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 questioning 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, wondering if he caught her subtle innuendo.
Aaron was leaning back in his chair, smiling directly back at her with the smallest hint of smugness. Martha held his gaze boldly until his intense, penetrating stare caused her to blush. 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 open desire and affection. His own smile softened and they enjoyed an extended moment in silent admission of a new intimacy shared between them.
Finally, Aaron thought. He had waited forever for any hint of progress in his pursuit of the doctor. He had always made clear his attraction to her in their encounters at the medical research center over the years, but she never accepted or encouraged his advances. Until now, he thought, delighted. Sporting a triumphant grin, he said, "Nearly four years and you finally see when you look at me".
Marta's brow furrowed, not understanding exactly what he meant. She asked, "You mean before, at Sterison-Morlanta? If you're talking about me noticing you then, I certainly did. But, you were the patient and I was the doctor. So, I maintained an appropriate, professional objectivity."
Aaron shook his head. "When you saw me, it was as a mad scientist analyzing her lab monkey. Number five, right?" he chuckled, his laugh tinged only with the tiniest bit of bitterness. "But you wouldn't see me, no matter how hard I tried. You looked through me, straight to the cells in my body and," pushing his finger against his forehead, "the synapses in my brain." Then, because her smile had dimmed, he lowered his hand from his head to cover hers. Squeezing her hand, 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."
Taken aback, Aaron exclaimed, "For a damned good reason, if I was!" He 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 against his outburst and the root cause of it. She surmised his objection involved her culpability and her conscience was pained. They sat, silent in their own dark thoughts with only the sound of waves gently buffeting the boat.
Eventually, Marta spoke, looking out over the ocean reflecting on the recent past and the man she had known as Five. "I could tell almost right away you were different from the others. I remember thinking you were so self-assured, so confident and aware."
"Don't you mean cocky, combative and rebellious?" Aaron interjected, repeating her words.
"Dangerous," Marta clarified with a wry twist of her lips, her eyes meeting his. "You needed to be handled with caution."
"By you?" Aaron asked, his eyebrow arched and expression hard.
Marta was hoping for 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 caustically 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, over all else. I was devoted." She thought of Peter and the choice she had made between her career and a very different life as his wife and mother of his children. "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, as she felt the weight of her grief. Aaron just sat quietly watching her, waiting for the horror of her words to sink into 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 echoed 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 bewilderedly, not comprehending his accusation. 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-especially because he was right. Her identity was tied up with her work, and she had loved it. She felt proud of her accomplishments, of her groundbreaking work. But what exactly was the work? Human experimentation on America's soldiers for nefarious purposes. 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 himself not many years ago.
"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 far away, under a blinding desert sun.
"For a split second I thought I was caught in quicksand." He paused to shake the stubborn memory from his mind-the haunting feel of being sucked down to hell alive. His colonel, Eric Byer had tried to pull him out of it, casting aside any responsibility of actions, but the feeling never escaped him. "I wish I could tell you the guilt eventually fades away, but it doesn't. We'll live with it, and use it to mold us for the better." Aaron hoped she would recognize the plurality in his last statement and what he meant by saying it-that they were in this together.
The churning in Marta's stomach was replaced with an anger that seemed to uncoil and intensify unreasonably. He laid the blame on her, she thought. Aaron's scathing condemnation of her personally, and of her part in Outcome stung. It was even more painful to Marta than the guilt she could not yet face fully, though it was poised to possess her. She turned on him-he who had awakened and empowered it. "My guilt?", her affronted voice shook as she pulled away from him. "I didn't kill anyone."
When Marta saw the unmerciful pronouncement register on Aaron's countenance, she continued viciously, "You volunteered for Outcome. Although, maybe you couldn't comprehend the contract you signed, telling you that they were going to make you a sanctioned hit man for the government-that they were giving you a license to kill. Perhaps, only after enough blue pills, could you understand that murder is bad?"
Aaron subconsciously leaned forward to an attack stance on the balls of his feet, fists clenched and arms flexing in battle readiness. His ingrained reaction, when under attack, was to fight. His neck muscles bulged in anger. Rather than taking heed, Marta was reminded of a cruel truth to strike at the ready combatant before her.
"My guilt," she restated, deflecting the words and flinging them back at him. "What about your guilt, Aaron? Have you really let it mold you for the better? Now, 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 in her argument. Or, at the very least, more justified in comparison to him.
Aaron's face drained of anger until it reflected only a deeply painful anguish. His visage twisted into an unsettling look of self-inflicted damnation and despair. He made no attempt to conceal his hurt. Marta realized the effect of her words too late to take them back. She gutted the man she had harmed with her work; this man that had saved her, despite what she had done. All of Marta's previous feelings fell away, and she would have willingly sunk to the bottom of the ocean floor with them, weighed down with a heart of lead.
"Oh, s**t," she said under her breath, shaken by the ruthlessness of her rant in the face of Aaron's reaction, her fingers covering her mouth. Then she reached for him instinctively, as if to thwart his inevitable retreat. Marta choked out his name "Aaron..." to stop him, but he avoided her touch and 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 flood of overwhelming guilt she deserved to drown in.