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Strategic Fortification

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“We could… watch Home Alone 2 with the sound off and make up our own dialogue,” Eiffel suggests through a mouthful of Spam-and-seaweed sandwich.

“We’ve done that,” Minkowski says.  “It was painful.”

“I was funny!”

“You define ‘funny’ in a unique way.  I was thinking more along the lines of, we could try setting up a message to broadcast-cycle on different frequencies into the star, and see if any of those get a response—”

“I’ve done that,” Eiffel complains.  “Trust me, now that we’re definitively stuck here, I’ve tried everything I could think of to get ET to pick up the phone again.  No dice.”

“It can’t hurt.”

“It can, because it can make me annoyed after dinner, when I’ve put in my hours today and am off the clock.”

“We could play that card game you hate,” Hera says.

“We have nothing to bet with and you always win.  We could play Uno.”

“I can never remember which cards we map to which in Uno,” Minkowski grumbles.  “It changes every time.”

“Yeah, ‘cause I can never remember what I said last time so I just assign them based on what feels right.  The one-eyed Jacks are always draw-fours though.  Shifty dudes.  Never trusted ‘em.”

Lovelace pokes at her own dinner, her attention to this conversation fading in and out.  She’s not hungry, and it’s not only that the food is unappetizing.  “We could figure out a way to pull a computer from the Hephaestus to replace the Urania’s broken one,” she says.

The conversation goes quiet.

“The Urania may be a lost cause,” Minkowski says.  “Besides, I don’t want to tear apart this station any more than it already has been.”

“I’ve done it before.  It works,” Lovelace says, a defensive edge in her voice.  “I know how to do it.”

“I don’t think—”

“Do you want to get out of here or not?” Lovelace snaps, and immediately regrets it.  She’s been getting more and more tense since the day she shot out the flight computer.  It was stupid.  It had all been so stupid.  She’d been stressed and angry and emotional, but that didn’t forgive anything, did it?  They’re stuck here trying to find ways to pass the time because she hadn’t been able to control herself.  Maybe literally.  Maybe she’s not in control of herself.  Minkowski is nice enough to not say so but it’s obvious Eiffel and Hera are wondering what the hell is wrong with her.

She wonders, too.  But they all know the answer, don’t they?  The thing she’s trying not to think about.  The thing that will always be the only thing she thinks about.

“Um,” Eiffel says, “I mean, it sounds like the Dear Listeners are the ones who don’t want us to get out of here.  So.”

“And we’re just going to sit here and let them yank us around without even trying to do anything to push back?”

“Lovelace,” Minkowski says.  “We’re not tearing apart the station.”  She hesitates, then adds, “Not tonight.  That sounds like an undertaking and we’d have to discuss it.  Discuss a plan.  It’s not necessarily a bad one, but, we can talk about that tomorrow.”  She yawns.  “Maybe a card game and then sleep is the best option, right now.  It’s been a discouraging day, and it’s late.  We could all use some sleep.”

“Sure,” Lovelace says.  “Card game.”

She’s distractible and restless during the game, and she can’t keep track of which playing cards are supposed to be which Uno cards, and she knows she isn’t any fun.  It’s interminable.  It’s over soon.

“Well, that was more frustrating than it had to be,” Minkowski says briskly.

“You’re just mad because you forgot that red queens are Reverse, not black queens,” Eiffel said.

“You would too if Hera wasn’t on your team!”

“That’s why we make a good team,” Hera says.  “I have a brain that can remember the pattern and come up with a strategy, and he has hands.”

“Uno doesn’t have teams!  And there isn’t any pattern!”

“Uno is a lawless land,” Lovelace says, shoving her cards back into their now-ratty carboard box and standing up.  “That was… nice.”  Sure.  She can go with that.

Minkowski shakes her head, but puts the rest of the cards away.  “We need to decide on a consistent equivalence.  With consistent rules.  I’m pretty sure real Uno decks don’t have a ‘sneak your cards into someone else’s hand without them noticing’ card.”

“They might,” Eiffel says.  “You don’t know.”

“They might,” Lovelace agrees.  “No one can ever know.  Good night, guys.”  She stands, and turns to leave.

“Captain,” Minkowski says, to her retreating back, “that’s… not the direction of the quarters.”

“I know.”

“Lovelace, don’t go back to the Urania tonight.  Don’t keep bashing your head against that problem.  Not this late.”

“It’s fine,” Lovelace says.  “I’m not tired.  I spent last night poking around the flight computer, might as well spend the next few hours removing it.  Can’t break it worse, and if I can get all the components out cleanly, it’s possible that we can just replace it wholesale with one from the Hephaestus.  That might even bypass the problem of needing Kepler’s biometric scans to activate—”

“Lovelace,” says Minkowski, “I don’t—that doesn’t make sense.  We’ll discuss this tomorrow, but don’t mess with the Urania any more tonight.”  There’s something in her voice that sounds very… commanding.  About time she’s gotten tired of Lovelace’s shit and is regretting handing over command.  Figures.

“It’s fine,” Lovelace says.  “I’ll just work at it for a little bit.  I’m not tired.”

“You aren’t?” Minkowski asks, dubious.  “After spending all night poking at the flight computer yesterday, too?”

“I got some sleep.  I’m fine.”

“How much sleep, Lovelace?”

“Enough,” Lovelace snaps.  “I’m a scary alien now, remember?  I don’t need sleep like I did before.  A few hours is enough.  Lots of time to do other things.  Practical things.”  She spins around to face Minkowski again, and gets suddenly dizzy in the zero-g and hits her head against the wall.

“Um,” Eiffel says.  “I don’t want to argue with the whole, alien thing, if you’re sure, but… are you sure.  Cause you seem… tired.”

“I’m not tired!”

“Not to pull the ‘omnipresent station system’ card,” Hera says, “but the average hours of sleep you’ve been getting per night is three point two.  I don’t even need to cross-check to guess that that’s not healthy for a human.”

“Good for me, then,” Lovelace growls.  She is so tired.  She doesn’t need this.

“Lovelace,” Minkowski says, very gently, “when was the last time you got more than three hours of sleep in a night?  You’ve been staying up late and waking up early for as long as you’ve been here.  And I don’t get the feeling that’s much of a new development.”

It isn’t.  Lovelace hates to admit it, but no, it isn’t.  “I can take care of myself.”

“I know you can,” Minkowski says, “but are you?  Because… you deserve to, you know.  You don’t have to do this to yourself.  And you don’t have to make up for… whatever you’re making up for.”

It’s not making up for anything.  Lovelace wants to explain, wants to scream it, but doesn’t want to talk about it, and anyway, the words aren’t coalescing right in her head.  It’s the lying awake, staring at the ceiling in the dark, uncomfortably aware of the restraints holding her to the bed.  It’s the thoughts she can’t fight from her head.  It’s the dreams.  It’s the fear of being out of control.  It’s that even when she manages to close her eyes it all follows her.  She sees Kepler’s gun in her face and a bomb tearing the station apart, hears Sam Lambert gasping for breath through lungs filled with blood and Dr. Hilbert’s voice saying it was all for the greater good, smells the sizzling of her skin as she falls into star, feels the crackle of bright blue power through her nerves as her whole body lights up not-hers-anymore.  Her brain, always racing to recombine everything she’s felt afraid of and guilty about for the past five years into fun new scenarios, doesn’t even have to go for the lazy option of providing her with recurring nightmares.  Wandering the station alone and unable to ever leave—Minkowski putting a harpoon through her chest—glowing brighter and brighter as she warps into an unknowable god-alien until she goes nova, becomes a newborn star, swallowing up the station in flame and screaming... she has enough material for an exciting new one every time.

“Staying awake is better,” is what she says instead.  “Having something to do is better.  If I don’t need to sleep I might as well use that time, right?”

“Is that even true, or is that just something Kepler told you?” Minkowski asks, and Lovelace falters.  “What does he know about anything?”

“Yeah,” Eiffel says.  “If you were really a total immortal alien, you wouldn’t need to eat, either.  Or breathe.  Or pee.  Which I guess I don’t know if you do, but you would’ve noticed if you didn’t, right?  I mean, if you were able to just absorb psi-waves like Kandrona rays, seems like we’d have noticed by now.  You’ve got to be… part human.  Somewhat still human?  Got a kinda sorta Alien Jesus thing going on—”

“Eiffel,” Minkowski says, “stop talking.”

He stops talking.

Addressing Lovelace again, Minkowski does concede, “He’s somewhat right, though.  What we know about what the aliens did to you, it’s that you were… brought back, atom for atom, as the same Isabel Lovelace.  And human atoms make human molecules that need energy and need time to refresh themselves.  Lovelace, I don’t think that’s any alien power causing you to stay up all night.  I think that’s just you.”

Hera offers, “Though it might be the extra boost from alien power that’s keeping you alive while you do it.”

“Magic healing blood really does cure all, huh,” Eiffel says.

“Yeah, see,” Lovelace says, “this is the exact thing I was trying to avoid, thank you.  Nice chat, lots of truths, we’ve done this already, I have a spaceship that I put a bullet in and now need to fix.”

“Lovelace,” Minkowski says, “I’m… I’m concerned about you.”

“You don’t need to be.”

“I do need to be, if you keep giving me a reason to be!  I know it’s scary right now, but hurting yourself on purpose isn’t helping anyone!  Least of all you!  You deserve to rest, too!”

“This isn’t about deserves,” Lovelace says.  “It’s—I can’t sleep, okay?  I can’t.  And that’s fine.”

“Do you feel fine?” Minkowski asks.

“Yes, in fact.”

“Because you just hit your head and your eyes aren’t focusing on me.”

“I—” It’s true.  Lovelace blinks hard and makes a conscious effort to bring Minkowski into focus.  “There we go.  See?  Fine.”

“Captain,” Minkowski says, “you don’t have to keep inventing things to do to avoid sleeping.  You don’t have to keep driving yourself to an exhaustion breakdown.  And as commanding officer of this station, it’s your duty to be aware, alert, and present for your crew.”  She sighs.  “And it’s your right to be kind to yourself, you know.  You’ve been through a lot.  You can rest.”

“I can’t,” Lovelace says, and her voice that comes out far more desperate than she wanted it to.

An awkward silence settles over the room.  Then Eiffel says, “I think I know what this situation calls for, actually!  Be right back!” and bolts from the mess hall.

Minkowski and Lovelace stare at each other across the table.  “Was this an intervention?” Lovelace asks.

“Not intentionally,” Minkowski says.  “But feel free to interpret it as one.  I mean it, Captain, if an appeal to ‘we’re worried about you’ isn’t working, then try ‘you’re abdicating your duty to this station and the people on it by refusing to take care of yourself’.  If you’re trying… then I’m sorry.  But taking off to keep finding reasons to still work on the Urania isn’t even trying.”

Lovelace sighs and perches on the mess table.  She doesn’t actually need to sit in zero-gravity, but tricking her body into thinking it’s sitting down makes her head feel a little bit clearer.  “It’s easier than trying.”

Minkowski drifts over and sits next to her.  “Maybe.  I know I haven’t exactly been sleeping well either.”  She snorts.  “For… a very long time.  Eiffel, too.  I know.  We know.  But what are you accomplishing by destroying yourself?  This is a battle for the good of the crew, Captain, and it’s not like you to just run from it.”

Lovelace rolls her eyes.  “Aye-aye, Commander.”

“I mean it, Lovelace.”

“I know you do.”  She sighs and rubs her eyes.  “That’s the frustrating part.”  She lets out a long breath.  Her vision is definitely not as sharp as it should be and it feels hard to keep herself from just staring at the floor, hating everything and wallowing in the feeling that everyone hates her.  “So I take it this is the kind of night where I feel awful about everything, and it’s almost insulting to know that yes, actually getting a full nine hours of sleep would make me feel better.”

“It’s annoying how often that’s true, isn’t it.”

“Very.”

Lovelace is able to smile wryly, and Minkowski smiles back.  “Okay,” Lovelace says.  “Maybe.  I will this once.  Concede that you have a point.”

“There we go.”

“You’re very stubborn.  Ever been told that?”

“More than you can imagine.”

Lovelace stretches.  “Fine.  No Urania tonight.  Gonna come up with a new plan, then.  I don’t know, how about we fly up to the star, punch it, see if our alien friends respond to that.”

“Punching the star,” Minkowski says.  “Well, it’s a new idea, at least, and we desperately need more of those.”

“Challenge it to a duel,” Lovelace says.  “Show it who’s boss.  See, I’m just full of good ideas.”  She shakes her head.  “God, you’re right, I do need to sleep, don’t I.  All I can think about now is the mechanics of punching a star.”

“If you’re still operating this well on the amount of sleep you’ve been getting,” Minkowski says, “I’m already in awe trying to imagine what you’ll be able to do with an actual good night’s rest.”

“Right,” Lovelace says.  “Nice nine hours, wake up bright and rested, then punch the star.  Got it.”

“That’s the spirit.”

She lapses into silence.  Minkowski lets her, and she’s grateful.

Her ability to estimate time is shot, so she has no idea how much later it is when, “Ta-da!” Eiffel says proudly, barging back in.  “Sorry, it always takes way longer than I expect to get anywhere on this station, but, got ‘em!”  Lovelace and Minkowski both turn to look; Lovelace raises her eyebrows, skeptical and appraising.  She can barely see Eiffel’s face behind the haphazard pile of blankets and pillows he has gathered in his arms.

“And that is?” Lovelace asks.

“Did you really bring the entire blanket fort here?” Minkowski overlaps her.

“The what now?”

“It’s the perfect solution!” Eiffel says.  “The Captain doesn’t want to sleep, we’re all feeling strung out, everything is stupid and terrible, that’s exactly the sort of situation that calls for the blanket fort.”

“Uh-huh,” Lovelace says.

“C’mon, Captain, it’s a blanket fort.  You set up the blankets and pillows into a fort in some unlikely place that’s probably against some station regulation and have a sleepover.  It’s fun, you fall asleep faster, you’re cozy, you don’t have to be alone, and bad dreams go down 84% when you cuddle.  That’s science facts.”

“Is it.”

“Hera, tell her it’s science facts.”

“Officer Eiffel insists it’s science facts,” Hera says.

“Close enough!”

“In the mess hall, Eiffel?” Minkowski says.  “Really?”

Eiffel looks up from where he’s enthusiastically laid out the blankets, and his face falls like he’d been so excited by this idea he honestly hadn’t thought of that.   It’s so absurd that Lovelace has to giggle.  Minkowski looks taken aback as Lovelace hides her face in her hands, but then the tension she’s been holding eases and she laughs too.

“All right,” Lovelace says, shaking her head, still settling down the dumb grin on her face.  “All right.  You two are really insistent about this, huh.”

“All for you, Cap,” Eiffel says.

“Honored.  Fine, fine, your intervention worked.  Just, not in the mess hall.”

“Right.”  Eiffel looks around, looks up.  “The server room!  There’s an aux server bank for a lot of the something-or-other operation down the hall from here, right?  That’s one of yours?”

“Do you want an actual explanation of what it’s for?” Hera says, sounding like she can guess the answer full well.

“I already know what it’s for.  It’s for hiding from work duties in.  But, we could go there.  So Hera can join in.  Blanket fort in the server room!  Everyone cuddles, big Hephaestus family sleepover time.  Sleep is right there in the name, even.”

“That would work,” Hera says.  “I can probably direct you how to set it up so everything’s actually anchored well and not all drifting away, too.”

“Ah—"

Minkowski nods, stands up, begins to help pick the blankets and pillows up where they’ve started to float off in all different directions.  “We’d better get started, then, it’s time we all get some sleep.”

Still sitting at her awkward perch, Lovelace watches, and lets out a long breath.  It’s weird.  This is… planned.  It’s intentional.  There’s no awkward dancing around the subject, no plausible deniability, no spontaneous action but refusal to talk about it.  This is deliberate, outright affection she’s being offered, and for a second the flash of terror that invokes is more rattling than even the prospect of being alone all night again with her thoughts.  It’s not too late to bolt, the Urania still has a flight computer that needs removing—

“Coming?” Minkowski asks.

She’s held back so much for so long, she’s only tentatively started to consider what it’s like not to be alone.  And maybe not being alone will help stomp down all the thoughts, too.

God, she’s tired.

“Yeah,” Lovelace says.  “Yeah, I’m coming.”

The aux server room is a small space.  She’s not sure if it’s claustrophobic or cozy, but Minkowski seems satisfied, at least.  A small space is easy to monitor and defend, and Lovelace isn’t going to complain.  They still have to restart their fort setup three times because every space Eiffel chooses, Hera warns flat-out that they will overheat and catch on fire if he puts blankets and pillows there, but Eiffel’s determination to solve this problem is unwavering.  Finally he finds a spot against a machine that isn’t used intensively and doesn’t run hot, and starts setting up the blankets and pillows in a delicate arrangement.

Minkowski follows, snatching the blankets and pillows as they inevitably start to float away in the recirculating air and putting them back more securely.

“Nice,” Eiffel says, surveying their final haphazard handiwork, and then flops into the pile, scattering pillows everywhere again.

“Eiffel!”

“What?  That’s what you do in a blanket fort!  C’mon, Cap, back me up here.”

“Well…” Lovelace says, “when presented with such an enticing blanket-and-pillow pile like that…”  Minkowski gives her an exasperated look that clearly says don’t, which is enough for Lovelace.  With a smirk, Lovelace backs up, launches herself off the wall, and collides face-first with the blankets (and Eiffel).

“Lovelace!”

“Owww,” Eiffel says, “okay I take it back—”

The whole blanket fort is scattered across the little computer room again.  Minkowski makes a frustrated noise, grabs a pillow that has floated into her face yet again, and whacks both Eiffel and Lovelace with it.  It’s so stupid that Lovelace cracks up. Eiffel follows almost immediately.  Even Minkowski presses her face into the pillow, ostensibly because they’re being idiots, but she’s definitely laughing into the thing.  “What is this, middle school?  I thought we were trying to sleep!” she finally manages when she’s forced enough of a straight face to look up again.

“It’s all part of the process,” Lovelace says, aware that the sleep-deprived state of the type where you think that everyone hates you has evolved into the sleep-deprived state of the type where you think that everything is hilarious, which is a much nicer feeling, but makes it rather harder to ignore that she is extremely sleep-deprived.  Still, if she makes all of this into a joke, then it’s a joke now, and she can put off analyzing any feelings about this situation for another day.

“I’m going to pass out right here waiting for you,” Minkowski says, but she grabs the heavy blanket and pulls it towards them in the pile, snapping it over to Eiffel and effectively pinning all three of them against the dully-blinking server and the scattered pillows.  “Eiffel, can you wedge the corner of this between the machine and the wall—”

“Gotcha,” Eiffel says, contorting to move the blanket into place.  This computer room, air-conditioned to keep the machines cool, is the perfect temperature for snuggling up under a blanket that would have been weighted if there was any gravity and any weight.  Curled against Minkowski, with Eiffel half-sprawled across the two of them, buffeted by pillows and bunched-up blankets and braced against the solid server, it’s both securely steady and freer than the normal sleeping bag restraints are.  It’s the perfect pressure, the perfect temperature, and damn, they were right, she’s getting drowsy immediately.

Maybe the night-cycle doesn’t have to be a looming threat, sleep doesn’t have to be such a battle.  Maybe, cuddled between the three other people on this station she trusts, sleep can just… be.

“This is dumb,” Lovelace mumbles as she wriggles to find a more comfortable position to press her face into the hollow of Minkowski’s shoulder.

“Nah, it’s strategic,” Eiffel says, tucking his knees up to his chest as he squirms into a settled configuration, linking his long and lanky arms around them.  “It’s advanced alien containment procedures.  Experimental, but I think they get the job done.”

“Shut up,” she says, and elbows him in the side, but without any conviction behind it.  She’s too warm and comfortable for that.

“Is this helping?” Minkowski asks softly, her words muffled by Lovelace’s hair floating in her face.

They’re a tangled cuddle-pile of soft bodies and scavenged blankets and hard, grounding machinery.  Nothing about their situation has changed, nothing’s gotten better, they still have to sort out the question of the Urania tomorrow… but she feels like it’s okay to wait to deal with it tomorrow.  In this space carved out from the rest of the nightmare they’re living, she feels safer than she’s felt for a very long time.

“Maybe a little,” Lovelace says.  Her eyes are closed and for the first time in months she can already feel herself sliding into a sleep that, bulwarked by Minkowski and Eiffel and Hera, doesn’t feel like a crushing, lonely loss of control.  The absurdity is helping, maybe, but so is the warmth.  She feels a little bit more like Isabel Lovelace again.