Graff has been keeping a big secret from his closest friends, the captain and crew of a pirate-hunting starship. He expected to die before they ever discovered what he really is. But he’s not dead, and now he has to explain.
I am cut nearly in half by the accident. The surviving fibers of my suit hold me together. I am not dead.
And this is a problem. I expected to die in this job, in my little scout runner, blasted apart, incinerated, torn to pieces with nothing to recover. All that would follow would be a sad memorial service with a picture and an old set of boots on a table. That is how scout pilots usually die. But I am just cut almost in half. And the doctor on my ship, Visigoth, is very good.
My biologics are mostly shut down with shock, though I’m dutifully trying to monitor the pain. It’s all-enveloping, a fist squeezing my brain. My mechanics are in full self-repair mode, overheating because there’s so much to knit back together. Because of them, I have survived long enough that I will probably not die. This is going to be awkward.
From my own internal processor I send out an emergency signal to piggyback on ship comms, so that maybe someone can come and explain.
On autorecovery, my half-exploded runner manages to slam into its berth on the Visigoth and rescue crews are standing by. Once they seal all the locks, I try to help them peel me out of the cockpit but it’s not really working. There are many pairs of hands and shouting voices.
“Graff, stop, lie back, you’ll be fine, it’s fine, it’s going to be fine—”
I might laugh at this.
The dock crew and medics are full of panic and repressed horror at what they must be looking at. Then I am horizontal, fully supported, no strain at all on my body, which feels wet and wobbly, and the pain is lead weight on every nerve. Fingers pry at my eyelids, a light flashes, and I see him, Doctor Ell, who is also my lover. He has a pale face and a shock of blond hair and intense eyes, and his whole expression is screwed up and serious. I want to pat his shoulder and say everything will be fine but nothing is working. So I look at him.
“I’m sorry,” I murmur.
“Graff, no, what are you talking about?”
“You’re about to find out I faked my medical scans.” I try to smile.
He stares. “What?”
A medic’s voice interrupts. “Doctor! God, look at this—”
Finally, happily, I pass out.
Five other people are in the room when I wake up. Ell and Captain Ransom. A support medic, standing by. Two guards at a door that has never had guards at it before.
“When will he wake up?” Ransom asks.
“He’s awake now,” Ell says. He must be watching a monitor.
I’m listening hard—I can hear heartbeats, if I focus. I think I can open my eyes. But I can’t move anything else. There’s a fog; I battle past it.
“Am I paralyzed or on medical restraints?” My voice scratches.
Some rustling as the guards flinch, like they didn’t believe I was awake. The medic perks up.
“Drug-induced paralysis,” Ell says.
“Because of the injuries or because of everything else?”
Nothing for a long pause, then, “It would be better if you lie still for now.”
“Okay.” I sigh. My lungs still work but feel like they’ve been scrubbed out with pumice.
Ransom curses and begins to pace. He doesn’t have a lot of room and his steps fall hard. His presence always seems to expand to fill whatever space he’s in. It’s actually a comfort right now. Ransom is here, he’ll fix everything.
My processor seems to be fine. Ell didn’t mess with it when he had a chance to look inside me. The self-repair has settled down; I’m still recording. I check the time; it’s been two days since they pulled me out of the runner. Diagnostics say I’m . . . mending. Mechanics repaired. Biologics will need more time. I took a beating. But Ell didn’t try to dig in or disconnect anything important. He could have, if he’d wanted to.
I have a lot of questions. I imagine they do, too. We try to wait one another out. My eyes open to a dimly lit ceiling in Medical. I want to see Ell but he’s standing back.
Ransom and Ell finally break at the same time.
Ell says, “How did you fake the scans—”
The captain says, “You sent a signal—”
I chuckle. I can’t help it. This would be funny if it weren’t me. Ransom curses again.
“This isn’t funny,” Ell says.
“No, I know that,” I reply. “I’m sorry.” I would laugh outright except it hurts too much, because if I had thought about it before the accident, what Ransom would do if he ever found out about me, this is about how I’d have expected it to go. My ongoing chuckle comes out like a cough.
Ransom is losing his temper. “Graff—”
“Let it go. You know how he is,” Ell says.
“I thought I did.”
I stop chuckling. “Ask me. Ask me everything.”
Ransom starts. “Are you dangerous?”
“Yes. I mean no. Not to any of you.”
“Graff, you’re not helping,” the doctor says.
“What do you want me to say?” I murmur.
“What are you?” the doctor asks.
“No, you’re not—”
“I didn’t fake the DNA records, just the physiological. Look at the DNA.” I’m tired. But I need to get through this. I need to know what they’re going to do with me.
Ell has touched every inch of me. He must have thought he knew me.
“When was all this work done? How . . .” Now Ell is pacing. “I’ve seen cybernetic implants, but this . . . this is extensive. This is part of your nervous system. Work this extensive should kill anyone . . . but you don’t even have any scarring from it. It’s all perfectly integrated. How?”
They think I’m dangerous. They think I’m going to go off like a bomb. “Can you send the kids out, please?”
The two guards, the medic. They’re not kids, of course they’re not. I know them all; I trained with them. But I outrank them. Another long, taut silence follows.
“I’m not going to hurt anyone,” I insist. My head is throbbing. “There are more secrets than mine here. I’ll tell you and the captain but no one else.”
Ell comes to my shoulder, a syringe in hand. I can’t flinch, I can’t resist. He pumps the liquid into a tube already connected to my body somewhere that I can’t see.
“For the pain,” he says gently. “Your vitals are spiking.”
He touches my shoulder, naked under a thin sheet. I almost start crying. My blood stops pounding quite as hard. Nerves fray a little less. Ell steps away. I want to reach for him.
“Drugs work on him at least,” he says to the captain.
“Do you trust him?” Ransom asks. A question that cuts. He’s always trusted me before.
“I don’t know,” Ell says.
I think I might start crying. I wait. We all wait, in air thick with anxiety, like trying to wade through gelatin.
“Marcel, Xun, Brown. You’re dismissed,” Ransom says finally.
“But sir—” He must give them a look, because no one complains further.
They leave reluctantly. Ell murmurs reassurances at them. They all take second, third looks at me. I wonder what the ship’s rumor mill is saying. It will never be the same.
“All right, Graff,” Ransom says. “How . . . what . . .” He waves his hand at me, shakes his head.
I’ve never explained this; I’ve never needed to. I don’t regret having to do so now. It’s how I’m going to survive. Assuming they believe me and trust me at the end of it.
“It’s done in utero,” I say. “It’s grown. Artificial gestation, of course, but that’s—”
“Oh starry fuck,” Ell curses.
I’ve never heard him say ‘fuck’ in all the years I’ve known him. This is probably going to go badly for me.
“Is that even legal?” Ransom asks.
“I’m not sure. It’s certainly not ethical,” he says.
Except it is. It is for us.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Ransom asks calmly. I recognize the tone, the resolve, that he now knows what the problem is and is closer to figuring out what to do about it. “Why not tell us what . . . about this? Why bother hiding it with fake scans?”
“Because we don’t tell anyone.” This drops even harder than the first confession.
“We,” Ransom says.
“I hope you understand what I’m trusting you with, telling you this. I’m trusting you.” This is a plea. I am vulnerable. I trust them. Not that I have much choice. Or I could shut myself off. Burn out my processor, keep all the secrets. But I don’t want to.
“We,” the captain repeats. “You sent a signal. At least, the signal originated from your position. It tried to sneak out on ship comms.”
“But you blocked it before it got out,” I say. And start chuckling again. “I thought that might happen but I had to try. I . . . I wanted someone to come and download my processor in case I didn’t make it.”
“How many of you are there?” he asks.
“Not as many as you’re afraid of,” I say.
“Fuck, Graff, what am I supposed to do with you?” Captain Ransom asks.
“I don’t know, sir. Right now I think I would like to sleep. But I’m a little wound up.” I need to know I’ll wake back up again, if I go to sleep. I’m not sure right now.
“You should be dead,” he said. “If you were anyone else in a runner that blew up like that you’d be dead.”
“Yeah, I was sort of thinking if I ever blew up in a runner there wouldn’t be enough left for anyone to learn about any of this.”
“Bad luck there,” Ransom says, deadpan.
“I’m about to kill you myself,” Ell says. Then to Ransom: “We should let him sleep.”
“Does he really need to sleep? All those wires . . .”
“Yes, I need to sleep. And eat. And everything else.” Sex. I need that, too. Just maybe not right now. Where did Ell go? They’re conferencing in the back of the room. Like they can’t bear to look at me. I try to stay awake, so I can explain some more, but the painkiller is also a sedative and it pulls me under.
The very best thing I ever ate was ice cream with pieces of dark chocolate and brandied cherries mixed into it. Decadent and comforting at once, served at a too-fancy café with real wood furniture and paneled walls. They made everything themselves with dairy from real goats. I remember thinking, this, this is what it’s all about.
I got that memory out on a previous download, at least.
I try to send out another message, masking it as a trojan and slipping it in with another signal before the comms operator notices it. But they’ve got the whole room jammed. I can’t access anything, not even the medical computers.
This is bad. I’m not Graff anymore; I’m a thing on a table. Explaining hasn’t helped.
I can’t explain it, that’s the problem.
The memories are pristine. I’ve got them all stored away, and with them the emotions that goes along with them. The flush on my skin when Ell asked if he could buy me a drink like he was making a dare. The flush on his skin when I said yes, because he hadn’t thought I would. This was right after he’d come on board as ship’s doctor; we’d been in a station-side tavern that was too dark and loud with lots of people dancing. Two days of leave and better make the most of it, right? Ransom had been there, rolling his eyes at the both of us flirting like it was a contest. And only a couple hours later, out in a quiet corridor, I put my hand on Ell’s neck, gently pushed him against the wall, and kissed him.
That was a good night.
I write the best after-action reports because I remember. No one ever questions it. I just have a good memory, right? I can still feel the exact sensation when the reactor on the runner blew out, my gut parting like taffy as shrapnel went through it.
Leave that memory and go back to that first night with Ell. That’s better. Close my eyes, slow my breathing.
Checking my processor, I know exactly when I’ve slept and when I haven’t. I fall in and out of sleep all day. The door opens, waking me. There are footsteps. I try to look and still can’t.
“Doctor?” I ask, rasping. I’m getting hydrated through a tube in a vein, but my mouth is bone dry.
Ell appears next to me. I sigh, relieved. I shouldn’t be relieved.
“What’s happening?” I ask. I’d meant to ask for water.
He turns away, and my heart lurches. But he’s back a moment later with a bottle and straw. “Drink,” he orders, and I do. “Better?”
“Yeah. What’s happening?”
“Are you a spy?”
“What? No.” I mean, I don’t think so? Would they think I was, if I told them everything?
“Because Ransom thinks you’re a spy.”
“I don’t know. For whatever you are.”
“How bad am I hurt?”
“You should be dead. Your spine was severed. At least I thought it was, but then . . . it fixed itself.”
“Yeah, it does that.”
“You’ll be on your feet in another week, and I’ve hardly done anything but hook you to a feeding tube.” He’s offended that he can’t take credit for saving my life.
“I’d be dead without the feeding tube. That stuff needs calories.”
Flustered, he sighs. “What are you?”
“I’m me.” That will never be a good enough answer. “What is Ransom saying?”
“He suggested dissection. I think he was joking.”
“It’s not funny,” Ell says.
“No, I guess not.” I look at him because I don’t know how much longer I’ll get to. My smile feels a bit ridiculous.
He doesn’t smile. He’s pursed and worried and hurt.
I can move enough to breathe. This takes a deep breath to get it all out. “I would like to be able to move, if you think I might be ready to stop with the nerve block.”
“I’ll have to ask the captain.”
“So it isn’t for medical reasons.”
Yeah, this may not go well. “I’m not a spy, I’m not a danger to you or anyone, I would never hurt this ship or anyone on it. Where is Ransom, let me talk to him—”
“He doesn’t trust you. Not after this. You lied—”
“The medical scans? You hacked into the ship’s computers and hijacked my diagnostics systems! You always scanned out as an ideal textbook human and now I know why!”
“Yeah, okay, I guess that was sort of like lying.”
“Graff.” He says it as a reprimand. He’s wondering if everything was a lie.
“I was raised by the ones who provided my genetic material. I have parents. Does that help?”
“It might.” He gets up, puts the bottle of water on a table.
It’s infuriating, not being able to see anything, except that I’m too drugged to be really furious about anything. “Captain’s listening right now, isn’t he? On a monitor? Is he outside the door or what? Or does he have marines ready to storm in if I do something screwy?”
“You can’t do anything, you’re immobilized. Unless the drugs really don’t work on you and you’ve been faking it.” He raises a brow, as if this is a question.
“Well, fuck.” I seriously can’t move. He knows this. I roll my eyes at the ceiling, as if I could get Ransom’s attention that way. “Okay. Captain? Remember the time you had me sit in a runner out on that asteroid for two weeks waiting for those pirates to show up? And remember how you didn’t tell me why you wanted me to sit on that rock, or for how long, or anything?”
The door to Medical slides open, slides shut. Footsteps. And Ransom says, “So you wouldn’t anticipate and launch your burn too soon and spoil the trap.”
“Right!” I exclaim, excited, probably too excited, because Ell appears in my peripheral vision, looking at a monitor and frowning.
Ransom continues, “It’s not that I didn’t trust you—”
“No, see, that’s the thing. It was a good plan, and it wasn’t about you trusting me. I trusted you. I’d have sat on that rock for a year if you told me to.”
“Now you’re just trying to guilt me into listening to you.”
“Yes. Yes, I am. Also, I want to keep on following your crazy plans. They’re kind of fun. You know what I was thinking, when I was stuck on that rock?”
“How you were going to kill me for not telling you?”
“No. That I couldn’t wait to see what you had planned. I knew it’d be good.” And it had been. Lots of explosions. “And I was thinking of how many drinks you were going to owe me when I got back.” Those had been my first words when I got back to Visigoth, sweaty and stinking from being cooped up for so long: “You owe me a drink, sir.” He’d laughed. I’d known Ransom since flight school, almost right after I left home. I can’t imagine what this looks like from his end. I’ll never make it up to him.
The captain’s voice is taut. “This might have been easier if a switch flipped and turned him into some killer robot.” He’s talking to Ell, who grumbles.
I ask, “Why didn’t you burn out my processor when you had me open, right after the accident?”
The doctor says, “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Doctor, can we have a word?” Ransom says. I can picture him jabbing a thumb over his shoulder, but he never enters my line of sight.
Ell nods, looks at me one more time. “Do you need anything? Anything critical to your current state of health, I mean.”
“You?” I ask hopefully.
He looks away. The door shuts, and I close my eyes.
I spend the next two days trying to think of exactly the right thing to tell Ell and Ransom that will make everything all right and get everything back to the way it was. Or at least have them not look at me like I’m a villain in a bad drama. And I think I’ve got it. I stay awake by sheer force of will. Assuming I ever get to download again, whoever gets the package is going to know every inch of this ceiling. It’s got just the littlest bit of texture, like a partially worn pebble. The gray is rather pleasant once you get used to it.
The door opens. Many footsteps enter. My heart rate increases. The pain is so much less than what it was but that makes it harder to lie still. I want to sit up. I want to use my hands when I speak.
Ell appears at the side of the table. I get it all out in one go before he can say anything.
“It’s the stories. The stories, the experiences. Everything. A computer could do it, but then we wouldn’t get the . . . the experience. The hormones. The dopamine. The endorphins. The meat and nerves of it all, right? That’s the important bit. We go out into the galaxy and collect stories, and then we bring them home. It’s who we are, it’s what we do. And love, we go out to find all the love we can and try to keep it . . .” This ship is full of love and I’m afraid I’ve broken it. “I’ve never had to explain it before and I know it doesn’t make sense—”
Ell studies me for a long time. He seems calm. Some decision has been made.
“Love?” he says, his tone even.
“Yeah. Just like that.”
He lowers his gaze, raises a syringe full of some ominous liquid.
Well. I tried. I set my jaw in what I hope is a picture of fortitude. “This is it, then.”
“This is what?” he asks.
“You induce a coma and ship me off to some military R&D facility. Or is this . . . I mean, you wouldn’t.”
He gets this very familiar—delightfully familiar—frustrated look on his face. Like he’s about to snarl. “I wouldn’t what?”
“Just finish me off.”
“God, Graff. No.” He injects the syringe into the line. “This is probably going to hurt. At least, I think it’ll hurt.”
“It already hurts.”
“I wasn’t sure you could hurt, after I saw all that metal. Until I looked at your readings.”
“You know me, Ell. You do.” I finally catch his gaze. His familiar, shining gaze. He sort of looks like he’s about to cry, too.
Then there’s a warm rush though my veins that hits my heart and all my muscles seem to melt into a dull throb. I groan, but it’s kind of a relieved groan because I can wiggle my fingers and toes now and that feels pretty good. My processor’s diagnostics hum away; I’m still not optimal but stress levels are decreasing.
“Warned you,” Ell says, leaning in. “Now don’t move. You’re still not entirely in one piece yet.”
I reach out, touch his hand. Just brush it, then let him go because I don’t want to scare him. He jumps a little. His breath catches. But he stays near.
Finally, I can turn my head to look at the rest of the room. Captain Ransom is standing there, arms crossed. And someone new is with him. She appears female, fine boned, with short-cropped red hair and a wry frown. A smirk. A judgment. I’ve never seen her before, but I know who she is. Tez, her name is Tez. My circuits hum in proximity to hers.
I look at Captain Ransom. “You let the signal get out after all.”
“To see what would happen. She showed up a day later. Do you people just hang around in deep space waiting for edge-of-death signals?”
“Yes,” Tez says calmly.
“I’m not dying actually, it turns out,” I say awkwardly.
“You had a close call,” she says.
“Is it a good story?”
“I’m not sure.”
She comes to the table, holds out her hand. I take it. The spark of a circuit completing pinches my palm, and hers.
The download takes a few minutes. I get all of her memories as well. It’s like meeting an old friend from home. We’re all old friends from home. It’s kind of nice. I’m not sure I can explain that part of it to Ell and Ransom.
Tez holds my gaze, and in hers is forgiveness and understanding, along with the mildest of reprimands.
You convinced them, I tell her.
No, you did or I’d never have gotten your signal. They wanted to be convinced. You know you should meet up with someone to download a little more often, don’t you?
Yeah, I just get distracted.
But is it a good story?
It is. I’m sorry I told them about us.
No, you’re not.
The connection breaks. She takes a breath, resettling herself into her skin. Looks around. Sees Ell with new understanding. He ducks his gaze, self-conscious.
“So. They know,” she says, just to get it out in the open.
Tez can take me back home for this. If I can’t keep the secret, then I can’t be allowed to travel. But . . . I’m valuable. I almost start whining like a child, telling her how valuable I am, out in the universe, collecting stories.
“I trust them,” I say.
“They may not want you to stay.” She looks up, around. “He’s afraid you won’t want him to stay.”
“It’s a lot to take in,” Ransom says flatly. “I confess, I’m not sure what to do next. I was hoping you might tell me.”
But she doesn’t. She asks, “Graff does a lot of good where he is?”
“He does,” Ransom says. I wasn’t sure he would.
“Thank you, sir,” I murmur. But it’s Ell’s decision that matters most, and I look at him next.
He says, “I can purge all the files from the accident and recovery. Go back to the faked scans. Keep that secret. With the captain’s permission.” Ell looks; Ransom shrugs. I want to laugh at the back and forth but that would probably be bad so I don’t.
“You want him to stay?” Tez asks Ell.
“I do. I think I do.”
She looks at me. “Graff?”
“Is it going to be weird? It’s going to be weird, isn’t it? Me staying.”
“Yes,” Ell says. “But I think you should stay anyway.”
We both look at Ransom. He’s like a rock, his chiseled expression unmoving. He says, “Yeah, it’ll be weird. For a while.”
She smiles, her brow crinkling. “I like them.”
“Yeah, me, too,” I say.
Tez brushes off her jumpsuit. “Captain, if you can spare the time, I wondered if someone on your crew might take a look at my ship? Just a routine once-over.”
It’s not very subtle. He looks at her, then at me, then at Ell. He raises his brow. “All right. This way.”
He actually flashes a little bit of a wry smile over his shoulder as they leave. Then Ell sits by the table and gives me the most exhausted, long-suffering, and sad look I’ve ever seen.
I’m also exhausted, which is frustrating. I’ve slept enough. “I was never going to tell you because I couldn’t tell you and it didn’t make a difference anyway and I’m sorry.”
After a hesitation, he touches my forehead. He ruffles my short hair, looks me up and down like he’s studying me. Studying his handiwork, or maybe he’s really looking at me.
“I have a lot more questions,” he says.
“Yeah, I know.”
I open my hand. Wait for him to make the move. And he puts his hand in mine.
“Sinew and Steel and What They Told” copyright © 2020 by Carrie Vaughn
Art copyright © 2020 by Eli Minaya