They fell. It was almost like a carnival ride, Destiny seeming to tilt wildly around them as they tumbled through a series of shafts and ended up, surprisingly, landing softly in a pile of limbs on a bed.
It must have been another one of the ship's empty crew quarters, Chloe thought, simply grateful to be alive and apparently unbroken. She was bruised and something large and solid that looked suspiciously like it used to be a wall was suspended a bit too close over her head.
Over both their heads, as the man she'd fallen through a suddenly unstable floor with tried to sit up and swore when he hit it with back of his skull.
Reminded of him, not that she was ever likely to forget him, she struggled to disentangle herself from Dr. Rush. There wasn't much space; it appeared as though a portion of several floors and walls had tumbled down with them. They ended up side-by-side, staring unhappily at the very solid bulkhead laying angled over them.
Rush was quick to try to explore the small area. He pushed at a piece of something behind him and everything creaked dangerously.
"Hey, watch it!" she warned.
He ignored her, frowning, eyes looking everywhere but at her. When he lay back down beside her, having to wriggle to avoid both hitting his head and touching her, she knew they were stuck.
"They'll dig us out," she said with more confidence than she felt.
They were too close. The intensity of his dark eyes seemed even more powerful than usual.
"Ever the optimist, Ms. Armstrong," he replied, the melodic accent failing to hide the scorn in his voice.
"Eli and Matt saw us fall. They'll find us," she insisted, instinctively getting angry at him.
He shrugged. "If they can. We're down a few levels and while we seem to have hit an air pocket, there's no guarantee they'll be able to get us out without opening to a dead area."
"Ever the pessimist, Dr. Rush," she parroted at him.
Dimples formed in the right corner of his mouth, though his eyes remained penetrating, unrelenting.
"I prefer to consider it being honest. Deluding yourself is a waste of time. Besides, without me up there, Eli's the best chance we've got and that's not saying much."
"Eli's brilliant!" she told him fiercely.
He did chuckle this time, albeit dryly. She'd never heard a laugh that was less humorous.
"Eli's got a rare talent for numbers, admittedly, but he's lazy and worthless in a crisis."
"Eli's not lazy!" she exclaimed, defending her friend. "He's smart and sweet and cares about people."
"Smart, I'll give you, but he's one of the most shiftless lazy slobs I've ever met and he's completely self-absorbed," Rush responded patiently.
"He is not!" she sputtered.
He hunched his shoulders in a soundless gesture that spoke volumes about how little he cared for her opinion.
That, of course, just made her even angrier.
"You don't know what he's been through. His mother is sick with AIDS!" she told him.
"My mother died when I was 6," he replied with shocking calm.
"His father abandoned them!" she yelled.
He sighed and shook his head.
"My father got killed a couple of weeks before my thirteenth birthday." He laughed - a bitter, cold wind.
"I spent four years in the hellhole otherwise known as the city orphanage before getting myself declared an independent minor. Worked two jobs to support myself and pay for the tutoring and fees I needed in order to take the Oxford scholarship exams. I earned a full scholarship. I earned my degrees, my job, with no help from anyone else."
"Eli had to take care of his mother!" she argued. "He had to leave school for her!"
"Bollocks," he responded. "If Eli really cared for his mother, he'd have gotten a job and helped pay the bills. He'd have stayed in school and worked harder, gotten a degree and a better paying job so that he could support her. He'd have switched to biology or medicine and worked on finding a treatment or a cure. He'd have done something more than sit on his fat arse playing video games while she supported him. All that wasted talent."
"That's not fair!" she protested, but it was a weak protest now.
"It's more than fair. You want to help someone, accomplish something, you work at it instead of whimpering about it. Look at me," he fired at her, "the son of an illiterate whore and a drunken dockworker and I earned a four doctorates and a full professorship at Oxford."
She stared at him in shock. "How… How can you say that about your own mother?"
His eyes seem to bore holes in her. "I may have been a wee lad, but I wasnae daft. I was there when she brought the punters home and it was a one-room flat." His expression turned distant, his gaze inward. "Anyway, she pulled the wrong sort one night and got herself beaten to death. I hid under the sink."
She had to fight the sudden urge to vomit. How could he talk so blithely about things like that - so calm – as though he was talking about a weekend trip to the beach. There wasn't a touch of emotion in his voice. But what did she know about living through that kind of trauma? Nothing. But she had to know more. He'd never once spoken this much about himself. In fact, he never spoke about himself.
"What about your father?" she persisted unable to resist the perverse curiosity.
The corner of his mouth twisted in a half-smile. "Your average Glasgow shipyard laborer. Worked hard, drank hard, loved football, and hated the English."
Abruptly, he paused, looked up at her and flinched away as though startled she was there and that he was talking to her. He barely had inches of space within which to move, yet somehow managed to distance himself as far as humanly possible. He pressed his back up against a fallen chunk of metal.
"Must've hit my head harder than I thought," he mumbled, rubbing at his forehead and eyes.
"Because you're actually talking to me like a person?" she questioned, giving him a taste of own acidity.
He simply stared at her, eyes deep and dark, accented by long strands of brown hair, his high cheekbones like carved slashes of marble under pale skin. He closed his lips tightly, refused to respond.
There was so little space; it was easy to touch his arm, she barely had to lift her hand. He closed up into a tighter ball, knees under his chin.
"Afraid of me?" she challenged, frustrated.
That did get a response. His eyes fixed on hers, the cold disdain back in full force.
"Of you?" He laughed, almost mirthful this time. "I knew a hundred like you at Oxford. Spoiled children who went running back to Mummy and Daddy if they so much as broke a fingernail."
"Oh you must have fit in so well there," she said sarcastically, raging with fury even as that hit home, hurt her, exposing all of her insecurities.
He actually grinned at her, baring crooked teeth. "Aye, I did at that. One of my housemates said that the only thing I knew how to do with a fork was put it through someone's eye." The dimples creased the corner of his mouth. "Unfortunately, I missed and got his ear instead. Forks are no' good as knives for throwing; poor balance."
She didn't know whether to laugh or hit him.
"Bastard," she accused.
"Quite likely," he replied simply. Her stomach turned over again. She'd fell right into that one and she felt horrible. Horrible, yet still furious.
He dismissed her, sitting in silence, his eyes now half-shuttered.
It felt like another challenge. So she refused to respond; they sat in that still hush for what felt like forever.
Problem was, he could do silence a lot better than she could. She was accustomed to conversation and chatter. She knew she could be witty and social and popular. She needed people around her.
He seemed happier sitting there in utter quiet, saying nothing, leaving her with little more than the sound of their breathing and the creaking of Destiny around them.
Damn him. Again.
He'd made her feel guilty and angry at the same; made her feel like the spoiled brat he clearly thought she was. How dare he accuse her of that just because he'd had a rough childhood… OK, there was that nasty, sick feeling of guilt again.
It wasn't her fault, she told herself. She hadn't asked to be born to her parents. Neither had he, her conscience reminded her. But still, she'd never done anything to him. And just because Eli hadn't been as tough, as determined, as Rush had been, didn't mean Eli was a bad person. Or even a lazy person. Not everyone could be that resolute.
Most people didn't have to be, her damn conscience spoke up, pricking at her again. That actually made her angry.
"Just because you had a tough time growing up, doesn't give you the excuse to treat people like shit," she told him.
He blinked at her and then responded mildly. "I never said it did." He paused for moment. "I don't. I treat people the way they earn being treated."
"Then you must have awfully high standards because you treat most people like dirt."
He shrugged. "At least I'm consistent," he replied, seemingly amused.
She glared at him.
He ignored her.
OK. She really was going to hit him this time. However, before she could put action to thought, there was a yell coming from above them.
"Chloe! Dr. Rush! Can you hear me?"
That was Matt. Oh, thank God, she thought.
"Yes, we can hear you. We're here! Can you get us out of here?" she yelled.
"Hang on, almost there!" he replied.
And not long later, they were being pulled up on rope harnesses. She hugged both Matt and Eli in relief.
Looking over Eli's shoulder, she saw Rush squirm away from TJ who was making an attempt at checking him over. For a second, she thought of calling out to him, of saying something, but she couldn't think of anything to say. And by the time she realized that, he was hurrying off down the corridor.
"Are you OK?" Eli demanded, glancing over his shoulder. His eyes widened. "He didn't…"
The 'hurt you' was implicit. For some reason it angered her. A lot seemed to anger her lately.
She shook her head and told him firmly. "No, of course not. He took a bump on the head, I just wanted to be sure he's all right."
"Looks fine," Matt said. "How about we get you something to drink?"
"That would be great," she said smiling up at him. This was far more comfortable ground. She'd stick to it; stay with people who made sense. People she could understand. Walking to the mess hall with Matt and Eli on either side of her, she could forget the whole painful experience.