Chapter fifteen of Unknown North, a novel that will be published chapter-by-chapter until it’s done. All chapters so far: Unknown North.
There she was, zipping down a state route on the back of Mouse’s hog, without a helmet, her thick black hair pulled out behind her on curtains of wind. It felt good to ride without a helmet, just like Mouse had said it would. Really good. But it was ultimately Nate’s fault, she considered with a private grin—he’s the one who’d taught her that a life without risk wasn’t worth living at all. Then the grin faded as she understood the real kernel of her concern: she had never in her life driven to a “lover’s lane” with anyone, and yet here she was, on the back of Mouse’s motorcycle again, heading to an overlook above Bransen Labs.
Mouse hadn’t called it that, of course—he hadn’t used the words “lover’s lane” and he never insinuated anything beyond an innocent ride to see the lights—but Luci knew better. Actually, Luci began to realize that the ulterior motive may be hers. Luci didn’t know better… she wondered if she hoped better.
Mouse was certainly a genius with machinery (that had become abundantly evident by his creating a working model of every sketch thrown to him by Carlos and Howard), but he also had found ample time to commiserate with Luci on how ineffective they both currently felt. The mission right now seemed to be little more than a series of computer messages sent via custom-made contraptions, and he truly felt her sense of relative helplessness; of not fitting in or having a purpose to justify the salary she was being paid. (Mouse had admitted once that he still wasn’t convinced they weren’t just talking to some complex satellite glitch.)
He seemed to understand human nature at a deeper level than most people, but rather than using this insight against them, he used it to… help people? Befriend people?
Is help the right word?, Luci asked herself. He certainly helped us feel welcome…
Mouse had warmed up to the kids immediately, and the kids were always near Luci and Lorna, so even when they were off the clock, Mouse found himself spending most of his time with them. He seemed to connect with the kids on their own level, as if he’d grown old but not grown up—Peter Pan on a Harley.
They pulled into the turnaround. Mouse killed the engine and popped the kickstand in a well-practiced move. The bike tilted, inviting Luci to hop off. Mouse chuckled to himself as he watched her step forward to look at the lights—which of his friends would ever believe that he was giving night rides to a beautiful doctor?
“Beautiful, ain’t it?” he mumbled bashfully as he walked over to her.
She seemed lost in her own private thoughts, barely aware that anyone else was around. He was already used to the way she got lost in her own thoughts; he liked it and respected it.
“First thing I did when I got here and saw the hills is ride up and look down on it. I’d heard so much about the design.”
She nodded, acknowledging his comment even as she continued to process her own internal monologue.
From the hills, Bransen Labs looked quiet. There was no sense of the activity beneath the roofline. It was spotted with hundreds of skylights, most seeping light from within that almost sparkled in the warm air. There was no sense from here of the mechanical labs with their loud—and sometimes dangerous—machines, or the biology or chemistry labs, or the massive pool for simulating weightlessness, or the full-service restaurant, or the well-tended grounds for hiking and playing and sitting at an overlook in the dark.
In the darkness, it was all peaceful, soft lights.
Luci snickered and smiled to herself. It just figured that the one thing Mouse would want to see was the blueprint. Bransen Labs was famous for many reasons, among which was the design and layout of the buildings themselves. Bransen had insisted on a honeycomb shape—just like bees, he’d reportedly said, because as they grew more industrious, the honeycomb could expand by adding another hexagram onto the structure.
The complex had since ballooned to ten times the size of the original, central comb. In fact, the central comb was now just a massive meeting area, the major support beams already in place to allow walls to be easily removed to accommodate expansion. Around the central comb, dotted unevenly on all sides, were the smaller labs and meeting rooms—and, in the case of the PISA Mars mission, the sleeping rooms, so they could get used to living in close proximity to each other—giving the building the overall shape of a random wedge of honeycomb stuffed in a jar of high-end honey.
“Why do you think he went with the honeycomb shape?” Luci wondered.
The air in the hills was clear and the day’s heat had escaped into a star-filled sky. Bransen had an observatory on one of the hills around here—the only building not connected to everything else.
“It’s one of the best construction shapes,” Mouse considered. “But I think he also likes the symbolism—all those bees inside, making him honey.”
“Does that make him the queen bee?”
“I guess so!” Mouse laughed.
Luci glanced at Mouse just as he glanced at her. He smiled and she turned away bashfully.
“Why do you come on these bike rides with me?” he asked quietly.
She shrugged. “You made it sound like fun—and you were right.”
It didn’t really answer the question—they’d been on a ride every night this week, and everyone but Luci seemed suspicious of their relationship.
But he let it go at that and changed the subject: “Is that our area over there? By that smokestack?”
“I think so,” Luci agreed, glad to have the conversation diverted back to more mundane things, even though she knew it was nothing but small talk. There was only one tall smokestack on the whole complex, right by the foundry, which was close to the mechanical labs, near where the Mars mission was housed.
“Maybe we should get back,” Luci suggested before the small talk led to anything else, just like she did every night. She was too old to drive out to an overlook like a teenager, and she was certainly past acting like a kid once she got there.
But I come here with him because it makes me feel young again, she admitted to herself.
“Yeah,” Mouse agreed with a satisfied sigh, waiting for her to move first. He wanted to stay longer than a few seconds, just once, but he understood that Luci enjoyed the ride more than the destination, at least for now.
“Do you want to go for a drink?” he asked her quietly, his voice barely finding purchase over the wind.
Luci’s immediate thought was Hell yes, but then (as always) she reconsidered.
Mouse counted the seconds, his lips creasing into the slightest grin. In three days, she’d doubled the amount of time it took her to answer his question.
“I don’t think I should,” she finally said.
Mouse nodded. “Fair enough.”
“Sophie will worry if I don’t come back soon.”
On the way back, she temporarily rested her chin on his shoulder.
That’s a first, he thought, and smiled widely to himself.