Chapter One: Above Deck
The fishing trawler continued on its path, farther into a short safety for the two passengers on board, Aaron Cross and Marta Shearing. Aaron had just rolled up the map he had been studying in response to Marta's comment that she wished they were lost. Pleasantly surprised, he searched Marta's face for her full meaning, his brow arched above teasing blue eyes. She smiled back at him briefly then shyly glanced down at her hands and nervously folded them together, extending them on the table they shared. Unable to resist, Marta hazarded another look back at Aaron to gauge his reaction.
Aaron was leaning back in his chair smiling directly back at her with a hint of smugness. Martha held his gaze boldly until his confident intensity stared her into a blush and she refocused on her hands clasped before her. She sensed him leaning forward before she saw his one big right hand overtake both of hers together. Marta felt a happy relief and looked back at Aaron with unconcealed affection and desire. His own smile had softened and they enjoyed an extended moment in silent admission of a new intimacy shared between them.
Finally, Aaron thought. "Four years and you finally see when you look at me", he said, still smiling but serious.
Marta frowned, not understanding what he meant. "You mean before, at Sterison-Morlanta?" she asked. "If you're talking about me noticing you then, I saw you. But you were the patient and I was the doctor. I was being appropriately professional."
Aaron shook his head. "When you saw me, it was as a medical mad scientist analyzing her lab monkey. Number five, right?" he laughed. "But you wouldn't see me, no matter how hard I tried. You looked through me, straight to the cells in my body and the synapses in my brain." He pushed his index finger against his forehead with emphasis. Then, because her smile had dimmed, he added more gently, "Now we see each other."
Marta ignored his last comment, her irritation growing. "It wasn't allowed; you with your 'attractive appearance' comments. You were cocky, rebellious and increasingly combative with the entire process. I had a job to do which you continually tried to undermine."
"For d**n good reason, if I was!" Aaron sat up rigidly, taking his hand with him, his smile gone. Her hands abandoned, Martha pulled them back and folded her arms across her chest. It was an unconscious action guarding herself from the true root of his objection-a knowledge that would pain her conscience. They sat, quiet in their own thoughts with only the sound of waves gently buffeting the boat.
Looking off distantly into the ocean but seeing the past, Marta eventually spoke reflectively, "I could tell almost right away you were different. I remember thinking you were so self-assured, so confident and self-aware."
"Don't you mean cocky, combative and rebellious?" Aaron interjected.
"Dangerous," Marta clarified with a wry grin. "You needed to be handled with caution. "
"By you?" Aaron asked, his eyebrow arched and expression hard.
Marta had expected a flirtatious response. "By you" was a statement that should have worked in that context, but she was thrown off by his accusatory tone.
Slightly confused, Marta replied, "Not exactly me. Though as a member of the team..." her voice trailed off. She began again, shaking her head and stammering, "The project. You were dangerous to the project. You had to be handled with caution because you had begun showing resistance. You were a valuable asset to our research. For the integrity of the experiment and the success of the program, you had to be controlled."
At that, Aaron made an indignant noise and pushed himself away from the table without rising from the chair. Despite knowing it was unfair, he couldn't stop himself from bitterly asking once again, "By you?"
Marta sat back abruptly in her seat, her lips partly opened in stunned surprise, on his line of questioning and the abrupt turn their conversation had taken. Breathing back deeply a bit of hurt, she replied, "I thought we were past this, Aaron."
Remorseful, Aaron exhaled heavily as he calmed. He nodded in confirmation as he assured her, "We are". His hand rose to his forehead and massaged his temples as if nursing a headache. Based on his own experience, Aaron was sure Marta needed to confront her guilt and come to grips with it, as much as was possible, at least. He intended to help her come to a full realization of her role at Sterison-Morlanta and Outcome, not to punish her, but for closure. Perhaps, though, he was more resentful than he originally thought. Still, Marta had to take responsibility to make a clean break from her former life to begin a new, very different one.
"Of course we are," he clarified, looking back at her pointedly. "But, like your house, you need to set the blaze; burn the past."
"Oh, I've burnt my past", she retorted. "My life is in ashes. You've made it clear I can't go back. And you're right; I know it. I'll be killed if I return to the work I've spent a lifetime preparing for, all my training, all my skills wasted. I sacrificed so much for that job, for science."
"Yeah, me too", Aaron muttered bitterly.
Thinking he was belittling her loss, Marta said through a clenched jaw, "It was my entire existence, my top priority." She thought of Peter and the choice she had made between her career and a life as his wife. "My job was the love of my life. My work is who I am. So now I am no one and I, quite literally, have nothing."
Marta allowed herself to mourn the loss of the life she had been forced to leave behind for a few minutes of grief. Aaron just sat quietly watching her, waiting for the horror of her words to sink in to her consciousness. When she finally looked up at him there was no understanding dawning, just self-centered sorrow, by his estimation.
Marta was dumbfounded by his look of tempered disgust. "What?", she demanded.
Aaron repeated her words, " 'My work is who I am. My job was the love of my life.' " He faced her squarely as he asked, "That job was you? That work, you loved?"
Marta blinked back at him with incomprehension. Then, slowly, as the full meaning of her comments was finally reasoned out in disoriented thinking, she was stricken. The implication Aaron had leveled at her felt like a denunciation of herself personally, and it stung. Her identity was tied up with her work, and she had loved it. She had felt proud of her accomplishments, of her ground-breaking work. Marta felt the boat's deck lurch.
"I feel seasick", she said shakily, as a wave of dizzying nausea hit. Aaron reached to steady her. He kept her upright as she reeled, rocked not by the boat, but a rush of crushing emotions. Not without pity, he watched her suffering a similar reaction he had already experienced.
"I felt the same way once, back in Iraq", Aaron said with true empathy. After giving her a minute to breathe, he continued, "Seasick on desert ground." His blue eyes squinted, as if peering into a scene under a blinding desert sun.
"For a split second I thought I had gotten caught in quicksand." He paused to shake the stubborn memory from his mind; the haunting feel of being sucked down to hell alive. "I wish I could tell you the guilt eventually fades away, but it doesn't. We'll live with it, but let it mold us for the better." Aaron hoped she would recognize the plurality in his last statement and what he meant by saying it.
The churning in Marta's stomach was replaced with an anger that seemed to uncoil and intensify unreasonably. She lashed out in retaliation of what she thought was Aaron's scathing, condescending reprimand of her. "My guilt?", her offended voice shook as she pulled away from him. "I didn't kill anyone."
When Marta saw the unmerciful pronouncement register in Aaron's countenance, she continued viciously, "You volunteered for Outcome. Although, maybe you couldn't read the contract telling you that they were going to make you a sanctioned hit man for the government. Or perhaps, only after enough blue pills could you understand that murder is bad?"
Aaron subconsciously lean forward to an attack stance on the balls of his feet, fists clenched and arms flexing in battle readiness. His neck muscles bulged in anger. Rather than taking heed, Marta was reminded of a cruel truth she had to fling at him.
The direct condemnation by Aaron of her part in Outcome was even more painful than the guilt Marta would not yet face fully, though it was poised to possess her. She turned on him-he who had awakened and empowered it.
"My guilt," she restated, but deflected, fighting the words. "What about your guilt, Aaron? Have you really let it mold you for the better? Defending yourself with lethal force against other agents I can understand, but I seem to remember at least one innocent guard you killed in cold blood, just two days ago, viciously snapping his neck. How many other innocents have died at your hand?" She watched him, expecting to feel triumphant, or at least mollified.
Aaron's face was suddenly drained of anger until it reflected only a painful anguish and an unsettling look of self-inflicted damnation. He made no attempt to conceal his hurt. All of Marta's previous feelings fell, and she would have willingly sunk to the bottom of the ocean floor with them.
"Oh, s**t", she said, shaken by the ruthlessness of her rant. Too late, her fingers had covered her mouth then, without bidding, they reached for Aaron as if to thwart his inevitable retreat. Marta choked out his name "Aaron..." to stop him, as he left for the solitude of the crew's empty quarters below deck. Alone, Marta sunk back into the seat at the table, heavy with remorse. She hung her aching head in her hands, and succumbed completely to the guilt that flooded her.