BINARY

We're the night shift, man. No one gives a damn.

Following ten minutes of nothing but breathing and low-level hiss from the suit-feeds, Harvey's voice crackled from the speaker above Loinnir Whitby's head. She glanced up from her navigational stats report. Harvey sounded nervous. No surprise there. Next to Robert Capa, no one hated suit-time more than their second comms officer. Whitby took a conscious look at the chronometer. Yes: ten minutes had passed since the last verbal signal from the feeds. She remembered, now, Mace logging his and Harvey's move to sector eight on the ship's hull, where they were applying strengthening polymer to dings from micro-meteorites. After nearly sixteen months outbound, flying straight at the sun like an idiotically slow moth delaying a suicide dive into a porch light, chunks of time seemed to wander off and vanish.

It's space, Harv, Mace replied. Might not be immediately obvious, but it's all night, all the damn time.

"Watch the chatter on the line, boys," Whitby said. In the stillness of the flight deck, her voice sounded loud in her ears. She checked the readings from the suit-feeds. "Harvey, your respiration is a little shallow. You okay?"

She knew from long experience how easy it was to feel cut off in those damnably bulky EVA suits. Add the press of black space all around, and claustrophobia was practically a given, even for the most experienced astronaut. And Harvey, at his best, was hardly a poster boy for placidity. Sending him out to help Mace with routine repairs served as an outlet for his nervous energy and, more importantly, got him away from the zoned hypnosis of the vacuum-symphony murmuring from the ship's glorified wireless, but putting him in a suit meant griping. And more griping. And if they weren't careful, First Officer Kaneda would hear, and then he'd pass word to Captain Pinbacker, and Harvey and Mace and Whitby would all be on report.

Again.

Personally, she couldn't begrudge Harvey his grumbling. Between herself and him and Mace, they'd each averaged over six hours of hull-patch in their last seven shifts. Today, Whitby was the lucky one who got to stay inside and monitor the others. Something for which the project planning team back on Earth hadn't quite accounted when they'd decided to send a manned ship on a mission to jump-start the planet's fading star: the mounting quantity of meteoric debris the Icarus would encounter on her final approach to the sun. Given the sheer lunacy— all punning aside— of the endeavor as a whole, Whitby tended to forgive the oversight. Not that she, like the two outside, wasn't sick of dent-duty. "Next mission," she'd said to Mace, after a particularly grueling spacewalk two days ago, and well away from Pinbacker's electronic spying ears, "we tell them up front, in no uncertain terms: we don't bloody do windows."

In the here-and-now, Mace said: We're taking more than 'scour' out here, Loinnir. Is Trey there? Is there anything on the scope?

"Trey's off-deck, Mace." Their shift's navigator was aft, in the galley, starting dinner. "Hold on: I'll check the ping-field." She pushed back her pilot's seat, stood, climbed the metal-mesh steps to the navigator's station. She might have asked the ship's computer to tell her if they were heading into anything chunky, but Icarus, in her irritatingly dulcet artificial wisdom, had a habit of requesting "clarification" at the damnedest times. Whitby checked the scope. "Nothing, Mace— no: wait." She had to blink hard, then re-focus, to see it. Then she amped the magnification, and there it was, as plain as the mile-wide parabolic shield at the ship's sunward end: a strip of particles like an arm of the Milky Way in miniature, coming in from their ascendant. They were just starting to pass through the tip of the tentacle.

"Yeah. Looks like we're in for hail, lads. Better than pea-sized."

That does it, Mace said. We're coming in. We can finish this later.

Harvey swore. The specifics were too indistinct for the feed to catch. I say we finish it now. I'm not coming out here again later.

C'mon, Harv, let's go in. Face it, man: you're a shit magnet.

Said Whitby: "And here we all thought it was the gravity pool spiraling off your massive ego, Mace."

Har-dee har-dee ha—

A burst of static on the line. Then a scream. A look at the video feeds from the helmets revealed Harvey's face twisted in pain; he was gasping. He cried out again, and his voice filled the flight deck. Whitby knew she'd get nothing useful from him. On the monitor showing the feed from the second suit, the expression on Mace's all-American face was morphing from surprise and shock to a focused, fishbowled scowl.

"Mace: respond," Whitby said. "Harvey is losing air."

I can see that, Whitby. I'm on my way. A grunt as the bulk of his suit collided with Harvey's. Hold still, man. I've got you. You've gotta hold still—

Harvey shouted in response, his pitch rising in panic: I'm losing air. Fuck. Fuck. My leg—fuck— Mace—

Whitby asked: "Mace, do you have him?"

Yeah— yeah, I've got him. Applying patch now. There. His left leg's hit, Whitby. Multiple lacerations. I'm bringing him in.

Once, years ago, Whitby had seen a spacewalking tech struck by a piece of debris in high Earth orbit. A junk bolt, maybe two inches long, had hit him at sixteen thousand miles an hour. It passed through his helmet— and his skull— like a bullet through shaving cream. He died instantly, of course. In a way, this was worse. At his current rate of respiration, if the patching on his suit was less than a hundred percent tight, Harvey had roughly forty agonizing seconds before his blood turned to gas and he began to asphyxiate. "Harvey," she said, "calm the fuck down. I'm on my way, Mace. Doctor Searle, medical emergency, main airlock." She barked the last words as she left the flight deck and headed at a run forward, along the ship's long main corridor.

No response.

"Icarus, where the hell is Doctor Searle?"

Doctor Searle is in the forward observation lounge, Whitby.

This had been going on for weeks now: Searle leaving Medical while he was supposed to be on duty, drawn to the lounge at the front of the payload as if the sun were exerting on him not only gravity but something arcane as well. He'd stay up there for hours, communing with his white-hot burning god. Nonetheless, up until this point, he'd continued to respond to his pages.

"Damn it, Searle, answer your—"

"What is happening, Lieutenant?"

First Officer Kaneda emerged from the Oxygen Garden as Whitby passed. Corazon, the ship's secondary botanist, was with him. She was responsible for tracking their oxygen production and consumption; likely, the two of them had been going over stats.

"Harvey and Mace were on hull duty, sir. They're still outside. Harvey's been hit. Meteorite or some such. His suit's been compromised. I can't raise Doctor Searle."

Running, now, with her, Kaneda snapped at his comm tag: "Doctor Reyes, medical emergency at main airlock."

Reyes spoke immediately from their comm tags: Acknowledged— He paused, stifling a yawn. Whitby could picture him sitting up on his bunk, shaking sleep from his pepper-and-salt hair. I'm on my way.

As they reached the staging area for the main airlock, Whitby asked the air: "Icarus, where is Doctor Capa?"

Doctor Capa is in the payload, Whitby.

She went to the airlock's round white inner door, looked out through the thick glass of the window at its center. Mace and Harvey had yet to enter the outer chamber. As Kaneda unbolted the emergency suit-breaker from its bracket near the suit lockers, Whitby prepped the staging area's medical kit.

"Robert," she said to her comm tag.

A moment's pause, and then Robert Capa spoke from her tag, his tone, as always, practically android-flat. He might have been Icarus' bipedal, less-emotional brother. Yes, Whitby?

"We have a medical emergency at the main airlock. Could I trouble you to invite Doctor Searle to kindly fucking join us here?"

Kaneda looked at her sharply. There was looming, heavy motion beyond the window in the airlock's inner door.

We're coming in, Mace said, panting, over the room's intercom. Closing outer door—

Corazon looked out. "They're in. Harvey is down."

She watched the lights on the chamber's pressurization sequence while Kaneda stood by with the suit-breaker. Getting the damned things on and off when people were upright, unpanicked, and unperforated was bad enough; at best, an astronaut down meant back-breaking frustration. At worst, it meant fatal delay.

The repressurization light went green, and Whitby threw the handle on the inner door. Mace lumbered clear, as clumsy in full gravity as a man made of lead, as she and Kaneda entered the chamber. Harvey was facedown. All down the back of his right leg, the golden metal of his suit was frosted white. For a second, Whitby was perplexed. Then she realized that that was how Mace had saved him: he'd sprayed the tear in Harvey's suit with hull polymer.

She and Kaneda squatted down beside him, got good solid grips on Harvey's cold outer shell. "Ready—" Kaneda said— "— and lift."

He and Whitby grunted in unison, straining, and the suit's rough mesh squealed against the deck as they turned the comms officer over. Whitby forced herself to look without hesitating through the view-slit in Harvey's helmet.

Harvey's eyes were still in his skull. Intact. Unhemorrhaged. They were full of pain, but they were looking back at her.

Whitby smiled as she spoke words he likely couldn't hear. "He's alive."

She made way for Kaneda, and they set about getting Harvey's helmet off.

#####

Two minutes earlier, Capa left the payload's control room and re-entered through the public gangway. He ran the length of the metal catwalk that traversed the cathedral-like length of his and Doctor Kirbuk's bomb, his footsteps and breathing lost to the silence and the gray shadows stretching off to the sides, spiked at receding intervals with dusty columns of maintenance-light illumination. At the catwalk's far end, he turned to the right, down a dark and narrow metal corridor; then, without slowing, he swung sharply to the left and entered the forward observation lounge.

The light nearly sent him reeling. It was like a physical presence. It filled his eyes, took his breath. Capa threw his forearm up to shield his face, turned his head, cringed away from the anticipation of heat. Through squinted lids, he could see Searle, immersed in glare, staring out through the computer-controlled tint of the reinforced glass of the room's wall-wide forward window. He called the man's name, got no response. He heard his own voice speak from the doctor's comm tag.

"Icarus: filter opacity sixty percent," Capa said, and called again: "Doctor Searle—?"

Searle turned from the window. He was wearing sunglasses. His expression cooled from an eerie ecstasy to an even more eerie blankness as the room dimmed to a normal lighting level. His smile when he saw Capa was absolutely chilling.

"What is it, Robert?" he asked, dreamily.

#####

Outside the airlock chamber, Kaneda lifted Mace's helmet clear, helped the mechanic pull off his chest plate. Most of the crew wore sweat-catchers inside the helmets; perspiration misted from Mace's dark buzzcut as he tugged off a blue Air Force stocking cap. He finished shaking loose of the suit, swept rivulets of sweat from his square jaw with the back of his hand, and dropped to his haunches with the others surrounding Harvey.

"Hey. Harv. Look at me. How're you doing, man?"

Harvey's brow beneath his black hair was clammy and slick with sweat. He seemed to be poised between vomiting and passing out. But he did as Mace said, and focused his black-brown eyes on the mechanic's face, and for that Mace earned Whitby's respect: he'd drawn Harvey's attention, if momentarily, away from his injuries.

"I'm gonna lose my leg," Harvey whispered. He was on his back on the deck, half out of his suit. In addition to chunks of space rock, shrapnel composed of suit-mesh was embedded in his left thigh. Right now, that shrapnel was keeping his leg hooked into the suit; at the same time, it was both bisecting and sealing his femoral artery. Square-shouldered and solid, Doctor Reyes, armed with laser shears, was methodically cutting the suit away from around Harvey's wounds.

"Don't worry, man," said Mace, still breathless, still wired with adrenaline. "Looks like you'll be dead of blood loss well before that."

Harvey's dark eyes filled with tears. "No—"

"Mace, for fuck's sake—" Whitby shot him a shocked and angry glare— "—shut up—!"

A moment later, Searle arrived. Capa was with him. The ship's two medics stabilized Harvey's lacerated leg within the remains of its metal shell, and then Mace and Whitby and the others stretchered the comms officer to sickbay and two hours of surgery.

#####

Unsurprisingly, Captain Pinbacker's first order of business, on being awakened for his shift an hour and a half early, was to call a meeting of the fourteen members of his crew who weren't sedated and hooked to IVs. Roughly half of them were tired and tense; roughly half were still half asleep. Despite Earth Control's protestations to the contrary, the professional astronauts of the Icarus felt themselves, as Harvey had implied, to be split along day-and-night lines. No real accounting for it, save for the fact that half of the crew took direct orders from the captain while the other half normally answered directly to First Officer Akira Kaneda. The P-team, the K-team, which too easily became "A" and "B," an unwritten class distinction, with all its implied resentments. They positioned themselves in the mess accordingly. Mace took a spot next to Whitby against the wall, just inside the door. Of all the crew save Pinbacker, they had the most military experience, and they instinctively positioned themselves where they could best survey their surroundings. Trey took a seat at the nearest table. Searle stood by the galley door, his arms folded against his t-shirted barrel chest, his sunburned face calm and impassive. Corazon, the woman who made no effort to hide the fact that she preferred plants to people, claimed for her own lithe self a bench seat to Mace's left. Looking as if he wanted nothing more than to be skulking in the shadows at the heart of his bomb— or at least to be hiding under the table— Capa practically folded his bony frame into the corner seat next to her.

Mace suppressed a smirk at Capa's obvious discomfort; he settled for watching the arrival of their dayside counterparts. Black-haired Ingrid Barring, the Icarus' chief navigator, positioned herself on the other side of the doorway, leaned her angular self against the wall, her hands in her pockets, and pointedly neglected to acknowledge either Mace or Whitby. She kept her icefield-blue eyes fixed straight ahead. Never one to err on the side of compassion, she was no doubt angry about having to assume the main share of Harvey's duties; almost more certainly, she was blaming Harvey's cohorts for said inconvenience. In warm contrast, Therese Moeller, a Berliner by way of Kingston and the mission's mainframe and communications specialist, smiled for them when she entered, followed closely by wiry, chestnut-haired James Sullivan, the ship's chief botanist.

"Mace," he said, amiably, in passing.

"Hey, Sully."

Jim smiled; more than that, he winked at Whitby as he and Moeller claimed the bench opposite Corazon. Mace liked to think that, had Capa been born with a personality, he and Sullivan would have been a whole lot alike. Andrew Cho, Mace's dayside counterpart, came in next; he gave Mace a thoughtful nod and went to stand near Searle. The ship's chief pilot, Cassandra Cassidy, followed him; dark-haired and marble-sculpture delicate, the one among the crew who seemed closest, in Mace's opinion, to the line demarcating humans and angels, Cassie was the the member of the A-team most willing to fraternize with the B-squad. She smiled as she took a seat at the table. "Hi, Trey." Trey gave her one of his crooked wry smiles in response. "Cass." From his peripherals, Mace saw Capa sit up just a bit straighter, spotted a hint of color creeping along his pale jaw as Capa kept his gaze oh-so-casually focused away from the woman at the table. Well, cue the turtledoves and violins. Mace fixed his own eyes on a spot on the opposite wall and unleashed the smirk he'd been holding back.

Next in was Armand Reyes, deep in discussion with the mission's chief physicist, Gavrila Kirbuk. Now Mace felt himself straighten up. Short, solid, graceful, Kirbuk radiated energy. A youthful sixty-two, possessed of strong features, thick blonde hair shimmering with silver highlights, and a devastating smile, she was every bit the human being Robert Capa wasn't. At twenty-five, Capa had been a certified genius pretty much his entire life. He had designed the massive nuclear device that the Icarus was pushing to the sun. Behind an angelically handsome face and ethereally clear blue eyes (according to the mission's press kit, anyway: to Mace, he was more of a pale-eyed, scrawny little geek)— which purely physical traits had, unfortunately, placed him at the forefront of the publicity for Project Icarus— he was also introverted, almost cripplingly shy, and a mumbler. As a boy, he'd come within inches of being diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. Meeting the public and the press was hell for him; conversely, leaving Earth had practically been a blessing. Russian-born Kirbuk, on the other hand, was brilliant, though not as brilliant as her young American protege. She was, however, an organizer, a communicator, and a charming, sociable woman who was equally comfortable addressing funding committees, peer groups, and members of the World Space Administration, from the janitorial staff on up to the directors of operations. In addition to her scientific prowess— after all, if things went as planned, she was destined to go down in history as Capa's primary help in saving the world— like Cassie, she brought empathy and patience to her surroundings, qualities that could be priceless on a mission slated to last nearly three years.

Kaneda entered the mess next, his face expressionless beneath his tidy black beard. And then came Pinbacker.

Mace nearly snapped to attention as the captain passed. Beside him, Whitby nearly did, too.

Daniel Pinbacker was one of the few men Mace considered physically imposing. Standing six-foot-three, hard with muscle, broad through the chest and shoulders, his dark hair shaved close to his skull, the captain of the Icarus was a perfect example of the military alpha male. He was good-looking, too, in a classic square-jawed way. He handled his people, his ship, and his materiel with level-headed competence; moreover, he was the finest hand-to-hand fighter Mace had ever known, and almost inhumanly fast with a knife.

But something about him made Mace uncomfortable. Maybe it was his eyes. They were dark brown, not alive and sparkling like Cassie's, or broadcasting "kick me" insecurity like Harvey's, but possessed of a tremendous, almost terrible, depth. Looking into the abyss, and realizing the abyss was looking back: admittedly, Mace had paid less than full attention in Philosophy 101, but Nietzsche echoed in his ears the day he and Pinbacker met.

"For those of you who have yet to check the ship's event log-" Pinbacker spoke as he took his place at the center of the room. His voice was quiet but resonant. He cast a mild but piercing look toward the sound of conversation still emanating from Reyes and Kirbuk; the two of them went silent. "— at approximately oh-five-thirty hours today, Communications Officer Harvey suffered impact injuries to his left leg while assisting Lieutenant Mace with minor repairs to our outer hull. Following surgery performed by doctors Searle and Reyes, Mr. Harvey is resting, under sedation, in sickbay."

He paused, offering time for comment; when no one spoke, he brushed the knuckles of his right hand against the top of the table at which Cassie and Trey were seated. "It has come to my attention that response to the situation was less than optimal."

From the calmness of his tone, he might have been commenting on the week's stats for carrot growth from the ship's garden; still, Mace could swear he felt a collective shudder ripple around the room.

Before Pinbacker could look his way, Searle spoke: "I admit, I was in the forward lounge. I was wearing my earbuds." He offered a professionally apologetic smile to the room at large. "I'm afraid I had the Mahler turned up a little too high. When Whitby paged me, I didn't hear her. I'm sorry."

"No." Capa looked troubled. His brushy eyebrows drew together in a scowl. It was an effort for him to speak in front of the entire crew, and as Mace and the others turned his way, he seemed to shrink even more tightly into his corner. "You weren't wearing earbuds, Doctor Searle. You could hear. You turned to me immediately when I said your—"

"Please don't correct me when I'm speaking, Doctor Capa." Searle looked at Capa, pleasantly but a little too directly, until Capa looked uncomfortably away. Then he turned to Pinbacker and the assembly at large. "I was listening to music; I didn't hear Lieutenant Whitby paging me. I accept my fault, I've been put on report, and I apologize."

Pinbacker nodded. "I understand Lieutenant Whitby was alone on the flight deck when Mr. Harvey suffered his accident."

"That's correct." Trey cleared his throat. "I was in the galley, starting dinner for the night— for First Officer Kaneda's crew."

As he spoke, everyone looked Trey's way. Everyone, that is, except Searle. The doctor was again watching Capa, and his eyes reminded Mace of a shark's. Capa seemed not to notice.

"There should be two personnel on-deck during EVA work," Pinbacker said.

Whitby spoke: "That's not in the regs, sir."

"It is now."

"Do you mean now-now, Captain, or nunc pro tunc-?"

Pinbacker scowled. "I beg your pardon, Lieutenant?"

"If you think for a second that Mace or Trey or I were derelict in the performance of our duties, sir, you are mistaken. Doctor Searle was the one who—"

"Lieutenant Whitby—"

"I am not being put on report over this."

"One more word, Loinnir, one more, and you damn well are—!"

He looked at her with open anger; she looked fiercely back. Whitby was a tall, lean woman of many sharp edges. Elbows, shoulderblades, knees. Tousled ash-blonde hair kept short. Wideset North Sea-blue eyes, high forehead, straight nose, strong jaw. Her mouth seemed to be too sensual for her own liking, and what seemed to be worse— to her way of thinking, anyway— smiles brought to her cheeks the betrayal of dimples. Not that she was anywhere near smiling now. If Pinbacker was their alpha male, she was the crew's alpha female. Accordingly, she and the captain struck sparks off one another. Temperamentally, sometimes sexually. And often, as now, procedurally.

Nevertheless, Whitby was a career officer, she was devoted to the mission, and she followed the chain of command. She relaxed her stance and her expression; she shifted her gaze to a point near Pinbacker's left ear.

"Understood, Lieutenant?" Pinbacker asked, more quietly.

"Understood, Captain. My apologies, sir."

"Accepted." To his entire crew, Pinbacker said: "Dismissed." To doctors Reyes and Searle, he added: "A word, if you please, gentlemen—" He and the medics were discussing Harvey as the others left. In the corridor, Mace clapped Capa on the shoulder. "Way to put Searle in his place, big guy." Capa glared, opened his mouth to reply. "Robert—" Cassie gave Mace a reproving look as she drew Capa away. As she and the boy wonder wished one another a good morning and a good night, they held hands as shyly as a couple of school kids. Mace treated himself to another smirk as he walked back to engineering, to finish his shift and to hand the duty report off to Cho.

#####

A while later, he passed Whitby as they were on their respective ways to and from the showers. She had stalked off to the flight deck after the meeting; she still looked grim now.

Mace drew her to a halt. "Look on the bright side." They were just short of the up-passage leading to the crew quarters, and they were alone in the corridor. "This promises to be the best make-up sex you and Cap'n Dan ever have."

"We're not— Shit." Whitby was Scottish; she sounded it as shite. "Things change, Stephen."

Mace felt a chill. He stood with her through a long pause before he asked, very quietly: "Did he hurt you?"

Whitby smiled darkly. "Are you offering to thrash him for me?"

"No. You could do that yourself." He wasn't joking. He'd witnessed the proof in a bar fight. She had big hands for a woman, and arms as long and strong as anchor cable, and once he'd seen her lay out a guy twice her weight with a single punch.

"He hasn't hurt me. Not as such." Whitby looked along the corridor before them, behind. "He's grown quiet, Mace, when we're alone. He's obsessing over the sensor feeds, the raw data pouring in from the sun. He's apt to deny it, but he spends nearly as much time in the forward lounge as Searle."

"You're worried about him."

"I am."

"I don't want you to take this the wrong way, Loinnir—" Mace waited until she met his eyes, and then he was careful to keep his expression sincere. She might be hard-as-nails Whitby, but she was a good-looking woman, and she had to know that he knew they were both standing there in nothing but flip-flops and bathrobes. "— but if there's anything I can do—"

"You already have, Stephen. Thanks for listening." She smiled for him and walked off, toward the shower block. Mace watched her go, then went to the cabin he shared with Cho.

#####

Sixteen crew members, a module containing eight tiny residential cabins, eight narrow bunks. The design team's effort to allocate more space for equipment and supplies. The living space aboard the spindly Icarus was designed for old-fashioned submarine-style hot-bunking, which, over the months, had led to a code of etiquette that, most simply distilled, meant no sex in your roomie's cot. Which, in other words, meant sex anywhere but in bed. Which, in turn, had made finding trysting spots possibly the most creative endeavor for those of the crew so inclined. More than once, Mace had spotted Moeller and Sullivan sneaking through engineering, one or the other of them carrying a blanket, on their way back from the storage hold. Cassie and Capa spent a suspicious amount of time together in the physics lab-slant-office off the Oxygen Garden— and in the payload itself, a situation practically begging for jokes co-joining big bangs with very, very tiny ones. Mace and Barring had shared a handful of encounters in the engine room, generically satisfying but hardly memorable. Whitby, with uncanny accuracy, pinpointed the problem while she and Mace were out on comms-tower maintenance: Kind of like banging a glacier, isn't it? When Mace retorted, "Now, how in the hell would you know that—?", she'd only taken her own favorite advice and cut the chatter on the feed. She and Pinbacker, for their own part, were rumored to favor the forward observation lounge.

Following his shower, Mace had one more stop before bed, and sex had nothing to do with it. He put on a pair of sweat pants and a t-shirt and went to meet Doctor Kirbuk in the recreation area off the mess. She was waiting for him, seated with a mug of tea at one of the room's tables, looking out from behind an array of silver chess pieces. They played almost every day, sometimes before her shift, sometimes before his, alternating the disadvantage of first-wakening and end-of-shift weariness.

"Your play is refreshingly straightforward, Stephen," Kirbuk said, as she studied the board, the game saved from yesterday.

Mace smiled as he seated himself opposite her, on the black set's side. "Dumb, you mean. Come on, Doc, I can handle the truth."

"No." She reached out and with delicate fingertips slid a bishop slantwise across the board. "You see an opening, you go for it. You act. Playing with Robert or with Kaneda, one can wait for hours for the next move. At my age, that can be a serious consideration." She smiled wryly as Mace leaned in for a closer look at the pieces. "By the way— how goes it with the plain-spoken Lieutenant Whitby?"

"Case you haven't noticed, Gav, I think she's already spoken for."

"At the meeting, it sounded more to me like she was spoken at, not for."

Mace paused with his hand on a knight. "Are you trying to put me off my game?"

"Forgive me, Stephen." Kirbuk met his eyes. Hers, like his, were near-sapphire blue; hers were comfortably unreadable. "The women in my family were matchmakers centuries before we were scientists. It's in my blood. You'd make a fine couple."

"More like a compound, you mean."

"If you wish."

"Whaceonium?" Mace grinned. "Some kind of radioactive salt, maybe?"

Kirbuk chuckled. "Make your move. I'm due in the payload, and it's past your bedtime."

#####

The next night, they were still traveling through the tendril of meteorites. The field was too wide to skirt, and the chunks were too many and too large to risk suitwork. There was dust now, as well, as fine and dense as fog, and it was interfering with the ship's navigational sensors. Trey worked to get a clear picture of their surroundings. Whitby and Mace visited a groggy Harvey in sickbay, and then she headed for the flight deck while Mace went on general maintenance duty, which duty included the possibility- or not- of salvaging Harvey's EVA suit.

#####

At oh-three-hundred hours, there came a knock at the door frame of the garden-side physics lab. Capa's social mind was a moment slow to acknowledge the sound. He looked up from his work pad, saw through the semi-opacity of the privacy strips a woman's coltish, dark-haired form. Similar to but not quite Corazon's. And the botanist had passed by minutes ago on her way to a late night-shift lunch; she'd offered to bring Capa a sandwich, and he'd declined.

"Come in, Cass," he said.

The ship's primary pilot pushed in through the heavy plastic strips. Her smile was slight and apologetic. Capa smiled slightly back; he could see the circles darkening the skin beneath Cassie's brown eyes.

"I couldn't sleep," she said. She had in her right hand a battered paperback. "Could I sit in here for a while?"

A hundred implications in the slump of her shoulders, the frown hovering about her brow. He didn't say, The garden is right there, Cassie. Go read to the tomatoes.

He did say, mildly, his tone not matching the concern he felt: "Maybe you should talk to Doctor Reyes about that."

She stopped short of chuckling. "Drugs? An hour or two in the Earth Room? No, thanks. I'm not crazy. It's that just the dreams are getting—"

She let her voice trail off. Watching her, Capa couldn't suppress a shudder. She saw; then again, she seemed to see everything. Pilots had to be observant, after all. She came nearer, and Capa didn't quite meet her eyes.

"You, too?" she asked, gently.

"Yes."

"Are you still falling?"

"Even if the gravity is artificial, technically, we're still falling every second of our—" He stopped himself. "Yeah, I'm still falling."

"Falling into the sun."

Cassie set her book on his workbench. She drew Capa into her arms and held him. He let her. For a moment he stood motionless, not tensed, not relaxed, simply existing in the context of contact. Then he put his arms around her and held her, closely, in return. Matched sighs as they relaxed. She eased back slightly. Capa read the cue. Didn't misread it this time, as he had months ago. He eased back slightly, too, and kissed her, tenderly.

Cassie settled against him, her body molding itself to his as she kissed him back. "Mmm."

"I— I could take a break," Capa murmured, when they broke for air. "We could take a break. Maybe out by the strawberries."

"Corazon nearly put Jim and Therese out of the airlock when she caught them 'taking a break' by the strawberries, didn't she? And Pinbacker nearly let her."

Capa laughed. Cassie joined him. It felt good. Satisfying. For him, it was also a surprising but absolute truth: that simply knowing he remembered how to laugh could be as almost as fulfilling as sex, even with a woman he frankly, if surreptitiously, adored.

"Maybe you'd better read," he said.

Still smiling, she let him go. "Is there coffee?"

Capa nodded in the direction of the one-cup brewer on the corner of the room's wall counter. "Pods in the top drawer."

"Want some?"

"Mm hm."

Cassie rounded up two plastic mugs, two coffee pods, while Capa got back to work. He was nearly gone again, off among his equations, his own private version of reality, when Cassie placed a mug by his elbow. Artificial creamer, no sweetener. He murmured his thanks and kept working. She took her own mug and her paperback and curled herself into the chair in the corner. For her, as for him, caffeine was more a calming element, a focusing drug, than a stimulant. Within an hour, she would be asleep. The part of his mind that wasn't composed of numbers thought that he could live with her like this, quite contentedly, forever.

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And then the sky split open.

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