Author: Punctuator PM
The Outside of Your Skin Trilogy: Part Two. Just over a year into their mission, the crew of the Icarus II battens the hatches against a force deadly and invisible. Rated for salty language, a smattering of innuendo and gore, and one bad bacon joke.Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Drama - Chapters: 6 - Words: 7,191 - Reviews: 9 - Favs: 5 - Published: 05-06-08 - Status: Complete - id: 4239801
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
It took Harvey, Searle, and Kaneda to pry Mace out of the meat locker: his frosted suit came free with a grinding squeak. He was deeply disoriented and nearly unconscious; he very nearly fell on Corazon. Whitby, toppling after him, very nearly fell on Trey. Her chin, the chest of her t-shirt, the back of Mace's head: all were sticky with cold blood. Whitby's face was grayish-white.
"My God--" Capa helped Trey lower her to the deck; he knelt opposite Searle as the doctor reached for Whitby's throat. "Is she dead?"
Just as Searle's fingertips found her jugular, Whitby convulsed, coughed a spray of blood into Capa's face. Searle smiled at him wryly. "No." He looked up at the others. "Let's get these two to Medical."
Things weren't nearly as dire in the light of Medical as they had seemed in the cold blackness of the freezer. Whitby had two cracked ribs and a badly bruised lung and a case of hypothermia that her Scottish hide was too thick to regard as fatal. She got a bottle of pain pills and the next day's shift off. Mace, defrosted and re-oxygenated, got to spend seven hours checking for system shorts, diagnosing and fixing the electronics in his dropped helmet, and prowling the Icarus looking for melted seals and grommets. Then he spent nearly another two trying to get the petrified meat off the deck and bulkheads outside the freezer, which he did alone, after Trey, the bastard, insisted he had to collate the data on the flare while it was still fresh and Capa, looking queasy, muttered a mouthful of technospeak and slunk off to baby his bomb.
So Mace wasn't in the best of moods when he swung by the Oxygen Garden. Corazon laughed at his grumbling: "So now you're the janitor, too."
"Big surprise, huh?" Mace looked out into the cool green of the fern stand. A chair was there, a blanket folded over the back, a reading pad on the seat. "Was Whitby here?"
"Yeah. You just missed her. Kaneda came for her about five minutes ago."
"Didn't sound good?"
"Maybe he could cut her some slack." Mace frowned. "No: what she did was stupid. Could've killed us both."
Corazon moved away, dropped to an easy squat in one of the garden patches. "You both might have died, you mean. There's a difference."
He hesitated; he said, more softly: "Yeah."
"As it is, you're both alive. I'd say that was a good thing." She rummaged in the greenery, smiled, tossed him a tomato. "Here's to stupid behavior."
She disliked seeing Kaneda in his office.
Whitby found herself staring at the man's face framed on the screen of the monitor behind Kaneda's desk. Clean, handsome features. Dark, close-cut hair. Eyes that looked trench-black in the lifeless grainy color of the vid feed. Eyes that were intent and warm and flecked with green and gold, to those who'd seen those eyes alive.
She knew that Kaneda had first studied the logs of the Icarus I out of professional obligation. Now, she knew, months of monotony later, they'd become his obsession. She could hear him keep his voice casual: "You knew Captain Pinbacker pretty well, didn't you?"
How he always asked, how she always answered. As always, then, he offered her a blank moment of silence that, as always, she declined to fill. Quite possibly out of simple, automatic politeness, perhaps out of fear of what she would say, he never prompted her.
He switched the recording from "pause" to a black-screened "stop," drew himself straight, and said: "I am putting you on report, Lieutenant Whitby." She left empty the moment he allowed for her reaction; he continued: "You were to proceed to shelter in the Oxygen Garden; you did not. We might have lost both you and Lieutenant Mace, which loss of life could have proved crippling to the mission."
"Mission's undermanned at any rate, sir. Been saying that since Icarus I."
"Then you agree you acted unprofessionally."
"Impulsively, maybe." She looked at him coolly. "Unprofessionally, no."
"I am required to allow you to read the report before I file it with Control."
"Thank you, sir: no."
A data pad on his desk. Kaneda turned it her way, handed her a black stylus. Whitby signed the glowing blue signature box and laid the stylus on the desktop.
"Is there anything else, sir?"
A frown troubled his brow without actually settling. Kaneda was kind by nature; she suspected he was enjoying this even less than she was, even with her bruised chest and her cracked ribs and a head full of meds only half doing their job.
"I would like for you to talk to Dr. Searle," he said.
The bristling-brusque response would have been "Your attitude." Kaneda was not a bristling man.
"Whatever is troubling you, Loinnir," he said.
She found Searle in the observation lounge. She never felt entirely safe there. The full-wall view portal went against all her instincts as an astronaut and a diver: it seemed a daft, if not thoroughly dangerous, indulgence on the part of the ship's designers. Had seemed to her, when she took the mission, that someone might have seen fit to wall the thing over, put a proper bulkhead in its place. But no. With a look of polite professionalism masking mildly twitching impatience, Searle turned from from the inferno framed before them. If Whitby wanted nothing more than to be in the blackness of cool deep water, or at least in the quiet dim of her bunk, he wanted to be here.
By the time they were settled in his office, though, he'd found a seemingly genuine and empathetic smile for her. He settled back in the chair behind his desk and asked: "So what are we supposed to talk about?"
Kaneda had been more tactful with her than she was with herself. "My attitude."
He let her talk. But, really, what could she say? That she missed home? Her family? She did; they all did, though; and by now the missing had become even more elemental. "I miss being alive," she said. She caught herself. "No, that's not it. Contact. I miss contact. With the ground, the ocean, the air-- real air, with wind and dust and pollen and smoke and snow in it. With the sky. With--"
She stopped. Amazing how long seconds could seem when they spanned silence. Seemed like a hundred of them had ticked past, when it was probably nearer ten, before Searle prompted: "With--"
"With--" she echoed, softly. Contact. Jesus. The meds talking, sure. "Times when he's near me, and I think, Christ, wouldn't it be lovely? Just to hold him, just for a minute--"
"Mace." As if it could have been anyone else. "Who'd-you-think-who?"
He smiled for a moment. Then he said: "It wouldn't be professional, would it?"
"No. It's not that. Think we could handle a tumble without compromising our integrity. It's more--" -- and she paused, tired and aching in her mind as well as her body, and only after a long time did she go on: "It's like a language I don't speak any more. Intimacy. Like a language of hope, isn't it? And I've gone and chucked it away."
Searle asked directly: "Are you suicidal, Loinnir?"
"No." She focused on him, met his dark eyes. "No, I'm not."
"Because suicide is a mortal sin, and you wouldn't get to heaven."
"No." Whitby dug behind her wall of meds and offered Searle a droll smile. "Mostly because I'd be dead. Couldn't bloody well complete the mission then, could I?"
He was at the door to her quarters just past twenty-one hundred hours. She answered his knock dressed in sweatpants and a charcoal-gray sweatshirt-- or two: she still looked cold. She looked tired, too; her north-sea eyes were slightly dull.
"We could do this tomorrow," Mace said.
"No." Whitby pushed her palms along her temples, as though she were pulling sleep from her eyebrows. "Just not here."
They went to the common area off the galley. Whitby winced as she seated herself at the table. Mace sat opposite her.
"Sorry," she said. "I'm not in the best shape."
"You still hurt."
"Yeah." She hesitated, then said to the tabletop: "Kaneda put me on report."
"For saving you." She looked at him. "You'll agree: he's right."
"I acted unprofessionally. You'll agree with that, too."
"No. I won't." Mace tapped fingertips in a light circle on the table. "I need to say two things. The first is 'thank you.' The second is 'I'm sorry.' I shouldn't have said-- you know: what I said in the hall."
"I shouldn't be rising to taunts, myself."
They sat for a time after that, nothing between them but the steel tabletop and quiet and the thrum of the ship. Then she looked over at him, cocked her head thoughtfully, sleepily. "Think this is where we're supposed to decide."
"Your place or mine."
For a moment, it wasn't a joke. He remembered her smile outside the freezer, and suddenly, just for a second, things, everything, seemed brighter, more focused.
He said, gently: "Think you need your sleep."
Whitby nodded. "I do." She got up stiffly, came around the table en route to the door, patted his shoulder. "G'night, tool."
Mace smiled. "See you tomorrow, Pilot."
He hadn't returned immediately to the observation lounge after Whitby left. Searle sat in Medical with the exaggerated calm of an addict denying the need for a drink, a hit, or a cigarette and filled out the remainder of her psych report. Then he strolled back to the lounge, stopping at the galley for a bottle of water, casually, as though he cared as little for the thing beyond the lounge portal as it cared for him. Mace was there, at the table, spearing at a salad with a fork.
Searle said, smiling: "Gonna be seeing plenty more of that, now that you and Whitby went and torched that meat store."
"What can I say?" Mace actually smiled back. Rare, and good, to see him relaxed. "We felt like a barbecue."
Searle was at the door with his water. "As long as it wasn't you on the menu, right?"
"Hell, if we come up short on burgers, we can always cook Trey," Mace said, as Searle went out into the corridor.
Two jokes in under a minute, and the first he'd heard from Mace in over a month. Maybe Whitby had passed him a few of her pain pills. Searle chuckled. "Sure. Goodnight, Mace."
He didn't mind being their confessor: after all, he was their doctor and psychologist; moreover, as he suspected was the case with most humans, not just those he would classify as listening professionals, he got a visceral thrill from the blending of secrets and trust.
Searle stood nearly at the filtered reinforced glass of the lounge's viewing wall and looked out at it. Orange and white and yellow roilings, red upheavals, scars in burgundy churning up, churning under. Window-filling now: the last slivers of black space had vanished from the far edges of the glass weeks ago.
Whitby, their good Catholic (truly odd, wasn't it, to know that such creatures still existed?), had asked him, months back: "Who's your confessor, Searle?"
He'd smiled and lied: "I send my thoughts in my messages to Control."
All of them came to him, regularly (like Trey and Harvey), or sporadically (here you'd find Corazon and Kaneda), or nearly not at all (Capa, Mace, and Whitby were the team's holdouts), with what he thought of as their "miss-lists." Tonight Whitby had left something off of hers.
It was his fault. He knew that. Some weeks back-- it was months now, wasn't it?-- she'd sat in the chair across from his at his desk and, scowling back tears, had told him how much she missed her son.
He said, without thinking-- he as much as blurted it: "Your sun?"
She'd looked a little confused, then more than a little suspicious. She had eyes as deeply blue as the North Atlantic, and just as cold. "Yeah. My boy." And she hadn't mentioned him since. Not to Searle, at any rate.
Here and now, Searle drew a deep breath and pressed his palm to the window of the observation lounge. Blistering heat: no. The glass was dry and cool. He focused on his confessor and breathed out.
He stood there, looking. He told himself, still, sometimes, that he was looking for something he could actually see. Mercury, for instance. Those on the flight deck, Trey and Whitby and Mace with their enhanced views forward, were already on the lookout. The Messenger would be visible to all of them in less than two months.
It would be good for them, wouldn't it?
Something new. Something to break the tedium. Something to shake the stress from the final stages of the mission.
Searle smiled out at his sun. It'd be good. Sure.