Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chapter 17

Her dreams had been strange: she'd found herself soaring over the plains of Mars, not in a ship, but just flying. As she reached Valles Marineris, she had felt that something was terribly wrong, but couldn't find the source of her terror. At the midpoint of the canyon, she heard an explosion, and looked behind to see that her body was in flames and spewing black smoke. When she had screamed, the scene changed to a star field, with a burning ship blotting out half of the sky. The flaming pieces of the ship fell through the blackness to the planet's surface, screaming in a high speeds to explode as they impacted. She had reached out, trying to catch the pieces of the ship, but they fell through her fingers and escaped. She struggled to reach further, but there was nothing to brace herself against in the emptiness of space, and more fireballs rained down on the planet. Finally, everything faded to a smoky blackness.

She awoke with difficulty the next morning, struggling towards consciousness with effort. For a few minutes, she let herself relax into the hammock, enjoying its warmth and security. “Maybe I could just lie here for a day,” she muttered, eyes still closed, “and everyone else could cover for me, and I could just sleep...and then my ship could blow up and take us all with it because I wasn't on guard.”

With a sigh, Jass opened her eyes and worked her way out of the hammock. “I swear, if I ever catch the person setting those bombs, it's going to be a quick trip through the airlock. No-one should be denied a good night's sleep because they're too worried about blowing up in the middle of the night.” She shook her head to clear it.

The med lab was empty when she arrived, but instead of strapping herself into the treadmill as usual, she pulled herself over to a resistance machine. The machine was little more than a metal frame with heavy springs. It was similar to the weight machines used in gyms, but instead of weights, relied on springs to provide the resistance that would keep the spacers' muscles toned and active. She pulled the machine's straps tight around her body, made sure her feet were secure in the braces, and began to work the arms of the machine, pulling them in toward each other in front of her, and releasing them at a measured pace. After ten minutes, she could feel the muscles in her shoulders begin to burn, but pushed herself on for another five minutes. She let the arms of the machine come to rest and rubbed her shoulders. “Out of practice, Jass. Gotta get back in shape.” She made sure to use all the parts of the machine in turn, working out as many muscle groups as she could. When her entire body ached, she loosened the straps that held her in and let herself float up and out of the seat.

After a quick shower, she pulled her hair back into her usual braid and made her way up the corridor. As she came into view of the crew quarters, she saw Merriam bracing himself outside the door of Martina's quarters; the two were talking in intense whispers and he was gripping her wrist. Jass couldn't hear what they were saying, and as soon as they saw her, both fell silent.

Merriam, what are you doing?” Jass grabbed a handhold on the wall and pulled herself to a stop. Merriam let go of Martina's wrist, and turned around.

I needed to ask her some questions about some measurements she took for me earlier today. It's quicker to talk than to send messages back and forth. What, now I have to ask permission to talk to my fellow crew members? That seems like a rather draconian policy.”

Jass ignored his barb, and turned to Martina. The younger woman had pulled her arm down by her side and was trying to massage her wrist without attracting notice. “Was he bothering you? You don't have to put up with anything just because you're doing a few jobs for him.”

Martian opened her mouth to speak, then changed her mind and shook her head. “No, he wasn't bothering me. Just checking some readings.” She smiled and tried to give a convincing laugh. “My handwriting's so bad even I can't read it half the time.”

Jass wanted to order Merriam to stay away from her anyway, but without proof she could be setting herself up for a lawsuit for creating a hostile workplace. The situation was bad enough with the damage small shipping companies were suffering, she didn't want to give any potential client any additional reasons for picking another company to ship their cargo.

Ok, just...remember to treat others with respect, ok? I know things can get pretty casual out here, and the close quarters don't help, but it's important to treat each other professionally.”

Merriam gave her an odd look, but nodded. “Naturally, captain. Martina, I think we've got the issues ironed out, so just remember to write more clearly next time so we don't have to have another interpretation session, ok?” He kicked off from the wall and moved quickly down the corridor towards the science lab.

Jass turned back to talk to Martina, but she had retreated inside her quarters and closed the door.

The incident stuck in Jass' mind as she read the morning reports at her console an hour later. She was more sure than ever that Merriam and Martina were sleeping together, and nothing about the relationship looked healthy. But if Martina insisted that everything was fine, she had no business poking her nose in.

Jass sighed, and put the issue out of mind. The latest news from Mars and Earth had been loaded onto her console, but nothing caught her attention. She heard a sound behind her, and turned around to see Kristin entering the cabin.

I think we've entered the most dangerous part of the trip,” Jass commented, “the part where we get bored.”

Kristin laughed and made her way up to the captain's console. Her hair floated out in a short halo around her head; Jass always thought that zero g made her friend look like a retro-glam rock star.

That's the nature of the business,” Kristin commented. “We have a full library, you know. You could pull up just about any book you wanted on your computer.”

I can't seem to sit still long enough to read. I always feel like there's something more productive I'm meant to be doing.”

Cleaning the ship?”

From what dust? The air filters catch most of it, and anything that did make it through got picked up on an earlier sweep.”

Kristin floated in front of the window, looking out. “It's too late, then. You're doomed to death by boredom. I'll make sure the memorial service is appropriately sappy. I might even sing 'O Danny Boy.'”

Jass grimaced. “You're given me back my will to live. There's got to be a way to get through the day that isn't going to make me crazy at the end of it.”

Take up painting.”

You're not helping.”

Ok, then, want to help an old friend try to figure out how she should solve a problem when she gets home?”

I'm afraid even to ask.”

Believe it or not, I'm serious this time,” Kristin said, turning away from the window. Something in the tone of her voice made Jass look up from the console.

What kind of problem is it?”

Kristin ran a hand through her short brown hair, making it stand on end even more than it did before. “it's going to be a long story.”

I've got nothing but time.” Jass closed the reports and turned her full attention to her friend.

I've been thinking a lot about the time I spent in Bradbury Dome right after school. You telling me the story about you and Vijay got me to thinking and remembering a lot of stuff I'd forgotten. Tried to forget, anyway. And then you seemed so hurt when you realized that Aaron hadn't told you about the problems he'd had since school, whatever those are. I don't really have anyone else to talk this over with.”

She pulled herself over to her own console and strapped herself in tightly so that she wouldn't move around the cabin.

We kinda fell out of contact for those months. We were both so busy, there wasn't time for much more than the occasional email and message. I was enjoying my freedom from school, and you were working so many hours in the hangar, and then you were gone for those months on your first run...” She stopped and gave a short laugh. “I'm sorry, i'm babbling. I haven't told anyone this whole story before, so I'm having trouble finding the right words. When I first arrived in Bradbury Dome, it was so big and new, it's a whole different world than Spirit City. I was a little overwhelmed. One of the guys from my office offered to help show me around. He didn't work in my department, he was in advertising or sales or something like that. Which should have been a warning, come to think of it.”

Jass began to get an idea of what Kristin's story might be, and wasn't sure she wanted to hear it. But her friend needed to speak, and she held her fear in.

We went out a couple of nights a week, always to a new place. Sometimes it was a new Indian place, once it was Noveau Martian. We went to movies, plays, art openings, everything he could think of. I felt so uncultured and unprepared for life in a city like that. I was so grateful to have someone who knew how to find his way around. After a month or so, we started dating. It wasn't too serious at first, but it got heavier all the time. About four months into my time there, I was spending every evening either out on the town with him or eating dinner at his apartment. I didn't go anywhere without him, because he knew all the best places to go, the most fun things to do...why would I want to spend time with anyone else?”

She paused, and swallowed hard. “Geez, I don't normally get emotional, but this is harder than I thought.” She took a deep breath, and said with some effort, “Five months into the relationship, my birth control failed and I found out I was pregnant.”

Jass tried not to respond, but her face must have revealed her surprise. Kristin noticed, and a corner of her mouth turned up. “See, I thought you probably didn't know about that. I'm not exactly the mothering type, you know. And I hated the thought of having a kid, but...I don't know, I just couldn't go through with an abortion. I didn't know any women in the city who might have gone with me, and I hadn't told Drew yet. By the time I did tell him, I'd already decided to have the baby. I told him that I had some news for him, and he invited me over to his place for dinner instead of going out. The dinner was lovely; he'd learned to make some dishes that he learned from a chef in town and had just about perfected the roasted chicken over penne with marsala sauce. I kept holding off on telling him the news, but after dinner, he insisted that I spill the beans.”

She shifted in her seat, trying to find a more comfortable positions for the straps that held her in her seat.

So we settled onto the couch, and I explained that I was going to have a baby. I told him that I planned to give it up for adoption, but that I wanted him to know about it so that we could find a good pair of adoptive parents together.”

Let me guess,” Jass said as her friend fell silent again, “he wasn't overly thrilled.”

You could put it that way. He ranted for a few minutes about how I could dare to let this happen, then told me he'd give me money to go to the clinic and have an abortion. I'd already made up my mind, and refused; even if I had wanted the abortion, I wouldn't have wanted to do it under those terms. I told him so. Two minutes later, I was standing by myself in the middle of the street, listening to the door lock behind me.” She held up a hand to forestall Jass' outburst. “No, don't say it. It was terrible, but I don't want to dwell on it too much. Actually, it was probably for the best: I hadn't seen that side of Andrew before, and I could have been much more enmeshed in the relationship than I was. The break was quick, and I never saw him again.”

Did...?” Jass started to ask a question, then stopped.

Yes, I had the baby. I hated every minute of the nine months before she was born. I'd always heard about how wonderful pregnancy was, but it wasn't. It was like I could feel her sucking the life out of me.”

Wasn't there anyone you could call for help?”

Who? My mother and I haven't spoken in years, my sister immigrated to Earth, and I hadn't made any friends of my own in Bradbury Dome. There were a few women I worked with, but...” She shrugged. “Workplace friendships. You know.”

You could have called me! I would have flown over in a heartbeat, they have plenty of jobs in Bradbury Dome...”

You were enjoying your first real spacer job and getting ready for your first deep space run. Even if I had called, you wouldn't have been able to come, not without damaging your own career.”

Jass unbuckled her straps and made her way over to her friend. “So you were alone when you had the baby?”

Kristin nodded. “It was pretty quick. I went in to the hospital when labor started, had the baby, and she was given to the adoptive parents right away. I never even held her. She'd be ten next summer. I don't even know if she knows she's adopted. I've never written a letter, or tried to get in touch. She deserves to be as secure in her home as she can, and her mother and father love her very much. When I saw their faces light up as they took her in their arms, I knew that I'd made the right choice. But sometimes...sometimes I'd like to do more for her. Make sure she can go to whatever school she wants, make whatever kind of life she wants. Her parents are good people, but they didn't have much more money than I did. I brought her into the world, the least I can do is make sure she has a good start in it.”

The two women sat in silence for a long time, looking across the empty cabin and out through the window. The room was quiet, though the usual beeps and alerts echoed through from time to time, and Jass thought she could feel the ventilation system thrumming in the walls.

So what I want to know is,” Kristin said, breaking the silence, “do I try to contact her parents now after all these years? Ask them what I can do? Or do I just go the way I've gone for the last decade, leaving her alone?”

Jass let go of the edge of the console and let herself float free again. “Hell, Kristin, I don't know. If even you aren't sure, I haven't got a clue. My one real relationship went up in flames, this is out of my scope.”

it's ok,” kristin said, loosening the straps that held her into her seat. “I think I just needed to talk it out a little. It feels good not to have to hide that whole story anymore. Not that I'll go spreading it all over Mars, you know,” she added. Her familiar smile was back and she stretched into the middle of the cabin. “Sometimes keeping things to yourself makes the decision seems harder than it is. I think I made the right choice. And it's my watch now, so you should go find something else to do. This friend is all out of problems that need solving.”

Jass laughed and turned to leave the room. As she closed the door behind her, she saw Kristin move toward the window, and wondered how much time her friend had spent alone over the years.

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