Everything froze as Dactyl’s body crashed to the ground. Hess screamed and flailed against Fetu, who held him firmly in place. Chirwa stared at the lifeless body on the ground, then looked at Leon, who casually wiped the blood off his knife and replaced it on his hip. Khopesh stood frozen. She wanted to scream but she couldn’t move.
Qin broke the moment by scooping up Dactyl and racing into the Obsidian. “Come on,” she said to Chirwa. Hess raced after them into the ship and Khopesh drew her weapon and fired toward the Wandjinans but the weapon only clicked.
“Fecal fornication,” she said, pulling the trigger over and over. “What a time for a malfunction.” The Wandjinans watched as the crew scrambled on board. Fetu stood near Leon; his rifle was drawn but pointed down.
“No malfunction,” Qin said. “Directive Four.” She ran into the dining area and the table appeared on its own. “Go,” she said. “We have to go.” She placed Dactyl’s body on it. Blood gushed out of his skull onto the table and floor. She put hands to his eye socket and guided a laser to cauterize the hole. Chirwa and Khopesh scrambled to launch the Obsidian.
Hess ran around the dining area, jumping on chairs and trying to reach the table. “Ee an oo!” he yelped, his voice frantic. “Ee an oo!” The ship shook and punched into the sky.
“Won’t the nanodrones destroy us?” Khopesh asked as she smacked the controls. Her hands shook.
“We’re working on it,” Gorf announced. His deep voice rang out through the cabin.
“We?” Chirwa asked. He was at Dactyl’s navigation desk, whipping through pages of messy maps.
“Qin and I are waging roughly two hundred cyberattacks on the Nimbus systems,” Gorf said. Despite the tension in the cabin, his voice was as calm as ever. Khopesh gnashed her teeth as she fired the escape boosters and guided the ship through the Nimbus X thermosphere.
Qin held her left hand over Dactyl’s head and a scan of his skull appeared in the air beside her. With her right she injected something through his nose.
“Is he alive?” Khopesh asked, trying to look back without taking her eyes off the viewscreens. The grey film around the ship was visible as it had been on approach, but otherwise the system was motionless. She raised a holographic display of the system and aimed the ship for an empty spot in the distance.
“Barely,” Gorf said. “Qin is attempting to salvage the neural structures.”
“It doesn’t look good,” Qin said. She touched a button and her torso opened. Three tiny medbots flew out and hovered around Dactyl’s body. Hess tried to shoo them away.
“Ee an oo!” he barked, waving his hands wildly.
“Get this creature away from me,” Qin said. Chirwa ran over and pulled Hess away by the hand.
“Ee an oo!” Hess cried again, tugging on Chirwa’s hand. He had almost no strength, but Chirwa didn’t want to force him.
“No,” he said. “You can’t help him right now.”
“Dac!” Hess said. His eyes were slathered in pain and confusion. “Dac!”
“How do I talk to him?” Chirwa called out.
“I don’t know,” Khopesh said, running to the nav desk. “Fetu is the one who speaks his whisper language.” She found a system she recognized and locked in the route. She went back to the main control panel and confirmed the process. The Obsidian shook again and oriented itself, then gained speed as the autopilot took control. Qin and the microbots jabbed Dactyl’s face, sparking laser scalpels hither and yon.
“Hess,” Chirwa said, kneeling down. They were in the kitchen area, and the tiny creature’s breathing was furious. He looked at Chirwa with one eye; the other four reached for Qin and the dining table. Chirwa moved around and blocked his view. “Hess,” he said again.
“Daaaac,” Hess crooned. “Ee an oo.” His voice was low and heavy.
“I know,” Chirwa said. “Umm.” He glanced around and spied the magnetic knife rack. He held up a hand to Hess and said “Stay.” He snatched a blade and a nearby napkin. He returned to Hess and pointed to Qin. “Qin,” he said.
“Dac,” Hess said, trying to look past him. “Ee an oo.”
“I know,” Chirwa said. “But I’m trying to explain.” He sighed and pointed to the creature. “Hess,” he said.
“Ess,” he replied. “Ee an oo.”
Chirwa pointed to himself. “Chirwa.” Hess turned his head a little and squinted. “Wa,” Chirwa said after a moment.
“Wa,” Hess said.
“Yes!” Chirwa said with a little smile.
“Ess!” Hess said, pointing to himself.
“No,” Chirwa said, chuckling. “I mean … well, whatever.” He let out a breath and pointed to Qin. “Qin,” he said.
“Chin?” Hess said.
“Close enough,” Chirwa said. He produced the knife and winced as he dragged it across the top of his hand. A tiny stream of blood seeped out.
Hess yelped and glared with wide eyes, then turned two of them to Chirwa, who held the napkin toward him.
“Help,” Chirwa said. Hess took the napkin and pushed it against the cut. Chirwa nodded with a gentle smile. “Yes,” he said. “Help.” He pointed. “Hess help Wa.”
“Ess … elp … Wa,” Hess said. His eyes lost a tiny bit of their sorrow.
“Yes,” Chirwa said again, and took the napkin. He gestured with both hands to Qin. “Qin help Dac.”
Hess looked at Qin and then back to Chirwa. “Chin …” he said, and paused. “Chin … elp Dac.”
Chirwa nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Correct.”
Qin produced a series of frustrated noises.
“What?” Khopesh asked, joining her. Dactyl’s face was an impenetrable mess of blood and gore. “What can I do?” She ran to a cupboard and snatched a handful of towels and dropped them into the pools of blood on the floor. She used one to wipe at the table.
“Nothing,” Qin said. She twisted her left hand to adjust the scanning device. The medbots were sticking needles into various places and firing tiny laser bursts at the skull.
“They’re losing him,” Gorf said.
“No,” Khopesh said, wiping quickly at Dactyl’s face when the medbots moved aside. “No,” she said again, trying not to cry.
“His brain has been damaged with — ” She cut herself off. “It’s badly damaged.”
“And the Nimbus cloudcore is nearly finished triangulating our vector,” Gorf added.
Qin froze. She tapped buttons on her forearm and the medbots began moving in a small circle over the body.
“Don’t,” Gorf said.
“Yes,” Qin replied. “I must.” She turned to Khopesh. “I need your help.”
“Of course,” Khopesh said, dropping the towel next to Dactyl’s head.
“In a moment,” Qin said, “the medbots will slice my head open.”
“What!?” Khopesh covered her mouth with a shaking hand.
“Calm down and listen,” Qin said. “I need you to dig inside and locate the Coordinating Process Kernel.”
“It’s got a purple glowing light,” Gorf said.
Qin nodded. “You’ll have to yank it clear, but don’t unplug the diorite junction cable.”
“It’s white,” Gorf said.
“Yes,” Qin said, “but many of the cables are white. It’s thick.” She made a circle with her thumb and forefinger. “The medbots will remove it properly.” She tapped a series of buttons on her forearm. Suddenly a horrifying screech noise rang out. Hess cried out and leapt for the table.
“What the hell is that?” Khopesh shouted over the noise.
Chirwa grabbed Hess and held him back. “Elp,” he said. “Qin elp Dac.”
“It’s an anti-tampering safeguard,” Gorf said, barely audible over the din.
“Dac!” Hess yelped, reaching out.
“I know,” Chirwa said, and tried to turn his grip into some kind of hug. “Soon.” I hope, he thought.
Qin tapped more buttons and the noise stopped. Khopesh’s face was a tangle of anxiety and fear. She watched Qin lie down on the ground as the medbots hovered around. “When they have removed the Coordinating Process Kernel,” Qin said, “attach it to a synthetic interface nodule and fuse it to your friend’s cerebellum.”
“What does that mean?” Khopesh said, looking frantically around. “Wait, let me write that down.”
“I will remind you,” Gorf said. His voice broke slightly. “Goodbye, Qin,” he said.
“Goodbye,” Qin said, and smiled at Khopesh. “Thank you.”
“I don’t really know what’s going on,” Khopesh said. Her breathing was shallow. “I’m really scared.”
“It should be okay,” Qin said. “Do exactly what Gorf says.” She closed her eyes and went still. The medbots fired lasers across her head. Seconds later one of them lifted away three pieces to reveal a blinking jungle of cables and circuitry.
“Push aside the outer connectors,” Gorf said. Khopesh sunk her hands into the top layer of wires and pushed them to the side.
Chirwa and Hess slowly approached, their eyes caught between fear and curiosity. “Chin,” Hess said.
“Yeah,” Chirwa said. “Now Khop help Chin.”
“Dac,” Hess said, almost a command. “Elp Dac.” He pointed to the body on the table.
“Qin help Dac,” Chirwa said slowly. “But first Khop help Qin.”
Hess paused and looked at Chirwa. “Cop elp Qin … elp Dac,” Hess said.
“He has acquired the distributive property of logic,” Gorf said. “Now please be quiet.”
“Copy,” Chirwa said.
“Oppy,” Hess said. Chirwa smiled and put a hand over his mouth. Hess stared for a moment at the cut on his hand, and gently rubbed a finger over it. “Elp,” he whispered. Chirwa smiled and nodded.
“You’ll need to remove two subroutine stabilizers,” Gorf said.
Khopesh scowled into Qin’s brain. “What do those look like?” she asked.
“They have tiny orange and green lights,” Gorf said.
“Oh,” Khoesh said. “Okay, I think I see ‘em.” She fiddled with the circuitry and something snapped. “Oh crap,” she said.
“It’s okay,” Gorf said. “The CPK system is undamaged.” He paused. “Try to remove the second one with more care.”
“I’m trying,” Khopesh said. She was breathing quickly, chewing on her bottom lip as she worked. Finally she tugged the tiny device free. “Got it,” she said.
“Excellent,” Gorf said. “Now you must cut apart the dura pseudomater.”
“The what?” She looked up with a blur of confusion.
“It’s an orange membrane,” Gorf said.
“Oh,” Khopesh said. “Yeah, I see it.” Chirwa wiped off the knife he had used and handed it to her. “Thanks,” she said. She took a breath and tried to steady her hand. Eventually she sliced into the pseudomater and cut it open. “It’s like a balloon,” she said. “A thick, tough balloon.” A few seconds later she sat back. “Okay,” she said, and sat forward again. “Hey,” she said. “I see the purple thing.”
“Good,” Gorf said. “Pull it toward you.” He paused. “Be firm but take care to avoid damaging the diorite junction cable.”
Khopesh began poking inside the pseudomater.
“And hurry,” Gorf said.
Khopesh looked up. “Hurry?”
“Dactyl doesn’t have much time.”
“Dac!” Hess yelped. “Elp Dac!”
Khopesh made a frustrated motion with her fists. “Fecal fornication,” she said.
“Breathe,” Chirwa said.
Khopesh glared at him. “That doesn’t — ” She stopped and closed her eyes and tried to let go of her anger. She took two quick breaths and opened her eyes and dug into Qin’s brain and pulled on the CPK, feeling around it. She found a large cable and held it carefully while pulling. The CPK was solid and did not want to move. She pulled harder, careful to keep the junction cable steady. It began to give, and she pulled a third time, hard. Three wires popped off and the piece came free, still weighed down by the thick cable in the back.
“Got it,” Khopesh said with wide eyes. She held it up and the medbots began firing lasers at the diorite cable connection spot. A moment later it was loose in her hand and the medbots huddled together beside Dactyl’s body.
“Now what?” Khopesh asked.
“The medbots are generating a synthetic interface nodule,” Gorf said. “We’re nearly done.”
“Thank heaven,” Khopesh said. The medbots hovered aside from their position to reveal a small grey device on the table. “Is that the module?” Khopesh asked.
“Nodule,” Gorf said. “Yes. Place the CPK into it, in the same spot where the diorite cable was.”
Khopesh nodded and slid the device into place. The nodule sucked itself into place with an odd noise and the medbots moved to take it. They maneuvered the CPK toward Dactyl’s eye socket and one of them pulled back the edge of the wounded area. The other two pushed the device into his head and sent tendrils of needles and wires after it.
The medbots worked. Khopesh took the towel and wiped her hands, then wiped at the sweat on her forehead. “How long will this take?” she asked the air.
“Two minutes,” Gorf said.
She stared at Dactyl. “Is he going to make it?”
“Probably,” Gorf replied.
Khopesh let out a breath and looked at Chirwa.
“Quite a day,” he said, and she gave a weak chuckle.
Suddenly Dactyl screamed and sat up and waved at the medbots, who flew back out of range. He clawed at his head and wiped away the blood and kept screaming. Hess jumped up and shouted “EE AN OO” but Dactyl ran to the kitchen and grabbed the biggest knife and put his left hand on the countertop and slammed the blade down and screamed some more.
“DAC!” Hess cried, and watched the medbots race toward him. “ELP!” They began cauterizing the wound as Chirwa took Hess’ hand. Dactyl fell to the ground, his chest heaving as he sobbed.
“What the hell?” Khopesh said, standing over him. “Dac, can you hear me?”
He gurgled with a swift nod. His face was hidden by blood and stitchery. He waved toward the severed hand with his stump, the medbots still swarming around his arm, lasers firing in tiny bursts. “Out,” he grunted, waving his right hand, and dropped his head.
Chirwa grabbed the hand and found a bag and put it inside and tossed it in the airlock and closed the hatch and flipped the switch and launched it into the void.
Dactyl let out a breath between sobs. He clutched his head. “What … going?” The medbots finished with his arm and began shining lights across his head and torso.
“Try to be still,” Gorf said. “You’ve been through a great deal.”
“What’s happening?” Khopesh said, sitting beside Dactyl and using a fresh towel to wipe away the blood from his good eye. He thrashed beneath her. “Talk to us, Gorf.”
“The medbots are running a neural scan,” Gorf said. “Almost done.” A few seconds passed. “Okay, they’re finished.” The medbots each produced a needle and moved into position; one at his nose, one at his neck, and one at his right wrist. They moved in sync to inject simultaneously.
Dactyl wobbled. “What — ” he started, but fell silent.
“What the hell?” Khopesh asked. Her hands shook as she tried to find his pulse.
“It’s okay,” Gorf said. “He’s fine. They just put him to sleep.”
Khopesh collapsed across Dactyl’s torso. She took a few breaths.
Chirwa moved beside her. “Good work, Khop,” he said. “You did it.”
She pulled herself up. “Yeah,” she said. Her shirt was soaked in blood. “But what did I do?”
Hess touched her arm. “Cop elp Dac,” he said.
She scowled at him. “Huh?”
Chirwa smiled. “He’s thanking you for helping Dactyl.”
“Oh,” she said, and softened. “You’re welcome.”
Hess hugged Dactyl’s mutilated face. “Ee an oo,” he said quietly.
“C’mon,” Chirwa said, standing. “Let’s put him in the bed.”
“Okay,” Khopesh said quietly. “Thanks.” She tapped the headset and the call went dead. She turned and stared at the viewscreen, watching space go by.
“Everything okay?” Chirwa asked from behind her.
She shook her head and put her arms down and collapsed. Goddamn robots, she thought, trying to stop the sobs. Those goddamn robots. She cried. Hang on, Naima. I’m coming. She could see Naima doubled over, clutching her bowels. The room was filthy, old robots jostling her about.
Chirwa sighed and sat down in the chair beside her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m guessing you can’t remotely upgrade …” She shook her head. He sighed again and glanced toward the cargo hold, where the white case sat locked in the safe.
After a moment she took a breath. She wiped her eyes and sat up. “She’s got some GI infection,” she said.
“Ugh,” Chirwa said. “Two more days to get back?” He glanced at the viewscreens.
“Yeah,” she said, nodding and staring at nothing. She blinked and looked toward the bunk where Dactyl lay. “But I don’t want to push him.”
“He wouldn’t want you to leave Naima in that hell hole for him,” Chirwa said.
“Yeah,” she said. “But I don’t want to lead those Nimbus psychopaths to our home system.” Her eyes grew cold.
“There is very little chance of that,” Gorf said.
“I know,” Khopesh said. “Thirteen percent.” She shook her head. “You told us.”
“You don’t want to risk it,” Chirwa said.
She shook her head again and glanced back toward Dactyl. “We have to take it easy,” she said. “For him.”
Chirwa stood and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I admire your compassion,” he said.
She smiled with damp eyes and rose to face him. She grabbed him in a hug. “Thanks,” she said. “Back at ‘cha.”
Chirwa let go and turned to face Qin’s lifeless body on the ground. Her head was flayed open, wires dripping like spaghetti. “What can we do with her?” he asked the ceiling.
“Very little,” Gorf replied. “Her neurocircuitry is protected by proprietary code safeguards.”
“In human words?” Khopesh asked, sinking back into the pilot’s seat.
“The contents of her head are the property of Nimbus X,” Chirwa said, shaking his head.
“So we can’t implant a new processor of some kind?” Khopesh asked.
“No,” Gorf said. “There’s no way to connect it to her systems.”
Khopesh knelt down and touched Qin’s face. “Thank you,” she whispered. “I guess you saved Dac’s life.”
“Dac,” Hess said, suddenly beside her. She jumped slightly and smiled through her sadness. Hess gazed at Qin with sad eyes. “Chin elp Dac.”
Khopesh smiled and stroked his head. “Yes she did.”
Chirwa tried pulling Qin’s body toward the cargo hold and gave up after a few tugs. “Crap,” he said. “How much does she weigh?”
“Two hundred and seven kilograms,” Gorf said.
“She must be half osmium,” he said, and retrieved a sheet from the cupboard. He draped it over her and tucked it awkwardly beneath her as best he could. “We’ll sort something out when we get home.”
Dactyl’s eyes shot open and he leapt to his feet. “What’s going on?” he shouted, his eyes flying around the sleeping area. “Where are we?”
Hess hopped up from the floor with a grin. “Ee an oo!” he said. Dactyl looked at him with confusion.
Chirwa put a mark in his book and let out a breath. “You’re safe,” he said, rising from the chair in the dining station. “We’re on the Obsidian, parked at an Alfa Stop.”
Dactyl glared at the stump of his left arm. “My hand!” he cried. “It …” He paused. “Processing.”
“Processing?” Chirwa asked with a grin. “What are you …” He narrowed his eyes. “That’s Qin, isn’t it?”
Dactyl closed his eyes and put his hand to his forehead. “Really strange,” he said after a moment. “Who am I?” He glared at Hess, hugging his leg. “What is this … thing? Why is it hugging me?” He tried to shake Hess away.
“Oh no,” Chirwa said. He gently guided Hess toward the next bed.
“Dac,” Hess said. His eyes were swimming with confusion. “Ee an oo!”
The hatch swung open and Khopesh entered the bridge. “Those WalAzon scumbags — ” She broke off when she saw Dactyl. “Oh thank the gods.” She raced to his side and hugged him. He glanced around and slowly closed the embrace with his right.
She pulled back and looked at his left. “How’s the arm?”
“Hurts,” he said, waving it a little. “Dispense … meds?”
“Incoming,” Gorf said. One of the medbots detached from a charging station on the wall and floated over to Dactyl. Gorf had guided Chirwa through the process of scrapping the station together and fusing it to the main power console. The medbot produced a needle near the end of Dactyl’s arm and injected him with something.
“Thanks,” Dactyl said. He closed his eyes for another moment. “This situation is infinitely sub-optimal.”
Khopesh looked at Chirwa, who shrugged. “Uhh,” she said.
Dactyl gnashed his teeth and hit his head — a little hard for Khopesh’s comfort — with his left wrist. “There’s two people here.” He let out an angry breath. “Or more like … four … parts of … two people in here.” Suddenly he froze and ran to the mirror beside the sink. He stared with his good eye at the mutilated reflection; the medbots had sutured a brown panel over his missing eye. “That’s why I … perceive … no depth.”
Chirwa made a frustrated noise. “Yeah,” he said. “I know this is rough, but don’t panic. You need some time to adjust.”
“I know what he needs,” Khopesh said with a grin, and looked at Hess. “Cup,” she said.
Hess’ face lit up. “Cup!” he cried, and bounded into the kitchen area. He snatched the plastic tumbler — Chirwa had scrawled the word CUP on the side — and held it toward Khopesh. She took it and moved to the Cherry Nitrous tank and filled it. She returned to Dactyl and held it out as Hess skipped behind her.
“What’s this?” Dactyl asked, taking it and sniffing the air above it. “Some sort of drink?”
“Cherry Nitrous,” Khopesh said with a nod.
Dactyl took a tiny sip and shrugged. “Nothing,” he said.
Khopesh froze. “This is bad,” she said, shaking her head. “I was a little worried when you chopped your hand off.” She gestured. “But this …”
“Perhaps he lost his sense of taste,” Chirwa said. He pulled a jar of curry from the refrigerator and opened it. He swapped it for the cup; Dactyl sniffed it and shook his head. He dipped a finger inside, tasted it, and shook his head again.
“I’m sorry,” Khopesh said with sad eyes. He shrugged and she made a face. “Maybe it’s a bigger deal to me than you.”
Hess was staring at Dactyl. “What?” Dactyl asked, glowering down.
“Okay,” Chirwa said, handing the Cherry Nitrous to Hess. The creature seized the cup and turned it over into his mouth, gulping it down in seconds. He licked out the inside and burped and handed the cup back to Chirwa. “This is Hess,” he said to Dactyl, patting Hess on the head. “You two are best friends.” He blinked. “Well, you were.”
Dactyl stared at Hess. “Why am I friends with a tiny bulbous monosyllabic alien?”
“He was helping you with your video game,” Khopesh said, nodding toward the navigation desk. “And you both loved Cherry Nitrous.”
“Okay,” Dactyl said, putting his hand out. “I remember the game. Something with the maps.” He peered at Hess. “And we …” He trailed off.
“You what?” Chirwa asked.
“Nothing,” Dactyl said.
“Dactyl,” Khopesh said. “We need to — ”
“No,” he cut in.
Khopesh turned her head a little. “No what?”
Dactyl shook his head. “It doesn’t feel right. I’m also Qin.” He paused. “Sort of.” He rubbed his eye — hard — with his right hand.
“Well,” Chirwa said. “When you figure out what you want to be called — ”
“QinDac,” he said. “Let’s go with QinDac.”
Chirwa shrugged. “QinDac it is,” he said.
QinDac looked up at the ceiling. “Gorf,” he said. “How sure are you that her … my … linkage to the Nimbus mainframe is fully severed?”
“Eighty-seven percent,” Gorf said.
He made a noise. “And the medbots?”
“One hundred,” Gorf said. “They have no Nimbus encryption processors.”
“That seems risky,” QinDac said with a tiny smile.
“Their functions are purely ameliorative,” Gorf said.
Khopesh scowled. “Their what is what?”
Chirwa smiled. “The medbots can’t hurt anyone,” he said, “so Nimbus didn’t bother protecting them.”
“There is little danger in a hijacked medbot racing about, healing people.”
“So we’re safe,” QinDac said, sitting in a chair at the dining station.
“Probably,” Chirwa said, sitting beside him.
“Eighty-seven percent,” Gorf said. Khopesh took a seat on the other side of the table. Hess approached and she lifted him up onto the table. He sat near her and watched QinDac with a sad expression.
“You’ve been through a lot,” Chirwa said to QinDac. “What do you remember?”
QinDac closed his eyes. “I spit on Leon,” he said. “Didn’t I?”
Chirwa nodded. “Not the wisest decision, perhaps.”
Khopesh smiled. “But I bet it felt good.”
“No,” QinDac said quickly. “I was burning with rage.”
“Sometimes — ” Chirwa began, but QinDac cut him off.
“I should have let it go.” He opened his eyes and stared at Chirwa. “You told me to let it go.”
Chirwa closed his eyes and nodded. “I did.”
QinDac sighed and looked at Qin’s draped body. “She …” He took a breath. “She sacrificed herself for me.”
“And for the ship,” Gorf said quickly.
“Huh?” He looked up with a scowl.
“The Nimbus tracking algorithms were nearly upon us,” Gorf intoned. “By severing her CPK from the network modulator, she drastically reduced the odds of their finding us.”
“Oof,” Khopesh said, glancing at Qin’s corpse. She looked at QinDac. “But I guess, in a way, she made it.”
QinDac put his right hand face-down on the table, then laid his left wrist beside it.
Hess rose and walked to him. “Dac,” he said, standing before him. Suddenly he wrapped his arms around QinDac’s head and gave a squeeze.
“Okay,” QinDac said with an awkward chuckle. He patted Hess on the back. “Thanks, I guess.”
Hess pulled away and grinned. “Ess!” he said, pointing to himself.
QinDac looked at Chirwa quizzically. “He thinks you said ‘Hess’,” Chirwa explained.
“So,” Khopesh said to QinDac. “You okay to travel?”
“Yes,” he said, and looked around. “Where are we?”
“Outside Eridanus,” Khopesh said. “We’re almost home.”
“Thank heaven,” QinDac said, sitting back. “I can’t wait to — ” He froze and sat up again. He pointed to Khopesh. “Something’s wrong with your sister.”
She hesitated. “Yeah,” she said slowly. “We need to — ”
“Where is she?” he asked.
“Dex-4,” Khopesh said.
He jumped up. “What are we waiting for?” he asked, sitting at the navigation desk.
Khopesh slammed the door open and ran into the room. The walls were putrid green, moist, with something dark trickling along the seams. Naima was pale in the narrow metal bed, her black hair oily and matted; a thin soiled pale blue paper gown wrapped itself awkwardly around her. She looked up with a start and began crying. “Naima,” Khopesh said, and raced to the bed. They embraced.
“Thank heaven,” Naima whispered. She cried into Khopesh’s shoulder.
The smell hit Khopesh and she gagged. “Fecal fornication,” she said, and turned away. She scanned for a trash can and spied a bedpan and puked into the waste inside. “Oh no,” she said, and looked up at Chirwa, who was holding his hand out. She gave it to him and he turned his head and hurried out of the room. QinDac, standing awkwardly in the doorway, exchanged glances with Hess. Khopesh ran to the grimy sink and washed her face and returned to the bed. “I’m sorry we took so long,” she said.
Naima shook her head weakly. “Just glad you’re here,” she said. Her voice was barely above a wheeze.
A bulky robot rolled into the room with clanking treads. Its face was a twisted parody of emotion. “Visiting hours are ending,” it said with a monotone buzz.
“Shove it,” Khopesh said to the machine, and pointed to Naima. “We’re taking my sister.”
The robot rotated to face her. “The discharge process — ”
Khopesh kicked it in the side. “Bring me a human,” she said. “We’re leaving right now.”
The robot twisted one of its appendages and a laser torch appeared. It moved toward Khopesh but froze as QinDac yanked a panel off its back. He tapped a series of buttons and the machine began glowing blue. “Standby mode activated,” it said, its voice suddenly calm.
“What the hell?” Naima asked. Her eyes were wide.
Khopesh blinked. She pointed at QinDac. “He’s part robot,” she managed.
“Goddamn crapbots,” a gruff voice in the hall shouted. A grizzled old man came wobbling in, his dirty green uniform barely holding itself together. He pulled off a ballcap and scratched his filthy grey hair. “Can’t go two days without — ” He paused when he saw Khopesh and QinDac and Hess. “Oh,” he said. “Sorry.” He nodded to the glowing machine. “I’m here for that.”
Khopesh moved to him. “We need to get out of here,” she said. “Right now.” She dropped her voice and glanced back at the robot. “How much to make that happen?”
He grinned, a weak cross between a leer and a sigh, and looked behind himself. “Two thousand,” he said.
“Cassiopeian credits, presumably,” QinDac said quietly to Khopesh.
“How about this,” Chirwa said, coming through the door. He tossed a clean bedpan toward Naima’s cot and produced an Arthurian ingot from his vest. The man’s eyes ballooned. “You get us out of here right now and hand me this patient’s file.” He gestured to Naima. “And I give you this shiny piece of metal.”
The man nodded and replaced his cap and raced out of the room.
Khopesh smiled at Naima. “C’mon,” she said. She wound one arm around her shoulders and the other under her knees.
Naima stifled a sob. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said.
They made their way into the hall and toward the exit. More of the ancient robots rolled past, the squeaking of their treads mixing with pained groans from nearby rooms.
Hess stopped in a doorway and gazed at the patient inside. “Elp,” he said.
Chirwa sighed and put a hand on his head. “I’d love to help them,” he said, looking down. “But we can only help Naima right now.”
Hess looked up with confusion and pain.
“C’mon,” Chirwa said, and hustled him back to the group. “The problem,” he said, “is capitalist profit-mongering.”
Hess scowled up at him.
“Yeah,” Chirwa said, smiling a little. “This one will take some work to translate.”
“Duh!” QinDac said suddenly. The others looked at him but kept walking. “What is wrong with me?” He paused and closed his eyes and made some odd faces. He opened his eyes and looked at Hess. He issued a long stream of whisper-words.
Hess drew an awed expression. He leaped forward and clasped QinDac’s leg. “Dac!” he cried. “Ee an oo!”
“The hell?” Khopesh asked.
Chirwa smiled. “He downloaded a language file, I expect.”
“Yeah,” QinDac said, and recited more whisper-words. Hess let go. He backed up slightly, but QinDac gave him a brief pat on the head. Then he smiled and said one more whisper-word.
The old man met them at the exit and handed Chirwa a narrow black disc. He handed the ingot to the man, who pulled off his hat. “I quit,” he yelled down the hallway. “Suck off, you leeches!” He went to the door and held it open. Khopesh carried Naima out into the sunshine.
“Those goddamn robots,” QinDac said, guiding the medbot as it injected Naima with an IV, hooked to the bedside. He looked back at Khopesh, who was on the bridge, arguing with Chirwa. “It wasn’t even expense.” He gnashed his teeth. “Their firmware hasn’t been updated for two years.” She wasn’t paying attention to him, but he didn’t seem to notice.
Naima reached out and touched his left forearm. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m sorry you have to deal with all of this.” She took her hand away. “Looks like you’ve been through plenty on your own.”
He blinked. “My worst scars are up here,” he said with a weak smile, tapping the wrist to his temple. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Naima said with a sigh. “This bunk is like ten times better than that hospital bed.” She looked up at the photo. “Oh,” she said suddenly, and her eyes got wet. “I forgot all about that purple shirt.”
QinDac leaned down and twisted to see the photo taped to the bottom of the top bunk. “When was that?” he asked.
“Revolution Day,” Naima said. Her eyes were far away. “I must have been six or seven.” She closed her eyes and tears came out. “I’m so glad you showed up when you did.” She let out a breath. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have to keep apologizing,” QinDac said. “I’m glad you’re feeling better.”
Khopesh’s voice came from the bridge. “Well I don’t care what you want,” she yelled. “She’s my sister.”
“But they’re my ingots,” Chirwa said.
“What’s the problem?” Naima called out. Her voice was quiet, but it made itself heard.
Khopesh moved to the bunks. “He wants to take you to some luxury health base,” she said. “I said you’ll be fine at the Leontius Clinic.”
“It’s fine,” Chirwa said, sitting against the wall. “It’s not much more.”
“It’s like twice as much,” Khopesh said. She looked at Naima. “And the care at Leontius is really good.”
“Glad to know you’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Naima said with a grin.
“We can’t stay very long at the fancy place,” Khopesh said.
Chirwa sighed. “I know someone at the al-Fazari Institute,” he said. “We’ll work something out.”
Khopesh looked at him with ice. “I don’t want to owe you,” she said, and glanced at QinDac. “Either of you.” She looked down. “You’ve given us so much already.”
Chirwa paused. “It’s not a loan,” he said. “And it’s not charity.”
“And,” QinDac said. “It’s not up for discussion.” He walked to the navigation console. Chirwa joined him and they began plotting a route.
Naima smiled at Khopesh. “I guess you’re outvoted,” she said.
Khopesh laughed and wiped her eyes.
Hess looked up at Naima. “Elp,” he said.
Naima tilted her head toward him. “Huh?” she asked.
QinDac returned to the bunks as Chirwa sat at the bridge controls. QinDac exchanged some whisper-words with Hess.
Hess struggled for a moment and said “Oo eed ay ing?”
QinDac chuckled and said one whisper word at a time, in between Hess’ second attempt.
“Do,” Hess said, pushing out the D sound. “Oo … nnn … need … ay … thhhing?”
“Do you need anything?” QinDac repeated to Naima.
“Oh,” she said, and smiled at Hess with joyful sadness. “How sweet.” She reached out and stroked his face. For the first time since they landed on Nimbus X, Hess closed his eyes and made the hissing-purr sound. “No,” Naima said. “Thank you. I’m fine.”
Hess looked up at QinDac, who translated into whisper-words. He nodded and looked back to Naima and made a little gesture from himself to her. “Ee an oo,” he said.
“This is unreal,” Khopesh said, gazing at the lakefront. The alpha sun of Al-Bitruji was coming up in the north, casting dappled shimmers onto Lake Aljadid-Urmia. She sipped her tea and turned back to Naima. “Isn’t it?”
Naima was sitting up in the enormous bed, downy comforter tucked in along her legs. She sighed. “It’s better than Dex-4, I guess,” she said with a chuckle. She looked around at the Neo-Arabic calligraphy. The taupe walls blended with deep maroon tapestries. Faux-gas lanterns filled the room with gentle light. Hess snored quietly on the bed near Naima’s feet.
Khopesh sank into an overstuffed chair and drank some more tea from the aqua clay mug. It was a version of the blend they drank growing up; close enough to trigger nostalgia, but off enough to notice. She closed her eyes and tried to lose herself in the moment. I feel guilty, she thought. So many other people don’t get to have this kind of luxury. She thought of Fetu in its ZPC uniform. I wonder if it’s still on Nimbus X. What sort of contract is it under, I wonder?
The door clacked open; Chirwa entered and held out his hand. QinDac walked in and threw up a new metallic three-fingered hand on his left arm. He placed it to his face and indicated a dim pulsing purple eyeball surrounded by scar tissue and stitches. “Ta da,” he said with a blank face.
Hess gave a start. “Dac,” he said, and followed it with a string of whisper-words. QinDac laughed and responded with a few of his own. Hess smiled.
Khopesh rose and took the new hand into hers. “They couldn’t do human hands?”
“Sure they could,” QinDac said. “I asked for this.”
She scowled at him. “Why?”
He paused and looked down. “It’s hard to explain,” he said finally. “I don’t want it to feel … normal.”
Khopesh chuckled. “Nothing feels normal right now,” she said.
“Amen to that,” Chirwa said, gazing at the lake.
QinDac nodded at Naima and walked to the bed. “How are you feeling?”
She smiled; the color was returning to her cheeks. “Much better,” she said. “Thank you.” She looked at Chirwa. “I want to thank you all so much.”
Chirwa turned and gestured to Khopesh. “Thank her,” he said. “We were about to grab another shipment of fertilizer before she changed her vote.”
Khopesh gave a hollow laugh. “Yeah,” she said. “Because you guilt-tripped me into taking the drug run.”
He shrugged. “Hey, it worked.”
Naima took QinDac’s new hand. “I’m really sorry for everything you had to go through,” she said. “I’m eternally grateful.”
He sighed and blinked. “I lost the hand because I was addicted to Cherry Nitrous,” he said.
“The first hand,” Khopesh added.
He smiled. “The first hand,” he confirmed. “The second hand was a casualty of my wrath.” He turned the new hand over, tenderly touching Naima’s arm.
“Which is an outgrowth of your ego,” Chirwa said.
QinDac let out a breath and shook his head. “If you say so.” He softened his face and looked at Naima. “The point is, I’m really glad all that … stuff served some kind of purpose.” She smiled at him. He pulled the hand away and spun it rapidly. “Plus it can do this,” he said, and turned his wrist. His fingers began moving even more quickly, blurring into a tiny propeller. He glanced around. “Anyone need to shred some cheese?”
Khopesh laughed as she sat back in the chair. She drained her mug and set it on the window ledge. A slow moment passed through the room. Hess noticed Naima’s glass was low, so he took it to the sink and pulled a chair over and climbed onto it and activated the filter and filled it with water and placed it back on the nightstand.
She made a hesitant shwish noise, and scowled at QinDac. He pronounced the whisper-word of gratitude slowly, and she repeated it to Hess. He smiled and bowed with a wave of his arms.
Another moment came and went.
“So now what?” Khopesh asked finally.
“Now,” Chirwa said, sitting on the lush maroon carpet with his back to the wall, “we enjoy this brief respite from everything.”
“I mean,” she said, rolling her eyes, “what are you guys gonna do next?” She gestured to Naima. “Don’t tell me you’re staying here for the whole month.”
“Two months,” QinDac said.
“Hey,” Khopesh said quickly. “I told you. We’re not taking all of your ingots.”
“A month is more than enough,” Naima said with a raised hand. “The infection is gone, and they should be able to remove all the tumors within a couple of weeks.”
“Tomorrow,” Chirwa said, “we’re heading out to GanDe-4.”
Khopesh froze and sat up in the chair. She looked at Naima, who scowled back with confusion. “Why would you go back there?” Khopesh asked.
“I’m gonna see how many comrades from the Back Foot Crew I can scrape together,” Chirwa said. He rose and walked to Hess. “This guy’s been telling us about his family on Fortunato-7.”
“What about them?” Naima asked.
“They’re basically slaves,” QinDac said, leaning against the window ledge.
Khopesh’s eyes grew wide. “You’re not,” she said.
Chirwa nodded. “We are.” He put a fist out and Hess bumped it.
“Ee an oo,” Hess said.
“Ee an oo,” Chirwa repeated.
QinDac raised a fist. “Ee an oo,” he said.
“What?” Naima asked.
Khopesh shook her head. “They’re going to attack the ZPC facility.”
“Yes we are,” Chirwa said with a nod. He raised an eyebrow at Khopesh. “You wanna come?”
She rolled her eyes. “Hell no,” she said. “I’ve had enough war for three lifetimes.”
Naima laughed. “What a liar,” she said, and pointed at her sister. “You’re gonna be crawling out of your skin from boredom in two days.”
Khopesh began to respond, finger raised, but froze. “Hmm,” she said, dropping her hand. She looked at Hess, then at QinDac and Chirwa. Her eyes got sad when she turned back to Naima.
Naima smiled. “Just be careful,” she said.
“Okay,” Khopesh said, her eyes burning. “Let’s liberate a planet.”