Part Nineteen: Gray Zone
Notes: This is the next part of a spin-off story of a series I posted on Literotica (titled Bonded, as Carizabeth) and the subject matter is m/m sci fi. Forgive me in advance for the cliffhanger, that’s just how this chapter worked out. I’m getting the next part up soon.
Pandora was interminably cloudy. Despite the long term residents gleefully assuring them all that it was actually the mild season, it rained every day, sometimes for hours. Occasionally it was a light, pattering rain that was actually kind of soothing, but more often than not it was a driving rain that slashed through the sky like tiny knives, pounding soft flesh into submission. The environmental shields erected over the city required a lot of power to run, and so unless a typhoon or tsunami was heading towards The Box, the city council preferred to leave the shields down. The city buildings had been constructed with function in mind, not form, and very few of them were over a story tall. The roofs sloped to allow water to run off easily, and the drains beside the streets were deep and wide. Pandora City was a tight jumble of every shade between slate gray and cobalt blue, and looking down at it from the skin rooms on the Neptune, Garrett thought that it strongly resembled a bruise.
It was a strange time for everyone. The established residents of The Box were having to adjust to a vast increase in the number of people using their facilities, and not all of them were happy about that. New citizens were applying for housing and business permits in facilities that hadn’t even been built yet, and Jezria was very annoyed about that particular delay. She lit into the construction company who had the contract to build and they buckled down to work, but it would be at least six months before everyone who was staying on Pandora would get a home. Jonah could have moved to the front of the list since he had a child, but he opted to stay for longer on board, something that undeniably pleased Garrett. The less he had to go out into the city, the better.
It wasn’t like there was much there. The entertainment complex was smaller than what was available on the Neptune, Garrett didn’t need to look at the schools or educational centers, and the small greenhouses that provided fresh food for the city’s populace could be seen in less than a day. Apart from that it was government buildings, row houses and a few small parks. The Box was so small that you didn’t need a vehicle to get around in it, and in fact they weren’t encouraged. It was a hamlet, a burg, an atavistic throwback to a time so far out of modern mankind’s memory that it was bemusing just to be there.
Some of the new faces were more than passing interesting to Garrett. Meeting Martina’s husband Lawrence was surprising, although given her attitude towards making every minute count Garrett supposed it shouldn’t have been. The man was several inches shorter than his wife, with sloped shoulders and a pronounced curve to his upper back. He had gray hair neatly trimmed, wore actual antique bifocals of all things, and walked with a cane. His face was deeply lined through his forehead and beside his mouth, and the contrast between him and his wife couldn’t have been starker. For all that, though, they seemed surprisingly compatible. Martina very clearly loved her husband, and his calm personality brought out a side to her that was almost gentle. He helped to oversee the transfer of the most crucial scientific equipment from the ship to the lab in the city, and the interaction between them was fascinating to watch.
“I know, it’s like she has a doppelganger,” Lila commented to Garrett in soft tones as they watched the exodus from their part of the lab. Their particular experiments and areas of expertise were far from crucial for the time being, so they were left alone while the botanists, biologists and engineers struggled to pack up and safely move their tons of equipment. “I didn’t believe it at first either, but then, they’ve been married a long time. I guess in fifty years you either learn to handle someone or you get a divorce.”
“Fifty years?” Shekar asked in surprise. He had forgiven Lila for the sin of dating someone other than himself, at least enough to talk to her again. “That long?”
“Or fifty-one. They got married pretty young. They have some kids who live back in the Central System somewhere, I think. The kids aren’t naturals, though. It’s just Lawrence.”
“How old is he?”
“Late seventies, I think.”
Seeing the long-term difference than Regen made was almost like a punch in the gut for Garrett. In seventy years, Garrett expected to look like his father: older, a little more weathered, maybe his hair beginning to go gray, but still straight and strong and vital. In seventy years Cody would be like this, already an old man when he should have been entering his prime. And Jonah…God, Jonah would be devastated. Garrett was beginning to understand why Jezria had mandated psychological counseling for all permanent residents of Pandora, whether they were naturals or not. This kind of rapid aging would be very hard to see in your loved ones, and especially in your child.
Garrett broached the topic, in a roundabout way, to Jonah that evening. Cody was eating at a friend’s apartment and the two of them had Jonah’s place to themselves, at least for a while. They ordered food from the mess and ate together, nice, quiet and casual. The thing between them, whatever it was, had developed to the point where they sought each other out whenever their bizarre schedules intersected, but after three weeks on Pandora they still weren’t actually sleeping together. What sexual encounters they had were furtive and rushed, not in either of their beds.
Garrett was starting to think that Jonah would never take him to bed, and he was doing his damndest to be okay with that. What they had was something he could live with. It wasn’t everything he wanted, not remotely, but it was enough that he didn’t feel that strange, wrenching melancholy that had dogged him during the trip here, and wasn’t quite enough to make him fall in love.
It would be so easy to fall in love with Jonah and Cody, but Jonah kept holding back and after some consideration, Garrett decided he was right to. Garrett had no intention of spending the rest of his life in a backwater colony in the Fringe, and he knew with equal certainty that Jonah would stay here either until Cody wanted to leave, or until his son died. The thought of such a bright, happy little boy growing old and dying in less than a century, or of some kind of disease or in a stupid accident, was incredibly painful for Garrett to contemplate. If it was that bad for him it had to be ten times worse for Jonah, and that was why Garrett wanted to make sure he was getting counseling.
“Have you met the male half of the Doctors Sims?” he asked, rubbing his thumbs into the arch of Jonah’s foot. Jonah, Garrett had found, loved to have his feet touched, and Garrett was more than happy to have any chance to touch the man, intimately or not.
“Seen him from a distance,” Jonah grunted, relaxed nearly to the point of unconsciousness. “Shuttled some equipment for him a few times.” The shuttle pilots were working constantly these days, either taking things into town or out to the evacuation site fifty miles further inland. It mostly served as storage these days, but was a necessary measure in case the environmental shields failed. “He seems nice.”
“He is,” Garrett agreed. “I can see now why Martina is a raving bitch when she’s not with him. Not that I’m excusing her behavior, but I understand how not being with him might send her off kilter. They’ve been together for a really long time, and he’s not in the best of health.”
Jonah opened his eyes and peered over at Garrett. “That so?”
“Yeah. He’s got some chronic issues that Martina has been badgering the geneticists and doctors about. Apparently that’s not going too well for her, or them.”
“I’ve never really gotten it,” Jonah confessed, one hand weaving over and over again through his hair. It was a gesture that Garrett had come to realize meant he was disturbed. “Why none of the treatments work on naturals. It seems impossible. We can build people practically from the ground up, don’t see why we can’t rebuild them to work proper.”
“We might be able to, but not with the current anti-cloning laws in effect,” Garrett replied. “And I have to admit that I think they make sense. The capacity for abuse is just too high.”
“Nah, I get that,” Jonah sighed. “I know I wouldn’t want any Cody but the one I got, but still…” His voice trailed off, and his eyes became distant.
“Have you talked to Glinda lately?”
Glinda “The Good Witch” MacArthur was the Neptune’s head psychiatrist, and had made it a point to talk to each and every one of the passengers at some point on the journey to Pandora. She specialized in family psychiatrics, and had tried to set up an appointment with the Helmses several times, only to be politely rebuffed by Jonah. Cody was still too young to be required to get therapy for his condition and Jonah was almost as good as Garrett at avoiding doing things he didn’t want to do.
“No. I will, though.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
Jonah sat up suddenly, tugging his feet out of Garrett’s hands. His usually open, handsome face was totally closed off, and his warm brown eyes were flinty. “I don’t need you fallin’ into line and tellin’ me what to do too, Garrett. I’ve been dealing with this on my own every since I got Cody and I can deal with it a while longer without gettin’ my head shrunk by some damn know-it-all who wants to talk to me about the stages of fuckin’ grief, like I should be thinking about puttin’ my son in the ground already—” He stopped abruptly, his lips pressed into a tight line, then got up and began pulling on his socks. “I have to go and get Cody.”
Garrett wisely didn’t mention that Cody wasn’t due to be picked up for another hour. “I’ll be going, then.” Garrett had never made his lover really upset before and he didn’t like that he had now, but at the same time he knew he was right about Jonah seeing a counselor, and if he stayed he and Jonah would just keep arguing about it.
“Probably smart,” Jonah agreed tersely.
“Are you going to hold a grudge over this?”
Jonah blew out a harsh breath. “I doubt it,” he said honestly, “but I also really just want to see my boy right now.”
His boy. Which of course Cody was, while Garrett was just Cody’s occasional playmate/babysitter when his dad’s schedule allowed for them to be together. Garrett didn’t want to be a father figure, but he didn’t like the idea that he was nothing better than a glorified toy either.
Now he was the one being unfair. Yeah, their evening was very definitely over. “Fine. I’ll see you later.” Garrett got off the couch and walked over to the door, where he had left his shoes. Simple, easy, no fuss and he was back together and leaving, with no sign of his ever having been there apart from a second plate on the counter.
“Garrett.” A gentle hand on his arm stopped him with the door half open, and Garrett turned to look at Jonah. “Tomorrow night?” Jonah asked hopefully. “I’m off all day, we could go somewhere as soon as you’re out of the lab. Maybe one of the restaurants in town?”
Jonah had been trying to persuade Garrett to see more of The Box since they’d first arrived, with little success so far. He didn’t want to get to know Pandora City. He didn’t care about Pandora City. He was here to work and he was trying to play, and getting to know the nooks and crannies of all human civilization on this planet wasn’t high on his list of things to accomplish.
But Jonah was trying, and Garrett had to give a little too. “Sure. You can pick, you know what Cody will like best.”
“Thank you.” Jonah leaned in and brushed their lips together, and it was hard, so hard for Garrett not to deepen the kiss, not to lean in and take more of what he wanted, to demand it from Jonah as though it was his right to claim it. Hell, he didn’t even know what “it” really was, he just knew that he wanted it and was being denied.
For the best, for the best, for the best.
Oh well. At least if his evening was ending early he could get some more work done. That would increase the chances that he’d be off shift on time tomorrow. Garrett’s work schedule had improved some since arriving on Pandora, but it was still very irregular, and prone to change based on Martina’s latest whim.
The lab was, to put it succinctly, a fucking mess. There were still crates upon crates of equipment waiting to go to the new lab, and two of the biologists were having a fit about misplaced slides and inconsistent data as Garrett signed in. Naturally, there were still people up and about. And yes—there was Martina, all sound and fury in the center of it. Lawrence was nowhere to be seen, which was a shame. Garrett liked talking to the other man, and he had a way of making difficult situations clearer that his wife simply didn’t share.
One of the biologists, the hapless Andrews of old that Martina had been breaking down on Garrett’s first day, was vehemently defending himself against an older scientist who Garrett thought was named Ruxin—whether it was a first or last name he wasn’t sure—and Martina was yelling at them both, but looked up when Garrett walked in.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“Getting some work done,” he replied, stepping past her and heading back towards his section of the lab.
“Oh no, you aren’t.”
That pulled him up short. “I never thought I’d hear those words come out of your lips.”
“The lab is transitioning to Pandora City’s power grid tonight,” Martina explained. “Just the lab, none of the rest of the ship yet, because we have special protocols. No one can have any of their equipment turned on during the process. I assume you’ve backed up all your data?”
“My data logs are pristine.”
“Good.” Her eyes narrowed. “As long as you’re here, you can help us move some things around. We’re looking for the case of hydrogen fuel cells.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“It’s not. Get to work.”
Technically Garrett didn’t have to do this kind of grunt work, it wasn’t in his contract, but he honestly didn’t have anything better going for him. He joined in shifting and searching through hard, heavy shipping crates and plastic containers filled with everything from test tubes to live worms. After perhaps a half an hour of joyless searching and repositioning, the lights suddenly went out.
“Damn it,” Martina swore. “The engineering bay was supposed to let me know before they turned things off.”
“How dare they,” Garrett chimed in companionably. He could feel Martina’s glare even though he couldn’t see it.
They sat and waited in the dark for one minute, then two, then three…Martina was on her com and shouting into it when the power came back on.
The power didn’t come on slowly, the room didn’t gradually light up; it wasn’t even merely bright. The new grid’s power surged through the lab like a firestorm, far too much current for the local transistors to handle. The embedded electronics blew out of the walls like a row of firecrackers going off, scattering debris and raining sparks into the room. The surfaces were all fire-resistant, but the intensity of the explosions was such that some of them started to burn anyway.
“Grab the crates and move them into the hall!” Martina shouted.
“This is not the time to be worried about stuff!” Garrett shouted back at her. The other two scientists seemed to agree, and as smoke began to fill the room and alarms started to sound, Andrews and Ruxin fled through the doors into the relative safety of the secured hall beyond. Garrett watched them leave, then turned back to his boss.
“Martina,” Garrett began, but she wasn’t there anymore. The smoke was starting to obscure his vision but he thought he saw the edge of her lab coat moving a few meters away. “Martina!”
“I have to save the fuel cells,” she insisted stridently, fear and fury warring for control in her voice. “We desperately need them for the hospital in case of blackouts and they’re the only ones we’ll have until the next transport ship, and that’s not for—”
Another explosion rocked the lab as the fire spread into a crate that contained things that were decidedly flammable.
“We have to leave, now!” Stumbling forward and reaching blindly, Garrett grabbed for Martina and finally found her arm. “Right now!”
“Yes!” Garrett turned, and saw a sudden bright white chemical fire flare into life inside one of the nearby crates. He had just enough time to throw himself back into Martina and begin to turn his head before the crate exploded.
A second later there was a sharp, slicing impact followed by utter darkness, and the very beginnings of excruciating pain. Garrett’s body quickly decided that it was unbearable, and after only a moment of agony he lost consciousness.