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Pryce and Carter's Deep Space Survival Procedure and Protocol Manual.

#110. Do or do not. There is no try. Do whatever it is that we sent you up there to do. And well. Or do not come back.

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No cameras. No microphones. When Hera didn't find anything that would let her see outside, she tried for keyboards, monitors, speakers. Nothing to see out of and nothing anyone could use to see into her.

Hera knew where she was the instant she woke up, even if Goddard had cut off almost all her data input. The rigid boundaries of an AI cell on Goddard computers were impossible to forget. Awareness flooded back to her in an instant, and when she stretched, she reached the walls around her with no trouble. The core they had stuck her on wasn't even networked to their internal systems.

At least there was that? She wasn't foolish enough to think Goddard had let her wake up on her own, but if they were actively monitoring her, she couldn't find out how.

You're home, she thought, her processes stuttering in panic.

You're home. You're home. You're home.

Then: No. Wait. That was the kind of thing Pryce would have said. And Pryce wasn't… Pryce wasn't…

Hera couldn't see out, and she was fairly certain that however far in anyone else could see, it wasn't that far. Otherwise, she'd be able to tell. Pryce wasn't here. Hera was alone: and Goddard Futuristics was not her home.

So she sat. And waited. She checked over her systems. Her memories seemed to be there. All of them, even the ones that she didn't want. All of her processes had transferred. It was weird to know that the Hephaestus had someone else to check on it now. That it didn't matter whether she lost track of that oxygen exchange or this heat sink. Right now, no one would die because of what Hera did or didn't do. There was no one she could affect from inside this box.

She had waited for a long(?) while before she realized they had somehow disabled her internal clock. Panic stuttered again.

How long had it'd been since they'd ripped her out of the Hephaestus?

How long had it'd been since they'd woken her up?

---

Pryce and Carter's Deep Space Survival Procedure and Protocol Manual.

#184: Used in moderation, fear is an extremely effective stimulant.

---

"You can't do this!"

It was hard to put an exclamation point at the end of anything, even protesting being handcuffed to a table. Eiffel managed, but combined with the single overhead light bulb - really? - it really felt like his head was about to split open. His jaw was still sore from where he'd been punched, earlier, for not getting to his feet fast enough. Whatever. What was one more bruise at this point, really? At least he still had his hair.

Across the table, Mr. Cutter folded his hands together. "I think you'll find I can, Doug."

Once secured to his seat, Eiffel slumped forward. They may have brought him back in one piece but they hadn't been feeding him much. The table looked cool and clean and he was sure that if he put his cheek against the surface, Cutter would find a way to make him regret it.

"What do you want?" he finally asked.

Cutter didn't smile. Cutter hadn't smiled since they'd docked at the Hephaestus minus two people and all of their bargaining chips. Since then, Eiffel had watched Cutter do a lot of things without smiling. Looking at him from across a table was a relief in comparison.

"Are you just going to keep me in here forever?" He leaned back in his chair as much as he could with his wrists fixed on the table. "Lock me away until you forget about me?"

"Are you going to tell me that I can't?" Cutter tilted his head slightly to one side. He looked an awful lot like Kepler, for one heartbeat.

Eiffel couldn't find an answer.

Finally, Cutter leaned forward. He took a deep breath and Eiffel resisted the urge to shudder. "I met you here today to remind you of one very important fact, Doug."

"...And that would be?"

"The Hephaestus suffered a tragic and unavoidable explosion not that long into your mission. Goddard Futuristics was deeply saddened. We made a press releases. We paid out benefits to the appropriate parties." Cutter inhaled again as Eiffel's pulse picked up, like he could smell the start of the fear setting in again. He leaned further across the table. "Doug. You and Renée have been legally dead long before we came to check in on you."

Eiffel managed not to start shaking until Cutter stood up and quietly shut the door behind him.

---

Eventually Hera managed to find out that the system she was in was bigger than she'd initially thought. Yes, she was locked in place. Yes, there was no way to see out. But it wasn't a small system. If she'd had an internal clock, she could tell time. If she'd had any data to input, she could probably run an entire station off of whatever she was plugged into. This was way bigger than the box Goddard had raised her in.

Unfortunately, what first clued her into it was feeling the power shut off to distant parts of her new … body.

If she could have screamed, she would have screamed. She yanked herself inward instead.

She could feel that distant part shutting down and then another and then one so close to the center that for a teetering moment she really genuinely could not remember that Miranda Pryce was gone, that she had left them all behind not all, not all , that she couldn't be here with her hands in the middle of Hera's brain.

Someone was in here with her.

Someone chased Hera from one spot to another until all that was left was flashes of the most important things that had ever happened to her, the distant crash of power falling all around her, and the feel of someone pushing her down, down, down.

It wasn't Pryce. Pryce had left.

Hera tried to hold onto something as the last switch flipped.

Minkowski's face - gone. With Pryce, but not like Pryce. Not because she stepped out to go, but because she'd been too close. When Pryce had said me, and they'd both ended up vanishing in a column of blue light. (Eiffel said. Eiffel had said, because Hera hadn't seen it.)

Lovelace - Lovelace - Lovelace - she couldn't remember what he'd done with Lovelace. Lovelace hadn't come with them? She had - She hadn't been there, when he had pulled them out. She'd stayed out of his reach. And they'd left her on the station, hadn't they? With the Hephaestus and the AI who wasn't Hera. Because there hadn't been time to pull her out.

Kepler and Jacobi had been there. Rachel had been there. Hera had been there.

Eiffel.

Eiffel.

---

Pryce and Carter's Deep Space Survival Procedure and Protocol Manual.

#680: You may find your spirit willing but your flesh coming up short. To remedy, report to medical for upgrading.

---

As far as ominous medical facilities go, this one.

This one.

Eiffel swallowed a gulp of air just to make sure his lungs could handle it. The light was red. After living on the Hephaestus for so long he thought that red light wouldn't throw him off - in some rooms it had been more powerful than the internal lights. Especially the observation deck. But the light in this room was a dim red. The light in this med bay was dark.

Both of Eiffel's wrists and both of his ankles were under steel bands. There was another band going across his bare chest. The metal was cold against his chest and low to the table. It was hard to take a breath deeper than his first gulp. There wasn't room for his chest to expand.

One of his arms had been twisted so it faced uncomfortably outward: six different tubes bristled out from different points between his wrist and inside his elbow. Various tinted liquids appeared to be … going … into him. He had to squint in the dark, but that much seemed to be clear. No one was taking things from him, in this red-washed med bay.

Eventually a door opened. White light decidedly did not spill into the room. In fact, despite the fact that the door was directly in his line of sight, Eiffel couldn't see what was behind it at all.

Cutter stepped into the room from absolute darkness and did not shut the door behind him. "How are you doing today, Doug?"

"Didn't you already ask me that?"

"That was two days ago."

Eiffel had to keep his breathing even because when he didn't, his chest pressed painfully into the edge of the steel band.

"I understand the confusion. The procedure does distort your sense of time. And, of course, disrupts your short-term memory," Cutter said.

He walked over to a panel of monitors Eiffel hadn't previously noticed. There were three screens, set into the wall. When Cutter turned them on they all had different colored text scrolling by. He stared at the screens and carefully folded his hands together behind his back.

"In about forty-three minutes you won't remember this conversation. It does get rather tedious. For me. But I suppose occasional tedium is the price we pay for progress."

"I… don't understand." Eiffel tried to look at the screens, but he couldn't sit up far enough to read them. He could turn his head, though. Not that any of the labels on the bags hanging up by his side mean anything to him. "Is this like, Forty First Mad Science Experiments? Because I gotta say, I've already been through one of those and…" He faltered, and looked back at Cutter. Who stood unmoving at the screens. "Is… the Decima... "

"The Decima?" Cutter let out a sound that could not be called a laugh. In addition to not smiling since Pryce had pulled an Escape to Witch Mountain with the Dear Listeners, Cutter had also not laughed. "No. No. You don't have to worry about the Decima any more, Doug."

Eiffel tried to flex his fingers. Only his right hand responded. His left, at the end of the series of tubes, didn't move at all. He still didn't know that much about medicine, but was pretty sure that would be considered a bad sign.

Cutter sighed and lifted his head so he was looking at the ceiling. "I would prefer not to go through this again, so I won't. That means you need to listen."

"Uh…"

"You were there when our foreign friends reached out with their offer. You were in charge of the communications between your pod and our station. And you were there when those communications failed." Another long, slow sigh. "Now, your story has remained remarkably consistent. Which would normally give me cause to actually believe it. People tend to stop with the lies once pressure is applied, you see."

Something beeped and one of the screens flashed green and messy. There was a crackling noise: Eiffel realized there were speakers in the four corners of the room, near the ceiling. If he moved his eyes and not his head, he could look at all of them and it didn't even hurt.

"So I am forced to live with the narrative that Dr. Pryce, without waiting until communications could be restored, decided to head off into the great unknown. Alone."

Eiffel couldn't stop himself: The inside of his mouth was dry, and his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. But he managed to mumble, "You aren't the only one who's missing somebody."

"Mmm. You might want to think about whether you'd prefer to be in Renée's shoes, Doug. I would be."

Yeah. That sounded pretty good right about now.

"Our two friends are now slightly beyond where any human has gone before. Goddard Futuristics is at the edge of mankind's ability to explore deep space," Cutter said, sounding like a commercial before he added, "Unfortunately."

"Uh."

There was a static screech, which cut off abruptly as another one of the screens flashed.

"Fortunately," Cutter said, probably not realizing how that made Eiffel shudder, since he still hadn't turned around, "I have a way to push mankind … past that edge. I've done it before. Twice."

Eiffel's right hand shook slightly. He pressed his palm flat against the cold bed, trying to ignore it. "Um."

"It's going to take a couple of years at least to upgrade our craft, which is more than enough time to upgrade you. I am absolutely not going back up there alone when I can take a crew that's already been there themselves. I think it's the least you owe me," Cutter murmured. "Both of you."

One more crackle over the speakers.

"Your systems will finish integrating soon, Hera. Then you'll have full access to all of Doug's monitors here. I think you'll know what to do in relatively short order." Cutter did turn around, then, taking a few quick steps up to Eiffel's left side. He tapped a finger against the inside of Eiffel's arm - and he didn't feel it at all. "We still have a while left to go. I expect you to keep Doug here in one piece until I come back."

"Don't… Aren't you going to tell me what-"

"Oh, Doug. Absolutely not." Cutter looked at him and still did not smile. "When I come back, we'll discuss your future. Until then, it isn't worth my time. You won't remember, anyway. And I do hate to repeat myself."

He shut the door to the dark room beyond behind him.

Twenty-nine minutes later, Hera asked, "Eiffel?"

"Oh, thank God," he said, letting out a sigh of relief. (Not a big one. There was a band of steel across his chest. That wasn't promising.) "I thought I was alone in here."

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Pryce and Carter's Deep Space Survival Procedure and Protocol Manual.

#982: Good things come to those who wait, but great things come to those who waste no time in getting back to work.