SEP: Interlude Pt. 4


Mostly Harmless
May 8, 2010
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And once more without further ado:

SEP: Interlude Pt. 4

League City, Texas.
Monday, 25 July 2022.

The sharp report of a knock at her apartment door woke Jamie Cunningham up.

She rolled over, opening her eyes briefly . . . long enough to check the time.

"Eleven fifteen," She said sourly to herself. She could see daylight through the blinds shrouding her window, and the crusty feel of her eyelids only made her mood more acidic. She had just been crying in her sleep, and she felt completely drained.

Her stomach growled painfully at her as the door rapped again. She held her head up briefly as she squinted at her bedroom door and swore under her breath. Whoever was at her apartment door was becoming obstinately persistent. She ran a finger through her hair, noting her complete dishevelment, and she snorted. Whoever was at her door (she winced again as the interloper knocked again) was obviously wanting to speak to her right friggin' now, so she decided she'd present herself as-is.

She swiveled around in her bed and groped for the floor with her feet. Getting back upright took more time than she was used to, and she felt the sharp complaint of her muscles. Her body was quickly and distressingly becoming more and more out of shape and the depression that she felt setting on was only making the worn-out feeling in her bones more pronounced. The trip to the apartment door was punctuated by a quick, yet painful glance at her bathroom mirror as she passed by. She barely noticed the hideous woman squinting back at her and she doggedly continued walking.

She reached the main apartment door, unlocked it, and opened it slightly as she pondered her own light-headedness.

* * *

The door opened.

James Ahern blinked at the sight in front of him. Jamie Cunningham peeked through the small opening she allowed. Her azure eyes stared lifelessly at him, and her sweat-darkened blonde hair lay flat against her scalp.

She looked like hell. Her face was puffy, and her eyes looked bloodshot. Dried tears clung from the corner of her eyes, and the acrid odor of her unwashed body assaulted his senses.

"You missed the morning meeting; what happened?" He sputtered as her eyes drilled into his, and she slammed the door shut abruptly.

* * *

"You missed the morning meeting; what happened?" James Ahern sputtered at her as she peeked through the small opening in the doorway she left. He looked as if he had just seen a ghost, and she felt a sudden shot of adrenaline lance through her system. Torn between complete and total lingering despondency, coupled with her own awareness of her hellish hygienic state, her body chose complete and total idiocy by taking over and her brain shut down.

Before she knew it her door slammed shut in front of her.

She turned, leaning her back against the door. She was stunned by his arrival . . . stunned by what she just did, and tears came suddenly to her eyes as the dream she just survived came flooding back to her.

* * *

James Ahern stood for a moment, stunned. Had she just spent the weekend drinking? He knew she had just come back in town Friday evening with Adkinson after spending the better part of two weeks flying around half the country in his Mooney. He also knew that Jamie had shown up for work just to test the waters and it had not gone well; Brandon Harris had told him that. His mouth tightened into a blistering frown as he considered the possibilities.

He couldn't quite rule out her own success getting to her head even though it had been two years. It was a crazy EVA she pulled off, and an even more eventful end to the mission. She survived it . . . and won an immediate shot of prestige with most of the Star Trek nerds and patriots who still cared about space exploration that populated the country in the process.

That could be a complete and total public relations nightmare at best, and also a very dangerous attitude to hang onto at worst. He simply had to determine which it was . . . and be ready to set her straight if what he feared was confirmed.

He pounded his fist on the door again as a grimace crossed his face.

* * *

She felt the force of the hail transfer through the oak of the door into her sternum.

"Oh hell no," She breathed. This was not happening, she told herself. This was just not happening.

* * *

"Jamie," Ahern barked furiously. "I don't know what the hell's going on with you. Would you open the door anyway? I need to talk to you."

The door opened slowly. Wide enough to permit eye contact. This time, Jamie's eyes were completely rose-hued, and her skin about her cheeks and forehead were blotchy. She had just been crying.

His expression softened as he saw the look in her eyes.

"I'm sorry. Will you let me in? I still need to talk to you."

She nodded and opened the door fully. He slipped inside.

* * *

He raised his camera to his eye as the man entered the apartment. Centering the subject in his viewfinder, he squeezed the trigger hard enough for the auto-focus to take effect, and then he took his second shot in disbelief.

Staking out the apartment had been difficult enough. Trying to stay nonchalant while spending days in an apartment complex without attracting too much attention was a herculean task, and he'd kept his ears wide open for the telltale signs of the local police or the tenants sniffing around him as he did his job.

Now his efforts had finally paid off. He happened to be at the right place, at the right time. And Jamie Cunningham, the darling of the Space Program and national hero was entertaining a visitor from the space program after spending the last two weeks off . . . who the hell knew where. It had all started with her disappearing early in the morning at the airport almost three weeks ago after spending the past two years doing nothing but going to work, coming home, and doing the most mundane things possible in public. In fact he had next to nothing to show for his work and had almost been fired on more than one occasion for doggedly sticking to this woman . . . but now he felt as if something was different now.

He still didn't know what it all meant. But . . . that wasn't for him to decode and decide. All he had to do was document the event; it was what he was paid to do, and his employer paid him a handsome commission indeed for every celebrity he captured candidly.

Whenever he could frickin' deliver, that is.

He retracted his camera as the apartment door shut and he drew himself deeper into the shrubbery that concealed him.

He would wait them out and see.

* * *

"So . . . what do you want, Jim?" Jamie said softly as she shut the door, and Ahern snorted.

"Well, for starters, I want you to take a shower and get ready. We're going out."

"Out . . .?" Jamie blinked.

"Yes, out," Ahern replied stiffly. "You missed the morning meeting; it was a big one, and there was a lot of information you missed. It looks like you've spent the weekend in a catatonic state . . . or worse. I don't know which it is, and frankly, I don't care much. That's three days you're never getting back. You're not gonna spend the whole month like this; not if I can help it."

"Look, I don't know if you've noticed," Jamie said weakly, "but after I got back, it feels like I've lost everything that made me me back then. I don't think they're ever going to let me back in space; not after all the crap I just pulled. It's not like it's something I can just bounce back from and be okay. I'm gonna need to talk to my landlord and my debtors if I lose this. I have to think about what to do next. I . . ." She shook her hands in front of her as her resolve strengthened. "I've got things to do. Plans to change. I'm not . . . I'm only . . . well, thanks to you, I'm only getting out of bed just now. I mean, it's not like I've been eating at the Texas Roadhouse every day, you know."

"You're not losing your job, and besides, we're not paid that much to begin with," Ahern intoned gravely. "If anything, that's one of the things the new--"

They stood in silence for a moment as Ahern cut himself off abruptly, and Jamie perked up.

"The new what?" She demanded.

"Look, forget it," Ahern said stiffly. "I want you to get ready to go in five minutes, you hear me?"

Jamie chuckled abruptly as her eyes wandered away from him. Something only she could see caught her eye, and she smiled wistfully at the door behind Ahern.

"What?" Ahern demanded.

"Oh . . ." Jamie sighed. "I was just remembering something. Svetlana said something to me. Just before Enterprise and I broke dock and headed back."

"What did she say?"

"She said something in Russian. I didn't know what it meant at the time, I don't think I could ever actually pronounce it right, but it sounded good."

It was Ahern's turn to snicker. "What did you think she told you?"

"I thought she was wishing me luck."

Ahern laughed.

"What?" Jamie demanded flatly.

"Oh, she was wishing you luck, alright," He grinned. "That's not exactly something they feel they need to tell people to have, really. Either you have it or you don't, and you most often know when you have it or you don't. She was probably telling you something like to be strong, and to not be a limp noodle."

Jamie looked at him, flabbergasted. "You know, they gave me the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, Jim," She said sourly.

"Yes," Ahern said. "I know. I was at your ceremony."

"I don't think you understand, Jim," Jamie spat. "They gave me . . . an idiot . . . a limp noodle . . . who can't even take care of herself . . . who trashed a spaceship and made a mockery of the space program . . . the Congressional Medal of Honor."

"I know," Ahern repeated softly. "Jamie, I felt the same way you're feeling now, right after SEP-001."

Jamie's eyes hardened as she stared him down.

"But you've always had a . . . a real decent attitude about everything."

"I know," Ahern replied conversantly. "I know a lot of people think I got beached after that flight like I did something wrong. It still pisses me off sometimes deep inside that they think that."

"What did happen, Jim?"

"I . . ." His shoulders softened. "I requested to be taken off the flight list."

Jamie's eyes widened.

"What? Why?" She intoned. "Haven't we worked for years to get where we are now?"

He reached into his pocket in response and pulled out a picture from his wallet.

"That's Denise. She's my wife . . . and that's Ashley, my daughter."

"Oh . . ." Jamie whispered. Her eyes softened as she looked at the two: a brown-haired woman with green eyes, cradling a girl about six years old who had the same brown hair and blue eyes, and she looked at Ahern and nodded her understanding.

"Charlie and I could've died on that flight, Jamie," Ahern whispered. "We weren't completely ready to take Constitution out that day. We rushed it, and we knew it. Then again, if we were completely ready, we'd have been doing that first flight thirty years from now. The best thing that happened to us was the flash evaporator system failing. It forced us to abort the flight and keep us from getting into real trouble. At least we proved we could reach a tenable orbit with that ship that day. After that . . ."

He swallowed, and Jamie stepped closer.

"After that, I realized how quickly I could've made my family's life without a husband and father a reality. I had a nervous breakdown that nobody but the flight director and the psych staff knew about, and the psychologist and I got very acquainted with each other for a while after that. Damnit, Jamie," He curse suddenly, "we saw how quickly it could happen. And it's not just us -- it happened to the Russians, it could happen to the Indians and the Chinese . . . the French and Brits . . . the Iranians . . . and I decided I could never be a part of doing that to my own ever again. That is why I've been sitting on the sidelines ever since."

They stood in silence.

"Look, Jamie . . ." Ahern shot up a hand and Jamie nodded stiffly.

"I know. I'm moving."

"I'll . . ." Ahern began. She gave him a dry look.

"I guess you're taking me to work today," She said. "I'll be ready in five minutes."

"I'll just hang out in your living room," He mumbled. She nodded.

She made the trip back to her bedroom and shut the door behind her. Casting a look at her bed, she shook her head sullenly. It wouldn't do for her to crawl back into bed . . . not on a Monday, not when she had company, and especially not after what she just heard. She sighed. Reaching her dresser, she rifled through her drawers. She picked out the essentials she would need, and pulled her bathrobe off the hook on her door.

Reaching her bathroom, she flicked the light switch on, threw her change of clothes on the floor, and shut and locked the door.

* * *

James Ahern paced quietly around the living room and swept his eyes around his surroundings. The living room was spartanly, yet smartly decorated. A flat-screen TV and glass entertainment center dominated one wall of the room; a small glass bookshelf full of DVD and CD cases sat to the left side of the TV, and a small stereo sat on a glass end table set to the right.

He glanced at the DVD titles, smiling at a few of her selections and scrunching his eyebrows in mild confusion or bemusement at an assortment of odd titles that didn't quite make sense to him. Nothing was alphabetized or organized in any way; it looked like she had simply stuffed the shelf full with whatever she could find when she put the collection together.

Pictures set on top of the bookcase grabbed his attention; a group photograph of a dozen graduates wearing colored college robes smiled exultantly at him. Another photograph showing Jamie and an older, bearded man (whom he assumed was her father) wearing winter jackets; they looked like they were either preparing to go ice fishing, or were coming back empty-handed after a day out on the frozen lake behind them.

A photograph of Jamie in a flight suit, standing with one foot on the bottom rung of a ladder leading up to the cockpit of a jet. She was grinning giddily; it could have been after her first flight so many years ago.

A glass coffee table on the floor in the middle of the room caught his attention next. Two votive candle holders flanked a glass box on top of the table and a yellow tow strap peeked visibly from inside the box next to a chunk of something black.

His eyebrows narrowed as his curiosity took him closer to the box.

"Alright, Jim," He heard. He looked up from the coffee table as Jamie entered the room, froze, and their eyes locked. The shower had done wonders, he noted, and just the simple task of getting a change of clothes and a clean body had begun to restore that simple glow he had seen her wearing so many times as she went about her work. She looked completely transformed, and he smiled at her as he surveyed her metamorphosis. She pursed her lips; her eyes betrayed a vague discomfort at his scrutiny, and he tore his eyes away from hers as he looked at the coffee table pointedly. It was time to change the subject, and he hadn't said word one yet.

"I can explain," She blurted as her face turned white.

"No, it's okay," He smiled. "Are you ready to go?"

Her shoulders relaxed. She looked down at herself, surveying her appearance, and she nodded.

"Let's go," She said as she stiffly made their way to the door.

* * *

The apartment door opened and the man adjusted his squatting stance once more as he raised the camera to his eye. Jamie Cunningham emerged first, wearing a fresh change of clothes and looking a hell of a lot better than she did a half hour ago, followed by the man wearing the office casual clothing of a NASA employee, and she locked the door behind her. They carried a brief conversation as they walked down the sidewalk, and he snapped frame after frame as they came into a better view.

He arched an eyebrow as they went not for Jamie's car, but for the Crown Victoria parked where the man had left it a half hour ago. It was black, bore no markings of any kind except for the exempt license plate, and he snapped more pictures as his curiosity egged him on.

The doors slammed shut, the engine started, and the car drove away.

* * *


"I'm asking you again: Where the hell are we going?"

He grinned as he flipped the turn signal stick up and merged the car onto an off-ramp. They were getting off the highway. She looked at the passing sign; they were about to take a county road. Her eyebrows narrowed. She knew of nothing in this area; they were well and gone outside of town. Certainly still in Texas to be sure, but she had no idea where she was.

Ahern triggered his turn signal once more, and she glanced at the dashboard. He was turning right into someone's driveway. The mailbox at the end of the driveway said "FOULKES."

"What are we doing here?" She demanded as the car rolled over the bumps and imperfections in the dirt driveway, and he smiled at her as he shut the car off.

"We're getting out," He prompted gently. She shrugged and reached for her door handle.

As her door opened, she flinched as she heard the loud, clear, jarring report of a shotgun blasting away somewhere near her. The report echoed through the trees for seconds before dying away and Ahern laughed as she gave him a querulous glance.

"It's okay. Ed likes to hunt in his off-time. He wanted to see you."

She held her eyes locked onto his, and he grinned at her.

"No, you're not the target, Jamie!" He chuckled. "He just wanted to have a chat with you before you go to work today, that's all."

"Alright," Jamie said cautiously.

"This way," Ahern prompted.

They walked around Ed Foulkes' house. It was a humble looking affair; a wood-trimmed double-wide trailer that looked like it was built in the 1970's. The siding was stained a deep walnut color with white-trimmed windows. A garden lined the south side of the house, a massive oak tree lined with stones set a perfect harmony to the freshly-mown grass in the front yard. The sound of barking dogs filled the air intermingling with the gentle rushing of wind through the trees and the occasional caw-caw of ravens off in the distance.

Jamie stopped as a shotgun blast announced itself again -- louder, this time, and Ahern barked out a "Hello!"

"Jim! C'mon back!"
Jamie heard.

"It's okay," Ahern said. Jamie shrugged and continued walking.

They rounded the corner and were immediately greeted by a panting, moving mountain of golden-white fur. Jamie reflexively took a step back as fifty pounds of dog jumped up onto her and began vigorously licking her face.

"Scooter! Sit!"

The collie immediately withdrew, setting Jamie off-balance. She steadied herself as the dog dutifully planted its rear end on the ground as Edward Foulkes took three long strides off his deck. She stared at the dog, noticing its happy expression and tail sweeping both grass and dirt from side to side in the ground behind it. She knelt down, setting her knee on the ground as she offered her hand, and the dog immediately sniffed it and advanced forward.

"Sorry about that, Jamie. He's a big baby; he loves company," He said.

"It's alright," Jamie said as she ran her hands across the dog's fur.

"Attaboy, Scooter," Foulkes said. "You be nice to our astronaut. Jim, you still owe me a box of shells from the last time you were here. Don't tell me you didn't come here empty-handed."

"Nope! I've got 'em in the trunk."

"Great. I'm ready when you are."

"Sure thing, Ed." Ahern turned back and made his way back to the car.

Jamie stood up uncomfortably as Ahern left, still aware of the weight of the collie now pressing down on her feet. The dog shifted, feeling the sudden change of mood in the human it had decided to use as a temporary back support, and Foulkes smiled at her.

"Jamie, want something to drink? Lemonade? Coffee? Ice water?"

"I'm fine for right now, Ed," She replied. "You wanted to see me?"

"Yeah. C'mon up to my deck. I've got some shade up there."

"Okay," She said. They walked up the steps, and they both sat at his gesture.

James Ahern came back around the corner carrying a large parcel Jamie guessed was a shotgun inside. He flashed them a look as he climbed the steps.

"Are we starting already?" He asked.

"I guess so," Foulkes said. "Jamie, I heard from Jim and a few other people that you slept through the morning meeting today."

Jamie almost rolled her eyes. She was done with hearing about it, and she found the sudden interest in her sleeping habits slightly unsettling.

Foulkes smiled flatly at her. "We did have some important information to pass to everybody, especially why some developments are happening the way they are. You see, you know I'm retired now. I'm no longer the Executive Director of Flight Operations; I've passed that crown on."

"I know," Jamie said.

"Yes. But that doesn't mean I'm out of the loop entirely. From my perspective, we've got some things to talk about."

"What do you mean?"

"You remember the last time you were in my office? When we talked about your mission and of things to be?"

Jamie nodded.

"I remember that moment very well," Foulkes said. "I saw a lot of things I didn't like . . . but I saw a lot of things I did like. Things that could be worked on."

Jamie guffawed as she turned her attention fully to Foulkes. "You don't dance around the point much, do you?"

"Never have," Foulkes shrugged. "Don't see much of a point in changing that, now. I'm sixty-four years old, Jamie. I've seen a lot of amazing stuff in my life. I've seen men walk on the moon when I was a boy. I watched the space program evolve from its infancy all the way through to now. What I personally saw with your mission . . . was a chance for you to really carry that mission through to a complete and total win. You didn't."

Jamie blinked. "Excuse me?"

"You walked on the moon with two other people, Jamie," Foulkes said. "That mission was a first for a lot of agencies; it was the first Russian on the moon, and the first Briton. That was huge. And then, culminating with your incident in space, followed by your return to Earth. It was a big media event, and you got lucky."

"I know," Jamie said sullenly. "I think I see your point."

"Good," Foulkes said. "Here's what I want you to understand. Are you listening?"


"You're a celebrity now, Jamie, and there's a ninety-eight percent chance you won't ever fly in space again. I want you to accept that fact right now."

Jamie opened her mouth to say something, and Foulkes held his hand up to silence her. "Number one," he continued, "we've already determined that your insights and especially instincts should be on the Required Reading list in the astronaut's office. We need you as a trainer right along with Jim here."

"Fair enough," Jamie said lowly. "And if I ever get to fly again?"

Foulkes stared directly into the distance across his back yard at something only he could see. He raised his glass of iced tea against his lips, paused pensively for several seconds before sighing.

"Well, I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

* * *


Lurker Representitive
Apr 30, 2009
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Sorry Scav; I read this installment some days back, and meant to comment then, but couldn't really think of anything to say. It's clearly a pivotal moment for Jamie, with a very unexpected conversation at the end.

The read, as always, is easy and comfortable, it's just that...well, I think you've got us all holding our breath. :)


Mostly Harmless
May 8, 2010
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Aeadar;bt5690 said:
well, I think you've got us all holding our breath. :)

Me too, my friend. As usual I've been very busy and we're just in that right time of year. :(