Chapter seven of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
“I just don’t understand why you’d want me to go to Mars,” Luci von Embers said for the umpteenth time. She’d been flattered by his charming explanations, but the scientist in her was still extremely skeptical.
And, of course, Bransen couldn’t really answer, “Because of a dream I had.” The real reason didn’t seem too compelling even to himself, but he’d hoped that dinner on him in the city’s finest restaurant would earn him a few points—and if he could somehow convince Luci to join his team, then he’d just trust her judgment and stop trying to convince himself.
He grinned sweetly because he was beginning to think he may have convinced her—she’d stayed for dessert, after all.
“I need a microbiologist,” he replied again. “Surely you don’t mean you can’t understand why I need that?”
“I can understand that, Mr. Bransen,” she agreed, smiling demurely and sipping her coffee. Luci had the refined appearance of someone who could afford to look however she wanted. At the moment, the dark but soft makeup and black bobbed hair gave her the air of a 1920s starlet, her eyes bright behind black eyeliner and shining above the subdued red of her lips. “But everyone else you’ve outlined for the trip so far has no dependents. Yes, I’m a freelance worker, too, but I have a young daughter. Can’t you find some young, single, hotshot grad student to go?”
Bransen ignored the passive-aggressive insinuation in her voice that an independently wealthy, middle-aged man would rather find a starry-eyed twenty-something girl, and tried a different line of questioning.
“Is it the trip itself or leaving your daughter that’s bothering you?”
Luci froze, cake-encumbered fork midway to her mouth, and slowly lowered her arm. Truth be told, Luci had always fantasized about being on a manned mission to another planet—it was the sort of feather in her cap that would earn her renown on its face, but also offer unimaginable potential for microbial discoveries. Even finding just one, single, truly-alien cell was the kind of life’s-work discovery every scientist dreamed of.
Of course, dreams such as these were all mapped out long before she’d had Sophie. Everything changed when you had someone more important than yourself to worry about.
“Both, I guess,” she mumbled. “Leaving my daughter is one thing, but possibly leaving her forever is something else entirely.”
Bransen nodded compassionately. In fairness, he had made it very clear to each of those he’d asked that there was the possibility they’d never see Earth again. Not that he thought it at all likely—Bransen was much too concerned about his own hide to risk too much—but he had to admit the danger. It was there, flitting around his grand designs like a black moth against a light.
“What if she came with you?” Bransen replied simply, his eyes shining with inspiration. “This isn’t going to be some government-run space program in tin cans controlled by punch-card computers—this is going to be a Bransen Labs Cadillac. You won’t even know we’re in space, unless you look out the window.”
Luci laughed. She actually put her coffee down so she could laugh without spilling it.
“Are you serious, Mr. Bransen?”
“Take my child to Mars? Are you even aware how ridiculous that sounds? I can tell you’ve never had children.”
Bransen felt the conversation slipping away suddenly and shifted nervously in his chair. Convincing people to agree to half-baked, astronomical ideas was his strong suit, but Luci von Embers had a mean poker face.
“We’d be pioneers, Ms. Von Embers. Did the families who picked up stakes and rolled west in wagons leave their children behind?”
“Some of them…” Luci bluffed, trying to hide behind her coffee mug. She could see where this line of reasoning flowed.
“Not many,” Bransen corrected serenely. “And I promise you, their journey was fraught with a lot more danger than ours. Disease, attack, war, wild animals, injury…”
“They didn’t have to risk the vacuum of space.”
“But Luci, that’s all we have to risk. We aren’t heading into a war-riddled frontier. There are no wild animals. A broken arm is no longer life-threatening. And disease—well, you know better than anyone how well we treat disease these days.”
Luci sighed heavily and held his gaze.
“Is it the size that concerns you?” Bransen wondered. “A journey that will take a year just to get there and back? Across unimaginable distances, surrounded by infinity? But isn’t Earth already surrounded by infinity? Haven’t we all already traveled unimaginable distances for our careers—just not all at once? Luci, the one benefit to flying through space is that there’s nowhere to fall from. It’s not like flying across the Earth to attend a conference in Rome.”
She straightened up and sighed again, so Bransen stopped talking and let his logic sink in. He was sure it would work—had been sure she could be convinced, when she hadn’t stood up and left the second he’d mentioned Mars.
Luci considered his argument. It was true: Historically, mothers had put their families at far greater risk to chase the promise of a better future. And selfishly, if something did happen to the ship and they all died, at least Sophie would be with her. At least she wouldn’t be orphaned. At least they could hold hands as they fell into their final sleep.
Luci blinked and looked down, watching her fingers play with the stem of her fork.
“What about school?” she asked suspiciously, willing to accept Bransen’s idea at face value for the time being.
“We can take her textbooks with us. The crew is quite smart,” he added with a smirk.
Luci laughed with something like relief and finished her last two bites of cake, washing it down with the last of her coffee.
“Well, I’ll have to ask her, Mr. Bransen,” she accepted in a charming tone rimmed with an undercurrent of sarcasm. “If she doesn’t want to go, I don’t want to go.”
“And if she does?” Bransen asked with a grin.
Luci paused, then replied secretly, “Then I guess we’ll both go.”
“Really?” he checked excitedly.
“No, not really,” she admitted cruelly. She almost felt bad with how crestfallen he looked. “I’ll give you this much, Mr. Bransen…”
“Bransen,” he mumbled.
“You make a good argument—on paper. It’s enough to allow me to humor you. I’ll join the team on the understanding that for now, all my work happens on Earth. I’ll design field tests, you bring back samples.”
“It makes more sense for you to be able to apply different tests dynamically—”
“On Earth, Mr. Bransen. Let me get comfortable with that idea first. Then we can discuss your more insane ideas.”
“Very well,” he agreed before he lost her altogether, offering her his hand. They shook amiably, each with their own secret smirks. There’d be time enough to talk more later.
“But mist… errrr… Bransen,” Luci added. “It would take something pretty miraculous to convince me to load up my wagon and drive my child west. The one thing the pioneers had that we lack is something to run from.”
Bransen nodded slowly in agreement, but he didn’t stop grinning.