Chapter twelve of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
“Thanks again for watching Sophie last night,” Luci said appreciatively. “I know it’s not your job.”
Lorna smiled across the lab at her, through the matrix of tubes and machines that made up their workspace. Lorna Jacobs had been compiling Luci’s notes and ghostwriting her papers for a decade, the job having saved her from an unrewarding career as an editorial assistant at the local rag.
“I don’t mind, you know that,” Lorna replied. “Henry loves her company. Besides, if the namesake of Bransen Labs calls you for dinner, you go.”
“Yeah…” Luci mused.
“And if he calls you three times… ” she paused and straightened her back, holding Luci’s gaze. “What is it? Is he shutting you down?”
The quip was rimmed with fear for Lorna. She really didn’t want to change the current view from her desk, trading the trappings of science to go back to the mundane world of the news. She was too old and too out of touch to put together a resume, let alone to beat the bricks and look for work.
“Don’t worry,” Luci chuckled, mocking her friend’s down-turned expression. “I made it very clear to him that any job offer to me included you.”
“And?” Lorna breathed.
“And we need to talk.”
Luci had decided that the opportunity to go to Mars was too great to pass up because of fear. She’d decided that it actually offered an opportunity to share something with her daughter so meaningful that even if they only survived for five minutes, it would be worth it.
Between the lines of her decision was woven a story of tragedy and triumph in which Sophie, age seven, had been rescued from a precipitous mountain overhang by her father, only to watch her father overbalance and plummet to his death. But Nate would still want this, for both of them. She’d been warned that he was a risk-taker, but she’d never pointed out to the people who warned her, that his risk-taking was why she loved him. They saw risk, she saw an undying childish awe and curiosity; she liked that he urged her to take the chances she would have passed up without him.
“Accidents,” he used to say with an impish grin, “are what pioneers call progress.”
It was good that she reached her conclusion on her own and in her own terms because once she’d made up her mind, she didn’t go back and second-guess her decision. Second guessing was for people whose minds had been made up for them by someone else they simply couldn’t argue with—that was something Nate always said, too.
“Well…?” Lorna prodded, moving closer to Luci.
“Bransen Labs just picked me—picked us,” Luci said, moving across the lab toward Lorna and sitting on the couch beside her desk.
“Why so pensive, then?” Lorna wondered, her heart beating nervously. Never in a million years could she have dreamed of working at Bransen Labs—although she was sure they must employ some technical writers—and now she felt like she’d won the lottery.
Luci smirked wryly and looked at her friend. She seemed amazed herself at what she was about to say.
“If I take it, he’s putting me right to work on a pet project for PISA.”
“His space agency?” Lorna squeaked, unable to contain her excitement.
Luci nodded. “A manned mission to Mars.”
Lorna froze, stunned, her mouth agape and her eyes wide. “Mars?”
“Bransen Labs is sending men to Mars?”
“Bransen Labs wants to send me to Mars.”
Lorna’s eyes widened further and her gape transformed into a happily jealous smile. “Oh, you have to go!”
“And you have to come with me,” Luci added with a fearful grin, hoping Lorna’s excitement would translate into willingness. Luci raised her eyebrows expectantly.
Lorna’s brow furrowed; she was unable to process what Luci had literally said and was focusing instead on the more logical concern, if Luci was going to Mars.
“So… the kids?” she wondered quietly. “I’ll have to stay with them. That’s okay…”
“They’ll come, too.”
“What?” Lorna barked, the fragile logic she’d been working with suddenly collapsing in on the words Luci had actually said: And you have to come with me.
So there was a catch, after all—nothing was ever the perfect dream-come-true. There was always some dark, shadowy side waiting to trap you; waiting to make you wish you’d never agreed to the dream in the first place.
“There’s no way!” Lorna protested. “I mean, I’m not even sure I could handle… I mean, I want to, but… but kids? In a spaceship?”
“Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?” Luci checked, her face calm and her eyes twinkling. “Stranger than fiction?”
“Yes! It does!” Lorna agreed emphatically. She sighed and studied Luci’s face, seeing nothing but joy and excitement and resolve. This woman meant to go to Mars, and she meant everyone she cared about to go with her.
“Dr. Fobell is already on the project,” Luci offered. “He thinks it’s a great idea.”
“Howard?” Lorna checked; Luci nodded once and smiled.
Lorna knew how much Luci respected Dr. Howard Fobell. Luci readily admitted, in fact, that he was more like a father figure to her, and he’d been integral to helping her set up her independent lab, offering support and contacts and even some money to buy equipment. They’d never met on anything other than a professional level—even when they went out for dinner or lunch, it was only to discuss each other’s work—but as with all such working relationships, the professional bond has flourished into a more emotional attachment. Luci had the deepest respect for his opinions and often asked his advice, and by extension, Lorna also trusted the man implicitly. He’d always been kind and respectful, and always had words of encouragement for Lorna, about her writing and how lost Luci would be without her.
“My God, Henry would be on board in a heartbeat,” Lorna agreed, sighing heavily. It was all a bit much to digest so quickly. She shook her head. “But…”
“Will you go with me to a meeting with Bransen?” Luci asked—practically begged. “Before you make up your mind?”
“I really could stay here with the kids—you know Sophie is like a daughter to me.”
“He’s very convincing,” Luci replied. “There’ll be test flights and an overabundance of safety checks. He says the ship will be safer than the buses we ride every day. Safer than an airplane!”
“You could send your notes back to me. I could compile them while you’re gone so the book is ready to go when you get back.”
“There aren’t any specific laws against it. It’s our choice, as their parents. Well, and the kids’ choice, too.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“His legal team said that as long as the parents went and consented and the children didn’t appear to be in distress, there was no real reason they can’t go.”
“How often would we talk? Would there be video-conferencing, like in the movies?”
“He did also point out that popular opinion may differ with us, so we’d have to deal with the media…”
Their eyes met and they both realized they’d each only been half listening to the other.
“Sophie already said yes. She’s thrilled to pieces.” Luci held Lorna’s eyes and made sure her friend was listening to her. “Will you meet with Bransen?”
“I’ve always wanted to go into space,” Lorna whispered, her eyes distant and unfocused.
“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” Luci said with a smile.