At long last I've managed to update - a massive chest infection on my part and then Hubby having a couple of heart attacks kinda brought everything to a halt. Hopefully there won't be such a hiatus until the next chapter!
Many, MANY thanks for everyone's patience, and to those of you who have supported and commented on this story and others. You are amazing, and have done me a power of good during my husband's illness. I will reply to those of you I haven't managed to thank personally as yet, I promise.
The drive over the desert to Takoya was long, arduous and painful. Tom Brander tried his best to pick out the easiest route, but some of the landscape had changed since the massive earthquake and subsequent aftershocks, and twice they had to stop and think about an alternative route as the original landmarks had simply disappeared.
During those few minutes of respite as Joe, Tom, Clarence and even George Humboldt stood in the headlights of the jeep discussing alternatives, Connie took the opportunity to make sure The Spine and Rabbit were coping with the trip.
Rabbit was holding his own. Since he had been pulled out of the hole his spirits had lifted somewhat, and although he was still in appalling condition, his optics had brightened and a little of his irrepressible humour had returned. He shivered and winced and pouted and demanded hugs, and tried his best to make Connie laugh because that was what Sergeant Dan would have done.
Connie petted his head and chest, called him 'sweetheart' and soothed him through his 'pain,' and he was content.
The Spine, on the other hand … Connie was fretting about the tall automaton.
Connie had slept a little during the first hour or so, but during their first stop she had been woken by The Jon, the little robot gently poking her arm.
She blinked awake, eyes adjusting to the dimness of star-glow.
"Wha - ? Jon, honey … what's wrong?"
"Miss Connie? I think Spine's gettin' really sick, an' … an' he won't tell me what's happening!" His voice was a shaky whisper.
"S-Spine?" Rabbit echoed, instantly concerned. He strained his head sideways to try and see his brother, but the 'pain' was too much.
"Shhhh, sweetie. Be still, and I'll see what I can do." Connie eased herself to one side and gently placed one of her cushions beneath Rabbit's head. Then she settled onto her knees and studied the titanium figure stretched beside her.
"Connie … Connie, I'm fine … Jon, I … I'm okay, buddy … you shouldn't have woken her – " The Spine's voice was cracked and dry, green photo-receptors flickering luminously in the night. The dimness of his optics alarmed her.
Connie reached out to touch The Spine's chest. She had learned quickly that touch was the easiest way to gauge how well her robotic 'boys' were doing, and she was alarmed to feel the uncontrolled tremors running through The Spine's lanky frame. His boiler was running hot, and he flinched as though Connie's gentle touch burned his metalled skin.
She frowned, concerned, but he turned away, unwilling to let her see him in so much 'pain.' He couldn't stop the grunt of agony as he did so, and Connie rubbed his chest in sympathy.
"Hurtin', son, huh," she said quietly. "Boiler's dry too, I betcha."
The Spine just gazed into the starlit night, his optics closing once and opening again with the greatest of effort. He stayed silent.
"Jon?" Connie glanced over at the little 'bot, sitting cross-legged beside Blue, his optics wide with worry. "Pass me a bottle of water outta the box there, will ya, sweetie?"
The Jon scrambled over to the chill-box Clarence had thoughtfully provided and filled with bottles of water, opened it, grabbed the nearest one and handed it to Connie. She cracked the cap seal, opened it up and held it out for The Spine to take. He didn't move. Connie's brows drew down, puzzled.
"Son? What's wrong?"
The Spine's face was still turned away, and his chassis twitched slightly as his good hand pressed against the injury in his side.
"Back … joints …" he grated, every word an effort. "I've lost … lost too much fluid … hurts …"
Connie winced in sympathy. The loss of oil and hydraulic fluid was now seriously impacting on the silver automaton's chassis, the lack of lubrication and the resulting difficulty in moving his limbs meant he was probably in agony. Connie realised that even speaking was causing him great 'pain,' and the mere thought of trying to hold a small bottle of water was simply too much for The Spine to contemplate.
The Jon was fidgeting, his distress obvious. Connie reached out with her other hand and The Jon held it for a moment.
"It's alright, son … you're brother's hurtin' an' he didn't want to worry ya, okay?" Connie was as calm as she could be, trying to settle the little 'bot, and then she turned back to The Spine. She could sense Rabbit's alarm even though she couldn't see him properly in the dark.
"C'mon, boy," she urged The Spine, "let's get this water down ya an' then I'll get Michael – "
"NO!" The Spine rasped, his voice gruff with 'pain,' "No, please … let … let Michael rest … I'll be okay …"
Connie, startled at his vehemence, hesitated for a moment and then settled herself into the space between the tall automaton and Rabbit, The Jon shuffling forward to be as close to his brothers as he could. Blue draped a heavy head over The Spine's feet, letting out a low yawning whine of concern.
"Spine … honey … ya can't go on like this. You gotta get some water in you." Connie lifted the bottle once more, and this time she gestured at The Spine. "C'mon son – it'll help, you know that."
The Spine hesitated and then gave in with a pained sigh, leaning his head back against the cab and allowing Connie to put the bottle to his lips, the cool trickle of water feeling good against the heated metal of his throat. He drank the entire contents, and The Jon handed Connie another bottle from the cooler. The Spine drank that one too.
Sitting back, Connie studied the tall metal man before her, taking in the exhausted features, the shadow of a grim, agonised line of black lips and the flicker of optics overloaded by 'pain.' He was still avoiding looking at her, and Connie suddenly recognised inner conflict when she saw it. Robot he might be, but The Spine took his responsibilities to heart. For, Connie, knew, the Blue Matter core in his chest was a heart, no matter that it didn't pump life-blood around a vascular system.
She rubbed his shoulder gently, knowing there was something bothering the silver robot.
"Somethin's troublin' ya, huh?" Connie chewed the inside of her cheek, worried. "It ain't good fer a person to hold all that pain inside, hon."
The Spine glanced at her, the green glow of his optics suddenly firefly-bright in the night.
"M'just … just a robot, Connie. Not a person. I'll … I'll be fine."
Connie smiled sadly, shaking her head.
"Spine, sweetie, how often do I gotta tell ya …" but she let her words fade to silence, knowing The Spine wasn't up to coping with one of her gentle scolds. So she patted his shoulder and sat back beside Rabbit, lifting his heavy head onto her lap once more.
The Spine's photo-receptors blinked wearily and he let out a soft murmur of 'pain'. Then he hesitantly relaxed against the back of the cab, his boiler now full and his systems working a little easier. He gave only a hint of his tired, fleeting smile, and closed his optics.
Connie made herself comfortable, and felt Rabbit's hand grasp hers and pull it to his chest. He tic'd painfully and settled his chassis, his optics glancing up at Connie. He gave her a furtive wink.
"He, uh … h-he's always gotta be the responsible one. Ya … ya gotta make'm take … take a break sometimes …" Rabbit whispered conspiratorially. Connie squeezed his hand and petted his head.
"I'm worried about him, son," she whispered back. "I … I don't know how to help him, an' … an' … he's hurtin' inside an' out. It ain't good for him, Rabbit. He's gotta let go sometime."
Rabbit was silent, but she felt his thumb rub the back of her hand in agreement.
She smiled as reassuringly as she could at The Jon, who nodded, relieved, and finally curled up like a mouse next to Blue. The big dog sprawled onto his side, head on The Spine and front paws tucked against The Jon's back, and went to sleep.
Connie settled down, pulled her comforter up to her shoulders, took one final check of her boys, and drifted into a light doze for the rest of the trip.
It was just past midnight when the little convoy made its way through streets littered with debris, the darkness dotted here and there by the headlights of stationary vehicles and clean-up crews using generators to power spotlights. The grim search for bodies was scaling down, but the emergency services still worked on, exhausted but determined to leave no corner unchecked.
Clarence Ticonderoga's small automotive business was on the other side of the small town of Takoya, and had luckily avoided any lasting damage from the earthquake. Tiny lights shone in the small house attached to the barn-like garage and broad parking lot, and Connie could hear the steady, low hum of a well-maintained industrial generator.
As the jeep and pickup drove slowly into the yard and came to a halt, the door opened and a small, round figure was outlined by dim, golden light.
Irene Ticonderoga stepped from the doorway, down the single step and into the yard, hurrying towards her husband. A little woman, as wide as she was tall, her anxious features broke into relief as she saw Clarence ease stiffly out of the pickup. He smiled at her wearily and she hurried forward, arms wide in a welcoming embrace. Clarence gathered her into his arms, and she buried her face in his chest.
"It's okay, Irene … everyone's okay …" he crooned, his face pressed into her dark hair.
Irene looked up at him tearfully.
"Thank god … thank god … " She peered around him at the pickup. "Connie … is she –"
"I'm here, Irene," Connie called softly, her voice slurred with sleep. "I'm fine. Just tired an' grubby is all. But I got some hurt boys here …"
Irene Ticonderoga's green eyes widened and hurriedly kissing her husband, she turned from his arms and hurried to the back of the pickup.
"Connie Dawson, what on earth are you doin' ridin' in the back of – " Her voice hitched. "Oh my! Oh my goodness!"
Irene had leaned over the tailgate only to find herself gazing into a pair of sleepy blue optics set in a golden metal visage.
The Jon smiled up at her, hope shining from every metal plate on his face.
"Hi," he said drowsily. "Are you gonna help my brothers?"
Irene looked up at Connie and then at the two figures beside her old friend.
The Spine cracked a photo-receptor open and perused Irene, and then he gave her a tiny smile.
"Ma'am … " he whispered, his voice betraying his 'pain.' He nodded almost imperceptibly in greeting.
Resting beside Connie with his head on her lap was a copper automaton, covered in grime and dust, scored with dents and scratches and adorned with a blue-green patina. Mismatched optics gazed at Irene wearily. Connie's hand rested protectively on his head and Irene could see Connie's other hand resting on this strange being's shoulder, gentling him as he shivered in obvious discomfort under a warm comforter. She saw a glimpse of a steel bar piercing his chest which made Irene's breath hitch in sympathy.
"Oh! Oh, Connie … oh my word …"
Connie gave Irene a shaky smile.
"Irene, these're some of my boys an' they're all beat up. I gotta take care of 'em an' make sure they're tended-to. Will ya help me?"
Irene's huge, expressive eyes filled with tears and she reached out to touch The Jon's cheek plates, her face filled with wonder. The Jon leaned into her touch and closed his optics.
"These … these are your brothers?" She whispered softly.
The Jon nodded vigorously, hat bobbling. He opened an optic, squinting.
"Yep. That there's The Spine …" The Jon waved his injured hand at the silver automaton – " … an' that's Rabbit. They're my big brothers." His other optic crept open and he gazed intently at Irene. "They … they're awful badly hurt, an' … an' Mister Clarence says he can help, 'cause Michael's hurt too an' he has to fix 'em an' Connie's got a bad ankle, Miss Irene, an' she needs some food an' a wash an' Michael's my best friend an' he has broken ribs an'-"
"Whoa there … slow down!" Irene was enchanted. "What's your name?"
The Jon blinked.
"Oh. Um … I'm The Jon." He stuck out his bandaged hand to shake Irene's, and then had second thoughts and swiftly changed to his good hand. "The Spine and Rabbit … they're my heroes!" he whispered conspiratorially.
Irene shook the proffered hand, her eyes getting even wider. The cool metal of The Jon's slender hand was smooth and shone dimly in the artificial light of the yard, and Irene marvelled at the gentleness of this little robot who smiled at her with such charm.
"Well … hello there …" she said softly.
Irene turned her eyes to the badly-damaged robot with his head resting on Connie's lap.
"Yes … um … " She didn't quite know how to address this strange character, so she just plumped for what felt right when speaking to any young person of her acquaintance. "Yes, son?"
Rabbit gave her a little, piteous smile. "Would, uh, w-would you … you make sure … Miz Connie's ankle is … is made all better?"
Irene thought for a moment.
"You're Rabbit, right?"
A pair of mismatched, glowing optics blinked out of sync.
Irene could see that this Rabbit was deeply concerned and fretting, and she couldn't help herself.
"Now don't you worry, darlin', Connie'll be just fine, I promise," she crooned. "She'll be just fine. And you said you have a Michael with you? Is he …?"
"Nope, he's not a robot. He's human." Her grin faltered. "He's hurtin', Irene. He needs some food in him and some rest, but he says he won't see a doc until he's taken care of Spine an' Rabbit. Maybe you can persuade him to at least get cleaned up an' fed. You got a way with folks."
"Michael's awake, Connie." Joe appeared, standing beside the RAM at Connie's shoulder where she leaned against the chassis. "He's stiff an' sore, an' he needs a hot meal." He turned concerned eyes to Irene. "We got two other boys flown into the hospital – are the 'phone lines still down? I'd like to check an' see how Steve and Sam are doin'."
Irene rested a hand on his arm in sympathy.
"Lines are still down, I'm afraid, Joe. But when Ben gets back he can take you in, if you like." She turned to The Spine, who was watching her silently, green optics faint in the shadows. "My oldest boy, Ben … he's a fireman. He'll be home in the next hour or so for a break and a meal before he goes back on duty. He can take Joe to the hospital to check on your family, if you like."
"Ma'am, that would … would be much … much appreciated …" The Spine ground out. His chassis flinched in 'pain.'
Irene flinched herself in concern. She saw the heavy bandaging at his waist and side, and her hand flew to her mouth as her heart went out to the tall automaton.
The door of the RAM opened and Michael levered himself out of the seat, grunting in agony as he straightened, unable for a second to catch his breath.
To save him making the effort to speak, Irene smiled at him gently.
" … and you must be Michael." Her smile softened even more, tempered with understanding. "You look all in, son. Let's get you inside for a hot meal and find some fresh clothes for you. Our generator's keepin' the boiler and water supply goin' so you can have a hot shower if you like."
Michael, holding his side and trying to straighten, was torn between the heavenly luxury of a hot shower and meal and the need to take care of his friends.
"Ma'am … it sounds wonderful, but … but I gotta – "
Irene lifted a no-nonsense eyebrow and pursed her lips.
"Young man … you got bust ribs. How're you gonna help get everyone out of the pickup, hmmmm?" Irene saw this tall, worn-out young man hesitate for a second and pressed her advantage. "Now then, you just come with me. You too, Connie. Neither of you are fit to help with the heavy stuff, so you're gonna get some food in you, freshen up and get into some clean clothes. In the meantime Clarence an' the rest will take care of your friends … family," she corrected herself.
Michael decided there and then that he liked Irene Ticonderoga. She barely came up to his chest, and looked as soft and as gentle as a teddy bear, but he could sense the determination and no-nonsense soul beneath her rotund exterior.
"Ma'am … that sounds perfect." His eyebrows drew down for a moment. "Are you sure you have enough? Supplies can't be easy to get and I don't want you to run short – "
Irene smiled benignly.
"I have two great big sons to feed, and I always have plenty, so don't you worry." She waved her hand at her front door. "So get in there, son, an' I'll be there in a moment while we get Connie out of the pickup. Joe will need to give her a hand … and no, you can't help. You're hurt. Go rest!"
When he hesitated she made shooing noises at him and made more waving gestures at the door.
"I'm a-goin', I'm a-goin'!" Sobering for a moment he turned to the automaton brothers. "We'll get you all fixed up as soon as Clarence can get everything set up in the workshop. Are you all going to be okay for a little while? I won't be long. I won't be much good to you anyways until Clarence gets you all sorted out."
Rabbit gave him a weary smile in return.
"We, uh, we ain't g-goin' anyplace, Michael." He coughed, and then rallied, The Jon resting a concerned hand on Rabbit's boot. "We'll … we'll b-be just doozy, buddy," he wheezed, optics blinking out of sync.
"Clarence'll take good care of 'em, son, I promise. He'll make sure they're as comfy as possible until you get cleaned up and fed. Then you can get to work." Irene took a gentle hold on Michael's elbow, insistent on steering him into warmth and comfort.
Michael looked at the three automatons and then at Connie, who nodded gently. He took his decision and it was written all over his dirty and bruised face.
"Thank you. The food and a shower sound wonderful."
"I got some clothes that belonged to my son Andy. He was about your height … and I know he wouldn't mind …" Irene's eyes shone with tears. "We lost him in Iraq. You understand?"
Stunned, Michael nodded once, unable to form words into a reply.
Irene ushered him into the house, and Joe turned to Connie.
"C'mon, girl. Let's get you inside while we take care of everyone else. You boys gonna be okay on your own for a minute or two?"
The Spine stayed silent and Rabbit was too preoccupied with trying and succeeding in getting a quick hug from Connie, but The Jon nodded vigorously at Joe.
"Yep! We'll be just dandy, Joe! I'm Big Brother right now, so they gotta do what I tell 'em!"
"What?" Rabbit said, startled. "I-I'm the oldest an' you were o-only Big Brother for a-a-a little bit – "
The Jon smiled benignly, preening.
"I'm still Big Brother The Jon," he repeated cheerily. "Remember? 'Till you're all better an' stuff."
Rabbit gaped like a metallic tuna and his optics blinked out of sync.
"But … b-but …"
"And I'm Nurse The Jon – I'm gonna look after you two and make sure you behave!" The Jon's dark gold eyebrows drew down into a serious expression – not something one usually saw on his plated visage.
Rabbit was incensed.
"Uh-uh! N-N-NO WAY! Y-You can't be … cuz … cuz … I, uh, I-I'M the oldest an' … " he took a painful huffing breath, "an' … " he tried to turn to The Spine and failed, but that didn't stop the tirade. " … S-Spine, you … you tell'm … I'M the B-Big Brother … " Rabbit's desperate interruption was halted by a series of hefty coughs, and The Spine managed to reach out and rest a hand on his brother's shoulder, attempting to calm him. It didn't work.
" … and I'm SuperTheJon," The Jon added loftily. "Saint Pappers Claus is bringing me my cape with SuperThe Jon on it, an' that makes it official. Th'Spine said so."
The Spine closed his optics in painful exasperation.
"No … no I didn't …" he whispered indignantly. " I said – "
The argument dissolved into snarky comments from The Jon, blustering, indignant complaints couched in coughing from a shivering, sick Rabbit and pained threats of retribution on them both growled weakly by a distinctly grumpy The Spine.
Connie had been reluctant to leave her charges, but eventually allowed Joe to lift her out of the truck. But instead of putting her down so that she could stand on her own two feet, he lifted her into his arms ready to carry her inside. Surprisingly, Connie didn't object. But when Joe hesitated and turned to try and calm down the three automatons, Connie patted his chest reassuringly.
"Leave 'em be, Joe," she said, smiling tiredly. "Let 'em argue. They're brothers. It's doin' 'em good." Her smile widened into a grin as she heard Rabbit call The Jon 'a-a-a rattlin' collection a' spare parts from a slurry spreader' and The Spine's muttered answer 'don't make me come over there, buddy'.
They would be fine. Just fine.
"C'mon, Joe. I'm hungry. Let's go eat." And relaxing back into his arms, Connie leaned her head against Joe's broad chest and closed her eyes.
It was just over an hour later when Michael Reed stepped gingerly outside into the cool, dry night air.
Irene Ticonderoga had quietly helped him cut the strapping around his ribs, and made sure that he had clean clothes to step into after the hot, steaming shower had worked wonders on his battered body. He had stood stoically in her kitchen and let her wind a wide bandage and surgical tape around his now-clean ribcage, and helped him into a plaid shirt and a pair of worn jeans. They were perfect for length, but their previous owner had been a fair bit wider than the young musician-turned-robot-mechanic, and they hung off his frame. But he didn't care – he was clean, warm, and feeling better.
His mood improved even more as he wolfed down a thick stew and biscuits. As he ate, he noticed the photograph of a sturdy young man in dress uniform on the mantel, a framed citation beside the image. Humorous brown eyes looked at him from beneath a perfectly set peaked cap. Michael studied the young man, and nodded to himself. He mentally thanked Andy Ticonderoga for the clothes, but he also felt the pang of loss. It must be so terribly hard on Irene and her family to lose someone so young and with so much life to live.
But now he was ready to help his friends.
The lights were shining in the large workshop across the yard, and he could hear voices raised over the hum of machinery. The lights dimmed as something mechanical stuttered into life … a noise Michael knew well. But this was an ordinary, mechanical chug, not the life-sound of automatons awakening from stasis.
Bending his head, he ducked his way through the small door set into the larger sliding door of the auto-shop, stepping over the raised sill and into light and activity.
George Humboldt's pickup was parked beside an old and very sturdy steel work-bench, dented and worn but gleaming and spotlessly clean. Clarence and Tom, with help from The Jon and a tall, broad young man in a fireman's uniform, were slowly lifting Rabbit from the bed of the RAM and onto the workbench using chains and block tackle.
The Jon was taking his Big Brother responsibilities very seriously, cradling Rabbit's head and talking to him quietly. Michael had no idea what The Jon was saying, but Rabbit kept his photo-receptors firmly fixed on his brother, listening intently. Being slung between chains with a steel rod through one's chest had to hurt, Michael knew, but Rabbit – for once – didn't complain. It had to be done, so the copper 'bot just set his jaw against the 'pain' and hung on.
Once on the table, The Jon reached over and grabbed a cushion from the back of the pickup and, with infinite care and tenderness, laid Rabbit's head on it as Clarence gently unshackled the chains.
For a moment or two, after the machinery was turned off, all that could be heard was a soft sigh from Rabbit as he lay on the bench on his side, the steel bar through his chest stark and ugly in the artificial light.
Michael swallowed nervously. He had no idea how much he could fix, or even if he could remove the bar from his friend's chassis – but he had to try. He straightened, gasped at the pain in his ribs, and looked around for The Spine.
The silver automaton was sitting in an old and much-used armchair, tucked into a corner by a coffee machine and microwave oven. His fedora sat on a small table beside him, but the automaton wasn't resting. He was leaning forward, hand pressed to his side, and was gazing intently at Rabbit. Every inch of his tall frame was tense, but The Spine had no intentions of powering down. Not until Rabbit was fixed.
Michael winced. Every breath The Spine took was rasping, dry … painful. But he was distracted by a figure looming beside him. He looked into warm brown eyes, and a big hand was proffered.
"Hi. The name's Ben Ticonderoga. You must be Michael."
Michael shook the hand and nodded.
For a moment, Michael wondered how two small people like Irene and George could produce such a tall, broad young man, and he realised with a jolt that Ben was almost identical to the picture on the mantel in Irene's kitchen. Oh lord. Ben and Andy had been twins. He wondered how this kind young man's parents coped with being reminded of their dead son every time they looked at his twin brother.
"I see mom found some of Andy's clothes for ya. They fit not too bad, huh? Glad they could be of use."
"Yeah. Yeah, I … " He took a deep breath. "All I can do is say thanks for everything," he finished lamely.
Ben gave him a lopsided grin.
"That's okay." He thought for a moment and then turned to where The Jon was standing beside Rabbit, talking softly. They had apparently forgotten their brotherly spat and Rabbit reached up to grasp The Jon's hand as a wave of 'pain' hit him, making him gasp.
"Your … your friends … they're kinda … unique, huh."
Michael had to agree.
"One of a kind," he answered. "Well … more like three of a kind, I guess." He took a shaky breath. He couldn't delay any longer. "I … I have to take care of 'em, now."
Ben's smile faded.
"You gonna be okay? I mean … do you need help? I can't stay … I have to get back on duty, but I can ask around – "
Michael shook his head.
"Nah. I'll be fine," he lied. He had no idea what was ahead of him, but he couldn't expect people to take time out from caring for their own families to help. "I got your dad, and Tom said he would stay. He has no family, so … " He paused, thinking. "Look, Ben … would you mind taking Mister Humboldt into the hospital?"
They both turned to look at George Humboldt, standing in the shadows away from everyone, his eyes swollen almost shut and his nose black and bruised.
Ben pondered for a moment and then agreed.
"S'ppose. I heard he was a bit of an ass. But then, that's nothin' new," he added. "You got folks at the hospital, Pa said, an' I'll take Joe in to see how they're doin.' One more body won't hurt. George sure can't drive himself with his eyes like they are. My baby brother Gabe is a medic out there, so when he's finished his shift he'll bring 'em home. Will that do?"
Michael brightened at the thought of finding out how Steve and Sam were doing, although he couldn't stop the flip of panic in his stomach when he thought about Steve's leg. Lord only knew what was happening right now …
Stop it, you fool – nothing you can do about it right now and you have Rabbit an' Spine to care for right this minute, he thought. He mentally shook away the panic.
"That'd be great, thanks," he said to the tall young fireman. "Okay … okay, I got to do this." He took as deep a breath as his hurt ribs would allow, and nodding to Ben, he turned to Rabbit.
"Are you ready, Rabbit?"
Mismatched optics blinked out of sync.
"Uh … n-nope."
"Yep – he's ready," The Jon said, ignoring his recumbent brother.
"N-Not yet!" Groused Rabbit wearily. "Miz … Miz Connie … she said … she'd be here … hug me …"
"Rabbit, I can't waste time, m'friend. I gotta – "
"I'm here, sweetie!"
Michael turned a little too quickly, his ribs twinging, to see Joe help Connie through the small door into the auto-shop. She limped over to Rabbit, her hand reaching out to rest on his head.
The Jon stepped back, smiling.
"See, grumpy-butt! Connie said she'd be here, now didn't she?"
Rabbit studiously ignored his baby brother, and then arranged his face-plates into as pathetic an expression as he could manage.
"M-Miz Connie? You okay? Your … your ankle – "
"… is all strapped up an' as good as new." Connie gently chastised. "Now then, son … ya gotta power down. Rest up while Michael takes care of ya. When you wake up, that damn' steel bar'll be outta your chest an' you'll be jus' fine, y'hear?"
"Good boy. An' then Michael can take care of The Spine." Connie espied the silver figure sitting awkwardly on the old armchair. She had no idea how The Spine was staying conscious, but she saw the determination on his angular visage. "Jon …"
"Already on it!" quipped The Jon, giving Connie a swift hug and then trotting over to The Spine, flinging himself to his knees beside his big brother. "Spine? Ya gotta rest! Connie says so!"
The Spine gazed at Connie, seeing the worry in her storm-grey eyes. He bowed his head silently, and with The Jon's help eased himself back in the armchair. He settled down to wait.
Michael looked around at the people gathered in the auto-shop. Clarence had hauled out every tool and piece of equipment he thought Michael might need, and Tom Brander stood beside him, ready and waiting to help if he could.
George Humboldt had gone outside, silently evading accusatory gazes from Connie, and Ben tapped Joe on the shoulder. It was time to go.
Joe looked down at Connie, and reached out to squeeze Rabbit's shoulder.
"Don't worry, son – Michael an' Connie'll take good care of you and your brother. Connie … if you get tired you sit down, y'hear me? An' make sure Michael does the same."
Connie's mouth quirked.
"Good. I'll be back as soon as I can. I'll be able to tell you all about how Sam an' Steve are doin' when you wake up, Rabbit, I promise."
Rabbit closed his optics.
"Sure … sure," he sighed quietly. He was so very, very tired …
Satisfied, Joe followed Ben Ticonderoga out into the yard, and then they were gone.
Connie rested her other hand on Rabbit's wounded chest.
"Okay, sweetheart. You gotta sleep now. Let Michael do his work."
Rabbit opened his optics for a moment. He was terrified, but he was too sick to do anything about it. This time there were no smart-mouth comments, sulks or hiding in the cellar. This time, he knew, there was no running away. Even if he had been well enough to make a dash for it, he knew he would die if he did. He closed his optics again, but they snapped open as he remembered something.
"You'll be h-here … when … when I wakes up?"
"Of course I will. Didn't I promise?"
"A-An' you'll, uh, y-you'll give me a … a hug?"
Rabbit sighed, content. And without saying another word, he powered down. His chassis stilled and his optics dimmed, and finally, for the first time since the earthquake, he was completely free of 'pain.'
Connie bent over and kissed his forehead.
"See ya later, sweetheart. I promise." She looked up at Michael. "Okay, Michael honey. Here we go."
Michael lifted a pair of needle-nosed pliers and a wire-stripper, and gritting his teeth, set to work.
Michael Reed had never worked so hard in his life. He fixed leaking oil lines and hydraulic tubing. He replaced or mended shattered cogs and repaired endless electrical connections. He swore and sweated, only spoke to demand a tool which Clarence or Tom handed to him without a word, and wept when an hour's-worth of repair suddenly gave way under the strain.
Connie sat quietly on an old stool beside Rabbit, her hand resting on his head, and never said a word.
The only other sound in the big auto-shop was every rasping, painful breath that echoed from the tall, silver automaton slowly bleeding out in the old armchair in the corner.
The Jon never moved except to find a clean rag which he eased under The Spine's hand and pressed tight against the devastating injury in the lean robot's side.
The sun was beginning to rise when Michael straightened painfully. He had done everything he could to fix damaged lines and synapses. Now he had one more thing to do – he had to remove the steel bar piercing Rabbit's chassis. He had done everything he could to minimise the danger, but the young mechanic had no idea if he had done enough to make it safe to remove the bar.
Connie saw him hesitate.
"It's okay, Michael – you have to do it. It'll work," she whispered.
Michael looked at The Spine and saw an almost imperceptible nod of assent.
It was now or never.
He slipped on a pair of ribbed gloves which gave him a firmer grip on the metal. Tom Brander gripped the rod at Rabbit's back, ready to push when Michael told him to.
They were ready.
Michael was on the point of beginning to pull the rod straight and true out of Rabbit, when they all heard a vehicle pull up outside.
"That'll be Gabe," Clarence said, smiling. "Now we'll find out about your friends."
But then there were raised voices and a minor argument breaking out. A moment later the small door burst open to admit a neatly dressed woman with immaculate hair and tasteful makeup.
The woman straightened, her sharp face relaxing in relief, and she hurried forward, arms wide, to give Connie a hug.
"MOM! Oh, thank god! You're safe!"
Connie's jaw dropped.
The woman hugged Connie, pulling her away from Rabbit.
"Mom, I thought … oh god, I thought you were dead! I met Joe in the hospital – we got through yesterday and thought that was the best place to wait! Are you all right?" Cathy let go of her mother and stepped back, grasping Connie's shoulders. "Okay … now you're going to come home with me. Joe said you lost everything, so you're going to live with us. Let's go get your stuff and we'll go right home." Cathy looked at the people around her, and then took in the three robots. She shook her head. "What the hell's this? Oh, never mind." She dismissed everything from her mind and focused on Connie once more. "Mom, we have to go – c'mon. We're leaving."
Connie straightened, and her hand reached out to rest once more on Rabbit's head. She could feel curious eyes staring at her from around the auto-shop, and swallowing, she finally found her voice.
Cathy blinked, her angular features puzzled.
"Well … yes, of course!"
Connie raised an eyebrow and her stance stiffened.
"Like hell I'm gonna leave!" she said.
And sitting back down beside Rabbit she looked up at Michael.
"Alrighty then, son. Let's get this done. Time's a-wastin'."
Michael blinked once, grasped the steel rod embedded in his friend, and set his mind to his task.