Chapter fourteen of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
Carlos Resua was a people watcher, a habit that had got him accused of making people uncomfortable more than once. It might be closer to the truth to say that Carlos was a people studier—he didn’t just casually observe those around him, he watched them intently, taking in every nuance of motion and expression and dialog. People said he could read minds, but Carlos always countered that you didn’t need to read minds when everything we felt and meant came through in body language.
For example, as he glimpsed Howard Fobell in his office, Carlos could tell by the lidded eyes, hunched shoulders, and meaningless but forceful fidgeting that Howard was on eggshells with his caller. When he walked past Howard’s door and heard him address the caller as “son,” Carlos had all he needed to glean that the relationship was strained and Howard was doing what he could to keep it together. There was no mind reading required.
For his part, Howard would have been agreeable to this conclusion, but circumspect. He was not the kind of man who put his social life ahead of his passions, and he certainly didn’t discuss it with others. As his wife had noted, that was the biggest part of the problem with Howard: work was always more important. It wasn’t true, of course, but Howard simply didn’t know how to express passion in his personal relationships in the same way he did with his work. He just wasn’t wired that way. Still, now that their son was grown up and on his own (albeit college aged and still wet behind the ears), his wife had finally given up and served Howard with a divorce, and Howard prayed that it wasn’t too late to salvage relations with his son.
“I just wanted you to know I finally moved out of that apartment,” he said into the phone, hoping the smile came through in his voice. There was a pause as his son replied.
“Yeah, well, that’s the other thing—I changed jobs, too.”
Finally a chuckle. This was, after all, good news—or it should be.
“Bransen Labs… Yup, the one with the private space thingy.”
He chuckled again.
“Actually, it’s true. We are going to Mars.”
He smiled widely at his son’s excitement.
“You should come out and visit—I’ll give you a tour of the place.”
This time the chuckle was clearly shared by both parties.
“No, I don’t think you’ll accidentally end up on a spaceship—we’re pretty careful around here!”
When Howard hung up a few minutes later, his back was straight, his expression soft, and his eyes beaming. It might well have been the best conversation he’d had with his son in years. Of course, moments later Howard was back to his typical mood that failed to commit one way or the other, unless he was talking about one of theories.
Carlos Resua would have said that Howard feared losing the ground he’d finally gained with his son, so much so that it had ruined his good mood, and Howard Fobell would have sworn Carlos had read his mind.
As for the other kids of the PISA Mars project, life was definitely better. Neither of them had shed many tears at being transferred to a new school, closer to Bransen Labs, and both had fit in there right away by not fitting in, as usual.
At their old school, they had hung out with each other and had weathered the jeering kissing noises coming from their tormentors’ desks, and at the new school they heard the whispers and saw the sidelong gazes which would, undoubtedly, turn into jeers and kissing noises soon enough. But Henry was overjoyed to find a healthy Computer & Science Club (propped up by donations from nearby Bransen Labs, of course) and Sophie was amazed to find a middle-school Philosophy Club, which suited her just fine. For the first time in years—since elementary-school friends had faded or moved away—they both made new friends. Luci and Lorna noticed the change in their moods—how they talked more about school and laughed more and seemed generally more engaged—and this alone erased any fears either of them had about moving and, by extension, the trip to Mars.
Secretly, Luci realized she had been afraid to leave her old house, but now she saw that the ghosts and dust of years past had been slowly choking them.
After working nonstop for weeks, the members of Bransen’s Mars project were given a week reprieve, to go back to their normal lives and reassess their involvement in the project. Bransen was nothing if not a stickler for everyone being on board of their own accord.
Mouse decided not to go anywhere, however, pointing out that tinkering in a garage to build a unique machine was pretty much his normal life—though he added that he might go out for beers more often and may sleep in a bit longer, while they were officially off the clock. No one had a problem with that.
Luci also opted to stay, not wanting to take Sophie out of school for a week. And, in fact, she and Lorna decided that Bransen Labs was now their normal lives—so Lorna was dispatched to return to their old town and see about getting their houses on the market, while Luci would make the necessary calls to relinquish her lab space and have Lorna collect her things from it.
Howard Fobell had grinned sheepishly and said that he’d rather not go back to his apartment, to which Carlos—having learned a lot about his colleague over the last few weeks—read between the lines and suggested that Howard go and pick up his son from his mother’s and spend the week out at Carlos’s cabin. Howard’s face lit up, and had anyone been between him and the phone, they would have been unceremoniously bowled over as he dashed to it.
For his part, Bransen quietly took it all in and noted the supreme magic of synchronicity that had awarded him not only the brightest minds in science and mechanics, but also an entire team that really had no other life beyond science and mechanics. Exactly what they were doing is what was normal to them, and Bransen started to consider what would come next for the team, once the mission to Mars was over.
His smile faded as the realization sank in, that disbanding this team now assembled was never going to be an option. The universe didn’t tend to pull people together only to see what would happen when the fell apart.