Propinquity or Bust
by Barney Sperlin
Barney is a retired math and computer science teacher, as well as a programmer in industry. Golden age SF is a favorite, and reflects in his writing, which he finally has time for. A previous story was printed in TERSEJournal.
He also writes essays on gardening. While they generally are off-the-wall, a few can be instructive. They lurk at:
Cheryl and Ms. Connors watched as Bert and Lucy Lancer got up on opposite sides of the bed, the couple stripping off pajamas and underwear. Neither bed mate looked at the other. The pair pulled on jumpsuits, careless about the lay of the seams, and positioning of the holes, despite frequent practice.
The two viewers were up early on go/no-go day. Their brightly lit, white room was bare beyond the desk supporting the video view of the bedroom, the entrance door behind them, and the bedroom door they faced.
Cheryl glanced down at her manager’s twisting hands. She was aware Connors presented the face of the project, and getting too old to start again. The boss’ shellacked, coiffed ‘do’, silver tie, and gray, wrinkle-free power suit, displayed the best image. Project managers matched their sports counterparts: celebrated for winning, fired for losing. Connors nervously felt for the button in her right jacket pocket.
Cheryl’s wardrobe took more thought than Connors’. She had to avoid upstaging the boss in quality, as well as deflecting the display of her youthful body. A dark gray suit, half-a-size too large, worked. In her first post-collegiate job which didn’t painfully spatter French Fry oil, she was committed to making a success here, no matter the stress. Everyone, down to the trash haulers, felt they deserved her boss’ job. “Maybe not me now,” Cheryl thought, “but one day.”
“Ready?” Bert asked his mate.
“No,” was her quiet reply.
Connors winced. Cheryl’s slightly raised eyebrows went unnoticed.
The rocket pilot exhaled, walked to the door, glanced back, and opened it. They stepped into the bright room.
“Ah, the heroes of our time!” The piercing, positive voice punched into them, echoing around the sparse room as the couple’s hands shielded the glare. Connors appeared confident and controlled. Cheryl wondered if her mentor could get through the next five minutes.
“And,” she continued, “how ARE Mr. and Mrs. Lancer feeling this morning? Ready to invade Mars?” She giggled at her joke. “Mars or Bust! Hmmm?”
The Lancers glanced at each other, trading frowns.
Mr. Lancer stared down at the bright, toothy smile. “We’ve decided not to go through with this charade.”
“Oh,” giggling again, “always joking. That’s what we love about you dears!” She spoke too loudly for normal conversation, indicating the speech wasn’t just for the couple’s benefit.
Mrs. Lancer moved toward her. “Ms. Connors, this won’t work. We won’t go.”
“Oh, but dearie, you’re all dressed for it, so you must want to go.” The firm, but gentle tone seemed just right.
“No, ‘dearie’,” Lucy spat, “these were the only clothes available. We quit. Give us our real clothes. We’re gone!”
“Now, it’s really too late for that. The rocket’s been fueling for the last four hours and is about ready. TV crews and the whole world are waiting for your entrance at the gantry. You simply can NOT disappoint the world! You wouldn’t want to disappoint the world, would you? Or me?”
Bert advanced, joining his wife. “You know as well as I that Lucy has been cheating on me with that Kyle jerk from media relations. Ha! Relations!”
Lucy turned sharply. “You’ve been taking every young cutie who shimmies at you. It’s finally my turn. You drove me to him!”
Miss Connors raised her hands, palms forward. “Now, people, this isn’t the time. Your public awaits, and eternal fame will be yours! Keep your heads up and smile as you stride into a new age!”
“The only striding we’re doing is outta here,” Bert gestured toward the single exit door on the wall ahead of him. “I’d have to listen to her complaining day and night for eight years! You’re asking the impossible, cooped up together in a small spacecraft.”
“Oh, dear, no. You’ll have lots to do to keep your mind off little things like that. And, you’ll grow fond of each other as you work through the preparations for landing on Mars, setting up your habitat, surviving there, and then prepping for the return home. And, finally,” she put her palms together and tilted her head slightly to the left, “the adoration of civilization as the first colonists to return in triumph. Time will pass in a flash!” Cheryl had practiced with Connors for weeks, categorizing the possible scenarios: the mutiny necessitating “D” this morning, but the aide felt sure the lead actor had her part down cold.
Lucy frowned, leaning toward Connors. “No, we’d soon strangle each other. It can’t work. It’s just a mistake. We’re walking.”
Miss Connors tittered. “Now, silly, we’re much too far along for such a display. The cost of dismantling and continuing with a new couple would be unacceptable to our shareholders. Now, really! Now, you just scamper on through the door behind me and put on your protective suits.”
Lucy again moved closer to Connors, shoulders and arms rising, hinting at aggression. “‘Yeah, ‘Now’ we’re going to scamper, alright. Outta here!”
Cheryl frowned, moving slightly behind Connors. The scenario was dissolving faster than they had expected. Maybe it was time to speak up and suggest a halt, moving on to another couple later in the year.
Connors blinked rapidly as she appeared to click down the tree of possibilities. Still Scenario D, but Plan B. “Now these nice, young, patriotic, …” Connors stopped. In her stress, she had gone to the wrong response. Her hands twisted, but she was sure only her fingers were worried. The last project failure had created a need for this next option.
Bert squinted at his antagonist. “What?”
Cheryl focused on the floor, hands behind her, shuffling her feet. Did she have the courage to speak up? With the action speeding along, there wasn’t time for serious consideration. Well, watch and learn from a master.
The manager found her correct script position. She knew better than to admit a mistake. “Oh, dear! I told them it shouldn’t be necessary. I just knew you’d see reason and do what’s expected. After all, you weren’t drafted. You both volunteered.” She batted her overly long lashes, nervously fingering the button in her pocket, relieved to be back on track.
Lucy closed within inches, nastier than before. “That was years ago. Before I found out about him!”
“Now, really! Be sensible. You both must take responsibility.”
“No!” they screamed in unison.
“Well!” Connors added a little exasperation to her tone. “I’m sorry!” She squeezed the button in her pocket. Four solidly-built men came through the door from the outside world, surrounding the recalcitrant pair, almost in contact.
“Now, these nice, young, patriotic gentlemen can carry you through that door and finish dressing you, or you can simply do it yourselves, with many fewer black-and-blue marks.” Connors focused on Lucy, having written that last comment with her in mind.
Lucy turned to Bert, grabbing his sleeve. “Stop them. You can’t let them …”
Cheryl stood beside Connors, contemplating the rocket and its supporting gantry a mile from the cement bunker. Small, tilted windows of shatterproof glass provided the only light in the empty, low-ceilinged room. “I don’t see how you’ll get the media to look the other way when they can see the fight they’re putting up.”
Ms. Connors smiled, thinly. “Now, dearie, they’ll see what we want them to see. After that last derailment with the Lopez couple, I’ve rigged everything to go our way. All the rehearsals were filmed from multiple angles. Even their entry into the capsule and strapping in. Smiles and thumbs up! It was from a couple of years ago, but we fed it to the media in real time. It’s all so smooth. Now, you wouldn’t want SpaceY Corporation to look bad, would you?”
“Who agreed to that strong-arm stuff?”
“Oh, I laid it all out to Corporate before you came onboard, and they were only too happy to cover every contingency. You know, I don’t have an engineering degree, but engineers aren’t the only ones who have to think of everything.”
“What if they do all eight years, come back and blast us?”
Conners turned slightly. “I may not have a psychology degree, dearie, but I’ll be watching. And listening. It’s a dangerous trip and … well … who knows. If things go badly, we’ll make their statues for traffic circles in Washington. Glory will be theirs!”
Cheryl’s shocked reply was interrupted by a chirp in her earphone. “Uh, you’d better take this. Bert has unstrapped himself and is pounding on the window.”
Connors sighed. “That’s why the window faces the ocean and not the banks of photographers. Honestly, it’s been so hard to think of everything.” She grabbed a headset. “Hey Sam, give me two-way to the capsule.”
After a few quiet moments, her voice became stern. “Bert, get back in your seat and strap in.” Listening, then, “I know you don’t want to do what I say, but if you’re not strapped in the G-forces will smash you to blood stains before you’ve reached space. You may hate Lucy, but do you want to make her stomp around in your gore for eight years? Now, be a good boy and make the most of it. You’ll like her in time, anyway. It’s called propinquity!” She signed off with an emphatic click.
Connors stretched her arms upward and yawned, touching the low ceiling, almost mussing a few hairs. “I hope we don’t have to go to Plan T. That one upsets me so! And, its final proposal isn’t really finished. I may not be a lawyer, but I have to think of every argument against our work, and find a rebuttal. Paper work, paper work. My life is so hard!”
Turning briskly, and heading for the door, she let a small smile slip through, whispering, “It’s not like last time! Maybe I’ll get a statue in a traffic circle, too!” Then, louder, “Come on. I may not have a culinary degree, but I know when it’s time to chow down. You know, you seen one launch, you seen ’em all, but every lunch is great!”
Cheryl was frozen by the newly discovered horror of her position. She could go back to being an accountant in her father’s hardware store, or join her friend Pat at TechTok. How hard could it be to tell Connors face to face she wasn’t the manager’s kind of person, then tell the world what just happened?
However, she could envision the glamour of TV appearances, and an obscene salary. Learning at Connors’ side would pay off as she climbed corporate ladders and smashed glass ceilings. Propinquity!
“Are you coming?” Connors’ voice awakened her.
Cheryl smiled. She’d stick with the project until the Lancers were safely on their way, collect another year of prime cash, then denounce the project when she’d found the right landing spot. She twisted toward her mentor, grinning through thin lips. “I’m starving!”