Rachel Young cheerfully leads Lovelace from the Hephaestus’s docking bay into the little jury-rigged shuttle. There’s an office inside, and a polygraph machine set up at a table. This makes sense, and seems normal.
“We’re just going to ask you a couple of questions,” Rachel says, as Lovelace sits down and lets Rachel hook her into the machine. “Basic interview stuff, you know! Before you head on to Greensboro.”
“Right,” Lovelace says. Greensboro. That doesn’t feel right, but everything still makes sense. Right? She’s taking a polygraph test. She’s going to Greensboro. That’s how it goes.
“Just a couple calibration questions, to start,” Rachel says, sitting across the table. “First: what’s your name?”
“Isabel Lovelace,” she answers, and the polygraph makes a bright little ding! It’s a good sound. It means she answered the truth. It fills her with an overwhelming sense of foreboding.
Rachel tilts her head, clicks her tongue, winces a little like Lovelace answered badly and things are going to get difficult. “Is it, though?”
“What?” Lovelace says, bristling. “Of course it is.” The polygraph goes ding!
Rachel pushes back her chair and, wait, why was she thinking Rachel, because it’s Sam Lambert across the table, of course it is, it was always Lambert there and Rachel is already fading from her memory, her reality reorienting itself. It’s Officer Lambert standing across the table from her, with his stupid nose and stupid voice and a gun in his hands pointed between her eyes. “That’s what we’re trying to find out, Captain.”
“What the hell?” Lovelace says. “Come on, Sam, this isn’t funny.” Ding!
“It isn’t,” he agrees. “What’s your name?”
“You know my name,” she says. Ding! “What do you think you’re doing? As your captain, Officer Lambert, I am ordering you to stand down and hand that gun to me right now.”
“Not until you answer five questions,” he says. His hands don’t shake at all. “Isn’t that what we agreed?”
She sighs, her breath coming out through her teeth like a hiss. She’s not sure when they did, but she feels this is something true. “Yes. I guess we did.” Ding! The stupid polygraph is getting on her nerves. “Come on, ask already, get this over with.”
He nods. “One. Are you Isabel Lovelace?”
“Two. What are your rank and post?”
“Captain in the US Air Force, currently commanding officer of the USS Hephaestus Station orbiting the red dwarf Wolf 359.” Ding!
“Three. What is your spouse’s name?”
“Beyoncé,” Lovelace says, with absolute certainty that this is true and this answer is correct, the kind of baseless conviction that only comes in dreams. Lambert nods, like he accepts this is true too, because apparently this is the truth in the context of this dream, and the corner of Lovelace’s brain that is starting to realize that this is a dream has enough awareness to think, nice. The polygraph wires that wrap tight around her clammy right arm and root her in place go, ding!
“Four,” Lambert says. He looks sick; his skin looks horrifically pale and bloodless in the blue light washing in from the star, like he might collapse any second, but his voice doesn’t waver. “Who died during the Hephaestus mission?”
A recitation of their names and their memories had been the constant background noise in her brain for a year now. They come out too easily, a litany of the dead. “Everyone. Officer Mason Fisher. Dr. Kwan Hui. Officer Samuel Lambert. Dr. Victoire Fourier. Rhea.” Then, after a hesitation, “And Hilbert, but not until later. Selberg. Whoever he really was. He’s dead now. There’s no one else left who was there. Who remembers.” Ding!
“Hm,” Lambert says. It’s a skeptical, critical sound; she’s heard it from him enough times to know that she won’t like what’s coming next. “I think you’re forgetting someone, Captain.”
“I’m not,” she says, an edge in her voice that anyone reasonable should know means drop it. “That’s who was there. Those are who died. Minkowski, Eiffel, and Hera are here now, and they’re not dead. But they weren’t there.” The distinction is very pressing to her. (Ding!)
“Someone else died too, Captain. You’re avoiding the question.”
“Then ask a different question,” she snaps.
He’s quiet, and she thinks he’s about to let it go. She can hear him breathing; it’s loud and ragged, his lungs filled with fluid. She knows it’s blood.
Then he says, “Say something ridiculous.”
“Say you’re a big pink elephant.”
A wave of cold fear sweeps over her skin. She tries to yell, tries to bolt, because she knows how this goes, how it’s going to go, but she can’t move. The instructions from her brain aren’t being received by her muscles. Nothing is physically holding her back, but she’s read that brains do this when you’re asleep—that they immobilize your body to prevent you from sleepwalking, from acting out your dreams, from hurting yourself. It’s what causes sleep paralysis, and it’s what causes that feeling in dreams where you want to run but you can’t, want to scream and fight but you can’t, want to lunge across the table and grab the gun out of your first officer’s hands but you can’t.
And besides, she doesn’t know what the Dear Listeners look like. She doesn’t know that it’s not true.
She tries not to think that.
So she says, flatly, “I’m a big pink elephant.”
The polygraph, cheerfully as ever, goes ding!
Lambert’s shoulders tense. “Say you own the Nile.”
This is wrong. The shuttle walls are too close. She feels like she’s choking. “I own the Nile.”
“Say you’re an alien.”
It’s something ridiculous. It’s also deeply, horribly not. “No.”
“Fine. Let’s skip to the end. Say you’re not Isabel Lovelace.”
He always was their resident wannabe-Space-Marine-Alien-Hunter. She’d teased him about it so many times. It had seemed funny, seemed ridiculous, back when they were both alive. “Sam! It’s me. You know me!” Ding!
“I know Captain Isabel Lovelace. Say you’re not Isabel Lovelace.”
“I am Isabel Lovelace!” she shouts, surging to her feet, yanking her arm away from the table and snapping the wires grasping at her like something evil and hungry, and at the same time as the polygraph goes ding! Lambert pulls the trigger. The gunshot shakes the whole shuttle like an explosion, there’s a flash of pure darkness inside her head, and slowly, groggily, Captain Isabel Lovelace wakes up.
She skips breakfast but still wanders over to the Urania half an hour later than their agreed-upon morning start time. She hasn’t been able to get back to sleep but she has been staring at the blank wall for longer than she’d intended to, lost in chasing thoughts, which isn’t new but also hasn’t exactly gotten better.
Eiffel and Jacobi are already working on assembling the radiation shielding that they deconstructed from the Hephaestus yesterday. That’s right, shielding, that’s what they’re doing today. She thinks. She doesn’t fully remember. She’s not sure if that’s new, or if it’s just a natural effect of waking up at four in the morning with heart palpitations and starting the day off anxious, upset, and exhausted.
“Very industrious of you, Officer Eiffel,” she says, and Eiffel yelps and jumps about three feet in the air.
“Oh!” he says, turning around, his smile too quick, too bright, too forced. “Ah, Cap—morning, Cap!” He is not good at hiding the flash of fear that crosses his face when he looks at her and then quickly looks away.
Jacobi grunts and rolls his eyes but doesn’t say anything.
So it’s going to be one of those days.
Barely a moment later, Minkowski appears from inside the Urania, presumably drawn by her unerring sense of potential shenanigans. After an appraising beat, by way of good morning, she says, “You look like hell.”
Lovelace smiles, just a bit. “And you woke up looking like Beyoncé.”
Minkowski stares at her for another second, parsing that out, then gives a short laugh and tips her head towards Lovelace, conceding. “Okay. I deserved that.” Her hair is already escaping her halfhearted braid and there are bags under her eyes; she hasn’t been getting much sleep, either. “But— are you feeling all right, Lovelace?”
“I’m fine,” Lovelace says. “Just—haven’t been sleeping well. Bad dreams. You know.”
Minkowski winces and nods in sympathy. Next to Lovelace, Eiffel adds an “mm” of agreement. They all know poor sleep and bad dreams only too well at this point.
It’s only now that Jacobi looks up at her. “What, are your aaaalien memories starting to resurface?” he asks, confrontational and sharp. “Got all those, repressed subconscious images of your distant homeworld and all that?”
Minkowski and Eiffel yelling in unison “Shut up, Jacobi!” is mildly gratifying, but only mildly.
She turns toward him, slow and deliberate. “In fact, no, Mr. Jacobi,” she says. Her voice is calm and cold. This feeling, at least, she can be pretty sure is hers. “It was my very conscious memories of my very human crew that your people very much murdered. If you were wondering.”
It’s not entirely a lie, and it achieves the desired effect of making Jacobi grumble but shut up. It also achieves the rather less desired effects of a soft “oh,” from Minkowski, and Eiffel sighing in what sounds suspiciously like relief.
Yeah. It’s going to be one of those days.