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Comfort Zone

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Renée Minkowski was dizzy and her head hurt.  She wasn’t sure of much more than that, when she stumbled out of the chilly airlock and back into the hangar.  Why had she been in the airlock?  And without an exosuit?  That was never necessary and incredibly dangerous, and she definitely knew better.  It had seemed like a good idea, felt like a good idea, a few minutes ago, but… why?  She couldn’t focus.  It was like trying to capture the details of a dream, having already woken up groggy and disoriented.

Groggy and disoriented and being asked to make life-and-death decisions, immediately.

Eiffel was asking her a question, his voice edged with terror.  He’s here; she knew that, she thought.  That wasn’t good, they weren’t safe here.  Lovelace was here, saying we need to move.  It was true.  Minkowski took a shuddering breath and a shuddering step into the present.  

“Into the vents,” she said, “Now,” and there was nodding and scrambling and Lovelace took her hand and pulled her into a run, and Minkowski let her.  Into the vents.  The vents were escape.  The vents were something she knew well by now.  The vents were a place she understood, a place she was in control, and a place Dr. Pryce didn’t know and couldn't control.

Dealing with an immediate potentially-lethal crisis was good, actually.  Dealing with an immediate potentially-lethal crisis was what she did.

They moved.  They kept moving.  “This way,” Minkowski said.  “Keep up!”

“Not all of us have your extensive experience crawling through these worm tunnels you call a ventilation system in zero-gravity,” Jacobi grumbled, wriggling ungracefully around a tight corner.  “Trust me, I’m doing my best, because I don’t want to go back to being Pryce’s happy little puppet either.  You know she’s going to go and space the first one of us she catches, just to prove her point.  Not gonna be me.”

Minkowski did not want to think about that.  That was the exact thing she did not want to think about.  By the glare Eiffel shot Jacobi, he did not want to be thinking about that either.

“Hey, shut up,” Lovelace said, casual and conversational, “or else we’re all going to get caught.  Want that?  No?  Good.  Shut up.”  She clambered over a narrow ledge at a three-way juncture, propped herself up on her elbows, and dragged the conversation back to the practical, the here, the now.  “Minkowski, destination?  Got a place we’re headed?”

She was more grateful than she wanted to admit.  “There’s a mechanical room that doesn’t show up on any of the station maps,” Minkowski said.  “Closed off, out of use, inaccessible except by the vents.  There’s some room to stretch out, turn around, and plan.”  Then, mildly sheepish but refusing to be cowed because look who’d turned out to be right, she added, “I stashed some weapons, food, and traps there.  We could use them right now.”

The room was exactly where she expected it to be, the gear still arranged as neatly as she remembered it; that, at least, was a relief.  She couldn’t shake the question, in the back of her mind, what if you’re still under the restraining bolt’s influence?  What if you’re leading them all into a trap, and don’t know it?  It didn’t seem likely, but… she couldn’t discount it.  She couldn’t stop worrying.  Didn’t want to stop worrying.  To stop worrying in a situation as shot all to hell as this one meant being under the control of the restraining bolt.  The ability to be worried was a good sign, like being awake after weeks asleep, and she leaned into the fear and the stress.

They were in one of her pit stops, but they weren’t safe, not yet.

“Wow,” Eiffel whispered, zeroing in on the protein bars and the MREs packed nicely next to the spiked net traps, “you were prepared, huh.  For, uh, this?—or—”

“For anything,” Minkowski said.  “Pryce and Carter’s 154: You have to prepare for the thousand things that will never happen in order to be ready for the one thing that does.”

Eiffel winced a little, started to say something, stopped, and it took Minkowski a second to even parse the connection.  Pryce and Carter’s Deep Space Survival Procedure and Protocol Manual had been its own entity in her mind for so long, she didn’t make the immediate connection to the Dr. Pryce who was so actively antagonistic to their—her—survival in deep space.

She’d think about that later.

Jacobi had already begun tearing into the protein bars.  “These are disgusting,” he said, mouth full of chewy chocolate and coconut and chia seeds.  “If any of you want some, get them now, because I will eat them all.”

Now that she’d slowed down, had time to stop, to stand still, it occurred to Minkowski that she was ravenous.  And exhausted.

Eiffel hesitated, looking over at her, like he wasn’t sure if he should ask permission.  That seemed unusually deferential for him, but she waved him on, go ahead, and he nodded back, still tense, still nervous.  Then he grabbed the first foodstuff within reach and shoved it into his face before he’d even fully gotten the wrapper off.

“Damn,” Lovelace said.  “When was the last time you ate?”  She paused.  “When was the last time you ate?  Did team evil over there even let you eat?”

Minkowski reached for a protein bar.  Chocolate, peanut, and flax seed; solid, dependable.  She hadn’t eaten in twenty-four hours, at least.  Her memories of the two weeks under the restraining bolt were settling into place, distant, like something she’d seen reported on TV rather than something she’d lived.  “Not often enough.”

“Cutter had to remind his jackbooted Gregor Clegane to tell us to eat, and he was so cutesy about it,” Eiffel mumbled through the remaining reserves of bars.  “‘Our friends won’t be very helpful if they don’t get to eat and sleep sometimes, Victor!’”

“Ugh,” Jacobi said.  “I don’t think I’ve slept in, what, two days?”

Minkowski pulled off the wrapper of another bar.  It took a monumental expenditure of energy.  “Two days sounds about right.”

“Jesus,” Lovelace said softly.  “Minkowski, how secure is this room?  All of you need sleep and you need it now.”

“I’m fine,” Minkowski argued, the words nearly a reflex, but Lovelace wasn’t wrong.

“I’m not,” Jacobi offered.

“This room should be secure,” Minkowski said, ignoring him, keeping her focus narrow, on the subject at hand.  “Even Hera doesn’t have bio-sensors here.  Unless Cutter has an army of bots—”  Which, she realized, he might, she didn’t know— “It’ll be hard to find and hard to access.  It took me days to discover this room in the first place.  We can probably count on being safe here for… four hours.  Maybe six.  I wouldn’t be confident longer than that.”

“Six hours,” Lovelace said.  “Sounds like enough time for a really solid nap.”

“It wouldn’t be safe to—”

“I’ll stay awake.  I’ll keep watch and wake you up if anything comes at us,” Lovelace said.  “I at least got to be a cushy prisoner for the last few weeks.  Minkowski,” at Minkowski’s look, “I’ll be fine, it’s you three who need to take care of yourselves right now.  There’s some station protocol about getting enough sleep, isn’t there?  You’ve quoted it at me enough times.  Please.”

She didn’t like it, but coming up with coherent arguments was hard right now.  And God knew Eiffel needed and deserved it.  So did Jacobi.  And she wanted to sleep.  She wanted to just curl up and sleep for a very long time.

A few minutes later, blearily trying to decide whether she could wedge herself between a piece of long-fritzed-out machinery and the wall or if she should give up and resign herself to the discomfiting drifting sleep of zero-g, she noticed Eiffel hadn’t made any move to go to sleep either.  He hovered a few steps behind her, hands fluttering nervous and awkward, clearly waiting to say something.

Minkowski sighed.  “Did you want this space?  You’re taller, it’ll work better for you.”

“What?  Oh!  Uh.  Sure, I guess.”  He peered at the uncomfortable-looking niche, then back at her.  He grinned, a little too bright, a little too manic to be natural.  “What a day, huh?  Of course Cutter and friends turn into body-snatchers, like they want to check off every single evil scheme off the evil overlord’s to-do checklist.  It’s starting to get almost tiring, like, we get it, you’re evil, you’re capitalists and murderers and probably loved Palpatine’s whole ‘I am the Senate’ bit, we kinda got the gist at the first ‘hey, wanna go to space for us and die?’, thanks, this is really just all unnecessary overkill—”

“Eiffel, what is it?”  She was not up to mustering the patience right now.

“Are you okay?” he blurted.  “After—all that...”  He deflated, his forced smile faded, the energy to sustain the upbeat patter gone.  “Commander?  Are you okay?”

No.  Not really.  She didn’t want to think about it.  “I’m fine, Eiffel.”  She made an attempt at a wry smile, through clenched teeth.  “I didn’t get spaced.  That’s enough for now.”

“Yeah.  I—yeah.  You didn’t.”  He nodded, then rushed to say, “Just—I’m sorry, Commander, I’m so sorry, I didn’t know she could do that—I wasn’t ready—I didn’t want—”

“You didn’t do anything, Eiffel,” Minkowski said tiredly.  She did remember talking to him, during that march to the airlock, but only vaguely.  It was someone else’s idea, someone else’s words she spoke to him, and she didn’t remember what they were.  She did remember him screaming.  Remembered thinking how funny and pathetic he was.  “You’re okay.”

“No, that’s—that’s the problem, though,” Eiffel said.  “I didn’t do anything.  I just keep thinking—how many times have you saved my life when I was in danger from something terrifying and improbable?  A million, right?”

“Somewhere in that ballpark.”

“Yeah.  Because you’re—smart, and brave, and strong, and prepared, all the time, and I’m—not.  Because you’ve saved my life a million times and then the one time you were really in danger I couldn’t help at all.  I couldn’t stop her.  I couldn’t stop you.  There wasn’t anything I could do.  I was just there watching, and—if it had taken another five minutes—”  His voice cracked, and Minkowski turned to realize that he was tearing up, his hand in a loose fist making circles in front of his chest.  “And I just keep thinking, if it had been me in there—you would’ve done something, you would’ve been able to save me, and I—”  He sniffled and shook his head, a scattered and directionless outpouring of energy trying to express the inexpressible enormity of what they both knew just happened.

She didn’t know how to express it, either.  That was the beauty of adrenaline, wasn’t it—the ability to shut off the part of the brain that reflects and dwells, the ability to act.  But it always made the come-down worse.  The knowledge of what almost happened, what would have happened, now given time for the tight coil of terror that spurred the action in the moment to unwind and fill you all the way.

Though in the moment it hadn’t been terror motivating her.  It had been serenity.  That was the awful part, the creeping horror sinking in.  Less that she was forced to do it, to walk into the airlock, put her hands on the cold metal door.  It was that she wanted to, that she genuinely remembered thinking it was a good idea.  It was less that she would have died—she’d been prepared to die how many times now?—and more that she would have been happy to.  She’d been so at peace.

She didn’t have the words for that kind of helplessness, that kind of fear, and mostly she wanted to go the hell to sleep and not have to think about it for at least an hour or two.  

“It’s okay, Eiffel,” she said, finally.  It wasn’t, it was nowhere near okay.  But, unable to find the words either, Eiffel had gone back to the oldest, simplest human way of expressing emotions too big for them.  Eiffel was crying.  Which meant she couldn’t, not now.  She was the Commander.  Even on the run, with her mission and her station and her bodily autonomy taken away from her, it was still her job to hold it together. To be okay when no one else was.  “It’s okay.  I’m okay.  I promise.”

“Y—yeah,” he said, his voice shaky, “yeah.  Yeah.  You’re okay.”

She nodded, and then, because he was still standing there like that wasn’t enough (nothing either of them could say would be enough, not right now), Minkowski sighed and said, “Come here, Eiffel.”  And before he could get any more words out she grabbed his shoulder and pulled him into a tight hug.

He wrapped his gangly arms around her and buried his face in her shoulder.  She could feel his tears and probably his snot soaking into the collar of her jumpsuit; it made her wince, but it was better than letting the stuff float in globs around their cramped little hideout.  It was a weirdly grounding sensory experience to focus on.  Doug Eiffel was gross and biological and alive and right here, and so was she.  She hugged him as he sniffled I’m sorry, I’m sorry, and she told herself it was for his sake, to help him calm down.  And if she didn’t want to let go... well, that was okay.  He didn’t seem to want to either.

“Get some sleep, Eiffel,” she said.  “You’ll need it.”

“Yeah,” he said, and nodded into her shoulder.  “Yeah, you too.”

Curling up by wedging into the little corner was easier with the two of them together.  The walls were close and protective; Eiffel was close and protected; Lovelace was close by and safely settled and ready to wake them if anything went wrong.  (Something would definitely go wrong.  It always did.)

She closed her eyes, calmed her breath, and managed to sink into the fuzzy boundary between sleeping and waking.  

Then, just when she was about to make the last fall into something restful, Minkowski jerked back awake, suddenly alert, heart pounding, breathing too fast.  The hazy darkness felt too much like being under the restraining bolt.  The slipping away, the blending of reality with the memory of the airlock, the icy void on the other side, the thick metal door that had never felt so thin.

She wasn’t even under Pryce’s control anymore and Pryce still wouldn’t let her sleep.

Eiffel still curled up against her, warm and safe and snoring right in her ear.  She sighed.  She wouldn’t be able to sleep like this.

She wasn’t sure when she would be able to sleep again, really.

Across the room, Lovelace turned, tilting her head a little to show she had noticed Minkowski move.  “Feeling okay?” she asked, quietly.

“I’m fine,” Minkowski said.  It sounded about as believable as it felt.

“Uh-huh,” Lovelace said.  “Cozy over there?”

She was, actually.  Eiffel was surprisingly cuddly despite being scrawny and made of all angles.  Though his elbow, tucked in close, was poking Minkowski right in the sternum.  It was easy enough to tell herself that this was why she couldn’t sleep, or that sleep was a luxury she, as Commander, couldn’t afford right now, that it would be irresponsible and potentially dangerous to be sleeping while they were on the run.  That was why.  That was absolutely why.

“Cozy enough,” Minkowski said finally.

“Well.  If you’re still wired after… all that, I don’t blame you,” Lovelace said, and gestured beside her.  “C’mon, you can keep watch with me, direct that energy somewhere.”

She wanted to be able to sleep.  She wanted to escape the pressure of the void in her mind and in her lungs, wanted to scrub away the feeling of Miranda Pryce crawling under her skin.  

Instead she gave a halfhearted, wordless “Mm,” and gently untangled herself from Eiffel.  He let out another loud snorting snore but stayed asleep.  It was both grating and reassuring; she could hear him breathing from the other side of the room.  That was important.

She floated to take up an awkward crouched position next to Lovelace’s calm cross-legged one.  “Thanks.”

“Any time,” Lovelace said.  “Two pairs of eyes, and all.”

“You’re not going to tell me I should be sleeping?”

Lovelace raised an eyebrow, challenging.  “I did try.  Would it work this time?”

“Hardly.”

“I figured.  We could have a rousing debate where I tell you you need to sleep, and you tell me that no you don’t, and I say of course you do, and you say that’s rich coming from me—so let’s skip that part.  You don’t need to sleep if you don’t feel up to it.”

It sounded so stupid, when she had to say it like that, but the wave of relief that crashed over Minkowski almost knocked her over.  (Or maybe that was the lack of sleep.  It was hard to tell.)  “Yeah.  Sounds good.”

Sitting in silence next to Lovelace was nice.  Keeping watch so Eiffel and Jacobi could sleep, and she could know they were safe, that was also nice.  Keeping one hand on the harpoon gun, on edge and ready to fire, should it come to that—well...  She was present.  She was ready.  It didn’t feel nice, but it felt better.  Felt prepared.

“Do you want to talk about it, or—”

“No.”

“Ah.  Okay.”  Lovelace shifted a little and fell silent again, but her hand fluttered, hesitant, trying to make a decision (what was it with everyone and their fluttery hands?  The movement kept catching in Minkowski’s eyes and she couldn’t stop herself turning to look, every time).  She put her hand on Minkowski’s shoulder, the promise of either a firm grip to ground her or the ability to pull away immediately if Minkowski reacted badly.  “Listen, if you want to just ignore it—I get it, trust me I get it.  But you’re shaking like a baby deer, and if you’re going to have a big outpouring of emotion, now while no one’s looking is probably a good time.”

Minkowski laughed, short and humorless.  It was more like a bark, or maybe a sob.  “I’m not shaking that badly.”

Lovelace gave her a long look.  Then, “Nah.  Not that badly.”

“Yeah.”  Minkowski leaned against Lovelace’s shoulder, because Lovelace was warm, and solid, and—oh.  She was shaking pretty badly, huh.  Damn it all.

“You know what the worst part is?” Minkowski said, out of the blue, because the words for what she really wanted to say still weren’t there, but this part she could put words to.  This small part she could capture and hold up to the light to show off how neatly fucked up it was.  “I think the last few weeks have been excellent for my blood pressure.  It’s the first time in years I didn’t feel stressed about anything, at all.  Everything was somebody else’s problem.  I felt…”  It was sickening.  It was kind of wistful.  “Amazing.”

“Why’d Pryce have to go the supervillain route?” Lovelace responded, taking Minkowski’s cue of the conversation with light, gentle ease.  “Could’ve made a fortune with a day spa.  Let us take over your brain and take all your troubles away.  Give you some nasty new troubles, sure, but take all your old ones away for a bit.”

Minkowski snorted.  “Everything warm and fuzzy right up until your lungs explode in the void of space.”

“Well.  Yeah.  Until that.”  Lovelace hesitated.  “Minkowski, seriously, are you okay?”

“I’m able to do what I have to do.  Does it matter?”

“Of course it matters.”

Lovelace was warm.  Warm and stable and strong and safe and not shaking at all.  Minkowski had one arm around the harpoon gun, and reached one arm to cling to Lovelace’s shoulder now.  Lovelace went still, then moved her own arm to wrap around Minkowski.  She was exhausted, and with Lovelace here, she could probably afford to close her eyes.  Just briefly.  “I will be.”

A pause.  “Yeah,” Lovelace said.  “I know you will.”  She sighed.  “Never wanted to be able to say ‘congratulations, welcome to the got-my-mind-taken-over-and-body-puppeted-around club’, but, when all this is over, maybe it can be just one more thing to look back on fondly as another fun, horrific, nightmare-inducing bonding experience.”

It was kind of absurd, and it did, somehow, alleviate just a little of the heavy pressure in her chest. Minkowski let her head rest on Lovelace’s shoulder, making sure to keep an ear out, attuned to any movement in the gently groaning vents.   Nothing yet.

“When all this is over,” Minkowski said, trying not to sound too dubious.  Trying to let herself believe it.

“It will be.”

“Yeah.  It will be.”