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One-Eighty

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DAY 0

14 HOURS TO LAUNCH

 

HOUSTON, EARTH

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…

Robotics.

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.

Alone.

On Mars.

(With robots.)

Shit.

“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.”

 

HOUSTON, EARTH

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.

Earthrise.

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. 

 

SOMEWHERE, MARS

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.

She groaned.

“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.

“Five, four.”

 

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?”

“On 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.

“Transmitting?”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

Nicole smirked.

“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.”

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.


DAY 3

 

“Haught.”

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.

“Greenhouse. Now.”

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?

 

Later.

“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.”

“HOWDY PARTNER.”

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.

“HOWDY PARTNER.”

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, TEXAS


DAY 4

 

“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.”

Oh, no.

“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.”

Or not.

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!

“Haught.”

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.

“Earp.”

“Haught.”

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.

Holy shit.

 

@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.

[link]

-Annie

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.


DAY 5

 

“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.”

REQUEST OPEN.

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.”


DAY 6

 

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. 

Wave: Dissapoinmars.

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.


DAY 10

 

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 PARTNER.”

“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?

Ridiculous.

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?”

 

Later.

“Haught.”

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.

 


DAY 11

 

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.”

No response.

“Haught, are you there? Is this your payback for the singing thing?”

No response.

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?”

“NORTHWEST.”

“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.”

No response.

“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.

No response.

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.”

No response.

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.

Psychological reasons…

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.


DAY 14

 

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!”

Waverly fled.

Even worse, they didn’t even have string beans.

Chapter Text

DAY 17

See, when things go wrong in space, they go Wrong.  For the past twelve hours, Nicole had been doing non-stop maintenance on the atmospheric regulator (Sort of important, seeing as without it they would die horribly) with Houston demanding updates like Nicole hadn’t done this hundreds of times before. She really didn’t have time to consider reasons behind Waverly avoiding her for the past three days.

Just because it was the size of a truck, didn’t mean it was anything other than familiar. Nicole could tell exactly what the problem was at the very beginning, except SOMEBODY had a huge problem with her solution.

NH: I’m turning it off and on again.

Houston: Don’t you fucking dare. That is bad, you will fuck it up, and you will both die. (Summarized)

After fourteen hours of trying everything else short of replacing the whole thing with the backup, Nicole turned it off and on again. Sounds easy, but turning off one of the three things keeping them alive down here meant bypassing NASA safety regulations, which was like trying to take down the Berlin Wall with a toothpick and a fancy hat. It took her two and a half hours.

NH: Fixed it.

Houston: Fuck you. Don’t do that again. (Summarized)

And then she’d had to turn all of those safety systems back on again.

Now, Nicole lay facedown on the living space floor as the roomba buzzed around, greeting her in German before stopping (assuming the space was empty due to lack of movement.) Sweat cooled on her aching back and she decided whoever Houston decided was good enough to even TRY to help her could go shove a --

“Haught,” Waverly greeted as she moved into the kitchen. The sound of a mug hitting the counter and a teabag being abused.

“GOO’DAY, MATE,” the roomba said.

Waverly made a displeased noise at the greeting.

-- Atmospheric regulator up their stupid, safety-conscious,  --

“Do you even do anything around here other than nap?”

Nicole knew Waverly was teasing, but after a few seconds of pure silence, she made a horrible, horrible noise in response that could be compared to a whale dying of an impacted colon.

“Ooo-okay then,” Waverly said and left.

Nicole curled up into a ball and gave a dry sob and a groan.


 

DAY 18

@ssssspaggeti2: #alphabase is anyone seeing this [photo attached] I think shes dead. its been six hours. Check raw stream nasa.gov LivingSpace2 cause the public is off at 4am. No sound on raw =/

@StetsonBot: houston’s not said anything so she’s probably sleeping after work, nbd

@ssssspaggeti2: @MarsAlphaBase @NASA @POTUS houston we got a sleeper...

@BotanyisBest: wow what a surprise!! 14:35 on Mars too. whats that like 2pm???

@CBSNews: @ssssspaggeti2, do you mind if we use your photo?

@BotanyisBest: hahah rip @EarthToWaverly please draw on her

 

“COMMANDER HAUGHT IS VERY COOL AND VERY SMART,” the roomba announced, “MOTHER GOOSE IS CALLING. FIVE UNREAD NOTIFICATIONS.”

Nicole looked up from the floor and winced in agony, blinking awake from a nap she shouldn’t have taken. Everything hurt. She tried once to get up and almost teared up at the pain.

“Houston to Base Camp. Commander Haught, wake up.” Nicole felt some relief: At least it wasn’t Dolls and had returned to the normal communications team.

Shuffling like an elderly woman, Nicole managed to make it to communications. “Commander Haught responding.” And just because she was feeling particularly irritable, she sent the response with a diagnostic report of the atmospheric regulator. All checks green, get off my ass .

Oh, shit. Maybe that wasn’t the best of ideas. Payback had been sent in the form of an EVA.

Contrary to popular belief, Mars was alive, just in a different way. It had dozens of robots doing all sorts of work searching for life and water, testing the rock, and generally just doing science. By leaving Nicole and Waverly behind, that meant their projects could continue.

JPL, or the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab of Pasadena, California, was home to most (if not all) of the vicious nerds who controlled them.

Which was quite unfortunate for Nicole at the moment.

HOUSTON: EVA APPROVED 22:30 - 24:30 MAX 40 KM FIX JPL REQUEST ASAP

JPL: Request1 - My tumbleweed is stuck 12 km from base! Can you get it please?? I need it for my research paper. A drone hit me… [data attached]

JPL: Request2 - Drone crash 12 km, net caught on tumbleweed. Fix. Get flying again.[data attached]

JPL: Request3 - Grabber got stuck trying to help two f----- idiots with their f---- problem they caused while f---- trying to play chicken w/ eight minute delay and missing a 0. It’s over 5 million in stuck tech because of it. Can you break their s---, please? Just need mine unstuck. Thanks. [data attached]

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Nicole muttered. Scheduling the EVA so soon wasn’t coincidence: It was revenge. They knew she wouldn’t dare contact Dolls, not right now. Wake him up at 5 am to complain because she slept on the floor? No way, no how.

“Good morning. Please complete the EVA as soon scheduled, Commander.”

She resisted every single urge to hit transmit and just let loose. Instead, she took a deep breath and checked Chrissy’s latest message.

 

Chrissy: Be more careful about where you sleep. [Link attached] NOT the frontpage, but still made it on their stupid ‘Mars Alpha Base’ coverage page. Thankfully we put out a release about your work on the regulator. Good going, by the way. The guy I talked to was pissed . Can you try not to be such a sasshole? We’re trying to help you here!! >:(

Chrissy: on the upside, I managed to put forth a policy change on the public nature of the video feeds for exclusion. so now we can watch you without the public seeing the video!! :)))

#ALPHABASE COVERAGE - NOT-SO-HAUGHT SLEEPING:

[Image of Nicole flat on the ground]

Commander Nicole Haught was caught sleeping on the job again this morning at around 2pm Martian time. The sleeping beauty sparked a minor internet sensation: Haught Shopping. Below are some of my favorites,

[Fancy hat] [Movie poster] [Roomba eating her]

A PR assistant at NASA reached out to tell us that Nicole had been fixing up an atmospheric regulator for a few hours before passing out in the living space.

NH: My bad, Chrissy. I don’t want to make your job any harder, but the guy’s a serious creep. I have double the experience he has and he talked to me like a child. Also, A FEW HOURS? I was working for over fourteen!

NH: can you cut the stream for a week pretty please, if at all possible? I need to recover, I ruined my back. I’ll owe you. BTW I learned my lesson. Guy set me on an EVA.

NH: also is Waverly mad at me?  Is there a way I can help her, do you know?

Chrissy: He must have lied. Like I said, Haught: Stop being… you… and you wouldn’t have these problems. I’ll see if I can get another release. Sure, stream’s cut for the week. Annie beat the communications team into submission. Everybody is hyped for the duo EVA anyway. About Waverly: Better hope not. She’s certified to medically assist you :) Also, check this out!! They put a mustache on you!! [picture attached]

NH: hmmm Photoshop isn’t that bad, so I’ll take it. Can you get me the name of the guy who was ‘helping’ me with the regulator? For professional reasons, of course. Thank you Chrissy. I promise I’ll be good, just for you.

Chrissy: Your charm doesn’t work on me! I don’t trust you, Haught, but honestly? The guy pissed me off, too. He’s a serious creep, I know from experience. Tucker Gardner.

NH: Are you sure? Because I’m out of this world, babe. ;)

NH: Jokes aside, thank you again, Chrissy. When the EVA comes, I’ll make sure to make your job as easy as I can to make it up to you. If you have any instructions for me, include those too. Let me know if Waverly has any problems I can fix okay? I noticed sometimes she gets this look that’s very quietly sad and I genuinely want to help her.

 

@aliengays: im not giving up on getting answers here tbh fam #alphabase WHY ARE THERE ONLY 2 PPL ON MARS im new help

@WHStan: ok… listen. all u need to know is that waverly needs to stop hiding from her feelings. there ur caught up.

@StetsonBot: @aliengays how much do u know about hermes/iris

@aliengays: i dont know shit my guy not a fuckin thing

@BotanyIsBest: NO ROOM ON THE ASCENT VEHICLE LOL

@StetsonBot: FUCK YOU BOTANY YOU WET PIECE OF TOAST THATS NOT WHY

@StetsonBot: @aliengays the answer is we don’t know why only four reached the planet and only one got off. 3 engineers to re-fly hermes back w/ ares 22, but what took up the other seats = ?

@StetsonBot: and yes the ascent vehicle only has a number of seats. haught was best qualified to stay and w/ lowest radiation, only one who could do this mission w/o fucking it up

@ssssspaggeti2: payload needs botanist... or... Earp. weapons...on mars??

@BotanyIsBest: no. waverly earp has never done anything wrong in her life, ever

@spacecriminal: space law forbids space weapons. there!! space knowledge of the day...

 

Unlike Nicole, who often only worked when things went wrong, Waverly worked even when everything went right. Unfortunately, plants rarely gave error messages. The Ares control center filtered requests from universities across the nation and pushed her schedule just short of complete insanity. It made her moods range from “Mildly irritable” to “About to construct a nuclear base and launch attack on Earth.”

But Waverly had a secret.

Well, a few secrets. Okay, a lot! But this one? A state secret. A government secret. Who were the rest of Ares 23? What were the rest of Ares 23?

Answer:

A giant pain in the ass.

Crewmember Eight had escaped and Waverly was chasing it.

(Again.)

“Get back here you little shit !” Waverly hissed, skidding on tile and slamming into another cabinet. Crewmember Eight looked at her with beady, malevolent eyes from underneath the strawberry plants with what Waverly could only assume was absolute hatred.

It adjusted itself. The billion-dollar crewmember, a state secret until day thirty, was out to ruin Waverly’s day.

“Don’t. You. Dare,” Waverly said, pointing a finger. “Don’t you --”

Shit.

Waverly growled and leapt the potatoes like a predator, crossing the greenhouse with singular intent. Crewmember Eight hopped off the ledge and scuttled to the corner where Waverly did her work, closest to the door. It sensed weakness. It sensed opportunity. It knew that Nicole was knocking on that door, waiting for Waverly’s response before opening it.

“DON’T OPEN THE DOOR, HAUGHT!” Waverly shouted, grabbing a cheap 3-D printed box and lunging. She caught the bandit and held it there, leaning an elbow on the box so it couldn’t escape. “Okay, enter!”

Nicole opened the door, leaning in the doorway and looking two steps from hell. Her eyebrows rose, staring at Waverly on the floor, leaning on a box, in absolute bafflement. “Uhm.” Nicole’s wide eyes looked her over. “Do you want me to paint you like one of my french girls or something?”

“No. Absolutely not.” Waverly sighed and made a ‘get on with it’ motion. “What do you need, Haught?”

“I have an EVA in ten minutes.”

Waverly furrowed her brow. “Ten minute warning?” She asked. Extremely unusual. “They usually give us a day.”

“Yeah, well.” Nicole didn’t even bother to explain, she turned and hobbled off. Wait, hobbled?

“Hey!” Waverly called.

“Yeah?” Nicole shouted back from the hallway.

“Need help?”

“Nope!”

Waverly waited until the door automatically shut before lifting the box slightly to stare at her crewmember. “You’re off the hook. For now.”

“Buk,” it said back with mutual distaste.

 

Fifty percent painkillers, twenty-five percent sarcasm, and one-hundred-percent irritated, Nicole stepped out of the rover and surveyed the damage with a curse.

A quick run down of the highly sophisticated instruments that the complete fucking idiots had destroyed:

Tumbleweed: Sort of like a land mine detector, except it rolled around on the surface looking for anything interesting. It looked mildly threatening at night. Variable sizes. 3D printing, woohoo. This one? Surprisingly large, about Waverly’s height.

Done: They had different types, but this was a “We’re using nets to move samples and your complaints don’t stop me” type. So. Said net had caught on the tumbleweed… while the drone was going maximum speed (Had to be fast to generate enough lift here.)

Grabber: It had a better name than that but nobody cared to use it. It resembled a lawnmower with solar panels, except made for… you guess it, grabbing things like stuck robots, interesting rocks, and all sorts of other fun stuff like stuck robots.

From the data, and the appearance of the equipment, the drone had flown at maximum speed. The net had caught one of the hundred rods that made up the hull of the tumbleweed and slammed the drone into the ground. The tumbleweed itself had been thrown from the directional change and struck a cliff.

It was a one-in-a-million crash which could have only been made possible by two complete and utter dumbasses.

Nicole was impressed.

Not to mention the grabber had attempted to dislodge the caught tumbleweed and caused a landslide. Fan-fucking-tastic. Right, first observation: Drone was in itty-bitty pieces and she’d have to take it back. The tumbleweeds were meant to take a beating, She’d have to check the grabber at base.

“Alpha base,” Nicole said clearly.

“ROGER,” the base returned.

“Transmit Houston: Drone is dead, Grabber damaged, taking back to base. Stop. Alpha Base, start Playlist three. Stop, over.”

“ROGER, OVER.”

“Good boy,” Nicole said as music started. In space, there wasn’t much in the way of entertainment, so a good playlist was key.

She hovered over the poor drone and picked it up. It fell apart like tissue paper and she frowned, taking it to the rover and silently promising retribution. The poor drone did nothing to deserve such treatment.

She didn’t think twice when “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer started playing. Of course that was on the list. Why wouldn’t it be? It was a jam! “Hot Blooded” by Foreigner, too. But… she didn’t remember Katy Perry.

Oh well. It was catchy.

But as she considered the weight of the rocks in her way and the amount of patience she had for the airlock of the rover, the song changed.

“Alpha base,” Nicole said as she kicked another boulder off the chassis of the grabber. This song sucked.

“ROGER.”

“Change song, over.” Nicole pushed the grabber aside and clapped her hands free of dust. One down, one to go. Sweat clung to her skin and caught the thin strands of hair free from her pony tail. Yek.

“CHANGED: HOT N HERRE, NELLY TO HOTTER THAN HELL, DUA LIPA. OVER.”

“Damn it.” Nicole stopped. “Earp! Is that you?”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Commander. This song is great,” Waverly commented through the radio innocently. Nicole could imagine her now, perched over communications, giving that coy smile, long brown hair just beg - Stop it, Haught. Stop being a useless lesbian.

“Okay, well, fine, but stop it,” Nicole asked as she grabbed the support cables from the rover and settled them around the grabber. “It makes me nervous. I thought the base gained sentience.”

“... can it do that?” Waverly sounded concerned.

“No. I was joking, I promise. It can’t.” Nicole had to move a particularly large boulder and set her aching back into it, grunting. Stupid, stupid idiots. Just because the gravity was lower didn’t mean it was a walk in the park. “C’mon baby, move.” Finally, it dislodged and shifted. She leaned back and pressed a hand to her back, cracking it and giving a quiet ‘Ah, shit,’ of relief.

The tumbleweed had two damaged rods. She’d have to take it back as well.

“Earp, you still there?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” Waverly responded, voice strangely high, “I mean, where else would I be? I’m here. Monitoring you. Listening to you. At communications, just here. Listening. Doing that . What -- What do you want me to do?”

Nicole, confused, stretched her arms. “Okay? Uh… Tell Houston that I have to take the tumbleweed back as well. All three are damaged.” Her shoulder cracked and she groaned aloud. Needed to lay down after this and pray.

“Right! Of course! Telling, uh, telling Houston. Putting them in the know. Giving them the low down, you know. Puttin’ down and they’re pickin’ up.”

“Waverly?” Nicole asked softly as the rover airlock opened, thinking she might need a tip, “The frequency is --”

“Yes! I know! Stop talking, Please, shit, just stop talking .”

Nicole frowned but remained silent, not know what she’d done. Oh, shit. Waverly probably had a million people trying to talk to her like an idiot and Nicole’s comment had come out wrong. She took off her helmet and sighed heavily into the cooler air of the rover.

“I’m sorry,” she began quietly, “Didn’t mean to come off like that. You’re incredibly smart --”

“HAUGHT IF YOU SAY ANOTHER GODDAMN WORD I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL NEVER, EVER SPEAK TO YOU AGAIN.”

Nicole almost drove into a ditch in confusion. Well. Okay, then.

 

Waverly wasn’t anywhere to be found when Nicole returned. She checked communications and saw Waverly had indeed sent the confirmation messages. Nicole checked for any response.

JPL: Grabber guy here. I work in engineering, but a guy in Houston can do you a favor if you ever need one. His twitter is @JChetri and he’s a smart m---------.

Nicole’s eyebrows threatened to climb right off her face until she realized he thought she’d intentionally disabled the drone. Her back hurt too much to correct him.

Chrissy: You know what? It’s hard to stay mad at you when you ask questions like that. Let me talk to Waverly. You just try not to piss her off. (Also that line was AWFUL, please try again.)

Nicole shoved a bunch of painkillers in her mouth and laid down in her quarters to die (Hopefully).

 

@MartianCoffee: #alphabase why’s stream off. no raw?? illegal!

@StetsonBot: maintenance probs. said 1 week and there’s a policy change, they moved video feed to private

@MartianCoffee: [image of Nicole Haught sleeping on the floor facedown] big mood

@BotanyisBest: ooooor haught fucked up again :) :) :)))))

@MatianCoffee: [Stock photo of man holding his face in his hands] stop. please. for once.

@WHStan: oooooooooor they’re boning

@Stetsonbot: okay what the fuck no!

@MartianCoffee: BONE!? [image of Captain Holt from TV show Brooklyn Nine-Nine ]

@BotanyisBest: waverly is straight ive been saying this for the past bajillion years guys stop she dated a dude!

@TuckerG: do you guys really think they're having sex?

@WHStan: BoOoOOONE!?! [second image of same subject]

@spacecriminal: how D ARE you DETEcTIVE dIAZ [third image of same subject]

@WHStan: @TuckerG the hell else would they be doing? haught is GAY and isnt BLIND

@spacecriminal: I A M  Y O U R  S U P E R I O R  O F F I C E R  [fourth image of same subject]

[Various repetitions of similar jokes]

 

So how did one send an astronaut a dick pic?

Email, of course. With a system that constantly sent gigabytes of video files, sending caches of the internet and email was child’s play.

Use a fake name, too. Be sure to change the title to something important, and make the attachment name irresistible to an astronaut regardless of file size. Pick one of the following addresses:

Waverly herself had three she considered her priority on Mars: Personal (which rarely, if ever, had any messages) University (a mess, honestly, her professors couldn’t ask enough questions) and Astronaut (she wished she could delete this one. The Ares Program forwarded specific requests from university students to her, and she could pick whatever one was of interest. It was mostly men trying to tell her what to do. But at this point, she was used to it.)

So receiving a personal message drew her interest immediately. Thoughts filled with someone whose name rhymed with Micole Maught, Waverly sipped her tea and opened it, not even really looking, and certainly not noticing the file extension.

Moments later, after chiding herself for the fifth time for extremely inappropriate thoughts about her coworker, Waverly glanced at it and dropped the tablet on the table, shoving it away, shuddering in disgust and revulsion. “Ew, jeez! What the shit!”

Unfortunate. She really should have looked for just a bit longer, or things wouldn’t have gone so wrong. It sent itself to Nicole’s tablet, which automatically opened attachments sent by Waverly’s (astronauts sometimes didn’t have free hands), and waited patiently -- hidden --  for day twenty-four.

 


DAY 19

 

Chrissy: How are things going, Waves? Is that one lady still being a huge you know?

Wave: Yeah. I’m dealing with it. But, things are good. Why wouldn’t they be good? They’re going great. No problems.

Chrissy: Ok then. Let me know. I’m here for you, eight minutes away.

 

“...And don’t laugh at me, okay?” Nicole asked through the intercom. “Please. Please just don’t laugh.”

Waverly nodded though Nicole couldn’t see. “Okay. I’ll be there in a sec.” She put her gloves down and sighed. Her journey through the base took her through the living space and she stopped a moment, confused. Where was roomba? She continued to the medical bay to grab the requested first aid kit, still wondering and quite worried, but found it in Nicole’s quarters.

Along with Nicole.

Stuck, only partially in her jumpsuit and half on her bed, half out of it, in the most awkward angle Waverly had ever seen in her life.

“I fell,” Nicole said pitifully, looking like a guilty puppy, “Can you please help me?”

Waverly lost her shit. She leaned against the doorway, laughing harder than she’d had in awhile, almost dropping the first aid kit. Nicole wiggled slightly in annoyance and Waverly only laughed harder.

“Please!” Nicole called over her laughter. “It hurts.

“HOWDY PARTNER,” the roomba chimed in to greet the detected newcomer. It did a circle, confused, disturbed at being moved and used for communications.

“You look --” Waverly fell to another bout of cackles that made her face hurt. “You look -- Hang on, holy shit, let me show you, oh my god.” She pulled out her tablet and took a photo. Nicole tossed her a death glare that only made the picture better. “Oh. My. God.”

Serious pain here, Earp!”

Waverly surrendered. “Okay, okay.” She put the first aid kit on the bed and pushed the rest of Nicole Haught back on the bed easily. The redhead groaned and Waverly actually noticed how horribly tense she was. “Wait, you’re serious.”

“Yes!” Nicole snapped, arms stuck in her jumpsuit and pressed to her side, “Yes, I am absolutely serious, Earp! I ruined my back! Please just give me the vicodin. It hurts so bad.”

Waverly rolled her eyes and rolled a complaining Nicole over and inspected her back. “What did you do?”

Nicole muttered something about being an idiot.

“Louder,” Waverly requested in a teasing tone.

“I was an idiot, okay? I worked for half the day and slept on the floor, then I went out and did the EVA.” Then softer, with less anger and more pleading, “Please, Earp. You’re my only hope.”

“Wow.” Waverly was impressed. “That’s…” Next level stubborn idiocy. She shook her head and set the first aid kit aside.

“What are you -- Oh my god ,” Nicole moaned.

Waverly stopped her hands and squeezed her eyes shut. “Please don’t.” She pressed her hands back down into the muscles of Nicole’s back. It was hard enough not to focus on the warm feel of soft skin under her fingers, or the ways Nicole’s back flexed in a way that was... Really hot.

“Sorry, I don’t -- shit -- mean to make you -- jesus -- uncomfortable -- holy fuck, Waverly .”

Waverly stopped, opened a nearby drawer, and shoved a sock in Nicole’s mouth when she tried to ask what she was doing.

There. Better.

Except not. Nicole still couldn’t hold back the sounds of absolute relief as Waverly worked her strained back. So, Waverly just did her best at completely ignoring them, which was to say that she failed completely and she was immensely glad Nicole couldn’t see her burning face.

Jesus Christ her skin was soft. 

Waverly tried to keep her mind off it, noticing small things of the room. A tiny pot of flowers had yet to bloom under a solar lamp. A whiteboard that covered half a wall was covered with overlapping calculations. Something on the floor across from her, a weird, small (size and shape of a shoebox), black, sort of a ---

“What is that?” Waverly asked, stopping to squint at it. It made a painful clacking noise and jittered, causing Waverly to swallow hard and lean away.

“Mffhhhuhffmm,” was the response before Waverly pulled the sock free and tossed it aside. “It’s my cat.”

“Your what? Haught, that’s not a cat.” It clacked forward with a familiar whirring sound that made Waverly’s skin want to climb off her body.  Shaking, she didn’t even realize Nicole had responded. Voice tight, heart pounding, “I have to go.”

“Earp?” Nicole asked as Waverly basically shoved her out of the jumpsuit to free her. “Waverly, what’s wrong?”

“I have to go,” Waverly repeated quickly, swallowing audibly, her vision blurring with tears. She saw Nicole turn and try to get up, face full of concern, “ Don’t follow me, Haught.”

Waverly retreated from the room.

She hid in a corner of the greenhouse. It took her fourteen minutes to calm herself down, watching her crewmembers wander their new home. Why was it so hard? She curled into herself and hugged her knees, feeling eight again, feeling cold in the shadow her family had left, feeling like she might not make it six months.

 


 

DAY 21

 

NH: I see that terribly sad look again. I’m trying to give her space, not make her feel cornered. I don’t want to pressure her, Chrissy. What can I do that won’t be over reaching?

Chrissy: Hmm.. Try doing small stuff to make her day easier. Stuff that doesn’t involve opening your dumb mouth and making things worse.

NH: You’re so nice to me. But if you think this mouth is only good for saying idiotic things, you’d be wrong ;)

Chrissy: Awful. But not as bad as the other one.

 

So, Nicole made Waverly tea.

The brits of Ares 22 had requested loads of the stuff, and the brits of the ground team had obliged. Nicole didn’t try to corner Waverly in the greenhouse, and instead waited for 13:00, the exact time Waverly always came for lunch.

She left it on the table and left the room. When she came back later it was gone.


 

DAY 22

 

Chocolate.

Nicole had left chocolate for her. Along with the tea.

Waverly stared dumbly at the tiny piece of heaven on the table, scared. Tiny and probably stale, but it was still chocolate and Waverly had never felt more torn in her life. On one hand, the mission counted on her maintaining her current dislike of Nicole. There were too many variables that could play out in disaster if they broke that line.

On the other hand, Waverly couldn't remember the last time anyone had actually given her a gift.

Chocolate. Water in the desert to an astronaut. Heaven on Mars for Waverly Earp.

Waverly ate it. Stale, but lordy in heaven: Worth it. Before she could think too much about it, Waverly picked some of the few strawberries that had grown and left them for Nicole.

 

Holy. Shit. Nicole nearly cried at how delicious strawberries were after eating awful pre-packaged Martian food. She tried very hard to make it slow and last, but it was over too quickly and she let out a quiet “noooo.” She gave a dry sob of frustration.

“Roomba,” Nicole said aloud to the empty living space.

“HOWDY PARTNER.” It buzzed over.

“What else do we grow here?”

“POTATOES, STRAWBERRIES, CARROTS, TOMATOES, AND VARIOUS FLORAL VARIETIES AS WELL AS A LEMON TREE.”

“Wait -- No string beans?” Nicole asked, but the roomba didn’t understand and did a circle.

Hmm.

 


 

DAY 23

 

Two words and Waverly nearly felt like dancing. So she did. Alone, in the lab, on the counters, on the table, on the tougher plants, with her 'crewmembers.' She’d given herself the day off, throwing herself with abandon into the happiness she knew would be brief.

Lead Researcher Earp,

Phenomenal work.

X. Dolls

Director of the Ares Program

Lyndon B Johnson Center

Houston, Texas

 

Chrissy: WAVES. He NEVER COMPLIMENTS PEOPLE. HE TERRIFIES ME. WHAT DID YOU DO :O

Waves: :) :) :) :)

Waves: I made a lemon!!

Chrissy: NO WAY OH MY GOD was it good

Waves: er.. It’s tiny and not edible.. But it’s a lemon…?

Chrissy: im so proud of you I can’t even think straight

 

Chrissy Nedley,

No, we cannot release the information with the title “Waverly Earp is a Genius Badass Who Grew The First Lemon On Mars.” Please resend with an appropriate suggestion.

Attached: Instructions for duo EVA.

Annie J.

Director of Public Relations

Lyndon B Johnson Center

Houston, Texas

 

@CSA_ASC: Canada’s own @EarthToWaverly everybody! #Sol23 #Alphabase [Article link]

@NASA: Congratulations @EarthToWaverly for making history on Mars! #Sol23 #AlphaBase [Article link]

@BotanyIsBest: WAVERLY EARP IS AMAZING AND I LOVE HER [Picture of Waverly]

@spacecriminal: GET IT GIRL FUCK IT UPPPPPPPPP WE LOVE YOUUU @EarthToWaverly

@MartianCoffee: @EarthToWaverly [Image of woman holding phone looking off camera, caption of ‘You’re doing amazing sweetie’]

@StetsonBot: calm down its a fuckin lemon

@BotanyIsBest: have u been fuckin a lemon?? bitter bitch @StetsonBot

 

“JPL Request 5: ------------------.”

“Can you resend that, JPL?” Nicole asked, carefully removing another piece of the drone. “That was static.”

“JPL Request 6: YOU FUDGING BROKE MY FUDGING DRONE YOU FUDGING BEACH. I WILL RUIN YOU. JUST WAIT, YOU BEACHWALL P E R V E R T. STAY AWAY FROM WAVERLY.”

Hmm. Unusual for two reasons: Nicole didn’t remember the last time she’d actually met someone who was still stuck in the dark ages, and why the hell did this person mention Waverly of all people?

“What’s the source of that?” Another clack as a shattered piece of equipment hit the tray. Nicole remained firmly in the zone. No room for anger or frustration while working, but that didn’t mean she’d let this kid go. “Who’s sending that request through JPL?”

“MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY.”

“Dial whoever’s in charge, secureline. Stop, over.” This asshole wanted to play, then she’d play. Nicole paused her music and waited patiently, entirely calm. It was six forty-three on Earth.

“ROGER. DIALING SECURE LINE. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES...”

“No! Not her!” Nicole almost dropped the motherboard. “Stop! Stop! Hang up!

 

A secretary working early morning shift at the White House picked up the phone, confused. The number was unrecognizable and definitely not protocol. She waved over security and put it on speaker, all five in the room listening as a robotic voice announced the impossible:

“NEW MESSAGE FROM MARS ALPHA BASE. PLEASE WAIT APPROXIMATELY TWELVE MINUTES FOR MESSAGE AND RESPONSE.”

Everybody in the room froze in disbelief -- “A message from another planet? How? Why would they call us?“Alpha Base, I’ve been following them, something must be wrong.” “Don’t know, should we call somebody?” “Nobody will believe us.”  -- waiting. A few minutes ticked by as they awaited the commander's message...

“Nevermind! Wrong number, sorry!”

 

Nicole finally managed to call the head of robotics at MIT.

“Hello? Who is this?” a quiet male voice asked, confused. “I don’t recognize this number.” An automatic announcement played on his end, telling him he had a message incoming from Mars. He almost dropped the phone, but quickly cradled it close and waited as the minutes ticked by.

“Hi. It’s Commander Nicole Haught, I’m calling from Mars.” Nicole explained the state of the drone, the cost of the student’s mistake, and sent along the data regarding the crash.

“From Mars? Mars?” the man sounded amazed, “You’re calling from Alpha Base, Ms. -- Commander Haught? This is phenomenal. Amazing!” A deep breath. “Yes, of course. I will absolutely check out this data, but I’m sure you’re correct already. I will find out who’s behind this immediately, don’t worry an inch about it. It will be dealt with. I have to say, most of my students can’t talk enough about you, Commander. They are very big fans and won’t believe me when I say that you’ve called me. I.. I almost can’t believe it myself.”

A pause as the man looked over the data. “This is a very good argument against the use of nets. Thank you again.”

Nicole had to set her gloves aside and step away from the drone, grinning painfully wide. She felt like walking on air. She left the garage in a daze, floating into the living space, until a flash of brown hair caught her off guard.

Lemons! ” Waverly shouted and slammed Nicole into a hug at top speed.

Nicole stiffened, mind full of totally safe things like ohmygodwaverlyearpishuggingmeholyshit and AHHHHHHHHHHHH!

“L… Lemons?” Nicole squeaked, hands sort of hovering awkwardly behind Waverly, unsure whether to return the hug or not. Waverly leaned back, her weight almost entirely on Nicole at this point, and flashed a smile that made Nicole almost die from a heart attack, radiating happiness like the sun.

“I made lemons, Haught. I am a frickin’ genius.”

“You are,” Nicole agreed with a wide grin, transfixed and gay. Waverly looked so happy. So genuinely free. It was exhilarating. (uh-oh)

“I made the front page!” Waverly let go finally and did an excited spin. “They said it wasn’t possible, but you know what, Haught? It was possible. It was so frickin’ possible because I did it. I made that lemon. The first lemon! And you know what else?”

“What?” Nicole asked, a bit uncertain, still trying to get her mind to restart.

Waverly halted mid-step, looking at Nicole and seeming to remember something. “I just remembered my potatoes need water.” She fled. Again.

Nicole looked at the roomba, running a hand through her hair and silently shouting at her heart to stop pounding. “Did you see that? What -- What was that? What am I doing wrong?

“WELCOME COMRADE.”

 

@ssssspaggeti2: Who would win in a fight??? [Waverly Earp: 49%] [Nicole Haught: 51%] 894 Votes #Alphabase #Hiatus

@MartianCoffee: all im saying is that waverly a. knows some martial arts b. short people are terrifying c. canadian

@spacecriminal: ok but get this? you’re wrong

@StetsonBot: haught was airforce, she’d win hands down

@BotanyisBest: chairforce lol also she never saw combat TRY AGAIN

@JumpsuitJitters: y’all. all waverly has to do is smile and haught loses. as a gay, i wouldnt be able to function around waverly either

 

@JChetri: @HaughtOnMars waddup h dog

@HaughtOnMars: Okay well. No pressure, but I need to call in that favor. Can you look something up for me, please?...

 


 

DAY 24

 

@MarsAlphaBase: Howdy Partner! WATCH LIVE [LINK] Alpha Base Astronauts head to Elysium Mons to Complete EVA. Delay est. Fourteen Minutes. #AlphaBase #Sol24

@BotanyIsBest: what is going on again why is earp in danger now

@StetsonBot: u are like little baby. planets are made of rocks, right? rocks move. must study rock movement. rocky movementy study makery is big and requires 2 to set up. even if 1 plays with plants for a living

@BotanyIsBest: you know what? go fuck yourself

@aliengays: how long has this been a thing...

@MartianCoffee: DRAMA ALERT. POST ATTRACTIVE PICS OF NICOLE HAUGHT. [Picture attached]

@spacecriminal: [Image of man wiping face with towel] holy shit

@WHStan: include the hat or dont post [picture of Nicole attached includes hat]

@JumpsuitJitters: sahlsdgjdkh hiogoly hsit h o o l y s hit   o h m y g od   ho ly shi T I J HHO LY SHITTTT OMGFUCKGING GOD

 

Chrissy: Instructions are simple. Make it educational and fun. Wait for our messages. We’re monitoring some dust activity in the area, so be sure to make ready to leave. Very low chance.

Wave: Got it!!

 

“Are you ready?” Nicole asked, watching Waverly pack. Yes, Waverly was packing. Nicole could only stare in awe as the botanist shoved items in a sack that looked completely irrelevant.

“Almost!” Waverly insisted, shoving what appeared to be a dried up fruit in her pocket. “For luck. Let’s go.”

 

After her lengthy stay on Mars, Nicole didn’t really have the same excitement Waverly did. But to Waverly? It was all new. There wasn’t ever a reason for her to be on the surface, not professionally. And what was there to do? Outdoor plants would require the next team of Astronauts, not one person alone.

They stood together outside in their suits for a long moment to get adjusted to the surface. Then, Nicole held open the airlock door to the massive rover with a flourish. “After you.”

Waverly scoffed, but she was too excited to feign irritation.  “I’m choosing the music this time.” She plugged her tablet into the rover, which automatically gave it administrative access.

“Didn’t you technically choose it last time?” Nicole settled herself into the front seat, feeling a sort of comfort return in being in a pilot’s seat. It thrilled her, in a way. She felt a grin creep across her face as she leaned her face to Waverly. “Pick something fast?”

Waverly narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Sure. Why?”

Nicole pulled a pair of sunglasses and put them on. Waverly rolled her eyes almost hard enough to send them into space and Nicole laughed outright. “The spice girls? Really?”

“Hey! It’s a jam, Haught,” Waverly rebuffed, offended.

Nicole shrugged in response, turning forward.

Then, Nicole floored it.

“Jesus shit balls!” Waverly hung on as they accelerated across the Martian landscape. “I thought these things were supposed to creep, not fly! Is this even safe?”

“Language!” Nicole tapped the camera. “And some were built with speed for rescues around the time missions were bumped from four to eight members,” Nicole explained as she whipped them sideways to avoid a crater with ease, “Can’t rescue anyone going ten kilometers per hour.”

Waverly nodded and a mischievous light appeared in her eyes that made Nicole swallow hard. “How much lift do you think we can get at this speed on this planet?”

Nicole tightened her grip on the steering wheel. “Let’s see.” She could imagine the control room now, shaking their heads in disappointment, maybe also wondering what the hell ‘ziga-zig-ah’ meant. But this chance… this was too good to give up.

Worth it, Nicole decided mid-air as Waverly laughed so genuinely, so freely as they soared a ridiculous distance, that her heart almost exploded into confetti.

 

@JChetri: hey uh hdog remember what u wanted me to look into, bt gardner

@JChetri: all i could find? Is that the guy is fkin obsessed w/ waverly earp. used to work together before waverly got accepted into astronaut program. lots of sexual harassment complaints. computer science. Works @ lbj now. Somehow =/

@JChetri: [picture attached of a desk containing three framed photos of Waverly and a MIT graduate shirt.]

@JChetri: good luck w/ whatever. notice how sexist this shit is??? dude works here!!! unbelievable.

 

“Wait wait! Pull over!”

Nicole slammed the brakes in a panic. “Why, what’s happened?” she asked as Waverly hurried to exit the rover. Nicole forced it to park and got out as well, slightly spooked. “Car sick?”

“No! Check out this view!” Waverly spread her arms. Mar’s tiny moon, Phobos, eyed them curiously from the dusty tan sky. Ahead of them, Elysium Mons sent a shadow across a massive slice of martian desert. Pure, alien beauty.

Nicole only saw dirt. She cleared her throat, unable to resist Waverly’s enthusiasm. Waverly, grinning like the moon and stars combined, bounced over (Literally bounced in the gravity) and grabbed Nicole, shuffling her next to a pile of rocks.

“Lean against that and lift up the reflective.” Waverly took a few steps back. “And smile.”

Nicole, confused, did as she was told.

“‘Pained grimace’ is not a smile, Haught.” Waverly put a hand on her hips and gestured with the other. “Isn’t there anything you smile about?”

 

@EarthToWaverly: Phobos, are you jealous?? No horror here!! <3 to Earth from Mars! [Picture attached] #AlphaBase #EVA

@WHStan: ok im saying it right now… #CommanderHeartEyes

@MartianCoffee: ZOOM… ENHANCE [Picture attached, zoomed in on Nicole’s face]

@spacecriminal: [same picture] my face when im in love n she cute as heck

@JumpsuitJitters: [Picture of Nicole on the floor sleeping] that feel when she doesnt like u back

@spacecriminal: [Picture of Nicole on the floor sleeping] the floor is falling in love with your co worker

@aliengays: [Picture of Waverly next to her lemon tree looking happy] gotta grow a few leaves there commander

 

The rest of the drive out to the chosen geological survey area went fairly smoothly. Only problem, Houston? Waverly.

Nicole couldn’t concentrate around her! Waverly’s look of pure awe failed to fade and Nicole couldn’t stop glancing at her, silently loving the way she looked so damn free, so unlike the sullen Waverly she’d been getting used to. If a duo EVA could get her to smile like this, then Nicole would request them for the rest of their lives.

Bad for driving. Nicole failed to avoid another hole and they both suffered for it.

“Problem, Haught?” Waverly asked, squinting, still having that rare smile on her face.

Nicole’s face burned like the sun and she shook her head in response, not trusting herself to say anything. A few minutes later, she found herself glancing again. Shit. She was in deep, against all attempts otherwise.

“There’s a storm in the distance that we’re watching closely,” Chrissy’s voice told them a few minutes later , “It’s small and wouldn’t be an issue if it turned. We’ll let you know. Meanwhile, you guys are about to play teacher while the surveyor drills. Ready to represent humanity? Good luck!”

Nicole stopped the rover and parked. Right on time, right where they needed to be. “Do you want to do most of the talking or shall I?”

“I think I can handle it, Haught,” Waverly said over her shoulder as she left the rover.

Nicole rested her head against the steering wheel for a long moment before following.

 

First step, drilling. They had a bunch of time to kill while the machine dug into the rock.

HOUSTON: Explain lowered gravity during free time.

“...the gravity on Mars is only thirty-eight percent of Earth's, as you can see.” Waverly tossed a rock into the distance. “And the atmospheric pressure is point six percent of Earth’s average at sea level.” Waverly took her job seriously. Being here? Doing this? This is what made her happy, something she never had on Earth. “The gravity is so low because the planet is smaller, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get lost out here.”

Behind her, in frame, Nicole did a handstand and started to walk. She did a circle, a few pushups, but otherwise kept herself silent as to not alert Waverly. She waved to the camera.

“It makes our jobs easier and harder at the same time.” Waverly tapped her helmet, turning serious. “Decompression sickness is a serious life-threatening problem which can kill us in as little as two minutes. But it means wind is rarely, if ever, an issue for our equipment.”

“Whoo -” Nicole lost her balance as some of the dust pretended to be solid. “ Ow.

A tiny beep sounded in Waverly’s suit announcing that Nicole was horizontal and she turned to look at Nicole on her back. “Haught!” Waverly admonished, unable to put any real bite into it. God help her, but Waverly was starting to find it charming.

“Giving a beautiful view of the sky for them, Earp! No need to worry.” Nicole made a dust angel, enjoying herself a little too much. Waverly couldn’t help her own grin of amusement. “I prefer Earth blue to Martian tan, viewers. Vote now on your phones.”

Waverly tossed a pebble and it ricocheted off Nicole’s helm. “Hey!” She pointed from her position on the ground and gave a faux commander voice. “Two months in the brig for assaulting an officer, Earp!”

Waverly giggled before stopping herself with a cough. Keep it together, Earp.

 

@WHStan: all right i want everybody to form an orderly line and pay me fifty dollars because i fuckin called it!!! it is NOT one sided!! houston replay that i swear i saw something gay!!!

@BotanyIsBest: @WHStan i hope you slip and fall. google search ‘confirmation bias’

 

“Okay.” Waverly held up her hands dramatically. “Step back, Haught. If you want a demonstration of lowered gravity, I’ll give one.” People tended to forget that both she and Nicole had passed vigorous physical tests, and even here they had to keep up a regime. This would be cake.

Nicole scrambled to her feet and backed up to watch.

A deep breath in, a deep breath out. Waverly grinned and threw herself into motion. She got a running start and jumped a few feet, twisting upside down and turning sideways to land on her hands and push off again -- soaring like a master gymnast -- and finished with a backflip and a stuck landing. Her breathing barely increased,  “Boom! How bout them apples, Haught?”

Gymnastics paid off.

Waverly furrowed her brow at the lack of response. Had she done something wrong…? She looked at Nicole, who appeared startled, confused, and panicked. Slow moments passed before Nicole found a word that she spoke with obvious appreciation: “Wow .”

Summary of the comments: ‘Same, Haught. Same.’

 

Nicole left Waverly to deal with the public and took the brunt of the physical work, ignoring the terrible ache in her back. She dreamed of hot baths and anti-inflammatories as she set up the surveyor.

Geologists are very demanding individuals. You could say Nicole’s relationship with them was… rocky.

Nicole had to adjust it constantly every twelve minutes for nit-picky results, growling to herself when she got another request to shift two degrees back and forth. Finally in place, she turned it on.

Nicole blinked. It wouldn’t talk to her tablet. At all. She sighed heavily and winced at the pain.

“Earp, keep them distracted, I have to fix this thing.”

 

“We’re getting signal. What’s she doing?” a tech asked, gesturing at the screens of the control room in confusion. “Why’s she messing with it?”

“That small storm we’ve seen? Shifted southwest,” reported weather control, “Should get them out. It’ll cut off communications, throw some wind their way.”

Dolls nodded. “Send it. Let’s wrap this up.”

 

Nicole set the panel down, picking up her tablet and checking. Nothing except a message from Houston.

HOUSTON: Haught, walk over and get a view from the cliff into the crevice. Explain it and give us your opinion.

Nicole had to figure this out. Waverly could do it. Without really thinking, “Hey, a view from the cliff, Earp.”

Nicole set the tablet down and checked the battery. Replaceable. No solar panels, not this far from base: it would be dust-covered in days. Everything looked to be in place. But why wasn’t it talking to her?

“Beautiful view from here,” Waverly said. Nicole could hear her smile and it made her feel warm. “The crevice here goes down, wow. And as you can see we’re about --”

Nicole only had a half a second warning -- the rover reported a stronger-than-average gust with a sharp beeping sound -- before the scream ripped through her speakers.

Waverly Earp had fallen from the cliff, blown off by the wind.

And it was her fault.

 

Thousands of miles away, everybody in the Ares control room froze in disbelief.

“Waverly!” Nicole’s anguished cry. Waverly’s camera showed only darkness, and all eyes turned to Nicole’s. Helpless fear ran through all of them. Eight minutes away, they could only watch.

“Who told her to go to the cliff?” a tech demanded, “We told them to leave the area!”

“Haught told her to get a view,” another called back, “We didn’t request that, they went off script.”

Chrissy, standing though she couldn’t remember telling her legs to do so, looked to Annie. “Do we cut it?”

“No,” Annie said,  “Cut audio to the public but nothing else. No statements unless Xavier calls for it. If we go black now, there will be hell.”

Dolls held up a hand to the panic of the room. "She's not dead. Remain calm and do your jobs. Get contact with Haught, now."

“Haught,” Chrissy said under her breath, “What have you done?

 

The rover reported another gust and Nicole stopped herself from trying to view over the cliff. If she fell as well, they’d simply be dead.

“Earp! I need you to respond. Please, god, respond.” Silence answered her, but readings told Nicole that Waverly’s suit hadn’t punctured and her heart was still beating. A small indicator told her Waverly’s helmet integrity had been compromised, but still held.

That means she landed face-first, probably hitting her face against her own visor.

“Earp!” Nicole yelled again.

Silence.

“What the hell do I do?” Nicole asked aloud, holding her helmet. Waverly Earp, the botanist, her colleague, her friend, the person responsible for growing their fucking food and keeping Nicole from making terrible mistakes like this one, had just fallen from the cliff into oblivion.

What the fuck! Holy shit! What the fuck!

Okay, okay. Calm down.

A plan:

She’d have to go down and get her. That’s it. Only way. She had to save Waverly.

Nicole launched into motion, sprinting over to the vehicle and climbing in the driver’s seat.

No new messages. Nicole hit transmit and tried to keep her voice steady, “Houston, we have an issue, but I have a plan. Try not to freak out anymore than you already are.”

This would be ridiculously risky, but holy shit she was not letting Waverly die. She floored the reverse, praying to whoever was listening. Did anybody watch out for Martians? Or did they only watch Earth? Oh, no time for philosophy. A few feet from the cliff, she turned on every brake they had, including the ground clamps, and left the rover.  

“Say something!” Nicole demanded, moving to the back doors of the rover and opening them.

A groan from the fallen researcher and Nicole nearly collapsed with relief. “Waverly. Waverly, respond. I need you to say something.”

Another groan. “Something.”

“Are you hurt?” Nicole placed her foot against the hull and pulled, ripping the seat belt from its home. Thousands of miles away, an engineer began to cry. Her back yelled at her to stop but why the fuck would she listen now?

“Yeah. My head and my shoulder,” Waverly mumbled. “Wasgoingon?”

“Don’t move! Okay? Do not move!” Nicole tore another out and threw them both out onto the Martian desert. More, she needed more. “Something went wrong and I’m going to fix it.”

A beat, two. “Am I... Am I going to die?” Waverly seemed too dazed to check her suit.

“No.” Not if I can help it.

“Hurts.”

“Do not move. Do you understand me? Do not move.” Nicole began tying knots in the seat belts. Fun fact: Very hard in a space suit. Guilt ached in Nicole’s bones. She shouldn’t have accepted that request. She should have been aware .

Why hadn’t she been told about the weather?

“Don’t leave.” Waverly said quietly, voice quiet and scared. Vulnerable. Nicole’s heart broke.

“Waverly, I’m still here.” The wind picked up again and scattered the dust. Time was sprinting out and her hands couldn’t tie fast enough. She tried not to let her panic bleed into her voice, “I’m not leaving you, I promise. I’m coming to get you. Stay there and don’t move at all.”

“Can’t see.”

“You’re face down, Waverly. Just stay calm.” Finally, Nicole had a makeshift harness. She tied it to the rover’s securing line and tugged as hard as she could, putting her whole (reduced) weight into it. She wished the climbing equipment wasn’t collecting dust back at base.

The rover didn’t budge a single inch. Nicole breathed a heavy sigh of relief. “Waverly, can you talk to me?” She slipped the harness over herself, attaching it to the suit, and took a deep breath. She had enough extra to tie Waverly to her once she reached the bottom.

“What you want,” Waverly grumbled. A concussion, maybe.

“Can you tell me your name?” Nicole swallowed hard and stepped back to the edge, looking down. Waverly’s prone form had landed about half way down on a ledge that looked dubious. The securing line just barely made it to Waverly.

The question was… could she get back up after she went down? Could she simply have the rover pull them out? No - the risks there were too many to count.

So she simply had to get back up, by hand, or they’d both die.

God, she hated heights.

“Wav’ly Earp...”   

Nicole began to repel down the cliff, slowly, painfully slowly, careful to make sure the knots didn’t do anything funny. She couldn’t look down, her helm didn’t turn that way. She had to check constantly with her arm camera.

“...dumbass,” Waverly said under her breath.

“Yeah, you’re going to be fine.” A sharp beeping sound announced another gust and Nicole held her breath. The line shifted slightly to the side but the rover remained still. That wasn’t what Nicole was worried about...

“HOUSTON CALLING,” the base announced. “MESSAGE RECEIVED.”

“Roger. Respond: Not right now, assholes!” Nicole shouted with frustration. “Stop, over!”

“MESSAGE SENT, OVER.”

“...Alpha base..” Waverly muttered.

“Waverly!” Nicole admonished. “Don’t you dare.

“ROGER.”

“No!” Nicole slipped again, her next words stolen as she struggled to get steady again.

“Houston, go fuck yourself.” Waverly groaned. “Stop, over.”

“MESSAGE SENT, OVER.”

“Damnit,” Nicole muttered, sliding down a bit faster now.

 

ALPHABASE: Not right now, assholes!

ALPHABASE: Go fuck yourself [incomprehensible].

“Send the message again!” shouted weather control. “They needed to be on the road twelve minutes ago! Capcom, what the everloving fuck are you doing?”

“We sent it!” came the furious response from the communications team, “By all accounts, Alpha Base received the message!”

“Is she… repelling down...with a harness made from seatbelts ?” a tech asked over the sound of one of the employees laughing from pure stress. “Is that safe…?”

No one knew what to do and Dolls still had said nothing. He stood stock-still, staring at the screens with a tight expression.

“They’re going insane.” Chrissy watched thousands of messages of various unfortunate words and incomprehensible yelling. Disbelief coated her words. Her best friend was in a life-or-death situation and hundreds of thousands of people were watching. Millions.  “All of them. It’s everywhere.” Her phone rang again and Chrissy looked at it this time.

“Wynonna?”

“Tell me you guys did not just get my sister killed.”

“I promise you, we’re --”

“Chrissy. I’m on my way to Houston. She had better be in one piece or I am ripping your boss a new one, tearing that one up too, then ripping another new one.”

 

Nicole landed aside Waverly, testing the ledge. It held. She silently sent mental apologies to the thousands of medical professionals watching her and turned Waverly over. Okay, that amount of blood is pretty bad. It stained the top half of Waverly’s visor and Nicole felt her heart die a little.

“Hey sailor,” Waverly mumbled with a pained and confused grin, “Come here often?”

“Only for you. Can’t survive without you, Earp,” Nicole said with a thin smile as she threaded some of the securing line through Waverly’s suit. “How are you feeling? Do any of your limbs hurt?” Hopefully the padding had prevented a break.

“Just me head.”

“Yeah, well, you hit it pretty bad. But everything’s going to be fine, okay?” Nicole tied the line to her own. Waverly weighed next-to-nothing, so point in their favor. Or, not favor, since it -- Whatever. “You’re not going to like this, but I have to patch your helmet. You won’t be able to see much.” Nicole took out a patch kit and got to work. Seeing or decompression? A hard choice.

Waverly grunted in annoyance.

“Waverly. Can you do something for me?” There. It would have to do for now. It just had to hold until they got to the rover.

“Yah.”

“Lift your arms and hold your wrists together.” Waverly did, and Nicole quickly looped some seat belt rope around them.

“Kinky.” Waverly gave a terrible wink that took half her face.

Nicole huffed a laugh and lifted Waverly from the dirt, wincing in pain even though Waverly must have weighed only thirty or so pounds. “Hang on, okay?”

“M’k.”

Swallowing her anxieties, Nicole put Waverly’s arms around her neck and checked the line. Secure. Next, she settled a giggling Waverly’s legs around her waist and finished lashing their bodies together.

“Alpha base…” Waverly requested, still sounding dazed from her fall. At least her sense of humor still lived, which was a good sign. And she wasn’t panicking -- Or she hid it much better than Nicole herself was.

“Earp, I swear,” Nicole said through gritted teeth. Gust warning sounded again, sending a few pebbles over the side and clacking against her helmet. She pulled herself up, groaning in pain, but made progress hand over hand.

“ROGER.”

“Play ‘Holding Out For A Hero’ Bonnie Tyler... Stop, over..” Waverly requested.

Nicole sighed again.

“ROGER -- PLAYING, OVER.”

Moment of silence for the confused Ares Control Room as Bonnie Tyler overwhelmed their audio feed. Waverly sang along with the instrumentals as Nicole lifted them up from the ledge.

A deep series of four beeps sounded from the rover and Nicole stopped breathing. Uh oh. “Waverly?” Waverly shifted slightly, still humming. “Waverly,” Nicole hissed through her teeth.

“Yeah?” Waverly asked like they weren’t dangling off a cliff.

“Whatever you do, don’t panic, okay?” Nicole swallowed. Voice shaky, “Alpha Base, play weather alert from Rover 4, stop, over.”

“SMALL DUST STORM 52 MPH SLASH 83 KPH DETECTED DIRECTION SOUTHWEST, WEST.”

“...Oh, boy,” Nicole said with a frown. Another series of sounds told Nicole that the rover had lost contact with the base. She could only imagine the chaos on Earth -- and the speed at which her punishment was being designed. A real cliffhanger.

“Nicole?” Waverly asked, sounding a bit more aware.

“Yeah, Waverly?” They weren’t anywhere close to the top. Nicole fought the urge to sob in frustration. They were very probably almost certainly going to die here.

“I don’t like this planet that much anymore.”

The dust storm hit, sending pebbles by the bucketful over the side and dust through their vision.

Nicole sighed. “Me, too.”

 

#ALPHABASE: EVA GOES WRONG, TWO ASTRONAUTS IN DANGER, NASA SILENT

Moments ago, Mission Control lost contact with astronauts Nicole Haught and Waverly Earp during an attempted rescue. Footage shows Waverly Earp blown off a cliff due to sudden wind and Nicole Haught descending the cliff to get her. The pair had just begun to ascend when a surprise dust storm cut contact.

Houston had been monitoring the storm an hour before it hit, leading many to question just why the pair had remained in the area.

The two astronauts, chosen for what some call ‘glorified janitor duty,’ soon amassed a fanbase due to their antics on Mars in the new Mars Alpha Base. The two lovable personalities make even the most boring of daily Martian tasks enjoyable for a great number of viewers.

But some critics call NASA’s janitor plan “foolhardy and shortsighted” due to the dangerous nature of the planet. With a delay of over eight minutes and rising for communications, as well as backup still one hundred fifty six days away, NASA chose to allow the duo EVA regardless of safety concerns. The highly-publicized event made for good views before going south.

“If they were more concerned about safety and less about money, we wouldn’t have this problem,” said an anonymous critic.

“Anyone who works with NASA knows those guys are absolutely nuts about safety and this time is no different,” another anonymous source told us, “this was a one-in-a-million risk they were taking, putting faith in the skills of the two astronauts in question. If anyone’s to blame, it’s Nicole Haught.”

NASA has not released a statement at this time.

 

@MartianCoffee: @MattDamon can you wear a wig

 

“Why the shit did you ask for the view, Houston?” Nicole almost let out a shout of pain at the ache in her arms. Agonizing moments passed as she forced her hand to let go of the rope and move upward. Pull. Lift. Find footing. Repeat.

Nicole’s foot slipped and in a moment they hung over the canyon, swinging in the wind and nearly blind by dust.

Waverly let out a short scream and clung tighter, “pleasedon’tdropme, pleasedon’tdropme --”

“Waverly, I’m not dropping you!” Nicole tried to go up but her arms refused to obey. “Just -- Oh, god.” Nicole groaned aloud, terror taking over her voice, “Fuck , my arms. Shit!”

“You’re panicking!” Waverly said, tightening her hold. “Stop, stop. Now I’m panicking, oh my god please --”

“Of course I’m panicking!” Nicole shouted, “What the hell else would I be doing? Just -- Just panic quietly, okay? Sorry! I’m trying to think!”

“Okay,” Waverly said, sounding small, “I don’t like it when you think.”

They hit the cliff and rolled against it, both letting out embarrassing screams before the wind allowed them to hang over the deadly canyon again. Nicole didn’t know which she preferred. Maybe not dying.

“New plan! You do the thinking!” Nicole lifted them another hand and felt her arms wobble with exhaustion. Bonnie was right. They needed a hero. Risk it all now or die. “How fast can a human being run?”

“Why are we running?!”

“Just. Answer. The question. PLEASE!” As much as Nicole loved her uncle, she didn't want to join him.

They hit the cliff again and Nicole squeezed her eyes shut, becoming downright religious. The wind pressed against her, begging her to let go, trying to peel her off the rope.

“Uhh! Fifteen, twenty kilometers per hour?” Waverly clung tighter and Nicole almost began to choke before Waverly realized and hung loose. “I don’t know! I’m the one with the head trauma!”

“Okay!” Nicole shouted over the rattling hail of stones. They swung back around as if Mars was trying to let loose fleas. “Fifteen it is! Are you ready?”

“Don’t you dare, Nicole, don’t you --”

“Start, Rover 4!” Nicole shouted over Waverly. The rover beeped in response. Nicole's heart leapt to her throat. Time to go, then. “Release clamps, stop! Release brakes, stop!”

The rope gave slack slightly as the clamps released and the rover’s brakes disengaged. Freefall. Weightless, Waverly gave a sharp inhale, almost ready to scream --

“Forward one hundred yards accelerate eight kilometers per hour, stop!” Nicole yelled as fast and as clearly as she could.

The rover understood. They slid down as it tried desperately to gain traction in the new sand.

“HAUGHT IF WE DIE I’M GOING TO KICK YOUR ASS!” Waverly screamed as they lost more elevation and swung in a circle, the rover edging too close for comfort to the edge. The wind slammed them into the cliff hard, stealing the breath from Nicole’s lungs and causing Waverly to scream in pain.

They hung on.

“And if we live?” Nicole shouted as the rover caught and began to inch forward, wheels spinning in the dust. Slowly, they jerked upward. More pebbles assaulted the two in a hail and Nicole realized the back wheels of the rover had reached the edge of the cliff.

“I’ll bake you a cake or something. Oh, shit --”

The cliff rock shifted down, threatening to crack under the weight, dropping the two a threatening inch as Bonnie Tyler sang over a sweet drum line.

“Shit! Okay! We might actually die!” Nicole began to climb again, adrenaline pounding. Too slow! “Rover 4! Accelerate seven additional kilometers per hour, stop!”

The pair flew upward as the rover finally gained traction, rocks slamming into them at high speeds. The cliff gave way and slacked the rope, Waverly screaming, Nicole somehow not, and both still unable to see.

The rover persisted.

Nicole’s feet finally found something to walk on and she worked them blindly forward until they were both vertical, eventually sprinting in momentum. She felt the ground under her become steady, solid, but her legs didn’t stop until they’d run themselves ragged.

A few yards later, “Brakes, stop!” Nicole immediately staggered and fell to her knees, panting. She undid the bindings that held Waverly, who slid off her and lay on the ground, trying to catch her breath as well and groaning slightly. “Cycle airlocks, stop, over.”

They had survived.

“We did it,” Nicole breathed, stunned. “We did it. We lived.” She crawled over to a moaning Waverly and shook her gently, ignoring the storm. The concussion was still a big worry. “You good?”

Waverly started to laugh. High, relieved, and free -- and Nicole couldn’t help but laugh as well. “I’m good, flight director.”

Nicole laughed harder. Waverly sat up and hugged her. They sat there, holding each other, cackling like fools after their brush with death, the wind howling in frustration. Fuck you, Mars. Not today.

Beep beep went Nicole’s suit: Hey, idiot, your helmet’s integrity is compromised. Try not to take a faceful of rocks next time, thanks.

“Time to go.” Nicole stood up a bit too quickly, almost toppling over. She pulled Waverly up and followed the rope to the rover. Her body must be covered with bruises.

“Head hurts.” Waverly stumbled and leaned into her.

“Shit.”  Nicole opened the rover and got Waverly in first before following. When it was safe, she removed Waverly’s helmet. “Hey, look at me,” Nicole requested as she pulled her own suit off. “ Waverly .”

Waverly’s eyelids fluttered and she slumped over. Nicole laid her into the seat, hands steadying her chin. Waverly pushed her away. “Sleepy.”

Nicole pressed her mouth into a thin line as Waverly fell asleep. Nothing to be done about that, then. She moved over to the driver’s side and started the rover, heading for base, navigating through the storm slowly.

 

...CONNECTION ESTABLISHED…

ALPHABASE: YES 12.001

ROVER4: YES 12.340115

A collective breath was released in the Ares control room as Nicole’s face returned to the screen, showing the pair returning to Alpha Base.

“Sweet baby jesus,” said somebody. No snitches.

ALPHABASE: Not to worry you, Houston, but we have a huge fucking problem.

ALPHABASE: Waverly might have a concussion. I ruined my back. Please advise.

ALPHABASE: And please explain what the hell just happened.

“Call medical. And get the video and replay it,” Dolls requested, “I want to see the whole thing.”

 

Nicole pulled the sleeping Waverly out of the rover and carried her into the base. Thousands of articles would have the image all over (Nicole walking with the setting sun behind her, Waverly limp in her arms, both in their suits with damaged helmets) but Nicole was too tired to care.

Internally, she was an absolute mess. She wanted to scream, rage, yell. Anything to go back in time and make sure Waverly wasn’t at the cliff. Houston… How could they send that message? How could they have requested something like that? Had weather control lost their fucking minds?

She should have disobeyed. If she had a spine, Waverly wouldn’t be injured.

As it was, Nicole said not a word as the airlock opened. A blank expression greeted hundreds of thousands of worried viewers. Nicole felt numb, empty, waiting for the world to throw its next boulder at her. She’d had enough today, but knew there were more coming.

“HOWDY PARTNER,” the roomba said. It finally had a job to do. Nicole hadn’t bothered to remove much and dirt scattered over the tile. She set Waverly against a desk and worked on removing her suit, ignoring everything else except the woman before her, silently praying for things to just go fine for once. For once, give her a goddamn break. For once, let her not make any more shitty mistakes.

And for Houston to get its act together. She set Waverly’s helmet aside and gently brushed brown locks from the injury. Dried blood coated the side of her face and Nicole sighed, standing again, unfortunately having to leave Waverly and find the first aid kit.

Returning quickly she wiped the blood clean and treated the gash. It was superficial, but the bruise that surrounded it made Nicole ache in sympathy.

“FOURTEEN WAITING MESSAGES.”

“Waverly,” Nicole said gently. “Waverly?” She tapped her cheeks, brushing more hair aside. Only Waverly would go against the code and have such incredibly long hair. It fit her perfectly. Strange, to think of her in familiar terms, but hadn’t they been together for almost a month?

No response except a low noise of complaint. Nicole lifted her and laid her on the couch. She knelt there for a while, staring at Waverly, unable to do anything else. The numb feeling didn’t leave. The roomba pressed against her boot, desperately eating the dirt it was built to process and build into soil.

“Houston responding with medical team, suspected grade three concussion. Check for advance of headache symptoms and report back.  Data says she was out for less than two minutes please confirm. Awaiting full survey. Awaiting response. Acknowledge: Actively disobeyed orders, ignored warnings.”

Nedley had once told her that having an argument with Martian light minute delay was like having a root canal done with an icepick… while on fire.

He wasn’t the best with metaphor.

But Nicole started to understand the instant she hit transmit.

“I need you to understand something, Houston, Earth, JPL -- Whoever is listening,” Nicole began, keeping her voice dangerously even, calm, cold with just a hint of distaste, “If you ever, ever withhold vital information from us again and put us in danger like that, I will lose all interest in following orders ever again. I need an explanation for why Weather Control failed to warn us of the storm.”

Barely a minute later came the first response.

“Ironic, coming from the one who ignored the weather report in the first place,” Commander Gardner chided from aboard the Hermes. “Care to show us your communication logs, Astronaut Nicole Haught?”

Nicole grit her teeth, keeping herself in check. This, she was used to. But god did it press all the wrong buttons. Especially from him. She knew Gardner, knew his species, one of those cruel men who lived under people’s skin.

“Gladly.” Nicole checked Alpha base’s logs and felt her soul drop to her feet and die. Cold washed over her in horror as she looked at the logs on her tablet as well: everything marked as received, with the proper time stamp allocated.

 

HOUSTON: Minor dust storm incoming. Finish on time, no problems. Low-risk.

ROVER4: DUST STORM DETECTED

HOUSTON: Minor dust storm incoming. Move from area. Risk of communication loss.

HOUSTON: Leave area. Dust storm on way est. 15 minutes.

ROVER4: DUST STORM DETECTED

HOUSTON: DUST STORM INCOMING LEAVE AREA IMMEDIATELY. HIGH RISK

HERMES: DUST STORM INCOMING. LEAVE AREA IMMEDIATELY. HIGH RISK.

IRIS: DUST STORM INCOMING. LEAVE AREA IMMEDIATELY. HIGH RISK.

HOUSTON: CONNECTION LOST.

ALPHABASE: CONNECTION LOST.

 

And not a single message about the cliff.

Nicole sat down in the chair hard. Disbelief overwhelmed her. Holy shit. Had she… had she hallucinated?

“Problem, Ms. Haught? Have you checked in with psychology lately? Or, perhaps you have a personal problem with Lead Researcher Earp?”

Not this trap again.

Nicole almost laughed in derision. “Nice try, Gardner. You’re the only one around here capable of something like that.” Houston wouldn’t buy that an inch.

“Standby for evaluation,” came Houston’s response to her first message, “Haught, submit logs and video. Await our response within the next twenty-four hours.”

 

“If we let her take the fall, it will cause a national outcry,” Annie said, voice sharp with exhaustion, “Somebody else needs to hit the mat.”

A chairman spoke up. “We could blame Wav --”

“No,” half a dozen people said before the man could finish.

“There is nobody else,” the communications director retorted, “She willfully ignored messages and put her crew in danger.”

“And rescued her,” Annie pointed out, “In front of millions. Chrissy’s narration was translated in over seven different languages.”

Dolls took another Advil and listened as his co-workers lost their minds. The conference room was full, the line open to six different facilities, everybody wanted to toss in their opinion on his commander and researcher. He remained silent, listening. Watching. He’d make his judgment with the evidence.

“After telling Waverly Earp to go to the cliff in the first place, knowing there was a storm coming! The rover automatically supplies weather alerts. Even if they didn’t get our messages, she did get it from the rover.”

“Are you implying she wanted Waverly to fall, Jim?”

“Look, Annie,” Jim said, immediately pissing the other woman off even more, “All I’m saying is that Haught might be a little bit unstable. We left her alone there with one other person. She’s been on that planet a long time. We all remember Ares 5. She could have hallucinated. Hey, psych. Back me up on this.”

“We have no clearance to study their state of mind,” a calm voice said over the phone, “The information, due to NASA’s policies, would be available to the public.”

“I think the answer here is fairly clear,” Annie cut across, “We release a statement of collective fault.”

“No chance in hell!” Jim pointed at her across the room, offended that his team might take blame. “No way we’re taking fault for this. We processed those messages properly.”

“And just how would you fire an astronaut on another planet?”

Jim set his mouth in a thin line.

 

Waverly awoke sometime later, swallowing a thick taste of fuzz and blinking her eyes in the dark. She almost panicked, but the buzz of the roomba calmed her along with the feel of soft couch cushions instead of hard rock.

A curious sound of voices and Waverly turned her head to see. Up the stairs on the upper level of the living space, Nicole sat on the floor staring at a damaged helmet that rested atop her knees. The massive windows above her showed Martian night obscured by vast dust clouds.

The voices were the radio. Every eight minutes, a new cache of the internet made it to them. Waverly squinted in disbelief at the hundreds of headlines that showed across the screen. All sorts of languages greeted her, some she understood, others she didn’t. Martian Mishap. Haught Mistake. Astronauts in Danger. Investigation ongoing. Harrowing rescue. NASA silent.

Nicole just sat there. Waiting.

Her breath caught as she remembered what else had happened -- the dust, the rescue, the panic -- and Waverly swallowed hard at the realization she had almost died, and Nicole with her, because they wanted a view from the cliff. A sick feeling grew in her stomach -- not from the concussion, but from the thought that Nicole would be stripped of her career over a simple mistake.

“Nicole,” Waverly said, voice hoarse. Nicole snapped to attention, eyes settling on her with fear before relaxing back to relief. “What’s going on?”

Silence. Nicole shut her eyes and leaned back. Waverly almost assumed the woman had fallen asleep before she spoke again, “It’s been bothering me, but I think it was for me,” Nicole said quietly. “ I was supposed to go to the cliff and get a view. Not you.”

Waverly sat up, holding her pounding head, glad for the dark. But Nicole’s expression remained hidden. “What?”

“The message, Waverly. The message Houston says doesn’t exist.” Nicole picked the helmet up and tapped the glass. It crinkled slightly. “It was meant for me. I was supposed to fall, not you.” She sighed in defeat. Defeat? Waverly’s concern reached critical mass. “I’m going insane.”

Waverly shook her head, feeling a little more than confused and a whole gallon full of worry.  She felt at the bandage on her face. It had been real, all of it. She’d almost died on another planet. But… What message? “I don’t understand.”

Nicole hit play.

“Confirmed: Logs indicate received weather messages, no evidence of cliff suggestion. Standby for further evaluation. Investigation on communications system has yielded no errors. All evidence suggests human error. First question: Did you intentionally send Waverly Earp to the cliff?”

No, impossible. Nicole would never.

“I swore it said Houston,” Nicole said with that same awful sad acceptance. “I’m sorry, Waverly. It’s my fault.”

No, it wouldn’t be her fault. Weather messages would have been sent to both of them. If Nicole hadn’t heard them, and Waverly hadn’t heard them, and Houston sent them --

Oh. Oh no.

Waverly stood up and walked across the room to the closet near the airlock, swaying slightly but ignoring the dizziness that tried to stop her.

“Waverly?” Nicole called, finally standing. “Where are you going? It’s not safe!”

And Houston thought this person would try to kill her? Idiots.

“Outside. Bring your tablet and make sure they can’t hear or say anything.” Waverly put on her suit in a hurry, ignoring Nicole (who turned to communications) completely, and left the base out the airlock.

Rover 4 sat obediently, still parked at an awkward angle, waiting to be investigated. Waverly cycled the airlock and pulled open the door, not bothering to enter. There, attached to the rover, was her tablet. Her infected tablet.

Her fault.

Waverly pulled it free and it greeted her as usual. Nothing appeared out of order.

“Waverly?” came Nicole’s voice over the radio. She approached cautiously. “Are you all right?”

The response came to Nicole’s tablet. In the pale light it provided, Waverly watched Nicole’s expression turn from curiosity, to surprise, to horrified disbelief.

HOUSTON: I am not all right. This is my fault. My tablet’s infected and so is communications.

Waverly waited. Nicole said nothing. A full minute ticked by and Nicole looked up, showing her screen. The message had vanished. “I don’t understand. I mean, I do, sort of. Government systems usually have these vulnerabilities but… how…?”

Instead of trying to say anything over the tears that threatened, Waverly opened the email and showed Nicole.

 

Apology for everything.

Wearp @ [throwaway address]

I’m sorry. Let me explain, please?

Attached:

MyApology.exe

 

Waverly watched Nicole’s expression carefully, not breathing, not daring to -- Nicole’s face had gone hard. Her jaw worked visibly, her eyes seemed unfocused, narrowed, her back straight and her limbs like branches, an expression Waverly had never seen before:

Nicole was absolutely, unequivocally furious. Sweet, bumbling, goofy Nicole Haught, who downplayed her own intelligence constantly, perhaps out of self-defense, had finally become angry. With her.

It hurt. Badly. Waverly broke open, the guilt ached in her bones.  “Nicole, I’m so sorry,” Waverly sobbed, “I never, ever meant -- I wasn’t even looking or thinking, Nicole. I’m sorry --”

Don’t, ” Nicole said harshly, holding up a gloved hand, the word cracking the space between them. Then, softer, “Don’t apologize. Please.” Waverly felt her heart break. A deep breath through the radio, and much gentler, “Come with me, Waverly. Please?”

Nicole offered her a hand. Shaking, Waverly took it.

Together, they walked out past the road and the outcropping that hovered over the base’s entrance, their breathing the only sound, Waverly’s small sniffles interrupting. A small part of her wondered if what she’d done was treason, and if Nicole might...

Finally, perhaps twenty-five yards away,  Nicole gave an order: “Alpha Base, turn out the outdoor lights, stop, over.” Darkness overwhelmed them and Waverly shivered. Nicole turned and sat down, patting the ground beside her. “Sit with me?”

Waverly sat stiffly, crossing her arms and holding herself even though the suit kept her warm. She tried to shove her emotions down, bottle them back it. It was just as well. She’d fucked this up, big time. Her one chance to make a name for herself and she hadn’t even made it a month.

“We should go back, shouldn’t we? I mean, they’ll be --”

“Waverly,” Nicole said with a voice so soft it made Waverly stop breathing. She still hadn’t let go of her hand. “Look up.”

She remembered her first time seeing the ocean. Little Waverly, age eight, gazing out at the vast expanse of blue with a sense of awe and wonder. More than anything, she wanted to know. To understand. Her father had shuffled them back in the car, ignoring her protests, ignoring the way the sea captivated her like nothing else.

Nothing compared to the night sky. That enormous ocean lived as a tiny, almost invisible dot in her vision, among hundreds of thousands of millions of others. The milky way, painted across it all, gazed back at her dispassionately, hidden in some places by the constant dust of Mars. The vast unknown lay there -- and she apart of it, wasn’t she? On a planet, an alien planet.

Seven billion people in her vision… minus two.

The beautiful expanse of the universe still stole her breath. Waverly gazed in open awe as everything else fell away. The weight on her shoulders was nothing compared to this beauty in vision and feeling. With the final notes of the awe leaving, a crushing, familiar sense of loneliness enveloped her. She sat on a tiny pebble in a sea so vast she meant nothing.

Nicole shifted slightly, the action reminding Waverly that they were still holding hands. 

Somehow, it made Waverly feel better. That frightened her in a different way.

They sat together in the silence, breathing, taking it in. Feeling small and impossibly huge at the same time. Waverly didn’t know how long they sat there, cooling off, existing in that space.

“Can I tell you a secret?” Nicole asked, voice quiet as if not to alert the universe to their presence.

Waverly swallowed hard. “Yeah, sure. Go ahead.”

“I crashed a multi-million dollar plane once,” Nicole said with an audible smile, “ Completely my fault. I won’t really get into it, but in the short version: I wanted to impress my father.” Nicole let out a small, bitter sound that might have been a laugh. “That sums up a lot of my life, actually. But, I noticed things had gone wrong, and…” Nicole sighed. “I messed up, Waverly.”

Waverly squeezed Nicole’s hand, indicating she was listening, though the night sky demanded her attention. She tried not to think about what the plane Nicole spoke of could do.

“They fished me out of the ocean,” Nicole continued, “and my uncle was on the boat. He asked me what happened and I told him the truth: ‘I made a huge mistake.’ I expected to be thrown overboard, or at least my career, but you know what he said?”

Waverly ran her fingers across Nicole’s. “What’d he say?”

“He said, ‘Better keep you around. Don’t want anyone else costing us another million dollars to learn the same lesson.’”

Waverly let out a laugh before she could stop it. “No way! Did you have a bumper sticker for an uncle?”

“I did,” Nicole said proudly, the smile on her face audible. “He kept me from being an arrogant ass, most of the time.” Nicole’s voice fell.  “I miss him.”

A silence before Nicole continued again, “It made me look at it differently, Waverly. I’m not angry with you. I am angry, -- I’m furious -- but not at you. You don’t have to tell me anything,” Nicole gave her hand a gentle squeeze to drive her point home, “ Anything about the email, who sent it, why they titled it like that, okay? All that matters is that you revealed a fault in the base’s communications security. That’s what I’ll tell them, and that’s what they’ll accept.”

Waverly fell silent, absolutely shocked. She blinked past tears. “I was… I was so cold to you. Mean. Harsh.” Waverly shook her head. Nicole didn’t even know her, not really. “Why are you being nice to me? Why are you willing to go that far? Why not just tell them the truth -- That I ruined it, almost got us both killed?”

“I know you might not believe me, I’ll keep saying it until you do, it is not your fault, Waverly.”

Ridiculous! It was her fault. She opened the message. It was a goddamn .exe! “But still, I -- I could have --” Waverly stopped and hung her head, helmet dipping with her. “… Why?” 

Nicole leaned closer, a hand on Waverly’s shoulder, causing her to look up. In the dark illuminated by the stars, Waverly could just make out the edges of her face. “Because, Lead Researcher Earp, we’re colleagues,” Nicole said with significance and soft affection that made Waverly shiver, “In the next hundred and fifty some days, both of us are going to make mistakes. It’s unavoidable. But if we want to get through this without dying or going insane, we need to work together. We need to be able to be honest with each other.”

Waverly couldn’t help the thin slice of disappointment across her relief. Quietly, she asked, “Is that the only reason?”

Nicole paused, visibly, audibly. 

This was it. This was the moment, wasn’t it? 

Together, right? Not just colleagues. Friends! Waverly had lied to herself and Nicole. No use being anything less than honest, now. Nicole just saved her goddamn life and possibly her career. But… ‘Friends’ was a slippery slope.

….and after a hundred and fifty some days, what then? After Nicole learned more about her, what then?

And why hadn't Nicole responded?

“HOUSTON CALLING SECURELINE EMERGENCY PROTOCOL.”

“Shit!” Nicole spat.

The moment left.

“I swore I turned that off.” Nicole groaned and kicked a rock off the ledge. “Right. Come on, Earp. It’s time to roast mother goose.”

“That was awful,” Waverly said as she stood. “Please don’t ever, ever say that again, Haught.”

 

When they got back, the silence between them almost awkward, Nicole gave Waverly a bizarre wink before retreating to her quarters. She’d taken the hat, too.

Waverly waited in the soft dark of the living space, watching the heavens through the windows, trying to dispel the hot guilt that churned in her gut. The next few weeks would be hell, but at least she had someone on her side. That made a small smile dance across her face. Colleagues actually sounded nice. Maybe she did have a chance to make it to the end of the mission.

Nicole returned. A light flicked on.

Holy jesus in heaven christ god-damn shit balls.

Nicole wore clothes. Not the usual flight suit-tank top combo that looked pretty darn good, but Actual Clothing. A polo shirt with the Ares 22 mission emblem on one side (perfect fit), the khakis she’d seen on aged men that looked absolutely (her ass) amazing on Nicole, those boots (Why? Didn’t matter), a french-fucking-braid that made Nicole look like a goddamn puppy, and that hat. That stetson.

Waverly couldn’t see it usually, not really (except on rare occasions when she found Nicole talking to Houston), but now she could: Commander Nicole Haught, just like it said on her sleeves. 

Waverly gaped like a fish hit with a baseball bat. Nicole tipped her hat and walked up the few stairs to communications, her profile, tight with that same anger, cast against the stars in a way that made Waverly’s functional breathing very difficult, and hit transmit.

 

“I resent that insinuation,” said one chairman from JPL, “Nicole Haught is an excellent engineer.”

“The other option is she’s a complete idiot,” Jim continued, “So pick --”

“The hell is that?” Annie asked. All eyes turned to the screen for Nicole’s response.

“A penis,” Jim said flatly, “Never seen one?”

“Prefer not to.”

“Howdy Houston!” Nicole said flatly, pulling the tablet back. “Whoever that belongs to compromised the security of the communications system and almost got us both killed by denying the weather reports and telling us to view the cliff. They sent a bug with it. No, I did not attempt to murder Lead Researcher Earp. Surprising, I know.”

Angry eyes turned to Jim, who paled under the collective stare.

Nicole put the tablet down and leaned on her hands toward the camera. “I’m going to spend the next few days fixing the vulnerability you left in our communications system. Thank you kindly for all your help in the matter. Standby for evidence. Commander Haught, out.”

Silence descended on all ends of the conference room.

“There’s only one person who’d send that,” Chrissy said quietly, speaking for the first time during the meeting. Confused, everybody turned to her. Chrissy swallowed hard and tried not to pick at the table.

“Who the hell are you, kid?” Jim demanded.

“She works for me,” Annie said, leaning forward slightly in her chair and staring Jim down. The man deflated. “Continue, Chrissy.”

“His name is Tucker Gardner, and he stalked Waverly for a long time,” Chrissy explained, fiddling with her hands and looking down. “There’s record of complaints, if you look for them. But he’d never put Waverly in danger.” She swallowed thickly. “He probably wanted to hurt Nicole.”

“Unbelievable! You’re on their side.” Jim threw up his hands. “We’re supposed to  -- “

“Enough.” Dolls turned his screen around and hit play.

‘“Why the shit did you ask for the view, Houston?”'’ past Nicole asked.

“It adds up. We owe Commander Haught and Lead Researcher Earp an apology.” Dolls picked up his phone. “Find Tucker Gardner. I don’t care if you have to take his pants off. Find out what he knows. Jim, fix the vulnerability. Annie, send out a press release and leave nothing out. Publish the video or not, it’s up to you. Everybody else? Go get some sleep.” He looked up at the frozen conference room. “Well? Move.”

Everybody launched into motion. Some to do their jobs, others to flee, and one to text somebody.

Dolls watched them all filter out, tapping his pen against his cheek in thought. He turned to the camera. “Good job saving her, Commander Haught.” He let the comment linger before hitting the off button, cutting the transmission.

 

 


 

DAY 25

 

“It’s not that simple,” Chrissy insisted quietly, hiding the phone. Her screen was a nonstop scroll of thousands of messages. The press release had just gone out, sparking a firestorm of theories, acceptance, and drama. She didn’t have enough coffee for this.

“It is. I want to talk to my sister.”

“Please, I can’t just... she’s still recovering --”

“I want. To talk. To my sister. It’s your job to make that happen. What else is there?”

Chrissy swallowed hard. “Willa. Please. If you come to Houston, we can make arrangements, maybe --”

The line went dead and a purse worth more than her kidney smacked Chrissy’s table. Willa Earp stood before her, glowering, forcing her to wilt under that unnerving gaze. Wynonna hovered nearby, eyeing Chrissy’s coworker.

“I’m already here.”

 

The Martian sun hadn’t risen yet. Waverly had actually listened to Nicole and gone to sleep following the transmission, not saying a word. Nicole tried not to worry (Keyword: Tried) knowing that the guilt wouldn't just magically leave. They'd talk in the morning, though -- Nicole felt good about the progress between them.

Now, only ten minutes later, Nicole sat on the floor of the living space and ran over the bug again. The message sent then deleted itself sixty seconds later. Clever, clever. She sent along more notes to Houston. She’d yet to have a chance to sit down and talk it out, but their messages had been infinitely more respectful. Instead of, “Confined bed rest for one week due to back injury” it was “Please consider…”

Good. She wasn’t taking their shit anymore.

 

@JChetri: hey they caught the creep. just saw like four security run past. dude’s wearing an anime shirt and gonna be on national television lololol

@JChetri: scratch that maybe not??? lots of whispering...

@JChetri: dude im a part of a government conspiracy rn. this is the fuckin best!!!! im hiding in a closet!! havent done that in years!!!

@HaughtOnMars: same. thanks for your help :) there might not be enough evidence, but who knows? I’ve managed to undo most of the damage. let me know

 

Nicole smiled faintly.

“HOWDY PARTNER,” the roomba announced suddenly. Nicole jerked up, looking around in the dark, seeing nobody that would trip off the motion sensor.  Waverly slept off the living space in Dorm 3, and the door remained closed. 

Back to work, then. She’d have to go out to the rover, maybe see if ‘factory reset’ was an option. Who knew with these wonky government systems.

“Buk.”

Nicole looked up again, searching for a person. Holy shit. She’d gone insane. That almost sounded like…

The roomba buzzed over to her, the stetson in its rightful place on top.

But a fucking hen, an honest-to-god real, living, breathing chicken, tucked itself into the dip of the hat before clucking again.

“Buk.”

Nicole screamed.

 

 

Chapter Text

DAY 25


Chrissy managed to find one of two people able to withstand the force of an Earp:

Her boss.

“When they wake, you’ll have to discuss it with the Commander on base,” Annie stated firmly.

“You mean the person who almost got Waverly killed?” Willa cut across, eyes narrowed.

“I mean the person who saved her. Until then, it’s important that they get uninterrupted rest.” Annie gestured to Chrissy. “We’ll put you up in a hotel nearby. It could be a few days before she can get back to you.”

Willa gave the woman a dangerous glare in response. “I expect to be told as soon as she is awake.” After giving the final word, she stalked off. Annie drifted away afterward with her job finished.

Wynonna looked a bit awkward, caught between obvious concern and exhaustion. She nodded to Chrissy. “Make sure she’s okay?”

“Of course. I’ll let you know as soon as I get word.”

 

@BotanyIsBest: turn ur location on bitch fight me
@StetsonBot: I will take you with my hands tied
@WHStan: anyone getting like… gay rating off these two or is it just me
@spacecriminal: it’s just you

 

Nicole screamed.

Waverly rolled out of bed in an instant, hitting the floor with a thunk , struggling to get out of her cocoon and get to the door at the same time. Four blankets or bust, no matter the temperature. She finally wormed her way out of the blankets and into the hall, sprinting into the dark living space, “Nicole?!”

Nicole, still in her Commander’s uniform, was chasing Crewmember Eight with an improvised weapon.

“Oh, no,” Waverly breathed as Nicole jumped the couch and brought the wrench down inches from the chicken. It clucked angrily and hopped out of range, but found itself in a corner. Nicole lifted the wrench again…

Waverly got a running start, leaping from the floor, to the couch, to the couch back, and into the air. She had to save the multi-billion dollar chicken.

Nicole wasn’t prepared for a screaming Waverly Earp to land on her back, wrapping her arms around her neck and pulling. Waverly held on for dear life as Nicole stumbled back out of the kitchen in surprise, dropping the wrench.

“HOWDY PARTNER. HERMES CALLING.”

Somehow they just ended up continuing, chicken forgotten.

Nicole grabbed under Waverly’s shoulder, flipping her upside down and to the carpeted floor in an instinctual body-slam. In horrified shock, Nicole halted in confusion. “Sorry, I --”

Waverly, barely dazed and a little pissed, rebounded from the floor, twisted, and leg swept Nicole. The redhead hit the floor with her shoulder hard, groaning.

The chicken bounded between them both toward communications. Nicole moved to get after it -- “The fucking chicken!” -- and Waverly dived her -- ”No, Nicole, stop!” -- sending the two into a tussle that ended pretty damn awkward for the two of them.

Waverly shoved Nicole over and straddled the panicking woman. “Stop!” Waverly said. Nicole struggled to get at the chicken and Waverly grabbed her chin. “Nicole, stop ."

“It’s a chicken! ” Nicole wheezed in utter shock and disbelief, “It’s a fucking impossible chicken, Waverly! It’s a fucking ch -- !”

Waverly shoved her hand over Nicole’s mouth and leaned down. “And it’s also worth three billion dollars, Nicole. You can’t kill it.”

Nicole dropped her pointing arm and forced air out of her nose, finally turning to look at Waverly. Her eyes went comically wide and Waverly furrowed her brow in confusion, before realizing that she was straddling her colleague in nothing but her regulation underwear.

They both froze, looking at each other, both too afraid to move. Then, adorably, Nicole covered her blushing face with her arm.

Waverly’s mouth went dry. This was not how she planned this and 90% of her wanted to bolt. But fuck if it wasn’t good. Her skin still hot from the seconds of conflict, the fact she could feel Nicole panting slightly against her hand, god, they were so fucking close together that Waverly could just lean down and do what she’d been thinking about since day zero:

Nicole Haught.

Shaking, Waverly lifted her hand off Nicole’s mouth.

“Are you going to get off of me?” Nicole asked, still not looking.

Waverly swallowed hard, heart stuttering. “Do you want me to?” she asked, voice barely above a whisper.

“Am I interrupting something?” a vaguely familiar voice asked.

The stupid fucking chicken had hit ‘accept transmission.’

Waverly flew to her feet an instant before Nicole, who immediately stepped in front of her, blocking the view of their voyuer.

“Nedley! Hi!” Nicole croaked before clearing her throat. “Hi! I mean, no, of course. Of course not. There’s just… a chicken.”

“A chicken, Nicole?” the man asked, sounding both confused and concerned.

As they both scooted backward toward the dorm, Nicole hissed over her shoulder, “The chicken’s gone. It hit transmit and left, Earp. Is it your hellbeast?”

Waverly ducked around the corner. “It belongs to the government!” she hissed back before vanishing into the dorm.

She shut the door and leaned against it, catching her breath and running a hand down her burning face. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Shitshitshit. Okay, okay.

Number a: They had a hundred fifty-five days to go. It was day twenty-five, so it hadn’t even been a month yet.

Letter two: She was extremely, painfully attracted to Nicole Haught. Who was attracted to her back. Possibly. Maybe? Hard to tell. Need to find out.

Who also, if you hadn’t noticed, was her co-worker. They were roommates. On a planet. With nobody else on said planet. They saw each other daily. Unless she holed up in the Greenhouse…

And if the person you’re alone with for a hundred and fifty some days plus an entire mission afterward rejects you?

You’re shit out of luck.

She needed a plan. But first, honestly...

 

“The chicken is real,” Nicole said with her arms crossed, talking to Commander Nedley. Aboard the Hermes , the time between messages was refreshingly short. “We were… fighting over the chicken. Anyway, is there a reason you’re calling at...” She checked the time, “Two am?”

Nedley sighed. “Sorry, Nicole. Time shift. Knew you’d be awake, anyhow.” He paused as Nicole shifted uncomfortably. “It’s not going well, is it?”

“No.”

“Have you tried the pills, Nicole?”

Nicole looked away and didn’t respond.

“One week bedrest. Has she noticed?”

“Everybody’s noticed.” Nicole shrugged it off, exhausted. “Are you calling to lecture me or is there something else?”

Nedley gazed at her silently and Nicole tried not to let her discomfort and shame show. Nedley cared… a whole lot, actually. But there were just some things she wasn’t willing to do.

And what if he blamed her like everyone else had? Like she herself did? Nicole knew she was responsible for the incident -- if not in whole, then in part, and that was enough. No more mistakes. Not when she had a crew she was responsible for.

“You finally put on the uniform,” he said.

Nicole furrowed her brow and nodded, “I did.”

“I’m proud of you.”

Nicole wasn’t expecting that.

Nedley offered her a rare look of affection that made Nicole actually smile. “What you did was stupid, foolhardy, incredibly dangerous -- not to mention idiotic and dumb as hot hell.” Nicole only grinned wider. “But I’m proud of you, Nicole. Gardner insisted that you should have left her down there.”

“He would,” Nicole commented, but even a mention of him wasn’t enough to dampen her mood. Then, she heard it again.

“Buk, buk.”

“Shit.” Nicole whipped around and squinted. It skittered down the hallway toward her quarters. She pressed transmit to Dorm 3. “Earp, it’s headed to the north wing.”

 

Waverly panted into her pillow, letting out a groan at Nicole’s message. “Please don’t say anything else, please don’t say anything else...”

“Waverly, are you asleep?”

“Shit.”

“Could you please come and get it?”

“Fucking shit -- oh my god.”

 

Nicole shrugged and let her sleep. She turned to Nedley, who looked beyond confused. “The chicken is real , Nedley. I swear.”

Nedley held up his hands. “I believe you,” he lied, “But there’s also something else you should know.” He turned grave and looked over his shoulder. The door was shut. “If you two are having sex --”

“What? No!”

“-- then you need to be more subtle about it. He’ll ruin her career if he finds out, Nicole.”

“Waverly’s?” Nicole asked in disbelief. “Also, we’re not having sex! She’s my colleague, Nedley!”

Nedley gave her a Look. Nicole put her hands over her face and groaned in frustration.

“I’m just asking you to be careful. In fact, you should stop --”

“We. are. not. having. sex.”

“ -- Because any indication, any evidence he finds, and he’ll burn her.”

Nicole set her jaw and tensed, all good feelings vanished. “He wouldn’t. She’s done nothing to him. He would never stoop to that level.” If Waverly was anything like Nicole, then she had dedicated most of her life in the pursuit of this very purpose.

To be earthbound after all that work? Hell.

“He would. He’s desperate. It’s been fifteen years, Nicole, and they only gave him a week on the surface.”

Nicole sat down heavily, staring out into the desert.

Nicole sighed in acceptance. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’ll send him out the airlock?” Nedley didn’t dignify that with a response, either. “Thanks for the head’s up, Nedley.”

“Take care of yourself, Nicole. And her.”

The transmission ended, leaving Nicole staring out at the empty expanse of nighttime Mars. She knew that Waverly struggled with the shadow of her family and it broke her heart. She would never, ever allow Waverly to be suffocated in her shadow either.

 

“Keep it together, Earp!” Waverly chastised before lightly slapping her own cheek. She stared herself down in the mirror. “Keep it in your jumpsuit!”

Giving herself one last dangerous glare, Waverly tiptoed into the hall and into the living space, glancing around for the renegade hen. Nicole stared out at the desert in silence, having ended the transmission, and Waverly considered sneaking past her.

The roomba would detect her. Shit.

“Haught.” Waverly kept her voice professional. Nicole startled and spun in her chair. “Where’s the hen?”

Nicole stood with a wince and pointed to the north wing. “Thought you were asleep? It went that way.”

After scouring medical, the gym, and Nicole’s room, they found it in the bathroom in the sink.

“What’s the plan?” Nicole whispered, peeking over Waverly. They spied around the corner at the chicken, who pretended to be peacefully asleep.

Waverly lifted up her sheet. “You put it in here.”

“Me?

“Yes, you!” Waverly hissed, “I hold the bag open.”

“Why can’t I hold the bag and you get the hen?”

Waverly paused, narrowing her eyes at Nicole. “Are you afraid of the chicken, Commander Haught?” She elbowed Nicole with a grin.

Nicole glared in the dark. “I have a better idea. We both hold the sheet and put it over the sink, trapping the hellbeast.”

Waverly rolled her eyes. “Fine. Let’s do this.” She shook her head. “The commander’s chicken,” she muttered under her breath, still smiling.

Nicole sighed and took her end of the sheet. “Three… two… one.”

The chicken awakened to two bellowing humans before being covered with a sheet. It flapped and squawked in alarm, trying to escape as per usual. The two highly trained astronauts wrestled the hen into the bag, yelling obscenities, and only with mild screaming when the hen got free, fluttered in the low-grav, and had to be snatched by the feet.

Nicole shoved it in and Waverly wrapped the ends up. “Shit,” Nicole muttered, shaking her hand. “It scratched me.”

Waverly tightened her grip, wincing. She didn’t want to hurt Crewmember Eight. “It was worse in microgravity.”

Nicole looked at her, alarmed. “There were chickens aboard the Hermes?”

“Yep.” Waverly backed out the door, staring down the rustling bag that clucked in anger. “Come on, Haught. Let me show you the rest of Ares 23.”

 

There are three exits from the Base: One from the living space, one from the greenhouse, and the garage airlock. Airlock 2 was considered ‘for emergencies only,’ so hiding an entire extra part of the base behind it was child’s play.

Waverly paused before the airlock, looking to Nicole curiously. Her only impression of Nicole behavior was the redhead trying to kill Crewmember Eight with a wrench. “Haught.”

Nicole, who seemed to be lost in thought, snapped out of it and looked to Waverly.

“They’re each worth three billion, okay? So no chicken tenders. And…” Waverly looked down at the bag. “They don’t exist. Not until day thirty. So you can’t tell anyone.”

Nicole pressed her mouth in a thin line. “Understood.”

Waverly opened the airlock and stepped through a net that hung from the ceiling. Then, without waiting for depressurization, moved to open the airlock door to the outside.

But the instant before she could, Waverly found herself against a wall with her free arm behind her back, Nicole pressed up against her. “Jeez, Nicole! Ow!” Her bruise ached. This was not how she imagined Nicole pinning her against a wall. “What the hell!”

Nicole let her go and flushed red. “I -- The airlock, Earp.”

“Doesn’t go outside, dummy!” Waverly double checked the hen to cover the fact she needed to regulate her breathing back to normal. Still there. “Jeez. Step back, okay?”

“Sorry,” Nicole said, looking terribly apologetic. Waverly understood, though: Explosive decompression was infinitely less fun than it sounded.

Only when Nicole backed off with her hands up did Waverly open the airlock. She already knew what lay behind the door and instead watched Nicole recognize what had been constructed without her knowledge.

It was about the size of a generous back yard -- well, technically, it was a backyard -- and it was home to the most wondrous place on Mars, the work of thousands of scientists, astronauts who had no idea the truth of what they were working on, and one Waverly Earp: Earth.

Well, not really. But it was Earth-like, if you discount the thick canvas that made up the walls and protected the space from the deadly Martian lack of pressure and severe radiation. Dim moonlight -- Sometimes artificial, sometimes real -- poured in from the ceiling over a garden. Across the floor wasn’t floor at all.

Nicole stumbled forward into the yard and sank to her knees. Waverly watched her Martian colleague experience grass, actual soft grass, for the first time in years. Her hand drifted across the blades in open wonder before stopping. She picked something up and turned to Waverly, grinning like a kid on christmas. “A worm. There’s bugs .”

“Of course.” Shit, that smile was contagious and amazing. Waverly let Crewmember Eight go, and the hen scuttled forward to eat the worm.

Waverly hadn’t needed to worry. The other crew members rushed forward and Nicole let out a gorgeous laugh, arms spread. “Ladies!” The flocked to her and Nicole allowed them to inspect her curiously. “I... I can’t believe this, Earp. This is incredible.”

Waverly sat down nearby, petting Crewmember Six and trying not to blush. “You’ve never seen chickens before?”

Nicole shook her head, staring at Waverly until she returned the look. “Martian chickens. That’s… that’s incredible. Amazing. Genius. Just... mind blowing. Grass. Chickens. Bugs. I haven’t seen them in years and they’re here! On Mars!” Waverly swallowed hard, those soft brown eyes slightly misted and staring straight into her soul. “ You’re amazing,” Nicole said with significance, looking like she’d been given the gift of a lifetime, looking like she might actually cry. "I didn't know how much I missed it until now."

Waverly blushed furiously and looked down at her knees with a shrug. “I had help.”

“Waverly Earp, don’t you dare.” Nicole shifted closer, holding the super-affectionate Crewmember Seven. “You traveled hundreds of thousands of kilometers in a tin can for months. You signed up to be left alone on an alien planet with one other person for a hundred and eighty days. You grew the first lemon. You may have had help, Waverly, but you did this.”

Crewmember Five clambered over Nicole and the two barely noticed.

Waverly brushed away some weird water that definitely wasn’t tears. She looked up at Nicole, who still was looking at her like she’d hung the moon and stars. Shit. If it wouldn’t be the easiest thing to grab her by the collar and just kiss her senseless, right here, right now, no cameras. Just rip those clothes right off --

Nicole cleared her throat. “So.” She sat back and Waverly hid her disappointment. “Thirty days?”

“In case they die before day thirty,” Waverly explained. “After that the chances of survival are higher than the chance of psychological devastation.”

Nicole’s eyebrows hit the ceiling. “Ah.”

The crew, tired and with their curiosities mostly satisfied, retreated to their home. Crewmember Seven had fallen asleep in Nicole’s arms. She stared at the comfy hen with a slight pout.

Waverly sighed. “Five days, Haught. Then you can hang out with the ladies all you want.”

“Five days, right.” Nicole smiled slightly as Waverly’s face cracked in a yawn. “Let’s get you to sleep, Earp. You hit your head pretty hard.”

Nicole helped the dizzy Earp to bed, but stayed awake. There was something she needed to take care of.

 

It’s important to understand that there’s no reason not to allow Hermes and Iris direct control over Alpha Base in case of emergency. In fact, it’s vital.

There’s no such thing as distrust between astronauts on the Ares mission. Most tiffs didn’t survive landing on an alien planet and seeing seven billion people as a tiny, tiny insignificant dot, and the fact that the dislike between Nicole and Commander Gardner had survived the vacuum of space was incredibly unique.

Nicole wasn’t hasty to admit she was part of the problem. It seared every inch of Nicole that Commander Gardner had been on Ares 5 and had been the only one to survive, and until now she had cast off the dislike as selfish grief, not letting it influence her. But now that he could possibly threaten Waverly, Nicole knew she had to prevent what she could.

So, Nicole prepared to do something completely, stupidly dangerous:

She would turn off Flight Manual.

Flight Manual was a lovely addition to the systems of Alpha Base to ensure the landing safety of all astronauts in case of computer or operator failure. If one computer failed, another could take over. Simple, effective, and possibly life-saving.

Seeing as the override was meant to be something that could never, ever be turned off (ever), Nicole had to ask Houston. Not happening. No one else put weight in her paranoia of Gardner, even though his own son had tried to murder her.)

But thanks to that son, she had a Houston of her own.

It still took her the whole day to figure it all out (Seriously, the whole process was labeled PLEASE DO NOT DISABLE EVER FOR ANY REASON EVER PLEASE DO NOT IT IS VERY IMPORTANT) and Nicole didn’t sleep, but it was worth it.

 

#AlphaBase Conquering Their Fears: The Rescue of a Lifetime

Tragedy struck yesterday as the Deep Space communications system suffered a fault that left the two Martian astronauts in danger. According to analysts at NASA, the error cut off Ares Astronauts Waverly Earp and Nicole Haught from vital information sent by Ares Mission Control at the Lyndon B Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Unaware of the storm approaching, the two continued to entertain fans until a view of the cliff turned fatal. The Lead Researcher of the mission, Waverly Earp, fell from the ledge before hundreds of thousands of viewers. Almost immediately, Commander Nicole Haught descended the cliff to retrieve her.

Then, disaster: A small dust storm cut off communication.

“The delay is eight minutes and rising,” says Xavier Dolls, Director of the Ares Program, “We left our hopes in their hands.”

The Ares Mission has always included the word “conquer” in its many mission-patch mottos. Conquering both their fears and the unknown, Ares Astronauts brave another planet after months in the unforgiving void of space. Now, all those at Mission Control and the millions who watched at home placed faith that their bravest wouldn’t find death on an alien planet.

And those hopes were not misplaced.

Watch below with the full narration, captured via suit cameras:

[VIDEO LINK]

(Not available in your country? Try HERE)

“We are immensely proud and are in investigations behind the communications system fault,” Director Dolls continued,  “We do not expect any foul play is involved. We urge the public to celebrate the heroism and survival of our astronauts as we focus on what went wrong.”

The well wishes of nations remain behind astronauts Waverly Earp and Nicole Haught as they recover from their terrifying experience. The resounding response from across the globe has made it clear: We have never been more proud of both of you.

 

12:32 Chrissy: REQUEST TRANSMISSION - WAVERLY EARP

NH: DENIED REQUEST. REASON: SHE IS OK. SHE’S ASLEEP. CALL BACK LATER.

15:32 Chrissy: REQUEST TRANSMISSION - WAVERLY EARP

NH: DENIED REQUEST. REASON: SHE’S STILL ASLEEP AND STILL OK. CALL BACK LATER.

17:32 Chrissy: REQUEST TRANSMISSION - WAVERLY EARP

NH: DENIED REQUEST. REASON: SHE’S STILL ASLEEP AND PROBABLY WILL BE UNTIL TOMORROW. CALL BACK LATER.

22:32 Chrissy: REQUEST TRANSMISSION - WAVERLY EARP

NH: DENIED REQUEST. REASON: CHRISSY. I WILL LET YOU KNOW WHEN SHE WAKES UP. SHE NEEDS TO SLEEP.

23:21 Chrissy: Have you checked on her?

NH: Yes. I have. Every hour. I will let you know if there is any changes, but she’s fine. She hit her head and she needs to rest. Here’s the medical report I got [attached]

Chrissy: oh my god Haught you just broke the law for me and i’ve never, ever been more grateful. I am UNBELIEVABLY relieved now. Thank you

Chrissy: Please keep checking on her. Also I have 5 billion interview requests for you. Do you have time to answer them?

NH: I can help you cut them down. Deny any who want to speak to me alone. Either they cover both of us, or not at all. Then you pick which is best. Pay attention to how they word things.

NH: If they put less emphasis on biology, cut them. If they paint Waverly as a damsel in distress, cut them. If one of their questions is “How do you manage your hair?” cut them.

Chrissy: OK, done. I like your parameters. Are you resting at all?

Chrissy: you’re not going to respond to that are you

Chrissy: I don’t know why I try with you, I swear.


 

DAY 26

 

Things had changed.

Waverly noticed immediately upon leaving dorm three that the atmosphere had shifted. Not literally, because that would imply something had gone wrong, but figuratively -- Nicole napped in the usual chair next to communications (Thankfully still in that uniform), but the room was spotless.

Waverly drifted to the kitchen, inspecting the usually cluttered whiteboard. No more were the overlapping calculations and small doodles, but a schedule. An actual schedule! Had a doppelganger replaced Nicole? She checked the time.

Oh, shit. She’d slept an entire day.  She sucked in a breath, rubbing her head and cursing quietly.

Time to wake up sleeping beauty. Waverly sneaked around the edges of the room, holding her breath, eyeing the roomba and silently promising vengeance if it dare blow her cover now.

She managed to make it up the stairs and paused over Nicole’s slumbering form to appreciate the Martian morning. It felt strange, almost dying. She’d felt it before -- like tinnitus of the soul, she felt more alive now, staring out at that shitty planet that almost killed her. The thing was… she couldn’t help but still find it eerily beautiful out there, behind the glass that protected her from its deadly lack of pressure.

 

Waverly pushed a twentieth chicken feather into the braid, humming quietly. Still asleep.

Twenty-one…

@EarthToWaverly: we’re alive!!! My hero? Hmm… [Picture attached of Nicole napping on a desk, chicken feathers in her hair standing straight up]  #AlphaBase #GoodMorningSleepyHead
@MartianCoffee: OH M Y GOD THEY’RE BACK ON DAY 30 GUYS
@WHStan: why is she so fucking adorable...
@spacecriminal: which one
@WHStan: fucking BOTH OBVIOUSLY
@sssspaggeti2: where’d she get the feathers [thinking emoji]

 

“HOWDY PARTNER. NEW MESSAGE FROM HOUSTON.”

Nicole flew upward, scattering a good number of feathers.

“Hey! That took me five minutes!” Waverly chided, brushing a brilliant white one off Nicole’s shoulder.

“Earp,” Nicole said, breathing hard as if she’d been running. Waverly grinned at the fact Nicole still had a bunch of chicken feathers in her hair but she didn’t grin back. “Your sisters called.”

Waverly’s grin faltered. Both at Nicole’s tone, and the mention of her sisters. “Oooo-kay.” She narrowed her eyes at Nicole before standing in her way to prevent escape. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah.” Nicole blinked and rubbed her back, seeming to come back to herself. “Yeah, I’m fine. I wanted to show you something, though, okay?”

“Oooh,” Waverly sat on the desk and leaned over one of the panels seductively. Their damaged helmets adorned the top of the communications panel and she lazily drew a finger across one of them. “Is it spicy?”

Nicole looked confused and a little flustered. “No? It’s, uhm.” She cleared her throat, tearing her eyes from Waverly. “It’s Earth. Here.”

Well, not Earth, technically.

But headlines. What Earth was saying.

“Holy shit.”

Waverly stared in utter shock as hundreds of headlines fluttered across the screen. None contained the vicious blame she expected. Instead, they were celebrating their survival. Both of them. Her! Waverly Earp! Not a single mention of her family!

‘We have never been more proud of both of you.’

Waverly swallowed the lump in her throat and smiled, tracing over the words. She pointed to a photo on the front page. “Is that you carrying me?”

Nicole blushed. “Yeah.”

“You look like a total badass!” Waverly looked at the chicken-feathered redhead next to her and cracked a grin before it faltered. “Wait.”

“Waverly,” Nicole warned.

Too late. Guilt ruined it. Waverly’s face fell but Nicole leaned forward, waving a hand in her face.

“Earth to Waverly, it’s not your fault,” Nicole said. She picked up her own tablet and handed it over.

Waverly immediately felt the urge to vomit and shoved it away. “No, thanks.”

“No, that’s him.” Nicole tapped the picture of Tucker Gardner. “The guy who sent the email.”

“Him?”

Tucker Gardner. A guy who thought sending a robot programmed to say “HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY, WAVERLY EARP” wasn’t the creepiest shit in the world. He was basically a robot as well, but programmed to respond to a woman’s “No” with “But I love you and totally haven’t been stalking you for the past three days and why won’t you give me sex in exchange for my being obsessively nice to you?”

Meeting his equally creepy dad answered a lot of questions.

“Yeah,” Nicole continued. “The investigation might take a while. Weeks, months, we don’t know. But he sent it, Waverly, and you don’t have to tell me anything -- but I think that title was meant to be irresistible.”

Waverly hugged her knees on the desk, looking down and tracing a finger over the white laminate. “It was,” she whispered, tears following the admission. Even if she had given her full attention... she would have opened it.

“Waverly,” Nicole entreated, sounding torn. No touching. So Waverly reached for her and Nicole was there, holding her. “It’s going to be okay.”

A little awkward because of the desk -- but Waverly leaned forward into Nicole’s solid weight and felt safe for the first time in…

Good lord. An eternity.

(Terrifying.)

It felt so good to be held. It felt so good to be…

Cared for.

Waverly cried harder and Nicole hugged her tighter, smoothing a delicate hand down her heaving back. Human comfort to an astronaut like Waverly is like water in the desert and she was so, so thirsty.

Long moments passed and when Waverly trailed off, Nicole spoke again. “Remember what I said?”

“That we’re both going to make terrible mistakes?” Waverly’s voice muffled by the shirt.

“That and, Waverly Earp, we’re colleagues.” Nicole seemed to press her face into Waverly’s hair, her voice was so close. “I’ll always have your back, you know why?”

“Why?” Waverly shut her eyes. Just keep talking. She didn’t want this to end. (Oh no.)

“Because I’m a huge idiot,” Nicole said with an audible grin, “and I need you to have mine.”

Waverly laughed freely and Nicole, unfortunately, pulled back to check communications. “So, if you want me to tell your sisters to call back later…”

“No,” Waverly said a bit too quickly and Nicole raised an eyebrow. “No.” She swallowed hard and brushed tears from her face.  Resolution. “I have to do this.”

Nicole nodded. “If you need me, I’ll be in the garage, okay?”

Waverly could only nod in response.

 

Willa had a sense for weakness. It made her a brilliant businesswoman and a perfect heir for the Earp manufacturing business, but it made her a terrible, terrible sister.

Waverly still had nightmares.

But now she sat in the communications chair, hugging her knees.  She had to do this on her own. Earth's Bravest, yeah right. She couldn't even handle her sister without being scared to the bone.

 

Chrissy: You don’t have to talk to her if you don’t want to, Waverly, I promise. We can get her to leave. Wynonna’s here

Wave: Its fine. Maybe. I think so.

Chrissy: Ok well PLEASE read this article about how cool you are. [attached] Also your schedule is clear for a few days! Rest ok?

Wave: Chrissy help I’m famous what do I do?

Wave: and what’s a ship?

 

Before she could consider it, response from Earth broke through.

“Yes!” Wynonna shouted, dropping her donut. “There’s our crazy alien sister. How are you, kid?”

“There you are! We were worried she was hiding you,” Willa said. Wynonna shrugged in the background of the conference room. “You’re fine?”

Waverly shrunk in her seat, feeling ill. “I’m fine, really. I just hit my head.” She rubbed at the bruise absentmindedly. “Things are going well.” She cleared her throat, trying to be a bit more confident. “I’m actually happy here. I know it’s a bit silly that I’m Lead Researcher of a two person team.” Team. A word that refresh her and Waverly smiled a bit wider. “But... it’s nice.”

Chrissy: its just a term for friendship. And ill handle it!! We have a whole team now and there’s this cute guy who sits three desks down from me and I THINK the coffee he got me yesterday was a subtle you know??

Wave: I better be on earth for the wedding.

Waverly’s grin found itself caught in a net and murdered brutally by the next transmission.

Willa Earp was pissed.

“I swear, I will destroy her for what she did to you.” Willa’s voice was all cold fury, “She’ll suffer for this, Waverly. I don’t care how hard they’re pushing to make her a hero, she put you in danger of losing your life for a view in front of millions. Imagine the outcry.”

“You know,” Wynonna said with a dry smile to Willa,  “It’s not a good idea to make an enemy of the one other person on the planet, sis.”

Oh. Now she pretends to care?

Now she pretends to give a damn?

It burned Waverly that she knew Willa only cared because of the public. A little part of her wondered if Willa wasn't slightly disappointed. It would have been good press.

But dragging Nicole into this? Unacceptable. 

Waverly slammed the transmit button. “Willa, don’t. You don’t know a goddamn thing about Nicole Haught or anything about Alpha Base for that matter. She saved my life. And you know what, Willa?”

This was her chance. To say her piece once and for all. She had almost died yesterday, for pete’s sake. She could do this.

“You don’t get to come in here like you care at all about what happens to me. I worked my way through university on my own. I got here on my own. All you’ve done is make passive-aggressive comments and ignore every single one of my accomplishments!”

Waverly raged with the force of twenty-eight years of silence.

“I’m happy,” Waverly declared fiercely with a hand to her chest, blinking through tears hot with anger, “Despite all your efforts to the opposite, I’m happy with my life and don’t you dare try to interfere like I have no idea what I’m doing or I can’t take care of myself, because thanks to you, I learned early how to make it on my own.”

Waverly pressed the heel of her hand to get at the treacherous tears and sighed, giving up. She took a deep breath.

“This conversation is over.” Feeling a bit more brave, “Don’t contact me again, Willa.”

The transmission over, Waverly stood looking out at the desert. A slow smile crept on her face. That had been a long time coming. It felt good, though a dull feeling of unease continued. Willa wouldn’t just let this go, but Waverly would be ready.

 

That statement about a parent not picking favorites? Fucking bullshit. Waverly Earp’s favorite was Crewmember Six. Shy, smaller, (a little bossy sometimes) and always hungry, Crewmember Six reminded Waverly of herself.

“I don’t agree with her, by the way,” Wynonna’s recording stated to the expansive space of the ‘Backyard,’ “You’re smart, baby girl. If you say she’s cool, then she’s cool with me and I’ll only punch her once on Earth. And not even in the face.”

“Buk.” Crewmember Six investigated Waverly’s tears and she gently pushed the hen aside, yawning. Tired. Houston had assured her that it wouldn’t be unusual.

“Remember when we were kids and you showed me that tomato? I remember that day. I remember how happy you were. If it takes a thousand miles and another planet to bring that happiness back, I’m all for it. Hell, I’ll build the rocket myself.”

Waverly laughed at that, sniffling lightly. Twice she tried to record a “Thanks, Wynonna,” but the extremely confidential hen kept butting in. She must have gotten it eventually.

 

No response over the intercom drove Nicole to trespass into the greenhouse. It felt like walking into a steam shower the way it cleansed her lungs and Nicole loved it, craved it, but Waverly needed space.

Except when she’s injured and won’t return calls.

Nicole found her lying on the grass, chickens strutting around her. One of them was sitting on the small of her back and made a displeased sound at being moved. “Yeah, I know, buddy.” She made sure to grab Waverly’s tablet, smiling at the words ‘transmission sent’ on the screen.

Ignoring the screaming pain of her back that had become normal, Nicole carried Waverly to Dorm 3.

 


 

DAY 27

 

@chillinGeorgia: What do you guys eat? #AlphaBase

@EarthToWaverly: Food!! Packaged and sent at high speeds. These are stale… and also not mine! [picture attached of Waverly eating cookies.]

@spacecriminal: dont you grow some? #AlphaBase

@EarthToWaverly: Not enough! Only one of me and only twenty-seven days! Plants are slow :(

@MartianCoffee: but what about pizza #AlphaBase

@EarthToWaverly: you know?? Let me ask...

 

“Haught,” Waverly greeted from the kitchen table. All she got was a grunt and she eyed Nicole, who looked half dead. Waverly was finally blessed with Martian morning Nicole. Beautiful. Majestic. Entrancing. “Can we order a pizza?”

Nicole grunted noncommittally as she pressed buttons. In the background, roomba played some quiet music on shuffle. Turn around, bright eyes...

Waverly put down her tablet, tilting her head. “Are you even awake right now?”

Grunt.

“Caaaaan I have the rest of your chocolate?”

A mug hit the counter. Grunt.

Meanwhile, Waverly’s social life was complete and utter insanity. It had been easier to ignore when it had just been two, three hundred people at most, but now? By the million, they wanted to know everything.

There were perks to being famous.

 

@EarthToWaverly: @Dominoes @PapaJohns hey? Could we get a delivery

@Dominoes: @EarthToWaverly Wish we could.

@PapaJohns: @EarthToWaverly Could you give us a hundred years?

@BotanyIsBest: i cant believe our blessed bae is finally getting into social media, and takes the time to order a pizza. When will your fav ever

@StetsonBot: behave unprofessionally?

@BotanyIsBest: wee woo wee woo fun police have arrived. Damn bitch you’d suck the fun out of a theme park faster than a dead tourist

 

Chrissy: sorry wave if you call the prime minister it might cause more issues than would be worth it

Wave: :( but nicole called the president

Wave: what about beyonce though

Chrissy: she did WHAT?

 

Waverly watched in awe as Nicole sat down and blearily looked over her tablet.  A hand absently snaked across the table and stole a cookie. It wasn’t fair. Even after crawling from her bed and existing in a pre-coffee stupor, Nicole looked stellar. Better than any star Waverly had seen. A glowing round orb to Haught, who did adorable things like carry her to her dorm? Hard choice, right.

Breakfast. Together. A weird domestic fever dream to Day Zero Waverly, but…

This felt normal. Waverly could get used to this.

(Oh, no.)

Waverly sat up suddenly and Nicole looked at her curiously, blinking owlishly. “Are you all right?”

OH, NO.

Quick. Reason to hate, reason to hate. “Weren’t you in the air force?” Waverly asked at high speed as Bonnie Tyler belted out her feelings of love and rejection at low volume.

And I need you now tonight, and I need you now forever...

Nicole looked at her strangely and sipped her coffee as if that would help. “Uhm. Never deployed, but yeah. I had to be. Why, what’s wrong?”

Okay wow Waverly didn’t see that coming.

“Your face is stupid,” Waverly blurted and fled.

 

Nicole watched her go, baffled, and ran a hand across her face. Huh. Nicole left to go find a mirror.

Chrissy: DID YOU CALL THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, HAUGHT?

NH: I can explain.

 

Waverly hid in the greenhouse and threw herself into her work. Whatever it was, it would pass soon. Eventually she’d stop these thoughts about being friends and having hugs and being held and adorable smiles and what not. They were colleagues. COLLEAGUES. 

Step one: Don’t think about it.

Failed step one.

She really wanted that hug again, dammit. 

 


DAY 28

 

@BotanyIsBest: like how can u disrespect a woman trying to get past her family’s shitty legacy. what even

@StetsonBot: coming from the person who can’t respect a woman making a name for herself in a traditionally male profession, you fucking hypocrite

@MartianCoffee: WILL YOU TWO JUST LOGOUT PLEASE AND GO OUTSIDE

@BotanyIsBest: good idea. @StetsonBot meet me behind the denny’s in 20 minutes for an asskicking

 

Step two on Waverly's list: Avoid Nicole.

Solar Panel 5 was out again.

Maybe she could make do. Nicole looked to be completely oblivious and consumed by work.

 

NH: EVA Approved Tomorrow 15:00-16:30

Houston: Confirmed. Please consider additional bedrest.

NH: Noted. Will be doing 1hr muscular therapy beforehand.


DAY 29

 

She couldn’t.

Failed step two, then.

The universe was out to murder her. Cause of death: Embarrassment.

Because Waverly knew exactly where Nicole was and there was no way she was going in there , with her looking like that, because she knew exactly how she’d react and holy shit she couldn’t deal with this except Waverly was so far behind on her work on the potatoes because the efficiency had dropped below acceptable levels and some bitch named Shannon wouldn’t let it go because she loved her potatoes more than she understood that Waverly had more important shit to do like AVOID HAVING IMPROPER THOUGHTS FOR HER COWORKER, SHANNON.

Waverly covered her mouth with her hands and let out a muffled scream.

She could do this.

Waverly turned the corner to the gym from the north wing hallway.

She couldn’t do this.

Nicole had her glorious back to her, clad only in a sports bra. Waverly could see those muscles flex under her ponytail as she slowly stretched to the side. God. Talk about guns. Nicole had them in spades. The only type of weapon Waverly started to like.

Waverly made a small noise as Nicole stretched to the other side, the motion rippling down her body in a way that just…

“Jesus,” Waverly breathed, completely floored by a bus full of gay feelings at terminal fucking velocity. She needed to feel Nicole’s back under her hands again and right now was a good time but yesterday was even better.

Nicole started and turned. “Earp.”

Her face must have been slack because Nicole walked over, sweat reflecting the artificial light, -- Jesus boobs fucking tit christ boobs tit CHRIST -- and waved a hand in her face.

“Are you okay? Is it the concussion?”

“No!” Waverly said, coming back to the driver’s seat and switching gears from ‘gay’ to ‘functional.’ “I mean yes! Yes, ow.” Waverly rubbed her forehead and that helped block the view. “Definitely… the concussion. Headache.” She gestured to herself. “Pain. Injury. Not thinky clearly.” She cleared her throat, worried it wouldn’t sell.

“Maybe you should sit down.” Nicole bent down to get her shirt.

“Solarpanel’sout!” Waverly said quickly before trying again. “Solar panel is out.”

Nicole looked at her strangely and stood up. “Yeah, I know. I’m was going to fix it after this.”

Waverly tried to keep her face from heating in embarrassment. Of course she knew. “Like… now? What about Houston?”

“About that.” Nicole ran a towel over her face and Waverly stopped being able to breathe properly. “They don’t have anything to do with the base schedule anymore.”

“Wait- -- what?” That wasn’t possible. As Nicole would have said, Mother Goose was Watching. Always. “How would they allow that?”

“They don’t allow things anymore, Earp,” Nicole moved to her quarters and Waverly followed, interested. She waited outside the doorway as Nicole ducked inside to put clothing on. “That’s my job.”

Huh. That explained quite a lot, actually. The schedule, the cleaning, the serious demeanor Waverly had noticed more often. Nicole wasn’t goofing off anymore. Not as much, anyhow. “Oh.”

Nicole peeked her head around the corner. “Is that a problem?”

Waverly tried not to focus on a bare collarbone. “No, not at all.” Nicole ducked back around and Waverly breathed again. “Uhm, be safe.”

God it was so hot when Nicole was responsible.

Shit.

There was only one way to respond.

 

Nicole shoveled another load of dust aside and paused to rub her back. The Martian sun did absolutely nothing except get in her eyes. Mars was actually frigid, well below acceptable temperatures, and the most irritating point of its weather was the dust.

It was coarse and rough and got everywhere.

“Hey, Haught,” Waverly greeted from the base.

Nicole yawned and brushed more dust from the solar panel. “Yeah?”

“You remember that interview in 2008 with some lady named... hmm… Cindy?”

Nicole tensed, “Maybe?”

Uh oh.

If it was the one Nicole remembered, back when she first got accepted into the program, that meant it had… embarrassing information. Hey, she couldn’t be choosy back then! It was take what she could get. And what she could get was a series of terrible twenty questions, including...

Her least favorite song.

WE BUILT THIS CITY!

“No!” Nicole moaned in agony, placing her hands uselessly against her visor. “Earp! Why?” Nicole succumbed to begging within five seconds of the song’s intro.  “What have I done to deserve this?”

WE BUILT THIS CITY ON ROCK AND RO-OOOLL!

As the song continued its awful course, Waverly returned to whisper her answer: “Everything, Haught. Everything.”

It played twelve times, with “It’s Not Unusual” in the middle.

Nicole returned and immediately confronted Waverly, getting in her space and leaning down to look in her eyes. “I will get you back for this. Just when you think I forgot…” Nicole leaned in and lowered to a whisper, “I won’t.”

 

@EarthToWaverly: We built this city. [Short video]

@StetsonBot: -literal torture- HOW

@BotanyIsBest: god yes pranks are torture right give us the tea you fun-hating ragdoll

@StetsonBot: fuck you im on a plane right now to where you are

@BotanyIsBest: DC motherfucker show up

 

“You sent a message a few days ago at 03:00. Where is it? I'm having trouble with the logs and there are some missing.”

Nedley steepled his hands together and shrugged. “It’s there.”

Gardner’s face never changed, but a slight twinge above his eyebrow always gave away his feelings. “It’s blank footage, Randy. You obfuscated the tape.”

The silence made the twitch more pronounced. “You are a passenger aboard my ship, Randy. That’s quite rude of you to fiddle with the archive. Now undo it.

Nedley tried not to laugh. Gardner tried, really, it was cute, but one couldn’t loom in the reduced gravity aboard the Hermes, and certainly not where Nedley was sitting. Gardner floated angrily like some perturbed fish. He gave another shrug. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Gardner looked about to strangle him. “What is it that I’m not being told?” He gestured out the door. “Is it about the investigation?”

Nedley shrugged again. “I dunno.”

“Are you planning something?”

Nedley motioned to his bobble-head dancing hula girl. “Do I look like the type of man to ‘plan’ something? Really, Gardner. It’s an error. We get those, remember? Not everyone is out to get you.”

It didn’t help. The poor man was paranoid, had always been, and Nedley felt nothing but pity despite his fellow colleagues’ collective hate. The guy couldn’t help it. He was just… creepy. Not dangerous, no. Just a sad, paranoid little man.

Gardner took a deep breath, nostrils flaring, before resuming his cool and simply nodding.

He wouldn’t let this go.

 

Nedley: Head’s up. Gardner is paranoid.

NH: When is he not?

NH: you mean he’s looking into the tape? I expected that, I turned off flight manual

Nedley: That’s irresponsible and dangerous.

Nedley: Also good work.

Nedley: Be on the lookout and keep quiet. No word of the investigation into his son can reach him. No taunting him, either.

NH: And when that info goes public?

Nedley: we’ll bomb that bridge when we get to it.


 

DAY 30

 

#AlphaBase -- Life On Mars: Not Just Survival!

Today, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in cooperation with the Canadian Space Agency, announced their live announcement will be followed with a lengthy Q&A. The special event has already been picked up for broadcast by major news outlets.

 

@NASA: Special Announcement from our Life Science Team TODAY at 3pm [LINK]

@MarsAlphaBase: Howdy Partner! Tune in LIVE [LINK] For the announcement of a lifetime! #Sol30 #We’reBack

@MartianCoffee: IM LOSING MY MIND I MISSED OUR TWO BEAUTIFUL ASTRONAUTS SO MUCH

@EarthToWaverly: @MartianCoffee We missed you too :)

@spacecriminal: be real who overslept it’s 6am there

@EarthToWaverly: @spacecriminal you know who!!

@StetsonBot: im at the bar on 3rd and west @BotanyIsBest

@MartianCoffee: holy shit what the fuck they’re actually going to fight irl

 

“Did you do this while drunk, Nicole?” Waverly spun her around and inspected the horrific excuse for a french braid. It was like Nicole just threw her clothes on and dragged herself into the living space.

“SALUTATIONS FAVORED COLLEAGUES. ONE HOUR TO SHOWTIME.”

Pre-Coffee Nicole grunted in response.

“Sit down,” Waverly ordered, steering the half-asleep redhead to the couch, where she finally sat down. Waverly quickly fixed it with delicate fingers. She buzzed with excitement. Today, at last, her work before the world, and her family had nothing to do with it.

Nicole sighed heavily and relaxed into the couch cushions, sipping on her coffee.

“How’s your back?”

Nicole tensed slightly before lying. “It’s fine.”

“Really?” Waverly finished the braid and with her free hands drifted lower. It irked her that Nicole lied about things like this… and she knew exactly how to extract the truth. “You’ve been getting bed rest? All the times I see you walking around?”

“Yes, I h-- ahhhhhhve totally,” Nicole finished on a high note as Waverly dug into her back with dextrous fingers.

Waverly hummed in disbelief, tracing the tension under her hands. She felt a particular area and…

“God, fuck,” Nicole moaned helplessly. “Do that again.”

“Are you sure?” Waverly asked, breath stirring the small hairs of her neck. Nicole was literal puddy in her hands like this. It was addictive. She kept her thoughts from derailing. Today was a work day. Focus. Just getting that asshole back for lying, nothing else.

“Waverly,” Nicole uttered her name as a plea and Waverly retreated, smug. Nicole turned with a look of such desperate loss.

Smirking, Waverly made to get some tea. “I’ll do it again, but only if you get bedrest.”

“You’re evil, ” Nicole declared, snatching her hat from the roomba and dusting it off. She got a mischievous glint in her eye and put it on with a wink, causing Waverly to swallow hard.

“Howdy partner,” Nicole drawled, standing, “Let’s go round up them chickens.”

“I hate you so, so, so much.”

 

@BotanyIsBest: @StetsonBot post a pic of your dumbass outfit so i know who i’m lookin for

@StetsonBot: @BotanyIsBest [picture attached]

@spacecriminal: okay, did not expect for her to be legit attractive af. Good luck botany. Idk whom im rooting for, maybe im calling the police rn idk im not an adult

@MartianCoffee: @spacecriminal you’re 28…

@spacecriminal: i said what i said

 

“Waverly,” Nicole said seriously as they approached the airlock. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

Waverly paused before pressing OPEN. “How do you mean?”

Nicole set her hands on her belt, a tick Waverly recognized. “It’s… millions of viewers, Waverly. Are you going to be okay?”

Waverly adjusted her own uniform in thought. “I... I guess I have to be, right?”

Nicole made a ‘may I?’ motion and Waverly nodded ascent.

Nicole stepped forward and put a hand on Waverly’s shoulder, causing her to swallow hard and meet her steady gaze. “You’re going to do amazing, okay? They love you, Waverly Earp. You couldn’t mess this up if you tried.”

Put at ease by that stupid charming smile, Waverly blushed furiously and swatted Nicole’s hat forward. “Thanks, Haught.”

“If it gets too much, just pretend you’re talking to me alone.”

 

“Waverly,” Nicole warned. Crewmember Seven had settled on Nicole’s hat. “Don’t disturb her.”

Waverly, barely keeping it together, nodded. “But please? Please put the hat on.”

Nicole scowled.

Waverly pressed her hands together and gave her best attempt at puppy dog eyes. “Please? For me?”

 

@StetsonBot: your not going to show up are you

@BotanyIsBest: you’re* checkmate bitch delete your account. Turn around motherfucker

 

“Transmitting live from Mars Alpha Base, I’m Commander Nicole Haught of the Ares mission,” Nicole said in her best commander voice, face stoic, back straight, in uniform, “Years of dedication and billions of taxpayer money have brought forth incredible progress in humanity’s reach for the stars. Now, the hard work of thousands of international scientists pushes us closer to colonizing Mars and ensuring a future beyond Earth, a future where the human race is no longer bound to a single planet.”

“Buk-buk,” said Crewmember Seven from atop Nicole’s head, settled in the dip of the stetson, “Buk.”

Without missing a beat, “It is my honor to present Lead Researcher Earp of Ares 23, the brilliant botanist who made all of this possible.”

God Nicole looked so good doing that.

Oh shit it was her turn.

Waverly jumped slightly and slid into frame, holding Crewmember Six. “Hi!” She gave a smile and wave. Shit. Millions. Waverly cleared her throat and lifted the hen. “So! This is Madame Curie, also known as Crewmember Six of Ares 23. Yes! We put chickens on Mars. Behind me is our simulated Earth, containing everything from a pond, a garden, to actual Martian grass. Well, Earth grass and Earth soil, but we've slowly been working on...”

Waverly tried not to notice Nicole’s expression of borderline hypnotism.

 She cleared her throat and continued as Nicole smiled at her and her heart did a kickflip. "... Introducing a way to make Mars self-sustaining, and it starts with introducing Earth in small ways..."

 

Meanwhile, on Earth, in a hotel room in Houston...

“Wait, shut up.” Wynonna smacked the sexy dude’s face with a pillow until he stopped his talking, slamming the volume up button on the remote.

Her sister. Looked happy. She was doing that adorable fidgeting thing with her hands, that smile breaking her face open like the sun, explaining things so beyond Wynonna that her head spun, all on the national goddamn news.

 

Washington, DC.

“Shut the hell up!” the bartender snapped. The two idiots he was referring to sat down immediately, looking abashed. A few minutes later, they continued their argument in harsh whispers and elbow nudges, one of them pointing furiously at the television screen above the bar, showing what everyone else was watching with attentive eyes:

Waverly.

 

She was soaring. This is what it felt like. Happiness.

“Yes, it was extremely difficult. I had immense amounts of help from everywhere from Germany to California and a hundred places in between. Constantly!” It grated after a while but Waverly kept her voice chipper. “You’ll be seeing more of the crew around Alpha Base. We want to ensure their quality of life is the absolute, scientific best. Now back to Earth, where our life sciences team is ready to answer all of your questions.”

Then it cut out to Earth and Waverly caught her breath, heart skittering in her chest, face aching from her smile.

Holy. Shit.

Nicole stood from leaning on the wall and clapped. 

"That was amazing!" Nicole insisted, approaching the still-grinning Waverly, "You did amazing."

Before she could stop herself, Waverly leaped into Nicole's arms and laughed in delight. Nicole caught her, of course, one arm unfortunately kept away by a tablet. 

"Hey, look." At Nicole's words, Waverly pulled away slightly to look. "Check it out! How does it feel to be an inspiration?"

Front page. Her. Waverly sniffed and rubbed away tears, unable to speak. Floored.

 

LIFE ON MARS CONFIRMED? SHE HELPED PUT IT THERE

MAKING WAVES: SCIENTIST REVEALS THE IMPOSSIBLE

BOTANIST REVEALS INTERPLANETARY PROJECT TO TERRAFORM MARS. FIRST UP: CHICKENS

10 THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT WAVERLY EARP (NUMBER 7 WILL SHOCK YOU!)

LIFE SCIENCE: GROUNDBREAKING PROJECT INVOLVING THOUSANDS OF SCIENTISTS UNVEILED THIS MORNING BY LEAD RESEARCHER ON MARS

EGGCELLENT NEWS: ARES 23 CREW REVEALED TO BE PLUCKY, FEATHERED SCIENTISTS

 

Emotion overwhelmed Waverly and she fell to her knees with Nicole, sitting on impossible grass, surrounded by impossible chickens, and she sobbed openly in her colleague's arms.

 

NH: We're going to need a few minutes.

Chrissy: No problem. :) Tell her everybody here is going INSANE and that I am so so proud

 

They sat together for a while, Nicole gently running her fingers through Waverly's hair, just trying to gain their bearings.

"I was so worried," Waverly said quietly, "My family's... My family is --" She pressed a hand to her eyes and Nicole gave her a reassuring squeeze. "Just. I hated it. Every second of it, you know? Weapons. I... I never liked it. My father got me to shoot a deer once and I just..."

Nicole stopped her as Waverly sobbed again. "Hey, it's okay. It's okay."

Waverly shook her head and Nicole's shirt shifted with it. She had to keep going, to get this out. A sniff, a nod, and a hard swallow later: "And my sister didn't like it either," Waverly managed. The hens around them had settled next to them, almost asleep. "So she left before I saved up enough to go on my own and I didn't look back. But it always followed me. Everybody wanted to be my friend but they didn't know I wasn't in the will, Nicole. I don't inherit anything."

Nicole hugged her tighter a moment and Waverly leaned into it.

"They never called, never congratulated me. And every minute I was just trying to be someone that wasn't an Earp," Waverly's voice was so painfully quiet, "And I did it. Do you know what that feels like?"

Nicole shook her head. 

"It feels like... I don't know," Waverly admitted. "Like a weight off my shoulders. Like it's been lifted."

 "Like freedom?" Nicole offered, voice soft.

"Yeah." Waverly leaned back slightly to meet Nicole's gaze, realizing that she had been crying at some point, too. Those soft brown eyes were misted, slightly red. Unable to stop herself, Waverly traced a hand across Nicole's face before pulling back in surprise at the thundering and frightening desire to kiss her. Nicole only smiled in response.

Waverly nodded, preparing to stand up again. "Freedom," she said as she pulled Nicole to her feet after her.

They walked back, hand in hand. Waverly kept her eyes averted, trying to push down feelings of confusion and fear. She'd figure it out later, she repeated to herself. She'd figure these feelings out later. Their job wasn't done.

 

@spacecriminal: IM WHEEZING. OFC HAUGHT PICKED THE RED ONE

@MartianCoffee: five bucks she names it chicken

@HATchicken: buck buck buck buck buck

@WHStan: guys… [picture attached] look at the cute little Ares mission suits they wear outside their grassy place w/ numbers on them

  

“Haught, it’s not poison,” Waverly insisted as they sat around the kitchen table. Nearby the hens explored their new home, but the two astronauts had the honor of eating the first Martian eggs.

“No, it’s not that, it’s --” Nicole poked her eggs.

“Oh. My. God.” Waverly sat up straight and stared holes into Nicole. “Do not tell me you put ketchup on them, Haught. I will throw you outside.”

Nicole looked flabbergasted. “No! What? I need the pepper, Earp.”

 

“Question time!” Waverly announced with an adorable smile. “Martian coffee wants to know if I’m thirsty.”

Nicole choked on her coffee. She waved off Waverly’s concern and tried to get her breathing under control. In the meantime, she pointed to the water room and managed a word, “Explain.”

“O-kay, well.” Waverly cleared her throat as Nicole gasped for air, face red. “Right, the water -- The base! The base is built on top of a reservoir of underground water! And almost all of it is recycled. Which is pretty…” Waverly watched Nicole bend over and hack horrible noises. “Uhm. Fascinating.”

 

@chillinGeorgia: what are the names of the other hens?

@EarthToWaverly: So far there's Madame Curie, Rosie, and Houdini. Seven isn't named yet :) 

 

“Space criminal from Germany wants to know what you were thinking when I fell off the cliff,” Waverly announced at the kitchen table.

“Uh. Huh.” Nicole paused, unable to curse on camera. “Can I say, ‘Oh no, Waverly Earp is going to kick my ass if I don’t save her?’ Oh, shit. Uh, censor that.” Nicole put her face in her hands and groaned, Waverly laughing at her. She lifted her face again, serious, “But I knew that if it had somehow been me falling off that cliff, Earp wouldn’t have hesitated either.”

Waverly fell silent a moment, looking at Nicole, who met her gaze evenly.

@MartianCoffee: harold,,,,

“I would have left you there,” Waverly said, shoveling more egg in her mouth. Nicole gaped.

@BotanyIsBest: aoigdsgdbkgjfdhbtdge;alksgdhjkgsgbs DEMOLISHED

@spacecriminal: holy fucking MURDERED

 

Nicole worked on setting up the new 3d printed coup in the living space. Meanwhile, Waverly plotted.

@JumpsuitJitters: @EarthToWaverly can you get @HaughtOnMars to dance? #AlphaBase

@EarthToWaverly: maybe ;)

@spacecriminal: how is she going to convince her to dance…

@JumpsuitJitters: just wait.

 

“No!” Nicole said, adamant. The hens investigated the new coup and proclaimed it ‘moderately decent.’ “No way. Never. Nada. Nien. Niet.

“Please?”

“No.” Nicole folded her arms.

Waverly cheated. “Please?”

Nicole was doomed. How could she last a hundred and fifty days when she couldn’t say no to that face? She sighed in utter and complete defeat. “Fine. But only on one condition.”

 

@WHStan: jesus christ she has it bad

@StetsonBot: honey no [stock photo of man holding head between hands]

@chillinGeorgia: oh what a beautiful waltz routine they've chosen

@MartianCoffee: wait wait wait.  slow down. Helen. can i call you helen? explain to us non-dancer folk what in the gay hell is going on here

@chillinGeorgia:  it's slow dancing, honey. Does Haught have some sort of idea how to dance?

@StetsonBot: unfortunately not that i know of...

@chillinGeorgia: well, bless her heart.

 

Nicole’s heart was trying to break out of her chest and make a run for it. Millions of people were watching, and she just agreed to slow dance with her extremely pretty coworker. Never in her life had two minutes and twenty seconds seemed so long. (Except that one time she crashed a plane -- but, well, the difference in audience was just over thirteen point five million.)

Anxiety buzzed under Nicole’s skin as Waverly set the roomba to play. This was different then announcing scripted words and doing her job. This was beyond piloting, beyond mechanics, beyond computer science -- it was Waverly and her, dancing, before millions.

“Oh, god,” Nicole breathed, smoothing her uniform and feeling just a bit ill. A simple dance, for her, technically -- She just had to follow Waverly’s lead. She’d done this before, at a wedding, at age eight. The faded memory would have to do for her dance with Waverly.

Waverly, who was, at this moment, offering her hand outstretched. Nicole took it. Louis Armstrong did his best over the speakers, filling the living space with his classic tune ‘What a Wonderful World,’ and Nicole really began to panic.

Waverly lead her into the space, pulled, and spun close into position. Nicole swallowed hard as the contact brushed them together briefly, but the steps of the dance allowed a space to linger between them. Waverly took one of her (already sweaty, god help her) hands to hold out above them as the others settled on respective shoulders.

Then, they started to dance.

Nicole immediately remembered that slow dancing wasn’t slow at all.  

“Just look at me,” Waverly whispered as Nicole tried unsuccessfully to match her stride. Her heart rate and the music were contesting for the beat she was moving to. Waverly wrinkled her brow, perhaps noticing for the first time Nicole’s extreme anxiety. “Pretend it’s just us.”

Nicole nodded, internally screaming. Just look into the eyes of your crush as you dance with her. No problem at all. Finally, she found some modicum of motion just for the second verse to start.

“Just stand still for this part,” Waverly instructed quietly.

And I think to myself…

Waverly spun around Nicole, keeping one of their hands together, before closing the distance between them.

“Dip me.”

What a wonderful world…

Nicole complied and almost froze at how much she understood the appeal of slow dancing. With her head thrown back, body angled like a masterpiece, Waverly looked indescribably beautiful. Waverly tugged slightly and Nicole smoothly pulled her back, and they continued in the steps that started to become familiar.

Waverly looked from Nicole’s eyes to communications. “I’m sorry,” she whispered with a frown, “I didn’t think…”

“Don’t be,” Nicole breathed, trying to focus on one thing and one thing only, praying her heart wouldn’t beat out of her chest. Green. Waverly’s eyes were green. Nicole didn't know exactly why her soul felt like it was flying or why here, in this moment, she was reminded of the pure force that struck her when she ejected from that plane at unsafe speeds.

And I think to myself…

Nicole lost sight of Waverly as she did the fancy spin move, leaving her staring into oblivion for a few seconds and realizing something terrible. Then, Waverly was close again, the lovely scent of plants accompanying, and Nicole tried hard not to have an outright panic attack.

What a wonderful world...

And dip. Nicole stared in numb disbelief, performing the move almost as an afterthought, as she realized that after only thirty days she was falling hard and fast for her colleague.

She didn't want the song to end anymore, and that was more terrifying.

“It speeds up now,” Waverly warned as Louis sang of rainbows and Nicole almost tripped, mentally cursing Armstrong before apologizing. Nicole kept her eyes locked with Waverly, noticing a slight line of worry forming over the researcher’s brow as they danced.

“Do you think about Earth?” Waverly asked suddenly.

“Sometimes,” Nicole managed, mentally counting the beat, lost in feeling, lost in the way Waverly's body moved in tandem with hers.

“When are you leaving for it?” Waverly looked worried over something serious enough to show on her face. Nicole felt it someplace deep.

I see friends shaking hands…

“When you do, of course,” Nicole answered as the beat changed. Waverly’s eyes widened with confusion.

Saying how do you do…

“My contract is tied to yours,” Nicole went on to explain, unable to wonder why Waverly would ask a question about something so obvious. They were the same mission, Ares 22-23-24 Alpha Base 1.

They’re really saying…

Nicole heard the sharp intake of breath like a gunshot and tilted her head closer, trying to comfort with a look alone as they danced. “Are you okay?”

...I love you…

“Yes,” Waverly answered a bit too quickly, breaking her gaze to glance elsewhere. Nicole felt a pang of desperate worry at how close to tears she looked. Then, with a smile Nicole had never seen before, Waverly looked back and nodded. “I am.”

Nothing existed save the song, gravity, and Waverly. Nicole's lungs burned, not from exertion, but from the way Waverly constantly left her breathless. It was a moment she would never, ever forget, like the ghost of a good time, and Nicole knew in her heart she'd do anything to dance like this again. 

The song slowed dramatically as it neared its end and the steps of the dance changed with it.

 

@MartianCoffee: oh. my. good lord in heaven.

@WHStan: sweet lord thy children are gay as hell

@chillinGeorgia: oh my goodness! they are such good friends how beautiful!!

@WHStan: @chillinGeorgia NOT NOW HELEN

 

Nicole and Waverly danced side by side like a pair of ballroom lovers, anxious eyes locking with ones clouded with some unknown emotion, as the song wound down to nothing.

Two minutes and twenty seconds, the final swing of the dance ending with them close together, close enough that Nicole noticed how wondrously entrancing Waverly’s eyes were, green dancing with almost golden light, as they stared back. Beautiful. Without a doubt.

Waverly stood on her tiptoes and Nicole’s world slowed to nothing, watching those lips approach like a guillotine to remove her from her misery, flickering her eyes closed in expectations of unknown madness. There was only her, Waverly, and the urge to dance again. Then, so gently that her heart ached, Nicole felt them brush against her cheek.

Left breathless, Nicole opened her eyes to a mischievous smirk as Waverly pulled away. 

“Not bad,” Waverly commented breezily, ignoring how Nicole had frozen like a statue and choosing to smooth wrinkles that didn’t exist in her uniform. “Could use some work.”

Fuck.

She was so far gone.

“Yeah?” Nicole managed, smiling, after a half-beat of gay silence. “I’ll be waiting for my strawberries with bated breath.”

“You’ll be waiting --” Waverly pressed a hand to her forehead and winced.

“Headache?” Nicole reached out to brush her fingertips across Waverly's temple but stopped herself in time. “How bad?”

“Not bad just…” Waverly sat down at the table, looking tired and trying desperately to hide it. Nicole wasn’t surprised at all.

“Let me wrap things up. You rest.” Waverly looked about to protest but Nicole stopped her with a cheeky grin and raised eyebrows as she sat on the table, leaning over to deliver her line, “That’s an order.”

 

@spacecriminal: we are… blessed

@StetsonBot: honey NO.

@BotanyIsBest: waverly got her Fucked Up like bitch join the CLUB. WELCOME. Sit your redhead dumbass down and get in line tbh

@WHStan: what the fuck is going on here on this day im blind i cant read im illiterate im this is So gay. What the fuck. What the fuck. What the ,, f, ,., u, c , ,,k,

@MartianCoffee: [an entire thread of gifs of the dance]

@JumpsuitJitters: @MartianCoffee bless u im rewatching 500000 times

 

“Thank you all for being so wonderful and watching us today,” Nicole spoke to an unfeeling camera, nerves buzzing under the potential gaze of so many, “We love being able to educate and entertain so many, and hopefully inspire more to look to the stars. We’ll be seeing you soon, but we have some work to do that unfortunately will take us away from being with you for a few weeks.”

Nicole waved goodbye. Stupid fucking lawyers.

She tried not to think about how badly she had wanted Waverly just to kiss her, and how she would have allowed it, too -- before all those people, burning down who-knows-what and who-cares, only to feel those lips against hers.

 

NH: Can I get those results again?

Houston: [attached]

Houston: She’s going to be fine. Headaches are normal and expected, as well as exhaustion.

NH: Are you sure?

Houston: Commander, do you know how many doctors we have in contact with?

NH: Not specifically, no.

Houston: It’s a lot. She’s going to be fine.

 

Chrissy: I know this is strange but. thank you.

NH: For what?

Chrissy: You know I could throw your career into the dumpster at any moment, right?

NH: I know that and I respect you enough to know when I’d deserve something like that.

Chrissy: did your uncle teach you how to be such a huge cliche?

NH: Yes, he did.

NH: Can I know what I’m being thanked for now?

Chrissy: Maybe.

Chrissy: Ok fine. I haven’t seen Waverly that happy in forever, actually. So. Thank you.

Chrissy: just know I’ll personally murder you if you make her upset.

NH: I’d throw myself out the airlock first.

 

Waverly lay in bed, fingers absently touching her lips, consumed with thoughts that ranged from full-blown panic to accepting death. She couldn’t ignore these feelings anymore, the urge to dance again, the urge to be held or touched or… God, why did it have to be so hard?

Exhaustion hinted at the edge of her vision but she needed to talk to someone. Anyone.

Waves: Okay. Hypothetical question. Purely, purely hypothetical. 

Waves: Talk parallel universe not even near ours. like super far away

Waves: backward universe where ANYTHING can happen...

Chrissy: you can tell me anything, Waves. This chat is private, I promise.

Waves: I might, just MIGHT, maybe, possibly,

Waves: have some... feelings.

Chrissy: What kind of feelings?

Waves: You know... feelings. Like... -feelings- feelings. Those feelings. Feelings that... deal with uhm

Waves: THINGS.

Waves: AND STUFF.

Chrissy: Oh. OH

Chrissy: Ok first -- I love you just the way you are and you shouldn't be afraid. It's 2020 and there's nothing wrong with feelings.

Chrissy: However, I have to warn you against letting anyone find out, ok?

Chrissy: NOT because people would dislike you!! actually i think people would be all for it, strangely enough. but it's not about the feelings, its about the actions and the fact things could go really wrong with her being your superior and all. and i think it might get really awkward really fast..

Chrissy: I'm sorry Waves. 

Waves: :(

Waves: you couldn't maybe look into it would you?

Chrissy: Of course. I'll see what I can find. Again, it's not about the fact you two are women at ALL, Waves. Dammit!! I'm so frustrated. I would be SO HAPPY for you if you were on Earth. Grr!!

Chrissy: I promise I'll find out more. 

 Waves: thank you Chrissy. you're the best

 

Waverly screamed into her pillow. The astronaut course never prepared her for this. There wasn’t a How To Deal with Lusting After Your Coworker: Space Edtion section.
But her career ending over it? That dried up that whole situation right quick, thanks. After all that work to get earthbound? Nothing was worth that.

 

In Washington, D.C., two people were kicked out of a bar. In the pouring rain, they paused their vicious argument to exchange numbers like civilized folk.

“Tuesday?”

“No, I have class that day. Weekend possible?”

“How about... Saturday night?”

“That’s fine for me. See you then, asshole.”

“Drive safe, dumbass.”


 

DAY 31 - 34

 

@MarsAlphaBase: Thanks for joining us! Standby for more scheduled broadcasts. Our Astronauts are working hard… Be back soon!

@MarsAlphaBase: Choose their music [Link attached]

@MartianCoffee: wtf! What the hell else am i gonna watch

@StoneCold: please someone read my AU [link attached]

@spacecriminal: do you take constructive criticism?

@StoneCold: yes

@spacecriminals: i just find demons unrealistic

 

One word: Lawyers.

Daily life became hair-pulling as both astronauts were forced to litigation with an eight minute delay. To top it all off, it was actually an extremely complicated situation:

Mars was technically international waters. Also, Mars Alpha Base was also owned by multiple countries, not just the United States. However, the communication system that was tampered with belongs to NASA, and thus the United States Government.

Yes. It was technically treason.

Dolls: Don’t get too excited. 90% chance the plea deal will be attempted murder or aiding and abetting. Gardner might push for trial. Keep this under wraps from everyone, no exceptions.

NH: Understood.

Wave: wait no hold on. Why is the document folder 1.5 gb? Is this for real?

Dolls: Yes, it is ‘for real.’ Better get started.

 

Both of them, utterly consumed by the work, ended up in odd places.

Like sitting together on the couch, reading over the newest batch of paperwork.

Unbelievable. Unrealistic. Except Nicole sat on the floor with her back against the couch, Waverly lounging on it, idly running her hand through red strands. The roomba was careful not to startle the two into realizing their positions. Instead, it gave the room Taylor Dayne’s ‘Tell it to My Heart.’

Neither had noticed the roomba had been constantly playing love songs nonstop.

What could be said? Lawyers.

“There’s twenty pages,” Waverly groused. “Three pages were just ‘We’re not liable if you don’t read this.’”

“Yep.” Nicole sipped her coffee.


 

DAY 35

 

#AlphaBase: The Investigation Begins in Earnest behind Harrowing Cliff Incident

“I am looking forward to a full and complete investigation into the circumstances surrounding the incident,” says heir to Earp fortune Willa Earp, “Especially the qualifications of the Commander on base.”

NASA has not concluded their investigation at this time and rumors circulate that both astronauts are currently in litigation. So far, the ICC has not been contacted about prosecution of any suspects, corroborating NASA’s statement “We do not expect to find any evidence of foul play.”

  

“Not getting involved!” Nicole called from beneath the rover. She’d been hiding in the garage today because Waverly was keen on her getting bedrest and that simply wouldn’t be done.

She heard Nedley sigh. “Your career --”

“La la la, can’t hear you over the sound of not getting involved!”

 

“I mean, how dare she!” Waverly paced back over the grass. “Ugh!”

“Buk, buk,” agreed Madame Curie. 

“I know right?” Waverly stopped. “You know what? I’m going to do something about it. If she thinks I’m going to take this sitting down, she has another thing coming.”

 

Wave: How do I release a public statement?

Chrissy: depends on what you want to say. Send me your words, how you want them to come across, and what impact you’re hoping to have

Wave: i want my sister to shut her mouth. Can I do that

Chrissy: ….let’s try something more subtle, ok? We don’t want to mess anything up with legal

Chrissy: you have a VERY LARGE audience and this is your first time so we’re going to be very careful

 

Astronaut Waverly Earp, Lead Researcher of the Ares Alpha Base mission, released a statement today at 2pm.

“Regardless of concern of the public, I have full faith in the qualifications of Commander Haught and trust her with my life. We are both well and recovering from the incident.”

Her statement also clarifies her own stance on the cliff incident. “I hold no blame to Nicole Haught and I urge speculation to wait until after the investigation is completed.”

 

Chrissy: No you can’t call them all ‘goddamn frickin’ idiots’, Waverly.
Wave: fine

 

When asked to comment further, the Lead Researcher admits she was “repulsed” by “vicious accusations against my colleague, who, need I remind you, saved my life.”

When asked if her answers were do to inter-workplace pressure, she responded, “Take that statement, print it out, and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine” and further gave instructions to “come back when [we] learn journalistic ethics.”

 

Chrissy: WAVERLY.
Wave: sorry i snapped

 

@StetsonBot: so??? [link to article] @BotanyIsBest

@BotanyIsBest: i was wrong tbh just protective of the best astronaut on mars

@BotanyIsBest: if the astro bae says haught is ok then haught is ok

@MartianCoffee: SCREENSHOTTED. PRINTED. FRAAAAMMMEED. Also glad you two didnt actually murder each other. So was it a date or what

@StetsonBot: no what the fuck

@BotanyIsBest: TOTALLY was a date no lie gay as hell :))))

 

“You’re such a fatty baby,” Waverly cooed to Crewmember Five, Rosie, “Just a fat lady baby. So sassy.” Her tablet pinged loudly, announcing a direct message from a fellow astronaut, and she almost dropped all the feed. Face red, she checked the messages.

 

CMDR.NH: May I enter the greenhouse and talk with you?

LR.WE(NOT HOUSTON!): sure yeah I’m in the yard

LR.WE(NOT HOUSTON!): can you remove the ‘not houston’

LR.TOTALLYNOTHOUSTON: I despise you, you know that right?

 

She kept forgetting this was a thing she could do. It would have certainly helped avoid some awkward situations between them. Truth be told, she was a little afraid to use it, seeing as how it almost got them both killed. 'Spooky' didn’t quite cover it.

Thankfully, the sound of the airlock told Waverly when to cut the embarrassing baby talk. The ladies loved Haught and rushed her as she stepped into the yard, eyes immediately settling on Waverly and face pulling into that stupid charming grin of hers.

Waverly glared as her own heart did a skip as a result of that grin.

It’s just wasn’t fair.

Unfortunately, Nicole only grinned wider and sat down next to her on the grass. Waverly waited with patience born of distaste for what she knew was coming. Any second now…

“Chicks dig me,” Nicole said as Crewmember Seven cuddled up against her.

Waverly sighed. “What is it, Haught?”

Nicole did that awful thing where her brown eyes softened and looked at her (really looked). Not like anyone else looked at her, but it never felt invasive. No, it felt like being cared about.  “How are you doing?”

“Just fine, thanks.” Waverly busied herself with feeding the other ladies. Crewmember Seven’s loyalty was already gone, the traitor.

“You know, you really have taken almost dying remarkably well, Earp,” Nicole commented. She laughed but it trailed off into a painfully awkward silence. Knowing again, and almost asking rhetorically in sudden and gentle understanding,  “It’s happened before, hasn’t it?”

The silence multiplied by a thousand and grew in density as Waverly avoided her gaze.

Nicole cleared her throat and pretended that didn’t happen, to Waverly’s immense relief. “I just wanted to thank you. For, uhm. For defending me. You didn’t have to do that and…” She scratched her hen’s chin. “Thanks.”

Waverly bit back her first response and simply watched Nicole shyly avoid looking at her. “Well… I couldn’t just let them lie about you, could I?” Waverly conceded and Nicole gave a grateful smile, “You’re not so bad, Haught.” She watched Nicole blush and focus her attentions on Crewmember Seven.

An idea. “Could you do me a favor?”

“Of course,” Nicole said with a nod. The hen nibbled her finger.

“She needs extra care. Can you…?” Waverly gestured to the fat lady on Nicole's lap.

Nicole looked startled. “Take care of Hen?”

Waverly’s jaw dropped in outrage. “Nicole Haught, You did not name my crewmember Hen.”

“Hen… rietta!” Nicole corrected, looking terrified, “Henrietta. I’d be honored to look after… Henrietta. Just uhm, tell me how.”

 

Later, Nicole napped at the control panel with Henrietta on her lap. It lit up with a special alert: GARDNER KNOWS OF INVESTIGATION AND CHARGES AGAINST HIS SON - DOLLS

“Shit.” Nicole sat up. Almost fifteen minutes later, Gardner made his first move.

HERMES: FLIGHT MANUAL OVERRIDE ENGAGE REQUEST.

ALPHABASE: REQUEST DENIED. REASON: NICE FUCKING TRY, ASSHOLE.

Nicole heaved a sigh of utter relief. He wouldn’t leave it at that, but she’d be ready.


 

DAY 38

 

HERMES: TRANSMISSION REQUEST - AUTHENTICATION FOR COMMUNICATION LOG HISTORY REQUIRED.

ALPHABASE: DENIED. REASON: GO FUCK YOURSELF WITH A CACTUS, GARDNER.

  

Gardner: Please carefully consider the consequences of pursuing the investigation on my son. Waverly Earp’s career is extremely promising -- she has years of missions ahead of her.

NH: Please carefully consider the consequences of threatening my crew again.

Gardner: Don’t worry. I am.

 

Shouldn’t they be arguing?

Waverly stopped herself on day thirty-eight, mid-complaint, staring straight ahead at Nicole. Surely, by now, they would have argued about something for longer than a few minutes.

(Except that one time Waverly had insisted Nicole's music taste to be outdated before correcting herself to saying old-fashioned .)

They had both been stressed, on little sleep, running ragged on answering redundant questions and invasive lines of testimony on a maddening delay from cold lawyers.

Every single morning they had sat down together without even planning it: talking, complaining, working things out. It felt so normal that Waverly hadn’t even noticed before now.

They had never once argued for more than a few minutes before resolving it.

“Something wrong?” Nicole asked across the table, head tilted in concern.

“No.” Waverly shook her head with a faint smile. “Everything’s good, actually. I was just wondering how we would attend the trial if it comes to that.”

Nicole scratched her chin, thinking. “Hm. Well, I doubt it will be anytime soon. Maybe a few years. I don’t know, actually.”

“You don’t think they’d pull us back early, would they?”

“I hope not.”

 

Houston: Hermes is requesting transmission logs for Alpha Base. Confirm?

NH: Denied. Do not accept any requests similar to this one.

 

ALPHABASE: TRANSMISSION TO HERMES CONTROL -- BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME, DICK!

 


 

DAY 40

 

Nicole didn’t forget. We built this city on revenge, thank you.

In Waverly’s defense, she bought it just because.

And if because was ‘I am beginning to have serious doubts about my heterosexuality and this concerns me greatly, ’ many would refuse to hold it against her. Plus she had a coupon. Fifty percent off if purchased with a second!

So, maybe Waverly bought two trashy romance novels and maybe had trouble reading them because she couldn’t stop thinking about Nicole instead of the handsome, dashing, bearded, manly-man Tristan, and maybe she fell asleep frustrated beyond belief on the couch of the living space because she’d been having nightmares about falling.

Nicole snuck in the next morning, having slept for once, and found Waverly sprawled across the couch with her tablet on her lap. Normally she’d just leave her, but concern wound itself into her spine and Nicole tapped it awake, wondering what would cause Waverly to simply pass out, fearing it might be bad news from the case.

Oh, just a book.

But something caught her eye and Nicole, remembering that Waverly currently had three points to her zero , extricated the tablet with masterful stealth and read over the page.

“No. Way.” A wicked smile grew across Nicole’s face and she leaned back against the wall, clearing her throat.

 

To top it all off, Waverly wasn’t having a nightmare. The face she was kissing most definitely didn’t have a beard and almost definitely looked like her coworker. It was far too indistinct for her liking, but it was enough to imagine the muscular but soft body underneath her, the sounds in her ear so familiar, a hot mouth skating across her skin and whispering, “I want to be inside you…”

“‘... Tristan said aloud in the sex-thick silence between them.’” Nicole paused to laugh and Waverly’s eyes flew open to artificial light. That asshole! She stumbled from the couch, falling to cheap carpet as Nicole continued, “Who wrote this?”

“No, no, no, no,” Waverly chanted, trying to get her limbs working and her face to stop burning. The hens woke up. “NO!”

Nicole only spoke louder. “‘She gasped in pure pleasure at his admission and spread her legs, giving herself over to him completely…’”

“Haught, you piece of shit --” Waverly leapt the couch, rushing Nicole in the kitchen.

“HOWDY PARTNER.”

“Aching to be filled --” Waverly reached Nicole, who immediately hoisted the tablet out of reach, “--She groaned his name as a prayer as he finally --”

“I’m going to murder you!” Waverly hissed as she jumped for the tablet, ignoring Nicole’s awful grin, pure fury and embarrassment warring in her veins.

“-- Inched inside her, her hot muscles parting for him as he hilted his throbbing member ...” Nicole had to stop to laugh and bent over with it, Waverly finally snatching the tablet back as the redhead collapsed in cackles. Waverly kicked the idiot with her socked foot in blind rage but Nicole only laughed harder, struggling to breathe. “Sorry! I’m sorry!”

“I didn’t know you were twelve , Haught!” Waverly brushed hair from her scorched face and immediately closed out the book, setting the tablet aside.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist - Hey!

Waverly had taken the Off-Limits Mug hostage.

Nonononono -- okay! Okay!” Nicole raised her hands in surrender, still trying to stifle laughter. “I went too far, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have invaded your privacy like that even for a joke, I’m sorry.”

Only when Nicole sobered up did Waverly set the mug back down, calming herself. No need to injure innocents. “It had over three hundred four star reviews on Amazon, okay?” Nicole stood up and Waverly lowered the dangerous glare she’d been giving her. Nicole looked genuinely apologetic. “ The Nightwatchman’s Stolen Vow is apparently a classic of the erotic genre. And it was two dollars .”

Nicole took the mug back gratefully and began to make coffee. “I understand, I’m sorry.”

Waverly leaned back on the table, deflating from her fury, thinking of ways to retaliate. “And you can’t tell me you don’t have anything incriminating in your own library, Haught.”

“No-oope,” Nicole insisted as the coffeemaker made a horrendous racket. Beneath their feet, two crewmembers wandered in the wait for food. “Definitely not.”

“Sooo if I were to…” Waverly stepped around Nicole slowly, deliberately. “Just go over to your room and. ..”

Nicole stopped her with a gentle, almost non-existent grip on the wrist, looking panicked.

“I frickin’ knew it,” Waverly said with a growing grin. Nicole covered her burning face with her hand and groaned. “I knew it.”

“I am a grown woman, Earp, and at least there’s nobody getting ‘ hilted’ --” Waverly was the one to groan this time . “-- by any ‘ throbbing members’ --”

“Haught, I swear --”

“-- belonging to a bearded man named something like ‘ Tristan .’ ”   Nicole watched over her coffee cup as Waverly stepped around her to make tea, shaking her head emphatically. Nicole got to work making breakfast. “Honestly, if Evelyn wanted a good time, she should look for somebody other than Tristan. One and done? She could do better.”

Waverly set her tea down a bit too hard but Nicole only kept going, her back to Waverly.

“My record’s nine,” Nicole said under her breath.

Waverly dropped her teabag and froze. (Fired. Fired. Fired.)

“And we only stopped because I had work in the morning.”

FIRED. SO FIRED. NOT WORTH BEING FIRED, WAVERLY.

BUT NINE!

FIRED! EARTHBOUND!

(But… nine .)

“Earp? Are you okay?”

Waverly blinked back to reality. “I’m fired -- I mean fine, I’m fine.” She made her tea, turning her back more toward Nicole to hide her face. She calmed herself down with worries of Earth. “Just… your face is still stupid.”

“You’ve said that twice now and I’m starting to believe you.” Nicole set the plates on the table. Her tone changed to sincere and apologetic,  “I’ll handle the crew and all the chores today to make it up to you, okay?”

“It’s okay, really,” Waverly insisted as she sat down to eat. Nicole didn’t believe her. “Shitty book, anyway.

Nicole offered a smile at that and the atmosphere returned to normal. Waverly checked the time on earth: just after noon.

 

Wave: Remember when you said no sex? Why exactly would I be fired, did you find out?

Chrissy: It depends? On one hand, your career might tank if it comes off like you seduced her. On the other, it’s much more likely Nicole would be fired or at the very least lose her position for good. This is going to sound awful, but there’d be a lot of investigation into the circumstances and some people would insist she’d forced you into it.

Wave: What the hell! We’re talking about Nicole, who asks if I’m okay with a high five! She spent an entire hour apologizing to a hen when she accidentally stepped on its toe and it wasn’t even bothered! SHE WAS ALMOST CRYING ABOUT IT CHRISSY!

 

“Are you all right?” Nicole asked softly. How was it that she always could tell?

“Nothing, just…” Waverly took a long drink of tea to think. “Are you happy?”

Nicole shook her head slightly in confusion. “What?”

“With your job, I mean. As... Commander?”

Nicole paused to think and eat. “I mean initially? It really didn’t, you know, jive. I felt good with being just another crewmember. I wanted to focus on just being a good astronaut. But now?” Nicole had a soft smile and Waverly melted slightly. “I guess so. Why, is that bad?”

“No! No, no, not at all.” Waverly emphasized. “It does suit you, Haught. I have a feeling when Iris gets here they’ll be lucky to have you in charge.”

Nicole blushed. “Thanks, Earp.”

 

Chrissy: I know. It’s dumb. It’s really, really dumb. There would be this whole investigation and, to be honest a lot of people LOVE haught. But she has some seriously weird enemies too who would jump at the chance to imply something like that.

Chrissy: it’s not worth it

Wave: Thanks, Chrissy. Don’t worry about it, that won’t be happening. I was just curious.

 

Later, Waverly found Nicole napping on the carpet with the hens on her back. She knelt down and peeled the tablet free. Tit for tat. What she found was… extremely educational.

 


 

DAY 44

 

Waverly caught Nicole at the communications panel again, hunched over, eyes searching relentlessly for something within code. An all-too familiar sight these days.

“HOWDY PARTNER.”

“Buk, buk.”

Waverly patted the hens before taking the stairs and towering over Nicole, who hadn’t looked up. Hands on her hips, “Haught.”

Nicole blinked and finally looked up, eyes taking a while to readjust, giving Waverly a chance to notice just how tired she looked. She pressed a hand to her eye socket and bit back a yawn. “What can I do for you, Earp?”

Waverly pointed to the north wing. “Bed. Now.”

Nicole’s eyes snapped open and Waverly corrected herself with a sigh, “Sleep. For your back, dummy.”

 


"Where'd your cat go?" Waverly asked, narrowing her eyes to squint in the recesses of Nicole's room.

"I put it away," Nicole said as she collapsed onto the bed with a huge sigh relief.

Waverly studied Nicole as the redhead shut her eyes and tried to get comfortable. Henrietta strutted in a few moments later. "Thank you," Waverly said quietly before taking a seat in the Most Uncomfortable Chair Ever. She wasn't ready to tell the truth just yet, but knowing Nicole cared like that... it soothed something deep, something gnawing. 

"Of course."

 

Hours later found Nicole propped up on her elbows, reading an update. Waverly leaned on one arm and reviewed her first draft of testimony. They were in Nicole’s bed together. It had just sort of... happened. Without fanfare, without comment, Waverly had given up on the torture chair and taken the spot next to Nicole. Admittedly there wasn't enough room for a space between them, but Nicole had made no complaints. 

“Are you okay with this?” Nicole asked suddenly in the silence.

“Hmm?” Waverly, exhausted, barely existed on the plane of reality.

“With the trial and everything?”

“Mhm. Definitely. That asshole has got to go.” Waverly yawned hard enough to strain her jaw. “You mind if I...?”

“No, go ahead. I’ll wake you if anything changes.”

“Mmm. Get some sleep.” Waverly shoved Nicole’s tablet aside as she set her own on the nightstand. She collapsed, tired. “Stupid face.”

Waverly fell asleep, leaving a stupefied Nicole to figure out how to sleep in one’s own bed with their attractive co-worker passed out on top of them.


 

DAY 45

 

Waverly woke up sometime later being held. She sighed, feeling utterly relaxed and comfortable for the first time in perhaps years. She’d never been held like this, arms around her, her head tucked into her partner’s shoulders, legs haphazardly tangled. The world didn’t exist yet. Her brain only registered the comfy. No nightmares, no panic, had bothered her.

She remembered it was Nicole, but remained still, breathing her in and feeling none of the usual worries about complicated feelings. Too comfy.

Sooo. Why was she awake?

Nicole’s heavy breathing drew her alarm and Waverly sat up slightly, peering down at a face drawn with tension and beaded with sweat. Nicole was breathing hard, fast.

Unsure but unable to witness what could be torture, Waverly pressed a hand to Nicole’s cheek. “Hey. Wake up.” Nicole stirred under her hand. “Nicole, wake up.”

Nicole opened her eyes, narrowing them in confusion and fading fear, trying to blink awake.

“Hey, I’ve got you,” Waverly murmured. Nicole relaxed slowly back to the bed, already falling back asleep. “Just go back to sleep.”

Of course Nicole napped everywhere she could find. She had nightmares and the stubborn idiot didn’t want Waverly to know. Probably thought it would burden her unnecessarily.

Well, now she did know. And if she needed to sleep with Nicole to prevent them and let her rest, then she would.

 

IRIS: Not in range of that.

HERMES: Resend it to us and we’ll relay it.

IRIS: Roger. 

 

As Nicole and Waverly slept peacefully, the communications panel didn’t.

 

IRIS: FLIGHT MANUAL OVERRIDE REQUEST.

ALPHABASE: HOWDY PARTNER.

ALPHABASE: DESCENT TRAJECTORY [INVALID] Tracking signal…

 

Houston: Is there a problem? MAB just sent an automatic distress signal for manual override via Iris. That shouldn't happen.

Hermes: Testing the system. Haught is having trouble with orbital tracking of incoming supplies and our own override wasn't working.

Houston: Roger.

 

The night man on the communications board gave it a check mark, yawning. False alarm.

Chapter Text

DAY 45

 

@StoneCold: new chapter up [link]

@WHStan: JUST MAKE THEM KISS ALREADY

@StetsonBot: I like how you still kept Haught making her way through a traditionally male occupation

@WHStan: THE SEXUAL TENSION IS KILLING ME AND MY FAMILY

@WHStan: MY CROPS ARE DYING AND MY SKIN IS BREAKING OUT

@MartianCoffee: a slow burn? in THIS economy?

 

 

IRIS: FLIGHT MANUAL OVERRIDE DISENGAGED.

ALPHABASE: GOODBYE, PARTNER.

 

“Morning, Chrissy.”

“Morning, Ted,” Chrissy responded absently. She sipped her coffee in the expansive Ares room, checking in on the last updates. Nothing unusual caught her eye. “How goes it?”

The balding, middle-aged leech leaned back against a nearby desk, smirking. “Have you heard about the bet?”

“What bet?”

Ted looked both ways as if searching for their mutual boss. “The bet.” Chrissy looked lost and he rolled his eyes in response. “You know.” He stepped forward and leaned on the divider, setting his coffee down, as if explaining to a child. “When they finally go crazy, ” he whispered conspiratorially.

Chrissy set her coffee down a bit too hard and lukewarm liquid sloshed over. “You do know that’s my best friend up there, right?”

“Exactly! So you can give me an edge. I’m betting third-quarter blues does them in. Day one-hundred-twelve.” Chrissy stared in horror as he kept going. “Must be boring, just the two of them. You think it’ll be the boredom or each other? I have to know. Everybody thinks the dust storm will do it.”

“I think you should leave,” Chrissy said with a harder glare. “Before I tell Annie about your little bet. And the fact I know it’s you who keeps leaving the coffee machine like that.”

Ted fled.

 

Nicole woke up in her bed. She blinked awake and tried to move, but half of her was covered by another person entirely.

Heart pounding but unwilling to startle them awake -- oh, Waverly. Nicole relaxed then promptly flipped the fuck out... (silently).

Holyshitwhatthefuckwhyarewecuddling.

(Her hand is on my boob.)

Oh my god, she’s so soft.

Plants were such a wonderful smell that Nicole drank it in and rested her head back, savoring the moment in spite of herself. It felt so nice, so right, every atom in her body had quietly yearned to be near someone else, to hold and be held, to not be so alone.

Actual human contact.

Waverly whimpered in fear.

Nicole lifted her head, confused, listening hard enough to hear her own blood pounding in her ears. But there it was again, that sad little sound that made Nicole’s heart hurt, and the hand on her chest fisted the uniform and Nicole sucked in a breath, eyes screwed shut. What to do, what to do?

Comfort her, idiot.

But, Colleague. Space colleague. Space between myself and space colleague… important.

Nicole lifted her free hand and hesitated. It was only when Waverly shifted again in fear that she decided, laying her arm across Waverly’s back and trying to soothe her.

“I’ve got you,” Nicole murmured, curling into Waverly and pulling her closer (and hoping she could help without waking her up), “You’re safe.”

Thankfully, Waverly did not wake, and instead calmed with a gentle sigh.

Minutes ticked by and Nicole began to ache. Only when she was absolutely sure Waverly was dead to the world did she extricate herself to go make breakfast for them both, a faint smile on her face at the sight of how adorable her colleague was.

 

“GOOD MORNING, COMMANDER HAUGHT.”

“Coffee,” Nicole requested, scrubbing sleep from her face as she went into the kitchen. She needed to change her clothing but some things were more important.

“EXECUTING COFFEE.”

The machine promptly dispensed coffee to the floor.

Great. Just fantastic.

Nicole sighed. It was going to be one of those days. Fake waffles or fake pancakes? Oh, what did it matter, they tasted exactly the same. The awful thing about Martian hens is that they rarely felt comfortable enough to produce eggs -- and when they did, most went to study.

 

One fake waffle and arduous scrubbing later, Nicole lounged in the communication’s chair.

“FULL SYSTEM CHECK COMPLETE. ALL IS WELL, COMMANDER.”

“Thanks,” Nicole said absently with her feet on the desk. The sun rose through the dull tan of the Martian sky, casting pale, frozen light across the barren desert. God help her, but Nicole started to understand Waverly’s perspective.

She spun the chair, waiting for Waverly to wake up. In the background, some oldies song proclaimed that everybody had a hungry heart. “Lay down your money and play your part -- Hey, Alpha Base. Tell me a joke.”

“YOUR CAREER.”

Nicole almost dropped her waffle and resisted the urge to kick a panel. “Okay, asshole. Show me the schedule so I can update it.”

 

Waverly considered being well-rested a myth but found herself blessed that morning.  She stretched, noticing the curious device that provided the soothing illusion of sunlight filtering through blinds. Huh.

Waverly poked a button that said PRESS FOR CITY and jumped as the gentle sounds of a city filled the background. Cars, voices, conversations inaudible but present, a vague barking dog.

“Holy shit,” Waverly muttered. She shut her eyes and leaned back into the bed, angled with the blinds. If she pretended hard enough, leaned just so, and held her breath...

She was on Earth, waking up in Houston. Another day of astronaut training.

Adorable. Waverly mentally filed it away to ask Nicole about later.

 

“Go-oood morning Alpha Base!” Nicole declared to the base speakers as Waverly drifted into the living space, “Today is August 4th. Bring out your bikinis, because today’s weather is a balmy negative forty-eight degrees celsius.”

Waverly paused mid stretch, making eye contact with an amused Nicole. “You couldn’t handle me in a bikini, Haught. Your heart would give out.”

Nicole stuck out her tongue in response to cover up the internal panic of a lifetime.

“I see why they put you in charge.” Waverly yawned and made her way to the dorm. “Be right back!”

“Dust activity moderate with a storm scheduled to hit in a few weeks. And now here’s more disco, just to piss our listeners off.”

 

“Sooo, Lead Researcher Earp of Ares 23, what exactly are you doing this week?” Nicole batted her eyelashes and leaned on one hand in her attempt to be charming. The roomba played some old disco song.

Waverly narrowed her eyes suspiciously over the table. “You’re going to one-up me, aren’t you?”

“Me? Nooooo .” Nicole rolled her eyes. “I get to oversee some landings, which is basically watching a box hit the ground and saying ‘Hey, guys, gravity worked.’”

Waverly laughed and hid a snort. Nicole gave her that beautiful grin and she almost choked. “Well -- Well, is there anything interesting in said boxes?”

Nicole checked the log. “Chocolate? Uh… Hmm.

“What?” Waverly leaned over the table but Nicole pulled back. “What is it?”

“Uhm. It’s wine,” Nicole said in open amazement and Waverly's eyebrows hit the ceiling, “Billion dollar wine. A trip to Mars, then a trip back.” She shrugged. “Guess we gotta fund Ares 25 somehow.”

“They’re expecting it back?” Waverly asked before quickly correcting herself at Nicole’s curious glance. “I mean. That’s interesting, I can, uh, can see the appeal.”

“And what are you up to?”

Waverly tapped her fork to her chin in thought. “Just planting the rest of the seeds, really...”

Nicole nodded, interested. She was always interested. Waverly appreciated that.

Waverly appreciated it so much that she left Nicole in a painkiller haze after convincing her to get bed rest. She also stole the list of every item on base from her tablet.

 

Later, among the hens…

Waverly picked up her tablet in surprise. Wynonna? She immediately accepted, of course.

“What up!” Wynonna greeted from the living room of some fancy house, sipping a glass of wine with sunglasses on. Waverly squinted at the screen. Wynonna had been kicked out of the will, too. What was she doing in…? “Greetings from Earth, ” Wynonna recited in a faux robot voice, “Take me to your leader . But don’t -- I hear she’s got a huge stick up her ass. Anyway, just calling to say…” Wynonna paused to sip her wine.

Waverly knelt down to help the hens, watching distractedly as her sister gathered her thoughts.

“I wanted to say I’m really glad you found your happiness, kid,” Wynonna said. She slurred slightly from the wine. “At least somebody in this damn family found something worth doing. And you did it. I’m proud.” She drank the rest of the glass in one go.

Wynonna smiled. A bit sad, somewhat lopsided, and it faded almost as fast as it had come. “Don’t worry about me and --” Wynonna looked at the wine as if she’d forgotten it existed. “He’s good, Waverly. He’s a good dude.”

Waverly hadn’t a clue who she was talking about, and couldn’t exactly ask.

“Anyhow, good luck. You got, got fans. Dude. There’s this whole gift shop here and --” Wynonna covered her mouth with an arm as she burped. “There’s so much shit with your name on it . And no, I couldn’t get my hands on a discount. And -- Holy shit there was this time, I was getting a drink -- sorry -- and the guy took my name and you know what he asked?”

Waverly grinned so wide it hurt.

“Earp, like the Astronaut? And I was like, yeah man! Anyway, his daughter is a huge fan and expects a personal letter and a show at her birthday, so get on that.” Wynonna sighed. “Call me back. I’ll be in Houston, making sure at least one of us is getting some action -- Oh, shit, he’s back.” Wynonna looked up off screen toward the sound of an opening door. “Later, baby girl. Be safe.”

 

Wave: Hey Chrissy. Can you do me a favor and try and find Wynonna? She mentioned something about a young fan and she didn’t provide a name.

Chrissy: Oh! Yeah. Of course. It’s been total chaos here. Hurricane Interns, Wave. They don’t know how to deal with any of this stuff. Plus the announcement tomorrow - - Insane! Anyway, here’s your first load of fan mail. Enjoy [attached]

Chrissy: Also, I totally think my boss is trying to mentor me into taking over one day?

Wave: OH??? That’s amazing!

Chrissy: Today she took me into her office, stared out into the parking lot smoking, and gave me instructions on how to deal with divorce.

Wave: oh

Wave: uhm

Wave: Plan for everything is what I always say

 

Good advice.

Waverly planned to make alcohol. On Mars .

Step one was yeast. Waverly knew she’d be using a few less-than-fresh items, but with home-grown potatoes lying around? The choice was easy.

Wave: Open notice I’m taking a few potatoes for a project.

Ares Control: Roger.

After ensuring Nicole was firmly passed out, Waverly stole government resources to begin making her own wine. The first wine. No one before had ever created wine on Mars… or, at least, they (wisely) hadn’t said anything.

At the back of the greenhouse were the side labs, full of open space and various tools that lay unused in waiting of Ares 24. The hardest part was finding cheesecloth, believe it or not. In the end, she settled for a donated shirt that wasn’t hers.

Why do any of this?

Why do anything at all?

Because she could.

Waverly marked the whiteboard calendar, counting the days until the ‘wine’ would be complete and ready. If she took her time, it could be… Wait.

On the calendar was a huge, red, double-lined circle around one specific day. It wasn’t at all like the EVA squares or interview dates. Waverly squinted at it before recognizing it with a sharp inhale of surprise.

September 8th.

Her birthday.

Nicole had marked her birthday on the calendar.

(Nicole had done something nobody else had done -- again.)

Waverly grabbed her tablet and checked the base schedule, navigating to the date directly.

ENTER PASSWORD.

“Of course,” Waverly muttered, looking up at the whiteboard that held the schedule. No way to know what exactly would happen on that day. She’d just have to wait.

(Not a fan.)

 

Nicole’s eyes fluttered open and she groaned, the painkillers making everything way too fuzzy. She didn’t like it. It made her feel out of control. She tried hard to focus on the silhouette of Waverly in the doorway, distractedly typing away.

“I want to sleep with you.”

“You want... to sleep with me?” Nicole asked in confusion.

“What?” Waverly looked up sharply, “No! I mean, yes! In a completely neutral way between colleagues,” Waverly expounded quickly. Nicole rubbed her face, obviously too tired to make sense of Waverly’s fluster. “I just… I’ve been having nightmares, too.”

Nicole blinked and her face softened to understanding.

“I know you get them. And… maybe we could… you know, help each other out?”

Waverly waited and her lungs burned with bated breath. Finally, Nicole nodded. “Sure.”

 

Dangerous. It was dangerous. Waverly found herself addicted to it. Being held. Cuddling.

Except she was too far gone to even feel remotely embarrassed, being curled up on that single person bed, being held by strong arms belonging to her super-high co-worker . It ceased to matter.

“Soft,” came words breathed against her neck. Waverly suppressed a shiver.

“Go to sleep,” Waverly insisted. Don’t make this any more awkward than it needs to be.

“But I just gotta tell you… you’re soft and you smell like potatoes.”

Waverly sighed and shoved her burning face into the pillow. “Thank you,” she replied flatly.

“You’re welcome.”


 

DAY 46 

@BotanyIsBest: why does the transmission delay get shorter…

@StetsonBot: the planets are moving closer together. It wont be until October that they start moving away from each other

@StetsonBot: the hohmann window opens when Mars is 44 degrees ahead of Earth

@BotanyIsBest: holy shit you managed not to sound Extremely Condescending. good for you here’s your prize [Frightening image of a dolphin.]

@Stetsonbot: what the fuck

 

Chrissy poked her head in through the door to hell. “May I have a minute?”

A raised finger greeted her. “Yes. Yes. No. I’ll schedule that, yes. Your documentary has to wait in line. Already have one filming. No. No .” A sigh. “No. No. Absolutely not. Yes. Yes. No. Bagels.” Annie hung up and carefully lowered her glasses to peer at Chrissy. “Talk.”

Chrissy looked down at the clipboard and gathered her words back together. “Where’s… uhm, where’s Waverly?”

“Mars,” was the absolutely flat response as Annie turned to continue her work.

“Wait – I meant on the schedule.” That got her boss’s attention back and Chrissy powered on. “Waverly’s not on it. It’s August 5th, she should be on it.”

“Chrissy,” Annie began with maximum condescension, “We can’t have both of them out of the base at the same time. I know it's disappointing with the lawyers clawing at all our communications, but that one is on us as a matter of safety.”

Chrissy adjusted her papers awkwardly, still dissatisfied. “Are you –”

“Focusing on Nicole Haught?” Annie asked with an uptick in one perfect eyebrow. “Chrissy. America wants their hero. They’re getting her.” She sighed at the obvious hurt and dismay on Chrissy’s face. “Listen. Waverly is your friend and she’s brilliant. She’ll get the coverage she deserves, don’t worry so much about it.”

Still feeling uneasy, Chrissy nodded obediently. “Right. Right, of course.”

 

Waverly woke first, blinking in the sunlight and humming contentedly at the sounds of Houston outside, before scrunching her face in annoyance at Champ touching her. Wait – No, not Champ. Waverly relaxed immediately. This person was wonderfully soft and smelled amazing over the stale, artificial scent of –

Alpha Base.

Waverly groaned in annoyance, looking at Nicole sprawled over her in her reduced-Martian-Weight glory, snoozing the sleep of the deeply deprived and heavily medicated.

“Get offa me, stupid lump,” Waverly muttered. She shoved and Nicole flopped over without a sound, fast asleep. The illusory light cast shadows on her face and made her look like poetry.

Waverly sucked on her lower lip, thinking of being on Earth, the light being real, the sounds being alive. A sense of relaxation in response to the idea ambushed her.

She’s cute like this.

Waverly mentally slapped herself. Stop being so goddamn gay. She didn’t come this far, accomplish so much, to have these distracting feelings for some stupid jock.

Except Nicole wasn’t stupid in the least. She knew from experience a few stupid astronauts who ended up, somehow, being given the opportunity to reach Mars, (Ares 23 ahem) but Nicole?

Nicole was different. Nicole knew her birthday.

“You’re stupid,” Waverly lied to the room, watching Nicole’s face in utterly relaxed repose, “You’re ugly and I hate you and you’re ruining everything.”

Nicole took the verbal beating with a small snore, drooling slightly.

“I bet you like pineapple on your pizza,” Waverly accused viciously, before smoothing a stray hair out of her colleague’s face.

She got up to make breakfast for them both, as was routine.

“Why’s most of the sugar missing?” Nicole asked, turning back to the table with her coffee and a yawn.

“Hmm? What sugar? Don’t know about the sugar.” Waverly cringed inside and out, but Nicole only settled for a very long, flat stare before moving on the discussion. “Do you miss being able to walk normally?”

Nicole sat down with a thump. “Walk normally?”

Waverly simply waited, hand gesturing, for Nicole to get it. She didn’t. “Holy shitballs. You are an alien, Haught.” She snatched Nicole’s plate, ignoring the indignant ‘hey!’ and flipped the waffle in the air. The Martian gravity was about as obvious as a slap to the face. The both of them had a strange, half-bouncing gait that replaced normal human walk patterns. Nicole, apparently, didn't notice anymore.

“Eight of ten,” Nicole said, sipping her coffee. Waverly gave up.

Houston: We highly advise LR Earp remain at base.

“Do you want to stay?” Nicole asked idly as she finished her waffle.

Waverly looked confused. “No?”

NH: Negative. I need her with me.

 

@MarsAlphaBase: Join @HaughtOnMars today, August 5th, for a celebration of a very special rover…

@NASA: Happy Birthday #Curiosity!

@HaughtOnMars: @EarthToWaverly is also coming along :)

@WHStan: omg YES bringin the bae along #JustCoupleThings

@BotanyIsBest: @MarsAlphaBase why did you forget the better half of the team

@spacecriminal: @PR_ChrissyN will there be Q&A?

@PR_ChrissyN: @spacecriminal not yet sorry! we'll be announcing when we can talk to them again soon, I promise!

@MartianCoffee: [gif of a man's close up face blinking in surprise and disappointment.]

 

Nicole sighed as she settled into the driver’s seat. “Deja vu.”

“No cliffs in this direction,” Waverly said in quiet agreement, shifting anxiously in the passenger seat. “Just one lonely robot.”

Nicole raised an eyebrow and adjusted the connection to Earth. “You feel bad for Curiosity?”

The radio cracked to life with smooth audio of Chrissy. “The Mars Science Laboratory, also known as Curiosity, first landed on the red planet…”

“Who doesn’t?” Waverly asked with a half-hearted glare. “It’s… kind of cute.”

“... all of those birthdays it celebrated alone, but not today…”

Nicole started the rover and pulled them away from the base. “Houston, I think my Lead Researcher has been replaced by a body double.”

“...Commander Nicole Haught…”

Waverly smacked her on the arm.

“Nevermind.”

“...And Lead Researcher Earp…”

 

It wasn’t necessarily the looks of the red planet that enchanted Waverly. The dust devils dancing in the distance might be the pinnacle for Earthen observers, but Waverly saw opportunity. Regardless of the blase nature of the Ares Program’s double-digit expedition numbers, the world-shattering perspective of being on an entirely different planet hadn’t diminished in the slightest.

“...heroic actions taken when Lead Researcher Earp fell off the cliff by mistake, risking her life to rescue her crew…”

Waverly tossed a faint smile at Nicole, but her colleague was in another world entirely. Nicole’s tongue swept over her lip before her teeth captured it. Waverly stared.

“...as a spokesperson for the LGBT community in science and an out-and-open lesbian, Commander Nicole Haught is no stranger to the title of hero. But for many, her actions that day solidified her place in history alongside others such as Martinez and Armstrong...”

Waverly felt a glow of pride for Nicole.

“... chosen personally to undertake the mission to restore a hardware fault to operation. Now here’s the head of the Curiosity Mission…”

Wait -- What about me? Waverly frowned, quashing the thought immediately with a heavy boot. Nicole saved her life. She deserved her moment in the sun.

“There’s the birthday boy,” Nicole said, pointing. It stopped itself on a flat plane, awaiting its party guests.

“He’s…” Waverly shook her head. “Big.”

“Yep.” Nicole took out two items from a box and put them on. Waverly looked at her in open horror.
“CONNECTION TO EARTH ESTABLISHED.”

Nicole set the party hat on her head and blew the party blower.

 

On Earth, a room full of jaded scientists cheered. “They’re taking it back to base and upgrading its systems!”

“New tires!”

“I’m calling my wife.”

Another room took turns with a whiskey bottle. “We spent… years. On that goddamn recycler.”

“They put a hat on it,” a man sobbed before taking a shot.

 

“It doesn’t sing to itself,” Nicole said casually, leaning back against the rover as Waverly circled the birthday boy.

“What?”

“It did that once, for a few seconds.” Nicole shrugged. “They deemed it unnecessary and it didn’t do it again.”

Waverly furrowed her brow, leaning over a particularly interesting spot and rubbing the dust from its body. “Why not?”

“Why sing in the first place?”

With a frown, Waverly looked up at Nicole, who appeared otherwise occupied by her tablet. “What do you mean ‘why sing in the first place?’ It’s alone. ” The poor thing just sat in the middle of an empty desert planet, millions of kilometers from home.

“It’s a robot. It’s worth over a billion and a half dollars, but it’s just nuts and bolts. Why spend weeks on something that didn’t serve a scientific purpose?”

Waverly didn’t have a response for that, only continuing to brush off the ever-present annoyance of Mars. Sure, it was a robot, but… “ You’re the one who loves robots and talks to the roomba like it’s a person. Why are you so cold about Curiosity?”

Beep. Beep. A painfully off-key, thready, barely audible noise pierced Waverly’s helmet. Sound on Mars took a while to get used to, if any could be ever heard at all. “The heck is that?”

Nicole laughed. “Happy birthday.”

 

“Nothing went wrong this time,” Nicole said in disbelief as they began the slow journey back, birthday boy in tow.

Waverly pouted from the passenger seat. “I can’t believe we can’t even talk to them. This is your fault.”

“My fault?” Nicole looked over briefly before carefully avoiding a pothole. “I definitely hired all the lawyers, yes, right after saving you from the cliff.”

“Now you’re playing the cliff card?”

They bickered the whole way back, both faintly smiling by the time they reached the base.

 

Waverly left Nicole alone and in pain. Nicole fell gratefully into a painkiller sleep, only waking later to the sound of careful footsteps.

She cracked open an eyelid as Waverly collapsed onto the bed, a look of pure content on her face.

Nicole stayed awake for a while longer, in thought. Things were settling into a routine and Waverly… Waverly was happy.

Perhaps now things would go okay.


 

DAY 47 

 

Things, of course, did not go okay.

 

That morning, Nicole woke to the worst news of her life.

GARDNER: [Photo attached]

Nicole called him immediately.

“Explain just exactly why you are in possession of an extremely private photo of my coworker,” Nicole said evenly with her fists clenched behind her straight back, “And maybe I won’t report you, Astronaut Gardner.”

“You framed my son,” Gardner said with narrowed eyes and a set jaw.

Nicole blinked, then shrugged. “Okay, I’m calling Houston. Stand b --”

“Call them and it goes public.”

Nicole’s finger halted inches from the call button, curling back into a fist. “What did you just say?” Nicole leaned forward on the desk, wishing she could reach through the screen and strangle the man. “Did you just threaten my colleague?

“I’m threatening you.” Gardner picked up his tablet and showed her his son’s photo, captured on the front page under an accusing headline. “You set him up.”

Nicole shook her head, almost laughing in disbelief. “That’s insane. First of all, that’s impossible. The evidence they found is a smoking gun, Gardner, I couldn’t have faked it. Do you know anything about computers?”

“Do you know anything about my son?” Gardner lost his temper, raising his voice, “I did everything to give him that job. He would never throw it away for some, for some --”

“Don’t you fucking dare.”

“For some whore.

Nicole pinched her nose and took a deep breath, cooling herself down. Bait. Bait. That was bait. “Gardner. Listen to me. I can work with you and your son and get some sort of reduced sentence.” God, the words made her sick, but he had that photo. “Let me help you. You don’t need to resort to threats. I know you and my uncle were friends. Please, just let me --”

He sneered. “How is she in bed?”

“Because of that friendship, I’m willing to work with you, willing to --”

“Was it worth it?”

“-- Talk to Dolls, and get something worked out. He doesn’t need life in prison, maybe just --”

He changed tactics, his voice settling to a cold level of distaste. “Get the case thrown out or she sits on Earth.”

Nicole let her hand fall, eyes searching Gardner’s face for any indication he had listened to her at all. Empty.   “What?”

“You have five days.”

“What? ” Nicole asked the silent base and blank TRANSMISSION ENDED screen.

Get the case thrown out or she sits on Earth.

Nicole’s empty stomach clenched painfully and she leaned on the desk for support, head hanging in open disbelief.  She checked the logs manually this time, and verified it: Yes. He had accessed Flight Manual Override through relaying a message from Iris . She had been a complete fucking idiot and forgotten Iris.

Now the second creepiest dude in the solar system had a compromising photo of her coworker. Of Waverly. Nicole held her head in her hands and bit back a groan.

This can’t be happening. There’s got to be a way out of this. Except Nicole didn’t know a single damn thing about the law or getting cases thrown out or anything of the sort. But she couldn’t let that photo get public. She couldn’t let that happen.

Five days to find a way out.

 

There’s got to be a way out of this , Nicole thought as she pushed a fake waffle around a plate. Waverly gave her a testing smile and she panicked, looking down at the ‘food’ again.

Hey Waverly, uh, remember that time you were… and there was… and now he has a photo of you?

Hey, Earp, remember when your commander wasn’t a huge, massive, fucking idio--

“Are you feeling okay?” Waverly asked with a look of concern.

Can’t tell her. Gotta fix it on my own. That’s my job. There’s only two ways out.

“Just my back.” Nicole avoided eye contact. “I’ll be getting that bed rest. We have an interview tomorrow.”

“Right,” Waverly responded, audibly suspicious.

There’s no way out of this.

 

There’s got to be a way out of this, Nicole thought as she stared up at the ceiling. Bedrest. Bedrest. But her thoughts were running away from this problem in a way that she couldn’t -- and god damnit she was pacing again!

Each step reminded her of the injury she’d taken by her own stubborn idiocy. Each step reminded her she needed to slow down -- but five days!

She’d have to convince everyone she had been lying the whole time. Everyone. Waverly -- Convince Waverly that their whole… whatever… had been a lie the whole time… What would that do to her?

Nicole shoved her good fist in her mouth and gave a muffled scream.

But what would being Earthbound do, in the long run? With such a ruined reputation? Nicole knew the mastery Gardner had. A rich southern family could easily pull off such a devastating one-eighty on Waverly’s reputation. She would never, ever do the job she loved again.

On the other hand, not trusting your crewmember to tell the truth for the remaining… How many days?

Five days to choose one or the other!

She had to do something.

 

“Hey.”

Nicole looked down from the ceiling at two eyes watching her with concern from across their shared bed.

“Are you okay?”

“I…” Nicole swallowed. “Just not feeling so great, sorry.”

“Hm.” Waverly flopped over and let her arm fall on Nicole’s face. “You want to know what I think?”

“Sure,” Nicole said through a forearm.

“We’ve discovered that astronaut cuddling leads to an increase of productivity, Commander. How’s that for a psych study?”

“I like the sound of that, Lead Researcher.”


DAY 48  

 

Quiet rules were established by non-verbal exchange.

  1. Don’t mention any embarrassing positions, (just untangle your own pair of legs and leave)
  2. Stop the nightmares by any means possible, (Except slaps, don’t do that)
  3. Whoever gets up first makes breakfast.

 

“You’re staring at me,” Waverly said, waving a fork.

Nicole blinked. “Sorry.” She tried to form appropriate words. “You look…” A dozen inappropriate words like adorable, amazing, stunning in the CSA uniform for their interview, with her hair down, looking better than anyone Nicole had ever seen in that uniform, let alone out of it (not that she was thinking in that direction because that would be extremely unprofessional), but overall the most beautiful thing that Waverly wore was definitely that she was -- “Happy.”

“Are you implying I’m usually un -happy?”

Nicole nearly swallowed her tongue as her face burned. “No! I mean, not really, just that --”

“I’m teasing you.” Waverly smiled brightly and Nicole couldn’t help but follow along, forgetting everything else, just for a moment, just for a second. “And yes, I am happy,” Waverly said, handing over her tablet, “Look at this.”

Nicole took it, looking at a photo of a child with a gardening tool in her hand. “Who’s this?”

“Alejandra, and she’s six. She wants to be a biology major.” Before Nicole could blink, Waverly leaned over her shoulder and swiped the screen. A photo of a scribbled letter and a crayon landscape -- Red the primary color -- with an inordinate amount of stick figures. “And an astronaut.”

Nicole should have felt happy, or some kind of pride, or something other than cold fear and colder anger. Her hands shook ever so slightly and she handed it back, feeling ill. “She wants to meet you,” Nicole said with an attempt at emotion.

Waverly soared too high to notice it, grinning down at the image and returning to her seat. “As soon as I’m back on Earth, which I have no idea when that’ll be.” Waverly shrugged and Nicole was thankful she still hadn’t looked up. “This is… crazy, right? I mean, they told us we had maybe a hundred, two hundred viewers those first days -- now it’s millions, Haught. That’s insane .”

“Absolutely bananas,” Nicole said as she unbent the poor anger-twisted fork in her hand.

Waverly did a double take at the fork. “What about your fan mail? Have you gotten any?”

“Hmm?” Nicole desperately sought any way out of this conversation. “Sure, some.” More like a metric shit ton of people are going to be crushingly disappointed in five days.

Waverly gave her a searching look and Nicole panicked.

“Roomba. Weather.”

“TODAY’S TEMPERATURE IS A MILD NEGATIVE THIRTY-FOUR DEGREES CELSIUS. PACK A SWEATER! ACTIVITY IN THE HELLAS BASIN INDICATES A DUST STORM APPROACHING SOON. PLEASE STOP IGNORING THAT DETAIL.”

“Oh. Huh.” Waverly frowned. “How long…?”

“They’re figuring it out still.” Nicole stood up to clean the table. “We’re on in one hour.”

Waverly watched her curiously. “Okay. Is...” Waverly tilted her head and bit her lip. “Is something wrong, Haught?”

Nicole took a moment to compose herself and sighed, leaning back against the counter with crossed arms. She had to say something, anything to clear this up. If Waverly was on her case the next four days, she’d snap like thin ice. “I… I’m working on something. Just stressing about it.”

Waverly stood up and moved closer, the concern on her face making Nicole feel like she wasn’t getting enough air. “But you’re getting bedrest, right?”

“Yes, I am.” Nicole swallowed as Waverly took another step closer and laid her hand on her bare arm, squeezing in a motion meant to comfort. It just made the storm of guilt rage harder.

“I’m here to help, if you need it,” Waverly reminded softly.

Nicole nodded, not trusting herself to say anything. Tell her, tell her, tell her.

But I can’t. That would accomplish nothing and make my decision harder.

Waverly smiled brightly and released the arm, her bubbly attitude returning. “It’s what colleagues do.”

 

Chrissy: Here’s how it goes down. You two get a transcript of the questions they’ll ask. Go through one by one, and answer within the time limit.

Chrissy: Try to make my job easy and don’t swear, ok?

 

“Interviews are about lying,” Nicole said, drumming her hand on the desk in front of the main camera anxiously, petting Henrietta with the other hand. Waverly sat next to her, covered in the three other hens. “We can’t tell the complete truth if they ask us why we became astronauts.”

Waverly tilted her head, nudging Nicole with her elbow. “Why ‘we’ became astronauts?”

“Of course,” Nicole said with a charming smile, adorable dimple cratering her face. Waverly forgot her mild irritation, caught up in the way Nicole’s ponytail was just so -- “Because people on Earth are stupid and we’re smarter than they are.”

“You are an insufferable, arrogant --” Nicole stuck out her tongue again. “-- Immature --”

“RECORDING. DELAY ESTIMATED NINE MINUTES FOURTEEN SECONDS.”

“--- Wonderful colleague, Commander Haught,” Waverly ended with a perfectly fake smile. “Just wonderful.”

 

It’s not hard to pinpoint the exact moment things went off script.

“Don’t move.”

“Okay.”

“I swear.” Waverly rolled up her unnecessary labcoat's sleeves and rubbed her hands together. “Do not move from that position or I will drop you.”

They had made it past two questions. One a given -- “How are you?” “Amazeballs, thanks!” “Doin’ fine! ” -- and the second one easily answered:

Tell us about your day -- What your duties consist of. Is it boring?

“I work with thousands of scientists daily,” Waverly explained with rapidly moving hands and a bright smile. Nicole stared. “A lot of the work is supposedly tedious, checking soil acidity and the bug count, but it’s really fulfilling when things are just going right for once. And a good portion of the work is physical, too, which can be exhausting, I have to plant and replant in the garden, work with the hens, and all sorts of other stuff that keeps me in shape on this planet.”

Waverly turned to Nicole, who raised her eyebrows and gave a confused “Hmm?” which indicates said individual had been gayly staring instead of paying attention to the goddamn question.

A sharp nudge snapped her out of it.

“If it’s broke, I fix it.” Nicole waved off the question, even though it was a gross oversimplification. “Earp works ten times as hard as I do at any given point in time.”

Waverly tried not to let her confusion show. Nicole was straight up lying. “But what about --”

“The seed boxes weigh ten pounds on this planet and it’s insane, she lifts them like it’s nothing,” Nicole cut across quickly, “Gravity is reduced here, remember, and I must be around fifty three and a half pounds here as an example -- But I don’t think you could lift that much, could you?”

Waverly fell right into the challenge. “I could. Easily.”

Nicole raised an eyebrow.

 

So they went off script.

“I could do this with you on the ground,” Waverly insisted, adjusting the rolls of her sleeves to perfection.

Nicole shoved the table into place and laid down on it. “Can’t risk it, Earp. You could break something.”

“I’ll break you,” Waverly muttered under her breath.

“What?”

“Nothing. Ready?”

Maybe this wasn’t a good idea, Nicole thought as Waverly gripped her close, breathing hard in preparation. Well, in terms of changing the subject it had worked -- but Nicole had most definitely panicked.

“Sort of.”

It was only due to rigorous astronaut training that Nicole didn’t let out the embarrassing noise of gay surprise as Waverly straight up lifted her from the table.

“Whoo!” Waverly lifted her high in exultation then, in her victory rush, dropped her.

Nicole fell like a Martian stone onto the table, shattering it.

“Oh, shit,” Waverly said, clapping her hands over her face, “Oh my god.”

 

Chrissy stared in disbelief at the image of Waverly standing, looking down at the ground in horror, and settled her face on her palm. The sound of Nicole’s agonized groans filled the room.

“I’m okay!” called Nicole from off screen.

“Nobody sees this,” Annie said, pointing to an intern, “Not a single word of this leaves this room.” She sighed and copied Chrissy’s reaction. “Reschedule the interview, Chrissy.”

 

Minutes after peeling Nicole from the floor, Waverly led them both to the medical bay and sat Nicole down on an examination chair.

“Just take your frickin’ shirt off, okay?” Waverly said, snapping on rubber gloves. “I almost murdered you and I need to make sure you didn’t break anything.”

“Just my dignity,” Nicole said under her breath before complying. It hurt. Everything hurt. Sounds of movement behind her before careful fingers started prodding her in all the wrong places. Silence except for the buzz of the base.

Waverly broke it first. “So why did you become an astronaut?”

Nicole shifted uncomfortably, hissing as Waverly pressed at a bruise. At first glance it was a silly question -- the answer could be found on wikipedia for the both of them.

But Waverly didn’t ask silly questions.

“You first.”

Waverly’s hands stilled and Nicole had an apology halfway out of her throat before the response came as a whispered admission in a stint of honesty that shook Nicole, “I don’t like my sister or my father.”

“Hey,” Nicole said, trying to turn around, “That’s okay, from what I heard they --”

“It’s not okay,” Waverly said, pushing Nicole’s head back into position. “Don’t move.” She sighed heavily and Nicole shivered as it brushed her back. “He just wanted somebody to follow in his footsteps and I wasn’t that somebody. Willa was. Between the company and everything -- There really wasn’t time for me. It’s fine.”

It’s not fine! Nicole wanted to scream, but didn’t want Waverly to feel any worse. A snapping noise as Waverly took off the gloves and moved to the pill cabinets. Nicole put her shirt back on.

“I was just tired of it -- being ignored, the guns, the... “ Waverly sighed again. “I wanted to be something else.”

“So you chose the most difficult profession to qualify for, beat out hundreds of thousands of applicants, and became an Ares Astronaut working with a team of how many international scientists?”

Waverly hid her blushing face as she pulled painkillers off the shelf. “Enough, Haught. Spill the beans.”

“Okay, well.” Nicole accepted the painkillers with a quiet ‘Thanks.’ “I don’t talk to my parents because my dad wanted me to be a military woman no matter what and I didn’t want that. I chose this instead. I was too far along to…” Nicole pressed her mouth in a thin line. “I was good at it, what my dad chose. Really good at it. So I just picked something else along the same lines and now I’m here.”

“Really? Miss Thirty Awards?”

Nicole tilted her head, smirking. “You have thirty-two and eight published papers.”

“Irrelevant, ‘Commander.’”

Nicole locked glares with Waverly. “You’re working on your Ph.D. On Mars, Lead Researcher.”

“So are you.” Waverly crossed her arms in front of her chest, unwilling to back down. “You’re afraid of heights and tight places, but you were on a tiny ship and flew planes.”

“Plane crash and a bad experience with a spider.” Nicole took a step closer, intent. “You’re afraid of robots but you signed up to be on this base even though you didn’t know I suspended all of them in the garage.”

“Sister put robots in my closet and they came out at night,” Waverly retorted, “You’re the one who… Wait.”

Nicole jabbed a finger at Waverly. “You’re the one who brought impossible chickens to -- Wait, she did what?”

Waverly shook her head.“You suspended the robots?”

“Your sister did what?”  

Both tried to say “You first!” at the same time.

“There’s six on shutdown and I don’t need them. Now you,” Nicole said, trying to hold her fury for someone who was hundreds of thousands kilometers away in check, “Because what you said is… is… “

“Not that bad.” Waverly pushed past her into the north wing, headed to the living space. Nicole trailed behind. “She was just a kid.”

“That’s no excuse!”

Waverly turned, looking tired. “Haught, please don’t.”

“Okay,” Nicole managed after looking at just how exhausted Waverly looked all of a sudden, just from talking about her family, “I’m sorry.”

Waverly nodded gratefully, before being struck by a thought. “Was it worth it?”

“Was what worth it?” Nicole startled slightly at a message telling them the interview was rescheduled and they had a practice session in preparation. Chrissy also called them idiots.

“You know. You becoming an astronaut.”

“Oh.” Nicole always thought that was a stupid question. She pondered it this time, it was different with Waverly asking, and she felt more honest. “Yes,” she said firmly, “Most definitely, yes. You?”

Waverly smiled again, the cloud of family gone. “Yes.”

 

Nicole replaced the table and Waverly learned that she quietly sings “She Works Hard For The Money” to herself when concentrating. And she does this thing with her tongue that is -- Nevermind.

“Can I ask you a question?”

“Sweet and sour chicken,” Nicole said absently, not looking up from the orbital arrival schedule.

“Not your dinner, you ass. And get your feet off the table.” Nicole complied and Waverly turned back to the counter. “Why you don’t talk to your parents?”

Nicole blinked and looked at Waverly’s back, deep in thought. “We had a huge fight when I left and we haven’t spoken since.”

“Oh,” Waverly said. That was the end of it.

 

Chrissy: You are both the undeniably WORST astronauts at interviews I’ve ever had to work with. Ignore that I’ve only worked with you two

Chrissy: PLEASE read over the pdf twice. We’re working on rescheduling the interview and when you guys will be back online. Standby a week

 


DAY 49 

 

“Let me help you, Gardner, please," Nicole openly begged after a sleepless night. Waverly’s workload had increased, allowing her to work out a plan in relative peace. “I can try to talk to them, get a lighter sentence, work together with the law and get him the help he needs. Call me back.”

 

“I’m saying therapy, community service,” Nicole said desperately, “He’s just a kid.

Dolls stared back from a conference room in Houston. “Call back when you find Nicole Haught.”

 

“You do not want to make an enemy out of me, Gardner. Especially since if I go through with this, I won’t have anything left to lose,” Nicole growled, “Call me back.

 

The Greenhouse was home to a vicious competition between thousands of individuals. Waverly had turned down bribes -- some ways more subtle than others -- a total of twelve times so far. She remained unsure what laws accepting the bribe would break, but her own moral obligation of a conscientious referee had to remain sacred.

It didn’t matter that Team Domestic Carrot was filled with arrogant assholes, or that Cabbage Team didn’t understand just how much work Waverly had to do constantly, she would remain impartial.

Though every part of her burned to report “Commander Haught can’t repair that today,” she needed the terribly-named ‘Vegetable Production System’ for the tulips fixed. As Lead Researcher, she wasn’t allowed to touch anything to do with the electrical system, lest she die of death.

 

LR.WE: I need the VPS base connect fixed thank you

CMDR.NH: On my way. Did you pick the song?

LR.WE: They’re doing a music study on the potatoes.

LR.WE: if george michael's "faith" makes them grow faster, I will quit

 

Fashion in space didn’t work like that.

In any moment of time, they were either in ugly grey-and-orange Ares jumpsuits or a drab polo/belt/pants uniform combo. Hair was kept to ponytail basics or, if someone got really courageous , let down to hang free.

Except Waverly.

Waverly tied her CSA uniform shirt into a crop top because, apparently, she wanted Nicole to die (And maybe it’s because she’d been hauling seed boxes all day and the greenhouse was a bit too hot, but still.)

Nicole didn’t see the box of seeds on the floor. All she saw? Abs.

 

The only warning Waverly had was a dull thump, a quiet “ow”, then a “shit”, followed by the very specific and identifiable noise of an individual face-planting tile.   Schlap.

Waverly looked at her colleague with an expression of deep pity. “I’m only going to give it a five out of ten, Haught.”

Nicole lifted up on her hands, groaning, before getting to her feet with a face red with embarrassment. “Just collecting valuable data on human stress on Mars, Earp. Nothing to see here.”

“Mhm.” Waverly took a seat on a nearby group of boxes with a dazzlingly innocent. “Fix your thingy, please.”

Nicole took the incredibly obvious bait and began to correct her. Normally, it would piss Waverly the fuck off, (After all, just because she was a botanist didn’t count out the hours of technical training she had received) but she found she liked it more and more when Nicole got all technical -- and the lack of condescension and small smile let her know Nicole was onto her game.

And maybe part of her thought that Nicole revealing her inner nerd was just a little bit hot.

Another item on a disturbingly long list of things she did not hate about Nicole Haught.

 

Chrissy: Here -- The fruit of your efforts! [attached]

“What’s that?” Nicole asked before turning back to the wiring she was replacing.

“A… headline.” Waverly’s eyebrows tried to float away. “Picture this: Very large, blocky font, New York Times. Headline, Conspiracy to Space Murder.”

“Huh.”  Nicole didn’t sound impressed.

Waverly gave her back an odd look but pressed on. “Uh... let’s see... Jargon, jargon, jargon. Charges include destruction of government property, conspiracy to murder, attempted murder, aiding and abetting… Jeez. They frickin’ threw the book at him, Haught.”

“Did they?”

“Yeah this is… a lot. He’s going away for a lo-ooong time.”

Nicole fell silent, adjusting something that made her face tense. “Seems a bit… harsh.”

“Harsh?” Waverly asked in loud disbelief. She shook her head, adamant. “Not harsh enough, Haught. I fell off a frickin’ cliff! He intended to murder you. Space Murder. The kind of murder that leaves people dead.”

Nicole pressed her mouth in a thin line.

Waverly didn’t press the issue and fell silent, inspecting her colleague. Must be the bedrest.

 

It was one thing to know, vaguely, the rough number of people interested in Alpha Base.

It was another thing entirely to see it.

“He hasn’t got a third name,” one of Chrissy’s coworkers muttered. The whole room watched one of the monitors as CNN broadcasted a repeat of the breaking news segment from a courthouse. “...The indictment delivered to the court today…”

“Wassat?” another asked.

“He hasn’t got a third name, I tell ya.”

An image of Tucker Gardner in a tacky t-shirt, held in place by two policemen. “...Allegedly tampered with secure government communications…”

“Why’s that got you?”

“Well. Look. Lee Harvey Oswald. John Wayne Gacy. Them’s a killer’s name. Who’s this kid?”

It returned to more coverage of Alpha Base. “...heroic actions taken by the astronaut Commander…”

Another man scoffed. “Ted bundy. Charles Manson. ---”

Someone viciously shushed both as the NASA Admin briefly appeared again. A routine chorus of “‘Atta boy, Doc!” went around the room before stopping long enough to hear the final repeat of the segment: “...prosecuted to the full extent of the law…”

A second chorus went around.

 

NH: I’m just saying we should consider a lighter sentence. Community service, therapy.

Dolls: For the final time, no.

 

Hours later, Waverly drifted in and collapsed on the bed with a deep sigh borne of physical exhaustion. Nicole’s eyes ran over the words over and over, willing them to change.

Nicole stopped, eyebrows furrowed. “You smell like...”

“Just science, Haught,” Waverly said quickly, “What are you reading?”

Nicole heaved a sigh so large it shook the mattress. “The case file.”

Waverly groaned in response.

Nicole stayed awake long past Waverly’s breathing shifting to a slow, quiet snore. Endless questions went through her head as the scales between her two choices stacked heavily on one side.

Her last few thoughts were of spoiled fruit.


DAY 50 

 

Morning came, and with it -- Work.

Waverly retreated to the greenhouse, leaving Nicole to ‘bed rest.’ (More pacing. More thinking.)

 

Nicole swallowed hard at the newest message, face blank. Her insides felt like crumpling paper.

Dolls: How do you feel about a medal?

Crumpling paper under a hydraulic press.

NH: Not THE medal, right?

“I could earn the goddamn medal and they still wouldn’t give a shit,” Nicole drunkenly muttered to her confidant, a small cat, “Air force or bust. Well, here’s to space.”

Dolls: Yes. The medal. I want you to have it. Don't get too excited, it's still just a possibility.

Nicole stood up and walked outside through Airlock 1. She turned off her suit audio feed. She sat down.

“That’s what separates Astronauts from heroes,” her uncle said, tapping the glass. “That piece of paper is the singular ticket to making history. If any of these people spoke to you -- god help you if the earlier ones do -- you salute like your life is on the line and ask to wash their boots of space dust. They’re done more in the span of minutes than either of us will ever accomplish in our lifetimes.”

In the silence of Mars, she screamed.

 

NH: Listen. They have more than enough evidence to convict him, regardless of any faux confession. I’m sorry, but he’s guilty.

Gardner: You have two days.

 

AIRLOCK1 DOOR OPEN.

AIRLOCK1 DOOR CLOSED.

 

“Haught?” Waverly asked, setting a bowl of strawberries on the table, watching her coworker stare blankly ahead as she disrobed from the suit. “Something wrong?”

Heaven is a place on earth, stated the song playing.

Nicole stared like a deer in headlights having an existential crisis. “Yes,” she said, voice hoarse, “but I’m working on it.”

Waverly paused, mouth slightly opened in surprise. “Uhm, okay then. Here, I got you these.”

Nicole tried not to stumble in her shambling to the strawberries. She picked one out and ate it, trying not to stare holes into the bowl. Her throat burned but she held in a moan at the rush of flavor, so strong, almost painfully so, after her tastebuds adjusted to eating glorified nutritional cardboard.

The ladies hustled in and Nicole snapped out of her trance to answer Waverly’s concerned gaze. “Tell me about your day?” Waverly frowned in response, about to deny the request. “Please?”

Waverly smiled and just for a second Nicole forgot.

Dolls: I’ll need your assessment of LR. Earp as well.

NH: Mine?

NH: Oh right. Yes.

“Thank you.” Nicole, on auto pilot, took another strawberry as Waverly bashfully looked down at her hands.

“I, uhm,” Waverly fidgeted nervously and Nicole purposefully leaned back, out of her space. “Today I worked with a team in Germany on the cabbages, you know?...”

NH: Smart. Genius level. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone quite like Earp. I’ve met geniuses, but.. There’s only one Waverly.

“Then I had to work with the hens as well. Rosie is doing that thing again and Houdini taught them all how to open the airlock so I thought up a solution…”

NH: Resourceful. Dependable. Strong.  I’d trust her with my life.

“...and I heard back from this fan I’ve been talking to. She’s worried about her exams and her dog just died and I just had to send her something even though we're not supposed to talk to them, you understand, right?”

NH: Overwhelmingly kind-hearted.

“Right?”

NH: She’s a one in a million hire. I haven’t a doubt in my mind she’ll be famous one day.

“Haught? You’re staring at me.”

Dolls: That’s… nice, Haught, but you have to fill out an official form by day thirty.

Nicole snapped back to reality. “Yes,” she said immediately, “I understand.” Waverly blushed and looked away. Nicole ate another strawberry and watched the ladies bicker over the stetson.

“It’s really hard when you do that, Haught,” Waverly said, voice quiet in a tone reserved for moments when they stopped pretending to just be colleagues, hands picking at her lab coat.

“Do what?” Nicole whispered, leaning forward to hear better. Waverly swallowed.

“Look at me like that,” Waverly breathed, eyes flickering all over Nicole’s face. She licked her lips. “Like you...”

“Rrrrrrr,” said Henrietta before she bellowed out a noise between a dying woman and a pissed off monkey on LSD.

Waverly sighed and Nicole furrowed her brow in utter confusion. “Egg time,” she said in resignation before turning to Nicole with renewed professionalism. “Go to bed and take your pills.”

 

 

Nicole spent the whole night pretending to sleep, still watching the scale turn lopsided.

 


DAY 51 

 

No words were exchanged over breakfast. Waverly kept opening her mouth, as if to ask are you okay , but it seemed stupid. Nicole’s hair was messy from nervous adjustments, her eyes speaking of terrible exhaustion.

She’d ask tonight. The 'wine' was almost done.

 

NH: Gardner. Please. I’m begging you to reconsider. A lot of people are going to be hurt and this won’t get your son back. This won’t solve anything for you. Please let me help you.

Gardner: I don’t write headlines for a living, but my sister-in-law does. Do you think they’ll be kind enough to say seductress?

Gardner: Or...

 

That stupid song was stuck in her head. Heaven is a fucking place on Earth. Nicole slammed her foot into the wall, growling as it failed to bring her any satisfaction at all. Gardner had a gun to her head and there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it.

“Haught?”

Nicole didn’t look up from the communications panel. She clenched and unclenched her fist. “Not now.”

“Shouldn’t you be in --”

“I said not now, Earp! Nicole shouted, surprising them both. Waverly stared back with obvious hurt but Nicole just shook her head and turned back to the panel. Decide, decide. Option one? Option two?

Waverly left, and that night they both slept alone.

 

 


DAY 52 

 

They ate seperately.

 

LR.WE: Whatever it is, asshole, we can work it out as a team.

LR.WE: Let me know when you want to treat me with respect.

 

 Nicole felt selfish. This wouldn't solve anything. It would only make the solution harder. 

But at the very least, Waverly deserved the truth before Nicole stabbed her in the back.

 

CMDR.NH: I'm sorry. You're right.

CMDR.NH: Could we talk?

Waverly drifted into the living space and sat across from Nicole, who had her head cradled in her hands. “You had me at ‘I’m sorry,’” Waverly joked quietly. It fell flat and nerves grew in her stomach like flies.

Nicole looked up and Waverly felt like she was looking at someone different for a moment, but no it was Nicole, just tired beyond anything she’d seen before (and before was bad) but now?

Now Nicole looked like the dead had risen and had a bad Taco Bell experience.

Waverly made to say it aloud but it soured on her tongue the instant Nicole shoved her tablet across the table. The photo of them together. One of the most embarrassing moments of her life -- captured.

The photo of her, Waverly Earp, clad only in her stupid boring underwear, straddling Nicole Haught. Her coworker. Her superior officer. Her colleague. Commander Nicole Haught.

The second she had revealed just barely how badly she wanted Nicole, and the second that they had both ignored as if by silent agreement. Here. In their face. Again.

Pain brought itself with it. Embarrassment, rejection, fear, anger, everybody hit the stage and started screaming into the microphone. Yo, yo, waddup, Waverly Earp is currently crushed by the mere existence of one photograph in particular that viewers would be unlikely to forget, but at least --

“Gardner… he has it.”

-- Nevermind. Shit’s fucked ten ways from Sunday, time for Death.

Waverly gripped the edges of the table hard enough to hurt. “You… You never said anything about…”

Nicole looked utterly crushed. “I did everything I could to make sure nobody saw that photo, Waverly.”

“But you didn’t delete it.” The comment was small, not an accusation, only the beginning of the outburst Waverly was certain lay around the corner.

“I couldn’t!” Nicole insisted with a hand outstretched across the table, as if begging Waverly to understand, “They changed how messages worked after Tucker-- It’s not possible. All I could do was mess with flight manual and set it to ignore Hermes but,” The hand settled, palm down. “I’m so sorry. I forgot Iris.”

Things started to makes sense, clicking together. Waverly’s teeth ached as she ground them, blinking back moisture. Nicole had been hiding something -- this something, the something that had only one of them half naked -- for days. “You hid this from me.”

Nicole set her jaw --- swallowing hard, still not meeting her eyes -- and nodded. “I did.”

Waverly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or just leap the table and strangle her. Leaning towards strangulation . “For days, Haught.” A wince. She shook her head in disbelief as Nicole met her gaze evenly. “Just how long has he had that photo?”

“A week,” Nicole said quietly.

Waverly pushed off the table so hard it rocked. She paced, running a hand through her hair and blinking back so many hostile words. “You kept this from me. This. From me.” She turned on her heel, voice rising in pitch, hand slicing through the air at a thrusting point. “What happened to colleagues? What happened to ‘I have your back, Earp?’ What happened to trusting -- Jeezing Jesus Christ, Fudge on a biscuit, fricking fuck Haught! That’s me! Half naked! On top of you!   That’s a photo of me half naked and the creepiest guy in space has it and you didn’t tell me!”

“I know you hate me right now --”

Understatement of the year award, Haught!” Waverly hissed, dangerously furious, finger inches from Nicole’s stupid, slappable face. Betrayal. Utter betrayal. “I am three seconds from throwing you out the airlock --”

Nicole up held her hands in appeasement and surrender. “ -- But he’s threatening to show it to the public.”

The world vanished from beneath Waverly and every muscle in her body went slack. She sat down hard.

Visions of seeing her career, in ruins, dashed, laughed at, people seeing her in such an embarrassing position would be a nightmare come true, unlivable, impossible, she couldn’t --

“What does he want?” Waverly asked, voice absent of emotion. The mission superseded all.

Nicole looked up. “He wants me to throw the case out, or he’ll show the world that photo with his own narrative to ruin your reputation.”

Silence broken only by the dull hum of the filters.

“Why are you telling me now?”  Waverly asked through gritted teeth.

Nicole swallowed and looked away. “It’s the last day I have before he shows the photo.”

“You waited until the last possible second?” Waverly demanded in an upward rise of fury, “What the hell , Haught!”

Nicole’s eyes went hard. “I had to make a decision --”

Last possible second!

“--It’s my job to protect you.”

“I don’t need your ‘ protection’ ,” Waverly spat, “I can handle myself on my own. I thought you were different.

“Too bad!” Nicole tossed back, also rising, the flammable tinder of sleep deprivation sparking. Waverly paused in pure surprise. “I’m Commander of this goddamn mission and I’m not going to let you be ruined by my mistake.” She took a deep breath at the look of stunned and offended surprise on Waverly’s face. “Now either help me, or...”

“Or what?” Waverly hissed, walking forward into Nicole’s space as she floundered for a word, “Or else what, Haught? You going to order me around, huh, like the others? You going to tell me what to do?” The expected betrayal felt like a handful of knives in the heart and Waverly wanted to stab back and she knew, (oh how she knew and couldn’t resist because it hurt so very very badly to be reduced to nothing, a secondary, shadowed not by a name this time but by a person, again after falling into the trap of trusting), she knew exactly where to stab to hurt Nicole just as bad:

Because that worked out so fucking well last time.”

The instant the words left her mouth Waverly knew she had seriously misjudged. Nicole took a half step back, mouth open slightly, as if a stool had been kicked out from under her.

“...Or else I’ll do what he says,” Nicole finished with a voice full of defeat, “If that’s what you want, I’ll do it.”

“What?” Stunned, Waverly asked again, “What?”

Nicole swallowed and met her gaze. “If you want me to do what he says to keep --”

“No!” Waverly said the second she understood that Nicole was offering to destroy her own career to keep it safe, “No, absolutely not!” Nicole nodded but didn’t look relieved. She looked -- “Sit down... Sit down , Haught.” Nicole sat obediently and Waverly took a deep, calming breath. It didn’t help. “I’ll fix this. Just… let me fix this. Please.”

Waverly paced, running a hand through her hair, thoughts going a mile a minute.

What did the manual say?

Well, it sure as shit didn’t say this!

Waverly stopped and pressed a hand to her forehead, steadying herself. Fix it. Own up to it. Something Willa never did, and Waverly would be damned if she ever was like Willa.

The song changed. A familiar string of notes announced Elvis was about to do his damned best singing about love. Wise men have some good advice, though.

“Nicole,” Waverly asked in a subdued tone. Astronaut Nicole Haught looked back at her.  “Who’s picking the music?”

“The internet,” Nicole said so quietly Waverly almost asked her to repeat it. A sigh that Waverly could almost feel in her bones. “Do you want me to…?”

If I can’t help falling in love with you…

“No, wait.” Waverly listened closely to the song, resisting the urge to sing along. Catchy, though. “Did they take a vote?”

Somethings are meant to be…

“Yes...?” Nicole said, confusion evident in her tone.

Millions of viewers... voting for love songs.

Take my hand, take my whole life too.

Waverly decided and offered Nicole her hand. She stared at it, blinking slowly. “I know what to do, Haught.”

For I can’t help falling in love with you.

Nicole took her hand.

 

“Waverly,” Wynonna said suddenly in the silence. Her sunglasses did little to block out the effects of the hangover as the two sat at a table outside a coffee shop in Houston, Texas.

“What about Waverly?” Chrissy asked, fiddling with her phone.

“She has sort of a tendency to… lash out. Destroy good things before they destroy her.” Chrissy shifted uncomfortably and picked at the coffee label, thoughts drifting to ‘the bet.’ “She avoids. Hides. I saw she’s happy and I just… I worry about the kid. You know?”

Chrissy shrugged, feeling optimistic. “It hasn’t been like that at all,” she said with a small smile, “I’ve been in contact with her. Things are really going good with her and Haught.”

“Yeah, well,” Wynonna adjusted her sunglasses with a wince. “Who even is Haught, anyhow?”

“You’re sleeping with --”

“Shhh!” Wynonna slapped the table quickly, spying around them. “Don’t.” She lifted a finger. “For the record, we don’t talk.”

Chrissy, eyebrows raised, pressed on. “She’ll take care of her. Haught would jump off a cliff for her.”

“If anyone mentions a cliff again, I might puke.” Wynonna sipped her coffee with a frown.

“You sure you’re not pregnant?” Chrissy asked semi-seriously.

“God, no,” Wynonna said with a recoil of disgust, “I had a fever dream like that once. This bitch is regular , thanks. “

 

Nicole looked up from the words on the screen. “Okay, I’ll do it.”

“Okay?” Waverly asked in disbelief, “You’re not going to flail around and tell me that 'it’s insane, it'll get us both fired, this is crazy?'”

“No, I trust you,” Nicole said in a subdued tone. Her shoulders were still at the wrong angle. The pain at seeing Nicole look so utterly defeated dug through layers of hurt from the betrayal and Waverly ached to undo the damage she'd caused. 

Waverly sat on the desk and studied the shadows of sleeplessness across Nicole’s face. “It wasn’t your fault.”

Nicole stiffened. “Earp, you almost died, you have a right to be --”

Nicole,” Waverly countered sharply and got a stunned look in response, “If you ever hide something from me again, I will make your life on this planet hell regardless of your reasons, okay?”

Nicole nodded, “I’m sorry, Waverly. I thought..." Nicole sighed again and swallowed audibly. "I was being stupid. All I saw was two options, I didn’t even know there could be a third.”

Waverly narrowed her eyes suspiciously at the soft brown eyes that regarded her with such apology that her walls threatened to crack. “You’re a lot of things, Nicole, but you’re not stupid.”

Nicole opened her mouth to say something, confused, but Waverly continued, “You’re not. You saw the situation the same as I did. The cliff was safe. The storm was on its normal course. You had no reason to believe that the wind would pick up. It wasn’t your fault.

Nicole’s mouth was still slightly open and Waverly wanted to stare at it. “I’m still…” Nicole cleared her throat, still seeming to be processing the words, “I’m still giving you administrative access.”

“Good.” Waverly took her tablet and set it up, angling the camera. “We agreed that we’re both going to make terrible mistakes. It’s a good thing I have your back.”

Nicole managed to smile again. Waverly paused to observe it, trying to gauge the efficacy of her words. “What?” Nicole asked, noticing the stare.

“I’m still mad and I'm still going to kick your ass. Just not… as mad,” Waverly clarified. Nicole’s eyebrow rose slightly, eyes still hopeful instead of defeated. Good. Just what they needed to have the plan succeed. “Now that we’ve established the parameters.” Waverly turned serious. Fake serious. “Are you ready for the rest of the mission, Commander?”

Nicole grinned, dimple cratering her face. “Absolutely, Lead Researcher.”

“Good.” Waverly grabbed Nicole’s uniform and pulled her close enough that their breaths mingled. “Now kiss me like you mean it.”

Waverly ignored the fact that the music had been paused minutes before. She still heard Elvis.

 

“RECORDING.”

 

Nicole stood up, keeping steady eye contact as Waverly’s eyebrow rose. Still, she didn’t close the distance.

Waverly looked confused, but understanding replaced it and she initiated, pulling Nicole against the desk, against her, and colliding their faces together.

The angle and force made it harsh, the setting awkward, and maybe a bit less than a perfect kiss -- but jesus christ.

Nicole felt the equivalent of a kid discovering fire for the first time after twenty minutes of playing water balloons with pure gasoline.

Which is to say.

Hot.

Waverly’s hands and body and face and (plants are such a lovely smell but Waverly is a better smell) all of it at once in her space and Nicole was off the ground, flying, mind going completely and utterly blank except for one thing and one realization:

HOLY SHIT, THIS IS AMAZING.

This moment etched itself permanently in her mind, the way Waverly’s hands kept caressing her face, how her body bent slightly towards and pressed against Nicole and everything about it was somehow at once world-changing and utterly familiar.

Nicole pulled Waverly closer by the waist, unable to know anything else at all except Waverly, Waverly, Waverly tasting so much better than strawberries, Waverly smelling so much better than Earth, Waverly feeling so hot against her cold and aching body that had silently yearned for something like this.

Something like touch and connection and contact .

The heat of it took Nicole completely by surprise. Their lips moved simply, merely a restatement of some unspoken fact of their intimate contact. But the heat.

The heat.

Her body reacted as if it had been waiting for this moment and Nicole barely held onto coherence. Waverly. Waverly. Waverly. Her lungs would just have to make do with no oxygen.

Then it was over, Waverly pulled back, Nicole following her lips before remembering that this was fake, that for the next hundred plus days the mission had changed entirely. Maybe ensuring the mission of janitor duty on Mars seemed difficult, but nothing compared to the thin string of coherence preventing her from openly begging Waverly to touch her again.

Instead, Nicole simply shut her eyes and stepped back, breathing far too hard and hoping Waverly wouldn’t notice.

 

“RECORDING ENDED.”

 

Waverly noticed, but her thoughts were too busy spinning to focus. Shit. Shit. Okay. Wow.

She did not expect that, either.

Her lips tingled and her body had just given up entirely on any pretense and sent her mind a letter PLEASE LET THAT HAPPEN AGAIN, I AM VERY TURNED ON. THANKS IN ADVANCE. - THE BODY

The mission just became a whole lot harder and anger took Waverly by surprise. Crushing fury followed its coattails. This was supposed to be simple. Straightforward. No cliffs, no blackmail. No overly complicated and dangerous lies.

There were only two people responsible and Waverly Earp was pissed.

“Haught.”

Nicole opened her eyes and saw the rage there, looking wary. “Yes.”

“We’re going to play him like a fiddle,” Waverly said dangerously with narrowed eyes, “And then we’re going to kick his ass.”

“But the distance between Mars and Hermes --”

Waverly pressed a finger to Nicole’s lips. “Haught. Stop ruining my moment.”

 

Waverly waited against the wall, out of range of the cameras. There wasn’t much to do except wait nervously for the Hermes to awake. Nicole would play the part Gardner expected, giving them an additional month to build the narrative that might send them all home.

The thought of Earth made her ill, but they had to do this. Regardless of the fear that chewed her insides of the world’s judgment, of her colleague, of the constant danger of death and failure…

Waverly hoped that the victory would be worth it. Her fingers hit VIEW before her mind caught up.

September 8th Schedule

> find out her favorite movie, maybe?

> she likes carly rae jepsen and tswift

> steal B-34 wine. Some of it. Water down the rest? Blame aliens

> B-34 also has a birthday cake. Learn to bake

> interview said fav food is "lasangna" but why do i feel like that's a lie?

> maybe ask chrissy for tips

Waverly slid down against the wall, reading the words over and over.

 

“CONNECTION TO HERMES ESTABLISHED.”

Commander Gardner stared back at Nicole from thousands of kilometers away, saying nothing.

“You’re going to give me another month,” Nicole said, not-so-pretending her exhaustion.

“I am?"

“Yes.” Nicole held eye contact like their jobs depended on it. “You are. Because in thirty days, I’ll tell the whole world the truth.”

Gardner smiled and Nicole knew they had already won. “So you are sleeping together?”

“Yes,” Nicole said as she hovered over the send button with a sick feeling.

Thankfully, he believed her and Nicole hid a sigh of incredible relief. “And you did frame him,” Gardner assumed aloud.

“Give me a month,” Nicole said while avoiding the obvious trap, “And the world will know the truth.”

Gardner didn’t know much about computers, or the law, or anything other than his advanced degree in astronautics and aerospace engineering, but he loved the last family he had: his son. At this point, he'd buy anything.

“One month.”

 

'Evil Woman' by ELO began to play and Chrissy nearly dropped the phone trying to answer it. Wynonna gave her a lifted eyebrow, their tour of LBJ interrupted.

"My boss," Chrissy mouthed. Wynonna smirked and pulled the two of them out of way of passing employees. 

"We finally got the lawyers to push off, but only because Haught personally requested a change of plans," Annie said, voice heavy with victory, "Tell them they're clear to interact again in a limited capacity. They've also asked for a special day on the 12th. Is that Earp's birthday?"

"No," Chrissy said, mildly sure, "Think it's the 8th."

"Hm." 

The line went dead without a goodbye, as was routine.

Chrissy stared at her phone, excitement tempered by suspicion. What are you doing, Haught?

"Sup, Mini-Nedley?" 

Chrissy glared at the nickname. "Nothing. Just... Proof of what I've been saying is coming up in a month. Will you still be here?"

Wynonna glanced at a framed picture across the hall of the current Ares Director for a moment too long. "Think so, yeah."

 

@MarsAlphaBase: We return to regular broadcasting #Sol83 with an all-day special broadcast.

@MartianCoffee: EU viewing party LETS GO

@spacecriminal: @MartianCoffee I'll host in berlin?

@StetsonBot: I have extra food in DC

@BotanyIsBest: then im already on my way

[Various responses of similar plans.]

Chapter Text

SOMEWHERE, ARIZONA

 

Chrissy stood in a house worth more than every single organ in her body multiplied by ten. An actual, for real, crystal chandelier hung above their diplomatic party. Dolls stood in uniform, inspecting the portraits on the wall, while Doc looked like he needed to smoke the longer he stood on the awful printed carpet.

Her boss, Annie, turned the corner with a small child in tow. Chrissy smiled and the young girl lit up like a neon sign, waving rapidly and running out of Annie’s grip.

“You!!” the girl said in typical child volume of very loud, ow.

“Me!” Chrissy agreed, kneeling down.

“You know the astronauts,” the girl whispered ineffectively, “You’re her best friend.”

“I...” Chrissy’s grin faltered only for a second, looking to Annie with a confused expression, but she had already moved on to discussing something with Dolls. “I am!”

“Oh, please tell me I can say hi! Please! Please! Please!” the girl chanted endlessly until Chrissy had no option but to agree

“Of course you can!” Chrissy said, wincing as the girl pulled a bit too hard on her sleeve. “What’s your name, sweetie?”

“Destructor!” the girl insisted in a gravelly voice before growling.

“D… D what now?”

“But my dad calls me Darla,” Destructor said sadly. She brightened immediately with a new thought. “Is it true you’re talking to dad about the astronauts?”

“That’s right,” Chrissy racked her brain, frightened of inadvertently upsetting Darla. “We’re going to try to convince your dad to say yes to more astronauts!”

Darla squealed loud enough that Chrissy had to wince and hugged her tight. Chrissy shut her eyes, hugging back, remembering this as one of her personal goals. There really wasn’t anything that brought her more joy than enthusiastic kids.

“Come on,” Chrissy said brightly, “Let’s go say hi to the astronauts.”

Much later, Chrissy stood on a sweltering golf course wishing desperately to be anywhere else.

“No offense,” the senator said offensively as he lined up a shot, “My constituents don’t give a damn about you techies. We’re home-grown, blue-collar American people. You think you’ll ever put a corn farmer who didn’t go to college on Mars in our lifetime?”

Dolls smiled faintly. “Actually, yes.”

Bink!

“Good one, sir,” the staffer said politely.

“Fuckin’ wind.” The senator dropped his hand from his forehead. “Don’t try to jack me off for money, Xavier. I paid attention in math class.”

Chrissy had worried her lip painfully, but Annie looked smug about something.

Dolls managed politeness that impressed Chrissy, “ Iris has twice the capacity of Hermes . The Peregrine can fly twelve people at almost three quarters of the time it takes for Iris. It’s only a matter of time we have civilian class seats with the express purpose of being for specialized workers like farmers, college or no.

“‘ Matter of time.’ Please. Unless you’re taking my cousin Joe on Ares 26, my constituents don’t give a damn. Sorry, but --”

His phone rang.

“Hi, Honey!” The senator called into the phone, walking away.

Bink!

Doc gave Dolls a flat look as the ball soared wildly off course, struck with the force of an angry astronaut. He got a small shrug in return.

“Do you remember talking to his daughter?” Annie said under her breath as the senator listened carefully over the phone.

“Of course. She was super excited about space.” Chrissy smiled, but felt it falter. “Wait...” Chrissy furrowed her brow, glancing between the smug look and the senator obviously talking to his daughter. “Did you…?”

“Honey, yes, I’m with the astronauts. But I can’t -- Honey, please -- No, I…” The senator gave a massive sigh, then with defeat in his voice: “Yes, sweetie. Daddy will see what he can do.”

The senator hung up his phone and walked over to Dolls. “I’ve changed my mind. You convinced me, Xavier. You have my vote.”

Handshakes and back-claps were exchanged, but Chrissy was miles away in thought. “Did… Did he just decide federal budget on the whims of his seven year old daughter?”

“Women run this world, darling, on all levels. Not just the presidency,” Annie replied quietly. The men continued their golf game with many more smiles. “Men just don’t know it.”

Chrissy looked at her hands, replaying her conversation with the senator’s daughter and Annie’s careful wording.

“And another thing.” Annie took a long drag of her cigarette. “When opportunity lands in your lap, you take both wings and pull .”

 

DAY 52

 

Night fell by the time Nicole stood from the communications panel. All was silent. The hens slept. The roomba remained on night-mode. Waverly had left. With the stars came the aching reminder that they were alone, together, thousands of miles from humanity.

And Nicole had royally fucked it up.

Nicole leaned against the wall of Alpha Base, holding back tears.

Don’t cry, her father said in the past, Man up. Deal with it .

Never let your crew see you cry.

Nicole sobbed openly, heart torn in two. “I can’t do this. I can’t. ” She hid her face in the crook of her elbow, unable to bear the sight of the base any longer. The admission came ripped straight from her soul. The weight of all of it fell in great, heaving sobs. The cliff. The blackmail. Everything in between.

Below it all, Nicole was relieved . Relieved she would not have to take ultimate responsibility. That she would be able to listen and follow for once, instead of decide and risk failure. Her track record of decisions to calamitous outcomes was not very medal worthy.

That only made her cry harder. She wanted to lock herself in her room and never have responsibility for anything ever again, thanks. Leave a message after the tone.

(But Waverly.)

“Shit.” Nicole shut her eyes and leaned her head back, taking big, shuddering breaths at regular intervals. She allowed herself only that moment of grief. They had a mission to complete and Nicole had to carry her weight.

 

Waverly sat at the edge of the bed -- their shared bed -- and Nicole paused in the doorway, surprised. No light except the false moonlight lacing through artificial window blinds.

“I can sleep elsewhere,” Nicole said quietly.

“No.” Waverly’s voice was thick and she wiped at her face.

Nicole sat, keeping distance between them still. She waited, though her heart broke into itty-bitty-feeling-pretty-shitty pieces.

“I feel sick that he has it,” Waverly admitted in a whisper, “Sick that we have to even do this.” She brushed hair from her face before holding her knees. “How did he even get a hold of that photo?”

“The chicken. Our stupid chicken.” Nicole let out a very sad noise that might have been an attempt at a laugh. “Nedley’s call began and transmitted the two of us. Gardner must have become suspicious somehow, thought that Nedley was in on the grand conspiracy. Instead he found something else, something he took of evidence of...”

They both had a brief moment of remembering said moment and mutually agreeing not to discuss it through professional silence.

Nicole kept talking, pushing past that strange moment that she refused to consider. “He thinks I staged the whole cliff incident to frame his son and make myself look like a hero. Also...” Nicole cleared her throat. “Because of that photo, he thinks I did it to convince you to sleep with me.”

Waverly looked like her flabber had become properly gasted. “What.”

“Yeah.” Nicole nodded unnecessarily, not making eye contact, and resisted the urge to fidget or flee.

“Wh...” Waverly shook her head. “Who does he think you are, Nicole?”

Nicole shifted uncomfortably, memories clawing to the surface and trying to break past her teeth. But to admit such a huge mistake now… “Something happened a long time ago. I… He really, really hates me. And he doesn’t think too highly of who I am, either.

“But why is he doing this?” Waverly asked, voice brittle, “ Why go through all this trouble to save Tucker? Or is it just to get back at you?”

Nicole bit her lip. “He... “ Nicole fought for words. “His son is the only person he has left. I think he’s doing it because he loves him.”

Waverly let out a shuddering breath and they let the silence hang.

“I’m sorry.” Nicole looked down and fought for words. “It’s... You’re setting the pace.” Eye contact? Not possible. “This was your idea and I don’t want to ever make you more uncomfortable than you already are.”

Tick, tick of the air filter.

“What are your nightmares about?” Waverly crossed her arms as if cold. “The crash?”

A pause. No more lies, right? “Not anymore,” Nicole whispered.

The cliff, but the rope doesn’t reach. Her grip doesn’t hold. The rover doesn’t listen. Waverly doesn’t survive.

Waverly seemed to understand, turning her head so Nicole could only see the shadow of her profile. “I wanted to hurt you.”

Nicole tried not to wince at how effective it had been. “I betrayed your trust. You have every right to feel upset.”

“I didn’t mean what I said, though. About the cliff. Your decisions. I didn’t mean --” Waverly swallowed audibly, holding back emotion. “I wanted to be cruel to you. I wanted you to get angry. I wanted you to prove me right.” Waverly’s voice became a whisper. “But you didn’t.”

Nicole took in a deep breath, remembering herself years ago making a terrible decision with the same justification -- a decision that had effectively trapped them here, with Gardner unbudging in his animosity. “I understand.”

Waverly looked at her. “Why aren’t you angry?”

Nicole paused, hovering on the edge of something, a truth she wasn’t quite ready to admit even to herself yet. “I don’t know.” She floundered. “But I’d really like it if you didn’t do that again. If we could, you know, talk. Talk like...”

Waverly smiled faintly. “Like adults?”

Nicole shook her head ruefully, “We certainly haven’t been behaving like them. We have…” Nicole sighed, the muscles in her body relaxing with the weight. “We have a mission.”

Waverly nodded but opened her mouth to reply. Nothing came out for a long moment as she considered something. She shook her head. “We should sleep.”

They slept, not touching, both ignoring the big dumb mutual gay feelings.

 

“Connecting you to Earth, Please wait…”

He liked it quiet.

When they died -- that had been loud. Like a train striking a pack of cars, or a giant tin can full of tuna collapsing. It hadn’t actually made any sound.

But he had heard it. The noise repeated itself in his dreams, the audible crunch of what should have been his death, not theirs.

“It’s pretty fucked up, all I’m sayin’. Can’t imagine what you’re going through and all.” The system operator leaned back in his chair, twirling his pen. He looked up at Gardner. “D’you ever get, like. Super, duper disappointed in him? Or is it more anger ?”

Gardner said nothing.

“I get it. Crushing disappointment.” The engineer shook his head. “Seriously next level let down, am I right? Like, dude. I get my kid skipping class -- but attempted murder on another planet , I’d lose my goddamn mind.” The engineer coughed, looking uncomfortable. “Sorry. Kids, right?”

Gardner watched the clock tick down.

“But I mean like --”

“Get out.”

The system operator vanished in half a second. A new record.

“CONNECTION TO EARTH SUCCESSFUL.”

“Dad? Dad, can I please take the plea deal? They’re… Please, dad. Just let me take the deal. I don’t want to go to trial and the people outside are -- are -- They look at me like --” Choked sobs broke through the line. “Dad, please, please just let me plead guilty. I can’t take this anymore.”

“What part of no do you not understand!” Gardner shouted, face red. He ran a hand through his balding hair, breathing hard from his nose. “All you have to do is keep your goddamn mouth shut. You talk to nobody. You make eye contact with nobody . You take plea deals from nobody . Do you got that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good boy. Now.” Gardner straightened his uniform though no one was watching. “I got her, son. I got her. She’s going to come clean. She’s going to tell everybody the truth,” Gardner expounded, gesturing to no one, fanatical passion rising in his voice. “Every goddamn soul on the planet is going to know the goddamn truth and all you have to do is stay put for thirty more days, got that, son?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” Gardner picked up a framed photo. “I love you, son. I’m gonna take care of this. I promise I’m gonna take care of this.” He picked up his list of numbers to dial. “I promise I’m gonna take care of this.”

 

DAY 53

 

Just like she had many nights before, Waverly woke up with the space between them reduced to negative numbers. Climbing off of Nicole without waking her was never an issue, but god was it ever so embarrassing to wake up to your hands up your coworker’s shirt.

 

Waverly had finally gotten the truth about Nicole’s back.

Two hours of examination in that tiny medical room with Nicole’s shirt off and Waverly was ready to snap. Back pain was hard to diagnose, leading to headache-inducing back and forth from dozens trying to make a treatment plan.

But that wasn’t the worst part.

Dolls chimed in from Tennessee. “Unfortunately, with the Commander in bed, we need to be using the robots to ensure the base maintains its healthy atmosphere and inspections are continued.”

Waverly, frozen, couldn’t say a word. They didn’t know. None of them knew. This was between her and her therapist, who she had promised it would be an issue. It wouldn’t interfere.

But it was and it had!

Then, impossibly, Nicole sat up, her jaw tense. “No,” Nicole said. “No, I won’t allow --”

“Yes, it’s fine,” Waverly said over her, “It’s fine. We can deal with that. But if you… Ones in the greenhouse will only get in my way.”

Dolls nodded. “Roger that. Earth, out.”

Waverly shut her eyes, taking a deep breath. A light touch and she peeked to see Nicole offering a hand to hold. She took it.

It was one of those moments. The moments they didn’t talk about.

Waverly collected herself, put her mask back on, wiped away excess water. “You are extremely lucky this isn’t permanent damage.” Waverly sighed, biting her lip at the view. “I can’t trust you.”

The statement hung in the air like an unwelcome smell and Waverly did nothing to dispel it. “I won’t tell Houston that, but I can’t trust you not to get out of bed and do stupid things. You’re going to take your medicine, stay in bed, and do exactly as I and Houston tell you. Understand?”

Nicole nodded. “Yes, Lead Researcher.”

“Good.” Waverly ignored how her heart kicked at how desperately apologetic Nicole looked. The asshole had almost ruined everything. “Go. Sleep.”

 

Overtime for astronauts would require twenty-six hours of the day. The twenty-four that existed were already filled to the brim with non-stop work.

For medical needs like Nicole’s, that meant as soon as she was out of bed, she had to do the work of three astronauts with inspections, safety checks, and mechanical repairs she’d missed, even with the robots trying to pick up the slack in the Garage.

Mind crushingly boring, tedious paperwork consisted of about forty percent of Waverly’s day, combined with hours spent in the greenhouse or backyard literally watching grass grow. The effects of Martian gravity and the synthetic greenhouse might be minuscule in theory, but monumental to ensuring humanity’s survival isn’t cut short by a missed zero somewhere.

The three principles of scientific progress: Efficiency, safety, and budget cuts.

Waverly set her tablet aside, frowning deeply.

Janitor duty.

The words weighed heavily on Waverly’s psyche, haunting her work. She’d show them Janitor Duty.   Waverly knew the scrutiny they’d undergo. It jittered up her spine, the anxiety huddling like a shadow in the greenhouse. She worked. And worked. And tried to forget.

DrDwyer: Fantastic work this week. I’m incredibly impressed.

Wave: Thank you, sir!

 

It sucked being stuck in a room, unable to move, with nothing to do but lay there and think.

And frankly, Nicole had done enough thinking.

So she poured through the scant interviews that Waverly had allowed, eyes scanning for any sort of clue or hint. In the end, she had to consult a professional.

NH: Hey. Sept 8th is Waverly’s birthday and I’d really like to do something nice. Could I get some help or some hints about what she might like? Favorite food, favorite dessert, you know? Maybe a gift idea? Here’s what I have so far. [attached] Also, we have that 3-d printer…

Chrissy: You mean the one specifically for science and work related projects, Commander?

Chrissy: You were right. It’s not lasagna. It’s sweet and sour soup with a scoop of peanut butter. Vanilla dipped donuts, but I don’t think you can make those.

NH: Damnit. I need to use that printer.

Chrissy: If only there was some sort of professional reason you could use, perhaps one they would take very seriously and not question.

 

REPORT -- 15:34 GMT

3-D PRINTER USE AUTHORIZED BY CMDR. NH

MARKED: PSYCHOLOGICAL REASONS

 

But Nicole had to remain in bed letting her back heal while the printer took up half the garage. If only there was some sort of thing made of metal that could move stuff around autonomously while being carefully designed to complete sensitive tasks.

But that would be far too easy…

...Right?

 

REPORT -- 15:36 GMT

VEGA ONLINE -- USE AUTHORIZED BY CMDR. NH

MARKED: PSYCHOLOGICAL REASONS

 

JPL: Does this mean we can run tests?

NH: Not yet. I need to use it for a bit, but I’ll document everything for you.

JPL: Oh great. Thanks.

JPL: That was sarcasm.

NH: I picked up on that.

 

Waverly sighed into the pillow, feeling relaxed for some reason, even after another day of tedious work. Nicole smelled nice. Like… Like vanilla. Waverly yawned, too tired to do much with thinking. “What’r you doing?”

Nicole set the tablet aside. “Just… geology.”

“You hate geology,” Waverly responded flatly, “with a passion.”

Nicole scoffed, offended. “Go to sleep, Earp.”

Waverly flipped over, eyes roving over Nicole’s face as the faint smile disappeared. Waverly lifted an eyebrow accusingly. “Thought we agreed to be honest?”

Nicole turned serious. “I promise it’s just a side project, nothing dangerous or interesting. Just something to keep my mind running because I’m laying in bed all day. Is that okay?”

Waverly hummed in thought. “Fine. Off the hook this time, Haught. Now perform the cuddle maneuver.”

 

DAY 54  

 

Waverly hit Nicole with a pillow. “Get up.”

“No,” Nicole said petulantly.

Whumph!

“I swear to god, Haught.” Waverly hit her a third time.

Nicole caught the pillow on the fourth swing and put it behind her head, not even bothering to open her eyes. “Stronger men than you have failed in getting me out of my bed on a weekend.”

“Please?” Waverly asked, exasperated, “For me?”

Nicole opened her eyes, taking in Waverly’s pout.

God. Damnit. Nicole let out a massive sigh, covering her eyes with her arm. “What is it this time.”

“Fan mail!” Waverly said brightly. “You need to get into uniform.”

Nicole regarded Waverly with narrowed eyes over her arm. “How. Do I do that. When I can’t move?”

Waverly bit her lip to keep from laughing. “I have an idea.”

 

“I Hhh-Hate you. Hate. Hatred,” Nicole slurred, “I can’t believe you done this.”

“Shh. You consented to this,” Waverly insisted, pulling Nicole up to sit on the edge of the bed before moving to the drawers. Shirts. Socks. Random stuff. “Where are your pants?”

“They’re not going to see my pants,” Nicole didn’t say. She said something more like “Theynotgonnaseem’pants.”

“I will!” Waverly hissed, finding a pair of jeans. She threw them at Nicole, who didn’t catch them in time to prevent a facial collision. “Take your pajama pants off and put those on. I’ll be outside.”

 

A crash and Waverly’s face went pale. “Haught?” She opened the door, peeking in. “H- Shit. Again? Really ?”

Nicole groaned from her spot on the floor, pants only halfway to their destination. Waverly covered her face with her hand, holding in bouts of laughter. A monumental amount of discipline prevented Waverly from taking a photo of this sequel-- but damn if she didn’t really, really want to.

“Help,” Nicole said to the floor.

But then Waverly remembered that she would have to fix this.

“Shit,” Waverly muttered as she moved to pick up her fallen comrade. She was thankful for one thing during the following battle: there would be no video of this incident. No visual record of Waverly grabbing Nicole around the waist to heave her upwards, only to accidentally touch skin and drop Nicole to the floor again.

Nicole, barely conscious from the pain or the painkillers, didn’t do much to help. Her face burning, Waverly wrapped her arms around Nicole’s waist and heaved upward before shuffling over to the bed and throwing her on it.

There. Step one.

Step two was ignore everything else, just get the pants on. Waverly cringed and shut her eyes, trying to ignore all the bare skin going on. Or the fact she had to spend a ridiculous amount of seconds with her hands on Nicole’s ass, trying to get the pants unstuck.

“Okay.” Waverly let out a breath of relief. The hard part was over. “To the chair. Here.” Nicole blearily complied, almost knocking over a lamp on her way before sitting down hard. “There. Stay here while I find you a shirt to wear.”

Waverly searched high and low for a decent polo shirt. It had to be blue. Nicole looked best in blue. ”Perfect.” Waverly turned. “This is great. Now we just -- Holy shit.

It was in that moment, that beyond any denials or half-hearted arguments, Waverly realized she was pretty damn gay. Nicole, in an effort to be helpful, had taken off her shirt before falling asleep, slumped adorably in the chair.

Waverly shut her eyes and threw the shirt at Nicole, who woke with a noise of complaint. “Put your damn shirt on, Haught.”

 

Waverly braided Nicole’s hair, kept her upright as she brushed her teeth, and basically brought Nicole into the land of the awake every step of the way. Now, at least, Nicole sat next to her at Communications.

“Okay, listen --”

“God, you’re so pretty,” Nicole said in a dramatic exhale.

“You said that already.” Waverly lifted Nicole’s head, ignoring the nonsense she was speaking. “Listen to me. We’re going to send a message to an eight year old named Darla. Do you understand?”

Nicole nodded. “Right.”

 

“TAKE ONE.”

 

“Hi, Darla! Or… Destructor!” Waverly said with a smile and wave, “I’m Lead Researcher Waverly Earp, and this is…”

“Commander Nicole Haught,” NIcole managed, looking almost sober with her head propped on one hand. “With my brilliant colleague --”

“Nicole,” Waverly hissed through her teeth.

“Waverly Earp. Incredibly… brilliant. Listen, kid. You…” Nicole pointed in the wrong direction. “Have to have the right role model. And let me tell you, Waverly is a model --”

 

“TAKE TWO.”

“Hi, Dar- - Annnnd, you’re asleep.” Waverly poked Nicole.

 

“TAKE THREE.”

“Put. The chicken. Down!” Waverly said, snatching a growling Henrietta from Nicole, who began to pout to no avail. “Focus!”

 

“TAKE FOUR.”

“Hi, Darla.” Waverly said with a bright smile, managing not to look pained at all. “I’m Lead Researcher Waverly Earp and I’m here on Mars to say hi to you! Unfortunately, the Commander isn’t feeling her best --”

Nicole’s voice came from the kitchen off camera. “ITS GONNA TAKE A LOT TO DRAG ME AWAAAAY FROM YOU…”

“Because I’m going to kill her! Just. Murder her!” Waverly smiled at the camera. “Just. Strangle her to death. Murder. She can’t get back to you because she’ll be dead.

“THERE’S NOTHING THAT A HUNDRED MEN OR MORE COULD EVER -- Ow! Why did you hit me? What did I do?”

Wave: Hey Chrissy. We can’t respond until Nicole is able to get out of bed and be sober. But send her this in the meantime: [attached heartfelt letter]

Chrissy: Thanks Waves. You really are the best :)

 

New -- Unread  Astro_Wave@nasa.gov

Thank you for your purchase from Barnes & Noble!

Update on Curtis -- he’s stable, recovering, doing fine!

Interview Request -- Please Forward to N.Haught

Thank you for your purchase from Barnes & Noble!

Is Haught available for interview?

Requesting Interview with Cmdr. N. Haught

Thank you for your purchase from Barnes & Noble!

PR Blackwall -- Is N.Haught open to interview?

Goodreads - Recommendations based on “Fingersmith” and “Fried Green Tomatoes”

Why do you never check your email???

RE:RE:RE Bio 101 hw struggle w/ metabolism

RE:RE:RE:RE interview for biotech class please

 

Wave: Why does my email keep getting interview requests for Nicole?

Chrissy: That’s weird. Forward them to me so we can politely tell them to fuck off, okay?

Wave: they’re ALL about nicole though. Do i have none?

Chrissy: Of course you have some!

Chrissy: You have a lot!

Chrissy: A TON of people want to talk to you!

Chrissy: It’s just the lawyer stuff and all..

Wave: Right, okay! That’s fine!

 

Jealousy crept in the back of her mind like a monster through bushes, but Waverly had a very sharp sword hidden away in her churning feelings for Nicole.

(Shut up about those! They don’t exist. Because if they existed, that would mean mission failure. )

Waverly pushed them all aside, opening her next assignment.

 

DAY 56

 

JPL: That cable completed at 8:26 GMT is far too small for regulation safety standards.

NH: It’s not a safety cable.

 

JPL: We need confirmation that you’re not using it as a safety cable or for any sort of construction on anything inside the base.

NH: I’m using it for something that has nothing to do with safety and has zero risks involved.

JPL: Please do not use it as a cable.

 

HOUSTON: Please don’t use that as a safety or structural cable.

NH: Again, It is not a safety cable.

HOUSTON: If you use that on anything inside the base, you must run it by us immediately. Under no circumstances are you allowed to use that as a safety cable or in any construction.

NH: It is not in use for any astronaut activities.

 

Dolls: Why am I being told you are using unsafe cables?

NH: It is NOT a safety cable. Why am I in trouble for making one piece of string? I need to make a few more, and some extra. It is not being used in any serious construction nor is it being used in any way that is unsafe or against regulation.

NH: It’s a guitar string!

Dolls: Why?

 

Furious, Nicole resorted to tactics .

NH: Consider it “psychological reasons”

Dolls: Very well. Proceed within safety parameters. Document it so it’s science, not… Whatever it is you’re planning on using it for.

 

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Lonely

That’s the name for it.

Waverly looked up from the tomato, frown etched on her face even though happy music played for the tulips next to her. Lonely. For the past few days, they hadn’t spoken at all. No breaks shared with quiet conversation, no lunches, just sleep. Even having her annoying, self-sacrificing co-worker up and about was better than this nothing, this  waiting.

The solution must be to work harder.

She called one of the men in charge of the botany program.

 

“Hello, Lead Researcher,” Dr. Dwyer said from behind a massive pair of glasses. “How can we earthlings be of assistance?”

“I want more work,” Waverly said, only glancing at the camera between work on the strawberries. “I know there’s more to be done, but I finished everything this week already and I need more to do.”

“More work? My my, you have already done plenty.” Dr. Dwyer frowned, looking a lot like a Santa Claus accidentally ended up in lab somehow. “But who am I to question? More is coming your way, Lead Researcher.”

Waverly paused to smile genuinely. The man hadn’t a sarcastic bone in his rapidly decaying body, and sincerely believed in her.

However, the man also believed a whole lot of questionable things.

“There are plenty of eclipses ahead, should you change your mind about the paranormal. Have a fine day, Waverly Earp.”

Waverly sighed as the feed cut out. Her biggest fan also believed the dead walked the Earth and possibly Mars, too. That did  wonders  for her confidence.

 

Wave: Hi chrissy

Chrissy: Hi Waves! Something up?

Wave: No, just wondering what’s going up on Earth. How are you? What’s going on?

Chrissy: Traveling the country, talking to our senators and congressmen for Ares 25 funding. It’s a wild ride and I have soooo many weird stories.

Chrissy: You’ll be happy or unhappy to know we have over fifty-five million interested in what you have to say. Isn’t that fantastic?

Chrissy: Your sister is hanging out in Houston more, if you ever want to send her a message, too.

Chrissy: And the guy turned out to be a little… Not my type. Oh, well. So it goes.

Chrissy: But there’s this cute guy named Perry who is definitely flirting. I think. I hope. I really, really hope.

Chrissy: I’ve heard the case is going well, but it’ll be months before there’s a trial. He hasn’t taken the plea deal and that’s a bit strange.

Wave: Well, Strange is definitely a Tucker word.

Wave: Thanks Chrissy.

Wave: Hey, what about I did some Q&A type education stuff again?

Chrissy: On it.

 

“One of the major theories is that without a magnetic field, solar winds stripped away all the fun stuff from the planet,” Waverly explained, picking at a lettuce leaf, “It’s still quite the problem for colonization. We can’t just order a new one, you know?” She looked up, pulling off her goggles. Any questions…?

@WHStan: Where is Haught?

Waverly sighed wistfully on accident, before catching herself with a cleared throat. “Bedrest. She did a number on her back while working and needs some time off.”

Nicole, of course, was at that very moment watching Waverly’s broadcast on her tablet with a dumb, goofy smile. She had no self awareness, only considering her enchantment proper. Who could watch Waverly Earp, looking like happiness incarnate, talking about her passions and  not  be overwhelmed with joy?

Not Nicole, who let out a wistful sigh without noticing. All she knew: Waverly looked breathtaking when she was happy.

 

DAY 58

 

The storm arrived.

Waverly inspected the strawberry plant, the hens pecking at her feet, only for a feeling of intense anxiety to skitter up her spine. She stood up, turning, wondering what the hell that awful roaring sound was.

It overwhelmed everything with its dull monotony. She ignored it for a time, but it finally chewed past her thin excuses.

Nicole said nothing as Waverly ghosted into their shared bedroom thirty minutes later, chickens in tow.

 

NH: We’re taking the day off.

Houston: Uh… Negative.

NH: I’d be more than happy to discuss this with you when you arrive. In the meantime, we’re taking the day off.

 

Waverly laid down next to Nicole before blushing furiously, some sort of decorum rushing to her cheeks. “Sorry, I just --”

“Hey. It’s okay.” Nicole tried to reassure with a smile. “I always get scared during these storms, too. I told Houston we’re taking the day off.”

“Well, if you’re scared…” Waverly scooted closer, hopeful edge to her tone.

“Absolutely terrified, ” Nicole assured, mock serious.

“... Then it’s only right I comfort you so you aren’t.”

Waverly found her spot under Nicole’s arm, who gave her a wide, playful grin. “I’m feeling braver already,” Nicole said, on the verge of laughing.

“Shut up and put on a movie,” Waverly teased with a smile.

For a while, Earth didn’t exist. Loneliness didn’t exist. Only Bruce Willis.

 

“Lou speakin’. Go.”  Louis Haught tucked the phone into his shoulder and worked on lighting his evening smoke. The message played a thin, reedy voice notice that Commander Gardner aboard the Hermes was calling. The match hung midair, the unlit cigarette pushed aside by a tongue. “ James ? Why the hell are you callin’ me?”

“Hello, Louis. How’s Chicago? Did you really leave Texas, or was that just a harsh rumor?”

“What the hell, J!” Louis laughed. “It’s been years! Of course I moved back North, you dickhead. What’s up? How’s the wife?” Strange to have a conversation where questions hung in the air for over three minutes, waiting for a simple one or two word response. Lous had gotten used to it with… Ah, damn.

“Managing.”

Louis whistled through his teeth then hissed as the match burned too low. “Ah, What do you want, you hay munching hick? You don’t do social calls. How much am I gonna hafta pay for this shit?”

“Nothing. It’s free. I thought you quit smoking.”

“I did!” Louis dropped the cigarette to the ground and stomped it. “I sure did. Don’t, uh --”

Don’t tell my brother.

Louis sighed, feeling old, and put his hand to his forehead. “Waddaya want, J?” 

“Have you spoken to your daughter recently?”

“No, I haven’t.” Louis pulled out another cigarette, all enthusiasm drained from his voice. “You know the last time we talked. I told you. She doesn’t want to hear shit from me. Not now, not ever, for any reason.”

“You’ve seen the news, haven’t you, Louis?”

“‘Course I have. Sorry about it.” Louis threw the cigarette in the trash only to promptly pull out another from pure habit. He didn’t know what to say. Sorry your kid tried to kill mine? The three of them had been inseparable friends in High School, but friendship only went so far.

And a lot of people choose bad friends in high school.

“That’s not the true story. Nicole’s deviancy has caught up to her.”

“What do you mean, deviancy ?” Louis asked, feeling every muscle in his body go utterly still, a hand gripping the phone with white knuckles. He waited the full three minutes with his teeth clenched.

“You complained to me yourself about her cowardice, her unwillingness to commit to military life. We both know what cowards are capable of. And what she’s done, Louis, is cowardly .”

Maria peaked around the corner and Louis waved a hand across his neck. She nodded and vanished.

“I want to help her, Louis. She’s put my son in jail, but I still want to help her come clean.”

“Come clean about what?” Louis felt part of himself drift backward, floating into the past. He was having dozens of conversations, most arguments, at the same time. He pulled out a smoke and lit it. He missed his brother. He was always better at making sense of situations like this.

“Framing my son to bed her colleague. I have proof.”

“Ah, Christ.” Louis wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Count backward from 10. 9, 8. “Ah, shit Christ, J. What the hell is this? You just call up, out of the blue, and insist my daughter is some sorta what? Criminal mastermind? Is that a stereotype? You know she gets everything from Maria, J.”

Breathe in, breathe out. Three minutes of angry meditation later,

“We both know she’s a coward. You told me so. You insisted so, the last time we spoke. She turned down the honor to serve her country for a trip to the stars. Isn’t that your exact phrasing?"

“My daughter ,” Louis shouted into the phone, wishing Gardner was in front of him, so he could loom over the man and punch his lights out. “Is the bravest person I know, you jackwagon.”

This three minute delay only made their argument more frustrating. Louis took another shakey pull before cursing his own damn habits and stomping it out.

“Louis. I have proof. I have evidence that Nicole has framed my son in order to become some sort of hero. It's clear that she's also taken advantage of her coworker in the process."

Louis lost it.

“You have proof of jack and shit ,” Louis insisted, holding the phone in front of him. “I got proof of this: You lost your goddamn mind fifteen years ago and you still haven’t found it. I found mine, asshole. I moved on. I got therapy.” Louis shook his head, breathing, but felt his rage overtake him.

Enough of this shit.

“No. Fuck you. Fuck you, Gardner. You know why the police found no proof about your vandal? Because I took it all away, J. She came home with the bat in one hand and whiskey in the other and you know what I did? I covered it up.”

Louis waited the full three minutes smiling.

“You told me it wasn’t her. You lied to me? You lied to me?

“That’s right! I covered it up, you dumb motherfucker! How does that feel, huh? How’s betrayal feel? It feel nice ? Oh, yeah! Nice stuff, right! Fuck you! Fuck you and your spaceship!” Louis felt a bizarre kind of giddiness, the flush of being honest for the first time in years. “I don’t give a shit about your proof because you know what, J?” Louis lowered his voice, bringing in the receiver. “You know what?”

He didn’t wait for the delayed response.

“I’d do it again in a heartbeat. If she framed your worthless, piece of shit, son-of-a-bitch son, I’d gladly go to hell for it with her. Don’t you ever fucking call me again, you shitstain.”

Louis hung up.

 

DAY 60

 

Waverly sat eating waffles, waiting for her coworker to crawl out of bed. To be honest, this past week had sucked. She had missed Nicole desperately without even really knowing it.

“INTRODUCING…”

Waverly jumped as the roomba spoke, frowning with narrowed eyes.

“THE ONE, THE ONLY…”

A child. A child, for sure.

“COMMANDER HAUGHT!”

Air Horns blared as Nicole slid into the kitchen in her socks, sunglasses on and arms crossed.

“Oh, my god,” Waverly said in disbelief as her waffle hit the plate. Nicole sauntered over and propped an elbow on the table. One finger lowered her sunglasses and she winked.

“Guess who’s back has healed,” Nicole said, smug.

“You are… a child ,” Waverly said in disbelief, blushing out of embarrassment, (Not the other thing, no! Begone, such thoughts!) “They gave me a child for a Commander.”

That knocked the smug look off Nicole’s face, only for Waverly to discover a smaller smug look underneath. “Okay, listen. I think I’m allowed to have some sort of fun after being in a small room unable to move for so long.” Nicole grinned wide, lifting her sunglasses for good. “And the look on your face is priceless .”

Waverly, annoyed beyond politeness, found herself speechless as Nicole offered a hand.

“May I have this dance?”

“No!”

But Nicole looked so damn happy . So, though glaring and mentally planning murder, Waverly took the hand and found herself spinning in Martian reduced gravity. “Jesus!”

Nicole drew them into a ballroom dance and Waverly’s heart did somersaults. “Smiling is good for productivity, Lead Researcher! Try harder!”

“I’m going to kill you!” Waverly assured, laughing. Nicole had that magic. That ability to take everything and make Waverly forget, just for a little while. Just for a moment, a glorious moment, swinging together without a care in the world.

“You know what psychology recommends everyday?” Nicole said as they whirled apart and came together, never releasing her hand. “Exercise daily, take breaks as often as needed, and most of all, ensure you don’t fall into depression.” It was a testament to how utterly contagious Nicole’s joy was that Waverly found herself dancing along. “So if you kill me, make sure it hits all three of those points.”

Waverly laughed, delighted.  “Where’s our music?”

“You don’t hear it?” Nicole stopped them with a final turn, before falling to her knees. She took one of Waverly’s hands and with her other hand over her heart, confessed. Waverly’s heart skipped to a complete stop. “Every time I see you, I hear the most wonderful music.”

Waverly’s mouth opened and closed, failing to execute proper commands. “Wh… What?”

“Yeah!” Nicole said brightly. “It goes like this,” and she proceeded to give her best rendition of Toto’s extremely unique intro to “Africa”.

Waverly laughed, Nicole laughed, Waverly smacked Nicole who immediately began to laugh harder, and a thought, unbidden, came as Nicole stood to fix coffee:

Someone is going to be very lucky to call this woman theirs.

Waverly’s thoughts stopped dead in her tracks, thankful Nicole had turned away. Her gut twisted viciously at the thought of someone else and she leaned heavily on the couch. What the hell? Where had that come from?

But another thought winged itself into view, equally confusing in how it banished that sick feeling:

Maybe, after all this is over, that someone could be me.

How strange. Waverly put them both away, shaking herself free of them with a simple now is not the time! , and when Nicole turned around with her coffee, offering a bright grin and a question of how the day would go, Waverly’s face had returned to a cautious smile.

 

DAY 61-71

 

This is how it worked:

They pretended to be badly pretending not to be dating their colleague, so they could pretend to be actually dating their colleague, whom they wished to actual, for real, date.

(Neither of them knew the last part, of course.)

Their plan relied heavily upon the public. NASA would lose its mind if it knew, but the pressure of protest might save their careers from crashing completely as Gardner wanted.

Waverly found it harder and harder to remember her anger at Nicole, but chalked it up to her focus. She considered how strange and easy it was for them to pretend. Surely, it was only because of how good they were at being colleagues. Thoughts that had bothered her weeks ago (and bothered her still) came as a result of touch-starved biological process, not because of Nicole herself. Not at all.

Right.

And Nicole was just very, very good at acting.

First it came with videos where they sat a bit too close, stared a bit too long.

Some more obvious than others.

“We really miss you guys,” Nicole said with deep frown, “I promise we’ll be back soon. And --” Nicole had to catch herself from Waverly’s extremely distracting hands. “We hope to see you then.”

Waverly badly hid a smile, one of her hands running through Nicole’s hair and the other resting on a shoulder in a way that was far too familiar.

More subtle ones included Nicole simply watching Waverly explain the backyard while staring in adoration.

Each morning, they sat and plotted the first phase of their plan. After Day 83, when they ‘came clean,’ the play would begin for real.

“Can you pretend to laugh?” Nicole asked, “I’m not sure if I can do a good one.”

“Oh, if it’s bad that’ll be better!” Waverly said, eyes alight, “I’ll laugh even harder then, as if I’m ridiculously in love and definitely think it’s still somehow funny.”

“Your genius never ceases to amaze me.”

 

Nicole’s talent for romantic phrasing shined. Waverly gathered the chickens together in a rare act of patience and Nicole set a timer.

The photo they took together made them both pause for a long time, saying nothing. Something about the moment made them feel like if they breathed too loud or moved too fast, the feeling would scatter like a startled deer.

The feeling stared them both in the face and Nicole was scared to move.

“Can you send me a copy?” Waverly asked without looking away, trying to break this strange silence.

“Yeah,” Nicole said absently.

The photo that had captured them for the past seven minutes? The two of them, frozen in time, smiling like it was the happiest day of their lives, surrounded by the chickens.

“Best team on Mars?” Waverly asked before wincing, her shoulders drooping. Nothing came to her that did it justice. This kind of photo held something emotional within it. It was perfect for their purpose. They were excellent at this acting thing.

“No.” Nicole typed and posted something else.

They must have stood there looking like idiots at the result as the chickens waited for them to get their shit together. Unfortunately, they didn’t.

“That’s… that’s really good,” Waverly managed. Nicole nodded slowly. Neither could look away, as if the photo might vanish. As if facing reality after witnessing that photo might have changed everything.

“I’m going to make dinner,” Waverly said before retreating.

“Yeah,” Nicole said, not looking away.

@HaughtOnMars: Family. [Photo attached.]

 

ADMISSIONSCRIPT.DOCX

NHaught has submitted edit:

Waverly: I’ve fallen in love with Nicole’s totally rockin’ hot bod! Surprise no one!! So don’t freak out if any RACY PICTURES get out, I’m just in looooovvveee. You gotta tell NASA how cool our love is so they don’t fire us for shenanigans. Thanks in advance so I can have s

WEarp has submitted edit:

Nicole: I’m a terrible dork who can’t write scripts to save my life!

NHaught:

Waverly: Nicole is the best at scripts. And other stuff. ;)

WEarp:

Stop making me say dumb things. We need to be serious

NHaught:

Listen we’re doing so well the world would definitely fall for that. also

Waverly: I take things too seriously :(((

WEarp:

How am i saying frown-y faces??

NHaught:

Waverly: colon parentheses parentheses parentheses my THESIS is how SEXY NICOLE IS, totally HAUGHT am i right ladies? B)  capital b parentheses

WEarp:

Nicole: I surrender all rights as commander. Waverly is now commander. Waverly is now going to spend the next few days writing the script ALONE because I lost my right for input!

NHaught:

Capital B Parentheses sweet. vacation

 

The phone rang on a mahogany desk.

“Hello, Ward Earp speaking.” He yawned as the recording played to tell him the delay. Bothersome.

“This is Commander Gardner. I’m calling about your daughter, Waverly Earp. I have some concerns to discuss with you.”

“I don’t know anyone by that name.”

Ward hung up.

    

DAY 72

 

A rough draft later...

The smooth sounds of Johnny Cash made Waverly pause and quiet her steps. She would have knocked, had the door been closed, but instead stopped and stared openly.

Nicole stood, focused entirely on her chamomile plant, bent over and squinting. With trained precision she clipped a dead part and inspected another. There was something so terribly sad, so utterly private, that Waverly felt like a trespasser.

Moments before she could retreat, Nicole spoke, voice heavy with a kind of exhaustion that startled Waverly with its depths, “I still think about the cliff sometimes.”

Waverly threw embarrassment and caution to the wind. “Nicole...”

“I watch.” Nicole gestured with her pruners, not looking up from her plant. “I think, ‘what could I have done better’? What could I have changed? Could it have been different somehow?” Nicole finally looked at Waverly, who stood still as if movement might shatter the moment. “I think, if someone else had been in my place… could they have done something?”

Waverly shook her head, moving closer, mouth open to respond and deny,

“But then I see you.” Nicole admitted. “I see you and you’re here and you’re still alive.” She shook her head, resolute. “Nothing else matters.”

Waverly wasn’t sure when she had decided to close the distance. She rested her fingers delicately over Nicole’s, trailing them upward over warm, comforting, real skin. Touch. Contact. Even the smallest of brushes had Waverly’s heart racing to get out of her chest.

I’m here, I’m real, I’m alive , Waverly tried to say with her touch alone.

Nicole let out a shaky breath, as if she had the same reaction.

Perhaps seconds before Waverly could make an absolutely disastrous decision, the plant spoke in a small, insistent robotic voice: “ANALYSIS COMPLETE.”

Waverly snatched her arm back and Nicole shook her head to clear it.

Johnny Cash slowly faded out and Nicole cleared her throat. “I was going to, uh, go to… If you wanted to come along…?”

“Yeah,” Waverly said, glad for the dark, “Yeah, of course. I’m just going to…”

“Right. Right,” Nicole agreed, blinking as if she’d been hit in the head.

Waverly fled.

 

The chickens, satisfied with their feed, clucked contentedly in the background as Waverly tucked herself in with the tablet.

Time to re-educate herself. She remembered, vaguely, enough of the incident from her own training days. They’d heard the story repeated over and over, a mantra, to learn from the failure that cost lives to learn. An accident. The circumstances confidential. But with her new perspective on Gardner…

Was it possible that he was responsible somehow?

 

TRAGEDY STRIKES: ARES 5 LEAVES ONE SURVIVOR

“I lost a piece of myself,” admits survivor James Gardner, engineer and second-in-command, “I don’t know why I survived and they didn’t.”

INVESTIGATION LAUNCHED INTO ARES 5 TRAGEDY

NO FOUL PLAY EXPECTED - NASA STATEMENT

THE LOST ASTRONAUT  

James Gardner, 35, returned on April 12th, 2006 to Earth, leaving three of his comrades behind.

“Decompression kills in just a few minutes,” said one analyst we managed to get a hold of for comment, “They didn’t suffer long at all. In fact, it would have been a peaceful way to die.”

Commander Wendy Nguyen, 45, leaves behind a wife and two children.

Botanist William Haught, 60, leaves behind grieving relatives but no family.

Medical supervisor Alexei Orlov, 34, leaves behind a husband and four children.

“A monument will be built in their honor. One here on Earth, and the other on Mars,” says NASA Administrator Jerome Goodman, “We will go forward in their memory.”

 

FIFTEEN YEARS LATER: LOST ASTRONAUT REJOINS CREW, FLIES HERMES

“I am proud to be of service once again,” says James Gardner of the ill-fated Ares 5 disaster, “I don’t think it can ever really be the same.”

The final flight of Hermes will lift off on April 12th in memory of Ares 5, carrying Ares 23 Astronauts Waverly Earp, 28 year old Botanist, and two additional engineers: Cillian McAlester, 42, and Joseph Strunk, 35.

Astute followers of the Ares Mission will note that instead of the planned eight, only four will be lifting off aboard Hermes. NASA has been mysteriously tight-lipped about the reasons behind the understaffing.

Eight astronauts from around the world have been chosen to fly aboard Iris, which will begin its journey to Mars as part of a duo-launch during the Hohmann Window. The history-making event will be streamed live next year.

More about the historic Hermes missions, and the plans for the 2021 Space Station

 

Waverly sat back, having learned almost nothing new. Just as she had figured. Hardly anything had changed in fifteen years: The incident had merely slipped from the public mind and the Wikipedia section of “Causes” remained almost completely empty.

A rather entertaining article caught her eye, though, and Waverly gave a small laugh to remember when she and Nicole had only been a footnote in a grand display.

 

JANITOR DUTY: WHAT IT MIGHT BE LIKE TO BE IN THE SHADOW OF HISTORY

NASA recently announced that the second astronaut to remain behind on Mars has been chosen. Many expected the recently re-contracted James Gardner of the Ares 5 disaster to be given the opportunity, but Nicole Haught, age 33, has been chosen to lead the mission.

Instead, Commander James Gardner will have the honor of overseeing the Hermes reflight. Commander Randy Nedley will be joining him as pilot.

 

DAY 73 

 

The next day, the EVA was cleared.

Silence between them wasn’t new. Often, they found themselves sharing the space over break times or meals without a word spoken between them, simply seeking to be in the presence of another. This time, it seemed different. Deeper.

The silence followed them into the rover, out into the Martian desert. Nicole had insisted on it being at night.

Nicole’s hand shook over the console and Waverly took it gently, careful in case Nicole wanted it back, but it stayed under Waverly’s soft touch until they reached the gravesite.

A small, rectangular marker stood at the peak of an incline that looked over a vast expanse. On any other day, Waverly would have fallen in love with the breathtaking view from their elevation. The frosted blue sunset sliced the desert with rapidly approaching shadows that raced up to the monument with each passing minute.

Nicole paused a few feet away and Waverly cautiously moved to read the plaque.

 

IN OUR JOURNEY TO THE STARS

THERE ARE THOSE WHO PAY THE ULTIMATE PRICE

FOR THE PROGRESS OF HUMANITY

HERE LIE OUR HEROES

COMMANDER WENDY NGUYEN OF ARES 5

ALEXEI ORLOV OF ARES 5

WILLIAM HAUGHT OF ARES 5

MAY THEIR SACRIFICE BE REMEMBERED

PER ASPERA AD ASTRA

 

“When I was 18, I did a very stupid thing,” Nicole admitted quietly, “I almost threw away my whole future. That should have been what happened -- but I got away with it.”

Waverly stayed silent, unsure of what to do or say.

“When he died, my whole world went sideways. I --” Nicole took deep, heaving breaths to fight tears and Waverly tried her best to reassure her with a comforting touch. “Not just upset. I was furious. So, so angry. I’d never felt that before, and not since, not until --” Nicole took a moment and Waverly filled in blanks. “I had no idea how to deal with it and my friends at the time… We decided to do something about it.”

“Nicole…”

 

THE SUMMER OF 2006, TEXAS, EARTH

The beater car buzzed harder than the shitty song playing on the radio.

“Uptight fuck didn’t even attend the service,” groused Amanda, “How fuckin’ obvious is that?”

“Dude’s a motherfuckin’ murderer,” Jake settled his hand on Nicole’s shoulder. “We’re gonna make him pay some big bucks tonight, Nic. Eh?” When Nicole didn’t respond, he shook her shoulder and laughed, big and rowdy and drunk, “Eh?”

“Yeah.” Nicole hated that nickname but was too far gone to care. The whiskey numbed the broken glass she’d been carrying inside her for days.

“Power’s cut.” Amanda hung up the phone. “George has the garage door. Jake, get outta the fuckin’ car and play watchman.”

“You got it, Mandy.” Jake slid out of the car before Amanda could smack him.

Amanda turned to Nicole, who shifted uncomfortably. “Do it, Nic. You owe it to the guy.” Amanda pointed with one finger from the steering wheel. “Take the bat.”

Nicole felt ill.

“This fucker ruined your life and you know it,” she insisted. “Take the bat. We don’t have all night.”

Nicole opened the door and stumbled out, bat in hand. The world swam as she lurched across the grass lawn toward the dark of the garage. His priceless GTO lay within, waiting.

It became hard to remember what happened next. She could remember the reverb of the bat in her hands, how it arced up her arm when she swung. The crunching of the exterior. The precise, organized location of the tools on the wall. The shine of the rearview mirror and the cracks she drove into it.

Fuck you! She had thought, or shouted, or whispered, as she took all of her grief out on the car. Fuck you for ruining my fucking life! Why did you leave me behind! How could you do something like this? I needed you the most now and now you have left me alone! Where do I go now? What do I do?

She could still hear the sound the bat made when the tip hit the concrete, the handle still held loosely between her fingers.

The insurance report held almost five figures of damage.

The phone rang. “Fuckin’ neighborhood watch, dude. Get out.”

She simply held the phone to her ear, silent.

“Nic?”

“Nic. Get out of there. There’s a dude at the front door! Fucking Mormons!”

“You fucking -- All right, dumbass, we’re leaving you behind.”

Nicole never saw them again.

 

Nicole waited, but nobody came for her. She shambled out of the garage later and in her deepest, vaguest memories, she remembered making eye contact with a woman in a window.

 

When she called, Teddy arrived.

“The hell is wrong with you!” Teddy asked, gripping the steering wheel. “This isn’t you! You just threw away everything, Nicole. All of it! What about going to space, huh? Did you think about that? How are we going to space now!” He rambled, panicked, distraught. His friend sank further into herself in the passenger seat.

“Fuck. Open the window before you -- Now I gotta clean that.”

Silence.

“This isn’t you,” he mumbled, “I’ll damn testify… How’s it work? Temporary insanity. That’s it. Fugue state.”

They arrived.

“Do you want me to go in?” Teddy drummed the steering wheel. “You want -- Maybe he’ll listen to me, yeah? Bloody British charm. Do you think? Convince him to call his mafia buddies.”

“No.” Nicole opened the door. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

“Fuck,” was all Teddy said, looking like he wanted to return to smoking.

 

Things became even blurrier. Nicole stood in the dining room and the light clicked on. Her father stood in the doorway, barely taking up half of it, staring with wide eyes.

“Jesus,” he said, “Jesus Christ, Nicole.”

Nicole tightened her mouth petulantly.

Her father seemed to make a decision, his voice quieting. “Gimme the bat, sweetheart.”

He’d never called her that. Not that she remembered. Nicole took a shaky step forward and gave him the bat and the whiskey.

He stared at the almost empty bottle. “Jesus.” He shook his head. “Go upstairs. Drink some water or somethin’.”

Nicole didn’t move.

“Go on!” He said louder, but not unkindly, “Go on.”

Nicole went upstairs and slept.

 

MARS, 2020

“The next morning I thought I’d be arrested. But nothing happened. Life went on and…” Nicole seemed winded and Waverly looked up at her curiously. “I tried for years to take it back. I paid the insurance anonymously. But he never, ever…”

Waverly knew what was coming. “Nicole, listen to me,” she whispered, “Even if you hadn’t… you know he still would have done this to us.” She tried vainly to see Nicole’s expression in the dark. “And I’m responsible for part of this. We’re both in this together and we’ll get out of it together.”

Nicole sank to her knees and Waverly caught her, held her, as years of repressed emotion fell freely against her visor.

They sat for a long time, the stars changing overhead. Eventually, Waverly quietly led Nicole to the rover to clean the tear tracks from the glass.

Nicole put her helmet back on. At Waverly’s look of surprise, Nicole cycled the airlock. “There’s something I wanted to show you. The reason why they put it here.”

They stood there as minutes passed, helmets leaning against each other, as the stars appeared in the night sky.

“Oh, my god,” Waverly breathed as the sky changed color. She stepped forward, mesmerized, to the top of the slope. Nicole let her go, breathless at the combined view.

Nicole, struck by the beauty of the moment, took a photo. Waverly, gazing over the landscape that changed color beneath the dance of the alien aurora. Lower than Earth’s due to the different atmosphere, but strangely beautiful. Earth itself glittered in the dark above her.

@HaughtOnMars: Nighttime EVA with my whole world in view. [Photo attached]

 

They returned under the same silence, Nothing standing between them and the empty loneliness of the planet. No music. No conversation.

Just silence.

Waverly broke it first, taking Nicole’s hand. “Come on,” she whispered, leading Nicole back toward the greenhouse. The chickens started up a small titter at their entrance but fell quiet at the mood they sensed, not daring to interrupt this time.

Nicole, pliable, vulnerable, followed Waverly’s lead. “Here.” Waverly pulled Nicole down to the grass beside her to lay back. “Close your eyes,” Waverly whispered, “And breathe .”

Nicole shut her eyes and breathed in the Earthen air of the backyard. Though, rationally, Nicole knew there wasn’t much special about it -- it still felt like breathing life into her lungs, or changing the radio station to music after quiet. It flooded her, left her limp in the grass, imagining Earth gravity and sounds --

The sounds .

Nicole smiled as the noise of Earth greeted her. A bone-shaking sigh left her on the verge of tears. This was going on someone’s research paper, for sure, but it didn’t matter right then.

Just that Nicole ached for the feeling of Earth, her home, and Waverly had granted it.

“What song is Earth sending us?” Nicole asked quietly.

Waverly checked her tablet as she moved to sit beside Nicole. “Songbird by Fleetwood Mac.”

“Play it.”

Waverly laid back beside Nicole in the grass, touching the backs of her fingers together in a ghost of connection. A small, sad smile crept up Nicole’s face, her eyes closed, her face relaxed in a way Waverly had never seen before.

“Do you miss it?” Waverly whispered.

“God. yes,” Nicole admitted. “More than anything.”

“Why don’t you go back?”

“I don’t know.” Nicole said honestly. Maybe some desire to prove herself to her uncle, some feeling that she couldn’t leave him here alone, or perhaps just to have a record to her name. “No reason to, I guess.”

“Nobody waiting for you?” Waverly asked.

“No.” Nicole turned her head. “You?”

“My sister,” Waverly said without looking at Nicole, “And I had an aunt and uncle I used to visit sometimes.” Waverly fought for something to say to tear this awful sorrow. “You should meet my sister. I think either you’ll get along or kill each other.”

“Kill each other, huh?” A ghost of a smirk crossed Nicole’s face. “How’s she gonna do that from so far away?”

“I guess I’ll just have to take you back to Earth with me and introduce you to her in person.”

Finally, Nicole smiled, a chuckle making it past her lips. “I guess you will, Waverly. I guess you will.”

 

DAY 74

 

“You’re a difficult person to get ahold of, Ms. Earp.”

“I’m a busy woman,” Willa responded as she pushed through a crowded shopping center. “What do you want, ‘Mr. Gardner’?”

“I have something to discuss with you, regarding Waverly Earp’s recent behavior.”

Willa stopped her assistant with a hand, causing the crowd around her to part with dirty looks. She ignored them. “Go on, Mr. Gardner. You should know how worried I am about my sister going down the wrong path.”

 

Not many would believe an Ex-Con could be an astronaut, but it’s true. The shaken American public needed something to hold onto following Ares 5, and the scholarship offered to an ex-con gifted them hope. It didn’t matter he was barely a criminal, convicted of petty theft and gang-related loitering, they still loved a good underdog story.

He’d kept his head down, making zero waves even when pressed for comment. Part of redemption is the terrible guilt of realizing you had done some very bad things. His crewmates have written things such as “a bit eccentric, but a good teammate” and “really loves the Eagles.”

Bobo Del Rey, Ex-con, Astronaut, Ares 25, Systems Communications Specialist, drifted in the low grav aboard the Iris while listening to Blondie. His tablet lit up, showing his lockscreen of the Ares-Alpha Base photo. A smile glanced across his face. He had never been more proud of Waverly for finally making it.

However, he had inadvertently been helping Willa ruin her life.

WEarp: Could you send another message for me?

Bobo: You got it. Sent along.

Bobo frowned. INPUT BLOCKED. REASON: BLACKLISTED WORD

Must be an accident. He bypassed it easily and the message went through. Obeying the rules for once in his life, he never took a peek at what the message might say.

The day started without any indication of horrendous wrongdoing. They chatted amicably over breakfast and Waverly snapped a photo of them together with the waffles, commenting on the food. Take that, Houston.

Later, when checking the newest results on the alcohol content of her wine (Which wouldn’t be ready for days yet), Waverly found a message.

 

disaPMars: [attached] is this what you want our name to mean??

#ALPHABASE -- THE COMMANDER’S GIRL

Mindy B. Johansen

Half of Tumblr wants to know: Are the two sexiest astronauts on Mars boning, or not?

My only option was to use my expensive Masters degree in journalism to track down answers. In 2017, a leaked memo written in the 1990s detailed a study of social dynamics between possible long-term astronauts and returned a startling suggestion: make crews all female to reduce ‘impure sexual thoughts.’

(Addendum: also because women, by all accounts, cooperate much better. How many hours of work have we, the female gender, lost to mansplaining as a whole? Thousands.)

Good call, NASA, good call. Obviously, this was written in the pre-lesbian era, before lesbians blossomed from the earth by one Ellen Degeneres and corrupted the youth.

At least, that’s how my dad insists it happened.

NASA has not released any comment on the memo or subsequent investigations into the selection process for long-range missions. Obviously, with Ares 24 being made up of six women and four men on the Iris (Including the ex-con, holy shit!) the memo has long since been discarded.

But is it really a coincidence that two women were chosen for the Alpha Base mission? One of the viable botanists for the Alpha Base mission was recently contracted aboard the Peregrine. Dr. Eric Hansel, 43, with twenty-five years in the industry and a phD to boot is, on paper, miles ahead of Waverly “Masters in Life Sciences” Earp.

Obviously they picked her because she’s a woman! You declare. There’s no other reason!

You’ve been living under a rock.

This whole thing is a publicity stunt.

Everybody around the world and under its rocks are aware Commander Nicole Haught is a lesbian. Contrary to Hollywood belief, the only thing we lesbians are predatory about is lunch and a good discount on flannel.

[image of Nicole Haught, smiling, leaning against a NASA research plane]

She could be predatory about me and I would NOT mind.

Waverly Earp’s eyesight is required to be 20/20, so it’s safe to assume that yes, they’re having sex. A lot of it. And they’re not even being very subtle about it!

[Link to HaughtOnMars “Family” post.]

Sure. Colleagues. Right. Sure, Jan.

NASA, if you’re reading this, you’re on the right track. I’m pretty sure we’d pull millions to be eyes on the wall for that.

Hey, gotta pay for Ares 26 somehow, am I right?

 

Waverly felt sick. This wasn’t what she had wanted. This wasn’t right. This was public (very public if the counter was correct) and just… Wrong!

The chickens watched idly as Waverly paced, making frustrated noises to herself.

“Are you serious? Publicity stunt?” Waverly hissed to herself, “I’m here for sex? Not all of the papers I’ve published, the thesis I prepared, the work I put in for this?”

“Buk,” said Curie.

“No! None of that matters!” Waverly shouted angrily, “Just here to have sex with Nicole! Just forget everything else I’ve done in my entire fucking life! Stupid, shitting, shit-shit--

Oh, god. People didn’t believe this, did they?

If this got to NASA, she’d be fucked. And not by Nicole.

Wave: Chrissy… how many articles are out there like this?

Chrissy: what in the name of ACTUAL LIBEL is this?

Chrissy: don’t worry Wave. I got this, trust me.

 

ERROR: ARTICLE NOT FOUND.

 

“This is bullshit!” Chrissy shouted at a blank-faced Annie. “This is complete and utter bullshit -- how can they publish this with a straight face?”

Annie waited patiently as Chrissy paced.

“Accusing them of stuff like that in such vulgar words. What the hell! You’re getting this taken down, right?”

“Correct.” Annie lowered her glasses. “But it won’t be long before there are more like it.”

Chrissy stopped in front of the window with arms crossed. “Bullshit.”

“Language.”

“You know what this is doing to her?” Chrissy asked angrily, “To them both? Psychologically? What is it like to be accused of something like that and be unable to defend yourself?” Chrissy winced at her tone. “Sorry. I just… I’m sorry.”

Wave: I need to talk to your boss about something.

“Chrissy, darling, stare any harder and it gets embarrassed.”

“She wants to talk to you,” Chrissy said in disbelief, holding out her phone.

“Everybody does,” Annie said easily, but read into Chrissy’s ever present discomfort. “Let me take care of this. I won’t let them continue to write articles such as this, understand?”

Chrissy nodded, relieved.

Wave: This is a grossly inappropriate article. If necessary, I will press charges.

Annie: I will take care of it.

Wave: These people KNOW it’s illegal, right?

Annie: Not that I know of. That rulebook isn’t public.

Wave: Is there any chance you could let them KNOW?

Annie: Not necessarily. But we’ll see if someone doesn’t just happen upon that section and just happened to publish it.

Wave: Thank you so much

Annie: No matter what, I am on your side

 

But the question lingered in the back of Waverly’s mind, enticing the worst of her fears:

Is it possible there were more?

Not really, she discovered. There were one or two translations of the article circulating, but the vast majority of articles she found about her, Waverly Earp, were about Nicole.

NICOLE HAUGHT: AMERICAN HERO

10 FACTS ABOUT COMMANDER NICOLE HAUGHT

NEW UPDATE ABOUT GARDNER CASE, NICOLE HAUGHT

THE ARES MISSION MILESTONES IN PHOTOS

THE RESCUE OF A LIFETIME

They barely mentioned her!

That night, Waverly began to lie. Earlier, she had just been fuzzing her breaks and working during them, but now she intentionally mislead the sleep schedule into believing she didn’t come to bed very, very late.

She had lived in the shadow of her family for so long. She would not live in Nicole’s.

 

DAY 75

 

@Ssssspaggeti2: hey guys, check this out :) [Article: Sex on Mars ILLEGAL?] #Alphabase

@WHStan: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ALL MY FICS ARENT CANON

@Stonecold: mine still are

@StetsonBot: boohoo my allegations are damaging to the people im talking about! aww!!

@Ssssspaggeti2: obey the law guys, nobody breaks it! EVER

@BotanyIsBest: turn location on i’m about to make you into tortellini for implying Waverly would EVER date below her GODDESS league

@WHStan: YESSS ALL MY FICS ARE STILL CANON

@spacecriminal: stop breaking the space laws! They’re not risking space jail for some space sex. Be real, they’re in space love

@MartianCoffee: FORBIDDEN LOVE. FORBIDDEN LOVE. FORBIDDEN LOVE. FORBIDDEN LOVE. FORBIDDEN LOVE. FORBIDDEN L

@aliengays: catch me protesting outside houston so waverly can get laid

 

Nicole looked up as Waverly sighed with enough force to flutter her pancake. “You okay, Earp?”

“Just tired,” Waverly responded dully.

“Maybe you sh--”

“Don’t,” Waverly sighed, “It’s nothing to worry about. I’ll take a nap later, busybody.”

Nicole bit her lip, caught between being concerned and trusting Waverly’s judgement. Eventually, she let out a heavy breath and returned to eating. “If you need anything, you can tell me.”

“Mmkay,” Waverly mumbled.

Waverly’s head nearly hit the table before she woke up again, returning to having her head properly held by a hand.

Nicole cut off a piece of pancake and rolled it with a fork, watching with keen pilot’s eyes as Waverly’s face drooped. Distance over time equals…

The speed of a piece of pancake hitting Waverly in arm, the time it took for her to react, and the distance her head traveled to the table.

Wham!

Waverly rebounded with the speed only fury can give and Nicole’s life flashed before her eyes. So many mistakes, so many unanswered questions, actions left undone -- and now, she was going to die.

“Haught you piece of shit, shit-eating, shit-taking shit child of a Commander --”

That day Nicole learned there were worse things than ejecting from a plane at unsafe speeds. Waverly Earp, borne in fury, was the most terrifying thing she’d ever seen in her life.

 

Nicole lazily spun in the communications chair as Waverly made her tea, feeling an intense sense of Deja vu. How far they had come from frosty manners to this...

More familiar but still frosty manners.

“I have excellent news,” Nicole said, but Waverly’s smile remained elusive. “Your plan is working exceptionally well so far, Lead Researcher.”

Apparently the wrong tactic. Waverly barely gave her a glance. “That’s nice.”

Th... That’s nice?

Nicole supposed it saved her a lot of jokes that Waverly couldn’t see how enthusiastic their fanbase had gotten about this love story of theirs, some of them even going so far as to line up pictures taken from before they began the story and insist it was evidence.

(Maybe it was.)

 

@MartianCoffee: look at this gay idiot in love who’d do anything for her gf [picture of Nicole looking at Waverly during a video]

@spacecriminal: 20 bucks says she LIVES for that look on waverly’s face

 

Nicole set her head on the desk and groaned.

“Haught, can you fix the VPS? It’s acting up again.”

Before she could even think, Nicole was out of her seat. “On it.”

It was only later, far later, after working for hours to find the problem and being so damn relieved at the slight smile on Waverly’s face, that Nicole realized that she was, in fact, absolutely 100%  a gay idiot in love with her ‘gf.’

And that she owed ‘spacecriminal’ 20 bucks.'

 

DAY 76

 

Breakfast. Another affair of watching Waverly barely exist. Nicole held tightly to her fork, simply observing as Waverly blinked slowly at the tablet, yawning for the fifth time in so many minutes.

“Earp.”

Waverly didn’t respond.

Nicole lost it, concern overriding anything else. “ Earp.

“What!” Waverly yelled on reflex, eyes flying open. Nicole peered at her condition, taking in the exhaustion hanging on every inch of skin visible.

“Are you getting enough sleep?” Nicole asked, testing the waters.

“Yes.” Waverly moved to stand, to avoid, but Nicole did as well and they met gazes evenly.

Don’t, Waverly’s gaze said.

I’m gonna, Nicole said back.

Don’t do this.

Definitely gonna.

You’re gonna regret it.

“I don’t think you are,” Nicole said awkwardly, caught between a hard place and Waverly Earp. She cleared her throat. “You look ready to topple over, Earp. You’re sure you’re coming in right after I fall asleep and not, you know, not ?”

Nicole braced herself for the storm of a lifetime.

Before impact, Waverly let out a tremendous sigh and conceded, taking them both by surprise.

“You got me, Haught,” Waverly said. deflating, “But I’m working on it. I have it under control.”

“You do?” Nicole asked, taking a step forward. She brought her voice quieter, to the tone usually reserved for honest moments between them, “You don’t have to, you know. You don’t always have to be on top of things. It’s okay to be stressed, Earp. It’s okay to show it.”

Please , Nicole said silently.

Waverly looked away, looking so conflicted Nicole just wanted to hug her. “I.. I’m working on it. Please.” Waverly looked down. “I just have to get over this.”

Nicole opened her mouth to press, to ask, but stopped at the edge of Waverly’s space. “I just want you to know you can come to me. With whatever it is.”

Waverly seemed equally at odds between silence and admission. “I just need time.”

Then, surely because of exhaustion alone, Waverly hugged Nicole. Stunned, Nicole almost didn’t hug back, but soon hesitantly curled her arms around trembling shoulders.

“It’s okay,” Nicole insisted into brown locks, hoping to instill truth into her words, “Whatever it is, it’s okay. You can figure it out.”

The hug lasted maybe three seconds, possibly five, but seemed to go on forever. Waverly pulled back, turning her face away. Nicole let her retreat to the greenhouse with concern still biting at her ankles.

 

The hens watched in confusion as the shorter monkey sat down and made crude gasping noises in their space. They sensed distress and huddled around their strange, unfortunately shaped caretaker, wishing to impart their affection.

“Why do I feel so bitter?” came the noise from it, “Why can’t I just be happy for her? For her fame. Why do I have to be such a bad person?”

They responded in coos and purrs and clucks, but no answer seemed to work.

“And she has to be so nice about it. God, I think -- I think I might have feelings for her,” the caretaker sobbed, “I’m screwed. Royally. This is… shit. It’s all gone to shit.” She wiped at her eyes. “I just need to stop being so goddamn selfish. I don’t need to have my own name -- it’s just I, I worked so damn hard and now it’s… God. I’m sorry, you guys don’t need to hear this.”

They crowded around and soon after the terrible sounds stopped, their caretaker slept.

 

Nicole flopped over, arm searching to hold, before consciousness came in the door banging pots and pans. Where is??? Warm, soft?? Sleep partner???

Not here!!

Opening her eyes, Nicole cracked her face in a yawn and took in the time. Three AM and Waverly wasn’t anywhere to be found. “Nnnnh?” Nicole asked the empty darkness.

“Wave?” she called louder.

The cold told Nicole that Waverly had not just left to use the restroom, she hadn’t come to bed. Blinking blearily, Nicole checked the nightstand for her tablet.  “Alpha Base. Where’s Waverly?”

“IN THE LOCATION ‘BACKYARD.’”

Nicole laid her head on the pillow, still tired. “What’s she doin’?”

“SHE APPEARS UNCONSCIOUS.”

“Okay, if that’s your word for asleep, I’m making you into a toaster.” Nicole rolled out of bed, groaning dramatically, and shuffled out through the base. The dark didn’t frighten her as it once did, and the ticks and tocks of the life support came as a comfort now.

Yes, the Base had no way to tell sleep from unconsciousness. Waverly lay against the ‘wall’ of the backyard, the hens nesting in every space next to her. They buzzed and growled as Nicole approached.

“I know,” Nicole soothed as she stepped over the hens, “I know. I’m stealing your mother.”

One of their more important rules was to ignore anything said while asleep or close to it. Nicole knelt down next to Waverly. “Hey. Can I carry you to bed?”

Waverly made a displeased noise before opening her eyes. She shut them again. “K.”

Nicole carefully picked up Waverly bridal style, who hung on with arms wrapped around Nicole’s neck, nose pressed against her collarbone, a sigh shaking from her lungs that felt so..

So…

Satisfied? Comfortable?

…That Nicole struggled with the sudden urge to cry and a strange, visceral heart ache. Must be the exhaustion. She walked steadily back to their shared room, already falling back to sleep by the time she made it to the mattress.

Waverly, still asleep, refused to let go and pulled Nicole onto the bed on top of her.

“Jesus – Wave.” Nicole shut her eyes as Waverly simply curled around her, fingers tangling into Nicole’s hair, body pressed up against her in a way that was decidedly not wholesome. “Wave!” she whisper-yelled.

Waverly only cuddled closer, humming contentedly with a small, satisfied smile.

It wasn’t uncommon to wake up this way, but to go to sleep this way?

But the lack of response and the easy, steady breathing told Nicole that Waverly had already fallen back asleep. Nicole couldn’t deny it was extremely comfortable and didn’t hold any blame. She shouldn’t wake her, either, not since Waverly had looked so tired lately.

With a frustrated sigh, Nicole resigned herself to the torture of a good night’s sleep.

 

DAY 77

Waverly arched her back, moaning and clutching Nicole’s thin shirt, desperately trying to urge her ownward. More. Now. She could feel Nicole smile against her throat, the firm grip of Nicole’s hand on her hip, holding her down, the sweet slide of skin stealing Waverly’s breath again and again. But it wasn’t enough, not even close, and Waverly felt herself begging shamelessly, please! Please! And Nicole was calling her name --

“Waverly!”

Reality reasserted itself with horrifying, embarrassed speed and Waverly’s eyes focused in on Nicole’s concerned gaze. “Are you okay?”

Mortified, Waverly sat up. Nicole moved back, mercifully giving Waverly some space. “Uh, I. Yes. Yes, I am. Wh… Why do you ask?”

Nicole frowned, eyes searching her face. “You were having a nightmare.”

Waverly felt relief thunder through her body at unsafe speeds and nodded, swallowing hard. “Yeah. Definitely. It was… wow.”  Waverly’s eyes went comically large. “Scary. A nightmare. Frightening. Scary and dark. There’s uh... We were in the woods or something.”

Nicole tilted her head adorably, genuinely worried about her and Waverly’s mind went utterly blank again. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Waverly battled internally for words that made sense. “Uh… No.”

Nicole’s eyes softened into understanding which was the last straw. Nicole barely got a few words out -- “That’s okay, I’ll just” -- and Waverly had vanished out the door.

 

To say “frustrated” was an understatement.

Shannon: Can you please check the cricket volume on E5

Wave: I am not checking your crickets a fourth time, Shannon!

 

Johan: Crew member Seven’s weight is off. Please check again

Wave: [attached]

Johan: Are you feeding her properly?

Wave: Yes. I am. I have three years of experience on you. Don’t ask again.

 

DrDwyer: according to this, we have seven less ants than usual. Requesting recount

Wave: ahgudgjdkbfjkfbggjbkhhkiohgr ghFDKGDHSGJHFDp;

DrDwyer: Can you send that again?

Wave: Chicken stepped on tablet. Of course I’ll check it again.

 

Neil: can you check reason of death on that earthworm

Wave: ITS A ---- WORM IT DIED BECAUSE ITS A WORM

Neil: Thank you.

 

Chrissy: Are you doing ok, Waves?

Wave: If everybody could just stop treating me like a child for TWO SECONDS THAT WOULD BE GREAT

 

Houston: Are you certain you require no assistance from Psychology?

Wave: absolutely certain

 

Nicole also had avoidance tactics.

JPL: If you’re going to waste our 3d printer mass, can you at least use a robot so we can test it?

JPL: Vega team wants you to use theirs again.

NH: Sure. You’re welcome to watch.

So they did.

The Vega team patiently watched as Nicole used their robot to build a 3D printed guitar, scribbling notes and listening to Nicole’s commentary.

They even gave back invaluable advice.

In total, forty-three people of various nationalities and several million dollars helped build Waverly’s birthday present.

“You guys can’t tell her, okay?” Nicole insisted as she finished a third piece.

The team nodded. “Can you send us her response?”

“Absolutely.” Nicole smiled, a little bit lovestruck, but the team was too preoccupied to notice. “September Eighth. That’s on Day 80.”

 

DAY 78

 

Supplies reached Mars all the time. Unlike humans, who needed safe speeds, you could slap a rocket on a box and send it for a pretty low price. Often, they land in inconvenient places due to budget not including precise landing coordinates, but B-34 was a blessedly simple acquisition.

The robot finally reached the base, proudly carrying supply box B-34. Nicole leaned down and pet it, cooing. “Who’s a good robot, huh? Who’s a good boy?”

It did nothing in response, unaware of audio signals.

“I’m going to clean some dust off you later. I have to go do something dangerous first.”

It had to be amazing. It had to be perfect. It had to be the gesture that showed how badly Nicole wanted Waverly’s forgiveness. Nicole paused her planning, squinting.

How the fuck do you bake a cake in space?

 

NH: Hey, can I get some help? I need to bake a cake.

Houston: Repeat.

NH: I.. There’s no way you didn’t get the correct message. I need to bake a cake and I need assistance doing so.

Houston: The instructions are on the box, but let us call some people. Don’t try anything. Please, for the love of god, don’t try anything.

 

That night, Waverly found herself standing at the edge of the bed, staring down at Nicole in a way that was definitely a little creepy. Nicole dozed, mouth slightly open, looking perfect and adorable and beautiful .  Waverly felt sick.

These feelings were ruining everything.

The quiet envious voice in her head chewed away at her. Their very existence was proof of Waverly’s inadequacy. What kind of astronaut allows themself to be envious?

She deserves the spotlight! She saved my life!

But the agony of forgoing all the plans she had worked so hard for -- Even now, the articles mentioned her in a plain eighty percent less coverage. Not that Waverly calculated.

Shit.

Waverly couldn’t handle this right now. She left, seeking the next assignment, the sleepless nights haunting her every step, the bitter taste in her mouth only growing stronger.

 

DAY 79

 

Nicole woke up to a cold bed. She wandered into the kitchen, half out of existence, and tried to set the coffee. It beeped in annoyance to tell her it had already been set. Insert Mug, dumbass.

“GOOD MORNING, COMMANDER.”

“Good morning, Haught.”

Nicole jumped out of her skin. “Jesus, Waverly.” She squinted. “Did you get any sleep at all?”

“Some.” Waverly lifted her cup and sipped at it with a grimace, looking freshly raised from the dead.

Nicole turned, concern and confusion growing in equal amounts. “Is that coffee?

“Maybe,” Waverly mumbled into her mug.

Vague alarm bells rang in Nicole’s head, but the coffee maker announced the completion of filling her mug. It also said the coffee had already been emptied to 40%.

Louder alarm bells.

“Earp, uhm.” Nicole turned and looked at what Waverly had tried to give her for breakfast. “Did you scramble these eggs or pick a fight with them?”

Waverly ignored her, eyes glued to the tablet. Nicole sat down with a sigh.

“Waverly.” Nicole licked her lips and leaned forward, trying to get a better look at her colleague. Or at least get her to look back , “Are you all right?”

“Feeling peachy, Haught,” Waverly said with barely a glance. “Just… swamped with work.”

“Waverly,” Nicole insisted, lowering her voice, “Please. Something is wrong and it’s obviously tearing you apart. We can work on this, we can --”

Barely noticable if you weren’t careful, but the thin line of coherence keeping Waverly in check snapped with a bang as Waverly slapped the table to interrupt Nicole.

“Do you know how hard they’re going to try to paint me as the bad guy?” Waverly said with a hard set of her mug. Nicole froze, stunned.  “Do you have any idea just how much energy my family is going to put into discrediting me completely?”

Nicole furrowed her brow at Waverly’s anger. “Wha --”

“That’s right, you don’t!” Waverly snapped, rising with her fury, “You are the perfect, all-American hero. Everybody loves you. Commander Nicole Haught, ace Pilot, sexy badass who saved the delicate damsel in distress!” Waverly felt dizzy, shouting, “Meanwhile, I have to work twice as hard just so when the press bake me alive they won’t complain about my work ethic when they speculate how good I am in bed!”

The words had no meaning, no pace, it was just salad falling from a high height onto the floor, Waverly swayed with it, blood rushing from her skull. All the anxiety, the tension, the worries over the past month came out in a vicious tidal wave of anger directed at the closest target.

Nicole’s face turned from surprise to worry, but Waverly barreled onward by momentum alone.

“Do you have any idea what it means to be second ? To be sidelined, to be in someone’s shadow forever? And now, just when I have my own name out there, I have to throw it all away to be your girlfriend. The Commander’s girlfriend. That’s who I’ll be. And you --”

Why did the ground feel like… moving?

Nicole rose out of her seat, serious concern painting across her face.

“You…” The world tipped and bobbed. Waverly’s lips felt numb as she tried to continue her tirade, “Commander…N-Nicole...”

The world slipped from her fingertips and the last thing Waverly knew was the feeling of being caught.

 

DAY 80

 

Waverly woke to distant singing.

The crooning words of My Girl by the Temptations leaked into the room as Waverly rubbed her face. A headache banged in and blew air horns into a microphone. Wakey wakey! You made a big ol mistakey! Somebody (Oh, who could it be?) had carried her into their shared bedroom and tucked her in.

Shit, had she really said all those things?

The tablet shining in her face distracted her.

Waverly,

Take a moment. I know this ruins it, but there’s a surprise for you in the living space. If you want, you can send me a message and I’ll call it off. Or you can walk in and I can surprise you?

Happy Birthday (Yes, you really did sleep that long),

Nicole

PS, I think there’s another way to get out of our predicament. We can talk about it tonight, if you want. It has to do with Ares 5.

Waverly sat up slowly as she realized she wasn’t going to be space fired, though guilt sliced through her like a knife. A day after Waverly had basically insulted her, Nicole had wished her happy birthday.

 

The last of the messages had just come in as Waverly’s footsteps greeted Nicole. She turned, beaming broadly, only for her face to fall. “What’s wrong?”

Waverly steeled her spine. “I need to talk to you, Haught.”

Nicole, frowning, followed Waverly into the north hallway, far away from any possible cameras. The professional coldness bothered her more than she’d like to admit. Nicole motioned for Waverly to talk.

Waverly looked down, crossing her arms. “I’m sorry. I acted like a colossal idiot. I know we promised to talk it out like adults and I definitely didn’t do that.” Waverly glanced to Nicole but sighed, closing her eyes. “I was petty and jealous and really embarrassed about being so. I saw all my work being… swept aside… and I just. I’m sorry.”

Nicole didn’t say anything for what seemed like a full minute. “Do you know how envious I am of you sometimes?” Nicole asked quietly.

“What?”

“Waverly, you’re one of the best Astronauts I’ve ever met. It won’t be long before the world knows it, and I hope you know it, too.”  Nicole shook her head. “In a thousand years, technology will have progressed way past everything I accomplish here. You? Your work will be here. Growing. Living. The descendants of those chickens will still be here .” Nicole shrugged. “So, in case you’re wondering, I forgive you.

Waverly let out a relieved sigh.

“I mean, you should also take a break and not lie about sleeping again. I’m obligated to inform you how dangerous that is.” At Waverly’s nod, Nicole smiled. “See? We figured it out like adults.”

Waverly smiled hesitantly, a light blush on her cheeks. “You’re kinda really good at this communication stuff, you know what?”

Nicole beamed. “Nicole Haught, System Communications Expert.” Waverly laughed, guilt easing. “You ready to be surprised?”

Waverly, trying to temper her fluttering hope, nodded.

Nicole silently vowed to save a few harsh words for some people on Earth later. Much later.

For now, there was something very important Earth had to say.

 

Nicole leaned over behind Waverly as they stood before the communications array, all screens active. With one button, the screens changed.

“Happy birthday!”

At least, that’s what some of them said. The others said it in a half dozen different languages. Their colleagues, who were often faceless behind requests and messages, were standing together at their respective labs and offices, waving their joy from afar.

Short clips of their followers from around the world played and Waverly began to cry.

“Is this good crying?” Nicole asked softly, concern drawing her far too close.

Waverly nodded rapidly, brushing tears away. Nicole handed her an Astronaut Napkin.

Dr. Dwyer stood in the center as the botany team around him settled. He lifted a letter and cleared his throat. “Waverly Earp. We are all extremely proud of what you have accomplished so far and honored to be a part of it. Your dedication to the success of our programs has lead to countless discoveries that will benefit humanity beyond the test of time. “

The view went blurry.

“From all of us here on Earth, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts and wish you the greatest of birthdays. Oh, and also, you have the day off.”

“But the --” Waverly’s hands landed on Nicole’s face, frantic. “The plants --”

“I got it,” Nicole said, smiling, “It was tough. They yelled a lot. But I got it, Wave. I know how to handle it all for today, if you’ll let me.”

“Are you serious?” Waverly asked, looking back and forth. “Is this real?”

“Yes,” Nicole said, “It’s -”

But Waverly kissed her on the cheek -- Holy shit! -- and wrapped her arms around Nicole’s shoulders in a hug, laughing with such freedom . Nicole wondered if Waverly would ever stop taking her breath away. When Waverly pulled back, eyes shining with gratitude, Nicole decided that wasn’t possible at all.

Waverly’s eyes flicked down to Nicole’s lips and she seemed to decide something, her eyelids fluttering as the space between them closed. Before Nicole could realize she wasn’t hallucinating,

“I WANT TO CUT TO THE FEELING,” the roomba declared ominously.

Waverly jolted back as the roomba bumped the stairs, horrified.

“You were supposed to play the song, not recite the title!” Nicole hissed at the robot. “You did it far too early, too, you stupid toaster!”

Oh, god.

Nicole had probably seen her playlist and chosen the most played.

And Waverly had listened to that song over and over, daydreaming about what she had just almost done. Waverly put her hand over her mouth and tried not to let the sound of despair crawling up her throat escape.

“MY NAME IS COMMANDER HAUGHT AND I WANT TO CUT TO THE FEELING,” the roomba said and Nicole jolted forward and tackled it, trying to find the off button, “BUT I AM A BLOODY IDIOT WHO -- SHUTTING DOWN. GOODBYE.”

Nicole growled, standing up and stalking toward command. “Asshole.” Nicole shook her head at Waverly, “Just a prank, Wave. Sorry.” She pressed a button. “You asshole. I asked for your opinion on my code, not for… whatever that was! Go walk in space with no helmet, Theodore .”

Waverly took a deep breath, shaking her head clear. A dull feeling of impending disaster faded to the background. “A prank. Of course.”

 

Nicole served her breakfast like Waverly was royalty.

“And anything else, your grace?” Nicole asked in a terrible English accent, posed like a garcon. “May I offer you some --”

Waverly’s laughter bubbled over.

“Some nap-kins, or perhaps some more tea.” Nicole’s voice carried faux irritation that made Waverly laugh harder.

 

It’s hard to explain the extraordinary joy of doing nothing. Waverly tossed a ball across the backyard and the chickens raced after it, clucking. Birdsong played over the speakers. Not a single responsibility crept up on her. Not an inch of guilt to ruin it.

Blessed relaxation.

Nicole dozed beside her.

They had the entire day off and it was the most beautiful gift Waverly had received in a long, long time.

Waverly sank down beside Nicole, cuddling close. Nicole mumbled, half awake, swimming toward consciousness: “This ‘k?”

“Yeah.” Waverly smiled into Nicole’s shirt at the fact this dork still asked. “You have bugs in your hair.”

“Don’t care.” Waverly laughed and Nicole’s face crinkled in a half asleep smile that didn’t fade, even as they both slept.

Martian night fell as the sun moved past noon in California.

“Thank you,” Waverly said sincerely to all open broadcasts, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this gift. This has been an amazing day.”

“It’s not over yet,” Nicole declared. Waverly turned, abandoning the panel. “Here.”

A birthday cake. And a present (No wrapping paper here, so Nicole had settled for a bedsheet.)

Amazed, Waverly stood. “How did you --”

“With a lot of help,” Nicole said. “A lot of help.”

No fire was allowed on base for any reason, so there weren’t any candles. The ‘cake’ itself barely consisted of a slice and had thin icing over what was sure to be the most vanilla of vanilla cakes.

It was absolutely perfect and Waverly loved it.

 

@spacecriminal: did they just leave the broadcast open?

@MartianCoffee: UHHH..? THIS IS AMAZING. Nobody say anything.

Down in Houston, Annie simply ‘forgot’ to notify anyone of the public channel being open. She let it remain available -- though she instituted a longer delay -- smiling snake-like as the viewer count rose higher. And if ROOMBACAM picked up video and sound… That was all the better. Soon enough, a few slow stations would pick up the astronauts for the high possibility of ad revenue.

After being swept aside by senators, this would get people talking again. They needed this desperately.

 

Hundreds sang Waverly happy birthday. (Though a million sang it without them noticing.) The roomba played a small jingle, and Nicole got to sing it in person. Others sang it from their labs and couches, pre-recorded but still with heart, and Waverly cried for a second time. The cake tasted amazing to her dulled tongue and Waverly had to share.

"No, it's tiny."

"Please?" Waverly asked and Nicole, unable to deny her anything, took a bite. 

The slice lasted a whole fifty seconds and Waverly, unable to contain her curiosity any longer, approached the large present and ran her fingers across the sheet covering it.

Nicole had that smug look on her face and Waverly glared. “Well?” Nicole asked, head tilted, dimples popping as she leaned back against the table. She nodded her head. “Open it.”

“Why do you look so damn…” Waverly shook her head, finally taking her eyes off Nicole (but not without difficulty.) She peeled off the bed sheet, flipping over the object, only to find it encased in pillows to disturb its silhouette

A…

Guitar ?

“Holy mackerel,” Waverly said, lifting the 3d printed guitar. The color left something to be desired. But... “This is… incredible. How?” Waverly demanded, staring in awe at Nicole.

Nicole leaned back, the smug look intensifying. “Secret.”

Waverly barely. BARELY restrained herself from kissing that look off her face. Whoa. Slow down. This is your job, that’s your colleague, and she’s not your friend. Or whatever kissing entails. Waverly shook the thoughts off. “Is this mine or are you going to serenade me?”

“Serenade you?” Nicole laughed but the look on Waverly’s face made it fade. “Oh, no. It’s yours.”

“Do it,” Waverly said gleefully as an evil thought crossed her mind, “Do it. Live. For anyone who wants to listen.”

“No. No way!” Nicole insisted, glancing at the big ol’ red light on the roomba. “No way, no how, absolutely not --”

“It’s my birthday,” Waverly said. The cruelty of playing that card! The evilness of her mouth curling into a pout! The sheer abuse of power of using the words: “For me?”

Nicole folded immediately.

“Okay. Fine. But!” Nicole lifted a finger and a wicked smile crawled up her face. “ I choose the song.”

 

So that’s how a cover of Africa drifted in an out of various buildings as phone speakers carried the sound. Various versions of “Hey, what’s that?” were said around the world as passerby paused to listen, eager to have news of their astronauts.

Bars picked it up for the slow crowds. Friends skyped and tuned in.

It accelerated at ever-increasing speed, catching attention at an exponential rate. What were they doing on Mars, right now, with all that fantastic technology? Why, celebrating a birthday, isn’t that grand? She deserves such a good thing. How’s that going, may I see?

But perhaps another reason is that there’s not much a crowd of people like to do more than sing along.

 

Waverly settled in, almost giggling, as Nicole took a kitchen chair to the living space and tuned. If her eyes lingered too long on Nicole’s fingers, who was there to blame her?

Nicole winked and started to play.

Truth be told, Waverly had expected to despise this. Who gives a shit when that drunk frat bro at a party whips out his guitar and starts to play, thinking he’s sexy as hell for knowing five notes?

But -- Listen. It was Nicole who tossed her charming smiles and knew a whole lot more than five notes.

And was definitely a better singer than she let on.

So what if Waverly didn’t particularly enjoy this song, Nicole entranced her like nothing else. She could do laundry and Waverly suspected she might just be as irresistible.

 

“It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you!” the drunken bar patrons sang, dancing about like fools. The loud noise carried out onto the street, echoing down it in public spaces doing the same exact thing.

Annie watched it all, silently promoting it from behind the scenes. Not a single engineer had noticed, but her team glanced through the see-through glass to see what she was doing. None approached her, knowing that if something was going on -- Annie was far ahead of them and behind it.

“Take some time to do the things we never have!”

Never underestimate the willingness of people to snatch such a lovely excuse to pause their day, to take a brief moment to be happy, and ignore whatever it is that was so pressing a moment ago.

“What’s going on?”

“We’re celebrating!”

“What?”

“We don’t know! Come with us!”

A rash of tweeting, a catching hashtag, and dedicated fans spread it like wildfire. The viewer count rose like a rocket, breaking fifty million as easy as the sound barrier.

 

Fifty-five million people witnessed what happened next live. 

Nicole finished belting out the ending, only hypothetically aware of the many echoing her, and ran down the song to the final notes.

Most viewers clapped (Because who doesn’t love clapping?) but there wasn’t any on Mars. Waverly stood, moved into frame, and gently took the guitar from Nicole’s hands.

“Wait.” Waverly stopped herself. “Why Africa?”

“Because it makes you happy,” Nicole said, as if it was the most obvious answer in the universe.

Waverly gently curled her fingers around Nicole’s face and drew her closer.

Then, in front of everyone watching on Earth, she kissed her.

For the briefest of moments, stunned silence overtook the crowds. Had two Astronauts -- the best of humanity, entrusted with their future and billions of their dollars -- Kissed each other? In a manner not friendly at all, but implying something more ?

That simply wasn’t done!

How could such a thing be possible?

Are their heroes in love?

Once their minds registered yes , they began to cheer.

There are few things a crowd likes more than a good love story.

 

Waverly felt the kiss in every inch of her body, but not because of any heat or hunger she had initially desired -- but how soft it was, how preciously Nicole answered her, as if she was priceless and this kiss a gift. For the smallest of moments, it was only the two of them on Mars.

Waverly panicked, pulling back, eyes wide. She had just -- Holy shit! -- She had just kissed her colleague in front of millions! She had to say something perfect, something smart!

“I-I like you,” stumbled Waverly.

Nicole smiled soft and warm like a summer afternoon. “I like you, too.”

 

Mission Control’s quiet discussions ended with dozens of phones buzzing at once. “Hello?” echoed almost at once, but the sound at the other end varied. Some were spouses curious about Mars, others were colleagues expressing glee over the news, some confusion from friends and family.

“Wait -- They did what ?”

A building over, a meeting halted with the same sound, but before the phones could be answered an intern stormed through the door.

The teen glanced at the administrators, panting. Then he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “You gotta see this.”

The suits trailed into mission control, already having seen, but having to know for sure .

“Oh, sweet lord in heaven,” Doc whispered as the image of his astronauts kissing circulated the front page of America and Canada. Then it jumped over the pond and struck England, crossing the channel to France…

The bureaucrats muttered to themselves as Doc and Dolls exchanged glances and raised eyebrows. Neither seemed particularly surprised.

“Can’t someone be fired for this?” asked a woman with a frown.

“Of course they can,” a man in a too-tight suit said. Him and his bureaucrats nodded to each other and turned to Doc. “This behavior can’t go unanswered, can it? It’s a breach of the professional code. We’ll look like fools before the international stage!”

The others echoed the sentiment, unaware of the celebration going on outside. They only saw unprofessional behavior.

Dolls wanted to explode. He wanted to throw every single one of them out the airlock and knew Doc felt the same. Though those two on Mars had acted like idiots, they were his idiots and not to be touched.

“Oh, of course,” Doc said, his moustache curling upward with a smile that only Dolls recognized. “Why, we’ll get right on that.” The two men met gazes, the idea crossing between them that could free their Astronauts of punishment for this behavior ever and fluster the suits. Two birds.

America was about to get very, very angry.

 

Nicole leaned forward and pressed OFF on the tablet. Waverly barely registered the movement, or the words that came next, “I am so impressed by your improv--”

Waverly stole Nicole’s words with another kiss, uncaring of anything else except feeling so lovely again. This time she let the hunger beneath it all bleed through, fingers curling into Nicole’s hair, others brushing up that lovely jawline, Waverly sinking down into Nicole’s lap to get closer. Closer.

Better than her dreams.

Her hands trailed down the front of Nicole’s polo, trailing over the NASA logo to feel her breast. Nicole made a noise in her throat that made Waverly moan, openly and freely and loudly .

Nicole pulled away, forcing distance between them as they simply stared in complete surprise at each other as if they hadn’t know this had been coming from the start. As if this wasn’t as inevitable as gravity.

“Wave,” Nicole panted, “I’m your -- I’m your boss.” Nicole shook her head. “We, we can’t --”

Waverly only smiled a secret, private smile and lowered herself again.

“HOUSTON CALLING.”

“Oh, shit .” Nicole picked up her tablet as Waverly frowned and climbed off her. Nicole lead the way up to Base Control, staring in amazement at the message on the screen.

They had done the impossible yet again.

“Holy shit,” Nicole said in awe, “We’ve been space suspended. From our space jobs. For a whole two days.”

They exchanged glances, trying to remember the last time this had ever happened. Nicole began to laugh in disbelief and they both fell into it, breathless. What else was there to do? Surely, the fallout would be intense, but in this moment they could do nothing but laugh.

“We might have just thrown away our careers!” Nicole said, howling with laughter.

Waverly only cackled harder from the stress. Soon it might hit her differently, but for now, they almost fell to the floor.

Waverly’s tablet nearly vibrated off the table and she rushed it. “Nicole, look.” Nicole obeyed and soon looked over her shoulder, eyes wide. “Chrissy sent me this.”

Headlines declaring surprise and joy covered half the screen, the other with twitter caches of insane hashtag numbers.

 

WAVERLY EARP: “I LIKE YOU”

DID THAT SERIOUSLY JUST HAPPEN? YES. TWO PEOPLE KISSED ON MARS

ASTRONAUTS IN LOVE

FOR REAL? FOR REALLY REAL? YEAH. FOR REAL.

WHY YOU’RE GOING TO BE SICK OF AFRICA BY TOTO REAL SOON

10 INSANE FACTS ABOUT OUR MARTIANS. NUMBER 8 WILL ROCK YOUR WORLD

THAT WASN’T A FOOTBALL GAME: TWO ASTRONAUTS KISSED AND WE HAD TO CHEER

THE WORLD CHIMES IN: MAJORITY ABSOLUTELY IN LOVE, TINY MINORITY ARE IDIOTS

MESSAGE YOUR SENATORS: WE HAVE TO SEND MORE GAYS TO MARS RIGHT NOW

SORRY, SPACE IS GAY NOW. HERE’S WHY

PRESIDENTIAL TWEETS: “I DIDN’T KNOW SHE COULD SING LIKE THAT”

CANADIAN PM: "ASTRONAUTS DESERVE HAPPINESS -- JUST LIKE EVERYONE ELSE"

 

“They are going to be so mad when they find out what NASA did to us,” Nicole said gleefully.

Waverly only laughed.

 

@WHStan: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

@aliengays: can you believe we own space now

@MartianCoffee: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

@spacecriminal: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

@Tuesday_blues: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

@Wskeyd0nut: im so proud

@JumpsuitJitters: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

@POTUS: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

@chillinGeorgia:  my word!

@MindyJo: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

@sassjazz23: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

@mathisgay: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

@Ssssspaggeti2: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

@CanadianPM: AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

 

@BotanyIsBest: what now

@StetsonBot: i guess we HAVE to date

@BotanyIsBest: but we have been you dingus

@StetsonBot: i really don’t like you

@BotanyIsBest: that’s not what you said in bed last night ;)

@MartianCoffee: you guys know there’s a pm system

@WHStan: shhh dont. This is beautiful

 

“We did it.” Waverly said, shaking her head, a beaming smile on her face. “We did it. The plan is working. Gardner lost .”

The two civilians on Mars shared a tearful hug. Everything else would come later.

For now, it was just the two of them.

 

 

 

 

"What was that about being my boss again?"

Chapter Text

DAY 80

 

@WHStan: do you ever just think to yourself. Right now. Waverly earp is getting rawed on mars?

@Stetsonbot: How do I delete someone else’s tweet

@WHStan: isn’t that like half the reason people are following them

@BotanyisBest: listen here u lil shit waverly earp has done more for humanity than you and your 12 porn fics ever will

@WHStan: never underestimate the power of porn

@spacecriminal: space law update… [link] our favs got suspended

@MartianCoffee: if you dont think im emailing my american friends to picket outside houston so waverly earp can kiss her soft gf on mars then you don’t know me at all

 

HOUSTON, TEXAS

John “Doc” Henry, Administrator Of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and Xavier Dolls, Director of the Ares Program, sat before a meeting room of all of their peers and prepared to defend their astronauts kissing.

“Fraternization policies are crystal clear,” said an uptight asshole with too many ex wives.

Another scoffed a laugh. “Waverly Earp is a Canadian Civilian. Nice try.”

“I’m not talking Air Force, I’m talking us .” He pointed at Doc, who winced. “NASA never had a policy until Ares, and for good reason. The opening up of the selection requirements has drawn in candidates who are not as disciplined or mature --”

“I’d say Waverly Earp is plenty mature --”

“-- enough to resist kissing their goddamn crew mate instead of working on an extremely vital mission. We look like complete jackwagons with two kids representing humankind. If we let this go on, we’re two steps from a reality TV show and a porn adaption.”

“Too late,” muttered a tired looking woman with an update on a lawsuit on the table before her.

“And what do you suppose we do?” Doc drawled, “Arrest them? Fire them? We’ve already suspended them, but given that we are a good million miles from them and they have the ability to turn off the cameras…”

“Well, take that first!” he insisted. A few too many heads nodded. “We can’t encourage this. This could be dangerous. This could be disastrous .”

“How?” Doc laughed. “Do you want to be watched twenty-four seven, John? Do you want us to see you wipe your ass just so we know you are not, in fact, bein’ unfaithful again?

The man’s face went red.

“In addition, in what way has them kissin’ mucked up our mission? Is their efficiency still not ridiculously high?”

That mollified most.

“Let’s make a compromise.” A woman sat up, the others immediately listening intently. “We suspend them for kissing, that’s fair. As long as they keep to themselves and do not engage in sexual activity, we’re hands off.”

“And if they do engage in sexual activity?”

The board frowned uncomfortably and fidgeted. The question meant if they did it and get caught doing so by some stupid mistake. To be frank, most of them didn’t care otherwise as long as the mission went unimpeded.

“Who cares ?”

Nobody truly did.

“It could be a massive scandal.”

The board looked nervous at that.

“I guess we would have to punish them in accordance with our own policy,” the woman said eventually. “Then we would have to turn the cameras on.”

Nobody really had a reasonable alternative. They all just adjusted papers and sipped on coffees, prefering to let the topic die all together. They all had meetings today discussing it to death. It was best to get the solids nailed down fast.

Doc exchanged a small smile with Dolls. So be it. It wasn’t as if there was any way in the universe they could somehow prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were having sex.

Not without their astronauts being complete and utter idiots, that is.

 

 

ALPHA BASE, MARS

Freedom. Waverly’s heart flew with it.

They fell against each other, laughing at the funniest joke on the planet. Civilians! On Mars! Were they? Oh. It didn’t matter. Only the relief of the weight they had carried for so long and would soon bear again. The ability to breathe without the press of the fatal atmospheric pressure of billions of eyes.

Nicole paused and turned off the cameras, both of them giggling with joy at the feeling of privacy before hugging again. What a privilege, what a blessing, to be able to hold and be held . Like stars colliding into one. Tightly, with no space between, as if letting go would be an impossibility of physics.

Nicole buried her face into Waverly’s hair, loving the smell of Earth. God. How it felt to be free of the threat of Gardner, of judgment. It was over. Now, it was just the two of them.

Waverly shut her eyes and laughed again, letting her forehead drop against Nicole’s. Flying, weightless with the feeling, the line being crossed and having someone in her space became rapidly addictive and enticing. Her lips still buzzed with the feeling of Nicole’s lips.

Waverly closed the space between them, hand connecting to Nicole’s face, feeling the warmth of flesh beneath her fingertips. Contact. Drinking water in the desert. She brushed her lips across Nicole’s cheek, hearing the deep, shuddering breaths she took, barely able to hold her professional self together.

“You’re not the boss of me anymore,” Waverly breathed into the shell of Nicole’s ear, knowing how it would feel, the hot breath hitting all around like a kiss and just as intimate, “I think we should really, really enjoy these next two days together.”

Nicole’s jaw worked uselessly. “H-How?” Nicole asked hoarsely, adorably thick, still in disbelief of Waverly’s intentions.

“Like how I’ve been imagining for a while, Nicole.” Waverly teased Nicole’s ear with her teeth, feeling bold from victory. “I want you to have sex with me.”

All of the breath in her lungs left Nicole at once. She inhaled deep with her eyes shut, trying to restore it, but that only served to fill her with the earthy scent of Waverly that she loved so much instead of the astringent, dull smell of the base. She held a death grip on the counter behind her.

“I...” Nicole took another steadying breath, trying to think past the desperate haze of her body screaming for physical contact. The determination in Waverly’s eyes made her swallow hard.

“Before we do this,” Nicole exhaled and met Waverly’s gaze with steady honesty, “I need you to know that you can stop it at any time. Any time at all. If you want, I’ll never touch you again. I will never, ever force you into anything, Waverly. I never want you to feel as if you have to do this or that we are anything less than complete equals.” She paused to breathe again. “Are you sure about this?”

Waverly remembered the day she was chosen to go to space.

There’d been people, phone calls, meetings. Waverly had drifted through them in utter disbelief, barely conscious, stupefied by the new revelation everyone around her was treating as fact. They treated it as a certainty: All right. You’re going to space. Let’s get you ready.

All her life Waverly had expected to train hard for spaceflight and never make it. To an astronaut in training -- Spaceflight is a bonus. Not a guarantee.

Waverly had stared in the mirror at her own face for a good five minutes in complete bafflement. Me? Yes. They’re experts. If anyone knows if I’m qualified, it’s them. Therefore I am qualified.

Now? Yes. Up there. Doing that.

Then she’d jumped on her bunk over and over, yelling like a child. She’d gone out the next day and toured the city, floating like a cloud, looking at this or that and thinking -- Goodbye! Au revoir! I’m leaving you behind. It’s been fun while it lasted!

Simulations, training, imagining her death thousands of times over. Focusing on the mistakes, burning through them, flying through her fears at the speed of sound so many times that when the day finally came and she was strapped to an explosive about to reach the edge of the atmosphere, she wasn’t afraid.

The only thought was:

Finally.

Because in every simulation, she learned what would happen as a result of hundreds of possibilities. For years, planning on the results, knowing all uncertainties were accounted for -- even death.

Now it is understandable that she had been terrified.

Waverly didn’t know what to expect. What she held control of. What could happen, what could go wrong, and that was terrifying.

Oh yes -- she had thought it through. Endlessly. Dreamed it, even. But there wasn’t any replacement for the real thing, there weren’t any simulations that prepared her for Commander Nicole Haught and how she made Waverly feel .

All she had known was that love was conditional , love could be withdrawn .

But Nicole...

Nicole watched her patiently and Waverly’s only thought was:

Finally.

Waverly nodded, breathless. “Yes,” she exhaled, barely audible, before she swallowed. “Yes. I’m sure.” Waverly lowered her voice, the private tone for the times between them they held close to their hearts, hidden in a locket, unseen by anyone and at times themselves. “It’s been so long -- I don’t see why we shouldn’t when we can , and I like you…”

Nicole huffed half a laugh, hardly able to breathe. “I like you, too.”

Waverly leaned their foreheads together, their breaths mingling. Illegal. Illicit. It made Waverly’s heart race. “I want it. I want you.” She didn’t care how desperate she sounded. Not anymore.
“I want to be touched .”

Nicole swallowed again, held back by a thread. “I do too,” she finally admitted with a sigh, before they kissed again. But Nicole broke away again, frowning seriously. “Wait.”

Waverly sat back on her heels, waiting again.

“There has to be rules about this.”

“When did you become the responsible one?” Waverly muttered. But she had to admit Nicole had a point.

“We communicate in this, just like everything else, okay?” Nicole continued at Waverly’s nod. “Also, this can’t come between us and the mission. We have work to do that’s important. We are still on an extremely dangerous alien planet with billion dollar equipment to monitor.”

“Agreed.” Waverly sighed dramatically. “ Now can we have sex?”

“Yes. Now we can have sex.”

Waverly surged up against her, no hesitancy in the way she fisted her hand in Nicole’s hair and brought their lips together. Nicole responded immediately. They’d done this before, after all.

Nothing new.

Except now they hid nothing.

Except now Waverly could feel the unbridled desire in Nicole’s movement. The way she closed the space, touched Waverly beyond what was appropriate. The way she gripped and pulled their hips together in a way that made Waverly ache .

It was heat. It was warmth. It was soft and indulgent and relief of a maddening itch, an empty space, hollow with yearning. Waverly clawed for it, holding on desperately as Nicole pushed off from the counter, crossing the space, backing her against a wall and pinning her there.

“This okay?” Nicole mumbled against insatiable lips, smile curling her own.

“Yes. Yes. Yes --” She stopped to kiss her, to allow Nicole to tease their tongues together, feel and taste like they hadn’t before. This was deeper. Not for show. This was sex. Waverly managed to touch forbidden flesh, crawling under Nicole’s shirt, feeling the flex of Nicole’s abdomen as she moved against her. Higher still. The uniform standard issue bra.

Illegal. Against the rules.

Nicole didn’t hold her hard or handle her roughly, she answered her instead. Tit for tat. Matching Waverly’s stride like a dancer, moving as they did together on Day 30. This is important, the hand easing up the small of Waverly’s back said, this is priceless.

The tenderness of Nicole’s touch made Waverly impatient, made her hands tighten, but she forced herself back as Nicole smiled into their next kiss and paused.

“I really like you, Waverly Earp,” Nicole whispered, smiling like a constellation, permanent and bright.

Waverly felt herself grin painfully wide before Nicole kissed her again.
It felt so good to be touched that Waverly wanted to cry.  But she didn’t. She laughed instead as they somehow stumbled down the hall, giggling like mad, clicking teeth together and elbowing and almost tripping and the imperfection of it all made Waverly’s heart soar instead of crash. They could hardly kiss because they couldn’t stop smiling like fools.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It was supposed to be hard and impersonal and rough and desperate, like all the times Waverly had before, like the times that allowed Waverly not to feel, not to fall in love, some secret hope Nicole would turn out to be horrible and not at all like…like this .

As they finally got to the bed, Waverly wasn’t supposed to laugh and push Nicole up so she could slap the button on the table. Nicole shouldn’t have echoed the laugh, eyes dancing as she appreciated the view with a mixture of want and affection, the sounds of Houston drifting in the room and taking them off planet.

Waverly breathed in the moment for as long as she possibly could, imagining. They’d met at a bar. Maybe they’d danced. Had a few drinks, but now they’re sober. Nicole gallantly offers to walk her home and Waverly invites her in. The sound of the city outside her bedroom window...

“Anytime you want this to stop, you just say,” Nicole repeated quietly.

Instead of responding, Waverly leaned up to kiss her and help her out of the polo that fit too well to resist.

The view was incredible. Waverly leaned back, propped on an elbow, the other hand trailing down Nicole’s sternum, appreciating. Nicole allowed her, patient, breathing a bit too hard as a finger traced the thin line that raced across her chest.

“From the seatbelts of the ejection seats,” Nicole explained.

“I dig it. A lot.” Waverly scowled playfully at Nicole’s abdomen, poking the defined muscles. “Show off.”

Nicole laughed, free and easy, a laugh Waverly rarely heard. It was like some kind of weight had been lifted from Nicole’s soul, the way her eyes shone with happiness bone-deep and soul-warming.

Waverly’s face pulled into an answering smile before Nicole kissed it off her face. Fuck. Waverly gasped at the feeling of Nicole atop her and she clawed at the stupid claspless bra, trying to get it off, trying to get off without it. Nicole smirked against her jaw and helped.

“Nicole, wait.” Waverly pushed Nicole off, who became serious, but Waverly quickly signaled it was okay. “I have a confession.”

“Okay?”

“I’m kinda gay,” Waverly said, running her hands up Nicole’s ribs to cup her breasts. Nicole’s head fell back.

“Who would have guessed?”

Nicole’s hands trembled as they pulled Waverly’s shirt off. Adorable. Waverly kissed Nicole hard, bringing her down, gasping aloud between their mouths when she felt the first brush of illegally bare skin together.

“Shit,” Waverly hissed, nails digging slightly into Nicole’s back. Nicole smirked, hands soft and gentle and maddeningly slow. Waverly groaned, arching, desperate beyond any dignity. “I know you want to go slow but I’ve been waiting eighty days for this and I need it, Nicole.”

Nicole pulled back, eyes glittering with mischief instead of offense. “Eighty days, huh?”

Waverly blushed at the truth of her own admission. Nicole inched forward, her lips teasing the shell of Waverly’s ear, halting her lungs.

“Me, too,” Nicole admitted in a husky whisper.

They rushed to divest each other of clothes and Waverly sat up in the dim nighttime light of the room, eyes dragging over Nicole, naked, hovering over her, hands on either side of her head, hesitating.

“You’re so beautiful, Waverly,” Nicole whispered, awestruck. Waverly pulled Nicole down, caught by unexpected nerves at the removal of all barriers between them. There wasn’t any frigid comments about being colleagues that could save her feelings now if Nicole rejected her.

But Nicole’s kiss told her she had no intention of doing so in the slightest.

All coherent thought fled her mind the instant their bodies finally came together, Nicole effortlessly sliding against her, pulling one of Waverly’s legs around her hip so she could settle between them, never breaking the slant of her lips or the movements of her tongue.

How was she supposed to get work done knowing her coworker could do this?

“Is this okay?” Nicole asked. Waverly nodded in response, having trouble with words.

Nicole’s thigh rose between hers and Waverly arched, gasping, lit aflame like a grease fire dumped with water by some idiot, and Nicole finally got the message, making her movements more firm, purposeful, the slight moan from Nicole’s mouth whispering her own desperation to see Waverly lose it.

Waverly had wondered how close it would be to the books, If it would be inelegant, graceless, base and demeaning. But Nicole made it beautiful, even as her hand dipped between Waverly’s legs and finally touched her, drawing a deep, resounding moan from Waverly’s lungs. Even as Nicole lost herself with it, sliding against Waverly’s thigh, shuddering and desperate for her own release.

“Good?” Nicole asked against Waverly’s collarbone in between soft, warm kisses and teasing of her teeth.

“Yeah,” Waverly managed, her head thrown back, nails digging into Nicole’s shoulders. Feeling the lovely flex of her arm between their bodies. Fuck. Of course Nicole would be incredible at this.

“Sure?”

Waverly slapped her back lightly. “I’m absolutely posit --” She cut off with a moan at the next move of skilled fingers, feeling Nicole smirk against her breast. “You… smug… ass.”

“Sorry. Can’t help it,” Nicole mumbled before returning to a better use of her lips. Waverly got her revenge by palming at Nicole’s breast and drawing forth a groan. Those were definitely a plus of being with a woman.

Evelyn was, in fact, missing out.

Yet -- Even now, closer to release after years of being touch starved -- Nicole’s touch never became rough. Never had anyone in her bed been so soft with her. Parts of Nicole were firm, yes, but it felt lovely. More right than anything else.  But it was also the way her hands were gentle, soothing as well as arousing, not at all impersonal.  She got lost in it, the smooth, sinuous movements of Nicole above her, against her, the agile fingers and skilled lips, the rock and roll of their bodies moving like music.

Maybe afterward Waverly would be frightened by how personal it was. But here, now-- It was incredible to be touched as if they were lovers. Something more than colleagues, more than ‘I like you ’. It made Waverly ache and the hollow feeling in her chest expand. Why couldn’t this be for real?

No, Waverly thought, this is real. This can’t be false.

There wasn’t any room for lies between them, not right now, not with how vulnerable Nicole was, lost in her desire when Waverly drew their lips together as she came undone with Nicole inside her. Her body snapped and tensed and bent with the pure pleasure of it, tearing her off-planet and into gasping red free fall, not recognizing her own words as they hit the air, barely coherent to the push of her own lungs as she called Nicole’s name with clawing hands and trembling lips.

Nicole came a half second later, moaning into Waverly’s mouth, sliding against Waverly’s thigh, and beautiful even as she chased her own release. She collapsed against her, the weight insignificant but highly welcome.

They both panted into the heated air of the room, trying to come back to Mars.

Wow.

Waverly started to laugh, big and loud and free. Nicole blinked and sat up slightly, leaning on one arm, not sure if she should be offended by how hard Waverly cackled.

“What’s so funny?” Nicole asked with a cute frown.

“I can’t believe,” Waverly said, gasping, leaning the back of her arm against her forehead, “We had eighty days to be doing this and we wasted them.”

Nicole began to laugh, too. “Well, I think one of us was really intent on there being no fraternization.”

“That’s fair,” Waverly allowed between descending chuckle, “God, I was so stupid.”

“You’re never stupid.”

“I was!” Waverly insisted, sitting up slightly, “I knew right off the bat I was attracted to you. You were single. I spent eighty days thinking about you and not asking --”

“Wait, thinking about me how?”

“--when now I know you maybe would have said yes if I had just asked earlier!”

Nicole blinked, trying to catch up, mind still trying to come to terms with certain admissions. “To be fair, I would have said no. I’m your boss.”

“Oh.” Waverly pursed her lips. “Now I don’t feel so bad. Wait -- What happens after these two days?”

“Well…” Nicole licked her lips in thought, an adorable furrow on her forehead. “Technically, since we started dating when I wasn’t your boss…”

“We’re dating?” Waverly asked. Nicole paused at the confusion but Waverly’s grin rose like the dawn. “Nicole, be my girlfriend.”

Not a single moment of hesitation.

“I would love to be your girlfriend, Waverly Earp.”

Nicole lifted herself and loomed over her, a sly look on her face. Waverly lay back in response, watching with bated breath. “I have a very important question.”

“Yes?” Waverly breathed.

Now can I take my time?” Nicole asked, grinning warm and happy.

Waverly blinked at the ceiling, completely wrecked. “You can do whatever you want to me at this point.”

Nicole leaned forward and asked, murmuring her intent in Waverly’s ear, burning to do something Champ had never done.

“Wait -- Why?”

“I’d like to. And to show you.”

“But why ?”

Nicole blushed furiously, unable to articulate. “Because... it turns me on when I make you get off?”

“Oh.” Waverly nodded stiffly, a little embarrassed as well. “Okay.”

And fuck if that wasn’t the most incredible thing, too.

Nicole showed her again and again, but she surrendered the instant Waverly rolled atop her, intent.

“You’re the most beautiful woman I've ever seen,”  Nicole whispered as if she hadn’t meant to say it, still in that quiet tone they used for secret honesty, hands brushing up Waverly’s thighs with adoration that made her sigh and begin again.

There were no lies here at all. Not with how they bent together seamlessly.

And when Waverly figured her out after some vigorous testing: how Nicole had arched her back beneath her body and moaned -- not her name, not her title -- “Waves.”

Waverly needed more results to be sure. She bent. Pulled. Harder, faster. Nicole still smiled into every kiss and Waverly couldn’t help but smile back, pure elation in her heart despite the dark murmurings in the rational corners of her mind. It was useless to try to force down this fluttering feeling in her sternum, ignoring how Nicole looked at her like she had worth. Like this wasn’t just letting off steam.

Like it meant something a lot more than ‘ I like you.

No matter what Waverly asked, what she demanded , Nicole would only smile patiently and whisper, “Okay, okay ” in that voice that made her sigh into the pillow and let go, feeling safe instead of used , adored instead of exploited .

Nicole was supposed to be bad at it. Harsh, so Waverly could dislike it. Impersonal, prefer her title, so Waverly could keep some kind of thin barrier up between Nicole and her fragile heart.

(No. Nicole had withdrawn slightly, correcting Waverly. She didn’t like her title like that. Just her name.)

Time passed. It didn’t matter.

Nicole crawled back up her body, taking her time murmuring soft things that Waverly could barely hear, before rising up on her arms to breathe. The light caught Nicole’s eyes as she watched Waverly for any signs of distress.

Waverly shook her head, trying to catch her breath. “I,” she managed. “I think I…” She wasn’t ready to say it. She panicked, but ever perceptive Nicole brought their lips together softly so the pain of truth wouldn’t break the moment.

I love you.

Three utterly ruinous words that Waverly would panic over in the morning. But now, everything seemed far away, even as Nicole settled in beside her to sleep at last.

This had changed things. Waverly couldn’t lie to herself anymore. Waverly let herself drift in the blissful disaster. She had fallen in love with her colleague. She was in love with Nicole.

Waverly looked at Nicole, whose eyes glittered in the dark like stars. They saw her. They really saw her in a way no one else had and it made Waverly want to cry. Her arm slung across Waverly’s abdomen, touching still. Unable to let go, though both of them were beyond tired.

Nicole leaned forward, though surely scarcely able to move, and brushed the softest of kisses against Waverly’s cheek. A gentle hand ghosted across her face to feel again, to reassure.

“Are you okay?” Nicole murmured, a cute furrow digging into her brow. Worried.

“Yeah,” Waverly sighed. That was the problem. She was far too okay.

Nicole smiled affectionately, the kind that softened her whole face, the one Waverly had never seen outside of moments like these. Moments where it was directed at her . It always managed to pull an answering one across Waverly’s face, make her feel warm and soft and gooey and just like a fool.

“Cuddle maneuver?” Nicole asked softly, one eyebrow raised.

Waverly laughed once, subdued but still warm. “Proceed.”

It was supposed to just be sex. She wasn’t supposed to ask Nicole to be her girlfriend.  It wasn’t supposed to be like the way lovers touched in her novels, when they used the awkward, outdated term make love that made Waverly giggle to herself.

But that’s what they did, wasn’t it?

Nicole pulled the blankets over them both before wrapping Waverly in her arms, settling with a lovely sigh. Waverly shut her eyes and listened to the steady beat of Nicole’s heart. Finally, a name for this feeling: Contentment.

Yes.

That’s it. That’s how it happened.

 

HOUSTON, TEXAS

“You checked in early.” Annie paused by Chrissy’s desk. “You’re up to something.”

“You said take opportunities,” Chrissy said cryptically.

Annie squinted, suspicious, then smiled. “Good,” she said. Chrissy nearly asked her if she’d been replaced by a clone or something. She stalked off dramatically.

Wynonna jumped a desk, appearing just a moment after Annie left.

“Did you know about this?”

Chrissy sat back in her chair and tried to look busy but Wynonna snatched her phone. “Did you know Haught was boning my sister?”

“First of all, they aren’t boning.”

“Don’t bullshit me.”

“It’s just a kiss, Wynonna,” Chrissy said, standing and snatching her phone back. “I’m on break. Don’t follow me with this.”

Wynonna followed her with it.

“What if they break up? What if they have an argument? God forbid -- What if they have some sort of lesbian cat fight --”

“Okay, listen.” Chrissy stopped in the middle of the hallway, causing people around them to glare and mutter passive aggressively. “Here’s the story so far. Nicole is head-over-heels in love with your sister. She would never in a million years hurt her intentionally.”

“How do you --”

“Because I know her and I know Waverly.” Chrissy said impatiently. “They’re both in love with each other. So whatever horrible scenario you’re imagining, I suggest you stop and just enjoy the fact your sister is happy for once.”

Wynonna’s mouth clicked shut.

Chrissy winced. “Sorry.”

“You know what?” Wynonna took a breath. “I think I deserved that, actually.” She stole Chrissy’s coffee, “But I’m not going to be happy about it.”

“Plus, if you’re really worried, just talk to Doc. You’ve been having sex with him for what, three weeks now?” Chrissy lifted a finger. “Or better yet -- call your sister yourself.”

Wynonna’s face twisted with discomfort. “I don’t think she wants--”

“She does.”

“How do you --”

“Shut up and call her, Wynonna.” Chrissy stole her coffee back. “God, I swear, it’s like no one in this universe knows how to actually communicate.”

“Have you told Perry how you feel?”

Fuck you, Wynonna.”

 

DAY 81

 

Nicole woke first. Waverly tended to cuddle closer in the night and last night was no different. Except they were both naked from having a lot of sex.

But Nicole was hungry. Carefully maneuvering, Nicole tapped the tablet awake and took in the time.

Late. But a smile crept over her face, realizing she didn’t have to be on time with her work today. She remembered last night and the smile grew painfully wide as she turned her head to take in Waverly sleeping beside her.

It wasn’t the incredible, toe-curling, unforgettable sex. It was the fact the girl of her dreams had said “I like you” for real. Actual real. No cameras, no microphones, no reason to lie at all. She was Waverly fucking Earp’s girlfriend. Nicole could barely believe it.

Waverly’s hair was mussed and she was drooling slightly. Nicole had seen many beautiful things in her studies of space, but Waverly bested them all.

Time to get up. Nicole shuffled a bit, trying not to wake Waverly, but her slumbering colleague muttered in disapproval and clung tighter.

“Wave.”

“Five more minutes,” Waverly mumbled.

“Waverly.” Nicole settled her hands on Waverly’s koala arms and gently moved them.

“Noooo,” Waverly whined, but a smile curled on her face when Nicole gently kissed her nose. She opened her eyes and smiled wider, taking Nicole’s breath away. “Good morning.”

Not to be outdone, Nicole pulled away to stretch luxuriously, like a cat, her limbs akimbo as she breathed in the weight of being awake. Waverly watched with wide eyes. Nicole turned, a sleepy smile on her face with squinted eyes. “Mmmmm.” Nicole exhaled through her nose, eyes wandering. She propped herself up on one elbow shamelessly with an eyebrow raised. “Like what you see?”

“I like what I hear .” Waverly threaded her fingers through Nicole’s hair and brought their lips together. She tried to deepen it but Nicole pulled away, laughing soft and low before whispering in her ear in that subtle Houston accent she loved so much.

“Mornin’ breath.”

“Nevermind. Get out of my bed.” Waverly took a pillow and whacked Nicole in the face.

Nicole grabbed it on the backswing. “This is my bed!”

“Mine now. I’m the Commander now.” Waverly pointed. “I order you out of this bed for ruining the mood.”

Nicole smiled wickedly, leaning in over Waverly, who reclined with wide eyes as her mind replayed last night over and over. Nicole, naked atop her, confident as she lowered herself down so her hot breath stirred the small hairs of Waverly’s neck, near the spot that drove her absolutely wild.

Waverly tilted her head back, eyes half shut, waiting with bated breath.

“Yes, Commander,” Nicole breathed in a husky whisper.

Then Nicole was gone, giggling as she went at Waverly’s flushed face.

 

Nicole pulled on some sweats from the gym closet and almost danced into the kitchen.

“GOOD MORNING, ASTRONAUT HAUGHT.”

Nicole laughed, still giddy. Suspended.  She took care of the morning chores and fed the angered chickens.

“Other mom is still in bed because she didn’t get much sleep,” Nicole cooed, feeding them a little bit too much to make up for the lack of their favorite mother. She noted the change carefully, just the way Waverly liked. Everything accounted for. On a whim, Nicole added a little heart at the end of the notation.

Nicole took her time making breakfast, adding things that were considered luxury like chocolate chips or sugar (only a little, since it had gone missing lately), making sure it cooked perfectly in their terrible re-heater.

It would at least taste a little bit more like food. Waverly deserved that. Nicole added in whatever Waverly had put in the kitchen, going all out, sneaking around the hidden stashes that astronauts had smuggled and left behind.

Before they’d left, Nicole’s crewmates had hidden dozens of small stashes that came along with the Hermes delivery. Now, Nicole stole from almost all of them. Real tea from the Brits. Good chocolate from a Belgian. Some Canadian thing called Nanaimo bars and some real maple syrup. As Commander, Nicole automatically knew where all the smuggled goods were. Every nook, every cranny, every hidden Snickers.

Without noticing, she’d begun to sing along to the love songs on the radio.

 

Waverly groaned and stretched, checking the time and instead finding a note. She worked out the fine aches in her muscles and smiled at the memories at the forefront of her mind.

I’ve got the chores. Clean up then wait for me.

N.

Heart racing, Waverly scrambled to obey.

 

Chrissy: should I ask “how was it” or...

Wave: I’m pretty sure I’m in love with her.

Chrissy: That good?

Wave: Chrissy! What if she doesn’t feel the same?

Chrissy: Waverly, I love you.

Chrissy: but for someone so smart you can be very dumb sometimes

Chrissy: She is absolutely 100% in complete love with you so stop worrying and invite me to the wedding. PLEASE have an open bar

Wave: ok! Ok! I’ll tell her when it’s time, promise

 

Breakfast wasn’t what Waverly was expecting. She’d returned to the bed, naked, reclining in what she hoped was a seductive pose. From the mirror, she knew it would show off what Nicole had done to her last night.

It worked.

Nicole stopped in the doorway, eyes wide, the packet of cookies held in her mouth dropped to the floor.

“Oh, shit.” Waverly covered herself with a blanket to avoid breaking Nicole further. “Sorry.”

Nicole nodded gratefully and put the plates down. She stood up stiffly. “Tea,” she managed, and walked awkwardly from the room with a flushed face.

Waverly laughed and put on one of Nicole’s shirts before plopping down back to bed. Her heart grew infinitely fonder as Nicole returned with more composure and tea.

“Breakfast in bed,” Nicole said, motioning for Waverly to scoot so she could sit. Waverly cuddled close before taking her own plate.

“This is amazeballs , Nicole. Thank you.” Waverly kissed Nicole on the cheek, almost letting the three words slip. Instead, she asked something else. “Is this our first date?”

Nicole laughed. Waverly glared but Nicole’s adorable grin of pure happiness took the wind from it and made her heart flutter.

“I sure hope so,” Nicole said with a small peck on Waverly’s nose, before popping another strawberry into her mouth. “Eat.”

“Oh, I will.”

Waverly loved how easy it was to make Nicole blush.

They ate in soft silence, giggling over offering each other bites of mediocre food. But the meaning behind it was everything and Waverly glowed with it, this strange love Nicole held for her that didn’t hurt. After breakfast they cuddled -- actual, for real cuddled like a couple would -- and Waverly found herself more relaxed than she’d ever been in the last few years.

Nicole breathed her in, humming contentedly as they browsed headlines.

 

#LETTHEMLOVE CAMPAIGN SWEEPS THE NATION

HERE’S WHY EVERYBODY’S OBSESSED WITH TOTO AGAIN

THE KISS SEEN AROUND THE WORLD

“NOT A FAN OF THE SONG, BUT DEFINITELY A FAN OF THEM.” -- PRESIDENTIAL TWEETS AND MORE

 

Chrissy: Update!! Word is that the suspension is the only thing coming for you! You guys are free besides that <3

 

“What happens after?” Waverly asked, head settled on Nicole’s chest. “What if Gardner --”

Nicole scoffed. “Publishes the photo and confirms what people already know? What’s the purpose of that?”

“I don’t know.” Waverly frowned. “I just have a bad feeling.”

“How about I go through all of the communications and put it in a neat package to send to NASA?” Nicole asked and Waverly answered with a triumphant smile. “Then we send it. Tell them everything he’s done.”

Waverly sat up and pushed aside the tablet, intent on Nicole’s body. Nicole made a questioning noise but Waverly silenced it with insistent lips.

The feeling that maybe they had forgotten something was lost in the sound of shared moans.

 

WEarp: come here...

NHaught: you’re supposed to be working

WEarp: who says I have to stop?

NHaught: Waverly Earp, you’re going to be the death of me.

 

“Fuck -- oh God.” Waverly took her hands from the tablet. One braced against the counter, the other on Nicole’s forearm, wandering with a mind of its own, trying to keep her anchored to the planet.

“You’re not working,” Nicole murmured as she worked her hand lower, the other bracing Waverly back against her.

“Fuck! Shit! The microbes...are fine.”

“I can help, you know.”

“You’re helping...plenty.” Waverly bent her head back, surrendering to the clever motion of Nicole’s fingers. “Plus…what do you know...about advanced astrobiology?”

“The mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell?” Nicole teased, both knowing Nicole had far more knowledge than she let on. “Also, this.”

“Shit!”

 

They did get work done, of course. They were still astronauts at heart and managed to get their morning assignments completed before getting off track in the late afternoon.

The cold of the counter seeped through the cotton of Waverly’s stolen shirt. Waverly tilted her head back as Nicole kissed along her throat, short trimmed nails scraping lightly on Waverly’s bare thighs.

“What do you want to do today?” Nicole asked, not stopping her attentions for a moment, using her hot breath to tease Waverly further.

“You.”

Besides me, Waverly.”

Waverly froze when an idea slammed into her at awesome kilometers per hour. Nicole pulled back, frowning, an apology on her lips before she took in Waverly’s broad, devilish grin.

 

The backyard.

Waverly laid out a sheet as if they were having a picnic before scuttling over to the hen house. She moved aside a piece and pulled out a bottle of dark liquid. She hurried over, giggling, and presented it to Nicole.

“Uhm.” Nicole sat up in the grass, head tilted. “What…”

“Wine.” Waverly plopped herself down next to Nicole, who looked at her in complete shock. “ Martian wine.”

“How…?”

“It’s actually sort of prison wine.” Waverly shrugged. “I had to use a lot of duct tape to make the distillery, sugar, the potatoes for yeast, and we didn’t actually have enough of one type of fruit. So it’s a bunch. It was remarkably easy.”

Nicole blinked.

“I was going to try making it into brandy --”

Jesus , Waverly.”

“But I knew you would be upset with me making highly flammable material and putting us both in danger of violent and painful death,” Waverly said, working open the bottle. She shrugged. “And we don’t have any oak. So I just made wine.”

Nicole moved forward, pushing aside the bottle to kiss Waverly hard. She tried to press her back into the blanket and proceed but Waverly stopped her with a hand.

“Nicole.” Waverly looked over to the chickens, who stared with beady eyes at the pair. “ Not in front of the kids.”

“Stop being so smart, then,” Nicole grumbled, “You know what it does to me.”

“Does this mean we can get drunk?” Waverly asked, hopeful.

“Absolutely not,” Nicole said firmly.

“You’re no fun.”

“I can be plenty fun. Now put some pants on.”

 

Nicole cleaned the floor as Waverly watched, frowning.

“This isn’t the fun part,” Nicole assured, finishing the last of the hallway between the living space and the greenhouse. The stretch was at least twenty yards clear from the airlock to the greenhouse wall. With one last push of the space broom that was somehow worth a million dollars, “There.”

“There?” Waverly asked warily.

“You’ve never done this before?” Nicole asked, hand on her hip. Waverly still seemed lost and Nicole wanted to go back in time to allow younger Waverly to experience fun. “You take a running start and slide.”

“Slide?” Waverly asked, suspicious and hesitant.

“Yeah. Slide. You’ve seen me do it.” Nicole gestured. “Now you do it. I’ll catch you. We can’t go outside and have a dustball fight or Martian golf or play with the rover, so we do this.”

Waverly frowned, suspicious of Nicole’s alien ways. Still, she got a running start and slid. She lost balance two seconds in and her ass hit the tile, still caught with forward momentum.

Simple. Stupid. But somehow, having fun on Mars seemed different with Nicole beaming at the end of the hall as she slid forward, ridiculous and free, laughing like a madman.

Nicole, true to her word, caught her and lifted her easily, sharing her laughter.

They slid back and forth, sometimes together, always ending up in a tumble of limbs and cackles. They had pressing work to get back to on the fatal planet, but for a moment, they forgot it all and just had fun.

 

“Okay, I admit this is pretty fun for me.” Waverly said, popping another piece of chocolate in her mouth. Up and down. Up and down. She was barely anything to Nicole, who did pushups beneath her easily. She balanced, cross legged, and tried to be a burden.

“Not much for me,” Nicole grunted, her exercise had become boring as hell long ago. Her bones were drastically weaker than Waverly’s and required constant supplements. And a lot, a lot, of exercise to keep her Earth-native body from deteriorating too far in the lower gravity. She switched arms.

“This turns me on, though,” Waverly said, tracing the visible scratch marks on Nicole’s back, frowning at the sports bra that covered some of them. “A lot.”

“Okay, now it’s fun.”

 

They made dinner together. Waverly had never had this, never seen this outside of some romantic movies. Nicole worked by her side, cooking up the packaged food like it was fresh, treating it carefully and adding secret ingredients, ignoring Waverly when she asked where they came from.

Every now and then Nicole would kiss her as she walked to the other side of the kitchen to adjust the heating water or grab something else. Waverly suspected sometimes she was just using some made up excuse to pass by.

Waverly worked on the almost-real salad that had a fake base and fresh greens from the greenhouse. So close to Earth food and so far.

Nicole wrapped her arms around her from behind, settling there like she was meant to be there from the start. She always inhaled too, burying her face in Waverly’s hair.

“You smell like Earth,” Nicole had explained, “It’s the most wonderful thing.”

Now she simply breathed in the moment, holding Waverly as careful hands perfected the salad as much as physics and shitty ingredients allowed.

“I can’t wait to take you to a real dinner,” Nicole said with a kiss to her temple. Waverly paused, blinking, at the magnitude of the simple statement. At the implications they’d still be together after the years of their joined mission had passed.

Instead of fear, Waverly relaxed into a feeling of hope, a smile lifting her face at the image of the two of them at a nice Earth dinner.

“I can’t wait, either.”

 

DAY 82

 

HOUSTON, TEXAS

Annie stopped by Chrissy’s desk, folder in one hand and coffee in the other.

“Is this your doing?” Annie asked, pushing a piece of paper over to Chrissy. She glanced at it and set her jaw, jutting out her chin. For once, she wouldn’t back down.

“Yes.” Chrissy dared Annie to disagree. “You said take opportunities.”

Annie smiled. “Good job. Hashtag Let Them Love. Catchy, short, simple.”

“Better than the hundreds screaming ‘ Let Them Fuck’, ” Chrissy replied under her breath. Annie offered a tight smile.

“Why add the Waverly Matters tagline?”

“Everyone is discounting her agency in the scenario,” Chrissy explained, irritated at distant news stations. Annie raised an eyebrow. “She’s Lead Researcher. Not some kid. They’re equals. People just don’t see that.”

“Good angle.” Annie tilted her head. “Do you know who Dr. Ammar is?”

“The genius in Psychology?” Chrissy snorted. “Everyone knows her.”

Annie said nothing, only sipped her coffee. She changed topics.

“Things will settle down now. No word on additional punishments. It was a show play, anyway, to stir up ratings. They won’t be pushing anything unless our two favorite idiots become even worse idiots.”

Chrissy winced.

“Murphy comes in,” Annie continued, “There’s always plan B.”

Astronauts planned for everything. It sort of spread like a virus. Some people caught it like an anxiety, others understood that sweating the small stuff sometimes saved on anxiety. But whatever worst case scenario Annie had in mind, Chrissy couldn’t see yet.

“What’s plan B?” Chrissy asked.

“You.” Annie moved off. “Always been you, kid.” She dropped her folder in the recycling bin and turned the corner to elsewhere.

Chrissy tapped her foot, fingers curling around her pen. It clicked against the desk in a sharp staccato. Murphy. Always Murphy’s law: What can go wrong, will go wrong . She had to know, right? And it was for her, that folder. Why dump it so obviously? Only Annie could be that dramatic. She knew her boss.

Looking both ways at the late-night emptiness of the office, Chrissy scuttled across the line of desks and snatched the folder. She ducked into the restroom and shut herself in, feeling right out of a spy movie. Agent Nedley on a mission. She snorted, expecting a bunch of numbers.

Chrissy opened the file.

“Holy shit…” she whispered, spreading the two papers on either side. “Holy fucking shit!”




HERMES, OUTER SPACE

Things were starting to break aboard the Hermes . They had enough replacements to last until Earth orbit, but once they got there, Hermes would never fly interstellar again. Instead, it would linger as a space station, maintained properly by constant care.

“Realigned,” reported a crewmate outside the hull, adjusting the decaying communication relay. “Check?”

Nedley watched his crewmembers EVA closely from inside. “Checking. Iris , do you read?”

“Read you loud and clear.”

“Well if it ain’t Bobo del Rey!” Nedley laughed. “How are things aboard the Iris? Are y’all enjoying a nice six month nap?”

“You bet. How’s Hermes holding up?”

“Like a car losing wheels on the highway. We’ll make it.”

“Say, did you fix your relay to Alpha Base yet?”

“What do you mean?”

“Gardner asked for a flight manual check from us. Did you fix yours?”

Nedley let go of his tablet, which floated nearby instead of dropping dramatically.

 

It was possible to float angrily. Gardner had his arms crossed as he watched the transmissions from Earth, beady eyes reading the news ticker at the bottom as smiling hosts talked wonders about Alpha Base. Every now and again, the same song played as they watched the same clip over and over. He grimaced.

“...Africa is actually complex on acoustic. Do you think she spent a lot of time learning it in secret?”

“The woman who flew research planes at sixteen? If she put her mind to it, she could do anything.”

“Including Waverly?”

Chuckles.

“Gardner.”

He turned to Nedley, eyeing him neutrally.

“You sent a flight manual request to Alpha Base,” Nedley said. Gardner raised an eyebrow and said nothing. Nedley seemed at a loss from the silence.

“I was wrong,” Gardner said instead. Nedley’s eyes widened imperceptibly. “I wanted to blame everyone but him. But you understand, don’t you? Chrissy means so much to you.”

“She does,” Nedley admitted, still hesitant to the conversation’s direction.

“It’s the same for me with my boy.” Gardner shook his head. “I’d do anything for him. Anything. But this time he’s crossed a line.”

Nedley’s surprise showed clear on his face.

“I’m not a bad man, Nedley. Just a bad father,” Gardner said, turning to the transmission. Nedley seemed appeased.

“Sorry, James.”

Gardner didn’t look back at him. Nedley left without another word, leaving Gardner alone with the newscast. Soon enough, he would be on it when the evidence of what he’d tried to do got out. He ground his teeth. Now, everything he’d done would be for naught.

How clever of them to go out in the open as ‘girlfriends .’ His photograph was now useless in the grand scheme of things, unlikely to even dent Waverly’s career in the eyes of the public. Without that leverage, Nicole would never admit to framing his son. Never admit to all of her transgressions.

Fifteen years. Fifteen years, being the unspoken scapegoat because of Nicole . Nicole who denied the chance to exonerate him, who instead acted against him so blatantly the public had burned Gardner to the ground. Guilty in the public court of opinion.

The truth of Ares 5 remaining unspoken among NASA, simply letting him be turned into the cause, a suspected murderer , without saying anything. Anything at all. Why should NASA have to deny such silly rumors?

(Regardless that they had been treated as fact. Regardless that they had ruined his life .)

Because of Nicole . Everyone knew she had broken in and smashed his car to bits. It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together. Nicole believed him guilty, the prodigal niece of William Haught believed him to be responsible, well. Of course they would believe her .

Now Louis had confirmed his suspicions.

Gardner roared and threw his tablet. It spun through microgravity and bounced harmlessly off the wall. He would not allow this to happen again to his innocent son.

He needed something else, something new. It was only a matter of time before they gathered everything he’d done and sent it to Earth. The falsehood of his villainy would catch like wildfire and he would be grounded. Permanently.

So Nicole would not budge...

...But maybe Waverly would.

Gardner dialed a number.

 

Chapter Text

 

DAY 82

Sometimes, Waverly’s favorite part of Mars were the nights. She relaxed to the soothing tones of Etta James, foot moving with the tune, before sitting up.

“What are you doing, seriously?” Waverly asked, pushing Nicole’s shoulder with her bare toes. Nicole shook her head, working on her tiny contraption on the floor of their room. Her mouth set in a stubborn line that Waverly had come to recognize. Waverly rolled her eyes. “Come on, Nicole. You know how I feel about surprises.”

“You’re gonna like this one,” Nicole insisted. She set in some piece of glass with a small click and flipped the switch. “Boom.”

Waverly froze, looking up at the projection on the ceiling.

“No way!” Waverly said, laughing. The night sky greeted her from within the walls of the base, spread out on the white utilitarian ceiling. It had transformed entirely. “How?”

“Magic.” Nicole dodged a pushy foot. “Okay, okay! I stole one of the HD cameras and rigged it up. It was easy.”

“Mm.” Waverly smiled coyly. “I love it when you get all technical.”

“I know you do.” Nicole moved over to the bed, letting herself be pulled forward by her collar.

Waverly’s eager hands found the bottom of Nicole’s shirt and yanked the barrier away. She stopped for a moment, stunned not for the usual reasons -- gay, gay, super gay, wow I love boobs, love Nicole’s boobs -- but for Nicole above her, outlined by the stars.

It touched Waverly how romantic the whole thing was. Making love beneath the stars . Of course Nicole, of all people, would make it possible on Mars.

Wow, I love her.

“You okay?” Nicole asked, tilting her head. “You went somewhere.”

Waverly pulled her down and kissed her gently, taking away the question, all questions, with soft touches and bared skin. She came with stars in her eyes and Nicole on top of her, feeling nothing but love.

It was only later, during a quick trip to the restroom, that Waverly noticed the waiting message from Gardner.

She spent a long time staring.

GARDNER: Call me back.

“You okay?” Nicole called.

“I’m fine!” Waverly shouted back. No need to worry. It wasn’t as if Gardner was doing anything other than pleading for his life. She didn’t want to ruin Nicole’s doze, so she crept away to the greenhouse and waited.

“Hello, Astronaut Gardner,” Waverly said with a smile. “How can I help you?”

“I’ll make it quick,” he said, not even apologizing for how rude the call timing was. His eyes were wild, desperate, and it looked like he hadn’t slept at all. He looked like a man about to beg for his life. “Either you admit she’s at fault, or I ruin you. Understand? I will ruin you.”

Waverly yawned.

“I will tell everyone everything.”

“Oh, who cares!” Waverly shouted back. “Nobody gives a shit that me and Nicole are a couple, Gardner. You lost . Even if you go forward now, nobody will care about what you have to say. Tomorrow, we’re sending all eight gigabytes of your guilt to Houston. See you on the news, Gardner. Oh, and by the way, asshole? She’s not at fault and I love her. Goodbye.”

Waverly shut the connection off, breathing hard with a smile. She said it out loud. It was real.

Of course it was real!

The past two days had been some of the happiest she’d ever been in her life. There was no other word for it. She floated on air as much as the lowered gravity of Mars -- Heaven was here with Nicole, not on Earth.

Colleagues, girlfriends, not just friends.

Waverly had never experienced being so cared for. Nicole seemed determined to show her how things were supposed to go. She was supposed to be wooed, to be courted, to be enchanted by her partner instead of just settling. No. Waverly Earp deserved more, Nicole said so.

And Waverly was starting to believe her.

Somewhere along the line it became hope, not dread, which Waverly felt. She stared out ahead at her career in broad painted strokes of happiness -- she’ll be with me. Always . -- instead of the anxiety of being apart, being cold to each other’s touch, being apart across the vast void of space.

No. Nicole would stay. Nicole would be with her.

Maybe forever.

And to Waverly, such a thought did not feel like captivity.

 

It felt like freedom.


 

DAY 83

 

FLORIDA,  EARTH

Chrissy walked the hallways of Kennedy Space Center with Wynonna at her side.

“I can’t believe you’re spending your vacation at work,” Wynonna said with heavy disappointment.

You wanted to come here.”

“I can’t believe you agreed to spend your vacation at work.”

“Whatever,” Chrissy said, but she knew the look in Wynonna’s eye. Loneliness. Plus, it was hard for her, too, to find a genuine friend who wasn’t in it to learn more about the secrets of her job or the fortunes waiting for her. Wynonna was a breath of fresh air, even if - -- “ I can’t believe you’re dating both my bosses.”

“First of all, it’s not dating.” Wynonna shoved a bit more cinnamon roll in her mouth. “That implies dates, like you and Perry going to your little coffee shop things or whatever. I’m just having sex with both your bosses. No big deal.”

“Do…” Chrissy shook her head. “Do they know?”

“Of course they do.” Wynonna said with her mouth full. “Oh, sometimes, they’re both --”

“TOO much information, thanks!” Chrissy pointed at a JOURNEY TO MARS IN IMAX sign. “Is that what you were looking for?”

“Fuck! Yes!” Wynonna hollered. People, including young children, turned. “Fuck yes!”

“Oh, my god.”

Chrissy found herself being tugged by the arm as Wynonna ducked into the theatre.

It wasn’t half bad.

The whole thing took maybe an hour and thirty minutes. The part that Wynonna wanted most lasted only fifteen of those minutes talking about Waverly Earp and Nicole Haught. They both got exactly the same amount of coverage, which made Chrissy sigh with relief and pride.

It ended on a high note about future colonization and how Alpha Base would be the keystone to future efforts.

“Gift shop,” Wynonna announced, skirting around a tour group of kids. “Gift shop!”

Chrissy had to jog to catch up. “Wynonna. There are kids.”

“And those little shits better not steal my sister’s bobblehead.”

“They don’t -- Oh, lord. They do .”

Chrissy’s face burned as Wynonna darted into the giftshop to the Ares Mission section. A small section of wall was dedicated to the pair. Posters. T Shirts.

Bobble heads.

“Move, kid, that’s my sister,” Wynonna muttered. The kid stared up at her with sad eyes. Wynonna frowned before handing her a Waverly. “Take good care of it, kid.”

“I will, weirdo,” she said before spinning on her heel to her mother.

Wynonna stared at the kid’s retreating back with a scandalized expression while Chrissy cackled. She ended up getting five Waverly Earp bobbleheads and one Nicole Haught.

“I guess,” Wynonna said to herself as she picked up the redhead. “She would be sad without her little girlfriend. Speaking of which…” Wynonna raised an eyebrow at a poster hanging on the wall next to Waverly’s. Nicole Haught stood with her face turned slightly to the left, her incredible jawline in focus. Her helmet hung loose from one of her hands and just… Wow. “Damn.”

“Yeah,” Chrissy agreed. “ Damn .”

A horde of children appeared out of nowhere.

“There she is!” pointed the earlier girl. Wynonna froze like a deer in headlights and Chrissy took a step back.

The horde charged before Wynonna could flee.

“Is it true you know her?”

“Can you tell us about her?”

“You’re her sister?”

“Are you real?”

“Chickens! The chickens!”

“Can you please, please, please, please, please, pretty please please please, --”

“All right!” Wynonna said, louder than the kids.

They fell silent, bouncing on their feet.

“I’ll tell you the dish about Waverly Earp.”

They squealed with joy, almost hanging off of Wynonna’s arms as she launched into a story about Waverly working her way toward college. Chrissy felt a warmth in her heart. How soft and proud Wynonna sounded as she spoke about her sister, how she began to smile around the kids and laugh at their terrible jokes. It was almost…. Damn, it was almost like Wynonna was happy.

Chrissy joined in, taking a step forward to add in another anecdote, a matching grin blooming on her own face as eager eyes turned to her.

It was hours before Chrissy could check her messages.

Dolls: Something’s come up.

 

HOUSTON, TEXAS. EARTH

The boardroom sat half-full of bored individuals. Gardner had demanded everyone short of the janitor to be in the room, on call, or just aware of the meeting. As a result, half the people he requested arrived.

Dolls, unfortunately, had to attend. He leaned back in his chair, waiting, only to have Gardner appear right on time.

“I won’t waste your time,” Gardner said, “But there’s something you need to see. Something must be done at once, because I have proof I will be releasing to the public otherwise.”

Gardner’s message came through. Everyone in the room paused to view the evidence, some gasping in shock at the blurry image of their Canadian astronaut atop their American one in just her underwear.

Then, a short recording:

“So you are sleeping together?” Gardner’s voice asked

“Yes,” Nicole said.

The room fell silent. One by one, gazes turned to Doll’s thunderous expression.

“My question is -- what will you do?” Gardner asked, thousands of kilometers away from Dolls’ wrath. “Will you let them be an example? What sort of message does this send to the public? That it is okay for a boss to sleep with an employee, or a commander to sleep with a subordinate? Would you really wish for that message to be sent to the billions here on Earth?”

There was a lengthy pause.

“Or will you do something about it?”

ALPHA BASE, MARS

Morning arrived on Mars and the light through the false blinds hit the pair of astronauts curled together. Waverly snuggled close into Nicole’s sleepshirt. Nicole had her arms wrapped around her, holding her, almost protective.

Nicole woke first, yawning and stretching. Waverly woke slower, inch by inch, eyelids fluttering open to catch Nicole in the beautiful time of morning when she was herself and nobody else.

Not Commander, not Astronaut.

Just Nicole.

Waverly couldn’t help but lean up to kiss her softly on the lips, trying to capture the moment as she had been trying to for the past few days.

“Mmm,” Nicole hummed in that sleepy, sexy rumble of hers. “Good morning.”

“Morning,” Waverly said, giggling as she tried to follow Nicole’s lips and ended up tangled on top of her. They both bumped together, laughing, unable to kiss because of the smiles. Warm, fluttery feelings awoke again in Waverly’s heart and she buried her face in Nicole’s neck, grinning wide.

“Somebody is happy,” Nicole murmured, pressing a kiss to Waverly’s forehead. “I expected you to be grumpy since this is one of our last times together.”

“I know we have to stop having sex, but…” Waverly let out a sigh. “I’m just happy to be with you. Even without it.” Waverly sat up. “Wait, are --”

“No. I’m so happy, Waves.” Nicole kissed her. “Just the same as you.”

Waverly’s smile turned sly. “How about one more, Astronaut?”

“Of course.” Nicole bit her lip, one hand gliding down Waverly’s side, making her shiver hard. She leaned close, whispering low and silky.  “I have the most beautiful girlfriend in the universe.”

“Stop it,” Waverly said, fighting tears for some reason. Nicole pulled her hand back as if it had been burned. “Stop…stop talking like that.”

Nicole understood immediately. She always did. She had such a soft look on her face that Waverly turned away, the tears breaking through. She was just a janitor. Picked for a stupid job to look after stupid plants for stupid, bothersome teams that always told her what to do. And now she’d found herself in bed with the commander. Good job, Waverly. You did it.

“Waverly, look at me, please,” Nicole begged softly, “Waverly.”

Waverly, with effort, met her gaze.

“No matter what anyone told you, Waverly,” Nicole said seriously, with all the honesty in her heart, “Your career is just starting but I promise you, you are one of the best astronauts I’ve ever known. One of the best people. Someday...” Nicole leaned in and brushed their lips together. Soft. Affirming. “You will believe it. Because it’s true .”

Waverly kissed her then, feeling that new and wonderful blooming in her heart that took her worries away. Something about this love failed to feel like it would rationally -- saying ‘I like you’ before millions, gay kissing her gay boss -- like failure she expected. No, somehow it felt different. It felt like finally going home.

 

They made it to breakfast only a few minutes late. Waverly loved this time of morning. They worked together seamlessly, trading plates and ingredients and short commands like they had done it all their lives.

“We’re out of chocolate,” Waverly said sadly. “No chocolate pancakes.”

“Here.” Nicole set her last chocolate bar on the counter. “Yours.”

“What?” Waverly asked. “No, no, I can’t--”

“Yours.” Nicole leaned forward and kissed Waverly’s nose. “Teamwork is about sacrifice.”

“NEW MESSAGE FROM HOUSTON WAITING APPROVAL, ASTRONAUTS,” Alpha Base announced. Nicole looked up sharply, meeting Waverly’s fearful gaze. Astronauts? Had they not been reinstated?

“Play,” Nicole said hesitantly, taking Waverly’s hand.

“This isn’t an open line. This is a recording because there isn’t any discussion.”

Nicole and Waverly approached the communications panel in a daze, slowly drifting toward Dolls’ stern face like doom.

“There will be no more social media. No more pranks. No more…shenanigans. You are both scientists, not… whatever it is that has been going on. You have an important mission to do that can’t be overstated. It’s time to act like professional astronauts again instead of making a mockery of my organization.”

Shame curled in Nicole’s heart.

“Haught.” He shut his eyes and breathed in slowly. He opened them with a cold fire. “We trusted you with this mission. When Iris lands, you’ll be demoted back to astronaut.”

“No!” Waverly cried. Nicole’s world crashed to a halt.

“If you touch Earp again for any reason, you’re coming home on the Peregrine .”

Nicole dropped Waverly’s hand like it was an open flame.

“That’s all to report. You’re expected to return to work 1200 Martian Time.”

The message shut off and silence landed on Mars. Nicole blinked uselessly at her own hands. Waverly shook her head over and over, disbelief in every limb, before settling her eyes on Nicole.

Everything we did,” Waverly said slowly, “Everything we did was useless.”

Nicole stared dumbly at the screen, the crushing sense of failure cracking into her soul.

Do something!” Waverly said desperately, tears building in her eyes.

Nicole couldn’t.

“Do something,” Waverly begged in a soft whisper, before falling to soft crying. “Please.”

“There’s nothing I can do,” Nicole said heavily. Waverly took a step forward but Nicole answered with a step back, not meeting her gaze.

For a long time, the only sound was Waverly’s heart breaking. The clock rose steadily toward 12:00. She pulled out her tablet and tried to connect.

Nothing. It was all gone. Twitter, her free access, her privacy. Erased. She connected to the federal account and the censors were already in place.

“It’s gone.” Waverly lowered the tablet. “It’s all gone. They can’t hear us. We can’t hear them. We can’t -- We can’t tell them --” Tears bubbled out of her and she tried to stop them with a hand. She failed in that, just like everything else.

“Waverly,” Nicole whispered, agonized, hand outstretched to comfort her by habit. This time, when Nicole took a step forward, Waverly took a step back.

“This was my fault,” Waverly realized. Nicole opened her mouth to argue but Waverly fled to the greenhouse, leaving her alone.


NH: Let me send a message to Dolls.

Houston: Negative. Continue the mission.


DAY 86

Nicole executed the commands like a robot. Repair this. Check that. She didn’t see, didn’t hear, only acted as she had been programmed.

One time, Nicole had experienced what drowning felt like.

This was similar.

The first night was the worst. Nicole stared up at the ceiling, laying in the bed that smelled like Waverly, like them , and her eyes burned with unshed tears. She thought of Waverly alone, plagued by nightmares, before succumbing to the same thing herself.

And the worst part was that Waverly wouldn’t speak to her.

They had barely exchanged a dozen words since the broadcast, neither willing to cause Nicole to leave early, to step over some unmentioned line and trip off ruination. Nicole could see the weight of guilt on Waverly’s shoulders (the brief moments she did catch sight of her colleague) and could do absolutely nothing to ease it.

Yet things kept breaking ever so slightly in the greenhouse. Sometimes, when Nicole would arrive, Waverly would look at her with honest emotion that made Nicole’s heart ache.

Waverly had meant it -- Waverly liked her, but now they could do nothing but share the same space alone.

The shock of cold water feeling like concrete and being unable to reach the surface. Drowning.

How could she have possibly thought she could be enough? Nicole was exiled to this planet for a reason, for a failure. If she had chosen her path earlier, her uncle would still be alive. And now the burning, unanswered questions left holes inside her, holes that became more apparent when she had fallen in love. She could never be complete . Waverly deserved much better, anyhow.

Nicole should just leave early.

But the thought felt like her body going into shock. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t just give up.

So Nicole began to work.


DAY 87

Guilt.

Not an unfamiliar emotion. Failure of a third child, removed from the will, and the only chance she had to remake herself and start anew--gone. Failed. Again. Everything she dreamed of--being known for her own self--was gone. She would only be known as the woman who broke the rules for sex.

But it was love!

Love. She loved Nicole. Waverly loved her more than anything, more than her career, more than all of Houston, but not enough to stop herself from ruining everything.

Waverly huddled into herself, sliding down the wall as she sobbed. The chickens finished their breakfast and huddled over, concerned. They’d seen it before. They knew, somehow, that Waverly felt unbearable pain.

They cuddled close, clucking. They did their best.

But nothing could change the fact that Waverly couldn’t even talk to Nicole privately. She couldn’t so much as shake her hand without worrying about Houston sending Nicole back to Earth early.

Because that…

That terrified her.

Nicole…gone. Her colleague, her friend, her lover -- gone . Thousands of miles away and unable to see that broad smile, those reassuring soft eyes, that dimple, all of it.

But it felt like that had already happened.

And so Waverly cried because Nicole had already gone and it was her fault.


DAY 88

Damage your tablet.

Waverly stared at the message hidden on the calendar in confusion. She had been waiting for something like this -- some kind of message -- and had found it at last. How long had these dots and dashes sat here, waiting? But Nicole didn’t look at her long enough for her to ask silently.

She responded, carefully laying out the hidden morse code.

How?

She waited. There, again -- a message!

Tea.

Sorry, Waverly wrote, unable to express the magnitude of her apology in anything other than tiny dashes and dots.

Not your fault.

There was a small heart at the end of the sentence. Waverly blinked back tears, looking away from the calendar.


DAY 89

 

“I spilled tea on it,” Waverly said flatly. “Please fix it.”

Nicole took it without a word.

An hour later, she had the tablet back and a new folder titled pictures of cats.

Waverly frowned. Really?

“For emergencies,” Nicole said with a shrug and left, eyes flicking to the calendar briefly.

Do not open 5.

A small heart. Waverly smiled, touching it, before leaving her own.

 


DAY 90

The calendar had hearts all over it.


HOUSTON, TEXAS. EARTH

“Listen up!” a tall Puerto Rican woman shouted from on top of a podium. Cameramen crowded around for a better angle and newscasters stacked their microphones on top of each other in a haphazard pile. The crowd gathered on the lawn quieted, heads turning to listen in a wave.

“Who are you?” someone shouted.

The woman pointed. “My name is Stetsonbot on Twitter.”

A few claps, a few groans.

Stetsonbot put her hand on the shoulder of the woman next to her. Her dreads were dyed half pink and half blue and she waved tentatively. “This is my girlfriend, Botanyisbest.”

Shouts and cheers.

“We are here!” Stetsonbot continued, “Together. In love. Because of Alpha Base. Because of two women on Mars who are part of our community found love on an alien planet!”

Louder cheering, a few couples in the crowd holding up their joined hands.

“You’ve seen the videos and feeds and streams!” She raised her hands. “They are all gone. All of them. Where did it go?”

Loud booing.

“NASA took them offline!” She shouted. “We demand to know why! We will not be leaving until our friends on Mars are free to love who they love, wherever they feel like, whenever they feel like!”

Uproarious cheers.

Dolls watched from within the building, gazing out of a window onto the lawn. “How long have they been here?”

“Three hours so far,” Chrissy reported. “Some rumors state they’re doing a sleepover here.”

Dolls let out a sigh. “You know why I can’t let them.”

Chrissy gave him a hard look, one reserved for friends and not for bosses. It said don’t bother, you’re an asshole. “You know this is going to get bad. Really, really bad. The whole of North America--hell, the world --is going to turn against you.”

Dolls turned from her gaze, looking over the lawn. “For their sake, I hope so.” He let out a sigh. “Once the boardroom sees what a shitfest this is, maybe there will be change. We only have to wait and hope nothing at all goes wrong in the meantime.”

“When has that ever worked?”

Dolls let out a cracking yawn. “Hopefully it will. I’ll see you in the morning.”


DAY 91


ALPHA BASE, MARS.

Nicole ate breakfast alone, seeing as Waverly had already had hers, and consulted Houston. She tried not to pause long enough to contemplate the shaking of her hands, the blurring of her vision, the pain in her heart. She threw herself headfirst into work, desperately checking her tablet to show her anything other than ‘All Systems Nominal.’

The notification on the screen told her an EVA had to be completed before the storm arrived.

Leaving Waverly was the last thing Nicole wanted to do.

But it had to be done.

There was no way Nicole could risk Waverly's life. Not again. Not after how it had been proven that she had been nothing but a waste of a commander not fit to lead.

 

NH: I will do this EVA alone.

Houston: Negative. Big negative.

NH: Too bad. I’m going. Monitor the trip.

 

Nicole stood, not bothering to wait for a response. There wasn’t anything that could change her mind.

 

Waverly hid in the greenhouse. She hadn’t stopped crying. It was hard to work with her vision misted permanently and her soul weighed down by guilt, but she managed it. Somehow.

“Waverly.”

Waverly snapped around, eyeing Nicole like a bomb. She feared saying anything at all. If she opened her mouth, maybe her whole truth would fall out for Houston to hear, then they’d both be going home.

Yeah, She’d say, I love my colleague more than anything and you can fuck off.

“Can I talk to you?” Nicole asked quietly.

They both glanced at the camera. Nicole took a few hesitant steps closer. Not close enough to whisper. They would still be heard.

Nicole wanted to say so much. I love you, this isn’t your fault, I’m in pain and I know you are too, I can’t take this anymore. Every moment I’m around you that I can’t speak to you, can’t touch you, is agony. But nothing came out except: “There’s an EVA. I’m going alone.”

No, Waverly thought. No, no, no, because if Nicole went alone that meant Nicole could be in danger, Nicole could die, Nicole would leave her alone on this planet, all alone without anyone else to be there for her, to be brilliant and charming and funny and better than anyone else Waverly had ever met, and more importantly the one Waverly loved .

Nicole would be gone .

“Don’t do this,” Waverly whispered. “Please don’t do this. You can’t. Not after you promised not to leave me alone.”

“I have to, Waverly,” Nicole whispered back, pleading with Waverly to understand the depths of the situation with her eyes, but Waverly-- Waverly looked away. “Please. This isn’t working. I have to do something. I have to--”

“Leave,” Waverly said, voice cracking. “Leave. Just leave me alone again.” She sniffed, shaking her head. “You know what? When you promised, I believed you.”

“Waverly…”

“I believed you!” Waverly shouted. “I thought you were telling the truth!”

Nicole lowered her head. “Waverly, please.”

“No!” Waverly shouted. “No, I will not be party to this! If you go out there, Nicole, I will never forgive you for this. Ever.”

“Waverly. I’m sorry,” Nicole said softly. “I can’t risk you, I can’t risk failing you as a commander again. I can’t .”

Waverly softened with understanding.

“You didn’t fail me, Nicole, how could you think that?” Waverly asked in a whisper. “You never failed me.” She hardened. “But if you do this now, you will .”

Nicole gestured to the room. “Look at this.” She gestured between the two of them. “Look at us. We can’t…Waverly, I can’t do this. This is torture .”

“And you think leaving me here alone will change anything?” Waverly demanded.

“It’s at least a change!” Nicole insisted. “I have to do something.”

“Then stay here! ” Waverly took a step closer, gesturing. “Here! Where I need you, Nicole! Not out there, leaving me alone again!”

“This EVA has to happen.”

“Then take me with you!”

“I can’t .” Nicole slumped. “I can’t risk you . You’re staying here where it’s safe, where I know you’ll be okay . The thought of losing you -- I just --

“And how do you think I feel?” Waverly wiped angry tears from her face. “You always do this. Making decisions for me again.” Waverly scoffed. “Yeah, Commander. I get it.” Her face twisted. “I get it. I’m not big enough to make my own. I should have known you’d do this again.”

“That’s not--”

“Just go! ” Waverly slammed down her tablet and pressed a hand to her face, wiping away tears. “Just go , Haught.”

“Waverly…”

“Go!”

Nicole went.

When the base notified her that a rover had left the area, Waverly sat down with the chickens and cried.

 

 

 

Houston: We heavily advise against this EVA.

NH: It’s happening anyway. Just monitor the EVA, please.

 

 

Dusty canyon walls boxed Nicole in as she drove endlessly. She couldn’t help but notice the sights and sigh, thinking of how Waverly would have thought about them. Every now and then she’d find herself turning to the passenger seat, mouth open, but nobody was there.

When she stopped to stretch and ease the ache of her muscles, she took as many photos as she could in the time allotted. It kept her mind off of things.

But with a ridiculously long drive, there wasn’t much to do but think.

Nicole browsed Waverly’s playlist, getting familiar with her tastes. Upbeat music, modern in era, with easy lyrics and pleasant sounds. She wouldn’t admit it (No, not yet) but she really enjoyed it. She sorted by most played and wondered if Waverly still liked “Cut to the Feeling” or had listened to it so much she was sick of it.

 

 

Houston: You doing all right? That sigh was intense.

NH: Houston, even for you that’s a bit overprotective.

NH: I’m fine.

 

 

Dolls slammed open the door to Mission Control, late. Late. Late! The night crew all jumped up out of their seats as he stormed inside. George, his replacement until the shift was over, nervously adjusted his tie.

Dolls never raised his voice. He never needed to.

Until now.

“What the hell is this? ” He boomed over the rows of computers. “What the hell kind of shit did you just put my astronaut into?”

George’s face paled, giving him away. His coworkers abandoned him to drift from his space, lest they be collateral damage. “Uh, but she decided…”

“Did you let Nicole drive hours from the base alone?” Dolls demanded, fury almost curdling the air around him, “Do you know how long the suits last?”

George tried to shrink into himself. “Six…hours?”

“Four!” Dolls closed in, inches from the smaller man’s face. “Four hours! They last four hours! Now tell me. What’s the fastest rover speed?”

“Six... Oh, god. Forty…Forty miles an hour.”

“And long would it take that rover to reach her?” Dolls narrowed his eyes. “Do the math, George. For once in your life, do the math.

“Six -- Oh, God. She’s over six hours from the base,” George managed, looking like he might cry, “Oh my God.”

“Six hours and forty three minutes, George. That’s two hours and forty three minutes she doesn’t have.”

“But nothing’s gone wrong!”

Dolls forcefully grabbed him by his shirt and shook him. “You absolute fucking idiot! Something always goes wrong!”

“Oh, Jesus.” George shut his eyes and turned away.

“Not Jesus.” Dolls turned around to face the screen. “Murphy.”

 

 

Nicole looked up at the stars of the night sky, so subtly alien. Always, even now, she found herself searching for Earth’s moon, as always, she felt a dim pang of loss. Something she had taken for granted for so long, only for it to be ripped from her.

Oh, familiar.

It was lonely out here. Nicole took a few moments, refusing to acknowledge the ticking counter on the EVA suit, and sat to brood.

“What do I do?” Nicole asked the empty landscape, imagining her uncle might somehow be listening. She knew he would be disappointed and it crushed her spirit. She waited for him to show up like Simba’s dad, all floaty and special in the clouds, and whisper a motivational quote like ‘ remember who you are’ or something equally rousing.

Nothing happened.

The small form of Phobos drifted across the sky and Nicole shivered.

Nicole shook herself off and stood from the rock, reminding herself of the treacherous mission she had yet to complete. She flipped on the helmet lights and began her trek across the sand dunes.

Time wore on. Inevitably, her thoughts turned to Waverly. What was she doing now? What was she feeling, all alone back at the base?

Perhaps she should call her…

No. Stop this. Nicole shook thoughts of Waverly from her head. She had to focus on the --

Nicole took a step forward and fell. The mountain of sand shed its skin and Nicole, too, letting hundreds of pounds of sand wash in a downward avalanche. Her last thought was a confused  “ huh” before she fell forward into a roll, a mess of whirling limbs and a flipping view as she tumbled down the sand dune for what felt like a lifetime.

Something in her ankle snapped and Nicole let out a pained scream as she fell, foolishly clinging to sand to try and stop herself, not perceiving the consequences before far too late.

Nicole hit the bottom with a dull, nearly-soundless thud. She looked up in time to see hundreds of pounds of sand bury her alive.

It took her a few seconds to take stock of the darkness and her inability to move. Nicole wriggled desperately, trying to feel at least some movement. Nothing. With one of her arms trapped at her side, and the other out at an angle, she had no ability to do more than panic.

“Oh, fuck,” Nicole said between pants as the Horizontal Astronaut Warning beeped, hey asshole! You’re sideways! “Oh... fucking... sh- .”



“-it!” came the end to Mission Control, an unbearable time away.

Dolls turned to George, who had yet to blink. “Get out.”

“I didn--”

“Get. Out!” He roared, fists balled as if about to strike the man. George left everything and simply fled, crying. Silence settled on Mission Control.

“Get me video,” Dolls said quietly, striding to the microphone. He halted. For once, he hadn’t the faintest idea what to say. “And lock down the base. Waverly Earp is not to move an inch unless we say so.” Dolls palmed his face. “God forbid we lose both our astronauts.”

 

 

 

“DISTRESS DETECTED.”

“Shit -- No.” Nicole shook her head. “No. I’m...fine, I’m…good. Not…distr -- Fuck! ” Even the slightest movement sent stars of black in her vision and pain lancing up her leg. Something in her ankle had gone wrong. “Shut the alarm up!”

“DISTRESS ALARM DISABLED.”

Nine hours.

It had taken her nine hours to get here.

The fastest rover could do it in six.

“Alpha...Base.”

“ROGER.”

But six hours was still far too long to survive. It wasn’t lack of oxygen that would kill her. It was CO2. The suit contained only a temporary filter that lasted only about four and a half hours of regular breathing to absorb the carbon dioxide she exhaled. There must, of course, be an emergency option: When it can no longer properly dispose of CO2, the suit will vent it into the atmosphere and fill up with oxygen to maintain pressure.

Except, being buried alive, there wasn’t any atmosphere to vent to.

Eventually, that carbon dioxide would have nowhere to go. And because the amount of actual atmosphere contained in the skintight suit was so low, it would build up extremely fast.

Then, having breathed too much of it, she’d die.

Painfully.

Nicole shut her eyes and groaned. Calm. Calming techniques. She had to remain calm or she’d die faster. One, two. Breathe.

“How...much time...is there...left in...this suit?”

“THREE HOURS AND THIRTY MINUTES REMAINING.”

Nicole slammed her head back and screamed in frustration. She was very likely going to die. Slowly. Or -- Quickly. She could, hypothetically, vent a hazardous amount of nitrogen into her suit --

And Waverly would be alone.

“No,” Nicole panted, “No. I promised.” Nicole squeezed her eyes shut, mentally preparing herself to test the sand around her yet again and face the possibility she might be trapped here.

“Hey!”

Nicole’s eyes shot open. “Waverly,” she breathed.

“Haught?”

No.

No, this was too cruel. No, Nicole could not allow Waverly listen to her die should it come to that. With a forced smile, Nicole grit her teeth to breathe in and out, counting to five.

“Hey, Earp,” Nicole said with hardly a shake. “How’s it hangin’?”

“‘How’s it hanging?’The distress alarm went off! Are you in trouble?!”

Nicole let out a small, disbelieving laugh of horror. “Oh. Yeah. That. Psssh. I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Waverly, I’m fine."

Waverly let out a massive, relieved sigh, before anger took over. “Why did it go off in the first place?” she demanded.

“I, uh. Stubbed my toe.” Nicole shut her eyes, praying. “Hurt bad . Fell over.”

“You would, idiot,” Waverly muttered. “Don’t do it again. I’m serious.”

Nicole nodded though Waverly couldn’t see. “‘Course. See you.”

The line went dead .

Shit.

Nicole, afraid beyond all reason, shouted uselessly at the top of her lungs.

It didn’t help at all.

Houston decided to attempt some helpful suggestions. “Haught. Try your best to figure out how much sand is on top of you. Try wiggling. We’re going to get satellite imagery. Keep us updated.”

Try wiggling. Satellite imagery. Nicole shut her eyes at the desperation in Dolls’ voice. No mention of Waverly spoke more of the odds in Nicole’s favor than anything else.

“Roger that, Houston. Loving the enthusiasm, by the way.”

 

 

Waverly frowned as she backed away from the panel, feeling uneasy without knowing why. Perhaps it was the feeling of being alone, back again, though her nerves had settled with her hens around. She steadied her breathing and focused on how hard she was going to punch Haught when she got back.

“Waverly Earp, this is Houston calling. Do not leave the base.

Wait, what?

“Repeat. Do not leave the base. Remain inside.”

Every screen at communications went blank with a single message: PLEASE STANDBY. MANUAL CONTROL ACTIVATED.

“No!” Waverly dashed up the stairs, pressing random buttons to not avail, “What the hell is going on?”

“BASE LOCKDOWN INITIATED.”

Horror washed over Waverly. Being stuck in this base, alone, without being able to do anything...“No. No!” She fought to calm herself. But it was painfully obvious:

Something had gone wrong. Very wrong.

“Show me the feeds!” Waverly commanded, taking the stairs in one step, trying to get anything to respond to her. Nothing. All of it was locked.

They all knew what Waverly would try to do. Their plan banked on preventing her.

But Waverly was an Astronaut. Making critical decisions with barely any information, knowing there would be consequences for getting it wrong -- this was just another day at the races.

And Waverly knew she was betting on the right horse.

Waverly whipped out her tablet and navigated to the Pictures of Cats folder. She opened number five. Instructions. Waverly squinted, deciphering it quickly by the dots hidden in the photo. Tablet. Lettertodad.TXT to .BAT.

Waverly navigated to Nicole’s tablet, connecting easily. She renamed it and hit run. She held her breath. Please, Nicole. Please have done something genius and awesome so I can --

“HOWDY, COMMANDER EARP. YOU HAVE ONE UNREAD MESSAGE. COMMAND?”

Waverly’s jaw dropped. “Uh…Play?”

Nicole’s voice drifted from the speakers. “No idea why I did this or what you’re going to do with it. I failed as your commander. It’s your turn now, Commander Earp.”

Commander Earp. Waverly could get used to that.

Waverly’s face lifted off and she almost did herself. Now she could act. Now she could defy Houston. Commander. Waverly felt a grin try to break through at the rank. “ Disable Manual Control.”

“MANUAL CONTROL DISABLED.”

Disable lockdown.”

“LOCKDOWN DISABLED. NORMAL OPERATING PARAMETERS RESTORED. WELCOME BACK, COMMANDER EARP.”

“Show me what Houston doesn’t want me to see,” Waverly said, “Show me everything.

“DISPLAYING ALL CAMERA FEEDS.”

Waverly shoved a fist in her mouth to prevent a scream at what she saw: Absolute darkness.

“Okay, she’s fine,” Waverly said aloud. The hens perked up at the sound. “She’s fine, she’s just fallen over. She told me the truth. She’s just…fallen over and Houston just decided out of nowhere to lock me here. Look. Look! There! She’s going to get up!”

 

 

Nicole counted to ten. Then, with a scream behind clenched teeth, tried to wiggle free of the sand. Nothing moved. How many thousand pounds of sand lay above her, around her, pressing against her? Who knew? The suit told her she was angled sideways.

Then, she started to laugh. Giddy, high, genuine laughter. She imagined Mission Control’s confusion. But Nicole had slowly come to a conclusion, and there wasn’t anything else left to do but laugh about being buried alive.

“Houston,” Nicole said in between bouts of laughter, “I’m going to die.”


HOUSTON, TEXAS. EARTH

Silence descended upon Mission Control.

“Lock the doors,” Dolls said with withering finality.

Slowly, like a robot losing battery, the whole of Mission Control came to a silent halt. The only movement was the delivery of the satellite imagery. Pale, blank faces exchanged glances. Is this happening? Is this real?

Dolls took one look at the photo and made a decision that tore his heart in half.

Beyond anything else, he must remain emotionless. He had to be the rock by which his team held itself together.

But he shut his eyes and the pain in his chest remained hot and sharp. The urge to break down, to yell and fight and roar, to deny this utterly crushing reality, was so strong he had to lean on a desk, breathing slowly. He felt a deep, bizarre desire to cry openly. To sob like a child.

As the man in charge, he had no such luxury.

“Call her family,” he said quietly.


ALPHA BASE, MARS.

The world seemed to narrow to a very small point, like Waverly’s anchor had been loosed, like the floor beneath her had been upheaved and she floated freely in space. Despair washed over her in crushing waves.

Nicole was going to die.

Waverly leaned against the wall, blinking but not seeing anything through her tears. Nicole. Nicole was going to die. Her colleague, co worker, friend. The one she…

Nicole.

Waverly would be alone. All alone. No one to talk to. No one to help her. No one to hold her.

No one.

“No.” Waverly shook her head, wiping her tears. “No.”

Commander Earp.

Well, her crew was in danger. What was she going to do about it?

What a Commander would do.

“HOUSTON CALLING…”

“Play message,” Waverly requested as she took her suit off the rack and grabbed a helmet. Her gaze drifted to their broken ones and she felt a stab of pain so sharp her eyes watered.

“Earp. Listen to me. You cannot go out there. You have to stay here and hope she can get herself out of it. We cannot risk losing both of our astronauts and failing this mission .”

“Alpha Base. Send a message to Houston.”

“RECORDING.”

Waverly picked up her helmet and secured the clamps. She didn’t know how, she didn’t know if it was even possible, But she knew for a goddamn fact she wasn’t going to just stay here and do nothing.

“Houston, go fuck yourselves.” Adrenaline rushed through Waverly by the mere act of severe disobedience. “I don’t remember signing on as an astronaut to be a coward when my colleague needs me the most. I’m going to save her.”

 

HOUSTON, TEXAS. EARTH

“Stop her!” Dolls shouted, “Stop her now!”

Doc stood in the back, unable to speak as Mission Control went sideways. Annie spied from the back of the room, feeling ill.

“Do not let her get off that base!” Dolls slammed his fist down hard enough the entire room jumped. “I am not losing both! I AM NOT LOSING BOTH!”

“Working on it!” announced a worker, “I can bypass the override if I just --”

“We need to stop them,” Chrissy insisted. Annie’s shocked face turned slightly. “We need to go public if they try to stop her again.”

“I can’t, I can’t do that --”

“You have to!” Chrissy hissed, “One of my friends is dying up there!”

Annie’s brain seemed to blue screen as she fought for words.

 

ALPHABASE: ALL INTERACTIONS ARE NOW PUBLIC. WANT TO SAY THAT AGAIN?

ALPHABASE: DO YOU WANT EARTH TO KNOW WHAT COWARDS YOU ARE?

ALPHABASE: EVERYBODY WILL KNOW THAT YOU DID NOTHING WHILE SHE DIED.

 

Chrissy turned to the screen, a triumphant smile on her face. “Yes, Waves!” she cheered, but Dolls turned in fury and pointed.

“YOU!”

Chrissy, dialing CNN, ran.

“Who is this?” someone important asked. Chrissy turned a corner at max speed and narrowly avoided taking out three people in a row.

“Anonymous caller!” Chrissy shouted, looking over her shoulder. Behind her, a rush of angry nerds were on the way. “Tune in to Alpha Base, there’s something you want to see!”

“Ms. Nedley?"

“Anonymous!” Chrissy hung up and dialed Wynonna.

“Chrissy I swear to god if you are interrupting me mid sex to update me about --”

“They’re in danger!” Chrissy shouted. “I need you to go to my office, grab the pink file out of my desk, and go to the local news station with it!”

“Holy shit -- holy shit, fuck, it’s real, shit-- Got it. Got it. I’m on it.”

“Good! Also, ew!” Chrissy hung up, shoved her phone in her pocket, and dashed off further into the facility. She burst through offices and ran through boardrooms. She leapt desks and spun chairs, dodged security and sprinted like a madwoman.

But the nerds kept coming.

“Chrissy!” Perry shouted. “This way!”

Chrissy turned and followed. Perry ripped open a door, another door, and a third before pulling her into a storage closet which only certain techs had the key to. He shut the door behind her.

“Tada!” Perry said helpfully as they were stuck together in the dark. Chrissy tried to move and Perry winced as his kidneys were elbowed.

“Well.” Chrissy stopped trying to move and it was marginally better. “This is fine.”

Silence for a few dozen beats.

“Dinner sometime?” Chrissy asked awkwardly.

“Sure, I’d love that.” Perry smiled in the dark. “Can you move your hand off my ass? I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.”

“Your face is in my boobs, Perry.”

“Oh. That’s what’s so soft.”


ALPHA BASE, MARS

The garage doorway loomed as Waverly turned the corner.

There, in the dark, were the robots.

(But Nicole was dying! )

Waverly settled the helmet under her arm and braved the hallway to the garage. Her heart leapt to her throat as she got closer, the sound of the printer’s ever-present whirring too close to The Noise.

Waverly kept going.

Through the doorway Waverly saw them, lurking, hulking. Watching silently with quiet mathematical eyes, dispassionate. Probably some sort of code, some command: Obstacle Detected. Avoid/RunOver If Height = Low Enough.

Waverly shut her eyes but that made it worse. Every second she spent near them was a second she imagined them coming to life, clacking from the closet, putting their disgusting lifeless hands on her and playing a recorded scream.

Willa, laughing, popping in to enjoy her control over her.

She swallowed a scream as her feet hit a wrench. Waverly held herself utterly still, throat filled with tears at the thoughts running through her mind. She could feel them watching her. Analyzing her. With every breath she took, she imagined them crushing her slowly, ignorant of her pain.

Her muscles wouldn’t move.

“No,” Waverly sobbed, “No. No, I’m doing this. I’m...I’m Waverly goddamn Earp. I’m the Commander now. And my crew is in danger.”

Waverly opened her eyes to the bright fluorescent of the garage. They stood there, in a row, but she ignored them save for her racing heart.

The ‘ambulance’ lay at the other end of the garage.

Waverly broke into a sprint, feet pounding the faux concrete, heart trying to astral project from her body, ignoring the race of her thoughts in favor of the pull of her courage, and then -!

Into the rover, onto the seat, with the door closed.

Waverly shut her eyes, took exactly one second, and centered herself. “Alpha Base?”

“ROGER.”

Waverly settled her hands on the wheel, breathing hard, heart trying not to sprint to a stop. “Open Garage, stop. Engage Rover Three, stop.”

With clicks and clanks, the base began to obey.

“It’s time to save my crew.”

 

@MartianCoffee: OH FUCK ME MATT @Mattdamon I NEED YOU TO WEAR ANOTHER FUCKIN WIG

@spacecriminal: engage my pussy omg

Surrounded by sand and in total darkness, Nicole pondered what it meant to die. All astronauts planned for it, accepted it as possibility, so when the time came --

Yeah, whatever, she was still terrified. She tried to find some sort of peace with it, but all she felt was anger. Fury. She would die without ever telling Waverly what she felt.

No, wait.

“Alpha Base.”

“ROGER.”

Nicole shut her eyes, breathing borrowed time. “When -- If. If my suit reads zero life detected. Tell Waverly that she shouldn’t blame herself for this. I chose this. I chose to go. This is my fault and my fault alone.”

“ROGER.”

“And tell her. God, tell her I’ve never met a better astronaut in my life.” Nicole sighed deeply. “And tell her... “

Nicole desperately wished she could wipe at her face.

“Alpha Base, Tell her. Tell Waverly that… That I l--”

“Tell me what?”

“Waverly,” Nicole breathed, every muscle in her body giving up. “No. No! I’m --”

“Shut up, Haught. Turn on your biometrics.”

“Waverly --”

Turn them on!

Nicole felt tears run down her face. “Alpha Base, display astronaut details.”

“Nicole. Why…What am I seeing?”

Nicole watched her tears hit the visor at the wrong angle. “I’m…I’m buried under the sand. I’m stuck, Waverly. I’m…I’m going to die.”

 

 

Waverly, miles away and already driving, almost threw her tablet out the window. Of course. The time. Always, always the time. Waverly had started driving only to retrieve her crewmate’s body.

Unless...

“Nicole.” Waverly did the math in her head, praying she remembered correctly. “Do you trust me?”

Nicole fought back panic, trying to find the right words as to not waste air, trying to calm her breathing as to not reduce her time. “Yes. With my life. But Waverly…I’m...The sand. It’s dangerous.”

“Shut up, ass. You can’t convince me to just let you die.”

Nicole shut her eyes and almost laughed. “I know how stubborn you are. Just…be careful. Please.”

“Stop talking, you idiot.” Waverly did a final check before turning in her seat. “I’m taking control of your suit from here.” This one? No. Another. This one. “You’re going to go to sleep, Nicole.” Even then, the time went over the limit. It would be close. Far too close. Nicole would -- Nicole would be in --

“Okay.”

“Okay?” Waverly asked in surprise. “You’re…Right. Okay.”

The rover turned and accelerated, automatically finding a path. Waverly shut her eyes against the voices of her sister, her father. What makes you think you can pull this off, little girl?

If I don’t try, she’ll die.

“Nicole,” Waverly breathed, “No matter what happens, you just have to wait for me, okay? You just have to wait for me. Please. Say it. Say you will.”

“I will,” Nicole said from beneath Martian sand.

“Promise me! Promise me you won’t break this like the others! Promise me that you mean it!”

“I promise,” Nicole said with all the conviction in her heart, “I promise I will wait for you.”

Time. They had no time. Waverly opened her eyes, resolute. She cleared her throat and hit play. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata drifted over the speakers and Waverly brushed tears from her eyes. “Listen very carefully to my instructions.”

 

EARTH. 

Much of the world turned its eyes and ears to Mars. Some stopped conversations to turn up the radio. Others paused in hallways, eyes glued to screens, watching in disbelief.

“...Take a deep breath, listen to me count…”

Millions heard and millions witnessed. The soft sounds of Beethoven drifted in and out of workplaces, bars, churches, neighborhoods. Phones and televisions. Radios and computer screens. They all showed one thing: Mars.

“... WARNING: OXYGEN LEVEL LOW ...”

“... Nine... ten. Deep, steady breaths. Inhale. One… two…”

They watched. They kept vigil. They stood in silence in respect of the two women on an alien planet. Most watched simply because they felt they should, that they must bear witness to this final act.

“...Everything is going to be fine, Nicole. I’m coming for you, I’m on my way...

Earth watched. Earth waited.

“... WARNING: ASTRONAUT UNCONSCIOUS ...”

But most of all, Earth desperately hoped.

 

 

HOUSTON, TEXAS. EARTH

Bright lights spun over a live audience before focusing in on the stage. The talk show host was sitting on the edge of her seat as the livestream played the drive across the desert. The audience sat in anxious awe, discussing back and forth the science.

“WELCOME,” a booming voice said, “TO BREAKFAST WITH BASHIRA! HERE’S YOUR LOVELY HOST, BASHIRA!”

“You’re on!” a cameraman whispered loudly.

“Well,” the host said, “I’m Bashira, and welcome back to Breakfast with Bashira. We’re all watching our favorite astronauts --”

“Hey!”

Bashira turned in horror to spot a ruffian in a leather jacket climbing her stairs. “I’m Wynonna Earp, chill!” Security halted, confused.

Bashira’s expression changed to joy. “Oh, Wynonna! Waverly’s sister.” She waved off security. “How can we help you today, Wynonna? Welcome to our show!”

“I’ve got the big dish, girl.” Wynonna sat with her boots on the couch. “Two words about this situation. NASA? They knew .”

“Is that three--”

“They knew the whole time. They had their cool special psychologists take a big ol’ look at all the candidates and sorted them with the best chance of survival. The best team? That was them. Waverly Earp and Nicole Haught. Perfect compatibility.”

Shocked gasps.

Bashira looked on with her mouth open, hand to her chest. She took the file from Wynonna’s hands and read it over.

“It’s legitimate, friends,” Bashira said.

“Those [censored] knew they were going to fall in love and are now punishing them for it. I have words for you, Doc.” Wynonna leaned forward, pointing at the camera. What she said next was heavily censored.

“All right! Okay!” Bashira said brightly. “That’s all the time we have for today! We’ll be streaming Alpha Base as soon as this terrible situation is resolved. Thank you for joining me, Wynonna, on Breakfast with Bashira!


SOMEWHERE ON MARS.

It was science, really, but it didn’t feel like it.

Delirius, Nicole dreamed. Water. So much of it. Light coming from above slanted down in beautiful shafts slicing the ocean around her.

Ah, Nicole thought, something has happened to my plane.

No sense of panic accompanied that revelation, even upon the confusion of being in a Mars EVA suit and simply floating, not sinking.

Oh wait , Nicole remembered, I am terrified of water.

Then she truly began to fear, but some part of her still listened to the waking world.  The counting in her ears stopped.

“I’m coming for you, Nicole, I’m on my way.”

“Oh, that’s nice,” Nicole said in her strange, relaxed state of dreaming, “I’ll wait here.”

A fish looked at her in disappointment before moving on. Nicole wished to see a whale, so she did.

This wasn’t so bad.

“You just have to wait.”

“I can do that,” Nicole said as an octopus brushed past her fingers. She was taking an awful long time, though. At least they weren’t on Mars anymore. That felt like such a long time ago. “I love you, you know. Or maybe you didn’t. Did I tell you that?”

“Stay asleep. Please don’t wake up yet. Please.”

“Oh.” Nicole frowned at the inconvenience. “You can’t hear me.”

Nicole changed her mind: This sucked .



Waverly tried not to watch the clock to hard. Six hours plus of nothing but the Martian desert and Beethoven -- or, when she finally tired of him, Nicole’s steady breathing. Against her will, she sometimes found herself nodding off.

Pings on her tablet and Waverly fought back waves of fury.

CMDR.GARDNER: Don’t you know the truth of what she’s using you for?

CMDR.GARDNER: She is a fraud! A fake! Lied to you this whole time about the incident on the cliff!

CMDR.GARDNER: She FRAMED my son!

CMDR.EARP: What are you saying?

CMDR.GARDNER: Work with me, and I can make you famous. I can give you the chance to be your own woman.

Waverly felt something in her change, spread its wings and lift off:

She no longer gave a single shit what Earth thought.

The matter of her name, of her career, seemed so insignificant at this moment that Waverly almost laughed.

CMDR.GARDNER: All you would have to do is testify.

CMDR.GARDNER: You don’t have to get there in time.

CMDR.GARDNER: You can just tell the world the truth and be a little late.

A sigh shook itself from her lungs and Waverly Earp smiled.

LR.EARP: Tell the world the truth? Ok!

“Alpha Base.” Waverly smiled. “Compile all communications with Commander Gardner and send them to Houston.”

“PROCESSING…”

“HERMES CALLING ON PRIVATE LINE.”

“Answer.”

“You stupid little girl!” Gardner yelled through her speakers, “Stop this or I will ruin you!”

Waverly laughed, free. “You’ve threatened us, but I want to tell you something: We played you and now the whole world is going to know what you tried to do.”

“My son is innocent!

“Your son will have his day in court,” Waverly said fiercely, “Like son , like father .”

“You worthless whore,” Gardner hissed, “When you fail to save her, no one will listen to you. You will be nothing but a mistake . I will make sure of it.”

“PROCESSING COMPLETE. WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEND EIGHT POINT FIVE GIGABYTES, COMMANDER?”

“Don’t you want to know the truth she’s been hiding from you?” Gardner asked, “The truth about why you were chosen to be on Mars?”

Waverly hesitated. He’s desperate. Lying to me to save his ass. Listening to him would be a mistake.

“I helped choose you. Don’t you want to know why?”

Desperately lying, but Waverly’s hand didn’t move to press ACCEPT. Curiosity won out. “Why?”

“Because you were destined to fail. Spectacularly .  There is nothing the world loves more than a tragedy. When one of you inevitably fails -- whether it be fatal or otherwise -- we would get the funding needed for Ares 26.”

“Liar!”

“Haven’t you thought about it? Haven’t you wondered why NASA would dare to leave two people alone on Mars?” Gardner laughed. “Don’t you know the truth about our government, little Canadian? Us Americans love conspiracy, but NASA beat them all. Ares 5 was not my fault. NASA is capable of much worse than willful murder.”

Waverly shook with rage.

“No.” Waverly shook her head, trembling, “No. You are lying to me to save your ass.”

“I don’t need her to confess. I just need you to testify to the truth of her framing my son.”

“You want me to murder my colleague.”

“No. NASA has already killed your colleague, Waverly. I’m sorry for your loss.”

“You fucking liar . You’re never sorry.” She hit accept, sending the files to Earth. Gardner lied. Now and forever, he lied. Gardner was a snake, lying with everything he had, because he knew he had lost .

“SENDING…”

“What are you doing?” Gardner demanded.

“You’re wrong.” Waverly smiled grimly. “And you know what? It doesn’t matter why we were chosen, not really. What matters is she’s my idiot and I’m going to save her. Goodbye, Mister Gardner.”

“You will fail -”

“CONNECTION ENDED.

Waverly turned her attention to the ever-present timer and the percentage that rose dangerously high. Based on her calculations...

No. She had to make it. Waverly pressed transmit but hesitated. What to say? Would Nicole even hear? But it was worth it to try.

 

 

 HERMES, SPACE.

Nedley tightened his grip on the chair, watching the stream uselessly. So useless! He could do nothing but watch as his adopted daughter was dying. Tears ran unbidden down his face, over the hand he clutched tightly to his chin.

His tablet buzzed. Nedley had it out in a flash.

BBDR: You want to see this.

BBDR: Alpha Base just sent something by us, and it’s big.

BBDR: [attached]

Gardner--That son of a bitch. Nicole had been right all along.

Nedley watched in horror as Gardner threatened Nicole with exposure and ruined everything. This whole time and Nedley hadn’t even known, hadn’t done anything…

Well, now he would certainly do something .

Nedley raced across the Hermes, pulling and pushing himself through the corridors until he was in the main control room. He scanned the camera feeds until… There. In a maintenance room. He sped off, ignoring the alarmed calls of his crew.

Deeper into the bowels of Hermes, where gravity no longer held any sway. Right…there. Nedley paused at the door and peered inside at Gardner, who stared at something he couldn’t see.

Nedley opened the door.

“Gardner,” Nedley said evenly.

Gardner whirled around with a knife in his hand. He saw Nedley and his eyes turned from surprise to grim determination. He lunged in the space of a second.

Nedley shut the door and dodged, pushing himself off just in time. He struck a wall with a grunt, barely having a moment to get his bearings before Gardner was on him, trying to figure out a way to stab in zero gravity.

“Stop!” Nedley cried.

Gardner did not stop.

Gardner latched onto the side wall and struck out with the knife. Something burned across Nedley’s ribs.

Nedley changed tactics. This time he pushed himself into Gardner, sending them both tumbling in zero gravity, trading ineffective blows without any grounding at all. It was amazing how much of a fight relied on gravity.

It was a lot less elegant than the movies.

They hit a wall and Gardner took advantage, bending himself and booting Nedley back across the room into expensive equipment. He grinned madly before he threw himself forward at the stunned Nedley.

Death came for Nedley at dangerous speed and he panicked. He grabbed the nearest object-- fire extinguisher --and slammed it across Gardner’s face, sending him tumbling end over end into a wall to land hard .

Nedley followed, grabbing the fire extinguisher mid-room and landing beside Gardner. He raised it again.

“Give up!” Nedley commanded. Gardner’s bloody smile was enough to telegraph his next attack, lashing out. Nedley brought the extinguisher down on his shoulder, sending the knife into nowhere and Gardner into agony.

Gardner came at him again, this time with only a fist, and Nedley sent him back with his own left hook. He followed him backward, pressing him against the wall with his body and latching on with his feet.

“It’s over, James.” Nedley hissed. “Give up.”

“You want to know why?” Gardner said, coughing, “Because NASA made me the scapegoat.”

“Stop lying. For once in your life, Gardner, stop lying .”

“No point now.” He smiled. “Like you said, it’s over for me. But I didn’t kill William. I loved him like a brother.” Gardner choked a laugh. “I suffered for fifteen years for a crime I didn’t commit but the public believed I did. NASA did nothing. You know why?”

“Enough!”

“Russia.” Gardner smiled. “Russia, Nedley. Alexei caused the explosive decompression. NASA was already having trouble securing the base in Kazakhstan. It would have ruptured everything if people found out.” His face twisted with decade-wrought rage. “Fifteen years, Randy. Fifteen goddamn years without my friends and NASA said nothing .”

Nedley’s grip didn’t loosen. “I said enough lying .” He pulled Gardner’s weak body from the wall and grabbed some nearby cable that would work better as rope. He tied Gardner’s arms behind his back as the man let out choked, maddened laughter.

The door opened. Teddy, Nicole’s friend, floated in. “Bloody hell, you Americans know how to make space life interesting.”

“Shut up and help me,” Nedley grunted back. He pushed the fugitive into Teddy’s arms, who yelped and held on tight. “Take him up to the main room and call everybody together. This is the first arrest in space. I’ll bet everybody wants their names on it.”

They drifted through the corridors. Gardner had gone silent.

“Can I ask you something?” Teddy wondered. Nedley grunted. “He killed them, didn’t he?”

Nedley shook his head in sorrow. After seeing what he just had, he knew.

“He did.”

 

 

Nicole really didn’t like Beethoven anymore. The novelty of counting whales had passed, the beauty had faded to normalcy. But Waverly was on her way, so Nicole waited.

She was taking an awfully long time, though. Frustration came from being unable to express her impatience, or ask the reason for delay, or even request a different song. Please. Anything but more Beethoven.

“Nicole, stay calm,” Waverly whispered.

Nicole floated. “That’s easy. I’m very calm. You should see this, you know. I think you’d like it.”

Something moved in the blue abyss below.

Nicole blinked, trying to see below her, but the edge of her visor prevented her. She had imagined it, for certain. This wasn’t a nightmare because Waverly would be here soon.

But somehow it became darker.

Suddenly, Nicole didn’t feel like waiting or remaining calm.

“Listen to me, please. If you’re there. Your brain is about to panic. I need you to do everything in your power to not panic, Nicole. Please.”

Something touched her leg and Nicole fought every urge to scream.

“God. I doubt you can even hear me. But. This is…if you…If there’s any way. Just please stay calm and do not wake up .”

Science, really -- it’s called the hypercapnic alarm response, also known as holy shit, I’m breathing too much CO2, better breathe it even faster because that’s totally smart, right?

But in feverish delirium, Nicole saw it as a giant eye rising in her view, a grey mass surrounding it -- the intelligence behind its gaze frightening in its depth, in its ultimate uninterest -- the apathy within, not hate, which terrified her beyond all thought otherwise.

“This is a dream,” Nicole said bravely, “This is my dream. I control you.”

It blinked at her.

A tentacle wrapped around her throat and Nicole began to choke.



MARS.

Waverly found it, parked nonchalantly as if everything was dandy fine. Waverly pulled up and stopped, burning up inside with anxiety, stepping out into the dust and sinking slightly. “Shit.” A small noise indicated she had connected to another suit and Waverly held her breath.

Ignoring the sounds in her ears, Waverly hooked her cables to the rover.

“Where is she?” Waverly asked aloud, stumbling in a direction. The gasping sighs in her ear had no direction.

“FIFTY FEET.”

Waverly changed to the left.

“FIFTY ONE FEET.”

“WARNING: CARBON DIOXIDE LEVELS CRITICAL.”

By some mercy, Nicole remained asleep. Waverly stumbled further, trying to sprint over the dunes. “You stay alive, you asshole!”

“TWENTY FEET.”

There. Waverly leapt the edge of the dune and slid down the side of it, listening to the base count down to three feet then --

“FOUR FEET.”

“Oh, god.” Waverly climbed back up, sticking her hand into the dune at THREE FEET. “Oh, god.” Too deep. Too deep! Her hand searched desperately. “You can’t die. I order you to not die, you hear me?”

“DEFIBRILLATOR IN ROVER THREE CHARGING, COMMANDER.”

Something! Waverly dug faster, deeper, and --- fingertips! -- found a wrist to hang onto. With the hook she found the ring on the suit and latched on.

“I have her!” Waverly announced unknowingly to millions of attentive ears on Earth.

Now she had to get her out of the massive dune. Somehow, under how many pounds of sad, she had to retrieve Nicole.

“Shit, shit, you were always better at physics, I need--huge force--impact--” Waverly snapped her head around and raised herself up, peering over the dune.

“Alpha base. Engage Rover 4,” Waverly commanded.

Nicole’s rover turned on.

“WARNING: FATAL ARRHYTHMIA DETECTED.”

Waverly’s heart raced. No. No. She couldn’t. Not when they were so close!

“Turn one hundred and eighty degrees.”

“ROGER.”

The rover turned itself around. It now faced the pair of them.

“Accelerate maximum speed.”

The rover jolted across the desert, larger and larger, faster and faster. Waverly gripped the line attached to Nicole’s body and waited. Waited painful, agonizing seconds. Closer. Closer.

“Reel rover three line now!”

“ROGER.”

The rover collided with the dune, jolting it with a shockwave that loosened the sand enough for movement. Nicole’s body, along with Waverly, flew up out of the sand at ridiculous speeds.

“WARNING: NO PULSE DETECTED.”

“No!” Waverly screamed uselessly as they landed. She picked up Nicole and ran as fast as she could, bounding across the landscape to the ambulance. “You promised you would wait for me!”

“PLAYING RECORDING --”

“I don’t want to hear it!” Waverly ran faster. “I don’t want to fucking hear it!”

“Waverly,” Nicole’s voice played from the recording. Waverly shook her head. “The first thing I want to say is I’m sorry. The second is that I --”

“Stop the recording!” Waverly commanded, still working even though she knew the truth: She’d lost. Just like everyone had said she would. Just like it was calculated to. There was not a single procedure that could help her now.

No.

No!

After all this time.

After falling in love.

She would not give up.

Waverly fell on the harsh rock with her colleague’s body in her hands.

It was obvious from the start that NASA really could never account for pure, unadulterated stupidity, because what Waverly did next was very, very, very, very stupid.

Stupid enough to work.

Stupid enough to save Nicole’s life.

Waverly flipped Nicole over and hit the release on her helmet, revealing her to the fatal atmosphere of Mars. Nicole’s body jerked as her lungs contracted in the low pressure before Waverly snapped the helmet closed, forcing it to re-pressurize with pure oxygen.

Forcing air into Nicole’s lungs.

“Come on,” Waverly urged as the suit worked overtime, “Come on!”

Nicole arched and gasped, alive, whole body contracting, before falling back to the dirt without waking.

“Shit!” Waverly said. “Shit, shit!” She picked up Nicole and sprinted to the rover. It took a frustrating few minutes before she was able to have her inside, to the IV, hooked up to the monitor.

Alive.

Barely .

Waverly had done the impossible.

The soft, regular beats of her colleague’s heartbeat testified her victory. Waverly leaned on Nicole’s chest, exhausted, comforted by the sound. She shut her eyes and felt the rush of adrenaline leave a void of exhaustion behind.

The rover rumbled under her as Alpha Base drove them back, leading the other behind it. She ignored it, lifting off Nicole’s chest to feel at her warm, alive face.

Nicole’s lips moved.

“What?” Waverly asked, leaning over. She waited, feeling the soft puff of air and hearing nothing.

“Wav’ly…” Nicole murmured in her sleep. Waverly. Just her name.

Waverly burst into tears, sobbing openly on Nicole’s chest, hugging her colleague, her love , close. She buried her face in Nicole’s hair and cried.

An arm came around to cradle her. A dazed voice, “Wave-ly?”

Waverly pulled back, looking into Nicole’s confused, hazy eyes.

“Your brain didn’t have a lot of oxygen for a while,” Waverly said gently, pushing Nicole back down. “You shouldn’t be awake.”

“Waited,” Nicole rasped.

“You did.” Waverly smiled past her tears. “You did , Nicole."

Nicole’s fingers shakily traced her face, catching a tear. Nicole smiled soft and hazy.

“I was such an idiot,” Nicole mumbled.

“You were.” Waverly laughed in relief, hugging her again. “You should know something,” Waverly murmured soft, brushing sweat-damp locks from Nicole’s clammy forehead, “I didn’t want to say it because that would be a total cliche, right?” Waverly smiled and almost laughed at the thought. “I love you, you know?” She shook her head, tears overcoming her. “I love you more than anything.”

Nicole smiled warm and broad. Many things were hazy to her but one thing was clear -- had always been clear -- “I love you, Waverly,” Nicole whispered hoarsely. “I don’t care if it gets me fired, or thrown out an airlock, or anything. I love you. Always. Forever.”

Waverly pressed a gentle kiss to Nicole’s lips, careful, but Nicole leaned up into it to make it firm and true. I love you, the kiss said, I love you and I’ve admitted it, I’ll always admit it, because it’s the truth. It was the kind of kiss felt in the soul. The kind of kiss Waverly read about in her novels. The kind she never believed she could receive, because it wasn’t what she deserved.

But, no. Nicole loved her and she loved Nicole and there wasn’t a single force in the universe strong enough to keep them apart.

 

 

Earth celebrated.

In the streets, in the offices, in everywhere and every place -- they burst into cheers and screams and tears.

Against all odds, they had won. Their astronauts had survived, had admitted their love, had kissed. It was all they ever wanted and more.

Chrissy cried as she held her phone close, watching the rover make its way across the landscape. She had survived. She turned and kissed a surprised Perry on the mouth.

Wynonna let out the breath she’d been holding before grabbing Bashira into a hug on live television.

Dolls felt a tear roll down his cheek, shaking his head, the smile on his face unbearably wide. Doc yelled and hooted, pulling him into a wild hug. Papers and files flew through the air like confetti as the whole of mission control cheered their astronauts on.

“But they kissed!”

“Don’t give a single shit, Jerry,” Dolls said. “I’ll make them both Commander if I have to.”

“What?” Doc asked. “Why did we not think of that earlier?”

“Because it’s…”

“Genius!” Doc shouted, shaking him. “Absolute hat-tipping genius.”

“Guys.” Someone at communications stood up, pointing to their screen. “You guys should see this.”

The whole of Mission Control flew toward him and gathered around, just in time to see Gardner accusing Nicole of terrible, untrue things, then threatening her. Eyes went wide and shocked gasps cleared the room.

“I knew that guy was nuts,” someone muttered.

“That’s insane!” another shouted angrily. “He almost got them killed!”

“All right, everybody calm down,” Doc said. The room stilled. “We’ll have him thrown out the airlock.”

Dolls cleared his throat.

“Fine. Arrested .” Doc nodded. “Send a message to the Commanders.” He rubbed his moustache. “Once they stop making out on national television.” He sighed. “Shut the stream off, please. Please!”



“What now?” Nicole mumbled once her lips were free. Waverly leaned their foreheads together, breathing in Nicole despite the damp smell of sweat and grime. Alive, alive. She laughed with the joy of it, tracing Nicole’s chin.

“Don’t care,” Waverly said, going back in. Nicole allowed it for a few precious moments before putting gentle pressure against Waverly’s shoulder. She pulled back with a pout.

“But...the Peregrine …” Nicole mumbled. “I failed you, Waverly.”

Fuck the Peregrine ,” Waverly said flatly. “And yes, I’m still mad at you and we’re going to have a very, very long talk. But right now, I’m just happy you’re alive , Nicole.”

Nicole laughed, kissing her girlfriend again. “You know what, Waves?”

“What?"

“If I never hear Beethoven again, I’ll be a very happy woman,” Nicole muttered.

Waverly laughed, loud and free, her heart warm. She pulled Nicole up into her lap, careful around the IV, but not careful to show how much she loved her.

“I love you, you know?” Waverly said again. “I love you.”

Nicole grinned, wider than Waverly had ever seen, no hidden weight behind her eyes. “I love you, too.”

They held on together as the rover roamed over the desert, laying as lovers do. The sun began to rise, rippling across the landscape, casting its light over them together as they kissed.