Some days they staged contests. Nothing silly, nothing dangerous. Just things to jolt the dust from the same, same, sameness. Today's contest, on this the four hundredth and sixth day of their journey to the sun's nearer side, was to see who could first complete his or her maintenance checklist. The prize was an extra fifteen minutes in the comms room. The time was at a premium: they'd been hitting windows of silence in the last few weeks, stretches during which their transmitters were failing to launch clear messages. Harvey had found a pattern to the muddled periods but was having trouble, help from home notwithstanding, diagnosing the problem; for now he and the others had settled for timing their messages for the clearest sending periods. Like the one coming in twelve minutes.
Whitby took the prize. Mace had edged her, until Kaneda, double-checking Mace's maintenance list-- they took turns cross-checking each other-- had found one tiny shorted-dark lightbulb in a suit closet, the bulbs tending to take a beating from the suits' heavy, clumsy bulk, and announced that the extra comms time was now Whitby's.
For some reason, it irked Mace. The contest over, he was heading for the galley and a cup of coffee, and Corazon was with him, and Whitby was ahead of them, she and Capa, heading toward Comms, and it was itching under his skin like a hot powdering of fiberglass insulation.
Corazon, who could read his moods, said, simply: "Mace."
She'd seen him looking after Whitby, the long bones of their substitute pilot in gray t-shirt, multi-pocketed trousers, the boots she had continued to wear long after the rest of them had informalized to sneakers or sandals. Not a look of undressing, though Whitby, despite tending toward hardness, wasn't unattractive: more a sizing-up. She and Capa were talking quietly as they walked, and Whitby had just managed to spark a smile from their generally inexpressive young physicist, and Mace was openly scowling now--
"You checked his list, Corrie, right?" he was saying. "How'd you even understand what to look for--?"
"Look, all I know is all his lights were on." Corazon smiled wryly. She glanced over at him. "And someone was home, too."
They were at the galley. Corazon ruffled his hair. "Ease up, kiddo. You'll get your turn."
"Sure." Mace nearly smiled back. Then, impulsively, he turned back to the corridor and called sharply after Whitby: "Still trying for 'Mother of the Year,' huh?"
Whitby stopped. Capa took three more steps, then stopped, too. Sometimes social realities took a moment to register with him. He looked from Whitby back to Mace even as Whitby turned and, more than that, stalked back to Mace, right up to him, and countered with that old classic (which would have been so even in Brainiac's Guide to Detached Living): "What did you say?"
"Nice, Mace--" Corazon muttered.
"Shut up, Corrie." Mace focused on Whitby. "Got something to say, Pilot Whitby?"
What he'd hated about her getting the extra comms time-- or at least even now he was trying to persuade himself of it-- was what she wanted it for: she had a kid back home, a boy named Pete, something like seven or eight years old, and it was the little shit's first communion or something like that, people like Whitby still believing in that crap and, worse, having to infect their kids with it, too, even from fifty million miles away, and she wanted to send him an extra message ("Welcome to the cult, honey!", or some damn thing)-- and then, even as Mace realized just how irrational and stupid he was being, Whitby was there, four or five feet away--
"I think you're out of line, Lieutenant," she said quietly.
To which he replied, before he could stop himself: "What? Didn't catch that."
"She's right; you are--" Capa was with them now, too. "Mace, you're wasting time. Whitby needs to get to the--"
"Up yours, Brainiac. Bitch has something to say; let her talk."
Whitby went pale. "Alright, that does it--"
She took a step toward Mace. Corazon reached for him as he tensed; he shrugged away from her. Then Capa got between him and Whitby--
"Whitby, don't. Mace, come on--"
Adrenaline burned Mace's veins; the words seemed to say themselves: "You're sticking up for her? Like those flygirls, don'tcha, Brainiac?" He smirked at Capa. "What-- you banging her now--?"
Capa's eyes flashed. He shoved Mace-- the little bastard had plenty of wiry tough push in him-- and Mace swung back a fist-- and then Corazon was grabbing for him while Whitby, shock breaking through the anger on her face, was grabbing Capa, and then a man's voice barked: "Mace! Capa!"
The four of them froze. Harvey was approaching from the direction of the comms center. Whitby and Corazon stepped back; he focused on Mace and Capa.
"Seam duty. Both of you. Be prepped in forty-five minutes."