Trigger warning: This fic contains war, butt-holes, racism, abuse, and someone deliberately breaking Rabbit because he's a scum-sucking bigot. If you don't like feels, don't read this fic.
InB4: Yes, I know The Spine was sent to Vietnam, but M*A*S*H was all about Vietnam with a thin veneer of Korea pasted on. Plus - this is *fanfic*. I can do what I want. So ner.
Also, there's a part in here partially inspired by this pic: http://jameson9101322.deviantart.com/art/Spg-Rabbit-in-a-Corner-402794502
The steady drumbeat of approaching helicopters roused Hawkeye halfway to surgery before he even opened his eyes. Which was why he was almost another casualty of war without ever lifting a gun.
The ambulance that almost ran him over continued on its mission, honking at him in passing in the same casual way that a man might swat at a fly.
Another day at M*A*S*H 4077. Another day of meatball surgery where dying men came in, and broken men went out.
"I needa co--"
"Here's some hot coffee for you," said Radar, in passing, handing him a welcome tin mug.
Sharp theobromine burned the scum off his tongue from the rotgut they'd had the previous night. Blasted away the cobwebs with a chemical version of an incendiary bomb.
He changed, scrubbed, and prepped on automatic. Another cog in the gears of the machine that was called War.
If they were lucky, they'd have enough time to rest before the second wave came in overland.
"Got multiple bullet wounds. Keeps complaining about his back," said a nurse about patient one.
"The Spine. Gotta go back for The Spine. They left him. Ya gotta get The Spine..."
Hawkeye sedated him lest he do something horrible they had no chance of repairing.
Even then, he went under mumbling, "Gotta go get th' Spine..."
"X-ray him while he's out, make sure."
They dealt with the delirious on a daily basis. And given the head wound... "And X-ray his head while you're at it!" Hawkeye called after the retreating nurse. "Maybe we should X-ray all of our heads..."
Patient one came back with clean X-rays. Hawkeye ran his gut to double-check and make certain there was no infection or potential for infection involved. The rest of it was a regular patch-job. Extract all the metal. Stitch up the holes. Put blood back into him and count all the sponges and tools out before stitching him back up again and applying bandages.
He put an alert on his check-sheet for the nurses to monitor his temperature.
On to the next mess of a human who needed their meat suit repaired.
Tommy Wytcliffe moaned as he came out of anaesthetic. Despite the beautiful lady sitting by his side, it hurt too much for him to be in heaven.
"Hello," she smiled. "Is your back any better?"
"My back? Yeah, but--" Oh. OH! "No, I wasn't talkin' about my back. I was talking about The Spine. He's our war-bot. Y'know? Walter Robotics?"
"Wait. There's a robot called Spine?"
"The Spine," corrected Tommy. "Did they find him? He lost his voice, and he can't talk, so ya gotta be nice to him, okay?"
The look on her face said it all. After weeks in the field of battle, reading The Spine's every nuance, Tommy was used to reading faces.
They hadn't done a damn thing to look for The Spine.
"We'll put out the word. We'll find him, I promise."
"You know the protocol, Rookie," said Sarge. "Can't take heavy vehicles with us when we bug out."
"Yeah," Tommy growled. "But'cha don't leave ordinance behind, neither. Which is he, Sarge? Is he a gun or a tank?"
"By now?" said Sarge. "It's scrap metal. Let it rust with all the rest of it in that damned jungle."
Tommy turned his face away so that Sarge wouldn't see him cry.
He liked The Spine.
And he didn't want to think of the silver robot that had saved their lives countless times as a pile of scattered scrap in the badlands.
"Radar, I need you to put the word out. Everywhere. Anywhere."
Radar already had his notebook and pencil out. It was only mildly disturbing that he'd already written down APB before Hotlips had entered.
"We're looking for a silver, human-shaped robot that answers to the name of The Spine. Six foot, plus. Silver complexion. Black hair. May be walking with a pronounced limp. And let them know it can't speak for itself."
"...speak for itself," Radar muttered, barely a beat ahead of Hotlips. "I'll get them to bring it here for inspection," he added as she gave the order.
"Thanks, Radar. You're a peach."
They flew helicopters over the area where the troop encountered the ambush. They searched the surrounding hills for the faintest hint of silver. They called around from M*A*S*H to M*A*S*H, from base to base to base. They even scanned the Korean north's newspapers for any hint of a captured silver robot.
They found nothing.
No trace. No wreckage. No hint of where the robot had gone.
They looked for five days, during which Tommy Wytcliffe had developed ulcers and needed treatment.
Hawkeye prescribed isolation, or at least, isolation from his Sergeant. The man was best described - in a charitable light, by Father Mulcahey - as a big loud meany-pants. After that, it was still the fact that he was worried about an AWOL robot.
He tried his best for the poor kid, and there was nothing else to do.
Hawkeye found his way to the still in the wee small hours when the temperature was at least tolerable. He would sink into the bottle, yes. Followed by sinking into a stupor. Followed by just plain stinking the next day.
Now that was a plan with some predictable results.
And it would have gone well... without the Noise.
It began as a low, bass hum. Almost barely perceptible, but still on the edge of hearing. Loud enough to be annoying, without being loud enough to trace. It was neither inside nor outside. Neither up nor down.
Though Hawkeye fancied he could hear it better closer to the ground.
He shuffled along; still, alcohol, and temporary obliteration forgotten in the hunt for the Noise. Crawling on hands and knees. This way and then that. Pressing his ear to the Korean soil and trying desperately to determine if he was getting closer to the source.
Then came the extra features to the noise.
Something heavy hitting the ground.
Something heavy being dragged.
Something much lighter being dragged.
Something being leaned upon.
All of this, in sequence, to begin again with the Thump.
By the second cycle, Hawkeye had directionality. Still on all fours, he scrabbled towards the main road that lead in and out of the 4077.
He could see Klinger in something fabulous and chiffon.
He could see a slowly approaching human-ish shape in the darkness.
He could see Klinger raising the gun.
"Halt! Who goes there?"
Thump. Scraaaaaaaape... scraaaaaaape...(schff...)
Twin green lights in the darkness. Just about where the eyes should be.
"Friend or foe?"
Thump. Scraaaaaaaape... scraaaaaaape...(schff...)
"Believe me, fella, you do *not* want me to make the choice for you!"
Thump. Scraaaaaaaape... scraaaaaaape...(schff...)
He could see the shine of silver in the moonlight.
"FRIEND OR FOE!"
Thump. Scraaaaaaaape... scraaaaaaape...(schff...)
"HALT! HALT, DAMNIT!"
Thump. Scraaaaaaaape... scraaaaaaape...(schff...)
Hawkeye desperately rose to both feet. Started running, though his legs tangled in his ever-present red robe. Klinger had a bead on him now. He wasn't going to miss.
"No!" Hawkeye screamed. "He can't talk!"
The shot rang out even before the 'no' escaped Hawkeye's mouth.
He could see it hit.
He could see the metal man in the darkness flinch away as if someone had punched him, and then return to his slow and almost terrifying progress into the light.
He was, as advertised, silver. Chrome plated, to be precise. Dented and battered and seemingly on the cusp of falling apart.
His left leg no longer lifted, and dragged behind like the rifle he used as a temporary crutch in the one arm that did not dangle with alarming limpness.
A metal puppet with most of his strings cut.
And the most terrifying part was the eyes.
In the light...
They looked far too human.
Walter Robotics had made him with too many 'too's. Too tall. Too human. Too handsome. Too haunting. Too alien. Too haunted. Too frightening. Too Other.
Hawkeye found the power of speech first. "Are you the robot known as The Spine?"
"Tommy's been asking for you."
And just like that, the miasma of sadness and worry lifted from the metal man, and a genial smile grew on his cold, silver face.
"Fetch a wheelchair," Hawkeye ordered.
"Huh?" Klinger was still staring.
"Get a wheelchair. He shouldn't be walking. Wheelchair! Stat!"
The doctor voice worked, and Klinger fled his post to get that which was needed.
There was something dark leaking down one leg. It stank like the motor pool.
He stank like the motor pool.
Hawkeye made himself stop thinking of him as a thing and treated him as if he were a patient. He replaced the gun as an impromptu crutch. Used his skeleton, rather than his muscles, to support the shocking weight of a machine that only looked human.
"Not long now," he managed. He was going to pay for this, tomorrow. But tomorrow was always another day. "We'll get you inside to see Tommy. And then... and then..."
He was a meatball surgeon, not a mechanic. And he had the feeling that Rizzo wouldn't have two sevenths of a clue, either.
"...and we'll figure something out from there," he finished lamely.
The Spine let his gun drop to the ground so he could gently pat Hawkeye's shoulder.
At last, Klinger arrived with the wheelchair, trailing Colonel Potter, Radar, Hotlips and a couple of sleep-deprived MP's.
Juggling The Spine into the wheelchair quickly became a comedy of errors and shouting, which, inevitably, woke up the rest of the camp by degrees.
The Spine's face remained pleasantly neutral as he allowed himself to be wheeled into the recovery ward where Tommy lay moaning softly.
Cool metal hand on his arm. The hum. Tommy woke up with a smile to find the one un-person he'd been worrying about sitting by his side. "They tore you up pretty bad, huh?"
Nod. Sad, sad eyes. He knew about something and he didn't want to share it with Tommy.
"It wasn't all enemy action, was it?" He knew. His unit didn't exactly like fighting with a robot. They pulled all sorts of tricks on The Spine. They'd drop puns until his logic circuits made him glitch out. They'd lock him in ridiculous poses every time he powered down.
And someone in the unit was stealing parts off The Spine in the middle of the night. Never when Tommy was on watch... but by the next morning, something new would be gone and there'd be a little less of The Spine keeping him company.
"Hey. Nurse? Can you get someone to call Walter Robotics? My pal needs some serious repairs."
"Aaaaawww. Did someone break iddle Tommy's favowite tin toy?" teased Brykowski.
"Waaaaaaaahhh..." mocked Sullivan.
"Shut it," said Sarge. "Not here. Not now."
"You're safe here," whispered Tommy. "Tell someone."
The Spine sadly shook his head as he was wheeled away.
"Sorry," said Nurse Houlihan. "You're dripping oil, and we can't have slippery floors."
The Spine merely nodded and patted one of her hands with the one of his that was still working.
"You look after him, okay?" Tommy called after her. He turned his back on his laughing unit and mumbled into his pillow, "Nobody else does."
Rizzo surprised them all by welding a wheelchair, an oven rack and a bedpan together to give The Spine mobility without having oil spots winding up in strange places. They cleaned The Spine up and put him in a hospital cover before installing him in the new chair. Of course, it all still required someone to come along and swap out the bedpan-racks once in a while, but that was small potatoes.
Walter Robotics had requested a *complete* list of the damage before they'd send their experts out into a war zone. And this resulted in Tommy sitting next to The Spine in the mess tent as they ploughed through the paperwork together.
The Spine could barely hold things with his one, working hand, let alone write anything legible. Tommy threw himself into the work, but it was slow going.
"Okay. Chest. Missing."
The Spine's working hand opened and shut five times.
Shake of the head. Two more fingers.
"Twenty *seven* missing parts? Any broken?"
Five. Five. Three.
"Thirteen. I knew something was happening to you, but I had no idea it was this bad. I tried to help, The Spine... I did."
A gentle pat on his elbow. A wan smile.
"Okay. Misplaced or mis-aligned parts?"
Five. Five. Five. Four.
"Nineteen. Yeesh. I wish I could find out who's been doing this to you. I'd-- I'd--" His hands made strangling motions on thin air.
The Spine shook his head. Pointed at the flag hanging limply outside the mess tent. Drew a circle in the air.
"Yeah, I know. We're all in this together. I just wish some fellers would *act* like it."
Pat pat pat.
"Here we are," sang Klinger, bringing a tray. "Bacon, gravy and biscuits with coffee for the boy from Boise. Aaaannnnd fresh oil and hot water for the robot. Don't mix 'em up."
Sarge, nose deep in his own tray, surfaced to grate, "Why the heck are you playin' up to that damn frankenstein machine, Pansy? Bad enough I gotta look at you, but do I gotta hear you doin' your fairy business as well?"
Tommy stifled a grunt and clutched at his midriff.
Klinger didn't notice. "Why, everyone knows from the films that robots eventually turn against their human masters. This could be my ticket home! When that thing finally goes nuts, I can get a free trip back to those United States with a song in my heart and a hole in my liver."
The Spine shook his head.
"How about it?" Klinger circled the table to try and chat The Spine up. "You could break my left hand. I hardly use it! Or my jaw! I don't mind a fluid diet. Oh! How about you step on my foot? I think walking with a cane would make me very distinguished, don't you?"
The Spine had turned away. Only Tommy saw the oil leak from The Spine's eyes.
"Please don't?" he asked. "He doesn't like hurting people."
"I thought the government turned him into a super-weapon... Victory against the Commies and all that junk."
"No, that's not right..."
He had always been a weapon, except for those brief months where he'd been part of a love letter that his Pappy made to woo a girl. When Becile's mechanical elephants broke loose in Egypt, Colonel Peter Walter had re-engineered his musical automatons to carry weaponry and a giant giraffe for them to ride into battle.
They had already seen more than their fair share of war before one bullet had been fired in Korea. It was the US government who deemed The Spine most fit for modern combat. As a means of having an edge over the Commies.
Upgrading even one of Walter's famous robots almost bankrupted the US. And Walter Robotics was almost paranoid about keeping their famous showpieces in perfect working order.
Here's some we made earlier, every concert seemed to say, just imagine what we can make for you now.
Their very livelihood depended on The Spine's body count versus the lives of US troopers that he saved.
And at the very core of it, at the heart of him, he was still a tender-hearted musician who was forced to be a fighter instead of a lover.
"He's been drafted since just after he was built," said Tommy. "And they haven't exactly let him go ever since."
Klinger had his hand over his mouth. "Whoah... There is no amount of lace and tulle that'd get you outta that..." He sighed, ignoring the cackling from the rest of the visiting unit. "Sorry about that. You ain't gone nuts in what? Fifty, Sixty years? I figure you ain't ever gonna go."
The Spine turned back with a smile. Put his fingers near his mouth, and lowered his hand outwards.
"That's deaf-and-dumb for 'thank you'," said Tommy. "The Spine was teaching me before his slate went missing," a venomous glare at his superiors. 'Went missing', read 'stolen and destroyed'.
Klinger sat himself down. The hoop skirt he was wearing tipped up and displayed some hilarious underdrawers. "The rest of the guys don't get along with your robot pal?"
"Understatement," said Tommy. "They say he draws fire from the 'gooks'. They say he's a walking target. They say he kills more on our side just by being there. They say he's gonna be the spearhead for replacing honest working men with heartless machines..." Tommy shook his head.
The Spine snorted. The noise that came out of him was more appropriate for a party horn than anyone's throat.
"I tried using logic on 'em but... stupid likes to stay stupid, I guess. Don'ttell'emIsaidthat."
Klinger, in a rare exhibition of camaraderie, saluted. "Just lemme know if you need anything else."
"Hey, get the Spine to put his wings out! Then you can all have a little fairy party," cackled Brykowski.
"Wings?" murmured Klinger.
The Spine just shook his head.
They came in a train of specially-marked trucks. From the lead one, there emerged a woman in white Waltercorp uniform. Leg-o-mutton sleeves and puffy skirt. Black and white striped stockings and severe, heeled boots. Her hair was largely blue, save for one ginger streak that wound from her brow and knotted into the complicated bun she wore like a crown.
Following her was another robot. This one was shorter than The Spine, and made of copper. Little puffs of steam followed him, just as he followed the blue-haired woman. Just as the woman wore white and blue, with the occasional black highlight, this robot wore black and red, with the odd touch of blue.
Together, they marched to Colonel Potter's office. Neither bothered with permission from Radar, and breezed past him as he was busy explaining to Potter that Waltercorp had arrived.
"Oh there they are," said Radar. He boggled at the robot. "Uh, should you be ticking?"
"I'm clockwork," said the robot.
The woman nudged him and performed a little ballet with her hands.
"I'm Rabbit. I was built in Eighteen Ninety-Six by Colonel Peter A. Walter himself. I'm like a valuable antique."
Potter looked up from his files. "The lady doesn't talk for herself?"
"This is Matter Mistress Kathy. She practically runs operations at Walter Robotics. Contact with blu-blue matter has erratic side-effects."
Potter just raised an eyebrow. His gaze took in the blue hair, the porcelain complexion, and the blue lips. It toured briefly over the uniform and lingered on the long, striped, fingerless gloves.
The hands danced again.
Rabbit, watching the hands, translated. "We seek permission to erect a temporary operations lab. We have bought spare parts and a replacement unit in case the robot is needed again for combat." Rabbit's mechanical brain caught up with his mouth. "You're not sending The Jon in, are ya? He won't like that. Not after the last war."
One dancing hand bought a small something out of a pocket in her lab-dress and pressed it. It made a clicking noise.
Rabbit cringed and shrunk in on himself. "Right. Sorry." He resumed translating. "We will do our utmost to repair The Spine unit as he is more adequately suited for combat. No he aint..."
"Once we commence, it wouldn't t-take much longer than human patient recovery." Rabbit briefly mouthed, "Help us," before he resumed translation. "All we need is fifteen square yards of relatively level ground."
"I'm gonna need to consult the map," began Potter.
Just as Radar came in with an armload of large scrolls. "I got you all the maps of the camp and the local area, sir."
"Wow! Have you been tested for the psychic? That's some amazing stuff. I know some government people who'd love--"
Matter Mistress Kathy's hands danced.
"You will provide accommodation for my teams," Rabbit translated. "There must be space in the nurses' tents."
"I'll see what I can arrange," said Radar.
A beat ahead of Colonel Potter, who said, "Talk to Major Houlihan about re-shuffling the-- nevermind, you know."
Matter Mistress Kathy nodded. Her hands danced. "The Rabbit unit is permanently assigned to be my interpreter and is not available for combat use. No w-way!"
"Do not attempt to remove the Rabbit unit from my sphere of influence," intoned Rabbit. He looked like he wanted to cry. "And most especially do not allow the Rabbit unit to indulge in any nonsense. Aaaaw, c'moooonnnnn..."
"Okayokayokay! I'llbegood!" Anxious puffs of steam escaped as he seemed to pant. "Uh. Uh. You must find someone sensible to monitor the Rabbit unit when I am otherwise occupied."
"Sensible?" said Potter. "Lady, have you *met* anyone who works here?"
"How about him? Pick him, M-Mistress--"
"*Matter* Mistress Kathy. Please? He's gotta be responsible, 'cause he's in charge."
Glare. Nod. The little clicker went back into her pocket and she turned on her heel and left.
Rabbit let out a sigh of relief. "Oh, thank goodness. I got maybe an hour or so before she finishes bossing everyone around and comes back to check up on you. And me. Ya got any comics? I ain't allowed to read 'em no more with Matter Mistress Kathy in charge."
"Check with Radar. I'm pretty sure he's got a stash of *something*."
"Thankyouthankyouthankyou*thankyou*. It's b-been so long without any fun at all."
"You... like to have fun?" boggled Potter.
"Doesn't everyone?" countered Rabbit.
Rabbit sat on Radar's office bunk and cradled the Captain Marvel comic book as if it were a butterfly that happened to land on his hand. For the first time since Radar had seen him, the robot was wearing a smile on his copper face. Little giggles would erupt, now and then, alongside comments like, "Go get 'em Cap," at just above a conspiratorial whisper.
Radar got on with his typing and, for a too-brief moment, all was right with the world.
And then... by the pricking of his ears...
Something vicious this way came.
"Uh oh," he said. Radar sprang from his chair and checked out the window.
She was coming.
"She's coming," he warned. He plucked the comic from Rabbit's reverential hands and filed it with the rest of his collection under the conscription data files.
"She's coming," whimpered Rabbit. "Where's a good corner?"
Radar pointed and Rabbit moved with the speed of lightning to stand at rigid and nervous attention in that very corner. He had just enough time to sit back down at his desk and pretend nothing had happened before Matter Mistress Kathy entered.
...incidentally slamming the door into Rabbit's front...
"...ow..." muttered Rabbit.
She swung the door away from him and showed him the tiny metal clicker.
"No, I've been a good robot! Honest! I nev-never made a peep!"
"It's true," lied Radar. "He's been quieter than my grandmother's clock."
There was a long, dangerous minute as she glared at both of them. Finally, she put the clicker into her hand and gestured for Rabbit to follow her. Rabbit scurried to obey, but not before leaving Radar with one desperate, pleading glance before he fled.
"Hi, The Spine!" Rabbit turned around and shouted, "HEY I FOUND THE SPINE! He's over here!"
"Excuse me," said the nurse on duty. "This is a *hospital*."
"Yuh... That's why Mistress K-Kathy's lookin' for him inna motor pool." Rabbit noticed the chair. "Woah. Interesting chair. What's the tray fo-- Hey, your butt's drippin'." Rabbit straightened from his inspection of the chair. "Are you allowed t' have diarrhoea in a hospital?"
The Spine rolled his eyes.
"Rabbit," said Tommy, "robots can't *get* diarrhoea. You don't have a digestive system. Your brother's sprung a leak."
"Butt leaks *are* diarrhoea..."
The Spine made no-no motions at his brother.
"What? What's'a matter? Can't ya talk?"
The Spine had a tired look on his face. As if two minutes' exposure to Rabbit was enough for a lifetime. He took a deep breath, during which the visiting unit simultaneously put their fingers in their ears.
The sound that came out of The Spine was not even remotely human. It was the squawk of a dying dinosaur mixed with the hash of static and blurs of other sounds that simply hurt the human ear.
It only lasted a second, but a second was enough to send Rabbit, cowering, into the other wall.
"That's j-j-just wrong..."
The Spine nodded.
"Someone'd have to rip your whole voice box out for that. Remember that time in the Great War? You sounded like brakes goin' wrong for a *week*. I was glad when you had it rep--"
The effect on Rabbit was electric. He grabbed hold of his hat and huddled in a ball on the floor. "Ididn'tdoitIdidn'tmeantodoitIwasonlytalkin'tomybrother, IswearIjustgotdistractedpleasedon'thitme!"
The stern steps of Matter Mistress Kathy clicked closer as Rabbit rattled in his place on the floor.
The clicker went away and a little whistle came out.
Rabbit popped up like he was spring-loaded and stood to attention. "I found him," Rabbit squeaked.
Matter Mistress Kathy slowly put the whistle away and bought fourth the clicker. Her other hand held up two fingers.
The Spine had seen many wars' worth of Hell, but nothing scared him like Matter Mistress Kathy, her clicker, and her effect on Rabbit.
Tommy found her terrifying. This strange woman in shades of white and blue, who never said a word. And he could tell that even The Spine was scared of her, and he'd walked through *fire* to save his unit.
Aloud, he said, "You hit them?"
Her hands danced. Deaf-and-dumb hand language.
"It is not your business," said Rabbit. "Until the Waltercorp heir reaches his majority, I am in charge of these robots. I am responsible for their proper function and behaviour, and I am responsible for their discipline."
And without a single mote of permission, she took hold of The Spine's custom chair and wheeled him outside.
Walter Robotics employees moved like ghosts. The girls tended to scamper and bounce so their presence was noted, but the boys... The big, buff, burly boys in their black-and-blue jumpsuits... they walked with slow, deliberate intent. Implacable and unstoppable as a glacier.
They each had their left hand replaced with a hook-like grasping tool.
The sides of their work-space were clear, so that everyone could see what was going on. Only a fine mesh net marked inside from outside.
"Are you sure that y-you wanna show it all off like this?" asked Rabbit, trailing after the rapidly striding Matter Mistress Kathy.
The only signal she had for him was a solitary finger, held aloft so Rabbit could see it over her shoulder.
"No! Please! I only wanted to know why..."
She shoved The Spine, chair and all, to the waiting Walter Girls and rounded on Rabbit.
"...oh no... oh my..." panted Rabbit.
She tapped the two hulks guarding the tent and made a square shape in the air between them.
"Aw not the box! Please! I didn't mean t' be mean? I'll be good. I'm really tryin'a be g-g-good..."
The hulks lumbered towards the train of trucks parked out of the way, down the dirt road. Rabbit switched nervously between watching Matter Mistress Kathy's angry face and the lumbering Walter Brutes.
His feet danced in the dust like he wanted to run away, but feared the consequences of doing so. His fingers wriggled as he held his hands tight to his chest. His voice fell to whimpering.
"No no no no no... Please... Not the box? Not the box... I didn't mean it? Not the box, please. Please Matter Mistress Kathy? Not the box? Oh no. Oh ma-my. Oh no. No. No. No. No...?"
The box, carried between the two Walter Brutes, was a yard-wide cube with a lid and a latch with a padlock. The mere sight of it, carried past Rabbit, renewed his paroxysms of barely restrained terror.
"Oh no. Nononononononononono... Not the box! Not the box! I'll c-clean all'a the grease traps! I'll fix all'a the clocks! I'll stop playin' with my music box! Please! I'll polish all'a the silver. Even the stuff in the attics! Don't put me in the box?"
The Walter Brutes opened the box.
Rabbit started shaking his head. Not big, wide motions, but little, terrified ones.
Matter Mistress Kathy's eyes narrowed. She pointed to the now-open box.
Rabbit kept shaking his head. His feet, already frenetically pounding the soil, carried him a fraction of an inch away from Matter Mistress Kathy.
She gestured to the two Walter Brutes. A simple one easily interpreted by everyone watching as Come Here And Get This.
Oily tears fell slowly down Rabbit's copper face. It wasn't until the Walter Goons took him by the arms that he uttered anything more than a helpless whimper.
"Nnnnnnoooooo," Rabbit screamed. "Not the box! Please! No! N-not the b-b-booooxxx!" His feet pedaled uselessly against the dirt road and, when the Walter Brutes lifted him up, pedaled uselessly in the air.
"Anyone'd think he was being dragged off for an execution," murmured Honeycut.
Rabbit screamed as they threw him inside, and kept screaming for longer than any human lung could sustain.
"What is *in* there?" Hawkeye pondered aloud.
"Nuthin'," said a Walter Brute. "That's th' point."
"He's in there 'till he calms down," rumbled the other Brute.
Inside the box, only slightly muffled by the plywood between him and the outside, Rabbit began sobbing and pleading to be let out.
Especially heartbreaking for both Hawkeye and Honeycut was the fact that Rabbit was begging for his Pappy to come fetch him out.
Rabbit was made in 1896. His 'Pappy' was long dead.
It was hard to pay attention to the operation on The Spine with Rabbit carrying on in the locked box in the middle of the camp.
Every doctor and nurse winced in sympathy to Rabbit's howls. Held their breath with every extended silence. Frowned or cringed with every sob. And well they should. They were medical professionals. Their daily duty included alleviating pain. Their entire ethos revolved around helping anyone who made noises like that.
But after the first attempt to free Rabbit, the Walter Brutes made it silently clear that only Matter Mistress Kathy was permitted anywhere near the box with the padlock.
Even The Spine, bolted to the table and rendered immobile by the gentle hands of the Walter Girls, kept looking in the direction where Rabbit's box was.
The Walter Girls carried on, regardless. Though some had expressions that clearly stated they rather wouldn't have. Together, they removed both of The Spine's arms, and the damaged, useless leg.
Then one of them removed the head and the famous spine as one unit. It sported odd wing/sails, now.
"Oh my God," whispered Father Mulcahey as the Walter Girls continued to literally pull The Spine to pieces. "That's... grotesque..."
The head and spine went into a series of clamps and all of them watched in continuing horror as the Walter Girls removed his hair, his ears, and several silver plates. Examined every detail of his inner workings before putting his spine and head back together. With the addition of a small speaker.
"Thank you, Walter Girls," squeaked The Spine in an unbelievable falsetto. "I need to report several counts of Sabotage, when you're not busy."
In spite of the grousome atmosphere, in spite of the slightly-muffled weeping of Rabbit, more than a few of the gathered and mesmerised members of the 4077 giggled.
"Ugh," grumbled Sergeant Smith, the commander of Tommy's unit. "Why don't they just take it all the way to pieces and sell it for scrap?"
Matter Mistress Kathy, inside the tent, snapped her fingers and indicated Sergeant Smith.
Two Walter Brutes appeared by his sides to politely escort him back to the hospital. And when he got rowdy about it, they just physically carried him away.
One Walter Girl, apparently sent out by orders from Matter Mistress Kathy, left the tent and carefully made her way through the gathered crowd to the distant Waltercorp trucks. What she did in there was anyone's guess.
But whatever it was, Matter Mistress Kathy was not happy about it.
Once the team of Walter Girls finished re-assembling The Spine's torso - an exercise that took silent hours - they put his head and spinal column back and tilted his silver body up to a more vertical angle. He was still missing both arms and a leg.
One of the girls blew a low note on a harmonica.
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah," sang The Spine. It was a note so bass that the observers almost felt it in their chests. "Yes. That's much better. Thank you kindly, Walter Girls. Matter Mistress Kathy. When can I expect my other limbs back?"
"What happened to the little squeaky voice?" wondered Hotlips.
"Those are my reserve harmonics, ma'am," said The Spine, nodding politely in her direction. On either side of him, Walter Girls pulled his arms into component pieces. Counting and cataloguing and picking out little parts that weren't satisfactory. He watched them for a little while before asking, "Say, is there any chance I can get back to a wheelchair while you're busy?"
Matter Mistress Kathy gave a solid and aggressive thumb down to the concept.
"I thought I'd check up on Tommy. Maybe help Rabbit to calm down. I'm just in your way, here."
Matter Mistress Kathy crossed the busy, silent space, a roll of duck tape in one hand. With quick, vicious movements, she tore off a strip and slammed it over The Spine's mouth. Another agressive motion cut across her own mouth like a knife.
The Spine meekly nodded and sighed steam out of his nostrils as oil slowly leaked from his eyes.
Nothing very interesting happened in the Waltercorp tent for some significant time. Gradually, the forces of weariness conquered the bastions of anxiety and, bit by bit, the watching crowd dwindled away to try and capture sleep in their bunks.
BJ and Hawkeye sat watching the Walter Girls as they worked in shifts on arms or a leg. Three of them had rotated The Spine's work-bench and were now busily plugging wires into his head. A gigantic computational apparatus lay at the other end of them, looking for all the world like something that should have involved a countdown timer.
The missing Walter girl bounced back to the tent with yet another robot in tow. This one was made of a golden substance and shone in the evening lights. He had a mop of curly, brown hair that reached down to his shoulders.
"Is that one a guy or a gal?" wondered Hawkeye.
"Does it matter?" managed BJ. His eyes were red and puffy from sympathetic tears. His face had gone red from rubbing it over and over again. And only marginally worse, one eye was blackened from the time he tried to force his way to the box and fetch Rabbit out.
The only sounds were the crickets and Rabbit's unceasing sobs.
The golden robot, once inside the tent, was directed to sit on a stool in a corner, but not before Matter Mistress Kathy snatched the curly wig off his golden head.
"P-pappy..." Rabbit pleaded, "Pappy, pleeeeaaasssse..."
The golden robot looked once at the box and then looked away as if it were ashamed.
"I'm sorry," whimpered Rabbit. "I'm so sorry, Matter Mistress Kathy... Please let me out? I'll be good, I promise..."
Just one look at BJ was all Hawkeye needed to tell that his heart was breaking. He had a little kid at home and this sort of thing struck him deep. Down, beyond his soul.
"I can't stand it, any more." BJ got up and marched.
Hawkeye followed, just to make sure he wasn't going to get into yet another scuffle with the Walter brutes.
Colonel Potter had once had three buddies help him stay down when one of his other buddies got caught in the wire by the trenches. He'd been shot, but it took him all night to die. They'd wept together, the five of them, and when Joey finally slipped into unconsciousness, the remaining four howled into the night.
This night, Potter felt, was worse.
For starters, his friends were long gone.
Secondly, if he tried to help the poor mechanical bastard in that box, the Walter Brutes would quickly put him in a more permanent box. Six feet under.
Knock knock knock.
Well, it wasn't as if sleep was coming any easier, tonight. He at least sat up before hollering, "All right, get on in here."
He watched them shuffle in.
"Pierce and Honeycut. What a surprise. Let me guess, you want me to talk to a witch about a robot in a box."
"Please?" said Honeycut. "Just listening to that is tearing my soul to pieces. It's inhuman..."
"There's gotta be something in the rule book," said Pierce. "She's all about rules."
"Too many rules," added Honeycut.
Out in the courtyard, Sergeant Smith had managed to hobble out of his ward and make it all the way to the box.
"SHUT UP YA DANG PANSY TIN CAN! SOME OF US ARE TRYIN'A *SLEEP*!"
Despite his bad manners, that gave him an idea. Sherman put his glasses on and checked with his copy of the rule book.
"Hospital units, peace and quiet thereof..." he muttered. "HA!" He pulled his dress uniform coat on over his PJ's and marched, book in hand, Pierce and Honeycut trailing after him, all the way to the tent in which Matter Mistress Kathy continued to work. "Hey! There is a matter I would like to discuss with you vis-a-vis the proper operations of this establishment. To whit: the S and H of our company's initials."
Matter Mistress Kathy carefully put her work down and hung her goggles up. She snapped her fingers at the golden robot. He scurried over to her side and tipped his weatherbeaten hat to them.
"I'm known as The Jon. I'll be your translator, this evening. Hi."
Ca-click. The Jon flinched.
Matter Mistress Kathy's hands danced, The Jon translated. "You are disturbing our maintenance processes. What is the problem."
"The problem, madam," growled Potter, "is that a Surgical Hospital requires a modicum of *quiet*. Not only do my patients need it to rest and recover, but my doctors need it so they can be on the ball whenever the next rush comes in. We can not have that with that double-cursed caterwauling going on!"
Behind her, unheeded, a Walter Girl threw a switch that made The Spine spasm randomly in his harness. The ominous machine connected to his head began to chatter and whir.
Matter Mistress Kathy sighed. The Jon spoke her signs. "You wish for me to silence the Rabbit unit."
"If you please," snarked Potter.
"The responsibility is yours," said The Jon. He looked almost as terrified as Rabbit had been at the mention of the box.
Matter Mistress Kathy walked over to her bench and retrieved a foot-long metal rod from her table.
The Spine, tape still over his mouth, could only manage an alarmed, "MMMM!"
"Please, you don't need to do that, Matter Mistress Kathy?" bargained The Jon. "You could take out Rabbit's speaker again. Or turn off his speech centers... Or--"
She barged past Potter, Pierce and Honeycut. The rod was not a swagger-stick. It was a weapon.
The Jon raced ahead of her and landed on his knees between her and the box. Hands held in front of him like he was praying. "Please don't? Please? He never really got better after the last time."
She strode past him. Past the Walter Brutes. Unlocked the padlock and threw open the box.
"After the last time?" echoed Pierce.
Rabbit immediately flew into a panic. "I'msorryI'msorryI'msorryI'msorryI'msorryI'msorryI'msorryI'msorryI'msorreeeeeeee..."
Matter Mistress Kathy signalled the Walter Brutes to lift Rabbit out of the box.
They placed him on his knees. One removed the hat.
For the first time since they arrived, the cold, blue woman smiled. It was not the smile of joy. It was not a smile that bloomed from heaven.
It was the sort of smile one would expect on the face of the Devil.
She dropped the rod into the gap in Rabbit's head plates.
Rabbit's scream died in an unearthly, unnatural squawk. The light in his green eyes went out.
The Walter Brutes dropped his body into the soil.
The Jon moved to roll him over.
"No-one is to touch the Rabbit Unit until dawn," The Jon intoned, his attention rivetted on Matter Mistress Kathy's hands. "And then, the Walter Girls will see to its refurbishment."
She left the resultant tableau without once looking back.
Watching from his tent, Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahey crossed himself. He'd had to cover his mouth to stop a scream and now he watched in stunned silence as the Walter Brutes left their post.
As Colonel Potter, BJ and Hawkeye all blasphemed repeatedly at the sight before them.
"I didn't mean like that," BJ finally said.
"She just--" sputtered Hawkeye. "She-- why?"
"Jon?" Potter rumbled. "Is your friend going to be all right?"
The Jon struggled with his want to help Rabbit against his fear of Matter Mistress Kathy and her orders. "I don't know," he whispered. "Last time she did this, Rabbit couldn't talk straight for weeks."
Potter helped him up. "Can you handle alcohol?"
"Uh..." The John twiddled with his fingers. "Sometimes I carry the wine to the table?"
"Nevermind. We'll make sure you have oil and water," decided Hawkeye. "I'll be doing all the handling."
"I'll help," chorused Potter and BJ.
Only once they were inside their tent did Francis dare exit his tent and see to Rabbit.
He was limp and heavy. So heavy that Francis had to drag him away and into the relative safety of his tent. There, he propped Rabbit up against his bunk and listened to the robot's chest.
It was not quite tick-tock. Tick-tock was definitely reserved for pokey little bedside clocks. This was a chaos of gears clicking together. Except where they went 'clunk'.
"Still going strong," he breathed.
"Mistress Kathy's going to be cross," said a girl's voice.
The Walter Girl in his tent was one of the so-far silent and scampering minions of Matter Mistress Kathy. "Hi. I'm Sandra," she whispered. There was one small, blue streak in her short, golden curls. "I want to help." She had a roll of tools under one arm and a flashlight in one hand.
Francis fell to whispering, too. "I presume we have to take the rod out?"
"It's a little more complicated than that," answered Walter Girl Sandra. "We have to make certain no shards have got into the system." She made gentle, feather-light movements to put Rabbit in a pose more amenable to their impromptu head surgery.
A simple, brightly-coloured clip stopped the gears in Rabbit's head while Sandra gently removed the rod, then tweezered out any little shards that she could find.
Francis held his breath as she re-aligned the gears, and made to remove the clip.
"Hold him," she instructed. "This could get messy if he isn't restrained."
Francis moved around so he could hold Rabbit in a comforting hug.
"Three. Two. One."
The little clip made a tiny snapping noise.
Rabbit twitched. Slumped. Moaned into Francis' shoulder and grabbed a fistfull of his coat with his right hand.
He was shivering. Sobbing.
"It's all right, now. It's over," soothed Francis. "You're safe, here."
"It isn' ovur..." Rabbit slurred. His voice was small and weak. "I c-c-can't m've m' lef' side."
They worked together to at least get him seated on the bunk.
The difference between Sandra and Matter Mistress Kathy was never clearer than it was now. Sandra asked permission to disrobe Rabbit, to take pannels off or to test relays.
In fact, she asked all the permissions she could. Explained what she was doing. Moved with kindness.
"There it is," she crowed. "I'm going to take a little shard out of your motor relays. This might feel weird."
"M'str'ss Kathy sez we can't f-feel."
She gave the countdown again before pulling the shard. Rabbit slumped both alarmingly and briefly.
"Yup, that knocked a gear askew. I'm going to have to still your head again, okay?"
When Rabbit blinked on again, he wriggled his copper face and tested his arms and legs. "You were right, Miss Sandra. That *did* feel weird."
Francis watched as Walter Girl Sandra and Rabbit performed a peculiar little dance she called the Diagnostic Shuffle.
"Tell me, Doc. Will I be able to play the piano, any more?"
She smiled. How could blue be such a warm colour on her, but not on Matter Mistress Kathy? "I think it's a safe bet. You should power down until dawn. Let your self-repair systems kick in."
Without even thinking about it, Francis helped her tuck Rabbit in to his own bunk. "God Bless you, my child," he whispered as a farewell.
He'd never meant it with so much of his heart, before.
Francis set himself up in Napping Position by the ticking robot and prepared for a rude awakening.
Igor watched the gold robot - The Jon - mix up some kind of weird beige liquid and brew tea in a fancy chintz teapot. The beige liquid had to be served in a matching chintz bowl. The tea set just so on a silver tray. The cup arranged neatly in a spare corner with the little vase, now occupied by a posy of wildflowers gathered from dangerously close to the minefield.
The Jon counted it five times.
"Lemon!" he said out of nowhere.
"Matter Mistress' tea *must* come with a slice of lemon! Where... where are your lemons? Please tell me you have lemons?"
"This is an army kitchen, buddy. You'd have to send to Seoul for lemons."
"...oh... Oh dear..."
The tray and its contents rattled as The Jon shivered. All the way out. All the way down to the Waltercorp circus. All the way to the little cafe table and wrought-iron chair where Matter Mistress Kathy sat imperiously under an umbrella and consulted a small book.
The rattling woke Father Mulcahey, of course, who had been prepared to wake suddenly to any anomalous noise.
Thus, he was able to see Matter Mistress Kathy look down her nose at the arrangement as The Jon laid it out in front of her. She raised an eyebrow and pointed to the teacup.
"I'm sorry, Matter Mistress Kathy, but there's no lemons here. The man in the kitchen said you'd have to sell your soul to get them. And I don't have a soul, you said, so I couldn't--"
Her hands began to dance.
"I'm an idiot," he said, as if repeating her words. "Would you like me to fetch you milk instead? It's rehydrated, though."
The hands moved.
"Go fetch the stick from the Rabbit Unit's head. And stop translating me as if someone's watching," said The Jon. Then he pointed to Father Mulcahey. "But we *do* have company."
Father Mulcahey waved and smiled.
Lying on his bunk and watching through one eye, Hawkeye saw everything he needed to see from that one little moment.
It was Cousin Jimmy all over again.
Despite his pounding head, he made himself get up and go at least as far as the seats outside the tent he shared with BJ.
"We will discuss this... later," said The Jon, reading Matter Mistress Kathy's hands. This only made his tremula worse. "Hello Father. Wait, he isn't Pappy..."
Hawkeye had never hated one square inch of metal more in his entire life than when he heard that little click and saw a robot flinch.
They were machines of war, and this woman could scare the beans out of them with a little, clicking, metal frog.
He wanted to snatch it out of her hands. Smash it to pieces and then smash those pieces flat! And then take the pieces and melt them to slag! And then take the slag and throw it down the latrines and make himself have diarrhoea over the top of them for however long he had left in Korea.
But he knew he couldn't. Not while she had that iron rod as backup.
And, knowing her type as the kind who loved holding power over the powerless, or those who made the powerful believe that they were powerless... she'd have more little weaponized objects at her disposal.
Something had to be done, nonetheless.
Hawkeye rolled over and started planning behind his crunchy eyes and pounding brain.
Something she could not blame on any of the robots. Because she'd do it to herself.
"I managed to distract her from The Jon. She's back to reconstructing The Spine."
"Ya don't need t' worry about The J-jon, Pappers," murmured Rabbit. He was still supine on the bunk. "When she gets angry at him, she takes it out on me."
It had taken him hours to try to explain that 'Father' was his rank and failed. "What? Why?"
"I'm the eldest," said Rabbit. "I'm responsible. I'm the example. I'm..." Click clunk whiiirrrr crunch tick tick tick... "in a lot of trouble..." he moaned and cradled the left side of his head. "I'm scared to go to her, Pa-pappers. But she's the only one who can fix me up proper. Matter Mistress Kathy makes sure the Walter Girls only know a little bit about fixin' us robots. Sandra did her best, but there's... something... going wrong..."
Francis found himself patting the robot's naked head as he would soothe an injured soldier from the field. He was constantly surprised by how warm he was. "We'll find a way to get around this. Maybe some other Walter Girls sympathise with Miss Sandra..."
"Be hard not to," Rabbit smiled. "I wish I'd never made her mad at me th' first ta-t-t-time."
"Whatever did you do the first time to make her this angry for this long?"
Rabbit's neck grated as he turned to look up at Francis. "That backwards shirt means ya gotta keep it secret, right? I don't want nobody else gettin' that mad. That was awful. It still is..."
Francis put one hand on the bible and the other over his heart. "I swear by the almighty that I will not share your secret."
"Promise ya-y-ya-you won't g-get ma-mad?"
Francis knew this had to be something big. Rabbit's bugs got worse when he was tense. He put Rabbit's hand in his own and patted it with the other. "I won't get mad. It's up to God to do all the judging."
"I told her..." Rabbit dropped his voice to a whisper. "I told her I--"
Francis leaned closer. "It's all right, Rabbit. You can say it."
"I told..." Click clink clunk whiiirrrrr crunch grind tick tick tick tick... "I told her I... am... really... a *girl* robot."
It took every fibre of his being to not drop Rabbit's hand like it was poisonous. He closed his eyes and nodded, possibly on automatic, while he weighed that in the balance against everything he knew.
Boys were boys and girls were girls. Weren't they? For a boy to be a girl, that would be admitting that God made mistakes. It was all in the Good Book.
The Bible contained so many rules for mankind. Rabbit, however, was a machine. There were no rules in the Good Book for machines. And, as he'd seen under the cold lights of the Waltercorp tents, the robots didn't have any sex organs. Just a featureless, doll-like underpants zone.
Therefore, the matter of a robot's gender was entirely up to the robot.
"Pappers? Are you okay? I d-didn't break ya, did I?"
Francis opened his eyes and willed a comforting smile onto his face. In many ways, Rabbit was like a child. And it would never do to allow a frightened little girl to stay frightened. "Not at all, Miss Rabbit. I was only thinking, that's all."
The smile he won from that one 'Miss Rabbit' would surely propel his soul directly past purgatory and straight to the pearly gates. When his time came, of course.
"It isn't wrong to be a girl, and I can't see how Matter Mistress Kathy would get so angry about it." Indeed, his own first emotion had been fear. As if something like that could be infectious. Anger didn't come into it for him at all. "Perhaps... it may help if we were to add presentation into the revelation."
Click clunk clunk click tick tick tick... "You mean like... wear a dress? I kinda like pants. Pants has got pockets and I can put stuff in them."
"Dresses are prettier. And as they say, the clothes maketh the man. Or -ah- robot girl."
"But where are we gonna get a dress in the middle of a war zone, Pappers?"
"They won't fit," said Klinger. "I'm a petite. He's a statuesque, at best."
Rabbit was busy petting a red feather boa. "Oh, they're all so p-p-pretty..."
"I'd have to work on making something outta whatever I have, and what I have ain't enough. Why's he want a dress for anyway?"
"I'm sworn to secrecy," said Father Mulcahey.
Rabbit had found a flowery sun frock and pressed it against his body so he could admire it in the mirror. The happy little humming noise he made, in context, was nearly tear-jerking.
"I hate to break a heart, even if it's clockwork," sighed Klinger. "I think Hotlips has an oversized kimono that she uses as wall decoration. Maybe you could ask her for a little something."
"That old thing?" said Houlihan. "Well, sure; but... why?"
Rabbit gleefully bounced over to the gaudy monstrosity and carefully removed the tacks holding it against her wall. "Oooohhh. You have so many colours... These are the bi-biggest printed flowers I've ever seen."
"I can't tell you, Major. It's Rabbit's secret."
Rabbit threw the kimono on over the top of his clothes and was admiring himself in the mirror. He was humming a happy little tune to himself.
Margret couldn't help it. She went over to him and showed him how to put it on properly. "This side over that side, Rabbit. And then tied like this."
Rabbit ran his hands over the shiny fabric, stopping at chest level to frown and turn his hands outwards.
Margret dug in her trunk. "I rescued this after Matter Mistress Kathy kicked it out of the Waltercorps tent." It was The Jon's wig. "I cleaned it up and combed all the knots out of it. Maybe you could keep it safe while The Jon is... busy."
Rabbit moved as if hypnotised. carefully, reverentially, he took up the wig and put it carefully on.
Margret never told anyone, but she once owned a Rabbit doll and dressed it up in other doll's dresses. She would -very quietly- play Secret Princess Rabbit because the few times she saw him in their concerts and movies, she *knew*. Rabbit *was* a secret princess.
The wig changed Rabbit from Him to Her.
That shy little smile told her everything she needed to know. Rabbit knew it, too.
"Do you want me to help you style your hair?" Margret offered.
"No, thanks," Rabbit whispered as he ran careful copper fingers through the abundant bronze curls. "I li-like it loose."
Margret put Rabbit's hat -another rescue and cleaning job- back on, fixing it just so.
Her face never looked so much 'at home', before.
Margret just had to hug her. Whisper, "Good luck, secret princess Rabbit," into her copper ear.
Rabbit snuffled and wept oil into Margret's dressing gown. Happy robot tears.
By then, her voice had reduced to a tiny, barely audible, "...'nk 'oo..."
Hawkeye knew that Father Mulcahey was looking after Rabbit. They could sneak past Matter Mistress Kathy with ease, but he knew how to read the ground. When he finally dragged himself upright, he could clearly seen where Rabbit had been dragged into the pastor's tent, and again where he walked out. Whatever business they had with Klinger could wait.
He found the abominable rod where Father Mulcahey had kicked it under his bunk and slipped it into his voluminous pocket.
A plan was already forming in his head.
All he needed was a hat that looked a lot like Rabbit's. He took the rod back to BJ and started filling him in on his cunning plan.
They'd stolen a pair of safety goggles from Rizzo and glued copper-ish foil to them, then strapped them to a black cardboard hat they used for various costume purposes.
Hawkeye frisbee'd it far across the local minefield and, for good measure, tossed the hated rod roughly in the middle.
At best, the robots would not have to worry about Matter Mistress Kathy, any more.
At worst, she would at least get the scare of her life.
Served her right for being so horrible.
He set himself up in a chair outside his tent and waited for the inevitable.
Yup. There she came with The Jon in tow. Fit to fight a thunderstorm and spit in its eye.
She could be pretty if she weren't so cross all the time.
She noticed him and homed in on him. Her face almost had colour in it.
"Where is the Rabbit Unit?" said The Jon, reading her signs.
Hawkeye shrugged artfully. "I dunno. I think he went for a walk up that way," he negligently pointed towards the minefield.
"Robot, fetch my luncheon. Make certain it is still warm by the time I get back." The Jon stood there for a few seconds before he realised. "Oh. Right. Yeah. Yes Ma'am."
Hawkeye sprained something trying not to smile or giggle at the thought of what was going to happen to Matter Mistress Kathy.
The recovering 'Joes' pointed and elbowed each other at the sight of Rabbit skipping along in Father Mulcahey's shadow.
Walter Girl Sandra saw and instantly knew that Matter Mistress Kathy would not approve.
She would go *spare*.
It would be a rampage unlike no other, possibly breaking Rabbit in the process before Matter Mistress Kathy moved her aggressions on to breaking the other robots. And if she ran out of robots...
She may just start on people.
Sandra bolted for the little group, as they headed for the camp kitchen.
The Jon was already in there, mixing up Matter Mistress Kathy's liquid lunch. Nutrient Soup and tea.
"What in the name of sanity are you two *doing*?" she demanded in a squeak.
"Wow, Rabbit, you look real pretty with my hair on."
"This is not the time," Sandra whispered. "If it were any other Matter Maestro in charge..." she shook her head. Ifs and Ands were just sounds and not things. And they definitely could not make people like Matter Mistress Kathy change her mind.
"But I'm all pretty," objected Rabbit. "She's bound t' see the truth now."
Sandra thought of a thousand different ways to try to explain it to the robots about how Matter Mistress Kathy had certain views, and why she felt hate at Rabbit's revelation.
No doubt, she was going to have to use all of them.
Rabbit had to try. She'd put one of the posy flowers in her hat and tried her best girl-walk all the way to Matter Mistress Kathy's table outside the Waltercorp circus tent.
Still trapped on the table within, The Spine boggled at her passing but, because of the tape, could not say anything about it.
She put the tray down in its appointed place and looked around. No Matter Mistress Kathy in the circus tent. Definitely no Matter Mistress Kathy at her table.
Ah, there was a helpful human. She remembered him as one of the ones who'd tried to help her earlier. Even though he got it wrong, Rabbit had no hard feelings.
She lifted up the tray and carried it over.
"Do you know where Matter Mistress Kathy is?" she enquired. "It's time for lunch."
The man in the pretty red coat looked Rabbit over three times, and got a really awful look on his face.
Pappers Mulcahey and Major Miss Houlihan hadn't got that look. At least he wasn't mad.
"It's me, Rabbit," said Rabbit. "I'm gonna surprise Matter Mistress K-K-K-Kathy, but I need to know where she is."
"Oh, she should be having a blast in the minefield, by now," he pointed the way.
"In the minefield," Rabbit repeated. "That's d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-d-dangerous! She could get hurt!"
Rabbit didn't care about the tray or its contents, any more. The only thing that mattered was keeping Matter Mistress Kathy safe. She hauled her skirts up as she ran. "Mistress Kathy! No! It's full'a bombs!"
Oh, she'd be so *mad* if she got blowed up...
The voices behind her, the screams and commotion, they didn't matter either. He could see her, now. In the middle of the stringed-off area with the almost-unreadable warning sign. She didn't even see what Matter Mistress Kathy was picking up.
She put all her effort into the loudest "STOOOOP!" she could manage.
Matter Mistress Kathy did a classic double-take at something on the other side of her. But by that time, Rabbit had her in a fireman's carry and turned around, back the way she had come.
"This is not a sa-safe p-p-place, Matter Mistress Ka-Ka-Kathy. There's b-b-b-b-bombs ev-everywhere. St-stay c-calm. I am prep-p-pared to take you to safety."
She got three steps before something major went wrong and all her movement servos went completely haywire.
Her entire upper torso spasmed wildly from messages she hadn't sent. Her arms and legs twitched wildly. Her speakers produced an unnatural gabble/garble and not one bit of it was under her control.
It was all she could do to keep her feet on the ground and her grip on Matter Mistress Kathy.
She sagged as the high-damage protocols kicked in and sent her into shutdown-stasis.
Helpless, she watched through fading photoreceptors as Matter Mistress Kathy's feet drifted inexorably closer to the dangerous earth below.
_I'm so sorry..._
Fifteen different people were screaming Rabbit's name, including The Jon. The Spine simply could not lay idly by. Emergency protocols initiated. He disengaged from his useless torso and, cooling flares out, slithered to the top of the hill where the Jon was yelling at Rabbit to wake up carefully.
Even though Rabbit was the eldest, she sure got into the most trouble.
The Spine paid no heed to the human squeals of alarm as he made his way through their legs. The only thing that mattered was his fellow automaton. He made his way up The Jon's leg and let him remove the tape.
"Hold me up," he ordered.
Rabbit had glitched all the way into emergency Stasis.
Holding Matter Mistress Kathy.
Who was now desperate to stay very still indeed, lest she tip Rabbit's inert form into the mines.
The dress Rabbit had put on over her regular costume was catching the wind. Making her body wobble.
One wrong move and neither of them would be around, any more.
"I could carry them both," said The Jon.
"Stop," said The Spine. "We need to think this through. Carefully." He scanned the area. "Matter Mistress Kathy! Your foot is within two inches of an explosive device. Do not encourage any sudden movements!"
She nodded. Slowly. Carefully.
"We must initialise radio slave-contact," said The Spine. "Can you free any of Rabbit's movement servos?"
One hand indicated the dress. A slow, tear-streaked shake of her head.
"This is going to be trouble," murmured The Jon. "We never do this with humans around."
The Spine turned to the crowd. "We are going to try something dangerous. Please retreat to a safe area. The longer you wait, the more dangerous this situation becomes. Move back. Get to shelter."
"We apologise in advance for any burns," added The Jon.
The Spine crawled down to The Jon's shoulder and grated, "Antenna mode."
The Jon inverted him as The Spine's famous spine stiffened in the air
"Synchronisation initialised," intoned The Jon. He held his ear to The Spine's ear as both of them retreated to make way for the docking servos.
"Outreach initialised," said The Jon and The Spine together. "Starting with low transmission."
If they put too much radio power into their transmitter, they knew, they could fry the very woman they were trying to save.
The Jon recited the increasing numbers until... "Contact," said The Spine.
Rabbit straightened. Slowly. The robot's jaw hung slack, as did her head. The arm that was not holding Matter Mistress Kathy aloft hung loose and slack. And her eyes were clearly cold and dead.
Very carefully. Very slowly. One leg moved.
Then the other.
To within two yards of the edge.
Now the limp arm came to life. Hold Matter Mistress Kathy. Lift her up.
"You are not doing what I think you are doing," translated The Jon.
Throw Matter Mistress Kathy to safety.
She rolled partway down the hill. Her dress was stained and her ego bruised more than her body, but she was safe.
Both of Rabbit's arms fell lax as Matter Mistress Kathy scrambled to recover her dignity.
Rabbit now stood firmly on safe ground.
Rabbit fell completely lax as her two robotic brothers disengaged their contact.
The Jon and The Spine separated and The Spine fell, limp, into The Jon's arms.
"That was close," whispered The Jon.
An unheeded copy-hat, caught in the breeze, floated off the ground and drifted towards the middle of the minefield.
Matter Mistress Kathy reached the spot where they were all standing, and signed frantically at them.
"What were you doing?" she demanded via The Jon. "My life is not more valuable than you."
"I... beg... to differ," managed The Spine.
The copy-hat lit on a spot too close to where Matter Mistress Kathy had been standing not too long before.
Rabbit fluttered back online. She was face-down in someone else's tent. There was no familiar, squishy human form in her arms.
On the plus side, no blood, either.
Her arms and legs were stiff. She felt like she should be drunk. But robots couldn't get drunk. Hard to sort things out.
Brothers up there.
Getting up. Safe.
Kathy lying down. Front all red.
Rabbit screamed, struggling to free herself from the khaki cloth she found herself tangled in. Struggled to climb the hill.
Lifted Matter Mistress Kathy without a thought. Monitored her life-signs as best she could with a brain that wasn't quite working right.
Moved her with a body that was also not quite working right.
Pressed her into the arms of the nice man in the red coat.
Made her voice work.
"He-hel-hel-hel-help-p-p-p-p her-r-r-r-r-r-r fffffffffff-fir-r-r-r-rsssssssst-t"
Rabbit waited until the weight of Matter Mistress Kathy lifted away before checking on her brothers.
The Jon. Carrying Snakey Spine back down to the Waltercorp circus.
She liked the circus.
When were they going again?
She could try popcorn.
And candy floss.
Everything was going dark.
The Walter Girls were quick to dust off The Spine and plug him back into his body.
"You have to fetch Rabbit." Careful. Remember the approved pronoun. "He looks pretty busted up. We... ran him rough... getting Mistress Kathy safe."
Protocols overrode him. His power was low from the radio slave-contact. And the generators in his torso were struggling to catch up.
The Jon wasn't looking that great, either. He sort of sagged into his appointed stool and powered down.
Power overrun protocol.
The humans were fighting to fix Matter Mistress Kathy.
In spite of everything she'd done, they were still doctors. And Doctors fixed things.
Sergeant Smith considered the metal monstrosity they'd all left out, forgotten, in the confusion.
Goddamn pansy robot. Wanting to wear a dress and girly hair.
Stupid pansies were everywhere. Getting out of the war. Running off with his girl. And this... thing... probably started them on it.
Yelling at it did no good. It had stopped. Temporarily dead.
All it took was water and oil and some kind of maintenance and it was back up again. Laughing.
While real men got slaughtered in the war.
He hobbled away, muttering to himself. Stupid damn pansies. Stupid damn robots. Stupid damn Spine looking better than fresh butter every damn day.
He found a hammer.
He could not hit The Spine. Not with all those girls around him.
Stupid pansies sneaking off with all the girls.
He could not hit The Jon. He was under the watchful eye of the same pantie patrol.
But he could get the Rabbit.
Teach them a lesson no-one would ever forget.
The hammer felt good in his hands. And nobody looked into this dark little corner where Rabbit stood. Hell, nobody had looked all day.
They certainly weren't going to look at night.
He lined himself up. Readied...
It was beautiful. The face plate flew off and little cogs and gears scattered out like confetti. Like stars shooting out into the night.
Then Rabbit fell. Something started up. A siren squeal that would not stop no matter how much he kicked it.
Sergeant Smith threw the hammer onto its body and hobbled away into the darkness.
A team of Walter Girls was already picking up the pieces by the time Sherman Potter arrived on the scene.
"What the hell is it with Waltercorp and waking me up in my pyjamas?" he roared. "And what the living hell was that ungodly racket?"
"It was Rabbit," murmured one of the Walter Girls. On her hands and knees and sifting delicate machine parts out of the Korean dust.
"He's been broken," whispered another.
The majority of Rabbit was already on a Waltercorp gurney. The left side of his head was missing.
Potter shone his torch on the scene. Trying to pick out the tracks that the Walter Girls had not already trampled.
The very distinctive mark of a M*A*S*H crutch. Used by the walking wounded.
"One of our patients did this," rumbled Potter. "And I think I know who that might be."
"*--ease!" The Spine looked around. He was in a wheelchair, and Rabbit was on the slab.
Someone had knocked half of Rabbit's head off. Face plates and skull plates lay on a model form made out of thick dough on a stick. A glittering constellation of gears and cogs and assorted fiddly bits lay spread out across a dark table.
_Someone broke my sister..._
The Jon! He could steer him around. Be his movement.
The Spine looked over to his brother and sighed with relief when he saw that The Jon was also just coming online.
"...wanna sammich..." he mumbled.
"It'll have to wait for later, The Jon. Rabbit needs us."
"Oh no!" He, too, saw the wreckage. "Can you fix 'er. I mean, him?"
"We're trying," murmured one of the Walter Girls. "But there's no construction file and no-one in living memory has ever repaired Rabbit."
"You forget, girls. We have memories well in excess of your own," said The Spine.
"We can project an image of how it's s'posed'a be," said The Jon. "We're going to need a bucket of water each and two perpendicular views."
It was quite the sight. Both robots blew steam from their mouths, highlighting the green and blue light-shadows from their eyes to form a three dimensional shape. Both had their shirts off and a special port open. The port held a funnel, into which a dedicated Walter Girl steadily spooned in water.
Hawkeye watched it all.
This was his fault.
He'd assumed that the robots were as heartless as their mistress.
The Walter Girls took shifts, as they had with The Spine. Each took over the task at hand so smoothly that the whole thing looked like a ballet. Every now and then, one would murmur or whisper to the robots and the image in the steam would wheel and change.
BJ joined him at dawn.
"You *do* know that if that witch hadn't tortured Rabbit in the first place, he'd have gotten her out just fine, right?"
"Yeah, but if I hadn't sent her up there, none of this would have happened."
BJ contemplated the work going on. "I helped fake that hat," he said. "This is as much my fault as it is yours."
"I encouraged you."
His legs hurt, but he would not go and sit. His eyes hurt, but he didn't want to blink. His soul hurt...
All because he wanted to stop a monster.
He watched the Walter Girls work and thought very hard about how to defeat monsters like Matter Mistress Kathy. Tried to remember how his Pop did it.
"The only way to put down a monster," he finally realised out loud, "is to confront them."
And with that, he stormed off to the recovery ward.
Darkness. Bandages on her face.
She signed automatically. What's going on?
She did not hear an echo from her robots.
"Your robot pals are not here," said a voice. Doctor Pierce. "And that's probably for the best. Instead of bullying them around, you have to listen for a change."
"I need to tell you about my Cousin Jimmy."
She sighed. She could only pray that this would come to something resembling a point sometime soon.
O God, he was sitting down to talk to her.
"Jimmy went to my school as a kid. And there was never a day when he didn't have some kind'a bruise on him. Sometimes, they were cuts. And once a season, he'd have a broken limb." Doctor Pierce seemed to think that that was disgusting. "The third summer that he had a broken leg, my dad started inviting him up for sleepovers and camp-outs at our place. Really regular-like."
He sounded close to tears. "It took me five months to discover Jimmy wasn't my cousin. And Pops was trying to keep him safe... from his own mother."
"Everyone who knew Jimmy'd say he was a little angel. Always polite. Always careful. Always quiet. But I learned the truth. He was terrified out of his wits, because when his mother got mad at anything or anyone, she'd take it out on Jimmy. Anything could make her mad. Anything. If she'd had a bad day, she hit him. If someone insulted her, she hit him. If a cheque wouldn't clear-- If she got a bill she wasn't expecting-- If a *fly* was in the *room*... It got to the point where Jimmy was too scared to do anything on his own, because what if his mom got mad? He never knew from one minute to the next if he was going to get a pat on the head or..." sob "...or another broken finger."
It sounded too familiar. It sounded like her father.
That anyone could have any sympathy for a brat like her... it was a miracle. A rare and wondrous thing. And she had no tongue to thank him.
The universe was cruel. All she had done was teach exactly how and how fast it got cruel.
"What I want to know is why. WHY? Why does anyone think they have the right to take innocence and tear it to pieces... And why the hell do you *enjoy* it?"
She tried to sign, _They deserve it. They need to learn. It is the only power I have._
"I know you're trying to tell me," he whispered. "Whatever reasons you have for *torturing* any other being? They're wrong. There's better ways to get people to help you. Did you ever try asking nicely?"
_Nice gets crushed,_ she signed.
"I don't understand you," he murmured. "I don't understand why..." He sighed. Shuffled around. Rattled something in a small jar. "Know what this is? This is that stupid clicking frog of yours. I took it out of you with all the other shrapnel from the blast. It was right next to an artery. One wrong move and it could've killed you. If that is a sign from god, then I don't know what is."
Kathy held out her hand. Mouthed as much of a 'please' as she could.
He handed it to her. "See for yourself."
She found and unscrewed the jar. Felt a warped and twisted thing that she could still recognized as the frog. It was gritty with dried blood. And smelled of Blue-matter-altered ichor.
It was on her when the bomb went off. It had clearly been in her. One of the many aches and pains in her midriff was right about where her pockets were.
"I don't care what anyone else says, those robots are more human than some people I've met. They think and feel like people. They *fear* like people. Just because they're easier to fix doesn't make them any less human."
He didn't know. He couldn't know how perverted they were. How much control they needed. How hard she had to work to make them seem normal.
"And even though Rabbit was terrified of you, even though the others were terrified of you... they *still* saved your worthless ass."
Rabbit opened her eyes. There was still something stuck in her gears, but her head felt a whole lot better.
"Raaaa... bit," she managed. "Rab-bit."
The Jon loomed over her. "Hey, big sib. Feelin' better?"
"I'm here. I just can't get up."
Rabbit turned her head. She felt like she could float away and fly with magical dragons. "Hey, The Spine. D'ja pay for me to get fixed?"
"No, Rabbit. Why would you think so."
"It's cost you more than an arm and a leg," Rabbit set loose her machine-gun laugh.
The Spine made a face. "That was a pun."
"You're going to be fine," smiled The Jon, and moved in for a hug. "I'm so glad you're not broken any more."
She remembered running up the hill. Hauling Matter Mistress Kathy out of danger. Malfunctioning. Finding her covered in blood...
"I don't remember bein' broken?"
The Jon gave her a mirror. "Someone smashed you up, Rabbit. We helped them put you back together, but..."
One eye was blue, now. Back to its original state. Her face was the same face. A little dented, but dents gave character.
"Some parts had to be replaced," said The Spine. "Lucky Waltercorp carries spares."
"Pity they ain't got extra arms or legs for ya, hey, The Spine."
"Yeah, I guess those damages left Waltercorp out on a limb," said The Spine.
It felt good to laugh.
The Walter Girls helped her get down and then get dressed. Safe black pants and safe black shirt and super-safe black-and-red jacket. The Jon had his wig on and there was no sign of the pretty, flower-covered kimono.
One of the Walter Girls put a bright red scarf on her head. With tassles.
If they didn't know, they at least suspected.
She'd have to keep her secret for a good while longer. Keep pretending to be a boy robot.
Someone must've smashed her because of the wig and the dress.
But that didn't stop her putting a little bit more hip into her dancing. She tried it with the Diagnostic Shuffle.
Not one person present, organic or non, said a word about it.
"Hey, Matter Mistress Kathy. We're sorry it's been a while," said The Jon. "Rabbit got smashed and we had to help fix him up."
"I'm back in one piece, more or less," said Rabbit. "I bet'cha you're starv...oh no..." The very distinctive sound of Rabbit's gears going bad. "OH NO! Oh n-n-no... I broke your lunch! I sma-smashed it to a billion jillion p-p-pieces! I'm so sorry Matter Mistress Kathy. I wasn't thinkin' straight. I just wanted to show you. How I could be good robot. And then I heard you was up in the minefield..." sob "I didn't want you to get blowed up. I already had enough people get blowed up."
Oh yes. The famous stolen blue matter core. She'd read the file, but had forgotten about the chain of deaths on Rabbit's tally. Including a descendant of his creator.
The robot was programmed with pseudo-emotions at the very least. It thought it could love. It thought it felt guilt.
Hell, it had been wearing its 'Pappy's goggles for years since they discovered his death.
It thought it was sentimental.
And now it thought it was upset.
All she could do ever since the Walter Girls helped the doctors set up a nasogastric tube with the nutrient soup... was think. She had decided, at length, that nobody deserved to go through what she had gone through. It was hell, and passing such hells on to others was very, very wrong. And there was no better time to start improving her ways than now.
She signed, and The Jon translated, "It was just cheap china. It was not worth my life. You acted bravely, Rabbit."
Two left metal hands checked her temperature. One on her neck. One on her shoulder. Two left hands. One robot each.
The warmer one had to be Rabbit.
"You sure you're okay, Ma-Matter Mistress Kathy? The doctors didn't fix ya up wrong or nothin'? 'Cause the last time I broke somethin'... you broke me."
She reached for the little jar with the remains of the frog in it. Pushed it into Rabbit's hand by feel alone.
"What?" Rabbit made it rattle. "That's your clicker... It's all bent and covered... in... b-b-blood..." Steam hissed and a gear crunched. A squeak of a little Rabbit voice, "Is it your blood, Matter Mi-Mistress K-Kathy?"
This time, The Spine translated. "Don't worry about it, Rabbit. It was my fault for carrying it around in the first place. If I hadn't hurt you, there would have been no trouble."
"I don't g-get it," murmured Rabbit. "It ain't April..."
"I'm sorry for hurting you, Rabbit," The Spine translated. "I've made... a lot of mistakes. I need to learn how to be a better person. I thought--" she sighed, "I thought Walter Robotics took everything. It took my beauty. It took my power of speech. It took my family and friends... It took my ability to just go out and have fun... and I blamed you robots. That was wrong. I'm sorry."
She waited with baited breath for the anger. The new hurts on top of the old. The yelling.
Rabbit, she recalled, had laser optics and several bladed weapons. He could easily rip her to shreds and incinerate the remains before any human could stop him.
She could hear Rabbit's clockwork turning. Feel stinging moisture gathering around her bandaged eyes as the robot drew closer.
Weight on the bed. Not his full weight. She could feel the heat of his face close to her ear. The moisture of his steamy breath.
"P-promise you're gonna learn how t-t-to be be-better?"
"I promise," The Jon translated.
Warm metal lips against her cheek. A copper kiss.
"Okay," said Rabbit. "My bro-bro-bro-brothers and I are g-gonna work on a sur-surprise for you."
Clanking metal feet retreated.
"I'm still here if you need to talk, ma'am," said The Spine. "I understand from the doctors that one of your eyes may suffer permanent damage, and we're sorry about that."
She signed, Eyepatch?
"Very possibly," answered The Spine. "The doctors have done their best, but it's up to you and how often you blink under all that gauze. The stitches could tear your cornea."
"Why?" said another voice. A young man. "Why're you being nice to her? She was *horrible*..."
"The key word, Tommy, is 'was'," said The Spine. "Rabbit's forgiven her, and Rabbit's the one she hurt. Matter Mistress Kathy's promised to learn how to be better and we trust her. We have to trust her. It's her job to look after us."
Kathy sighed. Reached out for The Spine. Tapped his shoulder.
She signed, and he translated. "It's more than I could hope to deserve. And the knowledge of that is a kind of punishment, too."
Matter Mistress Kathy was sleeping. This gave the bots leave to find a small adventure together.
And better, The Spine finally had his right arm back, so he could at least hold things and indicate where he wanted his chair steered. The other two limbs were currently in a state of argument in the Waltercorp tent, where a host of Walter girls were having a collective crash course in robotic repair and re-assembly.
But the absolute best of bests, according to Rabbit, was the mere presence of a *piano*.
It was a very welcome break from all the hard work that had been going on.
The barflies gathered in the room where the piano gathered dust laughed and nudged each other as Rabbit tested each key for its tone.
The Jon joined him, wheeling The Spine in front of him. "I knew I'd find you with some kind'a musical instrument."
"I thought we'd work on a few songs. Maybe sing some oldies for the b-boys," said Rabbit. "Put the band back together again." A glance at The Spine. "Well. Mostly together."
"Yeah, play us a song," cheered one of the barflies.
"You heard the audience, Rabbit," cheered The Jon. "Play something everyone knows."
"Then... attune your ears to the grinding gears..." Rabbit's hands danced on the keys.
Kathy tilted her head this way and that as she sat up in her hospital bed. The night winds carried the sound to her and she was trying to identify it.
Major Nurse Houlihan opened the doors and windows to hear it better herself.
"La da da da da! La da da da da!"
Kathy found herself smiling. The singers sounded inebriated, and Kathy well knew that an inebriated audience could make _Brass Goggles_ last well into the next morning. That and _Make Believe_ with all the la la la's.
In spite of the pain, Kathy began to hum along.
She'd forgotten how happy that song made her feel.
"Want to go listen?" asked Major Nurse Houlihan.
Kathy couldn't even remember the last time she had heard the robots sing. She'd been young, she knew that. She remembered thinking that the blue-tinted hair of the Walter Girls was the coolest thing she had ever seen. She wanted to be pretty like them.
Then she learned that Walter Girls did not find anyone else but enraptured little girls who found them pretty. She learned that, though girls were valued in Waltercorp, they were not valued in many other places at all. That people tended to view Peter Walter College as "the freak farm". That she became, essentially, unemployable in any other place but Walter Robotics.
Anticipation turned to anger. Dreams to bitter ash. And, short of an adult boss to blame, all her fury turned to the mechanical robots she had originally loved.
She wanted to feel that love again.
Kathy nodded and slowly sat up, wary of her internal hurts. One hand went to caress her normally iron-hard bun and found it falling out.
"Don't worry, I'll fix it up for you. Would you like it up or down?"
She'd kept her hair crown for her entire reign of terror. Now was the time for changes. Kathy pointed down.
Forty pins and three hair ties came out. Her hair felt like an unfamiliar cloud around her arms. She'd kept it rigidly braided unless she was washing it and the tickle of her loose strands made her smile.
"That is a *lot* of hair," remarked Houlihan. "Do you mind if I tie it up a little so it won't snag in the wheelchair?"
She made a little go-ahead motion.
Houlihan had quick hands. It was a matter of moments until the tickling cloud became a soft weight in her lap and on her right shoulder. Then she gratefully accepted assistance into a wheelchair and enjoyed the ride to the bar where the robots were playing.
It was a nice, slow walk, because Tommy was shuffling along for the trip.
The rest of his unit had, Sergeant first, declined the offer to see, as they put it, "a bunch of pansy robots sing."
The Spine was taking his turn singing from Rabbit's notes. The pages were oil-stained, of course; because any piece of paper in Rabbit's possession for longer than twenty minutes got an oil stain on it.
"I do not need U-ran-i-um/ Or your fossil fu-els/ Friction from curiosity powers my hydro tu-ubes/ Answers stem more que-e-stions and grow my algorithms anew,"
"Yes they do-oo. If there's no concepts to grasp/ What can I, ro-bot do?"
"What to do if the point is moot/ What's a moot, any-wa-hey?"
"I don't know."
"Is it the name of this wi-ild goose?"
"Or the beat in my dancin' shoes?"
"Guess we need some good ol' fashioned explainin'..."
"Please explain it to meeee..."
The Spine could pinpoint the exact second that Rabbit noticed Matter Mistress Kathy. And the exact second that Rabbit recognized her *as* Matter Mistress Kathy.
During the extended note, Rabbit noticed that some girls had joined their circle and instantly put her flirt on. And in moments like that, The Spine had to wonder if the flirting was an act or genuine attraction. He didn't dare ask. Not yet.
Three second's of flirting and singing at the same time was all Rabbit needed to realize that the lady she'd been smiling for was none other than the one who had been terrorizing her for years.
That was when the song abruptly ended in a jangle of discordant piano notes and an alarmed shriek.
Rabbit got herself tangled in the piano stool and almost literally fell into The Jon's arms.
It took three more seconds for Rabbit to stop screaming and come back to herself.
Matter Mistress Kathy hadn't moved a muscle.
For fifteen seconds too long, the only sound was the anxious chuff-chuff-chuff of Rabbit venting excess steam.
Matter Mistress Kathy's hands rose slowly. Moved in a careful ballet.
This was so much different from her usual curt, short and angry motions that it took The Spine too long to recognize it as her talking.
"I understand, Rabbit," translated The Jon. "I taught you to be scared of me. That's a program that is going to take a very long time to erase."
"...no... box?" quavered Rabbit.
Matter Mistress Kathy shook her head. She signed and The Jon translated. "I understand you're all taking a break from working on your surprise?"
"...uhoh..." muttered Rabbit.
"I think we kind of got a little distracted, ma'am," said The Spine.
"It's been a while since we played... anywhere," added The Jon.
"...i like music," mumbled Rabbit.
Matter Mistress Kathy found The Spine's hand with one of her own. Held up one finger.
"One more song?" he guessed.
Rabbit managed to recover her composure and tickled the ivories anew. "Well, what would the lady like to hear?"
"On Top of the Universe, please," The Spine translated.
"You heard the l-l-lady, fellas. A one. A two. A potato!"
Cold metal scissors sliding up the side of her face. The warm presence of Major Nurse Houlihan holding her hair.
"Eyes closed," said Doctor Honeycut.
Kathy nodded. Carefully. She'd had her eyes closed ever since The Spine warned her about the potential for corneal injury via blinking.
Peeling layers of gauze coming away from her head. Houlihan undoing her ponytail and the sound of a hairbrush being bought forth in anticipation.
"Rabbit, get out of the light," warned Honeycut.
The sound of a robot moving anxiously away.
Her skin almost screamed with relief to be free of the bandages.
"Head up. Look down," instructed Pierce.
Someone moved the cut eyelid.
"Not ready, yet. It's going to need a patch."
"Pirate Mistress Kathy?" said The Jon.
"Oooh! Pirates are *cool*," enthused Rabbit.
"Fellas..." warned The Spine. "We were only allowed in because we promised not to make too much noise."
Kathy was allowed to look on the 'bots only once the eyepatch was firmly in place.
The Spine was still missing a leg. Her team were behind schedule.
"Don't blame the Walter Girls, ma'am," pleaded The Spine. "They got caught up in our work, and you know how they are at new things."
"We made you a present," said The Jon.
"I p-p-picked the b-box," said Rabbit.
"You can size it to fit," added The Spine.
Kathy smiled a gentle smile at the oil stains on the ribbon, and the tiny flecks of gold in the sticky tape. The Spine must have been the one to find the chintz-pattern wrapping paper, because she knew about paper in the presence of Rabbit.
This is almost too beautiful, she signed.
"Yeah, ya g-gotta open it," said Rabbit. "That's what p-p-presents is for."
She took great care in the unwrapping. Nobody had given her any kind of present since... Since she lost her tongue to blue matter and got permanently angry. She wanted to save the wrappings as a memento.
The box under the chintz wrapping was of fine make, too. With a little golden latch and copper and silver inlay.
And inside... nestled on velvet...
A stainless steel robotic tongue. The end had tiny little golden hooks.
"It won't taste for you," said The Jon.
"But it should work like a real tongue in every other way," added The Spine.
"We're sorry if it t-tastes oily," said Rabbit. "We swa-swapped to cookin' oil when we made it, but..." Rabbit shrugged. "I g-get everywhere."
There was even a hand-calligraphed operations manual. The Jon had to have done that, the lack of oil stains almost shouted it.
"Try it on?" asked The Jon.
She held the twin buttons on its underside and tried not to flinch as the golden hooks sank into the stump at the back of her mouth.
It did not taste for her, but she still picked up the residue of cooking oil. All three of them knew better than to use cooking oil, long term. The nasty stuff congealed in their joints, long term. They'd have had to have been cleansed inside and out -twice- to manage that.
"Stick it out. Give it a wiggle," urged The Jon.
Kathy obeyed with half a smile. If she knew Rabbit like she thought she knew Rabbit...
Her giggle came out as a croak. Kathy cleared her throat. Made sure her voice was working after neglecting its use for so long. She knew what her first words had to be.
"Thank you, Rabbit... The Spine... The Jon. You have no idea how much you've given back to me."
Rabbit looked thunderstruck. Twitterpated, even. "Nobody said you have a voice like an angel," he breathed.
Of course the robots put on a show before they had to leave for their separate duties. And it was during that show that the MP's caught up with Sergeant Smith and his cadre of saboteurs.
"Treason?" Sarge bellowed. "*TREASON*? Over teaching that clanking, clunking cacophony of calibrated catastrophe a gol-durn lesson?"
"Purposefully destroying an instrument in the field of your country's service is sabotage," intoned an MP. "Committing sabotage against allies and in a time of war is treason. You and your conspirators are going to be taken to Seoul for court-martial."
Sitting very quietly in front of them, Tommy sprained something trying not to smile.
Any minute now, the kick in the teeth would arrive.
"Sergeant Smith? Urgent message for Sergeant Jacob Smith."
Here it came.
"What the Sam Hill? Waltercorp sent me a bill for repairs and services rendered!"
The MP took it off him before he could rip it. "This is evidence against you. Your wages will be garnished until such time as this is paid in full."
Sergeant Smith really did have a mouth like a crusty sailor. It was worth the show to watch him get carried away by the MP's. Kicking and screaming.
Tommy turned back to watch the rest of the show.
Life was getting better.
"Sure you're going to b-b-be all right, The Spine?"
"There's very little in this chassis that can get broken by the enemy, Rabbit. I'll be home as soon as it's over."
Matter Mistress Kathy, obeying her personal rules for not frightening Rabbit, approached them both from the side and gently touched Rabbit's arm. "I tried to talk to them about your travel arrangements, dear... I'm sorry. You're still cargo." She had a comically large, pink, stuffed toy rabbit under her arm. "I thought this might help you a little, going back into storage..."
"It's a lad-d-d-dy rabbit," cooed Rabbit.
"She's cargo, too." Kathy handed it over, gently wrapping Rabbit's arms around its plush body, and softly stroking a pink, plush ear. "And I made sure your packing crate has air holes. I'll talk to you all the way home, if I have to."
"Tha-thank you Mistress K-Kathy," Rabbit squeaked.
"It's time to go."
The Spine walked with her, all the way to the truck with the box, now emblazoned with the words 'FRAGILE' and 'HANDLE WITH CARE'.
It had wallpaper on the inside. And throw pillows. And a flashlight.
Kathy guided Rabbit in and made sure she was comfortable before allowing the robotic siblings one last farewell.
Rabbit clung tight to her plush namesake as she waved shyly at her younger brother. "See you soon?"
"I certainly hope so," answered The Spine.
~fade to black~
WALTER ROBOTICS' THREE SINGING AUTOMATONS WERE LAST SEEN OPERATIONAL IN THE WAR-FIELDS OF VIETNAM. THEY DISAPPEARED ON THE THIRTEENTH OF DECEMBER 1965, AND HAVE YET TO BE FOUND.
IF YOU KNOW OF THE LOCATION OF ANY OF THE AUTOMATONS, OR ANY OF THEIR PARTS, PLEASE CONTACT WALTER ROBOTICS AT 555-9265.