Some time ago now, I had a conversation via Facebook with the very lovely Lynne Marshall and the equally lovely Kate Hardy. Lynne had managed to include Zombies into her latest Medical Romance, and we were reminded of Kate’s venture into the world of Plague Squirrels. In an attempt to keep up, I mentioned that I’d included a little Space Opera in my latest work-in-progress 🙂
I had enormous fun with this first chapter of The Doctor’s Diamond Proposal which is available from all the usual outlets from 1st January. (And for those of you who aren’t fans of space opera – may I reassure you that my hero and heroine come back down to earth with a bump in Chapter Two!)
Ten years ago…
The party had got off to a slow start, but by eleven o’clock the house was packed with people and Leo Cross was beginning to feel hot and uncomfortable in his costume.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Orion Shift was less of a TV show to the six medical students who shared the sprawling house in West London and more of a Friday evening ritual. The one hour in the week that didn’t belong to study, girlfriends or the urgent need for sleep. So what better way to celebrate their third year exam results than decorate the living room with as much tinfoil as they could get their hands on and suspend inflatable planets from the ceiling?
Dressing up as the crew of the interstellar spacecraft Orion Shift had been the next logical step. But a hot summer’s evening wasn’t really the time to be wearing a heavy jacket with a high collar, and Leo was beginning to wish that personal temperature regulation fields really had been invented.
A girl in blue body paint and a leotard sidled up to him. ‘Captain Boone! You look particularly delicious tonight.’
‘Maddie. How are you doing?’
‘You want a Tellurian cocktail?’ Maddie draped her arms around Leo’s shoulders. Clearly she and Pete had been arguing again. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable reconciliation, but at the moment Pete was on the other side of the room taking a great deal of interest in a red-haired girl dressed as a Fractalian hydra and Maddie had clearly decided that she was going to give him a taste of his own medicine.
Leo disentangled himself from Maddie’s grip. ‘No. Thanks, but…’ Just no. If Pete and Maddie wanted to play games that was fine, but Leo knew better than to get involved.
‘Leo…!’ Maddie stuck out her lower lip in a disappointed pout as he retreated quickly through the press of people.
He pushed his way to the kitchen, avoiding the usual group around the beer keg, and slipped outside into the back garden, sighing with relief as the warm breeze brushed his face. The paved space at the back of the house was packed with people, drinking and talking, and Leo made good his escape, dodging across the grass and into the pool of darkness that lay beneath the trees at the end of the garden.
He bumped into something soft and sweet-smelling and saw a flash of silvery-green luminescence. A shadow detached itself from the other shadows and stumbled into a pool of moonlight. It was Lieutenant Tara Xhu to a T.
‘Another fugitive?’ A smile played around her lips.
‘You could say that. So how did you manage to make it out of there?’
Tara—or whatever her real name was—shrugged. ‘I’m not sure. I’ve only watched one episode, and that was to get the costume right, so I don’t really know what Tara’s strategy might be.’ Her mouth twitched suddenly into a flirtatious smile. ‘So you’re Captain Boone?’
Leo’s eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness and the more they did so, the more he liked what he saw. She was dressed all in black, thick leggings, boots and an off the shoulder top that followed her slim curves and displayed the green scales which spread across Tara’s shoulder. A fair replica of an immobility gun was strapped to her thigh and twisted metallic strands ran round her fingers and across the back of her hands. Her dark hair was streaked with green and anchored in a spiky arrangement on the top of her head with Tara’s silver dagger pins.
Leo had been in love at first sight before, but suddenly the other times didn’t seem anything like the real thing. She raised one jewelled eyebrow and Leo realised that his gaze had been following the path of the scales that ran down the side of her face and neck and disappeared beneath her top.
‘Um… Great costume. Your scales look…really lifelike.’ Captain Thomas Boone would undoubtedly have managed something a bit more urbane, but then he had more experience of the galaxy than Leo.
‘Thanks. Iridescent body paint. I felt a bit of an idiot on the bus, on my way here.’ She grinned at him and moved back towards the old picnic bench which stood under the trees. ‘So are you really escaping something, or do you just want some fresh air?’
‘A bit of both.’ Leo sat down next to her, stretching his legs out in front of him. This replica Tara had a lightness about her movements, a kind of joy about her, which broke through the warlike quality of the real Tara’s appearance. Even though she was sitting a good two feet away from him, Leo could almost feel her warmth.
‘You live here?’
‘Then you must be a medical student.’
‘That’s right. Starting year four in a couple of weeks, so this’ll probably be the last party we have for a while.’
‘I hear it’s a tough year. An interesting one, though…’
That was exactly how Leo felt about it. He knew that his clinical attachment was going to be hard work, but he couldn’t wait to start putting all that he’d learned into practice. ‘What do you do?’
She shrugged. ‘Nothing at the moment. I’m just back from a year in Australia.’
‘Yeah? What’s it like?’ All Leo wanted to do right now was sit here in the darkness and listen to her talk.
She laughed. ‘Bit too big to describe in one sentence. I loved it, though.’
Leo imagined that she’d taken every moment of the last year and squeezed the very most out of it, in the same way that she seemed to be draining every drop of potential from these moments. It was infectious.
She was fiddling thoughtfully with the bright silver strands across the back of her hand. ‘Did you always want to do medicine?’
‘Yeah. My uncle’s a doctor, and when I was nine I saw him save someone’s life. That settled it for me, and there’s never been anything else I wanted to do.’
She nodded quietly. ‘So you have a calling. A mission in life.’
Sometimes, poring over his books late at night, it didn’t seem so. But Tara made it all sound like something special.
‘Yeah. Guess I do.’
‘I’m still looking for mine. There are so many possibilities and I don’t think I can settle on just one. So I’m going to be helping out on my dad’s farm for the next year while I think about putting in my university applications.’
‘You’ll find the right thing.’ Leo applied all of the weight of his twenty-one years to the problem. And all of the certainty from the last five minutes, that whatever she decided to do she’d do it wholeheartedly.
‘I suppose I will.’ She seemed to ponder the idea for a moment, then smiled suddenly. ‘Nothing like mucking out to concentrate the mind on your aspirations for the future.’
‘Would you like me to go and get you a drink?’ Leo hoped she’d say yes. That they could continue this conversation alone, out here, rather than going back to the heat and noise of the party.
‘Thanks, but no. I tried one of those blue cocktails and it was too sweet.’ She hesitated, then seemed to come to a decision. ‘That coffee bar around the corner. Think it’ll still be open?’
‘It’s open all night.’ Sweet promise stirred in Leo’s chest.
‘You fancy making a break for it, then?’
Theirs weren’t the most outlandish costumes amongst the coffee bar’s customers that night, but she had still tugged awkwardly at her green hair and silver jewellery. Leo had laughingly persuaded her to stay just as she was, saying that since he was dressed as a spaceship captain, it was practically expected that his First Lieutenant should be accompanying him.
They’d talked all night, fuelled by coffee and then ham and cheese toasties at three in the morning. At six, she’d refused to allow him to see her all the way home and he’d had to content himself with walking her to the bus stop.
‘May I call you?’ Leo made a silent wish that the bus wouldn’t come just yet.
‘I was hoping you would.’ She smiled at him, reaching into her jacket for her phone and reeling off the number. Leo repeated it over in his head, his fingers shaking unaccountably as he pressed the keys. He hit dial, and her phone chimed. Even her ringtone seemed fresh and full of joy.
‘That’s it.’ She rejected the call and gratifyingly saved his number.
‘Lieutenant Tara.’ Leo grinned, spelling out the words as he typed them into his phone. ‘What’s your real name, though?’
‘Alex…’ She turned as a bus drew up at the stop. ‘This one’s mine. You will call, won’t you…?’
‘Yes.’ Leo wondered whether it would be appropriate to kiss her goodbye and decided that he’d already missed his chance. The night had been perfect as it stood, a meeting of minds that had nothing to do with any alien powers, and when he kissed her he wanted enough time to do it properly. She got onto the bus, pressing her ticket against the reader, and turned to wave at him.
The bus drew away. Calling her now would be too soon. He turned to walk back home, and his phone buzzed.
May we meet in other worlds.
Her text mimicked Tara’s habitual farewell.
And get some sleep.
Leo grinned, texting back his reply, watching until the bus turned a corner and disappeared.
He called that evening and she didn’t reply. Perhaps she’d decided to have an early night. The next day she didn’t reply either.
Leo counted the number of calls he made, knowing that each one would show up on her phone. Half a dozen was beginning to look a little stalkerish, so he sent a text instead.
No answer. He left it a week and called again, leaving a carefully scripted voicemail and resolving that if she didn’t reply this time he’d take the hint and give up. Clearly, the gorgeous, vivacious Lieutenant Tara had decided that, of all the glittering possibilities she saw ahead of her, he wasn’t one of them. It was time to retreat gracefully and get on with the next chapter of his life.
Time warp to the present day…