Author's Note: This one-shot came about because of a little fanfic contest that Kismet held over on terrapintarts dot com. It is part of the 'Winnyverse' continuity but set in the not entirely distant future. Don't worry, I still plan to complete my other multi-chapter fics! The Talk's update will be posted soon. In the meantime, please enjoy! XOXO Winny
2023 A.D. – Perseus Arm, Milky Way
It's not even time for breakfast and I'm already elbows deep in shields repair. This is tricky business. It's all teeny tiny – a challenge I'm fairly accustomed to, at least. As far back as the dumpster hunting days back on Earth, my hands have always been disproportionately large for anything I might put them to work on.
The proper headgear is essential. If my brothers could see me right now, they'd be laughing their heads off. "Increase magnification by two. Three nanoclicks left. Mmmm, there she is…" I hummed happily under my breath, working the tiny screws counter-clockwise. As the last one came free in my hand, I heard the delicate face plate beneath my fingertips give a tiny click as the latching mechanism on the other side released. Success!
The real bitch about shield work was this upcoming part, which you have to do in the dark. This is nearly impossible without the help of a few good friends. "LD! Pack up your UV lens and get over here. I'll need you on my target, sixth micro-core, just as soon as I get this faceplate —hey!" I peered down towards where I could feel the tiny bot beating an impatient staccato against my leg. "Get your dirty... Light Drone! Override last command!" I laughed, lifting one leg to give it a gentle kick with the heel of my foot, using just enough force to nudge it away. I'm pretty ticklish – more-so than I am ever usually willing to let on – and the whirring propellers were making it impossible to concentrate. "Hold your horses, will you? Now, I know this is exciting stuff. But I'm going to have to ask that you refrain from humping my calf, at least for the duration of patching this containment layer, okay? Don't get me wrong, LD. The enthusiasm you apply to our work here is very encouraging, but seriously. I haven't even cut the lights yet."
But naturally I had 'cut the lights' – just now, with that very command. The cabin was plunged into near-total darkness. All around me engines hummed, monitors blipped. Except for this shield leak, it was all quiet on the western front.
LD is not the world's greatest conversationalist, which is to say that most of my prattle goes in one socket and out... Okay, he's only got the one socket, but my point is that LD has this annoying but completely understandable tendency to disregard every word out of my mouth that is not one of his pre-programmed voice commands.
This is something we're working on. Not with much progress, mind you, since I'm determined to keep on talking to him in spite of the limitations these anti-social traits might place on our ability to co-habitate harmoniously. Because if not me, then who ELSE is going to take time out of their valuable day to have one-sided conversations with him?
LD could never bring himself to admit any of this out loud, of course. But sometimes I get the feeling that (along with the obvious choice of his battery packs and regular nookie with a whole slew of loose-moraled electrical outlets scattered throughout the ship) the late night motivational talks we've been having are the main thing keeping him going. Knowing that, I'm not about to let a little thing like this leg humping incident or the fact that he's an inanimate object come between us.
As my eyes adjusted, I began to distinguish the glow coming from my light drone. Its luminescent beam lit up the plastic paneling between us with a circle of diffused purple light. LD gave up trying to sexually assault any of my lower extremities immediately, hovering in mid-air and awaiting further instruction. LD is sneaky like that: an insecure, socially inept outlet-fucker one moment, perfect picture of obedience the next.
On the other side of the cabin, I could hear a soft chitter and a rattle that sounded suspiciously like candy wrapper. "Tang!" I scolded her instantly, but quite ineffectually.
The chittering had fallen silent, but I heard some more crinkling and the distinct sound of hasty chewing. A ninja monkey Tang is not. I'm not sure if she is actually a master strategist or just blessed with the luck of good timing, but lately I really do suspect it's the former. At this position, she had me. I was helpless to stop the inevitable!
Okay, that's not entirely true. Several ways of stopping her DID occur to me. Unfortunately, all of them involved undoing my last forty-some hours of painstaking repair work by letting go of the faceplate and/or turning on the goddamned lights.
"Fine," I said, blowing out a sigh. "I relinquish my three-quarters of a Snickers bar to you. There. Are you happy?"
It wasn't a huge loss. I'd have wound up sharing it with her later anyway. It's an ongoing theme in my life, this weakness for the ladies...
* * *
One benefit of having a primate for a companion is that she doesn't expect you to talk all of the time.
And when you do… when, regardless of your 180-ish IQ, you still find yourself engaged in regular, detailed dialogs with a friggen' monkey… well, at least she doesn't call me out on it.
"Impulsive, maybe. But certainly not a midlife crisis!" I waved the desoldering pump for emphasis. "Leo's got a lot of nerve, calling it that. Midlife crisis… I'm realizing my DREAMS here. Shear cutters?" Tang placed the cutting tool in my open palm dutifully. I picked up my train of thought in the next beat as I carefully clipped back the tangled wires that remained from the circuit I'd just replaced. The old one hadn't blown just yet, but I'd received a hull integrity alert that they were running hotter than the other circuits near it for almost a week solid. When it comes to my ship I don't like to take risks. Once the dead wires were trimmed down and tucked away, I picked up my conversation with Tang as if there had been no pause. Unlike every other earth native I know, it doesn't annoy Tang in the slightest if I stop mid-conversation to temporarily focus my attention on something technical. "Now, Raph trying to build himself that -- that thing from junkyard parts, THAT'S a midlife crisis. Calipers?" I swapped the shear cutters for the calipers without looking up from my work. "You saw it, didn't you? Uh-huh... How could you miss it? Strike from the shadows my ass. He's going to wind up on the cover of Motor Trend magazine if he insists on driving around the city in that thing. I don't know if it's supposed to be a Ferrari or the Batmobile, but it's going to get somebody KILLED if he's not careful. Multimeter? Hey. Hey, missy! Don't chew on that."
Tang gave me a petulant look. With the multimeter still hanging out of her mouth, she flashed some sign language at me.
"Yes, it is very pretty. Lots of shiny lights. Now give it here." She dropped the slobbery multimeter into my hand. I dried it off on the nearest rag and sighed. "How many times do I have to tell you, sweetie? If you're going to be a decent lab assistant, you've got to learn not to chew on the equipment."
I could tell she was getting restless. Her attention span was reaching critical mass, but still I continued to work on the port-side containment panel, which had to be completely rebuilt thanks to the damage that could be caused by a stupid leak like this.
Still, I was feeling optimistic and didn't give up on productivity completely until several passes later. "Tang…" I scolded. "I asked you for a torque wrench. Is this a torque wench?" I held up the object and gave her a stern look. "Well?" I set the object down on the work table between us and switched to sign language. This is 'wrench'? I pointed at it.
No, she signed, sulking.
"No, indeed. What is this?"
Ball. There was mischief in her eyes now, underneath the exaggerated lip-poking sulk.
"So it is. This is Tang's red ball. Now, let's say I humour you and put this work aside to play with the ball. It won't cause any future confusion, will it? We aren't going to go tossing around torque wrenches because of this little mix-up, right?"
Ball ball ball, she said, touching her fingertips together repeatedly. Then Tang clapped her hands together, a self-congratulating gesture.
I grinned and threw the ball. It was enough assurance for me.
* * *
The snickers bar was one thing, but you just don't mess with my dark chocolate covered espresso beans. I have been very cautious about rationing them out to myself thus far. After the worst of the shield work was over, knowing my dear Tang had robbed me of chocolate, I wanted recompensation. Something like that anyway.
The point is, I wanted dark chocolate covered espresso beans. And when I opened the box, it was empty.
"TANG!" She probably didn't even know for sure what she had done wrong, but she knows that tone of voice I was using. The little brat took off like a bottle rocket, scampering out of reach and taking refuge in her sleeping basket before you could say 'dead monkey'.
"This is the last time, Tang! I will – I will turn you into monkey glue, do you hear me?" She's a skinny little thing, so it wouldn't be very much glue. To be honest, I had no idea if monkeys could be turned into glue, period. But I'm a fine chemist when I set my mind to it, and in that infuriated moment... god damn it, I was determined to find a way!
It was a fairly meaningless threat. I'm pretty sure she doesn't even know the word for it. She knows duct tape and epoxy and can associate them all with the term 'sticky' and 'not drink' and 'not toy'. Once I realized I had neglected it, the word glue seemed long overdue. It also meant that I had better not continue saying it in this context. One thing I've learned about increasing Tang's vocabulary is that introductions to new words are important. If I made the mistake of introducing a word like 'glue' to her in the context of an angry, fist-shaking death threat, it might inadvertently serve as an invitation for all manner of needlessly messy, expensive, and seriously equipment-damaging forms of retaliation down the road. I really did not want her coming up with creative ways to involve glue the next time she wanted to get back at me for hiding the fig newtons.
You probably think I'm joking, but just take my word on this, okay? Tang gets VERY emotionally invested when it comes to Fig Newtons.
Aww, Fig Newton tantrums. Isn't it cute? Uh-huh. I used to think it was pretty cute myself until the great espresso bean heist of 2023. Now I could see that I was no better. I was every bit as invested. Mike had given me those espresso beans as a going away present...
But like usual, the simple act of knowing that I'm being ridiculous does remarkably little to correct my own ridiculous behavior. Three hours later, I was still stewing, unable to speak to her without snapping, and taking every opportunity to giving her the Evil Eye whenever her pathetic face would peer at me sadly from around the frame of a door.
* * *
She climbed into my bunk that night shaking and making the sign for pain.
"Shhh… another one?" I scooted over to make room and pulled her into my arms. All past occurrences of stolen chocolate were instantly absolved. "It's okay, baby. It's okay…."
Tang has nightmares. I don't know why it surprised me to learn this. Even Klunk used to dream. His legs, ears and whiskers would twitch. It used to fascinate me. What did he dream about?
But Tang's bad dreams are all too easy to imagine. She dreams of her old life when she was imprisoned, a test subject in one of Bishop's secret labs. It was one of my last big missions with the guys. I remember it like it was yesterday. Leo was yelling at me as I was jimmying her cage open, saying 'What are you doing? Why are you wasting time on this? We've already called the police!"
"Not an 'it'. Can't you tell a 'she' when you see one…?"
"I don't care what gender it is. It's not coming back to the lair! This is not your monkey, Don. Animal Control will take care of it!' My resolve almost broke then. Animal control would take care of it. The police will take care of it. The FBI…. This is a litany I have adhered to for all of my life. I let go of the lock and started to back away from her cage.
That's when I realized that the half-starved, big-eyed creature wasn't just waving her hands at me. That was American Sign Language. Out, please. Please. Danger. Out. Please.
"I'm sorry, Leo. That's my monkey and she's coming with us."
* * *
But what did I know about raising a monkey? Aside from the fact that it's a generally bad idea. I did at least know that much. Unfortunately, some people knew it even more than me.
"WHAT the FUCK is THAT?"
"Uh. This is Tang," I introduced weakly. "Hamato Tang. A Rhesus Macaque, formerly test subject B4 of Virogenetics Corporation in Troy, New York."
I was trying to play on her liberal sympathies, but it was a futile effort. April Jones did not approve.
"Don," she said, giving me a searing look. I spent the next few weeks fending off her attempts to leave me with educational literature and print-outs of internet articles with titles like "The PERILS of Primate Pets" and "Monkey Mommies: Tales of Woe!"
I tried to explain that she was fully grown and had yet to exhibit any biting tendencies. I argued that she was already hopelessly socialized to humans and had even tested negative for Hepatitis B. I tried convincing her that Tang's needs for attention were nothing compared what I dealt with growing up with a brother like Mikey… all to no avail. According to April, this monkey was bad news.
She eventually gave up the crusade as a hopeless cause. But like Leo, she had the nasty habit of calling Tang an 'it'. The first question out of her mouth, any time she came over: "Is it put away?"
In stark contrast, Tang's enthusiasm for sports won over her husband easily. The first thing out of his mouth was usually accompanied by a hurtling football: "HEY MONKEY-FACE! Go long!"
* * *
Over time I came to hate Bishop for what he had done to my pet, and not just mildly but with a disturbingly cold and murderous passion. I'm so used to having Tang around that I often will look at her and not even see her disfiguring scars. But every now and then my perspective will shift and I will take them in with the same slow lurch of horror that I had felt the very first time I had stared down at them through the bars of her cage. Brushing my thumb and the tips of my fingers over the pitiful lines of white scar tissue that run over her scalp and around it and across it, a careful pattern of hairless markings that are the evidence of surgery after surgery, and if I am not careful to contain it the sight of them can sometimes fill me with molten white rage. That sick bastard had her skull cracked open, not just once but repeatedly. Whatever it is they did to her while they were in there, hacking away at her brain tissue in their disgusting efforts to play God, their repulsive deeds have changed her forever. I hate Bishop so much that I must sometimes beat back my unhealthy ideations of revenge, the sick reparations I can sometimes picture. It's disconcerting when you realize that revenge is something I don't really believe in, not even for the sake of honor. This is somewhat contrary to the notions of morality on which I was raised, but it's something I decided long ago and to date my feelings have not changed.
They have achieved a level of intellect and memory retention that borders on miraculous. We will be playing something educational, one of our many games that focus on learning new words for things and grasping how they fit together, and even though I am with her every day she will still manage surprise me. She will make some mental leap that is beyond anything my simple game had intended, and I will forget the rules of whatever game we were playing, my mouth hanging open, unable to do anything but marvel at the signs of her staggering intellect. I am forced to constantly redefine the way I think of her and the limitations I place on her. In those moments when she blows past my every expectation, I think I might know how it feels to be a father. I am regularly bowled over with pride in her.
But that doesn't change the fact that, given the chance, I would have saved her from all of it. Her OCD tendencies could be expressed in the usual crazy monkey ways, with excessive flea picking or something. Instead, Tang shows off her crazy in strange and complicated ways. When I am blasting music, there are certain parts that inspire her to... well, not sing along. I'm hesitant to call it singing, actually. It's not on pitch, nor in time to the beat, or anything else. It's certainly not the notes a singer is singing -- no rhyme or reason to it whatsoever. I cannot for the life of me decipher the criteria she is following. All I know is that at certain points during certain songs, it's time to make a WHOLE LOT OF NOISE! And not just random noise. Always the same noise, at the same place, and it would all be kind of fascinating if it wasn't so god-awful to listen to. Lord, I miss being able to play Werewolves of London without her yodeling interlude.
Then there was this time we sat down to learn the color wheel, and afterward she was so inspired that she wanted to completely re-arrange all of the books. And not just the most treasured books I brought along from my own personal collection. No, I mean that every book on the whole ship was dragged down into the cargo hold and set down in a gigantic circle in exactly the right place according to the predominant colors displayed on the book's spine. My traditional reference for alphabetization bored her, apparently. Now the technical manual for the ship's environmental controls belonged next to some Transmetropolitan graphic novels because their predominant colors were green and a slightly darker shade of green. On the one hand, I was certainly pleased to see that my color lesson had been such a big hit with her. It's always great to have proof that she has absorbed a concept beyond just memorizing individual words. Clearly, in a single day Tang had achieved a status of total color spectrum mastery, if the gradient array of colors that had been arranged in a very careful circle of books on the floor of the cargo hold meant anything. I'm embarrassed to admit that I actually spent three or four days indulging what she had done, delving into my cargo hold every time I needed a book just because it seemed a shame to ruin her color wheel library masterpiece after she'd gone to such meticulous effort.
Sometimes Tang starts to reveal neurosis in ways that are all the more painful to me for their obvious origination. Butcher knives, exact o blades, Leonardo's katana -- all of these are fine to wield or display. These items have been described to her as 'not toy', 'sharp', and 'hurts hands' just to name a few. That basically means that, unless someone is using them to do something flashy and interesting, she will typically regard these objects with a flat lack of interest. But dear lord, she had better not see anything that looks even remotely like a scalpel. She is also irrationally terrified of white coats and syringes. Finally, she has a very strong dislike of metal cages. This makes me glad I was the one to find her, because even foster rescue places would have probably insist that she use one, and might even have murdered her solely on the fact of her adament refusal. I can't see her going in willingly for them. Not without putting up a huge epic fight first.
I am thrilled by her progress, but I would give it all back. I would gladly exchange flashcards and games of ASL 20 questions and simply build her little jungle gym, ropes to swing on. Where she should be cheeky and dauntless she is too often cowering and insecure. I would give her monkey dreams instead of twisted nightmares. Piles of bananas and vast groves of Fig Newton trees as far as the eye can see.
Logically, I know I can't give her any of that. The only thing I can promise for sure is that I won't be the one to put her back into a cage.
* * *
Back to my shield repairs, this time without any lab partner. The sugar rush had worn off, I guess, and Tang had completely tuckered herself out. She had crawled into her hanging basket and was fast asleep. I'd made the necessary repairs to the containment core and was just now reattaching the faceplate. The lights were back on, in other words, and there was no longer any need to pretend that my Light Drone was going to hang out and keep me company.
I admired the face plate, tilting my head to watch the light playing strangely over the gleaming silver-white alloy. I still did not even know precisely what race it was that had designed this, or what elements it was composed of. The design was nothing like anything I had seen from Utrom, Triceraton, or Federation technology. The Utroms probably knew its origin – hell, they probably had full working schematics and maintenance tutorial videos and any number of resources that would have been invaluable when I was trying to get these weird-ass shields installed and running properly by a process of infuriatingly slow trial and error. But that was normal enough, as the Utroms were tight-lipped when it came to any technology that was too far beyond what they considered to be Earth's natural standard. In other words, they consider me an earthling in spite of everything, and they are not the least bit impressed by my so-called genius.
It was beyond lucky for us to have found this particular face plate in such pristine condition, though I didn't know enough to realize it at the time. The shield core had been salvaged from the twisted wreckage of an alien space craft that took a nose dive into an inactive volcano on Aphrodite Terra, the southernmost continent on Venus. Its fatal plummet caused enough of a stir to light up the Rio scales on every SETI monitor across the nation. Fortunate timing had more to do with our success than anything else, as I was able to redirect the focus of an off-world trip I had already been planning. My brother Raphael was with me every step of the way on that mission, working tirelessly to refit the cargo hold. He flew through every necessary mechanical adjustment I could come up with and took care of a dozen practical details I probably would have overlooked in my race to reprogram the navigational system with our new coordinates. It was no easy feat, charting a new route that would see us safely to Venus in just a few hours. After all, I had allowed myself several leisurely months to plot out my original course. I'm proud to say that, between the two of us, we were able to pack every scrap of alien tech into the ship's cargo hold. Better yet, we beat the well-funded corporate goons that made up Bishop's retrieval team by several hours.
We did leave behind a few closed-circuit cameras for them to find, hoping to capture a glimpse of their disappointment and outrage. We didn't get much of course, thanks to all the noxious fog and drizzling sulfuric acid that all tourists to Venus will find so very charming. The best part is right before it ends, when we got this fantastic shot of the guy who barged out of the ship to investigate. There's about twenty seconds of his piggy red face peering out of the lense on his helmet, into the camera lense, and that nasty-smelling, dirty piss colored rain is drizzling all over him. This goon captain asshole is slowly processing what he's seeing, unable to speak or do anything but flap his mouth open and closed like a fish. He's getting redder and meaner looking, huffing at us from such a long ways away but completely realtime! Yeah, it's on my coolest moments ever list. And for the grand finale, get this... the whirls and stalks left until he's completely off-screen, and right before it cuts out for good we heard his tinny voice howling orders at the other men to open fire on our equipment. The whole show couldn't have lasted for more than forty or fifty seconds, but what we did capture was still more than enough to leave us doubled over with laughter. All of it got recorded. It was an even bigger hit with Mike and Leo. Between the two of them they must have played that clip a couple hundred times.
An unexpected wave of nostalgia came crashing over me. My thoughts were washed away with a tide memories of that day. That whole day had been a triumph we had shared, but it was not the elation of our total success that I was hung up on, or even the enthusiasm it earned from the two brothers who had stayed behind. I kept thinking about the tremendous help Raph had been to me throughout all of it.
Oh man, what irony… I spent my whole life begging for more privacy, chasing them out of my work spaces, and pushing back against the rising tide of my resentment...
Leonardo could never understand it, and I could never bring myself to tell him why I would regularly deprive myself of sleep, even to extents that I knew were detrimental to my overall health and well-being. It was never because I was a night person, or a caffeine addict… yes, okay, I may be both of these things, but not so incurably as the others have come to think. Both are really just symptoms of that same aching feeling which I have suffered silently throughout my childhood and well into my adult life. It was like I was being slowly starved by my family's obligations, the mundanity of sitting at the breakfast, fixing whatever they managed to break, and oh god, the never ending march of training and training and more training. Causes I could hardly give a damn about, or might have given a damn about, if only I wasn't so distracted by these sharp pangs in my heart and so many fading designs in my head. At times, dragged along to participate in whatever, it was like I could feel the motivation running right out of me. Practice would be over and I would just as soon fix their appliances or agree to play a stupid video game I outgrew years ago. Because even if I went to my lab and managed to resume my work -- for how long? Surely not long enough to actually finish anything. Completion would have to wait until the day was done. Those twilight hours were the only real length of quiet I could find, and the blissful lack of interruption became a heady state of zen to me. There were times I felt like I was slowly choking to death on my own discontent, and those feverish nights I stayed up much too late in my lab were all I had to ease the feeling. Nothing else could sooth me.
More ridiculous behavior that I was powerless to stop. Finally I have all the freedom in the world, and what am I doing? I am so terribly lonely for Raph that I am thinking of dialing the lair and trying to get him in front of a webcam. It didn't take me very long to come to my senses. After all, it was not seven in the morning yet, a fact which exposed the whole notion as some kind of isolation-induced lunacy on my part.
Logically I knew all of this, and still for a time I could do nothing but sit there with a lump in my throat, missing my wingman and garage buddy terribly. How unfair it was that Raph and I only managed to reconcile in the year leading up to my inevitable departure. I realize now that in our shared stubbornness, we cheated ourselves of so much time…
Tang must have noticed the uncommon silence. No more clang of metal on metal, no more buzzing power tools. She came over to investigate and abruptly decided that my lap was preferable to sleeping in her basket. She padded around and pushed the heels of her palms into my legs until I was sufficiently comfy and went back to sleep.
In a way, she had come to my rescue. How could I mind? It was so nice of her, really. Suddenly this embarrassing full halt in productivity was no longer my own stupid, sentimental fault – it was hers! My hands were no longer idle, but quite occupied with the task of administering pets to the back of her head and bony shoulder blades and behind her fuzzy round ears, trying to keep my caresses slow and regular so as not to wake her. I even had a good excuse to grumble and bitch under my breath (a fast-working cure towards feeling like myself again if ever I did see one). Oh, would you look at what I had been reduced to? This humiliation, the complete and utter indignity I was suffering on her behalf! It was a sad demotion indeed. Once, a brilliant engineer… now, a barely satisfactory piece of monkey furniture.
After awhile my monkey was fast asleep. Unfortunately, so was my foot. This seemed to be a hint to get back to work. But all in all, it wasn't a bad interruption. Maybe this sort of thing is good for me. I decided I would initiate the next one myself, maybe sometime after lunchtime rolled around. I would ring the lair and whoever answers would be charged with the task of dragging Raph in front of a cam so I could fill his ears with way more than anyone usually cares to hear about the ins and outs of shield core maintenance. In return, I could give him the chance to autogasm about his Batmobile Lamborghini thing, a conversation which I have been dodging for weeks on end now.
The more I thought about it, the more I was able to accept that perhaps I had over-reacted in my earlier ranting, after all. There was even a chance my words had been motivated by jealousy. Maybe I didn't like the idea that it might be a Nightwatcher-Mobile. My reasons for hating that bike of his were layered, you see. He drove around without anyone's permission and did reckless, violent things and all of that, but it was also sleek and sexy and structurally sound in spite of the fact that it had been built without one bit of help from me. The truth is that lately Raphael has matured into a pretty sensible and well rounded guy. It was far more likely that his newly built car was not any more dangerous than one I would build.
Already my head was feeling much clearer. The clouds of negativity and sadness which had been gathering me all morning were dissipating at last. I was the master of my own emotions once again.
A journey like this is certainly not for everyone. There are bad days, but then I think there always will be bad days no matter who I am with or how far away I travel. Overall, I think I am happy out here. I am probably a lot happier than I have been in years, trying to make due chained to the Earth, restricted by their painfully primitive, consumer-driven technology and inside-the-box-thinking.
I am drifting down the glittering arm of the Perseus. I am light years from my home or any of the familiar faces I had grown up with. The only reason I can bear it is because I know that I'll be welcomed home someday. I haven't been out here for very long, but it's been long enough to know that I can't keep this up forever. I will have to see them all again someday, face to face, substantial. Someday I'm going back to the Orion system, but for now I am content to keep my ship running and carry out this incredible, long-awaited journey through uncharted stars.