Larunda Stark wants the Chief Geologist position in the Diaspora Group’s Taft outpost on Mercury. One of thirteen lucky colonies launched throughout the solar system, Mercury is key to the success of the effort and unforgiving of mistakes.

Also in the running for the position is Mason Gray. As if she needed the distraction.

Everything the Diaspora Group plans centers on success at Mercury and it could all either be her greatest success — or greatest failure.

1

Mercury runs hot and cold. What’s a girl to do? Take advantage of both! So why, with trillions of dollars at stake, couldn’t the Diaspora Group manage to create a comfortable space suit? One that kept the internal temperature and humidity in check? Not to mention one that was easy to get out of?

That’s really what was bugging Larunda Stark as she pawed at latches supposedly designed to work with the bulky gloves. Eventually, using her pinky of all things, she got the latches off and stepped away from the F.H.E.U., or Freaking Heave Environmental Unit. Why didn’t the suit room have robotic arms or something to help with this sort of thing? The F.H.E.U. settled down to the floor in front of the bench.

The magnetic seal at the back of the suit was easier, she tipped her head forward and tongued the switch with a practiced flip of her tongue.

With a snick, the magnetic catches released on the back of the suit. Larunda wiggled her arms down out of the bulky sleeves, squashing her breasts as she tucked her arms into the main body — clearly not designed for anyone bigger than an ‘A’ cup size — and then she did the only thing that you could do with the suit. Push with your arms, as you pulled your head down through the neck ring, and stick your butt out first!

Who thought that a rear entry was a good idea?!

Although the cool air was great, as she wiggled and folded herself nearly in half to get out of the suit. The edges caught her tank top, you couldn’t wear much in the suit without roasting, and pulled it up as she wriggled out.

Finally, covered in sweat, her shirt pulled up her back to her neck, she managed to get her head out. Sort of. The clasp holding back her long red hair got caught on the edge of the suit. She pulled, and the clasp popped open. She promptly fell back and out of the suit, half-naked, and one leg still caught in the suit. Only her quick reactions allowed her to catch the bench before she landed on her ass.

At least there wasn’t anyone —

Someone whistled appreciatively. And clapped.

Heat that had nothing to do with the hot suit, or Mercury’s temperature, rushed to her face. She turned, and who had to be there to witness her clumsiness? Mason Gray, of course, because life did things like that.

 

Mason wasn’t wearing any more or different than she was. Tight black briefs, and an equally tight black shirt. Clothes that covered so little that he might as well have been naked, every lean, muscled inch of him from his bare feet up to his handsome, shadowed jaw and wolfish grin. His dark hair was tousled and wet, as if he’d just come from the showers. Which he probably had since he had turned back first at sunrise.

“What are you doing in here?” She said. Here being the suit storage room, a windowless room leading to the North airlock. It wasn’t a big room, with cleaning and recharging lockers along both sides for the F.H.E.U.s and the suits. Seven hung behind the transparent doors right now, like prisoners lined up for execution with the bags over the helmets. The vacant space stood open, waiting for her suit.

“I thought you might need a hand.” Mason crossed the room and picked up the F.H.E.U. by the handles on both sides. The muscles in his arms bunched as he lifted. With Mercury’s lower gravity, just under Martian gravity, it looked a lot more impressive than it was.

A water drop rolled down one tight bicep. What would it taste like, to lick it off? Larunda pulled her leg out of the suit and stood up, refusing to be embarrassed or think any more about how he might taste.

“I could manage fine on my own.”

Mason levered the F.H.E.U. into her slot and shoved it in until the recharge connections latched into place. “I’m sure you could, but sometimes it’s nice to have another set of hands.”

She bent down and grabbed the suit. Mason’s eyes were on her chest as she straightened, her tank falling forward, and a muscle in his jaw clenched. She wrapped her arms around the suit, dark Mercury soot smearing across her sweat-slicked skin.

“Besides,” she said. “You’ll get all dirty if you help me now, after you’ve already gotten all sparkly clean.”

Mason stepped closer, smelling faintly of the company-issue, chemical soap. Beneath that was something else, that was just him. A human-scent in this place of sun-blasted rock and iron.

“I wouldn’t mind taking another shower,” Mason said.

It took some shoving to get the suit into the cubicle, the arms kept spreading out like the suit was trying to embrace her or climb back onto her. The whole time she felt Mason’s eyes on her. Was he laughing? Smirking? Both? When she finally got it in, she slapped the connections into place, and punched the big red button beside the cubicle to initiate the cleaning process.

The transparent front slid down. Red rim lighting came on around the cubicle while inside steam blasted out, scouring the corrosive Mercurial dust from the equipment. Robotic arms emerged, writhing in the steam as they blasted those hard to reach places.

Of course when Larunda turned around, Mason was still there eyeing her. “Okay, thanks. You were such a great help.”

His eyes narrowed a tiny bit, just a second, as if her sarcastic tone had hurt. She stiffened. How could he be offended? He came in her to laugh at her falling out of the suit, more or less naked, and then acts like she couldn’t handle it herself?

She walked past him without another look. What was really infuriating about the whole thing, was that he was just doing it because he was sure he was going to get the promotion to Chief Geologist. He wanted to throw her off her game, that was it.

Mason followed her out of the suit locker, there really wasn’t anywhere else for him to go, but she breathed easier when he went on straight into the Taft base while she took the turn into the locker room. Time for her to scrub all that grime and sweat off, get some food, and rest before her next excursion outside.

Food, dinner to fill that sucking, ravenous hole in her gut, today was chicken enchiladas, taken up into the cupola over-looking Taft.

She loved the outpost. It crouched like a snowflake in the middle of a deep North polar crater. Appropriate given the wealth of water ice and carbon compounds beneath the outpost. Temperatures on Mercury really did run hot and cold. Like really hot and cold, ranging from 800 F out in the blasting sun, to minus 370 F. The outpost took advantage of both, with massive towers that reached up higher than the crater walls to catch the blazing sun, providing an unending stream of power for the outpost.

Taft was only part of the plan. From here, each day they sent out crews to mark and lay plans for the mining operations, radiating out, taking advantage of the slowly moving terminator to avoid the worst temperature extremes. It was Taft that was going to fuel the Diaspora Group’s plans, producing the massive solar sails that would open up entire the solar system.

Of course there were other expeditions on each of the thirteen major planetary and dwarf planetary bodies, getting things out on the reaches ready. But she got to be here! At the heart of the solar system, the closest outpost to the Sun!

Larunda realized that her tray was empty, the chicken enchiladas already gone. Caught by the view outside the cupola she hadn’t even tasted her meal.

It was all hers, or it would be as if she got the promotion to Chief Geologist. It was that position that would tell the crews where to dig, and it would get her the recognition that she needed to advance. Give it a few years and she could be running the most important operation in the entire solar system!

“What are you doing?”

Larunda yelped and jerked around. Mason again, his head sticking up through the hatch into the cupola. He grinned up at her.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“How long have you been there?”

He didn’t answer. Instead he started climbing up into the cupola, which wasn’t really all that big. The small blister near the top of the central dome, had a single hard seat that ran around the inside, barely more than a meter across. She was sitting across the cupola, with her feet up on the other side.

That didn’t stop him. Mason bumped into her legs. He reached up and put his hand on her bare calf, just below her knee.

“Hey!” Larunda pulled her leg back. With all the heat coming down the central shaft, the outpost stayed balmy. She was wearing standard white regulation shorts, and a matching white t-shirt. No bra. That was one of the great advantages with low gravity.

Mason settled onto the seat on the other side. There wasn’t much room, so it was pretty much impossible to sit facing him with her knee touching his. He was dressed pretty much as she’d last seen him, except that he had also put on shorts over his briefs. The black regulation shorts.

It wasn’t awkward. In space you had to live in tight quarters. You saw things, you just didn’t pay attention. Although, if that was the case, why did Mason have that grin?

“What are you doing here?” She asked. The cupola felt much smaller with the two of them. With the bubble top and the close quarters, it was sort of like being in the front seat of the VW Beetle she had owned back on Earth, if you had turned the seats to face each other.

That ignored the cratered and shadowed landscape outside the windows.

“I came up here to see the sunrise,” Mason said. “You?”

“I was looking for some time alone, to enjoy my dinner.”

“I see that. I noticed when you weren’t in the galley with the rest of the team.” Mason shifted his weight, stretching out his legs to brace them on the seat beside her. The whole length of his muscular leg was pressed right against hers.

Larunda crossed her arms and refused to give him the satisfaction of noticing. She wasn’t paying any attention at all to that muscled thigh, lightly covered with dark hairs. Or to the heat of his skin against hers.

“Like I said, I was looking for some time alone.”

“They’re celebrating the initial survey results. It looks like we can practically scoop up the surface and process it.”

“I’m sure Mercury will have its surprises.” Larunda tore her gaze away from his leg and looked out at the dark, cratered landscape. “Despite what it looks like out there, this isn’t the Moon.”

“Thank the powers that be! It’s one thing to be out here. Another if you had the Earth hanging in front of you all the time, looking like a ripe peach.”

“Ripe peach?” Larunda looked back, right eyebrow arching. “I think you’d have to head out on the Jovian expeditions, maybe Jupiter or Saturn could be described as a ripe peach. Earth’s more of blueberry.”

“Good point. Still, I think I’d be more homesick if I was seeing the Earth all the time.”

“Not me.” She looked back out at the dark landscape, the only light was that spilling from the outpost itself, revealing the cratered terrain broken by their roads and tracks.

The rim of the crater glowed like molten fire from the sunlight just outside the jagged walls. In places the light seeped partway through the rough toothed wall. Eventually she imagined a construction project, like the Great Wall, stretching clear around the crater. A uniform barrier against the seething radiation, protecting them and the ice contained within the crater.

“I love it here. This is a virgin planet, ours to explore. And it is this project that will give birth to all of the solar sails needed by the Diaspora, like a seed releasing its seeds to the wind, Mercury will release its seeds out to the entire solar system.”

It was a grand dream, thousands of the gigantic sails orbiting the Sun, a complex, migratory dance across the system. Local craft had only to boost up, link up with the sail and coast the rest of the way until it was time to disengage. It all was up to them.

“That’s a beautiful dream,” Mason said.

She could almost see it, the sails up there against the black sky. There was a lot to do first, to get the mass driver up and running, the manufacturing facilities —

A hot hand lightly touched her right leg, gliding down. Larunda tore her gaze away from the black sky. Mason’s hand was on her bare calf. His hand was warm and slightly rough, callused to the touch. He ran his hand around her calf and across her ankle.

What was he..?

He brought his other hand up, taking her bare foot in both hands. Her nails were shiny red, although annoyingly the polish on her pinky toes had chipped in the surface suit. Mason’s hands massaged her foot, thumbs working into her tired arch.

“Ohhh.” It was a moan of pure pleasure, escaping without thought.

What was the big deal? It was a massage. That’s all. It wasn’t like it was going to go farther than that.

“All that walking, in those suits is tough,” Mason said. “You’d think that they were designed in a lab by people that never had to use them. Oh, wait, they were.”

Larunda smiled. He was right, of course. “Wouldn’t it be fun to get them out here? Put them out in the day and see how they do.”

Mercury orbited the Sun in a 3:2 resonance orbit. In other words, each day on Mercury was a year and a half long, for Mercury. In three Mercury years, two days passed. During those long days, lasting 176 Earth days, the surface reached upwards of 800 degrees F. Working under those conditions was difficult. Instead they focused on the terminator, the boundary between day and night, laying out markers and taking samples. By the time they finished, they’d have a plan for all the initial mining operations around the Taft outpost crater.

His hands were exactly what her tired feet needed. He slid his hands off her right foot to her left, repeating the same fantastic rhythm without a break in pace. Larunda closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the cupola’s thick windows, savoring the sensations. Hot pressure, pushing and rubbing aching muscles. Hot and wet around her toe, sucking —

What?! She jerked her foot in surprise.

“Owww!” Mason’s hands were on his face, blood oozing between her fingers.

“Oh shit,” she said. Her heel must have caught him in the face when she jerked her foot back. She hadn’t anticipated him trying to go down on her toe!

“I thut you er joyin that?” His voice was muffled, and pained. He tilted his head back, and there was more blood running down around and on his mouth.

“We have to get you to the infirmary, should I call for help?”

“No thag you. I kin wulk.” Mason turned and stepped down through the hatch, pinching his nose with one hand while climbing with the other.

His hand smeared blood on the rungs. Ick. This was all that she needed, too, with the promotion on the line. What if he filed assault charges or something? She hadn’t meant to hurt him, but he’d surprised her. And it had felt good, too, she just hadn’t expected it.

Not that he should have done it, anyway. Larunda started down the rungs out of the cupola, stopping at the last second to pick up her empty tray. Sucking on her toes definitely wasn’t something that should happen without warning, or before several dates. Not sprung on her during an innocent foot massage when her eyes were closed!

Mason held up his free, and bloody, hand when she bounced off the last rungs into the corridor. “Thag you, Stark. I’ll goo by myself.”

“I can walk you there. What if you have a concussion, or something?”

“I’m fine.” He turned and walked away. He wasn’t staggering or anything. There were a couple scarlet drops on the floor. At least his clothes were black.

A hour later her work was interrupted by a summons to the warden’s office. Jack Warden, Chief of Operations Personnel, really, how could they do that. Jack was retired military, fifty-five, gay, and bragged that he was so tough that even Mercury’s high temperatures couldn’t melt him. He wasn’t their boss, he handled staff issues and worked to make sure that they had what they needed to get the job done. His recommendation would also carry a lot of weight with the review board when it came time for promotions.

The office was on the third floor down, that is in the levels buried in the subsurface. The more ice they melted out, the bigger the outpost grew. The C.O.P. offices had a tough gray carpet formed from metal fibers harvested from the mining operations. It was short and was like walking on steel wool. It was the only place in the base where the floor wasn’t sheet metal panels over compressed pumice.

Larunda knocked on the door.

“Come in.” Jack’s deep voice carried easily through the door.

She took a breath and pushed open the door. The bottom edge dragged a bit on the carpet. Right ahead were two dark metal chairs, also made locally, and Mason Gray was sitting in one, bandages over his nose.

If this was about the promotion, it didn’t look like it was good news.

“I said come in, not stand there letting out my warm air,” Jack complained.

Larunda stepped inside and shut the door. It was warm in the office. Hot even. A dry baking heat. The chairs, including the one with Mason, faced a desk on the right side of the office. She turned and Jack was sitting there in his chair, his fingers steepled in front of his massive chest, decorated with several medals on his regulation security uniform, brown, short-sleeved, completely crisp and wrinkle free. A blue light blinked on his cell earpiece.

A beard, black and gray, gave him a wolfish look. He smiled at her, the sort of smile that might make some women melt if he wasn’t so obviously gay. Mason was muscled, but Jack out-bulked him by several inches, anywhere you looked.

Jack nodded at the empty seat. “Sit down. Tell me what’s going on between the two of you.”

Mason opened his mouth and Jack pointed at him. “I told you to stay quiet. Don’t go putting words in her mouth.”

Shit. What had Mason said? Their eyes locked for a second. The corners of Mason’s eyes narrowed. What did that mean? Was he pissed? Had he filed a complaint? She perched on the edge of the seat.

“It was an accident, that’s all,” Larunda said. “I didn’t mean to hurt him.” She looked at Mason. “Is it broken?”

“No,” Mason said, his voice mostly normal. He glanced at Jack, then back to her. “Nothing broken. Just pressure bandages, to stop the bleeding. I can take them off later.”

Jack waved a finger between them. “This isn’t the sort of thing I expect to see from the candidates for the Chief Geologist position. It’s a crucial role here at Taft. You’re going to be making the decisions where we dig. Screw that up, and you’ve screwed up the entire Diaspora project.”

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Larunda said. She didn’t want to get into the details.

Jack leaned forward. “So, it wasn’t about the promotion, then I have to assume that there’s something going on between the two of you.”

“No!” Larunda said.

“Yes.” Mason said.

Her head snapped around, eyes focused on Mason. He grinned at her and winked. Heat flooded her face. She turned back to Jack. “There isn’t.”

“There is,” Mason said. “I know the regulations, I’m sorry, it’s just —”

“There isn’t!” Larunda protested. “He forced his way into the cupola!”

“Forced?” Jack’s voice was hard.

“Hey!” Mason laughed, leaned forward. “I didn’t force anything. It wasn’t like that.”

Jack looked at Mason. “You said it happened in the locker room, trying to help put away her F.H.E.U..” He looked at Larunda. “You say it happened in the cupola. Which is it?”

“The cupola,” Larunda said, quickly and firmly. “Mason did help me with my gear, but that’s not where this happened. Check the scutter logs, they had to clean up the blood in the cupola, on the ladder, and the corridor beneath.”

A glance over at Mason revealed he was sitting back, not looking at her at all. His gaze was fixed on the small barrel cactus on Jack’s desk.

“Okay,” Jack said. “I’ll do that. Now tell me what happened in the cupola. You say there’s nothing going on between you? Then what happened?”

“An accident, that’s all. I was up there for the view, while I ate my dinner. Mason came up, it’s a small space. He gave me a foot rub —”

“A foot rub?”

Her cheeks started to burn again, so frustrating, but she ignored it and went on. “Yes. A foot rub. Spending the day out in those suits is tough. Your feet get sore. It was nice, but it didn’t mean anything.”

Jack gestured at the silent Mason. “How does a foot rub lead to a bloodied nose?”

Larunda shrugged. “Like I said, an accident. My eyes were closed and he sort of sucked on my toe. It surprised me.”

She didn’t dare even look at Mason. He still wasn’t saying anything.

“Is that right?” Jack asked, his eyes focusing on Mason.

She still couldn’t look at Mason. All she wanted was to get out of the room.

“Yes,” Mason said. “That’s it. Obviously I misread the situation. I probably deserved the kick in the face.”

“I didn’t mean to kick you,” Larunda said. “I was surprised.”

Jack nodded. “Okay. Doesn’t it feel better to have the truth out in the open?”

No. Not at all. Her stomach was a knot, her cheeks were hot, and why did Jack have to keep his office so hot? All she wanted was to get out of here, get away from them both and focus on the job. She hadn’t done anything wrong, nothing that might jeopardize her chance at the promotion.

Jack settled back. “I’ll remind you both that the regulations discourage fraternization within departments. One of you is going to end up working for the other, depending on the outcome of the review. I’m sure you see the problem. No one is expected to live a celibate life out here, heck, we came out here to live life. Give it a few years and I expect to see children running through these halls, gods help us all. Use your off-time. Get out and meet some of the other people here. We’ve got nearly six hundred people in this base right now. Look at the social calendar on the net. Otherwise, with the two of you, keep it professional. If either of you needs a massage, go see one of the masseuses, they’re quite good at their jobs. Do we understand each other?”

“Yes, sir,” Mason said.

“Yes, sir.” Larunda scooted to the edge of her seat. “Is that everything?”

“Yes.” Jack waved a hand. “Get out of here and let me get back to work. You wouldn’t believe the stack of appraisals I have to get through.”

She was out of her seat before he finished talking. When he stopped she slipped around the chair and went to the door. In the corner of her eye, Mason was up and moving toward her. Larunda opened the door and escaped outside.

She didn’t breathe easier until she made it back to her rooms and shut the door. What was Mason trying to do, claiming something was going on between them? She leaned back against the door. Maybe he thought that, maybe she should have been more careful, but he knew the rules!

A hard knock on her door drew a yelp from her lips. She jumped, bouncing away from the door in the lighter gravity. The jump took her half way across her small sitting room. She turned in mid-air and landed lightly on the balls of her bare feet.

“Yes?”

“Larunda?” That was Mason’s voice! “We need to talk.”

Mason? Here? He was crazy! “I don’t think so. I’ll see you tomorrow. At work!”

“I’m not leaving until you open the door.”

What? Larunda crossed back to the door. She hit the panel and it slid open. Mason was standing right there, hands on either side of the doorway. He’d taken off the pressure bandages on his nose. There wasn’t any bruising. He looked fine. Really fine. His lips were pressed together.

“What? You heard Jack. If he knew about this it might be misinter—”

Mason stepped close, his hands going to her waist. He pulled her against him and his lips pressed against hers. It was like the terminator had swept over her, filling her with the blazing heat of the sun.

She melted against him. Her lips parted and his responded too, moist and hot, hungry for her. His hands moved up her sides, leaving her skin beneath the thin shirt tingling. Her hands stopped fluttering and settled on the sides of his face. His stubble was rough against her palms and her lips.

They parted, both breathing heavy, and his forehead pressed against hers.

“Nothing between us?”

“Shut up.” She grabbed his shirt, slapped the door controls, and bounced back, pulling him into the room. The door slid shut.

Larunda pulled his shirt from his shorts and ran her hands over his stomach, tracing the hard muscles. He didn’t have any extra weight on him. Everything was lean and tight. He pressed close and his lips found hers again.

The second kiss was as amazing as the first. She savored each touch, each electric moment, the play of their tongues. Jack picked her up and she wrapped her legs tight around him, pressing down, and feeling the hard length of him through their shorts. She drank him down as he bounce-walked around the small table to the couch against the wall.

When they got there he twisted fast, as she laughed as he fell back onto the couch and she rode him down. With her knees on either side of him she raised herself up and pulled back. He reached for her chest but she caught his wrists.

“Nope.” She pushed his arms back down. He resisted at first, then relaxed. Leaning forward to pin his arms put her breasts right in front of his face.

Mason lifted his head and at the first light touch of his tongue along her cleavage, a shiver ran through her. His lips brushed her skin, kissing with light butterfly touches along the swell of her breasts. Larunda bent forward, closing her eyes, finding his ear and nibbled along the edge.

He let out a deep groan and pushed up with his hips. For a second he pressed against her, hard and constrained by their clothes, before she pulled away, lifting off him.

“Larunda,” he moaned.

She kissed lower, moving from his ear down to his neck. Mason’s face moved, seeking her breasts. His stubble was rough against the sensitive skin and it set her nerves alight. Her face burned. She wanted to see move of him. She kissed downward, still clutching his wrists, only to find her progress thwarted by his shirt.

Larunda ran her hands down his arms, releasing him. She drew back and ran her hands across his firm chest, then lower, tugging and pulling at the shirt. His hands moved to her waist, slipping under her shirt as well. His hands ran up the curve of her waist, pushing her shirt up.

They couldn’t both do it at the same time. Larunda yanked his shirt up, forcing his hands off and back. He sat up, helping her pull his shirt free up over his head.

“Ow!”

Larunda pulled back. “I’m sorry, your nose?”

“Forget it.” Mason took the shirt and tossed it to the side of the couch. She pushed him back with one hand.

He was smooth and perfect. A few freckles dusted his skin, but he wasn’t an hairy man. A few small hairs circled each darkened areola.

She ran her fingertips lightly down his chest. He reached for her shirt and she swatted his hand away, then went back to grazing her nails across his skin. He was beautiful, perfect, and…

What was she doing? Jeopardizing her chance at the promotion? They both were? And Jack was right, how would it work, aside from regs, whichever way the promotion went?

Mason tugged at her shirt. Larunda wanted to kiss down his chest, tongue his nipples, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t right. One of them, at least, had to think about the future.

She slid off him, and bounce-stepped back around the small table.

“What are you doing?” Mason asked, sitting up.

“Stopping us. Stopping this. We can’t. You heard Jack.”

“You want this as much as I do.”

Larunda shook her head. “Obviously not, because I’m the one that still has enough sense to stop before we do something we regret.”

Mason rolled on the couch, grabbed his shirt, and stood. He tugged the shirt on over his head. “Too late. I already do.”

He left. Just like that, his words still hanging in the air. He just bounced on out her rooms and was gone.

It hurt. Larunda clenched her fists. It was right, but damn, it still hurt. She on through to the bedroom, passing the bathroom on the way.

During the day the bedroom served as another office area, with the bed folded up against the wall, Murphy-bed style, and a widescreen monitor on the underside. A swing out armature provided a height-adjustable shelf for a keyboard and other items. It was a convenient, ergonomic set up for a stand-up workstation, which was all the more comfortable in the lower gravity.

Briefly she considered going straight to bed, but her nerves were still firing from Mason’s touch. Not to mention how she’d stopped things.

Some work before bed would help clear her head and get her focused.

Gerrold Blevins had been the chief geologist assigned to the Tolkien outpost. Back on Earth he had argued hard for establishing the base in the Tolkien crater. The evidence was all there. Spacecraft data showed a large deposit of water. Most of the crater was perpetually shadowed, except for a bright central peak. It was Gerrold’s recommendation that they build into the central peak, using it to support and provide materials for the outpost, including the large central mast and solar array reaching above the peak to catch the sun’s energy like a plant reaching out of darkness.

Trouble was, for Blevins, that he couldn’t take living in the outpost. He had become paranoid about the water and organic compounds they were mining, fearing contamination by primordial organisms that might have evolved in the interface boundary where the sun’s energy sometimes reached the crater walls.

Crazy, of course. Larunda flipped through Blevins’ reports with a practiced eye. She’d been through it all before, but reviewing it was both a good way to put herself to sleep and to clear her mind.

The Tolkien crater was around thirty miles across, and was only one of the many craters containing similar deposits. One of the difficulties they faced was not only navigating the rough terrain in and out of the crater, but deciding the first spots to mine. Test mines had already cut deep into the Tolkien crater. The Diaspora Group was going to want her recommendation at some point, and she had to have a good case for them.

As always the work pulled her in. Reports from the ground crews, her own work included. Hundreds and hundreds of samples, solar potential, ice versus mineral content. It was dangerous work.

Another yawn made her realize how much time she had spent looking at the data. Over two hours! It was getting late, and there was a staff meeting tomorrow, with the latest orders from home. Hopefully news about the next stage. Mason would be there too, of course, but she just had to be a professional. Surely he would do the same.

Larunda suspended the system, folded away the keyboard arm, and pulled the bed down from the wall. It was a simple solid panel, with a thin foam mattress attached. Given the low gravity, you didn’t really even need that much, but it was nice. If she hadn’t kicked Mason out, they might have been sharing it tonight.

She shook the thought away. It wasn’t going to happen. It couldn’t. Not if she was going to get what she wanted. She didn’t work so hard, sacrifice everything to get here including leaving her mother back home on Earth, to throw it all away now over a guy.

The next day, Larunda made her way to the Meeting Hall for the staff meeting, an amphitheater-style lecture hall built into the outer slope of the central peak. The hallways were full for once, as everyone made their way to the hall.

“Larunda!” The high-pitched voice was behind her, but she recognized it right away.

Phoebe Wilkins, worked in the hydroponics that provided most of the food they ate. Larunda stopped and turned.

Bouncing down the hallway, Phoebe looked more child-like than ever. Petite hardly covered it, Phoebe was tiny, pretty and perky. Brown ringlets floated around her pixie face. The fact that she was rather busty for her size saved her from looking too child-like, but at twenty-six she still looked like she was barely out of her teens. She was wearing green shorts and a matching shirt. Barefoot, pretty much like everyone in the base.

Phoebe caught Larunda’s arm and laughed. “I love the gravity here! Don’t you?”

“It’s great.” Larunda started walking again. “How’s life in the garden?”

“Good. We’re going to have another crop of tomatoes soon.”

“Hmmm.” Fresh tomatoes, it sounded so good. “Do you have any basil?”

“Lots. It totally flourishes down there. Warm, no growing season, what’s not to like?”

Phoebe leaned close. “I saw Mason heading away from your quarters last night, what’s going on there?”

What? Larunda lowered her voice. “Don’t say that! There’s nothing going on.”

“Really, ’cause he’s pretty hot.”

Mason, reclined on the couch, shirtless, his bare skin perfect. Larunda pushed the image out of her mind. “No comment. Nothing’s going on, please, Phoebe, don’t tell anyone? Okay? I can’t have rumors like that floating around.”

“I won’t,” Phoebe said. Her dark eyes narrowed. “Something happened, though, didn’t it? He looked sort of pissed when I saw him. Didn’t even slow down when I bounced.”

Phoebe demonstrated. Her low-gravity enhanced breasts bounced impressively. A miner in orange passing by tripped and nearly collided with two others.

Phoebe giggled.

Larunda shook her head. “Phoebe! You’re going to cause a traffic accident with those.”

“Oh, you have to admit how much fun it is! The bras I had to wear back on Earth? Ugh.” Phoebe shook her chest. “This is so much better!”

“Yes.” Larunda tugged on Phoebe’s arm. “But you’re going to get someone hurt!”

Phoebe just giggled again. “So if nothing’s going on with you-know-who, want to come on a double with me tomorrow?”

“Date?”

“Yeah! I met one of the guys from the motor pool. Suggested we take one of the ramblers out.”

“That’s against regulations,” Larunda said. “I can’t do that with the promotion coming up.”

“I want to go! I haven’t been outside the base since we got here. You get to go out every day!”

Larunda shook her head. “Not every day. Besides, it’s dark out there, and dangerous. You shouldn’t be taking unauthorized trips outside.”

Phoebe pulled away. “Listen to you! When did you become so hung up on regulations?”

“Come on, it isn’t like that. You’re right, I’ve gotten out a lot, and I’ve seen how dangerous it is. I don’t want you hurt, that’s all.”

Phoebe’s lips quirked. “Well, can’t blame you there.”

They’d reached the Meeting Hall and merged with the crowd funneling in through the doors. They were coming in near the top, and most of the seats in the upper rows were already filled with people. The colors included oranges, blues, greens, browns, blacks and whites, depending on department and preference. Mostly t-shirts and shorts, given the heat in the place. Add the warmth already from the piped in solar heating, then throw a crowd of hundreds into the room, and the place was pretty warm.

Not as bad as the suits, but hot. At least the air circulated. The tiers of seats dropped away, all facing a wall of windows. It was the most impressive view in the outpost, which helped encourage attendance.

Through the windows, the dark interior of Tolkien was visible, at least around the base. Sunlight, channeled through reflective tubes from the mast above, lit up the cratered ground around the outpost. Much of the ground was churned up by the base construction, but some craters remained. Beyond the spotlights the terrain faded into darkness. Then, in the far distance, the bright rim of the southern crater wall stretched across the view. At other times in course of the long Mercury day, the light crept further down the crater wall, but never so far as to illuminate the frozen floor.

Sitting in the Meeting Hall was like standing on the shore of vast lake, running out mountains on the distant shore. Which was, in a sense, true, given the ice deposits.

As she settled into a seat with Phoebe midway down the rows, Mason turned onto the next row down. Their eyes locked. A muscle in his jaw tensed and he hesitated. A muscled, stringy miner, her hair chopped short, behind him said something. Mason nodded and moved on down the row, coming closer.

There was an empty seat, one over on her right, in that row. Mason walked to that spot and nodded to her.

She opened her mouth, thinking to say good morning, or something equally inane, and instead nothing came out. Mason’s jaw muscles clenched again and he turned around and sat down.

Phoebe nudged Larunda’s elbow, chuckling softly.

Larunda ignored her as the transparent holoscreen rose up at the front of the stage. The lights in the amphitheater dimmed. Seen through the holoscreen, the stage changed, rippled and holographic furniture and a rich wood floor spread across the space.

The centerpiece was a massive oak desk, richly carved and shining in the center of a spotlight.

“She always likes to dress the stage,” Phoebe said.

That was true. Terra Blackstone, the leader of the Diaspora Group, never took half-measures. If she did, none of them would be on Mercury right now, and none of the other expeditions to the other eleven colonies would have been launched. Still, this was the first one to come online, all according to the schedule that Blackstone had laid out.

The conversation in the amphitheater diminished.

A spark of red surrounded by electric blue appeared in front of the desk. The bright blue glow grew, a thin line tracing the outside of what formed the toe of a shiny, red leather heel, with a pale bare foot inside. The boundary swept up, accelerating, a crawling line of electric blue, leaving behind the long sweep of a perfect bare calf, then knee, and then it spread out wider. In a rush it swept up, tracing the generous curves of the most famous woman in the solar system. In a wash of electricity, it swept up and completed the holographic version of Blackstone.

She was a tall, leggy brunette, leaning against the massive wood desk, her left leg crossed over the right. Her short skirt flared a bit at the bottom, black, but covered with a thousand points of light. A spiral galaxy of stars that wrapped around her hips, and then up over the thin top that spiraled up from her left hip to her right shoulder. The top divided to cover her breasts, fastening behind her neck while leaving her left shoulder and side bare. The low cut neckline showed off a sparkling diamond necklace.

The asteroid diamonds, her necklace. It was a signature piece of jewelry, and famous, because she had sent the first private, viable mining operation to an asteroid and had returned with a collection of massive diamonds among the samples.

Terra’s black hair cascaded down around her thin neck. She turned her head, large blue eyes taking in the crowd, with a smile on her red lips.

Except Blackstone wasn’t really seeing them, she couldn’t. The time lag between Earth and Mercury, was such that it wasn’t practical to have a live conversation. This had to be a recorded holographic transmission. Still, her performance was convincing.

“Welcome.” Blackstone’s amplified voice filled the hall. It sounded warm and inviting. Like the hologram, it was absolutely real and convincing. Knowing that there was a screen, and it was all illusion didn’t matter. It felt real.

“I’m thrilled with what has happened at Tolkien to get everything up and running to this point. You’ve all done what others might have considered impossible.” Blackstone reached up, her fingers touching the asteroid diamonds. “As you know, I believe the impossible is often a mask for our fear. When things look too big, too daunting, too _impossible_ it gets used as an excuse not to do it. We invent reasons to back up our excuses, anything except face our fear.”

Blackstone pushed away from the desk and walked forward. Her long heels tapped against the wood. She stopped near the front of the stage.

“Not you.” She pointed her finger at them, her gaze traveling across them.

Blackstone’s eyes locked with Larunda’s and an electric thrill ran down Larunda’s spine. It was so real! As if Blackstone really was seeing her. Larunda leaned toward Phoebe, about to comment on it, when Blackstone’s lips twitched. It was a small thing, a quirk, and she winked, still making eye-contact.

Larunda sat back, upright, as heat flooded her face. How? How could Blackstone have prerecorded this message and pulled that off? Did she do it in an amphitheater like this one? Did she anticipate the reaction?

Blackstone’s gaze moved on and she continued, walking slowly across the stage, following the curve. “Not you!

“You went up like Icarus, flying closer and closer to the Sun to reach one of the most difficult spots in the solar system! You built this —” her hands spread “— base here in Tolkien. You’ve established a biosphere on another world. Small, now, but growing. A seed sown under the Sun on a new world.

“Now we’re on the verge of the next phase. Not only existing. Not only surviving, but thriving! The mining and manufacturing operations you are establishing will soon send thousands of solar sails out into the solar system!”

Blackstone turned and the other half of the stage turned dark. A world appeared floating before them. Mercury, their home. A bright spark rose from the surface and the camera moved in, focusing on that spark. It circled the planet and then spun, opening wider and wider, a bright mirrored circle catching the sunlight. Really catching it. The animation accelerated and the solar sail looped around the planet, then shot off into space.

The camera pulled back and back. More planets swung into view and the Sun, a bright blaze at the edge of the stage. Hundreds of bright specks rose from the tiny Mercury, looping around a bright sun, spiraling around other planets, a cloud of flying solar sails cycling endlessly from the inner to outer solar system and back.

“Our solar transportation next work will open up the entire solar system,” Blackstone said. “Ships will catch a sail, ride it for a time, cut loose only to catch the next. Our efficient routes will mean that any destination in the solar system is available with minimal fuel, in a short time. And it is all thanks to the work you are doing here!”

Blackstone walked back to the center of the stage. The orbital simulation faded away. Larunda held her breath, sensing that Blackstone was about to say something amazing.

“Do you have any questions?” Blackstone spread her hands.

At her gesture the holographic furniture and flooring dissolved. The holographic screen lowered into the stage. And Blackstone stayed standing in the spotlight, center stage. She was really there!

The crowd went wild. They cheered and clapped as the realization dawned on everyone. Terra Blackstone, the creator of the Diaspora Group was actually on Mercury, in the flesh!

Mason twisted around in his seat, smiling. Larunda smiled back, caught up in the moment.

It strained Larunda’s imagination. How had Blackstone managed to do it? Not only travel to Mercury, but all of it? The stage effect was the easiest, there was a hologram in place, hiding Blackstone, when they all came in. The whole ‘drawing’ effect was actually revealing her, removing the hologram that hid her.

Blackstone lifted her hands and slowly the crowd settled down. “Thank you. I couldn’t send a canned message, not for this. I had to be here, thank you to those who helped, indulging my little theatrics. I really do want to hear your questions. I came all this way, don’t disappoint!”

Beside Larunda, Phoebe’s hand shot up. Blackstone pointed to her. “Yes, Phoebe?”

Phoebe’s jaw dropped. Larunda looked at her friend, obviously flabbergasted that Blackstone knew her name. Phoebe recovered.

“Hi. Sorry. Um, I wanted to ask when we’ll get a new chief geologist? I guess that’s the snag right now on moving forward?”

Blackstone nodded. “I see both of our candidates are sitting near you, I’m sure they’d like to hear the answer too. I’m sure you all do. We will have an answer very soon, I will be meeting with both of our potential chiefs after this meeting.”

“Thank you!” Phoebe said, beaming.

After this meeting? Larunda wanted to shrink away, but that would send the wrong message. She smiled confidently instead, and resisted the urge to hit Phoebe.

The next question came from an environmental tech who wanted to know where plans were for the second outpost. After that Larunda tuned out the questions. She’d watch the recording later, if she needed. She stared at the back of Mason’s head. He sat just as still during the question and answer phase. Twenty minutes later, when Blackstone ended the meeting, Larunda was out of her chair and down the aisle in moments, slipping past everyone else standing.

Her cell buzzed at her. She took it out of her pocket, stepping over near the wall outside the amphitheater, and swiped it on. A text message, from Blackstone, wanting to see her in the chief geologist’s office in fifteen minutes.

“You got one too?” Mason asked.

Larunda looked up. Mason had joined her out of the rush of people bouncing back to their jobs. Excited talk filled the hallway along with the stream of people. Mason tipped his cell, before pocketing it.

“Yes,” she answered. “You know her, she doesn’t waste time.”

“I only know her by reputation,” Mason said. “That was some trick, showing up here and doing that whole hologram illusion.”

“It was.”

A couple seconds ticked past without either of them saying anything. Mason broke the silence.

“Good luck, on the promotion. If I don’t get it, I’m glad it’ll be you.”

“Thank you.” She should say the same thing, right? The words died on her tongue. It wasn’t true. She wanted it. She didn’t want it to be him.

“Okay. I’ll see you there, then.” Mason didn’t wait for an answer. He stepped into the flow of people and bounced off out of sight.

Shit. Why did doing the right thing feel so bad? Larunda looked for an opening in the crowd and then Phoebe appeared, and caught her arm.

“Larunda! Where’d you go?” She asked, pulling Larunda along.

Larunda joined the crowd, bumping a woman in brown, apologized, and matched Phoebe’s pace. “I just needed out of there, you know? Did you have to ask that question?”

“Hey, I just want to see my friend get the job, that’s all. And we all want to get going. Since Gerrold bugged out it’s like we’ve all been stuck in a holding pattern.”

“It looks like that’s about to change.”

Phoebe beamed. “I’m sure you’ll get it.”

“I hope so. Not that Mason isn’t good, he is. I’m sure he’d do fine. Is it terrible to say that I want to be the one in charge?”

Phoebe shook her head. “Nope! I think Blackstone appreciates people that go after what they want. Don’t stress, you’ll be fine. I’ve got to go. Good luck!”

Phoebe bounced-walked away, more of a skip, really. That was so Phoebe. The text had said fifteen minutes, and several of those had already passed. It wouldn’t take long to get to the office, but she didn’t want to be late. It was down in the old prefab section, the components that had been shipped out to Mercury along with everything else. Informally the prefabs were called Bootstrap, and extended out away from the central crater peak, dug into the crater floor, with extra material piled over the top to absorb any chance impacts.

Bootstrap was always several degrees colder. Fewer heating lines ran out to the section, as it was built before the mast, and several segments were deliberately kept cold to preserve ice samples. When the time came, Larunda already planned to expand and build a new, properly heated, sub-level.

Once she got the promotion.

Over time the once white walls of Bootstrap had become stained a dull gray that even the scutters couldn’t clean out. Residue from the organic material tracked in, especially in the beginning. It also smelled slightly sulfurous, as that was a component of the material.

The door to the chief geologist’s office was a plain bluish-gray panel, hinged, not sliding. Larunda took a breath, pulled the lever down and pushed the protesting door open.

Mason was already there, standing over in front of the shelves that ran along the far wall. Container after container filled the shelves, each piled high with rock samples. Original samples, from the first surveys. Blevins had kept them here, and so far no one had bothered to do anything with them. Mason turned away from the samples.

“Hello,” he said, his voice about as warm as it was in the chilly room.

Neither of them were dressed for the chill in the room. Larunda’s nipples pressed against the thin fabric of shirt. Damn. And Blackstone was going to be there any minute.

Mason’s eyes dropped, fixed for a moment on her chest, and he turned away again, gesturing at the samples. “We should get these catalogued and moved into the library.”

Why were men so fixated on breasts? Was it evolution or culture? Whatever the reason, they were more complicated than rocks and ice. Rocks and ice she could handle. Even going out in suits that were walking ovens, the first time she had stood on the rim of Tolkien crater, the tortured and shadowed landscape tumbling away from her, she had loved this world. She loved what they were doing here, and she wasn’t going to let that go because of a man. She just wasn’t.

“Larunda?”

What? She thought back. The rocks, catalogued. “Yes. Sorry, I was thinking. You’re right, of course. This all needs to get cleared out. Blevins only stayed on as long as he did because he didn’t have a choice.”

“Poor guy. Have you heard how he’s doing?”

Larunda shook her head. “Last I heard, he was back on Earth. Probably happy to be there.”

He turned back toward her, meeting her gaze, which was nice. He had nice eyes.

“Larunda, about before, I didn’t —”

The door opened and Terra Blackstone was right there. Alone, surprisingly enough. She smiled broadly. “Well! Here you both are! That’s perfect.”

She stepped inside and shut the door. With the three of them in the room, there wasn’t much space on the front side of the desk. Mason moved around the desk and took the spot behind it. He reached across the desk, gesturing to the chairs in front of it.

“Sorry, this space is cramped,” he said. “Would you like to take a seat? Or we could go to one of the meeting rooms, if that’d be better.”

Blackstone shook her head and promptly moved to take the chair closest to the door. “This is fine. I wanted to see this place.” She craned her neck, taking in the crowded off. “About what I’d expect from Gerrold. It looks like his office still. You haven’t changed anything have you?”

Mason settled back into the chair, which left Larunda to sit in the other chair beside Blackstone. As if Mason was already the chief geologist on the project. It would have made more sense for Blackstone to take the chair, but that would have had them all having to maneuver around each other in the tight space. If she didn’t care, then was there any point worrying about it?

“No,” Mason was saying, answering Blackstone’s question. “We’ve continued working on the survey. We were just talking about the need to get the samples in here cataloged and into the library.”

“The new sample library wasn’t finished, while Mr. Blevins was still here,” Larunda said.

“Right. I read the reports. Congratulations on getting that finished! I get hammered from all sorts of preservationists upset at our exploitation of these worlds! The libraries at least give us a record of what we found before we started working.” Blackstone grinned. “Not to mention the far more important fact that they tell us what we have!”

Neither Larunda or Mason said anything. After a pause Blackstone continued.

“So, you’re both wanting to know about the promotion. I’ve reviewed all the work that you’ve both done, it’s excellent. I have no doubt that Tolkien wouldn’t be up and running if it wasn’t for the work you’ve done.”

“Thank you,” Larunda said.

Mason nodded.

Blackstone leaned forward in her seat. “None of that tells me what’s really important. Can you get the job done on time? We can’t waste time starting mining operations in the wrong place. Well, we could, but I don’t want to. I want to get this right. That means that the mass driver teams have to be set up right. The solar smelter teams need to be ready to take all the ore you can give them. And the mining groups need to know where to mine! You’re the ones that can tell me that, now, and in the future when we open more operations. This position is key, it’s the foundation of everything we do, getting those resources into the pipeline that’s going to open up the solar system.”

Blackstone took a deep breath and leaned back. “Whew! That was a speech! I don’t like speeches, even when I make them. I like to get things done. So that’s what we’re going to do. No interviews. No flipping coins. We focus on our goal.”

What did that mean? Larunda glanced at Mason, his forehead was wrinkled. Obviously he didn’t get it either, but didn’t want to ask and appear clueless, any more than she did.

Staying quiet wasn’t going to move things along. “Our goal? Of getting resources into the pipeline?”

“Yes! A gold star for you, Larunda. I want the two of you to pull together your teams, whatever you need, coordinate with the other groups, and get me a solar sail.” Blackstone stood up. “You’ve got three weeks. I need a sail up in orbit to haul my ass out of here and back to Earth. That’s your window. I think it’ll be pretty clear by then who is in charge.”

Mason leaned forward. “Three weeks, that’s not much time, Ms. Blackstone.”

She smiled at him. “Show me that you’re more than a pretty face, Mason. I didn’t launch missions to twelve major planetary bodies because it was easy. To misquote, I did it because it was hard. Buck up. Get it done. And you’ll know who is in charge, and it won’t be because I anointed anyone. Truth is, you could have done it all yourself already and saved me the trip out. Now, that I’ve come here, you’re out of time.”

She wiggled her fingers at both of them. “Have a great day!”

With a bounce she reached the door. The hinges squealed as she pulled it open as she pulled it closed behind her Blackstone stopped and poked her head back in. “And you might want to do something about the office too, if you get a chance.”

Bang! The door slammed shut behind her.

“What the hell?” Mason asked. “Did she just give us three days to get a solar sail in orbit?”

“Yes,” Larunda said. Three weeks. She didn’t even know if the mass driver or the manufacturing divisions were ready to start receiving ore. And they hadn’t done any major extraction, except tests, proofs of concepts of the various systems

“We have to do it,” Larunda said. “Remember what Blackstone said in her speech? She wasn’t saying that just to rehash what’s already been done. She was saying that for us.”

“You think?”

“She always knows what she’s doing.” Larunda stood up. “We’d better go get it done.”

Mason rose and came around the desk, his eyes fixed on her. “What about the other thing?”

The other thing. Larunda shook her head. “We’ve got three days to get a solar sail up in orbit for Blackstone. There is no other thing.”

She turned to leave and Mason caught her hand. Larunda swallowed and turned back. Mason stepped close, reaching up with his other hand to her face. Was he going to kiss her? Now?

“Mason.” Larunda stepped back. “We’ve been over this.”

“I know you feel the same way,” he said. “We can find a way to make it work.”

“Right now the only thing we have to make work is getting Blackstone what she wants. That’s it. Jack was right. We should have listened to him.” Larunda reached the door, and pulled the lever down.

“Fine,” Mason said. “Wait.”

She stopped. “What?”

“Don’t we need a plan? What are we going to do?”

“I’ll contact the department heads. We need to get everyone up to speed on what we’re doing.”

“Okay,” Mason said. “While you’re doing that I’ll compile the survey data and try to narrow down the options that we have.”

“Sounds like a plan. Let’s get on this.” She yanked the door open. The hinges squealed again. Mental note, get that fixed too.

Larunda quickly found out that everyone was reluctant to take time away from their work for a meeting, and she wasn’t the boss. Not yet. Still, she tempted them all with the suggestion the meeting was important to Blackstone. That got them to agree to meet. It so happened, it was also the truth. She just wished that she didn’t need to invoke Blackstone’s name to get them to the table.

The meeting was held at fourteen hundred hours, in the larger conference room, high on the Tolkien peak, above the amphitheater. Tall windows along the wall looked out at the rim-lit crater walls, on the other side of the shadowed interior.

Larunda was there first, pacing in front of the windows, waiting for the first department heads to arrive. The meeting would set the tone for the next few days. It was her chance to take charge and show them all that she had what it took.

The conference room door opened. She turned, smiling brightly to greet whoever was first in, and it was Mason. She kept the smile. Going forward, they’d have to keep a professional relationship, friendly, without crossing that line they’d crossed in her quarters.

He’d changed. Instead of the casual shirt and shorts, he wore sharp black pants, a matching shirt with a charcoal vest and an ice-blue tie. Mercury colors. He even had on polished black shoes. His hair was groomed, cascading back in waves. He looked really, really good, like he could have been walking into a meeting back on Earth instead of a department meeting.

She’d also taken the time to change. If she’d picked up one thing from Blackstone, she always took the time to look great. Like she had before the general staff meeting. Larunda hadn’t packed anything that dramatic, but she had used some of her personal allotment for some professional dress clothes. She was wearing a gold skirt and matching blazer, over a black blouse. She’d even gone so far as to wear hose, black pumps and the small diamond studs that she had brought. They weren’t asteroid diamonds, but it was something. She also wore the emerald necklace that her parents had given her when she received her doctorate. It was the best she had, given the weight allowances, and she thought it nicely reflected the colors of the solar sails.

Between the two of them, she and Mason had managed to accidentally coordinate on the color scheme of the entire project. Mason matched her smile, and came into the room.

He eyed her. “You look fantastic.”

“Mason! Everyone’s coming. They should be here any minute. How did it go with the survey data?”

Mason’s lips quirked, but he crossed to the big meeting room table that occupied the center of the room. He tapped the surface, activating the built-in displays.

“Good.” Windows opened, topographic maps and overlays from the survey data, radiating out from Tolkien in bright colors. “This is what we’ve got. Factoring in the material requirements for the solar sails, there are three potential sites.”

Another tap and three green circles formed on the map in areas around the crater.

“That’s great,” she said. “Good work. What’s the mood in the crew?”

“They’re all excited. Janice wished us both luck. I think they’ve got a pool going on which site we’ll select.”

The door opened again. Jack Warden came into the room. Larunda walked over to meet him, extending her hand. “Jack, thanks for taking a break from the appraisals for this. It’s important that you be here.”

Mason appeared at her elbow, as she released Jack’s hand. “Absolutely. Glad to see you Jack. Larunda’s been keeping me on track since our talk.”

“Glad to hear it,” Jack said. He shook Mason’s hand, then shook his head looking at them. “Look at the two of you. It must be big news if you’re getting all dressed up for it.”

“The biggest,” Mason said.

“Great! Everyone is very excited about Blackstone’s surprise visit. Do you know where she is now?”

“No,” Mason said. He looked at Larunda.

Shit. She hadn’t invited Blackstone to the meeting. Talk about screw ups! How did she not think to invite the head of the Diaspora Group, and her boss?

“I’ll check,” Larunda said. “One second.”

She walked away from the table, leaving the two of them chatting, and went over near the corner of the room. She pulled out her cell. “Call Terra Blackstone.”

The screen showed the spinning Mercury symbol, the winged helmet and caduceus astronomical symbol. Then the view changed. It bounced, showing the interior of a rover, the camera moving past a window showing the sun-lit cratered surface, and then Terra Blackstone’s laughing face.

“Yes? Larunda?! What can I do for you?”

“We’re having a meeting of the department heads about beginning the production of a sail. I wanted to invite you, although you look busy?”

“Thanks!” Blackstone laughed. “I couldn’t come all the way to Mercury without seeing the sites. The meeting sounds great, but I’m getting a tour of the area around Tolkien! I’ll read your report later. Thanks! Bye!”

The screen blanked.

Well, at least Blackstone wasn’t mad. It looked like she was having fun.

Other department heads had come in. Mason was standing by himself at the head of the table. Larunda walked back over to stand next to him. He glanced at her.

“She can’t make it,” Larunda said. “Blackstone. She’s out joy-riding on the surface.”

Mason’s eyes widened. He even looked a bit pale for a second, then he smiled. “Not that she needed to ask permission, I guess.”

“She said she couldn’t come here without seeing the place.”

“I understand that.”

“If we do our jobs well, eventually anyone will be able to visit, if they want.”

“Opening up the solar system,” Mason said. He lowered his voice. “How do you want to do this?”

“This?”

“Run the meeting.”

“Oh.” Right, they couldn’t very well arm-wrestle for it. “I’ll get things rolling, fill them in on what we’re faced with, then you can pick up to talk about the specifics of the sites you’ve highlighted. If that works?”

Mason nodded. “That works fine for me.”

Larunda looked around the room. Everyone was taking their seats, all present. Unlike her and Mason, most were in casual clothes, regulation shorts and shirts. Jack was the only one wearing as much clothing, with his medals catching the lights as he leaned back in his chair, midway down the table.

“Thank you for coming,” Larunda said, loud enough for her words to carry.

Sitting beside Jack was Dempsey Hamm, head the materials fabrication department. His department was the one that would actually manufacture the solar sail, once the refined materials were produced. He was thirty, lean, blonde, wearing black regulation shorts and shirt.

“Is this going to take long? We’ve got some spin tests to get done, I’d really like to get out of here quickly and get back to that.”

Some of the others around the table nodded. Stacey Jackson, communications head wasn’t even looking down the table, her attention was all on her cell, her brow creased as she focused on whatever was showing. Across from her was Tegan Powell, forty-three, black hair pulled back, in her white shirts and shorts looking like she was ready to go out and play tennis. Powell was the head of the Development teams, responsible for creating the onboard software for the solar sails. Tegan was one of those that nodded. Also Steve Carlson, in charge of the mining crews.

“Dempsey, I won’t waste your time,” Larunda said. “We all need to get out of here quickly, because we’re going to be busier than ever after this meeting.”

Stacey looked up from her cell. “What does that mean?”

At the other end of the table, Michel Tesar, in charge of the microelectronics division, said, “Does this have to do with Blackstone?”

“Yes.” Damn it. The word slipped out before Larunda could stop it. She hadn’t wanted to invoke Blackstone’s name unless it was necessary.

Mason leaned forward, smiling at the group. “Michel, we’ll answer all your questions. Go ahead, Larunda.”

As if she was here at his invitation? He was subtly trying to take the upper hand.

Larunda said, “I called this meeting because we are selecting our first dig site. We’re going online. With everything. And we’re going to deliver a completed solar sail to orbit in three weeks, right on our projected manufacturing schedule.”

Everyone around the table tried to talk at once. Dempsey actually laughed. It was chaos.

Heat rose in her cheeks. Larunda held up her hands. Slowly they stopped talking, but the looks she was getting were anything except welcoming.

“We’re not ready to go online,” Dempsey said.

“You said this had to do with Blackstone?” Michel asked. “Is that the reason for the rush?”

“Partly.” She spoke quickly before anyone else jumped in. “We can check and recheck forever. You all know how it works. We build and learn as we go.”

“That’s right,” Mason chimed in. “When we built this outpost we came out with a few prefabs and equipment. We didn’t bring everything that we have in this base.” He rapped his knuckles on the table. “Take this table. We mined resources and manufactured it right here, on Mercury.”

“We didn’t have a choice,” Stacey said. “We had to get the crew on the ground. We needed the resources if we were going to stay alive. And we had to get things ready for the second and third missions.”

“And now we’re building a complete solar sail. That’s a key reason that we’re here.” Larunda leaned forward on the table. “This is our opportunity to show everyone what this outpost can do. We get up this sail, and then we move on to the next, just like Blackstone showed in the meeting today.”

“So you’re trying to impress her, is that it?” Tegan asked.

Larunda shook her head. “No, not to impress her, although I think she will be impressed at what everyone accomplishes. It’s time to move forward.”

“Look,” Dempsey said. “I’m willing to work on the next phase. If we get the materials, maybe we can get a half-scale demonstration model manufactured in that time-frame. It won’t be flight-ready, I can speak for everyone else on that.”

This wasn’t working. It was like Blackstone said, they were letting their fear get in the way. But how could she get them to see that without just saying that? Or saying that Blackstone ordered it.

Mason stood up beside her. “Dempsey, we have to do better than that. All of you, we have to do better. We have done better. We did better when we set up the outpost. In a thousand ways since, we’ve done better and achieved more, you know you have. Years of work have gone into this already. This is like training for the race, doing all the work and practice and hours spent training, and then balking at the start line.”

“I wouldn’t say —” Dempsey started to protest.

Mason talked over him. “It is. Larunda has already told you what we need, a full-scale, functional solar sail launched in three weeks. Blackstone wants it, but that’s not why we should do it. We should do it because we are ready to start the race. We’re ready to start sending the sails out.”

The change in the room was obvious. Jack was nodding. There were still some frowns, but overall, the group was coming around.

And why not? Mason was confident. He looked like the one in charge. And people obviously wanted to listen to him.

“So are you the new chief geologist?” Steve asked. “Because our teams can’t mine anything if they don’t know where to dig.”

Mason looked at Larunda. Their eyes locked and he smiled. Then he turned back to the group. “No.”

What?

Mason went on, reaching out and touching Larunda’s arm. “Larunda is the chief. She has a better sense of the geology than anyone.”

What? Larunda eyes stung and she was so not going to tear up in front of everyone. She made herself smile at him. Why’d he’d have to go and do the noble thing? It’s not like it solved the problem between them. It didn’t work out if she was his boss, any more than if he was the boss.

Mason smiled back at her, then turned to the table. He tapped the surface, bringing up the report that he had prepared. He flicked copies off around the table.

“Larunda asked me to pull together a report on our possible dig sites. That’s what you’re looking at. Each of the areas surveyed around the crater have been ranked both on the resource content, and the difficulty to extra the ore. The three green areas are the highest probability targets.”

Larunda stepped closer to Mason, studying the report on the table surface, and whispered. “Thank you.”

His head leaned closer. “Don’t you think that this project, the outpost, needs a coordinator?”

She laughed quietly, covering her mouth. That was his plan! Devious, and perfect. It was something that they had all talked about. Someone that would work with all the different departments, with a vision of the ultimate goal. And he was perfect for it. She did love the rocks, even if she wanted to be in charge, she had a whole planet beneath her feet to study.

Larunda raised her head and looked out at the group. Everyone was paying attention now, glancing at the report, but watching them.

Jack winked at her. He was in on it! Mason must have talked to him. The thought emboldened her.

“Thank you Mason, this is excellent work. It reminds me what we’re lacking here in the outpost, something that we’ve all talked about before.”

“What’s that?” Jack asked, quick on the draw.

“We need a coordinator. All of us have our focus, which lets us solve problems quickly, but we don’t have someone that’s looking out for the overall scheme, that can help us get rid of obstacles, to deal with other outposts, heck, other worlds even.” Larunda turned to Mason. “I’d like to nominate Mason for the role. I think he’d do a fantastic job, and we’d all benefit.”

“I’ll second that,” Jack said. “Shall we vote?”

Tegan raised her hand halfway. “Um, can we just do that? Select someone?”

Jack nodded. “Diaspora policy allows and encourages outposts to self-manage. It’s entirely appropriate for the department heads to appoint someone as coordinator for the outpost, and I think it would really help our communication.”

Tegan shrugged. “Okay, then, sure. I’m for it.”

“Great,” Larunda said. “Hands up, if you’re in favor?”

Every hand at the table went up. Jack clapped his hands together. “Okay, I’ll process the paperwork, but I think we can go ahead with the rest of the meeting. Mason?”

“Thank you all,” Mason said. “I’m going to do whatever I can to help all of us meet this deadline. I know how hard it sounds. If I didn’t think we could pull it off, I’d be the first to tell Blackstone to her face that we couldn’t do it.”

Steve tapped the report on the table. “Do we have a pick?”

Yes. Larunda glanced at Mason, then at the others. “Yes. You’ll see that the alpha site on the report represents the easiest access to the resources, given terrain, depth and composition. Let’s go through the details.”

It didn’t take three weeks. They got it done in two and a half, but Blackstone waited until the end of the third week before she left. It wasn’t until then that Larunda really was convinced that they’d pulled it off.

To celebrate Mason drove the rambler up onto the Tolkien ridge, so that they could watch the solar sail leave orbit in private. Ordinarily the rambler, a big six wheeled crawler, held up to six people and their suits. With only the two of them, it felt extremely spacious. The sun was shining on the rambler from the rear, so they didn’t even need the shades down on the window when he parked it on the upslope of a small crater.

Mason leaned forward over the controls and pointed. “There she is.”

The sail was a bright disk of light, already accelerating in widening orbits powered by the pressure of the solar wind around Mercury while dragging the small capsule craft carrying Blackstone. This was the moment when it reached escape velocity and would slingshot off into space on a trajectory that would pick up a boost as she flew past Venus. Then the trajectory would carry her past the Earth’s Moon. She’d cut loose from the sail and enter orbit there, to return to the Diaspora headquarters on Luna, while the sail would slingshot around and head on out into the deep solar system. It was the first piece in the massive transit network that they were building.

They were both in shorts and t-shirts. Outside the temperature on the sunward side was a moderate 334 F, thanks to their polar position. The interior was warm, hot even, or maybe that was just her? She was fascinated by the line of Mason’s biceps, where it disappeared beneath the dark cloth of his shirt. His move to the coordinator position had taken him out of her department, putting them on equal footing. Only since then they had both been so busy pulling the team together to build the solar sail, that they hadn’t had any time together.

Until Mason asked her to join him on the field trip, officially to make observations on the solar sail’s departure with their guest, she had wondered if he had cooled on the whole idea of a relationship.

Now, it was his bicep that held her attention.

“Larunda?”

She snapped her gaze up to his face, meeting his eyes, and blushing. The heat flooded her cheeks. He smiled at her.

“Should we take some readings of the solar sail? Make sure we have something to report?”

“That’s a good idea.”

She activated the roof-mounted telescope on her console. The image jumped around, not fixing on anything. “It’s not locking onto the sail.”

Mason unbuckled and left his seat. He came over and leaned over the back of her seat, his head next to hers, his breath warm on her neck.

“What parameters did you use?”

“I told it to lock on the brightest light source in the sky,” she said.

“It’s programmed to exclude artificial objects. You just need to toggle that.” He brushed back the hair from her neck.

Larunda shivered and pulled up the telescope preferences. It was hard to focus on the menus while Mason moved his mouth closer to her neck. He didn’t kiss her. His breath tickled her ear and her neck.

She switch the toggle and closed the preferences. Now the image on the screen jumped and there was the sail, visible at optimal magnification. A mirror of the Sun, blazing in the sky. Against that bright backdrop, the capsule was a tiny black speck against the blaze.

Not unlike the dark dot of Mercury crossing the face of the Sun.

“Look at that,” Mason said, his lips brushing her neck.

She shivered and tilted her head slightly away, exposing more of her neck to him. “We did it.”

“We did.” His lips touched her skin and she nearly jumped in her seat. The kiss was soft, grazing across her neck. “The next sail will launch on schedule. We’re going to be pumping them out now.”

“Hmmm.” She turned, reaching up to run her fingers through her hair. “Pumping them out, huh?”

She kissed his lips, a soft touch, then firmer, drawing him to her. He broke the kiss, moving across to the other side of her neck. Her skin tingled. She tugged his shirt up and ran her fingers against his hard abs.

Mason moved, his hands doing something with the seat, and it dropped back, reclining flat. It surprised her and she laughed.

They would keep producing solar sails, while exploring the rest of their planet. The human settlements would grow, spreading to the other craters, mining the ice and building habitats. Eventually, like Blackstone had said, there’d be children and a whole thriving population.

And out there, spinning between the planets, their solar sails, opening up all the planetary bodies.

Mason pulled up her shirt and she helped him, pulling it up and off, breasts free and firm in the low gravity. He bent and kissed his way lower.

Larunda held his head, savoring each touch. Over the smooth plain of his shoulder the solar sail was rising on the solar wind.

13,455 words

Author’s Note

In 2013 I started my very own tour through the solar system with Mercury Rising. It became my central project for months as I visited each planetary body. I had originally intended to release each story with a fun pin-up style scifi illustration. I’d still like to do that, only I want to wait until my digital painting skills equal the vision in my head.

In the meantime I’ve decided to go ahead and release the stories, one per week, on my website. Eventually I do plan create the illustrations I want and release each as a stand-alone e-book through the various stores. I have no idea when that will happen. I’m embarking on my own journey this year by returning to school to get my MLIS degree. It’s making me rethink publishing and writing plans as I make room for full-time studies in a full-time life.

If you’ve enjoyed the story I hope you’ll come back next week for the next Planetary Bodies story.