The black was a lonely thing. When they had first launched, leaving Earth behind to emerge through the haze of their home's atmosphere, the one thought that filled Elizabeth's mind had been that it was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. The stars had wrapped her like a blanket; there had been nothing ahead of the Olympiad but exploration, the opportunity to begin the next chapter in human history. She had felt the weight of it, and wore it like a crown, one bloodied with the effort of the giants who had put her here. The responsibility had been accepted readily, and Elizabeth had wanted nothing more than to have her name go down into history books as civilization’s savior. What she hadn't been prepared for, what she hadn't even considered, was how small and afraid it could make her, how terrified that she would never again see her home.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen, Elizabeth thought, staring out of the front glass shield, two tiny inches of transparent barrier being the only thing that kept her and her crew safe from the vacuum of space. She closed her eyes, heaving a deep sigh as she thought of it now, the incident four short months ago...the sheer fear that filled her, the terrifying reality that now guided the lives of the crew of the Olympiad. She had never felt so helpless, or so guilty. It had been her decision to seal off the cargo bay after the blast, her decision to save the lives of the rest of her crew at the expense of one, whose only crime had been to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The worst part was that her first thought at the time had been that Winters was only the cook, so it was not like they were losing someone vital to the cause. Seeing his lifeless body, though…the sacrifice that she had made with someone else’s life…she had been filled with self-loathing in that moment and it had not gone away in the months since.
Within the realm of NASA and their astronaut program, Captain Elizabeth Prescott wasn't especially young, at the age of thirty, but there had been whispers that perhaps she was too young to head a mission of this level of importance. When one factored in the length of the mission, it was realistically improbable that she would have been chosen as the mission’s captain. She had laughed out loud that morning, when she had been called with the announcement. She had not even submitted her name for the captaincy – she had applied to be the mission’s scientific advisor, which had later been filled by her friend Kate Trivedi, a lieutenant in the Air Force who had come up with Elizabeth, who had made history on her own as the navigator on the very first manned mission to Mars. There were times that Elizabeth could not help thinking that Kate would have been better suited as the captain of the Olympiad – smarter, more logical, and certainly more charismatic. There were times that Elizabeth had to wonder if the disaster could have been averted if Kate had been captain.
As if summoned by her dark thoughts, Lieutenant Kate Trivedi entered the bridge, carrying two mugs, offering her friend one before taking a sip from the other and seating herself in her rightful place, at the helm. Seeing the shadows under the lieutenant’s eyes reminded Elizabeth that Kate carried her own troubles, her own guilt – it was her responsibility to know where they were, to get them out and then get them home, and now she had no idea where they were or how to get them back to Earth, she could not find her bearings. They were in unfamiliar territory, and had had a very exact path to follow. Elizabeth was certain she would not be doing any better in the other woman’s place. In appearance, the two women were as different as night and day – where Kate was dark, with black hair that fell past her shoulders in a straight, glossy line, eyes a rich brown and skin the color of coffee with cream, thanks to her Indian heritage, Elizabeth was fair, her skin pale and liberally dotted with freckles, coppery hair that would stream down her back in thick curls if she ever let it down, and impossibly bright green eyes. They had gone to Academy together, keeping in touch after graduation even though they had gone into different fields. Some thought their friendship strange, until they got to know the two women and came to understand how ideally suited they really were.
“How goes the night, Lieutenant?” Elizabeth could not help blanching inwardly at the formal address, but it was something she continued to strive for since the breakdown of the incident. While most of the crew had decided, since getting home was unlikely, to forgo discipline and structure, Elizabeth considered it her responsibility as captain to set the example, and so, while she was on watch, she made sure she was dressed to standard in her uniform, her hair kept up and off of her collar and her boots shined expertly, and she never addressed anyone by anything other than their rank and last name. Even off-duty, she found it hard to shed the mantle.
Kate looked back toward the captain over her shoulder and chuckled, offering a slight shrug as she turned her attention back out to the black. “Eh, I suppose about the same as ever, Captain. You may want to check the starboard engine room, though. Heard the twins having a bit of a meltdown, never know with them.”
Elizabeth returned that chuckle and shook her head. Carlie and Joshua Hanover were fraternal twins and geniuses, there was nothing they could not do with anything remotely mechanical or technical, but they were volatile, especially toward one another. ‘Sibling rivalry gone wrong’ was how their psych eval had put it, but they had still been cleared for the mission. There simply was not anyone better than the two hands that had singlehandedly designed the dual engine their starship employed.
“Alright, I’ll do that. Suppose Commander Williamson was caught up with something and couldn’t take care of it?” Elizabeth lifted her coffee mug to hide the distasteful curl of her lips as she mentioned Edwin Williamson, the mission’s executive officer. The two of them had butted heads from the moment they had begun training together, as the commander was of the opinion that females did not even belong in the astronaut program, let along captaining a multi-year mission, and Elizabeth found herself unable to resist poking at the thorn in her side at any given moment. He had opposed her at every turn, and the incident had not helped matters any. She supposed she had to credit him with something: she was meticulous with every plan and strategy she came up with, trying to foresee any loopholes or issue that he might bring up.
Kate was not quite successful in hiding her grin behind her own coffee mug, but she shrugged. “I saw him leaving the engine room about half an hour ago. I think he may have tried, but…you’ve tried getting between those two when they’re having a row. I pity anyone attempting to mediate the twins.”
Grinning back, Elizabeth shook her head and lifted her mug in a salute to the other woman. “Very well. You have the bridge, Lieutenant. Comm me if anything comes up.”
She stayed just long enough to see Kate’s nod, and then walked out of the bridge, taking a long, savoring sip of her coffee as she headed down the corridor to the lift that would take her to the engine room. Coffee was severely rationed – crew members could only have a cup at the beginning and the end of their twelve-hour watch, which meant that they were only able to have it twice every five days, and Elizabeth was considering rationing further. She knew that would be unpopular, but their supplies were dwindling by the day with no hope of being restocked unless they were somehow able to reach Earth and Space Command. Even then, it was unlikely. Unpopular as the decision might be, they would accept it and forget it soon enough, just like they had accepted and forgotten her decision to disallow putting sugar in the coffee, choosing to keep that instead for baking needs.
Of course, not much baking got done anymore, since Winters was gone.
Elizabeth pushed that unhelpful thought away and stepped inside the lift, pressing the button to take her up to the engine room entrance. It was the only place that the three-story engine room could be reached, for security purposes, in case they were boarded by something. Elizabeth mostly regarded it as an annoyance, but it was not something that could be helped, and so she chose not to think about it. The lift was slow, cumbersome, and it gave her more time than she really wanted to be alone with her thoughts when she was by herself, which was more often than she cared to admit. Leaning against the back wall of the lift, she closed her eyes, even though she knew what she would see. It was what she always saw, any time she closed her eyes – the events of that one night that changed her mission from ‘explore space’ to ‘get home alive’.
Four Months Ago…
It had been a relatively boring day aboard the Olympiad. They had been sailing the black for eight months, and had surveyed two of the planets on their agenda. Their mission was simple: The Olympiad had been slingshot into the neighboring galaxy, where the Hubble 2 Telescope had seen what appeared to be planets that could possibly house oxygen-based lifeforms. The slingshot process had taken two months of traveling at faster-than-light speed, and the crew had been locked into a sleep stasis, with the ship taking care of all of their needs – feeding, exercising their limbs so they would not atrophy, even hygiene. Once they reached the next-door galaxy, they were to travel from planet to planet and take readings, even land if they thought it was feasible. It had not been as yet, but Elizabeth was hopeful. This was what she had gotten into the astronaut program for. She wanted to explore. She wanted to discover the next stage of human existence. She wanted to be the first to step foot somewhere new.
She was in a meeting with Commander Williamson and Lieutenant Trivedi, going over the mission reports for the last planet they had surveyed, putting the briefing together to send to Space Control as they were supposed to do after each survey. It was going about as well as any meeting the three of them had – barely-masked hostility between Elizabeth and Williamson, Kate attempting to keep them on track and stop their fights before they started. At that moment, Elizabeth and Williamson were in each other’s faces, just barely keeping from shouting at one another. Elizabeth knew it amazed Kate, sometimes, that she did not seem to be afraid of the commander. Edwin Williamson was huge - tall and built like a brickhouse. His skin was dark enough to almost be considered a true black. He kept his hair close-shaven, in line with the standards of his Marine Corps roots, and the fierce intelligence in his dark eyes made it all too clear he was a force to be reckoned with. For all that Elizabeth thought that Kate might be better suited as the mission’s captain, Kate knew she would not be able to stand toe to toe with him the way Elizabeth did.
“If you have such a problem with the way I run things, Commander, I can relieve you of your duties. You can have the rest of this mission as a vacation. But I am not going to let you overrule me simply because you think you’re more capable. Having a dick doesn’t give you special tactical powers. It just makes you a dick,” the captain snapped through gritted teeth, her knuckles going white where her hands were fisted against the table.
Williamson’s eyes blazed with fury and he pounded the surface, opening his mouth to retort. In that moment, though, the ship was rocketed with a huge blast, sending all three of them slamming into the ground. The master alarm sounded, the buzzing filling her ears, the red flashing lights glaring into Elizabeth’s eyes, and she scrambled to her feet, throwing herself against the wall to mash the button of the ship comm. “Report!” she screamed, looking over her shoulder toward the other two, green eyes bright with something resembling terror and resilience combined. “Commander, get to the engine room, see if anything needs to be contained there. Lieutenant, get to the bridge. I want a full ship report now. Seal off anything that’s been breached.”
For once, the commander did not argue with the captain. He shot to his feet and sprinted out of the room, getting on his personal comm to hail the mechanics. The lieutenant followed closely until she had to turn in the opposite direction to make for the bridge. Elizabeth watched until they were both out of her sight, waiting for someone, anyone, to come onto the comm, tell her what was going on. What could have hit them? They had heard no proximity alert; Kate had a device that was hooked into the ship’s radar computer that would have let them know immediately when something was as far as fifty kilometers out. Even with the argument she and Williamson had been having, there was no chance they would not have heard it, they had already experienced it once, it was a terrible screeching that was impossible to ignore.
Finally – static. Muffled voices. A slamming of what could only be a hand against the console, and then the unmistakable Irish brogue of Sergeant O’Reilly burst through the speaker. “Captain, you need to be opening the hatch for the cargo bay straight away! The lieutenant slammed it shut before – Winters is trapped in there, and it’s been breached!”
The door to the lift opened and jolted Elizabeth, her eyes blinking as she refocused, remembering what she had come up here for. There were only two reasons to be on this level – in the mess, or heading for the engine room. Before even stepping off of the lift, she heard the brash New York accents shouting from the engine room. With a heavy sigh, Elizabeth steeled herself and jogged toward the entrance, waving her hand as the perpetual fog of steam that hung around the engine room practically reached out to envelop her within. There were many reasons that she tried to stay away from the engine room as much as she could, and that was one of the biggest.
“Goddamn it, Carlie, NO!”
Elizabeth stopped, her eyes widening with that outburst, about to interject when a female voice broke through, just as angry.
“Don’t you tell me no, you damned nitwit. Just because you don’t want to admit – “
Elizabeth heaved a sigh and cut in, uninterested in sitting there through one of the twins’ long, drawn-out arguments about random topics where no one else had any idea what they were rambling on about. “Is this something I need to separate you two for?”
Joshua Hanover, a tall, lean man with light brown skin and rather remarkable blue eyes, turned his attention toward her and had the grace to look sheepish. Carlie, almost identical in appearance to her twin other than the fact that she was unmistakably female, didn’t have the same reaction. The woman had been unabashedly hostile toward the captain ever since the incident, and Elizabeth found it hard to blame her. Not that she had found out why Carlie held such animosity toward her now until much later…but once she had, she could not hold it against the woman. The other woman looked her up and down, arching a brow sharply as her hard gaze met the captain’s again. “I don’t recall asking you to intervene, Captain.” As usual, she made the word sound like an insult, making the fact that she held no regard for Elizabeth plain and clear.
Elizabeth looked past her to see Joshua’s hand rubbing tiredly over his face. She had had a few discussions with the mechanic, had found him likable and actually rather calm, which led her to believe that it was only Carlie’s natural volatility that drew his own temper out. She could not help feeling a little sorry for the man. As troublesome as the twins could be together, they also worked best together, so splitting them up was not really an option. She knew that Joshua did not hold his sister’s opinion of her, as he had caught up with her more than once to apologize for her outright disrespect. He drew his hand down from his face and shook his head, turning his attention to Carlie, his voice somewhat tired and obviously irritated. “It’s her job to keep us on task, Carlie, back off, will ya?”
The other woman’s eyes went wide as her head snapped to the side, and Elizabeth blanched inwardly, having the feeling that the more mild-mannered twin was going to be catching hell once she left. She disliked it being on her account, but…Joshua was an adult, and he knew the risks of getting on his sister’s bad side. She could see Carlie fuming, was almost surprised she could not see smoke pouring from her ears, and she was almost certain that she was going to have to step between them, that the younger woman was going to launch herself at her brother, but instead, Carlie threw her tools down and stalked out of the engine room, checking her shoulder hard against Elizabeth on the way out.
Elizabeth made it a point to give no ground, though it had hurt a bit. For as slight as Carlie Hanover was, she could pack a punch. She waited until she heard the lift begin to groan, the tell-tale sign that it had an occupant, and she moved closer toward Joshua, tilting her head as she regarded him. “Are you alright?”
Joshua chuckled wryly and shrugged, running a hand over the light-colored curls kept shorn close to his scalp. “About as much as ever, I guess.” He flipped a wrench within his hand, a telltale nervous tic that she had picked up on months ago. He glanced away and sighed. “I’m really sorry, I know she’s…”
She shook her head, stopping him midsentence. “She’s got her reasons, Mr. Hanover. I don’t think it’s something that I can hold against her. And, well, she’s not military. I can’t really order her to put her animosity aside.” The comment tugged a grin from the man, and she continued, crossing her arms over her chest. “What was it about this time?”
Elizabeth had never thought that a person with skin the color that he had could blush, but she had been proven wrong the first time she had seen it, a dusky rose color tingeing the soft brown. She watched it flower over his skin now, curious as to just what would embarrass him about whatever it was, other than it just being yet another random argument that they had had. He sighed and closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose before he let it out. “We…were arguing about who would win in a fight. Between Superman and Captain America.”
Blinking quickly, she swallowed her initial reaction – something along the lines of ‘who cares’ – and worked quickly to find a better response, finally settling on, “Well…aren’t they…er…different companies? Different – what – universes? How would they meet in the first place?”
Joshua laughed and met her verdant gaze with his own summer-sky-colored eyes. “It’s alright, Captain, I know it ain’t your gig. And I’ve got answers for you, but I don’t think that’s what you really want to know. So…I’ll try to make sure our extracurricular debates are kept off of watch-time.”
She smiled, a small sound of laughter leaving her throat. She had not meant to be so transparent, but she supposed it could not be helped. She was known for being by-the-book, no-nonsense…and more terms that she had to guess meant ‘dry’ or ‘boring’. “I’d appreciate it, Mr. Hanover. I would have much rather been catching up some much needed sleep. Not that I mind our chats, of course. Just…not so much after a long watch.”
His mouth curved at one corner in a small half-grin. “Yeah. Sorry to have kept you from that. You know, you can just call me Josh, right?”
The comment, nowhere near the first time that he had said something similar to her, brought a full smile to her lips, the light glinting in her eyes, and her shoulders lifted in a nonchalant shrug. “Somebody has to keep the structure going around here, Mr. Hanover. But I’ll keep it in mind.” It was a familiar exchange between them, and one that she couldn’t help but enjoy. Pleasures in any form were few and far in between at the moment, and she knew she should take what she could. At the very least, she was glad to know that there was someone else onboard besides Kate that could stand her presence.
“You do that. I’ll just get back to work now. Have a good rest, Eliz – er – Captain.” The grin on his face told her that the slip-up wasn’t any accident, but it made her laugh all the same. She would have liked to be able to tell him the same, that he could call her by her name, but she had order to maintain. At least, that was what she told herself. She tipped her head toward him and gave a two-fingered salute off of her brow, then turned and left the engine room.
She ducked into the galley, intending to be there for no more than a moment, to rinse her mug out and put it in the sink to be washed. She was just about to leave when she heard the lilting tones of the starship’s sergeant-at-arms from behind her. “All as it should be, Captain?”
Elizabeth turned to regard the man who watched her from behind piercing grey eyes. Out of everyone onboard the ship, Quartermaster Sergeant Malcolm O’Reilly was the only one she could not read, the only one whose opinion she just could not seem to figure out. The man had an unflappable ethic and had been an enlisted man in the Army of the Defence Forces of Ireland for over twenty years, having signed up for his first term when he was all of eighteen years old. It was the private opinion of Elizabeth and Kate, still young enough, and single to boot, to speak of such things, that Sergeant O’Reilly was the very image of one of those ruggedly handsome ‘military’ men out of movies, with curling black hair that had just begun to silver at the temples, chiseled features that could move swiftly between a jovial laugh and a sharp glare. His shoulders were broad, his waist trim, his legs thick and muscled. Elizabeth had her sneaking suspicions that her friend was more than a little attracted to the man; she, however, for all that she could admit that the man was good-looking, felt there was something a little unsettling about him. She could not put her finger on it, and that bothered her more than anything else.
She cleared those thoughts from her head and gave O’Reilly a calm, polite smile, closing the distance between them as she moved to seat herself across from him. “I don’t know about all that, Sergeant. Things haven’t been as they should for four months now.” She chuckled and settled herself back in the chair, figuring she might as well make herself comfortable. For as much as she hadn’t been able to figure out about O’Reilly, she had at least come to know that when the man opened his mouth, he had a purpose. He did not believe in wasting words, something Elizabeth could admire. But it also meant that it could take him some time to get to his point. “All things considered, though, I suppose they’re as they have been. No trouble. But no luck yet, either.”
O’Reilly’s smile was nearly a perfect mirror of her own, showing nothing more than a sense of congeniality. There was certainly no hint of what might be on his mind, and there wouldn’t be. The sergeant had been a member of the Army Ranger Wing, what was basically Irish Special Forces. He knew better than to give anything away with something so low as a tell. “It occurred to me that I have not given you my report yet for my earlier EVA.”
It annoyed Elizabeth a little, how speaking with O’Reilly was tantamount to a high-stakes poker game, or a chess match. She had forgotten that he had been scheduled for an extravehicular activity that day, another trip outside the starship to try and glean any amount of information they could about what had caused the breach in their hull. She thought she had managed to keep that off of her face, but she could not be sure. O’Reilly would definitely not let her know one way or another. He would simply file it away within his own mental processes and use it if he needed later. “True. I don’t suppose you found anything useful?”
He drummed his fingers on the table, seeming to consider his words carefully. “I honestly cannot be certain, Captain.” That surprised her. She had not heard him utter anything remotely resembling those words in the time she had known him, since they had begun their initial training. “We have already determined that it was not an explosion from an incendiary device. That would have left residue of some nature behind, something that we could use to discern what it was that blew the hole that was strong enough to breach straight through. There were the reports, from Lieutenants Trivedi and Kim. The report I myself gave…that we saw…something. Of course, there was nothing to corroborate. No signs afterward.”
“The Sinister, you mean,” Elizabeth murmured.
O’Reilly lifted his slate-colored gaze toward her, the irises hardening. “I know it’s hard for you and Commander Williamson to believe, without chancing to see it yourself. But whatever you might think of me on your own, Captain, I think you can be sure I am not given to flights of fancy. You have known the lieutenants for years. Do you think it is in their nature to blame unexplainable on something that could only be called unnatural?”
She hesitated for a long moment, and then opened her mouth to respond, but he cut her off before she could. “No, Captain. I want you to think about this. As I have asked you to do before. We cannot know everything that the black holds. The dark hides horrors, Captain Prescott. Wonders and horrors. We were all prepared to experience the wonders, but none of us gave a thought to the horrors we might find.”
Elizabeth sat back in her seat, bringing her hand up to chew on the side of her thumb, unaware of the motion. It was one of her signs of anxiety. She had the initial reports from the incident, of course. She remembered first her bewilderment, then her annoyance, while reaching Lieutenant Kim’s report, it being the first one that she’d seen the account in. She was prepared to attribute it to shock, until she read Kate’s report that detailed seeing something of a similar nature, from her own point of view. Though she did not really think it was the case, for either of the lieutenants to report anything they could not be certain of, she forced herself to think of it as nothing more than an impossible story, something crafted out of fear – until she had read O’Reilly’s report. His had been straightforward, detailed, written in thorough military-speak…except for the fact that he reported seeing the same unexplainable organism. That had been how he had put it. Organism. Something alive, something sentient had attacked their ship, and then…disappeared into thin air.
Williamson had dismissed all three accounts out of hand and had made several snide insinuations that they would not have dared to make such outrageous claims under his command. It had almost been enough to make her throw in her support with them, but her own rational mind found it hard to believe, even though there were three separate accounts from three people she had thought she could trust to be levelheaded and logical. All her life, she had believed in what she could see, and nothing more. She had seen wondrous things, things that she could hardly believe existed, but there they were, for her own eyes to see. She knew there were things that she had yet to see. But there had been no proof.
But could there be proof now? She could not be certain, but she had the feeling this was what O’Reilly was angling around to. Did he find what they needed?
She had to wonder, though - was there any point? They had lost contact with Earth when they had had to scramble off-course. They couldn’t send any reports about whatever it had been. Finding it wouldn’t help them get home.
But it might give them a way to fight it if it found them again. Elizabeth was a little startled at herself for the thought – that just the possibility of proof had made it that much easier to believe in it. With an inward sigh, she leaned forward and folded her arms atop the table, letting her gaze meet O’Reilly’s pointedly for several silent seconds before she said softly, “What did you find, Sergeant?”
If she did not know any better, then she would think that O’Reilly seemed pleased by her question, that she had come to just the conclusion he was hoping she would. Reaching into the pocket of the military-grade vest he wore constantly, he brought out a vial with several small black flecks resting in the bottom and passed it across the table to her, holding it out until she took it with a hand that she hoped wasn’t shaking too much. She held it up close to her eyes to get a better look at it while he spoke. “I scraped those off of one of the edges from the hole. It was caught on only the most jagged of edges, which tells me that whatever it was could have possibly damaged itself as much as it damaged us.”
Elizabeth peered within the vial, her eyes widening as she noted the iridescent, pearlesque scales that gleamed in the dim light of the galley. She had never seen anything similar on other than a living creature. Lifting her gaze back to O’Reilly, expecting to see a certain amount of smugness or triumph there, she saw only resolute strength, and she could not help but admire that in the man. Anyone else – certainly Commander Williamson would not have been able to pass it up – would not have been able to resist rubbing it in. But in that moment, she could see it clearly enough, that Sergeant Malcolm O’Reilly took his job of protecting the ship and its crew seriously. It made her think much, much better of him, and feel poorly over the thoughts she had had of him in the past.
“We should get this to Lieutenant Kim. He and Lieutenant Trivedi would be the most capable of running tests, determine what it is we’re up against.”
O’Reilly’s mouth curled in a slight smile. “So…you’re on board with it, then, Captain?”
Elizabeth swallowed a breath and nodded. “Yes. Yes, Sergeant…I’m on board.”
Her eyes snapped open and she forced them to close again. The sleep stasis that everyone utilized to make sure that they reached their optimal amount of sleep always made Elizabeth feel somewhat disoriented. It wasn’t something she enjoyed but she could not deny that she always woke up rested, refreshed even. The sleep stasis ensured proper REM sleep for no more or less than eight hours, and there was some aspect that she didn’t quite understand that kept dreams quiet and harmless, which she appreciated more than she would admit to anyone. It made the fact of the disorientation worth it, in her opinion, as it lasted a matter of moments, and then she was prepared for the rest of her day. Letting out a soft sigh, she pushed herself up to a seated position within her sleep pod and rubbed at her rumbling stomach, tugging her t-shirt down where it had ridden up, not quite alert until she heard the deep rumbling voice off to her side, tension instantly shooting through her slim form, her head turning in the direction of the voice with wide eyes.
“Don’t fix yourself on my account.”
She had always felt extremely uncomfortable around Edwin Williamson. From the first day they had shown up for training, she had sensed something about him that threw her off. It wasn’t just his rampant misogyny – though she certainly did not care for that, it was something she had dealt with all through her military career – or the way that he undermined her at every turn. She expected that and had even come to welcome it, since it made her push herself. It was little things, how she caught him staring at her in ways she could not explain, or how he never passed up any opportunity to put his hands on her in some way or another. In this moment, she could have sworn that he was looking at her just as he might something that he owned, or something that he wanted to own, the glare in his dark eyes hungry and desperate.
She crossed her arms over her chest self-consciously, and then uncrossed them to push herself out of her pod, slipping out to the opposite side so that she did not have to put herself any closer to him than she had to. Thankful that she had felt a little cold before she had gone to sleep and so had put on a t-shirt and sweatpants instead of her normal tank top and shorts, she took a breath to compose herself, then let her eyes settle on the commander. “What are you doing here, Commander?”
A thin smile curled his lips as he steepled his fingers, clearly aware of how much his presence unsettled her, enjoying it thoroughly. “Now…Elizabeth. Neither of us are on duty. I think you can let loose a little. You know what they say about all work and no play.”
Her eyes narrowed at the familiar tone he used to address her, but she forced herself to chuckle, taking a deep breath before she responded. “I don’t feel comfortable being that familiar with you, Commander. You have made it plain on several occasions that you don’t respect or even like me. So I fail to see why you should care about how I address you.”
She saw a flicker within his eyes, something that frightened her for a moment, something that told her she should very likely attempt to never be alone in his presence ever again. She wanted little more than to get out of the sleeping area, as quickly as she could. He stood up and began to move around the pod, prompting her to move at the same time, intent on keeping the distance between them. “Oh, I like you just fine. I respect you as what you are – a woman. Do I think you have any business being the captain on a history-making mission? Of course not. But you are…a beautiful woman.”
Elizabeth stopped in her tracks, blinking in disbelief. “Wait a second.” She shook her head, sure that she could not be hearing him correctly. “Are – are you making a pass at me, Commander Williamson?” She choked out a short laugh, forcing it down because she could see that he was beginning to steam. “Has that ever really worked for you, Edwin? Telling a woman that you find her too inferior to be in a position of power, but the fact that she’s beautiful makes it okay? You don’t care if a female is smart, or if she has opinions. You don’t care to find out what she’s passionate about. All that matters to you is that a woman gives you what you need: sex, for one, I imagine, that would be all about you and to hell with her; and some sort of glowing adoration that says you are a god and she looks up to you in every way.” She lifted her hand to her mouth in an attempt to hide her smile and the giggle that wanted to bubble out. “I’ll just make this painless for both of us. Never. Okay? Never. It will never happen. I am just…not attracted to you like that. We can just forget this ever happened, and you can…not appear by my sleep pod. Ever again. I would greatly appreciate that.”
She turned around to get her uniform out of her locker, certain by the silence in the room that he had left, until she felt the rush just behind her and was slammed against her locker, her face pressing into the vent holes cut within the metal. She squirmed, but could not find any purchase against the smooth surface or any slack where she was trapped there between the wall and the Commander’s massive body.
“Look here, you little bitch. You don’t talk to me like that. No one talks to me like that. Here’s how this works, Captain. What I want, I get. If I want to fuck you, then guess what, princess, I’m gonna fuck you, and there’s shit you can do about it. There’s no one you can tell. No one who will save you. No one who – “
Elizabeth managed to wiggle her arm out enough to slam her elbow backward and catch him hard in his ribs, his breath cutting off as he doubled over. She whipped around and sent a punch to his jaw, followed by her knee lifting to shove under his chin and her foot shoving into his stomach to knock him over. Staring at him with wide eyes, her breath heaving with the exertion, she bent down and stuck her finger into his face. “Don’t ever come near me when I’m alone again. You’re this mission’s XO, and we have to work together to get everybody home, but I do not have to put up with this shit. Come near me again – lay your hands on me again – and I swear to God, I will kill you. Do you understand me, Commander? I. Will. Kill. You.”
She rose and yanked her uniform out of her closet and stalked out of the sleeping bay, heading for the showers and ignoring the groans she could hear coming from behind her. There was a part of her that wanted to go and put him out of her misery, and another part that felt like she should ask Kate, and Carlie, and Senna, the ship’s civilian diplomat, whether he had ever behaved in a similar manner toward them. Then there was the part that felt the keen need for a shower, to get the filth of his words and the feel of his body off of her. Normally secure simply behind the closed door, she didn’t feel that same security now, and she locked the door of the communal female shower behind her. She finally let go of the tension, the only thing to keep her on her feet, and slid down against the door down to the metal-grated ground, raking a hand through her mussed curls, giving into the shaking that had threatened to take over and render her incapable of saving herself. She refused herself the comfort of tears, though – tears wouldn’t help her now, and she would not give him the satisfaction, even if he didn’t know of them.
“Come on, Liz. He’s not worth it. He’s not worth it. Don’t let this get to you. Come on, girl – up. Get up.” Repeating those words to herself over and over, she finally pushed herself up to her feet, willing her legs to be steady beneath her. Mindlessly, she pulled her clothing off, stashing the pieces within the hamper for the wash. Heading into the shower, she turned the dials without thinking, barely noticing the scalding spray as she ducked beneath it, letting the water stream through the coppered locks. She felt the keen desire to punch things, even as she felt the sharp sting within her hand from where her fist had connected with Williamson’s jaw. Shaking her head emphatically, she began to wash, scrubbing her skin hard with the rough cloth she kept in her preferred shower stall, biting into her lower lip every time that she felt tears threatening to well up and spill over.
Finishing quickly, she dressed herself, the movements rote and routine enough that she could do it while thinking of everything else she needed to do that day, using her duties to push her mind off of that morning. When she began to hear the banging on the shower room door, she grimaced and darted across the room to unlock the door, grateful to see Senna rather than Carlie, whose hateful diatribe she could do without this morning, or Kate, who would instantly be able to see that something was wrong and would poke until she got it out of Elizabeth. She got along with Senna, but they did not make it a point to seek one another out every day to speak to each other. She received a polite smile from the other woman once she entered, but said nothing other than, “Good morning,” in response to Senna’s Italian greeting.
Senna di Marino served as a diplomat, having risen within that community on Earth after successfully negotiating the first true period of peace within the Middle East, at the tender age of twenty-seven years old. She was born-and-bred Italian and had the look of a young woman who had grown up on those beaches, with olive-colored skin and shining coffee-colored eyes, and hair that fell in soft, brown waves around her face. She was a true pacifist and seemed to instinctively feel the need to help others. She had been the one to keep everyone calm, to bring them down off of the edge of fear after the incident, and Winters’ death.
Elizabeth’s initial instinct was to leave the shower room as quickly as possible, but a bigger urge rose up within her, one that said she needed to protect her crew members – not just against whatever it was out there that wanted to hurt them, but against one another as well. Steeling herself with a heavy breath, she turned around to face the younger woman, surprised to find that Senna was gazing at her in a knowing way. The captain couldn’t help automatically wilting under the softness of the other woman’s eyes, and what she could have sworn was sympathy.
It seemed to put her instantly on edge, and she had to take another breath to give into that first thought she’d had, to run. Slowly, deliberately, she sat herself down on one of the metal benches and willed her green eyes to meet Senna’s darker, gentle scrutiny, deciding to break the stalemate of the silence herself.
“Senna, I need to ask you something, and I need as honest an answer as you can manage. Please don’t be afraid to answer it, even if you think it might…nevermind that. Just…please give me the truth.”
The woman blinked her large eyes, and she lowered herself fluidly to the bench across from Elizabeth, crossing her legs and folding her hands in her lap. “I like to think I give every answer honestly, Captain.” There was a small smile as she gave that quiet answer in her heavily accented tone. “I am sorry if that came across as sarcasm. Of course I will answer truthfully. Please, what is your question?”
Elizabeth could not help but chuckle softly, glancing down toward her own hands before lifting her eyes back to Senna. “Have you felt…threatened…by anyone on board since we departed? Or since the incident? I know tempers have run high and we’re as alone as anything out here, but that shouldn’t give anyone the right to…prey.”
The way Senna blinked and tilted her head told Elizabeth almost instantly that she had not been privy to anything of that nature, at least not yet, but she wanted – needed – to hear the words said. “No, Captain. I have been treated kindly and with respect by everyone on board.” Senna’s legs uncrossed and she leaned forward, bracing her hands on her knees as she peered into Elizabeth’s face thoughtfully. “But I think you, perhaps, have not been so lucky, no?”
Her breath caught in her throat, and she glanced down quickly. Elizabeth had forgotten that part of why Senna had managed to do what no one else in centuries had done was because the woman seemingly could see within the hearts and souls of anyone, gaining insight into their most basic desire and bringing it to the forefront, or knowing what bothered them and soothing it with a steady, gentle hand and a calming voice. She should have known better than to walk down this road with Senna, but she had made the mistake of thinking her harmless simply because she was kind.
I can downplay this, she thought, and she heaved a sigh. “I’ve had some issues with Carlie since…well, since I had to make the choice about Winters. I didn’t know that the two of them…had something going on. I’m not sure I would have made a different decision even if I did know. There was nothing anyone could do without risking the lives of everyone else on board. She doesn’t seem to understand, that. I’ve always known that she’s a little…selfish, but that was never an issue so long as she did her job. She’s still doing her job, but it seems like she makes it a point to shove at me at any given opportunity.”
Senna nodded and offered an understanding smile, reaching out to cover Elizabeth’s thin hand with her own. “You are the captain. It is your job to make the decisions that others cannot. Carlie is brilliant, of course. She is a genius. But she can never be a leader. She can never hope to be what you are, because, as you say, she is selfish. She does not think of the whole, as you are able to. Her disrespect of you is her way of grieving what was lost, what can now never be. You know that there was no other choice. Somewhere inside, she may even know that, and she may eventually reach the point where she understands the sacrifice you made to your own soul to save her skin.”
The captain smiled, and when she looked down now, it was to mask the tears that once more threatened to well and spill over. Though she had only intended to take the focus away from what was really bothering her, she had not realized just how much Carlie’s animosity had bothered her. It was not only because she needed to have harmony on the ship to deal with an already tense situation, but because every spiked word that left Carlie’s mouth served only to boil Elizabeth’s guilt all the more. Taking a breath to clear her mind, and blinking the tears back, she lifted her gaze once more. “I hadn’t thought about it quite like that. That her attitude toward me was…grieving. I probably should have, but…I think I’ve been doing some grieving of my own.”
Her lovely dark eyes compassionate and understanding, Senna nodded. “Of course you have. Winters was a valued member of the team, and a wonderful person as well. Making the choice not to save him in favor of saving everyone else is a heavy burden to bear, especially when you consider that there was someone who loved him. But it is not only his loss you have been grieving, I think. I think you have also been grieving the loss of the mission. I think the knowledge that none of us may make it out of this alive, even with your quick thinking, weighs heavily on your heart. Elizabeth…there is nothing you could have done differently. You did the right thing. No one else could have done anything else to give us a different outcome.”
Elizabeth’s laugh this time was harsh, barked out, and she shook her head. “Mmm. Tell that to Williamson.”
One of Senna’s dark brows arched sharply and she sat back. “Has he said something to you like that, Captain?”
She shrugged and shoved a hand through the wet locks she had not bound back within their usual bun yet. “Edwin Williamson has made no secret of the fact, even since we began training, that he considers me inferior for the strict fact that I am a woman. In his eyes, females are not capable of leadership positions. I have not been given a single chance from him to even try to prove myself in his eyes because, to him, nothing will ever be as good as what he could do. And he…” She shook her head and let out a breath in a short huff. “Nevermind.”
Senna shook her head and tilted her head, her unrelenting gaze practically burning into Elizabeth. “No – what has he done?”
Green eyes, blazing in the beginnings of fury, rose to level on the other woman’s, and she could feel herself shaking. But she had started this; she didn’t have to say anything. Now she had, and if it meant that Senna would be on her guard around a man that Elizabeth considered one of the bigger threats on the ship, then it was worth it. “If I had been a little less capable, a little more like…well, like what he considers me to be…I think he would have raped me this morning.”
Senna sat up straight, her eyes widening until the pupil nearly dominated the iris. “That is…quite the accusation, Captain.”
She chuckled and shrugged, folding her fingers together, tightening to keep them from shaking too hard. “I’m aware. I imagine he’s not going to like me any better, now that I left him writhing and groaning on the floor of the sleeping bay.”
Two loaded words, one loaded question. Elizabeth sighed and explained the events that followed after she had come out of the sleep stasis, making herself keep eye contact with the other woman. It was not her fault, she knew. She was not a victim. She was not lying. Once she finished, she watched Senna’s face carefully, and knew the moment when it was apparent that Senna believed her.
“I am so sorry that happened. I wish I could say that you should not have threatened him, but…in the end that may be all that keeps him from repeating an attempt in the future.” Senna tilted her head to the side, hesitating for a moment before she continued. “That was the real reason you asked me if I had been threatened in any way, was it not, Captain? Because you could not be certain that he has not behaved in the same manner toward me, or perhaps one of the other women on board.”
Elizabeth nodded mutely and rubbed her hands over his face. “I’m relatively sure that he hasn’t come on to Kate – Lieutenant Trivedi – in that way. She and I have been friends for too long, I would know. Carlie isn’t the silent sort, and even if she was, she’s usually with Joshua, and I know he wouldn’t let anything happen to his sister, no matter how much they argue between themselves. So…that left you. It’s not that I think you’re weak or anything, not in the least, I just…don’t know you quite so well. I don’t know how you would react to something like that.”
The Italian woman smiled blankly and she shrugged. “You and I, Captain, we are not so different, in the end. We are both strong, capable women in a field dominated by men. We perhaps have different ways of dealing with things, but in the end, we take care of ourselves, and we prove everybody wrong. It is my hope, in the future, Captain, that you will trust my ability to take care of myself, and take care of those on board. I would not put my…embarrassment, or shame…ahead of ensuring the safety of the others here on the Olympiad.”
Elizabeth felt the gentle admonishment like a bullet, and color flooded her cheeks. She could not help the way she had thought of things, the fact that she did not know Senna well enough to discern her mannerisms could not be helped. But what she did know, at least from how Senna had handled the incident and taking care of everyone on board during that time, was that she put nothing above the care and well-being of those around her. She smiled slightly and nodded. “I will do that, Senna. I’m sorry I doubted you.”
She shook her head and smiled. “I do not think it was doubt, necessarily. As you say, we do not know each other quite so well. Perhaps we should attempt to rectify that.”
A laugh bubbled up from Elizabeth’s throat and she nodded as she pushed herself up to stand. “Perhaps we should. I…need to get to my duties. I’ll leave you to your shower now.”
Senna smiled and stood, reaching out to touch Elizabeth’s arm. “Keep your chin up, Captain. At this point, you are our strongest hope for getting home. I have faith.” Letting that be the last words between them, Senna headed into her shower stall and pulled the door shut.
The words given were desperately needed, and Elizabeth was immensely thankful for them. They bolstered her spirits, and she had not realized just how downtrodden she was until Senna had given her that encouragement. Elizabeth moved toward a mirror and quickly wound her hair up against the crown of her head, securing it with the bobby pins she kept within her uniform pocket. Feeling better than she had in…months, really, she left the shower room and jogged up toward the bridge.
She stepped past the bridge’s threshold just as Kate turned around to regard her, having heard the footfalls on the metal grating. The Indian woman’s brows lifted as she chuckled, regarding the captain with a keen, well-trained eye. “You look…happier than you have lately. Good dreams?”
Elizabeth shrugged with a slight smile and slid into the co-pilot’s chair, pulling up the mission logs to check if there was anything new. There rarely was, but she couldn’t keep herself from hoping that somehow, Space Command managed to find them and get a message through. If they could just get guided home…but once again, there was nothing other than the standard logs for engine checks and patrols. She noted that O’Reilly had written up his report after she had left him in the galley, and that he’d added taking the vial to Lieutenant Kim at the end of it. She would have to go pay a visit to the medical officer and see if he had any preliminary findings. “No more than normal, I guess. Just…woke up on the right side of the pod for once. Anything to report?”
Letting out a short laugh, Kate sat back in the pilot’s chair and yawned, eager to come off of her twelve-hour watch. “No more than normal,” she repeated back to her friend. “I…saw something that O’Reilly put up. Something about finding flecks of unknown origin when he was on his EVA yesterday?”
She had been waiting for Kate to ask, knowing that it would be something that would interest her. It had almost been a point of contention between them, Kate filing the report about something that Elizabeth hadn’t seen and, therefore, couldn’t believe. Something like this, that could prove the three accounts right, would put her almost instantly on alert. “Yeah. He showed me yesterday and I told him to take the vial up to Lieutenant Kim. You and he are the foremost science experts on board, so I want you and Kim working together to tell me anything you can about the flecks. If it can shed any light on what happened four months ago, I want to know yesterday.”
Kate took a breath and nodded. “Do I get to sleep first?” It was a weak attempt at humor, and they both knew it, but Elizabeth could appreciate where it came from. She gave her friend a smile and nodded, then looked past her as O’Reilly entered the bridge.
“Here to assume watch of the bridge,” he said, looking between the two women, aware that he must have interrupted something.
“Alright. The bridge is yours, Sergeant. I’ll be in my office if you need me for anything.” Kate rose from the pilot’s chair and stepped aside to let O’Reilly assume her position. Elizabeth joined her and walked toward the sleeping bay.
“Kate,” she began, gaining the other woman’s attention with the simple use of her given name, “you’d tell me if there were anything going on, right? Anything that bothered you?”
Shrugging and running a hand over her sleek dark hair, Kate yawned and nodded. “Of course I would. Why?”
Elizabeth shrugged and slid her hands into her pockets, wondering whether or not she should tell Kate, just as a matter of giving her a heads-up, and because, as kind and compassionate as Senna had been, Kate was the closest thing to a best friend that she had, even back home. She would understand where Elizabeth was coming better than anyone else would. At the same time, she didn’t want to burden Kate with that when she was just going to sleep. “Long story. I’ll tell you after you wake up, alright?”
Kate eyed her in a considering manner, pursing her lips. Her curiosity was up now, but she was extremely tired after sitting in the same place for twelve hours, and she was not entirely certain that she could give Elizabeth the attention she deserved. “Alright, but I’ll hold you to that.”
Chuckling as they reached the sleeping bay, Elizabeth nodded. “Sure thing. I’ll probably still be in my office when you wake up.”
“Sounds like a plan, Liz. See you on the flip side.” Kate gave her a small salute along with a grin, and then went inside to change and get into her sleeping pod, while Elizabeth left to head to the small captain’s office she was usually in when she was not on duty.
Closing the door behind her, Elizabeth moved around her desk and seated herself, taking a deep breath before beginning her daily routine. Her radio was switched on, and she set a recording device in front of the microphone, pressing play. Her voice came out of the speaker, slightly tinny from the aged recording, but easy enough to discern. “NASA Space Command, come in,” the voice said into the radio microphone. “This is Captain Elizabeth Prescott of the USS Olympiad. We are currently off-route and have lost our communications array. Please advise.”
For several days after the incident, Elizabeth had spent hours repeating that same message into the radio microphone, until Kate finally spoke up and said what everyone else had been thinking: that she would go mad, repeating the same thing day-in, day-out. So she had set up the recording, and stayed in her office to monitor it when it wasn’t her turn for watch. The sound of her voice was her constant companion every day, and while she could appreciate where Kate had been coming from, this was not any better. She considered it her punishment, though. This was her penance for not seeing the incident coming, for not being more aware. No matter what Senna had said to her, in her mind, it was her fault. It hit close to home when she had to defend herself against Williamson, as there was a part of him that could not keep from thinking that he was right.
She sighed, casting a sideways glance toward the radio as she began to flip through mission reports from the two planets they had surveyed, giving them a readover for what seemed like the thousandth time. She had to have something to do during these long, tedious hours of manning the radio. O’Reilly had asked her once if she wanted someone to take watch on that, just as they did the bridge, and the look she had given him had prevented him from asking ever again.
Dropping the papers to her desk, her hands rubbed over her face, and she rested her forehead in her palms, bracing her elbows against the surface as she took a deep, shaky breath. The good feeling she had had since talking with Senna had not lasted long, and she could feel the foreboding, the guilt, drowning her once more, the sound of her recorded voice filling her ears until she could not focus on anything else.
“This is Captain Elizabeth Prescott of the USS Olympiad…”
Sitting alone on the bridge, having told Sergeant O’Reilly to go get some food while she kept watch for him, it was moments like this that Kate wished she had declined this position. She did her best to keep a brave face up for Elizabeth, knowing that she needed someone in her corner, but when she was alone, she gave in to her lonelier thoughts, the ones that crept up to wonder just what she would be doing had she pushed aside the excitement of such a historical mission and really considered her gut instinct.
She had given up getting married to be here. It had not just been postponed, it was done, and there was no going back to it. Aside from the mission requiring single members, to minimize the risk of leaving families broken, the man she was going to marry refused to wait, and she could not blame him. He had already waited through her mission to Mars, for two long years. He had known how important it had been to her, and had been supportive through it all. But when she had taken him out to dinner the night of her selection for this exploratory mission, his reaction had been much different than she had thought it would be.
Two Years Ago
“Have I told you tonight how beautiful you look, Kate?” The question brought a small, shy smile to spread across Kate’s lips, and she took a sip of her champagne as her fiancé of the last four years, Forrest Bishop, gazed at her from across the table.
“Only three times. I’ve been feeling ignored, you’re a little below par,” she teased softly, reaching out toward him to take his hand within hers as he laughed, leaning forward as he brought her hand up to press a kiss to her knuckles.
“Can’t have that. You are…my star in the night sky, my sun and moon, the most beautiful thing on this side of creation and probably on the other side too.” He grinned and released her hand as their meals were brought and set in front of them.
Kate’s blush was immediate, but she had never been good at receiving compliments. She had always been a beautiful child, had grown into a beautiful woman, but in her family, looks were a non-factor. She had been pushed to be the best in everything she attempted, and when she had been complimented, it had been for above-average performances, never her appearance. Forrest, her college sweetheart, had been the first person in her life to ever actually make her feel like a woman.
He cut into his steak and took a bite, chewing thoughtfully and carefully, and Kate could not help but watch him in these moments that she knew he was not focused on her. Forrest was a professional chef and regarded food as an art form. Dining out with him was a singular experience, but she found that she could not appreciate it tonight as she normally would, not with her own burgeoning excitement.
As his eyes returned to her, he chuckled and set his fork down. “I can see you practically bouncing in your seat, Kate. What’s your news?”
She laughed and took another drink from her champagne to try and calm her fluttering nerves. “I’m going to make history, Forrest. “
He laughed along with her, but she didn’t notice that it had become a little wary. “Didn’t you already do that, Kate? Navigator of the first manned mission to Mars ring a bell?”
Kate grinned and shook her head. “This is going to make that look like a skip across a pond. NASA was taking applications a year ago for a manned exploratory mission. I had honestly forgotten about it, or thought that I wasn’t selected, it’s been so long. But they called me this morning – they’ve selected me as the science officer. I’m going to navigate the world’s first exploratory space mission.”
What she had not expected was to see the way Forrest’s face tighten, and she could feel her excitement giving way to fear and dropping like a hard stone in her stomach. She wanted to ask him to say something, but she could not bring the words to her mouth. Instead, she sat there, mute, watching as the features of his normally expressive, kind face went terrifyingly blank.
When he finally spoke, the words were bitten out. “How long?”
She had to fight to keep from shrinking in on herself, her hands falling to her lap, her fingers twisting the ring around her finger. “Two years.”
Forrest’s blue eyes met hers, stared into her face, and she had the thought that if looks could kill, her parents would be planning her funeral at that moment. “Two years? Two years, Kate? Did the fact that we’re supposed to get married next year just slip your brain? When do you leave on this mission?”
Willing the tears that filled her eyes not to fall down her cheeks, she whispered, “June first.”
He sat back in his chair, his incredulous glare boring into her. “Nevermind that we were supposed to be in the church two weeks later?”
How had she forgotten that? Her own wedding date. The fact that they would have to push their wedding back again. She had already done that to him once, when she had gone to Mars. He had understood then. She had thought he would now.
“I’m sorry, Forrest…it’s just…this…this is the mission of a lifetime. Do you know what an honor it is just to be considered?” Kate could feel her despair burning her throat, and her hands folded in tightly within each other. “And once I come back, we…we’d be set for life. We wouldn’t have to worry about money for the rest of our lives.”
“You think I care about money, Kate? I don’t give a shit about money! I want to marry you, but what I’m starting to realize is that I’ll never have your full loyalty. You’re already married to that goddamn space program!” As his words pierced her, the tears slid freely down her cheeks, past her parted lips as she gasped for breath. “There will never be an end, as long as they want you for whatever historical mission they have slated.”
Kate drew her fingers across her face, wiping the wet streaks away, and she shook her head. “That’s not…” but she could not finish the sentence. She could not be certain that he was not right. Her mouth closed, and she hung her head, her eyes sliding shut as she tried to still her quaking form.
He stared at her for several long moments, and then his voice came in a low, rough whisper: “You have to make a choice, Kate. It’s me, or NASA. This won’t work as long as you’re trying to hold onto us both.”
Kate drew the ring she kept on a chain around her neck from within her uniform and sighed. There had not been any thought or hesitation on her part; she did not even try to stall. She had told Forrest she was going on the mission, and he had left a moment after, tossing his napkin on the table, his final words to her telling her to keep the ring. A box of her belongings had arrived at her apartment a month later with a letter on top that had only five words scrawled across the plain paper: “Hope it was worth it.”
She had loved him desperately. She still did, if she allowed herself to be honest about it, which was rare. Thinking about what could have been simply hurt too much, especially now when she could not be certain whether or not she would ever see him again to tell him that he had been right, that she should have stayed.
Footsteps sounding along the metal grating of the corridor prompted her to slide the ring on its chain back within the safety of her uniform, and she was glad that she had had that warning before Malcolm O’Reilly stepped through the portal, his keen grey eyes settling on her in an instant. She began to rise from the pilot’s chair, until he waved her off and spoke in that gruff Irish brogue that identified him so easily. “You don’t need to get up, Lieutenant, I’m not one to sit down while on my watch.”
She felt silly as soon as she flinched at his offhand comment, and cast a sideways glance at him to see if he had noticed. Of course he had. His brow arched upward, and she could have sworn there was the flash of a half-grin before it disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared. “There’s nothing wrong with taking what ease you can during a long watch, Lieutenant. I only meant I’m uneasy to sit down myself. I blame it on my training.”
Kate smiled blandly and turned her attention back toward the front glass shield, concentrating on the steady multicolored dots she could see in the distance, stars twinkling millions of light-years away. She felt a prickle of something, the proverbial sixth sense, running down her spine, and it caused her to look back toward O’Reilly, startled to find that he was still watching her, his arms crossed over his broad chest.
Feeling her mouth go dry, she wet her lips quickly and rose from the seat, moving around it slowly. It had been an instinctive move, to put them both on the same level, to try to do away with the unease she found herself sinking within underneath that unyielding gaze. Her mouth tightened in annoyance when she heard his low chuckle, and she crossed her own arms as he arched a dark brow.
“Am I making you uncomfortable, Lieutenant?”
Was he? She could not be sure if it was him, or if it was her own melancholy that she had not quite picked herself up out of before he had entered. She shook her head quickly and mentally slapped herself for giving such a…girly response. “No, Sergeant. I’m just a little…off today, I think.”
A tilt of his black-haired head and an interested glint to his eyes that were entirely too much like a stormy sky at sea for her liking showed his curiosity, and he leaned against a nearby console station. “Think we’re all a little off most days, Lieutenant. Do you mean more than usual?” He smiled slightly and gestured with one hand, a signal to go ahead if she ever saw one. “I’d be happy to let you bend my ear if you need.”
Kate was surprised by how tempted she was to take him up on that offer. She enjoyed talking things over with Elizabeth; she was her best friend, it was only natural. But she had never felt entirely comfortable discussing topics such as relationships with the other woman, since, to her knowledge, Elizabeth had never in her life been in a serious relationship, focused on her career as she had been. Her reticence to talk it over with the Irish sergeant, however, stemmed from a different frame of mind – she knew that Elizabeth suspected her attraction to the man, but she could not be aware of just how deep it went. There was something about him that appealed to her, and she could not quite put her finger on it. That in itself bothered her more than she cared to admit. She was not yet ready to tell him yes or no when she saw his brow lift in question, as though he were growing impatient waiting for her to say one way or the other. In a need to say something, she blurted the first thing to come to her mind. “I’m off duty, Sergeant. You can call me Kate, if you like.”
She half wanted to take it back when she saw his wide grin, but she thought that would be rather ungracious of her. He chuckled and nodded in understanding. “Very well, Kate. A good Irish name, that…I’ve several cousins named Kate, or some variation thereof. I may still be on duty, but you’ve my leave to call me Malcolm. I’m sure I won’t mind.”
Hating the tight feeling that she could sense winding her insides in a manner she hadn’t felt in some time – over two years, in fact – she took a deep breath in an effort to ignore it and smiled instead in response. “Alright…Malcolm.”
He nodded, obviously pleased that she had given in to that, at least, and he made that same gesture again, as though prompting her to go on with her story. “Well, now that we’re all familiar with one another, perhaps you can tell me what’s troubling your mind, young Kate.”
Bristling at that particular address, she found herself wanting to throw something at him as she noticed the return of his grin when he had noticed the annoyed curl of her lips. She took a breath and reached back within the collar of her uniform, pulling the chain with her old engagement ring out again. “I was engaged a little over two years ago.”
Malcolm’s smile turned somewhat soft, almost sympathetic. “Was…as in not anymore, I assume?”
Kate nodded and slipped the chain safely back under her clothing. “We had already put off our wedding once when I was selected to navigate the Mars mission. Forrest was supportive then, he knew it had been my dream my whole life. I don’t think he gave much thought to my career after that. I took him out for dinner the night that I was called with my selection for this mission, thinking he would be as excited as I was. He ended up giving me an ultimatum instead – him or NASA.” She sighed softly and leaned against the wall just behind her, smoothing one hand over her hair. “Part of me wants to see him again, to tell him he was right and I should have stayed, but…that’s only because of what’s happened, getting lost out here. But there’s another part that says that, even with all that…I’d rather be here. I’ve always loved space, since I was a child. And…well, if anyone can get us home, it’d be the captain and me, honestly. I’m not trying to be immodest; we’re just damned good at our jobs.”
He was silent for several moments, long enough that Kate had to wonder if something she had said had bothered him. She was considering apologizing, even if it was against her better judgment, when he spoke up. “Well, I don’t think it’s immodest. I’ve yet to have a problem with how Captain Prescott has managed herself, and I don’t think anyone would be doing well with being lost in an unknown quadrant of space, I don’t care how good of a navigator they are. You’re doing the best you can. Now, my curiosity here is this, Kate: you’ve got a part of you that’s sorry for coming out when he wanted you to stay, because if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be in this mess now, and you’ve got a part of you that would want to be here anyway, regardless. Where’s the part of you that wouldn’t want to be with a man who’d make you choose between him and something that defines you as much as your love of space and everything in it?
“You could have stayed and married him, but who’s to say you wouldn’t look at him in twenty, ten, even two years and resent him for what he made you give up?” He shook his head, and she was surprised to find, when she looked him full in the face, that he actually looked angry. “This is what makes you, Kate. Any man who can’t look at you and find you most beautiful when you’re staring up at the sky with all the wonder of knowing and not knowing what’s out there – he’s not the man for you. And he never will be.”
Kate stared at him, incredulous. It was not just that she had never heard him speak so animatedly – though she certainly had not – but the last thing she could have expected was for him to speak with such passion…about her. That did not seem right to her, though. Wetting her lips, she took care to keep her voice calm, soft. “Something tells me you’ve got a story of your own, Malcolm.” As much as that seemed like its own can of worms, in her mind, it was safer than addressing his words at the moment.
His eyes heavy and darkening as he returned her stare, she was sure that she had only made him angrier, until he spoke again, and she could tell that he was considering his words carefully. “I had a wife, once. I loved her – God, how I loved her, and how she loved me in return. We had a daughter – Matilda, named for my Brigid’s mother. Brigid was a dancer, and our daughter wanted nothing more than to follow in her footsteps. Watching them dance was a pure, singular joy. It would never have even occurred to me to ask either of them to give up something they loved so much, because it made them happy, and I loved to see them happy.”
Feeling her mouth go dry, her fingernails dug into her arms, and she asked softly, “What happened to them, Malcolm?”
She watched his eyes slide shut, and she recognized the shaking of one refusing to let themselves give into the tears, the violent emotion of sadness and grief, and she remained quiet until he was ready to speak. “They were members of a dance troupe that traveled across Ireland, dancing for hospital patients with terminal illnesses. They were returning from Dublin, and their bus drove into a violent storm. The driver went around a curve much too fast, and overturned. Out of twenty-two dancers, their two coaches, and the driver, only three of the dancers and the driver made it out alive. I was told Brigid and Matilda were killed instantly.”
He shook his head and finally looked up toward her, and it filled her with grief for him to see how ravaged his face had become in those brief moments. “For the longest time, I was filled with rage. I cursed the day that my wife taught our daughter to dance. Then…I watched a video. I watched as they danced in our kitchen – the joy in their eyes, their laughter. And I could not hate it. Even if I could go back in time…I couldn’t change a thing. They died happy. That…that, I am sure of.” He sighed and pushed away from the console, crossing the bridge to stand in front of her, his eyes leveling with her own wide gaze. “Any man who says he loves you…would want to know that you are happy, no matter the circumstances. That should be his only wish.”
Her fingernails pressed deeper into her skin, and she could feel the hairs on her arms rising, her nerves tingling, with his closeness, his body mere inches from hers, enough that it would have been more natural to touch, but instead, the fact that he had not reached for her made her all the more aware of just how close to her he was. Her breath caught in her throat, and she stared up toward him, unable to think of anything to say to him, a sole word falling from her lips in a mere breath. “Malcolm…”
The whisper of his name brought a gleam to his grey eyes, and his hands came up to cup her cheeks gently. “Say it again.”
This time, when she spoke his name again, it was a soft whimper, and he claimed the last sound with a kiss as tender as it was fierce, the possession she could sense tempered by how very gentle he was and the reservation that she could feel within, as though he were having to fight himself from pushing further, taking more.
Her eyes had only just slid shut when she felt him move away, and they flew open once more to find him stepping back. “Think about that, Kate.” Turning his back to her, he sat in the pilot’s chair, and she barely felt herself moving, leaving the bridge, practically floating until she found herself in the women’s shower.
Think about that, he had said, and, standing there with the spray beating steadily down over her, she could think of little else. Even with the heat of the shower, Kate could still feel the burn of his altogether too tender kiss upon her lips, the press of his hands against her cheeks. She could still feel how close he had been, a slight inch between them becoming all that she could think about in that moment, wanting nothing more than to close it fully and feel just what his form flush against hers would feel like.
Right at that moment, she needed someone to talk to, but there was no one that she could consider. Elizabeth would not understand, Kate knew that all too well. Technically, Malcolm was her subordinate, he was a sergeant and she a lieutenant, and that degree of fraternization would not be acceptable, especially to someone as by-the-book as her friend the captain was. She did not know either of the other women well enough to bring the topic up to them, though she supposed if she had to choose one over the other, it would likely be Senna, given that Carlie could be quite the raging bitch.
Of the men, the only one that she could even slightly consider talking to was Carlie’s twin brother Joshua, and that idea became all the more interesting when she remembered that faint flush in Elizabeth’s cheeks when the mechanic was mentioned, and, even more ponderous, the way she had seen him look at their flame-haired captain when he thought no one was watching. Perhaps, of anyone else on the ship, he would be the one who could most understand…and perhaps they could even help each other.
Filled with a new resolve that she could feel lightening the weight that she felt as though she carried, Kate went through the rest of her shower by routine, barely thinking about what she was doing, her mind filled instead with alternating thoughts of the Irish sergeant and the possibility of bringing some much-needed smiles to her friend’s face. She finished, dressed, and made for the lift, thankful that she did not run into anybody on the way, or once she got off a few minutes later. When she entered the engine room, she could feel both of the twins’ stares settle on her, as though wondering what she were doing there, considering that she was not a frequent visitor to their realm of the ship.
“Ah…sorry if I’m interrupting, but could I borrow you for a bit, Joshua?”
“What for?” Carlie’s tone was more than a little sullen and annoyed, and Kate could not be certain whether it was because her animosity for Elizabeth transferred to her because of their friendship, or whether the woman was simply an unhappy person all the way around.
“I just have a few questions for him. I promise I won’t keep him long.” Kate smiled, though she was certain that Carlie could tell it was only to be polite and disarming. She kept their eye contact until Carlie was the first to break away with a roll of her blue eyes to go back to what she had been doing.
Joshua wiped his hands on a cloth kept in his back pocket, then shrugged. “Sure, I can spare a few minutes. I’ll be right back, Carlie.”
Kate nodded and gave the man a much friendlier smile than his sister had received, and she led him down to the room she had taken as her office space on the second level, where they would be guaranteed privacy. Normally, she would have simply gone to the galley, but with it being right next door to the engine room, she could not be sure that Carlie would not try to eavesdrop.
She closed the door behind him and gestured to one of the chairs off to the side, seating herself in the other, feeling Joshua’s curious gaze upon her as she settled herself.
“This isn’t about Carlie, is it? I know she’s been kind of…less than a team player lately, but that’s my sister, Lieutenant, I don’t really feel comfortable talking about her.”
Kate chuckled and shook her head. She could admire that loyalty, even if a part of her could not help but wonder if Carlie would feel the same, or if she would throw her brother under the bus to save her own skin. Since it wasn’t about her, though, she shook her head and smiled. “Actually, no, it isn’t. Not really, though she might come up indirectly. No…er…well, this is actually sort of personal, and I thought you and I might have the most in common here.” She was realizing in that moment that she had not thought at all about how she was going to broach this topic with a veritable stranger. She would just have to wing it.
It was easy to see the curiosity in Joshua’s face growing, and all that Kate could hope for was that she was not blushing. She was thankful that it did not seem like he was going to make another assumption and was instead waiting for her to continue. “I, ah…just had something happen that I really need to talk to someone about. Elizabeth – Captain Prescott – is my best friend, sure, but I’m not certain that she would understand or be accepting, and I have the feeling – and I really hope that I’m not wrong about what I’ve observed – that you might be the only person on this ship who would not only understand, but…commiserate, I guess.”
She had watched his face carefully as she had mentioned Elizabeth, that namedrop deliberate so that she could gauge his reaction. The way his features had softened, the slight quirk to the corners of his lips as though trying not to smile and almost failing, had given her some satisfaction. “Alright, well, Lieutenant…lay it on me,” he said, amusement evident in his words, making her laugh a little in return.
“Given the nature that this conversation might end up having, I think you can call me Kate, at least for the moment.” In that instant, she realized that she and the mechanic had never actually had a one-on-one conversation, they had never had a reason to. With that in mind, she grinned and extended her hand. “I am glad to have a chance to just talk to you…you seem like a really nice guy.”
Joshua laughed and took the extended hand, shaking it firmly before drawing his back to his lap. “Me too, Kate…you can call me Josh. At least I can figure you’ll actually use it…I don’t know how many times I’ve told the captain she doesn’t need to be so formal with me.”
There was the opening she knew she needed, and she smiled. “Elizabeth’s always been very no-nonsense. She’s a woman in what’s always been a man’s world, so…she’s always felt like she has to be head and shoulders above any other man who wants to try to shake her from her place. If she had a different XO on this mission, she might dare to let loose a bit, but he’s made it obvious that if she loses the smallest amount of ground, he’ll gobble it up.”
His brows furrowed together, and with a tilt of his head, he asked, “Does he give her trouble? Williamson, that is. Does he bother her?”
Kate knew she could not tell him what had happened between Elizabeth and Williamson, that was not her place, but she was bolstered by Joshua’s obvious worry, which seemed to her to be more than what would be considered passing concern by a team member. She decided that was all she needed to proceed.
“You like her, don’t you?”
She watched the arch of his brows and thought that she might have crossed a line, but then he smiled faintly and raked a hand over his close-cropped hair, lifting his shoulders in a small shrug. “Is it that obvious?”
Kate smiled and gave a small shrug of her own. “Not exactly. Like I said…she’s my best friend. There are things I’ve noticed, and I sort of wondered if it might go both ways.”
The tender smile that she saw tilt his mouth then pleased her more than she had thought it would have. “You…you think she likes me?” He laughed and shook his head. “God, I feel like I’m back in high school.”
A laugh bubbled out of her, and, grinning widely, she nodded. “Yeah, I think she does. Not that she’d ever say anything. Even if she didn’t think it would be…inappropriate, she’s never been in a relationship. I don’t think she’d know where to start.”
“I think she’s amazing.” She could feel the sincerity and the wonder in his words, and she smiled as he continued, his expression turning somewhat sheepish. “It’s just…a little difficult, because…”
One corner of her lips lifted in a sympathetic half-smile, and she finished his thought for him: “Because Carlie hates her?”
He nodded and sighed, letting out a long breath. “Yeah. I mean, Carlie wasn’t overly fond of her when the mission started, but Carlie’s not really a people person anyway. After Michael died, though…she blames it entirely on the captain. I’ve tried telling her I don’t know how many times that it was the only choice that she could make, and all that does is direct her anger toward me.”
Unable to hide her bristling, she shook her head. “Liz holds herself responsible and…she can’t move past the fact that she had to send a man under her command to his death. I think a large reason for that is because of your sister’s obvious hostility. But…like I said, I didn’t ask you here to talk about Carlie, so…we don’t have to continue along that line.”
Joshua smiled gratefully. “Thanks…so…why do I get the feeling that you might be finding yourself in the same position that I am?” She arched a brow, and he shrugged. “You said it was something that you’d recently experienced, and that you thought we might be in the same boat.”
She chuckled softly and drummed her nails on the arm of her chair. “Until about an hour ago, I thought that I was alone in this…attraction that I felt for someone on board. That is, until we found ourselves discussing something personal while on the bridge, and he…kissed me.”
“You mean Sergeant O’Reilly?”
Blinking quickly, her eyes snapped up toward Joshua’s, widening in her surprise. “How did you know?”
“I’m sure you’re a really smart girl, Kate, but…that man’s eyes have been following you around since we left Earth. I can’t believe you haven’t noticed it before.”
A long breath slid from her lips. “Holy shit.”
Joshua chuckled and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “And you think that the captain won’t approve because you’re a lieutenant and he’s a sergeant.” She nodded mutely, and he returned it. “I think you and I can help each other, Kate. More than that, I think we should. After all…who knows, really, how long we have left?”
Kate smiled and nodded again. “You know…I think you’re right. What should we do?”