14 HOURS TO LAUNCH
Chrissy Nedley brushed her hands down her pantsuit for the fifth time that hour. “How do I look?”
“Very professional,” the aide responded quietly, “Must be a dozen or more out there. Remember, it’s not a race. If they try to trip you up, give yourself an extra fifteen seconds to figure an answer.”
“Got it.” Chrissy sighed and ran a hand through long brown hair, failing to understand why the media had latched on so readily to this whole isolation idea. A monumental day in spaceflight history and they wanted to know more about the two astronauts on ‘janitor duty’ as some around the office called it. Well, it would be unfair to Waverly to not take advantage and try to paint her in a good light. She deserved the best. If they wanted a big deal out of this, Chrissy would give them a big deal.
Chrissy stepped out onto the stage.
MARS BASE ONE, MARS
Waverly knew engineers.
Well, of course she knew engineers -- Goodness, she worked with them almost twenty-four-seven for years--but she also knew them. She had dated one, for pete’s sake, (albeit one that failed to graduate) and knew every variation of their stupid jokes and pick up lines -- hey, wanna screw? I’d love to view your schematics -- to decide that she was done with their entire… entirety.
The least worst were the aerospace (environmental wasn’t that bad either but they hardly counted as engineers) ones, since they’re literally the only reason she survived all that nonsense in space, but the worst of the worst…
Somebody out there decided that they were going to put a bunch of metal together and make it think. Oh, of course the psychological evaluations applied words such as Phobia or Childhood Event Driven Avoidance, but the fact of the matter was: That ain’t right.
It didn’t help that the entire time during her multiple biology degrees she had been jeered at by engineering students. Fine, she ended up snapping at them, you can just starve to death. Good luck colonizing a planet without any food. They had been more surprised that she could actually get angry and talk than they had by the actual words. Waverly supposed they didn’t understand words such as ‘colonization’ and ‘food.’
Suffice to say, she didn’t like any of them.
And Waverly had to work with one of them for the next one hundred and eighty days.
“You sure you don’t want to see this? She’s fuckin’ hot as all get out,” one of the insufferable engineers who had flown with her commented. Months in space and she hadn't bothered to remember his name.
“No,” Waverly replied flatly while checking the greenhouse was properly disconnected. She waved the man away. “I have actual work to be doing.” It wasn’t technically a lie, but this guy had been getting on her nerves. She’d already seen Nicole Haught, thank you, and honestly would like to avoid the subject if at all possible.
“‘Commander’ Nicole Haught,” the tech continued, lounging against the support pole and gazing with wide eyes at his tablet, “Dude. Do you think she likes to be called Commander in bed?”
Waverly choked on her tea, sputtering, stumbling back from the control panel so she didn’t accidentally fuck things up.
“Oh, fuck! Dave!” the tech scuttled off for the medic, unaccustomed to normal human things like drinking things wrong. “I killed Earp, Dave!”
MARS ALPHA BASE, MARS
Nicole stood frozen in the middle of the main living space, staring blankly at her tablet. Around her, her crew mates worked non-stop to bring in delicate equipment fresh from the old base. Currently, she was on break from piloting the rovers.
The base itself was massive compared to the old one. A maximum of twenty astronauts could live comfortably in the double-airlock underground base, composed in three wings and made up of simple square rooms. It even had a small gym! To Nicole, it was home. She'd been here an incredibly long time for an Ares astronaut and remembered living in the cramped canvas spaces of Mars Base One, listening to the howl of dust storms and wondering if this was the day the canvas would give out.
“That’s not good,” Nicole said quietly, “That’s really not good.”
“What?” Nedley asked. He walked over and tried to get a glance at what Nicole was talking about, only for Nicole to jump backward to hide it. “Problem, Haught? One of the rovers get stuck?”
“No, sir.” Just that the person you’ve put me with for the next one hundred and eighty days is the most beautiful human being I’ve ever seen in my life, as well as the fact if I fuck this up I will be in so much trouble they’ll probably just leave me here, captain. No pressure. “Just.” She took a deep breath and gave a pained smile. “Trying to get a handle on the fact I’ll be stuck here while you guys get drinks on Earth.”
“Oh. I thought you were concerned about ruining the mission while being six months from help.” He patted her on the shoulder and continued the preparations. “Let’s go talk about the shipments.”
“Right.” Nicole grimaced. Break time over, then. “Right.”
Chrissy tried not to get distracted as a latecomer tried to stack their tiny microphone on the others and failed. She faced a wall of reporters, back straight and nervous as all hell. Fuck this up and her promotion was as good as gone.
No pressure at all, really.
“As you all know,” Chrissy began, her voice shaking at first then going steady, “In fourteen hours, Mars and Earth will enter the brief window of time where we will be able to perform a Hohmann transfer of one hundred and eighty some days. Ares 24 will be launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard the Iris, and Ares 23 and 22 will be launching from Landing Zone Cerberus aboard the Hermes, after leaving tonnes of valuable equipment and two people behind."
God, it was hot. Chrissy silently cursed the entirety of Texas as the crowd politely clapped.
“Nicole Haught, an expert in engineering and computer science and a veteran of the planet, will be left alongside Waverly Earp, a brilliant scientist of ecology and biological science, to remain on the planet alone for one hundred and eighty days to ensure Mars Alpha Base, our recently constructed under ground permanent base, remains online following the discontinuation of Mars Base One, which is being discontinued per the required retirement dates of the inflatable canvas used. Questions?”
A thin man raised his hand. Chrissy nodded and he spoke up, “Is it true that this will be recorded as an isolation study on psychology?”
Chrissy caught herself before she lost her cool. “To do so would be extremely unethical. Next question.”
“Isn’t it true they’re the youngest astronauts since Sally Ride?”
“Well,” Chrissy smiled brilliantly, “They’re certain to be the youngest on Mars in fourteen hours.”
Pity laughs. Chrissy cleared her throat. “At age twenty-eight and thirty-two, yes, they are young for astronauts and for this mission. I, and the rest of us at CSA and NASA, have nothing but faith in them. And the youngest person in space was age twenty-six, Gherman Titov. Don’t discount Russia. Next question?”
“Is NASA concerned about the risks of the mission? Two people, alone, six months from help? What if one of them gets hurt? Ares 5 was only fifteen years ago.”
Chrissy paused a moment to collect herself, recognizing that the public didn’t have the same blase attitude those in the office had. “We have nothing but faith in our two volunteers. They are among humanity’s finest, and perfect for the job with their combined skill set and the entirety of Mission Control fourteen minutes behind them. We expect the duration of the mission to be completed without issue.”
EIGHT HOURS TO LAUNCH
MARS ALPHA BASE, MARS
“So how does it feel overseeing your first rocket launch, ‘Flight Director?’” Teddy asked, sitting down with some fake coffee in the expansive living space of Mars Alpha Base. They had been friends since day one of training, making it through some awful low points together in a way Nicole would always be grateful for.
“Not as exciting as my fourteen-year-old self thought it’d be,” Nicole responded, rubbing her temples with exhaustion, “There’s not a single thing I get to do except read from a clock and report altitude.”
“Wo-ow, someone’s grumpy.” Teddy poked her arm. “You’re a commander now. Cheer up. Basically queen of the planet, that.”
“In eight hours.” Nicole sipped her own coffee and gestured to the map of Mars on her tablet. Three marks on this barren planet. The two bases, one of which would be turned off in under six hours, and the landing zone. “Look upon my works and despair.” She sighed at her own tone. “Listen, I’ve been awake for over twenty-four hours piloting glorified cargo trucks across barren desert, Teddy. Give me a break, please.”
Teddy’s insufferable smile only widened as he leaned on his elbow. “You know, my sister has your poster in her bedroom.” Nicole failed to react so he dropped the jokes. “When you finally get back to Earth, you’ll be the longest to stay on Mars, ever. How’s that feel?”
“Alien,” Nicole replied without looking up.
“I’m so glad we’re leaving you here.”
MARS BASE ONE, MARS
“Wait, wait, you’ve never met her before and you’re going to be with this person for a hundred and eighty days? She could be a serial killer.” Wynonna asked in disbelief. “Seriously, baby girl, astronauts are a special kind of crazy, but I didn’t expect this level of crazy.” She shifted awkwardly in the camera frame, pausing briefly to look pained. She spoke again, voice softer this time, “And no comment from Dad, sorry. Willa says good luck. And I say the same, Waverly. When you get back, I’ll be here.”
Waverly stirred her tea, considering her response. “Wynonna, if she was a serial killer, she wouldn’t be on Mars with the lowest number of possible victims. If you’re really that concerned, you can hang out in Houston. Bother them to let you call me all the time. I’ll be fine, Wy. I’ll see you eventually. And tell them --” I still resent them for everything “-- I… wish them the best.” Waverly gave a pained smile. “I’ve got to start driving soon, Wy. I’ll send you a message after the launch, okay?”
Waverly left and ignored nearby packing to head to the empty greenhouse for some time alone.
Commander Gardner caught her. He stood in the doorway, watching without a word or ounce of sympathy. Waverly stood quickly and wiped her eyes, turning to address the disturbing man she’d been stuck with in a tin can for months. His son, who somehow managed to keep his job a LBJ despite numerous harassment complaints, didn't fall far from the tree. Soon, she’d be free of him and his creepy silence.
“Yes?” Waverly asked, voice rough.
“You have a long drive. Better get started.” He left without another word.
“Asshole,” Waverly commented under her breath. Not that he’d done anything except be really, really bizarre. She wished Ares 22 luck in dealing with her crewmates. Give a few engineers the task of a special flight, and they become ridiculously arrogant. And… weirdly creepy.
Shaking her head, Waverly grabbed her suit and headed out the airlock. Before she went on the agonizing ride in a tiny rover, there was something she needed to witness.
Seven billion people in a tiny, tiny dot on the horizon. Waverly waited for the sense of isolation to hit her fully and felt disappointed. Where was the crushing sense of pressure? Even after a week here, all she felt was excitement. Finally. Finally , her chance. Waverly buzzed with Chrissy’s words from the earlier broadcast: Humanity’s finest.
The same tech caught Waverly standing still and walked over. He patted her shoulder, misattributing her silence to discomfort. “You good, kid?”
Waverly grimaced behind her visor and swallowed a bitter comment at being called a ‘kid.’ At least this guy would finally leave her alone. Waverly laughed slightly at that and nodded though he couldn’t see. “Yeah... I’m great, actually.”
“Well, good.” The tech turned and left, leaving Waverly to watch in silence as her crew accelerated into the distance to Cerberus. Waverly leaned back against her own transport, a tiny two person rover, and let the weight of the mission slough off her shoulders. Just for a moment. She turned and looked up at the sky, mixtures of relief and excitement tangling with anxiety.
TWO HOURS TO LAUNCH
MARS ALPHA BASE
12:00 Mission Control: Confirmed, go for disconnect. Goodnight, Mars Base One.
12:15 Mars Base One: Goodnight, Houston.
@MarsBaseOne: After seventeen years of operation as humanity’s temporary base on Mars, Mars Base One has gone offline. Goodnight, Earth!
“Seriously?” Nicole asked, putting down her tablet to hit Transmit. She scowled out the two massive windows that overlooked the communications area of Mars Alpha Base. The familiar red desert glared back at her without comment. “They gave us twitter accounts?”
“Yep,” Nedley responded from outside before shutting the door to the rover. They had an hour ride to Landing Zone Cerberus. “Good luck, Nicole. We’re rooting for you.”
A hundred comments flew to Nicole’s mind and she shut them away with a sigh. Nedley wasn’t a talk-about-our-feelings kinda guy, but still the closest thing to a father figure she'd gotten in a long time. “Good luck, Nedley. Have a safe flight.” Meanwhile, she typed out a response to Chrissy, a woman who was apparently part of PR: HaughtOnMars.
Approximately fourteen minutes later, Chrissy: Clever! Got it. Picture’s gonna be the one with the hat. And relax, it’ll be fun. Consider it an educational thing, as well as a communication systems test.
Waverly was belting out Aretha Franklin when she almost drove off into a ditch. She slammed the brakes as an unfamiliar voice broadcast to all vehicles.
“Flight director present. Requesting status of Martian Ascent Vehicle, time marked at 12:36 Martian Time. Launch scheduled for 14:00.”
Holy shit. Nicole Haught sounded like that?
“Roger that, Alpha Base. Commander Nedley responding. Both crews at the pad and tests in progress,” a gruff voice responded as Waverly unabashedly stared out into the desert, thoughts overwhelmed with various curse words.
“Flight Director also requesting status of en-route vehicle, Waverly Earp piloting.”
Waverly barely registered her name. Panic was thundering through her, the first time she’d recognized shit, I’m alone with a single other person on this planet, and things cannot go wrong, and they are already going wrong. Waverly could not have any kind of interest in her future colleague, none at all. She was twenty-eight and was working on her thesis. She recognized attraction when she felt it.
“Waverly?” asked the stupid, awful soft voice again, now even softer.
The only option: Cut any sort of familiar ties that started to the bone. No Waverly, no Nicole, only Earp and Haught. Focus on the reasons to hate, not to like. There were quite a few, in fact.
Number one: Air Force. Waverly despised anything to do with weapons. Waverly scowled.
“Waverly Earp responding, Flight Director,” she responded evenly, “No issues.”
TEN MINUTES TO LAUNCH
Thousands of eyes turned to their televisions, watching a singular rocket on a pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Mercifully, the weather had remained clear. The Iris, fully fueled, waited in orbit for the ascent vehicle and fresh crew of Ares 24.
Only four watched the one on Mars without the 14 and a half minute delay. The ascent vehicle would rise as a tiny object in Waverly’s vision, reconnect with Hermes, and begin its journey to Earth. Exciting, for some -- The Hermes was on its final flight and the Iris would begin its first. In fact, it was monumental. Waverly and Nicole existed only in the shadow of the duo launch. Janitor duty, as some of her colleagues called it. Heaven for Waverly Earp.
Waverly leaned back against her rover, gazing into the empty desert. The deep silence comforted her and she stretched her legs (as much as she could in her awful spacesuit. Years of progress and they were still bulky and awkward. Science had failed, in Waverly’s opinion.)
She spent the next few minutes before the launch stacking up rocks for a rough chair. The dull repetitive checks on the radio eventually came to an end:
“Alpha Base, this is launch control, we are go for launch,” Nedley announced.
“This is flight,” came the authoritative voice of Nicole Haught, “We are go for launch on schedule. Houston confirmed.”
“Roger that, Alpha Base,” Nedley returned, “Launch on schedule.”
Waverly yawned and sang along with Aretha for a while, waiting. 'Son of a Preacher Man' was just good taste.
Nicole sat at a sharp angle, having finished her final coffee and stared so hard at the screens she could see them with her eyes closed. All checks had returned green. Timer… Go. “Fifteen, fourteen…”
Still, after all these years and launches, Waverly found herself waking up the closer it drew to zero. It never grew any less amazing, but a sense of worry overcame Waverly, the kind she hadn’t felt in a while, though the chance of a failure remained one in a million of a chance.
Nicole wished for more coffee. One screen gave her the view at Cape Canaveral. She, too, felt worried: but more for Iris. If Iris failed, then she’d be stuck here.
“Three… two… one.”
“Launch,” returned Nedley.
Nicole watched, rubbing her eyes, as the clamps released.
“Liftoff of Mars Ascent Vehicle,” she reported dully. What did she have to ask next? Shit. Uh... “Course?”
Nicole yawned and managed not to transmit it, just barely. “You good?” That was… Not what she was supposed to ask. Nicole set her head in her hands and groaned.
“...We’re good, Flight Director,” Nedley returned, if a little bit reproachful.
Waverly cackled to nobody, slapping her knee. This was her commander? ‘You good?’ Her laughter almost set her on the dusty ground. As it was, she had trouble breathing through her cackles.
“...Please stop laughing,” a tired voice requested, and Waverly almost screamed in surprise. She slapped a hand over her visor in embarrassment.
“How… How long have I been...” Waverly groaned. The MAV soared in her vision and she barely noticed. This was worse than death.
“You’ve a very good singing voice if that helps.”
“It does not help!” Waverly snapped. “How many people heard?”
“Your rover is only transmitting to Alpha Base. Just me, I promise,” Nicole responded.
Waverly, furious, began to cycle the airlock to the rover. “And you didn’t tell me?”
“I thought it was intentional!” Nicole insisted, audibly offended by the implication.
“Yeah, right,” Waverly muttered. She checked the transmission settings and cut off her own line. She simmered through the altitude checks, only coming back to her senses when Nedley reported:
“Main engine shutdown. Ascent time: seven minutes and thirty-two seconds. On course for Hermes intercept.”
A successful launch on both ends. Waverly made to continue her journey across the Martian desert. A few minutes later, the snoring started.
MARS ALPHA BASE, MARS
When you’re alone on Mars, you don’t want to hear a knock on the door.
So Waverly Earp did the kind thing and hit Nicole Haught with her own stetson. “Wake up.”
Nicole honest-to-god shrieked, jerked up out of the chair in surprise, and fell over backward onto the floor. She rubbed the back of her head and looked up Waverly, bewildered. Shit. Bad news bears: Waverly was even prettier in person and that was very not good for the mission. She remembered herself a second too late and Waverly glowered down at her. Nicole swallowed and found her words again, “You’re here. Already. How?”
Waverly rolled her eyes and tossed the stetson at Nicole’s face. “I drove here,” Waverly responded, her voice strangely cold. “And next time, please don’t fall asleep mid-transmission. I heard you snoring the whole way here.”
Waverly walked away without another word, not bothering to appreciate the expansive open area of Mars Alpha Base.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Nicole muttered, fixing her beloved, smuggled hat. Not the best of first impressions. She got to her feet and adjusted her jumpsuit before she noticed and stopped. Sighing, she jogged after Waverly into the greenhouse.
Waverly turned on her, face hard. “If we’re going to be alone together for six months, it’s time to set some ground rules.”
Nicole furrowed her brow, still confused by the cold open. “Okay…”
“First off, we are not friends. We are colleagues.” Nicole opened her mouth to say something only to be struck with a silencing glare. “I know your type, Haught. I won’t stand for it. We’re being watched in almost every single room, and our communications are nearly all public. No shenanigans.”
Nicole felt she should receive an award for managing to stay silent. Shenanigans? The hell was she implying?
“Second: Do not touch my plants.”
“I swear to god, Haught, you will be the first murder victim on Mars if you even so much as breathe in their direction. Understand me so far?” the small Earp was in a fury. Nicole wasn’t going to lie: She was a little bit terrified of Waverly.
“Yes ma’am,” Nicole said with a faux salute.
Wrong response. If anything, Waverly seemed to get angrier. “We cannot afford anything going wrong, okay? So if we just both focus on our respective jobs and stay out of each other’s way, everything is going to be fine.”
Things didn’t go fine.
In the office in Houston, Chrissy Nedley smiled as her father piloted Hermes back home. Then, she made the mistake of checking twitter. Trending just under Duo Launch was MarsAlpha, and the comments were by the thousands. What Chrissy had initially assumed as boring was being eaten up like hot gossip: people wanted to know about the two astronauts alone on Mars.
“Nothing better on Syfy?” Chrissy asked herself sarcastically.
Chrissy looked up like a deer in headlights to her boss, a middle-aged woman with a sharp tongue and a sharper mind. Truth be told, Chrissy was a little -- No, a lottle scared of her. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Change of plan. We’re going to make those two Martians into celebrities.” Annie handed over a sheet of paper. “Congratulations. You’ve been promoted.”
Chrissy took the sheet and her eyebrows tried to climb out of her face. “Oh. Uh -- I mean, thank you!”
Annie had already left, leaving Chrissy alone with her new job. Oh, dear. Waverly was going to kill her for this.
Nicole woke up from the table with a grunt and hit the button. Her tablet detached itself from her face with a thunk. “Earp,” she responded through the intercoms.
Well, so much for staying out of each other’s way. Nicole didn’t bother fixing her jumpsuit and grabbed the toolbox.
A short walk and two doors later, Nicole and Waverly were face to face. Or, face to chest. One of them was being decidedly unprofessional about their eye contact and instead researching the effects of Nicole’s tank top on her upper arms.
Nicole sighed. “Earp.”
Waverly corrected herself quickly, face red. “Haught.” She pointed to the far end of the greenhouse and regained her furious composure. “Get rid of your overdeveloped roomba.”
Nicole raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“Your roomba, Haught. Get rid of it.” Waverly paced down the aisle and Nicole followed. Aisle after aisle of plants loomed over her, sunlight filtering down past leaves and speckling her skin. “I specifically requested no robots in here. And what do they do? They give me a robot.”
They stopped at the ‘roomba.’ It was about the size of a mini-fridge and moderately less cute with its blocky, utilitarian design.
“And why, exactly, do you want me to get rid of the thing that handles the dirt?”
Waverly turned, inordinately angry. “Because they are unreliable and -- Listen. I don’t need to explain myself to you. Get rid of it.”
Nicole leaned over and patted the machine. She spoke with a faux cheery voice, rubbing it affectionately, “Hi, buddy. Is the angry little botanist being mean to you?”
Waverly just about had a conniption. Worth it. “That is not my title. And it’s not alive, Haught, it’s a frickin’ machine.”
“Okay,” Nicole said, standing up again and brushing dirt from her hands. “First of all, it’s not that easy.” Waverly glared. “I have to bypass half a dozen safety measures to move it from its programmed path. Are you absolutely sure you want to --”
“Yes.” Waverly was already walking away. “It better be gone in fifteen minutes.”
Nicole sighed. Colleagues, not friends. Right. And what did she have against robots, anyhow?
“INVALID ROUTE,” said the roomba. No, it wasn’t a roomba. Why was she thinking of it like that now?
“You said that fifteen times now,” Nicole groused, watching the machine do circles in the main living area. It bumped into the couch and beeped angrily. “I’ve met toasters better designed than you are. Just accept your new job as a…” Sigh. “Roomba.”
“Houston to Alpha Base, confirm listener. Insecure line direct to Mars, over.”
Nicole cursed and walked over to communications. “Roger Houston. Commander Nicole Haught responding.”
For the next fifteen minutes, Nicole managed to get the roomba to stop complaining about its new job and plotted the living space. She winced as it took out a chair that struck the tile with a loud smack.
“Commander Haught. Why is the Recycler not in the greenhouse?”
Nicole frowned, out of reasoning. They seriously called for this? “Uh, reasons. Space reasons. Testing, research reasons.” She winced and covered her face with a hand. “Maintenance. It was acting a bit strange. I might have to keep it out here for a while. Wa -- Earp doesn’t require it in use currently.”
Good to know Mother Goose surveyed their every move for strange activity. Fun. Nicole fiddled with the settings and debated making it say “shit.”
“Roger Alpha Base. Psychologists on standby for your use, should you need them. Houston, out.”
Great! Fantastic! Amazing!
Waverly came in an hour or two later to the sight of one napping Nicole Haught. The roomba had a stetson on it and buzzed up to her. “HOWDY PARTNER.”
Baffled, Waverly stared for a long moment. She blinked. Once, twice. Then regained her senses. “HAUGHT!”
Nicole shot out of her chair so fast she fell over and bruised her knee. “Shit, christ. Shit -- Can’t curse on camera. Shit.” She tried to stand and hit her head on the desk. “Fuck.” She finally managed to get to her feet. “Yes. Yes, that’s me, yes.” She snapped her fingers dramatically and offered her trademark grin. “Commander Haught. Humanity’s finest.”
Waverly did not find it funny or charming in the slightest. Well, Nicole thought, it had been nice being alive. “You are really lucky I muted it.”
“We can -- We can do that?” Shit -- Waverly figured out the one thing protecting Nicole from absolute, merciless rebuke.
“Yes, Haught. We’” -- Waverly gestured between the two of them. --“Can also behave like professionals.”
Silence, then the sound of the robot wisely moving away.
“Okay, before you launch into the whole ‘act-like-an-adult, no-fun-allowed ’ thing, I need to show you something.” Nicole gestured for Waverly to follow up the stairs to the viewing area. Two massive, shielded windows peeled back to reveal the empty wastes of the planet.
Waverly, still steaming so hard Nicole could swear smoke was coming out of her, followed dubiously and waited. “Yes?”
Nicole gestured dramatically. “There’s absolutely shit-all out there. Absolutely. Nothing. But rocks. The entire planet is just rocks, Earp.” She looked to Waverly. “For the sake of the both of us not going absolutely insane with boredom on this rock, we need to adjust how things work.”
Waverly swatted Nicole’s hand away. “First of all, you’re the only one who has even an inch of ‘free time’ to be bored with.” She leaned forward and Nicole could do nothing but put up her hands in surrender and lean away. She still didn’t stop. “This is my only chance to make a name for myself that isn’t due to my sisters and my father. If you screw this up for me, so help me Haught, I will not hesitate. I will not have this chance ruined by some --” She poked Nicole’s chest each word to emphasize her point. “ Arrogant .” Poke. “Lazy .” Poke. “Attractive. ” Poke. “Fool of a robotics expert, ‘Commander’ or not. Understand that? ” Poke.
A pause as both registered the term use.
Waverly turned red and pointed. “Solar Panel five is out. Do the job you are expected to do and fix it.”
Then she was gone, leaving Nicole deep in thought. She wandered over and restored the stream. Might as well use her time wisely and educate the masses on roombas.
“Uh, hello again. Sorry about that…” Nicole pointed behind her. “Aliens.”
TODAY - OFFICIAL PRESS STATEMENT
NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION
Commander Nicole Haught was joking. There are no aliens on Mars.
LYNDON B JOHNSON SPACE CENTER
“Houston to base camp, Huston to base camp, confirm listener, over.”
Nicole sighed, annoyed. She had been on a good run through her thesis. “Roger, Mother Goose. All’s quiet on the Martian Front. Haught awaiting message, over.”
Now she had to wait. Precious minutes passed and Nicole adjusted the roomba’s hat and sent a tweet. ‘Need names for bot. Suggestions? Don’t have a degree in that. ;)’
“This is Chrissy from the PR department. We’ve noticed an increase in viewership if both you and Waverly Earp are on screen at the same time. Keep it up! Also your EVA has been approved for Tuesday. Be safe.”
“Uh… Sure. We’ll… We’ll get on that.”
Oh, no. Nicole immediately got up and began to pace. She had been handling, for the most part, all social media aspects of their mission. It was a neat way to pass her abundant amount of time and also a cure for the overbearing sense of loneliness. But to involve Earp? With this? Shit -- She’d be at the forefront with full knowledge of just how ridiculous their fan base could be.
Which was pretty ridiculous.
Was it because they were women? Was it because Waverly was really, really, really attractive? Was it because they very obviously didn’t like each other, and couldn’t hide it for shit?
Oh, well. Time to go break the news to Waverly.
Nicole snuck into the greenhouse to spy if she’d die or not if she showed herself. Waverly was standing over a strawberry plant, tablet in hand, face screwed up in concentration. Adorable.
Casting unprofessional thoughts aside, Nicole leaned against the wall and prepared a charming smile so she wouldn’t get killed. “Knock, knock.”
Waverly looked up, blinked, and guarded her expression. “Haught.” She looked back down at the tablet. “Yes?”
“Don’t sound so excited, Earp.” The joke fell flat and Nicole hid a frown. “The solar panel situation will be resolved tomorrow. In the meantime, they want you to be seen around the living space more. Engage with the viewers. Teach them things.”
Waverly stiffened and looked up. “Excuse me?”
Nicole wondered at her reaction. Perhaps one of Waverly’s reasons for leaving Earth behind was to get away from people. Now she’d have to deal with them on a more public level than she might be used to. ”Part of the mission description, Earp. People need to be interested in Mars again and that’s part of our job.”
Waverly shrugged and turned her attention back to the more interesting plant. “Sure, fine.”
Nicole took that as the end of the conversation and headed back to the living space, pausing briefly to check for name suggestions.
Haughtbot? Hmm. Nicole made some coffee and moved to communications, checking her earlier work on the communications system. So far, so good. The constant stream of data was going exceptionally well. Hooray for xrays and billions of dollars of taxpayer money!
Nicole nearly jumped out of her own skin and cleared her throat to cover it. “Earp,” she responded with a curt (and very professional, thank you) nod.
Waverly rolled her eyes and walked over to the kitchen to get something to drink. A sip and she spat it out immediately. “What is this?”
“Waste of water?” Nicole teased, moving over with a charming smile. “Against the law here, Earp. Might have to put you in handcuffs.”
“No!” Waverly stated as she slammed the mug down hard, face tinged red. Bingo, victory for Haught. She regained her composure. “I thought we would have actual, for real coffee. Not... whatever this is.”
“Excuse me, Earp,” Nicole responded, looking faux serious, “Are you saying my martian coffee is, quote unquote, not actual for real coffee?”
Waverly turned with an accusing finger. “You’re lucky Poison Control is thousands of kilometers away, Haught.” She blinked, refocusing a moment. “And stop… That .” She gestured vaguely.
Nicole shook her head slightly, confused. “What?”
Waverly gestured to the entirety of Nicole Haught. “That.”
This was getting out of hand. Nicole stopped herself midway from continuing the line of thought by pointing to the third cupboard. “You can have actual, for real, Martian tea. It’s somewhat better. Not by much, though.” She forced herself to move away. Colleagues, not friends.
Nicole paused momentarily, catching a glance out of the side of her eye on a reflective panel. Waverly was staring at her ass again.
Nicole turned on the communications stream. “How about we educate the masses on what you’re up to this morning?”
Waverly snapped out of it so quickly Nicole couldn’t help but be impressed. The way she pulled the Public Persona on spoke of practiced ease. Hmmm…
“Well, today is strawberry day.”
“Fascinating,” Nicole muttered automatically. Shit. She wasn’t as good at this. “Please go on, Lead Researcher Earp. What you do brings us closer to colonizing this planet.”
Death avoided. For now.
Later, Nicole received a head’s up from Chrissy. One with basic information, a suggestion, and a schedule. A public Q&A was doable enough, but why attach Waverly’s complete resume? Nicole already knew she -- Oh…. Interesting. Nicole smiled wickedly and sent Chrissy a quick thanks. Whether it was intentional or not, Nicole didn’t know.
Now they were almost through the questions, which ranged from complicated to inane, but had delved a bit more personal than Nicole was used to. Time to play the card soon. Waverly sat in the so-called "Public Chair" directly in front of the camera and associated video communications panel. It gave a full view of the living space, tiny kitchen and all. Nicole stood in the back and pretended to be busy.
“Right,” Waverly said with an exasperated sigh, “Next question. From WHStan in Wyoming.” She narrowed her eyes. “Do you and Commander Haught get along?”
Nicole hid her grin in her coffee mug.
“Sure we do! Don’t we?” Waverly turned to squint dangerously at Nicole.
“Absolutely,” Nicole lied, hitting a few buttons that open and closed a door in the east hall to look distracted by important work. “Best of friends.”
“Thank you, Stan.” A pause. “Next from Stetsonbot in Maryland. The question is ‘What do you and Commander Haught do in your free time for fun?’” Waverly began to answer, “Well, technically speaking, Stetsonbot --”
“Tell ‘em about the dancing, Earp.”
A long silence followed in which Nicole could hear her death warrant being signed. Worth it, though. An astronaut that could dance? People would eat that shit up and Chrissy would be more than pleased. Plus, seeing Waverly dance?
“The dancing?” Waverly asked, voice strangely high. Nicole drifted over and leaned against the wall, out of direct sight of the stream. She leaned in close with a smug grin that Waverly couldn’t respond to.
Oh, she was certainly about to die, but hell if it wouldn’t be worth it.
“Absolutely. Lead Researcher Earp here can dance.”
“I don’t see how that’s rele --”
“Goodness, Earp. You aren’t implying that you don’t have any fun here on Mars, are you? Why haven’t you sent in a complaint yet? As Commander, it’s my priority to ensure our mission goes off without any issues whatsoever.”
@BotanyIsBest: fight me then stetson. haught ain’t shit
@StetsonBot: did u miss the part where she’s also a pilot, dumbass? go back to your bushes
@MartianCoffee: guys pls stop fighting FOR ONCE we’re about to witness haught getting murdered
@wskeyd0nut: rip cmdr. haughtass. earp dances like a queen
Waverly’s face went on a journey from fiery outrage to cool, collected anger back to her public persona. It was majestic. “I’ll have you know I do know how to have fun.”
Nicole grinned so wide it hurt. She hit a button and the first few notes of ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears began to play, thanks to the roomba. With raised eyebrows, “Prove it.”
Waverly stood and moved to the center of the living space. She turned, gave Nicole a look she had never seen before, then directed a smile to the stream.
Then, she began to dance.
@BotanyIsBest: holy shit
@StetsonBot: holy shit
@WHStan: I S H I P I T H O L Y S H I T
[Hidden: one hundred eighty-seven duplicates. Collapsed user list (Ninety-three unique).]
@wskeyd0nut: told u
Even in the reduced gravity, it was incredible. Majestic. Jaw-dropping. Breath-stealing, literally: Nicole only realized she had stopped breathing after her lungs started to hurt. Watching Waverly dance was like watching a master painter in their element or a perfect calculation. Every hip sway and two-step painted a perfectly practiced angle by someone who knew their body and wasn’t afraid to own it. Even mistakes (if you could call them that) simply flowed into the choreography by sheer confidence and masterful movement.
Nicole couldn’t stop staring. She couldn’t take her eyes off Waverly. There was nothing -- Nothing -- in this universe more tempting than the idea of stopping the stream and -- Focus. Focus. Tone down the gay. Professionals. They are both professionals.
Waverly cast her eyes to Nicole…
...And the look on her face told Nicole she knew exactly what she was doing. Waverly turned, swayed, and ran her hands along her body along with the chorus. Nicole lost the ability to think, mouth dry, heart hammering faster than the beat.
Colleagues, not friends. Colleagues, not friends. Colleaguesnotfriendscolleaguesnotfriends--
The song was over. Waverly stood panting, sweaty ( COLLEAGUESNOTFRIENDS ) and honest-to-god winked at the camera.
The only thing that saved Nicole Haught’s reputation is that the stream couldn’t see her reaction. They would have known instantly how badly she had it.
“That’s all the time I have for today!” Waverly said to the camera with a smile and wave. “Hope to see you guys Tuesday for the EVA. Later!”
Waverly walked out of view of the camera and threw Nicole a wink as she headed back to the greenhouse.
After retrieving her jaw from the floor, Nicole downed the rest of her pretend coffee and took Waverly’s spot in what they had both come to think of it as ‘The Public Chair.’
Nicole glanced at the comments fifteen minutes later (They hardly ever looked at them due to the delay.) and nodded at the ‘Holy shit’ spam. “Agreed.” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, the EVA she’s talking about is to deal with a solar panel north of the base. Here.” Nicole referred to a tablet and displayed a map. “On the bottom of the map, this… rectangle... thing... is Mars Alpha Base. Just a bunch of squares put together. Now, I have to go outside and go a couple yards north to the solar field. Not very interesting.”
Thousands of miles away and about forty minutes later, Chrissy received an email.
Don’t know what you did, but it worked. Waverly Earp hit the front page. See me at 12:00 in my office.
Chrissy, alarmed, checked everything. Seeing the results, she held her head in her hands and groaned. There’s tens of thousands of them now! She didn’t know whether to strangle or thank Nicole Haught. Her small-time job had just exploded into something real! Shit, she needed to contact her professors and tell them she’d be taking time off. And let Waverly know she was a small time celebrity.
“Not very interesting” turned out to be damn interesting for those who watched from home.
“Come on! Open the damn door, Earp!” Nicole yelled, slapping a gloved palm next to the keypad and rested her helmet against the metal. Her nose itched like a bitch. The Martian sun glared down at her dumb ass. Piss off an Earp? What the hell had she been thinking! Her family worked with weapons. “I already apologized.”
MANUALLY DENIED. SEE OPERATOR.
Shit. Why was this even a thing? Seriously.
“Nope! Not until you comply with my request,” Waverly replied, voice full of smug satisfaction, “Do it, Haught.”
“I am not singing! I am pretty sure this is illegal, Earp. Look it up in one of your space law books. I will call the space cops, and have you space arrested. Space now! Open the door! ”
“Nope. You just gave me the title of ‘Space Criminal’ and I’m not giving it up.” Sounds of shuffling. “Plus, I have your hat hostage.”
“No!” Nicole groaned. “You mess with that hat, you declare war on the entire United States. Do you think you can handle that?”
“Yep. Payback’s a bitch, Haught. Sing.”
Shit, she probably could fight America.
“You win this time, Earp. But I will get you back,” Nicole promised, pointing to the camera.
“Mmhmm. Sure. Take us away, Haught.”
Nicole sighed and leaned heavily against the door as the first notes of “Africa” by Toto began to play. “How long do I have to go for?”
“I have never wanted anything more badly than to hear you sing the chorus.”
Nicole groaned over the sound of the opening lines, preparing herself. Last time she sang was in chorus… in middle school. God. This was awful, awful payback. Hurry boy it’s waiting there for you…
“It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you!” Nicole sang, voice moderately not that bad. Waverly laughed and clapped along. “There’s nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do!”
And the clip that would be replayed for days:
“I bless the rains down in Africa!” Nicole raised her arms to the desert, belting it out to the one person she thought was listening. “Gonna take some time to do the things we never had!”
Waverly laughed and Nicole felt her heart betray her and do a flip-flop. Finally, the airlock doors opened and Nicole stepped through. After a few minutes and finally out of the bulky suit, Nicole was greeted to the sight of Waverly Earp with her hat on and a shit-eating grin.
Two things happened: First, Nicole realized she had a VERY BIG gay problem. Second, if she had to sing like a fool to get Waverly to smile, she might just do it.
“Not bad, Haught. Not bad at all,” Waverly praised with a grin. She offered a high five and Nicole took it, curious at the slightly I’ve Got You Now look on Waverly’s face.
Shit. Nicole shut her eyes and rubbed at her face. Six months of this? Easy. “Can I have my hat back.”
“Maybe.” Waverly shrugged. “Coffee machine’s making that noise again.”
“It’s not a coffee machine, it’s a --”
“Sure, sure,” Waverly waved a hand flippantly. “It’s annoying. Oh, and the viewers loved it!”
Waverly tossed the hat out on the couch and almost honest-to-god skipped to the greenhouse.
Nicole halted mid-step. “Viewers?!”
@StetsonBot: they do realize that was recorded right. earps totally fired. gg genius
@spacecriminal: just registered motherfuckers! I BLESS THE RAAAINNS DOWN IN AAAFRRIICCAA (I BLESS THE RAIN)
@BotanyIsBest: stetson fuck off. even houston knows haught deserves that shit. that was AWFUL, too. enjoy stanning a tone-deaf ginger
@WHStan: mommy daddy pls don’t fight again it got old the first time. (also they're totally boning and u guys are ruining the fun)
An hour later the first message from Houston came. Waverly had retreated to the greenhouse to continue her research, leaving Nicole alone with the public.
Nicole had her feet on the desk, explaining the fundamental aspects of their upcoming duo EVA. A seismic sensor had to be installed a few miles west of the base. The viewers were doing their best to humor her, and only repeated the ‘how are you getting her back, haught?’ question half a dozen times before Nicole had admitted she didn’t know yet.
Realizing that she’d sung to not just Waverly, but to a possible ten thousand or more listeners? That took awhile to get over. Her revenge would have to be spectacular, if she could even risk it.
“Hang on guys,” Nicole said, standing and moving away to shut the stream off. “Mother Goose is calling.”
“Houston to Alpha Base. Requesting Commander Nicole Haught. Receive, over.”
“Commander Nicole Haught responding.” She had been expecting this. A brief glance at the news could tell Nicole that their actions had been widely witnessed. What were they going to do, fire her? This Just In: Astronaut Fired for Awful Toto Rendition.
“This is Director Dolls at LBJ. Our analysis of today’s activities revealed Lead Researcher Earp putting you in direct danger of losing your life. Can you verify this report is authentic?”
Okay, what the fuck? Nicole barely managed to keep that thought from reaching the air.
Director Dolls oversaw the entire Ares program. The hell was he calling about this for? They were going to try to throw Waverly under the bus? No. Not on Nicole’s watch. She tried to keep the sarcasm and fury from her voice and succeeded… mostly.
“Pardon me, Director. The report is untrue. I was in no danger whatsoever and feel no need to reprimand or punish Lead Researcher Earp. Today’s EVA has been marked ‘Success’ with no issues. That’s the correct report.”
The minutes crawled by and Nicole tried to focus on checking systems. All were green lights. There was nothing to do but stew.
“Commander. Concerns have been raised about the already risky duo EVA scheduled in a few weeks. We advise you to take this situation seriously.”
Nicole stood, hiding her anger behind what she called her ‘Commander face’. Back straight, hands behind her back, face stoic, and ready to spout as much bullshit as possible to get her way.
“Director. With all due respect, I am taking this seriously. Your team tasked us with increasing public interest on Mars. Part of that is also helping to remove the barrier placed on Martian Astronauts. We are people, Director. Human people. Determined, intelligent, and driven, but ultimately human. Anyone can follow in our footsteps. The viewers see the two of us sharing camaraderie and think ‘Hey, I can do that. Mars isn’t a hellscape where only robots thrive and stay sane. We aren’t just surviving on Mars, we’re living.’ Therefore, I stick with my earlier report. Both Lead Researcher Earp and myself are fully capable of handling the EVA, and the mission, with appropriate levels of respect for the danger involved, over.”
Right on cue, “HOWDY PARTNER.” Nicole sighed, finished with her speech, and worked on adding a bit more variance in the roomba’s conversational skills.
They bought it. “Very well, Commander. EVA is still scheduled as planned. Good luck and stay safe, partner. Keep your eye on the weather. Dust storm season is soon.”
Back in Houston in a conference room, Chrissy sat at a table with two people so beyond her pay grade it wasn’t funny. At least the NASA Admin wasn’t here.
Director Dolls of the Ares mission sat back, hands folded, as the message finished playing. Chrissy couldn’t help but smile a little. Haught had definitely done a good job, but Dolls’ poker face was formidable. She silently thanked the Commander for not allowing Dolls to throw Waverly under.
Annie had no such fears. “You’re not buying their merchandise, Xavier. You’re just letting them have a bit of fun.”
Dolls adjusted the sheet in front of him. “You want to use more of the footage for the stream. You want me to allow them to pull dangerous ‘pranks’ and invite risk. You want to turn two of our best astronauts into…”
“Science representatives,” Annie answered cooly. “And it’s already too late, Xavier. People love them.”
Dolls glowered. He turned to Chrissy for the first time. “Who are you?”
“Chrissy Nedley, sir. PR.” She fidgeted in her seat slightly before stopping. “I’m the main correspondent.”
“And what do you think?”
“I think…” Chrissy swallowed, nervous about being put on the spot. “Waverly Earp is the smartest person I’ve ever met. Even if murphy’s law comes into play, you couldn’t count on someone more capable of survival than her and Nicole Haught.” She adjusted her own paper nervously. “The risk ratio to public interest is massive.” She flicked her eyes to Annie who nodded imperceptibly. “We can keep the public’s attention past the duo launch. We need the attention. People think the job is finished just because Mars Alpha Base is online. If we can keep the nation’s eyes on space for whatever reason, we should seize it.”
His expression didn’t change and Chrissy almost forgot to breathe waiting for his response.
“Very well.” Dolls’ face actually smiled slightly and Chrissy thought hell must have frozen over. “I can forgive Haught's terrible singing. But -- Give them a break for a while. I want a plan, not improv.”
Waverly sat down on her bunk with a smile for the first time in a while. She slept in the empty double-bunk rooms on the western side, while Nicole slept in the northern wing in the Commander's quarters. Waverly wasn't jealous an inch. Not at all.
Midday on Earth, late on Mars, and she’d received a new message.
The smile vanished.
She immediately contacted Chrissy privately and typed in a fury. She didn’t want a single chance her conversation could be overheard.
Wave: I thought I made it clear they were never to contact me, Chrissy. How did this get through?
Chrissy: I’m so sorry, Wave. I didn’t catch that one. New username? Whatever it says, don't listen to it.
Chrissy: It’s added to the blacklist. I’m so sorry, Waverly, I’ll try to catch any others that try to come through. You know what she said isn’t true, right? You’re a wonderful person, Waverly, and worth so much more than that. You’re brilliant. I meant what I said at the press conference, Waverly. You two were the best on the roster! It's not a coincidence!
Wave: I just wish she would leave me alone.
Chrissy: I know. I’m sorry. Do you want me to try and find Wynonna? We know she was last in Tennessee. You can put something public for her to see and contact us?
Wave: No, it’s fine. I'd rather not bother her.
After all that, Nicole had expected to get along with Waverly. But her fellow Martian continued to outright avoid her and returned to the frosty demeanor Nicole was getting used to. It frustrated her to no end. They had been making progress! And now it felt like it was all gone, back to square one, back to Colleagues, Not Friends for the rest of their stay when they could be having a good time.
It was for the best, Nicole supposed. The less they saw of each other, the less likely the obvious issue that Nicole felt would come back to her. And the less she thought of the horrible, horrible consequences that awaited their failure to remain professional with each other.
The worst part was today she’d checked a photo and seen a comment with over six hundred replies and rising: ‘When are you gonna bang the botanist, Haught?’
Furious, Nicole almost tripped over the roomba.
“Howdy,” Nicole replied absently, running a hand through her hair. She needed to fix something take her mind off this. If they were going to assume she was some unprofessional... Person… then she would simply prove them wrong. She wasn’t some predator, some abuser, someone who would use their title and sleep with a crewmember. That went against so many policies. Who the hell did they think she was?
And second of all, Waverly was straight as an arrow.
Nicole furrowed her brow. A slightly curved arrow?
Anyway -- The point being, there was nothing going on between the two of them. Nothing. God forbid some rumor storm start up and they both be turned into Real Housewives of Mars or some equally lame reality TV show. Will they finally find out their true love for each other?
Something to take her mind off it, then. Nicole hit transmit, “Houston, I’d like to do that simple electrical work today. You know, the one you have to lecture me like a child for?”
Nicole looked down from her position on the ladder, eyebrows and pliers raised. “Yes?”
Waverly shifted uncomfortably and double checked they weren’t live. It was late on Earth. Thought they both stood in the living space, nobody was watching. “I have a question.”
Nicole looked up at the not-so-precise electrical repairs she was doing. Five hours of listening to condescending instructions on how not to fuck it up, as if she had no experience with electronics. Mother Goose was getting on her nerves. “Shoot.”
“Why are my followers asking me to assault them? It’s been like this for days. It’s… kinda creepy.”
Nicole almost died. Literally, almost died. Like, actually, for real, almost slipped the plier and died. As it was she hissed with a minor shock and fixed the issue so she wouldn’t be the fourth corpse six feet under Martian soil. Then, slowly, she turned to a stunned Waverly. “Excuse me?”
“Quote, ‘I wish Waverly Earp would pile drive my spine into orbit.’ There’s a bunch more, too.”
Nicole tensed and her training prevented her from also dying by murder committed by Waverly Earp for laughing at her. Her jaw worked uselessly as she tried to formulate a response. “Uhm.” She pretended to be busy. The problem was already solved, but it looked li --
“You’re not actually working, Haught. I can tell.”
Nicole sighed and closed the ceiling panel. She descended the ladder and put her hands on Waverly’s shoulders, looking her in the face with the seriousness of the grave. “Earp,” she began, voice stony, “It’s a sex thing.”
Waverly paused briefly to consider the comment then bristled. “You’re making fun of me,” she accused.
Nicole rolled her eyes and dropped her hands, moving over to the display panels to check the repairs had gone well for the oxygenator. Good. Full power. “They’re just noticing you’re hot as all get out, Earp. Just roll with it.”
“Excuse me?” Waverly asked, still processing and offended at Nicole’s breezy, unprofessional comment.
“HOWDY PARTNER,” the roomba greeted.
“Howdy,” both women said automatically. Nicole grabbed her mug and approached Waverly, face full of mischief. Here’s this for revenge. She knew exactly how to get under Waverly’s skin.
“Earp, face it. You’re sexy as hell. In fact,” Nicole drifted into Waverly’s space, eyes noticing how Waverly’s breathing hitched slightly as their faces hovered inches apart. They were way too close for colleagues. Nicole looked over Waverly's face with hooded eyes. “You might be the second sexiest woman on the planet,” Nicole all but purred, breath hot on Waverly’s cheek.
Waverly blinked then narrowed her eyes. “I hate you.”
“No, you don’t,” Nicole said. She patted Waverly on the head and moved to get some coffee. “Just ignore them, Earp. They want your attention. Or don’t. Maybe respond. It would be hilarious.”
Waverly shook her head and stormed from the living space to the greenhouse.
@BotanyIsBest: I wish Waverly would slam a car into me.
@EarthToWaverly: @BotanyIsBest, I don’t own a car.
It was only later Nicole ran face-first into the anxiety that Waverly might see messages like the one she’d had earlier, too.
Waverly awoke alone.
She didn’t know how she knew she was alone, she just did. It wasn’t unusual to not hear from the other person for hours, but this seemed different. It seemed empty . She stumbled out of bed and nearly fell on the way to the comm.
“Haught, are you there? Is this your payback for the singing thing?”
Waverly all but ran into the living area. The roomba buzzed over to her.
“HOWDY PARTNER. NICOLE HAUGHT IS ON EVA. STANDBY, SHE WILL RETURN SOON.”
“What?” Waverly asked.
“What?!” She asked, twice the volume.
“What the shit? ” She screamed into the empty base.
She was alone. On Mars. Alone. Alone. Alone. Waverly paced, holding her shaking head. “No. This can’t be happening. When was that message recorded?” Alone!
“ONE HOUR AGO.”
Waverly halted mid-pace. “Can you co -- Why am I asking a roomba?”
“I AM DIRECTLY LINKED TO THE BASE’S NEURAL NETWORK. ISN’T THAT COOL? COMMANDER HAUGHT IS VERY COOL AND VERY SMART.”
“No!” Waverly stated firmly, “No! Not cool at all! Where the shit is she?”
“Why?” Waverly demanded, taking a step toward the roomba. “Why? The contract stipulates I was to be notified of all EVAs. In fact, NASA’s policies demand it. Why wasn’t I told?”
“THE EVA WAS SCHEDULED DUE TO PSYCHOLOGICAL REASONS. HOUSTON IS AWARE OF THE SITUATION AND APPROVED IT. THERE IS NO REASON TO BE WORRIED. HAUGHT WILL RETURN SOON.”
Waverly shook her head and passed the roomba, striding toward communications. Had Nicole gone crazy? Waverly logged in and checked the systems. She was well trained in its use. An active service request to all vehicles:
“Haught, respond or I’ll kill you.”
“Haught, I swear. If you’re ignoring me currently, I will do everything in my power to make your life a living hell for the rest of our stay on this planet, I swear to God,” Waverly hissed.
Waverly shook, her emotions getting the better of her. Anger and fear warred in her heart, and fear won out. She pressed transmit again. “Please,” Waverly begged. Waverly Earp didn’t beg, but Waverly Earp might be completely and utterly alone. “Please, just respond. Please tell me you’re out there somewhere.”
Nicole Haught was offline.
There were things you could turn off, and things you couldn’t. Biometrics was one of them, but the problem was an individual suit couldn’t transmit that far. It would go to the rover, then to the base, and Nicole had obviously disabled the rover. Nicole’s tiny suit system was out of range.
Waverly checked recent messages. Besides a request to Houston with a code she couldn’t decipher and a public notice of a break day from streaming, nothing looked out of place. CODE 15CF. Waverly didn’t have a single clue what that meant.
Pissed, Waverly did more digging. If Nicole hadn’t disabled the vehicle’s GPS right away, records would show direction. Northwest at almost top speed. The roomba wasn’t lying, at least, but the vehicle went silent only five kilometers out. Nicole could be anywhere on Mars. There wasn’t anything north-west of them.
Not anywhere. The speed and the time gave Waverly a better idea, but after a full hour and in the faster, smaller rover they’d given them, the area was far too large for Waverly to pinpoint anything interesting.
But before Waverly could consider the deeper implications beyond ‘Nicole Haught is unstable and they didn’t tell me about it,’ the vehicle’s location notice turned back on. Nicole was back.
Waverly was tempted to pull the same trick as last time, but Nicole had changed the settings and her suit communication remained silent. Biometrics reported Nicole currently lived, so at least a Martian zombie hadn’t returned to murder the last living soul on Mars.
Furious, Waverly pushed out of her chair and strode to the airlock, waiting.
Depressurization completed in four minutes and Nicole stepped back into the base. She stripped off her suit, silent and solemn, and Waverly was caught between the urge to hug Nicole in relief or stab her to death.
So Waverly remained silent as Nicole simply turned and began to walk to her quarters. Even though the reports they had both been given and the training they had received had been quite thorough, Waverly realized they had left the both of them out of depth. She didn’t know Nicole, not really. Nicole was different than what she’d planned for, and that irritated the hell out of Waverly.
“Hey!” Waverly called, annoyed. “You’re not going to explain why you frickin’ left me alone here, Haught?”
Nicole turned back, that same flat stare answering Waverly’s anger. “I thought you wouldn’t notice, so. No.”
“The hell, Haught!” Waverly closed a bit of the gap, furious. “You seriously left me alone with these robots and you’re not going to even tell me why? ”
“What is it with you and robots, anyhow?” Nicole tossed back, confused and ill-tempered. “No, Earp. It’s none of your business.”
Waverly’s anger only grew more thunderous. “None of my business? The shit? You could have died. You could have failed to return.” Nicole looked at her strangely until Waverly continued. “Psychological reasons. You know what that makes me think?”
Nicole’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Don’t say anything you’ll regret, Earp,” she bit out. “They didn’t tell me that you couldn’t handle being around robots, either. So I guess we’re both hiding secrets.”
At that, Waverly’s fury grew cold. “Fine, keep your secret, ‘Commander’ Haught. But notify me next time you decide it right to put me through psychological cruelty.” She stalked off, not waiting for a response.
Four days Nicole stirred her feelings, trying to find it in her stubbornness to explain to Waverly what she had gone to do. She didn’t know why it was so hard. They were professionals and had both gone through countless hours of interpersonal training to ensure they both could handle the stress of isolation with other people.
But something about Waverly turned Nicole upside-down.
So it must have been the two hours spent in the silence of the greenhouse that tipped off Houston. She pretended to be enthusiastic as she explained how the minerals in the soil tend to clog up the filters of the water reclaimer. Usually an amazing time to educate the masses about the sophisticated nature of the greenhouse, except Nicole looked like someone kicked her puppy and Waverly was doing her best to ignore everything.
Today there’d been messages from Houston.
“HELLO FRIEND,” the roomba greeted in Russian as Nicole stalked across the room to communications.
“Hello,” Nicole returned with a wince of relief. No message from the Director, but from PR.
Chrissy: What is going on, Haught? I’ve got twenty people breathing down my neck about how silent you’ve gone. I’ve even got psychologists clamoring at my heels for information on why you both look ready to stab each other to death. Need explanation, stat, please!
NH: The EVA. I won’t tell her why I went on it. Not her business. She’s smart, she’s probably already figured it out.
Chrissy: Then tell her and solve it! Why am I even telling you this? I’m going to try and burn this convo before they spot it. Give me a viable reason to tell them in exchange, please. I’m not telling them that you two are having a spat because you’re acting like a child instead of a commander. You’re not the only person who’s lost people, Haught. Your stubbornness is NOT helping!!
NH: Fine. I’ll fix it. Just make something up.
Chrissy: Getting tired of cleaning up your messes!!
Chrissy: How are you holding up, Waves?
Wave: Wondering what else I’m not being told about the one other person on this planet that I’ve got to stay with for the next 166 days, thanks. An EVA for psychological reasons and I can’t even know why? What am I, some experiment? I’m beginning to suspect that maybe the psychologists are getting something out of this.
Chrissy: You know that’s not true. I’d never allow that to be a thing, Waves. I’m willing to bury this ASAP, I just need it to be resolved.
Wave: Why? The Commander and I aren’t friends, Chrissy. We’re colleagues and it should remain that way. I don’t see why this is an issue.
Chrissy: It’s an issue because you can’t lie for ---, Waves!!! I have phone messages from universities all over the world, grad students who think they got something interesting from this isolation test and you guys murdering each other!!! I unplugged my phone, Waves. These guys are all so arrogant and a few of them even tried to flirt with me for info. Please help me I’m going crazy here :(
Wave: Ok, I’ll give her a second chance. Tell them you’re married or something.
Chrissy: THANK YOU GOODNESS OMG also I tried that and two of them insisted on a threesome!! NOT COOL!!!
Nicole leaned her weight against the table, propped up by her hands. She didn’t turn her head when Waverly drifted in from the greenhouse.
“They sent you messages, too?”
“Yep,” Waverly said.
“Mother Goose strikes again,” Nicole said, her joke falling flat. She shook her head and sighed, not looking at Waverly. “I’m sorry. I should have told you why I left. I didn’t consider the consequences it would have on your fears. In fact, I expected it not to matter to you. I mean, we’ve already been avoiding each other like the plague. What’s leaving for an hour?”
Waverly said nothing, burying harsh retorts about assumptions. Well, it was true, wasn’t it? Colleagues, not friends. And colleagues rarely shared.
“I lost an uncle on Ares 5.”
15CF, Waverly realized, Catastrophic Failure. An incident that remained under investigation years later. Why hadn’t she put two and two together? Waverly winced with guilt. She had ignored Nicole’s possible feelings on the matter and had thought her reasonings for the EVA to be entirely selfish. Especially since Nicole had gone Northwest, not Southeast, in order to hide her true purpose.
Stubborn idiot didn’t want Waverly to know she was mourning.
“I go there sometimes. I leave… things. I --” Nicole looked down and blinked rapidly, voice so soft that Waverly had to move closer to hear. “Flowers, you know. I grow some in my room.”
Decisions, decisions. Waverly lifted a hand, as if to comfort, but reminded herself of the No Touching rule. As astronauts in isolation, who hadn't even been hugged in Lord-knows-how-long, touching was dangerous. Even handshakes were kept short. Under no circumstances could Waverly break this rule.
Fuck it. Waverly put a hand on Nicole’s shoulder to comfort her, only for Nicole to jump in surprise. Waverly pulled back as Nicole turned, mouth open, and she panicked and just started talking.
“I - I’m sorry. I was just worried, because. It’s… dangerous. To go alone, I mean. And… Something happened to my family. Once. About the, uhm, robot thing, and I really can’t, explain, without uhm…” Waverly fought back her own tears and stared at her nervous fidgety hands.
Nicole laid a gentle hand on Waverly’s arm and Waverly stopped breathing. “It’s okay, Waverly, you don’t have to tell me anything. You don’t have to apologize, either. I was the one being an asshole.”
Waverly’s brain encountered an error and had to close. Reasoning: Nicole’s hand as on her bare arm and Waverly had run out of viable reasons to avoid her entirely and the way Nicole said her name was so so soft and Waverly didn’t hate her anymore and that was terrifying. Good lord, shit, panic! Say something, dumbass! She’s staring at you!
“Can I come?” Waverly said too quickly and Nicole furrowed her brow, confused.
Oh, my god. Waverly wanted to die.
“I mean -- Can I come with you,” Waverly asked quickly and SHIT THAT WAS WORSE. “Can I go with you! Next time.”
Nicole gave her a bizarre look, apparently not understanding why Waverly was so flustered, then she nodded seriously. “Of course, Waverly.”
“Right, of course,” Waverly said, backing up. She bumped into the couch and caught herself, eyes closed briefly in frustration. “Now, I’m uh -- The...vegetables.” Nicole stared at her with concern and Waverly felt even more scared. “String beans!”
Even worse, they didn’t even have string beans.