Chapter Nine: Beyond the Stars
Posted on 2010-01-26
The weeks passed by on Deimos Base with steady inevitability. Elizabeth had never been one for moping, so her more even-keeled character quickly reasserted itself and she pushed to the back of her mind all thoughts of Altair and her humiliating encounters there.
What details of that visit were more private than sightseeing and public figures she spoke of little, except to Jane. Soon after their return to Deimos, they had sat together in Elizabeth's room, huddled on the bunk, talking for most of the night.
Not wanting to begin with her own tale, Elizabeth had at first drawn out Jane's experience in London. Knowing as she did, she tried to convince Jane that hope was not lost for Bingley -- that searching him out, having their aunt and uncle do an archive search for his direction on one of the planets, might mean reuniting, at least for a brief contact. Perhaps he simply needed to see her again, she insisted.
But Jane was resigned, and the more Elizabeth pushed the more she was pushed back. Bingley's sisters had tried to warn her, Jane said, and she wasn't about to make things awkward for him by inflicting him with her presence and persistence.
"I'm all right, Lizzy," Jane said, her tone unhappy but laced with a hint of the Bennet stubbornness. "It just didn't work out. He obviously didn't feel the same for me as I felt for him, and this was his way of telling me. We are neither of us made for conflict."
So Elizabeth had retreated -- at least for now. Changing the subject, she shared the story of Darcy's proposal and its aftermath -- striking the parts that pertained to Bingley -- and revealed a portion of the tangle of emotions she had been battling ever since.
Jane had been surprised at Elizabeth's tale. It was natural, of course, that Darcy should have fallen in love with her sister -- who wouldn't? -- but to have proposed marriage! No, she didn't see it coming any more than Elizabeth had. But the revelation of Wickham's perfidy she could not reconcile at all.
"Perhaps there's more to the story than we know," Jane was saying as she pulled the blanket over her frigid toes. "We weren't there, of course, so we wouldn't know all the details. Maybe they just misunderstood each other. Or maybe someone else has deceived them both."
"But then we'd have to find some reason for this other person to have done so -- perhaps he had a bad childhood," Elizabeth said, laughing. "Oh, Jane, I do love you. You're absolutely ridiculous sometimes, the way you try to make everyone better than we are. I readily acknowledge you as much better than myself, who despises all people. But, no, even you're going to have to admit it -- Wickham is bad, Darcy good. At least in this instance. We'll judge them on a case-by-case basis."
Jane crossed her arms over her chest and tried to look hurt. "You can laugh at me all you want. But I will refrain from judging either."
"As you always do. But tell me," Elizabeth said, leaning forward and resting her chin on her fists, "should I tell anyone about what I've learned? Wickham is still on Deimos, you know. And though he has given up his pursuit of Mary King now that she's left base -- I'd like to think old Mr. King wised up about that -- he is still at large and potentially dangerous."
"Dangerous?" Jane echoed.
"Well, he is armed. And legged, last I saw him. And still in possession of that silver tongue that does all that mischief."
Jane gave her sister a look of resigned disgust. "Well, in my opinion, I don't think you should spread the story about Lieutenant Wickham," she said in response to the original question. "After all, it's quite possible he's reformed by now. And I don't think it right to destroy his chances here if he has. Besides, Mr. Darcy didn't say you could share the information -- and I would imagine he wouldn't want the parts relating to his sister to get out."
Elizabeth sighed. "That's what I had decided upon, as well. But I do have no wish to be around the man, now I know what he's capable of, and how little I can trust his word. I suppose the best we can do is simply ignore him and hope he disappears on his own."
But the resolution was more difficult that Elizabeth expected. She saw Wickham not infrequently around the base -- often, annoyingly, in the company of her two youngest sisters and other marines. There was nothing to make her uneasy there, other than the possibility of her sisters embarrassing themselves more than usual. Lydia and Kitty, though young and foolish, could in few ways tempt a man looking for easy money.
But Elizabeth did give a hint to the lieutenant on one occasion that she knew more of the story, when he forced her into the admission. She had been making a visit to the mining camp just north of the west end of the base, and, as she went through the halls of the office building, she came across Wickham, carrying samples between the labs located there. He hailed her and, with a smooth smile, asked how she was doing and what she'd been up to.
"Oh, not much," she replied. "Still trying to catch up on the work I'd missed while on my holiday to Altair."
"I've been meaning to ask -- how was that?" he said, setting his samples on a convenient ledge and leaning against the wall. "Did you have a chance to meet the famous Catherine DeBourgh?"
Elizabeth smiled. "I did, and her daughter, too. Actually, I had the chance to meet even more of that extended family while I was there -- Mr. Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam were also visiting."
Luckily for Wickham, he had set down his dust samples a moment before; otherwise they might have suffered a fate similar to that of the folder he was holding. "And, uh, how is the colonel?" he asked as he collected his assorted paperwork from the floor. "I've met him ... a few times."
"He was doing very well. He was a very nice man, very polite and friendly. Different in some respects from his cousin, but in other ways very similar. His sense of honor and loyalty, for instance."
"So you spent some time with the colonel, I take it."
"With both of them, actually -- both the colonel and Mr. Darcy."
Wickham's smiled cynically. "And how was that? I can't imagine hanging out with Darcy would be much fun."
"No, my encounters with Mr. Darcy weren't at all what you might call 'fun,'" Elizabeth said, a small smile crossing her lips. She hesitated significantly before adding, "But I do think he improves on further acquaintance."
His brows rose and his cheeks flushed faintly. "Ah! So--" he broke off, cleared his throat and asked, a forced smile on his face, "So Darcy improves. Has he learned finally to be a little more polite? Less condescending? I can't possibly hope he's reformed his entire character."
"Oh, no," she said placidly, "he's essentially the same man he ever was."
A slight frown of confusion creased his forehead, and he looked at her penetratingly, as if in hopes of discerning the meaning behind her words. She smiled and clarified: "I didn't mean to imply that either Mr. Darcy's mind or manners have in any way changed. Rather, I meant that getting to know him better helped me understand a little more why he is the way he is."
He nodded, more to himself than to her, and his expression grew thoughtful. After a moment, he recollected himself and said, "Well, I suppose I can only rejoice Darcy's finally learned to at least assume the appearance of what is right. You of all people, who know the back story, would appreciate that. And even if it can't help me any longer, at least others might benefit from not suffering the same offense from him that I've experienced. But I would be careful," he added, lowering his voice and glancing up and down the hallway, "in assuming that it's any more than a surface change. After all, he might have only been on his best behavior for the benefit of his aunt and cousin Anne, to further his interests in that respect."
Elizabeth did her best not to laugh, but when he looked as if he meant to say more on the subject, she hastened to say that she was just in the area to pick up some paperwork from the chief mining controller at the site. A look of consternation passed briefly over his face, but he merely smiled and picked up his samples again.
"If I don't see you before we leave, then," Wickham said as he began to edge away, "it was a pleasure to get to know you -- and your sisters, of course."
"Oh!" Elizabeth asked, surprised out of her disinclination to continue their conversation. "Where are you going?"
He cocked his head slightly. "Have you not heard about the marine corps shift to the base at Capella?"
"Well, I had," she admitted. "I got the majority of the paperwork for it a few days ago. It's going to be a rough few days with all of the out-flights. But it's only about two-thirds of the troops. I hadn't heard you would be going with them."
He shrugged. "The testing modules we've set up are now operating correctly, so excepting any major breakdowns, I'm finished on this moon. I only had a nine-month stint here, anyway."
"I hadn't realized," she murmured, then added: "Capella is apparently a wonderful planet. Will you be on the moon there, or will you be stationed with the rest of the corps in New Brighton?"
"In New Brighton," Wickham replied. "Any of our work will be done in day trips up to the moon. They haven't got the facilities necessary for the studies lunarside."
"Ah." Elizabeth here felt at a loss for anything to say, and stared rather stupidly at him for a moment or two. The clichéd phrases trotted through her head: she didn't wish him the best, she certainly wouldn't miss him here, and parting was by no means sweet sorrow. "Well, uh, good luck."
Wickham accepted the grudgingly offered blessing with grace, murmuring something to the effect that he would miss his time on Deimos. Elizabeth smiled as genially as she could, and they each went their separate ways. Neither party was dissatisfied with leaving the other behind.
Elizabeth was more than happy to hear that the majority of the marines would be leaving Deimos for the training camp being held at New Brighton. It was a six-week supplementary training and re-evaluation event held every ten years at one of the major marine bases to which all marines would attend, leaving only a skeleton crew on board each base around the universe. Though she felt a bit of pity for the New Brightonites who would suddenly have hundreds of thousands of space marines invading their home city, she was more than happy to have them go from Deimos, at least for a short time. Perhaps her sisters would get over their obsession sooner in the absence of red coats.
But even that was not meant to be, for upon sitting down at the table for the Bennets' weekly family dinner Elizabeth soon discovered that Lydia had been invited to go to New Brighton for the camp.
"What, did you suddenly join up with the marines?" she asked dryly as she cut through her tofuloaf.
"No," Lydia retorted. "Cyndi Foster wants me to go with her. Her husband -- the colonel -- is going to be busy every day with training, and she said she'd be too bored with all the rest of the officers' stuffy wives, so she said I could come and we'd go out shopping and to parties and the theatre, and--"
"Wait -- you're going all by yourself to New Brighton?" Elizabeth looked questioningly at her father, who refused to meet her eyes.
"Of course not," her mother put in. "She's going with the colonel's wife. Such a sensible and elegant young woman she is. I'm sure Lydia will have a wonderful time with her."
"A wonderful time going shopping and to parties?" Mary scoffed. "The only good thing about New Brighton is their archaeology museum."
Lydia made a face.
"Ah, what I would give to go to New Brighton, myself," Mrs. Bennet said. "I haven't been sea-bathing in ages, it seems. Not since our honeymoon -- do you remember that, dear?"
Mr. Bennet barely contained his own expression.
"I don't see why Cyndi should have asked Lydia to go," Kitty groused, sulking at her plate. "She's been friends with both of us for just as long -- and I'm two years older!"
"Ha, ha," Lydia gloated.
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at her father, but he continued to eat his dinner in silence. He studiously ignored the rest of the table as the meal progressed, but his indifference was belied by the occasional smirk that emerged when Kitty and Lydia's arguments or his wife's wistful nostalgia about marine camps and red coats went to its silliest extremes.
Not one to be daunted, Elizabeth followed him to his office after dinner. "Are you seriously considering letting Lydia go to Capella?" she asked after the door had closed. "Are you nuts?"
"Some might argue so," her father replied, settling himself in his chair with a sigh. "But, then, others would say that if I don't let her go, either I am already or I'd be driven that way soon."
Elizabeth was not in the humor. "This is no laughing matter," she said, folding her arms across her chest. "Lydia is an incredibly willful, untamed child. She's uncontrollable, and shows no inclination to change. She has to learn to behave herself or she'll embarrass us all -- but she won't learn to behave without proper supervision, and she's not going to get that in New Brighton. Sending her there and expecting her to behave would be like putting a kid in a candy shop and telling her to not to touch anything."
"Nonsense," her father murmured.
"It is not," Elizabeth said, coming forward to lean on the desk. "Nonsense would be letting her ruin our good name by sending her off to New Brighton." When her father merely shook his head, Elizabeth burst out with a curse, running her hand through her hair in agitation. "Why can't you see this, Dad? Lydia and Kitty are far from being children anymore, and their lack of discipline and manners reflects on us all. If we fail to teach them now, they will become the most unmanageable and determined sl--" she broke off at her father's raised brows and continued more temperately, though still intensely: "... flirts in the universe. No one will want to associate with us, be tied to a family such as ours, to a pair of sister-in-laws like them! If you only knew what problems their behavior has led to--"
"What," her father scoffed good-naturedly, "has she scared off a suitor for your hand?" He watched as Elizabeth cheeks paled slightly and her expression harden at his words, and paused before saying, "Oh, come now, a man who couldn't take a little silliness isn't worth your salt."
She shook her head, turning away slightly. "I didn't mean anything of the kind. I was speaking hypothetically. In general terms."
Mr. Bennet removed his glasses and cleaned them gently with the edge of his shirt. When he put them back on he said softly, "I understand your concerns, my dear. But I think you're worrying too much about what is unlikely to come to pass. Lydia will go to New Brighton, she'll act in her usual silly manner, and she'll come home, none the worse for wear. If she doesn't go, we'll have no peace. And while you may be leaving in a tennight to go gadding about the universe, the rest of us will be here, and we'd would rather not have to listen to her whine for the next month and a half."
Elizabeth had her reservations about whether that justified accepting the invitation, but she recognized a losing battle when she saw one. Nothing she could say on the subject would move her father if he believed he was right. And while he might listen to her arguments, he would more than likely merely mock them in his turn and continue on as he saw fit in the end, anyway.
So the invitation was accepted, and for the next week they heard about nothing except Lydia's plans for her time in New Brighton and Kitty's continued moping about not being able to go along.
But for once Elizabeth welcomed the family drama, as it was enough to distract her from other thoughts -- particularly, her recent visit to Altair. As time passed, the memories of Altair and her embarrassment there had grown less and less painful, but they still found their way into her thoughts occasionally. She was now able to look on the whole experience as a mistake -- as a regrettable error, though surely inevitable -- but there was no credit to be gained from dwelling on it, so to move on with her life she forgot it as best as she possibly could.
She certainly tried not to think about Mr. Darcy -- or as rarely as she could manage. There was surely no reason to think about him; her opinions of him had not changed overmuch -- or, at least, not changed much to the positive. Perhaps she was less angry with him than before. After all, as she pushed thoughts of her own errors to the back of her mind, she had pushed thoughts of his there, as well. But while she may have hated him less, it did not necessarily follow that she loved him more.
Despite these avowals, however, her thoughts, when not busy with other tasks, often drifted to him. In those moments when her mind wandered she reviewed all of their interactions and all of his words to her. She recalled the looks he often bent in her direction, and began to see them for what they were, began to recognize his reticence, his hesitance, his insistence. She hadn't been blind, as she had thought before -- she had been blinkered. She had colored her view of him, had filtered their interactions through the lens of her dislike. Everything she had hated about him had become saturated; everything that might have pointed to anything positive had come through muted, or not at all.
And it was inevitable she would think of him first when she heard the news from her aunt, four days before their proposed tour of the planets, as the marines were shipping out to Capella. They had to curtail their plans, the note read, starting later due to several problems that cropped up in her uncle's business and avoiding one planet altogether due to virus outbreaks and their associated quarantine regulations. As Elizabeth had so recently visited Altair, they could easily eliminate that planet from their itinerary and focus instead on a brief stop at Vega and then take the majority of their tour on Procyon, where Mrs. Gardiner had been raised. What did she think?
Elizabeth hadn't the heart to object and, indeed, had no intention of revealing her reservations about spending so much time on Mr. Darcy's host planet. Why should she? There was little likelihood of them meeting. Unlike on Altair, where she was being hosted by his aunt, there was here no connection between them. And surely he would be more often at Pemberley, if he were there at all. No, she had little fear of running into Mr. Darcy.
But she did draw the line at visiting his moon base, as she repeatedly told her aunt as they toured Vega.
"Oh, but why not, Lizzy? Surely you'd want to see such a universally renowned base and one of which you've heard so much," Mrs. Gardiner said with a good-natured smile.
Elizabeth hesitated. "I wouldn't want to intrude," she said at last. "Pemberley may be the primary outpost for the Procyon system, but it's still owned exclusively by the Darcys and is mostly a home for them."
"What is this, then?" Mr. Gardiner asked, gesturing around him at the Vegan moon they were touring. "You certainly had no qualms about us coming here to tour this base, and it is almost exclusively the home of the Vegan president. And you certainly didn't say anything about any of those stately homes we just went through downside."
Sensing she couldn't win the conversation, Elizabeth changed the subject. But it came up again when they arrived on Procyon and checked into their hotel.
"We could go to the tourism office this afternoon and check out how much it would cost to visit the moon," Mrs. Gardiner said as she and Elizabeth loaded their luggage onto the trolley while Mr. Gardiner filled in the paperwork at the desk.
"I don't know, Aunt," Elizabeth said with a sigh. "I still feel a bit intrusive about the whole thing. I just think it would be awkward for me -- for us -- to be walking about while the Darcys were at home."
"Oh, they're not there," said the hotel clerk, who was standing idle as she waited for Mr. Gardiner to sign in the register. "The Darcys are always gone to Vega this time of year. I think they have family there."
Vega! Good gads, she might have run into him there, Elizabeth thought with a huge sigh of relief. She was about to reconsider and tell her aunt that they could probably visit Pemberley in the Darcys' absence, when the clerk continued: "I heard they're all coming back in two days, though, for the big party they're hosting for the new ship."
"What new ship?" Mrs. Gardiner asked.
The clerk looked at her as if she had asked why the sky was green. "The ship that's going to Alpha Centauri," she replied. "They just finished work on it, so they're having a huge party with all the sponsors and major dignitaries and everybody."
"Oh, so it's finished, then!" Mr. Gardiner said. "I've got a few lenses on that ship, you know, Lizzy."
"But the family is gone for today and tomorrow," Elizabeth repeated to the clerk. "You're sure about that?"
"Oh, yeah," the young woman replied with a nod. She gestured to the stack of Universal Tribunes on the desk beside the register. "There's a thing about a big event on Vega tomorrow night that the Darcys are expected to attend, so I can't see how they could possibly be here until the next morning."
Elizabeth nodded and thanked the clerk, and she and the Gardiners set off for their suite. "Well?" Mrs. Gardiner asked her niece as they ascended the elevator.
"I suppose we could go," Elizabeth replied, her lips curving into a smile. "But only either today or tomorrow."
That evening, it turned out, was already booked by a dinner with Mrs. Gardiner's family, so the following morning was set for their voyage to the moon. Elizabeth couldn't quell the nervousness she felt about the trip, and spent a restless night thinking about Darcy, about her refusal of his proposal, and about how lucky she had been to avoid him by only a day.
In the morning, her stomach had not yet settled and she pondered for a few minutes the possibility of asking her aunt to cancel the trip. But the action seemed extreme, and she had no wish to explain all the circumstances. So she ate her breakfast with a smile, laughed at her uncle's jokes about space travel, and wiped the sweat from her brow when the door was closed on her shuttle pod. She was calm; she was cool; she was nervous as hell.
Her first glimpse of Pemberley did nothing to make her feel better. As her pod opened and she was greeted by the yeoman on duty in the pod bay, Elizabeth breathed in and was amazed at the freshness of the air around her. It was clean and sweet, nothing like the usual sterile base smell. Instead, it was planet-like, a hint of organics -- not surprising, she thought as she looked around the pod bay and noticed the greenery that lined the walls and sat in pots on the floors.
"It's nice, isn't it?' said the yeoman, noting her gaze. "I've been to a lot of bases, and most of 'em have their green stuff in the hydroponics room and let the filtrators do the work of cleaning the air. It might take a lot more work to do it this way, but it puts less of a load on the equipment and, I think, makes the base a bit more like home."
"Like home?" Elizabeth echoed. "Where are you from?"
"Downside. I still live there, in fact. This is just a day job."
Elizabeth was surprised. "Oh, really? You mean you don't live here on base?"
The yeoman shook his head as he closed the door on the pod and made a note on his board. "No. A lot of us don't. We take the shuttle down to Procyon at the end of the day to be with our families. The Darcys have always let staff do that -- decide whether they want to live up here or on the planet. It's easier, really, to live here, since you don't have the commute, but some of us just can't get used to base living. And we don't have to pay for the shuttle, either, which is nice."
"That has to be expensive for the Darcys," she replied.
He shrugged. "It probably is. I never looked into it. But Mr. Darcy once told us that he believed it was a part of being a good employer, to make sure his people lived well, so I think it's just one of those things."
"That's very commendable of Mr. Darcy," said Mrs. Gardiner, who with her husband had come around the pod to join Elizabeth.
"Oh, it is," the yeoman said with an emphatic nod. "He's the best employer I've ever had, without a doubt. I was blessed to get this job, and, yeah, sometimes it can get stressful, but I've never had a day that I regretted it. What they say about this base -- it really is the greatest base in the universe, and we have Mr. Darcy to thank for that."
And then, tipping his hat respectfully, he excused himself to continue on with the rest of his work. The Gardiners and Elizabeth moved off towards the visitor's office to get their badges and guide, and, as they did so, Mrs. Gardiner leaned in towards her niece and commented, "Quite a different perspective on Mr. Darcy, wasn't that? From what you had told us about him before, I'm surprised."
"Well, perhaps we were mistaken."
Mrs. Gardiner smiled. "How likely is that, though?"
As she would soon discover, very likely. Throughout the tour, the visitors were repeatedly confronted by proof of Mr. Darcy's admirable character, both in the evidence offered by the words of their tour guide, Mrs. Reynolds, and other workers they passed in the hallways, as well as the more subtle evidence suggested by his home and the care he had given towards its upkeep and his staff's comfort.
At every new piece of evidence, Elizabeth found herself struggling with a bewildering mix of both discomfort and pride. Discomfort that perhaps she had been so mistaken in Darcy's character and had wounded him so much with her thoughtless words, but pride in him, in someone who at one time, at least, had loved her. She looked around at the base with new eyes, though every step was tinged with the regret that, had she chosen differently, this would be her home.
At one point in the tour, they were passing down a hallway when Elizabeth, casting her eyes on an open doorway, had the breath taken out of her. She stopped in awe, amazed and disbelieving her sight, and stepped through into the room, gazing in wonder at the open space revealed by the floor-to-ceiling window. She went to stand before the thick, transparent wall, placing her hand against it and gazing out at the stars that shone in the inky blackness of space. For a while she just stood there, soaking it all in, feeling the wonderful openness of the universe as if there were no wall between her and the vacuum.
She couldn't imagine how much it had cost to construct such a room, but to have the ability to sit and soak in the beauty of space was, without a doubt in her mind, worth it. She felt a strong sense of envy sweep through her for Darcy and for everyone on the base, that they had such an incredible opportunity here, without ever leaving the base's confines, to experience the overwhelming majesty of the unknown.
"So beautiful," she said aloud, her breath creating a small circle of fog.
Elizabeth turned, her heart leaping into her throat as she flattened herself against the wall in shock. There, in the doorway, stood Darcy. When she turned, he stepped backwards, surprise filling his face as his cheeks colored.
"Mr. Darcy!" she said, ungluing her hand from the wall and pressing it to her chest as if she could by force still the rapid tattoo of her heart.
"Elizabeth," he replied, his voice no less affected than hers. "It is you."
They stared at each other for the longest moment before both made to speak at once. Darcy stopped and gestured for her to speak first.
"I'm so sorry to have intruded," she said hastily, embarrassed by the situation. "I was -- we were on a tour, and I just happened to look in. I had no idea -- that is, I thought you were on Vega."
He stared for a moment more before at last turned his gaze away and shifted uncomfortably. "I was. We were visiting my uncle and aunt -- Richard's parents. I just returned."
"But I thought there was a party tonight. You weren't supposed to be back until tomorrow." Elizabeth blushed at the amused look he turned her way. "It was in the Tribune," she finished lamely.
He nodded. "The party just finished a few hours ago, actually. And it was, indeed, tonight -- Vegan time, that is. I, uh, headed out immediately afterward."
"So, what brings you to Pemberley?" he asked, the awkwardness of his question seeming to hang in the air after he spoke.
"Just visiting," Elizabeth said uncomfortably. "We're staying on Procyon for a few weeks -- my aunt grew up there -- and we thought we might come up and take a tour. I've always heard it described as the best base in the universe, and I didn't think we'd be intruding..."
"You're not in the least. I hope--" He paused, seemed to decide against what he was going to say, and then said, "You mentioned your aunt. You're traveling with family, then?"
"Yes -- my aunt and uncle Gardiner. They live on Earth."
He smiled. "I would be happy to meet them. Are they here?" Surprised by his request, Elizabeth could only nod dumbly. He waited a moment, then asked, "Do you know ... where?
"Oh!" she said, a short laugh escaping her lips at her stupidity. "No -- actually, I don't. We were on the tour, and I just stepped in here -- I don't even know how long I've been in here -- and I think they might have kept going..."
His smile widened and he offered his arm. "Then shall we go find them?"
Elizabeth hesitated, still unsure and a bit confused by his behavior. If truth be told, she wanted more than to simply take his arm. Ever since the Social Hygiene Code of the early century, interpersonal contact had been so rare, and that rarity made it something more than common. For someone who had grown up in this era, touch was foreign, but not undesired. Elizabeth felt a strong urge to be close to him -- but how could he, who had been so rejected by her, feel the same?
When she didn't accept his escort, his smile faltered slightly and then froze. But Elizabeth didn't notice, wrapped up as she was in her own internal struggle. At last, as if shaking off a dream, she suddenly came forward and accepted his arm, sliding her own through his. She heard his sigh of relief, and when he pulled her arm closer to him slightly as they went out the door and into the hall, she looked up at him with a question in her eyes.
He didn't answer it. Instead, he began to ask about her time on Procyon, what she had done so far, where they were planning to go. She described the dinner the night before with her aunt's family and spoke of their plans on visiting some of the major landmarks around the planet. He, in turn, suggested a few things to do around the planet, and the best times to do them.
"And if you have some time free in the next few days," Darcy said, his voice betraying his hesitance, "I would be pleased to introduce my sister to you."
"I would very much enjoy that," Elizabeth replied, once she had gotten over the surprise and pleasure she felt at such a request.
"She will be arriving here tonight, but perhaps I might bring her by in the morning. We are expecting a large party for the Alpha Centauri ship inauguration, but we should be able to slip away for a time."
"I wouldn't want you to go to any trouble."
He stopped and turned to face her, taking both of her hands in his. "It would be my pleasure."
They stood there for a moment, face to face, hand in hand, the heat of their contact shared easily through their gloves, neither saying a word. Elizabeth was trapped by her emotions, uncertain of his meaning or of her own desires. When his eyes went to her lips, she licked them nervously. With a low sound deep in his throat, his head descended as if to kiss her. She closed her eyes, tipping her lips up to receive his.
But nothing happened, and a moment later she was abruptly bereft. She opened her eyes to find he had stepped back, and he released her hands, his demeanor uncomfortable.
"There is -- you will actually know a few of the members of the party arriving here tomorrow morning: Bingley and his sisters."
"Oh." She stepped back, as well, her hand coming up to rub her upper arm.
"Elizabeth--" he began, but whatever he intended to say was left unspoken as she was suddenly hailed by her aunt. The Gardiners and their tour guide had just come around the corner at the far end of the hallway, and were walking towards them when they stopped short in surprise.
"Well, now's as good a time as any," she murmured and approached the small group, Darcy following a few steps behind. She noticed the look of interest on her relative's faces and the shock on that of the tour guide. "Aunt, Uncle, this is Mr. Darcy, who I met a while back on Deimos," she said. She turned to Darcy, who had a small smile hovering about his lips, and said, "Mr. Darcy, this is my aunt and uncle, Lorelei and Adam Gardiner. The Gardiners live on Earth."
"I'm very pleased to meet you," Mr. Darcy said, offering his hand. "I hope you've enjoyed your visit to Pemberley so far."
"Very much, sir," Mr. Gardiner said, taking the proffered hand and clasping it with genuine pleasure. "Your base is truly magnificent. We were just on our way to see the observatory. I understand you have one of the largest telescopes this side of Earth."
Darcy smiled. "Indeed. We often have visiting scholars staying here on base, as this telescope provides a bit longer of a reach in the direction of several systems of interest than from the Earth observatory. Are you an astronomer or an enthusiast?"
"My husband's company produces glass lenses," Mrs. Gardiner said, spousal pride clear in her voice.
"Though for nothing so large as your telescope, Mr. Darcy," Mr. Gardiner added humbly. "We work primarily with expeditionary probes and off-base remote telescopes."
Darcy's smile widened. "Ah! Are you, by chance, the Adam Gardiner of Gardiner and Sons Telescopics of Gracechurch Street, then? We worked with the firm to get the lenses for the probes on the Alpha Centauri ship." When Mr. Gardiner, with a pleased expression, admitted it was his company, Darcy said, "Then I shall ensure you get an invitation to the small soiree that will be held on the ship tomorrow. We're inaugurating it before its send-off two weeks from now, and have invited some of the dignitaries from around the universe to attend. It would be an honor to have one of the people who made this happen -- from the specialty-manufacturing standpoint -- present. All three of you are most welcome."
The Gardiners, in that mysterious method of communication shared by long-married couples everywhere, conducted a silent conversation on the issue. When they came to a conclusion, Mr. Gardiner turned again to Darcy and, thanking him, accepted the invitation. Darcy, with a pleased expression on his face, then suggested that he show them the telescope, politely asking the tour guide to lead the way. As they proceeded down the hallway, with Mrs. Reynolds pointing out items of interest and Darcy chiming in every so often, Elizabeth hung back from the group, watching.
She could not begin to understand the change that had come over Darcy. True, she had never thought she knew him very well, but here his behavior seemed to fit none of the previous norms. He spoke -- and frequently, too, and in sentences longer than five words, and to people he had never met before in his life and no doubt (if his words during his proposal were anything to go by) he thought far beneath him. He was polite, and actually willing to be a part of the company. And strangest of all, he was smiling -- she could perhaps count on one hand the number of times that expression had ever crossed his face during their whole acquaintance. Was this truly the Darcy she had known before, or had a rather clueless alien taken over his body sometime in the past few months?
A giggle escaped her lips at the thought. Darcy turned, hearing the sound, and smiled again in her direction. This, of course, was simply too much, and Elizabeth burst out laughing, drawing the astonished gazes of the rest of the party. "I'm sorry," she said, containing her laughter slightly, though it still came out in gasps. "I just -- um, need some water."
Darcy immediately offered to show her to the kitchens, which were close, and then join the others at the telescope. Not wanting to admit she had lied, Elizabeth agreed.
The kitchens were down one level, and as they stood together in the elevator, the memory of the last time they were together in such an enclosed space came to Elizabeth's mind and she blushed, avoiding his eyes. She really was not completely sure what devil inside her had agreed to this, but she now thought that it might have been the worst decision she had made as of yet. The awkward silence, luckily, was not long. As they arrived at the correct floor, the doors slid open with a low hiss that covered the sound of Elizabeth's sigh of relief.
He showed her into the kitchens, which were busy with activity, and showed a casual familiarity with the scene as he greeted several of the staff by name and unerringly found the correct cabinet with glassware. He filled the glass with water and handed it to her.
As she took a sip, she looked at him over the rim. He was gazing at her with that same, silent regard she had always seen on his face. The same look she had always attributed to his dislike, but had since his proposal recognized it to have been a look of admiration. So why that expression now? He couldn't possibly have feelings for her, after she had crushed his so handily those few months ago. She looked away nervously, her hands trembling on the glass.
They were silent for a few minutes, as Elizabeth agitatedly gulped down the water she had been given. The bustle continued around them, pans and pots being banged on stoves and countertops, chefs calling out to each other, and the slicing and clinking of silverware and cutlery. She thought again that this was perhaps one of the worst ideas she had ever had, unintentional though it was. But she couldn't think of a way to ask to be taken back to her aunt and uncle without seeming abrupt and rude.
And then he stepped closer, his posture hesitant, and he set his hand close to her on the countertop on which she leaned her hip. His gaze met hers, and he said softly, his voice almost lost among the din surrounding them, "You know, I learned, long ago, that all you ever really need to know to understand the world are the laws that describe how things change and where something started. You could be talking about an apple in a tree or the universe when it began, but it's all the same." He paused and tilted his head up and away, as if looking for inspiration in the pots and skillets hanging above their heads. After a moment, he looked back at her, his words coming out on a sigh: "But here -- I'm lost. I know where we started, but I have no idea how things are supposed to change. Or if they can."
Elizabeth's breath caught, and her hands tightened on the glass.
"Elizabeth," he began, but was interrupted by one of the chefs calling his name. He turned to the man with a small sigh.
"I'm sorry, sir," the man said, reading the expression on his employer's face and sensing his faux pas. "I didn't realize I was interrupting. This can wait. It's just a problem with the menu for the banquet."
But Mr. Darcy waved away the man's apologies and, excusing himself from Elizabeth, went to deal with the trouble. Only a few minutes later, the man went away smiling and Darcy came back to Elizabeth, who was still clutching her empty glass. He took it from her hands with a smile and, setting it on the counter with other dirty dishware, asked if she was ready to rejoin the tour. "I'm certainly only going to be interrupted with more work if we stay here," he said.
But the path to the telescope seemed to be as strewn with problems, for no sooner were they in the elevator than a man came running up with something for Mr. Darcy to sign, and when they got out a woman spotted him and immediately came over with a request for his approval on one of the speakers at the Alpha Centauri banquet. Darcy pressed his bare thumb to the bottom of the form as they walked, asking, "Where is Mr. Lyons?"
"Downside, sir," the woman said as she flipped through the pages in the device. "There were some mix-ups with one of the shipments from the mines."
Darcy nodded, and said that any other work would have to wait until he could get back to his office. "Let's just put it out that I'm not officially back for another hour," he said, pausing in their progress down the hall. "Then we'll deal with the rest of this. Can you let Damia know?"
She assured him she could and departed the way they had come. Darcy turned again to Elizabeth and offered her his arm. She took it this time without hesitation, and they proceeded to the telescope. Mrs. Gardiner turned with a smile when they entered the large area. Mr. Gardiner was busy peering into the eyepiece and speaking with one of the scientists.
Darcy and Elizabeth approached the telescope, and Mr. Gardiner turned to greet them. "Absolutely amazing, Mr. Darcy," he said, shaking his head. "The construction on this is impeccable."
"Thank you; we are quite naturally proud of it," Darcy said with a smile. He turned to Elizabeth. "Miss Bennet, would you care to take a look? I could set up some coordinates."
He typed in a set of instructions for the telescope, and the great machine whirred to life, shifting its position. Elizabeth set her eyes to the tiny window. After a moment of gazing at the visual, adjusting the focus, she let out a gasp. "Why, it's Deimos!" she said, the love she had for her home evident in her voice. She looked over at Darcy, who had remained standing behind the input. A small smile creased his lips. "I so rarely have a chance to see it from this perspective. But it's without a doubt our moon -- I can even see the base on the south end."
Mr. Gardiner here asked Darcy a question about the input and the mechanism by which the telescope moved, and Elizabeth returned to the eyepiece. A moment later she offered her place to her aunt and stepped aside. She turned her gaze to her uncle and Mr. Darcy, who were chatting comfortably about various telescope firms and common places of interest on Earth.
"He's a very nice young man," Mrs. Gardiner said in a low voice to her niece. Elizabeth looked over at her aunt, who had, after looking briefly into the telescope, been watching her watch Darcy. "I will own that I still am surprised at the difference in attitude between your description of him and how friendly and at ease he seems. To be honest, there is a bit of a more conservative, stately aspect about him, but I agree with Mrs. Reynolds -- he's perfectly charming and, for a rich man with such an impressive base and companies to run, has no improper pride. Why did you describe him as disagreeable?"
Elizabeth felt herself flushing with embarrassment and stuttered out something about how she'd never seen him act like this. A small smile curved Mrs. Gardiner's lips, but she merely nodded and said, "Well, perhaps it's all a whim, after all. Rich men can afford to be moody -- I believe they call it 'eccentric.' I suppose we shouldn't plan on going to the Alpha Centauri celebration, after all."
The expression on her aunt's face could have meant anything, so Elizabeth merely murmured that she was sure they could trust on Mr. Darcy's word.
"Ah, but not according to Mr. Wickham, if you recall," her aunt said, and Elizabeth glanced around nervously, grateful her aunt was speaking in a low tone. No one seemed to take note of their conversation.
"Yes, well, I believe there we may have been deceived," Elizabeth said in a hurried whisper. She then explained some of the circumstances surrounding Wickham and Darcy, never giving her source and concealing some of the more revealing details. Her aunt's brow shot up, but she did no more than murmur, "Indeed. My, my."
They were silent after this, each in their own thoughts, until they were called to the present by Mr. Darcy, who regretfully explained that he had to return to his work, which had been delayed some days by his presence on Vega. As the Gardiners and Elizabeth were expected back on Procyon, and as they had already seen the majority of the public areas of the base, Mrs. Gardiner quickly assured him that they were very grateful for his giving them so much of his time and that they needed to be on their way as well. He offered to escort them back to the pod bay.
As they were being helped into their seats, Darcy recalled to Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner that he would send them an invitation to the grand gala, and that he was looking forward to seeing them at the event. "And I hope, as I expressed to Miss Bennet earlier," Darcy said, taking Elizabeth's hand to help her into the pod, "to be able to stop by your hotel with my sister some time tomorrow. She would be honored to make your acquaintance."
The Gardiners declared themselves delighted, and the pod doors were shut, and a few minutes later they were transported down to the planet. But Elizabeth could not shake the last look she had seen on Darcy's face, just before he had closed the door. And, if she were honest, she didn't want to.
Chapter Ten: The Fifth Element
Posted on 2010-02-02
Darcy arose early after a restless night, unable to sleep. His dreams had been confusing, disturbed by his encounter with Elizabeth Bennet earlier that day. At last, sometime after four-hour, he got out of his bed and, putting on a robe and slippers over his pyjamas, padded across his suite of rooms to the door on the far side of his library. Taking a deep breath, he put his hand on the sensor and the panel opened, revealing the room where he had found Elizabeth the day before.
The base, at this time of the moon's rotation, was facing outwards towards the darkness of space -- and towards the Sol system, he knew. Settling into one of the comfortable chairs that were scattered around the room, he gazed out into the star-speckled darkness, naming the stars and finding, with unerring instinct, the one around which Elizabeth most often revolved.
But she was here now. Not here, at Pemberley, where he had been imagining her for months, but only a few hundred miles away on Procyon. She had seen his home. She had come here, stood only a few feet from where he was sitting now. And yet it seemed he was as far from her as he'd been before.
He rubbed his eyes tiredly. He didn't know where to start. The gulf between them was as wide as ever, and he had no idea how to bridge it. He had tried today -- he had done his best to be charming and pleasant and polite. It had been easy, especially for her, but even more so because he had truly enjoyed talking with her relations. They were intelligent and witty and well mannered. They were better people than some of those that drifted in his own circles, he acknowledged.
But he had no idea if it had made any difference, if her smiles had only been politeness, if her awkward nervousness was because of regret or something else. She had shattered his belief in his own strong judgment; he had thought, when they were on Deimos, when they were on Altair at first, that she was coming to care for him. He had sensed a connection, but in his naïveté had failed to test whether it was anionic or cationic -- and he was shocked when he found he'd crossed the wires.
Darcy grimaced at the metaphor. It was getting worse, he thought with a sigh; he was becoming disgustingly elegiac. The past few months he hadn't been able to stop thinking about her, about his mistake, about what he had lost before he'd had anything at all. He'd pictured her across from him at the table at breakfast, had imagined her in the lab, laughing with his sister, in his bed. He couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, couldn't get any work done. Even his sister had noticed something was wrong. He smiled to himself, imagining what her expression would be when he told her who was here on Procyon. He knew, with the number of times he couldn't help mentioning her name, that Georgiana suspected. But she would never dare say.
He sighed again and settled more deeply into the chair. What he had said to Elizabeth that morning was the absolute truth -- he didn't know where to go from here. But what he had tried to say, what he had meant to say if he could only have had the chance, was that he wanted to try. He wanted to know if she were willing to try. He wanted her to learn to love him. Because he wasn't going to stop loving her.
Darcy awoke what seemed to be a moment later to find Georgiana sitting across from him in a chair she had pulled over. He looked beyond her to see that the shield had long since closed over the wall -- so a good number of hours must have passed, for the base to be now facing the sun. And if Georgiana were already here...
"I'm so sorry I missed your flight," he said regretfully, sitting up and pulling his robe tighter. "I was going to meet you, but I fell asleep out here--"
She smiled softly. "Good morning to you, too, Captain Obvious."
He grimaced, running a hand through his disheveled hair. "Good morning. I guess I'm a bit tired yet."
"Well, you're lucky it was I who found you instead of, oh, I don't know ... Miss Bingley," she said with a mischievous twinkle Darcy was happy to see.
He glanced over his shoulder at the -- thankfully -- empty doorway, then shuddered. "Very lucky."
"So what made you fall asleep out here? Mooning over a particular ... moon?"
Darcy narrowed his eyes. "And since when have you become so cheeky?"
Her smile faltered slightly, but when she saw the twitch of his lips, it returned in full force. "Since you left me to deal with Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst all by myself. They arrived only an hour before me, and when you didn't meet them and they couldn't find you..." She cocked her head to the side. "Something must have happened. You haven't teased me like that -- you haven't smiled like that in a long time."
"You've become very perceptive. I hope to see that reflected in your experiments soon."
She pursed her lips. "I do too, but you're avoiding the question."
"I don't recall a question," he said, but then laughed when she punched him lightly in the arm. "OK, so I met someone yesterday."
"Oh," Georgiana said, her voice falling slightly.
"She was taking a tour here with her aunt and uncle."
"Oh," she repeated, sounding even more disappointed. She bit her lip, thinking. "So it's not ... I thought maybe ... is she nice?"
"Nice? Sometimes. Most of the time. If you're nice to her, and haven't offended her grievously."
Georgiana took this in thoughtfully, a touch of confusion creasing her brow. "Is she pretty?"
He smiled. "Very. Breathtakingly so."
"Do you think I would like her?"
"Would you like to find out?"
She considered this. "Possibly. Would I like her?"
"I dearly hope so," he said fervently. "I told her I would bring you downside today if we could get away. She and her aunt and uncle are staying at the Lambton Inn."
"What is her name?"
"Elizabeth," he said, and then smiled when his sister's faced brightened, confirming his suspicion. "Elizabeth Bennet."
"Oh!" Georgiana gasped, and then threw her arms around her brother excitedly. "Oh, I'm so happy! And she came here to see you?"
His face darkened. "Georgiana," he began, "it's not quite like that."
She sat back, confused, and he took her hands gently in his. "She and her aunt and uncle are touring some of the planets. We met by chance -- you know I had not intended to come home right after the party. If I hadn't, I would have missed her entirely. They're only staying a few days. Now, I don't know what you thought, but it's not like that."
"But you like her?" she asked hesitantly. "I thought -- and Richard said..."
"Yes, I like her, but I don't know if she likes me. In fact, it might be quite the opposite. Our acquaintance so far has been ... rocky, and I'm still trying to sort it all out."
"But you are going to see her today?" she asked, and he nodded. "And she agreed to meet me -- your family?"
He nodded again and added, "And they're coming to the party tonight."
Georgiana grinned, but merely said, "Then I shall be happy to meet her."
"Happy to meet who?" came a voice from the doorway.
"Miss Elizabeth Bennet," Georgiana said cheekily with a sideways glance at her brother. She didn't fail to miss his slight blush.
"Miss Bennet?" cried Bingley, coming further into the room and letting the door slide closed behind him. "What, are the Bennets coming to the party, too?"
"Only three," Georgiana replied.
"One, actually," Darcy corrected, and watched as Bingley's hopeful face fell. "Her aunt and uncle are Gardiners, not Bennets."
Bingley took this in. "But Miss Elizabeth is going to be there?" he asked after a moment.
Darcy confirmed this, and added, "We were actually thinking of stopping by her hotel this morning to deliver the invitation in person."
His friend brightened. "What, now?" He glanced at Darcy and his grin widened. "Uh, I don't know if you thought about this, but I don't really think you're dressed for a trip downside."
Georgiana giggled, and Darcy pulled his robe tighter, stuffing his feet back in his slippers. "Thank you, Bingley. I think I was aware. If the two of you would give me a few minutes?"
They were ready to go in only fifteen minutes, and made it to the pod bay just in time for the midmorning shuttle. Some of the workers, returning downside after their shift, shot puzzled looks at the trio, interested in where Mr. Darcy was headed with his sister and friend, but no one said anything. When they arrived on Procyon, the Darcys and Bingley took the rail into Lambton and arrived at the hotel just as Elizabeth Bennet was coming through the main entrance.
She saw him first, her eyes widening and a smile lighting her expression. He felt a surge of pleasure flow through him -- and though he cautioned himself that it might not mean anything, he couldn't stop himself from approaching her quickly, a smile creasing his lips.
"I hope we aren't coming at a bad time?" he asked, hesitantly.
"Oh! No, not at all," she replied quickly as she finally broke eye contact and glanced at the two people with him. "I mean, I was just going to meet my uncle and aunt for lunch. They went to church, and then we were going to eat before doing a bit more sightseeing. I expected you a bit earlier."
"I apologize," Darcy said, disappointed. "It was my fault entirely."
"But I have a few minutes," Elizabeth added hurriedly.
He smiled again, and she responded with a smile that took his breath away. "I'm glad," he choked out. Then, clearing his throat, he turned to his sister and, putting a hand under her elbow, urged her forward gently. "I very much wanted to introduce my sister to you. This is my sister Georgiana Darcy. Georgie, this is Elizabeth Bennet. She and I met on Deimos Base last year."
Georgiana's reticence had been slowly asserting itself since they had left Pemberley, and now she seemed unsure what to do. As if sensing the younger woman's shyness, Elizabeth took charge of the situation and put out her hand with a warm smile.
Darcy's heart swelled with pride as they spoke briefly, the interaction bringing an expression of animation to Georgiana's face. When they began speaking of mechanics, and Georgiana's own work on a Vegan element and solar panel efficiency, however, Darcy reluctantly broke in. He hadn't wanted to stem their budding acquaintance, but Bingley was shifting his weight from foot to foot, obviously eager to address Elizabeth. Taking pity on him, Darcy re-introduced him to Elizabeth's notice.
The re-acquaintance went much as expected, with Bingley excited and painfully obvious in his efforts to worm out information about her sister and Elizabeth laughing and carefully doling out hints. At the very last, however, Darcy again stepped in and, with a gesture towards his sister, reminded her of their true errand.
Georgiana presented the invitation for that evening's Alpha Centauri Expedition gala to Elizabeth with a carefully rehearsed speech. Her color was high as she tripped over the last words, but Elizabeth, with a warm smile for Georgiana and a long glance at Darcy, accepted on behalf of her aunt and uncle as well as herself.
That look could have meant anything, Darcy reflected later as they returned to Pemberley, having regretfully declined Elizabeth's offer to come with her and have lunch with the Gardiners. Bingley, sitting beside him on the rail, talked on and on about their time on Deimos, with Georgiana listening eagerly, but Darcy didn't hear a word of it. He just kept thinking about Elizabeth and that look.
He wanted so much to believe that, perhaps, she had changed her opinion of him. Perhaps even that something of his efforts had made a difference. He ran through all of their interactions just now and on the day before on the base. He remembered that one moment, when he had lost control of himself so much as to nearly have kissed her -- had she not closed her eyes, seemed as if waiting for him?
Darcy ran a frustrated hand through his hair and cursed.
With a start, Darcy looked in confusion at his valet, who stood beside him, a comb in one hand and a bottle of something in the other. The man, a longtime retainer of his family's, stared at him with an anguished expression on his face, and when Darcy didn't say anything, cried, "I had just finished!"
Darcy turned to the reflective glass opposite him and suddenly took in his appearance: the perfect evening clothes, the startling white of his shirt and the elegant dark blue of his trousers and coat, the diamond pin that winked in the folds of his neckcloth, the shine of his perfectly polished shoes -- and the disorder of his previously tamed hair.
He couldn't recall having dressed. But he must have, to be as attired as he was. He grimaced and shook his head sadly at his assistant. "I'm sorry, Phibbs. I've been distracted today," he said ruefully.
"I've noticed, sir," the older man said with a pained sigh. "I hear she's quite lovely."
Darcy looked startled, then grinned suddenly and laughed. "Does everyone know?"
"Not the papers yet, sir. But I'm certain when they see the two of you tonight, they will. Especially if I don't fix your hair."
With another laugh, Darcy submitted. But it was only an hour later, as he stood nervously in the entrance to the grand ballroom, greeting arriving guests, that his hair returned to its tousled state. He twisted his cuffs, looking out on the crowd that milled about gazing in interest at the various holographic projections of the ship and greeting other dignitaries.
She wasn't here yet. Here it was, twenty minutes since the soiree had started, and the person he cared most about being there wasn't. He ran his hand again through his hair.
Darcy turned at that name, spoken in his sister's voice. There she stood in the doorway, her figure fitted with an elegant, floor-length, emerald green gown; the smooth skin of her arms covered in long, white gloves; her silver hair curled around her shoulders; her lips curled into a smile; her eyes -- gads, her eyes...
His mouth dried, and he sucked in a breath, He couldn't move. He couldn't speak. He could only stare at her breathtaking beauty, the expression in her eyes as she met his the same as he had seen earlier that day.
Luckily, his sister wasn't so encumbered. "I'm so glad you were able to come!" she cried, approaching Elizabeth excitedly. "And your dress is so pretty! I'm so jealous."
Elizabeth laughed, and Darcy swore that it was the most captivating sound he had ever heard. "Thank you," she said. "I'll admit we weren't expecting to attend such a function as this, and had to spend a wonderful afternoon shopping in Lambton."
"That sounds like fun," Georgiana said, a touch wistfully.
"Not for my uncle," Elizabeth confided, and Georgiana laughed. "Speaking of which," Elizabeth continued, "Georgiana, this is my aunt and uncle, Lorelei and Adam Gardiner. Aunt and Uncle, this is Georgiana Darcy."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Mrs. Gardiner said, stepping forward and shaking the hand Georgiana had offered. "Thank you for the invitation."
"It is our pleasure to have you here," Darcy said, stepping forward and bowing to the ladies and shaking Mr. Gardiner's hand. "I trust the trip moon-bound was no trouble?"
"No trouble at all. The shuttle is a wonderful service, Mr. Darcy."
Darcy flushed at the praise, and tried to demur, but his sister took up the cause and explained how Darcy had instituted a particular change to the shuttle service because of one of his monthly all-staff meetings. This, of course, led to an explanation of several other changes he had made to benefit his employees, and Darcy wondered if his face would ever return to its normal color.
He was saved by the arrival of a Capellan prince. Though part of him wished to continue to bask in the look Elizabeth had bent in his direction.
As the Capellan prince occupied Darcy's attention, Elizabeth and her relatives moved into the ballroom. In between greeting guests, Darcy watched as they were approached by Bingley and taken around the room to meet people. He lost track of them soon in the crowd and itched to leave his post and find her again. But guests continued to arrive, and it was not until nearly twenty minutes later that he and his sister were finally able to join the party.
Darcy mingled at first, in the hopes of finding Elizabeth and her relatives. But even when he thought he caught a glimpse of one of them, he would be addressed by an acquaintance or other who could not be ignored and lose sight of his quarry in the crowd. After fifteen or so minutes of circulating, he was recalled to his true purpose by a nod from his assistant and approached the dais at one end of the floor.
He hardly listened to the first speech, given by a member of the Five-Star League Court, and during the second speech by the president of Procyon spent the majority of the time scanning the crowd from his new, slightly raised position on the stage. He finally found her, standing at the back of the crowd with her aunt and uncle on one side and Georgiana on the other. He felt a swell of pride and confidence flow through him, despite the hundreds of eyes that had turned in his direction. Every single eye in the room.
He flushed slightly in embarrassment as he realized the emcee had just introduced him. He stepped to the podium, feeling his palms grow damp at his sudden nervousness. He had never been comfortable in front of large crowds, always conscious of the sound of his own voice and worried he would say something incorrectly. Most of the time, such as at his monthly employee meeting, he simply had one of his assistants speak, or at other events he asked merely to have a statement read. His silence was a part of his public personality. But this was different -- this was his project, and the whole universe was watching. It was necessary that he speak.
He smiled weakly and shuffled his notes, and then looked at the faces turned his way. His gaze immediately flew to the back, where Elizabeth stood, and the gentle smile on her face again filled him with confidence. He could speak for her.
It was easy; it was so very easy, as he kept his eyes on hers, to welcome them, to thank them, to explain the reason for this expedition, to speak of his love of the pursuit of knowledge. He spoke of the new era of exploration, of the new technologies on the ship, of the ways in which this expedition would benefit all of mankind, would improve their own lives and interactions here in the Five Star League.
"It's not for me to be proud of this achievement, what we celebrate today," he said. "It is truly everyone here, and the many not here, who should be proud of the work their hands have wrought. From the person who designed the bridge to the person who installed the pipes in the engine room, these are the people who should be proud.
"And for the people who are so blessed to be going on this expedition -- you will meet Admiral Croft after dinner; he will tell you more about where the expedition will stop, how it will function. He will be leading all the brave men and women who are exploring the universe outside our worlds for the benefit of us all. And we must thank them, too.
"I only had a small hand in this project," he said, "but I am grateful for even that opportunity to be among some of the greatest lights of our time, building something that will be spoken of for centuries to come as the start of a new era of exploration."
With a nod, Darcy stepped back from the podium and ceded the space to the emcee, who explained that dinner would be next, and that guests could find their way into the dining room, where the first course would be served in twenty minutes. And as the guests began to talk again, mingling and moving towards the dining hall, Darcy stood back from the dais and gazed out at the crowd, trying to catch sight again of Elizabeth.
"It was a wonderful speech."
Darcy turned to find Elizabeth behind him, a small smile on her lips. He responded warmly to the smile and the expression in her eyes and said, "I didn't sound like a complete idiot?"
"Not at all," she replied. "Would you rather have?"
He shook his head with a short laugh. "No, but I always fear I do."
She said nothing but smiled. He clearing his throat nervously and glanced around at the people who were slowly beginning to filter into the dining hall, before turning to her and saying in a low voice, "Elizabeth, I wondered if I might be able to speak to you."
She cocked her head at him, her eyes twinkling. "It seems you're doing a fine job right now."
"Yes, but not to any effect," he replied wryly. "I'm doing far worse than I did in front of all those people, and here I've only an audience of one."
"Yes, but when your audience is such a flippant one, I don't think that's much of a surprise. What would you like to speak with me about?"
At this moment, they were interrupted by an acquaintance of Darcy's, who was inquiring about an aspect of the project he thought Darcy might know something about. After Darcy explained, the conversation moved on to a recent event on Betelgeuse. It was fifteen minutes before Darcy was able to extricate himself and Elizabeth from the group. With a hand under her elbow, he led her out of the ballroom and down the hall, dodging workers as they went. A few doors down, Darcy poked his head through a doorway, and, finding it empty, ushered her through.
"Mr. Darcy," Elizabeth said with a laugh as she spun to look at him, "I think we're supposed to have gone the other way. Dinner is in the dining hall."
Darcy couldn't answer. He could only stare at her, magnificently beautiful in the dim light of the room. Her silvery hair seemed to shine, and her rosy lips curved in amusement. Without thinking, he reached out and, putting a hand behind her head, took those lips in a passionate kiss. Though startled, she responded, her lips parting under his, her head tilted back and her hands creeping up to rest between them on his chest.
When they parted, their breathing ragged, they stared at each other. He felt the glow of triumph flow through him as he gazed into her eyes. He would have kissed her again, but she leaned back, her eyes twinkling, and said, "I thought, Mr. Darcy, that you had wanted to speak to me. This is the strangest kind of talking I've ever known."
Darcy chuckled and would have kissed her again, had they not been interrupted by the door opening behind him.
"Excuse me, Mr. Darcy, but I was searching for Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and I was told she might be with you."
They both turned at the sound of the voice, startled as they stepped back from one another in embarrassment. Catching sight of Elizabeth, the man at the doorway stepped through. "You are Elizabeth Bennet?" he asked, and at her nod he extended to her a piece of paper. With a short bow, he retreated and the door closed behind him.
Her brow knit, Elizabeth turned the letter over in her hand, and Darcy noted with interest and a flutter of unease the urgent stamp and the hastily scrawled redirections, no doubt from the hotel downside. He held his breath as she slit the seal with one long finger.
The effect of the letter was nearly instantaneous. Elizabeth had barely read the first few words before her jaw went slack and knees buckled and she put out a hand to find support. Darcy quickly grasped her elbow and helped her to a chair. She sat down heavily and continued to read, heedless of his concerned questions.
"Good gads," she finally murmured, the one phrase expressing the depth of her pain.
"What happened?" Darcy asked from where he knelt before her. When he put his hand on her arm, she looked up at him, her eyes wide and gaze desolate. His heart sank, his chest tightening, and he held his breath in impotent apprehension.
"Lydia -- she was at New Brighton," Elizabeth said after a moment, her voice hoarse as her eyes re-scanned the letter. "My father let her go with Cyndi Foster. She -- I didn't tell her anything. I didn't tell anyone anything. She knew nothing about him. And now she's run off with him." Her eyes met Darcy's. "With Wickham."
Darcy didn't know what to say, but he released the breath he had been holding. It wasn't as bad as he had expected. Finding them should be easy -- tracking a runaway couple was as simple as finding a lost letter, with all the checkposts they would have to go through to travel anywhere in the universe. "Your father is trying to locate them?"
Elizabeth nodded, the action spasmodic as tears began to fall down her face. "But it's worse than that," she said. "Much worse. They've taken the moon rock. The moon rock! Gads!" she exclaimed, crushing the letter in her hand and flinging it on the ground. "How could she be so stupid?" she cried, burying her face in her hands. Her voice, amid the sobs, came out muffled: "We'll be ruined."
With a sinking heart, Darcy reached for the crumpled letter, which had bounced a few feet away, and stood, spreading it out as he walked toward one of the wall sconces. Under its light, he read the brief and hastily typed note from Jane Bennet.
If it were true, Darcy realized as he took in the whole scope of the sudden tragedy, Elizabeth was right -- the whole Bennet family would be ruined. Lydia Bennet had apparently run off with George Wickham -- traced so far to Earth, but no farther. That, in itself, would not have been so horrendous; they could have weathered any embarrassment the elopement of a no-name underage girl and a law-ranking marine scientist caused, if it came out at all. But the theft of the original Earth Moon Rock was another story.
The priceless artifact, collected in the 20th century during one of the first trips to Earth's moon, seemed to have disappeared at the same time as they had, taken from the labs where Wickham had been working. It had been on loan from the archaeology museum for comparative tests, and the last scientist to have been registered as working with it was Wickham. The discovery of its disappearance had been noted, and Wickham had been sought. His good friend Captain Denny mentioned Wickham's intention of going to Earth, Mrs. Foster found the note from Lydia revealing their elopement and reported it to the authorities, and the hunt was on.
Something about the story didn't sit right with Darcy. He had known Wickham well at one time and never would have imagined his old companion to have taken such a risk. But then, he reflected, at this stage he knew nothing of Wickham's present circumstances and couldn't speak to his desperation. As unlikely as it seemed, it was not impossible. Darcy crushed the letter in his fist.
A sound alerted Darcy to Elizabeth's presence, and he turned to find her staring at him, anguish plain in her eyes. He didn't know what to say. What he could say. She knew how difficult the situation would be, how it would affect her family's and her base's reputation on the universal level, to be associated with such a theft. Anything he said could only make it worse.
"You will want to return to Deimos," he said, already thinking of the strings he could pull to make sure they got a flight as soon as possible. "You won't want to stay for the dinner here."
Without a word, Elizabeth turned her face away and shook her head. Her hands clasped and unclasped in her lap, witness to her agitation. He wished with all his heart that he could do something to ease the pain and anguish she no doubt felt, but knew he was powerless to do so.
"I will find your aunt and uncle," he murmured, turning towards the door and running a hand through his hair. When he reached the doorway, he paused, realizing that his exit might seem sudden. He turned, one hand on the doorframe as he looked back at her where she still sat, the picture of despair. She tensed when he spoke, but did not turn. "I ... uh, I will have to return to the dinner. You'll understand I cannot abandon it. But I wish you a safe journey." He swallowed hard, thinking of the task ahead of him. "And I hope the search is successful."
With one last look in her direction, he turned and made his way out of the room and back to the ballroom. He found the Gardiners quickly and directed them to the room where he had left Elizabeth, then found his assistant and asked him to arrange matters to see them back to Deimos, and then to meet him in his office. Then, straightening his shoulders and taking a deep breath, he went back to the dinner -- and to find Bingley.
Chapter Eleven: Spacehunter
Posted on 2010-02-23
Elizabeth was not expecting the reception. As the door opened on her pod, she looked out in confusion to see a small mass of people in the bay. Every single eye was trained on their pods.
"Lizzy!" Jane rushed forward to embrace her sister, and immediately a flurry of flashes erupted as cameras were whipped in their direction.
"What's going on?" Elizabeth asked in a hurried whisper.
"Media," Jane replied in her ear. "Don't say anything to them. They were here almost before we heard." She then turned to her aunt and uncle and greeted them with the same information. Mrs. Gardiner looked horrified, and her husband's face set like flint. With a low muttered curse, he began to usher the women through the crowd and out of the bay, calling out behind him for the yeoman on duty to send their luggage to the suite. When they got out of the bay, they hurried toward an elevator and, when it opened immediately, slid inside. The door closed as the reporters surged forward, calling out questions.
"Where's your father?" Mr. Gardiner asked as the elevator descended.
"Already on Earth," Jane replied. "He got clearance a few hours ago, and said that he couldn't wait for you. He left contact information for when you joined him. I've got a 16-hour flight booked, in case you got here in time."
Mr. Gardiner checked his timepiece and nodded. "I'll have time to stop and see your mother before I go. How's Fanny holding up?" he asked as they exited the elevator. The hallway was fairly empty; the few people they passed watched with wide eyes and curious stares as they went by.
"With a bunch of reporters camped out here?" Elizabeth asked with a snort. "I'm sure she's in high heaven."
"Lizzy," her aunt admonished.
"She's laid up in her bed," Jane said. "She hasn't stepped out of the suite since yesterday. Neither has Mary, who's been extremely upset at the interruption to her research. Kitty tried to go out this morning, but barely made it a few steps outside when she came running back in tears."
"So you've been running the gauntlet every time instead," Elizabeth finished for her sister.
Jane's blush spoke volumes. "Well, someone had to. Our Aunt Phillips has been over a few times, but otherwise people have stayed away. And work has to get done, no matter who's here."
"Well, I can handle it now," Elizabeth said, her voice hard as she spotted the reporters seated on makeshift chairs down at the end of Longbourn corridor.
"No, you won't," Mr. Gardiner said, ushering them into the Bennet suite and fixing his niece with a look. "I don't want you to have anything to do with this. You don't know anything, you have no comment. You are going to stay here in the suite with your sisters while we find Lydia."
"You must be kidding," Elizabeth said, planting her feet and crossing her arms. "I have as much right to go out and help find her as anybody. And I'm still on vacation, technically, so don't you dare say I have to be here to run the base."
Her uncle raised his eyebrows. "Oh, is that right? Who's in charge of base affairs when your father's not here?"
Elizabeth swore, and then apologized when the younger Gardiners, who had come into the room when they heard their parents' voices, giggled. "So, what, he gets to go and actually do something and leave his responsibilities here to me? Besides, I thought you said I had to stay here," she said sweetly. "How am I supposed to run the base if I can't leave the suite?"
"Don't get sassy," Mrs. Gardiner said, wagging a finger at her niece. "You know perfectly well you can do the majority of the work from your father's hook-ups in the other room. It's why your mother had them installed. Your father may never have used them, but they're there. Besides, I have the feeling everything's on hold while he deals with this crisis, anyway."
Elizabeth had to acknowledge the truth when she heard it, but didn't have to like it. "So we're just going to hide from this?"
"Until we know more," her uncle said. "We have no idea what really happened, and to suppose anything would be dangerous. It's possible Lydia didn't really go willingly. It's possible there's more to this theft than we know. Any number of things are possible. We shouldn't give those reporters the satisfaction of making us look like a bunch of hick fools if they're proven right. Just keep your chin up and yourself out of their sights. Got it?"
Mr. Gardiner looked at his watch and sighed. "I suppose I still have a moment to see Fanny," he said. "Do you think she'll be able to condense her complaints into five minutes?"
Elizabeth laughed and followed her uncle to her mother's room, where Mrs. Bennet was laid out on her side couch. A pot of tea and a tin of biscuits sat on the table next to her, along with a pile of used tissues. Seeing her brother and daughter in the doorway, she pulled another tissue out of the box and put it to use dabbing at her eyes.
"Oh, Adam!" Mrs. Bennet cried. "Have you heard from Lydia yet?"
He shook his head. "Unless your husband has found them, they're still missing. But I'm going to Earth shortly and will join the search."
"Good," Mrs. Bennet said, laying back on the couch. "When you find her, you can tell her that we'll go and find her dress together."
Mr. Gardiner stared at his sister for a moment in bafflement, then shook his head as her meaning finally penetrated. "She ran off with this guy, Fanny. I doubt she had any intention of marrying him."
Mrs. Bennet looked shocked. "Well, but of course she would marry him! My girls aren't like that -- how dare you say she would, Adam. And I am sure she would wait until we had a chance to arrange things to actually get the deed done. No, I'm sure they've just gone to get a few things. There's always so much to do before a wedding, and so much to arrange. Wedding clothes and flowers, and all that one can't do a thing about on Deimos. But she really should have had me with her. She doesn't know the best places to go."
Elizabeth and her uncle shared a look. Mrs. Bennet had clearly gone off the deep end. "Mother, Lydia and Wickham may have stolen something valuable. They're not on a honeymoon."
"Of course not," her mother replied, scoffing at the notion. "That's after the wedding. But do find my husband," she said, turning again to her brother. "He's gone down to Earth to get in contact with them, and I'm sure he would do something silly about them not being married yet. But I'm sure they were just waiting to come back here. I tried to tell him that before he left, but he wouldn't listen to me and I'm sure--"
"I'll be sure to let him know when I find him," Mr. Gardiner interrupted. He glanced at his watch with a sigh. "Fanny, I have to make my flight. Lorelei will be here for the next few hours until we can get her and the children back to Earth. I don't want them exposed to this. But if you need her for anything, she'll still be here for a while."
"Well! I like that!" Mrs. Bennet said with a huff. "You're hardly here and you have to go again. You hardly ever visit -- we hardly ever hear from you, and now you're off on some silly errand that can surely wait a while. It's not as if Lydia and Wickham are waiting for you."
"I highly doubt they would be," Mr. Gardiner muttered. Patting his sister on the hand, he assured her he would find Lydia and Wickham, and, yes, he would let Lydia know when he saw her that L'Amoreaux's in Paris was the only place to get a decent wedding dress.
"She hasn't been talking to any of the reporters, has she?" he asked Jane when he returned to the main quarters in the Bennet suite.
Jane sighed. "No. Father got to her first, and she's been in there ever since. I'm really not sure what to tell her."
Mr. Gardiner shook his head. "Nothing, I think, until we get news. I think it's better if she stays out of the way -- for everyone's sake. Good gads, she'd likely sink this whole base's reputation with her appraisal of the situation."
"What reputation Lydia hasn't managed to ruin, that is," Elizabeth added. "So, where are you starting the search?"
"Probably London," Mr. Gardiner said, picking up the Universal Tribune that sat on a small table and scanning the front cover. "If I were them, that's where I would hide. That city's a monster, and you can easily get lost there if that's your goal -- or even if it isn't. But we'll see where the track was lost, and go from there." He paused, flipping through the pages and then setting it back down. "Is this from this morning? There's nothing about the theft yet."
Jane shook her head. "I've sent a note down to our Earth dispatch to have them get a copy of the afternoon Times up to us when it's published. It's an absolute mess in the mailroom. All of the reporters are requesting their stories be sent out to their newsrooms immediately, and completely tying up our outgoing slots for almost every planet, and then the volume coming in is almost as bad from everywhere. This is the first break I've had since we heard. I have Robert filling in for me, but I doubt things will be better when I return at 17-hour."
It was testament to how hectic things actually were, that Jane was actually complaining, Elizabeth reflected as they said their good-byes to their uncle. The whole situation was a disaster, and it wasn't likely they were going to see an end soon.
"So, do you think Lydia knew about the moon rock?" Elizabeth asked Jane as she unpacked her luggage in her room some minutes later. Jane sat on the bunk, her fingers idly tracing the embroidered pattern on the top blanket as she watched her sister unfold her clean jumpsuits and hang them in the wardrobe.
"I don't know," Jane said with a sigh. "She certainly didn't mention it in the note she left for Cyndi Foster, and I cannot believe she would be so lost to morality--"
"Or sanity," Elizabeth muttered.
"--to do such a thing as steal it. And Wickham!" Jane continued, shaking her head. "Now, I know the story you told me about his behavior with regard to Mr. Darcy seems bad, but he never seemed quite so criminal as this. No, I think there's more to this than we know, and perhaps it's simply all some big misunderstanding that'll be cleared up in no time."
Elizabeth chuckled sadly. "Ancient artifacts don't get accidentally left in the wrong drawer somewhere, Jane," she said. "It is undoubtedly stolen."
"Yes, but we don't know for sure that it was Wickham and Lydia," Jane insisted.
"No, but it doesn't much matter if it weren't," Elizabeth said with sudden bitterness. "We're ruined either way."
"Ruined!" her sister echoed, her eyes widening. "No, I cannot believe that. Surely it wouldn't matter to anyone whether or not our sister made a poor decision."
Elizabeth laughed mirthlessly and waved her hand towards the doorway. "Yes, and all of those reporters out there are here for their health. Oh, Jane, wake up! By now we're notorious. By now the Bennet name has become a byword across the universe. They've probably dug up every little tiny scandal that might hint at the reason Lydia did this. There's no court of law more damning than the popular court of the media, and we've got near the whole of it camped out on our doorstep. And even if, as you say, it turns out that they didn't steal the moon rock, she's still only fifteen and she ran away with someone nearly twice her age, across the galaxy. Gads! We could be virgin martyrs, Jane, and we'd still be tainted by the same brush. We grew up together, we shared the same parents, the same education: we must be the same. One bad apple ruins the whole bunch, or some such rot. It's the way the universe works."
"But who cares about the rest of the universe?" Jane said with a gentle smile, only slightly pained by her sister's words. "Those who know us, those who care about us won't believe that."
"Yes, but who will want to know us? Who will want to care about us, Jane?" Elizabeth argued fervently. "We'll be trapped here, with this stain on us, for the rest of our lives. Trust me -- there'll be no more visitors to a no-name base with a reputation for thieves and whores."
Jane paled. "Lizzy!"
"What?" Elizabeth asked, unabashed. "It's nothing but the unvarnished truth. What does anyone know about Deimos? What they read in the newspapers. And what else have they ever said about us in the newspapers until this? Very little, and nothing of note. This is damning, Jane. No one of any worth will want to have anything to do with us, and it's unlikely we'll maintain any prestige on base with our reputation. It's unlikely Dad will be re-elected to govern the base if he can't even govern his own daughter. We'll be shunned, despised, abandoned. Why, you should have seen how quickly Mr. Darcy--" She stopped abruptly in her pacing, her hand going to her mouth, her eyes going to her sister's as she realized what she'd let slip.
"Mr. Darcy!" Jane echoed.
Elizabeth sat down heavily on the small stool in front of her desk, a sigh escaping her. "Yes, Jane -- Mr. Darcy," she said with a tight nod, her hands clasped and her shoulders slumped, the fight having gone out of her. "He was there when I got your letter. He -- after he read it, he barely said another word to me, just made sure I didn't come back out into the dinner, made sure I left the planet as quickly as possible. Gads! He had his own secretary escort us to the flight, as if we were some huge security risk." She swiped angrily at a tear that had found its way to her cheek. "I had thought-- gads, I had thought there might have been something between us. I knew there was something between us, but then Lydia had to go and screw up everything!"
Jane reached out and took her sister's hands into her own. "I'm sure he doesn't blame you for what Lydia did," she said gently.
Elizabeth sighed and, disengaging her hands from her sister's, resumed her unpacking. "It doesn't matter if he did," she replied. "With him who he is, and with us -- well, as the universe no doubt sees us now, it's unlikely we'll ever see him again." She paused and turned back to her sister, summoning up a wry smile though it remained tinged with sadness. "I'm sure Deimos will be able to bear the loss fairly well."
Her expression doubtful, Jane would no doubt have said something to that, but Elizabeth quickly threw her last jumpsuit in her laundry and then declared her unpacking finished for now. Clipping her runner back on her belt, she and Jane removed to the common room, where the rest of the family were gathered, minus Mrs. Bennet and the youngest Gardiners who were down for a nap. Despite (on the one hand) and because of (on the other) their absence, the company was not congenial. Kitty was sulky and not responding well to her aunt's gentle words, interspersed as they were by dire conjectures from Mary on Lydia's likely future, based on her readings of scientific studies and similar psychological profiles.
Elizabeth could take only so much of this atmosphere, so when Jane left to return to work Elizabeth took the opportunity, with her aunt's attention divided, of leaving with her. They first stopped in the mailroom, where a frazzled Robert Goulding welcomed Jane's return with enthusiasm. Elizabeth ignored the mass of backlogged messages and snatched the Old World Times from the incoming Earth slot before retreating to her desk in the control room.
The reading was not pleasant. The majority of the front page, along with a full double truck, detailed what was known of the theft and offered descriptions of the alleged criminals. The fugitives had been traced as far as Earth, and searches were narrowed down to London, Johannesburg, or Rio. Not much to go on -- and the sizes of those cities and their seedy underworlds hindered any pursuit by legitimate authorities.
Sidebars, accompanied by photos of the suspects and graphics illustrating the labs on New Brighton where the moon rock was believed to have been taken, gave background to Deimos Base, the artifact, and Lydia and Wickham's romance. Elizabeth read with growing disgust of her sister's behavior at New Brighton and anecdotes provided by "anonymous sources" of her history on Deimos. The conclusions were brutal, the packaging titillating. It was unlikely to be forgotten soon.
Elizabeth set down the Times with a sigh and looked around the control room. It was mostly empty, with only a few other people at their desks. She had been greeted with weak smiles and half-hearted welcomes when she entered the room, and even now the others occasionally glanced up and quickly looked away when they caught her eye. It wasn't intentional ostracization, she knew -- it was awkwardness. On their side and hers. What do you say in a situation like this? Deimos Base had surely never experienced the like in its long history, and Elizabeth as much as the rest of her family was at the center of it.
She was no doubt better off staying in the suite, she thought with a resigned sigh. But she never liked retreat, and her courage once again rose to the occasion. She picked up her tablet, checked over her list of things to do, and left the control room.
Her various tasks took her around the base, and at first several people commented on how they weren't expecting her back so soon. The comments were, naturally, followed by uncomfortable silences, but then Elizabeth addressed the matter at hand, and they were able to bridge the awkwardness.
It was vastly easier, she found, if the issue was simply confronted head on -- the same way she took control of the media problem. After receiving persistent "no comments" and a few snarky answers that could never make their way into a newspaper, the reporters eventually realized she wouldn't give them any material and left her alone in their quest for a story. She even had lunch the following day with a few of them who, off the record, asked her about life on Deimos and told her amusing anecdotes from their experiences on the interplanetary beat. Once they were no longer the enemy, their relationship eased; it didn't change the stories that were sent out to be read by the universal community, but it did change the atmosphere on base.
Thus two days passed with less stress than Elizabeth had expected. There was no advancement in the search for Lydia; the newspapers Elizabeth obtained from her new reporter friends had little new information. No one knew how the fugitives had smuggled the rock off the planet; no one knew where they had gone once they had reached Earth. Indeed, no one even knew why they had done such a thing. True, the rock would fetch a fair price on the underground art scene, and Wickham was in debt reportedly to both banks and more disreputable moneylenders, but no connections between Wickham and any collectors had been established.
No new developments surfaced on the third day after the elopement, either. Mrs. Gardiner, who had delayed her return to ensure her nieces could handle things well, promised to send a letter with news of the search when she arrived on Earth and met with her husband and Mr. Bennet. "And I'd rather you took the afternoon off, Lizzy," she added kindly, looking at her niece with concern. "You look completely done in. I know our holiday was cut short, but you shouldn't sacrifice all your off days for it."
So Elizabeth promised to take some time for herself and, after her aunt and cousins left to return to Earth, she found solace in her workroom, ostensibly piecing together more of the antique diesel engine on which her father and she were working. Distracting herself with the hobby was less than effective, though, for more often than not she drifted into recollections of her time at Pemberley, staring blankly at the wall and doodling on the margins of the diagrams.
It was here that Jane found her.
"You might want to read this, Lizzy," Jane said with a weary sigh, handing over a thick envelope that had just arrived from Altair.
With a puzzled expression, Elizabeth set aside her pencil, wiped the grease from her hands, and took the envelope. The seal was already broken, so with a glance at her sister, she pulled out the enclosed letter, which was wrapped around a pamphlet and several news clippings. She read the letter first.
"Dear Mr. Bennet:
Si vales valeo. My greetings to you and your daughters. While I regret our association could not be closer than it is, I am honored as cousin to do you service.
Despite my introduction to the life on your base on Deimos last year, I am unaware of whether or not news of the rest of the universe occasionally makes it to you. Certainly while I was there I did not have access to a newspaper, so I thought I might do you the favor of enclosing a few clippings that might interest you regarding your youngest daughter. My boss, Ms. Catherine DeBourgh, was gracious enough to have pointed them out to me in the course of her extensive reading of the interplanetary news, and I have collected them for your edification.
It seems that your daughter Lydia was involved in some seamy behavior during a stay on Capella, which, indeed, may have been presaged by earlier loose behavior exhibited on your own base. It pains me be the bearer of such news, but as a close relative I felt it my duty to inform you of what the greater universe has seen fit to spread as common knowledge.
This behavior by your youngest daughter, in conjunction with her theft of a priceless artifact, may affect your overall standing in the universal community, and it would behoove you to take action to protect yourself, your wife, and your other daughters. Infamy, my boss has said, is a product of moral decrepitude and poor planning. She has most magnanimously suggested a solution to your problem, and provided me with a pamphlet to pass on to you for your reading. Ms. DeBourgh has had extensive experience with matters of law, and has thoroughly researched this subject. Her advice should be considered with a strong inclination towards obedience.
I humbly offer you the use of my own surname if it would so please you. The Collins family has had a long history and tradition of service and honor, and, if you will forgive this method of my imparting the happy news, will continue to do so as we greet a new generation in five months. As your own offspring will not be carrying on the name of Bennet, if they should be so fortunate to marry, unlikely as it seems at present, you will merely be precipitating the inevitable dissolution of your family name. This should give you some comfort as you proceed along this course of action.
Your humble servant,
"Good gads," Elizabeth said with a laugh, picking up the brochure and glancing through it. Tears were streaming down her cheeks as she sought to control her hilarity. "He suggests we change our name! Oh, if only Dad were here -- he'd get such a kick out of this."
"But Lizzy," Jane said, "don't you see how serious this is?"
Elizabeth glanced wryly at her sister. "As serious as it's been for the past three days, Jane. But nothing I do will change the problem, so I might as well laugh at the ridiculousness of it all."
There was certainly little else to laugh at in the newspapers that continued to arrive, filled with more titillating details of the New Brighton Theft. Deimos Base, having been mostly forgotten by the universe in general, had never established a centralized public relations plan. The closest they came to PR was the governor's secretary, who once fielded a question from a reporter about whether their base had difficulties with the invasive astrobarnacle species. When it turned out they didn't, as getting them generally required frequent visiting ships, that was the end of that.
Without a chief hub, therefore, the flow of information was fairly unregulated. Elizabeth was fairly sure many of the stories she read had never happened, but without a central damage control there wasn't likely any way to stop them or counteract their effect. So she kept reading the newspapers she scrounged from the various planets and hoped at least one of them would have something pleasant. One of the reporters, a veteran from Procyon, helped by sharing with Elizabeth the wire reports and any tidbits she got from her colleague on Earth, as well as a healthy dose of pessimism.
"It's not looking good for your sister," the woman said frankly as they shared lunch. "I mean, if she's innocent of everything, there's no reason they shouldn't have come forward by now. I've seen it a million times. You get treated better if you turn yourself in than if you make 'em pay for overtime. Besides," she said, taking a bite of her sandwich and talking around it, "she'd make a hell of a lot more for her story if she came forward now -- there's nothing like the ol' 'duped by the seducer' schtick."
Elizabeth sighed and ate more of her yoghurt. That was one of the drawbacks to making friends with reporters. They were a rather depressingly cynical lot.
"By the way," her friend added, setting down her sandwich, wiping her hands, and leaning forward with a predatory gleam in her eye, "speaking of disappearing acts -- I heard a rumor Fitzwilliam Darcy's ship left Pemberley two days ago, and nobody's been able to access a record of its destination. I know he was here last year -- I saw the register book; it's not that long -- and one of my colleagues said you were rather buddy-buddy with Georgiana Darcy during the beginning of the Alpha Centauri shindig. You wouldn't happen to know where he went?"
The spoonful of yoghurt went down the wrong pipe. When Elizabeth finally got control of her voice, she wheezed, "We're not that close, Lois." Clearing her throat, she added, "I just met Miss Darcy that morning."
The other woman sat back slowly, her expression making clear her doubt. But at last she shrugged and picked up her spoon again. "I'll lay off it, but you know I get first dibs on anything you hear," she said. She pointed her spoon threateningly in Elizabeth's direction. "I don't want to see it in the Capella News Herald." With a snort, she started eating her yoghurt, adding between spoonfuls, "If I can ever get a copy. I can't believe you guys aren't on the network. I can't keep track of anything."
Elizabeth was feeling much the same. There was a seemingly constant stream now of reporters, photographers, officials, and additional cargo to and from the base. Most of her time was spent in the pod and cargo bays, and when she wasn't there she was trying to deal with a mounting stack of paperwork to be filed or addressing visitors' concerns about their quarters. She hardly had a chance to glance at the work piling up on her father's desk. Thus she was nearly ecstatic with happiness when, on the fourth day after Lydia's elopement, she found it necessary to send an urgent message to Earth requesting Mr. Bennet's presence on base.
Pressure had been building in a labor agreement between miners and base government, and it was absolutely necessary for the governor of the base to be in attendance for mediation. Leaving the search to his brother- and sister-in-law and Earth investigators, Mr. Bennet duly returned to Deimos. As he exited his pod looking haggard and years older, Mr. Bennet managed a slight smile at his daughters who had come to meet him and thanked the yeoman who stood guard at the door, preventing media from entering. "Well, Lizzy, Jane," he said with a sadly resigned tone, "it's up to the officials now."
Directing his bags to be taken to the Bennet suite, Mr. Bennet, followed by his daughters, exited the pod bay through the emergency escape pathways and came out close to central offices. Elizabeth and Jane peppered him with questions during the walk, but he refused to answer until they were in the privacy of his personal office. Even then, there wasn't much he could tell them.
"It's been an utter disaster. I don't know what your sister was thinking," Mr. Bennet said with a sigh, running his hands through his thinning hair. He glanced over the top of his glasses at his second eldest. "And I don't blame you for your seemingly prophetic warnings, Lizzy. It shows that at least some of my genetics have value in posterity. I only wish I might have benefited from them myself and had the sense to listen."
"I'm sorry you've had to deal with all this, Dad," Elizabeth said, sitting down in a chair on the other side of the desk. Jane remained where she was by the door, clutching her clipboard to her chest.
Mr. Bennet shook his head and stood. He paced to one end of the room, where stood a small mini-bar, and poured himself a small drink. "There's no one better than myself to deal with it," he said after taking a swig out of the glass. After a moment of thought, gazing into an unseen distance, he sighed and turned back to the desk. He re-seated himself slowly, settling wearily into his chair. "I'm perhaps more at fault than anybody else, and I'm not afraid of taking the full weight of blame for my inaction. For once in my life I think I will actually appreciate the feeling. I'm not afraid of being overwhelmed by it; it will pass, and no doubt more quickly than it should."
The fifth day after Lydia's elopement brought news: the fugitives were found. Mr. Gardiner's letter, marked urgent and succinctly written, explained how the two had been holed up in a dingy third-class tenement on the south side of London city's suburbs, easily hidden amid the area's proliferation of hidey-hole hovels. Both Wickham and Lydia claimed to know nothing about the theft of the moon rock, but at present they were installed at the local precinct and more would hopefully be forthcoming.
The news brought a certain measure of relief, and the lack of discovery of the moon rock or any evidence of it having been in their possession offered some hope. Mr. Bennet released a statement to the media regarding his praise for the diligence of the Earth police and his hope that the situation would be resolved quickly and justly, but refused any interviews. Elizabeth, who since his return had frequently kept her father company in his office, the two of them more often than not playing backgammon with each other, suggested he host a press conference. The suggestion was declined in the same manner it was offered.
The sixth day was tense, with only a few messages from Mr. Gardiner. Lydia and Wickham were still in custody, the investigation was ongoing, the barrister had been to see Lydia and wasn't entirely hopeful about the case.
Early in the morning on the seventh day, however, Elizabeth woke to her sister's voice, urging her to get up. "Gads, Jane -- what time is it?" she asked, blearily peering at her clock.
"Two hour," Jane replied unabashedly, grabbing a jumpsuit from Elizabeth's wardrobe and throwing it at her. "Robert buzzed me; Dad just got an urgent post from Capella."
"From Capella?" Elizabeth echoed, sitting up straight and quickly moving to put on her clothes. "What did it say?"
But Jane didn't know, only having heard that it arrived. "He went to his office, though, right after getting it, so it must be big."
By the time they arrived outside their father's office, the crowd of reporters, most looking as sleepy and unkempt as Elizabeth felt, had already descended. "What's going on?" she asked Lois as they passed.
The reporter lifted her eyebrows. "They found the moon rock on Capella. Not much else, but there's speculation someone else was involved. Your father hasn't given us anything yet." As Elizabeth quickly followed her sister into the governor's antechamber, the reporter yelled after her, "Remember -- I get the story first, Liz!"
Compared to the atmosphere outside the governor's chambers, inside it was practically silent. Mr. Bennet looked up as they entered the inner office and waved them in, then went back to listening to something one of the Deimos Base Board members was saying in a low voice. Around the table sat a few other board members, all clearly dressed in haste, and two high-ranking officers from the marines, impeccably turned out as always.
"I'd rather the marines handled it from here, though," Mr. Bennet said now, speaking to include the rest of the table. "The ball is in their court, as Captain Denny was one of theirs. I think the base should step back from it. My daughter's out of it now."
Elizabeth made a sound of surprise, and Mr. Bennet handed her a letter before turning back to one of the older marines, who shared his opinion of the situation. Jane peered over her shoulder as they read the missive.
"What do you think?" Mr. Bennet said when they had finished. He had turned in his chair, away from the table where the board members and officers were pushing in their chairs and departing through the side door.
"It's astonishing," Elizabeth replied, looking up from her second reading of the letter. "So neither Wickham or Lydia had anything to do with it."
Mr. Bennet shrugged. "It's not established entirely, but that is the way it looks. Lieutenant Wickham might be chastised for not securing the artifact properly after he used it, but it seems his friend Captain Denny took the thing on his own power when he saw the opportunity. And he probably would've gotten away with it if somebody hadn't seen him meeting with the baron, and then if he hadn't been caught with it in his lodgings."
"But how did they know he was trying to sell him the moon rock?" Elizabeth said, shaking her head. "It just seems so coincidental."
"We don't even know who it was that saw him," Jane said, pointing to something on the page.
"I'd certainly thank him if I knew, but I don't rightly know if it matters in the long run," Mr. Bennet said with another shrug. "All I needed to know is that my daughter wasn't involved. At least Denny was decent enough to take the blame for himself and not drag anybody else down with him."
Elizabeth looked up at her father, her eyes narrowed. "So what will happen with Lydia? She's free of this, right? They have to let her go."
"Likely so. They could try to pin her on an obstructing justice charge, I suppose, but it wouldn't stick." Mr. Bennet sighed, getting up to go sit at his desk. "I'm more worried about what we're going to do about her and Wickham. She's still underage."
"Only by 64 days," Elizabeth said, setting the letter down amid the other papers on Mr. Bennet's desk and taking one of the chairs. "What about filing for an early marriage?"
Mr. Bennet smiled wryly. "The petition would likely take longer than if we just waited for her to turn 16. And besides, I'm not sure pairing her with that wastrel is in the best interests of my daughter, as little as I'm inclined to think of her comfort as she just did her foolish best to destroy ours. But I suppose it would be better than pressing charges against him. I can't imagine, with us already in the spotlight, how that would pan out."
"Perhaps they would be happy together if they married," Jane offered.
Elizabeth and her father shared a look, but he merely murmured, "You think that, Jane, if it gives you comfort." He sighed again and pushed himself up from his desk. "But it's all academic at this point. I suppose I'll have to send your uncle and aunt instructions on how to proceed and then get in contact with Earth authorities. We're not back in pressurization yet; it'll probably be a good few weeks before we get this all straightened out. Maybe then those blinking reporters will decamp and we'll have some peace around here."
There, though, he was wrong. To his credit, the reporters were entirely gone within the span of five days, a few days short of his expected "few weeks" by Deimos time -- but practically a week by universal time, so that might be considered close. As well, peace did, in fact, descend upon Deimos Base for perhaps a few hours as things got back to normal, but they had barely settled in before events again took control. But that would be a little further into the story.
Only four hours after Mr. Bennet had sent off a note to his brother-in-law regarding the best course to take with Lydia's situation, a letter was sent in return that surprised everyone but Mrs. Bennet, who had known it all along and couldn't understand why everyone seemed so shocked.
"Of course my dearest Lydia is getting married," she said forcefully. The Bennets were all gathered in the family room, where Mr. Bennet had read aloud the letter he'd received -- or most of it, at least. "Though I don't see why my brother insists on them getting married on Earth -- or why we cannot go down there. Mr. Bennet, this is an outrage! I demand you let us go. She's my youngest daughter."
Mr. Bennet's lips pursed tightly, and his jaw clenched. "Madam, I have no interest in recognizing this union or giving it any more attention than it already has gotten. Lydia will be married downside tomorrow morning, and she and her husband will go from there to his new posting on the ship to Alpha Centauri."
"And that's another thing!" Mrs. Bennet said, warming to her theme of ill usage. "Why should they be sent away like this? Why should they not stay here on Deimos? It's not as if we wouldn't be able to find a position for him, or her if she cares to work now she's a wife. Perhaps she'll want to devote her time to raising her children, like I did."
"Mrs. Bennet, we do not have a position currently for a scientist of Mr. Wickham's ... class," he said, his tone severe. "He was lucky to be given the opportunity for so profitable a study."
"Well!" Mrs. Bennet huffed. "I suppose that's true. But, oh! How I will miss my dearest Lydia while she's gone."
"It's only a three-year expedition," Mary said dryly, glancing up from her book. "And there will be points at which they will set up a secure location for transfers. I'm sure they would have an opportunity to send a letter, if they cannot visit."
Mr. Bennet's jaw clenched at this last suggestion, but he said nothing as his wife continued to rhapsodize over the success of having her youngest daughter married. He repeatedly deflected her pleas to take them to Earth to see the wedding, and at long last she gave up for the moment in favor of crowing to her neighbors about Lydia's triumph. With Kitty at her heels, she left in search of Tara Phillips and Elisa Lucas, who would no doubt be green with jealousy at her news.
Mary returned to her room to finish her book, and Jane left to return to the mailroom, leaving Elizabeth with her father. She didn't waste any time coming to her point: "I think we should go to Earth for the wedding."
Mr. Bennet raised an eyebrow in her direction. "Et tu, Lizzy?"
She sighed. "It's not like I want to attend, Dad, but I think it's probably the best thing to do in the situation. It would certainly make it less conspicuous if we banded together and stood behind it, as if there was nothing wrong with it. The media bores with normality. As long as we pretend there's nothing special in it, why should they take notice? Besides," she added with a tilt of her eyebrow, "what would you rather do -- let her go, or have to listen to her complain for the next month and a half? Some might call that crazy."
Mr. Bennet sighed. "I suppose I deserve that," he said with a rueful grimace. "But you're right, just as you were before. I hate giving in to your mother like this, but, then, I suppose it's no more than standard."
"So... what did the rest of the letter say?" Elizabeth asked after a moment of silence. "How much do we have to pay him to marry her?"
"A thousand credits," Mr. Bennet said, passing the letter to his daughter. "It mostly will pay off his debts on Capella and elsewhere. Then, of course, I'll also have to settle a bit on Lydia, which I suppose I would have done for her marriage, in any event. So, considering how many credits that girl goes through in a month as it is, I'll really be better off with her off my hands."
Elizabeth furrowed her brow. "That doesn't seem like enough money."
"It doesn't, does it? But it's what your uncle has requested, and I'm not going to ruin our friendship by demanding he tell me the total." Mr. Bennet passed a hand over his tired eyes. "It's probably better this way," he added with a wry smile. "I doubt I could have afforded it, anyway. It'll be bad enough when I let your mother get anywhere within five miles of the London shops just before a wedding."
So the Bennet family went to Earth for the first time all together, meeting the Gardiners at their home in London Proper. Lydia was there, joyfully unrepentant about her recent experiences. Luckily for his continued health, Wickham was not in residence.
"He's staying with ... a friend," Mr. Gardiner said. At Elizabeth's low-voiced professed doubt he would show the next morning, her uncle shook his head with a small smile and insisted, "He'll be there."
Lydia, of course, couldn't see the point of this silly custom of having the bride and groom remain separated before the wedding. "I mean, we've been together for the past week, really, so it's not as if it makes much difference."
Elizabeth merely closed her eyes and imagined what life might have been like if her parents had been content with fewer children.
The next morning finally arrived, however, and the wedding was held without much ceremony. The license was presented and signed, the officiant was bored with the whole affair, Lydia and no less Mrs. Bennet were obnoxiously giggly, Mr. Wickham was charming as ever, and his bodyguard -- that is, best man was large and slightly intimidating.
The man had come with Wickham and remained close to him during the whole affair. Wickham had introduced him as an acquaintance but failed to give his name at any point, and the man excused himself discretely at the end of the ceremony and, after signing the license as witness, slipped out the side door. No one but Elizabeth noticed, but that was because she had been staring at him, trying to figure out where she had seen him before.
The clue did not come until later, after the Bennets had returned to Deimos. The newlyweds were to stay with the Gardiners for another two days before catching their flight to Procyon and thence to the Alpha Centauri ship, which would embark on its expedition five days afterwards.
Most of the reporters had already left the base, having tapped out the best of the stories Deimos could offer. Elizabeth's reporter friend Lois was one of the last to leave, having been at the back of the queue to apply for an out-flight and having decided to get some research done on an article she was hoping to pitch to her editor about antique hydroponics systems.
"I was happy to hear about your sister," she told Elizabeth as the two of them walked to the pod bay before her flight the afternoon the Bennets had returned.
Elizabeth laughed. "But sorry the story wasn't better," she concluded. "That there wasn't more to it."
The other woman stopped and glanced over at Elizabeth, her eyes narrowing as a small smile appeared on her lips. "Oh, there is more to it. Quite a bit more, and some that might interest you, in fact," she said. "I just don't think there's a reason to pursue it. Not for public consumption, or some such."
"Since when has that stopped you?"
"I'm hurt!" Lois said with a laugh, putting a hand over her heart as they resumed their walk towards the bay. "And here I was going to tell you what I'd heard about Charles Bingley."
Elizabeth grabbed the other woman's arm and pulled her to a stop just outside the doors for the pod bay. "What about Mr. Bingley?"
Lois shrugged, but her penetrating gaze and an ironic smile belied her nonchalant attitude. "Just something I had heard from my contact on Capella. It seems he may have been the anonymous informer who ferreted out Captain Denny's little secret, but the information was given off record and Bingley, while being marginally celebrity, isn't quite enough of a name to make it a lede even if we could confirm, so it'll doubtless come to nothing. But it does seem curious that he would be at Pemberley one day and happen to pass by Captain Denny and the Baron Siegfried in a rather seedy part of New Brighton the next." She waggled a finger at Elizabeth. "You're a sly one. And here I had thought the stories implied it was your older sister who'd caught his interest."
Elizabeth felt her face grow warm, but she knew, despite her innocence, protesting would be useless. "I really don't know what you're talking about," she murmured weakly.
The reporter laughed and opened the pod bay doors. "I'm sure you don't."
In point of fact, Elizabeth knew quite a bit more than even the reporter suspected, but what she could do with the information was another matter entirely. So Bingley was involved in saving Wickham and Lydia's necks, was he? It still didn't explain why one of Mr. Darcy's chefs served as George Wickham's best man, or who had the sway to procure a license for an underage young woman to marry in less than a week -- but there was at least one person who could enlighten her.
Chapter Twelve: The Star Prince
Posted on 2010-03-03
As the sun began to set behind the massive form of Mars, Mrs. Bennet sailed out of the pressure lock on her tether in search of her husband. Maneuvering her way through the open space in leaps and bounds, she finally located him on the aft side of the base where he and one of the base engineers were examining a small crack in the main shield. They did not appear to notice her approach.
"Mr. Bennet! Have you heard?" she cried when she came near.
A distinct sigh came over the headset, then a long-suffering, "Yes, I know, Mrs. Bennet. The sofa needs to be replaced."
A snicker was heard from one of the other people on the line -- probably from the engineer, who diligently bent his head to the task of his measurements.
"No, indeed!" Mrs. Bennet said, then amended it: "Well, yes, it does ... but that isn't the news I've just heard!"
Mr. Bennet set his tools back in the magnetic toolbox beside him and stood up to face his wife. "Very well, madam. You have my attention."
"Mr. Bingley is coming back to Deimos!"
Mr. Bennet again sighed, closing his eyes in weary resignation. "Lizzy?"
"Just a second, Dad," came Elizabeth's voice over the line. "Yes -- it looks like it's true. I just got a buzz on my runner... oops; half an hour ago, it looks like. His ship is coming in at 23:46. I should probably verify the schedule."
"And you must be there to welcome him!" Mrs. Bennet said firmly, bouncing slightly in her grav boots.
"Must I?" Mr. Bennet asked, looking at his wife. "You promised me last time I welcomed him that he'd marry one of my daughters, and that all came to nothing. I see no need to extend my efforts again in his direction."
Mrs. Bennet shrieked, causing all three of the other people on the line to groan and put hands to their helmets or headsets. "But you must!" she cried. "Elisa Lucas and Eva Long are going to meet him when he arrives. And I know Eva will have made him a cake, and she was just talking about how he had complimented her daughter's dancing at the Deimos Day Ball. I just know she'd like to steal him away from me." She leaned closer, as if that made a difference. "She's all for what she can get."
The engineer let out a burst of laughter before muting his comm. unit. Mrs. Bennet glared at him ineffectually through her tinted visor before continuing: "So you must go to see him when he comes, Mr. Bennet. We cannot let the rest of our daughters dwindle away here on Deimos without husbands."
"With husbands is apparently not a problem," Mr. Bennet muttered. But he would not budge on his determination not to be part of the Bingley welcome party, resolutely declaring that he had to finish the work of getting estimates on the necessary shield repairs. Mrs. Bennet eventually gave up and returned to the base to make sure at least she was there to see the Bingley cruiser come in.
"I really don't know why she bothers to actually go out there," Elizabeth said later to her father as he hung up his suit after seeing the engineer out. "She could just as easily talk to you over the communications console."
Mr. Bennet shuddered. "I think we'll just keep things as they are. This way she wastes at least an hour on suiting up, pressurizing, and moonwalking. That's less time I actually have to listen to her."
"So, are you going to see Mr. Bingley?" she asked.
"No. He knows where our suite is if he wants to see us," Mr. Bennet said, putting his toolbox on a shelf and then turning to collect his paperwork. "And, besides, I doubt he's come back to chat with me. I'm sure he'll be able to locate Jane when he wants to."
That is, he would if Jane weren't trying to avoid him. She confessed to Elizabeth that night that she had been extremely distressed to hear, during the course of her rounds, that he was back on base.
"So you've been hiding out in my bedroom ever since?" Elizabeth asked with a laugh, hanging up her fresh laundry in her wardrobe.
Jane tried to scowl at her sister but failed. She sighed instead. "I'm not hiding," she said sadly, wringing her hands. "I'm just... Oh, I'm sure he doesn't want to see me. I can't understand why he's come back to the base."
"Fresh air, most likely. The scenery is just fantastic." When Jane sniffled, Elizabeth sighed and, sitting down on the bed, took her sister's hands in hers. "Look, Jane, you and I both know why he's here. He's still in love with you."
Jane disengaged a hand from her sister's to wipe a tear from her cheek. "But he was gone for so long. And Caroline had said he was planning on marrying Kitty Carroll."
"Wow," Elizabeth said. "I can't believe you remember the name. Personally, I doubt the woman even exists."
"No -- she does," Jane insisted. "I looked her up when I was on Earth. And they were in the news together -- at the same parties, and everything."
"Yes, well, he also attended the same party as mother did on Deimos Day, but I doubt he'll tender a proposal to her."
"Oh, Lizzy," Jane sighed. "It's perfectly fine. I'm perfectly fine. I just needed some time to compose myself. I'm sure, if we happen to run into each other around the base, we'll be able to conduct ourselves as perfect and indifferent acquaintances."
Elizabeth snorted and returned to her laundry. "Yeah, real indifferent, what with him salivating at the mere mention of your name and you going pink as a grapefruit at his." She laughed as Jane turned exactly that shade and then shook her head. "Oh, Jane, be careful."
"You don't think I'm in any danger?"
"I think you're in very real danger of making him more in love with you than he already is," Elizabeth replied.
She could have saved her breath. Nothing she said could convince her sister that Bingley's return to Demios was a positive development, and that Bingley would no doubt seek her out by the end of the next day.
"That's what you said the first time he left," Jane said with a sigh.
But this time, Elizabeth was right. Later the next morning, as she was on her way to the pod bay, she stopped in the mailroom to see if she'd gotten a letter back from her aunt yet. Jane wasn't there -- no doubt out on her rounds -- so Elizabeth dug through the Earth incoming slot and found what she was looking for. She had barely opened the seal and sat down on the edge of Jane's desk when she was startled by the sound of voices. The next moment, two men entered the room. They stopped on seeing her there.
"Miss Elizabeth!" cried Mr. Bingley, coming forward happily. "How do you do?"
Elizabeth overcame her surprise enough to answer him with tolerable composure. "Very well, thank you. I've been busy -- still trying to catch up on paperwork." She glanced at the other man who had lingered in the doorway. "I, uhm, didn't know you had brought guests with you on your cruiser."
"Just Darcy, really," Bingley replied with a laugh. "My sisters.... well... But he has to get back to Pemberley for some meeting or other, so he was only able to come for a day. He's going back by pod later this afternoon."
"Ah." Elizabeth felt it odd he would come for so little time, but didn't voice the thought. "So ... what brought you to Deimos, then?"
Bingley answered the question that hadn't been directed at him. "Oh, not much. This and that," he said with a shrug and an awkward smile. "Have you seen your sister Jane?"
Elizabeth barely managed to contain her grin to a mere smile. "Not recently, but I would imagine she'd be back sometime soon. Her rounds don't usually take her much more than half an hour, if that."
"Half an hour, hm?" Bingley echoed, glancing at the door. "You know, I might just go and look around the base some. It's been a while since I've been here last."
"See if anything's changed, or something."
Nothing had, but Elizabeth nodded. Bingley, with a self-satisfied smile, gave her a brief bow and patted Darcy on the shoulder on his way out the door. Silence descended on the mailroom.
The soft sound of a letter arriving in a slot jarred them into conversation. "How are you?" Darcy asked. "You're doing well?"
The stiltedness of the question, the awkwardness of his pose, and the rigidity of his jaw made Elizabeth sigh. "I am doing well. And you?"
"Doing well." He glanced towards the mail slots, where another letter had just arrived. "She, ah, said hello."
Elizabeth nodded and with a smile thanked him and asked that he return the greeting. Why was this so difficult? What was the point? Why did he even bother to come if all he was going to do was stand there and block the doorway? There wasn't really anything to say -- anything they could say. Circumstances had changed since the last time they'd seen each other. The Bennets weren't notorious anymore, for one. Or as notorious as they had been -- there was still a residual, as the scandal still remained around Lydia and Wickham's behavior and Captain Denny, as a marine who had been posted to Deimos Base. There was also suspicion yet that Wickham had been involved in the theft somehow, but Denny stuck by his statement that it was he alone, and no evidence could show that false.
And all of this was made the more awkward by her knowledge that the letter in her hand might confirm her suspicions that the man in front of her was the man responsible for the Bennets' and Wickhams' salvation. It didn't make sense, but she wasn't quite ballsy enough to point-blank ask him about it.
"So you're going back to Procyon this afternoon?" Elizabeth said, grasping for another thread for the conversation to follow. It wasn't as if she could push by him to get out of the mailroom or completely ignore him to read her letter.
Darcy nodded and checked his watch. "A few hours from now. I just came with Bingley to see him get settled."
"I see," Elizabeth said, not really seeing at all. "He seems to be settling in well. I'm sure everyone's happy to see him come back."
He didn't say anything for a moment, merely looking at her keenly, and then replied, "I hope that's true. He feels guilty about leaving so abruptly last year, and he's worried it'll be hard to get people to forgive him for that."
"I'm sure he's got nothing to worry about," Elizabeth said softly. "People around here are very forgiving of these kinds of things. Especially if there's any sort of feeling involved. Most of us aren't the type to hold grudges."
"Most?" Darcy echoed, but before Elizabeth could respond, Robert Goulding came through the door, nearly bumping into the man in the doorway. He apologized, then caught sight of Elizabeth. "Oh, there you are! I wondered if I'd find you here. Carling's in the control room looking for your figures on the year-end report. She said she's been buzzing you for the last half hour. Don't you ever check your runner?"
Elizabeth flushed in embarrassment and frustration at the interruption, but there was not much she could do, with Robert standing there completely oblivious to the conversation he had interrupted. With a murmured apology to Darcy, she thanked Robert and made her way out of the mailroom to the control room.
The consultation with Carling took nearly an hour, as they had to re-compute some of the numbers that didn't match. Elizabeth then tried to sit at her desk and read her letter, but she was too frequently interrupted by other people needing her attention on various topics so that she could barely read the opening salutation. She finally retreated to her workroom, where her father was spending some time on the diesel engine. After a brief nod of hello, he completely ignored her, giving her the silence needed to read Mrs. Gardiner's letter:
My dearest Lizzy:
To say that I was surprised when I got your note would be an understatement. I hadn't thought news would spread so fast; indeed, I hadn't seen anything in the newspapers here, so figured that it had gone no further. That isn't to say that I didn't expect you to know -- quite the contrary. But I never thought you would apply to me for the details. But I suppose you would accuse me of being oblique, as usual, and I suppose I am. As you seem to know part of the story, it's best you know all. You, I think, would understand.
Mr. Darcy came to us two days after your father left. From what I can gather, he had left Procyon the day after we did and finally located Lydia and Mr. Wickham through the reluctant assistance of an old acquaintance, a Mrs. Young, who seemed to have had some earlier connection as a tutor with his sister. When he came to us, he was taking your sister and Mr. Wickham to the police so they could turn themselves in. I spoke with Lydia briefly. She, as you might expect, knew nothing about the theft of the moon rock. She also couldn't understand what the fuss was, or why she should have to go to the police station. But she was insistent that she and George were getting married and were only waiting until she turned of age.
Mr. Wickham, on the other hand, knew the moon rock had been stolen. I only understood this secondhand from your uncle, who spoke with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham at length before they took him in, but it seems that he discovered the rock went missing and, with his debts piling up and creditors at his heels, figured he would be best served by leaving promptly. Shortsighted as this was, I suppose he cannot be faulted for his instincts for self-preservation. Lydia, in your uncle's words as he recounted this to me, was simply "an added bonus." It seems she discovered he was leaving and insisted on coming along. I don't know if he knew how young she was, but Adam said he seemed taken aback when he accused him of seducing an underage girl.
As to what happened on Capella, I do not know much about that. You might need to ask Mr. Bingley for details, but I do recall Mr. Darcy alluding to some investigations proceeding on that planet, so it is possible he was involved. All we know is by the end of the day that we got the news, Lydia was released to our custody.
We then had the pleasure of her company for the next day, spent primarily on her side amid childish fits and sulkiness. When Mr. Darcy arrived, he first spoke to us regarding the possible avenues we might pursue in relation to Mr. Wickham. We were set on charging him, as your father's advice had been vague and completely leaving it to us, but your sister -- who has a reprehensible habit of lurking about and listening at doors -- interrupted us, insisting that she didn't need our help, that she was only a few days from turning 16, that she would not hear of leaving George, and accusing Mr. Darcy of all kinds of terrible things. The less said about my own reaction, the better, but Mr. Darcy took it quite calmly and afterwards suggested an alternative. He would obtain permission for Lydia and Wickham to marry, which would also serve to clear Wickham of charges.
Your sister, quite naturally, was thrilled, though less than adequately appreciative of Mr. Darcy's efforts. If I may say so, and I know I am secure so long as you do not share this with anyone else, your youngest sister has been rather appallingly spoiled. While I would never wish harm on her or anyone, I could not help but think during this whole affair that perhaps this is the only way she will learn. Lydia is one of those females who will never be satisfied until she is married -- especially if it means she has gotten to that state before anyone else. As if there were some panacea in male company. I can only hope that she -- and Wickham -- will survive their union.
As to your questions about money, please do not encourage your father to pay your uncle and I back. It would put us in quite an awkward position. For all the speculation on Mr. Darcy's faults, I think I can safely say that this is where his true character default lies: pure male stubbornness. He absolutely insisted on being responsible for paying off Mr. Wickham's debts, owing to his own fault in not earlier revealing his knowledge of the latter gentleman's character. Your uncle argued with him for quite some time, until he finally allowed us to at least cover the expenses of purchasing a berth for them on the Alpha Centauri expedition -- and your father to provide them with a small fund to begin their marriage. Even then, I do not think Adam would have given up so readily had we not believed there to be another motive. I must say he was rather sly about the whole thing, Lizzy -- he hardly mentioned your name at all during the many visits we had from him.
He wasn't there for the wedding, as you know, but you were right in assuming Mr. Wickham stayed at his place in London. He even sent along one of his men -- a very friendly man who was quite impressively good at whittling, I learned -- to ensure everything was carried through properly.
And that, I suppose, is all I can tell you. Excepting, of course, that I must say how much we enjoy Mr. Darcy's acquaintance. He was everything we had experienced on our visit to Pemberley and more -- he is only perhaps in need of a bit more liveliness. But that could be provided, I think, if he chooses his closest friends well. But forgive me if I presume; I wouldn't wish you to become angry with me and ban me from the base. Your uncle would love to explore the telescope more, and I know I would love to spend more time in the kitchens there. But enough! I must get back to my tasks for the day; the children have been wanting me for the past half hour. I hope to hear from you soon.
Your loving aunt,
Elizabeth didn't know how to respond at first. She read through the letter again, gaining a better understanding of her aunt's words and blushing at several implications. But even after she had fully taken in the words again, they made as much sense to her as a thesis on the practicability of ancient forms of media transmission. She sat for ten or fifteen moments, mulling this over, before her mental activity finally drove her to the physical. With a brief apology to her father, who had been watching her agitation for some time, she left the workroom and went searching for Mr. Darcy.
Her quest was in vain, however, for he had already left the base. His pod had left promptly at 14:37 with no problems. Elizabeth stood on the other side of the pod bay console, deflated and unsure now how to proceed, as the yeoman who had delivered the news chattered on about other things happening on base. The departure of Mr. Darcy was hardly important, of course, especially with Mr. Bingley coming back and making it painfully obvious he had returned for one reason -- and one person -- in particular. The affair was, as usual on Deimos Base, blown completely out of proportion.
"So, Liz -- how long until they're engaged?" the yeoman asked, her eyes brimming with curiosity and completely oblivious to Elizabeth's inattention.
Shaking herself out of her stupor, Elizabeth asked her to clarify the subject. "Jane and Mr. Bingley, of course," the young woman said. "There's a pool going, and I was trying to decide on a date for the big announcement. The kitty's already at forty credits, and it just started twenty minutes ago. This is so much better than the last time he was here. I still can't believe Jorge won that."
At some level, Elizabeth wondered whether she was the subject of any betting pools, but she firmly squelched her curiosity. Setting her tablet on the console and leaning forward confidentially, Elizabeth said in a stage whisper: "I'd put money down that they've already said the magic words, and are just waiting for a more reasonable time to make it official so it doesn't seem so shockingly fast."
"I don't think your mother would mind," called out another yeoman from his desk on the other side of the room.
"Likely not," Elizabeth said with a laugh. "But I think my father would flip, having to lay out even more credits for another wedding in so short of a time."
The yeoman at the desk where Elizabeth stood shrugged her shoulders. "It's not like they'd get married right away, right? I mean, the average engagement's still nearly half a year."
"Yeah, but that's average," the other yeoman said. "And with the way those two are acting, I think they'd rather tie the knot quicker than otherwise. He's been here, what, 24 hours at most, and did you hear Petra just caught them snogging -- what the hell?" With a startled curse, the man jumped up and hit the emergency button on the wall, then grabbed the intercom and began shouting into it over the sound of the all-base alarm: "Code red-eighty-six! Code red-eighty-six! Bogey in the number one ship dock. Bogey in the number one ship dock!"
"Number one?" Elizabeth echoed, dashing around the console to read the screen over the other yeoman's shoulder. "Gads! The Capellan freighter's due in two minutes." Letting out a curse, she grabbed a red card, slapped on the direction, and sent it through the emergency channel to Capella airbase. "Get the marines out there, fast!" she yelled to the other yeoman, who relayed her instructions over the intercom. "I want to know who the hell's coming in here unannounced."
Elizabeth wasn't happy when she found out, and even less so when she found out why. She was there, simmering with rage, as the ship was piloted into the hangar twenty minutes later under as heavy a guard as they could pull together in the absence of their full marine corps. They had managed to forestall the Capellan freighter's departure in order to prevent a monumental spacecrash disaster, but barely -- and the delay had backed up the schedule on that end. The Capellan PM's office had sent a brief but blistering letter within minutes, but she was kept from responding by a list of diplomatic spacecodes -- especially when she learned the vehicle owner's identity. The feeling of impotence and frustrated anger was overwhelming. It wasn't a good frame of mind to be in when Catherine DeBourgh disembarked.
"Ms. DeBourgh," Elizabeth began tightly, "I don't believe we had you on the schedule of inflights."
Her father put a restraining hand on her arm and stepped forward to welcome the woman who stalked down the gangway, a newspaper gripped tightly in her hand. "Ms. DeBourgh, I am Thomas Bennet, the governor of this base," he said with a bow. "How may I be of service?"
The woman sniffed slightly and glared at him, then shifted her gaze to Elizabeth. "I wish to speak with Elizabeth Bennet."
Mr. Bennet glanced at his daughter, his eyes sparkling even as he did his best to conceal his smile. "I see. Did you have an appointment with her?"
Ms. DeBourgh hesitated, then answered, "No. This is a rather urgent matter. A very private urgent matter."
"Ah, I see," Mr. Bennet said, nodding his head solemnly. "Then perhaps you might wish to set up an appointment with her. I could direct you to her assistant, Mister--"
"Dad," Elizabeth said in a warning voice. She turned back to the woman who was practically twitching in her impatience. "Ms. DeBourgh, we have a conference room down the hall. Would you care to step this way?"
With a tight nod, Catherine DeBourgh preceded Elizabeth in the direction the latter had indicated. When she reached the hallway, however, she stopped abruptly, uncertain where she was going. Elizabeth contained her smile and stepped forward to lead the way to the meeting room. On the way there, the silence was interspersed by Ms. DeBourgh's comments on the base's inferior accommodations, poor lighting, and odd smell. The doorways, at least, seemed adequately large.
"Now," Elizabeth said after she'd shut the door behind them, "how can I help you? I assume you didn't come all this way to correct our lack of interior decorating."
The other woman, who had immediately upon entering chosen to seat herself in a plush chair at the end of the table, stiffened. Her chin rose slightly higher. "I am not accustomed to such address, young lady. This is beyond intolerable. You can be in no doubt as to why I've come."
"Actually, Ms. DeBourgh, I have no idea why you're here," Elizabeth replied, sitting down in the seat farthest across the table.
Catherine DeBourgh narrowed her eyes. "I am unsure what you think you have to gain from being obtuse, but I am not afraid of directness. I am universally celebrated for my candor." She held up the newspaper she had carried with her from her ship. "I have come to have you contradict an infamous and scurrilous rumor that has been circulating. It is impossible, of course, but I will have you confirm its untruth."
"Not knowing what the rumor is, I would have a hard time doing that," Elizabeth said with a sigh.
The other woman sneered. "You may think it is amusing to pretend ignorance, but I find it in exceedingly bad taste. I want you to tell me that you are not engaged to my nephew."
"Very well," Elizabeth said. "I am not engaged to Colonel Fitzwilliam."
"My other nephew, Fitzwilliam Darcy," Ms. DeBourgh ground out between her teeth. "This newspaper," she said, holding up the offending piece of media, "indicates that not only is your older sister about to become engaged to a Gnarles Biglee or some such name, but that your name has been linked with that of my nephew."
"Good gads, he only came back yesterday," Elizabeth said with a choked laugh. "Jane and he have barely had time to say hello, much less get engaged."
"I care nothing about Gnarles Bugbee!" Ms. DeBourgh snapped.
"Besides, what kind of rag publishes conclusions like that on so little information?" Elizabeth said, leaning forward. "I would think your coming here would only confirm it all for them."
"This is no rag," Ms. DeBourgh said, shaking the newspaper. "This is the Procyon Courier. Their society column has been known for its accurate accounting of the goings on of the upper classes." She narrowed her eyes. "Not that your inclusion in this report means you are anything but a nobody."
"You relieve my mind. But if that's the case, I'm not really clear about why you care. Though I must say I'm very touched by your concern."
"I am not interested in you at all, Miss Bennet. I am concerned about my nephew's reputation."
Elizabeth shrugged, sitting back in her chair. "If he's not concerned about it, I don't see why you should be."
"I am quite nearly his closest living relative," Ms. DeBourgh said. "His mother was my sister. We are family."
"OK... but that still doesn't explain why you're here. If you're that close, you should talk to him. You certainly have given me no reason to defend the intimate details of my life to you."
"This is insupportable, Miss Bennet. You will contradict this rumor immediately."
"But you've already said it's impossible. I don't see how the word of a nobody could stand against someone such as yourself."
Ms. DeBourgh bristled. "It shouldn't. But I know how these rumors are spread by young women like yourself who think nothing of entrapping rich men like my nephew. You have no doubt seduced him with your ... whatever your tawdry qualities are, and are now hoping to close in for the kill."
Elizabeth laughed. "It's not likely I'd ever admit to that, even were it true."
"I shall not be mocked, Miss Bennet! You will never marry my nephew. He is engaged to my daughter, and it is not for the likes of you to interfere."
There was silence for a moment as Elizabeth considered this. "If your daughter is engaged to Mr. Darcy, I wonder why you are so worried," she said softly. "If he's so honor-bound, there should be no reason he would make an offer to me."
Ms. DeBourgh hesitated, then said, "Their engagement is not yet formalized. There are applications to be approved and several other steps to be taken first. But it was the dearest wish of his mother and hers that they join together the family fortunes. Who are you to prevent that? Who are you to come between them? Have you no decency, no sense of honor?"
"I should say I do," Elizabeth replied, stiffening. "But though I had heard of this intention of yours before, I saw no reason why it affected me in the least. You may make all the plans in the universe, Ms. DeBourgh, but if those who are most closely involved do not agree with the course, there is nothing you can do to force them down that path. If Mr. Darcy opted for another choice, it is not for you to say yea or nay. If he is not bound by honor or inclination to wed his own cousin, then there is nothing more to be said. And if he made an offer of marriage to me, there is nothing you can say that will sway me from my decision."
"Nothing?" Ms. DeBourgh sneered. "Are you so ignorant of your situation, Miss Bennet? You would be the ruin of my nephew. You, with the stain that rests on your family name. No one would associate with a woman whose very name has become a byword, whose own sister and brother-in-law were responsible for the theft of the original moon rock. Oh, do not tell me that she was released from the charges. I have heard how the story was told, but I do not believe it. There is always more to it, and I know your family was involved. You will be an outcast among us, Miss Bennet. Your name will never be mentioned, you will never be invited anywhere, you will be ridiculed in the press and among the upper classes."
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "As if I should care. The wife of Fitzwilliam Darcy would have more than enough other sources of happiness attached to her situation than the disapproval of a bunch of old biddies and scandalmongers could diminish."
Ms. DeBourgh sucked in a hissing breath. "So that is your decision? You are determined to ruin him? You would align a name of longstanding tradition, heritage, and honor to that of a third-world nobody?"
"My father is the governor of this base," Elizabeth said tightly. "This is the oldest existing base in the universe -- far older than your own world's establishment, even. My ancestor was one of its founders. If anyone can claim ancient heritage, it would be me."
"But who is your mother? Who are your aunts and uncles? I've heard about one of them -- a telescope manufacturer on Earth! How could you even dream of bringing such a connection into my nephew's family?"
"If your nephew does not object to it, there is nothing for you to say about it."
Ms. DeBourgh, her face red and her jaw tight, stood angrily. "I will not be gainsaid, Miss Bennet! Tell me once and for all -- are you engaged to my nephew?" With a sharp crack, she snapped the newspaper down onto the table, its case shattering and pieces scattering across the surface.
Elizabeth watched as a tiny chip flew across the shiny plane, spinning to rest less than a foot in front of her. She picked it up and examined it, turning it over in her hand. "No, I am not," she said at last.
The other woman sat down in her chair with a sigh. "And will you promise me never to become so?"
"No, I will not," Elizabeth said. When Ms. DeBourgh began to object, she stood and dropped the chip on the table, then pushed her chair in. "And I will not sit here and listen to you any further. This conference is over."
Ms. DeBourgh followed her out the door and down the hall, berating her for her insensitivity and dubious origins the entire way. Passersby, including Jane and Mr. Bingley, stopped and stared as they went past at a furious clip, Elizabeth unheeding of the words thrown at her head. At last, Elizabeth threw open the doors of the hangar in which the DeBourgh ship was docked and entered. The crew, which had been taking tea with some of the yeomen on duty, snapped to attention and quickly hurried to grab their things and make their way back onto the ship. Ms. DeBourgh wouldn't have noticed.
"So this is it, Miss Bennet?" she said as Elizabeth stopped and turned to face her at the beginning of the gangway. "You are determined to have him, and nothing I can say will turn you from this course? You are resolved to ruin him?"
"I am resolved to act in the manner I see fit," Elizabeth replied. "And I will not be influenced by someone so wholly unconnected with me."
"And that is your final answer? You refuse to heed the advice of one who knows the world better than you could ever hope to understand it? You are willing to make him the contempt of the universe?"
Elizabeth closed her eyes briefly, lifted her chin, and said, "Ms. DeBourgh, you live in a world in which marriage is the means to an end -- that of prestige, power, and wealth. I live in a world in which the goal is to find happiness through love, family, and community. If this were to be gained through my marriage with your nephew, then there is nothing in this universe that would alter me from my course but the opinions of those I hold most dearly. If some cannot understand that, then I have no interest in them. Their condemnation would not concern me -- and the universe at large could probably not care less." She glanced up at the countdown clock on the wall. "It seems your ship, Ms. DeBourgh, is set to return in twelve minutes. I suggest you board."
"Very well, Miss Bennet. But this is not finished by any means. I had hoped to find you reasonable, but it appears not. I will know now how to act."
And with that, Catherine DeBourgh strode up the gangway and into the ship. Elizabeth watched as the gangway was raised, the door closed, and the ship towed out into the open space. She watched it go without a flicker of remorse.
"So, she didn't stop and say goodbye to me, hm?" Mr. Bennet said, coming up behind her. "Pity. She seemed like such a nice woman."
Others were less generous in their judgments, but Elizabeth could have cared less. Jane and Bingley offered their condolences for having to deal with such a woman -- Bingley, particularly, because he knew she was his friend's aunt -- but Elizabeth shrugged off their well-meaning intent. She was tired of everything, cranky, and completely out of sorts. When she finally got finished with her work, she threw her tablet on her desk and made her way to the walkout bay. She needed to get out.
It was Kitty who agreed to sit at the out-base communications desk while she went moonwalking. Since Lydia had left, Kitty had been essentially on her own, and the feeling was not comfortable. She was tired of not doing anything, she told Elizabeth over the comm. unit.
"What do you think of my getting a job in the mining camp?" she asked as Elizabeth stepped out of the pressurization lock. "Maria Lucas said there's a spot opened up in the office where she's working right now. It's just filing and stuff, and it doesn't pay well, but it's something."
"I think it's a good idea," Elizabeth replied with a sigh, looking out at the large mass that was Mars. "If you don't like that, you can always ask Dad if he can get you into training in another field. Your grades weren't bad -- you could find something else you liked."
"Yeah, I guess," came the response. There was silence over the line, and Elizabeth slowly moved out from the shadow of the base into the sunlight.
"What are you going to do?" Kitty asked after a while.
The question was so jarring, Elizabeth looked back towards the base in surprise. "Me?"
"Well, yeah," her sister said. "With Jane getting married, and everything, what are you going to do? Stay here?"
Elizabeth laughed. She couldn't help it. "Why is everyone so fascinated with my future? I mean, at least you're not trying to marry me off to Mr. Darcy -- or preventing me from marrying him, but still!"
"Yes, Mr. Darcy. I know -- you don't like him. None of us did, really, when he came here. He was a jerk. He seemed so incredibly rude at first. And everything Mr. Wickham had told us just added to it. He was proud, he was aloof..." Elizabeth picked up a handful of dust from the moon's surface and let it trickle through her hands. It spread out like a cloud as she slowly waved it into space. "But he's not. And I didn't realize it until too late."
She sighed and then wandered a bit on her tether, kicking up slight clouds of dust as she went. At last she made her way to the steps up to the base cover, where she perched and looked out toward the stars. "Did I tell you I saw him at Pemberley, Kitty? When Aunt and Uncle Gardiner and I were on Procyon. I don't think I told you that. I think only Jane knew. He was so different then. He was open, and warm, and welcoming, and perfectly polite. He was intelligent, he was well-spoken, he was ... perfect. Do you know how rare that is, Kitty? I mean, not perfectly perfect -- but perfect for me. Someone I could be happy with. Someone I could maybe get to know better. Someone I could love, someone..."
She sighed again, then bit out a curse as she shook her head. "But then it all went south. Lydia's stupid antics, and that's it. And I know I shouldn't listen at all to Catherine DeBourgh, who's an intrusive, abusive busybody, but she said one thing that's absolutely correct. Marrying me would ruin him. And after all he did for us, too."
"What did I do?"
Elizabeth looked up, startled, to see a figure in a spacesuit a few feet away. She couldn't see his face through the helmet, but she knew it was him. "Mr. Darcy! What-- what are you doing here? Kitty!" she hissed over her comm. unit. "Why didn't you warn me?"
"He told me not to," Kitty replied with a giggle.
She groaned. "Not you, too."
"Is it a bad thing, to have everyone so interested in helping you out?" Darcy asked softly. He came a few feet closer, then stopped. "Or do you not want me here? I could go."
Elizabeth immediately shook her head. "No! No, it's fine. I just -- it's so unexpected... Gads! Did you hear everything?"
"Would you rather I hadn't?"
"I guess it doesn't really matter. It's not like it would have stayed a secret. With Kitty on the line. Traitor." Her sister giggled again, and Elizabeth sighed. "What are you doing back on Deimos? I thought you had some sort of meeting."
"I did," he said. "And then my aunt interrupted it."
Elizabeth felt her face flushing and was glad for the tinted visor. "Good gads," she said softly. "I can only imagine what she said about me."
"I'd rather not remember most of it," he replied. "The majority of it was ill-informed, abusive vitriol she had no right to say. Especially in front of the rest of the board members. But there was something in it that gave me a bit of hope. And, then, of course, Bingley sent me a note saying I should get back here immediately. I was already getting in the pod by that time, but I appreciated the reinforcement."
When Elizabeth didn't respond, Darcy came closer and leaned against the staircase rail. "Do you know what gave me hope?" She shook her head. "She told me that you wouldn't promise not to marry me. That you had implied there were sources of happiness in becoming my wife. That your views of marriage were tied up in your own selfish happiness and not the views of the world. She seemed to think it would be my wealth and my position that would attract you, but I knew better. You would have accepted me on Altair if that were true."
"Miss Catherine, get off the line, please."
"Put on the emergency standard and get off the line."
"You know she just put herself on mute," Elizabeth said with a smile.
"I know, but I don't care," he replied. "I couldn't care if she put us on the base intercom. Though I know she won't try it if she wants to come to Pemberley anytime soon."
"Elizabeth," he said, coming around the rail and perching on the step next to her, "if your feelings are what they were when I asked you on Altair, I need you to tell me. My feelings have only grown stronger in the meantime, and I would give anything to start over with you. To take you to coffee, to introduce you to the rest of my family, to show you the rest of the universe as I see it, through my eyes. I love you, but one word from you would silence me on the subject forever."
"I don't think I could ever say that one word," Elizabeth replied, resting her visor on his so that she could see through them into his eyes. "My feelings have changed so much since I refused you that day -- gads, I must have been insane."
"Not insane," Darcy said, shaking his head slightly. "You said nothing that day I didn't deserve. You changed me, Elizabeth. Made me look at the universe in a new way. I'd been spoiled and selfish and full of myself, my position, my wealth to that point. You taught me a needed lesson in how little those qualities really matter."
"But I didn't have to do it so brutally."
"The truth is always brutal," he said. "But it also sets us free."
Elizabeth didn't respond. She lowered her eyes, then drew away from him slightly and looked out towards the stars. "I need to thank you," she said.
"For saving my sister. For saving my family from utter disgrace."
He shifted on the step, then stood and walked a few steps away from her. "How did you find out?"
"One of the reporters here tipped me off to it," she said. "And then I wrote my aunt, who told me everything."
He sighed. "So this is just gratitude."
"No!" she cried, standing as well. "The only thing learning this did was make me more in love with you than I already was." He turned towards her, and she stepped towards him. "Fitzwilliam, you and I both know that the truth would have come out eventually. What you did was spare us the months, the weeks of waiting, of infamy, of discomfort."
"I didn't do any of it for them."
"I know," she said. "But you still did it. And for that, I am grateful. But this merely added to my understanding of the real you -- of the man that I am in love with. A man who is noble, and caring, and will do anything for the ones he loves."
Darcy closed the small space between them to rest his helmet on hers, holding her close and gazing into her eyes through the tinted visor. "So you love me, then?"
"I do. And you?"
He smiled crookedly. "I don't think there could be any doubt, but yes, I do. I love you very much."
She smiled happily, and they stayed this way, helmet to helmet, gloved hand to gloved hand, for some time before Darcy sighed. "There's still too much space between us," he said.
Elizabeth laughed. "Less than before, really. But what do you propose we do?"
"Go back inside," he said. "The minute we're depressurized, I am going to do something I've wanted to do since the last time I saw you at Pemberley and every moment since then."
"Oh?" she said with a smile. "And what's that?"
But he couldn't even do that, for the moment the repressurization bell sounded, the door was flung open from the outside by someone from the crowd gathered in the walkout bay. Knowing her sister would never actually cut ties with her, Kitty had, of course, hooked their conversation into the intercom, and the entire base had turned up to wish them happy. Someone had even brought a cake.
"I guess it's official," Elizabeth said with a laughing glance at the man whose hand she was now holding.
"Not quite yet," Darcy replied. And taking her into his arms, in front of as much of Deimos Base as could fit in the tiny walkout bay or peer through the door, he kissed her. Amid the cheers and whistles and Mr. Bennet's pointed throat-clearing, he whispered, "There -- not a space between us."