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20 November 2010 @ 10:18 pm
Ares: Part 2! (2/2)  
Part 2, post 1 is here!

He drinks too much at the Summit Lounge, loses hand after hand at the retro poker machines, and shares drinks with a redhead while he inches one hand up her skirt. She has a room upstairs – "I'm in town on business, real estate acquisitions" and "I don't want to leave Frisco without a hot story to tell" are essentially the only things of substance she said to him all night – and she straddles him in the bar by way of invitation. She grabs protection from the fishbowl at the lounge door and then he fucks her on a hotel bedspread with the lights off. She says yeah, harder and he doesn't want to give it to her, feels the need to deny someone something, but he's seething with frustration and anger and that energy, apparently, is good enough for her.

It doesn't feel the same. He's not sure how to categorize it except to say that it feels like sex, above a bar, with a stranger.

That used to be the best it got.

The redhead, Michelle, chatters away afterwards, thankfully not interested in cuddling or pretending this is something it isn't. He asks her a few things as he raids her mini-bar and she tells him about all the traveling she does, back and forth to Japan and Saudi Arabia. She asks him for his business card because she comes around every now and again, and – with a wink – says she's hoping to collect a man in every time zone.

"Quantity over quality?" he asks.

"I'm sure you're a nice guy, or whatever," is her answer, and shrugs like she doesn't care – which, he's willing to bet, she doesn't.

She gives him her card, too. Her name is spelled Mishél, with an accent on the e, though she doesn't sound foreign in the least. Her diction is pure white bread midwestern America, like she's reading the evening news.

On impulse, he asks her, "What do you think of the moon colony?" It's still in the design stages on their end, but everyone in the world has heard of it by now.

Mishél shakes his business card next to her face like a tiny fan and pouts. She shrugs like she's trying to be cute. "It's a big rock. Why does anyone want to go? Nothing personal about your career, just my opinion."

He doesn't bother telling her she's an idiot.

He's still too drunk to drive, but the Summit Lounge is only a mile from where he lives. Gary walks home alone.

***


Not surprisingly, when the review committee leaves the next day and wants someone to go back with them to Washington to help present their report, they don't ask him to go. Diana doesn't say anything to him; Gina Kim is the one to let him know that Warren took Diana with him to push for additional funding for the habitat sections.

Good, he thinks, because he's still hungover from the night before, and that reminds him he's mad at her. Maybe now I can get some work done.

He's been stuck for days on the outer shell of the compound, wrestling with an idea he had about segmented shielding that could be slotted in and out for repair. The problem of potential damage from errant space matter has become one of the bigger stumbling blocks as they try to limit the need for parts and raw materials to be shipped up from Earth. He knows the geologists who initially picked the landing site are exploring with the chemists the possibility of on-site element mining from lunar rocks – iron, titanium, and aluminum are all available if they can come up with a feasible system of extraction – but that's all theoretical at this point and Gary's main concern is conservation.

"This isn't about the moon," Warren said once. "This is a proving ground for all human colonies in space. When we go to Mars, we won't be able to requisition titanium and H2O if we're running short."

Not if we go to Mars, but when. On the whole, Gary thinks Warren could be more passionate – should, perhaps, be more dynamic and charismatic as a leader of the pre-launch part of NASA's greatest space endeavour since Apollo – but there's something so casually certain about the way he discusses man's future in space that Gary respects. Maybe even admires. Gary gets so caught up in the mechanics – the valves aren't closing right in the simulator, the foundation might not be deep enough, the heat distribution system is draining too much energy – and he forgets, amid all the annoying obstacles, why they're doing this.

Gary draws up a preliminary solution to test and calls it a day. It's probably not the final product, but at least it's a step in the right direction, and it'll give Diana a framework to build on when she gets back.

"What is your destination?" The velvety-smooth programmed voice of his car annoys him this time, for some reason.

"My apartment," he says. "That's my apartment in this city, not Glendale, not Baltimore, not wherever else you tried to send me that time last week."

In fairness to the car, his instructions that time hadn't been too clear. Diana was being funny in the passenger seat, doing a dramatic retelling of a comically terrible team-building adventure she'd been on in college, and he was paying far more attention to her than he was to Lacey.

He named his car after an ex-girlfriend, after they broke up. He wonders what he'll end up naming after Diana.

"Your apartment, San Francisco," Lacey confirms helpfully.

There's a pressure in his chest that Gary doesn't expect. It feels empty with no one in the passenger seat. He's tempted to call her in D.C., to put her up on the monitors at home while he heats up dinner and watches the game, because his day is lacking something without seeing her and hearing her talk.

He feels a little guilty about the night before, about fucking a stranger with a stupid name because he was in a mood and Diana was pissing him off. He thinks Diana might do the same, though; they've never promised each other anything, outside of work. She could be playing the role of Mishél right now in D.C., entertaining a stranger from a bar in her hotel room, and Gary would be fine with that.

He would. He should. The white skin of her stomach, her thighs, her hips drives him crazy, he wakes up thinking about it when she's not next to him, but it's not his -- if someone else's hands are on her, someone else's teeth and tongue and cock, he doesn't care.

He thinks about it the whole way home.

His portable rings right as he's pulling into his place, and Lacey patches it through the car speakers.

"Hey, baby," Diana says. Her voice, even just talking, is sexier than Lacey's.

Gary grins. "Thought you weren't talking to me."

He can almost hear the roll of her eyes, the toss of her hair. See the lopsided smirk she gets when she wants to give him a hard time, but is in too good a mood to pull it off. "Hmm, that's right. Are you going to be an ass?"

"Me? Never."

She laughs. "Good. Now let me tell you about how I brought Washington, D.C. to its knees."

He means to transfer the call upstairs to his apartment, but he forgets in the wash of her enthusiasm, and spends the next half-hour in the car, feet on the dashboard, enjoying her company.

Upstairs, he tears up Michél's business card, hesitating only a moment before throwing out the pieces. He feels happy with Diana's voice still ringing in his ears, with the memory of the last time they were in his bed still on his skin, and honestly, happiness isn't something he feels often.

Gary tosses the bits of paper into the recycler. Never again, he thinks. It freaks him out because he never really expected this, but he's found something better.

***


Their relationship isn't a secret, but they take so long establishing whether or it is a relationship or just sex as a natural side effect of collaborative engineering that it seems like they've been together forever by the first time someone mentions it.

Gary notices he's invited to more things now, like Diana's approval has legitimized him despite however many times he's pissed off Doctor Kim or anyone else by insulting the quality of their proposals. It's possible he has stopped being quite so confrontational, too – Diana hasn't has cause to call him a fucking idiot for lighting up a top executive in months. Dissatisfaction and anger are still wrapped up inside him like twin snakes, but he notices them less and, maybe more importantly, he has become a little better about keeping them to himself.

Diana gets pissed off when the test life capsule they're building at Ames is dubbed the honeymoon suite for how much time she and Gary spend in it, but it just makes him fantasize about what it will be like in a few years if they get to go up and see the outpost in situ. He imagines moving in and out of her in low gravity, how light she will be in his hands, how it will feel like they're moving in slow-motion.

"No," she says when he tries to goad her into taking the capsule for a test-run. The interior is half-finished, if not furnished, but walls are still missing and the electrical and piping is exposed everywhere. "You're insane." She's grinning, though, eyes darting side-to-side like they do whenever she's having a devious thought, and he knows she's considering it. Finally, she decides, "No, we can't."

It's not really that heartbreaking. The location is just an added perk, and he's reasonably sure he can talk her into his shower, at least. "Well you owe me, then," he says, glancing around to make sure they're still alone before kissing her cheek just in front of her ear. He's a little fixated on the spot, has been for months now, and isn't sure why. He loves feeling the slide of her jaw muscle against his lips when she talks, he can smell her shampoo, and when he first got in the habit of kissing her there, she said no one ever had before. Her body isn't virgin territory – he doesn't care about that anyway, of course – but that inch of skin is all his.

"I owe you?"

"Mmm-hmm. When it's up on the moon, we'll pull some strings. Invent an unforseen problem with the shutoff valves. We'll have to go up and visit."

Her fingers brush under his jawbone. She's nose to nose with him, so close that her eyes are blurred into impressionist puddles of bright blues. "That's quite a ways out to be planning," Diana points out.

It should freak him out. It does freak him out. It's like the whole world around him has changed, or he's just become a different person over the last six or eight months. He's had relationships before, had girlfriends who gave him regular sex and made the coffee in the mornings, but it's never been like this. He feels like he's free-falling, somehow designing man's most important scientific undertaking in history while he's crashing heart-first into something that feels even bigger than that.

He even told her once, in one of the moments of intense honesty that she somehow brings out of him, "I never thought I had it in me to fall in love." It was four a.m., once when they were too high from a project breakthrough to sleep and they were just laughing in bed together, smiling so hard it hurt while they got each other off and exchanged stories about their biggest research disasters in the past, and he had the weighty thought that he couldn't imagine ever working without her again.

At the time, she just curled closer into him, her blond hair like silk against his cheek, and said, "Well, I'm so glad you were wrong."

Here, in the model, he kisses her, just a peck on the lips. "Baby," he says, and he never thought he'd call someone baby in his life either, but she started it and he picked it up, "you can plan as far out as you want."

He's not this person – he's not the guy who makes declarations, who's breathlessly infatuated, who's capable of seeing himself with another person forever.

He knows, because she's said as much when she's clinging to him after sex, when she shows up at his door after a hard day and he lets her in without hesitation, that she's not that person either.

"You were right when we first met," Diana said once, sitting gloriously naked on the end of his bed while she brushed her hair. "I don't work well in teams, unless I'm in charge. I don't know what it is about you."

He knew she was talking a little bit about the moon outpost, but with them, it has always been both things together – her, and the project.

She says, "I love you," and he knows it means both what she says and let's get back to work.

He can plan for their future adventures in low-gravity coitus as much as he wants in his free time, but right now, they're on deadline.

***


They meet Cara Demetriades once, near the end of the project. Gary has been so deeply dug into the habitat section that he has lost track of most of the rest of the parallel developments – the politics doesn't much interest him anyway – so he doesn't even know what her role is on the lunar outpost project until he asks Warren. Last he heard – over coffee in the break room months ago – was someone saying they'd heard she was pulled from the project for 'unspecified reasons,' which, given that the person saying that was a bit of a gossip-monger, could have meant anything from a bureaucratic reassignment to Cara Demetriades turning out to be an axe-murderer.

"She's in a consulting role," Warren says.

"I don't really care about the moon," Cara adds. It doesn't sound rude at all when she says it, because it's accompanied by a radiant smile that reminds Gary a little of a kid at the circus. "I'm just waiting for this to work, so we can go to Mars."

Diana perks up at that. "You're on the terraforming proposal team, aren't you? I've been pretty buried in the habitat development, but I heard something about that last month."

"She is the terraforming proposal team at this point," Warren says, both admiration and frustration evident in his voice, and Gary recalls the portraits of Mars up in the man's office and how he's always saying the moon is a stepping-stone. It's not really a secret in NASA that the moon might be as far as they get, budget- and success-dependent, but it was never the ultimate goal.

But... "No offense," Gary starts, "but what does terraforming have to do with the moon?"

Diana shoots him her don't start look, but it's half-hearted, since he knows she's probably asking herself the same question. Cara just laughs. "I do a little bit of everything, really. Radiation shielding today, element extraction with the chemists tomorrow." She shrugs.

"Cara's what you might call a renaissance scientist." Warren looks utterly entertained by their guest. Gary has actually never seen him look quite so amused. "I still have no idea how she does it, but we've been stuck on some of these issues for long enough to bring in someone with a new point of view."

Diana looks a little bit offended, like Warren doesn't trust them to get through their creative deadlock on their own, so Gary points out, "I remember you worked on the radiation shielding on Independence." The space station project wasn't even close to a full year ago, but his memories from then feel buried under a metric ton of new information.

"Sometimes the right answer strikes her," Warren says kindly.

Cara rolls her eyes. "Lightning in a teacup," she mixes her metaphors. "So where's your honeymoon suite I've been hearing about?"

"We're not calling it that," Diana interjects.

Gary has his doubts about anyone's ability to productively contribute to such different, specialized fields, especially when that someone has the general appearance of a long-haired, flowy-dressed hippie, but he's curious enough to keep his opinions to himself and watches her work.

That morning, he probably would have said Diana was the smartest woman he'd ever met (though he wouldn't necessarily have said it out loud – he loves her, but the last thing he needs to do is feed her ego), but he thinks Cara might be in a whole other orbit. He doesn't have the first clue what she's doing when she first starts, gathering disparate data from all over the place and talking into the computer reference bank at a mile a minute, but it only takes her an all-nighter, two pots of coffee, and sixteen hours to solve the solar radiation shielding leaks they've been banging their heads against for months. Where Diana always seamlessly grounds her theories from the bottom up so her conclusions are pretty much inarguable, Cara seems to come at it the finished product from some unseen angle. From the outside, it looks like she's shaking the answers from her sleeves in a random order, plucking her facts out of thin air.

Her designs are messy, with scribbled spaces left to fill in details she must consider mundane, but the fundamental theory is genius.

"You're kidding," Diana says. There are dark circles under her eyes from not sleeping, and she frowns in concentration.

"You almost had it," Cara declares benevolently. "We'll get the bio-team on this, but I've been working with genetically modifying moss and lichens for years now. We're already testing this inside the space station. Plus, no need for paint."

"I'm no expert here," Gary says, "but won't it take a while for this stuff to grow on the inside of the walls?" Not to mention the issues of humidity, climate balance, the change to the structure of the interior walls to allow for irrigation and grip...

"Hmm." Cara shrugs. She still looks charged with manic energy, giving Gary the feeling that she could go for another few all-nighters without even slowing down. "Well, moss is fast, under the right conditions. And this isn't your primary source of radiation absorption or oxygen production, so... I'm not sure. Hopefully the botanists or somebody can figure it out. Fast-growing strains are good, anyway, so your shield is self-replenishing. Anyway, congratulations!" She beams at both of them, like she had nothing to do it. "This life capsule is really revolutionary."

Warren comes by to take Cara to lunch, and Diana and Gary are left staring at her alterations to their design. Honestly, Gary's not quite sure how Diana will react – she's as proud of her work as Gary is of his, and not only does she dislike other people touching or critiquing it, she doesn't like being out-smarted at anything.

Diana spends a moment examining the holographic rendering from all angles. "That was impressive."

"And bizarre," he adds as either a helpful pat for her ego or his honest disbelief over what just happened. "This is going to be a pain in the ass, though. Total redraw of the hydro system, and a massive drain on the water resources. It brings up a lot more problems than it solves. Although, Ms. Lightning in a Teacup may be jumping a few steps, because this would work much better on Mars, where there's at least the possibility of mining H2O."

"I agree, this won't be as easy as just painting some genetically modified goop on the walls. But..." Diana leans closer to the model. Her eyes are bright with the enthusiasm of a new idea. He loves that on her. "This whole section is a little overboard, but if we can put this together... wait, wait, wait. Bring up the hydro system map. Remember the problem we were having with pressurizing over the shutoffs? Don't just stand there." She snaps her fingers without looking up. It's one of her more obnoxious habits, but he can't hold it against her when it usually comes about three or four hours before a major breakthrough.

"Why do you even need me here? I can just sit back and watch the women do all the work." He's a little punchy on the lack of sleep, but he brings up the schematic she wants and can even guess where she's going with it.

"You wish," Diana says. "Okay, we'll start here, with the basic framework." She looks up at him and winks, so he knows she's joking, before she adds, "You and your Y chromosome should try to keep up."

***


They make the deadline.

There is still work to do up until and probably after the outpost is built and situated on the moon, but they did it.

"Yes!" Diana keeps saying, poring over the drawings again and again looking for any last-minute mistakes they and the twelve other planning divisions didn't catch.

Gary's as surprised as anyone that this is actually going to work, and he still has his doubts about whether or not some pencil-pusher will change the budget or the requirements on them at the last minute, but his pessimism is easily absorbed in Diana's arms around his neck, her lips pressed to his in congratulations in the middle of the habitat dedication.

Someone in Jane Wilder's public relations hurricane catches the moment, and their picture is splashed across the news feeds. Diana's too proud of their accomplishment to be embarrassed, and he – well, there's something deep in the animal male part of his brain that makes his chest want to puff up when he sees that picture. He knows her smile as she's kissing him is more about the science than their relationship at that moment, but it still does his pride good to put the rest of the male population on notice.

She might be, as the news is calling her, one of the greatest minds of her generation (and he's getting the same praise, which is a whole other sort of ego boost), but she's also his. The nation's current swell of fascination with space travel makes them stars for a day, doing the news circuit under the watchful eye of NASA's PR team.

The morning host of America Now comes to San Francisco to see the model of one of the Acton-Jacobsen Life Capsule modules. Diana's more photogenic than he is, and probably considered less of a risk by the PR team, so the camera and interview is mostly directed to her. At one point, the host looks at the plaque Jane Wilder had put up in the module for the shoot.

"Acton-Jacobsen," he comments. "Does that give you two any ideas?"

Diana blushes on camera, and Gary is way too interested in her reaction. He can't imagine what the camera could see in his face, if it were aimed at him.

"We have a very strong partnership," is Diana's diplomatic response, but her hand slips over to brush against his, possibly without her even realizing it, and his stomach tightens with anticipation or fear or the feeling like he's standing in the path of a train. He still feels that old unrest within him, urging him to do act rashly, to do stupid things, to pick hell-raising fights with her and earn a few more official warnings for his attitude and get too drunk and too close to other women at bars, but he thinks – maybe – Diana can tame that. He has changed so much already, just being around her.

The vid host shakes both their hands. "Well, I'm sure you'll continue to do great things together. I saw the posters."

The camera pans over to where some of the scientists or techs put up their latest unofficial slogan: Next Stop: Mars!

The camera shuts off as they go to find the official NASA mouthpieces for better quotes, but Gary grabs Diana's hand before she can go back to the lab.

"If we do get married," she says, a laugh thick in her voice, "I'm not changing my name." Her cheeks are still flushed. They've never joked about it before. He's not the marrying kind; he doesn't even know if she wants that. They only talk about their careers, as tangled together as those have become lately.

"Let's do it," Gary says.

"What?" Her jaw drops. "You aren't- are you-?"

Fuck, fuck, fuck, some part of him thinks, some part of him that's screaming and not ready and never could have imagined this with anyone but her. She's his equal; the only woman like her that he's ever met. "I'm totally serious." His voice is low, sounding a lot more certain than he feels. "What would it really change?"

A hundred expressions chase themselves across her face – surprise, confusion, disbelief, affection, joy. "It would change a lot."

Her fingers tangled with his at some point, squeezing his hand to the point of discomfort. "Well," he says, "I'm up for it if you are."

Diana smiles. She has never once backed down from a challenge. "Yes. Let's do it."

He hugs her, lets the warm strength of her body chase away that feeling of a train bearing down on him.

"I love you, baby," she whispers. A hot tear drops to his neck, and he holds her tighter. And, like she has said a hundred times in the last week: "We did it."

"Let's get out of here," he suggests, and without hesitation she leaves the handheld computer with all her work notes in the model and lets him lead her out of the building, his arm wrapped around her shoulders.

It feels different when they make love this time. His eyes never leave hers, and he wonders, his heart racing, how else she will change him, how far he can fall, what they'll become.

She's right, he realizes, as he watches her face when she comes, freezing the moment in his mind of Diana, naked and beautiful, saying yes.

She's right. The news site headlines are right, talking about the first sustainable longterm habitat built for outer space. This changes everything.

***
 
 
 
fyca: Moni smile yellowfyca on November 22nd, 2010 08:31 pm (UTC)
Mmm Annabeth and her radiant smile! Love this show!
peanutbutterer: Holy crappeanutbutterer on November 23rd, 2010 07:18 am (UTC)
OH MY GOSH.

You are so fabulous. You know that, right?

I just cannot describe how much I love your writing - all of it, everything. Come for the S/W, stay for the mad skills. I am fascinated by your characters, by your world, and by your science. How do you know all that science?! I am impressed.

I thought I'd just be waiting for the Tori/Joe parts, but I am hooked on every new character you introduce. And these two! Your character bible tells me they are going to break up and that is crushing! But I am going to hope they have angst galore on Mars that eventually leads to ironing things out. ;)

The PR thing is such a great element - the reality shows and the way they use the public's love of drama and a good story in order to garner positive opinion and funds. Masterful.

And the tempest in a teacup! I'm anxious to see more of her! And Lacey, the car! So much good stuff.

I really can't wait for more.