“I’d be glad to consult from here, but I’m not the right person for that job. I can give you a few referrals of people who would be better suited.”
That wasn’t the reaction he expected. “You’re wrong. I had a chance to look over the other files. You’re the only person for this job. You’re the only one with the kind of stamina, talent, and sheer guts it will take to do this.”
Her expression was skeptical. “I’m sure it looks like that on paper—”
He let his frustration bleed through. “Look, they’ve spent months looking at linguists—we’ve been working with plenty of linguists already, on another, similar project—and none of them can match your level of natural ability and experience. Come on! You’re a goddamn living legend in your field—and you’re what? 35? Do you know what we’ve been calling you at NASA? We call you Indiana Jane.”
The smile snuck back, just for a second.
“Well, ok—I call you that—but it’s fucking true.”
She snorted softly and looked away.
He rolled his eyes. They’d warned him not to curse. “Sorry. You were right when you guessed I don’t spend much time around women.” He eyed her, and dropped the exasperation. But he couldn’t stop sounding perplexed. “I don’t understand—why wouldn’t you want to do this? You’ve already seen most of this planet, why not go see part of the solar system and an alien space ship, too? I mean, I’d expect you to be salivating to get into that rocket!”
“You are.” It was a flat statement, an observation.
“Are you going?”
He rubbed the back of his neck thoughtfully. “That depends.”
She shot him a shrewd, evaluating look. “On what?”
“There are five slots plus a linguist. They’ve got us narrowed down to twelve. That’s out of an original 108 possible astronauts. They’re still testing us, quizzing us, deciding. It’s down to the psychs now. The final decision will be soon. Then the training starts. We have a little over a year to get ready.”
He watched while a variety of expressions flickered over her momentarily unguarded features. Some, he couldn’t name. Some, he recognized. Indecision, for one. Longing, for another. She hid it quickly, but he’d seen it. She wanted it. She wanted to go.
He smiled at her, a slow, rakish smile, in recognition of a kindred spirit.
Her face went blank and she pushed by him. “I’m sorry you came all this way, Dr. Bergen. I won’t waste any more of your time. I’ll drive you back to your car and let you get back to your work. It sounds important.”
“What?” Damn it—he was chasing after her again and totally clueless about what was going on.
She didn’t reply. She was marching, fast, back toward the parking lot.
“Wait a minute!”
Heels and that skinny skirt weren’t made for the kind of flight she was trying to take on the gravelly path. She stumbled a bit and he caught her arm. She pulled herself upright and wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“What’s holding you back? You were born for this mission.”
She laughed without humor. Her golden-blonde hair was starting to unravel from its tidy arrangement.
He still had a hold on her arm. He squeezed it. “That little trip you took to South America took balls.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him.
He shrugged helplessly.
She shook her head and more hair came loose. “That wasn’t supposed to be me.”
She seemed steady now, so he dropped his hand away. “What? Your file doesn’t say anything about that.”
“I study endangered languages, yes, but mostly among the remnants of the native tribes of Canada. I wasn’t the one slated to go to Brazil three years ago. It was one of my students. She was the perfect candidate—excellent language skills, fearless, always ready for a challenge. But she turned up pregnant two weeks before she was due to leave. The project was funded. It was important work. It is so rare to find a tribe so untouched by the modern world. We knew that the things that could be learned there could potentially rock the foundations of what we thought we knew about how language forms in the human brain. We hoped it would—and it did—overturn entrenched ideas about recursion….” She stopped herself, probably realizing he didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.
Her lips were tight as she spoke, “She wanted to go anyway. She wanted to…. I couldn’t let her! The only way to keep her here, to keep her safe, was to go myself. That’s why I went. My hand was forced. So, I went. I—”