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Survivalist

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There is shame in weakness.

The curl of the Captain’s fingers tightening around his windpipe, the feel of her fingernails piercing his skin like a series of IV hookups desperate to tap a vein for his blood, the simple and intimate brutality of strangulation, these are things Hilbert understands. He speaks this language.

The terror that spreads through him like an aggressive case of post-cryostatic frostbite, the unwilled shrinking of shoulders and instinctive jittering of fingertips, though, is a sensation as foreign as his mangled conception of family.

The Captain’s dark eyes radiate death like reactor number two at Volgograd. He struggles for breath and stumbles through the mental gymnastics of speaking to a ghost turned visceral flesh.

He’s always respected the memory of Captain Lovelace. She’d represented strength amidst adversity. Pragmatism over sentimentality.

There are worse ways to go, if she would do him the honor, he thinks in a moment of weakness.

The Captain releases him, and the will to live fills his lungs.

His pleas crumple on impact with the scuffed metal of the closing observation deck door.

Coward, he wheezes in the mother language, and his fingers skitter over glass-shielded starlight with the survivalist pitter-patter of insect legs.

###

There is shame in weakness.

She rubs the corded muscle of her bicep right above the cast, but endeavoring to relieve the pain in her mummified forearm is like trying to get Sam to snort at a joke. So instead she stretches her fingers painfully past their proper range of motion, jerking them open as if to snatch the red hellstar she’s orbiting straight out of the sky and send it careening toward the Dorado Constellation. Achy pain snakes down her arm like the invasive mold creeping down the walls of Dr. Selberg’s lab.

If it was up to Lovelace, she’d kill it with fire, but Selberg doesn’t seem too fond on the idea. Natural specimen growth stimulated by manmade vector. Is fascinating, Captain, no? And she’s not one to deny her subordinates simple pleasures.

Even if certain subordinates grow self-replicating photosynthetic organisms to feed their goddamn radioactive spider pets. Especially if those unnamed subordinates allow for certain liberties with certain controlled substances.

It’s a gift unlike any she’s received before, this floating blur of an existence.

(Whoever said ignorance is bliss is dead wrong. Nothing quite compares to a steady stream of double Vicodin dosages.)

“Captain,” Selberg says with that fucking flippant undertone of Am scientist of 20 years, sir, and medication intake at this rate vill destroy liver.

“Not a word.”

Tenderness is a hideous look on her resident medical officer.

“Fisher vas good man.” Selberg drags the name of their deceased colleague out in his gravelly Soviet accent, and it spills like hot coffee across her chest. Lovelace’s eyes burn.

“Selberg,” she warns.

“Cannot seal Fisher’s quarters forever, sir.” Selberg’s look is unbearable.

Lovelace springs from her seat and shoves the doctor away with her good arm. Her emotional weakness lends her a vicious physical strength, and it feels really, really good to avenge Selberg’s implied slight against her.

It’s only after she’s stormed out of the lab that she realizes she’s foregone her regular treatment in favor of her pride: She has to actually live with herself for the next ten hours.

###

There is shame in selfishness.

Selberg has lived his life bearing the sigil of hammer and sickle carved into his sternum, his pulse restating it over and over, the message arcing like electricity through his body: greater good, greater good, greater good.

Sacrificing the few for the many: good and right and just.

Prioritizing individual capricious wants: a crime against the common man. The greatest transgression a comrade can commit.

Selberg is the stone face of a mountain. A cold man chilled with the freezing temperatures of the extreme heights.

A cold man that doesn’t take Fisher’s death well.

“Elias!” Cutter’s enthusiasm echoes through the abandoned comms room, the pleasantest of death threats lining his voice.

“Sir,” Selberg replies.

“Shame about Fischke, really quite a loss for Goddard Futuristics.” Cutter smiles through his wolfish teeth, and Selberg is not taking Fisher’s death well.

“But you know what they say, time stops for no man! So, you’ll need to take care of that small pesky task of getting us results.”

“Yes, Mr. Cutter, but Fisher conditioned for half year before—”

“Eliiiiiiias, Elias, you seem to be misunderstanding me. You have four other colleagues. Pick the strongest and get on with it already.” Cutter pulls back, the widening smile splitting his face in two, a line drawn in the sand. “Mmkay?”

“Of course, sir.”

Cutter terminates the call, and Elias Selberg is just not taking the implications of Fisher’s death well.

Only one crew member has years of experience in the armed forces, trains on a daily basis, and is in peak physical condition.

Selberg chooses instead to infect the skin-and-bones Comms Officer Lambert and the immunosensitive Dr. Hui with Decima.

In this instance, he is a selfish man.

###

There is shame in selfishness.

Fifty-two days. Fifty-two days. Fifty-two days.

Fifty-two days of living on Vicodin, trying new circuit workouts in the wee hours of the morning, and bitching about her cast.

Fifty-two days of holding her emotions hostage, ransoming them for the return of an alive and well Petty Officer Fisher.

Fifty-two days of abandoned duties, of a crew floundering like a snake with its head cut off.

Fifty-two days, for fuck’s sake.

Fifty-two days until Selberg snaps at her that she needs to face the fact of Fisher’s death.

“Is hard for all ov us, Isabel!” There’s a desperate intensity that boils over when he snarls her first name.

Lovelace ignores the alarm sirens screaming at her about an emotionally volatile Selberg and opts for her trademark deathly diplomacy.

“You don’t get to call your commanding officer that,” she says, voice dropping to dangerous pitches she’s not even sure Selberg can hear. The elongating silences between her words crackle with electricity. She’s sure her insubordinate busybody of a medical officer will retreat.

Instead, the fucker exhales an exaggerated growl, the kind usually reserved for when Officer Fisher ducks out on physical checkups. (ducked out ducked out ducked out because Fisher is gone because Fisher is d—)

“Vill address you as commander vhen you act as commander.”

Her body is venom; her stare is hatred; her heart is shattered glass.

Selberg’s jumpsuit uniform is scratchy on her cheeks, and his arms encircle her like an albatross around her neck. The mass of his tall body is as fitting a metaphor as any for the world crashing around her shoulders.

They wordlessly clear out Fisher’s quarters soon after. And though there’s no conceivable use for a crutch in low-gravity environments, she finds Selberg enormously—if somewhat unpleasantly—helpful in getting back on her feet.

Lovelace is a survivor, first and foremost, but she’ll happily play the extra high card she’s been dealt.

She thinks she can afford to be a little selfish.

###

There is shame in hesitation.

“Captain, I’ve got it! Oh yes sweet Jesus.” Fourier’s slight form, starved for rations and rest, vibrates with a kinetic energy. It explodes into expressions of pure joy on Fourier and the Captain’s faces in the exact way the VX3 Fourier’s tinkering with mercifully hasn’t.

“Hardwired power operational to the escape craft?”

Lovelace tap-dances through her query. Fourier nods with fervor, and Rhea chirps in congratulation.

Selberg knows what he has to do.

“Excellent, Dr. Fourier,” he feigns.

The bubbling optimism of his remaining crewmates threatens to spill over and sweep him away with its fraught intensity.

This is not going to be nice.

Dr. Fourier is first. He waits until she’s asleep, her pale form twitching in fitful slumber, and he gives the gift of eternal, peaceful rest. Breath slower and deeper. Pulse fading fast. Peace.

Except Selberg’s never gotten used to it. It’s never easy. It throbs like a fresh stab wound in his side, same as the late Dr. Hui, same as Lambert and even Fisher. Same as Franklin, Despuis, Corrado, Stevens, Ahre. Same as the crew before them.

He’s intoxicated with the heavy stupor of his sins when he tears apart the CPU core that stores Rhea’s largest memory bank. Her delicate circuitry tears like flesh, but machines aren’t things that die. They are or are not.

He’s emotional. He gets sloppy. He hesitates.

It’s almost a relief when Lovelace knocks him over the head and flees, a survivor trying her best with a ship constructed of duct tape and hope.

He hates that the Captain died falling into the star.

###

There is shame in hesitation.

The Hephaestus creaks and groans like her grandmother used to bemoan arthritic pains.

Lovelace misses Nana something terrible.

It’s a wonder—a nightmare—she ever ended up in this literal hell, red radioactive solar flares turned blue outside her window, following the devil deeper into the depths.

Speaking with this snake of a man would be horrifically fascinating, if she were a voyeuristic sort of person. But Lovelace doesn’t care that the path to hell is paved with good intentions.

Inflicting physical injury on his stupid face—misaligning his nose and smearing blood across those high cheekbones—provides temporary catharsis, but she knows she’s considering making a deal with the devil, at least, when she sees the door.

It’s in a secret room Hera can’t access. Shadows sway around the edges of the illuminated door, a solid gray metal stained with the angry red lettering of some Cyrillic language.

Open in case of emergency. Open only when you are alone, the doctor helpfully translates. He’s a lot of talk for a man who hasn’t hesitated to kill friends.

“You’ve never actually gone through it, have you?”

His laugh is bitter like synthetic seaweed coffee. “No. I wish I could say I was ready to face it. But the truth is—”

She doesn’t hesitate. She opens the door.