t translate to being all that boy-savvy. In a strange way, he suspected that her and Adam’s mutual inexperience was part of what kept them together.
”…Better?” he asked, after enjoying the contact just long enough but not, hopefully, long enough to scandalize her if and when she noticed.
She jumped a little and sat up, wearing an awkward expression which quickly became a blush, but she nodded even as she looked away. “Sorry, yeah. I just…I was miles away. Yeah.”
She tidied up her hair again and looked over at the game. “They’re STILL playing?”
“I think he’s going for the top prize.” Sean replied.
“Shouldn’t we maybe stop him?”
“It’s his money.” Sean shrugged. “He should be nearly done. Want to go check?”
Sean had enough tact to get up frst and let her sort her head out behind him. He rejoined their friends just as Ben managed to land a dart smack in the middle of the Seven of Hearts and uttered a “fucking finally!”
“Worth it?” Ava teased, arriving level with Sean’s elbow.
Charlotte waved her prize happily. “I got a kitty!”
Ben just nodded to Ava with a little smile. “Worth it.”
Only Sean noticed how the exchange put Ava in a thoughtful mood, from which she only emerged an hour later when the firework display started.
He would have spent a lot more than Ben had on his rigged-game kitty to know what she was thinking about.
Date point: Christmas day, 7y 11m AV
Llanelli, Wales, Earth.
James “Legsy” Jones
“Fuckin’ ‘ell you got big!”
“Good to see you too, Mam. Merry Christmas.”
“Beer’s in the fridge if you want some, your sister’s coming down at half four.”
This was, by the standards of Lydia Jones, a warm and affectionate welcome. She was the opposite of her son in every possible way—small, serious, and corpulent to the point of being basically spherical, fumigated by the cigarettes she rolled herself and sporting a half-grown-out dyed purple undercut hairstyle that might have almost suited her if she shed half her weight and figured out how to smile.
“Cheers Mam.” Legsy retrieved the offered drink and downed about a third of it in one go. “Dai in front of the telly?”
“Where the fuck else would ‘e be? Take ‘im another beer through, will you?”
Legsy did just that, laughing quietly to himself and enjoying the familiar strident almost-shout of home. Sending him through with a beer through for her husband meant, for those who really knew her, that his Mam was in a rare good mood.
“Fuck me, you got big!” his dad exclaimed, as soon as he entered.
”‘Ello Dai. Merry Christmas.”
“Aye, Merry Christmas.”
With that, David Jones—”Dai” to everyone, his children included – exhausted his conversational reserves and went silent again. Genetically, he was the source of Legsy’s prodigious height, but life hadn’t been kind to him on the health front. First had come a backbreaking physical career. Second, upon being laid off when the company he worked for had gone bust, had come rampant obesity brought on by the fact that he hadn’t adjusted his diet to match his new, more sedentary lifestyle. Then had come the dole, type two diabetes, depression and the end result was that “Dai”, a man in his early fifties, looked a decade older than that and only levered himself out of his chair these days to go to the bathroom, go to bed, or to waddle down the road to the pharmacy.
They watched TV for a couple of hours, watching people buy houses at auction for jaw-dropping sums of money and then spending a few thousand more on renovating and redecorating them, under the periodic scrutiny of a camera crew.
Christmas for Legsy had always started, not at the moment he got to Lydia and Dai’s house but when his sister and her family arrived, and they never failed to arrive at 4:30 on the nose.
He got up to get the door for them at twenty-nine minutes past, and grinned as Amy’s car—always a new one, sleek and showroom-clean, paid for but never purchased—slid up outside the tiny terrace house their parents lived in.
Amy Jones was his twin, the older by about half an hour, and the person he loved second-most in all the world. Just like him, physically and in personality she was everything their parents weren’t, albeit she’d taken after their mother in the height department.
She was exclaiming her astonishment even before she’d got out of the car. “Oh my days! Oh my—look at—you’re huge!”
They exchanged a massive hug. “You should see some of the lads. I’m one of the small ones.” he told her, then gave an equally welcoming hug to Amy’s husband, Robert.
Amy and Robert had met through work, having both taken the same six month contract for a debt management firm in Bristol before going into business together. They’d once tried to explain to Legsy exactly what it was they did, but it had mostly seemed to involve phone calls, spreadsheets and knowing everybody who lived within twenty miles of the M4 and who earned more than three hundred thousand pounds a year. It paid well, whatever it was.
“You leave Abby with your folks then?” he asked Robert, referring to the person who held the number one slot for his most-loved person in the whole world.
Robert nodded, a little sheepishly.
“School complained about some of the language she picked up last time.” he explained.
“Yeah, I thought that might happen…” little Abigail had been much too enthusiastic about it when she’d learned the word ‘fuck’ off her maternal grandmother. “You mind if I pop up and see her after?”
“It wouldn’t be Christmas if you didn’t get to, would it?” Amy said, understanding. “Come on, let’s get this out the way…”
For all her failings, Lydia Jones was at least acutely aware that her culinary talents extended to oven chips, microwave dinners and ordering takeaway, so every year she saved up to have a hot Christmas dinner delivered instead. James and Amy had both been offering to cover that expense for years, but—as with the house that Amy and Robert had offered to buy for them—Lydia and Dai had been too stubborn and proud to accept.
Still, it was a good Christmas dinner, even if the table conversation was basically nonexistent.
It was barely eight o’ clock by the time the gifts had been exchanged and opened, and they had departed, with Legsy finding himself surprisingly comfortable in the back seat of Amy’s car and sporting a new T-shirt that Dai had had custom-printed, which showed an astronaut with a gun and a red dragon on his spacesuit, and the legend “Mab Cymru, Milwr y Gofod”.
It was, in Legsy’s own words, a “fuckin’ cool shirt” and he had promptly exclaimed “tidy!” and changed into it on the spot, leaving the family to exchange wide-eyed glances at his new musculature.
“So…why are you so big now?” Amy asked, once they had taken the right turn at Felinfoel to take them towards the motorway.
“I need to be.”
“I thought astronauts would all be small.” Amy replied.
“Astronauts, yeah. Maybe? I’m not an astronaut, I’m still a soldier.” Legsy pointed out.
“But you’ll be wearing a spacesuit.” Robert said.
“Yeah, but astronauts don’t have to run and fight in their spacesuit, do they?”
“So you’re not even the biggest?” Amy asked.
“Nope. That’d be Adam, and THAT boy’s a fuckin’ legend.”
“Legend how?” Robert turned in his seat slightly to look back. Amy was always the driver—Robert had never learned how.
“E’s from San Diego, ‘im and ‘is missus.” Legsy explained. “I swear, they lost everything, right? But he’s in the SOR with me, and she’s off becoming a journalist and…to be fair, she’s a fuckin’ legend too. I don’t know HOW she puts up with ‘im sometimes.”
“I’d trust Adam with my life, wouldn’t even have to think about it.” Legsy said. “He’s about the smartest bloke in the unit, too. But he’s a fuckin’ IDIOT when it comes to his girl.”
“Like you’re an expert on relationships.” Amy teased.
“Oi, that’s by choice.” Legsy retorted. “But serious now, if he wasn’t so good about writing her every chance he gets, she’d never hear from ‘im.”
“Well have you talked to him about it?”
“Tried to. He always just nods and tries harder for a week or two – takes some leave to go visit her or something like that—an’ then he falls right back into it, right?” Legsy shook his head. “It’s like…that’s part of the reason I admire ‘im so much, he’s a fuckin’ machine in training, he’s dedicated to gettin’ stronger an’ faster an’ smarter, an’ he could carry TWO of me by now I reckon. But I dunno if that’ll keep up if she finally gets sick of ‘im . I dunno WHAT’d happen to ‘im if he lost her.”
He sat back and rubbed his chin, and looked out as rolling south Welsh hills swelled into view out the right window as the car climbed a hill. “I guess we just have to hope she doesn’t.”
Date Point: New Year’s Eve, 7y 11m AV
London, England, Earth
Two weeks of Christmas should have been two weeks of topping up on Adam, keeping things going, generally performing maintenance on the relationship. His occasional leave breaks were nice and all, but…
Instead it had been an echo of last year. Mind-blowing sex on the first day, then gym gym gym.
He’d tried to include her, and sure they’d been spending time together…but what kind of a vacation consisted of busting your back in the weight room all day for ten days, interspersed with regimented, pre-prepared meals that were fifty percent supplement pills? Ava enjoyed exercise, and she was definitely proud of herself for burning off some fat and toning up during those two weeks, but come on. Where was the romance? The gym wasn’t a date!
She’d been seething gently about it the whole time, determined not to ruin Adam’s mood by yelling at him again. A bit of a white lie maybe, but those never hurt anyone, right?
All that negative mental energy hadn’t made for a happy flight back to London. Journey times were coming down and down as the new mesosphere airliners, nicknamed “spacekissers”, set ever-higher altitude records and achieved ever-greater multiples of Mach for fractions of the expense of older planes, but flying was still an industrial, uncomfortable mode of transport. The marriage of fuel-less thrusters, ultracapacitors and forcefield flight surfaces had hugely curtailed ticket prices, but the airports hadn’t grown any larger, nor were new ones being built. More people than ever wanted to travel, but nobody wanted the extra noise pollution and traffic, so the number of runways in the world wasn’t increasing and most of them were already at capacity.
Which meant that flying still involved too-small seats in cramped metal tubes shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, plus the usual ritual of going through border control, baggage collect and customs at the end before Ava was finally able to vanish onto the Underground and emerge two hours and one change later at street level, sweaty, exhausted and jet-lagged, to find that London was being characteristically chilly, grey and dispiriting.
By the time she’d dragged her luggage through every puddle between the tube station and Sean’s house, she’d given up on feeling much of anything positive.
Sean’s house changed that. It was an oasis of light, music and warmth, gearing up for the night’s New Year celebration. Via the plane’s satellite Internet connection, Ava had been involved in the discussion as they had toyed with the idea of going into the city and enjoying the fireworks over the Thames, but the relentless wetness in the air had clearly settled in for the long haul, so they instead elected to stay home in the warm and dry, with an assortment of alcohol, treats and the Christmas decorations still up.
She was welcomed with cheers, hugs, a big kiss on both cheeks from an inebriated Charlotte who was wearing a pointy hat made of newspaper, and something magenta and fruit-flavoured in a bottle from Sean.
Charlotte and Ben being in charge of the party snacks in the oven, their welcome was by necessity brief, and Sean watched Ava with a faint smile as she leaned against the wall and downed half the bottle with an enormous sigh.
“That bad?” he asked.
“I really need a shower.” she nodded.
“Go on upstairs, you know where it is. I’ll get the kettle on then bring your luggage up for you.”
Ava finished her drink, set the bottle down on Sean’s coffee table, and then trotted upstairs, already unbuttoning her jeans before she even reached the bathroom door. She’d used Sean’s shower a few times before, and getting it to the perfect temperature was as simple as twisting the dial two and a half turns and waiting about five seconds.
She used those five seconds ripping off every last sweaty, travel-soiled scrap of clothing she had on her, and took up position under the stream with a grateful sigh.
The heat was just starting to really soak deliciously into her muscles when there was a knock on the door. “Are…You already showering?”
“Come on in, Sean.”
”…Are you sure?”
Ava rolled her eyes to herself. The shower curtain was entirely opaque, what the hell was he so afraid of? “Come in.” she repeated, and leaned back to soak her hair.
“I’ll just…” She heard him wheel her bag in and leave it next to her discarded clothes before turning to leave.
“Come on, man, I haven’t seen you in a fortnight!” Ava protested. “Did you get that money yet?”
Just before she’d left, Sean had won seven thousand pounds on a premium bond that his grandfather had got for him fifteen years previously.
“Oh, uh…yeah. Yeah, it’s all come in. I was thinking of doing up the house a bit.”
“Well I mean…It’s kind of old-ladyish in here, isn’t it? I loved my Nanna but it’s not really a young man’s house, is it?”
“True. Got any ideas?”
“I had, um…” he cleared his throat and started over. “I had a few. Thought I’d have the wall out, make the kitchen and the lounge open plan. Get some tiles in the kitchen instead of lino…”
“Sounds good.” Ava agreed. She smiled as she heard Sean mutter something under his breath that sounded like it might have been a ‘what the hell’ and the sound of him closing the toilet lid and sitting on it. “Place could do with some strong reds and greys.”
“Your sense of interior decoration is stuck in the middle of last decade.” Sean commented.
“What? I like red.”
“No strong colours, duck. They are Of The Devil.” Sean snorted, but Ava stuck her head around the curtain to give him a patient look.
Sean cleared his throat and looked away. “Only, like…a little.”
Ava snorted and dropped the curtain back so she could soap up and rinse off.
Sean clearly thought he was being quiet when he muttered ‘this is so weird…‘
“What?” Sean asked, guiltily.
“Why’s it weird? We’re just talking.”
“Yeah, but, you’re…”
Ava sighed, and looked around the curtain again. “Sean, you know the three things I miss the most about how Cimbrean used to be?”
“What?” he asked, making a commendable effort to maintain eye contact.
“My house, my friend Sara, and skinny-dipping in the lake.” She said. Sean cleared his throat and fidgeted on his seat, sitting further forward. “Y’know, when Sara first invited us to try it, I did exactly what you’re doing now, I got weird about it. But you know what? A body’s not a big deal.”
She put the curtain back in place and began to shampoo. “Besides, it’s not like you can see anything right now, can you?”
“Well, no, but-”
“Then it’s no different to if I was standing here clothed, is it?”
”…How was Cimbrean, anyway?” Sean asked, abandoning ship on that line of conversation.
“It was…” Ava sighed. “I’m getting used to how fast things change, but it’s still tough to really get your head around just how different things can be just one year apart. You know they’re talking about building the tallest man-made building ever in Folctha now?”
“Yeah! Not for years yet, but when they do—if they do—it’ll be a third taller than what’s even possible here on Earth.”
“What the hell do they need a building like that for?” Sean asked.
“Why does anywhere need a building like that?” Ava asked rhetorically. “but Folctha’s booming!” she continued, rinsing the shampoo out. “The cost of living out there’s getting cheaper by the week and I guess it turns out that people want to try living on another planet.”
She looked around the curtain again. “Hell, we did. Hand me a towel?”
Sean did so, opening a cupboard to retrieve a huge black bath towel which he handed to her with a kind of forced nonchalance that suggested he was trying to get used to the situation. She just rolled her eyes again, retreated behind the shower curtain and wrapped herself up in it before stepping out of the shower to sit down on the edge of the bath. “You know, girls need more than one towel.” she said.
“Huh? What for?”
“One for this,” She indicated the one wrapped around her torso “One for the hair,” she lifted the dripping weight of it with her thumb “…and one for drying off.”
“Can’t you just use the one?”
“Sure, if you’re cool with me sitting here bare-ass while my hair dries.” she teased.
“What, the nudist is squeamish about that?” Sean teased right back, finally regaining his usual confidence though he opened the cupboard again and pulled out a couple more towels for her.
“Sorry buddy. I don’t think I’m a nudist exactly, but I know I’m not a stripper.”
“Ah, I knew you were all talk and no walk.” Sean grinned as he sat down on the toilet lid again, plainly not serious.
“It’s not that, come on.” she objected. “It’s just that there’s a time and a place, you know? If we were swimming in the lake or we were at the beach or…in a sauna or something, y’know, then swimsuits don’t actually make a whole lot of sense. But I’m not going to just strip off around you in your bathroom, that’d just be…”
She tailed off in search of the right word, and Sean nodded his understanding. “Well…yeah. You’ve got Adam.”
Her mood deflated instantly, like it had so many times in the preceding week. Where Adam hadn’t noticed, however, Sean did. “…what happened?”
Ava didn’t answer at first, she just wrapped her hair up in a towel turban and dried her arms and legs off, wondering how to answer.
”…Sometimes…sometimes I feel like I’m…” She exhaled and tried again. “Adam’s got this mission of his. And, you know what? It’s a good one. He wants to save people, stop anything like the San Diego blast from happening again. I’m…He’s my fucking hero, Sean. And I’m, like…Lois Lane.”
“So…” she sighed. “…Sometimes I feel like he doesn’t love me.”
“No, I know he does love me. I know that. It’s just…he never…He doesn’t…” She trailed off helplessly. “You know?”
Sean blinked a bit, looked down, then hugged her, hard.
It wasn’t a big strong Adam bear-hug like she’d grown used to. It was the hug she needed, a caring one full of real concern and upset for her. She didn’t second-guess herself—she just returned it, and they just stood there for a while, rocking gently in the middle of the room.
“I uh…I have a new year’s resolution I was going to make.” Sean eventually told her, murmuring quietly in her ear.
“I…resolved that I was going to tell you about the huge crush I have on you.”
“Oh, Sean…” She let go and sat down again. “Don’t ask me to-”
“I’m not.” he interrupted. “We just needed that out in the open, because I think you need to hear some harsh truths and I don’t want you thinking I’m trying to…Look, the point is, you need some honesty right now, okay?”
He sat on the edge of the bathtub. “Your relationship with Adam is making you miserable, and it’s…it’s hard to see.” he said. “The moment he shows up he’s all you’ll even look at, every conversation seems to come back to him at some point, but every week there’s some new thing he’s done, or said, or not done or said, that’s making you feel neglected and, it’s not just me,” he waved his hand in the general direction of downstairs. “It breaks Charlotte’s heart, and Ben’s, it hurts all of us to see. We care about you, and it’s really hard to see you being hurt.”
Ava just nodded, staring at the ground between her feet.
“What are you getting out of him?” Sean asked.
Ava took a deep, thoughtful breath, and didn’t answer for a long while.
“Did…I ever tell you about Sara?” she asked.
“I know she was your friend.” Sean replied. “And you…witnessed her…”
“She was fourteen when she died.” Ava’s voice was quiet, and sad. She screwed her eyes shut, wiped a tear out of the way and composed herself. “She was so sweet, and so…she had wisdom I didn’t have, about how to be comfortable in your own skin and…and how to enjoy life in the moment. And she died because she didn’t understand something that Adam and I both learned from what happened to home.”
She shrugged. “God isn’t there to hold your hand. He’s not there to…to bail you out of a tough spot or send a guardian angel or any of that stupid Facebook frilly frou-frou bullshit. Okay? He’s fair like that. Young, old, innocent or a fucking monster, he treats everyone exactly the same, because this life…how could we learn anything, how could we become better souls if He just coddled us all the time?”
“I don’t believe in-”
“I know you don’t, I’m making a point here.” Ava snapped. “God, the universe whatever. The point is, the only way shit like what happened to Sara is going to never happen again is if we take charge, if we go out there and make the world better.”
She gestured to her camera, placed safely at the far end of the room from the shower. “That’s why I’m studying journalism, and that’s why Adam’s in the SOR. Because we’ve been jerked around, we have lost people, and if there’s no guardian angel coming, then we have to become guardian angels.”
Sean nodded uncertainly. “But why do you have to put yourself through this?” he asked.
“Because I’m *Adam’*s angel. Because I really believe he couldn’t do this without me. H-he takes me for granted because he knows I’ve got his back come what may.”
“Even if it makes you miserable.”
“Haven’t you been listening?” Ava surged to her feet. “I don’t CARE if it makes me miserable. It’s all for something bigger than any of us. It’s all for, for them! For everybody!” she flailed an arm at the wall, gesturing towards the whole galaxy and every living thing within it.
“Sounds like you didn’t listen to Sara.” Sean said. Ava paused, so he fired the second barrel. “You’ll do more good for everyone—Adam included—if you’re happy in yourself, Ava.”
She opened her mouth, then shut it again and frowned, fidgeting anxiously with her hands as if by moving them at random she might suddenly come up with an answer to that.
Sean’s chin and the corners of his mouth twitched upwards sadly. “I’ll let you get changed.” he said.
Ava smiled weakly at him and managed to croak out a reply. “Sure.”
He left her to her thoughts, retreating from the room without further comment.
Five minutes later she went downstairs wearing her favourite of Adam’s old t-shirts, which was now far too small for him…but she sat next to Sean, set aside the questions he’d raised, and tried to enjoy herself.