Marie was still coiling cables - always the last thing to pack up, even when they were so thick with insulation you couldn't really fit them everywhere the way you could an everyday power cable - when Cappell popped in. Startlingly. "Everything ready?"
She kept her hold on the coil, but stiffened and spun around like a kid caught raiding the dolly drawer in the middle of reading group. Because you're secretly expecting the Dome Patrol to bus in and catch you all at the last second, aren't you?
Of course she was. Anyone would be.
After a silence, Cappell tipped head head - it might have been apologetic, a touch, and that was the most anyone ever seemed to get from him - them stepped up alongside her and surveyed the still-gaping, but now no longer cavernously empty, lift van.
"Isn't it?" Isn't it what. "I mean. To see all the pieces together like that. Huge step up from the prototypes." She wiped her forehead.
Cappell shrugged. "I was gonna say, it's so chaotic. Doesn't look like that in the sim."
"Won't look like that when I've put it together, either."
"Aw, too bad. It really matches the math this way."
Marie tossed in her last coiled cable - it sort of rolled into place - and hopped up to sit on the ledge of the cargo compartment. "So, what brought you in here?"
"What, I can't say goodbye?"
She tilted her head. "Whole team's meeting later for the real sendoff. Weren't we?"
"Sure, dinner over the park and a dry run for the revolution. I'm invited too." He shrugged. "I meant to the device. Even if it's not looking its best right now ..."
"It cleans up okay."
"Yeah, so we've been promised." Cappell clapped a slightly-too-heavy hand on her shoulder, hupping up beside her. "Speaking of cleanup, have you and Radovas got any good cover stories in mind for the rest of us? If this goes bad and you have to hightail it to the far end of the Nexus ..."
Marie made a face. "We've never discussed it. Probably something like, 'they must've been out at the experiment station when the reactor failed and blew everything to hot dust' would cover all the bases you'd need."
He looked appalled. "That's not actually part of the backup plan, isn't it?"
"Ask Soudha sometime." She shrugged. "I think it shouldn't be off limits, if things go really off. Don't suppose we could send you a message in code to warn you? Initiate code: destroy everything."
Cappell shook his head. "Aside from that they'd intercept it, how bad is that bad?"
Marie shot him a sidelong frown. "What did you think we're going up to find out?"
"So we'll need to think on our feet down here." His matching disturbed frown shifted to a slightly wicked smile. "I think we'll keep it classic. A frustrated tech, tired of her talents being underappreciated -"
"Thanks for that," she murmured.
"- kidnaps her boss and holds him hostage for ..."
She let him sit tilting his head and making quizzical faces for a moment, then gave up and raised her own eyebrows. "For what, a - promotion? Sounds unlikely."
"So you've lost your head - no, wait. Trade secrets! Which, since he probably does have some only you know about -" He nudged her in the side.
She tried to glare and look mysterious simultaneously, probably without success, and jumped down as she retorted. "Of course the rest of you had no idea what he was up to."
"None. Not even his wife knew." When she turned back to look, he'd stayed put in the compartment but was peering at her with a little genuine curiosity. "Have to start spreading the word fast, though."
"You mean, get everyone on the same page about my latent evil mastermind ways?"
"isn't it always the villain's sidekick who flips their switch? Don't worry, Marie, we'll cover for you fine. If anyone comes asking, I'll drag you hard."
She grimaced. "You're such a true friend, Cappell."
"Especially if they send ImpSec in - some of those Barrayaran goons, they'd eat it up, right? I'm a genius."
"Would they?" Marie gestured for him to get out. He didn't stop his spiel.
"A woman scorned, right?"
"No!" She raised both her hands - to do what, she wasn't sure - then paused. "Wait. Who scorned me?"
"I meant scorned professionally."
"Has anyone in history ever used scorned like that?"
"Why not? Undervalued, you became bitter. Emotional, untrustworthy - takes a little translation, but I bet those backwater cavaliers would eat it up."
Marie snorted. "Why not just say the doctor and I ran off together, leaving our heartbroken partners behind?"
Cappell, looking briefly disturbed, also stepped back from her slightly.
She threw back her best quizzical look. "Why not? Some women like an older partner. Doesn't even have to be a rich one. And all that education. Or do you think I couldn't get him, even with all my evil mastermind wiles?"
Cappell, looking the opposite of mollified, murmured, "You're the one who said evil mastermind. I was just suggesting devious, and maybe a little heartless."
"Well, that's good enough, right?"
"Fine, I'm sure you could steal anyone's husband. I just don't like it," he added more quietly.
"You don't like it because you didn't come up with it." He shook his head, mouth opening, but she went on: "I thought you were going to drag me?"
"Sure. Through the mud."
She finally found the controller remote for the cargo compartment, kicked behind one of the Bollan Design cartons still littering the place. "Oh hey, you might want to get those out of view ASAP."
"Yeah," Cappell agreed absently. As she set the back wall of the lift van rolling down, he just stared into the space right before it. Closing the thing took a minute, annoyingly.
And it took that whole while for Marie to register, much less make some sense of, the sucked-dry look on Cappell's face. He hadn't really considered that we might not make it back, before.
One way or another, of course, they'd all have to be gone even if the wormhole collapse went perfectly. Marie had, she thought, made her peace with that pretty early on - she'd miss Andro, some of her family, and her cats, whether she wound up lying low somewhere far from Komarr or - well, she may or may not miss anything, if she died. And if that happened, she couldn't say she'd regret not having given anyone who'd miss her extra time to dread the separation or disaster even if she could have done it without compromising the project.
But maybe she'd had to be ready faster, and that included accepting reality.
Or maybe it was just easier for a mathematician to keep the enormity of what they were doing - and facing - in the abstract, than it had been for her, with her hands all over the series of prototypes for the last year.
She paced over, her last footfall matching the click of the van gate latching, and threw a reassuring - she hoped - arm around Cappell's shoulder. "Say bye to the collapser."
He waved woodenly at the compartment, but looked at her. "Bon voyage, metal monster."
Marie made a sour face at him. "Lot of ceramic in it, too. And it's our own monster." With the chaos hidden, an image of the device as it would be took over in her head; she felt the small, familiar pride come back. We made this.
With a squeeze, Cappell stepped away. "Ceramic, yeah. Bizarre. You'll take care of it ...?"
"That's the plan."
"So." They stood awkwardly, then he brightened. "Ready for dinner, techie?"
Marie's eyes widened. "I need to wash up!" Realizing how dry her throat was, she tried to clear it, adding, "Not that hungry, but I definitely need a drink after all that grunt work. All by myself," she added. "Poor put-upon tech I am." She headed out, and turned down the corridor to the main complex lot. Cappell was slow to follow but quick to catch up. As usual.
All this work. We have to make it worth it.
But tonight, no more preparing. No more guessing either. She'd eat, drink, be merry, and say her goodbyes.