Author's note: Greetings, and Happy New Year! It has been quite a while, and I promise you will not have to wait another year for the next update. Quick note: I had made some time errors in previous chapters, so they have all been corrected. Please enjoy these last pleasant moments with our crew before things take a very different turn.
The sun was a roiling, angry ball of heat and energy and fire. It expanded and receded like a living, breathing thing, railing against its fate, spitting arches of plasma in its rage. The cold emptiness of space around it was an indifferent spectator to its dying throes; the planets looked on from their distant orbits.
He observed, too, from a distance. Until it began to pull at him. A million grasping fingers dragging him in, beckoning him to share the same fate, or to spare it from its own. A blood sacrifice for survival. The sun's boiling surface became a wide, blinking eye that stared into his very being, hungry for a cure. He was the cure.
Rowen was falling.
The speed of his descent was like an anvil in his chest, forcing the air out of his lungs. The hellish gaseous surface loomed closer until it filled his vision, until solar flares exploded all around him, the heat and radiation searing his flesh, singing his hair. He could feel the white hot, intense pain of his skin being peeled and burned away as he fell and fell into the dying core of the star.
The sun was swallowing him whole, and he couldn't even scream.
Rowen woke and sat up like a shot, nearly rapping his head on the ceiling of his bunk. He dragged air into his lungs in great gasps. He swore the blinding brightness of the sun in his nightmare left its impression on his vision, an eerie glow that imprinted itself on the darkness of his room.
He dragged a shaking hand through his sweaty hair and willed his heart to stop thundering. For long minutes, he did nothing but breathe deeply, wait for the trembling to stop, and let the air of the small room cool his heated skin.
There would be no sleeping after that. He considered sneaking into Robyn's room to just feel her body against his, but stopped himself. He was so sure she'd appreciate a sweaty, shaking physicist disrupting her sleep.
Rowen let out another deep breath and got up for a glass of water.
Ryo called the crew together for a meeting after breakfast. They gathered in the common area and he stood in front of the television, observing while they settled in. Cye and Mia took the two chairs; Kento leaned against the armrest of Mia's chair, occasionally leaning over to murmur in her ear and make her smile. Rae, Robyn, and Rowen sat on the longer couch. Robyn's red hair was pulled back and braided at the crown of her head, giving her a princess-esque look. She caught his gaze and smiled, her nose scrunching cutely, and he returned it. The blue-haired physicist noticed none of it, wearing an abnormally subdued expression. He looked exhausted.
The crew member they waited on finally entered. Sage came in and stood by Ryo, nodding at his captain. Ryo felt the contentment he always did whenever his whole crew was together: the rightness of it. But they were on edge today, and in the interest of making sure everyone was well taken care of and able to perform their duties, they needed to talk.
"I know everyone is feeling a little off because of the shutdown of communication," he began. "The next phase of our mission is beginning—the one we've been waiting and training for this entire time." He paused, and let all his confidence and belief in them ring in his deep voice. "I have absolute faith in each and every one of you, and I know we can and will deliver the payload successfully. We are four weeks out from receiving a gravity assist from Mercury, and within two months of arriving at our destination. Everyone has done a phenomenal job so far; not just at performing your duties, but at dealing with setbacks and surprises. If anything happens between now and delivering the payload, we will handle it with the same grace and skill as we have in the past. But I know it's stressful, when it matters this much. So I want to make sure everyone is checking in with Sage, and with me, if any problems or issues arise."
"I encourage all of you to see me at least once a week," Sage added. "More if you need to. Use the Earth Room: it's there to help relieve stress. Don't shrug off any feelings or thoughts that appear irrational, or try to bury it in work. Those unresolved issues merely manifest themselves in ways that will affect your work performance and your sleep." Sage's eyes drifted to Rowen, as did Ryo's.
Rowen was looking down at the floor instead of at them, his arms folded across his chest. His gaze was far away, and although Ryo knew he was listening, the lack of focus bothered him. He needed Rowen, of all of them, to hear what they were saying.
"Are there any questions and concerns we need to address at this moment?" Ryo asked.
Robyn raised her hand as if they were in class.
The captain's lips twitched. "Yes, Robyn."
"Can we take chicken off the menu?"
"Come on." Kento rose from his chair and walked toward the pilot threateningly, but Robyn only laughed at him.
"Any serious questions?" Ryo amended, giving Robyn a look of mock exasperation. She mouthed sorry, and he shook his head to let her know he wasn't fooled.
There were no serious questions, and he let them go about their day. Ryo and Sage remained where they stood while everyone dispersed. Cye touched base with Ryo, letting him know he'd have an update report for him by the end of the week. The captain and the doctor watched Rowen leave without saying anything to anyone.
"You met with him earlier this week, didn't you?" Ryo asked.
Sage nodded. "His mood shifts as easily as the wind. Underneath even his more upbeat days, he harbors quite the fatalistic streak. He's acutely aware that the bomb's success is only theoretical, and his extensive knowledge concerning the dangers we could encounter works against him. He struggles with it more than he'd care to let on. Diverting his attention from it has been the best approach so far." Sage didn't mean to make the time he spent with Rowen sound so clinical. He genuinely enjoyed the physicist's company and the conversations they had, even when the man went off on existential or scientific tangents. But he knew Ryo wanted to hear that Rowen could continue to perform and wouldn't bring down other members of the crew, that everything was being done to ensure his mental health would stay in good shape. With someone like Rowen, Sage could only do so much. What worked best was being his friend. The blond almost added more, but noticed that Ryo was distracted by Robyn, who was talking animatedly to Cye near the doorway. A glimmer of a smile softened the stern look on the captain's face.
Sage wrestled with whether or not to say anything concerning what he'd gradually learned about their pilot, too, only because the captain had such a soft spot for her. Yet he needed to know; patient-therapist confidentiality did not always apply to the captain in a situation as delicate as theirs. They could afford very few secrets. "Robyn doesn't feel all that different," he commented quietly.
Ryo turned to him, his brow furrowing. Robyn was quite possibly the brightest soul on the ship; she buoyed everyone else with her humor and optimism. "How so?" Any suggestion that she hid something of that nature from everyone—from him—disturbed him. Then again…it made him wonder, sometimes, whether acting the way she did came at a costly price.
He'd had similar concerns when they were choosing the pilot for Inferno. He and Sage were brought on board early, and all potential candidates were funneled through them. Robyn, as capable as she was, had not been the most capable and qualified pilot, but her temperament was exactly what they needed for such a long, stressful mission. Ryo worried, however, that when truly put to the test, Robyn's turbulent background would play a detrimental role in her ability to do her job. Growing up with an abusive father and aging out of the foster care system was not an ideal upbringing for a young girl and came with its own set of problems. He worried that the nature of their mission would be harmful for her and, as a result, harmful to the crew. He and Sage had long conversations about it, but it had been Sage who ultimately declared his faith in her ability. He'd cited Cye's presence as a positive effect on Robyn. Since Ryo trusted Sage's judgment implicitly, he agreed; but he still checked up with the doctor to see how Robyn was really doing. He still had a hard time matching up this vibrant young woman with the past written in her files. It was a credit to her that this was the case.
"Robyn doesn't expect to make it home."
Ryo's eyes widened as Sage's words hit him like a punch to the gut. "She told you that?" he demanded. He looked back to Robyn. She was smiling a little as Cye talked, one hand on her hip and the other fiddling with the collar of his shirt as she responded to whatever he said and laughed.
Sage shook his head. "She's rarely forthcoming with me. Cye would be the better individual to speak with in this case. Even Rowen or Regan."
"Does she ever indicate that in sessions?"
"This is what I've gathered from observing her, combined with my training. She hides her true feelings better than anyone on the ship. She's scared, and we are the only things standing between her and the certainty in the back of her mind that we are not making it back home."
Ryo said nothing as he watched Robyn and Cye eventually leave.
He made a mental note to talk with her soon.
I am lauded on Earth for coming up with a solution to our "sun problem" that only works hypothetically.
It's never actually been tested and proved effective. How could it? I am 95% certain that it will be powerful enough to destroy the Q Ball, but that remaining 5% eats at me. We didn't even know these super-symmetrical particles even existed until one wandered into the sun like an unwanted houseguest.
But even if this bomb works, it does nothing to erase the planetary crisis of diminished resources, unfit living conditions in the northern and southern parts of the world, and food shortages due to failed crops. If we make it home, having succeeded, who knows what shape we'll find the planet in? Certain areas have done all right, but the wars, border and civil, took their toll.
They are so convinced we will magically fix everything. As if the sun operating normally can erase what we have done to each other to survive. The only silver lining is the absence of fissile material. Earth can't blow itself up with nuclear weapons anymore, since all of them were used in the bomb we're riding on.
I think about that at night. If it just decided to implode early, as improbable as that is, and incinerate us all before we reached the sun. And Inferno wonders why I ignore her stupid reminders. Sage would be mortified if he knew how terrible my sleep patterns actually are. Unless Inferno, that traitor, tells him.
It doesn't matter.
Rowen sat cross-legged on his bed with the open notebook in his lap. He'd hidden himself in a corner where another dresser built into the wall jutted out, hiding him from anyone who might just waltz into his quarters. He frowned down at his journal entry.
That gnawing ache was back, churning in his gut. A restlessness twitched in his legs, his arms, his brain. He wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run on this ship except for a treadmill. He was in the middle of outer space, and he felt so claustrophobic sometimes that he could scream.
Rowen let his head fall back against the hard surface of the wall encasing the bunk. He didn't know what point he was trying to make in these ridiculous journal entries. Was he trying to say he'd rather not even go back? Trying to make an end up here sound more palatable, easier to accept? Preferable?
He wasn't even necessarily conflicted about that. He had long since come to terms with dying to accomplish this mission. NASA made them all sign countless forms and waivers to cover the possibility: they all had living wills. Rowen knew the odds against their survival going in, and it was a price he was willing to pay. The brain that never shut off had already gone over every scenario that would prevent them from going home, and he'd like to think he accepted the inevitability of something going wrong with a modicum of grace.
What he could not accept, though, was personal failure.
It kept him awake five nights out of seven.
His bedroom door slid open. Rowen knew who it was before she came into view.
" Hey," Robyn greeted. Heedless of whether he actually wanted visitors or not, Robyn proceeded to invade his personal space and crawled onto the bed to sit next to him. He raised his knees and slid the journal away from her so she wouldn't read his depressing thoughts.
"Obsessing over our imminent demise?" Robyn asked lightly.
"Don't I always?" he joked, even as her uncanny comment hit too close to home. His lighthearted attempt must not have been convincing, because she scooted closer to rest her folded arms on his knee, propping her chin on her forearms.
"How now, brown cow?"
Rowen smiled. "Same old routine. Check the bomb dispatch equipment. Write down my feelings. Nap. Stew in my own mental juices."
"You know what I haven't added to my routine?" He tweaked her nose as if she was a little girl. "Playing voyeur during sparring sessions. You're such a perv with your cameras."
"I can't help it if they show up on my vid screens!" Robyn blushed a little, laughing. "You would, too, if it had been me and Rae or Mia."
He didn't deny it.
"Does Sage tell you everything?" Robyn asked.
"Are you kidding? Ryo told me."
She closed her eyes and hummed appreciatively. "He looked good."
"You should have offered to spar with him. You'd get closer to those sweaty captain muscles."
Robyn punched him lightly on the arm. He teased her all the time for her crush on Ryo. "Like I ever could."
"You don't know that."
"He's way out of my league." She said it so matter-of-factly that he frowned. "Super hot, smart captains with service medals do not give a second look to skinny redheads who spend their time flying planes and spaceships so they don't have to deal with their problems."
"That's…" Rowen was still frowning. "You're really shortchanging yourself here."
Robyn shrugged. "He thinks I'm funny and cute, like a little sister, and I'm okay with that. I'll just admire from afar, like always."
Her expression indicated the end of the conversation, so he carefully closed it—for now. He tried a different tactic and nudged her with his knees. "So like a voyeur."
"I am not!"
"You're right: you're just a lousy pilot."
Robyn scoffed; a vocal expression of disgust she had turned into an art since being in his presence. "You're the sorriest excuse for a physicist I have ever seen."
A witty comeback did not follow. It got stuck somewhere between Rowen's trachea and his back molars. It snuck in, then: the doubt. The fear.
That everything came down to him. His design, his theory. His fault if it failed.
Rowen could sense the awkwardness in her pause as she realized how he took it. Instead of trying to find something to smooth over the sudden pothole they both fell into, he just sighed and leaned back into his pillows, scrubbing at his face. Robyn followed, curling up next to him and hugging his torso in silent apology. For awhile they just laid there.
Robyn spoke first, her voice soft. "I know the answer you're looking for. The answer to everything. Why we're here, what it all means."
"Yes. It's 42."
Rowen breathed out a laugh. He hugged her to him and kissed her forehead. She smiled up at him with a disarming sweetness.
He drew such comfort from her.
He knew she came in because she'd noticed how quiet he was earlier, but true to form, she didn't pry. And she wasn't prying now. He appreciated that about Robyn. She didn't try to pick away at him. It relieved him, in a strange way, that she held some of the same beliefs he did about the mission. There was no explanation or justification needed. They could just sit together, and not talk about it—the reality that they might die up here—and enjoy one another's company. If that meant late night visits to relieve the excruciating tension of their duties, then that's what happened; if it meant nothing more than the presence of a friend, then that's all they were. He held no illusions about what they were to each other and the need it fulfilled.
But he would sure as hell enjoy it while it lasted.
The sour mood continued to dog Rowen despite snuggling up to Robyn for an afternoon. It nipped at his heels for the next two days, made worse by the reoccurring nightmare that was starting to plague him on a more frequent basis. On day three of the Dead Zone, he took his anxious ass down to Sage's medic bay again, collapsing into a chair while the doctor filled out another log.
"Do you do anything else besides loiter in the observation room and fill out reports in here?" Rowen asked in a burst of agitation.
Sage peered at him over the rim of his reading glasses. "Yes. I occasionally treat my patients and then conquer them in kendo."
Rowen scowled. He didn't need the reminder from yesterday.
"Your bad mood has touched every part of this ship," Sage said calmly as he inputted something else into the computer. "I can feel it before you even enter a room. And if I can sense it, so can the others. It's putting them on edge."
The physicist blew out a breath and dropped his head back. Closed his eyes. "Sorry," he muttered.
"What are we going to do about it?"
"What does Dr. Date recommend?" Rowen asked mockingly.
"For you to stop hitting your foot against my desk."
The blue-haired man smirked as he tapped his foot against the metal desk once more before stopping.
Sage inspected him in a way that made Rowen want to squirm; like the man was looking at a frog he was about to dissect. "Two hours in the Earth Room," he said finally. "You haven't used it in over a month. Bring a book."
Wordlessly, Rowen left the med bay to grab a novel and, as an afterthought, a pillow to sit on. He was rather indifferent to the order—and it was an order, make no mistake—he just didn't think it would help. Whenever he visited Sage, he largely ignored the small room, no larger than a bedroom, tucked away behind the doctor's main office area. This time, he went in and shut the door behind him.
For right now, it was unimpressive. White tiled floor; plain glass on all sides; completely empty. He threw his pillow down and waited.
Sage's voice filtered through the comms device. "What simulation would you like?"
The silence somehow held the blond's exasperation, which made Rowen crack a smile. He sat down on the pillow and dared the Earth Room and the doctor to impress him.
Sage had been the one to develop it during the training for the mission, when the schematics for Inferno were being drafted. Both NASA and PASP thought it important that a physician also trained in mental health would be a needed addition to the second crew, as a precaution against one of their theories for Hariel's failure. Rowen didn't blame them; he wondered why they never considered it before. He also knew that this very room was the reason Sage was handpicked as the doctor for Inferno. He'd come up with the idea in his dissertation in medical school, as one of a number of proposals to secure the psychological health of astronauts for long-term missions. The space programs snatched him up, gave him the funds to develop it, and were so impressed that they signed him on to Inferno.
Needless to say, Sage was the pride and joy of the Date clan.
The light in the room suddenly dimmed. As if by magic, the tile underneath him appeared to become sand; the ceiling above the blue of a summer sky. The wall in front of him became the ocean. As the tide came in, so the ocean waves reached out to him across the floor, leaving strands of kelp when they retreated. He could hear the waves lapping at his feet, the lull of their rhythmic motion filling the air. Seagulls cried in the distance; a pelican swooped low across the water.
A smile unwillingly pulled at Rowen's mouth. He found himself, damn Sage, relaxing as he read with the noise of the ocean and the beach around him. Every time he came in here, he understood why Robyn affectionately dubbed it "The Room of Requirement."
"Better?" Sage asked through the comms.
His back relaxed against the wall. He breathed in, and could have sworn he smelled the briny air of the sea and felt the wind ripple through his hair. "No," he lied.
"Are you sure you don't want more cut off?"
Cye smiled at the quiet amusement in Mia's voice. "Just half an inch off the ends, please. I rather like the way it's grown."
"It gives you quite the rugged, seafaring look," Mia agreed. "And I'm sure Isla will like it when she sees you again."
The biologist laughed as Mia circled him, clipped back portions of his now shoulder-length hair, and carefully began trimming off the ends. They'd set up a makeshift barber's chair near the bathrooms, dragging over one of the kitchen stools for Cye to lounge in while Mia cut his hair. She was the unofficial hair cutter for the entire crew—cosmetologists, after all, used angles, shapes, and math principles to determine the best haircut. Mia simply applied the same rules. She was as careful and thoughtful with their hair as she was with developing and tweaking the algorithms and formulas she fed to Inferno to navigate the ship's course.
"There really isn't anything going on there," he said.
"Yet," Mia sang quietly. "You may not notice it, but I've heard you log reports to her. Her tone completely changes when she talks to you. She's smitten."
Cye went to shake his head, and Mia stopped him with a gentle grasp of his chin. "Sorry." He didn't mind that the crew teased him a little for his more-frequent-than-needed conversations with a young woman he'd taken shine to in the first few weeks of their mission. He had seen Isla Lee in passing but never crossed paths with her pre-mission, until she became one of the communications operatives in mission control that logged and delivered their reports. Cye tended to send his reports late, and Isla had taken a night shift in part to process their reports when the mission control room was at its quietest. Truth be told, his late night conversations with Isla kept him tethered to Earth in the best way, and he acutely felt the absence of those talks since communication went down.
"I can't think about it like that, Mia," he said softly. "She's a sweet girl, and I enjoy talking with her. But a lot can change in three years. She has a life, and even if I wanted to… to see her in person when we get back, I can't expect her to wait another year and a half for me."
Mia hummed in what might have been an acknowledgement or disagreement. She stood behind Cye and pulled strands of his hair on either side of his face to check if the lengths were even, eyeballing it in the mirror. "You might be surprised. What started that, anyway? What did you guys talk about? I can't believe I've never asked."
"She requested a video call to get clarification on something, back in…oh, dear, the second or third month we were up here, I believe. She was always pleasant and cheerful before, but she looked sad and preoccupied during the call, so I asked why. Turns out she'd been dating someone in public affairs, and it had just ended terribly. It had factored in to her decision to take a night shift to avoid him. I ended up talking her through the aftermath of the breakup, and we just…never stopped talking."
"Good guy Cye."
"Always," he said dryly. It was a role he could never get out of. He was always the ear, the good friend, the understanding one, and it rarely went further than that. Partly because dating hadn't really come easy for him. He had been so focused on his studies and his burgeoning role in the space program that he never allowed himself to develop deep attachments outside of Robyn and the crew…even though he desperately wanted to. Hearing that the pretty, kind comms operative could harbor feelings for him both made his heart sing and sunk it like an anchor. And he wasn't blind to it, either; he'd had an inkling. But the timing was so…typical. Of course something would begin to develop now, when the person he cared about was three planets away from him.
At the very least, he wasn't suffering like some members of this crew. Having it right in front of you and yet just out of reach.
"Mia…" he started, then hesitated.
"I know how difficult a breakup with someone you work with can be," Mia said. "I'm sorry for her. I made that mistake myself."
"He was a coward." Old anger stirred in Cye's gut. He recalled the ill-fated relationship Mia had with an administrative in NASA. When things became stressful and grueling for the crew while they trained and prepared to leave, when Mia needed a cornerstone, he bailed instead of supporting her through it. Mia had handled the blow with unbelievable grace, although Cye knew she suffered in silence every time she had to interact with him. "It was a fault in his character, and he was not worthy of you. You deserve better than someone who runs when things get hard."
Mia was silent as she finished cutting his hair. And then to his surprise, she hugged him from behind. "I can't." Her voice was strained, raw. "I can't go through that again."
"He would never do that." Cye clasped her arm and rubbed it soothingly.
"I care for him too much to risk it."
"You're letting fear make decisions for you," he admonished. "Talk to him."
She rearranged and threw his own words back at him. "A lot can change in a year and a half."
"Of all the things to doubt up here, his feelings for you should not be one of them."
Mia squeezed her eyes shut, battling back the old pain and hurt, feeling it mix with longing and a kind of ache that liked to creep up on her in the wee hours of the night. "I know," she whispered.
Cye extracted himself from Mia's embrace to leave the chair, brushing some stray cut hairs off the collar of his shirt. He gave Mia another proper hug, and then smiled wryly as he said, "Look at the pair of us, not taking each other's advice."
Mia laughed. "Hair looks good, do you like it?"
He checked the mirror and ran his fingers through the strands. Mia admired his slightly wavy, bronze hair, and the biologist in general; longer hair looked good on him, and accentuated his lean, angular, handsome face. Oh, Cye, she'll wait for you, Mia thought with conviction. The girl would be crazy not to.
"My man, did you even let her cut your hair?"
Mia gasped with surprise and whirled around, a hand flying to her throat. "God, Kento, you scared the life out of me. That's the second time this week!"
"Sorry," the comms officer said, while not looking all that sorry. Mia's cheeks grew a little pink as she tried not to stare; he had clearly come in to head to the showers. Kento was shirtless, and only wearing low slung pants, with a towel draped over one shoulder. To say he was impressive was an understatement. The man was built, in the words of a few NASA employees who also came in contact with the second-in-command, like a brick shithouse. Her blush grew even as she thought it. To be wrapped up in those heavily muscled arms, her traitorous mind thought. She had to look away.
"It was a trim," Cye replied. "And you're about due yourself."
Kento rubbed a hand through his shorter dark hair. "Maybe. How are you holding up, Mia?"
"I'm fine," she replied. "Thank you." Her eyes darted back up to find him staring at her, almost assessing her to see if she was withholding the truth. Even if he thought so, he would still give her the space she needed until she was ready to talk. His patience was near infinite.
"We can pick up tai chi lessons again to keep you focused the closer we get to Mercury," Kento offered. "You tend to tense up way too much when we slingshot."
She gave him a small smile. "I would like that."
He nodded, and pulled the towel off his shoulder. "And if you need anything else, just let me know. I'm right here."
Mia didn't miss the subtext. She did miss, however, that Cye had left the room at some point, leaving them alone. She swallowed hard, unconsciously rubbing the back of her neck as she forced herself to maintain his steady gaze. "I know you are. I…" I'm afraid, I'm afraid, I'm afraid. The way you make me feel scares me.
"I'll let you shower," she finished lamely. "See you later, Kento."
She fled, feeling as cowardly as Cye accused her ex of being.
Robyn sat curled up in her pilot's chair and read. The computers around her hummed and chirped and she tuned it out from long exposure to their chatter. The book was one she'd read half a dozen times already, but she never grew tired of it. The day had been long and boring, everyone in their respective corners, performing their daily tasks. Busying themselves with the same routines that made the days blur together. She was pretty sure today was a Thursday, but it hardly felt like it mattered up here. They'd started segmenting the time up by destination a long time ago, to divide it all up into manageable chunks. Thus Robyn was only aware of time as they approached each next destination. Twenty-nine days out from Mercury. Sixty days from the sun.
A knock roused her from the story, and she looked up to find the captain entering the room. A grin split her face. "Hey!"
"Hi, Robyn. Can I bug you?"
"You can bug me anytime. Have a seat, Captain." Robyn patted the chair next to her, and Ryo took it.
"I'm kind of…making my rounds. And I want you to know this isn't me lecturing you or making you do something you don't want to do."
Robyn raised an eyebrow. "Uh-oh. Am I grounded?"
"No." Ryo took a deep breath and dove off the deep end. "It concerns me sometimes that you don't like to talk to Sage."
The redhead sighed. This old argument again. "It's nothing against him. I've just never felt comfortable opening up in therapy sessions, period. I prefer to talk to friends."
"He would be your friend, too, Robyn," he reminded her gently. "If you let him."
"I know, and he is my friend, but he's also doing a job and I can't separate those two out. I just can't do it in that setting. But I still talk to people, Ryo. I'm not bottling anything up, I promise."
"Are you sure about that?"
Robyn regarded him suspiciously. "Why did that feel like a loaded question?"
Why are you more comfortable opening up to Rowen than to me? He wondered, then blanched at the thought. That wasn't fair. He was her captain, and she was dating Rowen. He suddenly wondered what he hoped to accomplish with this. Was he creating a problem where there wasn't one? She had just told him that opening up in that sort of setting was hard for her, and here he was making her do it. Now was not the time to force her to talk about her view of the mission. And maybe Sage was on to something by never pushing her for those exact reasons. Which was why he was the psychologist, and Ryo was not. The captain shook his head. "It's not. I didn't come here to make you uncomfortable, and I apologize."
"You didn't," she insisted. He looked so conflicted for a second that it worried her. "Really, it's fine. Are you okay?"
He patted her knee. "Everyone's healthy and Inferno's running smoothly. I'm more than okay."
A distinctly different sort of chirp from the computers caught their attention. Robyn and Ryo peered at the computer monitors.
"You had to say it," Robyn teased.
"Did I just jinx us?" he chuckled.
A blip flashed near the big, infrared view of the sun and surrounding space. Eyes narrowed, Robyn leaned forward to watch it, fiddling with the monitor to get a better view.
The computer chirped again and the blip moved a fraction. It took Robyn a minute to realize what she was looking at. When she did, she gasped. "Oh my gosh."
"What is it?"
"Something we need to show everyone. Guys!" She said into the comms device. "Want to see something cool? Come to the observation deck, as soon as you can."
Ten minutes later, the observation deck was invaded by all eight crew members, seven of them crammed on the long bench that faced the glass wall in front of the sun.
"Why are we here?" Cye asked.
"Robyn spotted something worth our undivided attention," Ryo answered. He was the only one standing, somehow able to still look commanding in jogging pants and a long-sleeved purple shirt. He looked incredibly pleased, even excited, and exchanged a smile with Robyn, who was practically bouncing in her seat. She'd left a space for him to her right, and Rowen sat to her left. The captain had not yet activated the window's screen to unveil the sun behind it, so the room was still just a plain, gray box without the star's dazzling glow.
"I think it's easy for us to forget our surroundings out here," he continued. "How exceptional it really is. So on that note…we give you Mercury."
It sounded unremarkable, but as soon as the screen lifted and the vast window lit up with the sun, it was anything but.
The room was awed into silence as they watched a small, black orb drift dreamily across the wide, round expanse of the fiery yellow star. A planet that, while the smallest in the solar system, was still a third of the size of Earth, and absolutely dwarfed by the star behind it. Mercury orbited across the sun in front of them leisurely, in what appeared to be a straight line, guided along its tight circle by the strings of the sun's gravitational pull. Forever fated to do so on its continuous loop, this small and nearest worshiper of the sun.
"Mercury in transit," Rowen breathed. He had seen both Mercury and Venus do it from telescopes on Earth, once for the latter and twice for the former. Even when they used Venus to slingshot closer to their destination, they'd still been too far from the sun to see the planet juxtaposed with the star. This was the first time—and probably the last time—he would ever see this so close.
Robyn could not articulate why witnessing the small planet transit in front of the sun moved her so; she only knew it filled her heart to bursting to watch it, and to also see the happy faces of the rest of the crew. Rowen flashed her a boyish grin before turning back to the sight.
Ryo slowly sank down next to her and Robyn, in her excitement, squeezed his arm and leaned against him for a moment. "Isn't it beautiful?"
He watched her then clasp her hands together and rest them on her chin, green eyes wide with childlike wonder as she watched the planet's trajectory. She was unabashedly in the moment, enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, and the light in her face was rivaled only by the light of the sun. "Breathtaking," he finally answered.
Mia and Regan left the bench to get a closer look. Mia stood off to the side, one hand over her mouth as she watched. Regan sat on the floor and wrapped her arms around her legs, interlocking her hands together as tightly as Mercury squeezed her heart. The mission, the pressure, the stress; it couldn't exist in a moment as beautiful as this. It was so elegantly and exquisitely orchestrated by the simple effects of gravity that it made her heart ache.
Kento slung his arm over Cye's shoulders as he asked, "Mercury was the god of travelers, wasn't he?" He thought it would activate Mia's love of mythology, and he thought correctly.
"Yes," she answered without looking away. "Travelers and transporters of goods."
"Well this group of misfits certainly fit that category," Cye quipped. The room laughed.
"As well as gamblers, liars, and thieves," Mia continued with a grin. "Mercury also carried a staff called the caduceus, entwined by two snakes to make a figure eight under a pair of wings. You've probably seen it used as a symbol of commerce."
"Eight, you don't say?" Rowen said. He nudged Sage's shoulder, who was sitting to his left. "Look at all this symbolism." The doctor, however, wasn't paying attention. His elbows were resting on his knees, hands steepled together, and he wasn't watching his beloved sun or Mercury. Rowen followed the blond man's gaze all the way to a spot on the floor, occupied by their lovely engineer. Regan was captivated by Mercury's transit. Soon, Robyn joined her, and the pair sat like children watching fireworks. Rowen exchanged a look with Kento around Sage, but said nothing.
They watched with the reverence of those witnessing spiritual phenomena in a church. When Mercury disappeared out of their view, everyone shook themselves out of the moment, but the feelings didn't yet dissipate.
"That was incredible," Cye admitted. "Robyn, I'm glad you caught that." A chorus of agreement and gratitude rippled through the room.
"Me, too!" She hugged herself where she still sat with Rae. "God, I wish we could replay it like a movie."
"Anything else we do this week is gonna pale in comparison," Kento remarked. "Any movie we watch: 'Sure, these special effects are cool, but remember that one time we saw a fucking planet orbit the sun right in front of our faces? Yeah, that happened.'"
"Who's on dinner duty?" Mia wondered.
"I am," Regan said. She rose, then extended her hand for Robyn and helped the redhead to her feet. "I'm heading there now."
"I'll help," Robyn offered.
"That was fun, kids," Rowen announced as they all began to stand to leave. "Now that we're back to our regularly scheduled program, we all know time it is."
"Oh my God, don't say it," Robyn warned.
A cheesy grin stretched across the physicist's face.
"No," Robyn pleaded.
"It's daylight savings time!" Rowen's grin turned shit eating when the entire room groaned.
"Oh, come on."
"You ruined a beautiful moment!"
"That was the corniest shit I have ever heard."
"You're voted off the island, Hashiba."
"You need me on this island."
"Permission to eject him from the airlock as soon as we're done with him, Captain?"
"I've been saving that all year, you're all lucky I'm only saying it once."
Another day of the mission was complete; a day closer to delivering the payload. Robyn ended it by watching Regan destroy a pair of shoes.
They both sat in the exercise room, well after dinner was finished and the room was empty. White Blaze was with them, stretched out on the floor next to the girls and getting the occasional stroke of affection from both.
When it came to exercise, they were all required to log at least two hours per day to ward off the effects of space travel and prevent bone and muscle loss. Robyn preferred running; Kento lifted weights; Sage did kendo; they all had their favorite physical activities, with some crossover into each other's realms. Regan's was ballet.
She had never danced professionally. She picked it up as a child and carried it through school and college, but never performed or pursued it beyond that, citing her total mediocrity at the art. It was a fun pastime that gave her exercise, and she'd taught Robyn a few of the moves that were particularly good for stretching after a run. The pair of pointe shoes she was currently breaking was donated by a ballet company that wanted to make a contribution to one of Inferno's crew; they even donated a barre for Regan to practice at, which was behind them under a mirrored wall.
It was good publicity for the company, after all.
Other companies jumped at similar chances. Almost all of Sage's kendo equipment was supplied for him by the All Japan Kendo Federation, outside of what his family's dojo gave him. Mia's alma mater created an extensive library of romance literature, downloaded it all onto a tablet, and presented it to her as a gift before launching. Robyn mentioned a few of her favorite authors one time in an interview, and a week later boxes of books—every volume written by each author and more—showed up on her doorstep from Penguin Random House.
And Rowen. Lord. Endless computer games, a chess board made specifically for him by the World Chess Federation, he could name anything and someone would have clamored to give it to him. He didn't let that go to his head at all.
Needless to say, a lot of people around the world were invested in their success. Robyn thought the way they tried to show their gratitude was incredibly sweet.
She had already exercised earlier in the day, but knew Rae liked to get her ballet exercise in late, when the gym room was quiet and she could play music through the speakers and not disturb anyone. She loved to sit with her, talk, and watch Regan break in the shoes. It had a curiously calming effect on Robyn. She watched almost hypnotically as the engineer's long, elegant fingers secured the strips of fabric to the shoe and pulled the thread through, over and over. Regan only stopped when White Blaze got curious and sauntered over to sniff the satin strips, then bat at them. She laughed, kissed his head, and Robyn pulled him away and set the cat in her lap. For minutes, the only noise was the soft ripping and tearing as Regan remade the shoes as she liked them.
When White Blaze grew tired of the attention and left for another room, Robyn lifted her knees and rested her chin on them. "How are you doing?"
Regan looked up and gave her a sweet smile. "Better, thanks. Today was good. I think I'm just about over hitting the Dead Zone, tried to make peace with it. I've been writing to my brother to kind of keep him informed while we're down. It helps. How are you? Any bad dreams this week?"
She almost told her no, and then thought better of it. "One. I don't remember it that well, but it left me feeling weird. Nothing I couldn't shake off by breakfast, though. Hey, did Cye tell you that the artichokes came in? We can make frittatas!"
The brunette smiled down at her shoes, letting the obvious subject change go by uncommented on. Robyn would talk about it when she was ready. "We'll have to experiment with frittata making tomorrow, that sounds delicious." She slid on the pointe shoes and tied the ribbons around her ankles when she finished. "Want to do some stretches with me?"
The basic ballet positions made Robyn feel more graceful than she actually was, although they both laughed when she lost her balance and almost crashed into the brunette a few times. Rae made it look so easy, as if holding your leg at a position up near your head was a normal thing. She positioned Robyn's hands here, straightened her posture there, all while murmuring encouragement and watching the position of the redhead's feet.
"Your flexibility has really improved from the running and stretches you've done," Regan commented.
"It's nowhere near your "I can touch my head with my foot standing up" flexibility. Mia's made a lot more progress, too."
"We've got another sixteen months or so; you never know."
Robyn smiled a little tightly. There was a pause, and then Regan's hands came down lightly on Robyn's shoulders. She kneaded the muscles, making Robyn sigh, and said, "Roll your shoulders, and then your neck." Robyn did so, closing her eyes and breathing in and out. "How do you feel?"
"Bedtime for you." Regan kissed her temple affectionately. "I'm going to exercise and then do that myself after a shower. See you in the morning."
Robyn left Rae to her warm ups, passing the med bay as she did so. A light was still on, which made her smile a little as she headed for bed.
The lamp emitted a golden glow inside the med bay, throwing light over a desk and pitching the remainder of the area with its many rooms in darkness. One of the computer monitors had a link to the ship's security system, something the ship's doctor used to monitor behavior and check on the crew. They all had full access to the cameras set in all of the community rooms, but only he and Ryo accessed them on a routine basis.
He had no business doing this. It was unethical and disrespectful.
"Inferno. Show me Regan."
The doctor propped his chin in his hand and watched the camera's feed loop into his computer. He found Regan moving fluidly through ballet positions, her hair up in a neat bun and off her slender neck. She looked peaceful as she exercised and went through the careful, poised movements to heartbreaking music; pliés, arabesques, rond de jambes. He found himself wishing, not for the first time, that he had the courage to walk down the hall and join her. To…
He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. Tomorrow, he thought, you will have tea with her and discuss the book she lent you, because she knew you'd like it, and you will continue to say nothing and treasure her company as your friend. Nothing more.
Sage watched her glide into an attitude position, with one leg gracefully extended at the waist and bent at the knee, an arm arched above her head and out to the side. Her chin was tilted up, almost defiantly, and she held the position until he knew her muscles would be trembling for the effort. Yet she held, because Regan was tenacious— and kind, and loyal, and his feelings violated the oaths he took as a doctor of both the body and the mind. He needed to stop.
"Inferno, close feed," he murmured.
He had no idea how long he continued to sit there, unwilling to go to bed yet, not ready to dive into another report to distract his mind. Too long, as it were, for a shadow passed the frosted glass of the window into the hall, and then a soft knock sounded at the door.
"Come in," he called.
The door slid open, and Regan appeared. She was still wearing her leotard and tights, and she was barefoot. "It's rather late, doctor," she said as she leaned against the doorframe. "Late for you, at any rate. Is everything all right?"
"Everything's fine, Regan, thank you."
She nodded, remained quiet for a moment, and then spoke again. "What you said earlier in the week, about speaking with you and not shrugging off stress…that road goes both ways, Sage. If you need to talk, any one of us would be happy to listen." She cleared her throat and looked down at the floor. "We have to look out for each other, and you shouldn't exclude yourself. Not that you consciously are, but…" Regan sighed at herself and shook her head. "I'm talking in circles. Let's start over. Please know you can talk to me, as a friend. If anything is bothering you."
Sage regarded her for a moment, as his heart slowly bled in his chest. "I appreciate your offer," he finally said. "More than you know." They smiled at one another, and then words flew out of his mouth before he could stop them. "Truth be told, I am unable to sleep just yet. And I read the Kazuo Ishiguro novel you loaned me."
Her eyes lit up. "How far along were you before you figured it out?"
"Within the first few chapters."
She slumped against the doorway and sighed dramatically. His lips twitched in amusement. "Of course you did. I didn't figure it out until nearly halfway. I spent too much time asking broad picture questions and not enough time connecting the small details together. It broke my heart."
"It was troubling," he admitted. "But I found the revelation problematic. I have questions about the world in general. Would you be willing to spare some time to discuss it over tea?"
"If you're not tired."
Regan straightened and gave him a dazzling smile. "Yes, absolutely."
Sage rose, shut off the lamp, and followed her out into the hall. "Did you dance en pointe when you practiced?" She nodded. "How are your feet?"
"Sore, but manageable."
"We'll soak them in warm water while we're in the kitchen."
And sore as they were, she could have danced all the way there for this unexpected gift of time with him. "That sounds like heaven. I'll let you make the tea in the meantime, since mine is terrible."
"I never said it was terrible," he replied smoothly.
"You didn't have to, your face did the talking for you. I'm sorry, are you laughing?"
Their voices echoed faintly down the dimly lit hall as they walked, then cut off with the closing of the kitchen door. Not felt by the members of the crew, Inferno drifted ever onward in the direction of the sun.
Chapter Title Song Reference: "Hallelujah," by Jeff Buckley