He was terrified and ashamed, and he was trying to hide it. Whitby saw it in the set of Capa's mouth, in his twitching shoulders, in the extra layer of ice in his pale blue eyes. She was helping him unsuit while Corazon saw to Mace, who'd had no suit but a clumsy wrapping of insulation during his and Capa's and Harvey's leap from the Icarus I to this, their Icarus II, and who, fortunately, was too stupid to know he should be dead.
Harvey, the wiser man, had died moments ago or was still freezing to death— if he hadn't already floated past the outer edge of their forward shield and vaporized in the horrific glare of the sun. It didn't matter. He was beyond help. They all were. Whitby saw that in Capa's young face, too.
She eased him clear of his helmet and unfastened his gloves, listening to the quiet panting of his breath and hers. She realized that she should say something to him, something reassuring or comforting, but she knew that if she opened her mouth, anything that would come out would be along the lines of You've well and truly fucked us, haven't you, little man?
Corazon was dressing Mace's cracked and frozen hands while Mace shivered, hunched and silent, in a wrapping of blankets, and as Whitby broke the remaining seals on Capa's suit, purloined from the Icarus I, she thought how part of the blame was hers. Mace had opposed their going to the Icarus I, and she had backed him, but part of her had wanted, needed, yearned to know what had happened to the project's first crew and their captain. So her protests to the second mission's commander, Kaneda, to its brilliant physicist, Capa, to its medic and psych officer, Searle, had been inadequate, perhaps moreso even than Mace's, which, as the protests of the Icarus II's mechanic, had been snuffed by a quiet but round shouting-down from his betters on the team totem. She as pilot might have done more to prevent the rendezvous; up to crippling their ability to dock, she should have done more.
But she hadn't. She'd behaved selfishly, thinking a thing being worse than doing it if it meant the nondoing of something essential. She'd wanted to know (curiosity still being the most dangerous of unofficial sins), and now their own mission was at the point of collapse.
So it wasn't entirely Capa's fault, the deaths of Kaneda and comms officer Harvey, the abandonment of Searle, trapped aboard the Icarus I, the impending failure of their all-important task, to revive the dying sun. The boy could but follow the dictates of his logical cold brain. She'd been the one to fail her common sense.
Never mind. Too late now, wasn't it?
She looked to Mace, still shivering and staring hard at the deck in front of his frozen feet, and asked Corazon: "How is he?"
"He'll—" Corazon paused. She left the "survive" unspoken. A word they'd likely be removing from their collective vocabulary in the very, very near future. She said: "He's functioning."
"That'll do." Whitby pulled Capa from the remainder of his suit. He didn't try to shrug off the arm she kept around him. She felt his slender torso shaking against her side. "Let's get you fellows something hot to drink."
She made coffee while Corazon, the keeper of their atmosphere, ran the numbers on the oxygen remaining to them; she poured while Corazon told them when they were scheduled to die. She sat back in her chair at the table in the common area and cradled her cup to her chest, singeing her fingers but not minding, and thought what her brother Richie might say, just ahead of a pistol-muzzle-to-the-temple hand gesture: At least the coffee's still decent. That's something, innit?
The thing was, they might have air enough to do what they'd come to do: to chuck Capa's great Rubik's cube of dark matter and assorted radioactives into the sun and give Old Sol second thoughts about cashing out. The twist was, they hadn't air enough for all of them to make it to the chucking point.
"One of us needs to die," Corazon said, simply.
"Trey," Mace said, just as simply, in response. Their young navigator had triggered the mudslide of errors that had put them where they were now by botching the course correction that allowed them to rendezvous with the Icarus I; Whitby herself had come that close to killing him— "You changed our course without me? With no fucking pilot on the flight deck—?!"— before Kaneda and Mace pulled her off him; in short order, Trey had gone from mortification to deep depression, and Searle, good space doctor that he was, had consigned him to a purgatory of sedatives in Medical.
Now Whitby took a last sip of her good coffee and set her cup on the steel table. "We're not killing Trey," she said, slowly. "We're going to wake him up."
Mace looked at her coldly. "You heard Corazon: there's not enough air."
"If we stay here."
"And where the fuck are we supposed to go? We're dead, Whitby. We finish the mission; we die with— damn it, I don't know— We do our duty."
"We die with dignity," Corazon said, softly.
Capa nodded. "I agree."
Whitby glanced at him. "As if you have a say at this point."
"What the hell does that mean—?"
"No disrespect, Dr. Capa, but you've made your last bad judgment call on this trip."
Capa scowled at her, obviously deeply offended. "I made a decision based on the best available—"
"You tell that to Searle and Harvey. Tell it to Kaneda." She stared at him until Capa turned his scowl away, until he was what he'd always been in her eyes: a pale boy with an outsized brain and not an ounce of sense. "As a passenger, Dr. Capa, you've been tolerable. You're quiet, and you don't take up much room. As an advisor, you've proved lacking." She gave him a second; he wisely kept quiet, though his eyes on the space before him were hateful. Then she said to all of them: "We're going to configure for evacuation, and we're going to leave."
"Without delivering the payload?" Mace stared at her incredulously. "You coward. You God-damned—"
"Mace—" She fixed her eyes on him. "Shut up. We're delivering the payload. Capa primes it while we prep the lifepod. We can't provide atmosphere for the entire ship; we'll air what we can, that being the pod; we'll drop the bomb; we'll go—"
"From this distance in a pod? That far back? It's never been done."
"None of this has ever been done, Mace."
"They tested those air recyclers using chimps."
"Should make you feel right at home."
"They didn't know to clean the fucking filters, did they?"
"We're wasting oxygen," Corazon said. She rested her hand on Mace's shoulder; he half-turned to her; she said, gently: "You're losing air, and it's making you afraid. It's making all of us afraid. We should try this. We should at least try."
He left off glaring at Whitby. "Don't have anything better to do, do we?"
Corazon squeezed his shoulder. "No."
They went together to Medical, the four of them; there they'd divide the tasks to prepare for evacuation and then split up. Capa was behind the rest of them, saving his wind, avoiding Whitby's judging eyes. Then, like the barest of pressure on his back, he felt—
— felt, because he certainly didn't see anything, and his ears, it seemed, were filling with the growing wheeze in his breath—
— something. He stopped, turned, looked behind them. His heart tripped and fell in his chest.
Outside Comms, in a pocket of shadow, stood a human figure. Featureless at this distance, dark, tall—
"Searle—?" Capa gasped.
Its shadowy head turned his way. It looked at him with eyes Capa couldn't see. Then it stepped into Comms and disappeared.
"What is it?" Mace had stopped, too. He joined Capa, followed his gaze down the hall. "Did you see something?"
"I thought—" Capa frowned at the empty stretch behind them. "Mace, could Searle have made it back?"
"No." He waited a moment, then touched Capa's shoulder. When Capa looked at him, he said: "You have to focus, Capa. Air's messing with your head. You've got a job to do. Then we're going home, okay?"
At any other time, he might have felt a patronizing sting from Mace's tone. Now he couldn't even muster shame at the hope he felt in hearing the word: home.
Corazon was already in Medical, watching Whitby prep a hypoful of stimulants. Mace, coming in with Capa in tow, beat her to the question: "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
"No." Whitby jetted the air from the syringe. "But if I'm wrong, at least Trey won't be wasting our precious oxygen, will he?"
He came up out of his drugged semi-coma with a panicked, ragged gasp. He looked at them unknowingly and then tipped his head into his hands and sat swaying on the cot's thin mattress.
"Trey." Corazon gently touched his arm. He flinched at the contact.
"Are you dead, too, Corrie?" he asked.
"We're not dead."
"But he said we were all—"
"Who-he?" Mace came closer, impatiently. "Trey, come on: wake up."
"I am awake. There was a—" Trey lowered his hands, looked at them, at the room. "Christ, I'm stoned, aren't I? I am fucking stoned."
"Putting it mildly," Capa muttered.
"Trey—" Whitby took him by the shoulders and said, when he met her eyes: "Our air is running out. We're evacuating. We need your help. But Mace wants you dead."
Mace sputtered: "Whitby, the fuck—?"
She looked at him coldly and nodded toward Trey, who was staring at Mace with a mix of shock and fear on his face. "It's got him focused, hasn't it?"
To seed and maintain a breathable atmosphere, the recycler aboard the pod would require air with a certain percentage of oxygen, a percentage that as of now was becoming increasingly difficult to find aboard the ship. Trey and Mace were to find such air, the sooner the better: the question was where?
"The suits," Mace said. "We'll empty the tanks on the suits. Then—" He looked at the others.
"The bomb housing," Capa said. "I won't be in there long. It's not as if the thing needs to breathe."
Whitby asked him: "When will you be ready to go?"
"You'll be transferring control from the ship's mainframe to the computers aboard the pod, right? I'll be ready when I have the new feed from the pod's computer."
"You'll have it within fifteen minutes. You'll be at the payload by then."
"We might have to separate earlier than we'd originally planned. The pod's engines won't have the thrust that the main engines do." She looked at him very directly. "If it came down to it, could you re-calculate the deployment?"
Capa hesitated. "Would you accept it if I said 'no'?"
"Not all of us would have to," Trey said.
"I would," Whitby countered.
"You might have to leave me behind." Capa's voice was even. "You have to admit that's an acceptable risk."
"I wouldn't leave you here alone," Whitby said. She looked from him to the others. "The pod's our chance. It's our choice, too." To Capa, she said: "You haven't answered me. Could you adjust if the deployment were sooner?"
"Forces are still behaving according to estimation at this distance. The destabilization begins after the drop point, not before."
"Can't you just say 'yes'?" Mace asked.
Capa smiled slightly. "No."
"Go on. Get going, then," Whitby said to him. "Mace, Trey: air and decoupling. Corazon--"
"Water, then food: yes." Their botanist-slant-nutritionist had volunteered to round up whatever no-refrigeration-required edibles she could find. "No bloody way I'm going to be stuck eating nothing but straight emergency rations for a year and a half."
Mace and Trey with their burden of tanks and tools shuffled as breathlessly as old men for the main suit locker. The designers of the second Icarus had assumed that in an emergency the ship's computer systems might well be malfunctioning; when they planned for the module containing the flight deck to act as a lifepod, they'd arranged for most of its prep to be performed manually: locking hinges to be thrown by hand (and a good deal of force), grappling assemblies that would guide the pod's engines into place and hold them there, trans-bulkhead spigots and insulated piping through which would-be survivors would feed air and water to the tanks supplying the pod's environmental systems. Corazon and Whitby would channel water from the ship's main tanks to the pod, after which Corazon would be off scavenging and Whitby would be prepping the flight deck. Good thing they don't have to carry that water in buckets, Mace thought. He was breathing through his mouth, so hard that his throat and the root of his tongue were starting to ache. As they reached the suit locker, he asked, hoarsely: "Are you with me, Trey?"
"Yeah." Trey unslung an oxygen tank as Mace unslung his. He looked more numbly breathless than fearful; he hovered for a moment as Mace started siphoning the air from the first suit. Then he said: "She was lying, wasn't she, Mace? Do you want to kill me?"
Mace could barely bring himself to meet Trey's eyes. He tried to tell himself it was the growing lack of oxygen, that the energy to lift his head would be energy wasted. "Yeah, Trey, she was lying."
"Because I— I'd do it myself, if you thought—"
"Jesus, Trey, don't be stupid. Give me a hand here, would you?"
She was on the flight deck even now, Whitby was, seated at the comms station while she finished initiating the lifepod's discrete data and power systems and closing off its ship-dependent ones. Easier to concentrate, sitting, less effort to breathe, less distraction from the increasingly rough beating of her heart.
She'd just indulged in a thought— We might actually pull this off— when something on a monitor above her head caught her eye.
A couple of months back, out of boredom, just to see if they could do it, she and Mace had rigged a thermal imaging tracking system for the public areas of the ship. Not for the showers or the sleeping quarters— "God forbid we should catch someone gettin' it on in this house of Brede," she'd said, drily— but both she and he had thought (and Kaneda agreed) it only made sense, from a safety standpoint, to know, generally, where people were on the ship.
She'd been half-watching the imaging now, while she waited for the mission's primary programs and files to load to the computers aboard the pod. Orange-red blips wandering squares of black and blue. One blip, well ahead of where she was on the flight deck: Capa. Two blips, to the side of and behind him: Trey and Mace, wrangling their oxygen-siphoning gear. Then, aft of the flight deck, in the Oxygen Garden—
— two blips, moving.
She thought it a trick of her peripheral vision, a twitch of her oxygen-starved brain. She looked up directly at the display. Though the fire in the Oxygen Garden had been extinguished, the area was still showing random pockets of heat. That's what she'd seen. Amazing, really, that the sensors still worked. She'd moved her head, looking at something else, and indirectly projected the motion to the display. Sure, now: only one blip moving, and that had to be Corazon. Likely she wanted a final look at her stricken paradise, and Whitby wouldn't be the one to call her on it. The blip that was Corazon stopped; she saw something useful in the wreckage, maybe—
And another blip moved on the screen.
Whitby rose from the comms seat, staring. "Icarus, patch me through to Corazon."
Channel open, Whitby.
The second blip reached the first, stopped.
"Corazon?" Whitby asked the air. "Corrie, are you there?"
Nothing. A low hiss of static from the feed. Nothing else.
Her heart pounded raggedly in her chest. "Icarus, who is in the Oxygen Garden with Corazon?"
Shock. It took a moment to register. Then Whitby was running— already breathing hard in the oxygen-thin atmosphere— for the Oxygen Garden. "Icarus, get me Mace."
Whitby? What is it?
Not much distance between the flight deck and the ship's garden, and already, pushing through the shadows left when the fire took out the primary lighting between ops and Corazon's paradise, brownish smoke hanging in the air, she was winded. "I think we have an intruder."
What? Say again—
She was at the entrance to the Oxygen Garden. She looked in, panting and queasy from apprehension and the stale air. She stepped into the murky shadows, picked her way through the charred wreckage on the floor.
"Mace, I think we—" She stopped.
Corazon was just ahead of her, sitting cross-legged on the floor. She had something cupped in her hands: tiny, very green, frail. A plant. Bean shoot or some such. Her eyes were open, but she was very still, and something was more than wrong—
Whitby, what is it?
"Corrie?" She knew without touching her, knew even in this dim lighting the flat dullness in Corazon's eyes. She knew absolutely when she saw, stepping gingerly around and behind the other woman, the bloody hole in Corazon's spine.
"Christ. Oh, Christ—"
Whitby, what the fuck—
"She's dead, Mace." She touched Corazon's throat anyway, the pulse point just under her jaw, felt the nothing she knew she'd feel. "She's dead; she's been stabbed."
I'm on my way— We're—
"No." She shocked herself with the force in her voice. "Stay on task, Mace."
No. We have to—
"We have to get out of here. Stay on task. Icarus, all channels—"
"Trey, Capa: we have an intruder. For God's sake, keep your eyes open."
Only after shocked acknowledgments from Trey and Capa, when the feed from her comm link went quiet, did she realize she hadn't exactly been minding her own surroundings. Fear hit her like a shove square between the shoulderblades. She looked around her, from her spot with Corazon in the dark and smoldering ruins, a full three-sixty—
"Whitby," she whispered to herself, "you stupid bloody bitch—"
But: nothing. Had the killer— whoever or whatever it was— and how much fear the mind could pack into that one tiny word, it— had the killer still been in the Oxygen Garden, she'd be as dead as their mission's botanist.
She took a last look at Corazon. Stay on task. Then she left the Oxygen Garden and made for the flight deck, their soon-to-be lifepod. She hoped, grimly, that she'd find it empty.
She swept the flight deck with her eyes. She walked it quickly, then, too, the upper deck and the lower, looked shamelessly behind every chair, under every console. She even looked up at the bloody ceiling. She'd never been fond of horror films: too often the fools in them trusted their screenwriters and directors to show them where the monster might be lurking, and those fools ended up lied to, misled, and dead. So she checked thoroughly, herself, and then she settled herself at the pilot's station with an eye on the hatch leading out and continued the prep for evacuation.
And now, hyper-vigilant as she was, she noticed almost instantly that the ship's engines were overheating.
Monitor bank to her left. Temperature lines spiking across the drive system. Spiking and rising. Three words in old-school glowing lime:
COOLANT SYSTEM FAILURE
She toggled the switches for the coolant system: no response.
The fault was at the source. Physical, actual. Not in the circuitry.
Again Whitby was up; again, she proceeded aft. And in the engine room of the Icarus II, she found—
(She stopped dead, staring—) A human. Tall, male. Wearing— though the shadows seemed to be shifting around him: something in the air was making him indistinct, as though the light were reluctant to touch him— tattered remnants of clothing, trousers, filthy bits of a t-shirt that stuck to the ruin of his skin, burned and cracked, all of him a horror in rough black and sticky red—
"Must be very soon now," he said quietly, turning to her. His voice was accented and deep. "You're here."
She took a step closer, to better see him. She could barely breathe for fear, for the jolting beat of her heart. "Who the hell are you?"
"Don't be afraid, Loinnir."
Her breath caught in her throat, stuck there, stumbled out as a choke: "Dan?"
Pinbacker. Daniel. Captain of the Icarus I.
Now he came a step closer, and she could see his eyes. Dark and intent as she'd remembered, but shining, as though they carried their own light. Alive in the dead burned horror of his face. And quite, quite insane.
He spoke softly, watching her: "He promised me so many things-- When I died, I'd see you again."
"God. You talk to Him, too; I know you do."
She was having trouble thinking; she was having trouble drawing air; her voice made hardly any sound: "Dan, what have you done--?"
"Not long now. We'll all go to Him together."
"You killed Corazon. You killed--" Kaneda burning alive, Harvey dying in space, Searle abandoned on the Icarus I. She edged toward the engine room's primary controls, feeling dizzy and sick. "You want to kill all of us. Everyone on Earth-- You're trying to stop the mission."
"There is no mission. Not anymore."
Whitby was at the primary control panel, but the controls were nothing but a smashed mess of metal and plastic. Then Pinbacker was there, too, and there was something in his hand. Something glinting and sharp. Whitby caught the flash in the corner of her eye; she spun sideways, and the scalpel— she saw, with shocked and frozen precision, that's what it was— sliced the air to the right of her neck. Pinbacker's hand and the scalpel in their unimpeded trajectory hit one of the monitors near the control panel; the screen cracked and went black. He slashed at Whitby again, grabbing for her; she ducked, tripped, fell hard on her knees. She was gasping, trying to get her feet under her, when he gripped the back of her t-shirt and heaved her up.
Blindly, instinctively: as he pulled her backward, just as her torso snapped straight, Whitby grabbed at her right boot. The scalpel in Pinbacker's hand flashed toward her throat-- and she stabbed something, hard, into the inner side of his right thigh. She twisted it, twisted herself in his grip, wheezing, terrified--
Pinbacker shouted in pain. He lost his grip on Whitby. She tumbled free, pulling loose as she fell whatever it was she had jabbed into Pinbacker's leg. Blood sprayed.
He grabbed her by the hair, then by the head. He had dropped the scalpel. By now, breaking her neck would do just as well. She twisted her torso to follow the motion of his twisting hands-- it was all she could do. She got her free hand under his arm, along his side, braced herself against him, and shoved the thing with which she stabbed his leg hard into the left side of his throat, just under his chin. Then she yanked it free and got a faceful of arterial blood.
He didn't try to grab for the diving knife. That's what it was. The thinking— between Whitby and her brother Richie, between Whitby and her diving pals and the ocean back home— had always been that you never took your best knife on a dive unless you well and truly wanted to lose that knife. So she had as part of her dive gear a half-dozen or so knives of solid but not flawless steel or alloy and cheap plastic handles. Then, on the day before the Icarus II was to depart from the launch station in orbit, the shuttle from Earth had delivered, along with the mission's most last-minute supplies, a package for her: a beautiful dual-edged matte-black CRKT ankle knife, a single flawless piece of steel in its black plastic-and-mesh sheath, bearing the inscription "For Sunday best.— Richie." And, being well away from the dastardly knife-swallowing Atlantic, she'd managed in these sixteen sun-bound months not to lose it. She still had a grip on it— but now the handle was slippery with blood. Pinbacker— even he'd been in on the joke, years back, eight of them or better: he'd asked her once, half smiling, wholly concerned, how she expected to do battle with the terrors of the deep armed only with the kind of knife you could buy by the bucketful at a hardware store— now Pinbacker— then Daniel, then Dan, then hers, now a nightmare— took her by the jaw and the back of the head--
-- and their eyes met. Maybe he hesitated. Maybe he didn't. Maybe the extra second had always been hers--
In that second, Whitby slammed the blade of the knife into his left temple. A cracking sound. Like bone puncturing. Or time splitting. Pinbacker froze. He focused on her, hard, blinked as though confused--
And toppled to the deck, taking her with him.