Letters Home, Chapter 6: An Unexpected Attraction
i is Ashby
|Story Type: Original|
Content Cautions: None
Critique: Very welcome, no kid gloves needed. Commentary in general also very welcome.
Summary: Leigh moves from Earth to a station orbiting Mars for business reasons, but gradually becomes more and more attached to the place, for reasons her family can't fathom. I still have no plot; have some romantic comedy instead. That's *totally* Leigh over on the left. Or, at least, the woman who should play her in the 'Letters Home' movie.
Previous Chapters: Click here for all of them in reverse order.
Jak sighs to himself as he walks over towards the lone dirtsucker's table. One of these days he'll learn how to turn down one of Zil's outrageous dares. However, it apparently won't be today. He studies the girl as he turns sideways to let the host pass with a tray of food for a different table. Well, at least she's not ugly. She dresses like an Earther character in a satirical play, though. Wonder what she's doing at this restaurant? It's not exactly in the guidebook, and it's not the sort of place you just happen upon accidentally.
Startled from some train of thought, she looks hurriedly up at him and blurts, "Everything is lovely, thank you," before realizing that he's not the (10cm shorter, pale-skinned, elderly) host. Charming. He's never seen anyone suddenly turn pink like that before. He hopes she's not contagious, plasters his best 'rakishly handsome charming fellow' grin on, and ripostes, "Well, I'm sure Jin Ho will be glad to hear that. But that's not really why I came over. May I sit?"
When she replies, "Sure," he sinks onto the cushion opposite her, and studies her choices. Can she really like vatshrimp spread? Horrible stuff. No, wait, small talk. Must be charming. She's clearly trying desperately to come up with something to say. No help there. Oh, well. He tilts his head engagingly and says, "So ... what brings you the Happy Teapot? It's not exactly on the beaten path." She swallows and tucks her hair behind her ear again (does she have any idea how badly her blipcuff clashes with that shirt?) before saying, "Oh! I have a project." A pause before she realizes she should, y'know, explain. "I'm trying to broaden my horizons."
Earthers and their weird idioms. Skip it, move on, be charming, everyone's watching ... "Oh? That sounds adventurous." He pauses a moment, then adds, "I'm Jak Dunne, by the way," with a smile.
She reflexively returns the smile with a rather charming, slightly self-conscious grin. "I'm Leigh Harrison," she says. "I'm from Earth."
Even she seems to immediately notice the banality of that comment. Which is hopeful, that she can spot herself being insipid. He replies with an amused smile and a quirked eyebrow. "Really? Wow. Earth ..."
She rolls her eyes, still grinning, then glances embarrassedly down at the table. She picks up a vatshrimp sandwich triangle and fiddles with it a little as she replies. "Yeah, I do customer service and billing for Universal Interplanetary," she says. She glances up at him with head still bent, and half-asks, "You know, they do shipping?"
He allows as how he does know, and adds, "My Family uses them. No complaints." For some inscrutable Terran reason this lights her up like the beacons on a plague ship. "Oh?" she asks. "What business is your family in?" He can almost see her trying to remember what he said his last name was.
It's almost charming to be this anonymous. He prolongs it a little by saying, "Oh, this and that. I'm on an internship in our botanicals division." He lets a note of self-deprecation creep in when he says, "This week I was doing quality control on packets of tomato seed."
She takes a bite of her sandwich and says, "Really? My grandma used to garden, but I don't really know much about plants. I like tomatoes, though." He finds himself becoming almost academically fascinated. She *likes* vatshrimp?
"So do I," he replies, and helps himself to another of her sandwiches, this one egg salad. Jin Ho does a great egg salad, very smooth, just the right amount of curry. "I hope you don't mind me intruding like this, but you looked so lonely sitting over here by yourself. If I'm intruding, please tell me."
She shakes her head quickly, eyes bright. "No, it's great," she says. "I'm kind of glad to have someone to talk to." That little grin again. "You fit right in with the Plan. I'm sick of just hanging out with the people I work with and going to the same ten restaurants over and over, so I rooted around in the map software and got it to tell me some more places to try. And you would not BELIEVE how long it took me to get here! None of the corridors seem to go where I expected them to."
"Have you been here long?" he asks.
"About seven months. Earth months," she corrects herself, "Because that's how the pay periods work at UIS. Martian months are much more sensible, really. Four weeks exactly, except every sixth month is one day short. I love that! It actually makes sense." She checks her headlong babble and glances at him, a little uncertainly, until he grins and picks up the conversational threads.
"Well, I've lived here my whole life, and I still sometimes lose track of where all the dead ends are, if I'm not paying attention." Only very rarely, but a little white lie will make her feel better. "I'm afraid the blueprint and reality are rather different, because instead of plopping people into a finished, pristine, gridded station, we just kind of grew as we went."
"Really?" She seems taken somewhat aback by the thought of the station getting larger slowly over time. Maybe that's not how they build on Earth.
"Yeah," he says, taking a bite of another of her sandwiches. The filling's smoothly green, and turns out to be a basil-infused creamy cheese. Nice. "See, when we tossed the corps off, there were only fifteen decks. The support struts were laid out for all the rest, and the design was engineered for the load, but they were building them on while living in the pressurized section and getting Kansas up and running. Kansas was important for the MarsCols -- all the ag stations were built early on to develop and test crop and enviro species to see which would do well under Mars' gravity and light conditions."
"Oh! That makes sense," she says, nodding. "I mean, they didn't intend to have a whole lot of people living in the stations for years and years yet, then, did they?"
"No, not really. About a fifth of the indents were there to keep the station warm, powered-up, and breathable, and of the rest mostly half-and-half between the station expansion crews and the agronomy teams to support the MarsCols." He sips his tea, and flips the lid of the pot up so the host knows they're in need of a refill. "But anyway, that's why the north/south corridors are numbered the way they are. They laid them out to break up the cubage conveniently, but of course as you build out the decks get bigger, so they put in more and just numbered them in the order they were built." He grins. "That one messes up more tourists than I could shake a really big stick at."
Her lips twist up ruefully, and she says, "Yeah, me too." She takes the last sandwich from the plate (he has cunningly left her all the pink ones), and blinks at him. "Oh -- we should probably get some more." A smile. "You're the expert -- what's good here? I can't read half the menu."
He retrieves the plasticized card from between the condiment bottles and studies it. "Is that why you got the sandwiches?"
"Yeah," she says. "I just went with something that looked safe and normal."
"Normal? You just ate six vatshrimp spread sandwiches without flinching! If that's normal, I never want to see what you eat at home!" he teases.
"Vat ... shrimp?" she asks. "I thought it was ham salad."
He shudders, only half a put on, and says, "No. They grow it in square slabs. It has some vague genetic connection to a shrimp sometime forty years ago. Can't stand the stuff. Though at least it's better than mycoprot. Myco-sourced protein," he expands, since she's a dirtsucker and wouldn't know. "Nasty stuff, but we have to eat it at holidays in memory of the Valiant Lost, or something. I think our grands just want to make sure we suffer enough to know how good we have it today. Before we got the real produce and livestock past replacement rates, we had to make do with ersatz synthetics."
She grins. "Oh," she says. "Like lutefisk!"
"Never mind, you probably don't want to know. Just remember, Earther pioneer ancestors ate disgusting stuff because they had to, too."
"Strange to think of Earth having had pioneers, too, but I guess they must've. ... Meanwhile, let's get something a little better than vatshrimp, eh?" He orders a couple of his favorites, and the conversation moves on to how one grows hydroponic tea, and who makes this place's amusing animal-clasped ceramic teacups. Three plates of appetizers and another whole pot of tea later,] he suddenly realizes that he's not putting any effort into being consciously charming and interesting, he's actually enjoying talking to this dirtsucker. When did that happen? He's not sure.
She's artless, and she says the most shocking things without seeming to realize it, and she has no idea who he is, but somehow all these things that should be annoying are charming and kind of funny instead. Maybe it's because she's so clearly genuine and sweet. She's saying just what she thinks, sometimes to the point of embarrasing blurts. It's kind of refreshing. He tries to remember the last time he talked to any of his circle of friends as uninhibitedly as she seems to go through her whole life.
Whatever the reason, when she suddenly realizes the time and has to leave, he not only gives her directions for a better shortcut back to Transient Sector, but also invites himself along on her next restaurant exploration, gently steering her towards one of his favorite (but very downmarket) kebab joints. Extracting a promise and another of those sparkling, surprising grins, he watches her slip out the curtain and kneels where he is for a long moment before returning to his friends at their table.
His affable persona, however shaken in his conversation with Leigh, is firmly back in place by the time he drapes himself across Zil's lap and smiles up at her. "Well, my dear, I did it, and I claim my forfeit!" he announces, interrupting her extended pun-war with Lenna. The table as a whole watches the byplay with grins and sidelong comments as Zil sighs theatrically (her impressive bosoms reacting to her shrug just as she intends them to) and says, "Oh, *fine*." She'd bet him one of her murals, to order, that he couldn't bring himself to spend twenty minutes charming the dirtsucker. "Where do you want me to paint it?" she asks, with a long-suffering eyeroll. "On the ceiling over my bunk," he deadpans with a killer twinkle in his dark-green eyes, to the acclaim of all his friends.
Almost, he forgets the unsettling feeling of talking to someone who spends their whole life walking around naked in front of everyone. Not unclothed, but *really* naked. It's much easier to just laugh and spar and gossip with cousins he's known since they ran the corridors together in creche. It was weird talking for so long with someone he knows almost nothing at all about. He's starting to regret having made that future date. He'll have to come up with some plausible excuse for getting off on his own without making anyone curious enough to surveil him, since he'll still be hearing about it half an orbit from now if they knew he actually thought she was interesting.
And so a sort of secret courtship begins. Leigh's worried what people will think of her if they know she's seeing a stationsider (since the watercooler gossip has them pegged as something between Borneo tribesmen and hardcore whip-wielding freaks when it comes to sex), and Jak keeps telling himself this date will be the last, no, ok, fine, *this* one -- but he just can't stop. Somehow, waking up without knowing when next he'll get a chance to make her laugh, or blush, is just intolerable. So they both spend a couple nights a week sneaking around, for more than a month, each keeping their reasons a secret from each other. Not that that's the only thing they don't know about each other ...