A.N.- Thanks to everyone who has left gracious and thoughtful complements and constructive criticism- I always appreciate both! I'm sorry I took so long to post this, even though it has hung out in the document manager for nearly three weeks...I'm terrible, I know!
Cassie was not sure how long she had stood under the shower head, the flow of the water beating a steady and constant rhythm against her back as Cassie stood silently in the shower stall. As with everything else aboard Icarus II, the single bathroom unit that was shared amongst the eight crewmembers had been designed with efficiency and utilitarian value in mind. Within the small space were two showers, two sinks, two lavatories, and enough space to hold the meager effects and supplies which were required of those when attending to their daily toilet. Still Cassie was grateful for the space, for at least it afforded her a small measure of privacy, a luxury that was sparser than all others aboard Icarus.
Cassie could not say what it was that had prompted her to invite Mace to join her in Pilates, yet she was grateful that he had accepted the invitation without question, and the workout had proceeded quietly and without tension, for the most part. She had not dared to voice what she noticed at the end of the session, but she had felt his eyes on hers, had felt Mace watching her as she had lain still on her mat while she basked in the light of the sun beyond. He had seemed eager to ask her something, yet he had barely kept himself in check.
Worse yet, Cassie knew with dead certainty that all he wanted to know was why she has broken off their relationship so many months ago, before the launch. She had told herself it was for the best, that burdening Mace with the knowledge that she had once, albeit briefly, been carrying his child would only cause them grief and sorrow, let alone the possibility of their participation in the Icarus mission being terminated completely.
With that hanging over her, she had broken off their relationship with hardly a real excuse, leaving Mace bitter and unfulfilled and her own self full of self-loathing. And yet, despite every reason Mace had to lash out at her, he had treated her with nothing but respect and kindness throughout the mission, even if the longing and pain she often saw in his eyes belied much deeper emotion. But even this morning Cassie had felt those eyes upon her, and she knew that their days of uneasy peace were coming to a close. Mace was the sort to follow through on the things he felt most important, and there would be a day soon, quite soon, when he would finally ask her for the truth.
And, God help her, she would tell him everything.
Dissatisfied with but resigned to the outcome she saw in her head, Cassie stepped out from under the spray of water, shutting off the showerhead and reaching for her towel. The digital clock beyond the partition read out 6:55 in its soft green phosphorescence. The rest of Icarus' crew would soon be up and about if they were not already. Better to savor the last of her few minutes alone. Better to-
"What? No, Capa."
As if on cue, Capa's skinny outline appeared on the opposite side of the partition. He paused to yawn, running his fingers through his hair absentmindedly. "Why did you think I was Mace?"
"Oh, well," Cassie muttered, more to herself than Capa, "he was already up. We were doing Pilates together before the morning cycle. I think he wandered off somewhere while I was showering. Can you toss me my bathrobe?"
"Here," Capa tossed Cassie's robe over into her stall. "Yeah, I saw Mace heading off to the exercise room, probably to burn off some steam. He looked a little pissed about something."
"I'm sure I wouldn't know why." Cassie wrapped herself in her robe and stepped out of the shower. Capa was clad only in his sleeping pants, his skinny frame bent over the washbasin as he set to his morning shave. He paused midway through a stroke with his razor, a frown on his sharp features. "Did you get up earlier in the night? I heard a lot of moving around last night."
Cassie shook her head. "I had a little trouble sleeping last night."
"I know the feeling." Capa sounded sympathetic. "I feel like every time I shut my eyes lately I see something bad. Not for the mission or us, just bad stuff, somehow. It's all a bit vague."
"Random things. Lots of shadows and clouds. And the sun. Always the sun. It gets a little closer every night. Someday I'll wakeup from being sucked into the atmosphere and Icarus will have already arrived at the payload delivery point." Capa shrugged. I don't know what it all means. Maybe I'm not supposed to."
"You could talk to Searle, see if he can give you something."
Capa shook his head. "I'd rather keep a clear head. And there are certainly worse things to dream about."
Much, much worse, thought Cassie glumly. Like spending every night dreaming of the man who you used to love, the child you once carried, the life deferred in favor of risking your own for the future of mankind…
She sighed, more to herself than Capa. Nevertheless, he picked up on her moment of sadness. He was not much for good jokes, that was really more the province of Mace or Harvey, but one thought occurred to him.
"Worse things to dream about…you could dream of number sequences like Trey. That's all he ever sees, you know."
It wasn't much, but it was something. Cassie cracked a wan smile, ruffled her friend's hair briefly and stepped out of the small room. Capa grinned to himself, and went back to his shave.
8:30 A.M. The start of a fresh day. This one was the eighteenth of November, 2057.
Of course, there was little reason to stick to a set schedule in space- the concept of twenty-four rotating and repeating hours on an Earth schedule simply didn't exist in deep space. Icarus II was a product of her creators, all of whom lived and worked by a schedule of three hundred sixty-five days in a year, twenty-four hours in a day, and sixty minutes in a hour. Such knowledge, combined with the crew's daily work schedule was the only thing that kept Icarus on target and on track as it continued its long sojourn to the sun, traveling further and further each day.
This knowledge had never particularly inspired Cassie, rather it served to underscore the fact that she and seven others were only the tiny cogs in a massive machine built with a single goal in mind: restart the sun. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship- live inside the giant craft, breath the recycled air, drink the recycled water, consume the harvested produce. In return, they were granted life inside the belly of a steel and titanium-plated leviathan as it swam through the vast emptiness of space.
Hopping into the pilot's seat at the head of the control room, Cassie flicked the few switches and toggles needed to bring Icarus up from her sleep cycle. Punching in a few commands on the keyboard in front of her, her arm grazed an old paperback she had left at the station from the night before: a stained, battered copy of Anna Karinena. She snorted humorlessly to herself. The irony that she had been reading on the quintessential "ruined woman" novel of all Victorian literature while musing on her own recent altercations and history with Mace was not lost on her. Frowning, she tossed the novel behind her without a backwards glance. In front of her, the pilot's console came on with a low hum as Icarus booted up dozens of programs and protocols.
"Morning, Icarus. I'm going to request transfer from computer control back to pilot control for the duration of the morning cycle."
"Yes Cassie." A viewscreen flashed in front of her, indicating the status change. "Requesting pilot confirmation code."
"Cassie piloting officer, code zero-zero-zero-three."
"Affirmative, Cassie. Continue coordinates from last known request?"
"Yes, maintain current heading along Trey's last plotted trajectory and maintain current speed. Maintain notification for any spatial anomalies or foreign particles."
Cassie flicked a few switches, typed in a few last notes for the pilot's log on the screen in front of her, and then leaned back into her chair with a sigh. The daily ritual of resuming manual control of the ship, if she could even call it that, was of the few thrilling moments of training that she could actually exercise aboard the ship. Not that she expected any glitches or foul-ups, of course- the Icarus II had been designed to run perfectly with a minimum of human assistance. While it made all their duties aboard the vessel more important in their implementation, it also meant that mornings aboard the ship could be soul-crushingly dull. Finished with her latest novel, and knowing she had few remaining unread books in her kit bag, Cassie considered her options. She could opt to be professional and spend the next two-hundred and seventy minutes at the pilot's station, or she could opt to wander the ship and perhaps assist another crewmember. Let's scrap Mace from that list for the time being she thought sullenly. There had been a bit too much of him in her dreams and daily interactions of late to leave her completely at ease. In some ways, she always enjoyed the closeness- it meant that despite severing their relationship months ago, they had managed to maintain a modicum of mutual respect and friendliness. In other ways however such closeness invariably led back to the uncomfortable silences, awkward moment and lingering eyes that she dreaded.
The decision was an easy one to make.
Checking the coordinates one last time, Cassie logged off from the pilot's console and headed off to the payload.
He drew himself from the water quickly, stepping up from the ledge of the pool mere seconds ahead of the man behind him, grinning to himself.
"Better luck next time, Harvey"
"Yeah." Harvey nodded, climbing up from the pool, slicking his hair back from his face. "Even I can't win all the time. Still, I don't think I'm going to get the gold for swimming laps anytime soon."
Mace shook his head. "Me either. But," he gestured out in front of them, "at least we're a good 15 seconds ahead of everyone else."
The sight before both men was of six fellow crewmembers struggling through the water, intent on finishing the last lap of their swimming sessions. As per the program mandated fitness program of the Icarus Project, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays included thirty minutes of weights and of course, swimming in the center's pool at the athletic center that was adjacent to the labs and the neutral buoyancy tank.
The tank where Cassie had nearly died.
Mace did not like to think of that moment, if only because it served to underscore the day that the woman he was becoming increasingly close to had nearly been asphyxiated inside her suit. Still, here Cassie was, nearly a week later, in the pool with all the rest of them, floundering through the water as if she had never before nearly lost her life in a similar environment.
He had to give Cassie credit. Bandaged hand and all, Cassie had still doggedly pursued the program's fitness regimen after only a day's absence. Today she was in the pool with all the rest, lagging a bit behind as she swam up the outermost left lane, but finishing the exercise nonetheless.
"Cassie's doing well." Harvey said, echoing Mace's thoughts. "She might pass Trey if he doesn't pick up the pace. Hey, Trey, PICK UP THE PACE!!!"
In the lane right of Cassie's the swimming figure slowed, a hand momentarily emerging and cresting above the frothing water, the middle finger pointed heavenward.
Harvey smirked. "Not a very good show of sportsmanship, to say nothing of ruining a perfect stroke."
Mace just grinned again, watching the rest of the crew reach the edge of he pool as they finished their laps. Of the remaining six, Kaneda finished next in third place. Capa and Corazon reached the water's edge at nearly the same moment, sharing fourth. Searle was next, and then right behind him came Trey and Cassie, paddling as quickly as they could down their respective lanes. They seemed to be swimming in tandem, matched stroke for stroke, and then, meters away from the water's edge, Trey gave one last surge, pushing himself to the lip of the pool ahead of Cassie by less than a stroke.
She surfaced slowly, gasping for breath, slicking back from her face the wet chestnut strands made dark by the water. She glanced up at Mace. "How'd I do?"
Mace checked the clock behind him. "Pretty good- fifteen minutes, forty-seven seconds. Trey only beat you by a hair, and even then it was only luck."
Cassie rolled up eyes. "That and he doesn't have a handful of waterlogged cotton gauze obstructing his form with every stroke." She held up her bandaged hand as if to make a point.
Mace shrugged "At least it was close. And everyone finished under the eighteen-minute mark. Let me help me out."
Cassie offered her uninjured hand to Mace, who quickly plucked her out of the pool as if she weighed nothing at all. But he was too forceful with the pull, and she was lifted clean out the water and towards him, her feet slipping on the wet tile, legs sliding out from under her, and Mace grabbed her arms, pulling her body to his, steadying her.
"Am I going to have to save you every time?" Mace said, half-joking, half serious.
Cassie smiled. "If it has to be anyone, I'd prefer it be you. So far you've got a two and o track record. Pretty good."
'Happy to help out." He gave her a quick squeeze, noting how wonderful it felt to have the warmth of her body pressed against his. For her part, Cassie didn't seem to mind. She merely looked up at Mace, something unreadable in her dark brown eyes. Still she smiled and broke away from him, walking away to fetch a towel. Mace let his eyes follow her retreating form. God, even dripping wet she looked gorgeous, with her program-issued navy one-piece clinging in all the right parts as her petite body leaned over and collected towels from the table. She turned around, her gaze catching his, and Mace instantly looked away.
"Did I see the normally unflappable Mace blushing?" Cassie asked, her voice light.
"I'll plead the fifth," Mace joked, knowing she had seen his eyes traveling her way. Cassie shook her head, and passed him a towel. "I might let it slide."
"How's that?" inquired Mace, toweling his body dry.
Cassie smiled. "I seem to recall you promised me a beer last week. I'm still waiting."
Even with a long-sleeved shirt, sweater and toboggan, there was no getting past the oppressive cold that wafted from and was generated by the coolant tanks in the mainframe center of Icarus II. Amidst the myriad programs and machines that operated aboard Icarus, both seen and unseen, the mainframe system was one of comparative simplicity. Mace did not know or understand the complexities of the ship's programming systems- who could? Millions upon millions of gigahertz of information working in tandem to keep systems working- shields rotating, data processing, water recycling and so on. Mace did not understand such things, nor could anyone aboard Icarus comprehend such massive levels of data programming.
What Mace could understand however was the mechanics of Icarus- the physical aspects, the cogs and gears, so to speak, of this leviathan. These were the things that were in his realm of knowledge and control. And so it was, wrapped up warm in his layers and sweaters and toboggan that the engineering officer found himself stretched out on the grating over the coolant tanks, skin pebbled with goose bumps from the chill as he worked with wrench and pliers on the mainframe boards.
It was not a task Mace relished. In fact, the straightforwardness of the task at hand never failed to remind him that he was, in essence, sometimes little more than a glorified repairman. The current task was not hard, or even challenging- he had only to ensure that the hydraulic equipment that suspended the mainframe panels in their coolant gel was in working order. The affair was simple enough, to be sure, if not somewhat monotonous. He had already finished tightening the screws on each of the four central panels, and was only now finishing with the hydraulic joints. Mace inched forward slightly on his stomach, an electric scraper in his left hand, a pair of pliers in his right. High up on the upper left support rod of the nearest mainframe panel, ice crystals had solidified over the bottommost rigging and tubes. Left on its own, the device would rust and clog, the tubing solidifying, eventually rendering the hydraulics unusable. Simple enough to fix, of course. Scrape off the crystals, check the alignment of the support rod, and replace the piping tube for the hydraulic fluid.
Mace inched out over the chill liquid. With a flick of his thumb the scraper turned on, removing the icy detritus. Now, to cut and remove the tubing... he reached out with the pliers...
...and promptly fumbled the tools, dropping them into the coolant gel below.
"Shit!" He reacted without thinking, plunging his hands into the liquid, hissing from the sting of the cold. His hands found the tools slowly sinking in the coolant, drew them out the gel, and Mace watched as both his hands and the tools quickly frosted over as the gel came in contact with the air. The sound of a giggle made him look up from the injury- Corazon stood in front of him, a mug of tea in one hand, her features inscrutable save for the hint of a smile pulling at the edges of her lips.
"Think you could've given me some warning?" Mace quipped dryly, gesturing with his now injured hands.
"I did try." Corazon stepped forward with the tea. "You've been here for almost an hour. I'd thought you'd like something to warm you up. Of course," Corazon gestured to his hands, "I don't suppose it matters now."
He took the mug of tea, glanced at Corazon briefly, then poured the steaming liquid over his hands. The frozen gel dissolved immediately in a quick succession of crackles and pops. Corazon gave him a withering stare.
"You know that was the last of the orange blossom tea."
Mace cast her a saucy smile. "Good thing it came in handy."
If Corazon had noted this most egregious and awful of puns, she said nothing. She silently picked up the now-empty mug, smiled ruefully at him, and tossed him a towel. He stood up, wiping his now tingling but defrosted hands. "What else do we have left?"
"Just the oolong, earl grey and berry blend. Although I won't be giving those out if you keep using tea as a defrosting agent."
"Then don't sneak up on me like that."
Corazon nodded. "Duly noted. Sorry about that."
Mace shrugged. "You know I'm just joshing you. Besides, I've dealt with worse."
"Just make sure you get Searle to take a look at your hands and get some lotion. If any of that coolant gets into your bloodstream you'll really be in trouble."
"I'm just about finished with the mainframes," said Mace. "Just have to replace some tubing, and then I'll go find Searle."
"You do that." Corazon turned to leave, before turning back to Mace. "Have you seen Cassie recently? I was going to bring her some tea too."
He frowned. "Not since this morning. I think she had something on her mind. She wasn't very chatty."
"She hasn't been lately, has she?" Corazon wondered out loud. " She didn't even say anything last night when she spilt her food all over your shirt. She seemed a little moody, in fact. Has she mentioned anything to you about that?"
Corrie if you haven't noticed she's been avoiding me since even before the mission started Mace thought bitterly. Instead he only shook his head. "No. Cassie hasn't said much of anything lately."
Corazon grimaced. "I hope she's alright. It's not healthy, bottling up secrets like that. She has seven friends she could talk things out with."
No, thought Mace sadly. Not seven. Just six. And the other one just wishes things could go back to the way they were. He noted suddenly that Corazon was staring at him with a nearly unreadable expression, and Mace wondered if she knew what he was thinking. That was the more unfortunate aspect of sharing a ship with seven others- few things, even one's thougts, could rarely be called one's own. Thankfully, Corazon said nothing, but gave him a brief pat on the shoulder before walking out the room.
And then he was alone again, alone with his thoughts and memories of Cassie. Although Mace was not eager to be grilled by Searle, a trip to the med center seemed the wisest course of action. And even if Searle was not there, Mace suddenly thought of one other thing that might ameliorate the heartache and the angst.
He wondered, briefly, when he has last used the Earth Room.
A.N.- Thanks for reading everyone- I hope you enjoy it. I thought since I had Mace bouncing a conversation off of Corazon, Cassie needed a one-on-one with another crewmember as well, so we've got her learning chess with Capa in my next chapter!