Breaking ... Broken
Kudos goes to Andy for this one. He had to sit on this bombshell since the fourth season hiatus. You'll know it when you read it. Kudos, Andy! I never saw it coming.--Maer
Sunday, 15 Feb 2522
Durance class Equinox
En route to Paquin
2130 hrs, ship’s time
Dinner with Joshua had gone over well the previous night and I deliberately quit the engine room earlier than usual. I had no real plans other than to retire to our quarters and try to relearn the lost art of relaxing off the clock. In comfortable surroundings and in the company of another human being who just happens to be the man I love. Of course, I had a tough task ahead of me—lounging around doing nothing was never my strong suit so to keep myself occupied while I waited I decided to work on the code string on Ivan Potemkin’s photo. I cleaned up and dressed for bed and piled the pillows high. I pulled the folder with the photo and my notes from my locker, grabbed a pen, and got comfortable.
It wasn’t encrypted Russian. Potemkin wanted to hide the information from others and likely those others were Russians. So … English, perhaps? Gauging the letter frequency would only get me so far, since it would just as easily give me the most frequent encrypted letters in terms of usage as well as the most used letters in an unencrypted string. I had sheets and sheets of past attempts already, working my way down the Latin alphabet in a lateral shift. Still … WX755. Was that the key? Shift 7 letters for the first character, 5 for the next, then shift again another 5? Which direction? Forward? Backward? Back and forth? Which came first, forward or backward?
The fact that the photo was of Joseph’s dead brother made me think of dates as the shift key—Ivan died on 10 June 2518, on Jiang Yin, in fact. 25 and 18 were both numbers that could be accommodated in the Latin alphabet, if barely. What if the date wasn’t the date of death but the date of birth? And that’s assuming his birth date would even fall between 1 and 26. Damn. With Cyrillic, I’d get a larger range. 33. Would I have to get on the Cortex and hack into the Vital Statistics Records of Bernadette to hunt Ivan’s birth date down? There was no guarantee he was even born on Bernadette and that only made me aware just how little I knew of our adversary.
I frowned at the papers spread over the bed in front of me. I could quit our quarters and get on the Cortex and start hunting … but I was reluctant to go down that particular rabbit hole. It was just another isolating habit I wanted to break. I gathered up the scattered sheets and tapped them even and put them back in the folder for safe keeping. Grabbing up my legal pad, I printed the code string from memory at the top of a fresh page and tried a different shift combination. So I was bent over the pad on my knees, propped against the pillows, when Joshua finally walked in and found me.
Joshua had just finished checking with Kiera to see how their passengers were doing. Equinox had dodged the metaphorical bullet with them, even if the ship hadn’t managed to dodge the literal bullet. The Greenleaf fugitives seemed settled in their cabin and unlikely to hold the craziness of Jiang Yin against them. Small miracles. But now he was off shift for a little while and it was time to try and relax, something he hadn’t been very good at lately.
When the door to their cabin opened, he was treated to the sight of Rina poring over a notepad. She was so intent on the contents that she hadn’t even noticed him coming in. “Isn’t pencil and notepad supposed to be my specialty?” he joked as he came up to her and gave her a kiss.
I leaned into the kiss and gave him a taste of me but didn’t dare take it further. Joshua and I had done nothing but eat the night before. Though I’d hoped for more, I maintained my promise to give him time to sort himself out. The warmth of his lips and the weight of his hands were a cruel tease, however, and the memory of him naked and moving over me was torture. I wanted nothing more than to rip his clothes off and roll around like trash. Instead I called up the first equation of the Fourier series and ran it through my head.
“I didn’t think you’d mind my borrowing them. Rough day?”
“Not any rougher than normal,” Joshua replied as he sat down on the bed next to her. He leaned over to look at the notepad. “So what’s got your attention tonight, love?”
“This,” I said instead, giving him the pad. “It’s encrypted. I’m trying to break it. It came off Potemkin’s photo.” His hand brushed mine, sending a little thrill from my fingers to my chest. It burrowed in under my breast bone, making me ache. I ducked aside for the folder and fished the photo out. “Here’s the original.” I held it by the edges, the better to avoid Joshua’s hands. Touching him right now was a bit hard to take. The heat coming off of him made my entire right side painfully aware of how close he was and the dip of the mattress under him conspired to slide me closer. “I’m thinking it might be a lateral shift based on a series of numbers, like a date, rather than a straightforward letter substitution. Still working on finding the combination to unlock it. This is what I’d tried so far …,” I added, turning away and digging my notes out, looking for a little relief.
"Nothing can ever be simple, can it?" Was he talking about the code? He really wasn't sure. He and Rina hadn't been right since the Gift had died. It was like the ease of their relationship had died with it. But really, that was just an excuse. It was his fault, and he didn't feel like he knew how to put things right again.
"So," he said, scooting a little closer, wanting the physical contact, "have we figured anything out yet?"
“No.” Having him closer was not helping. I stared at the foot of the bed and moved on to the second equation in the series. Aware of the irony of my response, I said, “I’ve gone over it so many times it’s stopped making sense anymore. I’m too close to it.”
Only one way to set things right, he thought. He had to get in the proverbial pool again. He wasn't going to let Rina slip away from him. He just wasn't. Joshua took a deep breath and dove in.
"Then why don't you take a break?" Joshua took her face in his hands and pulled her in for a long kiss. "Something physical to distract you from the mental." Another kiss, this time with his tongue slipping between her lips.
I moaned into him, my kiss hungry, deep, and hot. I clutched his shoulders from behind, pulling him closer. Ever since we’d lost Summer’s Gift, Joshua had been off his game. The occasions we’d made love were few on Boros and for the last month, non-existent. If this kiss was all he was willing offer, then I was going to wring every last bit I could from it.
Apparently Joshua felt the same way and every fiber of my being rejoiced as he returned my kiss measure for measure. Clothing became superfluous and it wasn’t long before all that separated us were his pants. Nothing we couldn’t fix, I thought, and I started working him free.
Joshua was suddenly overcome with a feeling of wrongness twisting through him, a spiral of ice instantly destroying the heat that had built within him. He tried to push through it but the internal voices in his head were screaming at him.
Don't let her do it!
Stop her...stop her...stop her...STOP her...
As Rina started to undo the button on his pants, he couldn't handle the pressure anymore and the ice in him suddenly steamed into an explosion of white hot anger.
"DON'T TOUCH ME!" Joshua shouted as he shoved Rina away from him, throwing her up against the wall and pushing himself backward at the same time. And with the shove, the anger evaporated, leaving him hollow inside. He sat there for a second, staring at Rina in shock. Then he bolted for the door, shirt still on the floor and pants partially unbuttoned. He only stopped for a second as he palmed the door open, glancing at the woman he had planned to marry, a horrified look on his face at what he had done. And then Joshua was out the door and running down the hallway, looking for a way to escape from himself.
Through the haze of lust, I felt him falter as I yanked his belt free—I wanted him and his body had told me loud and clear he wanted me too.
Which made what happened next all the more hideous.
One second he was all animal lust and rut, then anger and rejection the next. I barely felt the wall as I hit it. Sex evaporated as adrenaline kicked in, a hard fast spurt stabbing through my gut. I clawed up from the mattress, my breath ragged and my teeth bared, ready to tear into him.
“Chiert vozmi, Joshua—!”
He froze on the bed, deer-in-the-headlights from shock, and then bolted from our quarters. The expression on his face damned near broke my heart. Quick as a flash I snatched my shirt off the floor and pulled it on as I ran after him. It didn’t matter I’d nothing but my skivvies underneath. There was no way in freakin’ hell I was letting things slide. I was done with that. Joshua wasn’t himself. Something on our ship was messing him up and by God I wasn’t going to let him go it alone. Right now there was no telling what that … something … would make him do. I’d lost one man to a mind-fucking. I wasn’t going to lose another.
I should have fought harder for Mike. And I’m not taking this lying down…
I gained the corridor and found it empty. I listened hard past the pounding of my heart hoping for a sign of where he’d gone, even as I strode for the stairs. I had a fifty-fifty chance he’d bolt for hydroponics or Lagniappe … but with Lagniappe Joshua had the means to quit the ship altogether and escape whatever had him. With the engines in pulse, it would be suicide but at the moment, Joshua wasn’t himself. I hit the treads barefoot and called his name.
Joshua had hit the stairs running and climbed them faster than he had thought possible, guilt providing an extra boost to every step. His feet pounded, the reverberations ringing in his head as he entered the hangar, the Lagniappe looming large in the bay. He bolted across and into the guts of the shuttle, knowing that Rina wouldn't be far behind him. But he couldn't face her. He just couldn't. And with the image of Rina thrown across the bed fresh in his mind, Joshua shut the door to the Lagniappe, locking it behind him. As he started to head towards the back storage area, he didn't even bother throwing lights on - the darkness suited him. It was what he deserved.
I heard the pressure door at the head of the stairs hiss shut. Dread spiked my stomach as I realized my hunch had been right. I poured on the speed and skidded into the hangar bay with the echo of Lagniappe closing up still bouncing off the walls. Knowing Joshua, he’d have locked it. I cast about for the tool chest, found it clamped to the bulkhead. I tore into it, looking for what I needed—yes! I grabbed the bypass kit and hacked my way in. The engines lay silent. No one moved above my head on the bridge. I stepped free of the airlock and heard a rustle above and to the rear.
With the memory of our puzzle game echoing unbidden through my head, I scaled the stairs to the rear platform and steeled myself for the worst.
He should have known that a simple lock wouldn't slow her down. Joshua sat huddled in the corner, his arms wrapped around his legs. Sitting there, he could hear the quiet clacking noises as Rina broke the lock. When she entered the shuttle and began heading in his direction, he called out. "Go away!" His voice wavered as he shouted and he knew it wouldn't deter her.
"Just let me be in the dark, Rina. Just let me be..." There wasn't a hole big enough to hide himself in.
“No.” I gained the platform and homed in on his voice. “Can’t. Won’t. Letting you be brought us here. That’s done.” I slowed down as I moved farther back, on my hands and knees as the headroom disappeared. I could feel the heat of him in the dark, could smell the musk of our lovemaking and the stink of fear wafting off him. My fingers brushed his foot and I gripped his ankle before he could bolt again. “I’m yours. You’re mine. I’m willing to fight for that. Are you?”
Because I didn’t think I had to lay it out for him: something on the ship was taking him over, like the Orcus, like Shepherd’s Hope, like Miranda. The salesman with Kiera during our shakedown cruise. The fact that Joshua could never feel easy on our ship. The clues were all there and had been all along.
She had a firm grip on him, but he didn't even bother to try and shake it loose. Where would he go that she couldn't find him?
"You'd be better off with Mike," Joshua said quietly. "I'm not sure that I'm worth fighting for. I bring trouble." What had he brought to Rina that she hadn't already possessed or that she wasn't heading towards anyway? Hell, he had been the one to cost Rina her one true love. He hadn't meant to be the wedge between them, but intentions didn't matter in situations like that. All that mattered were results. And the result was that he had stolen her from Mike, maybe taken her away from the person she was meant to be with.
Because it certainly didn't feel like he deserved to be with her.
“Trouble?” I asked, velvet over steel. “Mike was trouble. Mike was nothing but. And if he wasn’t, it was following him. Has been that way from the start, since we met. I know that. I’ve always known that.” I pulled up alongside Joshua and put my arms around him. “I should have been stronger. I should have fought harder for him. I didn’t. I was too weak. Too afraid of losing what I already had to risk it.” The months of his stay aboard the Gift, and the months I couldn’t touch him, slithered through me, heavy with regret. I felt for Joshua’s face and caressed his cheek. “No more. Tell me what’s wrong. Tell me what’s happening.”
"I don't know, Rina. I just don't know." Joshua laid his head on Rina's shoulder, using her as a pillow, the darkness as his blanket. "I remember the Orcus and the warnings my handlers. It has to be those poor girls, but this isn't something I know how to deal with." As he said it, he realized he wasn't being fair. "No, it's not the girls," he corrected himself. "It's what was done to them, in the bowels of this damn ship. They were hurt and now the echoes of them ring in my head."
He had thought the whole ship setting him on edge was bad enough. But understanding had begun to slowly creep in. It wasn't the end - it was the beginning. Jing Jing Bei owned him now just as surely as they had thought to own those girls. Set them free and maybe he could be free again too.
I knew, perhaps more than anyone on this ship, just what those girls had suffered at the hands of their captors. Intimately. It shifted like mercury in the pit of my stomach, heavy and toxic, and for a moment memories of the Lieutenant came thudding back. I slammed the lid on them and swallowed the bitterness down. I took Joshua’s face in my hands and tightened my grip.
“Listen to me. You’re not going to go another day without your meds. Do you hear me? I don’t care if it filters what you feel off me. You need your own head back. You need peace. You need to breathe. I need you free of the ship more than I need you heating up the sheets. You’re more important to me than that.”
I leaned in and put his head to mine and let everything I felt pour into him where we touched. Mine. My man. Mine. Love, fierce and protective, burning white hot, backed by the fury that anything would dare touch him where it would hurt him most. Mine. I shifted my grip and wrapped myself around him like a blanket, hoping and praying he could hear me through the ship, through the pain it caused him. He was my line in the sand. Horatius’s bridge. Thermopylae. I held him tight and rocked him and declared to the Universe he was mine.
Rina radiated comfort. He felt at peace next to her. If he could be pressed up against her every waking hour, he might be okay. But that wasn't possible. He sat up and looked at her. His night vision had adjusted and he could see well enough from the tiny bit of light coming through the door to be able to see her face. In the darkness, it was just their faces floating in a sea of black.
"No." His voice was firm, if quiet. "I will not let those bastards win by dictating to me how I live my life...what I feel, how I feel it." With Rina sitting beside him, her strength brought his strength back to him. Joshua was starting to feel the darkness and fear fade, replaced by a building anger. Why the 'Verse wouldn't let him his life, he didn't know, but it was time to take a stand.
He put his hand to Rina's cheek letting the warmth radiate through the chill that had encompassed his body. "I don't deserve you. But if you're foolish enough to stick with me, then I'll be a fool beside you."
I wanted to smack him for his pigheadedness over the drugs. But as with the Lieutenant, I swallowed the urge down. Now was not the time or the place to argue the issue. Or to insist he did indeed deserve me. There would be time for all of that later. I rose as far as the headspace would allow and squeezed his hand.
“Fair enough.” It was, really. Joshua was a grown man, not a little boy who needed a momma bear watching over him. Right now, he needed to be that man and I gave him the room to do it. “Can’t hide here forever. Let’s go.”
Her body language and tone told him that she wasn't done with the issue. Her 'fair enough' really meant 'this discussion is temporarily postponed'. But he didn't care. Joshua was tired of being bounced around between forces outside his control. He had chosen his hill and was planting his flag. Besides not having any idea whether the drugs really would stop what was happening on board, he chose to be free from the chains and suffer.
He stood up with her. "I know. Thank you for standing with me. That's why I love you so much." And he kissed her on the cheek, afraid to do anything more.
“And I love you back,” I said and leaned into his kiss … and felt what he didn’t say. The physical expression of our relationship would have to be put on hold. It was a bitter pill to swallow but swallow it I did. “I’ll stand with you, as long as you want me.”
"I still want to marry you, you know," he replied, wrapping an arm around her. "It just may need to wait until we know we can have a proper wedding night."
“I know,” I said softly. Reaching out, I ran my thumb gently from his brow to his chin. I bit my lip, wishing I could do more. “Joshua … can the girls see us now?”
He shook his head. "It's not like that. I don't see ghosts. There is nobody watching me...at least not that I know of. It's more like echoes." What had happened on the ship left impressions. And he was sensitive to them, like stepping in footprints of a person walking in front of him.
"Echoes. From what was done before." I trailed a fingertip along the edge of his lips, already missing them. "What about the things we do? Don't they resonate too?"
Coincidentally, Nika had mentioned something similar when he had talked to her. "Sure they do. The way you feel comfortable at home, that's your happiness resonating there." He took her fingertip in his hand and kissed it. If only it was as easy as replacing the bad with the good. Evil had a way of being...sticky. Something about the way it was always easier to destroy than create, he guessed.
"But the ship is new to us and it'll take time for us to build a foundation of our own," he said, anticipating where she was heading. "Trying to grow something where the earth has already been salted is more difficult...but not impossible."
“Then I want to promise you something.” I curled my finger around his. “I know I said to leave anything ugly outside our quarters but if we’re going to get through this, that’s over. You need a place you can say anything, do anything, no matter what.” I’d misjudged the situation on Boros and had compounded it with that stupid injunction about our cabin. Had I not, tonight might have gone differently and Joshua would be a happier man. “What happened tonight isn’t going to ruin anything. It is what it is. So when we go back, I want you to know it’s okay, I understand, and I still want you with me. All right?”
Joshua nodded, not trusting himself to say anything right away. He still felt guilty. Pretty good odds that he'd feel guilty for quite a while. The human brain stored away these kind of painful moments to pull out at the worst times. But wallowing in the guilt wasn't what she needed or what they needed right now. No matter how much he wanted to.
"Can we go back now? I think I'd like to lay down," he said softly. The energy that had come from adrenaline and fear and guilt had seeped out, leaving him hollow and tired. A quiet rest next to Rina seemed like paradise right now.
“Please. I’d like that,” I said and slipped my arm around his waist. I could feel him flagging and I didn’t waste any more time getting us out of there. The trip to our cabin was short. We pulled up to our door and I felt him stiffen. I put myself between it and him and caressed his face. “It’s okay. It’s just a room. C’mon.”
I pulled him inside and locked the door. Briefly I wondered if I could digitally soundproof the space with noise cancellers, but shelved the idea for another day. I picked up Joshua’s shirt and draped it over the chair, and got him ready for bed. There was nothing of my earlier ardor in it, just a matter-of-fact stripping and sliding him between the sheets. Joshua didn’t resist or object but went down like a man spent. Which I suppose he was. I got in and put myself on the outside but unlike my usual habit, I gave the door my back and wrapped my arms around him face to face. Joshua immediately curled up against me and I stroked his brow until he dropped off to sleep.
I wasn’t so lucky. I lay awake and thought long and hard about what tonight would mean for us, now and in the future, and I think I heard my watch chime double-oh hundred before sleep finally overtook me.