"Women may be from Venus, but I'd rather see Uranus," Richard announced to the team. His punchline was delivered in the same manner as many of his other jokes, as a form of aggression. A few snorts and guffaws made it up from the downturned heads of the males of the group. Tiffany and Helena looked at each other, eyes rolled, and nostrils flared. It would be another day of this. It had already been a very long week.
Richard was a visiting member from the U of A astronomy department, an engineer and not a biologist or botanist. He was going to be observing the Biosphere for signs of wear and tear on the structure, now that it had been in use for twenty years. Twenty years of Arizona desert conditions, and the constantly rotating interior atmospheres of light, heat, moisture, carbon dioxide, oxygen and biomass. The rest of the team was comprised of veterans to the project.
Elena was finishing her doctoral thesis on the impact of algae blooms on coral reef populations. She spent as much time in the ocean terrain as she could, or writing on a lawn chair on the little beach. The lab could get too stifling as it was, and now this jackass was clouding up the atmosphere. The team had developed a steady comradarie over the past year, and this was a pretty big disruption to their flow. All of them had many jobs to perform, besides pursuit of their doctoral studies in the largest natural science lab in the world. She also happened to be working on the vapor heating and cooling, the water recycling and filtration, and irrigation system.
Tiffany was tracking morphological changes of two species of philodendron. After twenty years of very pleasantly controlled cohabitation, they had starting "wearing" some of the attributes of each other. To the untrained eye, all the philodendrons looked the same. To the average tourist, most of the tropical forest looked the same, minus the obvious palms. To Tiffany, changes in the helical rotation of the calyx and stamen indicated an emerging species, existing only in this rainforest. Often, changes in the appearance of a plant in this short a time reflected an impact from weather or disease or grazing animal. As this was a closed, tightly controlled environment, there weren't any of those. This was pure cross species breeding, in front of their eyes. Doctoral gold.
Richard had burst onto their private little oasis in a blaze of narcissistic glory that was rarely seen in this branch of the sciences. His yellow Mustang tore up the road from Tucson, announcing himself to any and all on the path. Elena found him irritating almost from before he could open his mouth, which was record timing as that took less than two seconds before he said something offensive.
"Da-a-amn! You are looking fine! Can't wait to get some biology lessons from you!" he had spewed while giving her body the thrice over. She was not only not impressed, but rather confused at his attentions. They lived like so many researchers did, wearing shorts, tevas and tshirts from labs around the globe. On the cold days, they'd pull on some khaki cargo type pants, and maybe a hoodie from NASA or Scripps, but that was the beginning and end of their weekly wardrobes. Elena always wore the same tiny diamond stud earrings, they hadn't been off since she started on the project last summer. No makeup, no fancy hair. She and Tiffany looked like an advertisement for Patagonia Geek Chic. Without the chic. Her long brown hair, wavy from all the humidity, was pulled back into a low lying ponytail and held in place with a baseball cap most days. Her eyebrows had never met a tweezer. Her large blue eyes, rimmed with thick brown lashes, were obscured by lenses and buried in microscopes half the time. Nobody noticed nothing. It was the way it should be.
Tiffany was a little more feminine in her approach to appearances. Her t-shirts were more close fitting, showing off her curves in a way that Elena would be self conscious about. Her shorts were, well, short, and her legs were always smooth. She had very blond hair which she kept cropped in a pixi cut all the time, but still somehow it managed to shimmer and vibrate when she walked. The guys always ended their gaze on her. It didn't matter who was talking, or what they were doing, really. Tiffany noticed this, and encouraged it, without saying a word. It made up for the long lonely nights in the middle of the Arizona desert. The town of Oracle provided few comforts, and there was an unspoken rule of no shagging on the team. However, visiting scientists were considered fair game.
Derk Stanson, from Scripps, was going to be coming tomorrow to visit Elena at the Biosphere about her research. She had applied for her post doctoral residency there. The data on the algae bloom had revealed far more about short cycle biomass changes than had been anticipated in the project proposal. Derk Stanson was also very handsome, and Elena was hoping to make more than a professional impression on him when he arrived. She consulted Tiffany in the finer points of grooming, and had done a mini makeover the night before Derk was set to arrive. New, whispy bangs appeared over her forehead, brows were trained into an arch more than a branch, and her lips glossed to a high sheen pink. Her shapely legs were shaved and lotioned, short shorts borrowed, and a t-shirt was altered with scissors to create a more flattering neckline than the standard crew. Elena even asked to borrow a form fitting tank top to wear under a zippie sweat shirt, in case they happened to make it into town for beer and tacos. He'd be staying at the residence with them for the night before heading back to San Diego on Saturday. Saturday would start a weeklong lock down in the Biosphere.
Every three months the seasons would change, in that the crew would shift the light, heat and moisture of each terrain to inhibit or stimulate the growth cycles. Deciduous leaves would yellow and brown and fall off, the desert plants would be flushed with fog to start their spring growth cycle, and the rainforest would go through either an upcycle or downcycle of moisture to mimic the rainy and dry seasons. During this change, there would be a week in which the entire facility was locked down, sections sealed off from one another, as the air pressure and vapor changes had to be controlled. Any breaches in the greenhouses could devastate an entire cycle of growth, and cause a failure in the food chain. Although the team was no longer dependent on growing all their own crops for food, the plants also sustained the insect pollinators and birds that had taken up residence. There were two macaques still living there, Ozzy and Harriet. The ecosystem balance depended on the right amount of vegetation growing and producing oxygen, and absorbing the CO2. They had learned harshly back in the early 90s what a difference a bad winter could make, and how quickly everything downstream could suffer.
The lockdown was planned to start Saturday morning, and all the team members would be going on break for a week off campus. Although there would be security at the gate and perimeter, no one would be entering the building during that time. There would only be the one staffer who had to stay and make sure all the systems were staying online. That was going to be Hans. He was working on the hydraulics in the lung all week anyhow, there was a leak in one of the main air vents, and that had to be monitored closely. They had been working on welding it all week, but the real test was when they cranked up the atmospheric pressure and heat. The dome of the lung wasn't rising high enough, and so that meant too much was staying in the greenhouse. Another problem to be solved. The computers were set to start the airlocks on the doors at 1 am Saturday, and release the following weekend.
Elena was nervous to see Derk again, it had been a year since their last meeting in San Diego. She hadn't dated much and was inept about these things. To her chagrin, Richard's was the first face she saw when she bounced into the meeting room Friday morning after her run. No one else had arrived, and she was flushed with embarrassment when she saw him note the change in her appearance. Her hands kept going to cover the skin over her breasts, where her tshirt was cut away to reveal the top of the camisole she was wearing. His eyes trailed over her body, slowly, and a little smile creeped up around the edges. Elena wanted to say something, but she didn't want to start another conversation with him. The problem wasn't that Richard was a jerk, which he was. It was that he was gorgeous, totally and utterly gorgeous. Not cute, not handsome, but drop dead gorgeous like Clooney kind of gorgeous. This annoyed her even more, because she had already made a fool of herself in front of him at a Christmas party in grad school three years ago. And he hadn't let her forget it.
"I'd love to think you were going all out for me, Dr. Jessup."
"I'm not a doctor yet, Richard, you know that," she replied coolly as she went over to the coffee machine and punched the buttons for vanilla cappuccino. "Is Tiffany around?"
"I haven't seen her yet today, Elena. Anything special going on I should know about?" He smiled a twinkly smile at her, picking up a cup and waiting for her to finish.
"Oh, not really. I wanted to drive into the city with her tomorrow, that's all. If she was staying here tonight." Elena picked up an apple, and bit into it, and then walked over to the couch by the windows. Massive leaves of green pressed the lush forest up against them, steam and vapor dripping and collecting on the barss that connected the huge pipe crossbeams. It was an architectural marvel, and somehow just became home. She liked to look up through the glass ceilings and listen to her iPod. But she hadn't brought it with her from the dorms.
"I can give you a ride back, if you like. I was going to stay." Elena raised her eyebrow at him, in a half scowl. "I need to finish installing a telescope tonight before the lockdown this week. We are measuring the impact on the atmospheric changes on the lenses and data transmission." Elena nodded as he spoke. He was brilliant in his field, and he did deserve the accolades he had earned on telemetry or whatever it was he was talking about. He also had a very sexy voice, it had been used to narrate a few of the documentaries they had produced. Not on the biology, but on the collaborative efforts with NASA. They were planning to send a mini biosphere into space. Maybe in about three years.
"Um, well, I might also be going back into town with Derk, if he stays tonight." Elena blushed again, and took another bite of her apple to hide it.
"Yeah, Derk Stanson, research director from Scripps. He's coming today to discuss my thesis before I can submit for review." She paused, and pulled in another breath, "I'll be working there when I leave here." She knew that wasn't exactly yet true, but wanted to throw Richard off a little. She didn't want him to think she'd be around in Tucson, available, or anything, when the project was over in three months. "He should be getting here this afternoon."
"Oh, I see," Richard remarked. He had finished his coffee and put the cup in the sink. He never washed up. He must be used to lab groupies doing this for him back at the University, but here that didn't fly.
"Uh, Richard? Your cup." She prodded. She wasn't going to be washing up for him any time soon. Her thoughts were interrupted by some shouting in the corridor, and Tiffany came running in looking as if she'd seen a ghost.
"Richard, Elena, Hans is hurt. Really bad. He burnt himself on the welder out in the lung." Elena got up from the couch and ran over to her friend. "I'm taking him into town with Michael. He needs the ER." They were all trained as EMTs, and had a small clinic here. It must be bad if Tiffany wanted to take him in.
"What do we need to do?" Richard asked. He was focused and serious, and Tiffany looked like she was about to cry. She and Hans had been spending a lot of alone time together, though no one spoke of it openly.
"I need Elena to stay here, and do his shift this week for the airlock. Michael has to be in Tampa at a conference on Monday. Richard, I'd ask you but you don't have the training." Elena nodded, it was part of the bargain. "I am not sure how long we'll be, but I have to stay with Hans." Elena understood, and didn't say a peep. What a week it would be, here alone. Maybe Derk would want to stay for a tour of Southern Arizona. There were some great trails for hiking and the campus would be deserted.
"Oh, and another thing, Dr Stanson called this morning. His flight was delayed from San Diego, he won't be able to come until tomorrow. He'll try to reach you in the morning from the hotel. Listen, I have to go." Tiffany took off, and Elena and Richard looked at each other. It was going to be a long day here, and now just the two of them. A flash of lightning lit up the sky above, and a crash of thunder came down a moment later. Nothing to do but get back to work.