Bridgebuilders Chapter 6

“Kielder telescope first opened in 2008 with a goal of public outreach and education. Its location here in the Kielder Forest was one quite free of light pollution.” Dr. Hansen, the astronomer assigned to the Strickert group, was bald and stick-thin. He was also quite old, and in desperate need of a dentist. Moira had watched their chaperone, Ms. Beagle, shake his hand from as far away as her arm allowed her to stand. Mr. Green had lifted a hand in casual greeting to the man when they first entered the visitors’ gallery, but he had remained near the door, as if already aware of the problem.

Waves of halitosis buffeted the girls as they listened to Dr. Hansen’s lecture, and the group had gradually shifted backwards into a defensive huddle against the wall. Moira was sadly certain that one or two of the girls had just given up on pursuing science as a career. She told herself quite firmly that Mr. Green would not smell like that when he was old. Or look like that, either.

“By 2060,” the lecture continued, “the government was insolvent, bankrupted in the wake of climate change, famines, and pestilence. The Sun Consortium, as part of its New Earth Program, took control of Britain’s neglected telescopes, repairing them and setting them back to work in conjunction with the New International Space Station they were building in orbit. The people you see working here,” Dr. Hansen waved a hand over his shoulder at the workers sitting at the horseshoe-shaped bank of computers below them, “are processing data from the thousands of images taken by our ‘scope. Items of interest are flagged for further study by the new Carter Telescope on the space station.”

Moira raised a hand. “What constitutes an item of interest, sir?” It was a mistake to draw his attention, for he approached the group to answer. The other girls shifted back, nudging Moira toward the front. She accepted the consequence and tried to breathe shallow as she gave him her attention.

“Our primary purpose is to find metals and carbon to supplement Earth’s dwindling or extinct resources. Thus, suitable asteroids are searched out and marked for mining. In addition, Sun is devoted to finding habitable bodies for human colonization.”

“Isn’t that what NISS is for?” Ms. Beagle asked, mercifully drawing his attention to her side of the room. Moira breathed out a soft gasp, then stifled a giggle as Janice Brewton waved a discreet hand in front of her face.

The New International Space Station,” Dr. Hansen said it as if he’d thought of the name himself, “is indeed an experiment in human colonization, as well as a base for asteroid mining. But one space station will never be sufficient. Humans need sunlight and a planetary atmosphere to flourish.”

Moira acknowledged the truth of that, noting that Mr. Green was nodding his head in agreement, as well. She also knew that any colony would have to quickly become self-sufficient. Earth’s resources would not recover for millennia.

Dr. Hansen held an arm toward the door. “Now I know you’re all anxious to see the wondrous images of our universe for yourselves. If you’ll follow me, we’ll head down to the control center and let each of you have a turn directing the telescope.”

This brought excited chatter from the girls, not least because it meant his back was to them. Moira hung back, pausing in front of Mr. Green. “It won’t matter if other planets are suitable for colonization,” she said, “if someone does not figure out how to get us there in prompt fashion.”

It was an old debate of theirs, given the possible directions of his thesis work. A corner of his mouth twitched and he raised one shoulder in a shrug. “I shall continue to work on it. Call it job security.”

She laughed, and they followed the girls to the control room.

#

The forest had long fallen to darkness by the time the girls began settling into the observatory’s guest dorm. Lights Out would be in one hour, until then they had free time. Moira chatted with a small group of friends, but their attention was soon caught by the sound of a guitar chord, as a few of the girls prepared to sing campfire songs. Moira supposed this was in honor of the forest itself, since they were not outside, and did not have a campfire. She took advantage of the distraction to slip unnoticed out the door. She paused in the dim foyer to get her bearings before continuing across the room to the coat closet at the other end. Just before the closet was a nook, where she would be out of sight of anyone coming out to use the loo, but not so far away that she could be accused of leaving the supervised group. Not that there would be a problem. Ms. Beagle was aware of Moira’s daily assignment from home, and always allowed her quiet time to get it done.

Moira sank to the floor, with her back against the nook’s wall, and adjusted the ear buds of her Pad. The assignment was from her stepfather, and she’d been obliged to do it every evening of her time at Strickert. He was determined that she not forget her place. So she logged on to his website and called up his latest lesson for her. As usual, her body jerked in response to his voice in her ear, a reaction she’d never been able to stop. The voice itself did more to remind her of her hopelessness than any lesson it might be teaching.

The voice that made her forget physics. That denied her any right to dream of a future education. That filled her with terror in case he should realize the thoughts she harbored about a certain physics teacher.

It was her stepfather’s fancy that the lesson would last an hour, including time to answer his questions and send them off for his approval. He didn’t realize that Moira had long ago discerned the pattern of his teaching, and needed only a few minutes at the beginning to know everything he would say. The range of expected responses was so small she could dash them off in less than five minutes. In fact, she had to be careful to not make her responses too complex. He would not have appreciated it coming from a girl.

For the first minute or so, the voice made her heart race and her throat tighten with fear and disgust. Then her mind took over, falling into its habit of closing off the voice and turning away to other things. While a small part gave the lesson cursory attention and guided her fingers as she typed her responses, the rest of her mind turned to the wondrous day just past.

As Dr. Hansen had said, the Sun Consortium had taken over the country’s telescopes as the decimated population struggled to survive. For their own secret projects, Moira thought, although she had no evidence for it. Everyone knew it was true.

But today, she didn’t care. Today, the telescope was hers, and she had stood transfixed at its base, watching its incremental movements, listening to the quiet clicks and hums as it searched the universe. Her heart had pounded then, as well, only it was with excitement. This was Real Life, living here, spending hours each day in research, applying that research to help solve Earth’s myriad problems, interacting with intelligent people who liked and respected her.

Sitting in the nook, with her stepfather’s voice quoting scripture to remind her of her evil female nature, Moira closed her eyes and imagined the life of her dreams. She could taste it, she wanted it so much. She saw them again—the galaxies and nebulae, the detailed planets of their own solar system. But she shifted restlessly in her corner. The demonstration had been just that: a demonstration. A show put on for school girls, with old data and faraway sights they’d known about for years. Moira wanted to know what they were doing now.

The lesson finished at last, she submitted her responses, then murmured the prayer he expected to hear, as she thanked God for her stepfather’s concern for her soul, and her pledge of obedience to his teachings. The prayer must be fresh every night, but she usually recorded it whenever she had a private moment during the day. She could never have faced the humiliation if the other girls heard those words.

She sighed when the website closed down, resting her head against the wall. It took a few deep breaths for the burning nausea to pass, but once it did, she opened her eyes and thought about the telescope. She knew Mr. Green was still over there, and planned to be for most of the night. He was using the telescope to verify the last of the data for his thesis. He’d been good to her over the last year, doing as much of his research as he could at Strickert, so she could participate. But there was still so much she couldn’t see, couldn’t do, because Strickert didn’t have the equipment or the authorization. He did most of his work at Oxford and brought the results to show her.

It wasn’t the same. She wanted to see what he was doing.

#

It was quiet at last, as midnight crept past. The girls had settled into their cots and drifted off to sleep. Moira lay awake, staring into the darkness as she listened to the soft breathing around her.

She sat up, holding her breath. The sounds around her stayed the same, and she eased from the cot. Shivering in the cold air, she pulled her bag from under the cot and slipped out to the loo in the hallway. She didn’t bother to dress, just slipped her sweat suit over her long johns and added warm socks and shoes. The coats were hanging in the foyer, and she grabbed hers as she tiptoed by, tucking her bag behind the other coats. She didn’t want to leave it in the loo in case someone got up while she was gone.

She didn’t have a flashlight, and she waited just outside for the shapes to resolve themselves. It was startling to see all the stars above her. She couldn’t take her eyes off of them. Millions, trillions, there were, spread across the sky in a blanket of glimmer. Why had the early humans wanted light to drown this out? We don’t even know what we’re missing.

I’ll be out there someday. It was something she and Mr. Green talked about all the time. Neither of them was satisfied to just make the discoveries that others would use in space travel. They wanted to be out there too, using their work.

Taking a deep breath, she set out across the compound, sticking to the path. The darkness was deep, and there were wild animals in the forest. The campus was protected by electronic fences, but still …

She paused at the short staircase leading to the domed building. She’d be so embarrassed if Mr. Green sent her back to bed. Would he do that? Would the other workers laugh at her? She raised a nervous hand to push her hair behind an ear, not sure if she dared continue. Somehow, humiliation from Mr. Green would be far worse than any beating her stepfather gave her.

But her uncertain legs carried her up the stairs and the door slid open before her. She stepped inside quickly, not wanting cold air to make anyone mad before they even saw her. The base of the telescope spread in front of her, obscuring any people from her view. She heard no voices. Where was everyone? A locker clanged shut somewhere above her and she heard a single set of footsteps. But Dr. Hansen had said that most of the work was done in the room around the base. There was no need for anyone to look through the eyepiece of the telescope. The view was scanned and sent to the monitors below, where the programming and analysis were done.

The monitors near her showed screensavers or data processing screens. She hurried around the struts of the telescope to the other side. Mr. Green sat at a desk in front of a monitor, writing something. He turned at the sound of her footsteps.

“Miss Sherman!”

She slipped her hands into her pockets and hugged the coat tighter to her, biting her lip. “Hi,” she said. He looked surprised, but not angry, so she continued. “I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to see more.”

He laughed. She relaxed and returned a small smile, until he asked, “Does Miss Beagle know you’re here?”

She considered lying. “Nooooo,” she said instead, feeling her way. “She was asleep.”

He rubbed his mouth, watching her uncertainly. Please don’t send me back. At least no one else was around to see her humiliation.

He sighed. “All right. I do have some data to show you. But you shouldn’t stay long. We could both get into trouble.” He gestured to the side as he turned back to the desk. “You can put your coat over there. And grab a chair.”

She did as he said, then rolled a chair next to his. “Where is everybody? I thought astronomers worked at night.”

“Not so much, anymore,” he said. “They program the telescope and do their analysis during the day. There’s just a skeleton crew at night to make sure the program is implementing properly.” He glanced at her. “Dr. Kebbie went to get some food. He’ll be back shortly.”

She nodded, fighting against the distraction of her wild heartbeat. They were alone. She hadn’t considered that possibility. Adding to the strangeness was their dress, she in her sweat suit, he in jeans and sweater. She’d never seen him in anything other than a suit and tie. His hair was mussed, as if he had slept for a while and hadn’t bothered to comb it before reporting to the telescope.

The other girls considered him ugly, with his horsey face, too long nose and chin, and too large teeth, but she knew he was funny and kind, and his features had long since resolved themselves to comfortable goodness in her eyes. An almost overwhelming desire to touch him made her grip the arms of her chair.

Thank God he had turned back to his paper. “Have you got the data you need?” she asked.

“Not all of it,” he said. He handed her a printout. “We’ll have pictures in about an hour, but here are the numbers we’ve gotten so far. Would you like to do the calculations for me?”

“Sure, I’d love to.”

And just that simply, they began working, side by side, she conversing with the computer about the calculations, he pulling off the data as they came in, as if he was too anxious to wait for the computer to report. They were discussing the trend the data were showing when Dr. Kebbie returned on a blast of cold air. He still had his coat on when he peeked in, stopping in surprise to see Moira.

“Hullo,” he said.

Moira fought down panic. Would he march her back to the dorm and wake Miss Beagle?

But Mr. Green reacted with no hint of concern.

“Dr. Kebbie, good! I was hoping you’d get to meet Moira Sherman. I urge you to keep an eye on her. She’ll have your job, someday.”

“That so?” Dr. Kebbie laughed and lifted an arm in greeting. “I might be ready to hand it over. Love to chat, but I’ve got to check on the gyros. I’ll be upstairs.”

As his clattering footsteps disappeared up the winding staircase, Moira let out a sigh and an embarrassed laugh at Mr. Green’s amused expression. “I was afraid he’d send me back. That I’d be in trouble.”

Her teacher shrugged. “He probably assumes Miss Beagle knows you’re here. Honestly, half the people in the world wouldn’t think anything of it. Still,” he held up a finger, “we must follow the rules.”

She sighed again. “Yes, I know. I suppose I should be going.”

“I always appreciate your help. And your company. You help me see things I might otherwise have missed.”

“I doubt that,” she said, standing. He held up a hand.

“Hold on, I just remembered. I noticed your name was missing from the list for Oxford’s High School Day. Surely an oversight; you should check into it.”

A tight dread pushed deep in her stomach as she tried to think of an answer. His brows lowered in confusion.

“Are you not considering attending Oxford? I just assumed you would want to. I was rather hoping we could work together once you were there. But if your heart is set on another university, I understand.”

Moira rubbed her forehead, trying to think. The list of colleges a student wanted to visit was always sent home to her parents. She didn’t dare let that happen, so had not signed up for any visits.

“No, it’s not that. I’d be thrilled to attend Oxford. It’s just … I wasn’t going to … sign up … yet.” She closed her mouth firmly on her stammering. Really, she should have been prepared for this.

He still didn’t understand. “Can’t attend the school day? But why not? You realize it gives you an edge on admission. You’re able to tour your chosen college, meet the professors, sign up for early admission and such. I was hoping to introduce you to my advisor. I’ve told him all about you and he’s anxious to meet you.”

She stared at him in misery. She’d have to tell him the truth. But she wouldn’t tell him all of it. “I can’t sign up for college yet, you see. I’ll have to wait until I’m eighteen.”

“What?” He sprang to his feet, face astonished. She fell back, the familiar terror of facing an angry male filling her. He would strike her. He would strike her and her heart would be broken, forever. Nothing would ever matter again, if he hit her. She turned to run, gasping when he grabbed her wrist.

“Moira, wait.” He dropped her arm at once, his voice soft. He’d never used her first name before. She waited as he commanded, still facing away from him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. He truly sounded sorry. And bewildered, as if he didn’t understand what had happened.

She found she couldn’t speak, so she just nodded, holding her hands tightly in front of her and trying not to shake. She heard him sit back down. “Will you tell me why?” he asked. “Why must you wait until you’re eighteen?”

She shook her head, still unable to speak. He sighed. “Is it money? I know all about having to work one’s way through college. But you know there are scholarships and grants. Good Lord, Moira, if anyone qualifies for a full scholarship, it would be you.”

Perhaps she could use that. She cleared her throat, but didn’t turn to look at him. “Money will be one problem,” she said. “But not the only one.”

“Moira, please. Let me help you. You are too brilliant to let this opportunity go by. Whatever is holding you back, I can speak to my advisor about it. He’ll know what to do.”

“No.” She stood straighter and took a step away from him, speaking over her shoulder. “Thank you, but I have my own plans. I’ll take care of it. May I go now?”

“Yes, of course.” He sounded resigned and hurt, and she felt a stab of guilt. No matter. She didn’t dare tell him the truth.

She ran.

#

Moira squatted off the path halfway between the telescope and the dorm, arms wrapped around her knees as she stared into the darkness. Bloody eejit. Why didn’t I think of this? They’ll all be asking, eventually. They all expect me to apply to universities. I’ve got to figure out how to explain without telling them the truth.

She felt tears on her cheeks. Mr. Green had been startled, that’s all. He wasn’t going to hit her. Normal men did not hit women. She knew this now. But she felt a trickle of despair. She had reacted with fear and automatic submission. Would she ever learn to stand up for herself? To not be afraid? She’d spent two years at Strickert studying martial arts, learning self-defense, how to fight. She was not very advanced yet, but she knew enough to protect herself a little. She was certain she didn’t need that with Mr. Green. But if she reacted to him with fear, how could she ever stand up to her stepfather?

Was there no hope for her?

She sighed and stood, moving quietly through the night. The dorm was warm, bringing her chill up through clammy skin to dissipate against the coats along the wall. She stripped down to her long johns and tiptoed to her cot, laying down with another sigh. As she turned to her side, her imagination placed Mr. Green behind her, his arms pulling her close. Comforting. Loving.

But she tightened her jaw and banished the dream. There was no help from outside. Her best option was to stick it out until her eighteenth birthday. The law in England still held eighteen as the age of emancipation, even for girls. She knew that in many countries, it was older. In the United States, they had to be twenty-one. In Eastern Europe it was twenty-five, and in the Middle East and Africa, women weren’t allowed emancipation at all. So she counted herself lucky. At eighteen, she could walk out, and the police and judges who belonged to her stepfather’s enclave could not force her back. She would have no money and no place to go. But she’d get through that. She had her mind.

Her greatest fear was that her stepfather would decide she’d had enough education, and he would pull her out to marry her off. She would soon be pregnant and stuck for life. If that’s what he did … that’s what the self-defense classes were for. That’s why she learned to run fast. Why she had a plan of escape from school.

They might easily find her, using the ID chip everyone had to have in their arm. But she had to try. She would not have her degree. She would be underage, but she had heard that people could disappear into the underside of London. She heard horrible things about the life there, but even that would be easier to escape, if she stayed off drugs.

Perhaps she could find a rebel cell. Those shadow groups, spoken of in whispers, such that one could not be certain if they were truth or fiction. But Moira thought they existed. With the world’s population held prisoner to restrictive theocracies, and the power of the Sun Consortium, she was certain there were brave people doing whatever they could to fight against it. There had to be, because she wanted to fight with them, as a scientist, from a ship in space.

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