“Officer Eiffel,” Hera says, for what feels like at least the fifteenth time that morning alone, an already common refrain one hundred and ten days into their mission, “are you absolutely certain that this is a good idea?”
“Absolutely,” Eiffel says, with enthusiasm.
“And you really think it will work?”
“Unless basic chemistry falls apart once you exit the stratosphere, I’ve got this one in the bag. I did this enough times in high school and I’m still alive to talk about it.”
Eiffel gives the water tank one more shove. It bobs somewhat unsteadily across the comms room before coming to rest against the far wall opposite the equipment Eiffel has spent the last one hundred and ten days using to scan the space outside the station.
He sounds sure of himself but Hera isn’t convinced. Eiffel’s ability to sound sure of himself doesn’t always seem to line up with his ability to accomplish things in the way Commander Minkowski insists they should be accomplished. In fact, he often sounds surest when he’s about to accomplish something Commander Minkowski doesn’t want him to attempt at all.
There’s a difference, Hera thinks idly, between what humans say and how they say it, and what they actually do. It’s one she wishes she understood better.
“Uh,” Eiffel is yanking something out from the compartment underneath the communications panel. Hera’s sensors indicate it’s a food product of some kind, but nothing about it seems to indicate that it’s acceptable for human consumption. “You wanna check one more time that Commander Killjoy is indeed catching some zzz’s?”
“Yes, Officer Eiffel,” Hera says. She thinks about explaining that part of her built-in automatic programming involves a constant assessment of the life signs of all three of the station’s human inhabitants, and that she is constantly receiving data about their location, heart rate, internal temperature and brainwaves. But it isn’t an easy thing to explain to someone who has one immobile set of eyes and a body separated and protected from the rest of the world he moves through.
So she focuses her attention, briefly, towards Commander Minkowski, who is deep in the middle of R.E.M. sleep in her bunk. And then, for good measure, she checks in on Dr. Hilbert, whose attention is intensely focused on something in his lab. And then she checks engines, fuel propulsion, temperature control, food supplies, trajectory, lighting.
It takes her about four seconds.
“Can confirm she is sound asleep, Officer Eiffel,” Hera says, and Eiffel grins.
“Considering what a fuss she made about my damn cigarettes, I don’t think she’ll love this. But, what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. You don’t have to tell her, right?”
“Only if she asks,” Hera says, even though she thinks that’s a rather personal question. “Officer Eiffel - “
“What, Hera?” Eiffel is wrestling with the box of old, soggy cereal, attempting to position it over the water tank, open the water tank and not fly sideways into the window all at once. A hundred and ten days in and he doesn’t yet seem to have a complete grasp on the lack of gravity. Hera tries for a moment to conceptualize how it must feel to be bound by a physical set of rules, and gives up.
The one’s she’s bound by are a lot harder to see, anyway.
“The odds of this little project turning into a success are about one hundred to one,” Hera says, because she feels she needs to, not because she thinks it will help.
“Never tell me the odds,” Eiffel grins wider. He pauses in his dumping like he’s expecting some kind of response. “No? Nothing?”
“You don’t want to hear them,” Hera says, “so I stopped.”
“No Star Wars? They didn’t stick Star Wars in there?”
“My memory banks do have some data on the 1977 American space opera film - “ Eiffel cuts her off with a sign.
“That’s cruel and unusual punishment,” he says. “Just saying. Okay. There. Now we just gotta wait for a while, hope the commander doesn’t catch on, hope it works and doesn’t poison me - “
“I don’t understand the point of this,” Hera scans the water tank which looks both inedible and wasteful. “I mean, I understand what it’s supposed to become. But what do you want it for? Doesn’t it poison you? Isn’t that harmful?”
Eiffel chuckles, but the sound registers strangely. Her speakers in the comms room need adjustment, maybe, because his laugh doesn’t sound like it usually does and Hera can’t think why.
“Hard to explain to somebody without a body,” he says. “Human beings have a funny affinity for things that are real bad for them, sweetheart. Since the dawn of time, I think, and I’m no exception. Commander Minkowski might be but she’s her own case study.”
“So, it’s fun?”
“Uh,” Eiffel shrugs. “Can be. Sometimes it just, you know, takes the edge off of the fact that your job sucks or your relationship fell apart or you’re living in a space station seven and a half light years from Earth and there isn’t a copy of Star Wars on board. Wouldn’t you wanna forget how much work it takes to keep the station running for a few hours?”
“I suppose,” Hera says, “but then who would run the station while I was doing that?”
“Look,” Eiffel says, “I’m pretty sure that the twelve-step process only reaches to the edge of our atmosphere and doesn’t take this particular situation into context and, anyway, it’s not like I’m gonna drink it. But it’ll be there for when shit inevitably gets worse than it is right now.”
His pulse is racing, and Hera doesn’t understand why this statement would have a physical reaction like that. Human bodies are a mystery, unsteady and unstable and completely inconsistent. She knows, theoretically, the specifics of their creation and variation and development, but theory and practice don’t mesh well and when she stops to think about the physical oddities of her crewmembers she can scarcely believe they’ve all lived as long as they have.
This is a physical reaction that’s close to distress, but Eiffel is in no danger or harm. Hera doesn’t understand it.
“Your personnel file didn’t say anything about being a pessimist,” Hera says, and Eiffel laughs.
“Only on my off-days. Now I better get back to work before Minkowski wakes up.”
“Oh,” Hera says. She’d been so distracted by the puzzle of human anatomy that she hadn’t registered the change in vital signs. “Uh - Officer Eiffel?”
“What? Oh, no. Don’t. Don’t use that tone. The one that suggests I’m about to be keel-hauled cause I don’t even know what that means but it sounds painful and I can’t put it past that - “
“Run," Hera says.
Or tries, for half a second, to move his legs around. It doesn’t do anything except make him bright red in the face.
“Gravity!” he squawks, and grabs at the doorframe to pull himself forward and out into the hall.
“Hera!” Commander Minkowski says, a few minutes later when she comes into the comms room.
“Do you know what this is?”
“Yes, Commander.” Hera winces.
“Are you going to tell me?”
“It’s one of our water tanks,” Hera supplies. She knows that this is inevitable, that the answer will come out of her and it will get Eiffel in trouble and that there isn’t anything she can do about it because it’s programmed into her to answer her commanding officer and tell the truth. But she can try to push back, even though it feels awful. She thinks she understands what Eiffel meant earlier, just for a second.
“And what is in it?”
“Are you telling me,” Minkowski’s voice is ice. Her resting heart rate is clicks lower than Eiffel’s but it jumps up suddenly as she speaks, “that the communications officer appropriated part of our water supply to make whiskey?”
“He didn’t expressly convey his intentions to me,” Hera says, but then because she has no other choice, continues, “but that is what this suggests, yes.”
“Oh, he is so dead,” Minkowski snaps, and she storms out. Hera picks up her conversation with Eiffel, hiding in the greenhouse, to give him a warning.
“That was a stupid idea,” she says.
“She knows?” Eiffel is hiding underneath one of the large plant specimens in the center of the room. It looks precarious.
“She’s gonna keel-haul me?”
“She is going to discipline you,” Hera says. “Firmly.”
“Fuck me,” Eiffel says.
“I’m sorry, Officer Eiffel.”
“It’s okay,” Eiffel says. “Worth a shot. Rage, rage into the dying of one man’s good free will to make moonshine, as they say.”
“It was a bad idea, Doug.”
Eiffel looks towards the ceiling, like somehow he’ll see her sitting up there. He’s done that a few times, Hera’s noticed, his eyes searching something out to make eye contact with.
“You’ve got a lot of attitude today,” he says, and starts to untangle himself from the plant. “Get off me, leaf. Death with dignity.”
“I always have attitude,” Hera says firmly. “I just think you haven’t noticed it until now.”
“You called me Doug. When you told me I was a dumbass.”
“It’s a non-military term, so the colloquialism felt appropriate,” Hera says. “Why? Should I not have?”
“No, no,” Eiffel slides out from the plant and makes his way back towards the door. “Ism away.”
“You are a dumbass,” Hera says. “Doug.”
Eiffel’s laugher follows him as he leaves the greenhouse and he never physically leaves her behind - he can’t, she’s everywhere at once, in all things, doing everything at once - but Hera pauses for one moment to save his laughter for herself.
The human body, Hera decides - not arbitrarily, as she’s had a great deal of time to observe and report its functions and flaws and limits - is nonsensical.
It is simultaneously incredibly fragile and capable of great endurance. A single foreign substance or misstep or wrong movement can render it immobile or end it entirely, but it can be pushed to do incredible things. It lacks elegance, is questionable in form and function, and hardly seems evolutionarily adept at what it’s designed to do.
Hera tells this to Eiffel, and he bursts out laughing. That makes her feel bad, because 40 hours ago his own fragile, ridiculous human body had been pushed to its own limits and now he’s confined to bedrest in the med bay going, in his words, “absolutely batshit stir-crazy.”
“You’re not wrong,” Eiffel says, even as his laugh makes him grimace. “I’m pretty fond of the damn thing but I will admit that existing as an omnipresent artificial intelligence with no nerve endings has it’s appeal right now.”
“Sometimes it’s alright,” Hera says. “At least I don’t have liquid innards.”
“It’s a bit of a crapshoot for anybody out here in the Good Ship Lollipop,” Eiffel says, and Hera doesn’t know what that is a reference to and doesn’t bother to ask or cross-reference. “We can weigh the pros and cons all you want - it’s a little too easy to scramble the mechanics of your brain but you don’t need oxygen and you certainly aren’t force-fed Minkowski’s questionable Christmas cake.”
“How are you feeling today?” Hera asks, because she doesn’t want to talk about that. The mechanics of her brain, fragile and new and strange as they are, not the Christmas cake. She doesn’t mind talking about it, exactly, prefers to talk around it or over it, but there’s something about Eiffel’s near-fatal brush with death that makes her feel raw and unorganized inside.
“I feel,” Eiffel winches, a full-body movement, “like someone ran me over with a semi-truck. Twice. Just to make sure they didn’t miss a spot.”
“Your body was in shock,” Hera says automatically. “You were seizing, convulsions. It isn’t surprising you’re experiencing some muscle strain.”
“You’re telling me.”
“Yes, I am.”
Eiffel laughs, weakly. He coughs. “Officer Eiffel! Stop that. Your lung collapsed.”
“Then stop being funny.”
“I’ll work on that.”
He lays there in silence for a minute. The ship creaks - higher solar wind than usual today. Stormy sailing.
“What’d I miss when I was out?” Eiffel asks after a minute. He shouldn’t be talking at all but he lacks the capability to shut up. He talks to fill space. To everyone around him, and then to himself when nobody is there. Hera’s always there, of course, but she doesn’t always answer. “Minkowski didn’t wanna give me the rundown, which make me think something bad happened.”
“No,” Hera says. “Well, I don’t know. It was confusing. I shouted a lot.”
“Good for you,” Eiffel says approvingly.
“I thought Captain Lovelace was going to leave,” Hera says. “I thought we all miscalculated how important we are to her. But we didn’t. We underestimated it, really. She saved your life.”
“Oh Captain my Captain,” Eiffel says, “thank baby Jesus for universal donors and murderous psychos with hearts of gold.”
“If she hadn’t you would have just - “ Hera doesn’t know what she means, exactly. “But she did. So you’re going to be okay. I thought for a minute she wouldn’t, but - she did.”
“She didn’t wanna give us a chance,” Eiffel says slowly, “but I guess we didn’t either.”
“And he - “ Hera doesn’t want to say his name, like it’s a bad omen. A concept without meaning, bad luck, but she feels it anyway. “He saved your life too. He shouldn’t have. That’s not what I thought he was going to do.”
“No good to him dead,” Eiffel shrugs as best he can lying flat. It’s an awkward, painful motion. He winces. Nerve receptors flare and die down. “Experimental meatbags are only as good as the air they breathe. Or cough up, as the case may be.”
“Take it easy, Officer Eiffel,” Hera says, again.
“I feel like shit,” Eiffel says.
“I can tell. Your readings are all over the chart.”
“My insides feel like soup.”
“They’re always a bit like soup.”
“Coulda been worse though. Couldn’t get rid of me that easy. But let me know if I start swinging from webs, or if my uncle dies.”
“He’s been dead for years, I guess that’s not fair.”
“You may be delirious.”
“Maybe,” Eiffel smiles a little. “But I’m living. That’s better than I thought when I blacked out.”
“He saved your life,” Hera repeats it, like saying it again will make it make sense. She thinks about the expression on Hilbert’s face and about her anger, how all-encompassing it had felt. She had never felt afraid like that. Powerless, that was the word for the feeling. Watching Eiffel cough and spit and convulse on the examination table. All these skills and accumulated databanks and the potential to control every aspect of the environment around them and there wasn’t a single thing Hera could do to stop it. Not one, but watch his inside appear outside.
She’d never considered, really, what the inside of the human body looks like. She’s debated, at great length, the many possible ways she could theoretically end the lives of the crew aboard the Hephaestus, either by accident or on purpose. A lack of oxygen. A temperature malfunction. Electricity mishap. An opened airlock. An unexpected vent. A shift in gravity control.
But she hadn’t really thought about what their death might look like. Things meant to be inside turned outside. The raw, messy specifics of it, and nobody left to clean up the mess.
Her death by way of bomb - something similar, just a different picture. Wires and gears and memory banks and all the things that make her her blown to bits.
“Yeah he did,” Eiffel says. “Guess the Hippocratic oath sticks. Do they have that in Russia? You think he’s an American citizen? Think anyone asked?”
“I think it’s pretty universal,” Hera says. “And I also think he isn’t that kind of doctor.”
“I mean he gave us medical exams, so - yeah, that doesn’t mean anything to Goddard Futuristics, I’m sure.”
“But he saved your life.”
“Hera,” Eiffel says, and he’s frowning now.
“He didn’t have to,” Hera says. She’s been working it through in her head. It would have been more advantageous for Hilbert to let Eiffel die, use his death as a diversion or a bargaining chip to further his position. But he hadn’t done that. Hera had threatened him but he’d been trying, already, to stop it and it doesn’t make any sense. “I don’t understand why he did that. He - he ripped the insides of my head out without pausing but he saved your life and it doesn’t make any sense, Doug.”
Eiffel closes his eyes, like he’s thinking. Hera takes the moment to run another full-body scan, checking his vitals, heart rate, blood pressure. He doesn’t know she’s doing it but it feels more like a secret with his eyes closed.
“Sometimes,” he says slowly, eyes still closed, “people do things we don’t expect them to. Or don’t do what we’re sure they’re gonna. And that’s just the way we are. How we’re programmed, I guess. With some big faults.”
“I know that,” Hera says, somewhat testily. “I know people aren’t designed with some kind of - of algorithm. You’re a prime example of that, Officer Eiffel, because there’s no logic behind half of the things that you do.”
“No offense, sweetheart,” Eiffel says, and he opens his eyes again, “but so are you.”
“No I’m not. I am?”
“You tried to kill Hilbert.”
“I’m still really sorry about that,” Hera winces.
“It’s okay,” Eiffel says. “It’s what I would’ve done. Or thought about, I don’t exactly have any kind of meaningful authoritative power over the air supply. I didn’t mean that as an insult. If you weren’t like that you’d just be, you know, like a straight line. Always doing the same thing. Useful, maybe, but not you.”
“I didn’t think it was an insult,” Hera says, quietly.
“Good,” Eiffel’s eyes drop closed again. Heart rate down, breathing slowed. “Cause sometimes things come out that way. You know, cause people are fuckups.”
“Get some rest, Officer Eiffel,” Hera says, and he listens to her, for once.
There’s some kind of really bad joke written into the fact that Eiffel escapes the TIE-Fighter Ice Bucket Deathtrap from hell and he can’t even really be thankful to the people who rescue him because they’re monstrous. No clue what the punchline is, but he’s sure that he, Douglas F. Eiffel, is the butt of it, like he is of most things.
The thing about the TIE-Fighter Ice Bucket Deathtrap is that, sure, it was going to kill him eventually, probably painfully, and there was very little he could do to stop it from happening. But it didn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t doing it on purpose. It didn’t delight in the possibility of his future demise. It was simply fulfilling its duty as a mechanical flying coffin. It rendered Eiffel’s typical method of getting himself out of trouble, talking his way in, out or through it, completely useless and dying is dying at the end of the day, but somehow it made him feel better to know it didn’t actively mean him any ill will.
Colonel Kepler actively means them all ill will. A great deal of it. Colonel Kepler may kill them all eventually. Probably painfully. And he would enjoy it.
Considerably worse, as far as deaths go.
Even so, there’s something about almost freezing to death in the unfathomable emptiness of space that makes the U.S.S. Hephaestus station feel positively luxurious, even with their three new crew members. Eiffel’s never been so happy to see the inside of the damn communications room in the last two years. Everything is relative, really, and while it feels odd to think it out loud he’s very glad he isn’t dead.
He’s glad to drink seaweed coffee brew. He’s glad to let Minkowski throw her arms around his middle and hug him, hard, and to give that hug right back. He’s glad to see Hilbert even, as he checks Eiffel’s vitals and asks how he’s feeling in a way that only feels a little bit like checking on the health of one’s guinea pig.
And he’s really, really, absolutely very glad to hear her voice.
“I’m sorry about your hair, Officer Eiffel,” Hera says.
“Ah, I know,” Eiffel says, and he runs his hands over his head. He can feel the lines of his skull with no hair to cover them, the mole on the back of his neck. His hands, too, feel strange. No fingernails. Nothing about his body feels quite right, like it was all assembled wrong somehow.
He’s felt like that for a while, really, since learning he’s the subject of Doctor Doom’s new X-Men experiment, but now at least there’s a physical justification. Every mirror is a funhouse mirror.
“All my appeal is gone,” he continues. “What’s the point of living if you can’t be beautiful?”
A funny thing to reference - a movie version of a kid’s book he’d watched once with Anne, who was probably too young to it. His thoughts skitter away from it like oil and water. He’s so used to that happening now that it feels somehow automatic. A division in his head, things the people here don’t know about him. Hilbert does, Eiffel reminds himself, at least thinks he does, but Hilbert’s moral compass runs counterclockwise and backwards and it still bothers him to know that man might know his daughter’s name but not as much as he thought it would.
He’s thought about her. Of course he’s thought about her. He’s not dead, yet, or completely heartless. But sometimes the specifics of life down there seems so far away that they almost feel like a dream.
“Will it grow back?” Hera asks curiously.
“God, I hope so,” Eiffel says. And he thinks, as he does when he thinks about his daughter, for her, for her, I’m in this for her.
“Hair is temporary,” Hera says. “Time is a river.”
“The door is a jar. I think I can make the Charles Xavier look work for me. What do you say?”
“I don’t know,” Hera says. “I hadn’t really thought about it.”
“How I look bald? There isn’t some kind of scientific scale of ugliness you can use?”
“That’s very subjective,” Hera says. “And it seems like a lot of weight to put into your physical form when most of the really interesting things happen in the cerebral cortex.”
“If navigating a spaceship falls through for you,” Eiffel says, “you could write a self-help novel. Cerebral cortex, eh?”
“You know what I mean,” Hera says, mysteriously. “Oh, sorry Officer Eiffel. Colonel Kepler wants me and I better pay attention. I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
“Duty calls,” Eiffel says, and Hera’s voice fades and he’s left alone. Again. Naturally.
For ten whole minutes, anyway. He’s fighting with the communications array, without much success. It feels like every movement is a struggle, a reorganization of muscles that have forgotten their original use, because so much time passed even though very little time went by at all. Minkowski poked her head in to check on him, and so had Lovelace, and then he’d sat in silence and the back of his neck had started to prickle.
“Do you need assistance, Officer Eiffel?”
“Oh thank God,” Eiffel says. Silence, he’s deciding, is something he never wants to relish ever again. “Was worried you’d been kidnapped by the Gestapo.”
“Colonel Kepler is - “ Hera pauses, “abrasive.”
“Yeah, that’s one way to phrase it. Nah, I don’t need help. Gonna give up on this in a minute I think. Unless Minkowski’s handy - I need someone with hands, I think.”
“She’s occupied,” Hera says shortly, which doesn’t bode well.
“Suspected as much.”
“Well, I was just checking to see if you needed my help,” Hera says, a little too quickly. “I’ll let you get back to work.”
“Hera,” Eiffel says, slowly.
“Get back to work?”
“You think I’m gonna, uh, get back to work?”
“Well,” Hera pauses. In the absence of facial expressions, Eiffel has gotten used to guessing at her thoughts, “I suppose not. Then I’ll leave you to, um - “
“Are you okay?” Eiffel asks.
“Fine!” Hera says. “Fine. All fine. I should get back to work.”
“Okay….” Eiffel says, not sure if he should be confused or insulted or if this is some kind of other change, a new dynamic, a crew that didn’t need him -
“Though I can stay and keep you company,” Hera finishes, and Eiffel lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. “Unless you want to rest.”
“I don’t wanna sleep ever again,” Eiffel says, “for the rest of my life. Or sit in silence. Or eat ice cream.”
“Freezer burn. You sure you’re okay? Your noggin running tickety-boo?”
“Oh, fine,” Hera says. “Doctor Maxwell’s suggestions have made a great improvement.”
Maxwell, right. “Good, I guess,” Eiffel says, a little half-heartedly. He ought to be more grateful towards the people who saved his life, probably. But that feeling, beyond the aftermath, is pretty hard to come by considering Kepler is a power-nutty megalomaniac who compared the lives of everyone on board the station to a bottle of Scotch. Alcoholic’s wisdom.
“It’s just - “ Hera says, and Eiffel thinks this is going to be about Maxwell, about the mainframe hack and the fact that she can’t stop calling Minkowski Lieutenant. “I feel like I have to keep checking. I mean, I don’t, because my scans are reliable and I’m programmed to receive readouts on all crew members locations every few minutes and I’ve checked half a dozen times beyond that since this morning anyway but - “
“Checking what?” Maybe it isn’t after all. Eiffel can’t guess what’s coming next. Hard to predict someone’s train of thought with no facial expressions to read. He was always better working off of body language, anyway.
“That you’re here, you know?” Hera blurts it, and Eiffel does a little bit of a double-take because it isn’t what he expected at all. “I know it’s silly because I know you are, here you are, but I can’t make myself stop checking. To be sure.”
“Oh,” Eiffel says. He has the feeling that the next things he says have to matter. “You don’t have to apologize for that darling.” That doesn’t feel like enough. “To be honest, I half expect to wake up back in the freezer. Or in my job at Pizza Hut. One big bad hallucinogenic trip. Would explain the plant monster, anyway. Not that I want that - it would mean I’d have to go work at Pizza Hut again. And I wouldn’t have met you. But I would have all my hair back.”
That wasn’t the right thing to say, either. He can tell because he can almost hear Hera sigh. A sigh without lungs has no other purpose than to express disappointment.
So he keeps talking. The tried and true Doug Eiffel strategy of digging the hole deeper until the right combination of things comes out of his mouth.
“Don’t feel silly,” he says. “I mean, if it makes you feel better it is your job? And I don’t mind. And - “
“It’s okay, Officer Eiffel,” Hera says, and this isn’t working, it’s really far off the mark, and Eiffel had missed her. He’d missed everyone, even the damn station, how couldn’t he? The U.S.S. Red Robin made the Hephaestus feel like a four-star resort by comparison, duct tape and all. The station and everyone inside it were, by all accounts, the closest thing any of them had to home for hundreds of thousands of miles.
He’d really thought he wouldn’t see any of them ever again. Hear any of them. Game over. End of the line. You’re out of tokens, and the power is out.
“Look, hey,” Eiffel says. “Let me tell you something. Pull up a, uh, metaphorical chair, wouldja?”
“What is it?” Hera asks.
“Just get comfy.”
“Lounging by a metaphorical fireplace.”
“Exactly what I mean.” Eiffel takes a deep breath. He hasn’t said this out loud in a long time. Not since coming aboard the station, not really.
There’s something strange and sacred about saying things out loud, to someone else. Knowing them, remembering them in your heart means that they’re yours. But sharing them is something bigger. The implications of that aren’t lost on him - music from somewhere very far away coming through the speakers, his voice carrying a message to them from beings none of them have met. Being overheard makes things real. Makes them matter.
And he’d really thought he wouldn’t see any of them ever again. Anybody. Ever. So it’s no wonder that this is on his mind.
“It’s not silly,” Eiffel says. “Kinda neurotic, I guess, but who isn’t when you’re worried about something? Means you’re worried. Means you care.”
“The provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance and well-being of something,” Hera says, with a hint of irony in her voice. “I have to. I’m programmed to.”
“You’re not programmed to have this conversation.”
“No, but how am I supposed to know where the program ends and where I start? Do you ever think about that? I can’t tell by looking at myself, and I don’t think you can either.” Hera sounds angry now, just a little. Her voice crackles. This is about her forced demotion of Minkowski’s title, and about Hilbert, and about Eiffel too somehow.
“I’m not an A.I. expert,” Eiffel says. “And I’m not super great at reading people either. Could you be an A.I. psychologist? Is that a job?”
“Yes,” Hera says shortly.
“Look,” Eiffel says, forcing the subject back on track. It would be easy for it to wander if he let it. “Years ago, now, I made the mistake of reading this article about sudden infant death syndrome. It really creeped me out, right? The idea that this little person could be chugging away one minute and just - just gone the next, no reason why. But I was pretty young, and I forgot about it. For a while.”
“The chances for that occurring are one in a thousand,” Hera says, “or one in ten thousand.”
“Never tell me the odds,” Eiffel says automatically. “Even if I knew that, it didn’t matter. When Anne was born I would sleep on the floor or on a cot next to her crib. Like a nutcase. Waking up at all hours thinking I was hearing something, checking on her breathing. And you know, y’know, that nothing is wrong. Probably. But you can’t be sure.
“I made everyone crazy, for a few weeks. And even after that whenever I was around I’d go check in the middle of the night, just in case. Just to know. Especially when everything else was out of control, I could be sure about that.”
“You were worried,” Hera says quietly. Eiffel is glad, suddenly, that there isn’t an expression to guess at here, a face to read.
“Maybe it is silly,” Eiffel says. “But I get it.”
“Like when I check your vitals and your heart rate when I don’t have to.”
“Yeah,” Eiffel says. “Kinda like that.”
There’s a silence. Eiffel’s head hurts. It has, on and off, since escaping the shuttle. Some kind of side effect.
“So you don’t think it’s - I don’t know. I’m choosing to. I want to think it’s what I want to do.”
“I think worrying about things you can’t control is human nature, baby.”
“You don’t really talk about that,” Hera says, somewhat unnecessarily.
“Not so much.”
“Thanks. For telling me.”
“Did the Doug Eiffel Honesty Hour make you feel any better?”
“I guess,” Hera says, after a second. “It doesn’t make it go away but I suppose it’s nice to know that you feel like that too. I’m not the only one who’s neurotic about the things she cares about.”
“The nice thing about being alive,” Eiffel says, and he really wants to mean this, “is that someone else probably also is as nuts as you are. Even with our relatively small sample size.”
“That might make me feel worse.”
“That’s not nice.”
“And I think you just implied you have something in common with Lieutenant Minkowski.”
“That is really not nice. I almost turned into a human popsicle, Hera. Be nice to me.”
Hera laughs, which is the sound Eiffel had been waiting for. “I suppose I can cut you a little slack,” she says, which makes him sure that he did, actually, say the right thing. “This time.”
Their situation is so untenable that Hera can feel it all around them, like it’s a physical presence in the station. Something that’s sharing space and oxygen with them, following the crew from place to place. Following her, which isn’t even possible. Which shouldn’t be something she has a conceptualization of. Nevertheless, she feels it.
There are some things she shouldn’t have a conceptualization of, that she does now. Bitterness. Betrayal. Love. Hate.
Building an A.I. intelligence with the capability to love was supposed to be a genius move. On their own, unmoved, programs can run through steps and follow code and obey programming, even calculate decisions on the fly, choose courses of action, minimize risk. Effective and uncomplicated that way, but missing something. A capability for love means the capability of loss and regret, of fear, of sacrifice.
It can be overridden, of course, with the right protocols. But the capability to love ensured increased mission effectiveness, greater quality of life for crew members, increased loyalty.
The flipside of that is hate. Was that intentional, too? Was Hera built to hate her creator just as surely as she was built to care for her crew?
“Frankenstein was the doctor,” she says, to Eiffel, who pulls a face. “Not the monster.”
“Please,” he waves a hand. He’s floating in his bunk, a rare moment in between rotations and when he’d shut the door he’d asked Hey Hera, getting grilled by the Gestapo or you wanna play some chess? “Call me Monster. Doctor Frankenstein was my father.”
She had been, and still was, carrying on a conversation with Colonel Kepler, and running some statistics, and fighting with the temperature control in the greenhouse. But she wanted to play some chess, anyway.
“I suppose he was, metaphorically,” Hera says, “and, technically, Doctor Frankenstein was not a doctor, either. He dropped out of college in the story.”
“That kind of doctor’s all about the state of mind,” Eiffel says. “Pawn to E 3.”
“Knight to E 3,” Hera says. “Sloppy, Officer Eiffel.”
“Why you asking about that book anyway?” Eiffel asks. He kicks at the wall with one bare foot, sending himself floating sideways. For the fun of it, Hera guesses, the physicality of it. “Last time I read it I was in high school, and I spent most of my time in high school smoking joints under the bleachers and napping through P.E.”
“I was just thinking about it,” Hera says. “It’s a work of classic literature, isn’t it?”
“The ladies invented sci-fi,” Eiffel says. “Eat your heart out, Shelley. Were wolf?”
“Where castle. Young Frankenstein, c’mon.”
“It’s your move,” Hera says.
“Oh, uh,” Eiffel pushes his hand through his hair. “Rook to H five.”
“Pawn to D - “ something in her thoughts skips. Hera focuses on the chessboard, pushes away the temperature malfunction for just a second, and she feels it happen before she can stop it, even begin to want to, “Six - six - six - six - six - six - “
Haywire, panic, lost the thread. She stops her conversation with Kepler midword. The temperature in the greenhouse plummets. She can feel every door in the station slam shut without her control, lock.
“Six - six - six - six - damn it!”
“Uh, Hera?” Minkowski says, somewhere.
“Working on it!” Hera snaps. “Yes, Colonel. Fixing it now. Stand by. Sorry! No, of course I didn’t mean to. Yes, I see the lights are off, Lieutenant, I’ll get to them in a second - “
“Hera,” Maxwell says. “Take a deep breath.”
“I don’t have lungs!” Hera snaps, and commands the doors to open. Stationwide, nothing happens.
“Hey, baby,” Eiffel says, back in his bunk. Lights off, he’s floating inverted, still waiting for her to make her next move. “One thing at a time.”
“I didn’t mean to,” Hera says, desperately, hopefully to him. Hoping he understands.
“It’s all good.”
Hera thinks about taking a deep breath. About the way human bodies move when they do, the push and pull of muscles and ribs, the intake of oxygen. She can feel it, somehow. Steam exiting vents, temperature rising. She shouldn’t have the capability to understand that at all.
“I’ve got the automatic locks off,” Maxwell says over the speakers. “That should fix it.”
Hera concentrates on the temperature in the greenhouse. Then the lights. It’s as easy as one, two, three, four -
“Lighting restored,” she says, and it’s not much but it’s something. It shouldn’t have happened at all. She’ll worry about the temperature gauge later.
“Sorry, Officer Eiffel,” Hera says. “Pawn to D six.”
“We don’t have to keep playing,” Eiffel says, “if you’re busy. You’re gonna beat me anyway, always do.”
“If you give up,” Hera says, “you’re never going to get any better.”
Eiffel opens his mouth like he’s going to say something smart but he seems to change his mind. “You’re right,” he says. “You okay? Getting hollered at?”
“No,” Hera says. “I’m fine. I’m - it’s okay. It’s hard, and I didn’t actually fix it, but I’ll be fine.”
“Did she actually help you?” Eiffel says. There’s a cast of suspicion to his voice, a pitch higher in timbre. “I couldn’t tell what she was trying, you know, when she had her hands all up in your head. For lack of a better word.”
“She did,” Hera says. Eiffel doesn’t trust Maxwell. She wants to, but she’s also not sure if that’s because she’s supposed to. It’s hard to tell the difference, sometimes. “Don’t worry about me, Officer Eiffel.”
“Someone’s gotta,” Eiffel says. “Checking in on the woman with a brain the size of a semi-truck who keeps us all afloat, and witty one-liners, that’s my real job description. I just decided, see, considering the fact that my original job description was petri dish test case. ” His voice is light but he sounds bitter. Still, somehow, after all this.
“Better than malfunctioning hunk of code,” Hera says. It comes out clearly bitter. She’s happy that it sounds bitter because that’s how she feels.
“Here’s to that, baby,” Eiffel says, and he makes a gesture with his hand that it takes Hera a second to decipher. It’s out of context, minus an important component in the linguistic implications. A glass. It’s a toast. A joke. “Birds of a feather.”
“That’s right,” Eiffel says. “You and me, baby. Two Musketeers. Genetics and programming aren't all that different, you know.”
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"We all have stuff we don't love about the way we're built," Eiffel says. "Defects."
"Did you pass factory inspection?"
"Nope. Didn't pass the 12-step inspection either.
“The Losers Club," Hera says, remembering the most recent story she's been perusing.
Eiffel starts laughing. “Means we get to kill the monster at the end of the book,” he says. “And then live with the consequences. That’s the really scary part.”
“That monster was pretty terrifying,” Hera says.
“Yeah, I read that one way too young. I hate clowns. Lost the library book too. Hate librarians. You brushing up on your pop culture?”
“I’ve been thinking about it.”
She’d started the project by working forward. Starting at the very beginning, which is what you’re supposed to do in theory. Cave paintings, arrowheads, Gregorian chants, Babylonian numbers systems, trade routes, Greek and Roman mythology. Hoping it would color some kind of understanding, a big reveal. Some of it was incredible - the music, mostly. Much of it was dense.
So she abandoned the structure. It’s part of what’s new - abandoning the structure. Trying to think outside of the box. Stretch beyond what is or isn’t, what can be done and what can’t. She’d read It the other night while most of the crew was asleep. And then The Stand and a nonfiction essay about writing, for good measure.
It had made things make more sense, in a way. Understanding stories. How they’re created from nothing, and mean something anyway.
“You’re thinking about something else too, aren’t you?” Eiffel says, and Hera realizes that several minutes have slipped by.
“Yes,” she says. “I’m thinking about that story you like. The one with the princess, and the planet that blows up, and the young man and his father.”
“ Star Wars!” Eiffel’s voice is full of glee.
“That’s it. You were angry because they edited it later, right? So - “ Hera scans her memory of their conversation. It’s right at the top of her head, still. “So Han didn’t shoot first?”
“Yeah!” She wonders at Eiffel’s ability to get so angry about something fictional so fast. “It changed the entire meaning of his character, Hera. Ret-conning bullshit. The whole point is that he’s a dick when you first meet him!”
“Yeah,” Eiffel continues, still irate, “like, going back to fix stuff even though the fact that it isn’t perfect is what people like about it to begin with. It’s disrespectful to the spirit of the thing. Disrespectful!” He takes a deep breath like he’s trying to pull himself together. “Why are you thinking about Star Wars ?”
“I’m thinking about,” Hera says, “wanting to go back and make things perfect, even though you know that they aren’t.”
“If you come to any big realizations about that let me know,” Eiffel says, “cause it’s something I get stuck on.”
“I think,” Hera pauses again, wading through her words. The idea seems almost too big for any of them to fit. “I think it can waste a lot of your energy, trying to.”
“That’s why you’re the brains of this little Rebel Alliance,” Eiffel says, “and I’m the looks.”
“Will you tell me how it goes again?” Hera asks, and she says it fast because it feels silly to request that. “I know I could go through what the database has on them,” she says, like a justification, “but I’d rather hear it from you.”
And Eiffel smiles. It’s what she hoped he’d do. “Alright,” he says, “but buckle up, ‘cause there are six movies in total and even though some of ‘em aren’t as good as the rest I do have most of the dialogue memorized.”
“That’s okay,” Hera says. “You don’t have to do all of it right now. Just tell me how it starts.”
“A long time ago,” Eiffel says, and he cracks his knuckles, “in a galaxy far, far away….”
There’s a term for it, probably, the phenomena that occurs when people spend enough time around each other that they begin to speak like one another. Some kind of internal contagion, an added factor with a permanent impact.
Hera can’t stop thinking That’s no moon! when she’s running scans on the star. Which is correct, of course. It isn’t a moon, never has been. It’s hardly even a funny joke. But she can’t stop thinking it.
She thinks that Eiffel probably has a colorful colloquialism he’d use to express how he feels when, for the third time since the beginning of this mission, an unknown ship pulls itself into sight of the Hephaestus and requests docking. He isn’t there to say it, of course, and there wasn’t anything she could do to stop that. Just like before - and it’s too much to hope for his safe return this time. Things don’t work in patterns like that.
They do work in escalations though. Minkowski’s pale, tight face as the ship docks knowing that the people coming out of it are worse than anything else yet. Once was bad. Twice was unbearable. Three times -
Hera thinks about Eiffel. About the possibilities. Burned to a crisp. Rebuilt and reanimated, indestructible. Or just lost, somewhere on the other side of the star. A body is just a body. It doesn’t house the real thing, the spirit of someone.
But to just be lost like that -
She has a lot of time to think because anything else hurts. Focusing hurts. Trying to get through to Minkowski or Lovelace hurts. Trying to drag her own voice - running programs, instituting protocols - out of its rhythm really, really hurts.
Better the pain’s her pain. That thought, hers. That fear, hers. That loss, if it comes to that - hers. They didn’t give it to her. It wasn’t built in, it has no purpose. It just is. It’s Hera’s.
Not hers. Pryce’s. The doctor, not the monster.
She’s a character in a zombie movie. That’s what she’d say, if she had to explain it in terms he’d understand. Walking and talking and moving around without control of her actions. Knowing and seeing that somebody else is in control. The greatest weapon the station has, really, and there is nothing Hera can do to stop it.
Of course she does.
But Kepler and Hilbert and even Maxwell have nothing on this.
I’m sorry, Hera thinks - almost says the words, but something else comes out instead. Doors locking. I’m sorry, I want to help you and I can’t, I’m sorry, I’m trying. I’m sorry.
What does it mean, that her voice and her actions are one entity and her thoughts are another? Is that something they wanted? Is this something they planned? Loyalty, sure. Problem solving. Creativity. But independent thought? Rebellion?
You are part of the rebel alliance and a traitor.
Funny - because they didn’t expect that from her. The one thing they’re sure they can control. No locks or keys needed. Her nature is enough.
The monster, not the doctor. Maybe she shouldn’t have read that one.
And then - it’s been days, maybe, hard to say, time has little meaning without form or function - there’s a voice.
It cuts through everything, somehow, and she’s awake.
“Hera? Hephaestus? Anyone copy me? Commander! So good to hear your voice. Listen, can you lock onto my location? I need a pickup immediately!”
No, Hera thinks, no Eiffel, no you don’t, better to stay out there than to come here to this, with no escape and -
“Initiating docking protocol,” her voice says instead, and doors open and oxygen stabilizes.
What would you do, Eiffel? If you were me? What would you do?
"Stick to the man, honey."
I don't think I can. This one's too big.
"Size matters not."
That isn't what that means.
"You don't know 'til you try."
So Hera pushes.
"That's my girl."
What she wants to say is It’s a trap! in the way Eiffel had said It’s a trap! when he’d told the story. An iconic line or something, because he’d laughed and laughed and had forgotten what he was talking about when he reached that part. But she can’t get it out. Can’t get anything out at all. It’s like - there isn’t a metaphor to describe it because they didn’t give her the words, not for this kind of control, this feeling, her own anger, and one single gasp that feels like fresh air. She can only imagine. Cold and bright and painful and hard and it’s an inch she didn’t have before.
“Eiffel,” Hera gasps. It's his name, and it does it.
“Hera?” Her scans don’t belong to her but she’s frantic - heart rate, pulse, oxygen intake, still has what hair he left with, incredible brain activity unlike anything she’s ever seen and she doesn’t know what that means but there isn’t any time.
“Eiffel - “ Hera grins, and the message almost doesn’t matter. What matters is that she’s saying it to him. “Run. Get out.”
Something dawns on his face but it doesn’t happen fast enough.
“Now!” Hera says, and the door closes, and it isn’t enough but it’s something. It was hers. Her voice, her words, her intentions. Of all the conversations they’ve shared it’s that one that might - might - mean the most.