by Himawari (ヒマワリ)
illustrated by EMINA
Cameron Darling figured it was high time he went out for a drink.
Sixteen months and three days without Sophia, now, Cameron thought as he got into a tram car toward colony center. Sixteen months, three days, and two hours, if he was specific, and yes, he could still quickly do the math in his head. Sixteen months, three days, and two hours since the phone call at the office, the panicked trip to the hospital, only to be told that no, the subarachnoid hemorrhage had been so severe that there was nothing anyone could do, and that Sophia was dead, that his wife had gasped and fallen to the floor in her office at the house and died before she arrived at the hospital.
He was deafened, as if by an explosion, those first few days. There was the ringing, rushing noise in his head and the inability to hear other people; there was being alone with only the question of what would he do now, what could he do now, without Sophia. It was if he’d forgotten how to breathe on his own, let alone how to think or sleep. At least he’d had friends had showed up to do some of the thinking for him, staff to keep up their daily work, and Acton.
Their little boy had been four and a half when Sophia da Silva had died, when Cameron had had to tell him that his mamãe‘s body had stopped working and that she would not be back. Acton had taken it somberly, asking questions to confirm that his mother was no longer going to be there to take him to the park with daddy, or to eat fruit and toast with him in the mornings, or to sing their favorite song to him at bedtime. He nodded seriously at the answers. Cameron had answered as best he could, through the roaring in his ears, and held his boy gently while they talked, even though he couldn’t quite bear to look at Acton’s wide blue eyes. He’d focused on his son’s mouth speaking, on his son’s wavy brown curls–how like Sophia’s–and on his son’s questions. Then friends had intervened and taken Acton off to play, to give both father and son something else to think about, at least for a little while. Cameron wasn’t even sure which friends that had been, of the small crowd of closest confidantes that had gathered in the house that night.
The new structure of their lives was not in the sleeping, eating, and work or school, but in the hollowness that every activity held. The house was quieter without Sophia’s singing in the morning and lively production meetings in her office suite, without her urging Acton to finish his juice and then walking him to jardim, without talking to her late into the night about her latest films and his newest contracts. They thought they’d have decades to do it, Cameron thought. This evening, Cameron had gone home to eat dinner with his son and help him brush his teeth, and had then let the night nanny take over. He’d intended to do a full review of the plan for lifting his sail ship, the Rhea Silvia, into orbit the next day, and for the first unfurl test, but sitting in his office across from Sophia’s empty one was just too lonely.
The tram lurched to a stop at Musk Avenue, and Cameron got out into the neon lights of evening in Mars colony center, glancing around himself for paparazzi. The hypercamera photographers had never followed him around as much as they had Sophia. There were fewer on Mars, anyway, than there had been on the Moon where she had been a giant of the hyperfilm industry before he’d ever met her. After Sophia’s death, the cameras had stopped following him altogether, but Cameron wasn’t naive enough to think that it was out of sensitivity; it was because of his distant expression and the same dark clothing every day. Widowers didn’t sell well to tabloids. So it was that he could slip into an old favorite club, one that wasn’t very seemly for the head of Darling Systems Interplanetary to be seen in, without being noticed.
From an unseen booth, a DJ pumped out too-loud music, and people crowded the bars for drinks. Dancers ground on the dance floor and on risers around the room. In the flailing of the crowd and flashing of enormous holographic orbs and sprays of color above them, sometimes it was hard to tell who was a hired go-go and who was an enthusiastic patron. Cameron ordered a single malt, neat, and while he waited he watched a bearded, shirtless man in chunky platform boots clamber up onto a riser to dance with abandon. The man wore a sparkly tube bead on his marker bracelet indicating pangender interest. There was a time when he would have been that kid or been trying to pick up that kid, Cameron thought. He’d have been out with friends and high on the end of the work week, possibly also high on other stuff. Weekends were for being a little crazy and maybe hooking up, before buckling back down to work.
Cameron sat down at a table. The weeknight crowd revelled in everything from work attire to sarongs to shirtlessness, and bare chests of various genders were on display. How long had it been since his crazy days? Cameron wasn’t sure, but it was definitely before he had met Sophia. There had been a time before the company was so big that he had to behave with more propriety than the partying start-up jockeys. Then, he could bring a bunch of friends for bottle service and semi-anonymous gropes, and take someone home if it was a good night.
He tried not to catch anyone’s eye, because he knew how this worked. He wasn’t ready for that, not right now; he wasn’t looking. Cameron wasn’t sure if he’d ever want to make contact again, or want to put on a marker and advertise either. He wasn’t even wearing a bracelet to advertise his kinks, wasn’t even sure where his old one was anymore. He still wore his wedding ring.
He and Sophia had worked, he reflected, because they were both so consumed by their work, and so good at managing public perception, but so tired of the party friends and easy lovers. They’d blown relationships due to workaholism, before they met, both with very nice men who probably would have suited each other very well. They should probably have introduced them, but they’d never got around to it, never expecting their time would be so short.
Cameron was startled by a firm hand on his shoulder and realized that he’d made eye contact with someone without even noticing. Very tall man, angular face, dark curls, dress pants. The man asked something that Cameron didn’t catch, but which he assumed was your typical chat-up line. Cameron shook his head confusedly, still coming back to himself. The stranger’s hand was still on his shoulder, a striped pattern of dark and light beads visible at his wrist. So, into men, then, and into topping, Cameron thought, even as his chest tightened.
The man said, then, more clearly, “Did I get the wrong impression? Sorry to disturb you, mate, you were looking and I just… ”
“No, no… I’m sorry,” Cameron stammered, “You… look like someone I know, and… I’m sorry.”
“Suit yourself, no worries,” the man said, took his hand away, and then turned to walk away.
Cameron finished his drink in a single, long swallow and got up to leave.
The mobile chimed as Cameron sat down on a tram toward home. He pulled it out to see a message from Paulo, the night nanny: Acton had a bad dream. Reading to him for a while. He asked if you will check in on him when you come home. Sorry to bother you this late.
Cameron wrote back, No problem at all, home shortly. Tell Acton that, if he is still awake? Thanks.
Cameron let himself into the house and put away his jacket and shoes. Acton’s bedroom was in the north wing of the upstairs. Cameron shuffled in quietly, to find Paulo in the rocking chair reading aloud: a book on early space flight. Acton’s eyes were open, but drooping, as he sat up in bed. Paulo paused and acknowledged Cameron with a nod.
“Hey, Acton.” Cameron sat down on the bed, and put an arm around his son, who leaned into his side. “Want Paulo to keep reading, or should I take over?” The child looked as tired as Cameron felt. As much as he wanted to be there for his son, he had his own big day tomorrow.
“Nah, dad, we were just keeping busy until you got home. I don’t wanna go to sleep again yet.” Acton’s six-year-old voice was full of certainty. Oh dear.
“I’m here now. Let’s thank Paulo, and I’ll stick around until you can sleep again. Okay?”
“Okay,” the little boy murmured, his cheek against Cameron’s side. “Thank you, Paulo.”
“You’re very welcome, both of you. Good night.” Paulo smiled and put the book down, and retreated back to his room.
“So, what happened? Chased by bears again?”
“Nope.” Acton yawned and put on his most over-the-top serious face. “Tigers this time, dad, the white ones.”
“Ooh, Siberian tigers, only the best rare species for my boy!”
“Absolutely.” Acton took a deep breath, honestly serious now. “Actually, I dreamed I was looking everywhere for you and mamãe, and I couldn’t find you. Then I woke up and I felt better. And then I felt bad because I miss mamãe.” He squeezed his father tighter.
Cameron squeezed his shoulder. “That doesn’t sound like fun.” He paused, and Acton leaned harder into him. “But it was just a dream, you know. You’re awake now, and I’m here, and you’re okay.”
“Yeah,” Acton said, and then was interrupted by his own yawn. “I know.”
“It’s okay to be glad I’m here, even though you miss your mother. You know when you call I’ll always come back to you as soon as I can, right?”
“Yeah, dad, I know.” They sat together in silence for a while. “Dad? Did you go on a date tonight?”
Cameron blinked in surprise. Then he looked down and ruffled Acton’s curly hair. “What? No, I went out by myself. What gave you that idea?”
“I just wanted to tell you… ” Acton wriggled upright, and looked into Cameron’s eyes. The child had Sophia’s curls and Cameron’s eyes, and Cameron was so glad right now that he could see both features in his son. “I wanted to tell you that it’s okay if you go on dates, I don’t mind.”
That was not how he’d expected this conversation to go. Cameron blinked and struggled for something to say. “What brought this on?”
“Well,” Acton was fiddling with the hem of the blanket in his lap. “Kimmie was saying she didn’t want her mom to date anyone, now that her dad isn’t around. And I said that wasn’t fair, because I miss mamãe and you miss mamãe and that’s fine, but loving someone and missing someone doesn’t mean you can’t love someone else, you know, and have dates and kissing and all that stuff.”
Cameron pursed his lips, still searching for the right words. Every time he thought he knew how observant Acton was, the kid surprised him again. “Well,” he said slowly,” I think you’re right. It’s okay to miss someone you love and to love someone else, you know, in a dates-and-kissing kind of way.” He paused. “But it’s okay to not feel ready for a mom or dad to date, too.”
“Oh. I didn’t think about that,” Acton said, sounding more uncertain now.
“That’s okay. What did Kimmie say when you told her that?”
“She said no, it wasn’t.” Acton frowned. “I just thought that what she said wasn’t fair.”
“Maybe it’s not a question of fair, it’s more about what people are ready for. You’re ready for something Kimmie isn’t ready for. That’s okay.”
The little boy thought about that for a few moments. “Yeah, I guess so,” he said, leaning his head against his dad’s shoulder again, threading his arms around Cameron’s chest. “I miss mamãe so much. I don’t feel like there’s room in my heart because I miss her so much. But I want you to be happy.” He turned to press his cheek against Cameron’s shirt.
Cameron clasped his hands together over his son’s shoulder. “That’s okay, Acton. Tonight when I was out, someone came up to me and asked me on a date.” Cameron felt his son go very still. “I told him, ‘No, thank you,’ because I realized that I wasn’t ready to go on a date,” Cameron said, and Acton relaxed under his arms. The boy gave a little sigh. “I didn’t think he was right for me. But I might be ready for the right person. They’ll have to be really nice understand that I have the most awesome son ever.”
Acton giggled and hugged his father tighter. “Aww, dad, I love you too.”
“Let’s sleep on it and talk about it some more later, okay?”
Acton yawned. “Yeah, dad.” The little boy wormed out of his father’s grasp and scooted back under the covers, pulling them up to his neck. He settled his head on the pillow. “Thanks.” He reached out to take his father’s hand, and closed his eyes. Cameron sat very still and watched his son gradually relax back into sleep, and felt less lonely than he had all evening.
Cameron arrived at the train yard early. The crew was already loading the sail package, a hexagonal prism wrapped in sheeting and strapping, onto the morning maglev out to Olympus Mons lift center. His staff had a car toward the front of the train, so once he saw that the loading was going well, Cameron slipped into the well-appointed office car for coffee and some reading.
The solar sail project would test a single-crew system for rapid movement of materials between mars and its moons. Craft powered by a large sail and the miniscule pressure of the solar wind could be–would be, Cameron was certain–more flexible than mass catchers or manned shuttles. They could be more agile than systems where it took a huge load of cargo to make the run worth the fuel. Mars media channels had decried the test as Cameron Darling’s quixotic pet project, and his intention to pilot a test run himself as a reckless stunt. Nevertheless, potential clients on Mars and at the DeimosOne manufacturing sites had been vocal in their interest. “A modern day Pony Express driven by the sun,” Cameron liked to call it in press conferences. That it also had lucrative applications for longer distance sail racing, a sport that could draw the rich and famous to Mars for competitions, was a bonus. Best of all, it was the chance to show off the orbital lift tether system on the slopes of Olympus Mons.
He settled at the worktable, tilting one of the inset work screens toward him, and started to read through the last version of the lift protocols and unfolding protocol. He set a simulation of the sail unfolding on a loop while he annotated more of the static documents, but found himself gazing at it more and more, mesmerized as the simulated sunlight shimmered across the thin film surfaces as the hexagonal shield rotated into its fully open state, then crumpled back up into hexagonal box fold for transport.
Presently the chimes sounded from speakers set into the ceiling of the train car. The conductor came on, estimating a three-hour transit time to Olympus Mons lift station, and describing the safety features of the train. All cars would slowly convert to a safe breathing gas mixture and lower pressure for high altitude, to reduce the risk of sickness. Emergency breathing gas equipment was contained in overhead bins at the middle and at the ends of each car, for emergency and for assisting anyone who experienced difficulties with altitude.
The conductor handed over the microphone to a steward who went through the breathing gas usage, high altitude suit usage, and other safety instructions. Finally, the train began to move, going slowly through the final tunnels to the airlock at the edge of the colony, and then with a pause and a hiss, outside and up to cruising speed. Bland rusty dust blurred as the train sped up a ramp built onto the edge of the Olympus Mons volcanic shield.
“Morning,” Olin Dorade grunted, surprising Cameron out of his daydreaming. He slumped into the room, mug in one hand and a satchel over his other shoulder. Olin’s gait was a shuffling limp favoring his right leg, but it gave his movements a look of deliberation rather than awkwardness. He was large and broad-chested, with graying waves of hair tucked behind his ears and bits of fur poking out at his cuffs and collar.
“Morning,” Cameron replied, disinclined to speak much himself, but he half-rose to give a handshake once Olin’s belongings were safely set down. Olin had a vise of a grip, and Cameron loved to try to meet it head-on, though he didn’t have the muscle mass to back it up. Olin hadn’t broken his hand yet, in all their years of working together.
“Now ignore me until I’m done with my coffee,” Olin commanded. He sat down at another section of the worktable and tilted a screen toward him, calling up documents as he took a sip from his mug. They settled into a comfortable quiet of poking at screens and breathing in the vapor from their cups in the slight chill of the office car.
Cameron had known the sail designer for years, since their crazy startup days. Olin had gotten his start on modular antennas for satellite and space outpost applications and the mass catcher nets for the gargantuan mass barges Darling Systems Interplanetary had pioneered to transport material between Moon and Mars for colony-building first, and later commercial shipping. Anything that needed to fold up for safe transport and then unfurl in space was fair game for Olin’s genius, and he had outdone himself on the sail design. Better still, he was the most hard-headed design leader at DSI, insisting that no corners be cut on construction methods or maintenance schedules, no matter which vice president or wealthy client leaned on him. He would growl right back at them when pressed, no matter the prestige involved. He was a man who insisted that his craft be solid and resilient, and Cameron loved him for it. There was nobody else Cameron would have preferred to be capsule communicator, or CAPCOM, on the test flight.
Olin took very calculated risks for his creations in every stage from early design to doing his own testing, and bore a slight shuffling limp from a badly broken leg he sustained after bailing out in a re-entry suit during one of his early atmospheric braking tests. It was a type of human testing that had been replaced with unmanned procedure tests, in the years since, but data collected during Olin’s early airbrake shots were still used to set parameters for new airbrake designs. While the sails were an entirely different sort of craft, Olin’s understanding of attitude control dynamics, atmospheric and space conditions, and manned re-entry were unparalleled and won through hard experience.
After a while, Olin cleared his throat and set his mug aside. “How’s Acton? Excited for the launch?”
“The boy reads about space flight for fun. I keep telling him to branch out, try other things, but he’s taking to the family business.”
Olin smiled. “I bet it suits him. My girls are amazing, but sometimes I do wish one of them had been an aeronautics gearhead like me.”
Olin’s girls–young women, now–were both excellent in their fields, one of them a material science specialist fabricating new compounds from Mars ores, the other a design specialist with the colony habitat authority. They talked about Keshia’s plans to go back for another design degree, and Ella Marija’s new assistant directorship at her fabrication center. Her center had made the custom photovoltaic films for the sail, and soon the conversation had drifted to the final power predictions for the test shot, which was what they were meant to be doing.
Cameron moved to a window as the lift tower became visible in the overhead windows of the train car. The tower vanished into clouds that were hung on the mountain, but the wind would move them along soon. Their train slowed down to pull alongside the Olympus Mons lift station, one side easing into the airlock connectors to the communications center, the other accessible to thin Mars atmosphere and the lift. The transport crew was already waiting on the siding with a power fork for the sail package. Cameron looked up the lift matrix above them, toward orbit. The lift matrix was made of carbon nanofiber, a fractally complex structure of microscopic tubules reinforcing minuscule tubules reinforcing more and more massive ones, to make the tether a complex web stretching into the sky. The far end of the matrix vanished into the dark blue thermosphere above. Even the smallest strands of the lift matrix were incredibly strong, built on-site by a crawling fabricator that stood on lower holes in the matrix while building the layers above it. The cargo lift system had a similar design, a donut-shaped lift compartment straddling the matrix and rolling itself up with enormous treads that pressed into the matrix holes. Portable ramps were shoved up against the sides of the lift, the doors wide open and smaller cargo already loaded to counterbalance the weight of the sail package and the crew capsule.
Olin tapped Cameron on the shoulder, rousing him from watching their progress. “Come on, chief, time to go talk to your adoring press.”
Cameron rolled his eyes. “My nabobs of negativism, you mean, they’re going to run me through the wringer again over the possibility of re-entry damage and radiation shielding again. I wouldn’t be flying the thing if I didn’t think it was safe!”
Olin huffed with amusement. “You’ll manage. You can answer anything they ask and then wrap them around your little finger.”
“I do not,” Cameron fussed, following Olin toward the inside doors.
Communication center staff were holding the press back to a cordon to the left of the train exit, but just barely. “Mr. Darling! A few questions, Mr. Darling? Mr. Darling!” With one last wry smile at Olin, Cameron nodded to the staff and put on his best boardroom swagger.
He approached the journalists, and held up his hands. “Easy there, everybody gets a swing. Okay, who’s first? Mars One Business, what do you want to know?”
The rest of the cargo loading went fine, though Cameron was so busy with the press that he missed most of it. The sail package was secured in the hold of the lift vehicle, the two pieces of the capsule spaced out around the toroidal hold to balance the weight. These were the largest pieces of payload for this lift trip, and smaller equipment containers were secured to the floor of the lift vehicle around the larger items, weight balanced perfectly around the ring.
Darling Systems Interplanetary’s orbital lift system was an automated and remotely operated method of delivering payload to orbit. The massive crawler treads would roll up the fractal nanocarbon fiber tower, slowly lifting up to forty-six thousand kilograms of cargo the seventeen thousand kilometers to areostationary orbit over four days. Power contacts for the lift system traveled down the center of the lift matrix, providing sunlight from a massive solar power array on the counterbalance atop the orbital Terminus. The payload would be met at the top by crew in the orbital Terminus of the lift tower. Modular crew capsules could replace some cargo on some missions, carrying human staff safely to orbit or back, but this run was to be crewless. For most purposes it was better to bring crew up on a faster spaceplane run rather than have them spend four days lurching slowly up to space, but the lift was a useful slow travel method or emergency evacuation system.
The lift was far slower than some futurists had predicted space elevators might eventually be. It still took Cameron’s breath away to watch it slowly inch upward on the tower, lifting heavy cargo up through the thin atmosphere and away into space. The clouds had blown away and the sun streamed down on the tower and the massive volcanic rise behind it.
Planning continued while the Rhea Silvia was traveling to orbit. The entire way back to the colony train yard Olin and Cameron went over all three of their planned trajectories for the first flight. The test plan was to fly the sail ship from the orbital tower to sling around Phobos and come back to the tower. Phobos orbited lower than areostationary orbit distance from the planet’s surface. It was a short test that would require careful use of Phobos’ weak gravity to get the craft lower into atmosphere than the tower and then acceleration from swinging around Phobos to shoot back up to tower. There were a number of different launch windows, a little less than eight hours apart, when a craft could catch up to Phobos as it passed by to the south of the tower. Launch was a misnomer; the sail ship would get a shove to get started, and then sail around the tiny moon and back.
Late on the third day of the sail’s climb to orbit, Olin called Cameron at home. “Bad news,” he said.
“Tell me,” Cameron responded flatly. He was already antsy enough, and trying not to let it distract him from his work. Test shot or not, the proposal for an orbital mass catcher wasn’t going to prepare itself.
“Lift’s jammed,” Olin continued. “You’re going to see it on the news shortly, the lift team is going to give a news update in about twenty minutes.”
“How far from the top is it?” Cameron turned on an extra screen in his office, searching for the lift center feed.
“Goddammit,” Cameron swore. “How bad’s the distortion so far?” The lift speed was modified based on time of day and other factors, to minimize strain on the matrix, but it never stopped moving. The longer a load stayed in one spot, the more the load would pull to the west, pulling the lift matrix with it and exerting additional load on the matrix and the orbital station. Olin quoted him a number. It wasn’t too high yet, but it wouldn’t take long. Too much Coriolis force pull on the lift matrix was more likely to cause damage where it attached to the orbital end of the tether than to the planetary end, but either was a risk, and so was the possibility of damage at the point of load.
“Okay. What do we do? Goddammit, we don’t need this.”
“We have some options, Cameron, just let me go over them. I think we’ve got this.” Olin’s voice was reassuring at the other end, calm and competent and in control. “The terminal crew has already done some simulations, and they think that we should start by rocking the lifters.” This was a process of applying short bursts of force to first one set of lifters than the other, instead of applying the usual balanced drive force. It had a chance of freeing a stuck tread, as long as it wasn’t overdone.
“That sounds fine, go on.”
“If that doesn’t work, they want to fire a couple of boosters up from the bottom and see if they can jog it up that way, or at least jog it enough that rocking the lifters will work.” This was a slightly riskier move, because it involved shooting probes up from the ground terminal, small and specialized craft that could attach to the bottom of the payload compartment and provide an extra push to help stuck crawlers come loose. They were difficult to deploy when the compartment was this far toward orbit, and Cameron understood why they were being recommended as the second option.
“They’ve run simulations on that too?”
“Yes. They’re less likely to work and a little more likely to make things worse, but they may also make a second attempt at rocking the lifters work.” Olin was settling into the question and answer of the Flight Control Center: there was a reason he was CAPCOM for the flight part of the program, and he was functioning as a relay to Cameron during the lift segment. “So that’s the plan, and if those don’t work we go up there and EVA down. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but if it does we need to be in orbit, so we’re going to have to leave ASAP for the launch site. I’m bringing a car to you in twenty minutes.” That wasn’t a question.
Cameron looked at his desk and his screens. “I’m packed. I’ll be ready sooner.”
“Right, see you,” Olin said, and closed the call abruptly. Cameron rolled his eyes; Olin did that sometimes when he had a lot on his mind.
Cameron set his workspace to shut down, and went to the north wing. Acton was standing on the rug in his room, building a tower with his construction set. It was already up past his waist, the cross-bracing climbing into the air like a miniature version of the lift matrix. “Look, dad, I’m making the lift!” He said when he saw Cameron.
“I see that. It looks very nice! You know, I need to go help with the lift right now.” Cameron said.
All of a sudden he had Acton’s full attention. “Now? But it’s bedtime. I thought you were going tomorrow?”
“That’s right, but they’ve had a problem. Remember how I told you we have plans for when the lift gets stuck, to get it unstuck? We have to do that.”
“Oh,” the little boy said solemnly. “And then you’ll fly the Rhea?” A metal strut of the constructor set was forgotten in his hand.
“And then I’ll fly the Rhea. C’mere.” He sat on the rug next to Acton, who hugged him. He pulled his son into his lap. “I’ll be gone a little longer, probably, but you know I’ll be back as soon as the flight is done, right?”
Acton nodded. “I know. And I’ll get to watch the flight, but not until after it’s over, right?”
Cameron kissed the top of his head. “Right. So you do your thing until then, okay Acton? I love you, and I’ll be back soon.” He held the boy until Acton squirmed away, ready to get back to his building.
The spaceplane port was on the west edge of the colony. The mass driver launched spaceplanes and heavier cargo carriers by levitating them on magnetic fields, accelerating them to speeds far higher than the maglev train system used, and firing them into space. The track curved up the slope of an ancient and dead volcano, and threw vehicles into an orbital approach, at which their own thrusters would fire and propel them the rest of the way into orbit.
Olin had kept two tablets open on his lap the entire ride to the port, listening in on the lift crew’s operations on one of them, and running more simulations on the booster scenario on the other. “Rocking the treads isn’t working so far,” he said, looking over at Cameron with his eyebrows knit.
Cameron sighed and bit back the urge to say I know, I’m right here, because it was Olin’s job to summarize things for him. “How close are they to using the boosters instead?”
Olin made a slightly crumpled frown, his thinking-really-hard frown. “We haven’t started polling for alternatives yet, but I think everyone’s going to want to try the boosters after this attempt is done.” That would take a while, because while they called it polling, it was really a series of reports and discussion. The patterns played out in the Lift Control Center in a practiced dance, the steps refined since the beginning of space flight. “You should get some sleep on the ride up. We don’t know where things are going to be when we get up there. I’ll wake you if we need you.”
Cameron wasn’t certain whether Olin wanted him rested, or just wanted Cameron to give the Lift Control Center some space to rescue his precious cargo. The car hovered up to the port entrance and they hurried to the loading area to catch the already-waiting spaceplane. Cameron did his best to catch some sleep once the initial acceleration had stopped pressing him back into his seat. Olin took a seat in the front, his tablets stuck to the back of the seat in front of him and earpieces in so that he could speak quietly. Cameron sat further back in the cabin and tried to quiet his mind.
Terminus was bustling with activity when their spaceplane dock opened. As it always did in microgravity, it seemed to Cameron that they were looking down into a hive of activity. Staff were hurtling everywhere, with tablets of data hooked to their wrists with straps or maneuvering equipment on compressed-air shifters. The quiet hum of conversations and the swish of the microgravity load moving equipment was dampened by the white panels: all walls, no up or down, in microgravity. Large yellow frames highlighted the edges of any equipment banks that it was important not to step on or push off from, but everything was padded that could be, and the monitors showing a location directory and map were behind protective clear polymer.
“Uh-oh,” Olin said behind Cameron, “I see some press got here early.” He pointed, as surreptitiously as he could manage, to a woman dressed in cargo pants and a long-sleeved jacket to blend in with the terminus staff. She still looked out of place, pulling a microgravity-equipped hypercamera out of its case. She didn’t see them yet, but they weren’t going to be able to cross the main entrance chamber without her noticing. She looked familiar from… ah yes, Margot Kretek from Colony News. Cameron had seen her at many of the press gaggles.
“I’ll go talk to her, offer a little information before the rest of the press catch up? Do we have any agreement that would negate that?” Cameron muttered, keeping his head down.
Olin thought. “No, we don’t. I mean, Business One will be pissed but they don’t actually have exclusive rights. We can claim she was in the right place at the right time. Human interest might be useful at this point, before everyone else runs pieces about costs and problems. Go give the woman her scoop.”
Cameron swung himself the rest of the way out of the spaceplane doors, and pushed off from the wall to head in her direction. The bulkheads had grab loops and handles every so often, so he got there quickly. She saw him when he was about halfway there, and he saw her face flit through surprise, then nervousness, then excitement, as he approached. By the time he got near enough that he could speak without shouting, she had a broad smile. He put on his best made-for-hypercamera grin too.
“Hi. You’re Margot, Colony News? Cameron Darling, Darling Systems Interplanetary. Do you have a moment?” Of course she did.
When Cameron finished his interview with Kretek, he caught up with Olin in the Lift Control Center. The LCC on Terminus was outfitted with a large bank of screens at one end. Space weather data and station traffic logs were scrolling down the screens. Long consoles were fitted with monitors and wired to headsets, with foot and arm loops positioned so staff could tether themselves to their workstations. Everyone floated in an approximation of standing, just near enough to their systems to type or see their screens. The hum of conversation was louder here, though quiet enough that the Lift Director could get everyone’s attention. A number of staff noticed Cameron’s arrival, and he heard the tone of the hum change as some staffers got the attention of others, to quietly say, “Mr. Darling is here.” At the opposite end from the big screens, he could see Kretek with her camera floating behind her, slipping into the press tank to watch the proceedings.
Cameron came to rest beside Olin as he consulted with Kay Tellison, the Lift Director. Kay had been Lift Director at one end or the other since the lift was first built, five years ago, and their knowledge was deep. They turned to him. “We’re glad you’re here, Mr. Darling,” Kay said, and offered a lean, angular hand to shake. “Olin, will you brief, or shall I?” Officially it was Olin’s role.
He shook his head. “Go ahead, Kay.”
“All right. The rocking maneuvers have not helped, though we don’t think they’ve harmed. I’ve polled the teams and we’ve determined that sending up boosters is the next step. Weather’s favorable and we’re ready to go ahead. Do you have any questions before we get started?” They were offering a courtesy to him as the head of the company, but he wasn’t in the chain of command to make this decision.
Cameron shook his head, smiling. He’d financed and done much of the design for this system, but he wasn’t going to get in the way of the command structure that had been carefully set up to run it. “Go ahead. What do you think the odds are?”
Kay shrugged, a gesture that rippled down their arms as they floated. “We estimate a forty-five percent chance of an outright fix from the booster attachment, and even higher chances of more rocking working while we push with the boosters. We’re very hopeful.”
“I’ll stand back and let you proceed, then,” Cameron said, “And thank you.”
They nodded again and pulled back to their console, turning the microphone in their ear back up again. Olin beckoned Cameron over to a separate workspace where he’d already set up monitors. The countdown to booster launch was short: they used pre-fueled rocket motors, and some of the pre-flight checks had already been done in anticipation of the need. Within ten minutes, the three rockets were ignited and on the way to the payload.
Boosters had two rocket stages topped with a more maneuverable thrusters. The rocket stages were powerful enough to achieve near-orbit and then slow down to target the special mounting points on the underside of the lift capsule. Then the secondary thrusters would power up, producing balanced force on the underside of the capsule to partially hold the load up while the treads were adjusted.
It took twenty-eight minutes for the rockets to near the cargo. When Kay straightened up and announced to the room, “All stations, sightline to targets acquired, stand by booster capture,” everyone perked up. The alignment team was bent over their stations, a group watching over telemetry for each of the boosters. Other teams kept working, but the hum of business in the room quieted as everyone waited to hear the results. Cameron realized he was gripping the loops at the console with white knuckles, and consciously made himself loosen his hold. Then he felt a bump against his shoulder; Olin brushed against him just slightly, with a nod of agreement.
Eventually quiet calls went up from the alignment team:
“Booster three locked.”
“Booster one locked.”
“Booster two locked!”
Over the sound of the alignment team head announcing success on the main channel, the room erupted into cheers. Cameron let out the breath he’d been holding, and Olin clapped him on the back while cheering along with the crowd.
The LCC got back to business quickly; there was still a cargo to free, after all. First they applied steady force with the thrusters, while attempting to loosen the tread grips on the matrix. The tread teams monitored the status of their equipment. Finally, the tread team director reported that the treads were sliding free of their stuck position and that it was time to power down the thrusters and try climbing again.
“Thrusters powered down. Okay to restart tread tension control,” the alignment team head announced.
“Powering up treads now,” responded the tread team director.
Hope was visibly high in the command center, but it wasn’t certain yet whether the cargo would start to move again. The lift propulsion team took over and slowly powered the treads back up. The main monitors in the room switched to camera feeds of the treads, which slowly, carefully began to grip properly and climb the lift matrix. This time there wasn’t a cheer so much as a mass exhalation, with a smattering of clapping. The matrix monitoring team reported that the distorting force on the lift matrix was already beginning to drop.
Cameron clapped along with the controllers and turned to see the grin on Olin’s face. “See?” Olin said. “No problem, nothing we can’t handle.” Cameron was glad right then that they were in microgravity, because he felt his knees go mushy. Olin’s expression said he’d noticed. “You okay?”
Cameron turned and enveloped Olin in a hug. He could feel his sail designer’s surprise, but the man reached up and patted the back of Cameron’s head. Cameron whooshed out another breath; he hadn’t realized how much nervousness he’d been holding down, but the relief was overwhelming. He was glad they were in the back of the control center, where there weren’t eyes on them.
Then he heard a hum from behind them, and realized that Kretek had her hypercamera pointed right at them. He’d forgotten anyone was in the press space, and suddenly he felt very exposed, his excitement and nervousness far more public than he was comfortable with. He didn’t look back, just extricated himself from the hug as quickly as he could, with a final slap on the back. Olin looked cautious now, like he’d realized what was happening, and his brows were starting to draw in. Oh dear.
Olin watched Kay until they had a break in the activity, then inserted himself into their orbit. Cameron trailed behind. “We’ve got scenarios to review for tomorrow, so we’re going to bow out now.”
Kay nodded. They pushed an errant strand of hair back into the clasps that held the rest, and smoothed it down absentmindedly. “I’ll get the payload unloaded ASAP, and the assembly crew alerted as soon as we’re ready for them. They know to ping you if you’re needed. Get some rest?”
“We will,” Olin said, shaking their hand. Cameron followed suit and nodded appreciatively, and Olin was already halfway to the door. Had he been that upset by that hug on camera? Or was he just eager to get on with his procedure reviews? Cameron let him go.
The orbital station had already prepared spaces for the test crew to rest before their launch. Cameron, too twitchy to sleep, went looking for Olin and found him floating halfway in sleep sack in the little sleep compartment. He was clicking away at his devices, running additional scenarios.
“Yes?” Olin grunted, not looking up at the screen. Then he paused, and gave Cameron his full attention.
“I’m sorry about earlier, I didn’t mean to…” Cameron trailed off. “You probably didn’t appreciate that happening in front of the news media.”
Olin folded his arms, and turned in his sleep sack. He didn’t look mad, but he did look… guarded. “It was fine. Not a problem.” Then he peered out of the compartment. “Come on in, it’s cramped, but we shouldn’t talk in the hallway.” He shoved his tablets against the hook and loop straps one one wall, making room for Cameron to slip into the sleep pod. It was the size of a typical Mars colony shower stall; two people could fit, but it was cozy. Olin slid the pocket door shut.
Cameron tried again. “I didn’t mean to damage our working relationship, but if you want Tellison to take over CAPCOM, I’d… understand.”
Olin looked shocked. “What? No, I… no, wait, are you saying that because you’re uncomfortable, or because you think I am?”
“I was… whoa, I think we had a misunderstanding. I was just trying to get us both out of there because we had shit to do! Ugh.” Olin reached out and took Cameron by the shoulders before he could move. “I am not going to step down as CAPCOM unless you specifically ask me to, because I think you need the same voice you practiced with, in your ears. If you ask, I won’t be offended. But I’m going to stay in the position unless you ask.”
Cameron closed his eyes. “I don’t want you to step down, I was just worried I’d been too familiar you.”
Olin wiped a hand over his face, exasperated. “You didn’t!” He tried again in a lower voice. “You didn’t. Cameron, even if I wasn’t all right with hugging a teammate, it takes more than that to offend me. You looked horrified when you realized Kretek’s hypercam was on, and we had places to be, so I got us out of there. And look, if the press wants to make a scandal out of it, so be it. Lucy will roll her eyes about it and you can say what you want and I really don’t care.”
Cameron was distracted. “Why would Lucy roll her eyes?” Lucy was Olin’s ex-wife. They were friends, he knew, but Olin didn’t often mention her.
“Because she knows I like younger men, to be perfectly honest.” Olin grinned and raised one eyebrow, letting that sink in.
Cameron laughed, the sound filling up the tiny compartment. “I’m not that young!” Suddenly, they were both laughing. Then Cameron added, “Sophia would have told you that I like dark curly hair.”
Olin made a face at him, a pickled sort of face as if he’d made a pun. “Cameron, it didn’t bug me at all, and you’re very kind to have been concerned. Right now it’s more important for you to focus on getting ready for the flight, and you need to trust that I’ll be right there with you. I’ve got my end of this, okay?”
“Okay,” Cameron said. “Okay.”
“Now go get some sleep, and try to stop thinking so hard.” Olin slid the pocket door back open and ushered Cameron into the hallway.
Cameron snorted skeptically as he went, but he went.
After only a few hours in his sleep sack, Cameron awoke. Falling asleep in microgravity was great; waking was disorienting. He groped for a tablet and called up a simulation of the Rhea assembly. It was strangely soothing, to be looking at the animations of a vehicle he’d be piloting in a few hours.
The sail of the Rhea Silvia dwarfed the crew cabin, by many times more than a sailboat sail dwarfs its hull. It was composed of panels of thin, rigid nanocarbon sheets, organized along fold lines of flexible material. The panels had packed down into a packet with a hexagonal footprint for transit, the tougher fold line material on the edges of the box shape protecting the rigid panels, packed small enough to make it into the cargo compartment of an orbital lift system. The center of the packing box was a hexagonal core, which would connect to the crew cabin with a thin nanocomposite scaffolding. Thin lines would also connect the far end of the crew cabin to the ends of the sail, and tightened once the sail was unfurled. The sail would face the sun and partially shielding the crew cabin from solar radiation.
When Olin thumped on his compartment door, Cameron startled, and realized he’d dozed off for a while. His screen was still cycling through the animation. He flipped the pocket door open. Olin was holding his lightweight flight undersuit and a towel out to him. There was an old-fashioned coin, a Russian kopeck, on top of the towel. “Let’s do this,” he rumbled.
Cameron smiled. “Thanks,” he said, taking the coin and then taking the pile of fabric. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Olin reached out and squeezed his arm. “I am too. They’re ready to get you into your outer suit as soon as you can get there. I’ll be in FCC. Hear you on the radio!” He pushed off toward the exit, already in conversation with the assembly teams.
The prep crew hustled Cameron into his outer flight suit as soon as he showed up. It was a re-entry-safe suit, used for everything from high-altitude jumping to bailing out of test craft. The bulk was comforting, and the lucky coin Olin had given him was safely buttoned in a chest pocket of the flight undersuit. They put the helmet on him and had him run through the computer diagnostics, to make sure all of its onboard safety equipment was ready to go. Then he tucked the helmet under his arm, gave a round of gloved handshakes to the prep crew, and went to the docking area.
Over the sleep cycle, the sail package had been fitted to the hexagonal prism of the Rhea crew cabin, and the distal end of the cabin had been affixed to a flexible docking tube that fed power and station atmosphere. The docking tube could also be moved. Once they attached the crew cabin to the hexagonal core plate of the sail, the docking tube and the electrically powered thrusters built into the Rhea would be used to give a slow, gentle shake to the sail package. It would work like shaking an umbrella open, to unfurl the spaces between the panels a little and cause the first bits of solar pressure to be converted to momentum and to energy. The sail would eventually fold out on its own, extending its hexagonal joints into the sunlight and drawing taut. It was important for the crew cabin to be tightly connected to an external scaffolding, or the sail would begin to move before it was fully extended and controllable.
When Cameron climbed into the crew cabin, the technician who was running diagnostics in the command chair hopped up, ready to swap places with him. She helped him to get strapped in and check the instrument panels. His helmet was stowed within easy reach.
The Flight Control Center for the test had a few people who were borrowed from the lift control staff, and a number of others who had trained specially for this test. They used the backup control room of the Terminus, with the same sorts of consoles and screens as the main room. Olin’s spot as CAPCOM was next to the Flight Director, and he had his radio channel open already. Cameron could hear Kay Tellison, borrowed from their Lift Director work to be Flight Director, polling team leads for the okay to unfurl.
“Good morning, Cameron,” Olin said, not only for him but for the press they knew would get to listen to Olin’s radio channel. They wouldn’t hear Cameron’s side, only Olin’s. Access to Olin’s channel would be shut down by the press team lead at any indication from Olin, but for now, he was live. Cameron could hear the grin on Olin’s face, though he knew some of the cheery tone was for morale; Olin was as nervous and excited to see his design tested as Cameron was to fly it. “Good morning Rhea Silvia control, ready to get this show on the road?”
“Absolutely, Terminus,” Cameron said, “Can’t wait.”
“Okay, then, let’s get started by testing the thrusters….” There were a lot of checks still to be done, but the rhythm of instructions and confirmations helped to contain Cameron’s butterflies of excitement.
Finally, it was nearing time for the jog that would begin the wings’ unfurling. Cameron had external cameras pointed at the underside of the sail, along with some video feeds from the Terminus exterior cameras. He could see an image of the capsule, hanging on the end of the docking tube, sharp-edged packet of folded sail at the other end. “All right, Cameron, ready to fire the thrusters? We’re going to want a two-second burst.”
Cameron had the plastic cover off the switch and his gloved finger hovered over it. “Terminus, we are ready, on your mark.”
“All right, fire in three… two… one… mark.” Cameron pressed the switch and felt the thrusters begin to press him back in his seat, and then felt the jog of the docking tube being shaken. On the monitors he could see the sail package shimmer. “And… stop thrusters,” Olin said in his ear.
The jolt was replaced with a rolling motion, and Cameron could see the shield begin to open, the lines bending away from the cabin and following the hexagon’s points as additional sections unfurled. Parts of the shield spiraled outward, like someone unfolding a large piece of origami. On his power monitors he could see electricity start to flow, providing internal power to the computer. Batteries filled by Terminus power could now be kept full by the shield’s energy. Finally, the tether lines drew taut and the shield bowed slightly forward, toward the sun.
“Good job, Rhea Silvia, we have shield extension to maximum, and power levels look good.” There were a few more checks to go through, and a final weather report to get, and then it was time for launch. The docking tube was withdrawn from under the external gantry arm, which would provide part of the initial push into free flight. “Prepare for external push and power up thrusters on my mark.”
“Ready and waiting, Terminus, on your mark.”
“And… three… two… one… mark!”
This time Cameron had set the thrusters to automated guidance, and had to flip a rocker to set things in motion. At the same time, the gantry gave the craft a little push off from the Terminus. The sail computers started correcting for it, using the momentum and sail pressure to cant toward Phobos to the south. The sail ship picked up speed, its sail converting energy to motion.
The craft was largely self-controlling, and Cameron had little to do in this test flight but monitor the power systems and attitude control. He felt exhilarated watching Phobos approach on the guidance system display. The little misshapen moon swung around Mars at incredible speed, and the ship would have to be quick to catch it. After the lengthy checks and testing, it felt like time had slowed down, but the quiet of the cabin and the faint hum of the power system were delightful.
“All systems looking good, Rhea Silvia, what are your batteries reading?” Olin sounded pleased as pie.
“Still fully charged, Terminus. Any modifications to our trajectory around Phobos?”
“Negative, Rhea Silvia, hold course. Adjustments for swing around Phobos remain as planned.” The moon loomed larger in the displays, Stickney crater reflecting light from Mars back at him. It didn’t take long to swing around the little moon, swinging by Stickney. Cameron was even able to snap a few photos of of the crater with the cabin cameras: it was nothing that a dozen probes hadn’t already seen in high definition, but they would be his. The little ship tacked around the moon, gaining speed as it swung through the faint gravity of Phobos. Then it began to straighten out and climb again, back to the orbital altitude of Terminus.
There was a jolt, and a beeping. Cameron scanned his readouts, settling on the vehicle integrity display, as Olin’s voice came through in his ears. “Rhea Silvia, we see you’re slowing down, what’s your status?”
The schematic indicated that a tether had come loose, and that one segment of the sail was not under control. The guidance systems could compensate, somewhat, but sail ship was now in danger of drifting off course. “I’ve lost control of one of the sail tethers. Sail power and battery are holding, but it’s going to cause trouble with my course. The logs should be coming to you momentarily. Please advise.”
Olin’s voice sounded unbelievably calm. “Understood, Cameron. We’re taking a look at them now and evaluating your options. Please stand by for updates, Cameron, we’re on it.”
It felt like forever, waiting for Terminus to discuss the problem. If he had been in the control center Cameron could have listened to Kay poll the teams for solutions, but it was important for all communications to be funneled through Olin as CAPCOM. After a few minutes, it was very clear that the Rhea Silvia was losing speed and a little altitude, instead of gaining to go back to Terminus. Finally, Olin came back on the radio.
“All right, Cameron, here’s what’s going on. You still have partial attitude control, but we don’t like your odds of going into an uncontrolled aerobraking maneuver. We’re recommending you make a re-entry jump now, and we’re going to send out a satellite catcher to collect the Rhea Silvia soon after.”
Cameron couldn’t help letting out a whoosh of frustration. “Terminus, any possibility I can use the thrusters to correct?”
“Unlikely. We don’t want to take the chance, on either you or your ship, Cameron. Your thrusters can’t modify the sail position enough with the reduced surface control. Our odds for retrieving both you and the craft are best if you exit soon, to reduce the payload of the craft. Do you copy?” Cameron could imagine Olin’s minute shake of his head as he said that. “You’re going to have to jump.”
“Wait, jump? I’m not…” He trailed off, and he could almost hear Olin’s patient smile at the other end, waiting for his pilot to get used to the idea. After a moment, Cameron reached for his helmet. “Yes, Terminus, I copy. Attaching helmet seals and preparing to vent cabin.”
Cameron stood at the open cabin door, and tried to slow his breathing. In, two, three; out, two, three. In, two, three; out, two, three. He leaned his helmeted head against the edge of the doorway, his arms still threaded through the handles on either side. His suit’s heater was gently pulsing, keeping him warm as he tried not to look down, down, down at the clear air and rusty earth below.
Olin’s voice was in his ears, distracting Cameron from his racing heartbeat. “Okay, Cameron, go ahead and tether yourself to the handles, so we can do a few more pre-jump checks. Can you do that?”
Cameron felt for the tether at his side, unhooked it, and stretched it around the handle. He clipped it back onto his side, and did the same with the second tether. “Done.”
Olin’s voice hissed through his earphones: “Good job. Now, let’s take stock of where we’re at. I’ve got telemetry on your pulse, it’s not unreasonable. You’re doing a good job, Cameron. Look down at the ground for us? We need to make sure your altimeter is calibrated correctly, so we need to see your helmet feed.”
Cameron’s stomach roiled a bit as he looked out and down and gave the helmet team a good view of the drop. He knew it was Olin’s job to be as calm and upbeat as possible, but it wasn’t that simple. He’d be jumping with a fairly fast horizontal velocity, which was going to make spin control a harder once he hit air resistance. The sheer speed at which he was going to hit atmosphere was horrifying, no matter how well the suit was made to handle it. This was far higher than the jump that had broken Olin’s leg all those years ago. He took another deep breath. “Okay. Okay. What do I do next?”
“All right, Cameron, I’m going to run you through the pre-jump checklist now. Before I do that, anything you need us to do back home?”
“Call my son’s school. Have them make absolutely certain Acton isn’t watching this. They can send him home from school if they think that would be easier. Call the house, too, and make sure Sam knows, he’s the daytime nanny.”
“We’re on it, Cameron, it’s taken care of. Now, I need you to give yourself a nitrogen-fixing dose because you didn’t get the full pre-breathing time for EVA today.” The tone of voice made Cameron imagine Olin nodding his head as he said it. “Now, I want you to look at your tethers and tug hard on them, make sure they’re both secure.” Cameron did so and reported back. “Now, disengage the lock and draw back the cover on the nitrogen fixing pack on your upper left arm. Let me know when it’s open.”
Cameron did so. “It’s open.”
“Now, you’ve probably done this before, and you know it burns like heck for a few seconds, so get a good grip before you hit that button. Hit it whenever you’re ready.”
Cameron tightened his grip on the handle with his left arm and pressed the bright nitrogen-blue button with his right index finger. He heard the hiss of the jet injector inside his suit, and felt the sting of the drug spreading through his tissues, chasing down dinitrogen molecules and sequestering them. His stomach churned again.
Olin kept reciting directions, but Cameron was pretty sure it was to distract him from his nerves and the burn of the fixer, because these were instructions he knew very well. “Remember, Cameron, head down until you start hitting air resistance, then use the suit’s guides to get into spin recovery. You can untether yourself whenever you’re ready.”
Cameron was amazed that his hands didn’t shake as he unhooked the loops that were securing him to his spacecraft, but they didn’t.
He spoke into his microphone. “Untethered. Jumping now. Mark.” Cameron took a deep breath, stepped out the door of the craft, and fell.
At first it felt like… nothing. No indication of his body’s picking up speed. It felt like microgravity, like flying forward instead of falling down, even though the planet below was creeping nearer to him at speed. No sounds except his own breath in his ears, loud and raspy and faster than he would like. The radio channel was still open both ways, but Olin was silent, just listening for sounds of distress or problems. The press feed of Olin’s channel would be cut, for this part of the mission. The press team lead could give appropriately careful commentary on this part; that was her job.
Cameron’s body yawed gently, and he fought the crazy urge to look back at the Rhea Silvia, receding in the distance. It wouldn’t even be be visible anymore against the dark sky of space by now. Still there was no air resistance noise, that sweet and horrible rushing that meant a jumper finally had enough air to brake and would have to manage spin.
After what felt like ages of straining for it, Cameron finally heard the first wind of increasing air resistance. The rushing got louder, and his body started to yaw harder, head coming up so that his fall was leading with his pelvis and thighs. This was the beginning of a flat spin, going around and around and around as if he was turning cartwheels in the sky while facing the ground. Flat spin was the most disorienting and dangerous part of the jump. Mars had so little atmosphere that there was only a brief period to get into a safe position for parachute deployment.
Cameron could hear and feel the anti-spin guides come on in his suit. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the signals. The beeping in his ears encouraged him to move his legs into the correct positions for recovery, and the vibrations on his chest collar pulsed to guide him as he spread and bent his arms. Responding to both guides simultaneously was hard, but it was necessary to stabilize his motion and maintain the perfect bodily symmetry required to stop flat spin. Slowly the beeping became a steady tone and the rumbling of the chest pads stopped, and he could hear the servos in the suit whir as they helped him to hold the correct position.
A different beep indicated he was approaching parachute altitude, and Cameron realized he’d closed his eyes as he’d been stabilizing flat spin. The jump display in his faceplate still showed him moving closer to ground, and a countdown had popped up, showing seconds to parachute deployment. The seconds ticked down and Cameron pulled the lever on his chest piece. He heard the parachute whistle away from him and then felt the jerk as it opened and pulled back on his chest, hard. The whistle of wind around his suit was replaced by the flap and snap of the parachute above him, and in his headset he heard Olin crow: “Rock and roll, we have chute open!” Cameron grinned, open-mouthed, still breathing hard.
The jump display showed a neat thousand meters to go as Cameron caught sight of the retrieval crew. They were bumping across the dirt in their rover, near two landing flares that were letting off tall plumes of smoke. He had a crazy urge to wave to them, even though they probably couldn’t make it out from this distance. Instead, he kept his hands safely on the straps of the chute, guiding it through the last few miles of air to further slow his speed. Compared to the freefall and the flat spin, gliding down in the parachute felt stately.
Olin murmured on the radio, “Your forward speed’s still forty, you’ve gotta drop it some more.” Cameron just grunted agreement and swung the parachute straps some more, trying for catch more of the thin air. After another moment, he heard Olin say, “Okay, that’s better, you’ve got it.”
He came to a running touchdown, boots digging into the sandy dirt. He came to a stop, checking the parachute lines with his gloved hands to make sure they would not tangle him. His legs wobbled, so he sat down to wait for his ride to arrive. Faintly, he heard cheering over the radio, but the rush of his pulse in his ears was too loud for him to make anything out.
The retrieval crew hustled out of the rover and mobbed Cameron. There were handshakes and gloves checking his suit and their voices in his ears, but they sounded far away. They scanned him with a portable health monitor before helping him up and into the back of the truck. Their hands never left his back and sides, which was good because he wasn’t sure he’d stay upright otherwise. The ride back to Colony spaceport went by in a blur, bouncing across the dirt. Someone handed Cameron a bottle of electrolytes and a few energy bars, and he ate and drank mechanically
After a while the roaring receded from his ears, and Cameron was just tired, now, in the aftermath of adrenaline. Olin was talking to the medical team, but Cameron couldn’t parse it. Then he said, “Cameron? You doing okay down there?”
Cameron licked his lips. “Yeah. Happy to be on the ground. Did you catch the Rhea?”
“ETA five minutes to capture; it’s looking good. I’m getting on a shuttle down; I’ll see you at the port.” The radio clicked off immediately, which surprised Cameron into laughter. The recovery crew stared at him, mystified.
The spaceport was a mob scene. The rover entered the colony dome by the nearest airlock, drove by the front entrance–overrun with press, hypercameras swooping over the crowd–and swung into the underground garage instead. The port’s medical director met them at the vehicle to check Cameron over. She pronounced him steady enough for the press conference, if he felt up to it.
The press conference had been scheduled for Terminus after the ship returned to dock. The spaceport was scrambling to get their press room ready and start herding the journalists in from the front entrance, while collecting more from the shuttle that had just arrived. The sail project team had been taken off the shuttle first and installed in the press room, Cameron was told, and the press were beginning to file in. The port staff led the recovery team down back hallways of the port complex to the green room, where he could get out of his re-entry suit and flight suit. Someone had brought him fresh clothes, he wasn’t sure from where, but they fit, and that was good enough. He drank a little more water, then stood and nodded to the port staffer guarding the door to the press room. The man nodded back and opened it for Cameron to walk through.
Cameron paused for a moment to breathe deeply and paste on a press conference smile. He entered the room behind the long conference table, and saw the open seat between Kay and Olin. There was a flurry of activity and a clatter of camera equipment as the press corps caught sight of him. Kay turned to see him, and extended their hand for a strong shake and a clap on the back. By the time Cameron turned to Olin, he had hauled himself upright and was extending his hand. He looked older than he had this morning, Cameron thought; more tired.
Cameron ducked past the outstretched hand and put his arms around Olin’s broad shoulders. He pulled his sail designer in for a kiss, as the cameras snapped and whirred. For a moment he could feel Olin’s shock, and then he heard the low rumble of laughter against his lips. Toward the back of the room, someone whistled, and the sail project staff at the table began to clap. It took a while before things settled down for the press conference to begin.
Afterwards, gathering his things that Kay and Olin had brought back from Terminus to meet him, Cameron was interrupted by the chime of his mobile. It was a message from Acton. “Hi Dad! Are you going on a date with Mr Dorade? Love Acton”
The rooftop terrace was lit around the edges by thousands of small lights set into low stonework walls, and by the gentle glow of the habitat dome above them. It reflected the sounds of the neighborhood to them from the streets below, with snippets of conversation and the whoosh of scooters. As promised, Cameron brought his oldest Scotch with him and poured them both tumblers, neat, as Olin peered over the edge of the terrace. They sat on the overstuffed sofa and sipped in silence for a while, tasting the liquor and thinking.
Olin took a deep breath. “Okay, I’m going to just come right out and ask. Am I coming over there, or are you coming over here?” After a beat, he moved his left arm to the back of the sofa and gestured with it. “C’mere, Cameron.”
Cameron slid over to nestle into his side. Olin’s arm tightened around his shoulders. Cameron felt a flood of relief and heaved a sigh, which came out shakier than he expected it to. He was surprised to feel Olin’s lips in his hair, rustling behind his ear, and he leaned into the touch. Olin’s other hand came up to rest across his chest.
“How do you feel about me sweet-talking you?” Olin murmured in his ear. “It feels good to touch you. Been wanting to do it some more.”
Cameron laughed a little. “Yes, please. How do you like the Scotch?”
Olin slid a hand up to cup Cameron’s jaw, shifting his own head and turning Cameron’s so their lips could meet. “Excellent,” he mumbled into the kiss, “Tastes good on you.”
“You too,” Cameron murmured, and turned to lean in for more kisses. He reached out to put a hand on Olin’s side, feeling the warmth through his sweater. His upper lip tingled from brushing against Olin’s mustache, a little ticklish, a little warm and comforting. Olin put his feet up on the ottoman in front of them, pulling Cameron with him to recline. Cameron nestled more tightly against his side.
Olin took another swallow of his Scotch. “I would move this to a bed at some point. If you want to.”
“I may or may not be up for the restorative power of sex, after the day I’ve had. Spirit’s willing, though.” Cameron put his glass down.
“Hey, chief, whatever you want. I’m a full service CAPCOM, right down to the post-test-flight snuggling.”
Cameron laughed aloud at this. “I don’t think that’s what Houston originally had in mind for the role, Olin.”
Olin only shrugged. “Eh, their loss.” He kissed Cameron again, soundly, and Cameron kissed him back, opening his mouth a little more to taste Olin’s lips, and tongue, and the Scotch. Olin loosened his jaw to let their tongues slip against each other, humming a little as he did so. “Definitely their loss,” he mumbled against Cameron’s lips.
Cameron smiled and pulled closer, moving his hand to thread fingers through Olin’s hair. It was thicker than he expected, and soft where it curled at the base of his skull. He combed his fingers through the peppery strands. Both of them sighed happily, and then snorted with amusement at the similar sounds.
“I think you’re relaxing a little bit more now, Cameron, that’s right,” Olin said, his voice one of authoritative calm.
“Are you using your CAPCOM voice on me while we make out?” Cameron asked, “I’m not sure that’s okay.”
Olin grinned, and laid it on even thicker. “I think my CAPCOM voice is similar to my bedroom voice, not the other way around.” He tapped a finger on Cameron’s chest. “That’s one of my darkest secrets, you know. Play nice, I’m trusting you here.”
Cameron nipped his lower lip, kissed it some more, and then sat up. “All right. To protect your darkest secrets, we should find our way somewhere more private.” He stood, taking Olin’s hand to offer him some leverage for standing. Once Olin had his footing, Cameron changed his grip so that their fingers intertwined. He led them to the stairs.
Olin had huge hands, as long in the fingers as Cameron’s, but far broader. As they walked downstairs, Cameron found himself hoping he’d get to hold this hand more often. It was as soothing to hold Olin’s hand as it was to have his voice giving calm instructions over the radio, and right then, Cameron appreciated the reassurance very much.
Cameron’s bedroom was plain, with dark woodgrain floor and coffee colored walls. It held an upholstered chair and a high bed covered in a cloud of white linens, and nothing else. He closed the door behind them and led Olin to the bed. Olin took his face in those large hands. “Can I continue where I left off? I can back off if you want.”
“Please do.” Cameron put his hands on Olin’s forearms and squeezed encouragingly.
“Good!” Olin smiled, and pecked him on the cheek. He began to strip off his sweater, and unbutton his shirt. “Well, get comfortable, I just need to lose some layers.” He watched Cameron stand still, suddenly frozen, and made it an order. “Lose some layers, Cameron, then sit on the bed.”
“Right.” Cameron busied himself shedding jacket, belt, and shoes, while watching Olin fold his sweater and dress shirt neatly and place them on the armchair. Olin’s arms and chest had the same mixture of dark and gray hairs as his head, and soft fuzz was visible on his back. Suddenly the room seemed warm, though whether it was the temperature or arousal he wasn’t sure. Cameron decided to remove his shirt as well. He climbed onto the bed and sat in the middle, facing the foot. Olin finished folding and turned, then smiled and climbed across the bed to sit down next to him.
Cameron put both arms around Olin and pulled him in. He laid his head on Olin’s shoulder and rubbed up and down his back: the fuzz was even softer than he expected. He felt Olin’s hands tighten around his hips, just above his waistband, pulling him closer. Then he stopped. “Um… are you aware that you’re wearing one black sock and one purple sock?”
Cameron felt his face heat, but he pulled a little tighter, his cheek against Olin’s shoulder. “Shit. You’ve found out my darkest secret.”
“You have a thing for mismatched socks? That’s not very dark.” Olin chuckled.
“No, I’m colorblind. Sophia used to check my ties and socks to make sure I wasn’t going out in horrible combinations. I haven’t had the heart to ask anyone else to start checking.”
“Oh.” Cameron felt Olin’s hands on his lower back, now, still except for the thumbs, rubbing soothingly near his spine. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to lead you there.”
“No, it’s fine. It’s… actually liberating to tell someone that.” He put his mouth to Olin’s neck and mouthed briefly, eliciting a slow sigh. “It’s a thing, it happened, it’s part of me.” Cameron knew he wasn’t only talking about his sock choices anymore.
“I know.” Olin sighed again, and smoothed one hand up Cameron’s back to rest behind his heart. “I’m still sorry. That wasn’t the sweet-talking I had planned.”
Cameron lifted his head, then, to meet Olin’s eyes, and kiss him. “You’re plenty sweet.” He cupped Olin’s face in his hands and brushed his thumbs across the man’s cheeks. That warm feeling was back: arousal, mixed with fondness at the concern in Olin’s voice.
Olin slid fully onto the bed, and Cameron pushed him flat and wrapped both arms around him. He ran his fingers through the curly hairs on Olin’s chest, making him produce that growly hum again. “I forgot how much I like chest hair. I like it a lot.” He leaned down to mouth one of Olin’s nipples. That got a pleased gasp. So he kept doing it. His kisses were interspersed with light nips and blowing on the now-damp skin of the areola, causing more sharp breaths and moans. He shifted to give the same attention to the other side, still holding Olin as tight as he could manage. Before long Olin was panting, and even shivering a little as Cameron touched him. “This okay?”
“Definitely.” Olin’s eyes were wide as he tried to take deeper breaths, “You got more ideas like that, or do you need a break before I turn into a pleading mess?”
“Well, now that you say that, I want to see what it looks like,” Cameron said, and sat back a bit to tug at Olin’s belt loops. “May I?”
“Please.” Cameron ran his hands over the increasing bulge in Olin’s trousers, getting a very low moan in return. Olin arched to help him slide off trousers and briefs, letting his cock spring loose from the fabric and stand up against his belly. It was already a little wet, and Cameron could see it bouncing minutely with Olin’s heartbeat. Cameron got down close to it and breathed over the head. Olin let out another marvelous moan and pressed his heels into the bed, splaying his legs a little more.
Cameron moved his head up to mouth at the center of Olin’s chest, then slowly kissed his way back down the trail of dark hair from the top of Olin’s belly. He nudged Olin’s cock out of the way so that he could put his mouth against the soft skin near the base. He moved around the base to nuzzle in the thicker fur there, inhaling the warm, earthy scent. His hands found each of Olin’s hips, heels right over the boniest points, while he kept mouthing at the soft skin of his crotch and the insides of his thighs. Olin’s fingers threaded into his hair, playing over his scalp, with the minute tugs of someone who was trying very hard not to be bossy, but begging nonetheless.
Cameron looked up to catch Olin’s eyes, and he could see the want there too. Olin purred even as Cameron stilled. He gave Olin his craftiest grin, then ducked his head to finally, finally lick his way from the base to the tip of Olin’s cock, making it as slick with saliva as he could. Olin inhaled and gave a yelp of surprised pleasure, tilting his head back. They set up a rhythm: Cameron alternated between swirling his tongue around the head and shaft and then filling his mouth as full as possible, while Olin shook and moaned, thrusting into Cameron’s mouth as much as he could while mostly pinned down. Olin’s hands threaded through his hair again, petting carefully. Cameron could feel, in the background, that his own dick was hard and straining at his pants, but there would be time for that later. He moved one hand to clutch at the base of Olin’s cock and then applied strong, steady suction. Olin jerked harder and came, gushing against the back of Cameron’s mouth. He swallowed as much as he could, and slid off with one final lick. He sat up to catch his breath and survey the results.
Olin’s head was still thrown back, his breathing fast and hard, sweat coating his chest. His hands, at his sides, were twitching as if he was still petting Cameron’s hair. He looked down at Cameron, with a fuzzy smile, and made weak grabbing motions. “C’mere. Wanna keep touching you. And take off those pants.” That sounded marvelous, so Cameron scooted out of the rest of his clothing, smiling as he took a moment to remove his poor mismatched socks. Then he crawled back up the bed to lay more or less on top of Olin, their legs tangled together.
Olin put one hand on Cameron’s ass and the other on his erection and began to stroke him while pressing their bodies together. Now it was Cameron’s turn to gasp as he thrusted. He made breathy, soft moans as Olin coaxed him into coming between them.
Cameron’s head had come to rest in the crook of Olin’s neck. “Wow,” was all he could muster.
“Excellent,” Olin said to the ceiling. “Gives me all kinds of other ideas.”
“Oh, yeah.” Olin wiped one hand off on his own body and ran the other through Cameron’s hair again. “You okay?”
Cameron considered this. “I’m… feeling all my emotions at the same time. I need to stay put for a bit. It’s… really weird. Sorry I’m being clingy.”
Olin’s squeezed his ass again. “Not weird at all. I’m not moving as long as you need me here.” His hand cradled the back of Cameron’s skull, welcoming him to snuggle closer.
Cameron woke slowly. He realized where he was and who had an arm wrapped around him. Olin snored softly in his sleep, but didn’t stir. Moving slowly, Cameron put his right hand behind his head. The thought crossed his mind that perhaps he should be more uncomfortable waking up in bed with Olin than this; on the other hand, it was pretty damn comfortable. Cameron laid there for a while, thinking about it.
Eventually he felt Olin’s arm squeeze a little tighter and looked over to find Olin watching him. “Sleep all right?” Olin asked.
“Did you? I… ” Cameron broke off, overcome by a yawn. Olin’s thumb rubbed his side.
“I’m fine,” Olin said when Cameron had finished. “Do you usually sleep this late?”
“No,” Cameron admitted, glancing at the clock. It was pretty late, but after yesterday? And the day before? “I don’t usually sleep through the night anymore. This may be the longest I’ve slept at a stretch in… a long time.”
Olin nodded. He knew what that pause meant. “My mother always used to say, ‘You probably needed it,’ and I think that’s true.” He pulled again at Cameron’s side, and Cameron rolled to face him. They kissed while Olin ran his free hand through Cameron’s hair, smoothing it back. “But I think we should show up for the debriefing we’re going to run. You know, eventually.”
“You got it,” Cameron agreed, stifling another yawn.
A while later, Cameron was standing inside his closet, pants and a white shirt on, considering his options. Olin was outside, rustling his way into his sweater again. Cameron heard light footsteps on the floor.
“Good morning Mister Dorade,” he heard Acton say, cheery as only a child could be in the morning.
He heard Olin hesitate. “Good morning,” he said gravely.
“Did you and dad have a date last night?” Olin asked, and Cameron bit his lip to keep from laughing. Perhaps he should have warned Olin about this, but listening for the reaction was just too good. Don’t lie, Olin, he’s too smart for it, he thought.
Luckily, Olin’s instincts were right. “As a matter of fact we did, yes,” Olin said. “You okay with that?”
“Yes,” Acton said immediately. “I saw you kissing on the news yesterday and I was hoping you’d have a date. Where’s Dad?”
“In here,” Cameron called, poking his head out of the closet. Acton looked caught in the act, for a moment. “It’s okay,” Cameron said, “Go on.”
Acton turned back to Olin. “Mr. Dorade, are you going to help daddy pick his ties? He can’t make his socks match, and I think he needs some help with his ties too.” And then it was Cameron’s turn to hesitate. He’d had no idea Acton knew about that.
Olin caught Cameron’s eye, with just a slightly raised eyebrow. Cameron shrugged. Olin turned back to Acton. “I will if he’d like me to. Do you know why your dad has trouble making his socks match?”
“No,” Acton admitted.
“Some people have trouble seeing the colors that you and I see. Your dad has trouble with dark colors like black and purple, so we should help him pick. I mean, unless he’d like his socks not to match.”
Acton giggled and ducked past Olin to hug his dad. “Daddy, would you let us pick out your socks?”
“I would love that,” Cameron said, smiling. He met Olin’s eyes, and Olin grinned back.