The first time Eiffel sees Colonel Warren Kepler — shockingly real, after so many days spent somewhere between delusion and despair — what strikes him most is how still Kepler is. The next thing he feels is warmth, almost completely novel after so many cycles of cryo, and after that he hears the sound: the polyphonic nuclear pulse of a cruiser-class ship. In the midst of it all, Kepler remains at attention, arms folded across his chest.
“Welcome to the U.S.S. Urania,” he says. “I know this is a big adjustment, so feel free to ask if you have any questions. You must have a lot.”
Something is wrong with Kepler’s face, Eiffel realizes, as if some structural component is missing. He speaks out of one side of his mouth, and the other side seems to rearrange itself as a result. “No questions,” he says. “Sir. Actually I think—” When he exhales, the back of his throat clicks, as if a bubble of fluid is lodged there. Eiffel coughs, trying to clear it. “—Sorry. I’m kind of tired, actually.” He coughs again and almost retches. “I think my lungs have freezer burn.”
Kepler watches him, face impassive. “Mr. Jacobi,” he says without raising his voice. “Would you kindly take Officer Eiffel to the medical facility and find out if he’s in any immediate danger?”
“Sir,” Jacobi says. He takes up room even when he isn’t moving, the same way a particularly vicious tomcat has a blast radius about three times larger than its actual body. The look he gives Eiffel is composed equally of curiosity and casual malice. “Should I administer emergency care?”
“That won’t be necessary,” Kepler says. Eiffel gets the sense that the conversation is taking place on at least three levels, only one of which he understands. “I want to get Dr. Maxwell down here to take a look at this.” He gestures at the shuttle. “Quite a testament to the power of ingenuity, Officer Eiffel. Remind me to ask you how you managed it, after you’ve had a chance to rest. I doubt Jacobi could do half as well.”
“I could probably manage the scorch marks.” Jacobi casts an assessing eye over the shuttle. “Though I’m not sure about the engine damage. That looks pretty comprehensive.” He looks at Eiffel with renewed interest. “Almost like most of the damage was a result of a secondary detonation.”
“It appears you have a colleague, in that case.” Kepler moves for the first time then, extending a hand to Eiffel. “Well? The Urania is nowhere near as exciting as your current accommodations, I have to admit, but I can personally guarantee that any detonations will be under tight control. Won’t they, Mr. Jacobi?”
“Oh, they will, sir.” Jacobi doesn’t look away from Eiffel. “They will.”
Eiffel, under the strong impression that he’s about to fail some unknown test, hesitates for only a second before he reaches out and lets Kepler pull him onto the ship.
“Very good, Officer Eiffel,” he says approvingly. “We’ll make a special operative of you yet. I leave you to Mr. Jacobi’s capable hands.”
“This way,” Jacobi says, and doesn’t even bother keeping up the pretense of protocol as soon as Kepler is out of sight. He keeps up a quick pace, moving through the hallways as if zero gravity poses no more of a challenge than walking down the street, and Eiffel finds himself hard pressed to keep up. “So, you’re a communications officer.”
Eiffel makes a pathetic out-of-breath sound that Jacobi takes for assent.
“That shuttle? Not bad for a glorified switchboard operator,” he goes on, not slowing down at all. “Hell of a hobby to pick up in your spare time.” He comes to a sudden stop at the next corner and swings around it, turning to face Eiffel. “Thinking of going somewhere?”
“Definitely not where I ended up,” Eiffel says, clinging to the wall. “And I didn’t actually build the shuttle. It’s kind of a long story.” He stares into the distance for a moment. “Actually, it’s definitely a long story.”
Jacobi shrugs. “Fair enough,” he says. “This way.”
After ten minutes, Eiffel makes enough of an effort to close the gap between them by a few feet. “Special operative,” he says, before he runs out of breath again. “That’s what Colonel Kepler said. Is that what you are?”
Turning again, Jacobi jackknifes into a deep bow and lets his momentum carry him into an uncontrolled spin as he unfolds, tumbling down the corridor. It makes Eiffel dizzy to watch him go, all straight lines and unrelenting control, and by the time he catches up Jacobi is upright — or at least oriented on the same axes as him — again. “At your service,” he says. “Administrative officer and sundries with Goddard Futuristics’ strategic intelligence division.”
“I’ve never heard of it,” Eiffel says, and Jacobi snorts.
“What kind of strategic intelligence division would we be if people knew about us?” he says. “Besides, Goddard has a lot of divisions. I didn’t know about your mission until Command received an SOS from the Hephaestus, and now here we are.”
Eiffel blinks. “The Hephaestus got a message through to Canaveral?”
“Oh yeah.” Jacobi swings around another corner. “Urgent distress call from the station’s commanding officer requesting immediate assistance. Apparently it had some very interesting technical details. Not really my thing.” He shrugs. “Guess somebody’s still alive up there to get a signal through, but we haven’t been able to raise anyone to confirm. You deep space survey crews must be made of some pretty stubborn stuff, is all I can say.”
“The commanding officer,” Eiffel says, urgent. “Did they give a name? Do you know who sent the distress call?”
“Yeah,” Jacobi says. He gives Eiffel an odd look. “A Commander Renée Minkowski, I think. Why? Were you expecting someone else?”
Eiffel is so overwhelmed by relief — like a rush of water out to sea; it sweeps his feet out from under him — that for a moment he can’t say anything. Finally, he says: “No. No, it’s just, I didn’t know if — I wasn’t sure — I didn’t know.” If anybody was still out there, he doesn’t say. If anybody was left. “Thank you. I had no idea.”
Jacobi nods as if he understands and is even more uncomfortable as a result. “No problem,” he says. “I guess you must miss them.”
Eiffel realizes that he does. “Yeah.”
“Well, we should make contact in a few days,” Jacobi says with obviously forced pleasantness. “Then you can hear for yourself. This way.” He swings open a hatch and disappears through. When Eiffel follows, he finds himself in a lab, considerably more modern and spacious than any facility on the Hephaestus. “Make yourself comfortable.” Jacobi nods at a padded alcove. “I’m just going to run some basic diagnostics and take a few samples. Actually, if you could just hold still—” He turns away. “—Give me your hand.”
Eiffel does, and barely notices the sting of the needle as Jacobi presses it to his fingertip.
“Dehydration,” Jacobi says. “Guess that makes sense. I’ll hook you up to a drip and then you can conk out while I run the rest of the scans. Just basic stuff, blood pressure and heart rate and breathing and so on. Actually, if I’m being honest, this is a lot more comfortable than the crew quarters. Way more privacy.”
“Right,” Eiffel says. Already he can feel himself drifting off, lulled by the sound of the ship’s systems and the knowledge that when he wakes up, it won’t be with a lungful of cryo fluid. He pulls himself into the alcove and manages to fasten two of the straps before his grip loosens.
“Wow,” Jacobi says. “You really are tired.” He fixes the last two straps, one across Eiffel’s ankles and the other under his arms. “There you go, and—” He slips a needle into Eiffel’s vein, at the inside of his elbow. “—All set.” Jacobi pulls away and looks at Eiffel with his head tilted. “What are the odds, huh?”
The last thought Eiffel has before he slips away is that Jacobi doesn’t look at him like a person or even a patient — and Eiffel should know — but a puzzle, an assembly of pressure points and structural weaknesses. Jacobi looks at Eiffel as if he’s trying to figure something out, to see through Eiffel’s skin to the bone and muscle beneath, to find some answer only he can understand.
“Not great,” he manages, voice barely a whisper, and then everything — finally — goes away.
When he wakes up, Eiffel tries to push himself away from the wall on reflex. When the straps stop him, he thrashes for a moment — caught by rising panic and the knowledge that time is too precious for him to waste a single second — before he remembers where he is.
Eiffel just floats there for a moment, willing his pulse to slow down before he reaches for the restraints. It takes a few minutes, helped along by the knowledge that he doesn’t have to put himself back under in ten minutes, won’t have to go through the excruciating cycle of stasis and resuscitation all over again as soon as he catches his breath.
Without fingernails, undoing the straps is a little dicey, but Eiffel manages without losing too much skin in the process. Once free, he looks himself over. There are opaque, papery-looking patches of skin from his forearms to the backs of his hands, like layers of mildewed onion skin. When Eiffel digs his fingertips into the worst of it, where the light seems to sink through, it comes off in ragged soft flakes. Underneath, he can see the dull shine of new pink skin. His feet are bandaged, so Eiffel has no idea how far the damage extends, but if he had to guess: pretty far. After the cycles began to blur together, he remembers waking up to floating specks of dried blood. In the cryo pod, before the meltwater drained out every cycle, he could see opaque clots of organic matter, skin and nails and tissue. Eiffel idly wiggles his toes. They all seem to be present, as far as he can tell. At least that’s something.
“Not bad,” a new voice says. Eiffel looks up. “Doctor Alana Maxwell,” she says, extending a hand. “Hi. Welcome aboard. It’s nice to actually meet you now that you’re awake.”
His first impression of Maxwell is of a wide smile and a quick, playful wit bubbling just under the surface. He takes her hand a little gingerly and almost expects her to snatch it away at the last minute, like Lucy with a football. Instead, she gives it a perfunctory shake, and then leans in to look at the mottled skin. “Sorry about that,” he says. “It definitely isn’t contagious.”
“No, I know,” Maxwell says. She straightens up. “Organics aren’t really my specialty, but even I know cryo burn when I see it. How many cycles?”
Eiffel winces. “A lot.”
“That many, huh.” Maxwell lets go of his hand. “Honestly I’m most surprised that a salvaged unit lasted long enough to cause that kind of damage. That shuttle is made of scraps and the pod shouldn’t have lasted more than, oh, ten cycles? But you don’t get this kind of necrosis without spending a long time in the freezer.” She gives him a frank, appraising look. “You should be more cheerful about that! All it means is that you’re just really, really lucky.”
“Sure. A really, really lucky popsicle.” Eiffel picks at the uneven edges until a little more pink shows through. “So what kind of doctor are you? I’m guessing not carbonite, since we’re only meeting now.”
“And you would be correct,” Maxwell says. “My doctorate is in machine computations. Artificial intelligence development,” she adds, noticing Eiffel’s uncomprehending stare. “But I’m also great at setting up Word and fixing any problems you might be having with your wi-fi. Just don’t tell any elderly relatives you might have smuggled onboard.”
Eiffel laughs despite himself. “No, I promise, it’s just me,” he says. “Does that mean the Urania has a mother program? Wait, am I being rude? Sorry. Hi?” He glances around the room, then back at Maxwell. “Should I be using a name?”
“Oh, no,” Maxwell says. “We don’t have anything that substantive onboard, just an autopilot in the traditional sense and a—” Maxwell gives Eiffel a look that suggests that she is rephrasing the rest of the sentence at high speed so that it consists of layman’s terms, with as few syllables as possible. “—A collection of helper programs,” she says finally. “Less complicated, but also less autonomous. Kind of like interns.”
“Right,” Eiffel says, slowly. “Like interstellar cruise control?”
Maxwell stares into the middle distance for a moment. “Kind of,” she says. Eiffel gets the strong sense that she would rather go along with his word spaghetti than actually try to explain. “Honestly, it’s like having a bunch of assistants around who try really hard to get it right but just never quite get there. I think Kepler likes it that way, honestly. It means he always has something to manage. Kind of like bonsai, you know?”
“No,” Eiffel says, with complete sincerity. “I mean, doesn’t one of these programs manage your life support? That sounds like the opposite of relaxing to me.”
She shrugs. “That’s Kepler for you.”
“Right.” Eiffel pries his fingers away from compulsively picking away the dead skin on the back of his hand, not for the first time. “And your colleague. Jacobi? Is he a science officer as well?”
“Science!” Maxwell crows. “I have to tell him you said that. No, he’s the Urania’s administrative officer. Kepler’s, really.” She smirks. “Jacobi is the point man on all our strategy initiatives.”
Eiffel blinks. “Right,” he says again, and decides to drop the subject. If Maxwell is just going to give him company lines that he could get from reading a brochure, then he may as well just do that. “And we’re on an intercept path with the Hephaestus?”
Maxwell nods. “We should be in shortwave comms range in four days. Until then, make yourself comfortable. I have to admit medical care really isn’t my specialty, but if you don’t mind waiting I’ll get someone whose specialty is a little less… well, synthetic.” She flashes him a bright smile. “Oh, and you must be hungry. Good reminder. Hang on a second.”
“Wait,” Eiffel calls, though Maxwell is already halfway out the door. “Who else is on your crew? Do you have, I don’t know, communications? Or an actual medic?”
“Nope,” Maxwell says. “Just me and Daniel and the colonel.” She gives him a look as if she doesn’t understand why anybody would need more than that. “We’re basically self-sufficient. The mission briefing said you had a pretty small crew on the Hephaestus too, right? Pretty standard protocol for this kind of mission, I think.”
“Sure,” Eiffel says. When she raises one eyebrow at him, he adds: “No, you’re right. Sorry. I guess I figured we were the exception.”
Maxwell shakes her head, then frowns at nothing. “Well, you could be,” she allows. “I mean, we definitely are. But I wouldn’t put too much thought into it. Command, right?” She shrugs. “Any other urgent questions? Remember, it’s not like we’re short on time.” When Eiffel shakes his head, she vanishes through the hatch. “Back soon,” she calls, voice already fading, and leaves him to his own devices.
“Time,” Eiffel says to himself, under his breath, and thinks: Time is the problem. No matter where he finds himself, or how lucky he is, time is always the one factor beyond his control. In four days, everything might have changed again. They might find the Hephaestus empty, or they might find it a wreck, scattered debris spiraling around the star in a decaying orbit, or they might find nothing at all. If twenty-four hours was all it took the first time the stakes changed — or, scratch that, Eiffel thinks: if all it took was thirty seconds of music — then four days is a small eternity, even without taking into account his personal trip down the time distortion rabbit hole.
The computer system on the Urania has a different interface than what Eiffel was used to on the Hephaestus — newer, mostly, and less prone to hanging on multiple requests — but he finds what he’s looking for on the first screen.
More than two hundred days, he thinks; almost eight months. He spent the better part of a year putting himself under for grueling cycle after cycle of cryo, all in the hope that he would get to see the Hephaestus again, all for the infinitesimal chance to make it back. He looks at the knobs of his wrists where the bone is pushing out, the flakes of skin still peeling away, and then back at the blinking date and timestamp.
He did it, Eiffel realizes for the first time. He made it.
He would do it again.
Eiffel stares at the date for a while after that, and only turns away when somebody knocks on the hatch. “Uh, yeah?” he says, one eye still on the numbers at the corner of the screen, heart still somewhere in the vicinity of his throat. “Come in?”
Kepler, it turns out, is even more striking after a full night’s sleep. His impassiveness transmutes into a sort of impersonal concern, an almost scientific interest in the many unexpected breakdowns of Eiffel’s body and mind. Eiffel briefly wonders if there might be someone better qualified to administer first aid, but Kepler has steady hands, even as he cuts the dead skin from between Eiffel’s fingers.
“Last time I saw freezer burn like this, I was stationed in Antarctica,” Kepler says conversationally.
Eiffel, unsure of whether or not to say anything, nods. Kepler peels away another swathe of mottled tissue, pulling a little too far. Blood wells up at the crease of Eiffel’s elbow, but Kepler staunches it with a square of gauze before the tiny gemmy beads can drift free. His grip is firm and implacable. Eiffel winces, but only barely.
“Had to see a man about a dog,” Kepler goes on. “Hell of a story, actually. Remind me to tell you some other time.” He peels back another layer of skin and cuts through, so close to Eiffel’s arm that he can feel the snip of the scissors. “Long story short? That’s how I learned to melt whiskey using thermite charges.” He chuckles. “And you can bet Mr. Jacobi gave me grief all the way back to Canaveral for that.”
“Thermite?” Eiffel asks before he can help himself. Kepler goes still again, thumb pressed to the too-prominent hollow at the corner of Eiffel’s wrist. “Sorry. That just sounds exciting.”
“Oh, it was.” Kepler cuts away one last ragged tag of skin and consigns it to a biohazard bag, which he spirits away into some closed compartment. When he turns back around, the scissors are gone too, and he holds a rolled bandage which he applies to Eiffel’s arms, wrists to elbows. “There you are,” he says. “Back in working order.”
“Thanks,” Eiffel says. “Thank you.” He runs his thumb over the edge of the bandage. “So you were in Antarctica before this?”
Kepler blinks. “Oh, no. Years ago. Practically ancient history.” He cleans his hands with a wipe, scrupulous under his nails. The sharp smell of isopropyl stings Eiffel’s nose. “Doing some exploratory research, following up on a lead Command picked up even longer before that. I haven’t been back since.” His gaze takes on a wistful quality. “You know, I almost miss it.”
“So your crew, you’ve been working together for a while?” Eiffel almost flinches when Kepler focuses on him again. “I mean, you said years.” He decides to ignore the part where Kepler apparently has wistful memories of Antarctica — thermite charges aside — for the moment.
“Very observant. No, that was before Maxwell joined us. Glad you met her, by the way,” Kepler says. “Jacobi tells me she’s the most personable member of our little team. We just seem to keep picking up strays.” He discards the wipe as well. “Consider it a badge of honor. We don’t stop off for just any space junk, you know. You were almost on an intercept course with the Hermes. How’d you pull that off?”
“Yeah.” Jacobi, in the doorway, pulls himself into the room armed with what looks like coffee — the real tar-black gut-rotting stuff of dreams — and a new variety of unpleasant smile. “Not exactly your area of expertise.” He tosses the coffee in its Mylar pouch squarely at Eiffel’s face. When Eiffel catches it, Jacobi’s eyes narrow at his bandaged arms, but he doesn’t say anything.
Eiffel takes a moment with the coffee before he does anything else. It tastes so much better than he thought it would, even with his expectations preemptively adjusted downwards just in case. When he opens his eyes again, on the other side of a borderline religious experience, Jacobi is looking at him slightly less like an unpleasant smear and slightly more like a neglected street stray.
Fortified, he tells them everything, or most of it at least: the star’s abrupt reversal of spectral polarities, the massive system failure, the last-ditch effort to restore the station to a stable orbit. He leaves out why they have a shuttle and why he in particular ended up millions of miles off course, angling desperately to make contact with one last light on the edge of deep space, and for the most part he leaves out what happened next. The ruins of the shuttle — and himself — speak for that better than he could.
He leaves out the voices, too. Not the signal from the star, which seems relevant to his story and their mission, but the ones that kept him company on Lovelace’s shuttle, the thin thread of connection that made him believe he had a chance, something to follow out of the woods and back home. Somehow it seems too personal, like something that wouldn’t matter to anybody but him. Instead, he tells Kepler and Jacobi that he thought about what his commanding officer would do if she found herself in the same situation, and doesn’t bother to hide how badly he misses Minkowski and her rote authority.
He doesn’t mention what happened at the very end, either, when he thought there was nothing left to say or do; when he snapped at Kepler to go away and let him drift into the dark. What he needed to hear most, from the only one who could make it mean anything: Eiffel gets to keep that. Nobody else gets to know.
Afterwards, nobody says anything for a moment, and then Kepler nods.
“Well,” he says. “I think you deserve a commendation for that. Don’t you, Jacobi?”
“Oh, sir,” Jacobi says, face taking on some of the same convex blankness that Kepler habitually projects. “I couldn’t agree more.”
Kepler nods. “Not bad,” he says. “If you didn’t already have an assignment, and one you seem impatient to get back to, I’d be tempted to steal you for myself.” Eiffel blinks at him for a moment before he laughs. “Just my little joke, Officer Eiffel. Why don’t you come up to the bridge? Maxwell can show you our navigation and comms systems, give you something to think about other than the past.” He claps Eiffel on the shoulder, knocking him forward a few inches. “Better busy than bored, wouldn’t you say?”
The Urania’s computer system, mute though it may be, is still light years ahead of what Eiffel is used to working with. He feels slightly Neanderthal, fumbling his way around more complex instruments than he knew existed: transmitters and receivers that make his communications room look like a playset.
It feels like the entire universe coming to life for him, spectra and frequencies that he couldn’t pick up using any of the instruments on the Hephaestus, as if suddenly everything is speaking to him. Like waking up and seeing meaning in birdflight, in the patterns of the clouds, a reminder that all of it has existed long before him and will continue to exist long after he does not; it feels like stolen fire.
“Not bad, right?” Maxwell, pretending resolutely not to hover, pokes her head over Eiffel’s shoulder. He manages to avoid jumping and braining both of them. “Actually, it works better if—” She reaches for the console. Eiffel doesn’t bother to even put up a show of resistance. “—Thanks.” Maxwell types with the speed of fluency, even though Eiffel can’t even track the cursor, for a while. “There. Take a look at that.”
Eiffel tentatively opens a channel. “Whoa,” he says.
“I know.” Maxwell crosses her arms. “I mean, it’s sort of cheating, but it looks cool, right?”
“What is it?” Eiffel doesn’t know how to describe the data on the screen, except to say that it’s beautiful, like the difference between analog and digital, or digital and vinyl. Where he usually sees the pop and hiss of static, there are visible waveforms, like a clear treble harmony.
“It’s kind of hard to explain. Like when you listen to a same song over and over, and you start picking up melodies you never heard before. Or when you have new headphones,” Maxwell says. She shrugs. “I just ran some basic pattern recognition and isolated and amplified the results. Like when somebody hums along.”
“Alana,” Jacobi says. He raps on the wall with his knuckles. “Can I borrow you?”
“Sure.” She pushes away from the console. “Call if you need anything, okay?”
Eiffel gives her a thumbs-up. “Will do,” he says, and avoids looking at his fingertips. His nail beds are soft, the livid pink of smooth tissue, with faint grooves to delineate where his fingernails should be. Instead, he goes back to the waveforms and the unexpected polyphony of background noise, listening for any repetition like somebody going through the digits of pi looking for sense.
He doesn’t find any, of course. What he does pick up is the sound of Maxwell and Jacobi on their way back down the hallway, the faint chatter of two people entirely comfortable with each other and using conversation to fill the space. As small talk goes, Eiffel’s preferred variety falls more into the category of rank insubordination, but he gets the sense a toothpaste mutiny wouldn’t go over well with Kepler.
“No, look,” Maxwell says, barely audible. “All I’m saying is that it’s kind of hypocritical for you to be saddling up your high horse about this when half the time in mission briefings I swear you’re just thinking oh, I’ll wing it.”
Jacobi snorts. “And I am,” he says. “But I’m actually good at my job. Him?” Eiffel starts eavesdropping with purpose then, knowing with a primal sort of abrupt, intense certainty that the conversation is about him. “Either he’s a closet genius or just a really, really lucky moron.”
“You should put that on your business card,” Maxwell says lightly. “Daniel Jacobi, one or the other but it depends on the day.” There’s the faint sound of a scuffle, as if Jacobi shoved her in the shoulder. “Oh, never mind then. Daniel Jacobi, professional and really, really lucky moron. Ow!”
“Alana Maxwell, professional bully,” he says, and shoves her through the door. Eiffel looks up too quickly to conceal his expression, which is halfway between confusion and affront, but fortunately Jacobi doesn’t stop for long enough to remark on it. His feet thump against the sill and then Eiffel and Maxwell are alone again.
She looks at Eiffel, a brief assessing glance, and shrugs. “I thought I’d give you the nice version. Lucky popsicle has a certain ring to it.”
Eiffel shakes his head. “Sure,” he says. “Look, does he hate me or something? Jacobi, I mean. Every time he looks at me, I feel like I’ve done something awful to him and forgotten what. Did I kill his imaginary puppy or piss in his cornflakes or, I don’t know, steal his lunch table in the cafeteria?“
Maxwell gives him a blank stare, and then her eyes widen and she laughs. “Oh! Oh, no,” she says. “You didn’t do anything. Jacobi just gets territorial. He’ll get over it. Probably,” she adds, after a moment. “You just have to put up with him chewing on your shoes for a while first. When I joined the team, it was just the three of us, and between you and me? I nearly quit five times in the first month. And three of those were in one week.”
Eiffel stares at her.
“Like I said,” Maxwell says. “He got over it. I may or may not have sped the process along by soaking all his clothes in water and hanging them out the window in Siberia. Just give it time.”
He considers for a moment whether he wants to ask about Siberia — he really doesn’t, but on the other hand: Siberia — and eventually decides against it. “Got it,” he says. “Either he’ll get used to me or he’ll passive-aggressive me to death.”
She cocks her head. “Well, no. Probably just more flat-out aggression.”
“Great!” Eiffel throws his hands up. “Is this about Kepler or something? Because I swear every time the three of us are in a room together the temperature drops seventy degrees. It’s like the ninth circle of hell, except without the righteous damnation. Actually, wait.” He furrows his brows, or would if he still had them. “Him and Kepler. Are they—?”
Maxwell actually snorts. “Please,” she says. “You think he’d be this obnoxious if he was getting any? No way. Don’t tell him I told you this, but he’s absolutely gagging for it. I mean, you picked up on it, and you’ve been here what, two days?” She shakes her head. “Daniel’s a great—” She hesitates. “Daniel is irreplaceable. But subtlety is not one of his strong suits.”
Eiffel doesn’t want to imagine what his face looks like. “But that means he would, right?”
“Oh, yeah.” Maxwell shrugs. “But I mean, can you really blame him, given—” She gestures, presumably as a shorthand for Kepler’s entire existence. If not, they can just print up a photo of Eiffel and slap it next to the word projection in the dictionary. No, he really can’t blame Jacobi at all. “The Colonel isn’t really my type, but what we do working for the SI-5 can get pretty intense, and Daniel was partners with him for a long time before I came along — like I said. He gets territorial.”
“And Kepler,” Eiffel says, though he already knows the answer. “Does he know?”
Maxwell nods, rolling her eyes. “Look at it this way. If you’ve noticed? Colonel Kepler has had years to figure out, and even if he didn’t, he would know.” She says it with complete certainty, the sort that creeps under Eiffel’s skin. “He always does. And even if he didn’t know, he would have considered the possibility.”
He stares at her. “Okay. Veering a little into creepiness, here.”
“Really? You’ve never had a commanding officer who had a whole stack of contingency plans?” she says.
Eiffel thinks about Minkowski’s protocols, including the minimum of thirteen — A through M — designated for him.
His realization must show on his face, because Maxwell nods. “See? He’s just thorough. And besides, you noticed in two days. Give us a little credit.” She bumps his shoulder. “We’re not total soulless corporate shills. That’s just Mondays. Joking!”
He nods. “And that never gets awkward?”
“Oh, you bet,” Maxwell says. “This one time? We were in Bogotá. It was the off-season, right in the middle of Holy Week, and for months Kepler swore up and down that it was going to be a working vacation. Well, I don’t know about Daniel, but I almost believed him — right until the coffee plantation caught fire. Anyway—” She catches herself. “God, I even sound like him.”
“Who among us,” Eiffel mutters, and Maxwell laughs.
“No kidding. Anyway, we finished the job and were going back to our hotel — which, we didn’t know if it was still there, long story — and on the way Daniel talked us all into stopping in at a bar to celebrate. With shots.” She grins ruefully. “Which was fine, it was this tiny place with outdoor seating and the weather wasn’t too bad, but next thing we knew it was eleven shots later and the sky just opened up. I’ve never seen anything like it, just gallons of water coming down, and you know what Daniel does?” Maxwell pauses for effect. “So he’s absolutely soaking wet, because nothing gets between him and a shot glass, and Kepler is just sitting there drenched because that kind of thing doesn’t really bother him, and Daniel leans over the table and goes: So, Colonel, what about that dance?”
Eiffel realizes that he’s holding his breath. “And?”
“And he got up, you know, like Daniel had just said something perfectly ordinary and it was no big deal, and he said: Very interesting, Mr. Jacobi. Just like that.” She shakes her head. “And then he dragged me out to dance instead, and it took me two hours to dry off when we got back to the hotel. I liked that shirt. I was going to keep it as a souvenir.”
“Wait,” he says. “Kepler did that?”
“Oh my God, no,” Maxwell says. “That was all Daniel’s fault. Kepler, he just stood there under an awning and kept an eye on the side streets. Every time I tried to catch him watching, he wasn’t even looking in our direction. And when I asked Daniel what he was talking about — I mean, what dance, right — he just laughed and spun me faster.”
Eiffel has no idea what to say to that. After a while, he clears his throat, but Maxwell cuts him off.
“I know how weird that probably sounds,” she says. “I guess for us it’s all normal at this point. I mean, none of us were ever really that good at normal to begin with, but still. What about you? Fair trade. What do you get up to on the Hephaestus on slow days?”
Eiffel recognizes that as a change of subject, and is only too happy to take it. “Okay,” he says. “So this was kind of a while ago, and if you ever tell Commander Minkowski—” If she’s still alive to hear it, he tries not to think, the idea like a perpetual shadow at the corner of his awareness. “Yeah, she would definitely have my head.” He grins. “So. Me and our autopilot, Hera. You would get along. Anyway — I found this old buzzer, part of some obsolete comms panel, and wired it up to go off randomly as long as the battery lasted, and I talked her into this bet, right?”
It feels good to talk, and to fill the space between them with words. It feels good to tell a story without wondering if anybody will ever hear it.
It feels good to know somebody is listening.
The next day, Kepler — presumably indulging in some territorial posturing of his own — declares possession of Eiffel for the next rotation under the pretext of needing extra eyes to double-check his navigational settings. Since Eiffel is only good at navigating when it’s a matter of literal life or death, and asks within the first five minutes whether the Urania has cruise control, he assumes that what Kepler really wants from him is somebody to talk at.
Eiffel is more than happy to do that. Kepler tells him story after endless circular story, more often than not completely unbelievable if not for Eiffel’s sneaking suspicion that Kepler’s deadpan is just a cover for sincerity. Unless that too is a cover for further deadpan, of course. Every time Eiffel thinks he has it figured out, Kepler sidesteps and leaves him with nothing.
“And that’s how I learned to prepare fugu in a submarine,” he says, and smiles. “Everything all right, Officer Eiffel?”
“Yes, sir,” Eiffel says. In the back of his mind, it ticks like a countdown; how friendly can he be before Jacobi actually throws him out an airlock? How long can he stay before it seems like a reasonable response. “Actually, I was wondering about something Maxwell told me, about when you were in Colombia.”
“Ah, yes.” Kepler angles a monitor at him. “That look right to you?”
Eiffel squints at the display. “Honestly? I have no idea.”
“Good answer.” Kepler tilts it back and keeps typing. “What about Colombia?”
Shit, Eiffel thinks, and makes a strategic retreat. “Did a coffee plantation really catch fire?”
Kepler nods. “Oh, yes,” he says. “Though it was a little more explosive than that description implies. Have you ever seen hundreds of coffee plants ignite simultaneously? It’s not the kind of thing you forget.”
“What were you doing in Colombia?” Eiffel sees the story coming up to meet him, like a distant locomotive, and changes his mind. “Actually. if it’s all right, could you tell me later? Sir. I was wondering if I could just spend some time on the observation deck.”
“Of course. Take in the view. I don’t blame you,” Kepler says. “I find it restful, myself. A nice reminder of how so much of the universe, for all intents and purposes, is composed of nothing.”
“Right,” Eiffel says slowly. He doesn’t think Kepler is joking. Something to the set of his mouth, the way he holds the word in his mouth — nothing — like wine or blood, seems worth taking seriously.
“First left,” Kepler says, suddenly all business again. “Then your second left again. After that, just follow the power lines. You can’t miss it.”
Eiffel almost gets lost anyway, muscle memory leading him halfway to where the communications room would be on the Hephaestus; his magnetic north, his guide star. He catches himself before getting too lost and retraces his steps, so it takes him only a little longer to get to the observation deck than it would if he was blindfolded and given the wrong directions to begin with.
The deck is just as outsize and gorgeous as everything else on the Urania, a huge pane of fused silica and borosilicate glass that Eiffel almost can’t see until he gets close enough to catch his reflection.
He looks bad. That isn’t a surprise. What does throw Eiffel off is how alien he looks, which is a poor choice of words but the only one he can come up with. Too sharp around the edges, all skin and bone, and too pale, probably from exacerbated spaceflight anemia; he looks ghostly, like some kind of deep-sea fish, some cave-dwelling pigmentless nightmare of eyes and teeth. Except instead of the sea, he’s surrounded on all sides by space, endless and empty. “Water, water,” Eiffel says to himself, except of course there isn’t any of that either.
Looking out past his reflection isn’t much better. Lovelace’s shuttle had no windows — its one saving grace, amid all the explosions and system failures and the general misery of being confined to the equivalent of an interstellar shoebox on wheels — but Eiffel had spent more than enough of his time onboard contemplating the scale of space. How, if he missed the Hermes by even an inch, he would spin off into eternity like a dust mote, lost forever in a universe too big to map and too empty to trawl; how he would just vanish. Half of the time, it had made him want to scream and set off flares, just to try and make one last impression. The other half, it had made him feel like he was gone already, just one more piece of intergalactic jettison.
Instead, Eiffel finds the deck terminal and tries to familiarize himself with the Urania’s environmental controls. Temperature and life support both seem to be controlled by automatic systems, with a manual adjustment range designed to stop even the most determined idiot from deoxygenating the room that he’s in. Eiffel guesses that was Maxwell’s doing, and that Kepler would happily enable any subordinate stupid enough to naturally select themselves out of existence. He isn’t sure about Jacobi yet, but Eiffel gets the sense that his outward pragmatism is tempered with a healthy dose of inward contrarianism. Jacobi might be willing to airlock himself just to find out what would happen next — just how irreplaceable he really is.
Besides that, he finds the mostly neglected directory where internal sensor subroutines live, accessed only by basic regulatory programs that need to check the heat and light and oxygen levels within the ship. After poking around a little, Eiffel stumbles across the optics system. He skims through the inputs with the idle disinterest of a practiced eavesdropper.
For the most part, the Urania is silent and still, run by Maxwell’s helper programs and unoccupied by anything more corporeal. On one of the feeds, though, he spots motion and maximizes the window to get a closer look. Jacobi moves in zero gravity with a certain indolent casualness, at all times halfway to a headlong tumble, distinct enough for Eiffel to recognize even from the grainy feed. As he watches, Jacobi brings his trajectory under control and begins to move with considerably more purpose. It sends a shiver down Eiffel’s spine, to see all that movement suddenly compressed into a single vector: a fin in the water, the blur of a stooping bird of prey.
He watches Jacobi move out of range of one optic sensor, looming larger in another, and feels as if he’s counting down all over again — to what, Eiffel has no idea. Another sensor and then another, like mile markers blurring past as Jacobi moves faster. The pattern of power conduits he passes on the wall almost looks familiar, but then those are a standard configuration on newer ships. Aren’t they? Eiffel isn’t sure, suddenly. He could swear he saw them on his way to the observation deck — where he still is — and he freezes, deer in the headlights, rabbit in front of a rattlesnake, but he can’t look away—
Kepler comes out of nowhere.
Eiffel, lulled into complacency by Kepler’s habitual stillness, realizes that he didn’t think Kepler could move so fast. He barely sees what happens next as it is, though Jacobi apparently does. Eiffel sees his mouth move — forming the unmistakeable shape of the word fuck, distinct even without audio — and then Jacobi is flattened face-first against the wall.
A dull thump echoes through the observation deck.
Eiffel pushes off from the console, against his minimal better judgment, and drifts across the room to see if he can hear anything; halfway between the terminal and the wall, he can more or less hear their voices, but the deck plating is too thick for Eiffel to make out what Kepler is saying.
He returns to the screen and discovers that, while he was distracted, Kepler has twisted Jacobi’s arm up behind his back. The angle looks impossible, right on the edge of dislocation. Jacobi, on the other hand, looks far less displeased about it than he could be.
Eiffel can’t hear what Kepler says, and his face is too close to Jacobi’s for him to even try and make out the words. He can see very clearly the way that Kepler leans over Jacobi, though. Despite his scant height advantage — barely a few inches, as far as Eiffel can tell — Kepler has the sort of compact mass that speaks to a lifetime of active service. Officer-class muscle, with the corresponding confidence and awareness of how to use it; he wrenches Jacobi’s elbow back a few more degrees with the casual expertise of a mechanic tuning an engine.
The look on Jacobi’s face is about as far from unhappy as Eiffel can imagine. His eyes are half-closed and he says something that makes Kepler tighten his grip even further, and at some point Eiffel realizes that he should have stopped watching five minutes ago, but by then another five minutes have gone by. Kepler just holds Jacobi in place.
By the time he lets go, Jacobi’s shoulder must be nearly frozen with cramp. He doesn’t wince as he turns, though — just straightens and tips his chin up — and Kepler gives him what must be an approving once-over, if Jacobi’s answering smirk is anything to go by.
If Kepler says anything else, Eiffel misses it in his haste to back out of the directory and bring up a relatively innocuous window on the terminal before either of them come in and catch him watching. He hears their voices again, now at an ordinary pitch rather than a low murmur, but he holds his breath for a count of ten and then another and nothing happens. Nobody comes in. After another minute, Eiffel brings up the internal sensor feeds and nobody is in the hallway.
It feels strange to use the sensors that would otherwise be the purview of an AI, looking out through its empty eyes; it reminds Eiffel of just how empty a ship without a mother program feels, and how wrong, like a house where none of the measurements match.
He thinks about Maxwell’s helper programs, spidering their way through the Urania’s systems, and reconsiders. Maybe it isn’t an abandoned house. Maybe it’s just waiting for a new tenant.
Eiffel asks her, later, when he finds her on the fore deck in a maintenance shaft full of servers and cables pulled with zip ties into huge bunches like nerve bundles.
“Oh, I’d love to,” she says. “I don’t think Kepler would ever give me the go-ahead, though. Not unless he got to stick his fingers in its head and help with the wiring.” She must notice the look of nauseated horror on Eiffel’s face. “Not in a bad way. He just likes to know how everything on his ship works.”
Eiffel thinks again of the broken-winged angle of Jacobi’s arm and the look on his face. “Right,” he says. “And you’d be okay with that, I’m guessing.”
She shrugs on one side. “Sure. He’s the Colonel.”
“But you’d be building—” He makes a face. “That feels weird. Man. You’d be — programming it? You’d be the one writing the AI anyway, right?”
“Sure,” Maxwell says. “But he’d want to know how.”
“And you wouldn’t be, I don’t know, offended by that?” Eiffel says. “I mean, that makes it seem kind of like—”
“—Like he doesn’t trust me,” Maxwell interrupts. “Yeah. When Kepler recruited me? He had his secretary call my work phone twice a week for two months. And then he anted up to four times, and looped in at least three iterations of undersecretary. And then he planted an undercover intern in my office. And then he started mailing me encrypted hard drives with offers.”
“Encrypted?” Eiffel says, because he can’t even begin to think about the rest.
She sighs. “I never could resist a good puzzle.”
“Right,” Eiffel says slowly. “And instead of faking your death, changing your name, and leaving the continent, you decided to work for him?”
“Sure did.” Maxwell grins. “Let’s just say he offered me the chance to solve the puzzle to end all puzzles. And then? He made me work sixteen-hour days for five months straight until I figured it out. And do you know what he did after that?”
Eiffel shakes his head.
“He offered me a better one,” she says. “And after that, he did it again. A word of advice: Kepler never asks a question if he knows the answer is going to be no.”
Eiffel thinks about that for a while. “But you said he called you for two months.”
“Yeah. And then I said yes.” Maxwell gives him the kind of smile one might give a well-meaning idiot. “That’s how he does it. Sometimes he waits until the right time to ask. Sometimes he finds the right question. Sometimes he just keeps pushing.”
“You and Kepler, it isn’t like you and Jacobi,” Eiffel says, not sure if he’s going too far. “You don’t talk about him like you’re friends.”
Maxwell just blinks. “Why would I?” she says. “We don’t have to be friends. We’re crew.”
Eiffel watches her work in silence for a while, trying and failing to think of a response.
He doesn’t bring it up again.
Eiffel spends most of the third day engaged in a slightly more familiar pursuit, namely doing his best to stay out of the way of anyone who might want him to do anything for them. For the most part, that means he spends his time wandering through unfamiliar corridors and occasionally checking terminals to make sure he isn’t about to round a corner and come face-to-face with Jacobi, who he thinks would jump on the opportunity to commit battery, or Kepler, who might ask him to listen to more stories.
He manages to avoid either, and instead finds himself comprehensively lost somewhere on the aft deck. The terminals aren’t much help, as the Urania’s files don’t seem to include a human-friendly blueprint. If he had more of a reason and less time to waste, Eiffel thinks he could reverse-engineer something approximate from the wiring schematics, but since he’s in no rush to find his way back to the bridge he doesn’t try.
Instead, as he traverses yet another identical corridor intersection, Maxwell says helpfully — just behind his left ear — “Storage.”
Eiffel jumps, or does the next best thing in zero gravity, which is to say he twitches violently and remains exactly where he is. “What?” he says, when his heart stops hammering.
“Most of the rooms back here are storage,” she says, and doesn’t even have the decency to look apologetic. “We have a full hold, but these are all auxiliary. Spare parts, that kind of thing.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Eiffel says. “Or are you on babysitting duty?”
She shrugs. “A little of both? I wanted to patch some of the infrastructure drivers, and that means more sensors.” She looks at his expression. “It’s like trying to remodel a house without knowing any of the measurements. The more details you have, the better.”
Eiffel is beginning to get used to feeling like he’s having a completely different conversation than Maxwell, like being in a class where he hasn’t done any of the reading. It isn’t unlike talking to Minkowski about Pryce and Carter’s Holy Goddamn Deep Space Gospel. That might be why he keeps doing it.
“Okay,” he says, as shorthand for I have no idea what you mean but we both know that so let’s just move on with the conversation. “Need a hand?”
It turns out that she does, and only partly because she wants to keep Eiffel away from any of the more delicate components stored in the Urania’s homegrown Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse. Installing what Maxwell calls CAD sensors — she explains that they use a combination of ultrasound and preexisting structural data to model space adaptations, a sentence that Eiffel stops listening to around the halfway mark — requires an array of wrenches but, more importantly, somebody willing to hold twenty pounds of sensitive equipment in place while the wrenches are applied.
Eiffel, unsurprisingly, is not the one in charge of the wrenches.
Maxwell drags him and six of the sensors up to the fore deck, where she locates the load-bearing beams that support the Urania’s deck plating — curved like a giant’s ribs — and deems them sound enough for sensor installation.
Holding the sensors in place isn’t particularly hard in zero gravity. Eiffel doesn’t have to worry about the weight, just any spare momentum the sensors might have left over from their trip up the length of the Urania. He holds the second one in what seems to him like an incredibly arbitrary spot, though judging by the pinpoint accuracy with which she placed it Maxwell would disagree, and he watches her work.
She has the kind of single-minded focus Eiffel assumes all scientists and technicians acquire, which means that despite his usefulness he may as well not be there at all. It also means that he has nobody to talk to, and runs out of other things to look at almost instantly. Maxwell has chronic bad posture, by the look of it, and the habit of not blinking when she works. After a moment, Eiffel realizes that the silvery line across the back of her throat is a scar. It runs from one shoulder to the other, disappearing under the collar of her flight suit, and could almost be mistaken for the chain of a necklace or a trick of the light.
Because he can’t help himself, Eiffel asks, even though the past few days have taught him that it’s a decision he will likely regret.
“Oh,” Maxwell says, and tugs at the neck of her suit. “I always forget about that.” She looks vaguely uncomfortable, as though she doesn’t know how to put whatever she’s about to say. “That was Palo Alto.”
Eiffel waits for a minute before he realizes that she isn’t going to volunteer any more.
“What happened in Palo Alto?” he says, quiet.
Maxwell gives him a blank smile. Behind her eyes, something is gone, whatever usual spark animates her. “I messed up,” she says. Her voice is flat. “We had a job, and I was the reason we couldn’t get it done.”
“And that was why?” Eiffel asks. She shakes her head. “Okay, so it happened because of whatever went wrong.”
Her smile twists a little. “Right,” she says. “It happened because I fell short.”
“And—” Eiffel starts.
“Kepler runs a very tight ship,” Maxwell says. She waits to make sure he isn’t going to interrupt. “And he’s very rigorous when it comes to damage control. And in that case? I was the damage.”
She clearly doesn’t want to talk about it in specific terms. Eiffel thinks he can piece it together anyway. Kepler has a dangerous crew, all dangerous people, but their deference to him is a combination of ingrained trust and rational fear, itself a kind of trust. The scar on Maxwell’s back is not remarkable because it’s barely visible, the kind of mark nobody would see any other time. Eiffel can’t be sure about Jacobi, but he had looked satisfied when Kepler came out of nowhere and flattened him against the wall — a covenant kept, a pact unbroken.
Kepler seems like the type to get creative with his disciplinary measures. He also seems like he knows how to hurt someone where it won’t leave a mark.
“And Jacobi?” Eiffel says.
“What about him?” Maxwell shakes her head. “Like I said. Damage control. He understands that.”
They work in silence for a little while before Eiffel reverts to his usual tactic for awkward moments: Open mouth, insert foot.
“So,” he says. “You and Jacobi?”
Maxwell makes a face usually reserved for teenagers and those contemplating the inside of a shared fridge. “No way,” she says. “That would be weird. I mean, we’re more like — no. It would be weird.”
“Yeah, I figured,” Eiffel says. “Just had to ask.”
“What about you?” she says. “You seemed pretty worried about your commanding officer.”
“Oh, no,” he says, because it’s one of those things he just can’t think about if he wants to be able to look Minkowski in the eye on a day-to-day basis. “I mean — no. Right. Same. No. But Kepler,” Eiffel says. “You said he knows about Jacobi and, you know.” He jerks his chin upward, unable to gesture until Maxwell finishes with the sensor. “He doesn’t exactly discourage it, does he?”
“Kepler? Nope.” Maxwell finishes one last adjustment and gingerly tests the sensor to see if it stays in place. She nods to herself and waves at Eiffel to push away. “Nice. No, he definitely plays into it.”
She shrugs. “If I had to say? To keep Daniel guessing, probably. I’ve only worked with him without the Colonel a few times, but Daniel is always sharper around him —better at what he does, but also at being himself. I think he would put up with almost anything to be who he is around Kepler. And I think Kepler knows that, and I think he sees the value in—” She breaks off. “Like guard dogs. You keep them hungry.”
“Huh,” Eiffel says.
Maxwell gets the third sensor — and Eiffel — in place. “He asked me if I wanted to help once,” she says after a minute of work, almost a light aside.
Eiffel frowns for a moment and then stares at her. “Wait,” he says. “What? With — Jacobi,” he says. “Kepler asked you to—?”
“What do you think?” she says. “Keep him sharp. The best way to keep somebody hungry is to show them someone else eating food that they can’t have.” She scrunches up her nose. “Bad analogy.”
“Right,” Eiffel says, “and what did you say?”
“What do you think?” she says.
“Wow,” Eiffel says, and thinks about it. “I mean, I know he’s your superior officer, but that’s kind of—”
“No,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I said no. Yes, he’s my superior officer, but Daniel’s my friend.” She shrugs. “It wasn’t actually an order.”
Eiffel lapses into silence again for a minute, and then: “So you and Kepler, you’ve never—?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Maxwell says, just as lightly as before. “You know how it is, even if you and your commander aren’t like that. Stressful job, long hours? Things happen.”
“But you said you aren’t, you know — he isn’t your type,” Eiffel says.
She shrugs again. “He isn’t.”
“So how does that work?” Eiffel figures that if he goes too far at any point, Maxwell will just leave him holding the sensor for the next two days, or she’ll stab him with a screwdriver. As it is, he can’t help asking: “He’s not your type, but you’re into him?”
“No. Well.” She pauses. “He’s not my type but I’m not not into him. Does that make sense?”
“Sort of?” Eiffel says; more than usual, anyway.
“Look.” Maxwell smiles at him, more than a little patronizing. “Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about it, on top of the fact that it isn’t really your concern or your business. First of all, you’re a guest, so I wouldn’t worry about, well.” She smirks, a naked-flame sort of expression compared to Jacobi’s switchblade smile. “Getting asked to help out around the house, let’s say. And second of all, I don’t really get the sense that you’d see it as a chore. Am I right?”
Maxwell, Eiffel thinks, is good. She’s very good. He knows he isn’t subtle, but she says it like an angler setting a hook. Her words snag him right through the diaphragm and leave him voiceless.
“I thought so,” Maxwell says, back to her usual upbeat opacity.
They place that sensor and the next one in complete silence. Eiffel doesn’t think he can cope with the answers he already has, let alone any more, and Maxwell seems content to work without background conversation.
As she finishes up work and starts calibrations on the fourth sensor, Maxwell turns to Eiffel. “So,” she says. “Do you have any more good autopilot stories?”
He laughs. “Look, I promise I can keep quiet. You don’t have to distract me.”
“No, no,” she says, and sounds sincere enough that he believes her. “Not a lot of people talk about AIs the way you do, like actual—” She gestures. “Well, we don’t really have a good word for it, but — people.”
“They just haven’t spent enough time with them,” Eiffel says. “Or they just haven’t talked to the right one. Hera—” He stops himself. “—I know what you’re doing,” he says. “I’m going to keep talking anyway, but I just wanted you to know.” He narrows his eyes. “To know that I know that you know that I know.”
Maxwell smiles. “See?” she says. “You’re all right.”
Day four — twenty-four hours before the Urania is set to come into shortwave communications range of the Hephaestus — Eiffel’s luck runs out and he gets conscripted into helping Kepler and Jacobi update the ship’s star charts. Why they need three people for a one-man job, in a communications room not much bigger than his own, Eiffel initially has no idea. Within ten minutes it becomes painfully clear that his impression isn’t wrong: Jacobi is there so that Kepler has somebody to talk to, and Eiffel is presumably there so that Jacobi has a chew toy whenever he runs out of patience with Kepler’s endless reserve of apocryphal anecdotes.
“Do you remember,” Kepler begins, and Eiffel and Jacobi both stifle sighs. More than an hour later, Eiffel is beginning to revise his initial evaluation; the whole exercise might be Kepler’s idea of team-building, or at least mediation. He and Jacobi are too united in boredom to be at each other’s throats, or rather for Jacobi to be at his throat while Eiffel flails around trying not to die. He thinks that if Minkowski could see him now, she would deem it a fitting punishment for his own inability to maintain updated navigational data.
Jacobi gives Kepler a very blank look. “You’ll have to be more specific, sir.”
“Panama,” Kepler begins.
“Yes, sir,” Jacobi says.
Kepler blinks. “Nome.”
“With the missing decoy Grammy,” Jacobi says. “Yes, sir.”
“Rabat,” Kepler says, betraying only the faintest trace of frustration.
Jacobi nods. “What about Rachel?”
“Ah, Nevada,” Kepler says. “Yes, that was a week to remember.” He turns to Eiffel. “Are you familiar with Groom Lake, Officer Eiffel?”
It takes Eiffel a moment to connect the dots. “Rachel’s a place?”
“Oh, yes.” Kepler glances at Jacobi. “Well, it was. Command tells me the rebuilding is ahead of schedule.”
“Pity,” Jacobi says.
“Mr. Jacobi,” Kepler admonishes, and turns back to Eiffel. “So. Jacobi and I had been working together for just over a year, if memory serves, and it occurred to me that I’d never shown him any recognition for his stellar teamwork.”
“We were busy,” Jacobi adds.
“So I thought, why don’t we spend a little well-deserved time off at Goddard’s state-of-the-art weapons development and testing facility. As you do.”
“As you do,” Eiffel says, completely bemused. Jacobi glares at him.
“Exactly.” Kepler taps at the keyboard for a moment. “Which is located in Nevada, in a lovely little town called Rachel. Used to have a tungsten mine, until we stopped using terrestrial ore in our weapons R&D. Population under fifty in the off-season, which is any time there isn’t a company delegation in town. So Mr. Jacobi and I, we fly into Los Angeles and we make a trip of it. We take a company car and we drive through the Mojave and into the Great Basin and the next day we end up at the front door of Goddard’s testing range in Rachel. Lovely little place. Makes great coffee.”
“Made,” Jacobi says.
Kepler ignores him. “And we knock on the door and they give us the keys to the city.”
“Trailer park,” Jacobi adds, and Kepler looks at him. He lapses back into silence.
“Now, I have seen many things in the course of my work, Officer Eiffel,” Kepler says. “But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like the look on Mr. Jacobi’s face when that poor lab tech handed him a semi-automatic bazooka and told him to go to town.”
Jacobi sighs happily. “That thing almost dislocated my shoulder.”
“He had a look on his face like it was his birthday, Christmas, and New Year’s all at once,” Kepler goes on. “We never did get the smell of cordite out of the car seats, did we?”
“That’s what you get for leaving explosives lying around where anybody can get their hands on them,” Jacobi says, shameless.
“Not anybody,” Kepler says. He turns back to the monitor. “Just Goddard employees with special clearance, and whichever associates they deem capable of handling experimental weapons with care.”
“It went fine,” Jacobi says. “Nobody died! Much. And you said they’re ahead of schedule. That motel was overdue for remodeling anyway.”
“When you picked up that carbine,” Kepler says. “I’ve seen men look less happy than that on their wedding days.”
“Wait,” Eiffel says, and turns to Jacobi before he can stop himself. “Aren’t you an administrative officer?”
“That was why it took me a year to realize I’d been remiss,” Kepler says. “Officer Eiffel, are you all right?”
No, he isn’t. Eiffel feels like he’s somehow fallen through into a universe where everything is reversed, where Kepler’s stories have a recurring cast of more than one and Jacobi’s insubordinate tendencies have a certain horrifying charm, where Kepler and Jacobi — flirt? He can’t quite tell. He needs air; he needs answers. The entire ship is rotten with secrets, riddled through with questions nobody knows to ask because it never occurs to any of them, with their wild wolf pack kinship and their strange equilibrium and the sheer distance between them and Eiffel. He feels like they’re all working from some codebook he hasn’t been given, some codex of shared experience and secret language, and he’ll never be able to catch up. Not that Eiffel is sure he wants to, but it strikes some chord, sets something in him ringing. He’s never been invested enough to want to be part of something before, but he understands what Maxwell means when she says that Jacobi is sharper around Kepler, that he becomes a better version of himself.
“I think I could use a break,” he says, “if you don’t need me for anything right now.”
“No, that’s okay,” Kepler says. “I think we can manage. Don’t you, Mr. Jacobi?”
“Yes, sir,” Jacobi says. He gives Eiffel an inquisitive look, head tilted to the side as if he’s sighting down a scope. “I think so.”
Eiffel nods, not trusting himself with words, and is halfway down the corridor before the hatch swings shut behind him.
Not ten seconds later, he hears it slam open again.
Eiffel lasts thirty seconds before he looks over his shoulder, a hard-fought half-minute he uses to put as much space between himself and the communications room as possible.
This time, Jacobi isn’t playing. He doesn’t swing from one side of the corridor to the other, doesn’t snag on handholds to tumble end-over-end towards Eiffel. He just moves, unhurried but direct, and picks up speed as Eiffel watches.
It makes Eiffel stupid and slow, kicks his fight-or-flight response into high gear and then leaves him floating useless while he tries to fight down rising panic. He wastes a precious handful of seconds trying to decide where to go, whether Maxwell will be on the bridge or somewhere on the fore deck, but in the end Eiffel only knows the way to one part of the Urania by heart.
He follows the power conduits with the sickening certainty that Jacobi knows the ship better than he does, and is letting Eiffel take the lead. Every time he looks over his shoulder, he can see — at the last corner or intersection of corridors — Jacobi, like a guided missile, a thrown knife.
Jacobi lets Eiffel get within ten feet of the observation deck before he surges forward, accelerating so quickly that Eiffel knows he could have done it at any time, and knocks Eiffel bodily through the doorway. Their combined momentum carries them all the way across the deck, and when Eiffel’s shoulders hit the glass, it knocks the breath out of him. “I left,” he gasps, with what little air he has left. “There have to be better ways of dealing with your frustration than throwing me out an airlock.”
“Wrong,” Jacobi says. “But that’s not why I’m here. You’re holding up pretty well, all things considered.”
Eiffel assumes he’s meant to respond to that. “Thanks?”
“For a civilian,” Jacobi says, and when Eiffel opens his mouth to protest he jams his elbow into Eiffel’s windpipe. “Yeah, yeah, you were Air Force, so was I. Doesn’t matter to SI-5. That’s not my point.” He removes his elbow from Eiffel’s windpipe, presumably to be polite, as his knee is still firmly planted against Eiffel’s solar plexus. “Alana told you a lot, didn’t she?”
“I asked,” Eiffel rasps.
Jacobi shakes his head. “Yeah, look, I don’t care,” he says. “If anyone’s getting in trouble for that, it’s you. My point is, you’re holding up pretty well considering that.”
Eiffel shrugs about a millimeter. “Not my business.”
For a moment, neither of them say anything, and then: “You know what he does,” Jacobi says suddenly. “Colonel Kepler, you see what it’s like now.”
“What?” Eiffel says.
“Two weeks into the job,” Jacobi says. “Second mission we ever had, we were working with a team, and somebody Kepler knew was there. This guy called Richard, I guess they had history. And the way he looked at this guy was like nothing I’d ever seen, and I know a lot about condescending glares.” He shakes his head again. “You know how people look at roadkill? This was worse. And right then I knew that nothing — no job, no fuckup, absolutely nothing that could happen to me — could ever be worse than that. So afterwards, when we’re all back at base and it’s just the two of us in the mess, I scraped up every bit of harebrained nerve I had left and I told Kepler, I said: I don’t want to be your favorite,” Jacobi says. “I want to be your best. And the way he looked at me then, the way I felt after that?” He shrugs. “That made me feel like I could. And now I am, and I think you know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Eiffel manages a very weak laugh. “Look, I really don’t think I’m SI-5 material. Seriously, you have nothing to worry about.”
Jacobi sighs. “No, you idiot, that’s not what I mean. Well, just the first half. I know the rest. I’m saying that Kepler thinks you’re interesting, and that’s good enough for me. But I’m also saying that he doesn’t take disappointment well.”
“Okay,” Eiffel says, and begins to wish Jacobi would back off a little. He isn’t used to so much contact, so much warmth pressed so close against him. Jacobi feels like a furnace. “And?”
“So I want to see if you can take it,” Jacobi says, and his hands begin to drift, down from Eiffel’s shoulders to dig his fingertips into Eiffel’s chest and then press into the indentations between his ribs, and it does something to Eiffel, to be reminded of his relative weakness, his space-starved frame. “I want to see what kind of man you are.”
“They have psych evals for this kind of thing,” Eiffel says, but he doesn’t push Jacobi’s hands away.
Jacobi snorts. “Yeah, and we all passed.” He presses his thumbs against the crests of Eiffel’s hipbones until Eiffel tries to squirm away. “A psych eval wouldn’t have told me that.”
“And you need to know this why?” Eiffel says. Jacobi doesn’t let him get far, and his voice goes breathless halfway through the sentence.
“Because nobody else gets to know,” Jacobi says, matter-of-fact. “How you react. What you say. What you sound like. That kind of secret is special. Even you never really know for sure, and it never gets any less important, and you never get to take it back.” His hands drift lower, and he digs his fingertips into the junction of Eiffel’s hips, and Eiffel feels a sound — breathy and involuntary and unknown even to him — come from his mouth. “Like that.”
Jacobi unzips Eiffel’s flight suit then, and shoves it off his shoulders, just far enough to brush callused fingers down Eiffel’s chest and wrap his hand around Eiffel’s cock. The noise Eiffel makes at that is more one of surprise than pleasure, and he almost tries to get away from that as well. It’s been so long that he doesn’t know if he’s oversensitive because of the cryo — every touch feels so much more intense on bare skin — or because he just isn’t used to it anymore, but Eiffel smacks his hands against the glass and swears in a breathless, ongoing whimper. Jacobi just grins. “See?” he says. “I told you.”
After a while, he gets tired of doing his best to make Eiffel cry with just his hands, and maneuvers — not ungracefully — to take Eiffel’s cock into his mouth. Jacobi is very good, and sucks dick with a singlemindedness of purpose that renders Eiffel completely useless even before Jacobi presses one knuckle into the soft skin behind his balls and Eiffel makes a noise like he’s had the air knocked out of him.
He wonders suddenly if Jacobi followed him of his own accord or if he was sent, if Kepler gave him orders to do this, and for some reason that more than anything else is too much. Eiffel’s hypersensitivity, his craving for warmth and touch, his increasing desperation — none of that counts next to the possibility that Jacobi is here because Kepler asked him to be, and that by extension Eiffel is equally at the mercy of his design.
The possibility makes him loud and needy, and even makes him consider burying his hands in Jacobi’s hair for the last fraction of leverage that he needs, but Jacobi is too dangerous for that; razorblade smile, mechanic’s hands. He lets his teeth scrape so faintly against the length of Eiffel’s cock, and whatever noise Eiffel makes when he comes is a secret that only Jacobi knows.
Afterwards, Eiffel asks, because it seems to be a winning strategy so far and he really doesn’t think he has much left to lose.
Jacobi wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and shrugs. “No,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t considered it, probably. This way, I’m ahead of the curve.”
That makes sense. Eiffel thinks he would have to wake up very early, or perhaps just never sleep at all, to get the better of Kepler. “And this way you got to me first,” he says. He can’t even take it personally. “Right?”
Jacobi just smiles, a real one and not a smirk in disguise. “See? You’re getting there.”
Eiffel doesn’t want that to be a compliment, but it feels like one.
Three hours before the Urania is due to come within communications range of the Hephaestus, Eiffel stops pretending that he’s capable of thinking about anything else and sets up camp on the flight deck. Kepler is there, doing nothing useful by the look of it, and so is Maxwell. After ten minutes of fiddling with the transmission console, though, she leaves the two of them alone.
“You must be happy to see her again,” Kepler says, bowing to the laws of convention and narrative gravity.
Eiffel honestly doesn’t know whether he is. It’s good to see the Hephaestus still in orbit, no question, but less good to see it so clearly limping along. He wonders if the explosion on the shuttle caused any of the visible damage, the scarring and torn segments of hull plating that are missing altogether. He wonders how many weeks Minkowski spent trying to repair them before she had to write them off and focus on salvaging whatever sections were still functional. He wonders if they’ll get any answer when they hail the Hephaestus, or if all they’ll hear is static. Dead air, just like what Eiffel listened to for the first four hundred days of the mission before Scott Joplin came through his speakers and changed everything.
“I’ll be happier when I get some answers,” he says. “Sir.”
Kepler chuckles. “Fair enough,” he says. “Not long now, is it?”
“Two hours and forty-five minutes,” Eiffel says, on reflex. He’s counting.
Half an hour after that, Jacobi joins them. He takes his place at the navigations console, running system tests and triple-checking their approach vector, and then drifts back. He doesn’t say anything to Eiffel or Kepler, just looks out through the glass at the Hephaestus — still flying — and the star. Even after spending so much time under its apocalyptic red glare, Eiffel finds the blue even worse, like unexpected color in a block of black and white text, or the veins in his wrists; cyanosis blue.
“Looks like a rust bucket to me,” Jacobi says, finally breaking the silence.
“Mr. Jacobi,” Kepler says, but Eiffel just laughs.
“Sure,” he says. “But she’s our rust bucket.”
Kepler gives him an appraising look, up and down, and nods. “That’s what I like to hear.”
Jacobi just looks at Eiffel — not with hostility, but not with any warmth, either. There it is, that wordless understanding, Eiffel thinks — that shared secret language.
Maxwell reappears briefly to enlist Jacobi’s help with coffee, leaving Eiffel and Kepler to review authentication codes, and then both of them return with lunch. Eiffel barely manages to eat half of an energy bar, but he drinks all of the coffee on the assumption that starvation will come second to any of the three thousand other factors that are likely to kill him.
“I don’t like countdowns,” she says by way of explanation. “Time passes whether I pay attention to it or not and, well, I’d rather not.”
They wait together for the last hour, regardless. Eiffel doesn’t know if Maxwell is there on Kepler’s orders, or if she waits with them because Jacobi is there, or if she just stays. He doesn’t know if Jacobi is there because Eiffel is in his territory, or because he owns some small part of Eiffel now, or because he has nothing better to do.
He doesn’t know why Kepler is there, but Eiffel is beginning to get used to that.
Eiffel is beginning to think that he was wrong. If the Urania is full of secrets, it isn’t because nobody knows to ask the right questions, but because they don’t want or need to; because they don’t need the answers or because they want to figure it out themselves or because it doesn’t matter.
He waits with Maxwell and Jacobi and Kepler and thinks that, maybe, he understands. As long as they can count on each other to be more control than damage, does anybody really need to know more than that?
The Urania is so quiet, Eiffel has come to understand, not because it has no mother program but because its silence is an unseen fifth resident on the ship. Maxwell and Jacobi jostle elbows with it in the hallway, and Kepler carries it with him at all times. Eiffel is beginning to hear it himself, in quiet moments, in the seams of his thoughts. It makes a kind of sense to him that he wishes it wouldn’t. It says, let me in, wouldn’t it be easier, don’t you want to know.
It says, don’t you want to be like us.
He does. Eiffel does, for the first time in a long time, but the Hephaestus is waiting. He has a commanding officer and he has a crew and he has a — Hera, and he owes them answers and explanations. He owes them more than dead air.
With ten minutes to go, Eiffel starts thinking about what he’s going to say.