“I know about you and Ms. Nunez,” Mason whispered softly to his captain.
Janice spun on her heel and faced her first officer, seeing embarrassment on his face.
Janice clenched her teeth. “And?”
“And nothing. I just wanted you to know. I could care less about your love life. But I do have one piece of advice for the two of you. Keep your cabin door locked.”
Janice grunted. “I take it that was how you found out?” The man nodded and leaned against the railing. Captain Harrison joined him, resting her forearms on the rails. “I love the Coast Guard, Mason. It’s my family and salvation yet I knew I could lose it all if anyone found out my little secret. I’ve avoided relationships for a long time but I couldn’t resist Jeren. It was those big blue eyes that got to me,” Janice chuckled.
Mason smiled back. “I can’t say I blame you. She’s a nice woman.” Commander Hume rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a moment. “You know, there’s a few rumors about the two of us seeing one another. Perhaps we can feed those rumors once in a while. Sometimes the best defense is misdirection.”
“I don’t want you getting into trouble by covering up for me, Commander. Besides, I’ll probably be retiring after we return.”
“No biggie. What’s important is that the here and now. I think most of the Cadets and younger crew would be amused if they found out but you might get flack from some of the older men. I doubt I’d get into trouble Stateside. After all, the woman who rules Mother Earth is lesbian and no one is going to risk pissing her off. The worst they may do to me is a verbal reprimand and a delay in my next promotion. I’d rather have harmony on this ship than trouble. Some mild flirting between us will keep the gossip hounds on the wrong trail.”
“I think you like the idea of pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes,” Janice accused him, grinning crookedly.
“Well, I am an amateur magician. You gotta keep the audience’s attention in one place while your other hand does the trick. A lingering glance, standing a bit close to one another, a wink once in a while. They’ll be so busy taking bets that they’ll never see you and Jeren together.”
“It just might work. But can you at least look at me like you find me attractive? Watch me walking away or something.”
“No problem,” he said, wishing this could have been for real.
They took core samples from the Amazon River delta then sent out anyone who knew anything about edible plants in South America. The fresh produce was just about gone and the captain didn’t want to rely on just canned goods.
Teams of scientists and guards foraged for several days, bringing back heart of palm, tubers, fruits, ferns, wild fruits, and bamboo shoots.
"I was hoping for sugarcane too," one of the Cadets mentioned.
Pete dashed his hopes. "Not native here. Humans transported a lot of plants that many think of as native to an area. Like the breadfruit. It was native to Asia but the Polynesian people took them along with them when they wanted to settle new places. Without humans on Mother Earth we only see plants that truly belong here. Categorizing plants gives us a good idea on human expansion on the Old World."
Seaman Bailey cleared his throat. "Doc, I thought I mentioned not trying to turn me into a scientist."
"Oh, you did but we're evil that way. We have to convert people any way we can and since we now have a captive audience..." Pete grinned and performed a wicked laugh, miming holding up a cloak like a vampire.
"Quick, someone fetch the holy water and stakes."
Pete dropped his arm and put on a serious expression. "I'll take mine medium rare, thanks."
Several people groaned at the lame pun. Marla stepped up behind Oceanographer slapped a note pad against his chest. "Show them the glamorous side of being a scientist and take inventory, Count."
Rachel walked into the cabin she shared with her girlfriend, glad to finally be off duty for the day.
"Hey, there's my girl." Erica said with pleasure. It was getting harder to find time together with the overlapping shifts. She put aside the journal she was writing in and stood up to give Rachel a warm, lingering kiss.
"Mmmm, I think someone missed me."
"Always." Erica pushed aside a few escaped wisps of hair away from Rachel's tanned cheeks. The light brown hair was turning lighter from being in the sun all day. She nuzzled the soft cheek of her shorter lover then buried her face into the crook of her neck.
Rachel ran her hands over Erica's back and mentioned she was hungry. "Let's get something to eat then do some serious down time in our bunk."
"Sounds good to me. I don't have to be on duty for another eight hours."
"You're not sleeping enough. And don't tell me you're getting plenty of rest because I see the dark circles under your eyes." Rachel knew her lover spent a lot of time writing in her journal when not on duty or sleeping. She wrote as though she was writing a letter to Jimmy, her younger brother. The young man had been struck by a car a few years earlier, resulting in his losing one leg. Jimmy had been a gifted athlete, belonging to several school teams. It had been hoped that he'd win an athletic scholarship before the accident.
Erica had been reluctant to make the journey because of her brother. She didn't want to leave him for so long but he convinced her to go. Just before she left home he handed Erica the thick journal and told her to write down every detail so he could relive it when she came back. She tearfully promised and kissed his cheek before leaving. She had written in the journal religiously, only omitting the few facts that brothers shouldn't know about their sisters.
Rachel tugged her girlfriend from the room, silently vowing she'd spend the next few hours giving Erica a sensual massage and cuddle with her until she had to get ready for her shift.
In the Wardroom, the Captain delicately dabbed her linen napkin to her lips and addressed her first officer. "Commander, my chess partner has to work the late shift tonight, so guess who has the privilege of getting tromped tonight?"
Mason's eyes twinkled. "Always a pleasure, Captain Harrison." He stood up and escorted Janice from the room. A few of the people took note of the exchange for future discussions, noticing that Mason’s smile hadn't been a polite expression but one of delight. Maybe there was something to the rumors after all.
The next morning the Captain walked next to the first officer, hands clasped behind her back and a devilish smile on her lips. She already knew the answer but enjoyed asking anyway.
"What does the grapevine have to say this morning?"
Mason cleared his throat nervously although his eyes twinkled. "They are suggesting that I am a very lucky man."
"Is that so? Tsk, and here I am an older woman and a captain no less, allegedly having an affair with her first officer. I ought to be ashamed."
"I don't consider a matter of four months difference in age enough to label you 'the older woman'," Mason said gallantly. "I just hope your Ms. Nunez isn't the jealous type."
"She understands the situation, Commander. She isn't happy with all the cloak and dagger but she accepted early on that I can't be open about our relationship no matter how much I want to." She looked at the ocean but her mind was elsewhere.
"To be able to hold her all night long and to able to spend more time with her. To be able to introduce her as the woman I love. But I can't do any of those things. We only get snatches of happiness then have to hide once more, pretending we mean less to one another."
Compassion brought Mason's hand to rest on Janice's shoulder. "I'm sorry, Captain. I never realized how hard this could be on you until this moment. You know, I never thought about the interaction between gay couples before. I always focused on the sex part." Mason chuckled softly. "I ought to hang around lesbian couples more. I might learn something about what women want. You know us men, clueless."
Janice tried to hide her smile but failed. "Yeah, I know about men and their failings." She patted his forearm. "C'mon, let's go sail into some rocks."
The senior officers and about ten of the scientist sat around the wardroom tables with charts and mugs strewn over the large surface.
"I don't know why we can't visit both. We have two years to circle around the world," one of the microbiologists brought up.
"Because this isn't a powered cruise ship. We can only travel at about 18 knots at best and the Earth is a pretty big place. Your suggestion would add another seven months to the trip."
"So? It isn't like we're on a strict timetable. If we're a few months late Cierra White isn't going to refuse to fetch us."
The Captain spoke to the young woman. "While that is certainly true, you have to remember something. People will be anxious to go home. A few of my officers are married and want to see their families. Mother Earth will still be here and it's possible Queen Cierra might allow another voyage in the future." Janice saw the scientist squirm and knew her point was understood.
"Right now we have two possible routes to take." She demonstrated the routes on the largest map. "We can follow this current here--and make good time by the way, and visit southern Africa then later the Antarctic once summer hits or...." She shifted the map slightly, "take this route, go along the western coast of Africa and visit the Mediterranean region. That stretch would add several months as well. We'd still have to backtrack and go around Africa to head east. There isn't any canals built by humans as short cuts here. We can't even be sure that the Strait of Gibraltar is still there."
Marla nodded in agreement. "What route do you think would be best?"
Janice traced her finger along the route, giving basic instructions at the same time. "I suggest heading east here, along the Tropic of Capricorn. From there we can follow the coast around Africa until we reach the Indian Ocean. We could sail northeast along the coast until we reach Somalia then head for the southern tip of India. Not including stopovers that route will take about three months. Realistically, it'll probably be closer to four months. By then it'll be spring again in the Southern Hemisphere and we could hit a lot of tropical storms. We'll try to avoid them when possible but without satellite updates and just radar it'll be difficult. Any questions?"
"Do you still plan on visiting Australia and Japan?"
"Yes. We'll sail around the southern Coast of Australia then make a quick trip to Antarctica. Then back north to Japan. From there the ship would head to the Hawaiian Islands then to California. The Bay Otter Clan will send a messenger to Napa Valley and let Cierra know we're back."
"Sounds like a plan to me," Marla commented. No one argued against the suggested route so the Captain ordered that the trip be calculated.
Continued in Part 7
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