The funny thing is -- Meg thinks, in a distant corner of her mind, though it really isn't funny -- that she hasn't been this mad, this red-haze furious, over bureaucratic bullshit in a really long while.
She used to be angry like this all the time. It never really hit her before now -- the contrast. How much more settled she is, how much more calm. How few times, even in the middle of a war zone, she could happily strangle the bureaucratic fuck sitting across the desk from her, making life or death decisions about her future, about people she cares about.
It doesn't help at all that the bureaucratic fuck in this case is Jurgen Graff.
She knows that once she's stopped wanting to twist him into a pretzel and stuff him out an airlock, it will matter, eventually -- the fact that it's not some stuffed shirt sitting there all high and mighty, someone who doesn't know her, someone who doesn't care. Right now she just can't figure out if it makes it better or worse.
"We have a rule," she says, red-painted fingernails biting into her thigh. "Dekker doesn't do drugs. Not any kind of drugs, but especially not tape drugs. Not ever. You know that."
"I do know that," Graff says, his level gaze meeting hers. "I'm not ordering this for fun. I don't have a choice."
"How the hell do you-- is this coming down from Mallory? I'll go up and talk to her, then, if you're going to be useless about this --"
Knows, in the back of her head, there aren't a half handful of officers in Fleet you can talk to like that. Knows it won't play with Mallory. Graff is their good cop, and Meg respects Mallory, even likes her, maybe, on a good day. But she isn't going to see Mallory's eyes saying sorry, the way Graff's are saying it now.
She doesn't care. She just wants to head up to Mallory's office and throw some things. She doesn't care if she ended up in the Norway's brig. It wouldn't be the first time.
"Kady, listen," Graff is saying. "Meg. She'll tell you the same thing, and damn it, I agree with her. These aren't like the old tapes. Word is, it's captured Cyteen tech, new stuff, the stuff they're using over there, refitted for--"
"Oh, that makes it better, does it?"
"Kady. Hear me. The reason why we're losing more ships lately, and more riders, is because of that tech. If we can't keep up, they'll blow through us like rocks at half-light blow through a station hull. You won't be able to beat them, Meg. Dekker can't beat them. No matter how fast he is."
She heaves a sigh, her hand resting on the door. In that quiet space behind her eyes, where the glowing lines live, she sees the trails of the ones they've lost. Norway is one of the lucky carriers, so far; they haven't lost a single rider. Others haven't been as lucky.
"Africa and Australia have already done it," Graff says quietly from behind her. "All the rider crews on each. So far, it's showing promising results, and no more side effects than the old tapes. No casualties."
She blows out a breath and turns around. He's on their side, but he's also Management. Old rab knows how steep that wall can be, when it matters.
Still, she tries. "What if the rest of us take the new tapes, but Dekker --"
He's already shaking his head.
"Can't we at least try it? Damn it, they burned the original tapes off Dekker."
"You've been working as a team for the better part of a decade, ship-time," Graff says, surprising her -- has it really been that long? "You know as well as I do that throwing you out of sync at this point would be the worst thing you could do. And -- Kady -- you know as well as I do he's already agreed."
Of course he has. Dek would sign off on piloting a rider into the heart of a star if it meant he gets to fly.
But ... Graff is right, is the hell of it. She grinds her teeth together.
"Okay, how about this," she says. "We won't all go together. We'll go in twos. Does that work?"
"How does that make a difference?"
"It means half of us will be clear-headed enough to take care of the other two," she says. "And I don't think Dekker should go through it first. That way, we'll have two who have had the same experience and can deal with ... whatever happens." Dekker's screws are half loosened at the best of times. She's absolutely terrified of what this is going to do to him. At the very least, he can have a friendly voice to pull him out of the dark, rather than waking up flat on his back to the white ceiling of the sickbay.
"... all right," Graff says after a minute. "I'm not agreeing, mind. But I'm open to the possibility. I'll have to talk to the experts first. We need to know that doing it at different times isn't going to throw all of you off permanently."
Meg nods. She hates how grateful she is, even for that small concession. Her younger self would call her a corporate boot-lick, and she isn't half worried that her younger self is right.
Word comes down by alterday that it is all right, in fact the Fleet brass temporarily on board Norway for the new training sessions like the idea, because cross-training is the byword of the day, and this means that each half of their crew will go through it with half of another rider crew. Which means future opportunities for filling temporary gaps when someone's out sick or otherwise unable to gear up.
Almarshad's crew will do it with them, as the other mainday crew. They've actually done crew swaps with Almarshad's bunch before, for one reason or another. It's awkward but not too bad. They all get along.
Which just leaves the hard part ... figuring out who pairs with who.
"Me and Sal, Dek and Meg," Ben says impatiently, like it's an equation and the answer is obvious. "Bang. Done."
Sal is already shaking her head, braids rattling.
"I don't think we should put the two pilots in together," Sal says.
"We're all pilots."
"You know what I mean. It means they'll be taking tape as a pair with Almarshad's armscomp and nav. If there is trouble, we don't have a pilot to pull them out."
"They're going to be in a pod," Ben says. "If there's trouble, which there won't be because we've all done this before, I mean except for Dekker and it's not like he can get crazier --" Dekker, laying with his head in Meg's lap, flips him off. "-- they just stop the pod."
Meg is shaking her head. "No, Sal's right. I don't like having us both in there at once. It's not a matter of something physically breaking loose, it's a matter of psychology. If the tape training goes off somehow, having me and Dek both go off together is the last thing we need."
"They wanted to put us all four in together and now you're saying it won't work?" Ben throws his hands up in the air.
"Douce, douce, cher," Sal mutters, and reaches out to rub his neck. Meg can see -- she knows they all can see; they know each too well by now -- how much of Ben's bluster and need to control the situation is simply fear. None of them like the out-of-control feeling; none of them like having Cyteen tech fucking around behind their eyes, no matter how much quality control it's been through. They all deal with it differently. Ben's a jittery bundle of nerves, Sal has been at the computer for sixteen hours straight playing idiot games, Meg's been loading up on relaxants until the very last minute she has to stop in order to clear them from her system so they don't mess with the training drugs, and Dek ...
Dek is, weirdly enough, about the calmest she's ever seen him. He hit the roof when the news came down, sure enough -- the reason why she ended up being the one to go talk to Graff about it was because nobody expected Dekker to be able to get through that conversation without breaking things and probably giving the XO a black eye. But once it was settled, once the opportunities to back out were gone, he just kind of ... settled into it. Like something turning off. Like -- Earth metaphor here, she doesn't think of them much anymore, but sometimes they do fit -- like an animal in a trap, that just lies down once it's realized there's no way to get out, and waits to see what happens next.
And it's Dek who speaks up into the calm, once Sal has got Ben more or less settled. "Meg and Sal. Me and Ben."
"Why?" Ben says, exasperated.
"Because you'll tell me what time it is," Dekker says, all serious, like that actually means something.
"I'll punch your effing lights out if you ask me even once, is what I'll do."
"Well, this is a terrible idea," Sal remarks, still rubbing Ben's shoulders, but in a way that is now making Ben wince. "You and Ben, maybe, Meg? Me and Dek, that'd work."
"I want Ben in there," Dekker says.
"I hate you," Ben says, but he doesn't say no.
So Sal and Meg take the first dive. It's like the old days, really: doing a run, high on some random shit. The difference is Almarshad in the #1 chair, and on nav, there's lean, cheerful Nguyen with bright, painted lips and the high-and-tight haircut they're calling half-rab these days.
She's been through tape training a couple of times by this point; they all have, except for Dek. So it's not entirely unfamiliar to come down from the high, floating feeling in the sickbay, with Dekker's hand wrapped around hers and a blanket tucked up to her chin. The drugs always make her thirsty and cold.
"How was it?" Dek asks, chafing the back of her hand with his thumb.
She doesn't remember what she answers. Memory catches and skips, those first few hours; that's part of it, too, and part of why they're all so worried it's going to mess with Dek in a way he can't come back from. She wakes up in their quarters, her face tucked into Dek's chest, and he's smoothing her hair and there are tears on her face. It's dark. She remembers getting here in bits and pieces, but it's all mixed up, and some of it doesn't make sense. This is a bad one.
"Hush," Dek whispers. "Hush, Meg. Hush." He runs his hand across the soft prickles of the shaved side of her head. "It's okay. Hush."
"Not exactly inspiring confidence here, am I," she shudders out into the light dusting of curls on his chest.
Dek laughs softly; his chest jerks.
Meg pulls back and looks up at him in the near-dark of their room. Light from the door (nearly shut, but not entirely) paints a stripe across his face. "Dek," she says quietly. "If you don't want to do this, you don't have to. We'll find another way."
"Little late for that, isn't it?" he says. His voice is light. Too light.
"We'll find a way. If we have to ..." Her fingers brush across his arm. She's taught him, taught all of them, some of the old rab touch-language for passing messages in jail and in front of cops. Fake it, her fingers say.
He strokes his hand over hers. The fingers curl. It's okay.
It's three days after the tests before Meg and Sal are back to normal, or at least, Meg thinks, the wobble is out of her knees and the blurry double effect is gone from her vision. Whether her head is the same ... that's harder to say.
She doesn't feel different. The Fleet training team did a couple of psych tests and showed her the results afterwards (new regs from Earth, gotta do that now): flying colors, above baseline on all measures, doing fine. They even show her the new stats compared to the old stats.
But ... the thing about doing tape, especially tape with the drugs, and being an old rab from Earth, is that you know what you come out with might not be the same normal you went in with. Easy to change test results and match 'em up. Easier still when you change minds to match.
And that's where you just have to trust in Belt ethics instead, not what the Company used to push on them but what they seized for themselves, the ethos that your partner always has your back, no matter what. Her sanity in these situations is her partners; in an endless dark with no gravity, the ground beneath her feet is Dekker's hand on hers, Sal's ready laughter, the reliable soundtrack of Ben complaining about everything from the food to the climate control in their quarters.
And so, now that she and Sal have sailed through with a clean bill of health, it's the boys' turn, going into the pod with Almarshad's copilot and armscomp.
Ben of course is being a complete dick about it.
"So if I murder Dekker in there, do I get conjugal visits after, Meg?"
"You get my sweet, sweet hands shoving you in front of the nearest oncoming Cyteen payload, you absolute idiot."
Dekker is still weirdly, uncharacteristically calm. She'd think he was on something already, in absolute defiance of Fleet regs, except she's pretty sure what he's on is simply resignation. He wants this -- not this exactly, but what it'll get him. She thinks, again, about foxes and traps, and the old story that animals in traps will gnaw their legs off to get out. Is it true? Bird might know ... God, she hasn't thought about Bird in so long. But Dekker, she thinks, would gnaw his legs off to get to fly.
She kisses him deep, and then she and Sal are herded out to the observation area, where she watches the boys getting tranked up outside the pod. Needles in necks, clamped observation bracelets on wrists, a drip in each arm.
"You think he can handle it?" Sal murmurs. She doesn't ask in any standard language, but in scattershot rab slang, so much more of a complete language than the history books ever said.
"I don't know." Meg watches Dekker below, moving languid and slow, like his brain is already somewhere far away. It probably is. Half the time, it is. Sometimes that mooncalf separation from reality has saved their asses. Sometimes it's just pushed Dekker a little farther over the edge.
They're putting them in the pod now. Dekker moves with a slow looseness that can't possibly be from the drugs yet; Meg remembers very clearly how they didn't kick in until she was already in the pod. He bumps into the side of the pod, and Ben, behind him, leans in to catch his arm and impatiently redirect him inside with some kind of murmured comment. She can see Dekker's body language seize and become more there.
Dek might know what he's about, after all.
"What?" Sal murmurs, sensing the directed nature of her attention, but not understanding why.
"Nothing," she says, and takes Sal's hand, and laces their fingers together.
She didn't know, really didn't know, that it takes so long to run through the tapes. In her recent memory, a memory full of drug-induced holes, it's no time at all. Which, she thinks, is a good reason for having someone on the outside.
It's almost five hours before the testers take the other half of their team out of the pod. She and Sal have spent the time hovering over shoulders, sucking down coffee, staring at screens full of confusing data, and generally making a nuisance of themselves -- particularly when the observers who can actually understand the screens (and have earbuds keeping them apprised of events, which Meg and Sal don't) erupt in agitation themselves.
But now the rest of their team are out, all but invisible in a crowd of jumpsuited testing and medical personnel. Nothing wrong here, at least not inherently; Meg remembers, vaguely, in that stop-and-start drugged way, how they had clustered around her and it was, to her unfocused mind, a little bit like being abducted by aliens, or perhaps captured by Cyteen.
There's no particular sign of anything amiss down below, but when she and Sal get to the sickbay, they find a general sort of chaos. Or, at least, someone is putting up a fight at being pushed down into a bed, and two guesses as to which asshole. In a way it's good to see that much fight out of Dekker, after the capitulation earlier. She just wishes he wouldn't pick the absolute worst times to do it.
She nudges in, slides between medical staff, uses old rab tricks for surfing through crowds. "Hey there, pretty cher; calm calm, douce douce." It's the sound of the voice, not the words. She gets a hand on his arm, finds it rigid under her fingers -- he's pressed into a corner, back against the wall. "You're all right," she says, hoping he really is.
"Meg." His pupils are blown wide.
"Yeah, 's me. Stop assaulting the nice med techs who are only trying to help you."
"Sorry," Dek mutters, lowering his head in that way he has, when he knows he's fucked up.
"Not your fault." It's nobody's fault, really, and she feels like Dekker is handling it better than she would have expected, to be honest. "How 'bout you lie down here and let the nice med techs make sure you're not gonna have a heart attack or something."
She sits on his bedside with her fingers circling his wrist. Med chief makes noises about keeping them for observation overnight. "No," Meg says immediately. "I mean, you can keep Ben if you want ..."
Sal, who is sitting with Ben, flips her off on Ben's behalf.
There's an argument about that, sure enough -- and Meg isn't expecting the quiet voice that cuts through the babble: "Do what the lady says."
It's Graff, looking calm in that inscrutable way he has. Meg meets his eyes; something passes between them, some kind of understanding, she's not sure, but he nods to her and goes to talk to the med techs. And she scrapes Dek out of the bed and takes him back to quarters.
Truth be told, they probably shouldn't be out of the sickbay this early, but they both just sleep a lot, and visit the head whenever they wake up. (Techs said the drugs are excreted through the kidneys. Meg remembers that part more than she'd like.)
Mostly, Dek just wants to be touched. Meg remembers this too, the need for grounding, but she thinks it's more acute with Dekker than she remembered for her own part. Ben has gone the opposite way, just wants to be left alone and snaps at anyone who bothers him. Sal is so fed up with him before half the alterday shift is done that she goes off under the pretext of getting them some food and doesn't come back for three hours.
But the important thing is, Meg thinks, sitting with Dek and rubbing his shoulder while she idly reads on a handheld ... the important thing is, he hasn't gotten lost out there in what Ben occasionally calls Dekkerspace. He's not asking the time, he's not panicking -- well, except for that one time in the sickbay, and she thinks that was mostly just due to waking up and not knowing where he was or where any of the rest of them were.
"Where's Sal?" Ben asks groggily, and Meg looks up to see him slumped in the doorway of her and Dek's closet-sized room in their shared suite, a lanky bundle of loose half-drugged limbs, looking like the doorframe is all that's keeping him up.
"She went to get food," she sort-of-lies. "You need something?"
"Just .... wondered."
Meg magnanimously does not mention that Sal went off to get some space because Ben was being a righteous asshole. Instead, she says, "Want to sit with us for a while?" Just because Ben won't admit that he wants people around, doesn't mean he might not benefit from it.
"No," Ben says, but instead of wobbling the other way, he wobbles into the room and half-sits, half-crashes on Dekker's feet.
Dekker starts up, when Meg has just gotten him settled down. She is going to kill Sal for leaving her alone with these two. Dek flails around, and she catches his arms. "It's just Ben; settle down. Ben, if you're going to be here, find somewhere to sleep that's not on top of Dekker."
Ben's response to this, intentional or not, is a gradual oozing down onto the floor.
"Not what I meant," Meg says wearily, and drops a blanket on top of him.
Sal comes back eventually; Meg is drowsing now, sitting on the floor with Ben's head on her thigh and Dek's arm draped over her neck. "Ben?" Sal says, alarmed, from the room next door.
Meg rouses enough to call out softly, "Over here, and if you wake them up, I'll shove you out an airlock."
Sal appears in the doorway. "Ah," she says, taking in the scene. "Mess had hot food for a change. Hungry?"
"God, if it's something other than sandwiches? And how," Meg groans, extricating herself from under her drugged teammates.
Food is always a little bit of a gamble at this point in the war, but there's always enough of it, and even when they've been eating cold cheese sandwiches for three days straight, Meg's definitely had worse. Still, it's a pleasure to have something decent for a change. Sal doesn't say sorry for running off and leaving her, because Sal never would, but there's a cheeseburger with everything Meg likes on it, and Sal doesn't complain about the smell of meat.
"I wonder if we were this bad," Meg remarks as she licks ketchup and grease off her fingers. Though Dek hasn't been bad, really, not since she got him out of sickbay; bringing back bad memories, there.
"Course not," Sal says. "We were perfect angels."
There's a sudden thump from the bedroom, a sleepy curse from Ben and startled profanity from Dekker. Meg briefly closes her eyes and then gets up, a moment behind Sal, to find that Dek has somehow slithered off the bunk and landed on top of Ben. Now they're in a drugged pile, but no one really seems to be objecting to it.
"They look comfortable enough," Sal says after a minute.
"I'm catching some sleep, myself," Meg decides. She waves a hand wearily at the leftovers. Sal, bless her, puts them away in the room's small fridge, and since there's a bunk unclaimed in her and Dek's room, Meg collapses into it.
As soon as the sound of clinking and shuffling around from the outer room fades out, a body lands in the bed next to her. Definitely not Dekker. Meg struggles up to her elbows, and swipes a mess of beaded braids out of her face.
"Mine's in here," Sal says, unrepentant, with a broad gesture at Ben on the floor.
"Which means you have a whole room to yourself; so shove over."
They've shared smaller quarters than this, the two of them; so it only takes a little bit of squirming around before they've gotten themselves settled down, with Meg on the outside, where she can reach down and touch Dek's shoulder to give him that point of contact he seems to crave. He hasn't been as restless, though, draped all over Ben like he is. Meg figures Ben will probably quite literally try to kill him when he wakes up, or if Dekker knees him in the face while trying to struggle to his feet to use the head, but at least she hopes to catch a little sleep to deal with the situation.
And Dekker isn't flashing back on his dead partner, and for now Meg calls that a win.
They'll deal with the consequences of the new training later, when they get to work together for the first time as a team with fingers twitching in response to input they only half understand. But they've done this before. And if she's still seeing colored dots behind her eyes when she tries to drift off ... it's nothing they haven't been through.
The important thing is doing it together.
Sal curls against her back, warm and solid. Meg trails a hand on Dekker's arm, fingers drifting down to the muscular curve of Ben's shoulder.
"We ought to take a picture," Sal mumbles.
"Go to sleep," Meg orders, without really thinking about it, and Sal curls into her, and does.