Author: Punctuator PM
Semi-A/U, and a what-if: one captain, one ship, and one big crew, all out to reignite the sun. Action and horror, tragedy and heroics, and, of course, set-pieces as big as all outdoors. Welcome to the one and only mission of Project Icarus.Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Drama - Chapters: 5 - Words: 33,164 - Reviews: 28 - Favs: 11 - Follows: 6 - Updated: 05-23-10 - Published: 03-19-10 - Status: Complete - id: 5827266
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: Well, this is it. The last this dirty rat— heh!— has to say on the subject of Binary. Brace yourselves: this is one big, brutal blowout of an ending. As always-always, thank you for stopping by. And, please, feel free to comment. I do appreciate it!
He found no sign of Pinbacker in the engine room, in engineering, in the aft storage hold. The door to the mainframe room was untouched, still locked. Mace pounded on the flight-deck door, stood flexing the fresh bruises from his hands after Capa let him in. He knew the answer before he asked; he asked anyway: "Has Whitby checked in?"
"No," Trey said.
"What's our status?"
"Helm is responding. Autopilot is available. Full navigational links between the helm and the mainframe are nearly restored. Life support corrected itself after the reboot—"
"We're still working on comms, Mace." Barring took over when the update reached her area of specialty. "We're close to rudimentary person-to-person within the ship. Beyond the bulkheads, it's still suit-to-suit only. No word from Icarus. Funny thing: I spent most of the voyage out wishing the creepy bitch would shut up, and now—"
Mace asked Capa: "Where are we with the payload?"
"Cassie put us on final approach five minutes ago—"
Mace hadn't even realized it. He frowned, tension and weariness snuffing out any hope he might have felt. "The repairs held—"
"Yes, they did."
"We should be in position within an hour."
Years of training, of planning. Sixteen long months in space. It all came down to this: the gut-twisting sense that time was running out. Not only because of narrowly avoided hypothermia spiked liberally with adrenaline, no: Mace found himself shaking.
"Don't wait for me or Whitby." He had to tighten his jaw muscles to keep his voice steady. "If you're good to go, make the launch."
"Don't worry, Mace." Capa's brushy brows flicked together over his inhumanly clear eyes. He hesitated, then reached out and laid his right hand palm-down on Mace's shoulder. "You should eat something before you go."
Sometimes his flat affect could be chilling. Now, it seemed strangely reassuring. "I will later," Mace said.
He went to the door. "Capa—"
Capa, back at his station, the launch panel to his right, looked Mace's way.
"— good luck," Mace finished.
Capa met his eyes, nodded.
Mace left. The flight-deck door closed with a metallic thunk behind him; the lock clicked. He headed forward.
He found Whitby's knife, the matte-black blade sticky with blood, on the deck outside the forward hold. But no sign of Whitby herself. No sign of Pinbacker, either. The door to the hold was half-open. Mace listened, entered.
No motion, no sudden attack. He was alone.
Inside, he made a quick inventory. As one of the mission's mechanics and all-around go-to handypeople, he had a practical working knowledge of the mission's parts and supplies. He ignored the foodstuffs, the textiles, the bulk equipment and everyday tools. He noted almost immediately the slot meant to hold an EVA multi-tool, a combination drill and chemical torch more robust than the equipment built into the suits. On a sudden hunch, he went to check the rack that should have held the forward storage area's complement of explosive bolts, the charges that flanked the ship's emergency and airlock doors.
The rack was empty.
Mace guessed that if he were to trek aft and look, he'd find the bolt racks in the ship's other holds empty as well.
Pinbacker was building a bomb of his own.
The question became: where was he planning to detonate it?
If he meant to damage the ship's engines, he would have been working out of the aft hold; Mace, moving forward, earlier, through Engineering, would have seen him. If he meant to damage the ship itself catastrophically, he would need time and more than a handful of explosive bolts if he intended to hit anything other than secondary systems: the helm assembly, for instance, was more than a single man-hour away, even with a fast drill; and, again, Mace would have spotted him. As for the payload itself, Mace had to believe Capa when he said they didn't have enough explosive on board to shock the bomb from the inside. Pinbacker would know that, too.
He left the hold, looked back toward the ship proper, looked ahead toward the payload. The first of a pair of options presented itself when he saw something wet and glistening on the waffled decking ahead. Practically as black as engine grease in the gloom.
He'd taken a handful of steps toward the payload when option two announced itself: a hissing from the staging area outside the forward airlock.
Mace turned toward the sound. The forward staging area held but two suit lockers. One was empty. The other was open. The hissing was coming from the air tanks on the remaining suit.
He moved automatically, quickly, back to the hold, took an EVA repair kit from the rack inside the door. He returned to the staging area, went to the second suit locker.
Something crunched beneath the sole of his right boot. Mace looked down and saw a pair of comm tags, crushed to pieces on the deck.
He thought, as his hands, working machine-like on their own, slapped the catalyst and binding halves of two squares of Handi-Patch onto the punctures in the suit's air tanks, He wouldn't. Jesus God, even insane he wouldn't. He wouldn't throw her outside without a suit—
The hissing stopped. Mace keyed in the diagnostic code for the suit. Tank one was empty. Tank two had lucked itself into a slower leak: it still held forty-eight minutes' worth of air. Mace took the remaining squares of Handi-Patch from the repair kit and stuffed them into the suit's leg pockets. In the hold, he found himself an EVA tool kit. To it, he added a grappling gun and four punch-through explosive-tipped grappling darts, each with a hundred-meter spool of thin, high-tensile cable.
He suited up and left the ship.
Icarus came back online as herself— after sharing close quarters with that vocal interface for more than a year, none of the crew could think of her as anything other than that— with a series of voice tests. Monroe-Veidt Mark Six User Interface: Project Icarus, repeated again and again, a dozen times or more, a cascade of variations in speed and pitch, until she seemed satisfied that she was again herself; she expressed said anthropomorphized satisfaction by announcing, over the comm tags and the flight deck's wall speakers:
Vocal interface with mainframe restored.
Capa stopped short of saying, "Welcome back." He said: "Icarus, not including Kaneda, Sullivan, or Searle, identify crewmembers presently on board."
Barring. Capa. Cassidy. Trey.
"That's just the flight deck," Trey said. "Icarus, locate Pinbacker and Whitby."
Pinbacker and Whitby are not within current communications range, Trey.
Cassie looked over from the cockpit. "Maybe the interface between the mainframe and our internal sensors is still tweaky."
"No," Barring said. Her tone was decidedly more lifeless than Icarus'. "Whitby is dead. We all know that. Pinbacker killed her."
"Maybe. Icarus still would have picked up the readings from her tags. She could be in the payload." Capa said, before anyone else could point out who else had been overlooked in the census: "Icarus, get me through to Mace—"
Mace is not within current communications range, Capa.
Cassie realized first: "He's outside."
From the upper deck, Trey wondered: "What the hell is he doing out there—?"
"The engines," Capa heard himself say. "The boosters on the payload—" Alarm seeped like fine cold dust into his bones. He knew— he'd known for most of his life— that he saw things too often on a quantum scale. In contrast, a captain's job was to see a mission from the smallest detail on out. Mace, by extension, as one of the ship's mechanics, had a comparable view of the mission as a whole. "Pinbacker wasn't planning on damaging the payload from inside. He's going to sabotage it from the outside in."
In the silence of the bomb, Whitby woke up.
She'd been lying in a regular stew of unconsciousness: reams of shock, gouts of blood loss, ragged chunks of dying, maybe even a peppering of sleep. She hadn't slept in over a day; she hadn't eaten anything when they'd come in from repairing the hull. She'd taken but a sip of water in the aft staging area. She'd been half-frozen, then half-thawed, and she'd been stabbed. With her own fucking knife, yet, but that, for now, was beside the point. She was bleeding heavily, and, judging by the size of the pool of blood in which she lay, had been for twenty to thirty minutes. She was nauseous and near to catatonia, and her grip on consciousness was tenuous. She tried to stand, slipped in her own gore, and fell again. Knocked the wind from her lungs and almost passed out.
She lay curled on her right side and breathed as deeply as she could. Got as much air to her muscles and brain as possible, tried to ignore the burn-and-seep centered in her midriff. She propped herself on her elbows and began to drag herself toward the gangway.
Mace was outside, tired and twitchy, trying to think as a mechanic as well as a captain and a madman.
He was facing the back of the solar shield, the payload, moving forward on thruster-power. He was getting nothing in the way of feedback from the flight deck, of course; Icarus was still hiding her scanner feeds and three-dimensional schematics deep in her rebooting guts. Within the limited visual field of his helmet slit, he swept his eyes over Capa's massive cube of a bomb and its sheltering parabola and thought of the mission's core planning, the specifics, the blueprints, the all-and-all that Pinbacker would know.
He looked, and he thought: the boosters. Four of them on the payload's near side, roughly twenty meters in diameter and thirty meters deep, each large enough to hold a good-sized two-story building. Armed with that EVA multi-tool, Pinbacker might access the fuel-line assembly within one of them. Or, in reality, several of them. But they were near to launch, and time was running down. If he could choose only one to sabotage, which one would it be—?
Lower left, Mace told himself. Engine One. Each booster had its own supply of solid fuel; the lower-left booster was nearest the payload's shared store of catalytical gaseous fuel. If Pinbacker could damage the fuel lines, he might set the booster off out of sequence: the bomb would then careen away from the sun or skitter across the surface, breaking up as it went. Especially if the gas near in proximity to Engine One ignited unchecked and blew back through the inter-engine conduits, weakening the payload housing.
Mace angled his thrusters for Engine One. The opening of the booster cowl was a maw of palpable blackness. Hoping, if anything, to keep surprise on his side, he hadn't wanted to use his suit-light; he really didn't have a choice. He switched it on. The beam sliced ahead, far ahead.
And struck dim glare off the golden back of an EVA suit. Pinbacker was working at the access panel at the mouth of the engine's inner exhaust port, right where Mace had guessed he would be.
He had neither the time nor, at this point, the temperament for subtlety. Mace launched himself down the interior of the cowl.
When he was halfway into the booster, rationality kicked in, teamed itself with his powers of observation. The light from his suit was moving across the suited figure ahead of him. The figure itself was absolutely still. Moreover, it had no worklight of its own.
No time to stop. And instinct told him he shouldn't. Mace overshot the figure in the suit— it was Sullivan, he realized, dead, burned, and now posed as a decoy— and shouldered hard into the curve of the booster wall. He turned to see a second suited figure flying his way. Pinbacker collided with him, grabbed him by the arm and spun him around, and Mace felt a hard tug in the vicinity of his nape as the man threw his emergency helmet release.
A whistle of escaping air, a Vegas strip of warning lights bursting to life around his head. Mace held his helmet in place with one gloved hand, kicked away from Pinbacker, and did something that certainly wasn't in the user's manual for his EVA suit: he fired his boosters directly at the floor of the cowl. He shot upward like a missile. He hit the ceiling headfirst: the armor of his suit absorbed the impact; the lights winked out as his helmet re-sealed.
And for a second Pinbacker was off his guard. Mace went for him as Pinbacker did what the need to move without being seen had prevented him from doing minutes ago: he fired up the chemical torch on the heavy-duty multi-tool he'd taken from the forward hold and thrust the blue-hot tip toward the chest-plate ops panel on Mace's suit. Mace grabbed for the multi-tool; Pinbacker grabbed for his grabbing. As the torch beam etched a jagged molten line across the interior of the booster cowl, Mace freed his left hand, flipped the power switch for the mini-torch built into his EVA suit, and jammed the live tip against the torso of Pinbacker's suit.
They were drifting, the two of them, toward the cowl's outer edge. Pinbacker was insanely strong, inhumanly strong. The torch-tip of the multi-tool was angling Mace's way, toward the slit in his helmet. The cutting beam struck sparks off his armored left shoulder.
And suddenly Pinbacker stopped fighting.
Stopped moving entirely.
Mace could hear him breathing over the suit-to-suit feed. He took the multi-tool from Pinbacker's hand and switched off the torch on his own suit. There was a burn-marked hole where the torch-tip had touched Pinbacker's suit. A hole through the golden armor. Through Pinbacker's midriff. Through his spine.
Hardly a hiss of escaping air. The hole-edges had cauterized, front and back, suit to flesh, flesh to suit. He hadn't even felt it. And now, finally, the captain of the Icarus was paralyzed.
Through the view slits of their helmets, Mace could see Pinbacker watching him. Those dark eyes. Calm, patient. Slightly mocking.
He asked only once: "Where is she, Captain?"
Pinbacker stayed silent. Nothing but his breathing, eerily steady and deep, over the feed. Mace braced his hand on the side of the cowl and pushed him away, past the outer lip, and turned back toward the interior of the booster. At a guess, he had less than twenty minutes to assess and undo Pinbacker's would-be sabotage.
His guess, though he had no way of knowing, was a bit optimistic.
"We're in position, Capa," Cassie said. "Coming up on optimal target range on solar surface."
Capa spot-verified his own numbers, checked them against Cassie's and Trey's. "Initiate preliminary launch sequence."
"Decreasing power to main engines. First-stage retros coming online." Cassie leaned left, out of the cockpit, and reached for a switch set apart from her daily piloting array. "Locking clamps disengaging: now."
Whitby was nearly to the inner door of the gangway when a brief but thunderous metallic rumbling shook through the payload. Like the sound she might hear if God were to drop His keys.
The locking clamps.
She pulled herself to her feet, reached for the door handle. Missed it by inches as, one or the other, her legs gave out or the payload tipped and she fell again. She hit her head on the way to the deck—
— No. Fuck—
— and the world around her went from gray to black.
Pinbacker watched the edge of the shield approach. He was unable to move his hands to fire his suit-boosters.
Not that he really wanted to. He'd done enough. Maybe too much. He was moments away from the light, from release—
The interior of the booster shuddered, airless and therefore soundless, like a giant mute bell. Mace saw the motion rather than felt it. He boosted himself back to the entrance, looked out. Saw the payload uncouple from the ship. Even if he had time to get back inside, to see whether Whitby was, in fact, aboard Capa's bomb, it would be too late. The public gangway was now an airlock.
He needed a second EVA suit. Sullivan's was cooked; the electronics were shot; he knew that. He looked for Pinbacker, spotted him, adrift, nearly at the edge of the solar shield. Mace loaded the first of the emergency darts, aimed the gun at Pinbacker's torso, fired. The shot went wide by yards. The dart flew out into the glare of the sun, popped and melted, the high-tensile line trailing out behind it like a strand of silver tinsel.
Mace swore. He was shaking. He took a deep breath, held it for a moment, relaxed, breathed out. He loaded the second dart, aimed, fired.
Impact. The dart struck the backplate of Pinbacker's suit, hooked, held. Mace retracted the cable, hauled him in. Again those dark eyes watched him. The bastard was still alive. Mace said, as he pressed Handi-Patch around the embedded dart, tethered Pinbacker to the lip of the booster housing, "Begging the Captain's pardon: sir, we'll be needing your suit."
Whitby's dead, Mace. I killed her.
Mace started. Pinbacker's voice was an insidious hoarse whisper inside his helmet. He asked, again: "Where the hell is she?"
Where haven't you looked, Mace—?
Mace didn't reply. He turned away from Pinbacker, propelled himself back into the booster cowl. "Flight deck: respond."
Nothing. Suit-to-ship comms were still down.
At that moment, he knew, Capa was confirming the targeting coordinates and running final checks on the payload's systems. Trey was rechecking their retreat trajectory. Cassie was synchronizing the helm with navigational data from both Capa and Trey; in addition, she was verifying whether the shield would reconfigure as planned once the payload was away. Then she would fire the ship's main bank of retro engines, the boosters on the payload would fire, too, and Mace and Whitby, proceeding on the assumption that, dead or alive, she was in the payload, would be left behind.
Every instinct he had told him that what he was doing was wrong: he was flying into the housing of a solid-fuel rocket that was minutes away from firing with a degree of force that would make one of NASA's old Redstones or Atlases look like a firecracker by comparison. Worse, as far as his mammalian survival inclinations went, he was forcing himself to approach the rear of the booster slowly. Sullivan hadn't moved: Mace and Pinbacker hadn't collided with him during their fight; the freeing of the docking clamps hadn't jostled him away from the breached access panel. It was as if something were anchoring him in place.
Sullivan was lying clamped to the cowl's interior, his right arm reaching clumsily into the access panel. Mace shone his worklight down the gold-scaled length of Sullivan's suit arm. Stopped at the glove.
Sullivan's index finger was threaded through a metal loop. The loop was attached to a wire. The wire, traced in the glare of Mace's light, was attached to the triggering pin of the first of the missing explosive bolts. The rest were clustered around it. Several of them were propping open a valve, less than a meter across, that served as an intermediary between the booster's solid propellant and the engine system's shared store of gaseous fuel.
From small things, terrible results. In 1986, some forty years before Mace was born, a single unsealed O-ring had led to the pre-orbit explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
Mace cut the wire that had made Sullivan a booby-trap. He leaned into the access panel and, with drops of sweat floating before his eyes, removed the explosive bolts one by one. He shone the light around the access hole, one final check— the seals around the valve, the integrity of the fuel lines— thinking all the while Not yet, Capa. Not yet, not yet, not yet—
Forty-five seconds later, unincinerated, he was towing Pinbacker toward the entrance to the payload. The bomb and the ship were still moving in synch, but Cassie had decreased power to the main engines and fired the initial retros: when Mace reached the outer door of the gangway with his psychopathic cargo, the Icarus was at least fifty meters away.
She heard the grating from the heavy steel handle; the inner door of the gangway opened. Someone stepped, and something was dragged, past Whitby. She tried to push up as the footsteps doubled back and a human figure stood over her.
He'd come to finish her off. Decent of him. She said to the deck: "Make it quick, Dan."
"You sure about that? I was thinking if we ever got the chance, I was going to take my time."
He bent down, got his arms under her, picked her up. Whitby stifled a gasp, put her own arms around his neck. Not, she told herself, out of sheer shameless relief, but to take the pressure off her bleeding midriff. Mace carried her into the gangway, propped her, standing, against the bulkhead. "Name's Stephen, by the way. Not Dan. Nice to meet you."
He had two suits waiting. Both of them looked like they had been put through an industrial trash compactor. "What's the fastest you've ever gotten into a suit?" he asked.
"Two minutes eighteen. When I wasn't dying."
"You're not dying. He stabbed you— when? Maybe twenty-five minutes ago." He spoke as he helped her into the less mangled of the suits. "Barring exertion, you've got a good ninety minutes before you bleed out."
"Barring exertion. I haven't been."
"You will be from now on. Relax, Loinnir. We're going home."
"It's started, hasn't it—?" She watched him position and clamp her chest plate. "There's no time. What the hell are you doing here, Mace—?"
Mace grunted as he hoisted the ridiculous bulk of her helmet. "Sounds like I'm listening to you bitch, woman."
On the flight deck, from the cockpit, Cassie announced: "Payload navigational boosters online. Initiating final systems check. Standing by for shield reconfiguration."
She looked to Capa. He could feel Trey and Barring watching him from behind.
"Icarus," he said, "put me through to Mace."
Mace is still beyond current communications range, Capa.
He was standing at the payload operations panel, his hand on the red firing key.
Cassie waited a moment, then prompted, quietly: "Robert—?"
The angle was optimal. They were greenlit across the board. No warning lights, either from the boosters or from the payload itself. So far, ostensibly, Mace had prevented Pinbacker from doing whatever it was their former captain had been planning to do.
And, in the end, it wasn't a vote. "It's my decision," Capa said. He turned the key. "Initiating launch sequence: now."
"Acknowledged." Cassie looked at him for a moment longer, her expression sad but proud. She turned back to her controls. "Main-bank retros firing in ten seconds. Strap yourselves in, everyone."
Their suits on a two-meter tether hooked waist-to-waist, Mace and Whitby stepped out into space.
The near edge of the unreconfigured shield still fronting the Icarus was now at least two hundred meters away. Mace linked arms with Whitby. "Boosters," he said.
She fired her suit boosters as he fired his.
And, to the sides, far above them and far below, the payload boosters fired, too.
Seconds later, her main bank of retros came online, and the Icarus, now towing the solar shield, started to back away. Very quickly. Too quickly.
Their suit boosters were no match for the ship's engines, Mace knew. He and Whitby were about to be caught out in the glare of the sun.
"Hold on," he said.
He loaded the emergency grappling gun with the third of the darts, aimed at the gap in the solar shield, fired. The dart hit the reinforced outer skin of the solar shield, deflected. A crescent of light lit a molten fingernail at the shield's upper edge, began to descend and broaden as, behind them, the payload started its descent into the sun.
A yellow warning light went off in Mace's helmet, to the left of his head. He hadn't had time to check their tanks before he and Whitby left the payload: he was running out of air. Five minutes' worth remaining. Ten, maybe, if the reserves hadn't been damaged.
He loaded and fired the fourth and last dart. It shot through the gap in the shield, its explosive tip striking distant sparks as it embedded itself in a support beam. Mace activated the cable retractor, grabbed the cable itself, started hauling himself and Whitby toward the gap.
Which was now closing.
The cable went taut in Mace's gloved hands as the ship's acceleration increased. He pulled faster. They were close enough to the shield to see the huge golden panels moving, sliding together, cascading in from above and the sides and below. The sunlight was descending like a curtain of fire.
Mace shoved Whitby through the closing gap. The top edge scraped his helmet as he followed. He grabbed her as they cleared the shield's inner side, wedged both of them into the scaffolding, and hung on. The main bank of retros went to full power, and Mace's vision blurred as they started to pull gs.
Minutes later, inside the payload, Pinbacker, alone, finally not just dying but blessedly near to death, watched the stars fall from the ceiling as the reaction began.
Light burst past the edges of the shield, clear and clean and white. Mace could swear the roaring in his ears was the sun singing out, not the rush of his own blood. Eight minutes from now, on Earth they would know: Kirbuk's and Capa's theories had become reality; the Icarus and her crew had succeeded.
On the flight deck, in the chest of the mission's remaining physicist: a hollowness that might have been joy. Capa was unfamiliar with joy. He felt slightly dizzy; he felt empty. Like the entire purpose of his life had just burned away, in less than a second, seconds ago, in the explosion of the payload.
But: light. Everywhere: light.
For four minutes, they were on their initial retreat trajectory. Gravity spiked, pushing Capa's shoulder-belted torso into the chair at the science station, pressing the air from his lungs. Then Cassie put the ship on autopilot, got up, came over. She knelt by Capa where he sat, put her arms around him, held him. He held her, numbly, in return. He could feel it without being told; he knew; nonetheless, as a scientist he was compelled to seek empirical confirmation: he looked to the monitors at his station, read the raw data pouring in from the ship's sensors. Cassie and the others would see only numbers, symbols, and code. Capa saw what no human had ever seen before: a star healing itself, reviving.
He whispered to Cassie: "It worked."
Inside Mace's helmet, a red light replaced the yellow one. He was out of air. So, by the sound of her agonized breathing over the feed, was Whitby.
The gravitational pull eased up as Cassie backed off on the retros, but Mace was already losing motor control. He was already edging toward unconsciousness.
The nearest airlock was at least seventy-five meters away. It could just as well have been a mile or more. His vision was starting to fail; even if he could force his muscles to move, he couldn't see to get himself and Whitby inside.
Close. So fucking close—
Mace tried to push clear of the scaffolding, couldn't. Blackness and pure animal panic pressed in behind his eyes. He could no longer hear Whitby breathing inside his helmet, and he was gasping for oxygen that was no longer there. With leaden effort, he got his right hand to the ops panel on his chest plate, felt blindly for a switch.
He lost consciousness without knowing whether he'd found it or not.
On the flight deck, the ambient light dimmed, as the reaction within the sun stabilized, as Icarus automatically adjusted the glare shielding on the forward cockpit windows.
"Am I— umm—" Trey came down from the upper deck. Moving loris-slow, still blinking the glare from his eyes. As stunned as the rest of them. He nodded toward the windows. "Am I the only one seeing a suit beacon?"
Far out, hung up in the shadows in the scaffolding at the back of the shield, the firefly blinking of an LCD.
"Mace," Capa said, staring at it. "Whitby."
He unsealed the flight-deck door, made for the midships airlock at a run. Cassie went after him.
"Capa—" Just outside the staging area, she caught up to him, caught his arm. "I'll go."
"The mission still needs a pilot, Cass."
She frowned. "Meaning—?"
"I'm expendable now," he said.
"Not to me."
"You should stay on the flight deck until we're certain the ship is secure. Keep us on course."
"I love you." He met her eyes, caressed her cheek. "I'll be right back."
"I know. I love you, too." Cassie bit her lower lip, looking away. "We're wasting time. Let me help you suit up."
Priming spare air tanks, packing an emergency kit. Tethers, grapplers, Handi-Patch. Checking his suit, as he'd been trained to do. Capa left the airlock calmly and with purpose.
He propelled himself toward the light blinking on the back of the solar shield. Short, precise bursts on his suit thrusters, as Daniel Pinbacker had shown him.
He knew he was operating, now, on a local level rather than a systemic one, or a global one. He had to ask himself which, in the end, was more important. He was, after all, not made of numbers. He was not a series of equations. His crewmates were real. Real in ways his human senses could comprehend without calculation. Cassie's face. Her smile. The texture of her skin, the softness of her hair. Even Mace, for all the antagonism that existed between them, was real. Saving the world was, by comparison, an abstraction, a problem to be solved.
As he got nearer, he could see: two suited figures, neither of them moving, awaited him in the scaffolding at the back of the shield.
A figure in an EVA suit was boosting itself toward them. An illusion. Mace's dying mind was replaying bits from memory, that was all. A thousand spacewalks. The fight with Pinbacker.
Capa's voice, muffled in the stale dead air of Mace's helmet.
"Capa—" The oxygen-starved capillaries were throbbing in Mace's brain. Something tickled the skin above his upper lip: his nose was bleeding. Nothing from Whitby. He couldn't hear anything from her. Not even her breathing over the feed. "Give her air— Give her—"
I've got enough for both of you, Mace.
Inside, Cassie and Barring removed Mace's helmet, and then they helped Capa and Trey pull Whitby from her suit. For Mace, the saving of the world was summarized thus:
"It worked, didn't it?" He was looking at Whitby's face. Her eyes were closed; her skin was chalk-white, bluish in the hollows; like Mace, she'd bled from the nose.
"It worked," Capa said.
"Pinbacker is dead."
Capa glanced at him, nodded. Then he and Trey and Cassie were moving Whitby to Medical, and Mace was alone with Barring.
He was too weak to unsuit on his own. He wanted to tell Barring that he would be content, as numb as he was, as tired and unfocused, to stay like this for a time, literally propped against the bulkhead, but she started unclamping him, unfastening and unscrewing, like he was a piece of old iron hardware consigned to a graving yard, and he had no choice but to let her.
"You can see now," he said, hoarsely, watching her.
"Well enough." She guided Mace to one of the staging area's benches and sat him down. She brought him water; she broke chunks off a protein bar and fed him. He was almost too tired to chew. "She's going to be fine," she said.
"You're a shitty liar, Ingrid."
"For once in my life, I'm sorry for that." She caressed his sweaty temple. "We just saved Earth. It's a time of miracles, Mace. Maybe there's room for one more."
Variations: on peace, on grief, on sleep for a week.
To compensate for the loss of their crewmates, they all assumed new responsibilities, learned new skills. Trey and Barring, for instance, mutually adopted life support and the Oxygen Garden. Capa, oblivious, as always, to anything resembling irony, found compatibility with the auto-doc, and began spending much of his non-science time in Medical. In addition to the "everything" he'd always done, Mace pieced together a replacement for the exterior comms tower they'd lost in the meteor collision. Within days, they were communicating with Lunar Control and with Earth.
Mace saw it in the faces, heard it in the voices, of those who appeared on the screens in the vid booth in Comms: not just amazement, not just a sort of shattering relief at what the Icarus and her crew had accomplished, but incredulity, too; he confirmed to himself, with a sardonic and hidden inner smile, that none of them had been expected to survive.
They'd have months to chat with their families and friends, to provide interviews, to make guest appearances via video in classrooms and other venues. For now, they dealt with official business. Between calls from Project Icarus Control and his WorSpAd and Air Force superiors, Mace, like the others, met via videolink with the mission's counselors. Actually, there was only one shrink he'd talk to: Dan Monroe, gruff, broad-faced, built like a bear, who had the sense never to be patronizing. Low on the sensitivity-training scale, maybe, but he talked to Mace as if Mace were nothing more than an engine in need of tuning, and Mace appreciated that. They discussed those crewmates Mace had lost and now missed, Gavrila Kirbuk foremost among them. They discussed those he felt guilty for not missing. All in all, he told Monroe, basically he believed that grief either killed you or it didn't. The truth, he knew, was more complex. Something more along the lines of What doesn't kill me now weakens me so that something else can kill me later. Monroe actually chortled when Mace said that.
"I'll let Friedrich Nietzsche know you're stealing his lines."
"You do that, Monroe."
Mace signed off, left the vid booth and Comms, and headed to Medical.
"It's easier," Capa was saying, with android patience in his tone, "if you lie back. Stop squirming."
"I'll stop squirming when you stop washing your hands in icewater, you bastard," Whitby replied.
Mace entered Medical, leaned up against the bulkhead just inside the door, watched. Whitby was lying on the room's cot, her t-shirt pushed up from her midriff, while Capa examined her wound.
"It's looking good," he said. He glanced at the three-dimensional rendering that the auto-doc was projecting in midair to the side of the cot. "And no internal bleeding."
"Praise be, Doctor Freezemitts," Whitby muttered. But the smile she gave him was full of genuine affection and thanks. He'd saved her life, and she knew it. Well, Trey had saved it, too: when Capa discovered that the power fluxes within the ship had shorted one of the plasma freezers, Trey had given roughly half his blood during the emergency surgery to repair Whitby's abdominal aorta. He'd spent the next three shifts flat on his back, sipping fruit juice and looking like he'd been hit by a power loader. Hell, Mace thought, but gratefully, that's what you get for being O-negative, you dumb bastard.
He stayed quiet while Capa re-dressed Whitby's wound; when Capa stepped away from the cot and Whitby sat up, Mace straightened away from the bulkhead.
"I was wondering when you'd finally get off your lazy ass," he said to her. He glanced slyly toward Capa. "Cassie and Brainiac, here, are too polite to say anything, but you've been occupying prime real estate, woman. This is the last decent bed on board, and they're getting tired of screwing in the carrot patch."
On cue, Capa turned red and walked into a cartful of medical instruments. Whitby and Mace shared a smirk.
Barring's voice, audible from his comm tags.
Capa cleared his throat. "Yes, Ingrid—?"
There's a live feed coming through for you here in Comms. It's your sister.
Not the mission coordinators, seeking reports, depositions, explanations. Not the WorSpAd physics board. Not a dozen hounding universities or science journals. Capa smiled a calm and angelic smile. "Thank you, Ingrid. I'll be right there."
Mace tipped his head Whitby's way. "You done feeling her up, Capa?"
"For now," Capa replied. He winked at Whitby, and left her alone with Mace.
"Boy does nothing more than save the world, and it turns him into a right cheeky bastard." Whitby stood up, tugged the hem of her t-shirt back into place.
Neither she nor Mace mentioned how said boy had saved them, too. Though Mace came closer, the silence between him and Whitby grew awkward as well as mutual.
"Hell, Stephen—" she said, finally. She leaned up, tenderly kissed the corner of his mouth.
"I'm not very good at this, either," he said. He was practically shuffling his feet. Not quite meeting her eyes. "You know, umm— I'll understand if you need some time."
She frowned thoughtfully. "You mean if I'm not ready for—"
"I think if we take it easy, I'll be fine. Robert's a damn fine hand with the stitcher."
Mace frowned back at her, confused. "What are you talking about?"
Whitby raised her eyebrows, nodded toward the cot.
Mace's frown inverted itself. He laughed incredulously. "You slut—!"
"I beg your fucking pardon—" She glared in mock offense back at him. "Oh: you thought I thought you meant a couple of months of shell-shocked moping."
"Taking it slow. Long walks in the forward corridor, maybe. Holding hands by starlight in the Oxygen Garden."
"A rest-cure for a broken heart."
She was smiling for him, but her sea-blue eyes were serious.
"Yeah," Mace said, softly.
"Y'know what that cure might include—?"
Whitby embraced him, held him. Mace held her in return, and she felt good in his arms. She relaxed against him, laid her head on his shoulder; Mace rested his cheek on her hair.
"Hmm," he said.
"I wonder how long Brainiac's phone call is gonna take—?"
Whitby chuckled, eased away from him just a bit, and hauled Mace down onto the cot.
Voices, ahead, from Comms. Cassie was seated in the video booth with the door open. Capa, thinking that he'd misheard Barring and that Cassie had a call scheduled before his, was at first nonplussed, but he was willing to let her finish. She turned, though, as he approached, saw him, smiled. "Hey. Come on in."
He saw, then: Rosa was onscreen. "Robert," she said, "hello. It's about time I met your girl, don't you think—?"
Comforting normalcy. No mention of the enormity of what her younger brother and his crewmates had accomplished, or the trials they'd weathered. Capa's older sister was wise enough to leave the counseling to the mission's psych team. No stunned silence, no tears. Only her kind smile and her dark, sparkling eyes.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd had cause to grin. He grinned now, and maybe blushed a little, too. "Hi, Rosa." Cassie made room for him before the tryptich of video screens; Capa entered the booth and closed the door behind him.