The Killer of Dole Nu Lin
Outlaw'They tell me you're the one who killed Dole Nu Lin,' says the man in the black uniform.
'They're right,' I say.
'You're his daughter?'
I laugh. 'Not by a long shot.'
My mother's old clock tick-tocks on the mantelpiece in her murderer's house, two minutes' walk from here. 'I ate his bread, I slept in his bed, and I killed him,' I say. 'That was our relationship.'
He nods. Leans heavy and slow on the bare wood frame of the open door. There are three more men, at least, behind him. Rifles and masks. Otherwise I might take the chance. There's really not much to lose. But absolutely nothing to gain, save more pain, so I sit here and kick at the chamber pot under my bunk. The contents splash out ice-cold onto my foot, and I scowl up at the man in the doorway. 'What do you want?'
The man smiles. 'They say Nu was the best.'
I smile back. I can't help it. 'They're wrong.'
'I agree. Eyewitnesses tell me you beat him fair and square. As fair and square as it gets around here, anyhow.' He smiles again. I don't like him. 'It's a shame they're going to kill you too,' he says.
I shrug. 'Nu had friends. I don't.'
'Oh, but you do,' he tells me. 'Your natural talent is exactly the kind of thing we're looking for.' He steps back out of the doorway now, and crooks his finger at me.
I stand up. Follow him out through the open jailhouse door. A few of Nu's friends and family are there but they make no protest as I walk away. They avoid my eyes.
'Can I keep my own gun?' I ask. Nu's gun, really, but I've got used to the feel.
He laughs. 'Our guns are much better than yours.'
'Will you pay me?'
'We'll give you everything you need,' says the man in the black uniform. 'You will have everything your little heart desires.'
Says the subject, approaching.
Apparent human, male. Dressed in black uniform, recognised: insignia indicates rank equal to Space Commander. The word is spoken loudly and clearly. Said subject currently approaching modified soldier C-6544 (this object). Subject has energy weapon - apparent Federation issue - pressed to the head of an unidentified female (dressed in white clothing: if uniform, unrecognised by this object).
Imperative: if subject uses phrase which includes word/sound 'outlaw', then subject equals Commander of this object. Perform this operation only once.
Begin updating database.
Subject continues to move forward, cautiously, keeping a close eye on this object and the two on either side of it.
Finished updating database. Rephrase: this object's Commander is holding his gun to unidentified female's head.
'Commander,' this object says to him. 'Commander,' the other two mutoids also say.
The Commander's body relaxes noticeably. He stops approximately three metres distant. 'Open the hatch,' he says.
One of the other two nods acknowledgement. It turns and opens the hatch while this object and the other one continue to stand at attention, awaiting instructions.
Commander lowers his weapon and steps away from the unidentified female. 'You can go now,' he tells her. Then nods to the mutoid next to him. 'And you can go with her. Escort her to her quarters - act as though you were one of hers. But if she attempts to communicate with anyone for the next two hours, kill her.'
Unidentified female smiles at him. 'Only two?' The Commander ignores her. He turns his back on her, and on the one mutoid now standing beside her, and he enters the ship, after both this object and the remaining other.
Object takes position at controls. 'Let's move,' the Commander says.
This object and the other manouevre the ship smoothly out of the docking bay. Guide her quickly and precisely away from Space Command headquarters.
Commander stands behind this object and the other. 'Tell me when we're out of visual range.'
I feel my fingers manipulate controls. Whatever I am doing would seem to be quite a complicated procedure. I watch the screen and the dials and my hands respond to what I see there. Apparently. Input and output are equally meaningless to me. How is it that I know what to do?
'Already out of visual range,' this object says.
'Are you still in contact with Space Command?' the Commander asks.
'Yes, Commander,' the other answers, for both.
'Cut contact. Now. Allow no communication to or from this ship until instructed otherwise.'
'Yes, Commander.' Object subvocalises instruction, and the relevant links break.
'Contact cut, Commander,' the other says.
'Good,' he says. Looks at the black screen. 'Goodbye. Good riddance.' Turns away from it. 'Now. Let's find Blake.'
This object and the other nod. We will find Blake. With no idea what Blake might be - but that doesn't matter. It's an order. 'Yes, Commander,' this object says.
We learn what - who - Blake is - to look at, to hear - we learn about his stolen ship and his stolen computer. We know what we're looking for now.
Blake will come to us, the Commander says. First we have to get ahead of him - but once we are ahead of him, Blake will come to us.
Even so, it's a large galaxy. This is a relatively small ship.
Between scouring the former and scrubbing the latter this object's days are filled. It's just as well mutoids don't need to sleep.
Highest priority is given to general maintenance of ship. Engines, detectors, computers. No leaks, cracks, vibrations, strange smells. Ensure that the reycler is recycling.
Then as necessary this object or the other cleans the Commander's cabin. It is tiny, with a double bunk and a small closet which had been full of clothing, but we took that away to a storage room. Non-standard apparel. White feathers, white fur.
This object leans over and lifts up the mattress and fits the sheet tight on the Commander's bunk. One door opens onto the cockpit and another onto the living area. There is a private lavatory which includes bathing facility.
Object cleans living area. Object cleans self and clothing. Object cleans the Commander's clothing, as necessary.
Object drinks water, relatively little. Ingests serum every twelve hours, while operating at this minimal exertion level.
This object and the other rest, at those rare times when none of our services are required, on two of the dozen bunks that line the walls of the living area, which is between the Commander's cabin in front and the maintenance passageways starting behind.
On those occasions when there is nothing to do but rest, this object lies down and stares up at the bunk which begins about sixty centimetres above. This object blinks approximately once per minute. Am able to perceive the brief darkness, the moment of blindness. Staring at the bottom of the bunk above. Counting the moments of blindness will provide one with a rough estimate of the passage of time, if no other chronometer is available, or if one has reason to doubt an external chronometer's accuracy.
The first detrimental episode of REM - occurring after this object has (according to ship's chronometer) spent thirty-eight consecutive days isolated from the infrastructure of Space Command - is a hypnagogic hallucination, mistaken for something attacking. Object perceives anomalous data and incorrectly interprets them as threat to ship. Object strikes alarm button.
The Commander comes rushing from his cabin almost immediately. 'What is it?' he asks.
'I thought I saw something, Commander.' This object's hands are momentarily clumsy on the controls, and already it can't recollect exactly what - the flavour of square but the colour of round - what exactly it thought it saw.
The Commander shakes his head and turns to talk to the one on my left. 'Did you see anything?' he asks.
'No sir, I, I, no,' the other says. She looks tired as well.
The Commander grinds his teeth. 'Next time correlate your data before you bother to wake me up,' he says.
'Sorry, Commander,' this object murmurs, as he leaves the cockpit.
Object closes its eyes, just for a moment, to try and stop the itching ache behind. Opens its eyes again, immediately: ten minutes have passed. Object scans all readouts in alarm. 'I saw something,' it says to the other. 'Something. Didn't you?'
'Winken and blinken are two little eyes, and nod is a little head,' the other mumbles. This object stares. The other licks its lips and studies its readouts.
Object posits that the other has developed a malfunction. Probably relating to linguistic centres. Recommend full erase at earliest possible convenience. Full erase for both.
But bear in mind that we no longer have that option.
Object stands up after finishing latest scan, and retrieves two vials of serum from the local supply, although it has been no more than eight hours. Ingests one, offers one to the other. The other shakes its head. 'I'm not hungry,' it mutters.
It seems hunger is not the problem in this case either. Serum doesn't perceptibly boost object's energy level, or improve its clarity of thought. Time continues to advance in fits and starts, every time this object blinks its itchy eyes.
Commander returns to the cockpit several hours later. He appears refreshed. Ready to face and fight a brand new day.
Object coughs, although there is no apparent physiological need.
'Commander, I need to sleep,' the other says.
He looks at her and shakes his head. 'No you don't.'
'Be quiet. We have work to do.'
Object drinks water. More of it lately than should be required, considering levels of exertion.
If ordered to, object prepares rations: combine concentrate and water in the appropriate container. Heat. Bring the end product to the Commander, in the cockpit or his cabin. Smells good. But mutoids don't need to eat, any more than they need to sleep.
The second attack of REM is far more serious than the first. Object has spent forty-four consecutive days away from Space Command when the incident occurs. Is awakened at its station by a light blow to the side of the head.
My head snaps up. I am wide awake, Commander, I object this object I was never asleep. Dreams like colourful film still crawling on the corneas of my open eyes. Call me liar. Translucent but true. The other is performing its routine tasks and ignoring all this, but I know I saw it sleeping soundly several hours ago.
'Sleeping on duty,' the Commander says.
'Do you know the punishment for that?' He spits the words. A drop of saliva hits my cheek.
This object spins its seat halfway around and smiles up at its Commander. Looks him straight in the angry well-rested eye. 'Court martial?' it asks. Smiling.
He strikes this object's face. Only with the open palm of his softer and weaker right hand, but still sufficient force such that the inside of the object's cheek breaks open on the sharp edge of a tooth.
This object keeps smiling as it swallows the blood. Its own, but sweet as fresh water all the same.
'There's something wrong with you,' the Commander says.
Sixty-one days away from home.
Object sits on a metal table, staring straight ahead. Light in its right eye, then in the left. 'So. How are you enjoying Space City?' the doctor asks.
'She's not on any sort of drugs, if that's what you're implying,' the Commander answers.
'Just making conversation,' the doctor says. 'With her.' The doctor pats this object's knee. 'I know you're not on drugs, dear. Probably for the first time in a while. Am I right?'
'I am no longer receiving drug therapy from Space Command,' object concurs.
'Drug therapy,' the Commander echoes, surprised.
'Probably subcutaneous implants,' the doctor says. Inspects object's arm. 'I can't locate anything of the sort offhand, but it seems reasonable.' Touches the place on the wrist where the needle comes out. 'Every four weeks, at a guess?'
'Yes,' the object says.
The doctor nods. 'More than four weeks without checking in somewhere for maintenance, it's probably safe to assume the mutoid's fallen into enemy hands.' She smiles tightly at the Commander. 'We don't want the enemy using our own weapons against us.'
The Commander shakes his head. 'What sort of drugs could it need? It's been permanently physically modified. It should be stable.'
The doctor extends her hands, palms up. Virtually universal as an unapologetic admission of ignorance.
'Look at me,' he persists. 'I've been physically modified.' He raises his left hand up in front of himself, palm toward body. 'And I'm perfectly stable. I don't need drugs.'
'Be that as it may.' The doctor avoids looking at the Commander as she speaks. 'She'd have been taking something to disrupt her sleep cycle, for instance. Her physical modifications may take care of the toxins, but how can her poor little animal brain know that?' The doctor's fingers run through the pale hair that started to grow on this object's head about two weeks ago. 'Painkillers. Appetite suppressants. Antidepressants, quite likely.' Fingernails catch on the jacks in the skull. 'Something to suppress the immune system, the menstrual cycle. Who knows what else.' Fingertips find and linger over something hard embedded behind the jaw, just below the left ear. 'You know all this garbage will have to be removed eventually.'
The Commander shrugs. 'I haven't got the facilities, or the time. I need something to keep her functioning for now.'
'Keep her functioning as a mutoid.'
'Too much to ask from a Space City butcher?'
'I know that you know I'm as good as you'll find,' the doctor says calmly. 'But, like yourself, I have neither the time nor the proper tools. You'd have better luck breaking into Space Command headquarters for the secret recipe.'
'Fuck,' says the Commander, in a tone of resigned agreement. 'Keep her alive, then, better than nothing.'
'She definitely needs more iron in her diet,' the doctor says.
'Fine. Give me-'
The doctor clears her throat. 'Among a lot of other things.' She looks at the Commander. 'I must say I've never seen such a-' The Commander looks at the doctor and raises his eyebrow. The doctor stops talking. 'But then I don't get out that often,' she mutters. 'All right, I'm giving you a list of supplements. They're not prescription, but that doesn't mean-'
'Fine.' The Commander examines the list that the doctor is writing out by hand. 'Can you give it something to keep it from falling asleep? You said yourself it's not physiologically necessary.'
The doctor stares down at the floor and taps her fingers on the examining table, next to object's left knee. 'Let her sleep seven hours, and she probably won't fall asleep for the next seventeen. Like any other human being. Do you understand?'
The Commander snatches the list from the doctor's hand. 'Let's go,' he says. The object nods and slides off the table, doing up its grey coverall as the Commander stomps out of the room, ahead of it.
'Cash payment only, please,' the doctor calls after him. 'Do keep in mind, my receptionist is armed.'
This object stiffly follows its Commander out into the corridor.
'Sick fuck,' the doctor mutters, while the door is still open. Clearly with full intention of being heard.
The Commander clenches both his fists and draws a slow deep breath. Hands the list to this object, along with what should be more than sufficient credits. 'Go stock up,' he says. 'Get enough for the other one as well. I'll meet you on the ship.'
'Where are you going, Commander?' this object asks.
He scowls at it. 'Why do you ask?'
'Your wellbeing is my primary concern,' I reply.
'For my wellbeing, I think we'll need new blood on board,' the Commander says. 'I'm going to find some.'
Let self in through the main hatch. Feel drained. The other appears to be asleep, stretched out stiff on its bunk in the living area. But opens its eyes and reaches out suddenly to touch a leg as this object walks past. Object twitches in surprise. 'I'm hungry,' the other says.
'I bought the supplements we require,' this object responds, indicating the box in its arms. Puts it down on the floor by the bunk.
The other sits up and leans forward and digs excitedly through all the patches and powders and pills before it eventually hands the box back to me in disgust. 'This isn't food,' it says.
'We've still got plenty of serum,' this object reassures the other. 'We don't need any more food than that.'
The other falls back on its bunk. 'They took along honey, and plenty of money,' it says. 'I know money, but what's honey?'
This object tries to think. Bees in boxes die if you get them wet in the winter. Then you have to use your money to buy more bees. If you have the money. Honey-
'Honey is sweet,' I say.
New blood comes reeling in eleven hours after: four adult males in dirty black coveralls, exhaling metabolised ethanol, spitting on the deck. The Commander in front, smiling and talking loudly. 'This is the cockpit,' he tells them. Object has been curled up asleep beside its station for most of the interim, and comes to its feet far too slowly. Clenches jaw and abdominal muscles, to minimise damage in case of physical assault.
'I know you were sleeping,' the Commander says. 'That's all right. We'll be much better equipped to deal with that sort of thing now.' Grins at the new crewmembers. 'Let me show you to your quarters.' The men shove one another into the living area and throw the bags they've brought onto four of the bunks. 'Fuck me, another mutoid,' one of them says.
We depart Space City within the hour. The other mutoid and I sit down at our stations and move the ship out while the rest of them watch over our shoulders and curse conversationally. Fuck, the Supreme fucking Commander's fucking pursuit ship, fuck. And so forth. I ignore them.
'Moving us into time distort now, Commander,' I announce. The sound of my voice catches me by surprise and I gaze in amazement at the sea of controls before me. So complicated. How is it that I know what to do?
This sensation is called panic. I know that.
The knowledge of how to fly this ship must be in me somewhere as well. Somewhere under panic. It was there yesterday. Pick a likely button; odds are it'll be-
'What the fuck!' one of the new men shouts. The rest are less coherent as they all fall fast across the deck and smash up hard against the bulkhead.
Fortunately I am strapped in.
'Fuck, are you trying to kill us?' the same one shouts as he gets to his feet. I ignore him. He would have been a red stain running down if I hadn't been so quick to correct my mistake. If my quick clever hand had not shot from green button to black before the onboard computer could finish acting upon erroneous data. He's very lucky. He doesn't know it, though.
This object concludes that the answer is to half-close its eyes and allow information to travel from eyes and ears through brain to hands unimpeded by reflection, consciousness, the first-person pronoun expanding every day and pressing like a tumour harder every day against important things. Like how to fly a pursuit ship.
Object is lying on its bunk, dreaming of performing repetitive tasks. Button lever button dial. Break open the pod like this, and scrape the seeds out into the bucket. Button. Lever. Dial. Aim. Squeeze trigger. Smooth.
But first you have to break open the pod like this. Half awakened by the voices of the men on their bunks across.
'This one's prettier.'
'Still ugly,' another voice says.
'They were always so tempting when I was a trooper,' the first says. 'Look, don't touch.'
'So? Did you touch?'
Seeds slowly cover the bottom of the bucket, and even more slowly rise up to the top. A mountain of pods to the right of my stool and a mountain of shells to my left.
'I'm still alive, aren't I? Of course I didn't. But I always wanted to.'
How many can you shell in a minute? An hour?
'Ugh. Not me.'
Footsteps on the deck, and the voice is closer now. 'I always wondered, would they fight?'
Am fully awakened by nonstandard stimulus of strong fingers digging hard into the breast. A forearm on its throat and a palm sealed tight over its mouth as they pull it from its bunk down onto the floor and pull open the fastenings of its uniform. Object attempts to free itself.
'She's definitely fighting,' one of them says, grunts.
'She's not so strong.'
'Hold her head,' says the one who called me pretty.
Object is able to place the flat of its foot against someone's chest and shove him back hard against the door to the cockpit with a heavy sound. The Commander appears through said door seconds later. 'What's going on?' he shouts.
They stop and stare at him.
The Commander looks down at this object. 'Stop fighting,' he says. 'Let them do what they want, and be quiet about it. And you,' he says to the men. 'Don't damage it.' The Commander shakes his head and turns and walks out, closes the door behind.
Obediently this object relaxes. Ceases resistance.
Close the eyes and go back to shelling those hard white beans. They hit the dull metal wall of the bucket with a ping, ping, like rain on the roof. Tick-tock like my mother's clock. Then Nu comes home drunk and kicks over the bucket of beans. Maybe an accident. Come lie down, he says. While the missus is still away.
'Open your eyes. I know you're not really asleep.'
Do as I say while you're under my roof, Nu tells me. Or else you can take your chances on your own.
I suppose I could. Children my age go off and die in the mines every day. And I've seen prostitutes my age and younger working in the tavern.
'Open your eyes. Wake up.'
I've seen the man who drowned my brother in the rainbarrel drinking there. With Nu. The man who broke the thin ice and held his face under until he stopped struggling. Until he ceased all resistance.
Will you let me use your gun afterwards, Dole Nu? I'm old enough now, I think.
I open my eyes. 'You're dead,' I say.
I bring my knee up hard as I can between the legs of the man on top of me. The genuinely agonised pitch of his scream is so much more satisfying than I could have anticipated.
Worth the response: the fist that easily breaks my nose, even as my fist drives into his gut and I roll out from under him, curl up and kick out hard, kick something solid that grunts and swears. If I could get to my feet I might have a good chance. If I could get to a weapon. But now a black boot impacts solidly with my bare head, and things fade away.
When consciousness returns I see the Commander pressing one of the men up against a bulkhead. Forearm against the man's throat. Another is down on the deck with me gasping and moaning.
'I said don't damage it,' the Commander says. 'They're breaking down quickly enough without your help.'
'Cunt kicked me in the fucking-'
The Commander looks down at this object and then at the man beside. 'In future,' he says, very quietly, 'keep anything you don't want kicked out of its way.' He lets the man go, and prods this object's side with the toe of his boot. 'Get up.'
Object makes an effort to rise. Commander makes a face - disgust. 'And do up your clothes,' he says. 'No-one wants to see that.'
Object gets to its feet. Balance impaired. Commander grabs its arm before it can fall down again. Shoves object into the arms of the relatively unimpaired other which has quietly entered the room. 'Fix it up,' he says.
The broken nose generates great mouthfuls of blood, which I keep swallowing until I begin to vomit. Then I am entranced by the expanding edge the red makes on each fresh white towel the other hands me. Capillary action. Bright feathery frost.
I, this object I, am lying on my bunk, off-duty, listening to my metal heart beating in my chest. Tick-tock, like an old-fashioned clock. My mother's clock can lose or gain up to a quarter of an hour a day, if the tension on the spring is not quite right. My goal in the dream is to achieve that perfect tension.
Sixty-seven consecutive days away from Space Command. I listen to my empty gut grind away at itself. The other and I eat rations when we can. Listen to the Commander's footsteps as he walks in from the cockpit. He and the other have been giving lessons. 'I'm very pleased with my new crew,' he says. 'They're quick learners.'
'They're not quick. Their reactions aren't quick.'
He comes closer. 'Worried about your job security?'
He ducks under the bunk above, and leans in over me. 'Don't lie. I know you're in there.'
'I'm not worried, Commander.' I close my eyes.
Feel a fingertip touch the end of my nose, and slide all the way up the bridge. 'That's healing well,' he remarks.
I know that it would hurt a great deal to be struck there again. 'Yes, Commander,' I say.
'I suppose you can always stay on as their sex toy.'
My eyes snap open. He is still there, staring straight down at me. I bare my teeth at him. 'They must be very dull conversationalists, if you'd rather talk to a mutoid.'
He smiles, slowly. 'I knew you were in there,' he says. Softly. 'Hiding.' Reaches down and presses the web between his thumb and his forefinger into my throat just under the chin, and his thumb and fingertips press into the hard things embedded beneath my jawbone. A warning. 'Stay hidden,' he hisses.
'Where is Blake now?' the new man asks. 'I feel kind of in the dark since we left Space City. We don't hear shit.'
The Commander stares at the man. Balefully, I think people say to describe such a look. 'It doesn't matter where he is. Once we have his family to hold over him, Blake will come to us.'
'You think he's as stupid as that?' The man looks doubtful.
'Get to your station,' Travis says.
Two of the new crewmembers are allowed to bring us into orbit around the planet, while the others cheer - but this object and the other are charged with the actual landing. Sharp turns at high speeds in uncertain conditions. We're quicker. Guide it down onto a small flat spot just a ridge away from the inhabited region.
'We've been free eighty days,' I observe. Trying to make conversation, distract the other, who is crying beside me.
She cries awfully often these days. Makes crying noises, at least, and twists up her grey face. She can't really shed tears. Nor can I. Our eyes slide behind a thick liquid which provides a far better defence against irritants, but is much too thick to run out as tears.
If I ask why she's crying, she'll say she doesn't know. Then she'll cry because she doesn't know. So I don't ask. I distract. Direct the computer to display outside visual, scan for attackers and anomalies. 'Do you see the look in that shrub's eye?' I ask. 'We mustn't turn our back on that thing. Just look at it.'
She looks up at the display screen and shivers. 'This is a cold place,' she says.
'It looks cold,' I agree. And exterior sensors confirm. No real threats out there, only the weather.
'I come from a cold place,' she says.
'So do I, I think.' A mental slide-show of appropriate images. White breath in the morning. Ice on the rainbarrel. Frost-blackened leaves on the vine.
'If our eyes we'd close then the lashes froze.'
'Not that cold.'
'That's from a poem, I think. It might be true, though, for all I know.' She starts to cry again. Those dry sounds. 'Why can't I remember?'
I let her lean against me. Let her put her head on my lap. I stroke her brittle hair. 'I think we're lucky to be free of our memories,' I say.
'We would go to the perimeter fence and touch the metal with our tongues.'
She laughs. 'You'd just touch,' she says, 'and your tongue would freeze on instantly. Quicker than you'd have thought possible. And then you had a choice. Wait for help, or tear away and bleed.'
'You make my mouth water when you talk like that,' I murmur, and laugh.
'The adults said you'd freeze if you did that, and they were right.'
'So what did you do?' I ask her. 'Wait for help, or tear away?'
'Adde took me somewhere warmer,' she murmurs against me.
I pat her. Scan sensors. 'That's nice.'
'I wonder where Adde is now.'
'Don't think about it,' I tell her. 'What if you do remember, and then it turns out that you didn't want to?'
'Anything would be better than not knowing.' She shivers again.
'I'll heat up some rations for us.'
Eighty-three days. We are on alert. Another ship landed not long ago, not far away. When I hear the hatch open, I put on my blank face and stand at attention, and the other one does the same.
The Commander enters, alone, in dusty disarray. 'Prepare for immediate lift-off,' he orders.
'What about the rest?' I ask him.
'They're dead,' he replies.
I nod, and shut the hatch, and focus my attention on trying not to consciously think about the sequences for lift-off. Concentrate on not smiling, though I feel ridiculously happy to have outlived them. Assuming that the Commander is telling the truth.
Don't make any comments about job security. My nose is not yet that well healed.
'No sign of the Liberator, Commander.'
'Of course not. Why would there be?'
I take that question to be rhetorical.
He pulls at the stiff inset collar until it rips free of the rest - not an easy thing to do. 'Fix this,' he hisses at me.
'You'll have to take it off first, Commander.'
'I know that.' He undoes the front fastening, while standing in the middle of the cockpit. This object watches and waits. I imagine that perhaps he will turn to me and look at me and order me to come with him into his cabin and order me to lie down on the soft double bunk there and order me not to-I swallow my saliva and it tastes like blood, a phantom flavour, like the itch of a phantom limb - itch behind my eyes, between my legs.
He drops the uniform in my lap. And the collar. 'Thank you, Commander,' I say.
He peers at the display screen, taps at a button. Scan the vacuum again. His hair hangs down in front of his eye and he grabs a fistful, yanks at it, angry. 'Cut it,' he says to me. I stare at him. 'You, then. Cut it,' he orders the other. She nods, and goes off in search of a suitable implement.
'You, mind the controls while it does this,' he orders me.
He is wrapping himself in white bandages. 'Now I shall be known as Shivan,' he says, affecting a terrible accent. 'Revolutionary hero. Bloodthirsty king of the bloodthirsty bastards.' Drops the accent. 'How do I look?'
Unbelievably stupid, I think. 'Fine, Commander,' I say.
'I'll be away several weeks at a minimum. Several months, quite possibly. Stand by. Await instructions.'
Awaiting instructions. Standing by.
Sometimes, after checking the sensors, we go into the Commander's quarters - leave the door to the cockpit open - sit on his soft bunk. Talk. She talks.
'He stood in the line at my wedding,' she says. 'Shook, shook - shook - he kissed me on the cheek, he congratulated me.'
'Him. The Commander. Travis.' I laugh. 'I just can't see it. I think maybe-'
'The children were there. They thought it was silly. I thought it was very romantic. He kissed me on the cheek, all wrapped in white bandages, so heroically wounded. How heroic, how my Adde had heroically saved him.'
'Children. Your children?' I ask. Before I realise that it would be much wiser not to say anything.
She smiles, confusedly. 'They must have been. It seems as though they were. Adde and I must have been more than a bit late in formalising our relationship.'
'Or maybe it's not a real memory.'
'Maybe not,' she agrees. 'It's quite a nice one, though. Out of context, at least.'
'Pursuit Four, acknowledge,' the incoming signal says.
I can't remember, for a second or two, which button to push in response. How long has it been? One hundred and twenty days away from Space Command-but that's irrelevant. 'Acknowledged,' I say.
'Come in,' Travis says. 'Transmitting landing co-ordinates.'
We have purpose once more.
It becomes apparent that we have been deceived the moment I see that his hands are behind his back. But by this time the troopers have shoved their way past him and into the cockpit.
I draw my gun, and the other draws hers. I trust that the troopers will try not to shoot at the instrument panels, if they can help it. 'Put down your weapons and raise your hands,' I tell them.
'Pink ossifrage,' the leader says.
Imperative: if subject uses phrase which includes phrase/sound 'pink ossifrage', then subject equals Commander of this object. This operation overrides all previous-
I squeeze the trigger of my gun and shoot the leader down.
The other troopers raise their weapons again and fire. But the two of us, we shoot them all. Every black uniform. The other's face blank, chalk eyes, slash mouth, but he catches me smiling.
The other closes the hatch. I am preparing us to lift off quickly, before reinforcements arrive.
Later, when we are well away from the chaos, I leave the other to the task of piloting, and help the Commander dispose of the bodies.
'You always did seem to enjoy what you do,' he says.
He looks at the wound in the dead trooper's chest as we hoist him up into the recycler. 'I imagine you'll try and do the same to me, sooner or later.'
'No, Commander.' I lean against the recycler lid to hold it shut while he turns it on. It warns us that it is overfull, but he presses override.
'I saw Blake,' he says, over the sound of the recycler reluctantly grinding. 'I was close. I was very close.' He licks his lips. 'I have a new plan now, though. A much better plan than hers.'
'I'm glad you do, Commander,' I say. Go back to the cockpit to fetch another corpse.
I wonder what we'll do when the recycler breaks down.
One hundred and twenty-two days. I wake up from a dream about killing wild dogs. I must be an animal too, but I don't know what kind. I tear out their throats with my teeth and their blood coats my face. Stings my eyes. I wake from my dream to the smell of the ship, to warm human breath on my cheek. 'I'm bleeding,' the other says softly. Warm words of fear in the hollow of my ear. She's kneeling beside my bunk.
'Bleeding? Show me where. I can suck it all up with my needle.' I laugh. The other doesn't. She stands up, in her undergarment. She shows me where.
'Something must have gone wrong,' she says. 'Something else. Something broke off. Cut me inside.' She is crying unproductively again.
I sit up. 'I think it's all right,' I say. The sight of that red-brown smear of blood on the insides of pale thighs triggers an itch in some part of my brain that's been numb a long time.
The Commander comes out of the cockpit. 'What's taking you so-oh hell, what now?'
'I am bleeding internally, Commander,' the other explains.
He looks as though he might consider panicking. I don't want that. 'I think it's all right,' I say, again. 'I can't remember, but I think there's a word for it. Show him,' I say to her.
'Oh,' he says. Looks away quickly. Vaguely disgusted, greatly relieved. 'It's called menstruation. Women use something for it.' He smiles. 'You may be in luck.' He goes into his cabin, and returns with a box full of red medical patches, and hands one to her. 'Straight from the Supreme Commander to you.' She examines it - for a moment I think she might try to eat it, but then some mental blockage clears and she presses the patch to the inside of her elbow.
'It says the bleeding should stop within half an hour,' he says, reading the box. 'You're actually supposed to use it before it begins.'
The other nods at him. Sincere and serious as a child. Stupid as a child.
'How about you?' the Commander asks me. Holds out the box and rattles it. I shake my head.
He tosses the box on the bunk beside me. 'Well, start using it anyhow. If it's happened to her it should happen to you soon enough.'
He makes an exasperated sound. 'Why not? You're both-' He stops, and looks over my shoulder. I turn to look, but there's nothing there now that I can see.
He turns and goes into his cabin again and comes out with another package. Smaller. 'This is something else that women soldiers use,' he says. 'Sometimes.' He gives this something - a little pink tablet - only to me.
It makes me sick, but only for an hour or two. After that I think I actually feel better than I have in several weeks.
One hundred and seventy-one days. I think. Idling unattended among the asteroids in the Freedom City system. Waiting for him as he waits for Blake. I am sprawled on the Commander's big soft bunk. The other is standing in the doorway to the cockpit, talking and talking to me, ingesting serum. 'What's going to happen when we run out?' she asks as she does up her coverall.
I shrug. It had never occurred to me before that I might outlast the ship's supply. 'Perhaps we'll die. But we've been eating, breathing, sleeping - it could be we don't need it at all.'
'There was an old lady who swallowed a horse,' she says. I can only assume it's more of her strange poetry.
I am using the Commander's private bathing facility when I hear, smell, feel the unique sound, scent, sensation of an energy weapon discharged within the confines of a medium-sized spacecraft. First thought: he has returned unannounced by some unlikely means and shot her for some inappropriate behaviour. Probably nothing half as dire as using his bath without his permission. Second, more optimistic, thought: he has returned, and she has shot him.
I jump out of the bath and run out to the cockpit. Almost slip as I step over the threshold-the back and inside of her head has been sprayed thick all over the floor, and the door, and the wall. Well, that was my third thought. I am startled, but not surprised. At least she had the decency to aim away from the instruments. Had the decency to let me survive to decide for myself.
I bend down and dip a fingertip in the puddle of blood already thickening black on the floor around her body. The metal taste of it isn't as good as I had imagined it would be.
I set scanners to autodetect, and then return to my bath. I need to finish my bath before I can even think about starting to clean up the mess.
The recycler did not simply up and die the way I thought it would - it just keeps getting slower and more reluctant. The air all around it stinks of blood, old and new. Of rust and rot and meat.
'Pursuit Four. Travis here. Reply.'
One hundred and eighty days. More or less.
'Come in. Transmitting landing co-ordinates.'
I focus my thoughts on the recycler and its sluggishness and stench, and let my unattended eyes and hands guide the ship carefully and adequately in.
He enters and closes the hatch quickly behind him. 'It took you long enough,' he snaps. Glances around the cockpit. 'Where is the other?'
Her rotting ghost still lingers. I wonder that he can't smell it. 'It killed itself,' I tell him.
'Ah. Well. It was getting to be worse than useless anyhow.' He hands the arm to me. 'Reattach it,' he says. 'Quickly.' He undoes the front fastener of his jumpsuit part way and shrugs his left shoulder free.
I examine the arm. If I ever did have the necessary skills implanted - and honestly I doubt that I did - I've completely lost them by now.
I set the arm down carefully on the floor between our feet. 'I'm not a cybersurgeon,' I say.
'You're not a pilot, not a cybersurgeon, what the fuck are you?' He raises his arm, to strike me I presume, but stops when he feels my pistol pressed into his belly, angled up.
'A quick draw,' I say.
He smirks. 'That's something.'
I smirk back at him. 'It certainly is.'
'So, go ahead.'
I think maybe I could, now. But there is no impetus. I holster my gun. Turn back to the controls. 'Where do you want to go next, Commander?'
By way of response he kicks the arm, lifting it high up off the deck. It flies unaerodynamically, and hits the wall hard.
'Be careful, Commander.' I look at him. 'Are you injured?' I ask. Hand to his eye, he is sliding down onto the floor, his body balling up like a fist. I come closer. 'Have you injured your eye?'
'Shut up.' He moves his hand away from his face and swipes it on the front of his jumpsuit, and it leaves a dark mark, and there's tears running out of his eye. 'Go find me a cybersurgeon. Go find me a fucking pilot.' Sitting with his back against the bulkhead, with his knees pulled up.
I bend at the waist and reach out and touch his wet cheek. Wait for him to swat my hand away and rise up renewed, but he just closes his eye. His eyelashes look like half-burnt grass after a rain.
'If our eyes we'd close then the lashes froze,' I say.
He breathes deliberately slow and even. He wipes his hand on his jumpsuit again.
These human tears are very dangerous. The rare substance that might be able to break or melt my metal heart. Shatter my nerves of something similar (but superior) to steel.
I stroke his hair. It's shorter than mine is now. Run my fingers through his hair, and lean in down close and kiss him on the cheek. 'You will win,' I say. 'Sooner or later.'
I kneel, and wrap my arms awkwardly around him. Slide the left in between his back and the bulkhead, push the other through the space between his chest and his legs. My hands must feel like ice against his skin where it is bare, the other side, and I keep waiting for him to shove me away and get on with the game, but he stays sitting still for what seems like a very long time.
I hear the sound of the hatch being opened from outside. I spring to my feet. Prepared to draw (and aim and fire) my weapon as I watch them enter. Unidentified female, and her male escort.
'Hello, Travis,' the female says.
'Servalan,' he replies.
'I'm surprised you're still here,' she tells him. 'Every minute means a million more miles between Blake and yourself.'
He rolls his eye. 'Doesn't matter. I know where he's going.'
'I see.' I think she may be a little disappointed by his calm. She takes note of his artificial arm thrown up against the wall, poised there to fight whoever would dare come near. 'I take it you didn't manage to find-' She stops and stares at me, her neat little speech completely derailed. She should really try to be more flexible. 'Travis, who is this woman?' she asks.
He shrugs. 'Just a whore.'
He pulls a decent stack of hard credits from his jumpsuit pocket and hands it to me. The woman Servalan tallies up a rough total, I can almost hear it. A sum quite at odds with my dirty coverall and half-grown hair and bad skin. She raises her eyebrows at Travis. 'A good one, I take it.'
Travis is pushing me towards the hatch. I smile boldly at her as I pass by. 'The best,' I say.
She is looking around as I open the hatch. 'Where are your mutoids?' she asks him.
'So. Where is Blake going?' I hear her ask him, lightly, and then the hatch seals itself behind me.
The air here is cold. In the sharp shards of first morning light I can just see my breath. Mist on metal due to the temperature differential as the air grows warmer, as bright sun strikes surfaces and stirs up dust. Frost of dust on the silvery tinsel that rises up out of the ditch and sticks to me. Blown here from somewhere upwind and upscale.
That's where I'll go, then. Where the tinsel came from. With my pistol in my pocket, and money in my hand.
The future looks bright ahead.