Portal – Chapter 13

Chapter 13.

“Alone at last,” Jackie said, deliberately using the old cliché.

“Yes,” Horst agreed, looking surprisingly nervous. “We are.”

     One of the additional inflatable hab units had been transformed into Vacation Hotel Europa, as A.J. had dubbed it – a place where people could go for time separated from the group. The unit, originally meant as two separate living spaces, had been made into a single larger living space, with all the amenities that the castaways of Europa could manage crammed into it, including a shower, a large entertainment projector put together using smaller entertainment components, a larger bed than the standard near-bunk size, projective windows to allow the real view outside or replace it with other locations, a large proportion of the “Joe Dinners”, and whatever other bells and whistles could be thought of.

Any of them – as individuals or groups – could schedule a “vacation” there when not immediately needed (which of course probably meant you worked twice as hard the day before). However, last week, right after it had been completed, Madeline had informed the two that Hotel Europa already had two full days reserved for them at the end of the following week, and that they were not to be working at all those days.

“You’re looking awfully tense, Horst,” she said, raising her eyebrow and putting a hand on his arm. “Something wrong?”

Horst gave an embarrassed grin. “Well… it’s really very silly of me. But I somehow feel like… this is as though I brought a date home to my mother’s house and we went to my room and locked the door.”

Jackie laughed. “I guess that isn’t so silly. Or maybe like coming home and finding your parents have Just Happened to step out for that night and have left a note saying they definitely will not be back until noon the next day.”

“Ha! Yes, that is maybe much more like it.” Horst took a deep breath and then exhaled, seeming to blow his tension out with it, and then turned and kissed her.

It wasn’t their first kiss, of course, but it’d been a long time since they could just … take their time about it. Jackie took her time, and so did Horst.

By the time they broke slightly apart, her hair was slightly mussed and his would have been, if he didn’t keep it military-regulation short. She smiled up at him and saw an answering sparkle in his eye. “That was pretty good.”

“But it is important to practice your skills to make them better,” Horst answered and suited action to words.

“Mmm,” she said appreciatively after a while. “So, besides that, what do you want to do on our vacation?”

Horst glanced out the window, which was currently set to an active view (based on recordings, of course) of Lanikai Beach in Hawai’i. “I would say a swim, but I am told it actually colder outside than it looks.”

“You goof. Yes, I think surfing and swimming is out. Though,” she gave him a wink, “there is a double-size shower.”

“Hmm. Something to consider carefully, yes,” Horst agreed; his light Germanic complexion reddened noticeably. Jackie was pleased that her Native American heritage gave her dark enough skin that blushes weren’t easily visible; it let her tease Horst, and sometimes other people, with impunity on her part.

“Well, I actually picked out some of the newest movies that Ceres was able to forward us. You like the Kata Wandering series, right?”

“Yes, yes! I did not know that the next one was already out. If that’s okay with –”

“I wouldn’t have brought it up if it wasn’t,” she pointed out. “Actually, there’s lots of things to watch, if that’s what we want to do. A.J. also set up a local Quest of the Seven Races server if you like that kind of stuff – I do sometimes – and there’s some really good beach simulations if you wanted to at least pretend we’re at the beach. Or there’s old-fashioned chess or something like that.”

“Or we could just talk, but I think we’d still end up ‘talking shop’ as you call it.”

She shrugged, still smiling. That’s part of why I like being with him. Just any kind of talking with him makes me smile. “Well, that’s okay too – I mean, we talk shop because it interests us and we’re still doing what we want to do, way out here in the solar system.”

She signaled the window control and one window shifted as she approached. “I haven’t got tired of that view yet,” she said softly.

Jupiter loomed over the horizon, about half above the edge of the jagged edges of the Connemara Chaos. Shadows from the sun were thrown in sharp relief of black against the bright surface, a black then tinged with the red-brown-cream light of the largest of the planets. Against one edge of Jupiter was a black spot, a spot with a yellow-orange crescent edge – Io, where they presumed the body of Richard Fitzgerald had finally ended its journey and where General Hohenheim had pulled off an impossible escape. The stars beyond dusted the black velvet setting of the sky.

“Nein, I have not either,” Horst said, hugging her from behind and looking over her shoulder. “And the view will be changing for us again in a few days.”

That was true enough; after their mini-vacation, she, Horst, Mia, Petra, Dan, and Anthony would be leaving to rendezvous with Odin and the General. As they were choosing close-to-minimum delta-v routes, it would take a few days to catch up with Odin on this trip, and depending on how long the work on board took, between a day and several days to get back afterward, but they’d also be able to transfer a considerable proportion of Munin’s reaction mass onto Odin. Several more trips would be needed to make sure there was sufficient water for the remains of the huge EU vessel to shift its orbit and have some reserves for later, but there seemed to be no barriers to accomplishing this.

“Sometimes I wonder where we’d be if you hadn’t had Fitzgerald on board,” she said after a pause.

She could see Horst frown slightly in thought. “That… is an interesting question, you know. I suppose we would have still come to Ceres, but things would have been different almost from the beginning.”

She glanced back and up. “Really?”

“Ja, no doubt. You were not on board Odin, so you perhaps do not realize he was main advisor to the General for most of the trip, at least in security and … hm, corporate espionage tactics.” He looked somewhat embarrassed about the latter, which she didn’t mind; the fact that it bothered him was one of the things that told her Horst was as decent as he appeared to be. “Oh, we would have been looking for things on our own, yes, but it may be that we would have simply made the proposal you did when you cornered us, except we would have done so when Andrew found the information on Enceladus.”

She thought about that. If it had happened that way… Horst would have left peacefully, we’d have had no reason to chase Odin down in Nebula Storm – hell, it wouldn’t even be a named ship, just a museum piece – and I wouldn’t have been going with them. Wouldn’t have seen Horst for three years, probably.

“I’d still be on Ceres, probably, unless I was shuttling back and forth on Nobel,” she said after a pause. “That would be pretty exciting in its own way I guess – you saw the announcements we downloaded?”

Horst snorted. “Your Nicholas, he knows how to work his P.R.; as soon as excitement from our survival dies down, he lets them release the news about the Bemmie fusion work.”

She grinned. “Yes, he’s good with that. And think about it; we know Bemmie had the technology working. We’ve seen the work they did carving out just stupendous caverns in Ceres and the digs on Mars, and we have those half-ruined pieces. Fusion isn’t twenty years away; it’s five.”

“And that will change many things, maybe make us able to make a better Odin when we get back.”

“Or maybe more; some of the stuff we’ve gotten passed on from Ceres through the secure channels…”

“You mean the plantimals?”

Horst was referring to some of the recent discoveries in Ceres, more advanced lab work with what appeared to be sessile forms of Bemmie-type life, or possibly animal-like plants from Bemmie’s homeworld. “No, not those – though why they were apparently being developed as metal concentrators is still being argued about, and Helen is of course all over that stuff. No, I was talking about the hints from Rich and Jane.”

“Eh? Maybe, yes,” Horst said skeptically, “but I will believe they are close to cracking the Rosetta Disc when the translation is released. They thought they would crack it much sooner, remember.”

She couldn’t argue that. “I guess you’re right. They thought they’d be giving lectures on its contents by now. I thought I’d be working on the design of a new and better ship for the IRI…”

“And I,” Horst said, looking out across Europa again, “I had thought I would be here, in Jupiter system – but that was because we guessed there might be a Bemmie base here. Had not thought I would be shipwrecked on one of Jupiter’s moons.”

She grimaced and “And that still seems unreal sometimes. And frightening when I realize how close we came to dying… how close we still are, I guess.”

“We are not so close now as we were, really,” Horst said. “Now we have backups for most systems and there is no Fitzgerald to damage them. And more engineers per square foot than some engineering firms!” He kissed her on the neck, making her giggle – she couldn’t help it, she was ticklish there sometimes – and turning to the entertainment unit. “Now let’s watch Kata, and we can have Joe Dinners, and then…”

“And then,” she agreed with an impish grin.