The first week of the return trip to Mars went by more quickly than Jass had expected. There was enough to do to prepare the ship and its cargo that she was able to keep herself busy. No new bombs were found, and she sometimes let herself believe that the danger might be past. But in the quiet moments, she knew that she couldn't afford to let her guard down.
“What's the official count today, Aaron?” Jass asked as she pulled herself into the control room.
“Official count? If we adhere to our current trajectory, we will arrive at Mars in twenty days, five hours, and forty-two minutes. Approximately.” Aaron's voice was cheerful, but guarded. Jass had tried to talk to him again about the necessity to keep information about the bombings limited, but he had refused to talk about it.
Jass glanced at her console again, knowing that nothing needed her attention. This was the hardest part, she mused, being finished with the main run and just waiting until you got close enough to home to start worrying about gravity and the landing. Many of the crew spent hours in their quarters, reading or watching movies, but she felt confined in her small room. The view was better from the control room, even if it was the same starfield they'd been looking at for days. By edging up close to one of the windows and peering out at an angle, she'd been able to spot Mars.
She paged through the reports from the run. Each report had been filed on time, and a copy sent to the investors' office on Mars when the signal was strong enough to ensure a clear transmission. Everything was in order; she'd decided not to mention the bombs that had been found and defused in time, but there was no hiding the last attack. With a hole in the wall of the ship, she'd felt obligated to include the incident.
An unread message was waiting on her console, the blinking icon drawing her eye to it. She didn't click it. She had seen the message yesterday, and still hadn't decided what to do about it. It would be about the bomb, obviously. But nothing could be done other than what she was already doing: posting a watch at all hours, watching for suspicious activity, and making time for Mars as quickly as possible.
But this wasn't something that could be ignored. Jass sighed and opened the message.
“Re: Report from Curious Machine, Log # 56892
It is with great concern that we received your last report. Incidences of sabotage aboard small ships have been on the rise, but we were assured that your crew had been thoroughly screened and trained. This report is very troubling. Please note that your cargo will be inspected upon arrival in Spirit City dock; any expenses incurred from damage to paid cargo will be deducted your final payment.
Kirk Wayland, for the Nesmith Investment Group”
“Miserable bastards,” Jass growled under her breath.
“What is it?” Aaron asked distractedly.
Jass sighed and closed the message. “The investors. They're threatening to cut our final payment if there's any damage to the cargo when we get back. I mean, that's understandable, but to blame me because I couldn't forsee a saboteur on my crew? Isn't that kind the point of sabotage: that you don't know who's responsible?”
“They're going to cut the payment? By how much?”
She shrugged. “They didn't say. I'm guessing it would depend on what they found, if anything. I know, it sucks, but we still have the percentage that they paid at the beginning.”
Aaron was agitated. “I can't afford to lose any of that last payment, Jass. If I don't get the full amount, they can't afford...I won't be able to make the budget I planned on.”
“Money's going to be tight for everyone. Just means I'll have to find another cargo run sooner than I planned.” Jass made a mental note to check for upcoming payloads in need of a ship as soon as she returned to Mars.
“No, it's not like that. It's...” His voice trailed off as he hung in the air in front of the window. “I needed that money.”
Jass looked up at him, trying to quash the spark of suspicion that sprang up. “I thought you were pretty well settled. Did something come up?”
He didn't respond for a long moment. Then he pulled himself back to his console and buckled himself into his chair. Turning to look at Jass over his shoulder, he struggled to control his voice. “What I am about to say does not leave this room. I don't care if you think I'm the bomber right now, but I need that money. I don't think anyone on the crew knows, but I have a girlfriend back home, and we need the money to get married and for, well, for other things.”
“Why are you keeping that a secret?” Jass asked. “That seems like something to celebrate! Even if this trip doesn't give you the money to get married, you can sign on for the next trip and make it up there.”
He shook his head. “I don't have the time. She doesn't have the time. This was our last hope.” He cleared his throat and looked up. “She was one of the researchers on board the Peregrine.”
Jass sucked in a breath. The Peregrine was the most famous space disaster until the recent spate of bombings. Parked in high-Mars orbit, the ship was conducting a standard set of microgravity experiments. It was a routine mission, until a part that had not been properly inspected failed. Seven researchers working in the lab had been pulled out into the vacuum without suits. Three of them had grabbed onto protruding tubes and metal from the ship for a few seconds, until a quick rescue effort had pulled them back inside and temporarily sealed the breach, but four had been lost.
“She was one of the three?” Jass asked.
Aaron nodded. “She had the most exposure of all of them. At first, the doctors thought she was doing well, at least as well as could be expected. But over time, her condition deteriorated. There's an experimental procedure that could help her, maybe even let her be strong enough to walk again, but her family doesn't have any money for it. I was going to pay for it with the money from this run. If they cut that payment...if they cut it, I can't afford the treatment, and she will die within a few months.”
Jass was silent. How could she not have known about this? Aaron had been a friend for years. But she'd been so busy the last two years, choosing a crew, buying a ship, arranging for the first run. And if he'd kept the relationship quiet, perhaps there was no way she could have known. She felt sick.
“Aaron, I'm so sorry. I had no idea.”
“She's a very private person. We both kept the relationship pretty quiet; she didn't want attention as the 'tragic victim of an accident, fighting for love.' You know how the news sites are with stories like that. She was glad when the publicity from the accident faded.” He forced a smile. “Want to see a picture?”
Jass unbuckled herself from her console and hovered over his. He pulled up a photograph, taken several years before. “Here's her profile picture from the Peregrine's records. She likes this one a lot.” The image on his screen was of a young woman, smiling confidently for the camera. She looked twenty-five, perhaps twenty-seven, and ready to take over the world.
“She's beautiful, Aaron.”
“She'd kill me for showing you this one, but I actually prefer it.” With a blink, the screen changed. The woman in the bed was a far cry from the confident girl on board the research ship. She lay in a hospital room, clear tubes in her nose and arms, propped against a bank of pillows. Her hair lay on the pillow, framing a face that had grown thin. But Jass could see why Aaron preferred this picture; the girl's smile, confident in the first image, was radiant. Strength beyond pain shone through her face, and she was beautiful.
Jass nodded wordlessly, and Aaron touched the screen for a moment before closing the image.
“What's her name?”
Silence fell in the control room, and Jass busied herself at console, despite having no pressing business. She tried to ignore the realization that Aaron's desperate need of money made him the perfect target for someone looking to recruit a mole.
During the second week of the voyage home, Jass got out her camera again. Mars had just come into view in the window of the control room, and she tracked its slow passage across the starfield. With the engines off, since there was no need of acceleration, she could take long exposure shots without worrying about vibrations distorting the image.
All the cargo was secure, Kristin had assured her, and Merriam had double-checked the science payload and confirmed that everything was ready for re-entry. The crew had settled into a pattern of restlessness, reading books or playing games to pass the hours. Jass spent at least three hours each day on the treadmill. Her reason, when asked, was to make sure that her muscles were ready for the upcoming exertion of returning to gravity, but when she was honest with herself, it was as much to feel the illusion of weight on her feet as anything else. The hours alone were another benefit; it was hard to talk to people or wonder about their loyalty when her feet were pounding along the treadmill's belt.
The ship was silent most of the time, except for the usual sounds of the electronics and ventilation system. It feels like everyone is holding their breath, thought Jass one night as she moved through the main corridor to her quarters. As she turned the corner, she was surprised to see Martina waiting by her door.
“Hey, Martina, what's up? Aren't you due for watch in a little while?”
The girl nodded, looking upset. “Yes, but I needed to talk to you for a minute. Can I come in?”
Jass paused. She didn't usually let anyone into her quarters; the room was cramped to begin with, and she preferred to keep conversations with crew in less personal spaces. But Martina was on the edge of tears, so she quickly opened the door and ushered the girl inside.
“What's the matter?”
Martina opened her clenched fist; the bird charm rested in her palm. “I know you meant well, but I can't accept this. I'm not ready, it wouldn't be right.”
Jass restrained herself from reaching out to snatch up her beloved charm. “It was a gift, Martina. You've done well on this trip. It's yours.”
The young woman choked back a sob, and Jass gingerly put an arm around her shoulders. “Hey, it's ok. What's wrong? Is it something about Merriam?”
Martina shook her head, then nodded, then sobbed again. The tears welled up in her eyes, droplets breaking off as she shook her head again.
“Oh, honey, don't cry. You need to calm down; whatever it is, we can take care of it.” Jass grabbed a towel from her locker and dabbed Martina's eyes. “Take it from someone who's cried in zero g more times than you can count: when the tears can't fall, it just makes you feel worse. Here, just hold this against your eyes til it stops. Take a deep breath...there you go. Another one. Good. Ok, much better. Now, can you tell me what's going on?”
Taking a shuddering breath, Martina shook her head again. Jass squeezed her shoulder. “It's ok. My guess is, it's about Merriam. Yes, I knew what was going on between you, but you're both adults so I couldn't do much about it. I told him he should break things off, because it's really not professional, not to mention highly inappropriate with someone of your age. He may be a good scientist, which is why he's on the crew, but he's not a good man. You only have to be around him a little longer. Just two more weeks, and we're back on Mars where you can take whatever classes you want, whatever jobs you want, and never have to see him again.”
“He won't sign off on my forms,” Martina whispered, hugging her knees.
“Forms?” Jass asked, confused.
“For my internship. So I can get credit. If I don't get credit, that's nine months, gone, not counting the training hours. If those forms aren't approved, then I won't get the grants I need to finish school...” Her voice broke and she hiccuped.
“It's going to be ok,” Jass insisted, handing Martina the cloth to blot her tears again. “I'll talk to Merriam. You've done a good job as far as I can tell, and you've learned a lot about extended zero g travel, so that should be enough.”
When the young woman left, Jass latched her door and let out a long breath. Was I ever that dramatic, she wondered. “Wish that grades were the biggest thing I had to worry about.” She made a mental note to talk to Merriam about Martina's internship forms soon.