The Visitors’ Hangar sat in a lush valley of pale blue heather. Khopesh and the others gaped with mute awe as the Obsidian was guided gently into the clearing. Their ship settled onto a pad of dark grey silicon and a hum enveloped the craft as a series of pleasant tones played through the ship’s audio system.
“Welcome to Nimbus X,” Qin said. “Our cargo specialists are in position to unload your delivery. Are you ready to proceed?”
Khopesh and Chirwa exchanged confused looks. “Uhh,” Khopesh said. “Do we need oxysuits?”
“Oh no,” Qin said. “The atmosphere of this planet is 64.8 percent neon and 22.1 percent oxygen. You should find the air quite pleasant.” She paused. “Are you ready to proceed?”
Chirwa shrugged and she nodded. “I guess?”
“Very good,” Qin said. A series of clanks rang out from the hold and the cargo door raised up. The crew gathered to watch as two lines of sleek violet robots filed in. The cargo droids spaced themselves around the hold and froze. A larger droid, bearing an odd white skull insignia on its torso, moved along the rows of crates scanning datacodes. Eventually it made a series of beeps and the smaller bots rearranged themselves. The manager droid sounded a long, low tone and the cargobots doubled up. Each pair lifted one of the crates and scuttled it out of the ship.
“Ooo,” Hess said as he rode Dactyl’s shoulder to the edge of the hold. They caught a mix of lavender and heather in the breeze. The droids zipped a short distance away from the ship and down a ramp, where they vanished into the grey silicon of the hangar.
The crew walked into the light of day and gazed up at the dual Nimbus suns. Pink clouds streamed across the one on their right. A flock of animals flew past the hangar, making a quiet squeaking noise. Blue mountains rose to their left, and they could see an ocean far beyond the craggy range. The landing pad was the only manufactured structure in sight, and it fell away a few hundred feet in either direction.
“Fecal fornication,” Khopesh said as she glanced over her shoulder to find a quartet of spherical droids hovering nearby. “What’s all this?”
One of them floated forward and sent a shimmer of color through its circumference. “We are your guides here on Nimbus X,” it said in a soothing male voice. “We are Menonton.” The other spheres shimmered the same color pattern. “When you are ready, we will guide you to the Gunya.”
Khopesh scowled. “The what?”
“The great hall of the Wandjina Coterie.” It paused as Fetu emerged from the ship. “Ah,” it said, and floated toward Fetu. It issued a string of whisper-words, and Fetu fired back several strings of its own. The exchange lasted several minutes and included a bit of gesturing at each crew member.
Without warning, Menonton produced a laser turret and fired twice at Hess. Dactyl dove out of the way just in time and huddled over the pink creature. “Stop!” he cried. “Stop!”
As Fetu approached Dactyl, Chirwa and Khopesh stood between them. “I have told you that this creature is a vermin,” Fetu said with a scowl. “Your employers have even less patience for its presence than I do.”
Chirwa held up a hand. “That creature is a member of our crew,” he said. “If our employers” — the word curdled in his mouth — “wish to take issue with the personnel of the Obsidian, we could renegotiate our payment pursuant to Section Eight of our contract.”
Khopesh glanced at him in the corner of her eye. “Yeah,” she said to Fetu, then leaned toward Chirwa. “You actually read that?”
“I was bored,” he said, nodding. Their eyes remained locked on Fetu and Menonton. The spherebot pulsed red.
“Section Nine concerns transport personnel,” it said. “But the Wandjina Coterie do not seek such a renegotiation.”
“Good,” Chirwa said, and turned to help Dactyl to his feet. He gave Hess a squeeze and replaced him on his shoulder.
Fetu spat out a string of whisper-words and Menonton replied in kind. “Yes,” it said. “Let us proceed to the Gunya.”
“We would prefer to stay here,” Khopesh said.
Dactyl glared at her. “Are you nuts?” he said. “I wanna see this place.”
She tilted her head and gave him a look. “What do you think they’re gonna do to Hess once they’ve paid us?” She held out a hand toward it, then turned to Menonton. “Just bring us the ingots and we’ll go.”
“The Wandjina Coterie only remits payment in person,” Fetu said with something like a sigh. “You cannot receive the ingots here.”
“They can come to us,” she said. “No one’s going anywhere.”
Silently, Menonton arrayed themselves on each side of the group. “I’m afraid,” it said, “we must insist.”
Khopesh let out a grinding noise. She looked from Fetu to the droids, then at Chirwa.
He shrugged. “What can we do?” he said, and gestured to the Obsidian. “They got us on lockdown anyway.” Khopesh looked up at a series of tiny orange tendrils of light, wrapped around the ship.
“The hell is that?” she asked.
“Probably xenon cables,” he said, and turned to Dactyl. “Leave him here.”
Dactyl paused for a moment, then nodded. “C’mon, buddy,” he said, heading back into the ship.
“Mon,” Hess said.
“I gotta go away for a minute,” Dactyl said. “But I’ll be back real soon.”
“Ee an oo,” Hess said before they vanished inside.
Beneath the hangar, the crew was ushered into a spacious tram car. “Welcome aboard,” Qin’s voice sang out. “Please take a seat of your choosing.” A dozen overstuffed brown seats beckoned around the car, surrounded by green velour walls with huge windows. Dactyl flopped across one of the seats, then gacked when a series of belts slid into place around him. He struggled for a better angle and eventually rested in a half-reclined position.
“Ahh,” he said. “This is living.”
Chirwa gave him a look as he sat beside Khopesh on a facing seat. Belts locked them into place as Fetu took a third spot to their left.
Menonton withdrew from the tram and the doors slid closed. It lifted slightly and tore off down a pitch-black tunnel. Dim lights slid past every few seconds.
Khopesh looked around. “How far away is the … Great Hall?” she asked.
“Your travel time is three minutes and forty-seven seconds,” Qin said.
“That’s not what she asked,” Chirwa said.
“We look forward to meeting you in person,” Qin said, and switched into Fetu’s language. They exchanged a series of whisper-words, and Fetu gave out a guffaw. It looked at each of them and smoothed its antennae with a grin.
Soon the tram emerged from underground, speeding along a track embedded in blue rocky terrain. Dactyl gaped at the vista to their right, a herd of enormous green-and-grey creatures lumbering across an open expanse. Far beyond them a series of waterfalls tumbled pink liquids down a blue cliff face.
Through windows on the left side they could see a vast metropolis of curved buildings. Most were squat or spherical, but some stretched far into the yellowing clouds. Vehicles flew slowly around the city, most slowly. “Amazing,” Khopesh said.
Fetu nodded, his eyes lost on the horizon. “This is one of the more primitive habitations of the Nimbus system,” it said.
Chirwa raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?” he asked. Fetu nodded. “Woah,” Chirwa said, and watched a large hovercraft snake around a series of towers. The tram car turned toward the city and raced toward it.
Seconds later they were parked in a small station. The belts released and they stood. The car’s doors slid open and a tall pale metallic red robot with black hair and dark red lips smiled at them. She wore a crisp black suit fit for a human; a red patch on her chest bore a logo of swords arranged into a W. Her eyes were somehow gentle; her left hand projected a datapad several inches over her palm. “Welcome to Nawa, home of the Wandjina Gunya.” She pivoted and gestured to an enormous palace just beyond her. Fountains gushed clear liquids of various viscosities as small avian creatures fluttered about. A plush white carpet beckoned them toward a grand staircase leading to the entrance.
“Holy crap,” Dactyl said. “This place is amazing.” Fetu took a breath and smoothed its antennae.
“I am Qin-7,” the robot said. “I am delighted to meet you at last, Khopesh.” She bowed, then faced Chirwa, said his name, and bowed again. She did the same for Dactyl, then nodded to Fetu and said a string of whisper-words to him. He responded quickly and waved a hand. She smiled at them. “Please follow me,” she said, and walked toward the staircase.
“Why does this robot look like a sexy librarian?” Khopesh whispered.
“This is the currently-favored design of the latest …” He paused to think of the word. “Ministration droid among the Wandjina.”
“What is the Wandjina?” Chirwa asked.
Fetu gave another half-sigh. “Nimbus X is ruled by a consortium of coteries,” Fetu said.
“Coat or what?” Dactyl asked. His eyes drank in the luscious surroundings.
“Coteries,” Fetu said, glaring at him with bored eyes. “Houses. You were hired by the Wandjina Coterie.” It glanced at Chirwa. “But you knew that from the contract,” it said.
Chirwa shrugged. “There’s a lot of weird language in that contract,” he said. “Wittgenstein’s lion must have written it.”
Khopesh gave him a confused scowl, then shook her head.
Qin led them through a pair of white doors of iron and gold over two hundred feet high. They spilled into a foyer of immense magnitude, another huge fountain flowing quietly in the middle. Orange plants lined the fountain and the walls, slender leafy vines snaking along various surfaces. Bright windowed hallways radiated off the main chamber, ministration droids bustling to and fro.
Qin turned and bowed once more. “Welcome to the Gunya,” she said. From quite a distance behind her, a shout erupted.
“Obsidian!” a man’s voice cried out. “The Obsidian has arrived!” They looked past Qin to see a huge muscular gentleman striding toward them on three beefy legs. His skin was pale green with black stripes, his sharp hair blonde. He wore a loose robe with colors matching Qin’s suit, the W swords on the upper left side.
Fetu leaned toward the others. “Cybernetic tissue grafted on iridium endoskeleton,” it said. “Eighty percent synthetic. Original CNS and GI tracts.”
“What?” Dactyl said.
Chirwa chuckled. “Our employers are mostly robots wrapped around their brains and esophagi.”
“What?” Khopesh said. “Why?”
“Because,” Chirwa said, but she was nodding before he was halfway done. “Then they can replace everything that wears out.”
“And how long does the rest live?” she asked.
“About three hundred years,” Fetu said.
The man smiled with a fiery joy as he reached them. He put his hands together and bowed toward Fetu, who returned the gesture. “Fetu, you slag,” he said with a grin. His voice was gruff but friendly. “How long has it been, eh?”
“Almost six months,” it said. “I am glad to see you, Leon.”
Leon’s eye glimmered. “Not as glad as I am.” He produced an eyedropper from within his robe and splashed several drops of aqua-grey fluid onto the back of his other hand. As the skin absorbed the drops, Leon closed his eyes and shuddered.
“Oh,” Dactyl said suddenly. “It’s the — ” Khopesh jabbed him in the side and he cut himself off.
Soon Leon opened his eyes and smiled at the group. “This is really good stuff,” he said, and nodded to Dactyl. “But I don’t need to tell you that, right?” He held the eyedropper out. “Want some?”
“We can’t,” Khopesh said. “We’re working.”
“Oh come on,” Leon said. “It’s been diluted a dozen times.”
“The likelihood of suffering another comatose episode is severely reduced,” Fetu said.
“What the hell,” Dactyl said. Leon squeezed out three drops and Dactyl immediately collapsed to the ground with a sloppy grin. He gave a squeal of delight and convulsed a few times. “Holy crap!” he cried, and held his hand out. “Hit me again.”
Leon moved to comply, but Chirwa held his hand out between them. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” he said, and gave Leon a stern look.
“What are you, his father?” Leon asked with a grin.
“In times of decision,” Chirwa said patiently, “our syndicalist structure specifies that outside of the ship, when we are indoors, I am in command.” He watched Dactyl pull himself together and stand up. “I need the crew sharp in this unknown place.”
“Aww,” Leon said. “Captain Killjoy.” He paused and considered the eyedropper. “What if we went outside?”
“Could we discuss our payment?” Khopesh asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” Leon said, nodding. “Soon.” He stashed the eyedropper. “First things first.” He reached out and grabbed Dactyl’s wounded hand. “That must have hurt,” he said, rotating it and peering at the cauterized ringfinger stump.
“Uhh, yeah,” Dactyl said. “It did.”
Leon looked up at him with sadness in his eyes. “I’m really sorry you had to go through that for us.” He glanced at Khopesh and Chirwa. “We hate to see our contract employees suffer any kind of harm while completing their duties on our behalf.”
Dactyl chuckled. Leon stared at him for a moment, then began laughing. “I said ‘duties’,” he said, and clapped Dactyl on the arm. “This guy is the best.” He punched him lightly on the shoulder and snapped his fingers. “Qin,” he said. “Prep a …” He trailed off and looked at Dactyl. He paused and tilted his head. “You wanna just do the whole hand?”
Dactyl gave him a look. “Do what?”
Fetu sighed. “He’s offering you a cybernetic replacement hand,” it said.
“Seriously?” Dactyl said. “How much would it cost?”
Leon laughed and nodded to Qin. “Do the whole hand,” he said. Qin nodded and bowed, then began tapping lights on her holopad.
“How long is this going to take?” Dactyl asked. Suddenly, a team of seven floating droids, sleek and violet like the hangar’s cargobots, appeared around Dactyl. Six of them huddled around his hand, which they pulled toward the ground. The seventh surrounded the others — and Dactyl’s forearm — with a clear neoprene fabric, then sealed it against his elbow with a laser adhesive. “Ow!” Dactyl yelped as he was injected with a needle. The droids worked fluidly, weaving tiny laser beams hither and yon. Dactyl stared in amazement as he watched them work. In less than a minute they stashed their lasers and the outer droid removed the neoprene.
They stared in amazement at the new hand. Dactyl flexed and rotated it. One of the droids poked each finger in turn with a tiny point and observed the reflexes. It issued a string of beeps and Qin nodded to them. She waved and they took off.
“Does it feel okay?” Qin asked, trailing a finger on the back of his new hand. He watched as a pink lotion appeared in the wake of her movement. She rubbed the lotion into his synthetic flesh.
“Uh,” he said. “Yeah.” He nodded. “Yeah, the feeling is coming back.”
“Good,” she said, and smiled. She released his hand and bowed.
“Unbelievable,” he said, smiling at Leon. “Thank you so much.” He flexed the hand and rotated it again.
“Ahh,” Leon said, with a wave. “Don’t mention it.”
“Holy crap,” Dactyl said suddenly, gaping at the underside of his palm. “They even kept the freckle down here.” He wiggled his new ringfinger. “I cannot believe this.”
“Me neither,” Khopesh said, and glared at Leon. “A lot of people could really benefit from these … remarkable … medical advances.”
He grinned at her. “A lot of people don’t belong to the Wandjina Coterie.” He pumped his eyebrows, then rubbed his hands together. “Speaking of which, come with me.” He turned and gave a little beckoning gesture. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”
Dactyl paused, murmured, peered into the distance, and gave a burst of laughter. “No way,” he said, his face lighting up. The room was dank and cavernous, split in half by a lattice of white laser beams. On the far side, a triad of creatures lay sprawled in disarray. Khopesh squinted toward them and froze with recognition.
“What?” Chirwa asked.
“It’s the tentacle aliens,” she said. “From the ambush.”
“Woah,” he said. Their bodies were crumpled and tangled into themselves; on the near side of the room, two Wandjinans lounged on curved chairs, cackling with delight. One held a device with a variety of dials and buttons; he pushed one and the bandits screamed. Electric currents leapt from one to another.
Khopesh turned to Leon. “How’d you find them?” she asked.
He gave her a look. “Didn’t you give them a tracking device?”
Her eyes glimmered. “Oh yeah,” she said.
Dactyl’s face was caught between joy and hatred. “Can I have a go?” he asked. One of the Wandjinans — his body and face nearly identical to Leon’s, but with long black hair — looked up and grinned.
“Hey,” he said. “It’s Fry and the PE crew!”
Dactyl scowled and looked at Leon. “Fry?” he asked.
Leon waved a hand. “Old movie,” he said, and nodded to Dactyl. “Give him a turn, Rick.”
The black-haired Wandjinan handed the device to Dactyl and gestured at the bandits through the laser lattice. “We injected them with microid nanodrones,” he said. “Keeps ’em from leaving the fun zone.”
Leon stood on Dactyl’s right side. “This sends electric shocks through the nanodrones,” he said, pointing to icons on the device. “Or fire, ice, toxic plasma.”
“No way,” Dactyl said. He pushed a large button in the middle and the bandits convulsed again.
“This is the amplifier,” Rick said, and turned a dial from 2 to 3.
Dactyl pushed the big button again and the bandits screamed with a new urgency. “What happens if I turn it to eleven?” Dactyl asked.
“They’ll die,” Rick said.
Leon nodded. “In less than a second.”
Dactyl smiled again and switched to the flame icon. “I see,” he said. “You keep it low” — he pushed the button and the creatures flailed around, vomiting a thick magma soup — “so the party doesn’t stop.”
Rick held his hand out. “You wanna go in?” he asked.
Dactyl glanced toward him. “The lasers won’t … ?”
“Nope,” Rick said. “Only the injected.”
Dactyl handed the device to him and strode into the cell. He shivered a little as he moved through the lasers.
“Hi,” he said, staring at the bandits and waving his left hand. “Remember me?” He flexed his new ringfinger. “Maybe you don’t recognize me with all my digits.” He crouched down to glare into the face of one of the creatures. Its eyes were swollen and bloodshot. “You wanted to kill me,” Dactyl said, still smiling. “Didn’t you?”
The creature closed its eyes and made a pathetic gurgling moan.
“Didn’t you?” Dactyl screamed, and lunged at the creature. Squishy and muscular though it was, it looked weak and pitiful. Dactyl wrapped his hands around its facial area and squeezed. The eyes swelled more, but it didn’t respond. “Over a shipment of drugs?” Dactyl yelled. “What is wrong with you?” He slammed the creature to the ground and squeezed harder. “You son of a — ”
The creature’s gaze was lost to the side, looking at one of its companions. Dactyl stopped. He looked at the other creature, who was speaking quietly in some odd guttural tongue. He turned back to the bandit beneath him. “What’s he saying?”
The creature shook its facial area, still watching its companion. Dactyl slammed it to the floor again and screamed. “What is he saying?”
The creature looked at Dactyl with sad eyes. “My mother is apologizing to me,” it said.
Dactyl froze. “Your what?”
It shook its face again. “For allowing us to get captured.”
He looked at the other creature. “You’re his mother?”
She made a weak movement of her tentacles. “Please,” she said in a low voice. “Just kill us.”
Dactyl let go and looked at his hands, slimed with their yellow blood and orange magma vomit. A few tears fell onto them and he made his way to his feet. He wiped at his face and took a deep breath. The stench was unbearable. He lurched into the corner and vomited, then rose and walked back through the lasers.
“Let them go,” he said to Leon.
Leon gave Dactyl a look of pure compassion. He produced a towel and tenderly wiped Dactyl’s hands clean. “I’m so sorry for what you went through,” he said, and held the left ringfinger apart. “I’m really sorry for the trauma.” He closed his eyes and kissed the new finger. “I know the medbots can’t heal the most painful scars.” He sighed and released Dactyl’s hands, then took the device from Rick. “But that’s not your decision to make.” He pushed the button and held it while the bandits flailed around, groaning and vomiting magma blood.
Dactyl turned his back to the cell and closed his eyes. Chirwa approached and embraced him. Dactyl cried into his shoulder, screaming quietly. Chirwa held him.
After a few seconds Dactyl cleared his throat and pulled his head up. He stared into Chirwa’s eyes and took two quick, deep breaths.
Chirwa stared back at him. “Killing kills the killer,” he said.
Dactyl looked around and tried to stop crying. His knees wobbled. “What have I done?” he whispered.
“It’s in the past,” Chirwa said. “You have to let it go.”
“It just happened,” Dactyl shouted, and tried to look toward Leon without turning his head. “I’ve become one of them.”
“No,” Khopesh said, standing nearby. “You haven’t.”
Dactyl looked at his left hand and his eyes filled with terror. He held it out and closed his eyes. “Can you remove this, please?”
After a pause, Leon and Rick burst out laughing.
Khopesh stood between them. “We want our money,” she said. “Now.”
“Oh,” Leon said, blinking. “The money. Right.” He waved at Qin, and she tapped some buttons on her holopad. Seconds later a droid entered with a slender white steel briefcase. It handed the case to Qin, who handed it to Khopesh.
She dropped it to the ground and undid the latches. A grid of golden ingots stared back at her. She froze for a moment, unable to breathe. She could see Naima staring through it. Hang on, she thought. We’re coming. She picked up one of the ingots; it was thinner than she expected, but heavy. Chirwa put his hand out and she gave it to him. He weighed it briefly, and peered at the etching of Lord Arthur. He offered it to Dactyl, who shook his head and closed his eyes. Chirwa stashed the ingot in his vest.
Khopesh counted the rest of the stack and announced “twenty”. Then she tapped each of the other nineteen stacks and nodded. She shut the case and and stood up and handed it to Chirwa.
She faced Leon and Rick. “We’re done here,” she said, and turned to Fetu. She made a small bow. “Thank you for helping us escape Fortunato-7.” She looked at Dactyl and Chirwa. “Shall we?” They nodded.
Leon watched them walk away for a moment. “Umm,” he said at last. “You can leave if you want to.” The crew stopped walking. Leon looked sideways at Fetu, who shook its head. “But the other Coteries …”
“What?” Khopesh said, turning and glaring at him. She looked at Fetu.
“I told you,” Fetu said, smoothing its antennae. “You’ve become part of something much bigger here.”
“What?” Khopesh said again. “What is going on?” Fetu sighed and looked away. She turned to Leon. “What will happen if we leave?”
Leon gave her a pitying look, and gazed at the others. “You’ll be dead before you leave the troposphere.”
[End of Part 5] — Read Part 6 here.