The first time she went into Eiffel's room after they lost him, Minkowski had a reason. Or at least, she gave herself one. Three weeks after the star turned blue, she'd finally decided to take Eiffel’s posters down from the walls of the Comms room. She couldn’t stop staring at them while she was trying to make her distress calls. Her voice kept breaking on the words Missing in action .
Taking down the posters was more difficult than she'd anticipated. He'd put them up using an extremely strong glue that was probably intended for an important engineering purpose rather than interior decor. When she first tried to peel a poster from the wall, she accidentally tore off a corner. She swore, clutching the small piece of paper that had come away in her hand, imagining his indignation at the damage to the poster. Eventually she carefully prized them from the wall using a butter knife. (As was typical, Goddard had equipped the station with butter knives while neglecting to provide anything resembling butter in the provisions.)
Minkowski could have shoved the posters in the recycler or thrown them out into space, but she didn’t. She remembered him telling her enthusiastically that they were limited edition, that they were art, that they were the cornerstones of his merch collection. So she carefully smoothed out the creases and took the posters to Eiffel’s quarters, where she folded them and lay them on his bunk, tucked beneath the straps.
Then she noticed what a mess the room was in. It seemed he’d never bothered to put anything away, a bad habit made even worse by zero gravity. The air was full of clothes (not all of which were clean), comics, a few nerdy figurines, even a pizza menu. Minkowski felt tears prick her eyes. His ridiculous belongings were floating around in here, while he was floating out there, alone, starving to death if he wasn’t dead already. She stayed there a while, mesmerised by the swirling chaos in her blurry vision.
The second time, she told herself she only went in there to tidy it up. It seemed disrespectful to leave it in that state. She put his things away in their proper places and strapped down what needed to be strapped down. Perhaps she stared too long at things as she was putting them away, but she was being useful and productive. She took the dirty laundry with her to wash it.
The third time, the next day, she was just putting back what she had washed. She folded his clothes as slowly as she could.
After that, she ran out of excuses.
She started going there almost every day, sometimes more than once. When the ship was too quiet, when she kept noticing moments where he would have made some stupid joke, when the crew were fighting and Minkowski knew he would have told them all to ‘chillax’, when she couldn’t stop thinking about the static after he went out of Comms range, when she found another crack in the ship, when she couldn’t sleep, she went to Eiffel’s quarters to sit and breathe and think of him.
Sometimes Lovelace or Hilbert would ask where she had disappeared off to and Minkowski would have to conjure up a half-convincing lie. She started preparing excuses in advance. Her time in Eiffel’s quarters felt too personal to share. She didn't want the others to know how weak and emotional she really was.
She did feel somewhat ridiculous sneaking around the ship in secret. She was the Commander after all. She shouldn't need to mess around with subterfuge. But nonetheless, on her way to and from Eiffel's quarters, she found herself peeking round corners, trying to move as quietly as possible, constantly listening out for any noises. Back when she was hunting the plant monster, she had learned all sorts of strange routes across the station; now she used that same knowledge to avoid her remaining crew.
A month after the star turned blue, Hilbert tried to suggest that they clear out Eiffel's room. Before he even had a chance to finish his sentence, Lovelace rounded on him, yelling about Fisher.
"You don't get to make decisions like that, Selburg! Not anymore! You weren't worthy to touch Mace’s things!" Once Hilbert was gone, Lovelace turned to Minkowski, her tone now soft and sympathetic. “If you want a hand clearing out his room, I’m here.”
“I think we should leave it for now. There’s more important jobs,” Minkowski said, trying to sound objective and rational. Lovelace nodded. Minkowski was relieved that her explanation had been accepted. She didn’t want to explain how awful it made her feel to imagine the station not having a place for Doug Eiffel.
Minkowski knew that, what with the Hephaestus falling apart, she couldn't really afford to be spending so much time in Eiffel’s quarters. She justified it to herself by going there when it was her turn to sleep. The time she was (meant to be) sleeping was wasted time anyway in terms of all the tasks that needed doing, so it didn't make any difference whether she was in Eiffel’s quarters or her own.
She didn't want to sleep in Eiffel’s cot though- that would have felt like an imposition. Instead she slept floating rather than being strapped down. This meant she slept even worse than she would have done otherwise. She kept discovering bruises from bumping into things while asleep. But at least when she woke from nightmares, she felt close to Eiffel.
For the first couple of months, Hera didn’t mention Minkowski's visits to Eiffel's quarters. It didn’t even occur to Minkowski that Hera would know what she was doing, which perhaps showed quite how distracted she was.
When Hera finally did address Minkowski while she was in Eiffel’s room, Minkowski nearly jumped out of her skin. “Commander," Hera said tentatively. Minkowski's eyes snapped open.
"Yes, Hera?" she responded in a passable attempt at her authoritative Commander voice.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," Hera said gently, "but Captain Lovelace is looking for you. Should I tell her where you are?” Minkowski shook her head.
“Tell her I’m on my way to the Comms Room," she ordered. "I’ll be there in a moment.” With that, Minkowski rushed out of Eiffel’s room.
The next time Minkowski made her way to Eiffel’s quarters, she felt conscious of Hera's eyes on her. Something had shifted. Now that Hera had acknowledged her awareness of Minkowski's visits, Eiffel's room no longer felt like a private space. The illusion of solitude had been broken.
A few minutes after she arrived in Eiffel's room, Minkowski decided she needed to speak to Hera.
"I appreciate you not telling the others about this," she said.
"It seemed like you wanted privacy," Hera said softly. Minkowski nodded. There was a pause.
"Do you think it's weird? Me coming in here so much?" Minkowski asked. A part of her was aware of how strange it was to be asking a four year-old AI who had never lost someone before whether her grieving behaviour was normal. Another part of her knew that Hera was the person in the universe most likely to understand her right now.
"I think…" Hera seemed to consider her answer carefully. "If it helps you, it doesn't matter whether it's weird."
"I'm not sure it does help anymore." Minkowski said, the realisation coming only as she spoke the words. "It did at first, but now I just come here because… I don't know what else to do."
"You could talk to me," Hera suggested. Minkowski felt a rush of shame at her own self-absorption. She hadn't even considered trying to talk to Hera about Eiffel.
"I'm sorry. I've been doing all this self-indulgent wallowing when you're grieving too." She placed a hand on one of the room's cold metal walls, a probably futile attempt at showing Hera a comforting gesture. "I know I should have been checking in on-"
"That's not what I meant," Hera interrupted. "You're my friend. I'm here for you."
Minkowski didn't know how to respond. She didn't deserve this kindness, not when Eiffel's fate was her fault, not when she was failing as a Commander and a friend. She croaked out a thank you.
"For the record, I'd probably be spending a lot of time in this room too if I - you know - had a body." Hera said.
"It would make more sense for you," Minkowski replied. "You and Eiffel used to hang out here. I only ever came in here to tell him off." She realised she sounded somewhat bitter.
"It's not about whether you hung out here. It was his. That matters."
"I thought at first that I came in here to be reminded of him, but that's not it. Everywhere on this goddamn ship reminds me of him," Minkowski admitted. "It's just that, out there, I have to be the Commander. I have to do my job and ignore my feelings and keep everyone safe. This is the one place where I can allow myself to just be a sad woman who lost her friend."
"You deserve that place." There was a moment of silence. "Have you noticed that I always keep the lights on in this room?" Hera asked. Minkowski shook her head. In most of the rooms on the Hephaestus, the lights flickered on automatically when the door opened. But, now that Minkowski thought about it, she realised the lights were always on when she entered Eiffel’s rooms. "It just doesn't feel right to switch them off," Hera explained.
"It's like how people on Earth light candles for those they've lost," Minkowski mused.
"Eiffel would love it if we set the air supply on fire trying to light a candle for him," Hera joked. For the first time in months, Minkowski laughed.
Minkowski didn't feel alone when she was in Eiffel’s room anymore. To her surprise, she was glad of this. Perhaps Hera's company in their shared grief was what she'd needed.
Each time Minkowski entered the room, Hera would ask whether she wanted to talk or listen or just be quiet. Sometimes Hera talked about how she was always aware of Eiffel's life signs absent from her scans, how she missed the way he'd ask Hera, are you there? , how she'd give anything for his voice to pop up with some stupid joke or ridiculous idea. Sometimes Minkowski talked about how guilty she felt about being unable to save him, how she even wished she could fight with him again about his refusal to obey orders, how she knew that his presence would have somehow made the awfulness of their current situation more bearable.
Sometimes they'd talk about how terrible it must be for him floating alone in space, about how long he might be able to survive out there, about whether there was any hope of him being rescued. They knew that this speculation was like pouring salt in an open wound, but they also knew they'd both be thinking about it whether or not they talked about it.
"I think if he'd died, I'd know somehow," Hera said one day. "Is that ridiculous?"
Minkowski shook her head. She understood the feeling; it seemed impossible that Eiffel could die out there and nothing in her life would change.
Even when they both just wanted to be quiet, the silence was different from any other silence Minkowski had known on the Hephaestus. It felt companionable, like the two of them were sitting together side-by-side. It didn't really make sense, since Hera was always in the walls around Minkowski and in a hundred other places at the same time. But during the times she spent in Eiffel's quarters, Minkowski felt that she and Hera were together in a way they never had been before. It was a heartbroken togetherness, but at least they weren't alone.
Hera insisted that, if Minkowski was going to keep sleeping in Eiffel's room, she should use the bed. "You can't keep sleeping like that. You'll hurt yourself." Minkowski reluctantly agreed.
Now when Minkowski woke from nightmares, Hera was there, no longer too shy to ask "do you want to talk about it?" Minkowski talked about the dreams where Eiffel shouted that he hated her for leaving him to die. She talked about the dreams where she watched him starving to death on the shuttle and couldn't do anything. She talked about the dreams where the cracks in the Hephaestus swallowed them all whole. She told Hera how the worst dreams were the ones where Eiffel was alive and safe on the Hephaestus, because then she'd wake to the horrible realisation of reality.
Hera didn't get bad dreams, but some days were worse than others. There were times when everything felt too much and she wasn't sure she could cope. At first, Minkowski didn't know how to make sure she was there for Hera during those times, but eventually she came up with a plan.
"If you ever want to talk to me alone but I'm with the others," she said, "just tell me you need help resetting Navigation System G." Through the use of a rotating set of codewords, Hera was able to tell Minkowski when she wanted to talk about how she was feeling; Minkowski would then hurry to Eiffel's quarters so Hera could speak to her in private.
After one such incident, when Hera was missing Eiffel particularly badly, Minkowski's eyes fell upon the box where she'd put his figurines. "Hera, he said once that he wanted you to have his 'toys' if he… Do you want them?" she asked hesitantly, picking the box up and opening it to show Hera. "Maybe ownership doesn't work in the same way for you, but you could tell me where you'd like me to put them."
"Thank you, Commander," Hera said. "You can leave them where they are, but it's a nice thought, that he wanted me to have them."
"He cared about you so much Hera. Don't forget that," Minkowski said. It felt important to her that Eiffel’s affection shouldn't be lost just because he was.
"Commander, he cared about you too. You know he did, underneath it all."
"I know Hera, I know." Minkowski nodded, then sighed. "We've still got that. And we've still got each other. And this scrapheap of a station."
"And this room that'll always be his," Hera added.
"And this room that'll always be his," Minkowski echoed.