From the moment her head smacked the floor of the ship on the day they came here, Arabella French was positive that the description “floating coffin” was an accurate one. Two months she’d been in this thing, and the days were starting to blend together into nothing more than one long night. The lighting was constant, and though she’d never lived near Alaska, this was what she imagined the six months of darkness would be like… only… forever.
Rolling over in bed, she thought about the conversation with Colonel Young involving altering her duties. Belle had been helping out TJ in the infirmary at first, but now things were slowing down. Even the most serious injuries were healed, and Belle just… well, frankly, she wasn’t a trained medic, and she wasn’t needed.
One afternoon, she’d heard them talking from around the corner.
“Look,” the Colonel had told TJ, “I know you like having her around, but the fact is that she’s just not doing as much as she could be.”
“Where are you suggesting we relocate her to?” Tamara raised an eyebrow, suspicious. Young shrugged.
“She’s bright, she’s quiet, she’s bookish. Dr. French was a top scientist back at the Icarus base, even if she hadn’t been there long, and you said yourself that she catches onto things quickly.”
“Meaning you want to put her where?” TJ wasn’t one to beat around the bush. Straight answers, however rare, were something she prized.
“Rush needs help.” He said.
“Yeah, mental help.” The medic groaned. “He’s already got Brody out there helping him, and Belle can’t stand the man.”
“Nobody can stand him, TJ. And frankly, I’m not worried about whether or not she can stand him, I’m just worried about whether he can stand her.” Point for the Colonel, there, as much as Belle hated to admit it. Nobody could stand Dr. Rush, and really… anyone who assisted him was probably going to feel like the gunk on the bottom of his shoe at the end of the day.
“How well have any other situations like that worked out in your experience?” Point for TJ.
“Other situations haven’t been on a million year old spaceship. And on top of being bright, she’s humane, and she’s stubborn as a mule.”
“Ok.” TJ conceded, putting up her hands defensively. “Fine. Just… I’m not going to be the one to break it to her.”
Turns out that neither of them had to do anything. They’d turned the corner and caught her listening in- Belle was many things, but an accomplished (or even decent) spy was not one of them.
That was why she had grudgingly gotten out of bed, changed clothes, and was now walking down the corridor towards the control interface room. Nicholas Rush was not the kind of man she wanted to spend her day with, but she was stuck here, so it might pay off to be useful.
“Dr. Rush?” she called softly as she entered. He didn’t even look up from his screen, continuing to tap on the keys with a vengeance.
“Yes, what do you want?”
“Colonel Young assigned me to help you.” She said, holding her ground. Only a slight change of facial features betrayed him but make one move to come closer and he would blow a gasket, she was sure. He tapped on the keys for a few seconds longer, then pressed a button to finish out the programming.
“What? When did he say that?” he said, finally looking up.
“Yesterday.” Belle put her hands on her hips, studying him. He looked tired, and she was pretty sure his beard was scruffier than usual. No doubt he’d been pulling 30 and 40 hour days again… She would feel bad for him if he wasn’t saving their lives, and is he wasn't so downright snarky all the time.
“Look, I’ve got Brody and Eli. I don’t need you here, Dr. French. No offense.” Ah, now that was why she didn’t like him.
“No offense, but Colonel Young assigned me to come here. I may not be Eli’s level of genius, but I’m not too shabby at reading Ancient, and frankly, I’m not stupid. I won’t get in your way, but I’m not leaving.” Dr. Rush shrugged.
“Fine. Sure. Brody wasn’t feeling well and Eli is off doing who knows what, so you’re in luck today.” He said, beckoning her over.
Dr. Rush wasn’t a particularly friendly man. He never had been, not even when she first met him- he was all business, and thankfully their business had led them down separate paths for the time being. That is, until she joined the Icarus project, but even then they had never worked closely together.
It seemed that, unfortunately, that was about to change.
A week into her new position Belle had gotten a fair handle on the computer workings of the ship. Eli was nice to talk to when Dr. Rush was off doing something else- he also understood the burden of having family left behind- and Brody was good company.
She still hadn't developed a great fondness for Dr. Rush.
Sometimes he would get into fits and scream at all of them. The only difference between her and the other two in the room was that Belle didn’t back down after the screaming. It rolled off her like a waterfall, like she didn’t even hear it. There was always more than one way to steel yourself to your circumstances. Normally, whatever he was screaming about would be finished by the time he was done ranting if Belle kept on it.
Time passed, creeping along far too slowly and in far too blended a manner. Belle hadn’t managed to get herself personally singled out and screamed at yet, which was a major victory in Brody’s opinion, but she was at the end of her rope. The days were long, which was alright once you got used to it, but every time she saw that man, she saw the man who had taken her away from her family. She saw someone brilliant, but so very alone, and trying to carry the weight of too many things on his shoulders. She saw someone who snapped and barked and preferred to be on his own, but at the end of the day... he wore a mask over everything.
The snapping point came in what would have been early June on earth, approximately nine months after she began working with Dr. Rush.
“Alright, so if we can just figure out what that symbol means-” Nicholas circled a symbol on his notepad “-then we can figure out that equation. And then-”
“Dr. Rush, don’t you think it’s time you slept?” Belle interrupted. Usually she didn’t dare ask about sleep until the man looked like he was ready to fall over, even when she herself was ready to drop. Belle tried her best to pull the same hours Dr. Rush did- it was really only fair- but this time he was going on 45 hours for the third time in a row, with only six hours of sleep between each bout. And he would pull her out of bed every time he woke up. Their eyes were red-rimmed and had dark shadows underneath, but he was on some kind of mathematical adrenaline boost that she wasn’t prepared to ride out.
“No, just a few more minutes. I’m very close…” He went back to scribbling and mumbling, but Belle immediately went to check her watch. It was old, reliable, and wind-up, and thus still kept time, even if it wasn’t always the correct time. A minute was a minute, an hour an hour, regardless of which one.
“Last time you said that, it was four hours ago. You need to sleep.”
“Dr. French, I appreciate your concern-”
“No, it’s not really concern for you, it’s for the lives of everyone on this ship! You know you can’t think straight when you’re this tired- at this rate you’ll kill us all with the wrong mathematical equation! How many times have you told me ‘If you do this wrong it’ll blow us up?’” she yelled, thankful the doors were closed.
“I can tell when I’m tired enough that I need to sleep. I know how to do my job just fine.” He said, attempting to shrug off her comments. However, there were two tired, cranky scientists who had been stuck in a room together for far too long, and had barely stopped for food. Any halfway intelligent onlooker could tell this wasn’t going to end well.
“Yeah, well, apparently you can’t, because you need sleep now.” She grumbled.
“I’ll thank you to mind your own business, Dr. French!” he spat, finally looking up at her. “And frankly, I can’t understand how someone as intelligent as you seemingly has little interest in the ship and its workings! For the two years you’ve been with the project, your level of interest in the work on the ship here has been professional at best, and I know by your reports from graduate school that you used to be passionate. Here we are on the brink of a breakthrough, and you want to stop working?” he stared at her openly, but Belle was still in disbelief over the first of his outburst and trying to take in the rest.
“Mind my own business? Mind my own business?” The words were like venom. For Belle, that was the last straw, last button pushed, the last thread of sanity snapping. “First of all, anything that you might consider my own business ended two years ago when you showed up on my doorstep and introduced me to this program, meaning that ‘my own business’ could only be conducted for a few hours every year, when I got to see my family under military supervision!”
“No I didn’t, and you very well know it! You needed me, and you know very well that the only reason I ever ‘volunteered’ for Icarus was for the sake of protecting my own family!” She took a step closer to him, pointing an accusing finger. He seemed to be genuinely stunned by her tirade. Under normal circumstances she was more docile, but now she was tired, annoyed, and she’d put up with him every day for nine months.
“And frankly, Dr. Rush, if I seem disinterested in the project, it’s not exactly my fault that I don’t harbor a large amount of affection for the arrogant ass who offered me the choice of saving my family or having my life ruined by the government.”
“Arrogant?” Rush immediately tensed, fingers clutching his notebook a little tighter. “I’m trying to save the lives of the people on this ship- if I’m arrogant, then you’re as stubborn and thickheaded as a bloody mule!”
“I think you’re an arrogant fool, and if you really cared about the lives of the people on this ship, you would be taking proper care of yourself so you stop making stupid mistakes!” Belle was perhaps six inches away from him at this point, and a small crowd had begun to gather around the outside of the doors, taking turns peeking in through the window. Both their accents were thickening the louder and more frustrated they became. “And yeah, I’ll probably be stubborn and thickheaded as long as I live, but whatever you want to scream at me, we both have jobs to do, and even arrogant asses need sleep to do them competently!”
Her last comment was loud enough that it echoed through the room, her finger poking his chest threateningly. They held each other’s gaze for a minute, fuming, before either one of them dared move. Belle didn’t drop her eyes when she finally spoke.
“Now, please.” She said, the sting to her words still very present. “I don’t care if I have to knock you out to do it, but in the last hundred and forty hours we’ve had only eighteen hours of sleep. I don’t care if I have to get TJ to give you a sedative or knock you out myself to get you to do it, but you need to go to bed.”
Dr. Rush huffed one last breath, then turned and walked from the room, back towards his quarters, not bothering to close the doors behind him. The crowd in the hall was still listening, and pressed themselves against the wall as he came out. He didn’t bother acknowledging them. Belle let out a soft sigh and rubbed the back of her neck, starting her walk towards the door.
And then someone started clapping.
Rush would be out of a hearing range by now, judging by the speed with which he left, but the crowd outside the door was giving her a quiet applause and approving looks. She managed a grimace and a nod before making it back to her quarters, falling down on her bed fully dressed and giving in to the blackness.
“So… what did you actually… do?” Eli asked the next day, tucking into some soup for lunch (or breakfast, in Belle’s case, as she’d slept a good thirteen hours). “You know, before Destiny.” The news of the rather loud argument between her and Dr. Rush had spread quickly across the ship, and it seemed everybody was whispering about it in some way or another. She hadn’t seen Rush since he retreated from the control interface room.
“I was a scientist.” She said, smiling sadly. “A physicist, actually. I was working on a theory about space travel, and one day… one day Dr. Rush showed up at my office.”
“Ah. I know that story.” Eli said, making a dramatic gesture with his fork. Belle chuckled. He’d told her his side of the story, which sounded a bit similar to her own.
“Yeah. I’d only gotten my doctorate the year before. I don’t know how they found me, really. They were just there, and they said they wanted me to work on some program for the government that I could be extremely useful for.”
“I bet you jumped at it after you found out, huh?” Eli said, but Belle shook her head.
“No. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t trust them, and the job basically meant I’d have no contact with my family except for maybe once or twice a year.”
“But… I thought you were a volunteer? They told me you weren’t paid for your work, just with a place to stay and meals.” he stirred around the dregs of his soup, mopping up the broth with a piece of bread. Belle had barely touched her food.
“I… I have two sisters, and they’re both older than me. We’re all a year apart. Amy is thirty, and she’s on probation for drug use and… other things. Charlotte is a twenty-nine year old single mother with no child support from the father for her twins. My mom is dead, and my dad has a heart condition. Money’s tight- I got through school on scholarship quickly and had my Ph.D. by the time I was twenty-five , and every spare penny I had went to Charlotte or dad.” She raised her head to look in Eli’s eyes. “It’s true that I wasn’t paid for the work I did on Icarus. It’s not true that I didn’t receive other benefits. I only came on the project because they promised me that my family would be taken care of- Charlotte would get child support, dad would treatment for his heart, and Amy would get sound counseling.” Belle sighed and dropped her head into her hands, felling a slight headache coming on. She wasn’t sure if it was one of those mild caffeine headaches again, or from talking about this.
“If you want to know the truth, I hate my job. All I ever wanted to be was a teacher, not stuck on some godforsaken planet working with a group of arrogant bastards on a top secret government project. I just wanted to live out my life with my family, but… we all make sacrifices, you know?”
“Yeah. I do.” He nodded, eyes soft and understanding. Eli reached over to squeeze her hand reassuringly.
“Can I ask you something? I mean, something else.” Belle said suddenly. Eli shrugged.
“You know Dr. Rush and Colonel Young won’t give anyone a straight answer on this, but in your… honest, frank, personal opinion…” She gulped and gathered her nerve. She had to ask someone. “Do you ever think we’re going to make it home?” Eli released her hand with a sigh, as if he’d been asked this question many times before. The only difference was that this time he was open to an answer that was truthful, not pleasant.
“The odds aren’t good. I can’t say that I haven’t seen the odds beaten, especially here, but… you get the drift. What about you?”
“Honestly…” she hesitated to answer, checked to see if anyone was listening. It probably wouldn’t look good if one of the scientists working on getting them home wasn’t confident about it. “No. No I don’t.”