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You know how I feel.--Maer

Nika hadn't spoken much since the deaths of Arden and Joshua. She watched through the front viewscreen as the Decatur approached with its companion the Yamato. "I'll meet them at the airlock," she told Rina with the same preternatural calm that she'd retreated into when the adrenaline of the fight released her.

She made her way through the ship silently, occasionally passing robots still cleaning up scorched stuff off the floors or fixing things broken when the exploding soldiers died. When she finally stood at the airlock door there were several members of Decatur's crew accompanied by a half-dozen Marines disembarking the ship.

Nika's heart skipped a beat. Brian Connelly stood with the Captain and XO of Decatur. He was still alive. She didn't know how or why, but for some reason he had survived. And now they had a cure in hand that he was already being exposed to. Nika's cobalt eyes slipped from his to her erstwhile captain. Her calm was being threatened by the sight of them. "Captain," she murmured in greeting.

Shyla Kramer paused there, her eyes steady on her former pilot and narrowing slightly. "Captain Earhart," she said slowly, taking her cue from the way she was addressed that Nika needed the formality right in that moment. "Permission to come aboard?"

One corner of Nika's mouth almost quirked upward but not quite. "Of course," she replied.

"The team of techs you asked for are just behind us. They'll handle the computer end of things and then we'll get this baby on course. You and the rest of your crew are needed in our medlab so the doctors can get thorough scans of how the cure is working." The redhead watched warily as she spoke. Something was off.

Without taking her eyes from Shyla Nika said quietly, "You should allow anyone who is showing signs of the illness progressing to come aboard, but no one who has any kind of genetic modifications. The cure is in the atmo here. It will at least slow the progression while your medical personnel assess."

Shyla nodded. "The doctor on board is looking forward to conversing with Dr. Arden about the cure and side effects." It was then that she knew. The subtle crack in the blond's neutrality gave a glimpse of a pain that took Shyla's breath away. She hadn't seen Nika hurting so bad since ... not since the day Connelly'd tried to eat a grenade for them.

Her blue eyes flickered away from Shyla, back to Brian Connelly for a brief moment who looked ... a little puzzled. Shock crossed his features when she looked right at him. Nika had deliberately avoided looking at Yu-Shin Harrington but now her eyes fell on the tiny Asian woman. In those dark eyes, she saw the knowledge well before she could force her voice past the strangling lump in her throat. "The records are available to them. Dr. Arden and Lieutenant Drake were casualties of the cure."


This ship was positively massive. Shyla walked down the hall toward the bridge, her hands shoved into her pockets. The blond's eyes, so different from the ones Shyla knew, had been on Harry when she said it but she couldn't stop seeing the raw, soul-deep grief in Nika's face.

"The records are available to them. Dr. Arden and Lieutenant Drake were casualties of the cure."

She could see the strain in the blond's face though it was subtle. Shyla turned to the Marine squad and said, "Connelly, take the medical team and your team and start the sweep of the section. I want you to secure the medlab that will be used and remain there with full communications with the medical team."

"Yes, ma'am," Connelly said, clearly shaken.

She would have to check on him later. The priority at this moment was to get control of the ship's computers and make sure the survivors -- both of the Ark itself and of Nika's crew -- were cared for. Shyla touched her ear comm, her eyes never leaving Nika's face, and said, "Kramer to Bridge. Grant, get the computer team assembled and send them to the bridge in 10."

Only when the Marines were out of sight did she start to step forward. "Nika..."

It was all the permission the blond needed. The shell the blond captain had constructed to do what needed doing broke under the strain, and Nika Earhart finally began to cry. She brought both hands to her mouth to stifle the sob, but her eyes flooded with tears and her whole body seemed to curl in on itself as she hunched over, the sheer magnitude of her emotional pain rendering her incapable of standing upright.

Harry was there in a heartbeat, with a strong arm around Nika's waist. The two women shared a look, Shyla's uncertain because though she loved Nika like a sister it had always been difficult for her to show her feelings so openly. Harry's gaze was understanding and she gently shooed Shyla. "Come, Xiao Mei," she crooned in a soft whisper. "Nǐ de yǎnlèi, zūnzhòng tāmen de jìyì. Tāmen kūle, xiǎoméi, yǒu méiyǒu zài bēitòng zhōng de chǐrǔ." Tiny as she was next to Nika, it was Harry who held the blond up and led her gently back into the airlock and across to Decatur.

Rubbing a hand across her eyes, Shyla was not surprised to find her fingertips wet. She reined in her own emotions, though. She would grieve for the two men in the privacy of her quarters and raise a glass to them. Their sacrifice deserved to be honored. She only hoped that she could pull the women of the Equ... no, EXETER's crew back from the abyss somehow.

The bridge doors opened and Shyla Kramer stepped onto the massive balcony that comprised the main part of the deck. Her eyes swept the consoles, and she noted the giant downed robot in the corner. Her brow furrowed slightly. Though it was clear someone had tried to clean it up, there was still evidence of the gun battle that had obviously blazed here.

Her gaze did not find the person she was seeking, however. "Rina?" she queried aloud, walking toward the front consoles so she could peer over the railing to the rest of the deck below. The sight of the engineer on her hands and knees with a bucket and brush brought her up short.


Thursday, 10 Feb 2524
Arkship Amenoukihashi
Somewhere off Kalidasa Ecliptic
0835 hrs, ship's time

I was on my third bucket of soap and water but try as I might, I couldn't erase the stain. I could still see my husband's blood on the deck. It mocked me, indelible and unforgiving. I could not rest until it was gone. My body burned from fatigue, my eyes ached from unshed tears, and my heart was broken beyond repair. Sleep was impossible. Eating was impossible. The whole damned Universe was impossible. Nothing made sense. Nothing was real. Nothing mattered but Joshua dying on the deck, his blood on my hands, his breath on my lips, as he kissed me goodbye.

I dunked my brush in the bucket and applied it to the deck plates again, scrubbing hard. If I could just get rid of that stain, I could rid myself of that reminder. Someone called my name. It wasn't Joshua. I wasn't that woman. I ignored it and kept on scrubbing.


There was nothing on the deck under Rina's hands. The soapy water had already taken care of whatever it was that she was scrubbing so hard at. Shyla could guess, though -- there were few things that would drive a body to wash a certain spot over and over again. When Rina didn't look up Shyla went down the stairs to the deck below. She allowed it to continue for another few moments, and then she walked forward and crouched to where she could wrap both arms around the smaller woman and put her own hands on the scrub brush.

"Let me?" she asked gently. "I would like to help, Irina. We will be sure there is nothing left here."


The mind can fasten on the strangest things in times of stress. When the arms came down and the voice persisted, all I could think of was how Joshua would be disappointed that I could not complete this final task in his memory. That and how I was head to toe wet from the scrubbing, flecked with soap and blood. His blood. It was all over me. I was fairly dripping with it. Revulsion blazed through me then and I threw off the arms holding me. I couldn't bear to be touched. I tightened my grip on the brush and started mapping the trajectories and forces necessary to bludgeon whoever it was that insisted on intruding, but my eyes never left the spot where Joshua died.


The movement didn't startle Shyla -- she'd expected a far more violent reaction, truth be told. And would have welcomed the flash of temper. Instead the redhead released carefully and moved to squat down more in front of Rina. She put her hand down in the spot on the ground that Rina was watching and she said calmly, "Irina... Look at me." She waited, and when no response was forthcoming, she started talking.

"I loved a man named Daniel Chang. He and I went through boot camp together, we served on the same ship for a long time. We weren't on the same career path, though -- he was a chef at heart while I was definitely what the Alliance wanted for Command. When I got my captaincy of the Tigerlily he took a post as my Chief of the Mess. It was a post he liked, and it kept us together. He never cared about ranks and things like that, really." Shyla couldn't help a fond smile. "He was a good man. We served together for five years on board Tigerlily. He was killed in a ship battle in Georgia. And I buried him at home with his parents. But for a long time I couldn't walk into the mess hall on board my own ship."

There is genuine sympathy in her tone. "Every time I saw someone using his kitchen things, I would want to cut their throats with his knives. He wouldn't have wanted that -- it would have horrified him." She removed her hand from the deck and showed it to Rina. "It's gone, Irina. I know you still see it there, but you've done the job well. It isn't here anymore. I need you to look at me."


"Look at me."

Joshua grabbed my hands. I did as he asked and saw him smile.

"I'm always with you. Don't worry about that. Just ... take care of yourself. You know I'll be there. To keep you out of trouble. My God, cuz … you have this tendency ..." It was an old joke between us and his laugh was breathy. "You made my life brighter. For being in it. Okay?"

Okay. I let go the brush. And finally saw what was in front of me. Soap and water and cold hard metal. Empty inside where Joshua once lived: raw and bitter and infinitely deep. I choked and crumpled into the abyss, madly, hopelessly, silently. I fell and prayed I would never hit bottom.


She could see the moment that Rina realized what was around her, no longer moving by rote. How much more could this woman be asked to bear? she wondered, her heart aching for Rina. First Carter, now Drake. God, if you're out there listening, you effing SUCK. Shyla waited until the harsh, wracking sobs hit and then she wrapped her arms around Rina as tightly as she could doing nothing but kneeling next to the grieving woman whose wedding she'd witnessed just a scant few months ago. Her own eyes were not dry either, but Rina's grief she could handle so much better than she could handle Nika's. Her silver-streaked copper hair mingled with Rina's dark strands as they stayed there, and Shyla rocked the younger woman oh-so-gently while the grief overwhelmed her.


Tears flooded my face and soaked my shirt, pouring my heart onto the deck, but my sobs were eerily silent. I would not dishonor Joshua's memory by giving them voice but my agony would not be denied. So I choked and shuddered and exorcised the pain as best I could. But not once did I utter a sound.


There was little the captain of the Decatur could do besides offer the strength and shelter of her shoulder. She had a hand tight on the back of Rina's neck, and she whispered soothing sounds. She didn't try to get Rina to stop, she merely held on through it. They were below the line of sight from the upper deck, and Shyla was glad for it when she heard the computer techs arrive on the bridge. Pitching her voice to carry without having to shout in Rina's ear, she called up to them, "Ladies and gentlemen, I need the room for a while longer. I will comm when I'm ready."

She continued to shield Rina from any possible intrusion, looking up to shoot a GLARE at the tech who leaned over the stair rail. "Yes ma'am!" came the immediate response, and the sound of booted feet receded back to the lifts and was gone.


Arms held me. A shoulder cushioned me. Whispers blessed my ear. I rocked in a tender embrace. But not his. Never his. Never again to be mine.


Shyla sighed silently and simply went back to holding Rina tightly. She would sit here until hell froze over for the engineer if she had to. They'd experienced absolute isolation together and in that time she had come to view Rina as a friend. One hand continued to hold the back of her neck and Shyla's other hand came up to stroke the dark hair. "There are no words for the hurt," she whispered. "Believe me when I tell you that I know. And it never goes away, Irina. I wish I could tell you it does. What I can promise you is that it does ease. You can't see it right now. You can't accept it right now because to accept that you might someday smile when you think of him seems a betrayal of your love. But you will smile when you think of him. And he will be glad the day you do, sweetheart. I wish that I could ease it for you, but I can only tell you I understand. I am here. You are not alone."


Sound. It refused to go away. My grief retreated enough to let me hear. Voice. One I recognized. Words. Intelligble. Reasonable. Truth, like my grief, that would not be denied. I closed my aching eyes and dragged in a breath that went down like fire.

Shyla, I said ... but nothing left my throat. I'd lost my voice. Struggling against the invisible tar weighing down my body, I mimed writing on my hand.


The redhead allowed Rina to pull away, and then she nodded. Casting about, Shyla said, "Come. I have a pad up above." She moved to draw Rina to her feet, her gaze compassionate. "You need something to drink." There was a nod to the floor. "There is no need to stay here any longer. It is gone."


It was time to move. The floor was cold, the metal hard, and my body made me pay for it. It hurt. I welcomed it. Pain had always been my focus of choice. However much I wanted to die, it confirmed I was alive and could still fight whatever confronted me. So I rose and resumed the burden of living.


As they climbed the stairs, Shyla kept a hand close by but didn't touch Rina. She could tell that the other woman was pulling herself together in the good way, not the bad. No longer in shock, but also no longer hiding from the hurt. When they reached the bridge consoles, she set Rina down with the pad so she could type out her thoughts while Shyla got her some water. It didn't take long.


As luck would have it, Shyla had put me in front of the very terminal Arden had typed on last. I closed my eyes and offered up a silent apology and resolutely put my fingers on the keys.

Sit rep, Ma'am? I typed and waited for Shyla to come back.


When she returned with the water, Shyla's eyes skimmed over the screen. "We'll handle it after the docs have at you and Nika," she told Rina softly. "I need the reassurance from medical that you're both doing all right before I can focus on the reports of what occurred and how." It was not the whole truth, but Shyla was adept at wording things to get recalcitrant people into Medlab when they'd rather punish themselves for perceived failures. "For now, Nika sent me a very short brief on the events, enough so that my teams can get aboard and get things ready. The rest will keep until we can get you settled on board Decatur."


The water slid down my throat like a benediction but failed to resurrect my voice. I emptied the glass and set it aside and typed: Understood. Have you secured Joshua's body?


"That I can't answer right now. Nika..." Shyla hesitated. "She held on until Harry was in front of her, and then she lost it. She couldn't tell me anything but that you'd lost Joshua and Arden." She put a hand on Rina's shoulder gently. "I'm sorry, Irina." For not being here sooner. For not being able to stop the loss of two incredible men. For not being able to do more than exactly this --be here.


Do not allow Dr. Joan Guan to leave until I see her. Please. I did not know where I would go or what I would do next beyond my obligation to see my husband buried as he wished. As much as I was in Joan's debt for the gift that was Joshua, I did not want her to take him anywhere without me.


Shyla nodded immediately. "No one's going anywhere but aboard Decatur for check-up," she told Rina calmly. "I'll walk you aboard, c'mon. We'll let the techs break into the computers." She waited for Rina to get to her feet—it was clear there was not going to be any avoiding this.


Joshua was gone. The Universe remained. That and the task of living. Best I got to it.

Yes, Ma'am, I typed and wordlessly followed Shyla off the bridge.


by Emily Dickinson

My life closed twice before its close:
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge so hard to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of Heaven,
And all we need of Hell.


Nǐ de yǎnlèi, zūnzhòng tāmen de jìyì. Tāmen kūle, xiǎoméi, yǒu méiyǒu zài bēitòng zhōng de chǐrǔ. = Your tears honor their memory. Cry for them, Xiao Mei, there is no shame in grief.

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