Hera makes a soft dinging sound, and Eiffel jolts. “Wait, was that a thing? Did something happen? Oh God is the Commander coming—”
He twists to try to right himself from his position floating at an oblique angle to both the floor and the panel window stretching across the comms room. It's an undignified wiggling like a worm to scramble into what they’ve all collectively agreed is upright.
“It’s not a warning,” Hera says. “Just a reminder. You told me to let you know fifteen minutes before.”
“Um, okay.” He looks up at the ceiling and squints in thought. “Yeah I am… blanking. This Remembrall feature is about as helpful as expected. I have no idea what I told you to remind me.”
“Ultimate Apogee is today,” Hera says. “Fifteen minutes.”
“It’s—oh! Oh.” Eiffel scrambles into a position approximating upright. “That’s today? Already?”
“Fourteen minutes,” Hera says.
“Right! Right. Well, I hate to abandon my very important post—”
“You’ve been staring blankly at the star for two hours,” Hera says.
“Yeah, who am I kidding, I love to abandon my very important post. But this is actually important. Ultimate Apogee.”
“If you want to make it authentic, the most extreme point on the station is mechanical room 2B-42,” Hera offers as Eiffel pushes off the comms chair to get himself leverage and propel himself towards the door. “But it’s boring and there aren’t any windows. If you want to… celebrate, or observe, or whatever it is humans do in a situation like this, the Observation Deck is still pretty far.”
“It’s Ultimate Apogee,” Eiffel says. “What’s the difference, a couple yards?”
Hera is silent for a few seconds, running the calculations. “Eleven yards.”
“Close enough to a couple. I want to look.” Eiffel shuts the comms room door behind him and takes off down the hall. “See you on the Observation Deck.”
“Thirteen minutes,” Hera helpfully calls out behind him.
He makes it to the Observation Deck with five minutes to spare, moving there with laser-minded focus. This is the first thing that’s been worth getting excited about in weeks. Pathetic? Maybe! But up here you need to make your own entertainment, and this is a day that he decided within his first week up here would be an important one.
The Observation Deck is empty, as it usually is. Equipment Eiffel doesn’t recognize but assumes are telescopes of some sort sit silent, pointing out the huge window spread across the whole outer wall, polarized to save them from the harshest light but still breathtakingly open to the void beyond.
Wolf 359 is a long arc of red below. Above, tiny stars dot the dark, reaching out into infinity. Eiffel floats up to the window and presses his hand against the thick glass.
“There’s so much… nothing,” he says. “Like, I knew that, but. Look at it. All that space out there, you know?”
“It’s aptly named,” Hera says.
“It really is. Just… whoa. Space.”
“Space,” Hera agrees. “There’s so much of it, and so little of us, and all we can do it look at it and try to take it all in.”
“Or try not to. You spend all day looking at it and usually still don’t think about it, because that’s terrifying. It’s empty out there. No attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, no C-beams glittering in the dark at the Tannhauser Gate. No sky, no trees, no people, no nothing. Just… space. And then when you really, actually look at it—"
“Officer Eiffel, what are you doing in here?”
Eiffel’s words turn into a squeak as he spins around to see Commander Minkowski in the doorway he left open. Her arms are folded in a way that’s questioning, for now, but could easily turn angry.
“Oh,” Eiffel says, “hey Commander, how’d you, uh, find me—”
“You ran past very quickly. Did something happen that I should know about?”
“Oh! No, definitely not, look!” He gestures around the room, creepily spotless and perfect; dust can’t settle in zero-g, even in a silent and unused room. “Nothing happened, this one isn’t an actual issue, promise.”
“Three minutes,” Hera says.
“Three—until?” Minkowski asked, and her “questioning” stance now definitely reads as “angry/alarmed”. “Hera? Eiffel, what’s happening?”
“Oh, this actually isn’t an emergency!” Hera says. “Everything’s fine.”
“Then why are you here? What’s in three minutes?”
“Ultimate Apogee,” Eiffel says.
“Apogee,” Hera says.
“Hera came up with the name,” Eiffel says. “I was gonna call it Space Solstice but she overruled me. But hey, it’s an important day. Gotta have an important name.”
“Eiffel, if this is something stupid like Star Wars Day again—”
Hera breaks in, “It’s the exact moment that we on the Hephaestus are the furthest away we will ever be from Earth.”
Minkowski stops. Then, she says, quietly, “Oh.”
“I calculated it,” Hera says, “and, admittedly not accounting for the expansion of the universe, which is impossible to measure with our sensors and on the kind of scales we’re working with here, anyway—based on the Earth’s orbit, and our orbit, and the Earth’s rotation, and our gyroscopic stabilization…”
“This is the farthest away from home any of us will ever be,” Eiffel finishes.
Minkowski hesitates. “How… far is that?”
“493,282.7 AU,” Hera says. “That’s… forty-six trillion miles.”
Minkowski lets out a long breath, all the fight drained out of her. “Forty-six trillion.”
“Rounded to the nearest trillion. It’s really closer to forty-five trillion, eight hundred and fifty-three—oh! Sixty seconds.”
Looking nervously between the window and the Commander, Eiffel says, “Do I have to, uh, go back to work, or—”
“No,” Minkowski says, and she moves forward, taking her place beside him in front of the window. “No. That’s all right, this time.”
“Thirty seconds,” Hera says.
They stare out, together, into the deep, deep void.
Hera dings. “Ultimate Apogee.”
Neither of them have an answer. Eiffel can’t come up with something that feels right to break this silence with.
“It should feel… different,” it’s finally Minkowski who says.
Eiffel shrugs, still staring out into the universe beyond. “Just knowing makes it feel different, huh?”
“Maybe.” Minkowski shivers. “Forty-six trillion miles.”
“Don’t even bother trying to imagine it,” Eiffel says. “You can’t. Well, I can’t. It hurts to try. Maybe you can.”
“I can,” Hera says.
“You can,” Eiffel agrees. “But we have much smaller, much more easily overwhelmed brains.”
Minkowski keeps staring, like she’s transfixed. “No. I can’t.”
“Happy Ultimate Apogee, Hera,” Eiffel says. “Happy Ultimate Apogee, Commander.”
“Is it happy?” Minkowski asks. “It feels… chilling. Amazing. To know we’re this far.”
“I dunno, I think it’s happy,” Eiffel says. “It’s like the winter solstice. We can’t get any farther away. After this, we can only get closer to home.”
“Officer Eiffel,” Hera says, “you do know that’s not actually how orbits work, right?”
Eiffel waves his hand, dismissing the objection. “We’re forty-six trillion miles from Earth, Hera, let me have this.”
“We’ve passed Ultimate Apogee,” Hera says. “The station keeps moving. The Earth keeps moving. We’re headed back.”
“We’re headed back,” Minkowski says. She looks over at him again, and he’s taken aback by how open her expression is, for that fleetest of moments. That’s not the Commander of the USS Hephaestus looking back at her communications officer; that’s just Renée Minkowski looking at Doug Eiffel, two humans very, very, very far from home. “I’m… glad I didn’t miss this. Thank you.”
She shakes her head, and then it’s gone, and she’s the Lieutenant Commander again. “We’re headed back. The station keeps turning, and the work to keep it doing so doesn’t stop.” Almost surreptitiously, she keeps glancing back at the window, though. “I hadn’t thought about it before, though, but… I’m a little surprised that this—Ultimate Apogee—happened so… soon.”
“It’s just how the math shakes out, really,” Hera says. “Six months in or a year in or two years, it’s not bound to anything. It’s not really like a solstice. It just… might feel like one.”
“Days are getting longer from here on out,” Eiffel says. “Metaphorically.”
Minkowski hmphs, but her heart clearly isn’t in it. “Come on, Officer Eiffel,” she says at last. “We have work to do.”