Author: Punctuator PM
The Outside of Your Skin Trilogy: Part One. Four survivors are homeward bound in the cramped remnants of the Icarus II. Rated, with a humble nod to the Gulag Archipelago, for violence, gore, and coarse language. Just stay sane... and keep breathing....Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Drama - Chapters: 11 - Words: 20,799 - Reviews: 21 - Favs: 18 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 05-03-08 - Published: 04-30-08 - Status: Complete - id: 4227944
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
He gave it little to no thought when they started the voyage home. Then, by that time, months in space with an imperfect grip on his own identity later, he realized he couldn't remember her name. She was Pilot.
The last words Robert Capa had heard when he was still wholly himself: "COMMAND MODULE DISENGAGING. COMMAND MODULE DISENGAGING." As they didn't immediately burn alive, he assumed in a later moment of clarity that the module's shields had deployed correctly and that Pilot or the module's programming or both had managed a rough approximation of the "minimal presentation" slingshot maneuver that would take them away from the worst of the sun, using eternally charred Mercury as extra protection. But that would come later, the assumption. When they left the larger part of the Icarus II, Capa was too busy splintering, Mace was unconscious, and Trey was screaming.
He would think this, too, later: living was harder.
Death can be right there, just ahead. You might see your path to it clearly, and that path might look smooth. Accomplishments fulfilled, missions achieved. Great rewards, all that. But human nature dictates one of two things: we dawdle, or we're pulled back. More often the second. See, your life isn't the project: someone else's life is. So it was with Pilot and Trey, with Capa and Mace.
To a lesser extent, with Pilot and Capa, too. But his life wasn't her project: she had saved him by coincidence, he couldn't remember that saving, and he hated both the forgetting and his savior. Not in a personal way, especially. For one thing, his opinions were as damaged as his memory and his sense of time. For another thing, deriving perhaps directly from the multi-parted first, Capa was insane.
Pilot told him in one of his lucid periods. He didn't mind, really: that, perhaps, was the one thing he found coolly factual, a relief almost: his insanity.
Other facts: the four of them: he and Trey and Mace and Pilot. Facts of her, herself: she wasn't Cassidy. Cassie, for reasons classified "official" and hence not for the ears and eyes of the mission physicist, had left Project Icarus just over two months before their departure. Pilot, who had trained as the backup pilot for the first Icarus mission, had replaced her. Cassie had left with hardly a word to him. Not that she owed him words, or anything else, for that matter. A handsqueeze, a quick kiss--
"Good luck, Capa," she'd said. And she'd gone.
Pilot was a tall, longboned woman in her mid-thirties, lean, clean-featured. Hair the color of ash, kept short enough to forestall its curling. Eyes the color of deep water under a stormy sky. She had kept to herself on the voyage out, though she'd been almost everywhere, among them: she was an observer with a knack for stillness. She could share space with you without you realizing it. More than once, Capa had with surprise noted her presence at crew gatherings. It was as though she occupied a dimension just barely one over, as though hers were always the next frame in a strip of film.
Now they had for themselves the command area, which was their living space; they had a modular section of passageway that could, with minor modification, serve as a makeshift airlock. They had shielding and a means of propulsion, all of which had deployed and locked in place both through automation and during Pilot's calm ticking-through of the dying ship's endgame emergency procedures. They had food and water and air, the ability to recycle, gravity, and power. They had medical supplies and sundries. They had sensors and navigational capability.
What they didn't have was a reliable means of communication. When they were clear of the dead zone, Pilot had asked Capa to send a message to Earth, though the radio was likely useless.
"Mission accomplished. Icarus II emergency configuration Earthbound. Four survivors."
He had been surprised at the sound of his voice. Then he realized: he hadn't spoken in days.
He had realized something else, too, something he could read in Pilot's hard face and Mace's injured one: half of them had died. He found himself hating himself and Pilot and Mace-- and, to a lesser extent, Trey, though Trey would soon, he was certain, be gracious enough to die while they went on with their tinned, cramped, pointless existing-- for being alive.
Pilot worked him when he was clear. She had to-- he realized it as they moved through projects-- but he hated her for that, too. And when he wasn't lucid, and he couldn't remember anything, let alone being lucid, he sensed her watching him for clarity, and he sensed himself hating that as well. If he could have spoken then, during one of those internally time-free moments, he would have told her to fuck off; if he could move during one of those moments, suspensions lasting (or so she told him) hours or days (the first one had lasted nearly a week, so he had to be experiencing "improvement" by medical standards (but more on his re-de-synchronization with time below)), he would have put her out of the airlock. Himself too.
On principle only, though. She had saved him by coincidence, and he hated her for it. But not in a personal way especially, merely in his sensing (during the periods in which he could sense (he'd taken to timing them, the periods, his periods, on the pod's one working chronometer, sometimes watching the black display, the sickly green numbers, as breathlessly as someone lost in a cave might watch the last pulsing glow of a dying flashlight)) that she'd kept him from completion. He manifested his hatred, during his lucid periods, as resentment in terms of attitude, action, speech. He treated her civilly. Nor was he suicidal. The moment of his death had simply come and gone without him. The perfect moment. He felt no need as now to seek an imperfect one with which to replace it.
She and he in his lucid periods performed the assessment of the pod. Tallied supplies, arranged for them a living space that would maximize their resources. With Mace's help, they jerry-rigged the module's-- the pod's-- navigational potential; with Trey's help, they plotted a course for home.
With help only. Mace, who had looked when he shouldn't have at something at which no human eye was meant to look without shielding, was blind. Trey, who had been badly burned across his upper torso and right shoulder and arm, spoke to them from behind a curtain of drugs. They'd been unable to boot the spoken interface from the Icarus: the ship's voice had died with Kaneda, Harvey, Searle, and Corazon. They had minimal systems and monitoring, and Trey would be the voice of those systems now. If he didn't die. Pilot, with the calm yet psychotic precision of an obsessive-compulsive, had measured out a scheduling of the pain medication they'd salvaged from the Icarus. All for Trey.
"We need him lucid," she said.
Capa watched her, the movements of the ampules like the seconds remaining to him before-- "Mace is in pain, too."
Pilot looked at him. Her eyes were dark and flat. "We need Trey more."
"You wanna spit in my eyes, man?"
Pilot was asleep. Capa took the piece of medical sponging from the ledge near Mace's head and picked his way, arachnid-slow, to the cycler. If he woke her, she'd tell him not to waste the water. What was more, he'd agree. His compassion was most active when she slept. He pressed the cloth to the base of the steel tank, where the condensation gathered. He felt the moisture on his fingertips like a memory. Then, slowly, mindful even of the sounds from his joints, he straightened and turned and took the damp bit of sponge to Mace.
"I'm here," he said to Mace's burned face.
Mace nodded. He shut his eyes, and Capa pressed the sponge to his scarred lids, first the left eye, then the right.
Mace put his fingers over Capa's, pushed the sponge more tightly into the corner of his right eye. It hurt him; he frowned. "It's like my tear ducts are fucked."
A minute later. Mace counted the seconds. A full minute later he said: "What, man? Capa?"
But Capa was gone. Mace could hear him breathing, could hear that breathing slowing to what Pilot had called "the fugue." He felt hysteria building in him. In his mind he glared it down. He felt his eyes trying to cry. His lids and sockets burned with salt and scabbing. Barely any liquid on the sponge, and Capa silent beside him, silent beyond silent and going even quieter. Like he was turning inside out with Mace beside him blind. Nothing else they could do for his eyes, "they" being Pilot and Capa, when Capa wasn't, as he was now, gone from them and himself. Mace had felt around the damage on his face: rough areas and scabs that itched and sometimes oozed-- what? Blood or pus: whatever it was, he couldn't see it. He tasted it occasionally. It tasted of salt.
He was panicking. He knocked his skull back against the bulkhead and forced himself to breathe deeply. In deep, out deep. "Fuck," he said. "Fuck it."
Quietly, one last time he said Capa's name. When Capa said nothing in return, Mace got up on his knees, took Capa by the shoulders, and sat him down on the waffled metal floor.
Then he began to wonder. He ran his hand from Capa's shoulder to his neck, then to his face. Cautiously, slowly. He felt his way up Capa's bristled hollow cheek to his eye socket. He slowed his motion, slowed it beyond caution, until his fingertip brushed Capa's lashes.
Capa's eyes were open.
"Fuck," Mace whispered.
Trey was groaning from--
Mace guessed Pilot had put him in the pod's one legitimate sleeping bay, in the alcove that acted as a rudimentary medical area. Mace she had provided with a mat and a blanket. Keep the blind man close to the floor, he thought. Smart thinking. He listened: he heard the hiss of the hypogun. A moment later Trey was quiet. A rustling as Pilot finished tending to him, then the soft thudding of her bootsoles on the deck as she left the medical bay.
Capa was still beside him. He'd tipped onto the deck. His head was on Mace's left ankle. Mace didn't mind: he needed the contact. He guessed Pilot's position in the cabin and said: "Is it dinnertime yet?"
"Not yet. Three hours. Do you want me to move him? Capa?"
"Naw. It's okay."
"-- okay: they're working."
Cloth above flesh above bone, against his cheek. His shoulder twisted under him. Capa pushed up, away from the deck, away from Mace's ankle.
"You missed breakfast," Pilot said.
Which meant he'd missed dinner, too. Capa stared at Mace, as though Mace had been the one speaking. Mace's raw lids were closed; he was breathing deeply if fitfully. Asleep.
Hunger. A realization. After his stops, his body came back to him in fits, sensations returned harshly. Capa stood-- and nearly fell. He was dizzy.
"I want my food."
House rule: you miss a meal, you miss a meal.
"No," said Pilot. "Stay awake next time."
"I could kill you," Capa said.
She was at the pod's controls. She turned in the pilot's seat and looked at him with her flat dark eyes. "You could try. Or you could wait until lunch. Or you could wait until Trey dies and take his share of the ees."
"May I have a drink?"
"Two ounces. Two ounces only," Pilot said.
He touched the liquid to his upper lip and felt in it that whole day long ago, that late cold afternoon on a beach of rounded stones, felt the wind blowing in at him and Mace over the blue-gray surface of the big lake. No land at the horizon. Just gray smooth cloud meeting that darker gray below. The meeting point, the joinder, was itself uncertain. No matter how hard he looked he
No, he thought.
couldn't see where sky ended and water began, where both were gray, a deepening gray as the light failed, and the harder he looked he
He drank the water quickly; he shook the metal cup hard, and the last drops fell, spherical, mercurial, onto his dry tongue. He was feeling it, "it" being the nothing that
He bit the back of his hand as hard as he could. The cup clattered on the deck as he fell away and into himself. The last thing he saw was Pilot, on her feet, coming closer.
He was sitting; Pilot was sitting with him, holding him. Obviously she'd gone to the deck with him. Capa raised his head from her shoulder.
"Less than five minutes, that one," she said quietly. She let go of him and got up. "At least you didn't miss lunch."
At their meals, Pilot broke the e-rats for the three of them. It lent a sense of formality to the proceedings, of society, disinclined them to wolf the pasty tan slabs. Eating slowly, they'd pass time pragmatically if not sociably: they'd be less hungry if they didn't rush the food from their mouths to their stomachs.
Mace took his share of the bar and kneaded it between thumb and forefinger. Flattening it, making it seem larger than it was.
"Water," Capa said. He touched the cup to Mace's lips, held it while Mace drank.
Mace broke off a piece of ee and chewed it slowly. "You know the Titanic?" he asked the air.
"Yes," said Capa. "Why?"
"You know why they didn't have enough lifeboats?"
"Outdated naval regulations," said Pilot.
"No." Mace moved his head in the direction from which the cup had come; Capa held it again to his lips. Mace sipped, stopped. "More to do with common belief."
"About what?" Capa asked.
"That it was better to drown than to die of starvation and dehydration. Most people-- sailors, anyway-- they thought of lifeboats as floating coffins."
"You're saying we should have died," Pilot said.
"I'm saying we should have had a choice."
"I should have waited until you were slightly less panicked?"
"I wasn't panicking--"
"You were," Capa said. He turned to Pilot. "But he's right, you know."
"We'd've been better off?"
She said, very quietly: "You fucking dirty little bastard."
Capa sat back, shocked. He stared at her. "You have no idea what you're-- What I saw--"
"What you fucking saw, little man? What--? The face of God--?"
"You don't understand--"
"What I understand is that I signed on to take you fools to the sun and back. And back. Round-fucking-trip." When she was upset, her voice tended to burr Scots: now, glaring at Capa, she picked up the accent she normally squelched and gained volume as well. "I didn't sign up to fly you and yours to some fucking epiphany. Playing to your delusions wasn't part of my orders. So you saw-- whatever the hell you saw-- your place in the grand order of things or whatever. Well, guess what? Even if you did, your place isn't there. We're not angels, we're not God's fucking emissaries. He doesn't want us that close to Him, and He sent us packing. We're going home, Dr. Capa. I'm taking you home, because those are my orders and because the people in control of Project Icarus failed to inform me-- terrible oversight though it might seem to you-- that I was flying a suicide mission. And because of you we have a home to go back to. Must be hard for you, but you'll have to adjust: you're still alive, and by Christ I'm going to see that you stay that way."
"Because those are your orders."
"Yes, Doctor. Now eat your fucking lunch before your brain shuts down again."
Mace chewed his bar. "You're a bitch, you know that?" he said in Pilot's general direction.
She spoke, more softly, his way: "Yes, I know that."
The inhabitants of the pod once known as Icarus II, either as a blessing or as a means of reducing to slow motion their extended doom, had one recycler capable of handling only liquids. One that could handle liquids and solids. A third that could filter and recycle gases. They were in good shape that way. They had emergency rations, e-rats, ees, enough for three people for ten months. Water. Not quite enough up front, but that's where the cyclers came in.
"We can stretch the food," Pilot said.
"Not that far," Capa countered.
"There's the airlock, Doctor." She caught herself, stopped speaking, drew and released a slow deep breath. "We have the means of feeding ourselves almost indefinitely, if--"
She hesitated, and a slight smile flickered at the corners of her mouth. "In about a week the first cultures will be ready to harvest."
Suddenly, from the side, Mace let out a snort. "Oh, no. I'll eat my shoes first, man--"
Pilot smiled-- abruptly, Capa found himself smiling, too, bemusedly-- and said, "You do that, Charlie Chaplin. I'm going to be a good girl and eat my--"
"Sludge. Call it what it is."
That's what it was. In a chamber at the top of the water cycler it grew: a deep greenish paste. Probiotic, full of green goodness, plant protein, and fiber. Deeply digestible. Lacking only anything approaching tolerable flavor or texture, it would fill the gaps the e-rats left in their diets. Humble, all-essential bioculture. Sludge.
The things of which they did not speak: what they wanted to eat or drink when they got home. Then home itself. There was a view forward, but they rarely looked: hard to believe the pod could move through that impenetrable blackness. Exercise programs that Mace suggested: stretching, walking in place, pushups. Bath days, courtesy of sanitary pre-moistened wipes, no-rinse shampoo. Tiny dollops of toothpaste, to be swallowed. Tooth floss, to be re-used. For the first two weeks, they were stable. Not content, but functional.
Then, in the third week, Trey worsened.
Capa stood by as Pilot peeled away the airflow dressing on Trey's right shoulder and arm.
Capa, looking, smelling, nearly gagged. "Oh, my-- Fuck."
"What--" Trey muttered. He wasn't with them, not quite. He was riding meds and infection.
His shoulder in its sticky redness was bad; his right arm was horrific. He'd caught it in a door as they evacuated: an electrical panel had shorted and exploded, and his arm had been on fire for nearly thirty seconds before Pilot pulled him free and extinguished it. What remained of its skin was char-black; his bicep and tricep had burned nearly to the bone.
Now his arm was rotting. Next to Capa, Pilot was very pale. She said to him: "Wake Mace, would you please, Robert?"
He came up out of a troubled light sleep when someone touched his shoulder.
"Mace." Capa's voice. "We need you to do something. It's Trey."
"Is he dead?"
"No. We need you to hold him."
"We don't have any anesthesia," said Pilot.
Trey was out of it until they were about to begin. They bound his legs; Mace pinned his upper body. He and Trey were nearly face to face. He could smell Trey's sweat, the chemical tang of cleansing wipes, the sweetish stink of rotting flesh.
Trey woke at the cold spray of disinfectant. "What's wrong?" he asked, near Mace's right ear. "Capa? Pilot-- what are you-- Mace, what's--"
Pilot's voice: "Trey, I'm sorry. Mace, hold him."
"What--?" Trey squirmed beneath him. Mace held tight to him, pressed himself into the shifting, gasping give of flesh and skin and bone.
"Sorry, man. I'm so sorry--"
"Quickly," Pilot said. "Trey, hold on."
He heard it, Mace did, as Pilot started to cut, upwards and inwards, toward Trey's shoulder cap: a wet slicing as she left skin sufficient to form a flap. "Capa, here--" she said, and there was a sound like an air drill, a whistling, a wet microscopic crunching.
That was the medical version. In his version and Trey's, the version straight from hell, Trey bucked beneath him as the scalpel bit him; he screamed and moaned. His teeth clamped on the uniform fabric over Mace's shoulder and Mace felt his skin break as Trey's muffled howls shook through him.
It came to him, a sudden clarity: The last time he saw Pilot she'd been covered in blood. Not her own--
Almost on cue, something warm sprayed Mace's face.
"Clamp that," Pilot panted. "Capa, goddammit--"
A metallic clattering near Mace's head. "Got it," Capa said.
Beneath Mace, Trey went limp.
"Jesus--" Capa whispered.
"Wait--" Mace lifted his head. Trey's mouth released his shoulder; Mace put his cheek near enough to Trey's lips to feel-- "He's breathing."
"Good. That's good." Pilot finished: Mace stayed in place, holding Trey, while she autostitched the wound, sealed the artery, secured the flap of skin at Trey's shoulder. "Just need to cauterize--"
An electric ticking as the cauterizer powered up. Then an odor like fat burning on metal, chemical, greasy--
"Oh, fuck--" The ticking stopped. Mace heard the cauterizer clunk onto the instrument tray. He heard Pilot as she stepped away, retching.
Capa finished for her. It took the air cycler three days to clear away the smell.