“There they are!” Matt cried out as he stood and waved to the group that had just entered the bar.
Kerri grinned. “So I’m finally going to get to meet the people you work with. I’ve been wondering if they were figments of your imagination, and you’re actually a janitor at NASA and not a psychologist.”
Matt gave her a quick peck on the cheek and then showed her his palms. “Do these look like the hands of an environmental superintendent?”
She took his hands and turned them over, revealing the dirty fingernails that were left over from their overnight camping trip. She grinned. “Yes.”
He clutched his chest theatrically. “Got me!”
They were still chuckling when the others reached their table.
“Everyone, I’d like you to meet Kerri Ricardo. Kerri, meet everyone.”
The newcomers, three guys and two girls, smiled and offered various greetings. The girls took the chairs at the end of the table, while the guys sat opposite Kerri and Matt. As they sat down, the guy in the middle, a trim young man in his late twenties whose blond streaks gave the impression that he would be more at home on a beach than in a crowded bar, reached over to shake Kerri’s hand. “G’day, Kerri. Matt’s told us a lot about you. Some of us have been wondering why he’s been hiding you away, but I can see why. He was afraid of the competition wanting to steal you away.” His smile showed he wasn’t being serious.
Kerri grinned. “Thanks. You must be Sam.”
Sam cocked an eyebrow and flicked a glance at Matt before returning the grin. “What gave it away?”
“Your accent. Matt told me that despite living in Houston for six years, you still sound like an Aussie.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
One of the other guys answered. “A good thing, especially when it comes time to find a date. Hi, I’m Rod.” He glanced around the room. “And unless I’m very much mistaken, you’ll get to see Jailbait in all his glory tonight.”
Sam frowned but didn’t say anything. Instead, he reached for the serving unit and placed his drink order.
“Jailbait?” Kerri gave Matt a puzzled look, as it was obvious that Sam was well over any age of consent.
“Jailbait is Sam’s nickname in the unit.” Matt continued when he saw that Kerri was still perplexed. “I’ve told you what we do at the space center.”
She nodded. “You’re evaluating the couples being selected for the Alpha Centauri mission.”
“That’s right. It’s a one way trip, and by far the longest manned mission NASA has ever undertaken, so there’s a lot of effort being put into the psychological profiles, to make sure the group will have long-term stability. Sam’s doctoral thesis was on group dynamics in isolated populations, and that’s how he got invited to work for NASA, and why he’ll probably be my boss when Dr. Klingston announces his successor next week.”
One of the girls rolled her eyes. “Matt, you talk too much without saying anything.” She smiled at Kerri. “I’m Opal, and this is my partner Rachel. Sam got his nickname because he’s so good looking and such an all around nice guy that he’s almost irresistible to anyone who’s attracted to guys. His research showed that the best candidates for the mission would be couples in long-term monogamous relationships, so it was made clear that to avoid any sexual tension ruining the mission only committed couples could apply. Just by working closely with the candidates, he’s eliminated four couples because three girls and one guy hit on him. That’s more than anyone else on the team.”
Sam’s head was bowed. “That’s not a record to be proud of.”
The other guy took Sam’s chin and forced him to make eye contact. “On the contrary, you should be very proud of what you’ve achieved. I know you’re disappointed that your own research eliminated any chance of you going to AC, but you’ve done everything in your power to maximize the chances that the mission will be a success. That’s why everyone knows you’ll be promoted to Director of Psychological Evaluations, even though you’re only twenty-nine. No one, and I mean no one, has put in more effort to ensure that the final group of astronauts selected will be as psychologically compatible and stable as possible.”
Sam gave him a weak smile. “Thanks, Paul. I owe you one.”
Paul grinned. “You can pay me back tonight by attracting a nice hunky guy for me to meet. It’s been too long since I broke up with my last boyfriend.”
Sam gave Paul a playful punch in the arm. “Is that all I am to you? A guy magnet?”
Rod protested. “Of course not! Now that Matt’s attached, you’re also a girl magnet for this lonely heterosexual on the team.”
Matt caught Sam’s eye. “Is it okay to tell her?”
Sam rolled his eyes and then nodded. “Go ahead. Everyone else knows, so she might as well know, too.”
Matt turned to Kerri. “I told you how Sam’s research was on group dynamics in isolated populations–”
“You’re still talking too much, Matt,” Opal jeered.
Without looking, Matt flipped a finger at her. “Well, he was over the moon when he was asked to join NASA as a junior psychologist on the team that would come up with a short list of six couples for the crew of the Endeavour. He made no bones about the fact he wanted to go, and was devastated when he realized that, being single, he wasn’t eligible.”
Kerri’s forehead wrinkled. “Didn’t you tell me that they were looking for couples that had been together for five years? If that was six years ago, maybe he could have found someone…”
Matt shook his head. “Nope, that wasn’t an option.”
Kerri looked at where Sam was chatting with Rod and Paul. “Why not? He’d have no trouble at all meeting someone — he really is as good looking as you said.”
Matt glanced around and lowered his voice. “Because he knew it wouldn’t work out. The whole point of picking monogamous couples was to avoid sexual tensions destroying the group. That would be difficult if one member of a couple is asexual.”
Kerri blinked. “Asexual? What’s that?”
Matt put his arm around her and pulled her close. “Despite his great looks and charming personality, Sam’s not interested in sex. He got the bad end of the normal distribution curve, with his sex drive being so low that it’s essentially non-existent. However, he’s quite content being single, and doesn’t seem to mind that he doesn’t have a partner. He complains about people hitting on him at times, which is why he doesn’t come out drinking with us very often, but you couldn’t find a stronger and more loyal friend.”
Kerri sighed. “How sad,” she said softly.
“I know, but he doesn’t agree. We’ve talked about it a few times — he’s pretty open about his situation — and he really does seem to be happy with his life. Opal wasn’t being quite truthful when she said that Sam has eliminated four couples from the program. The real number is much higher, even if he may not realize it. Opal, Rod, Paul and I have taken notice of anyone who hasn’t gotten along well with Sam. In every single case, we’ve dug into why and found issues with that person. Two thirds have been eliminated from the program as a result, and the other third have managed to resolve their problems, usually having to do with jealousy and insecurity.”
Their quiet conversation was interrupted by Sam standing up and attracting everyone’s attention.
Sam smiled. “I’ve got some good news to share, if you’re interested.”
“Sam, spill it now, or…”
Sam grinned at Opal. “Or what?”
She grinned back. “You probably don’t want to know.”
Sam laughed. “No, I probably don’t. Anyway, Andy — Dr. Klingston, our boss,” he said in an aside to Kerri, “was telling me that approval’s been given for a second interstellar mission; this time to Barnard’s Star. It’s due to be announced officially next week, at the same time as he announces the final six couples, and the three backups, for the Centauri mission. They’ll start building the laser launch facilities near Mercury later this year, and we all get to start evaluating new candidates soon afterwards. He didn’t actually say, but he implied that the candidates who don’t make the Centauri mission will be on the trip to Barnard’s Star in seven years’ time.”
Matt chuckled. “So Dr. Klingston gets to go out with a bang. The final crew selection for the current mission, announcing his successor, and the news of the next mission, all at the same press conference.”
They chatted for a few more minutes about work, and then Sam steered the conversation to other topics, allowing Kerri to join in.
They were arguing about the best places to go for a vacation when a tall, statuesque blonde interrupted them. “Excuse me, but someone told me that y’all are from the space center. Are you astronauts?”
While Rod smiled and answered, Matt leaned over to whisper to Kerri. “It’s started. Notice how she’s not really looking at Rod, how all her attention is on Sam? He’ll let her down gently, and then another girl or two will try. After they fail, there’s usually one or two guys who think that means Sam’s gay, and make their move. It happens almost every time we come here. Rod and Paul have a chance of picking up Sam’s rejects, but that’s hit-and-miss.”
Kerri sighed. “I think it’s sad, but each to their own. If Sam’s happy, then that’s the only important thing.”
Matt gritted his teeth and tried again. That time the light went on.
“I really don’t know why I have to do this,” he said as he stood up and let Hans Schmidt have a turn at the CPR manikin.
“Because first aid training is always useful,” Sam said as he watched Hans start CPR. “At the moment, I’m the only one in our unit who has that training, and I don’t think that’s good enough. Since we’re doing refresher training for the Endeavour candidates, I suggested to Andy that someone else should join in. He agreed, and you lost the draw.”
Hans completed the test and Sam waved the next candidate forward.
Hans grinned at Matt. “Just be happy that you have Sam here as the instructor. You could have had Petra!”
Matt switched instantly from student to psychologist. “Why? Your wife is a charming person, not like this slave driver,” he said, waving a hand towards Sam. He was concerned, as Dr. Petra Schmidt was the only medical doctor in the nine couples left in the program. Potential marital problems could eliminate a couple who were considered a certainty for the mission to Alpha Centauri.
“Petra is indeed a charming person, and I’m very glad she’s mine, but when she turns on her clinician side, she is hard nosed and precise. She’d fail you for not keeping a constant rhythm or taking too long to give the poor dummy a breath.” He smiled as he stared at where his wife was admonishing one of the other crew candidates. “Wonderful traits in a surgeon, but difficult ones if you’re her student.”
Matt relaxed. He knew the conversation was being recorded, and others would review the comments, but he didn’t believe anything would change. It was just a friendly comment, and not something that indicated a deeper issue.
“Are you looking forward to your first trial at cold sleep next week?” Matt asked.
Hans shuddered. “Not really. I know it’s supposed to be safe, and the trip isn’t feasible without something to slow the aging process, but the idea of spending a week close to death isn’t one that thrills me. Petra’s told me there’s nothing to worry about, but I hope you’ll excuse me if I say I’m not going to be comfortable with the idea until after I’m been through it.”
Matt chuckled. “You sound just like me. I said almost the same thing when they told us that the entire psychology team was going to have to experience the process before you guys tried it. They said it would help us appreciate how you’d feel, and they were right. I know exactly what you’re feeling right now.”
“What was it like?”
Matt scratched his head. “Hard to say. As they keep saying, it was just like falling asleep. I don’t remember any dreams, just waking up a week later with a dry mouth and a mild headache. I felt weak, too, but they explained that the plan for you guys is to spend a couple of weeks in cold sleep, and then a week out, to help keep the body in shape and stop the muscles from atrophying.”
Hans nodded. “That’s what they said to us, too. Then Petra got into a detailed discussion on what medical issues may crop up, and the rest of us got left behind almost immediately.” He chuckled. “I think Petra is hoping to write a paper on the subject while we’re en route — that is, if we’re on the final list,” he said, raising an eyebrow.
Matt laughed. “Nice try, but no, I don’t know who’s going. I really wouldn’t want to try to guess, either, because I think you all deserve the chance.”
Hans shrugged. “It was worth a try. Any word on Sam’s promotion?”
Matt shook his head. “Andy keeps telling us that we’ll have to wait. He claims to have not made up his mind, though we all know there isn’t anyone else who’s as well qualified as Sam.”
Hans glanced around and lowered his voice. “Then the rumor is definitely not true?”
Hans looked uncomfortable. “I heard that someone is flying in today for an interview.”
“Who?” Matt flicked his eyes towards Sam, who was far enough away to be unaware of the topic of their conversation.
“I don’t know. I heard it from one of the administration staff, but she didn’t mention a name. I’m not sure she knew. I was hoping this would be a case of a misunderstanding becoming a rumor.”
“Thanks, Hans. I’ll see what I can find out at lunchtime, and I’ll let you know.”
“Thank you, Matt. We’re all hoping Sam gets the job. He’s worked so hard with us candidates that we’ll be very disappointed if he’s passed over.”
Matt let the matter stew in the back of his mind until he reached the team’s office, arriving at the same time as Rod and Sam.
They were greeted by Opal. “Have you heard the news?”
Matt grimaced. “That depends. Hans told me of a rumor that he heard about the director’s job. Is that what you’re talking about?”
Opal nodded. “A Dr. Jeremy South is being interviewed later today for the position.”
“WHAT?” Rod glared at Opal. “Who the fuck is Dr. South?”
Sam answered. “He’s head of clinical psychology at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. I met him at a conference last year. Nice guy.” He was frowning slightly.
Opal glared. “Now we know what all those top level hush-hush meetings were about. They were looking at other candidates.”
Rod was outraged. “But that job’s yours, Sam!”
“Obviously not.” Sam shrugged. “Nothing we can do about it, so let’s just enjoy our lunch break, and then get back to work.”
“If they think we’re going to work for someone who takes that job away from you…”
Sam narrowed his eyes. “Rod…” He waited until Rod met his gaze. “We’ll work for whoever is in charge. If we don’t like who that is, we can resign, but I, for one, won’t. I want this mission, and the next one, to be successful, and I know we’re the team who can do that. We’ve worked hard to eliminate petty politics from the candidate group, and I’d be very disappointed if we fell to the same curse. Let it ride, and wait until we find out more.”
Sam paused in the doorway. “You wanted to see me?”
Dr. Andrew Klingston smiled and waved a hand. “Come in, Sam. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Sam smiled at the third person in the room and extended a hand. “G’day, Dr. South. It’s nice to see you again.”
Dr. Jeremy South grinned. “The pleasure is all mine, Dr. Dresdan. I was most impressed by your presentation at the conference last year, and your recent paper on micro-psychological patterns has been keeping me busy. When I was given the chance to come here and meet you, I grabbed it with both hands. Oh, and please call me Jerry. There are so many doctors everywhere I go that I’ve developed a distaste for the title.”
Sam chuckled. “Only if you call me Sam.”
Dr. Klingston coughed. “If this meeting of the mutual appreciation society is over, can we return to the business at hand?”
Sam grinned. “Sure, as long as you tell me what the business is.”
Dr. Klingston raised an eyebrow. “How about you tell me?”
Sam paused, glanced at Dr. South, and then stared back at Dr. Klingston. “You’ve asked me to come in so you can introduce me to my new boss.”
Dr. Klingston shrugged. “That remains to be seen. However, you’re correct in your surmise: I will be announcing at tomorrow’s press conference that Jerry has been appointed as my successor. I’ll be informing the team and introducing them to Jerry after this meeting.”
Sam smiled at Jerry and shook his hand again. “Congratulations. I look forward to working for you. When do you start?”
Jerry looked uncomfortable. “I’ll finish up at Johns Hopkins in four weeks, and then I’ll take a couple of weeks off to spend some time with the family and organize the move.”
“But before he arrives, there’s something I’d like you to think about.” Dr. Klingston leaned forward. “We were all very impressed by you, Sam, and it was touch-and-go whether you got the job. Jerry even said in his interview that he was surprised to have gotten that far, as he thought you were more than qualified for the job.”
“What happened?” Sam asked.
“It was debated for some time, and eventually the decision was left to me. I turned you down, Sam. I don’t think this is the job for you, and because of that, you didn’t get the position.” He settled back in his chair and waited.
Sam nodded. “I understand. I always knew my age was going to be a factor against me. Experience counts, and I don’t have experience in the management areas required.” He smiled. “But thank you for considering me. I’m still young, and I’m sure there will be other opportunities for me.”
Jerry raised a tentative hand. “On that subject, my current position at the hospital hasn’t been filled. If you would like to apply, Andy has already said he’ll write a letter of recommendation.”
Sam frowned. “If I’m not suitable for the director’s job here, where I’m well known and respected, why would I have a better chance at a senior position at one of the top hospitals in the country?”
“Because both of us would be supporting that bid,” Dr. Klingston said. “After a few years experience, you’ll be ready for anything you want to do in the future.”
Sam gave wry chuckle. “Apart from the one job I really want.”
Dr. Klingston’s smile acknowledged the point. “Apart from a position on the Alpha Centauri mission. So you’ll apply?”
Sam shook his head. “I don’t think so. No offense intended, Jerry, but managing a hospital’s clinical psychology department is not something I want to do. What I want to do is to be here, working for the space program, and doing my best to ensure the success of the interstellar missions. I will be honored to work for you to achieve that goal, and that will give me more pleasure and enjoyment than any position at any other organization.”
Jerry smiled. “Thank you, and I look forward to working with you. I expect you’ll have lots to teach me. Now, I’d like to ask a serious question of you, if I may.”
Sam nodded. “Sure.”
“What’s your personal assessment of the psychological success of the Centauri mission?”
Sam took a deep breath and gambled on honesty. “Not good.”
Jerry’s eyebrows rose. “How did you come to that conclusion?”
Sam noted that Dr. Klingston was wearing a faint smile. The hedges and concerns he had snuck into his reports had obviously been detected by his boss. It would have been professional suicide to have stated without firm grounds that the mission could be a failure, but Sam had had concerns.
“Because the only person in the final eighteen that has any sort of psychological or counseling training is Petra Schmidt, and her only exposure was a number of units during medical training, eight years ago. She’s had no clinical experience since then. We’ll be sending off the crew of the Endeavour in the best state we have, and there should be no problems during the journey, given that they’ll be spending most of the time in a reduced metabolic state to diminish the aging impact, but once they get to the destination their psychological profiles will alter. They will be out of contact with the rest of humanity, and there will be unexpected stresses. Without early detection, those stresses could disrupt the group dynamics in a negative way. It may not happen the first one or two times, but it’ll happen, and when it does it will mean the effective end of the mission. The job of our team is to try to delay that time for as long as possible, but we’re talking about a mission that goes for the rest of the crew’s lives. We don’t know what will happen in twenty or thirty years, and this mission will hopefully last more than double that.”
Jerry nodded. “The launch date is one year away. Is that enough time to provide Petra or one of the other crew members intensive training to address this problem?”
“Barely, and I would be concerned that getting the clinical experience required would mean taking Petra or another member away from the group, disrupting the dynamics that we’ve been building. But it’s the best option I can think of. The only alternative would be to recall Dr. Ruby Wilson, but she and her husband were eliminated because he was considered a psychological risk. It remains debatable whether she could keep that risk under control.”
Dr. Klingston smiled. “There’s one more option available to us. We could send you. You have the experience, and you’re already well known and liked by the candidates.”
Sam’s jaw dropped. “But… but… I don’t qualify. I’m single!”
“Tsk, tsk. You should know better than anyone that those rules were put in place to keep sexual tension under control. As someone who is asexual, that’s not a problem for you. To convince some people who had trouble looking past the rules to the reason behind them, we’ve been testing you to confirm that you truly are asexual, and they’ve finally conceded the point. Then there were those who really did want you to take over my job, but they eventually left that decision to me, and I’ve decided. Tomorrow, when I announce the crew of the Endeavour, your name will be on the list.”
He grinned. “That is, unless you don’t want to go.”
Sam’s joyful reply was unprintable.
Copyright Notice — Copyright © September 2010 by Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank C James, and also everyone from The Mail Crew for the advice they have given me on this story.
This story first appeared in the GA 2010 Fall Anthology.