Chapter One - #1 - 25
Nixon had already glimpsed the approaching man, hair like a virginal match head, in the warped silver mirrors and pottery of artisan shops, aquarium emporiums lining the market, acting solid and manmade against the orange-red dust. Sensible dark denim, hardly scuffed, white shirt, snappy blue tie. Sore thumb.
"That'd be me."
"Dick Winters." Nixon tucked the rolled parchment beneath his arm, tonguing his cigarette 'til it tilted away, and returned the firm handshake. "I have to say, there is quite the family resemblance."
He smiled hollowly beneath the rust-smell sunshine of Mars in summer. "I'm working on that."
One hour later, mission parameters were set. Winters, recommended to the eldest son by dear ol' dad, sought a cartographer to complete a comprehensive atlas of the newly discovered solar system, Black Celos. Nixon introduced his new partner in enterprise secondhand cold-fusion starship, a pre-Apple-Warner-merger creation, affectionately as 'Greta.' When Winters commented on the lack of nose art, Nixon chuckled and asked, "And what would you suggest? Maybe some dream of a blonde? Greta's a classy ship."
Still, the edges of the flare-proof windshield were plastered with transparent sticker pin-ups casting red and flesh-colors over the control panel.
"I heard you were a reliable cartographer, that's all." Winters—"Dick," he'd insist—unpacked mathematically. Clothes, sun-gear, ties, Corcoran density boots all neat and arranged, photographs pinned up, hard-bound encyclopedias, dictionaries, logbooks, and sketchbooks by the ton poured out onto the blue bedcover. An ancient mint tin rattling with goddamn ink pens.
"Yeah," Nixon grunted, choked by suspicion. "But I'm hardly the best. My equipment isn't either. I fund and maintain everything myself out of my own pocket. Not one red cent comes from him."
"I just thought you'd be best for the job."
"Well, better be right, for everyone's sake."
Smooth launch. Nixon rewarded himself after programming the first seventy-two flight hours with a tumbler of whiskey in the cockpit. Winters seemed perfectly capable of entertaining himself for a stint—and fetching the pilot if anything red started to flash and wail—so he clamored onto his disheveled bed, snapped off the lights, and dozed dizzily for hours. Technically, in space travel, no days nor nights nor mornings existed. Only one, continuous starlit momentum shooting in the dark. Morning was whenever he damn well wished it were morning.
Some time later, Nixon rustled another VAT container from the hold and drank.
"Eject the electric fuser, would you?" the pilot's disjointed radio voice crackled. "Please and thanks," he added.
Dick tapped affirmative buzzes on the comm. Placed the serpentine gun in the air lock, secured the wires to the Günter electro-spring, and punched the obvious, throbbing red LAUNCH button. Greta spat a length green and white hose and adjustable electric nozzle into nothingness with a soundless spray of steam. Through the observation window, Nixon fused the wing's loose solar panel to the hull in a pseudo-Gundam skintight flight suit against the shrinking light of the sun, rather handsome in a canary visor.
Nixon found Dick on the viewing deck sketching asteroids as Greta danced automatically through the belt. They were crossing from the inner planets to the outer, approaching unregulated space where they could jump to Black Celos. No more days of seemingly motionless travel. Nixon peered curiously over his shoulder. "Hey, pretty good, Picasso."
He chuckled and kept on drawing. "Cubism is not what I was going for."
"Oh, is there some other 'ism' you're trying for?"
Nixon still smiled at his biting dry humor as he idled hours later in the cockpit, waiting to shoot out of the asteroids.
With Greta's belly stocked in fuel, Insta-Food, and ancient scotch whiskey, her hull trembled in anticipation for jump. Nixon decided to announce, "Please keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle and buckle up!" via the crackling C.B. system to an otherwise empty ship. Dick, ever the diligent student, tugged his fasten tight.
"Traditionally, you know," Nixon added "I always play her good luck song before jumping."
So they bulleted through nothingness to Benny Kreuger crooning, "Gosh darn, just when the heaven clears, gosh darn, you's ups and disappears. Gosh darn, I'm on—you slipped my hand like oodles of sand…"
Feeling time-space hiccupping around them, contracting, withdrawing like stung flesh to let Greta weasel her way through, was not easy to acclimate to. Stars disappeared, and the void outside was something deeper than dark that human eyes couldn't recognize. Dick felt his chest tightening and fingertips numbing, as if his blood were hardening. He hadn't adapted to civilian time-space-travel symptoms just yet.
Nixon noticed Dick going green around the gills and reached across to take his wrist—knuckles gripping white on the seat. Dick just squeezed and grit his teeth. Poor greenhorn blacked-out as they entered physical space again.
Carting the space-sick Winters off to convalesce in bed proved easy enough in zero gravity.
Black Celos revolved around a hot-burning pair of yellow dwarf suns caught in perpetual courtship, dotted with numerous solid planets and a single massive gaseous one. Swirled with black, royal purple, and tinny rust brown. Nixon counted seven blue blips on the gammadar circling the twin suns, three within spitting distance of the Goldilocks range. Possibly life-sustainable. They'd entered on the fringe of the solar system—unaware where asteroid fields may lie—and Greta used her jumping momentum to coast relatively quickly towards the nearest planet.
Plotting three dimensions of space, especially space vast as an entire unspoiled solar system, conventionally occurred with a combination of gammadar mapping, digital modeling, and a whole hell'a'lot of physics-crunching-into-coding kind of math Nixon didn't care for. Results: flickery, transparent projections maps possessing no sex appeal, no tactile reward. Unfortunately, doing things the old-fashioned way, all the aforementioned, only hand-plotted on paper, took much, much longer. Heirloom ship, antiquated cartography, and pre-space-colony music.
Nixon even stubbornly pumped Earth-caliber gravity into his workroom, Winters noticed when—still half-nauseated—he attempted to float inside and stumbled over an ottoman stacked with paper.
11#Slow Death/pointe shoes
"Sorry," Dick said, winded from his fall. Settled into a high-backed armchair and relished the gravity.
"Don't worry, you'll find your space legs soon," Nixon reassured him. "Roughly a week before landfall on planet number seven, so there's time. And luckily for you, no one else to see you faint in the meantime."
"Thanks. Appreciate it."
"What is a land-lubber like you doing mapping the far corners of space, anyway? One of those terrified we're slowly and surely killing the Earth and need another to fuck up?" Nixon joked.
"No," Winters chuckled. "I know we're killing the Earth."
The more Nixon—Lewis, son of commercial starship mogul Stanhope—spoke of and defamed his famous bloodline along the star-trip, the more Winters grew to understand him.
"It's your lake, isn't it?"
The pilot-cartographer to Winters' passenger-contractor continued to eat his twice-zapped PoTayToe!® with a smirk. Beckoned "Please, do continue," in his silent, smarmy way.
"It's an isolated lake, a cabin of seclusion where you can clear your head. That's why you're here in space. Emerson lived in a cabin and wrote sense into life, and you float in nothingness and map the void."
Nixon smiled, PoTayToe!® devoured. "Yeah, sure. A lake."
Out of curiosity, Nixon justified tapping into the computer database to find out what 'nighttime' audio series Winters had programmed for his sleeping quarters. Solely out of curiosity. Not some subconscious desire to experience it himself—though he knew he did. Admittedly star-trips were long and lonely affairs—silent as stars, artificially lit, and exhaustive—and Winters was attractive, even if stunningly sober. Wore ties in low gravity, a warped pre-colony kind of glamour.
Scrolled through options until he accessed Starboard Cabin 2, pressed play. Nixon listened to a live feed of ambient nature, cicadas, wind, and the reassuring organic hum of life.
Annoyingly, the reducer film in Nixon's visor had eroded at the edges since last use. "Don't want my eyeballs roasting in my head," he said as he sat in the dimmed airlock and scratched the faulty one from the glass with a flat pick. Handsome canary yellow peeled off like an apple peel and a new, cherry red roll glinting as it shifted.
Wearing the spare suit and staring at the vacuum-sealed door, Dick remained stone still, honestly a bit terrified of the world outside.
"Don't worry," Nixon reassured him.
Dick wondered if the reducer film could amplify greenhorn thoughts.
Planet 7, Outermost. Black Celos' twin suns looked down as tiny, furious, lidless eyes. Nixon busily tapped, adjusted, and readjusted his handheld sensor and recorded a rainbow of readings for mapping addendum—necessary facts about the planet like atmosphere, temperature, composition. Snatching little trinkets of stone and dislodged glassy ice. Side by side and still tethered to Greta's thrumming hull, they went out searching for information, seeking a royal audience with the planet's frozen secrets.
Nixon slipped on the glassy, iced ground, engrossed in collection and teeth clattering together. Dick automatically caught him by the elbow and steered him along.
"Unlucky Six," Nixon announced oddly, apropos a kick and thud of gravity generators in the study. "That's its name."
Winters' lip twitched. Nixon awaited his judgment.
"Three days. Almost pitiful."
"Three days is more than enough time to run through all the cliché names." Winters flipped his page, continued reading across the leveled drafting table. "The planet deserves a more original title than that."
"Remind me who died on this ship and designated you Name-Giver Of All Things."
Humor infected Nixon's unwilling voice. Winters smiled and inhaled the scent of flattened oak paper, the smell of a faraway home.
"The months go so fast."
"Good company helps." Dick watched Planet 1 swoop into view and took another sip of coffee.
Nixon snorted, absently tapping his info clipboard. Planets 3 and 2 proved less hospitable than previously thought. Coming up was a tiny, wet green gem Nixon had already named, but not run by his partner yet.
"So, I was thinking—" Nixon started. Took a long pause, let the clipboard float away, shook his head. "I was thinking, what about calling it Fonticulus?"
Winter's lips hardly ever seemed to separate into a grin, but today they did. "Little fountain?"
Nixon got tremendously bored waiting for Fonticulus's blustery clouds to clear up. Sure, outside actual, breathable air blew about, tossing around uncannily green plant life, but the planet essentially was just that. Green, waving grass and nothing but yet. Winters sat all eighteen hours of the day, letting the double-sun light glow through the clouds and warm his face. Drawing, sighing, looking at the sky as if he could still wonder what floated beyond it.
Nixon grew bored of watching him and wanting to join him more than anything. When he finally came in, to eat, drink, or grab sketchbooks, Nixon watched him and said nothing. Let him sleep outside until their last night there.
Greta sputtered along at creep-crawl, almost-light speed. Nixon slept, woke to sluggish oceans floating by, with big, frozen fish that barely seemed to move or breathe. Their eyes turning planets, their mouths the gaping black of nothingness. The floating view through his window, perched above his skinny cot, was quite romantic. After shaking loose his dreams he saw nothing but slow-creeping stars and for a minute was fluid like oxygen, spreading to touch every molecule possible before dissipating.
Nixon sat up, and, against the glow of vid-screens programmed to pulse drowsy blue, saw the chair near the bed had moved.
The drifting ride free of the planet's gravity was quiet. Beyond that, they could jump home. For all the days and weeks they'd spent creeping towards their destination, they now could blink and be in familiar territory. Something like home. As if evicted, Winters silently, almost sadly packed. Rolled up parchments Nixon had labored with pen and ink, tucked away polished Corcoran boots, folded up clothes hardly wrinkled in the poverty of gravity. Float-stepped in the unregulated corridors, readying himself for a later departure.
Nixon kicked the record button and reclined, cradling the receiver.
"About a day's putter away jumping area. Whirlwind of a passenger's been cleaning every rusty inch. Can see my desk now. Amazing how much of it there is under all that stuff. When we get back, might offer him a job as the maid or something, Greta's so damn clean now. Dropping him off on Earth. Not staying long enough to fall into Dad's radar—should visit Mom. Maybe Dick knows New York. Maybe not. Well, if he passes the 'Meet the Parent' test, maybe I can buck up and just…"
An unfortunate collision with an asteroid had permanently (as in Nixon couldn't yet afford a replacement) dented Greta's docking tunnel. Dick bent crooked to pass under the low, jagged ceiling, rolling his luggage behind him. Clank-whirrrrrr-clank-clank-whirrrrrr.
"No, I haven't."
Nixon tries to sound casual, but has to raise his voice as they approach the port doors. People chatter on inside. "Well, don't run off as soon as we hit dirt. I could take you and show you around if you like."
Tinny yellow light through the port window paints Dick's smile nicotine-stained. "I think I would. A reward for a successful trip."
Coffee-flavored smoke billowed up, steam rising off buildings, rain-touched hems swishing ahead and behind in an uncanny ocean of life. After the giant nothing of space, the immediate everything of New York, New York was overwhelming. Everything touched everything else, including Nixon's hand supporting his elbow as they walk along. Through his tweed jacket he felt it. Five fingertips clenching, clinging for life.
"Oh, we're here," Nixon said. He pulled them into an alcove from the human river—the stoop of his loft building. "Jesus, I really have been away a while. I don't think I even recognize it anymore."
The lower building was empty. There were boxes draped with sheets like something once was, but Nixon lead them upstairs. His apartment was suitably lux, but blanketed with dust. His brows hooked together and, grimacing, he read a note stuck to the kitchen island.
"Goddamn Kathy. She didn't stay longer than a week," he complained, snuffling in the musty air. "Well, if she wants any house-sitting pay, she can jump into the Hudson." Winters watched a flash of disappointment, resignation settle in, seeing his dim, stale home and hardly feeling at home. Despite it, he smiles. "Want anything to drink?"
It isn't until the city goes dark that Nix noticed. "Wait, it's Christmas?"
White and gold lights strung through the city, exultant. "The passing of December escaped you?"
"We were across the galaxy. Pagan holidays with fat men in red wool bearing gifts are kind of a localized deal, I think."
Winters accepted another refill of milk, took a hearty swig. "Light years pass when you're having fun," he chuckled, sensing he wore a thin milk moustache. Both were sitting on the couch when, pleased and accomplished, Dick turned to offer a toast—Nixon wiped it off with his thumb.
Gravity was welcome. Nixon fell into his untouched bed with Dick Winters pushing down and it heaved a welcome with a puff of dust. Nearly punched each other, knocking elbows, in the rush to touch. Their middle ground was Nixon running his mouth and tongue along that long, horsy neck while that kind of straight-laced client became a little less straight. Totally sober, but kind of clumsily, carefully grinding against his hip like he weren't. Touching the head of his cock through his jeans they would have could Nixon gotten Dry Dick to take a little alcohol in those nine floaty months.
Dick woke up with beard burn where Nixon had bit and kissed along his neck and the strawberry-red patch where he now burrowed into his collarbone. They were an interesting equation of clothing. Nix still wore the battered t-shirt of last night, a little more tattered now—nothing else. There was still feeling in his toes so Dick had retained his socks, but the rest were tangled up in the sheets at the foot of the bed. Sheets definitely touching no part of either of them.
Dick twitched, one arm trapped under Nix, the other over his neck, their pulse points bopping together. "Nix."
"You gotta move."
To this the mogul's son whined, "Nuh-uh," and tightened around him.
"We need some blankets, that's all."
The drowsy ice-cream-colored light came through each windowpane, cloudy and sleepy. Paper-white snow fluttered down. It wasn't really originally meant to be a bedroom, walls composed of nothing but old blue windowpanes facing the city. Nixon's king-sized bed was the sole object in it, centered on the creaky yellowed floorboards. And in the center of that was the bedraggled man of the house, wrapped up in the blankets save his wild head of dark hair, watching snow settle in on New York. Noticing Dick's weight on the talkative floorboard, leaning on the doorframe, he asked,
"Was that my Christmas present?"