Hustling down to Engineering, Eve half-expected to find poor Eirene smeared over the walls. Instead she was sitting by the engine, reading something on her watch. “Oh, hi May,” she said. “You look, um… a little frazzled.”
“I am a little frazzled.” Eve straightened herself out. “Are you all right?”
“Fine, fine. I’m just running some diagnostics on the generator, a few things have been funky.” She patted the side of the van-sized machine. “Shouldn’t be anything to worry about. This girl’s top-of-the-line.”
Eve took a seat alongside Eirene. “What did Cressida want?” she asked cautiously. Cress had wanted to talk about something- could it be related?
“Oh, umm, a personal affair.” Eirene averted her eyes. “It wouldn’t be right of me to say any more, it was said in confidence.”
Eve bit her lip. If Cressida had something to hide, maybe Eve could use that for leverage. But how to get Eirene to talk about it? “If Cressida is the security officer… shouldn’t she protect you from Peitho?” Eve asked.
A rueful smile formed on Eirene’s face. She must have swung by medical, because the injuries Peitho had inflicted were gone. “You’d think so, right? But Cress is an incredibly gentle and kind person. I think that’s why she and I became so close… well, I don’t think I’m like that, I think I’m just too weak to be tough and too cowardly to be mean. But I can get away with being so passive and feeble… I spend all my time working with machines.”
She ran her hand along the engine with almost maternal affection. “Nice predictable machines. Harmless if you handle them properly. Every problem they can have can be understood, controlled, and fixed. People are so… messy. They’ll never do what you want, they change when you look away, and sometimes they’ll do things just because you weren’t expecting them to do it. That’s why I spend all my time down here.”
“If she was truly kind… wouldn’t she keep you safe?”
Eirene shook her head. “It’s not like that. Cress wants to help- and she does, in a million ways. But she doesn’t have the guts to stand up to Peitho… because Peitho’s a terrible enemy to have, and Cress just isn’t much of a match for her. I would never ask someone to sacrifice themselves for me.”
“What about me?” Eve asked.
“Am I going to be destroyed?”
“Oh… hah… I don’t know. Part of me says you will be. Part of me says you’re an even bigger monster than Peitho. Most of me… is just happy that someone was willing to try.” Eirene’s smile was one of someone who had walked through hell… no. Of someone who was walking through hell.
It was inhumane, to manipulate someone the way Eve was trying to manipulate Eirene. Taking advantage of someone so vulnerable… Eve saw how someone like Peitho could do it, and how revolting it was. Was it really right for Eve to cling to life like a barnacle, even if it meant lowering herself to that scum’s level? “It was… reflex,” she said finally. “I didn’t think. I just moved.”
“Well, I’m pleased you did. How did you get so brave, May? Is there a secret to it or something?”
“No secret,” Eve said, shaking her still-damp head. “I just want to help. But… like you said. It might not go the way we want it to. The only way for you to be safe is for us to do something about Peitho, right?”
“Something? You don’t mean…?”
Eve kept her face stony. “As a last resort. Let’s try to think of something better first. That means we’ll need whatever kind of allies we can muster. Cressida is the security officer, and your best friend besides. Can’t we get her to help?”
“Well, I can try to talk to her. I don’t think it’d do much, though.” Eirene opened a shunt and pulled a tray out. It was made of a clear glass with several indents in it, each of which had a different liquid inside. “Lessee… helium-4 normal, helium-3 a smidge low… oh, interesting, an excess of caesium… so that means…”
Eve’s scientific knowledge didn’t cover the negative mass engines that TORCH used so extensively in their bases and starships, although she did understand the basic underpinings of the strange machines. It was also far and away the last thing on her mind right now. “We should think of something better,” she urged. “If Cress won’t be responsive to being asked. Maybe we could…”
Eirene looked up and frowned. “We could what, May?”
No, too strong. She had to dial back. “Well, you know her much better than I do,” she said instead. “How do you get Cress to do things?”
“You don’t. Poor thing… she doesn’t really commit herself to any course of action. She can never decide which fork of the road to take, so she just ends up going nowhere. Then she wonders why she’s not happy.” Eirene sighed. “And the person on the base whose job is to help her is the personnel officer-”
Eirene nodded gravely.
If Cressida was truly so indecisive, she’d probably keep her discovery about Eve to herself. But on the other hand, Nysa and maybe Peitho were prowling the base, looking for weapons to use against Eve. It seemed only a matter of time before one of them got wind that Cress knew something and squeezed the truth out of her.
“…This isn’t right,” she muttered. “Any of it. This isn’t what I wanted.”
“It’s not what any of us wanted,” said Eirene. She was closely studying the results from her diagnostics. “But it’s what we got. Why do you think half the girls down here are so conked out all the time? We’re all trapped in this place together. You can’t escape without dying, so the girls die- by inches.”
Eve glanced around the dark, humid engine room. “So this is my tomb, huh?”
“I think you died a long time before you got here, May. If you don’t mind me saying.”
“…You’re a sharp one, Eirene,” said Eve, smiling grimly. “You could be pretty dangerous yourself.”
Eirene giggled. “Well, fortunately for all of you I have cripplingly low self-esteem.”