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The Stars' Old Photographs

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We're about a month from losing all contact with Earth, so mission control came up with the idea of having us record these. They said not even they'll be able to read them. ...I hope that's true. Cassie, you're a brilliant pilot. I can't think of anyone better to back me up, but I hope to God you never have to. I just want...

There are some things they don't teach you. They can't teach you, because they're not here. But I am — we are — and I can share what I've learned.

There's a little alcove near the entrance to the payload. Or there should be. I don't think they've had any reason to change it. It's about half the size of any of the crew quarters and you have to bring your own lighting, but the artificial gravity is just a bit weaker there than anywhere else we can reach. It's a great place to be alone when you need it.

The problem with being locked in an enclosed space, Cassie thinks, is that no matter how much you like the people you're locked in with, you end up hating them just a little.

Her piloting shift is over for the night and it's been an exhausting day and she wants nothing more than a stupidly long shower, but that's not going to happen. Not now, maybe not ever.

No. Don't think like that.

Mace and Searle are in the dining area, and Mace grunts an acknowledgement to Cassie as she takes a bookpad from the table. She nods in response, but says nothing, just leaves the room, and walks toward the payload. It's a long walk, but she likes it that way.

The mobile lamp and blanket that have been placed there in the name of "storage" are still there, unmoved. Cassie suspects others on Icarus know of this place, but she doesn't begrudge them this.

She wraps the blanket tight around herself, breathing in its warmth, and settles herself in a corner to start reading.

Everything always seems a little bit lighter here, and Cassie doesn't think it's because of the gravity.

The autopilot does most of the really hard work. That's one of the first things they tell you, but the words aren't enough to describe it. You'll spend most of your solo shifts bored out of your head. You'll want to make friends with the people on comms and nav. For you that'd be Harvey and Trey. But mostly I've found myself watching the ship's security feeds. You wouldn't think so, but it's the most interesting part of the job.

It feels kind of absurd to have security cameras on an enclosed ship where they all know each other and are usually within sight of at least one other person. What, are the feeds there to document the upcoming alien invasion?

Of course, with Mace and Capa on board, the feeds prove their use two months after they leave Earth orbit. She pays more attention from then on, and finds herself noticing tiny things about her crewmates. It's nothing creepy, nothing she wouldn't have access to when she's with them in person, but here it feels different. There's the way Corazon so gently runs her fingers over the leaves of the plants she's tending, and the way Mace sometimes sings quietly to himself when he's doing maintenance on Icarus' mainframe. There's the way Kaneda closes his eyes when playing Go with Searle or Corazon, as if closing his eyes would improve his view of the board. There's the way Trey spends so much of his spare time in the comms chamber, not actually to send anything to anyone, but for a reason she doesn't know and will never ask. She thinks he may be keeping a diary.

It's a weird feeling, but it's like by keeping watch over the feeds, she's keeping her friends safe. There isn't much more she can do about the earth or the sun, but she can keep an eye on the people she's with.

Unless they really screw with the schedule, you'll all have dinner together. Or breakfast, or lunch, it doesn't really matter what meal it is when there's no day or night to compare it to. Those meals are the best part of our day, no matter what. They'll be the best of yours too.

The meal itself is always a loosely organized affair, more like a family meal than a meeting. They've all had to deal with enough bureaucracy already, and out here there's no point.

For Cassie, it's breakfast this week. It'll be lunch next week and dinner two weeks after that, thanks to the way they stagger shifts on board. (Not that it matters anyway; since the contents of each meal are "whatever's been cooked," Cassie hasn't given names to her meals in months.)

It always begins with a moment of silence. Nobody on board adheres too strongly to any religion, but Cassie welcomes it all the same. She closes her eyes and listens to the people around her, seven points of warmth and clothing rustling and Mace trying desperately not to fidget. The sounds are tiny, but enough to keep her afloat this much longer.

"All right, let's start with new business," Kaneda says, and it's everybody else's cue to start eating. "Nothing new on the command side of things; the only transmissions we got in yesterday's burst were personal. I understand Mace has news, though."

Mace leans against the back of his chair. "Well, Trey did most of the work, I just came up with the final diagnosis. We found what's been making that noise in the habitation corridor."

Maybe she's just in a mood, or maybe it's because she actually slept last night, or maybe it's just that this soup is delicious, but Cassie speaks before she can think better of herself. "It wasn't an alien mouse, was it? We could have kept it as a mascot."

Most of the crew laughs, and even Mace cracks a smile before continuing. "No, just a loose part in one of the backup grav pumps."

Trey sets his spoon down. "Now that we know what it is, Mace and I can fix it fairly easily."

"Yeah, it's just gonna be a pain in the ass to reach," Mace continues. "It's about a meter offset from the nearest access panel, so we get to break out the 'scope."

Corazon leans toward Cassie and whispers, "They just want an excuse to play with their toys." Cassie nearly chokes on her food. Cassie clearly isn't the only person to hear the remark; across the table from them, Capa shuffles uncomfortably.

"If you need a third set of hands, let me know," Capa says. A fraction of a second later his face goes pale. Cassie thinks he's just realized how that sentence could be construed. She smiles at him, and that seems to distract him well enough that he can continue. "All the tech on my end is running fine. This last shift I did the weekly diagnostics and they all came out right, and... well, it all looks fine, really."

Corazon is next to speak. (Cassie isn't sure if it's because she has something to say or if she's just taking pity on Capa.) "The oxygen garden is doing well, nothing terribly new to report there. I could use a hand with the food crops sometime in the near future, a lot of them are going to be ready for harvest soon."

Cassie starts to raise her hand to volunteer, but to her surprise it's Capa who speaks up first.

"I'd like to help," he says. "I haven't had reason to visit the garden for a while."

"You should," Searle interjects. "It'll be good for you."

Cassie grins, and only half-listens to the remaining reports.

Maybe she'll organize a picnic sometime.

One thing they never... they never could have prepared us for was how much we change. The person you are with real gravity and weather and fresh air and live conversations with more than seven other people is not the person you're going to be after six months or a year. They tell you that, but they don't know it, can't be absolutely sure what it will do to a person.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, be kind.

It was the signal that broke things, she thinks. That damn distress signal. They'd all been able to stand each other before. Sure there had been disagreements and small crises and the occasional fistfight, but they'd been able to look each other in the eye.

And now they have no captain and no oxygen garden and a navigator who's too drugged to stand, and Cassie knows if Capa weren't so uniquely important to the mission, they'd be missing him too.

She wants to say so many things, to shake Mace by the shoulders and tell him to get over himself because he's not the only person who can be right. She wants to ask Harvey why he had to hear that signal in the first place. She wants to tell Capa that it's not his fault, that she understands his decision and that she thinks it was the right one, that he couldn't have seen this particular set of consequences. She wants to ask when the hell they stopped being human, but she knows the answer to that. They're all the same people, it's the circumstances that have changed them.

It's a terrifying thought, but the only thing any of them can do is just keep going as long as they can. Because damn it all, Mace is right, there's still billions of lives on Earth that they need to save. She can see the sense in every decision they've made, even the bad ones.

She just can't make anyone else understand. She can't be the peacemaker anymore. There's no choice anymore that doesn't break her heart.

Cassie only hopes that when they reach Icarus I, they'll find something important, something that will grant meaning to their losses.

I feel so silly doing this. I'm sure you know all of this already. Half of it's stuff you've read in the ISS logs and the memoirs and God only knows what else. But I'm on a roll here, so I might as well finish with the biggest cliché of them all. And I know you've heard it before. But if you're hearing this, you're one of the eight most important people in the world, and you're going to have to live with that. But out here, you can't let the pressure take you over. Don't let it be what defines you. Do your job. Focus on that instead.

Cassie isn't sure whether it's the sun's gravity taking over or just the combination of adrenaline and blood loss, but everything is spinning too fast for her to process. She just wants to close her eyes, just rest, her job is done.

Except it isn't, and she needs to know what happens.

She thinks it's shock at first, but it can't be shock, because she'd be cold then. It's a warmth that comes over her, strange heat spreading all around, and then the light comes. It's just like Capa said: one light, two, four, eight, and Cassie smiles.

Her job is done. She can close her eyes now.