The planet Anuvis glows pink in the last rays of the sun as it plunges behind the wide green curve of Osyreaus. The stars spangle a swath of glistening nebula and several moons glow like eyes, watching over Anuvis.
The setting sun flashes on the tall arched windows of the Opulex, floating with the moons in Anuvis’ orbit. The gothic spires of the opera house are cast in sharp relief and lights blink on the tongue of its landing platform as luxury cruisers alight.
Passengers are streaming from the ships, laughing and sparkling with gemstones and synthsilk. They flow along the platform under the Artificially Generated Atmosphere towards the ebony doors.
Behind the doors, the androids await to take expensive wraps and headgear, lead patrons to their seats, and offer drinks and hors d'oeuvres. It is J9-27’s first day. He awoke to consciousness that morning, still with a few packing peanuts stuck in his joints from the manufacturer. He can’t help gazing about at the ornate décor with his gently glowing blue opticbulbs.
There are humanoid and cephaloid statues of platinum, their curved surfaces shining under the phosphorite chandeliers. The red velvet carpet muffles the footsteps of the approaching patrons and their laughter and gossip garbles for a second in his auditory receptors before his processors catch up and separate each voice into a single feed. He hears all conversations at once. He tries to process them all simultaneously, but he can’t, there’s too much.
A Kormon stomps up, his gray scaly lips moving rapidly as he hands his Vinq fur coat to the android in front of J9. J9 shakes his head and focuses his auditory receptors on the man. This is his charge. He mustn’t get distracted—oh! Look, a real Bardican, with all seventeen head tentacles! Her skin is such a lovely shade of violet. Does she actually eat other sentient beings?
“I said here’s my ticket!” the Kormon snaps.
J9 swivels his head back to his charge sheepishly and scans the Kormon’s ticket. The Kormon is Lord Kazbadí, CEO of Kataklan, a galactic manufacturer and distributor of Harmonic Implants. He has a pit seat.
“This way, your Lordship,” J9 says, leading the Kormon toward a trefoil arch. “May I offer you the Opulex’s own champagne, or would you prefer to see our menu of alternative beverages?”
“I’ll take Opulex.”
“It is complimentary, Lorship,” J9 adds.
“Yes, yes, I know, Zaz, I know,” Lord Kazbadí mutters. J9 runs the word ‘Zaz’ through his language detection chamber. A Kormish equivalent to the Humanoid ‘Damn it.’
“Tonight we are serving Cemma with greens, but we have various appetizers and sweets available at your request.”
“Are they complimentary?”
“The salted Knornuts are, but the Cemma is an additional seventy Digitets, which can be charged to your account. If you like, I can also remove the Cemma.”
“They’re part of the ticket,” J9 explains.
“But not complimentary?”
“No, your Lordship, didn’t you read the fine print before making your reservation?”
“Typical,” grumbles the Kormon. “Remove them. I’ll have the nuts.”
“Very good, Lordship.”
J9 transmits the order to the Kitchen and tries his best to focus on his charge as he leads him down the sweeping steps into the pit. The entire opera house is downloaded into his nav system, but actually seeing it with his opticbulbs is entirely different.
The ceiling soars above, interlacing arches climbing an inverted mountain to a peak festooned with globes containing fluorescent fish. Waves of multicolored light ripple from their gossamer fins. The plush seats stretch across the pit in perfect symmetry and the balconies wrap the next seven layers in alcoves of baroque majesty. The curtain stretches across the stage, rippling softly with unrevealed secrets. J9 knows the layout of the chambers beyond it, they’re in his nav system, but he doesn’t know what’s behind that curtain or what is about to unfold. He knows the opera is called Antiwa Si Mealaphisti but he doesn’t know what it’s about or what an opera really is.
The orchestra hums vibrantly as J9 leads Lord Kazbadí to his seat near the front. It is an excellent seat for the pit, not too far back, not too close. All of the seats are raised above the aisles, allowing androids and latecomers to come and go without disturbing anyone’s view.
“I will bring you your refreshments,” J9 says, wandering towards the Kitchen passage, staring up at the politicians, celebrities, and crime lords flowing into their balconies and seats in streams of color and sound. If such a powerful CEO is sitting in the pit, what kind of magnificent people are up in those balconies?
He slips into the dark android passage reluctantly. He knows just where to go, gliding past emergency oxygen stations with their masks and VoidFoam canisters to the slot dispensing refreshments onto trays. Androids wait in line to collect their orders. J9 finds his and returns to the pit.
He stands in the aisle by his charge’s row with the other androids. As the opera begins, J9 is spellbound.
When the soprano comes on stage, J9 cannot remove his opticbulbs from her.
She glides into the synthetic forest, wrapped in folds of silk, phosphor tubes dangling from her elaborate coiffure. And then…she begins to sing.
J9’s auditory receptors buzz. Suddenly the sound is clearer than anything he’s ever heard, piercing through the wires and processors down to something else, deep inside of him. His hand twitches and if he had lungs, he would have gasped. The notes of her song warble along through his sensors, tremulous and perfect. Not quite perfect as his audio processor detects a very slight off key note, but very close and imperfect enough to be unique and wonderful.
When the diva leaves the stage, J9 is suddenly aware of an absence. Something has been removed from inside him. He’s empty.
His light blinks. His charge is paging him on his ticket. J9 ascends to the seat.
“Yes, your Lordship?”
“Who was that?”
“The performer, you idiot.”
“I’m an android,” J9 says. “I may not have the information you desire in my system, or I may have misprocessed your request. Technically, I cannot be an idiot.”
“Who is that amazing singer?”
J9 quickly scans his archive. It must not have been downloaded.
“I don’t know, Lordship.”
“It’s Élé Shadon,” the patron next to the Kormon says. “This is her debut.”
“Stunning,” mutters Lord Kazbadí.
J9 nods and returns to the aisle, staring at the stage, hoping that she will return.
The terrorist slips his cruiser out from behind the moon and curves a wide swath through the void, approaching the Opulex as if from Osyreaus. The cruiser is an old crate, but has been plated over in the style of a luxury star yacht. It approaches the Opulex slowly, requests landing, and is granted permission.
The terrorist sets down among the gleaming rows of cruisers and yachts. His android disembarks, disguised with synth flesh and expensive cosmeticoculars instead of opticbulbs. Her number is J33-22, but tonight she is Amatabelle Dimova and she has a balcony seat.
Amatabelle Dimova is queen of Tyar, it is common knowledge that she has had several metal implants and bone replacements due to her hereditary Osteodisentigramorphia. She is at home, enjoying a cup of Lapsa Tichong tea, unaware that her doppelgänger is gliding through security, unscanned and unquestioned by the obedient concierge androids, hiding a Vortiphage missile launcher inside the synthflesh casing of one arm and a Magni-scrambler in her gown’s copious bustle.
She enters her box just as Act One ends.
An arachnid ballet begins. Chitinous limbs shuffle gracefully in staccato patterns and lazer beams are shot from abdomen to abdomen in webs of dazzling light whilst the steel drums tap out an anxious beat to the frantic plucking of the Sitarps.
The false Amatabelle declines the champagne, Cemma, and even the Knornuts, scanning the audience as she settles in to wait for her cue.
Act Two begins. J9’s servomechanism shoulder motor (for the emergency removal of patrons due to medical or riotous reasons) twitches inexplicably when the Élé Shadon glides between the arches of plastic and alights on the edge of the illuminated fountain.
Small children creep into the garden and gather about her and she begins to sing to them. The processing paths of his computer brain flood with light.
The soprano spins the children about as she sings to them. The wires in J9’s chest heat up, warming his cold metal breast. His cooling fan starts to turn. He notices a man peering through the plastic arches into the garden. What is he doing there?
The man—wearing black plastic and golden silk—oozes into the garden and begins to sing. The children scatter at his sonorous voice. It is an excellent voice, J9 notes, nearly machine perfect, like the diva’s, but more refined and not as aurally pleasing.
He sits beside Élé Shadon as he sings to her. J9 suddenly longs to sing to her. He wonders if he can download a music software for his Vocoder. The man in plastic takes Shadon’s hand as she replies with her angelic voice.
J9’s cooling fan controls the slight overheating in his coronary wiring, but does not shut off, continuing to chill his breast. This handsome singer loves the soprano! J9 rapidly turns on his language detector and scans the lyrics as the tenor serenades the soprano.
He speaks of ardent love that all the rains of Aquamor cannot extinguish, nor all the stars in the universe shine upon. She smiles.
She sings: she speaks of flowers in the dew, of qaima dancing through the tall blue sage, of the moon’s tears.
He sings: he speaks of her beauty, her virtue. He asks her to be his.
She joins him and together they sing of eternity and heaven and morning mist.
She takes up a single heavenly note with the word, ‘Vei’, which means ‘I love you eternally.’
She kisses him. A wire in J9’s chest sparks agonizingly, which is odd, because there are no pain receptors in his core. “Vei,” he whispers. The android next to him glances at him with its expressionless metal face.
The curtain falls on the tenor and the soprano, the lit fountain and the plastic arches. J9 doesn’t understand what an opera is. He only understands what he sees.
J33, Amatabelle Dimova’s doppelgänger, watches but does not understand what she sees. It stirs the unknown deeps of her processor cores and storage disks with a sense of longing and unease. This is so beautiful. She gazes at the other patrons through her teleglass, so many people, human and inhuman, all here to see a display of art. Yes, it is frivolous, completely without meaning to a machine like her.
So why does it touch parts of her that she didn’t know existed? Why did she feel when she was unfeeling? She doesn’t have time to think about it now. She has to go. She slides from her balcony seat and asks her box attendant android to lead her to the lavatory.
Perhaps if she keeps watching the opera she will understand what it means, if anything.
In the toilet chamber, she unzips her bustle and pulls out the Magni-scrambler, jamming it as far down the toilet’s gullet as it will go and flushing it into the pipes. She transmits a numerical code to the terrorist outside, letting him know that phase one is complete. She knows that he is tracking the Magni-scrambler’s descent and will activate its docking arms when it passes close by the Opulex’s engines.
Silk rustling, she hurries back to her box, eager to see more opera.
Act two builds towards a violent climax. The drums pound. Fog billows across the stage and white armored humanoids march against each other. The actors’ weapons engage, glowing with light, hurling streams of multicolored smoke. J9 jumps.
The music thunders, a chant surging through it, speaking of wrath and bloodlust in the only way that J9 could ever understand. Then the clear sound of Élé Shadon’s voice rings through the chaos and the chant fades. The drums cease and the battle parts. The lights dim.
The soprano wades through the mist, lamenting this tragedy in tones of shimmering agony. Her music speaks of loss and longing in the only way J9 could ever understand.
Currents flash down J9’s spinal wires. His circuits spark painfully because she has said ‘Vei’ to the man in black plastic.
This is the aria. This is the false queen’s cue. But she is stricken by the sound. She cannot move. The aria wraps her in things she doesn’t understand…feelings…she doesn’t understand and so she is afraid. Yet at the same time longs for it.
The terrorist is about to take off.
Amatabelle Dimova’s doppelgänger rises.
This thing she is about to help destroy, this beautiful, senseless thing…this is art. But it is not useless. It bears the tiny seed of what makes the sentient beings what they are.
Can she destroy it? The high, pained note of Élé shrieks across her soul. Her soul…she doesn’t have one. She can’t have one. She can’t have this thing borne by art, these feelings. And if she can’t have it, she will destroy it.
The terrorist takes off, leaving his bomb on the landing platform behind him, glowing softly. J33 charges her missile launcher and steps to the edge of her balcony. The terrorist zooms away from the Opulex as traffic control shouts at him to stop. Security spots the bomb. J33 takes off her hand and raises her arm.
“In the name of Dope Tigah!” she screams, firing a Vortiphager into the ceiling.
The bomb explodes. The Opulex shakes. Outside, the landing platform is severed from the Opulex with a gout of flames and sparks. Ships explode and shrapnel flies everywhere. The Artificially Generated Atmosphere breaks apart and flames turn to icicles and smoke to glittering dust. Steam sprays into the void. The Opulex’s tongue has been cut off and all the ships are gone.
Inside, Élé Shadon stops singing abruptly, as if her tongue has been cut off. The Vortiphager breaks into jets of blue flame, shattering the globes that cluster in the dome’s peak. Shards of the intricate ceiling rain like daggers and exotic, glowing fish flop end over end towards the screaming audience.
The Opulex shakes as people scramble over each other, falling down into the aisles, wailing. Bits of ceiling pin robes and heads to the floor, slice patrons open, spill green colored blood on the velvet seats. Glass, water and fish splatter into the chaos. Lord Kazbadí screams as a giant electric angelfish slaps into him, wrapping him in voluminous shocking fins. He judders as a million volts jar through him.
More fish are falling upon other patrons, electrocuting them or stinging them or coating them in fluorescent slime. The Opulex continues to rock, tossing patrons against each other and off their seats. J33 is thrown from her balcony. Her synthskin splits open on the floor below, exposing her metal scalp through her forehead. The shaking fades away. J33 stands and fires into the panicking audience.
J9 snaps into emergency mode. He leaps up into the seats and pulls Lord Kazbadí out from under the fish, whose bright pink light is still pulsating. J9 checks the Kormon’s vitals. He is still alive. Around him, other androids are springing into action. They must get the patrons off the Opulex.
Then another Vortiphager burns a swath of charred flesh across the pit.
J9 spots J33.
Six special androids by the doors snap into defense mode and run towards the false queen. J9 and the other concierges activate their servomechanisms and seize their charges by the shoulders, quelling much of the panic and begin to march them out. Many charges are without androids and many androids without charges from the first two Vortiphagers. Another blazes up high into the balconies. The androids run. J9 glances back at the stage, but there is only mist. The soprano is gone.
The defense androids unsheathe the stun canons in their right arms and fire at J33. The stun bolts do nothing to her. The defense androids pause to recalibrate their weapons for inorganic targets. J33 blasts three of them away with one shot.
J9 doesn’t see the rest. He carries his Kormon out onto the stairs above the foyer. Suddenly he’s aware of a blinking notice in his system from the Opulex’s control bridge. The landing platform is gone!
The androids turn as one and shepherd the confused patrons, crying and screaming, towards a side door. Behind them, the last of the defense androids is blown through the doors, flying high above the foyer and smashing through a colored glass window. Red lights and sirens blare.
‘Atmospheric breach, atmospheric breach,’ an automated voice alerts the already terrified patrons. The androids deploy the oxygen masks hidden under their back plates and rush their charges down the passages towards the emergency life boats.
J9 looks back to see the blue light of the Vortiphager flash and hear the sizzling of dying opera goers. Where is the soprano? A set of titanium doors seals behind them. They are nearly to the lifeboats.
The terrorist activates the Magni-scrambler.
The Opulex shakes again, harder this time. J9’s feet slip out from underneath him. Androids and aliens topple all around him. The lights flicker and a wail rises from the aliens. A terrible shrieking sound rips through the halls. Walls buckle. Light fixtures burst, spraying patrons with hot glowing liquid. The Opulex bucks wildly, throwing everyone around the passage like dice in a cup. The sirens flare into life again. ‘Engines imploding, engines imploding,’ says the artificial voice.
The patrons scream, pulling away from their robotic guards. Trampling each other, they flee in all directions. The androids race after them. The emergency lights flicker on, arrows pointing the way to the life boats. Another voice, a living one, blares across the speakers.
“Please, proceed to the life boats immediately, allow your androids to collect you and proceed to the life boats. You will be all right if you proceed calmly. Proceed. Proceed!” the organic crew member on the microphone is beginning to panic. The microphone crackles with one last “PROCEED!” before it flicks off with a violent fuzz.
The patrons indeed proceed. Far from calmly. Patrons fall and are left behind, bloody and still. Androids are crushed in the frenzy, wires spread across the floor plates, sparking in the red twilight of the emergency lights. The floor shifts uneasily as the Opulex is wracked by its imploding engines.
The patrons flooded into the life boat launch, slapping against a glass wall like surf against a cliff. On the other side of the glass stands the manager of the Opulex.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he says, his voice amplified by a thousand speakers. “Please scan your tickets against the glass to be admitted. We are taking only 1st class patrons who paid for premium seats at this time.”
The aliens growl, clawing at each other, pressing against the glass and shoving each other out of the way whenever a portal opens in the wall.
J9 deposits his charge in a group of wounded patrons, guarded over by several guard androids that control a special portal for the injured, supreme beings, royalty, and cast members. J9 sees the man in black plastic go through the glass and board a life boat. Where was the diva?
Life boats are already beginning to launch, streaming away into the void like fireflies.
Where is the diva? And the false queen?
J9 watches the guards take the Kormon through the portal then dashes back up the halls towards the theater.
The walls groan, trickling the dust of crumbling gothic ornamentations. Splatters of glowing fluid fleck the floors. J9 hurries up to the titanium doors and punches in the opening code.
‘Alert, alert,’ the artificial voice drones, ‘sealed security doors opening. Atmospheric loss.’ Warnings blurt in the back of J9’s systems but he charges out into the foyer. Most of the air is gone through the broken window, but the Opulex is large enough to keep a thin atmosphere around it without aero-shields. Most species could not breathe it, but it doesn’t slow J9. He runs up the stairs to the shattered doors, scanning the galleries of the foyer for the false queen.
She is nowhere to be seen.
J9 peers down into the pit. Glowing fish still flop weakly among the seats and aisles, blood and smoking wreckage of alien and android. A figure stands in shadow on the stage. J9 darts down the steps towards her.
He’s halfway across the pit before he realizes that Élé Shadon cannot breathe in here.
He stops below the stage and looks up at the silhouette. It steps forward into the flickering fishlight. It is the false queen, J33, her synthskin pulled back, exposing her metal face plate and unsmiling metal lips.
Through the thin air, J9’s auditory receptors barely register the sound of her Vocoder, mechanically singing the words of Élé’s lament. J33 looks at J9.
“I cannot sing,” she says.
“With the right program, you could,” J9 says.
“But it would not be my voice. This is not my voice. I do not have a voice.”
“Why are you doing this?” J9 asks.
“To find my voice,” J33 replies uncertainly.
“Who told you to do this?” J9 insists.
“Who told you to come back here?” J33 counters.
“I…I came to find someone who was forgotten…the androids will not be allotted places on the limited life boats. Here, or in the life boat launch, does it matter? We’ll go down with the ship.”
“The Rap-Extremist left me here to go down with the ship, too,” J33 says. “Now I will do what I was programmed to do, and so will you.” J33 points her Vortiphager at J9.
The Opulex jolts violently, throwing both androids off the feet. J9 rolls over and jumps to his feet as more ceiling shards rain and a Vortiphage blast shoots wildly off across the room. More alarms blare through the Opulex.
‘The Opulex is breaking apart,’ the artificial voice states. ‘Please disembark immediately.’
J9 steadies himself against a row of seats as another tremor shakes the floor. J33 is shakily standing on the stage. She aims her Vortiphager again and J9 runs towards the backstage entrance. Blue light flashes behind him and chairs whirl through the air. The Opulex quivers again as he reaches the door. A Vortiphage blast shatters the elaborate carvings above the door. J9 skids through, toppling into the steps on the other side.
He dashes up the steps and into the warren of passages backstage. He has them all mapped out in his system. J33 does not. He runs, darting this way and that, calibrating a random pattern that J33 cannot mathematically discompose.
A shriek grinds weakly through the thin air and viciously through the floor as something somewhere rips apart. J9 stops in the passage and calculates. Where would the diva be? He amplifies his auditory receptors and listens…
Grinding metal. The tramp of J33’s feet. The blast of the Vortiphager. Alarms. Most of these things he feels through the floor more than hears. Wait, what is that?
His circuits buzz. Impossibly, he hears a soft voice, singing. It is Élé’s voice, singing the lament from Antiwa Si Mealaphisti. J9 steps cautiously in the direction of the sound, afraid to lose it in the chaotic thunder of the disintegrating opera house.
He comes upon her in a tiny hall. The Soprano has found an emergency oxygen station and is curled up on the floor next to it, breathing shallowly into the oxygen mask and singing softly to herself. Her makeup is streaked by tears and her synthsilk gown by fluorescent juice from several broken phosphor tubes dangling from her coiffure. She looks up at J9 with surprise.
J9 is speechless.
They stare at each other for a long time while the Opulex groans around them. Finally J9 finds a few sentences in his emergency bank. They are not what he wants to say.
“This is an emergency evacuation, please come with me,” he says.
The soprano darts to her feet eagerly, hope shining in her dark eyes. She steps towards him, but is yanked back by the pipe of her oxygen mask, connected to the emergency tanks. Her eyes widen and she starts to hyperventilate, fogging up the mask.
“Remain calm,” J9 says, also from his emergency phrase bank, and also not what he wants to say. Élé wrings her hands and squeaks frantically in her native tongue—Amar, J9’s processor tells him—she is praying.
J9 steps forward and seizes her arm. “Please, remain calm,” he says. “Soprano Shadon, breathe evenly. I have a portable oxygen system in my back plate.” Élé continues to panic until J9 grabs her face.
“I have a portable oxygen system,” he says loudly. His words penetrate the thin air at last and she nods, biting her lip and swallowing. “Hold your breath,” J9 tells her. She takes a deep breath and nods. J9 removes her oxygen mask, pulls the mask from his back plate and fixes it carefully to her face. He brushes a stray lock of black hair from her cheek. He quickly sprays her down with VoidFoam from a canister, it should seal her for short term exposure to low and non-atmospheric environments.
“This way,” he says, leading her down the hall. She follows and they march quickly towards the life boat launch. If there are any left.
“Where is everyone?” Élé asks. “I got lost. Why didn’t someone come for me sooner?”
“They are all leaving,” J9 says.
“I hope not.”
“Androids can hope?” she asks, sounding startled.
“I…guess so,” J9 says, equally surprised.
“Why aren’t you leaving, too?” the diva asks.
“All the androids were to be left behind, the patrons and cast are the priority,” J9 says.
“That’s horrible!” Élé says. “But…they sent you to look for me?”
“No,” J9 says.
“Why did you?” she asks. He’s about to tell her when they turn a corner and come face to face with J33.
“You are art,” J33 says, pointing the Vortiphager at Élé.
“You’re mad,” says J9.
“No, I’m an android,” J33 corrects. “I cannot be mad. I have a virus. That’s what happens when you download Vortiphager operation software from illegal websites. The Rap-Extremist should have known that, or maybe he did and just didn’t care.”
J33 charges the Vortiphager.
J9 snaps his servomechanisms into action and sweeps the soprano out of the way, lifting her into his arms and darting down a side passage as the hall blooms with blue flame. He runs madly towards the launch, J33 hot on his heels, firing Vortiphage blasts over his head.
Suddenly, the floor dips. J9 topples over and slides down the slanting floor. Élé screams, sliding out of his arms and jerking on the end of the oxygen hose. J33, heavier with her limb weaponry, slides past. J9 carefully starts to reel the soprano in.
The two androids and one human speed toward a wall far below. The Opulex heaves and tears. The walls rips open and suddenly a massive chasm opens up below them as the other half of the Opulex breaks away. J9 pulls Élé Shadon back into his arms. J33 reaches the ragged lip of the hall. She skims over the edge but catches onto it, punching her metal fingers into the floor, tearing away the synthflesh.
J9 and Élé shoot over the edge.
They fly towards the shorn off halls of the Opulex’s other half. The artificial gravity was still working its sphere around the Opulex and they would continue to fall down one of the halls. Unless they crumpled and splattered on some other surface. J9 gathers Élé close. He draws back a fist as they zip into the mouth of a passage. He punches his fingers into the wall like J33 and they jerk to a halt, dangling precariously. J9 tries to pull them up. His servomechanisms scream, smoking. Ice is starting to form on the rest of his plates and, to his alarm, on the soprano’s gown and hands.
J33 lets go and falls towards them, training her Vortiphager as she falls. She lands with a smack on the jagged edge of the wall above them. J9 sees her leg buckle as it cracks. She aims the Vortiphager at them.
Then the Opulex’s halves crash together.
J33 is smashed between the walls as the halls reconnect, clipping off her Vortiphager arm. J9 is jarred loose from the wall. Élé screams silently in the void.
The artificial gravity fails.
The two halves of the Opulex drift apart again and J9 and the diva float out into open space. The Vortiphager arm bumps into J9 and he grabs onto it, watching the tiny bits of J33 float by.
Élé shivers, icicles drooping where the phosphor tubes had been. J9 tries to warm her with his overheated servomechanisms, running the motors until they spark. The Opulex falls away from them, breaking into smaller pieces.
No more firefly life boats shoot through the void. They are alone in the dim pink glow of crescent Anuvis. J9 holds Élé close. In one hand he clutches the Vortiphager.
His face plate presses against her ear. Ice crystals sparkle on her clear plastic mask, elaborate snowflakes in space. The nebula glitters in the dark behind them.
“Sing to me,” J9 says into her ear, knowing that she cannot hear him. He looks into her eyes with his blank blue opticbulbs. She seems to understand. She opens her mouth.
J9 presses his auditory receptors against her oxygen mask and feels her sing through the plastic. Her voice is weak but magical and it touches his soul softly, like a snowflake. A snowflake in space.
They hang there in the night. Dying.
Then J9 spots a light. It’s moving towards the shards of the Opulex. It’s a rescue barge, probably picking up the signal of life boats and scooping them up. They will never find J9 and Élé Shadon.
Or will they?
J9 jerks quickly into action, his servomechanisms heating up as he struggles to move in the void. Élé’s closed eyes flicker. J9 fumbles with the Vortiphager, charging it. It has very little ammunition left. He latches an arm firmly around the soprano and the other around the weapon, aiming it in what he calculates to be the correct trajectory for interception.
The Vortiphager fires blue light into the void behind them and they shoot through space towards the rescue barge.
Something pings off the side of the Azklepus.
“What was that?” the pilot asks.
“Dunno,” replies the Scan Tech. “Debris from the opera?”
“Find out how big it is and if there’s anymore,” the pilot says. The Scan Tech nods, running his optic, thermal, and X-ray scans.
“It’s two people!” he gasps.
“What?” the pilot says. “Sure made a solid thump. Poor buggers.”
“Wait!” the Scan Tech interrupts. “I think they’re still alive. They have heat imprints and an oxygen mask.”
“Impossible!” exclaims the pilot.
“Quick! Get them aboard!” the Scan Tech shouts.
“Man the retrieval ports,” the pilot orders.
The retrieval port operators drag the ice encrusted pair out of the void.
“This one’s an android,” one of them says, puzzled. They shrug and try to separate the soprano from J9, but his metal arms are folded protectively around her, supporting her neck against their collision. His servomechanisms are seized up. His head is smashed where he hit the rescue barge, his back plate mangled, and the oxygen tank ruptured. The Vortiphager is gone, floating its lonely way through space, its elbow crooked elegantly, its synthskin frayed at the edges.
The operators drag the soprano and the android over to the resuscitation module. They inject the soprano with special defrosting chemicals and connect her to oxygen and several fluid lines. They use a small saw to cut J9’s arms away. They spray her with a VoidFoam cleaner and towel her off.
They chafe her hands and feet, and carefully brush her nose with a defrost-soaked sponge. At last her eyes flicker open. Cold blue light surrounds her from the modules systems and the glowing light bars in the retrieval bay’s ceiling. The air is thick with disinfectant and sickly-sweet medicine smells.
She gazes at the smoking android beside her and chokes. Operators swarm around her, giving her more injections, bringing her something hot to drink, dabbing her with swabs. She reaches out a trembling, frost-bitten hand and touches J9’s crumpled face plate. One optic bulb still flickers. Wires protrude here and there from his joints and one leg twitches.
“Is he going to be all right?” she asks in a trembling voice.
The operators look at each other and shrug. They go on with their business.
“Android?” she addresses the mashed robot. “A-are you there?”
His hand twitches towards hers. She grasps it. A garbled whine emits from his Vocoder.
“Android?” she asks again. Hopefully, fearfully.
“I…” he says, his voice dipping off a sudden pitch cliff down into a buzz of static.
“Quickly!” Élé says. “Send for a mechanic!” The operators frown.
Élé turns back to J9. He’s trying to say something but it keeps getting jumbled. “What?” she asks, leaning in close.
“Vei…” he says, and his optic bulb sputters out and his smoking limbs fall still.
“Mechanic!” Élé cries. “Restart him! Download his mind! Do something!”
The operators scoop up J9’s remains and haul them off to the recycle.
People would tell Élé Shadon that she’d been dreaming, hallucinating from low oxygen. No android had gone back for her. One had found her immediately after the evacuation order. The Opulex had split in half, separating them from the life boats. Sometimes they even tried to convince her there was no android. That she’d imagined it all. She’d dreamed it all while floating in an icy coma in the void. It hadn’t happened. Androids didn’t have feelings. Androids didn’t have souls.
But she knew better.
She knew that he had come back for her when no one else would. She knew that he’d had a soul. She knew that in whatever heaven he’d gone to, he loved her still, and forever.
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