Cancer for the Cure

Louise's suite in the hospice was carefully designed to resemble the interior of an upscale hotel. The windows were large, the tables were lacquered, and the walls were painted a cheerful shade of institutional yellow. Bright bouquets of tiger lillies obscured the call buttons and extra electrical outlets. Her sheets were fine Egyptian cotton, embellished with hand-made lace.

It was a shame about the railings on her bed, and the thin scent of antisceptic that wafted in from the hallway, but Louise supposed that these things were necessary. Without them, she might not remember how sick she was. The sun was drowsy. Her pillows were very soft.

Louise turned fitfully onto her side, in an attempt to shake off her weariness. Visiting hours were strictly enforced by the hospice staff. If she napped away the morning, Saji would come and go without waking her, and she'd have nothing to look forward to for the next twenty-four hours except shiftless evening and the lingering dark. Louise did not like visiting the common areas if she could help it. There were stares, there, and so many people, all inexplicably out of uniform. They must not realize that they were in danger of being attacked at any moment. This hospice was a high-value target. It housed rock stars, and politicians, and her, the heiress to the company that had once served as Ribbons Almark's corporate front.

By the time that the door opened, the richest woman in the world had fidgeted her duvet into a fluffy pink cocoon.

"Good morning!" Saji greeted her, a tray of food balanced on his arm. He set it down on her bedside table before taking his customary seat. He no longer knocked when he visited. Louise felt that she should yell at him for that, but she couldn't grasp why; not when her bones felt leaden beneath her skin. "Did you have a nice sleep?"

"I... yes," Louise said.

The sedatives took care of that.

"Would you like to go out into the gardens today? There's not a cloud in the sky. I'm sure it won't rain."

Louise wrinkled her nose. Breakfast smelled so... heavy. Clotted with cream and clogged up with oil. She knew that the staff were trying to cajole her into gaining weight, but she didn't like the thought of her body oozing outwards, beyond her control. It wouldn't match her arm. And Mama would surely scold her if she got fat.

Saji got the hint. He pushed the tray back.

"It's alright. We don't have to to outside if you're tired." Saji moved to hold Louise's hand. The mechanical one.

"What are you doing? Who gave you permission for that!?" Louise snapped. She couldn't properly feel the texture of his skin beneath the thick plastic that sheathed her prosthetic, but the sensors all along her fingertips told her exactly how much force would be necessary to crush his palm into a gritty pulp. She politely willed them not to. They responded by pressing a bruise into Saji's wrist, like the smear of gloss left after a long kiss, or the unit number branded onto the side of a mobile suit.

"Ouch!"

Oh, no. No no no. Saji was kind, and so, so patient, but not like before. There was no blush in his cheeks and no stutter in his syllables.

Louise did not know if she could forgive him for that, but she was certain that she couldn't bear for him to go.

"Sorry," she whimpered, jabbing at the battery disconnect on her prosthetic until it finally went limp. Deactivation hit her nerves with a sharp sting of loss. "Sorry. I think it was damaged during- um." Louise lowered her eyes. "It's been glitching lately. They gave it to me-- so. No one knows how to fix it."

Saji flexed his wrist, testing for breaks and fractures. Louise saw his reflection wince.

"Do you want me to take a look? I can't fix neural connections, but if the problem is with the robotics, I should be able to isolate it."

It was a tempting offer. Louise didn't know if she could allow him to dig around in her arm's circuitry -- the very thought made her cringe with foreboding -- but looking was a different matter. This was Saji. The ring on her real hand was warm with the heat of her body, and it promised that he would never hurt her.

Louise ran the pad of her thumb across the back of her wrist. Then she gave the area two swift, sharp taps. Her faux skin parted along precise, surgical lines, revealing corded wire sinew and silicon mesh capillaries. A dull black box was embedded where her bicep should have been. There was a tiny light attached to it, indicating processor activity. It blinked green-green-green-purple, green-green-green-purple, green-green-green-purple, in the elegant, implacable time of a Viennese waltz, and oh my, all that spinning made her head feel woozy, Papa said she should pay more attention to her dance lessons but her outfit was all wrong, how could she be expected to concentrate?

"Louise?" Saji said. There was a funny little furrow in his brow. He sounded far away, as though he were talking through one of those silly tin-can phones Louise's tutor had helped her make during elementary physics lessons. "What's that?"

"It's the core processor," Louise answered without thinking. "Its primary function is to translate my neural signals into something that the robotics can understand. This one was also designed to interface with mobile suits, and to work as a long-range transmitter, connecting me with Veda. Of course, I don't have access anymore."

"Hmmm. I don't think I know how to fix something like that. I could call my mentor, but he's... very far away right now."

Oh? If that was the case, why must he be so sheepish about it? The way Saji rubbed the back of his neck was so Japanese. He should act more like a real man if he wanted to impress her family.

Looking at the inside of her arm brought back of flood of memories about classes, and schematics, and tests she never studied for. She hadn't felt so awake since the night that Saji proposed. At the time, she'd thought that he could fix everything, if only he would hold her until the nightmares burned out.

But Louise was still sick all these months later. As wonderful as Saji was, she was going to have to fix herself.

It wasn't such an unpleasant thought.

"It's alright. I- I was an engineer, wasn't I?" Louise said. "And I have a lot of free time here. I'll take a look at it on my own."

"Alright."

They smiled shakily at one another. Louise wasn't sure why she felt so much like laughing; maybe it had something to do with hope.

***

Louise did not do a lot of walking anymore.

Nanomachines had prevented her legs from wasting away in space, but while the tiny robots were fully equipped to combat the laws of physics, there was little they could do about a lack of nutrition. Her muscles were withering for lack of sustenance. When she looked down at her thin, bare calves, they looked twiggy like a little bird's, and Louise was proud of how disciplined she had been. The other A-Laws might not hold much respect for her, but she was a soldier now, through and through, and she intended to act like one.

A soldier shouldn't be so wobbly when she slipped out of bed, and stood on her own two feet. It was lucky for Louise that there was no one around to see her in the middle of the night. Otherwise she might get demerits.

Wait, no. That wasn't right. They gave demerits on the ship. This was not the ship. The air was too fresh, and the stars were too dull.

Louise frowned, and pulled the IV out of her arm, before shuffling off towards the door. Reality was so difficult some times. It made her want to pout and stomp her foot. Just when she thought she'd pinned down the line between the past and the present, a new song would drift into her field of vision, the hissing color of a quantum brainwaves, and she'd lose her place again.

There was a ring on her hand. Louise could always feel it. There was a ring on her hand, so she was engaged to Saji. Saji was her place-marker. She was very sick. Yes. That accounted for the tears in her eyes.

Louise took a deep breath, and pushed open the door into the hallway.

The smell hit her immediately; stale urine, pine cleaner, and an overlay of tasteful air freshener. She gagged, a little, and for a moment he was very worried, but it turned out alright when nothing came up but stomach acid. Louise wouldn't have to throw up on the floor.

She kept one hand on the wall, and started on her way down to the kitchens.

It felt naughty, sneaking around like this, as though she were a child still filching chocolates from the cook's stash. Louise wanted to giggle, so she did. It felt good. Mama was always after her to be more ladylike, but what did Mama know, ishe/i hadn't snagged the sweetest boy in the whole world, nor had she ever been the top of her engineering class.

Saji had said he'd bring her some robotics textbooks. Hmph. Louise didn't need textbooks. She was a smart, intelligent, independant woman, who had everything figured out! What she needed were tools.

Her bare feet sounded sticky against the linoleum, slap slap slap. Was anyone coming? No, Louise didn't think so. The moon made bright silver squares on the floor. So long as she didn't step in those squares, she'd be safe from falling rubble. It was a special skipping game for girls who were going to get better.

The fact that she reached the kitchen unmolested bore her theory out.

***

Saji returned the next morning with the digital books he'd promised uploaded to a high-end PDA. The device had rounded corners and energy-efficient battery, meaning that Louise could not use it to cut her arms or accidentally electrocute herself in the bath.

"Sajiiiiii~" She groaned. "You picked that model? I'm in recovery, not a five year-old."

When Louise swatted Saji in the arm, she expected him to drop his present. She did not expect him to look like he'd just aced their midterm with Evil Doctor Kawasaki.

"You're more awake than usual," Saji laughed, as he picked the PDA up off the floor.

"I didn't take my sedatives last night."

Saji froze in mid-crouch.

"I... think I should tell the doctors that, Louise."

"No, don't." Her prosthetic gripped an indentation into the bed railing. "Thinking about my arm has helped a lot. It's like putting my mind all in one place, and... and it just makes sense, okay? I don't want my thoughts to blur again. Saji, please."

Was she crying? It hardly seemed possible, but Saji was wiping the tears from her cheeks, so Louise supposed she must be. Oh, she was sick. She was so sick. She was sick and tired of being like this.

"Shhh. It's alright. I mean- if you're feeling better."

She was. There were four knives, a half-dozen skewers, some tongs, and a sharp pair of scissors hidden underneath her bed. Once curfew fell into place, Louise fully intended to make use of them.

She didn't want to faint in the middle of her operation, so she ate the scone that Saji brought her in seven meticulous bites. Saji was very proud of her.

***

That evening, once the nurses were gone, Louise created her own miniature workshop on the floor of her room. Her tools were set out just-so, and the blanket across her shoulders made a fine (if unorthodox) lab coat. She was going to be like Captain Katagiri and defeat Celestial Being with the power of good design! Then she would sweep Saji off his feet and carry him off into the earthrise, so that they could live together in the space colonies forever and ever.

Louise technically wasn't a virgin, but she could still have the white wedding she'd always dreamed of, since she didn't think that what she'd done with Ribbons Almark really counted. That hadn't been sex. It had been an oath of allegiance. It was lightning behind her eyes and wires in her blood while she let Lord Almark's hands wander up beneath the frothy lace of her princess party dress. His fingers were thin and clever, like a woman's, and everyone knew that fooling around with your girlfriend at boarding school was barely as serious as holding a boy's hand.

Sometimes, when Lord Almark hurt her enough, the quantum voices would appear in a resolution that made sense. That was how Louise knew she had been a good servant. Now she didn't hurt any more. Webs of information were gathered all around her, like a hundred thousand people praying all at once, upwards upwards upwards information for Veda human infiltration innovade real-time report. Louise hoped that Saji would make them be quiet soon.

She shut down the power in her arm, and moved to peel the skin back again with the usual rub-tap-tap. It opened like a wound - the perfect kind that you saw in movies, not the charred and messy cuts that came from being sawed at by a beam sword - and Louise felt a little thrill of confidence. Metal was real, solid, and constant. She'd spent all day planning, and she could see exactly what needed to be done in her mind's eye. Nothing could stop her now!

The operation took hours. Louise only had one (inferior) hand to work with, and it was always shivering at key moments, forcing her to turn screws and re-arrange wires again and again. She was so excited that she was almost feverish.

Louise reversed one last neural relay. Thoughts howled around her - brainwaves, memories, fragments of time. Her artificial fist clenched, and then-

It all made sense.

***

"Sajiiiiii~, buy me that necklace!"

"You can buy that yourself, Louise."

"Be a man, Saji. I know it's my money on your credit card but you still have to buy it or else it won't mean as much. Don't you know anything?" Louise pouted kittenishly. Saji wondered if she'd try to take a swipe at him with those new-painted nails of hers. A part of him rather hoped she would. Saji wasn't, um, very good at making the first move, so he found it comforting when his fiancee manhandled him. "This is my first-day-out-of-the-hospital present! It has to be extra special."

Louise twirled around him in a flurry of salmon-colored skirts. Before Saji knew it, she'd skipped off to press her nose against the glass case that protected the store's display of designer watches.

There were times when he'd been tempted to give up, but if his months with Celestial Being had taught him anything, it was that there was no such thing as a hopeless situation. All Louise had needed was a project to ground her. After that her recovery had been so swift that it was almost miraculous.

Saji's heart fluttered beneath his breast. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and he was finally together with the one he loved.

***

The young woman paused in front of a small facial mirror. Her flesh-and-blood hand was trembling. She clasped it with her robotic palm, clutching it until it stilled enough to remove the ring that Saji had placed there.

"You're changing the hand you wear the ring on?" Saji padded up behind her.

"We're getting married, aren't we? I should wear my ring on the correct hand, even if I can't feel it there." She frowned. "You want other men to know I'm taken, don't you, Saji Crossroad?"

"Of course!" Saji backed off, his arms raised in a placating gesture. "I'll, uh, go pay for that necklace."

All that fuss over a pedestrian piece of jewelry. Ribbons thought, and brushed back her thin blonde hair. What a droll new clown. A bit pathetic, but I suppose beggars can't be choosers. I'll have this container injected with the proper nanos soon enough.

It was terribly intelligent of her to have created a personality back-up outside of Veda's systems. Ribbons decided that she should reward herself for her superior planning. Ordinarily she made a point of avoiding Alejandro Corner's vices, but she couldn't see the harm in having her human buy out this store's stock of fine, light emeralds.