Part 2- Breathe
“Kepler 62 system in T minus 1hr 30 minutes.”
It was going be one of those days, Ned could feel it. The four hours sleep he had managed to snatch seemed wholly inadequate right now. Already he had dealt with several discipline issues, non-Mish related, thank heavens.
Too much Mish on your mind lately, Ned.
As soon as he had surfaced that morning, his sleep-drunken thoughts had swerved her way.
He couldn’t stay away. After that uncharacteristic display of sensitivity last night, he felt strangely obligated to check on her. She was at her usual post in navigation. She sent him a small smile and a polite ‘how-dee-do’ before going back to checking approach vectors.
Ned rubbed the back of neck feeling awkward, and Private Jenkins threw him a nervous– ‘what’s he doing here’–glance.
He knew what they called him behind his back: Grumpy old man. It rankled his granddaddy nerve something fierce. He wasn’t that old, Thirty-eight was a respectable age and he had a respectable job. Space Corps had thrown him a bone, why not chew it up and spit out the bits on the less competent. He didn’t do that for the mere fun of it. He was often the only thing between these toddlers and a face-full of scalding water.
He leaned forward, both hands on the console looking down at the blinking lights. “You Ok?” He asked, keeping his voice to a low murmur to avoid eavesdroppers. Private Jenkins stalked gossip in a way that would rival any society columnist with a case of OCD.
He heard a sharp intake of breath, and lifted his eyes, meeting hers. There it was, a slight hint of vulnerability before she shut it down with a whispered, “I’m fine.” Her blue eyes slitting… Warning him? Telling him to back off? He pushed away from the console, “Well don’t let it happen again, else I’ll be forced to make use of that brig.” He said loud enough to satisfy Jenkin’s info-sucking curiosity vortex. Mish smirked, giving him a wink as he left.
He still had a bad feeling.
Breathe Ned, Breathe.
His job this fine space morning was to prepare equipment for the away team, who were scouting out Kepler 62e. Marriot stumbled through the equipment list with all the mental aptitude of a stoned amoeba, earning him a swift smack around the back of the head.
“The Yahuza 5001, not the Belko X. It’s not the same thing. God’s sake, you want to toast them crispy down there? The probes suggested 62e had pockets of potentially combustible atmospheric dust and gas. Any electrostatic charge could turn a quiet amble through the neighbourhood into a frigging fireworks display!”
Marriot muttered his apologies, which had taken on a distinctly surly and adolescent tone. Most of these kids were fresh out of the kindergarten that passed for Space Corps Academy. Many had rich parents – meaning a significant majority were a waste of stale, recycled-air – and quickly unraveled when called to do anything more strenuous than polishing their own golden plated knobs.
Marriot was one of those kids.
Ned checked and double checked the equipment. His mood increasingly stormy that such precautions were even necessary; but someone had to keep this disaster-waiting-to-happen, from happening. What was sadder still was that most days it was down to him alone. Trustworthy, reliable old Ned, eh.
The job was like dodging lightning strikes in an iron bikini. An exercise in futility considering the leader of this mess, Captain Lancelles –qualified solely because of nepotism –was a lightning rod of epically phallic proportions. The Infinity’s less-than-capable captain was clearly the product of too much inbreeding, a log-headed pretty boy with a vacant toothpaste ad smile. Ned doubted there was anything behind those gleaming pegs larger than a peanut.
Ned ordered the containers to taken to the launch dock. He greeted the juniors collecting them with a stern sideways glance assessing their usefulness on his inbuilt competency meter. When their performance seemed adequate, Ned reluctantly returned to his office to hunker down and casually await the next crisis. He sighed, propping his feet up on the spartan grey desk and stared at the bare metal walls. Other people had the odd picture of family left behind, or irrelevant junk reminding them of irrelevant friends back dirt-side. Perhaps the more cultured officers had some art, trying to fancy up the place with a pretentious load of culturally whorish crap.
Oh this piece was done by a Monk whilst on a dream vision, transcending his mortal self.
Ned liked to say it the way it was—capitalists posing as hippy-commies, stoned on local ‘erbs, looking for a meal ticket or an extra mil… The transcendent pieces in question usually cost a pretty penny… You see even Monks deserved a luxury loft in upmarket Olympus Mons cos all that sitting down and praying to a dozen earless gods gotta be hard work.
Fuck I’m a cynical bastard.
Nah you just don’t want anything on those ugly walls to remind you of uglier things past.
His attention drifted down to the bottom drawer of his desk. The Amber demon lurked inside ready to play the angel on his shoulder and the devil in his ear. Nope, he had to stay crispy fresh today. If you let your guard down Ned, something foul’s going to blow in on that celestial wind, because that’s the way life goes.
Surprisingly there were very few accidents down on the surface of 62e aside from Marriot’s sprained ankle, and some bug bites? He looked away from the report, unashamed of the grin that stretched across his tired face.
The grin didn’t last long.
It soon became clear that Kepler-62e had been one of those really bad ideas. Like the ones that wake up next to you after a too-long-happy-hour. So here he was as usual, mopping up the diuretic aftermath of Captain’s erroneous decision making. Ned being head of security of this glittery sky boat with her fat ass and shiny spangled glory, had been called upon to clean up the mess. As usual.
He adjusted the gas mask and let loose another stream of misty green bug spray. It turned out Kepler-62e was home-sweet-home to swarms of large mosquito-like life forms. Which typically (because anything that could go wrong did go wrong on the Infinity) somehow hitched a ride in the away shuttle. So here he was, relegated to the role of evil alien exterminator. He hadn’t seen this many bugs since the plague in the summer of 98 back dirt-side.
Ah, the days when bugs were the worst of our problems.
A fat blood sucking midge peeped around the corner from the elevator tube, its dewy mandibles working, the feathery wings trembling nervously. Ned gave it a face full of industrial strength bug spray and enjoyed the instant reward of a frantic but spectacular tumbling. The violent scratching of wings and legs against metal were testimony to its torment.
They were fortunate they had this stuff on hand. The Virgos Bedbug epidemic several years ago had made pest eradication supplies compulsory. The Virgo had been the perfect test case to espouse the dangers of inter-crew fraternization.
He sensed someone standing behind him and turned from the award winning drama that was the insectoid’s death throes to face… Mish. Her blue eyes glittered, giving Ned’s ulcer an excuse to shiv him.
That was more than a question…
Ned growl-grunted and whined in the same breath. He just wasn’t in the mood.
Just zap the bugs Ned.
“Fun dwells in a universe far from where I’m standing, Mish. For all I know we have just declared war on these things. Bloody typical, the away team needs to be lined up, pants down and given an ass kicking with the heel of my bug-gut stained boot! How the hell did that many get into the equipment storage? Did they deliberately herd the little buggers in there or something?”
She grimaced, and Ned saw guilt flicker, her poker face was the definition of crapability.
No…Yes… of frigging course!
“YOU did this!” Ned’s eye twitched and the vein in his temple throbbed.
“Aw, Ned, don’t look at me like that, I’m getting that spontaneously combusty feelin’ right down to the tippy of my toes.”
“Should’ve known, I didn’t even think to check the away log for your name.”
Her devil-may-care grin reappeared. “Come on Ned, thought I was doing you a favour. You ain’t really had much to do lately and it’s made you all tense, and grouchier than usual. The way I figured, hunting down and squashing lower life forms would be right up your alley.”
If only she knew…
“You did this as some sort of messed up favour?”
She smirked, flashing some guilty-as-charged pride. “Anything for a friend!”
“God almighty! If I’m your friend, I hate to see what you do to your enemies’ kid.” He snorted and a reluctant smile snuck up on him, taking momentary control of his grizzled features.
He chalked the slippage up to temporary insanity. She needed to explain some things and he wasn’t taking no for an answer. He decisively grabbed her forearm, pulling her round the corner, swiped his card against the near-by supply door reader, and pulled her inside with him. She backed against the wall, nervous heels knocking miscellaneous cans together with a dull clunk, eyes wide behind that curtain of dirty blond locks. She bit her lip.
He crossed his arms, leaning forward slightly, determined to play the part of the overbearing and pissed off security chief with her, just this once.
“So how did you do it?”
He saw her grit her teeth, and sucked in a breath with a hiss, smirks now long forgotten by those worry-punished lips. She looked at her boots. He tore his eyes away from her mouth. “There were these pods down there hanging from the local flora. I saw the bugs hatch, seemed harmless enough, they bit Marriot and Jones with no effect. So I stowed a couple in the transport’s equipment compartment. Figured I’d place them in the Captain’s private lounge, didn’t realize how many bugs were smuggled away in them things. Come on, Ned, you ain’t really mad are you?”
He wiped a hand down his face, “Yea kid, I’m mad. Do you know how many regs you broke this time, this is potentially people’s lives. What if the bite was toxic? “
“But it wasn’t,” she scratched absently at her arm.
The question that had been worming its way round inside his head ever since her first met her suddenly burst out, “Why do you do this stuff, Mish?”
“Told you, thought it would liven up your day.”
“That’s not what I meant…”
Her mouth turned down and a crease formed between those delicate brows. She scratched her arm again, slowly as if mulling over what she was gonna say. Probably rehearsing a pretty story in her warped but ingenious mind.
He stepped forward and slammed his open hand against the wall beside her. The slap of flesh against concrete stung his palm.
Careful Ned, you are a little too good at killing friendships...
She flinched, fear darkening those pretty eyes. Then her chin rose defiantly. “You don’t know what it’s like being completely powerless, unable to stop bad things from happening to you.” He recognised that look. Bruised down to the bone, with wounds so deep they’d scabbed over, hardening the heart. He realised he had forgotten to breathe; his lungs aching and starved. He sucked in that deep breath and the fresh scent she wore rushed in. He pulled back giving them each space, room to breathe, space to think. Distance.