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They Were Here

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They found a crack in one of the panels of the walled-off lab. The one with all the spiders. 

Someone mentioned it off-handedly, and Lovelace didn’t quite remember who , didn’t care much, and didn’t stick around long enough to pay attention to the rest of the conversation anyways. Instead, she’d excused herself from dinner with a half-mumbled “gimme a sec” and just pulled herself as quickly as she could towards the room in question. 

There was nothing left in her all the way there. No thoughts, no oxygen. Just the urgency of needing to be there and needing to know. Needing to know.

It wasn’t the first time. It wouldn’t be the last time. It was probably nothing. It was probably garbage. It was probably Hilbert’s—

Wrong. Selberg’s .

She wondered, sometimes, if she had been the only one to hide things in those final days.

She should have known better by now than to hope.

Lovelace noticed the panel the moment she pulled herself into the room, swallowing the last of her feelings and willing her hands not to shake as she pried it all the way loose, tossed it aside, and shoved her whole arm into the small space between the walls. 

There it was, folded gently, taped securely, hidden away. Fourier’s bookbag.

She didn’t cry as she slowly shimmied it out, nor did she cry as she hugged it so tightly to her chest that the canvas crumpled in her arms. She didn’t cry even as the unbidden memories boiled over in her head and threatened to swallow her whole. Lovelace was used to staving off shit like this in the name of stupid military stoicism. 

She’d break down in her room, with the door locked behind her, cradling the last whispers of her team in existence because even now, even after all of this, she hates the thought of being weak. 

A breath came in through her tightly clamped jaw. She opened it. Even though she couldn’t really feel it with the numbness of her fingers, even if the fabric shook in her weak grasp, and then she let it float away.

The little things rose up just as quickly as the tears, each item a slice of a life she felt responsible for losing. A pen came up first and Lovelace plucked it from the air with the full knowledge of whose it was. Lovelace choked back a sob as she ran her thumb along his little handwritten label, tracing the anal-retentive, swoopy as fuck lettering. Lambert had cussed her out once when he thought she’d stolen this pen. Told her it was his favourite, told her she was an ass for taking it because he was eight lightyears away from a potential replacement, and insisted it was a workplace necessity because it was the only one he could use on glass, metal, and paper. 

‘Jesus fuck I’m surrounded by a squad of nerds,’ she’d said to him with a sigh. She’d promised she’d find his pen ‘at some point before the heat death of the universe.’

And she did, in a way. 

She tucked it into the chest pocket of her jumpsuit with a shaky breath. 

Fourier’s small plastic glasses case knocked into her hand and she opened it to find a million little odds and ends. A bolt with a nut that was worn on a single side to accommodate the length of Fisher’s thumb after years of back-and-forth fidgeting , still grimy with oil from whatever his last projects were. A fine screwdriver - Phillips head, Lovelace remembered with a hollow little laugh. He’d ranted plenty about the ‘stupid shits’ at Goddard who couldn’t tell the difference between screwdrivers and ‘their own asses’ while explaining how them using the wrong one had irreversibly damaged nearly all the screws on the station. He’d run through his whole little rant while gesturing with the tiny screwdrivers clutched in his hand. By the time he died, she was pretty sure everyone on the station could tell the difference between each and every one. 

Mixed in with the tiny gears, the washers, and the pocket-sized tools was a small note. 

Contents of Fisher’s junk drawer. 20/08/2012. You missed a spot, Lovelace. -Fourier

Her smile was bittersweet at the thought of Fourier carefully scooping up all the odds and ends in Fisher’s drawer just as Lovelace did now, using the open case to catch them as they floated in the open space before her. She tucked the little note back in at the end with a reverence she never knew she was capable of. The case joined the pen.  

The book came next, the cover so beat up that Lovelace heard the tiniest tear when she grabbed it from the air around her. She opened it with care. 

On the inside cover there was a name, Qixuan Hui, crossed out in purple marker by a messy hand and replaced in blue marker with a child’s chicken scratch handwriting. This book is Kuan Hui’s! The pages were so dog-eared and the spine so cracked that Lovelace was almost scared the aging book would crumble at her touch. But it had survived this long, yellowed pages all intact, and Lovelace would ensure it survived much longer if she could help it.

Kuan Hui and his ever-present beat-up old Lovecraft anthology, tucked under his arm as he pulled himself along the station. Kuan Hui arguing with Fourier about the contributions Lovecraft had made to the field of horror fiction, the two up in each other’s faces about it for a few minutes until something would crack in them both and they’d end up laughing so loud Lovelace could hear it from the next room over. 

There were whispers of that laughter in the back and forth notes in the margins of the book. 

‘This is such a cliche,’ written in Fourier’s messy cursive, the pen bleeding slightly into the cheap paper. 

‘Okay but it’s a good cliche that adds to the ambiance,’ Hui had replied in print so meticulous that it nearly looked like a font. 

‘If you insist.’

Stolen from his mother, read and annotated with care by Hui himself, before becoming a cornerstone of a relationship that might have been. Lovelace tried not to think too much on the last part as she fumbled through her quarters for something to wrap it in. She settled for an old t-shirt, wrapping the book as carefully as she could with her vision blurred as it was. Lovelace tucked it amongst her personal items and swallowed down the lump in her throat.

She reached for the glasses that had floated towards the bed. Fourier’s glasses, frameless and elegant and scuffed up from all the times she’d throw them in frustration when a calculation was done wrong or the readings gave her “highly improbable results”. Under the harsh lights of the station, Lovelace could see the fingerprints and smudges that were the last living remnants of a teammate she’d once desperately hoped had made it out.

The glasses were Fourier’s stand-in for herself. But every item was, in one way or another. They were memories of herself, for herself , just as much as they were for Lovelace and anyone else Fourier had hoped would come by. A reminder not only that these people - her friends - were here, but that she, too, had once been. That she too remembered the same little things that threatened to swallow Lovelace whole now. 

Receiving written complaints in impeccable cursive from a particular pen, the fidgeting and screwdriver identification skills, the discourse hidden within the margins of something that could have been more.

And Fourier, the glasses held together by superglue and sheer willpower, remembered for this small part of herself just as much as for the memories of others she had chosen to include. Lovelace slipped the glasses into her pocket before wiping at her eyes with the sleeve of her suit. 

She wasn’t sure how long she’d been there, painstakingly examining each item, absorbed in the memories of them. Had she spent minutes or hours thumbing through Lovecraft? Tracing over every loop of Lambert’s perfect cursive had felt like both an eternity and a single second? Even the memories of collecting the tiny pieces of Fisher’s drawer felt languid. There was no rise and fall of sunlight, no hunger, no urge to sleep with which to mark the hours. It was just Lovelace in the numb quiet until she heard the knock on her door. 

She wiped away the last of her tears with the edge of her sleeve and flung the droplets as far as she could in her tiny zero-gravity space. Breath in, breath out. All she had to do was open the door.

Lovelace ,” Minkowski said with a sigh at what Lovelace could only assume was the haggard sight of her. 

Of her. Of whatever was left of her now, floating just in front of the door, watching Minkowski’s features shift with her worry.

Minkowski didn’t wait for a reply before pulling herself into Lovelace’s room and letting the door close behind them. There was the gentle weight of a hand on her shoulder before Lovelace even had the time to speak.

“I’m fine, Commander.”

I’m fine. I have to be fine because if I’m not, I’m fucked, and I refuse to be fucked. 

“Did you sleep? Have anything to eat?” Minkowski said, gently, as if worried Lovelace might startle with anything other than the lightest of touches and most whispered of interventions. Lovelace’s hollow laugh rang through the room. 

“Been busy,” came the weak reply. 

Minkowski paused then, looking over Lovelace as if checking for something, before returning her gaze to her eyes with somehow more worry than before. 

“For thirty-nine hours?”

For thirty-nine hours.

Thirty-nine hours spent wallowing in her own pain, surrounded by the ghosts she’d buried over a year ago. 

It didn’t feel like it had been that long; over a day, over a year. 

Five minutes ago she’d been eating half-stale rations with a team that had slowly become tentative friends, listening to someone go off about loose panels in the lab. An hour later she was trying not to cry in front of Selberg while catching the floating mess of Fisher’s drawers in little plastic bags. Hera chimed in. To ask...something. Something that would later be addressed in a meticulously handwritten warning with a page number in the bottom left corner, no doubt referencing some asinine rule from Pryce and Cutter that she had dared break. 

No. Not like that. Hera and the letter don’t exist in the same timeline.

Thirty-nine hours. Take a breath. Count.

Hour one, she’d locked the door behind her. Thought she’d locked the door behind her.

Hour two she was there, in her bunk. She was holding the bag. She still hadn’t opened it. Couldn’t open it. Kept swallowing down the blame that had collected in her throat and desperately hoped it wouldn’t choke her.

Hour four, hour four… they.

Hour nine. It was day 872 and Hui stopped breathing and Selberg called the time and she took a shaky breath, but she couldn’t—

No. Wait.

That was before. That was wrong.

Hour nine? Hour ten. Fuck. She was holding the pen. Was she holding the pen? Was it the pen and then the glasses? 

Twelve. Half-past. Almost a third of the way. Crying like a big girl. Quietly. To herself.

Maybe if she kept her head down, no one else would notice.

Seventeen.

Eighteen.

Twenty. The screwdriver. The screwdriver was first. It was the screwdriver first. Because Fischer was first. Because Fischer… was. Fuck .

Twenty-four, two full rotations. Fourier looked up at her like she wanted to say something and she didn’t know how. Or maybe Fourier said it and she’d just refused to hear it.

Twenty-seven. Running her fingers down the spine of the book and a flake of it came off and she couldn’t put it back but god did her shaking hands try until she couldn’t hold back the tears and fuck why was it that she always managed to ruin every goddamn thing she’d ever touched?

Twenty-eight hours. She took a breath, maybe. Shakily. She can’t be sure.

Thirty. The pen, then the screwdriver, then the book, then the glasses. The order was wrong. That wasn’t how it happened to them.

Thirty-two. Happy Kwanzaa, in space.

Thirty-three, thirty-four thirty-five thirty-three.

You killed them.

No.

Go back. You missed a few.

Thirty-one. A man with his head up his own ass hands her a letter. Pryce and Carter 199. Hope can bring strength, but ignorance makes death inevitable. Eiffel tells her to lighten the fuck up. 

There was pressure around her ribs and a warm and breathing person in her arms. Minkowski. Minkowski who is here and who has to be worried and who has been worried for thirty-nine hours. 

“I’m sorry.” She must have sounded pitiful, her voice cracking as it caught in her throat. “I didn’t… I’ll make up for it. Just give me- fuck. Just give me an hour.”

"Isabel, I'm not… I’m not here to get you back to work. I'm here because I'm worried ," Minkowski said into her shoulder. Lovelace wasn’t used to this but god she couldn't just push her away without all of her coming apart into pieces. So she allowed it. Shaky breath, but she allowed it.

"Sorry," she repeated, hands coming up to cling tightly to the back of Minkowski's jumpsuit. "I'm sorry." 

What was she sorry for this time— that was the real question. For what she did? For what she didn’t do? For trusting Selberg when she should have known? For fucking off for a day and a half? 

For killing everyone on this goddamn station and then threatening to do it again? 

"You're okay," came the gentle reply that matched the slow, soothing motions of a hand on her back. Minkowski's hand. Minkowski's kindness, undeserved. 

"I killed them." 

The words were quiet, almost imperceptibly so. But they took with them the last flimsy remnants of her facade and her military career and suddenly it was like stitches tearing apart, and the gore and the blood and the pain getting pushed to the freshly opened surface. She sobbed as her nails dug into the fabric. 

"I killed them, Minkowski. I killed all of them. I trusted...I trusted . And it bit me in the ass and I - fuck. I didn't- Minkowski, I couldn't- "

“You couldn’t have known,” Minkowski said into the curve of her shoulder.

“But I could . I should have. She did—”

“Shh," the sound was long and drawn out, the edges of it breathed against her neck. "You're alright."

She wasn’t though.

She really, really wasn’t. 

We were here ,” she said thickly, hands clenched tight in Minkowski’s jumpsuit as she veritably shook in her arms. “We were here, Minkowski. We were here , I swear to god we were . They were here.” 

“I know,” Minkowski said. Her hand rubbed slow, gentle circles against Lovelace’s back . At ease, soldier . "They're here with you."

At forty hours, she was…not okay. But she was working on it. The quiet was no longer all-consuming. It didn’t eat at her until time fell away and all that was left was her grief. No, now it was punctuated by the slow rise and fall of Minkowski’s chest against hers, by the warm arms that held her so tightly that it was impossible to fall back through the cracks of her own thoughts.

"You should sleep," Minkowski said, finally breaking the silence. 

Except she didn’t know how to anymore. She barely remembered how to be a person. Before this, all of this, she had been limited by time. And now the sleeplessness sat somewhere between a force of habit and fear. "Can't."

“Try,” said Minkowski. Half commanding, half smiling. 

She laughed quietly. If only things were that easy. 

If only she could just.

“I can’t ,” Lovelace pressed back. The weight of the memories in her pocket were a strong reminder of that. 

She took a breath, debating how much to tell Minkowski. But they’d already gotten that far. Minkowski had seen her literally fall apart and physically held her through it. This wasn’t much of a step from that. 

“When I sleep - try to sleep - it comes back,” she explained. “All of it.”

There was a pause, a soft sigh. 

And then, so quietly that Lovelace quite nearly missed it, “Would it help if I stayed?” 

Lovelace let out a weak laugh at that, shaking her head as she looked down at her hands. “I couldn’t ask you-” 

“Would it help if I stayed?” Minkowski repeated with a little more force as she looked up to meet Lovelace’s eyes. “I wouldn’t offer if I couldn’t.” 

“If it’s...” Lovelace pulled in another breath and offered a small nod. “If you want to.” 

There was no reply, just a comforting little squeeze around her ribs and the weight of Minkowski’s head on her shoulder. Yeah, I’ll stay, it said. 

But staying was a loaded question. It’s a gun loaded with implications and, as Lovelace gave a little room to some of those unknowns, to the insistence of her commander, she worried. There were a lot of ways to misfire, to misread. She didn't want to think about the things she wanted this to mean. It didn't have to mean anything, Lovelace tried to tell herself, drifting.

Just another thing to keep her up at night.