A/N: I know this chapter is a month late or more. I posted without much proofreading or finalizing, so I will get to that later. Modem problems, got a new computer and am still in the process of moving onto it and getting it to work the way I want to (I have to say that Windows 8 sucks compared to Win 7). Plus I really needed some me time for a while. Then a friend learned of my new system, and has been coming over a lot and hogging it. If you are looking for a friend, just send the cost of shipping & handling and I'll mail you your very own Computer Hog ;)
So. I'm getting back on the writing saddle, hoping I'm not too rusty.
Thanks for all the reviews everyone! 18 is a new record for a single chapter. So thanks to: Zerg170, fray100, Deman. BlackBaccaraRose, MajorDarkblade, coldblue, labreck01, wolfmoonsshadow, Zekiev Clayton-Zolnerowich, Power Taco, golddragonriderkira, Twigon Halolover, all the Guests (assuming you're not one person, lol), .18 (hopefully my PM explanations worked out for you), UltimateGrr, and CatGirlFireflare.
Coldblue: Yeah, Gaz's image took a hit. But much more important is her self-image. I don't think that would be easy for her. From her perspective her whole existence has changed in the blink of an eye. And someone who was hard-as-nails would naturally be inclined to wear a mask and pretend everything is fine rather than show that they are having difficulty adjusting.
I'm glad that you like the Irkens bonding with some of the non-humanoids. And for others out there, no they are not going to be gettin' it on. The microbiological chemistry (and other things) is too different to really register on their Irken bondmates' neural receptors. But many examples of different Earth species bonding exist, and humans that are at the top of the list. How many of us have pets that are actually members of our family? I know it's not the same, but it is a precedent.
As for Mez, he is frey100's creation and actually is a bit of a rouge Irken scientist. A lot of what you are asking about (including Dib's lifespan) would be covered by Frey's parallel account where I plan on covering Gaz's. Once I complete this story I plan on helping him with his story a lot more. Also, as to language regarding the non-humanoids. You have some good concepts for later down the road. I also call to mind Star Wars' Han and Chewie. I wonder if Han really knew exactly what his hairy co-pilot says or if he just gets the gist of it intuitively. And since Computer is around to help with translating at the moment it is not a major problem. In later years, they will need something more.
I do plan on an Epilogue at the end to set the scene of what the future has in store. I wasn't planning on doing a sequel, but Cassidy is really busy with college and asked me to take over her plot that takes place soon after this story. I also have ideas for a shorter ZAGR story, and a few for other anime's as well, so I'll have to see what I can do.
Ultimate Grr: Frey has a plot regarding Zim's PAK that is rather interesting. So I am going to leave that open for him to explore. But altering his PAK at such a deep and complex level could very well drastically alter his personality. I don't think Zim would chance becoming someone else. And I think Gaz would tie him up to prevent him as well. It's like how much tinkering can one do to one's brain before it changes who they are?
Gaz looked away with her head turned, chin resting on her senseless shoulder. She didn't want to watch, and wished she was somewhere else at that moment. The human felt the tugs of her lower body being pushed and pulled as her legs were repositioned, her knees pointed up toward the ceiling of the medical chamber where thick cables and robotic arms covered the area overhead.
The lower edge of her blanket was now tucked up near her bare shoulders. Gaz had no sensations below her neck, but having her limbs adjusted moved her body minutely and she could feel her head jostled slightly as Zim worked down there.
Gaz heard the diaper slide out from under her naked rear, and she felt her face blush even more as the slight smell of urine grew stronger. She could feel her ears grow bright red with heat and the human girl tried to shake it off.
Stop it! she scolded herself. I'm his wife. He's been doing this for weeks. We've talked about how I will someday live here with him. We've talked about having children together. That I wanted to one day bear our child that he designed. I didn't imagine that we'd have a platonic marriage…
But you held off from thinking that you and Zim would be doing that sort of thing too, another part of her protested. This isn't like showering in the girls locker room after gym class back in junior high. And you always thought in terms of the next year or two. Safely in an unspecified future. And for you that was three minutes ago. Everything changed in the blink of an eye.
The smell of baby wipes filtered into the air.
Gaz forced herself to turn her head back and she watched Zim's face. His green Irken skin, large eyes that were solid ruby red in color. The two antennae standing up out of his scalp. His sharp teeth were clenched as he concentrated on the task at hand. There was no hint of desire in his expression. Rather, one that indicated that he wanted this particular job to be over with soon.
He sees your body as just your body. There are no connotations, only face value. But deep down you knew you were going to show him one day. You knew we were going to cross that line. And you would probably be just as self-conscious as you are now during your first time.
But it's not at all the same, she argued with herself. My first night moving in with Zim would have been… special. Out of love. Not Zim wiping my rear like a baby; me laying here unable to fend for myself. Trapped in a useless body.
A squeezed tear fell from Gaz's eye while Zim slid a fresh and uncooperative diaper under his human wife, fastened the sticky plastic tabs into place, and stretched her legs back out on the table. This is my fault. I knew it was a bad situation, but I couldn't walk away when I had the chance. Too proud and arrogant to call for help when my Jeep first broke down because I was determined to be self-reliant. Now I can't even wipe my own butt.
Stop whining! Gaz scolded herself once more as Zim dropped the used diaper in a plastic pail and closed the lid. Tilting her head she could see her toes past the folded blanket on her chest, but she couldn't see her lower body that was once again covered by a mere diaper. That brought other thoughts as she clenched her eyelids again to stem the tears. I thought things would be different. I never thought that Zim and I wouldn't have nights together before I was implanted with our child. I thought I would be involved in the process. But I wasn't. I died in a filthy alley and woke up to hear I was… That's not how it's supposed to be, and I never thought she would be twins. And all I can do is lay here like an incubator. Plus I never knew my mom. How am I supposed to know how to be one?
Zim pulled the blanket back down over his wife's legs and looked over at her face. Her purple hair was sort of straight and poorly combed rather than her usual hairstyle. The shoulder length hair was impossible to manage, had developed knots and an oily texture to it. Sponging it with water wasn't enough. But he hadn't wanted to move her spinal column around at all. As she had been laid out on her back, most of those human appendages were directly under her healing neck bones or pinned between her head and the pillow it rested on. But what caught his vision were Gaz's eyes scrunched closed, another tear crawling down across her temple and toward her ear.
"Gaz-blossom?" he inquired.
She opened her eyes once more and gazed at her Irken husband, then away. He could tell Gaz forced her expression to appear calm, looking across the table she lay upon down at her body under the blankets. "It's alright, Zim. It's not like it's anything you haven't seen before. It's just I've never… exposed myself to the opposite gender before. I know it's stupid considering you're my husband. But-"
She broke off for a moment, shaking her head slightly. "It's new for me." Gaz turned her face away. "None of this is the way it was supposed to be. Our first night living as husband and wife was supposed to be special."
"Gaz?" Zim spoke questioningly. "It's not even noon yet."
The human girl laying on the examination table let out a loud and growling breath of frustration. Zim reached over and took her limp hand up from the blanket it rested on. It saddened him that she couldn't know he held it unless he showed her.
Gaz continued to look away, resisting the urge to call her Irken husband a moron and not knowing her hand was being held. "I'm sorry, Zim. I have all these whiney thoughts in my head, and I'm in a bad place right now. I don't even know what I am anymore. I'm so sorry, Zim. I'm sorry I messed everything up. I'm sorry none of this is the way it should have been. I'm sorry I was so stupid that I got myself killed," she said as her feelings turned inward again.
Zim set Gaz's hand back down on the blanket she was covered with. She continued to look away, tears slowly creeping out of her eyes. He didn't understand what she was almost saying. The Irken didn't have a human's instincts or perspective. But he had all the years he had spent on Earth with the underlying fear of being exposed for others to see.
Gaz sniffled as she gazed into the corner. "I'm sorry I'm being so pathetic right now. Zim? Thank you for taking care of me. For bringing me back to life. I'm… I'm just messed up right now."
She heard Zim's voice speak up. "Computer! Are we still in privacy mode?" There was a lengthy pause. "Gaz-blossom? We had a 'first night.' Do you remember back when we realized we had been married? When we called the Tallests for help getting our status expunged? When Zim discovered that he is an unwanted defective and was tricked into exile to this place?"
The human only nodded, still gazing into the far corner of the room. "You collapsed next to me and stayed with me all that night, guarding over me in your sleep. You had nightmares that Zim died, clutching me in your sleep and crying out for me. Nothing about that day was what was supposed to be for me either. Zim believed he was supposed to destroy, conquer and enslave humans. Not bond with one and marry her. Not love a human. Certainly not have smeets with a human. But Zim would not have it any other way."
Gaz nodded some more, wishing she could curl up into a ball and fall back asleep from the stress. Her brain felt like she needed it already. She heard the rustling of cloth, but paid little heed. She took in several deep cleansing breaths, and focused on trying to clear her mind. Gaz felt a brief chill on her face and wondered if she was cold as her body wasn't letting her know.
Core body temperature is nominal, entered into her consciousness.
Gaz shivered, but not due to the chill. It was the thought that her brain was now hardwired to an alien computer anchored into her spine. Her brain was full of technologic connections. Fused with computer parts, regardless of how minute they were. Her body may recover from such a meld, but her brain wouldn't. Her mind would share her brain with something else for the rest of her existence.
She was interrupted from further disturbing thoughts flowing down that road.
"Look at me."
Gaz turned her head and felt her eyes go wide. Standing several feet from her table stood Zim. And he didn't have a stich of clothing on. Gaz's mind went blank for a moment from the sheer unexpectedness.
The Irken stood there nervously, looking at the ground. "You are the only living being that has seen me like this," he stated. "Not even when I was hatched was I seen by other beings."
Gaz stammered. "Z-Zim?"
Nothing about Zim was suggestive. In his lowered eyes she saw that he was opening something of himself to her that he obsessively kept hidden from everyone else in the universe like a good Irken. He had known what she looked like underneath the blankets, and now he was offering that same to her. To put them on equal footing, equally vulnerable.
He looked… he looked… he looked like some kind of Halloween doll little girls could play with. He had thin arms and legs, with muscles not particularly evident. His three fingers ending in points to form his claw-like nails. She noticed his feet were blunt, unlike his fingers, but each also had three equally sized toes. And naturally Gaz noticed that Zim was not anatomically correct according to human standards.
She gazed for several seconds at nothing. If she didn't know better, she would have thought that the nude Irken before her was a drone. But from what little Gaz had deduced from hearing about Tak's egg sac area, that pale circular callus around that low pinpoint 'belly button' was where Zim's equipment was hidden within his gut.
Zim kept his gaze to the ground, clearly uncomfortable. "I don't want anyone else to see you as I have. I would desire their destruction. And I can't bear to let anyone but you see me this way."
Freed momentarily from her thoughts, Gaz let out a brief giggle. She couldn't help it, and Zim's face looked up in an angry hurt. Gaz quickly moved to cover her mouth, forgetting she had no control over her fleshly body. One of her PAK's spider limbs flashed out from under her examination table and smacked Gaz in the face.
"Ow!" the girl cried out, glaring at the metal limb. She focused again at retracting it back to its resting place within her PAK. Then she looked at Zim. He was taking a few steps to approach her, with a look of both concern and that angry hurt in his expression.
Gaz knew she deserved it. The first time in his life Zim allowed himself to be seen by another, his own wife no less, and she had to snicker.
"I'm sorry, Zim," she said, not meeting his eye. "I know that was unnerving for you, and you did it for me because of my own embarrassment. But it is a bit ridiculous. I mean here we are, husband and wife looking at each other for the first time. And instead of being completely unsuitable for others to even think about prying into our business, I am not much more than a hospitalized rag doll with robot arms and you look like a genderless doll that is suitable for little girls to redress when they play. If I didn't laugh I would cry like a baby."
Zim knew he was missing the human perspective. And he did comment that the design of his wife's body the first time he bathed it was stupid. But it still hurt.
But some of what Gaz had said had also caught his hearing. "There is some ritual? Something not for others? Something only between you and me?" Something important for a human. Something about not being covered.
Gaz wasn't looking at him anymore. "It's not important," she told him. "And I couldn't anyway. Not like this. Besides, I'm already…"
She stopped speaking. Gaz looked down over her laid out body under her favorite blanket. One she had had since she was little. It was a bland and dark pink with yellow unhappy faces printed on it. I know they told me the truth. But I can't feel it. I can't feel my body. I can't feel that Zim's babies are growing inside me. It doesn't seem real. A few minutes ago for me was weeks for everyone else and I haven't caught up.
"It seems like everything we've done is out of order," Gaz commented as she avoided seeing the Irken body on display a few feet away. She didn't really trust her stability at the moment. "We get married, then start a relationship. Start dating, sort of. I'm killed, get pregnant, and then come to live with my husband. Not to mention we haven't-"
She broke off for a moment. It didn't feel comfortable saying that with a naked anybody standing there. Everything felt off. She glanced over to Zim and found he was kneeled down, his face a mere foot away from her own. Gaz turned her face toward his Irken one. Two antennae bowed down to brush through her hair. "Zim? I am so out of balance. I feel like reality is fractured. My thoughts are scattered about. I can't find my center."
"Gaz-blossom," Zim said quietly. It was troubling seeing his impressive human wife so lost. Helpless. And he really wanted to put his pants back on.
He continued stroking his antennae through her hair. "You are not just my wife anymore. When Zim saw you attacked, my bond for you was completed. Gaz-blossom, you are my mate now. No one may see you but me. No one may clean your waste or bathe you but Zim. And only you may see me."
Gaz gazed back into those red eyes. Zim may not have the human instincts or drives, but he did have Irken ones embedded deep down. Territorial and protective of what was his own. "Zim, I want to go back to sleep. My brain is really stressed and tired. I know I'm being weak and you just got me back, but I just want to sleep awhile longer."
Zim nodded his head. "Your PAK will need maintenance regularly. It's almost due, but you were showing signs of finally waking up today."
Gaz nodded. I even need to be plugged in like an appliance now, she couldn't help thinking to herself.
Zim raised himself up, looking down at his human wife as he stood. He reached out of Gaz's vision and brought a juice box before her with a straw poked into the top. "But first you need to drink this. Without your feeding tube you have to take in liquids again before you dehydrate."
Her head lifted up slightly as her lips lunged toward the straw. She had been parched but had been sidetracked by her uncontrolled thoughts. The juice box was drained quickly.
Zim set it aside to be disposed of later, and moved to redress before he activated the PAK maintenance unit.
"Zim?" he heard Gaz say behind him as he went to pick up his pants.
The Irken turned his head. His human wife was looking at him with the barest hint of a pleading expression.
"Zim, I don't want to be alone when I sleep."
Concentrating carefully, Gaz extended one of her new spider limbs out and lifted the blanket covering her. She looked up into Zim's face. She saw no sign of the immoderate hormonal desire she saw back in hi-skool when her former classmates bumped into their boyfriends or girlfriends, or reached out to them for a teasing 'tickle.' No sign of animalistic lust like when she spied them sneaking off for a quick make-out session. All the things that Gaz had likened to looking into the monkey house at the zoo when she observed her classmates as she grew up. There was nothing even a decent human would be controlling for her dignity and due to her helplessness.
Only love. Love with a nervousness of unfamiliarity. Love mixed with unadulterated concern for her. Zim would not understand the human response. She was completely vulnerable, completely helpless. At anyone's mercy, like those men that tried to rob her. The ones that had killed her. Had forever taken away her previous existence as an organic human being.
He called me his mate, she remembered. Gaz looked downward very briefly and raised her gaze back to his eyes. Zim's naivety was security for her in this state. Something she needed while she also needed her husband. She could utterly trust to be at Zim's mercy right now. Something she couldn't give to any human.
Gaz eyed him as the Irken pondered for a moment, unsure if he was supposed to accept the invitation or redress first like an Irken should. She didn't feel any of the previous unsettledness of him being a different species like in the past when she had briefly thought about when she would move in with him. Gaz was settled within herself as she looked into his red alien eyes. You're my mate too, Zim.
Zim wanted to put his pants back on, but that seemed… substandard somehow. Gaz-blossom was exposed to him in her indicating she needed his proximity. She had stayed with him that first night when he had broken down and couldn't deny his defectiveness any more. But being dressed while she couldn't be seemed… flawed.
His human wife's vertebrae may have fused back together, and could take weight without risk of fracture. But no one could predict how much, and Zim had feared it wasn't enough if she were to roll off the examination table while he were to attempt to dress her. Such a fall could sever her spinal cord permanently. So dressing his wife seemed dangerous still.
The Irken reached over and set the PAK maintenance unit under the table's head to delay for one minute, and crawled in under the blanket.
The space was far too narrow, and Zim was resting into Gaz's curves and over her torso. The Irken shifted until he found a comfy position, holding his wife so that they wouldn't fall onto the floor.
Gaz looked into Zim's face above her, a tear beginning to escape once more. She couldn't feel anything as her husband's body embraced her. Couldn't feel their physical closeness. Their fleshy shapes molding into each other. But within Zim's eyes was still that untainted love she could trust implicitly at this moment in her vulnerability.
She leaned her head forward and gave her Irken husband a slow, thankful and loving kiss on his lips. Then rested her head back down on the pillow behind her as she gazed into his eyes, her soul tired by the trials of awakening. Zim gave her an affectionate smile, and then rested his own head into her shoulder. His forehead touching her cheek, antennae reaching up and running through her hair.
Gaz held her head still as she moved her eyes toward her husband, then down to her abdomen where the lump that was Zim's arm under the blanket was cradling her belly. She grieved that she could not feel him except on her face and in her hair. Could not reach out and hold him in return. Could not cover Zim's hand with her own as he touched where his children resided within her.
I'm having your baby, Zim, Gaz thought as she turned her head slightly so she could see her Irken's head resting on her cheek. I'm pregnant with two of her. I'm having two beautiful daughters with you, Zim. She felt her troubled mind touch a center within her soul as she closed her eyes and pictured the image of that genetic profile's appearance Computer had made.
She opened her eyes again and gazed at Zim's forehead, which was all she could see of him at the moment. She sent an unseen and fond smile his way with her lips and eyes. I promise. When I regain my body, I will give myself to you, Zim.
Gaz closed her eyes once more, feeling safe in the arms she couldn't feel. Finding comfort in the touch on her cheek. The feel of Irken breath drifting across her throat as Zim let out a sigh. Her troubled self feeling a touch of balance again. A touch of peace in her heart. A touch of intimate security in Zim's presence within her bed.
Gaz heard a click and sensed her PAK open up. Felt another click in her mind as connections were made. She felt herself drift off, still troubled but a bit more settled in her soul.
Data decompression and memory defragmentation loaded into maintenance queue. Onboard mechanics analyzed and basic equipment check complete. Organic support within programmed specifications. Entering standby mode, filtered into her mind as Gaz fell into sleep.
But it was alright. She wasn't alone.
There was a knock on the wooden door. The woman stepped away from the kitchen counter where she was preparing lunch for her two bratty boys, who could be heard in their shared bedroom bouncing on their beds and whacking each other over the head with cardboard tubing again.
She sighed as she rinsed off her hands in the sink as another knock sounded. The water was slightly rusty due to the aging pipes. She imagined the knock on the door was either the building supervisor reminding her the rent was due next week and that she had better have the money on time, or her deadbeat ex showing up to tell her that he didn't have enough for child support again. Even though he had plenty to spend on booze and backroom poker nights.
The woman walked around the worn kitchen table, out into the living room to answer the door. The wallpaper was faded three decades ago, and torn in many places. There were plaster patches in the printed patterns from previous tenants who must have had behavior problems. But this was the best she could afford, and the past several years had been a struggle to provide for her kids.
No, she admitted. She couldn't even afford this rundown apartment building in this rundown neighborhood without state assistance. Her rowdy boys were growing fast and ate like starving pigs. All the furniture, even their clothes were second or third hand. But at least this dilapidated building was in a low crime area. At least on the surface.
She opened the door and was taken aback by two men in yellow hard hats, orange safety vests with small flashlights, probing tools, measuring tape and pencils sticking out of breast pockets or clipped to small loops on the front. They wore blue jeans and equally blue work shirts.
One of them lifted the brow of his hard hat in greeting. "Afternoon, Ma'am. We're from NE Construction. We're sorry to bother you on a Sunday, but the annual inspection of your building turned up a serious infestation problem down in the basement. Our subcontractors are going to have to fumigate before we can begin replacing structural members and repairing the foundation."
The woman's shoulders slumped. It was just like how things had been going for her for quite some time. She couldn't remember the last time something had gone her way.
"But there is some good news," the other man spoke up. "The state got approval for a Federal grant to remodel several affordable housing projects. Since we were going to have to come in anyway, it was decided to go ahead and renovate the whole building. But the worksite will be condemned for a while."
To the woman's ears it didn't sound like good news. Not if she was being notified like this instead of some form letter from the state. Not that that would have been any better.
"Where am I supposed to live? I've got two boys to take care of," she asked as she held her forehead.
The second man reached for a series of vanilla folders he held under his arm. He took one out and held it out to her. "It's all being taken care of and we're just in the planning stage right now. So there is no rush. Inside you'll find six-month hotel vouchers, as well as ones for the moving company and storage facility we've contracted. We're sorry for the inconvenience, Ma'am. But once we're done you won't recognize the place. Just contact the numbers listed inside when you're ready, and they will take care of the rest."
Once the folder was taken, the two men lifted the brow of their hard hats once more and bid her a good day.
She closed the door behind her, not knowing what to think. Suddenly finding one's self being forced out from shelter, even from a dump like this, wasn't reassuring. Even if it was for a badly needed renovation, she and her boys would be without a home address for months.
The woman opened the folder and glanced at the vouchers and notarized paperwork inside, not particularly reassured. The governmental agencies were very restrictive of honest people down on their luck due to the few bums who tried to take advantage and inevitably got caught. And those same agencies were tight fisted too. Unless they were buying rocket launchers to vaporize paper targets with. Then they couldn't spend money fast enough.
She pulled out one of the vouchers and examined it. "Four Seasons Retreat & Spa?" she read off of the label.
It wasn't exactly a five-star luxury hotel that charged a two grand per night, but it sure wasn't a rat hole that charged by the hour either. She pulled out the phonebook and looked up the number there, wary of something sounding too good to be true. Especially in this neighborhood.
The woman dialed the number and was greeted by a receptionist. She read off the confirmation number printed in one corner.
"Of course," the young female voice on the other end replied. "I have it right here, and the reservation is already paid for. We can fit you in whenever you are ready."
The woman paused for a moment. Living rent free for six months would help her situation a lot. She could buy new clothes for her family and even buy a reliable used minivan. She could even afford babysitting…
The two men climbed the stairs to the next floor. It was decided that only a few doors on every other floor would be contacted at a time. A mass flood of moving tenants would draw suspicion.
"NE Construction?" Charlie asked.
The Villain pilot next to him smiled, enjoying his 'day off'. "Necessary Evil. Sometimes you have to do really illegal stuff to make things right. We're committing fraud to take over a housing complex subsidized by the state with some borderline money-laundering to hide our trail. Not to mention government databases are being hacked to indicate full occupancy. But we're the good guys. The people here down on their luck catch a break, and don't become collateral damage when the hammer drops."
Charlie just nodded. Most humans today saw right and legal as being the same thing. Sometimes they weren't. The world they lived in wasn't just black and white. Not to mention a small speck in a rather hostile universe.
Tak sat at a supervisor station up in the control tower overlooking the base with her feet up on the control board. Outside was warm and sunny, and in the distance at the edge of the airfield she could see a column of humans jogging in formation. They may have preferred sitting in their cockpits, or better yet lounging in their cool commons area down below the surface with their laptops playing at wiping each other out in cyberspace. But that did nothing for their physical upkeep.
The Irken wished she could be out there, but feeling the warm sunshine here in the tower would have to do. She felt she could use some physical upkeep herself, feeling a bit pudgy. But there were too many things to coordinate at the moment. Cargo shuttles came and went fairly often now. It amazed her that all it took for the fat ovoid shaped Irken cargo shuttles to land and take off again in broad daylight, unnoticed by the humans outside the base, was to paint the human words "Good Week" in large letters on the sides.
Tak let out a silent sigh. Dib was at home packing Gaz's things, and he had skool tomorrow. She would be busy here well into the evening. The house was much quieter than it had been with her mate's sister underfoot all the time. But that was also largely because Dib had been in a subdued mood, worried about his sister. Not that she herself was neglected of her human's attention, but that attention was never really undivided.
A part of Tak missed how things used to be. Especially as Dib was less focused on her than on his sister. They had replaced the entire living room carpet, and it did help some. But that whole room was a reminder to Dib of what had happened.
But Tak had found that she wasn't jealous… much. Not when she saw the pained look in her human husband's amber eyes at times. They shared a blood bond, not a mateship bond. They were hatched from the same human. What would two Irkens have been like had they shared a single smeet chamber? Tak had thought about that, wondering if Gaz being implanted with twins was different than her expecting a single smeet.
The purple eyed Irken glanced around the glass walled control room quickly before rapidly scratching at her lower chest along her ribs. The itching was still an ongoing thing, and the anti-itch cream Dib rubbed on her in the morning helped. But sometimes her uniform chafed as well now. Especially on these warmer afternoons.
A second tour bus of the month drove through the gate in the distance. With an Irken task group including a battleship next door in Martian orbit, the SEN were rather eager to sift through any number of possible candidates. Depending on aliens to make sure the same kind of aliens behaved wasn't something they relished. And on Tak's end there was an urgent push to get their flight rosters filled because it would take time to rush them through the training grind.
The Irken General watched the previous column of jogging humans make their way over while another ant-sized figure approached the bus as it parked just inside the base perimeter.
Tak glanced down, frowning as she felt something under her scratching fingers. The front of her fatigues had a small damp spot down by her lower rib. She looked across the small room at another Irken who was scheduling local traffic. Doomwind was in lunar orbit with minimal staff to operate the ship. It hadn't been necessary to remain at full alert for weeks, and no other ships had appeared from jumping though the hypergate orbiting Irk.
"Sargent Hrek?" the Irken general inquired as she stood up. "I need to go up to General Grat's Task Group for an inspection. What do we have scheduled?"
The Irken looked up. "In the next twelve hours we'll have another shuttle coming in from Rock Smiter with a load of rare metals. Iridium, platinum, tungsten and a few others. Six shuttles flights will be hauling ordinance out to the Lunar depot. Specialist Roz has four more deliveries out to Detonation. Base traffic won't pick up until tomorrow morning when more human supplies start arriving again."
Tak just nodded. With General Grat's munitions vessel Detonation still present, ordinance production was in full swing and they were taking as much advantage of that resource as they could. Rock Smiter had taken a morning to drill out a crater on the back side of the moon to serve as an ordinance depot as they had started to run out of places to cram missiles, flak canisters heavy caliber flechette rounds. It was no more than a crude hiding place to store weapons, with a metallic slag plate overhead left over from all the nickel-iron the smelter vessel had to sift through in processing asteroids. Even the access door plates ran on solar panels and other simple parts commonly found in Earth hardware catalogs. But according to General Grat, the Resisty made effective use of such arrangements with their weapon caches.
Not that Tak was thinking much of that as she left the tower. She was thinking how sometimes humans suffered miscarriages.
Echo boarded the bus as he watched the first SUV of visitors drive past the base's front gate. Lady Gaz was awake, and the Irkens had been planning on visiting her as soon as possible for a long time. It was a good thing there was a lot on their plate at the moment, or she may have found herself swarmed.
Two rows of human pilots stood outside the bus in their flight suits. First impressions were important, especially with something this big. And he really didn't want to have to recommend any memory erasures. He smiled. Already the new meat were pointing out the windows. Some at the rows of spare aircraft parked on the tarmac. Some at the humans they recognized standing outside. Not to mention the recognition of himself.
"Are those the Crimson Shields?"
"Hey! The Dragon's Fangs are here too!"
"Don't point! The Angry Housewives are out there as well!"
Of course no one was going to be blatant enough to point at him as he stood at the front of the bus. But the point was made. Everyone they saw so far was a finalist from CWZ. In fact, no one in their sight wasn't a finalist from that competition. They were all well known in that gaming community as the best teams in the world.
Echo let out a shrill whistle, and the bus quieted down. "Okay! Listen up. Your driver is working on a Sunday, and I bet he wants to go home. So everybody off the bus and grab your luggage for inspection. Now!"
The newbies started filing out of the bus quickly as Echo continued to voice instructions in a near yell to be heard over the commotion. "When you hear your name called out, take the numbered tags given you and attach one to your luggage and throw it up on the flatbed that will be along shortly. They will be taken to your accommodations. Remember that this is a secure area, so you should have remembered that cell phones and cameras are prohibited. You will be issued secure communications gear instead. Other electronic devices will be checked, so make sure that they are on top so we don't have to dig through your personal belongings."
That was going to happen anyway. Only with Irken scanners in the closed hanger instead of human eyes and hands.
Echo followed the last of them off the bus and watched them scurry around. Finally their luggage was retrieved, identified and reloaded on a flatbed that drove up as the bus turned around and left the base.
The newbies were quickly arranged in two sloppy lines, and Echo paced along in front. Most of them were fairly young. "I am Major Echo. And if any of you laugh, I will put you on latrine duty for a month. I'm your CAG. For those who do not know, that stands for Commander Air Group. Each one of you were thoroughly screened and checked out. Several thousand were passed over ahead of you. A few months ago we," he said pointing to the more experienced human pilots behind him, "were in your shoes. We've already been through what you will experience in the next few weeks. If you need to talk about it, come to us and we'll help you through it."
He took a breath and projected a more relaxed manner. "You will find we are not as strict or regimented in every little thing like others outfits may be. I don't care if your salute is sharp or sloppy or if your boots are polished to a shine. What I care about is getting the job done. You get me?"
There were several "yes'" and "uh huh's."
"I didn't hear you, and I sure didn't hear a 'sir' attached to it!" Echo roared.
There was a much louder response. "Yes, sir!"
"That's better. We are an independent outfit, and are not aligned to any particular country. We may be more relaxed most of the time, but make no mistake. This is a military unit. You probably recognize us standing here. Like you we are all gamers. I myself served as a marine aviator in both the U.S. Marine Corps and Britain's Royal Marines. But most of us were just regular people like you, and never thought of doing what we do now. Each of us can attest: If you stick though it you will have experiences few human beings will ever know. Ask any one of us if what we're doing is important. We'll all give the same answer.
"You will receive benefits such as access to scholarship college courses online. Free health care. You will be provided with anything you may need. You'll figure it out after a while. You will have weekend leave and commute shuttles home whenever possible. But for now you will be running through 'gaming' simulations about eight hours a day against us, along with physical conditioning, self-defense and flight training. Now if you want out and get a regular, average, mundane job, speak up now and go home. If you want to pick out your bird, follow me. Tomorrow evening we're suiting up for a ride-along in some of our scheduled exercises."
He saw all their eyes light up at picking out their own aircraft. "You will have fifteen minutes to hop in and get familiar with your plane. You will be spending most of your time in it."
Echo began jogging toward the tarmac, all the others quickly following behind. He let the other senior pilots take the lead as he adjusted his pace so he stayed along the middle of the two rows of newbies.
"They may not look glamorous," Echo said as he continued his address. "Perhaps like the Eurofighter Typhoon, the F-22 Raptor, or the Mig-35. But believe me when I say that these birds are the hottest rides on the planet."
Echo smirked as he jogged along. This wasn't just about giving security time to scan over their belongings and taking them to assigned quarters. Or wetting their appetite before they realized how much work and risk was involved. It was important to set the hook before they saw their first alien refugee. Hopefully the scrumptious desserts 'Whiskers' had learned to make watching the cooking channel would show that they could be friendly.
He didn't mind eating Croquembouche. A carmel-glazed cream puff made by a giant rat was still a cream puff. Okay, a five-star cream puff. At least to a rocket jockey like himself.
These newbies would get used to it. They just needed human examples to follow until they gain their own confidence in what they were doing. And that working alongside aliens seemed an everyday occurrence.
Tak sat up on the scanning table in one of the empty medical bays aboard Dookie Happens. Gaz would probably be flown in for a check-up in a day or two in order to make sure everything was adjusting well. So Tak didn't have to give a real reason for arriving and having a private meeting with Mez. Everyone else would just assume.
"Well?" she asked as she swung her legs off of the table. She hoped everything was alright with her smeet.
Mez looked up from his instruments at the control panel a few feet away, the glow of displayed data reflecting in his red eyes. "Hmm? Oh yes. Quite interesting. I shall have to save this for my private files."
"What!?" Tak snarled. "What about my smeet? Is there something wrong?"
Mez looked back down that the flowing data and tapped a series of controls. "Smeet? Oh yes. Your smeet is fine. Nothing has changed."
"But I'm leaking!" Tak exclaimed, growing frustrated.
The Irken exobiologist turned and bent down over his medical chest that followed him around. He opened the top and rummaged around inside. "Yes, yes. Quite fascinating. I shall need a sample for my collection." Mez pulled out a sample slide, then held it out to Tak. "Here. Just rub this under your shirt. Maybe give yourself a good squeeze."
"Why?" Tak demanded before taking the clear specimen slide. "What's wrong with me?"
"Wrong? Nothing is wrong. Abnormal perhaps. But not wrong for your unusual condition."
Tak turned around so Mez couldn't see, and hesitantly lifted up the front of her shirt halfway up. Worried and annoyed at not getting answers, she examined herself. Up above her low… she still didn't know what to call it… bellybutton, on either side of her lower rib cage along her chest were six tiny dots. She had thought that she had pricked herself during a scratch fest. Not to mention she was getting a little pudgy down there.
She made an exploratory poke with one finger, and a small, yellow, sticky drop appeared. Tak wiped it with the slide, pulled her shirt down and handed it over with a vexed expression.
Mez took it gleefully like a child getting a new toy, and ran over to insert the specimen into a bank of instruments along the wall. Lights blinked, the specimen ejected, and more data flowed up on Mez's control panel.
He took the slide and held it up to the ceiling lights, looking at it.
"What is it? Tell be before I have to beat it out of you," Tak demanded.
Mez shook himself back to reality. "What? Oh, yes. You are just developing mammillary glands to nurse your smeet. It seems Irkens once had litters of them. That leakage is just sugar-milk. Can you lift your shirt up for me? I should document this development. It is a unique opportunity for study."
Oh, hell no! Tak thought as she folded her arms over her lower chest, giving Mez a piercing stare. Then she looked down at herself, thinking about how human females differed from regular Irken females. Namely their lumpiness. But it seems I have six of them, Tak thought. Are they going to get big like a human's? I couldn't even stand up straight if they did.
"If nothing is wrong, I need to get back to Earth," she excused herself. Tak didn't like the look of scientific curiosity Mez was giving her.
Gaz lay propped up on the sofa in her new home's living room facing the large television. She had a quilt draped over her, with a hospital gown tied around her underneath. The last three days she had kept her mind busy so she wouldn't have time to think. Or at least she tried to.
She had verbally instructed Computer in restoring the surface level of Zim's base. The windows were now actually squared up instead of slightly crooked, and the front door looked ordinary now. The thick cables attached to the houses on either side were now run underground. Overall the house looked the same. The base just actually fit in with the neighborhood now. Just a bit odd rather than obviously suspicious. At least to someone with half a brain.
The defense gnomes were still there, and as large as ever. But the realistic looking treehouse off to one side of the front yard balanced it out. Gone were the ridiculous sports banners proclaiming a love for Earth and the poles with pink ornamental Puffer Fish arranged next to the front door.
Inside was much as she had remembered it from the past. Gaz's touch to the final repairs- which Zim had been ignoring- was to just make it less stupid. The kitchen toilet next to the refrigerator that disguised one of the elevators leading down into the subterranean sections was moved into a tiny room off to one side, and most of the posters had been replaced with demotivational ones involving piggies. But she didn't have the heart to replace the green monkey portrait that hung over the sofa behind her.
There had been numerous Irken visitors from the new base rotating in to see how she was faring, and to convey how sorry they were in failing their Lady. Gaz had been getting incensed more and more as wave after wave of her Irken guard paraded through, having to tell them repeatedly that it was her fault. Not theirs. She was the one who forbade them from following her around. Rejected the concept that she should have protection from others. She was the one who had stupidly remained by her Jeep; who had not wanted to call for assistance until it was too late.
She had felt angry, and confused as to where that anger should be directed. And guilty. Guilty that the Irkens under her Ladyship kept trying to take the blame away from her where it belonged. And proud of them as well when she heard their stories of trying to come to her aid. Proud of all of them for not letting everything fall apart during her long sleep. That they had done well for themselves without her.
But finally they were gone. Dib stopped by with a few boxes after skool, but he didn't stay around long. He knew his sister needed time to sort through things. He just reminded her that he was available whenever she needed someone.
Zim took constant care of her. And as grateful as she was, as proud of how far her Irken husband had come, sometimes she wished that he would just stay away instead of hovering over her like a mother hen. It was necessary, and it felt good to be so loved; to be a priority in someone else's life. But humiliating too. To be hand fed her favorite kind of pizza and then have her chin wiped like a baby. To have Zim hold a straw out to her so she could drink something. To be just lying there down in the medical chamber and suddenly realize she had soiled herself again.
Zim had seen her need slowly grow. So as the sun set each day, after he had cared for her physical needs, the Irken carefully carried her up and deposited his human wife on the couch so she could have her alone time and watch the setting sun outside the window. Then he left her propped up in a sitting position, placed her GameSlave in her lap with the simplest kiddy game running, and went back down below for 'conference calls.'
She found it good to be alone, but it also left her with time to think. And she didn't want to think about herself. About whatever she had become. Of about how much of herself was really her or PAK programming. Or a myriad of other disturbing thoughts. Like if her brain were to become a vegetable, she may not even realize it as integrated into Irken technology as she was.
So she kept herself distracted with the surface level remodel and practicing using her new cybernetic spider limbs deliberately. But even with that she still had time to think.
Gaz sat there on the sofa again this evening, unable to move her fleshly human body. Her PAK's spider limbs were extended around her as she slowly and carefully used them to poke buttons on her GameSlave, moving the cursor over answers as it ran Mathbusters. A first grader's education program.
Needless to say, Gaz didn't have to concentrate on the problems as much as moving her spider limbs with a light touch. Not when she could just ask her PAK the answers to complex equations such as involving gravitational coefficients. But it was saddening as she realized just how flawed Zim's own PAK must be.
As much as she tried not to, Gaz had been thinking a lot lately. About many things as she tried not to ponder over her own self. She was rescheduled to be taken back up to the Irken hospital ship tomorrow morning for a checkup after saying that she still needed a few days to adjust.
"Computer?" she finally asked. "I need to know something. It's… private."
"Of course, Mistress," the disembodied voice replied from the living room's ceiling. "The two guards outside in the treehouse can't hear you unless you call for them, and Zim is conferring with Tak at the moment. They will be busy for another hour at least."
Having Tak mentioned reinforced Gaz's current uncertainty about something. The human knew what had happened to the female Irkens. That Dib and Tak having a child together was a miracle in more ways than one.
Gaz paused for a moment. "Computer, I need you to access some records on Irk. Are Irken males… harvested like the females are?"
There was a long wait. Perhaps a full minute. "Mistress Gaz. There are indeed samples taken, but it is not the same. Upon graduating from smeethood, goo is removed through robotic surgery as they are carried down an 'assembly line' where they also receive adult programming updates and quality control diagnostics. This does not require the removal of whole tissues as there is no egg to keep viable."
Part of Gaz felt relief for Zim. Another part felt outrage that females got the worse end of the deal. But another part of her mind kept going down the logical path.
"Computer? Can you do a record search for me?" she asked out to the ceiling above her. "Am I- Does Zim have descendants? Was I already a stepmother for some Irkens out there?"
"No, Mistress. That is not possible."
Gaz felt an invisible weight lift from off of her, but questioned it. "That was a fast response, Computer. How can you know that without a lot of digging?"
Computer's voice replied instantly. "Because Zim did not graduate from smeethood. Master Zim was impatient, so he and Skoodge escaped to Irk's surface, accidentally crippling half of the planetary power grid as they did so. Many records were incomplete during that time, so it was overlooked for many years. I received a complete background on my Master when this base was first activated. It was so depressing to read."
Gaz considered this for a few minutes. "So Zim's PAK…?"
It actually explained a thing or two about how Zim had behaved throughout their skool years. But her husband had grown so much since they had come together.
She had even more things on her mind now. Like if she should tell her husband or not. Zim had been proud of being an Irken Invader, elite in perfection. And she had seen what had happened when that illusion was taken away from him. But how would he respond if he learned that his PAK was not only defective, but didn't even operate as 'adult' level programming should?
Especially when she was trapped in an inert body and dependent on her husband for the smallest of things. She would not be able to help him this time. Not to mention that Zim's life was recently starting to turn around for him after a lifetime of being a living disaster. Nor did she want to see this weird one she loved suffer any more simply from being what he was.
"Thank you, Computer. That will be all for now," she informed the disembodied voice as she went back to poking her GameSlave with her spider limbs.
Gaz lay on an examination table aboard Dookie Happens, with bright lights shining down into her eyes and making her squint. She wore the ridiculous pale blue hospital gown that could be tied around her PAK and still preserve her dignity. And keep Zim from guarding her jealously from others' eyes. Not to mention hide that dumb diaper she still had to wear.
She looked about the medical bay. The red and magenta color schemes. The curving architecture rather than the straight lines of human construction. The banks of blinking computers and other instrumentation. The robotic surgical beds further down at the other end of the long compartment. Similar to the one she lay on, with its scanning arms moving around her in all directions.
The human felt her PAK connected through the gap in the table by cables and into diagnostic equipment far more sophisticated than what Zim had on hand back at his base. No. Their home. The concept still felt strange to her. Gaz felt complex equations and numerous statements whipping by lightning fast, like some sort of white noise in the back of her mind. This had been going on for the past ten minutes.
Gaz felt it was almost like being artificially in the zone. But this was calculations of a vastly complex technology separate from herself. Not the intuitive sense and feel of the zone where conscious thought shifted into a different state. Where one did not think or analyze which buttons or moves to make, but simply became the zone.
But this was starting to become-
"Zim!" she called in urgency. "Zim, roll me over on my side."
Mez looked up from his readouts. "But the examination is not-"
"Zim, hurry. I'm gonna puke!"
Zim batted away scanning arms waving around his wife as she fought the feel of something creeping up in the back of her throat. He quickly turned her onto her side toward him. So that if she were to roll over too far that he could block her inertia and keep her from falling to the floor. Gaz's PAK pulled up into view through the gap in the table, attached cables running down to the floor being drawn up as well.
Gaz took in several deep breaths with her eyes closed, concentrating on trying not to lose the breakfast Zim had fed her that morning. Vitamins with a bowl of Bran Chunks laced with bits of Irken snacks for her belly's passengers. It had been like eating old folks cereal frosted in some combination of sugar and nitroglycerin. One spoonful and it had felt like her teeth were shriveling back inside her jaws to hide from instant tooth decay. But it was also satisfying in a very strange way. Except that afterward she had felt like she wouldn't need sleep for a month.
Not a pleasant rush when one was unable to move.
Zim moved his booted feet back to avoid the projectile vomit now making a crash landing on the deck plates near the column that supported the examination table. With one hand he held his wife in place while the other reached behind him into a diaper bag strapped over his shoulder and out of the way.
He wiped his mate's mouth off with a cloth. This was the first time this had happened.
"Water," Gaz requested, not looking at the mess below her on the floor. And trying to ignore the smell.
Zim, his antennae straining up high as if trying to get above the odor, pulled out another juice box. These things were much easier than trying to hold a water bottle over Gaz without dousing her face or making her sputter and cough from near drowning. And burning himself. And getting snarled at.
She sucked at the provided straw, spat the first mouthful out onto the floor and then drained the rest to get the taste out. Her eyes looked up into Zim's with thanks and an apology.
"Are you alright, Gaz-blossom?" he asked with concern, holding back understandable disgust.
The human girl nodded. "Yeah, Zim. I guess I lost control of the nausea. I don't exactly move around much anymore."
The Irken saw traces of recrimination in her eyes. He was becoming worried, and he wasn't the only one. Tak had mentioned that Dib was growing concerned as well. When asked how she was feeling during a phone call, her response had been "Pretty good for being Undead." Her tone had been slightly humorous, but Dib could it was just for show. And she had once asked her brother what it would feel like being a zombie.
Zim didn't understand these things, but knew that those topics were under the label of "paranormal." Which Gaz never had wanted to be bothered with by her brother's past obsessive enthusiasm. But what worried Zim was that he could see his wife's characteristic need to doom the deserving turning inward on herself.
"That was amazing!" Mez exclaimed from halfway across the large room as he stood in front of several banks of displays. "This data is incredible!"
The Irken exobiologist rushed over with a sample scoop that had some sort of suction attachment. "I must have samples. Can I keep it?" he asked cheerfully as he pointed at Zim's feet.
Both Zim and Gaz gave him the same strange expression. Zim carefully lay his wife back down on her back, and gave her a careful stroke of her purple bangs with his clawed fingers.
"Go ahead," he said. "Knock yourself out."
Zim had other matters to be concerned about.
"The smeets are fine," Mez was saying as the checkup continued. "They have attached quite nicely and the placentas are just starting to become more distinct. Quite fascinating to document. I do have a holocamera I picked up that I can put in there. It is small enough I shouldn't even have to cut or teleport-"
"NO!" Zim and Gaz yelled at the same time.
Mez shrugged his shoulders. Detailed internal scans would have to suffice for his private case studies, even though real pictures would have made for better illustrations. "Okay, moving on."
"How far along am I?" Gaz asked before Mez could alter his instruments or the scanning arms waving above her. On top of everything else that she faced, the human girl didn't feel ready to confront motherhood head-on.
"A month," Mez informed her. "I have the exact time down to the minute in my files thanks to Governor Zim's computer."
Eight months to go. Gaz thought. She didn't really know how to feel. Like she wasn't ready to be hit with another dose of her new reality. It seemed such a short amount of time to get ready. With all she was currently facing, deep down she wished for more time. "Zim? I'm not sure I can be ready for this in just eight months. Not on top of everything else."
Zim held her hand and looked in her eyes, showing he had faith in her within those red orbs.
Mez turned to look at them over his instrument panel. "Nine months for gestation?" He laughed. "More like sixteen."
"Sixteen months?!" Gaz gawked and screeched at the same time. Something inside her reminded Gaz of being wary of getting what one wished for. She glared with narrow eyes at the Irken husband who was responsible for putting her in the position of puking, craving weird things, mood swings, and looking like a bloated cyborg whale for nearly a year and a half. "Sixteen freaking months? Zim, welcome to Irken hell. Population: you."
Mez made a note on his Pad. "Lung capacity… excellent."
While Gaz was staring angrily at the ceiling and not talking to Zim, Mez pulled the other Irken to the side and out of earshot.
"Governor," he addressed with a subdued tone. "I just got the third series results back. Analysis has some bad news."
Zim looked at the exobiologist with trepidation. So much had already gone wrong. And Gaz-blossom was no doubt contemplating what she would do to him later on, even though all he had done was keep his promise to her. The Irken didn't understand her anger. From what he had read, sixteen months was incredibly fast for an Irken smeet.
"Somewhere in all that has happened to your bondmate, her life expectancy was radically cut short. Maybe a fourth of what a human would normally expect. And that is if we reactivate the genome repair nanites immediately. They will help compensate for the natural degradation of the genetic reconstruction sequencing the human genome goes through as their cells divide and replicate. But they can't stop it. Humans are naturally short lived, Governor."
Zim was shocked. He felt like he couldn't breathe. He had just gotten his Gaz-blossom back. Humans lived an average of eighty short years, and that was with excellent health. Rarely a full century. A quarter of that was twenty. And his wife was already-
Gaz-blossom might only have months after our smeets are hatched.
"She only has a couple of years left?" Zim asked in a dreaded whisper.
Mez looked at the Governor with a confused expression. "A couple-?" He looked down at his Pad. He rubbed the front with his shirt. "Oh. My mistake. There was a smudge covering up the decimal point. I thought human life expectancy was eight hundred years. Not eighty."
Zim really wanted to kill the other Irken. But his thoughts were also on Gaz-blossom. Her lifespan would be over twice the human norm. Perhaps two hundred years. A reason for joy in his mind. But how would she feel about outliving every other human currently on Earth? He wouldn't care. Not when he had previously spent years trying to plot the downfall of humanity. But humans didn't see things the way Irkens did. They had networks of bondings, not an Irken's single bond if he was fortunate. Zim was hesitant about telling his wife. She had enough to deal with in her mind, and was clearly in one of her moods again.
Perhaps it would be safer for him to let her figure it out on her own.
Mez was now slipping on some sort of black cuffs made of synthetic fabric around Gaz's limbs with the sleeves and the lower part of her gown rolled way up. Thin triangular attachments were woven into the sides, the glossy material glistening in the overhead light of the medical bay.
Both Zim and Gaz were watching him warily as the Irken was explaining.
"You have been losing muscle mass due to the lack of your activity levels," Mez was explaining. "We are going to have to artificially stimulate your muscles to prevent further deterioration until you regain their use."
Gaz turned her head back to look up at the ceiling; the metal arms and mechanical appendages, lights and localized scanning heads cradled above where she lay on the table. She tried to relax herself, closing her eyes and clearing her mind of nagging thoughts as she imagined a happy place. Running around with Zim in cyberspace slaughtering all those who opposed them as they played their game.
And yet she could feel a part of her begin to cringe.
She could hear Mez's voice moving away several feet to another control panel. "You may feel some jerks and tugs as your muscles are stimulated into moving. It may feel like it, but they will not be strong enough to dislodge you from the table. That would be a much higher setting."
Gaz nodded with her eyes still closed, willing herself to relax. Imaging herself running her game avatar as she removed opponents from play with her best moves with Zim looming behind her.
She sensed the faint twitching begin as inertia, vibrations and other forces transferred through her bones and flesh and up to her neck and head where she still had her senses working. The sound of her limbs twitching and thumping on the exam table. The uncontrolled spasms of her body.
Memory flashed into her inner vision in perfect clarity. Perfect recall. Hands and arms on her, trying to pull her down or hold her still. So many hands reaching for her. Blows exchanged. The flow of adrenaline fueled by supercharged instincts of both flight and fight. The whirl of her vision as her eyes spun, trying to remain aware of her high threat environment and surrounded by enemies in all directions.
The release of strong arms trying to grab hold of her. The clearing of space in a wet and dirty alley. The look in the man's eyes as those twin barbs and lines of wire shot towards her. The two thumps in her chest from the impact and the fire within that followed. Herself falling helplessly to the ground, her body twitching and thrashing beyond her control. The smack as she hit the ground. The part buzzing, part sizzling feel throughout her body as her mind went fuzzy.
"Get them off me!" Gaz cried out, feeling trapped as she relived a past memory. Her mind remembering the last clear sensations her body had transmitted to her before she awoke in Zim's lab. Completely numb from the neck down. "Zim! Zim, help me!"
Zim's spider limbs sprang out of his PAK and pointed in Mez's direction. The other Irken dove away and scampered into cover behind another bed's supporting central column as the whine of an energy buildup filled the room. Zim's spider legs fired four simultaneous green bolts into the nearby control panel.
It exploded outward in a blast and a wide scattering of burned technologic slag skittering across the deck plates. Zim heard the rustling on the examination table still as five Irkens dressed in light grey armor forced open the door to the compartment and rushed in, rifles leveling and looking for threats.
Mez crawled out from under the empty examination table that had been his nearest shelter from flying debris. He looked up and into five sets of stern Irken eyes with particle rifles hovering directly in front of his eyeballs and aimed at his brain.
The Irken specialist held up his arms and subtly pointed with one crooked finger in Gaz's direction, where Zim was removing the stimulation devices from Gaz's limbs and giving him scowling looks of doom.
"Uh, I didn't do that," Mez told them.
Gaz lay on an Irken hover stretcher on the floor of the returning shuttle, strapped carefully to the deck for the trip home. Zim had wrapped Mez from head to foot in tape and stuffed him in his own foot locker, but that hadn't improved his mood. The box was resting toward the back ramp of the shuttle, with an occasional knock sounding from inside.
All around her were the booted feet of her less than happy Irken guard. She felt a sensation of her dad's science show theme song buzzing in her head, asking for her attention.
God, she thought. And I thought a ringing phone call was annoying when it was outside my brain. Not to mention tapped into my subconscious.
-Answer- she imagined. –Video Approved-
Her communicator popped out of her PAK on a small arm. Gaz concentrated on positioning it before her face where she could see it. Professor Membrane's face appeared in the small screen.
"Daughter! I have good news!"
"Hey, Dad," she replied.
Gaz had learned to just accept what attention her Dad spared in her direction a long time ago. But at least he called to say hello in person now, rather than rely on pre-programmed video messages. Too bad she had to die in order to get more of his personal attention.
The image of her father continued on in his excited state, overlooking her greeting. "I finally finished the design for your mobility problem. There were many people clamoring for my time, but I said no! My daughter comes first and gets at least ten minutes first thing in the morning for science. Look!" he said, holding up a set of blueprints up to the video feed.
A finger began pointing out various features. "See? It is an exoskeletal transport system, small enough to fit into only two lanes of traffic! It has a solar panel skin for charging and jet pack propulsion with satellite navigation. It even has an optional organic grinder to predigest your food and inject it straight into your stomach. Also an oxygen generator so you won't even have to breathe! Since you are already wired up, a direct interface is a cinch. You'll have more than just full mobility, daughter! You will have SUPER mobility."
Gaz just looked at the image in the communicator's small holographic display screen. The design looked like a twenty foot tall steel gorilla body with a tiny stick figure head on the top. Then she looked over at Zim. His eyes were inquisitive. Gaz caught his eye and shook her head. She definitely did not want him to be getting any ideas from her father. Zim's version would no doubt be a nuclear world power by itself.
"Thanks, Dad," Gaz told her father's image as she returned her focus. "It's just that-"
She could already see the look of disappointment on her Dad's face as the blueprints were lowered out of view. "Dad. I don't want to be any more of a machine than I already am. I don't want to be upgraded like I am just another robot. I don't want to be a robot, Dad. I don't want more of what I was to be replaced like some broken appliance."
Gaz looked away for the briefest of moments. "Dad. The doctor says I'll get the use of my arms and legs back. Could you just make me a chair's interface for me to get around in until I do? Something that I don't have to be wired into? Something that won't make me look like I'm hopeless?"
The image of Professor Membrane scratched his chin for a few moments. "I don't know, Daughter. That seems so… mundane. I mean I could simply buy one for you. From the open market."
The father said it like he was mentioning a group hug on a nude beach at a leper colony.
"It's okay, Dad. It would just be nice to not need to be carried everywhere."
Professor Membrane's image nodded. "How are my grandchildren?"
Gaz eyes grew a bit wide at that. She hadn't exactly been broadcasting it out to the whole universe. "You know about that? I was only told a few days ago."
"Of course I know," Professor Membrane replied nonchalantly. "When they were in trouble I helped your husband install them. Speaking of which, how is your uterus? I hope you don't mind the scar. We made it as small as we could."
"Dad!" she exclaimed, glaring at Zim as he snickered. The rest of her Irken guard found the bulkheads suddenly fascinating.
"I'm about a month along," Gaz told her father and ignoring the rest. "They seem to be doing fine."
"That's great. I still have those thirty two assistants I would like to replace."
"Don't you dare put a quota on me and Zim having kids!"
"Oh, I'm sure your brother and his wife will help too. Binary cloning is always an option."
"DAD!" Gaz exclaimed. She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
The surrounding Irkens now found newer and even more interesting details in the bulkheads. Down at the microscopic level if need be.
"Well, I should get going. The new car should be arriving tonight. Your people were very specific on what specifications they wanted for a chassis, and their work on its modifications should be complete by morning."
Gaz looked at Zim, searching for clues. He gave her none in his expression. But before she could probe further, the Professor said something else.
"If you are going to be mobile, perhaps we can move up Family Night to next week. If you are feeling up to it, of course."
Gaz stared at the little screen held in front of her by a thin metal arm from her PAK. "Y- Yeah, Dad. I'll be up to it. That would be great."
Her father signed off, and the communicator returned into her PAK. An early Family Night? A real one? Their first one with their now expanded family? She would be there even if she had to leave a trail of surgical tubes running all the way back home.
Skoodge lay in his hammock. He had never moved into 'better' quarters. He liked the space he resided in deep down in this tower. He didn't need big or fancy. He didn't need cleaning drones picking up after him and disturbing his semi-organized piles.
The Irken was looking over half a dozen Pads as he relaxed. Blorch was a busy place. As Governor… well, his job wasn't all that different from when he was a nameless Assistant to the Governor. Skoodge just liked doing things himself rather than just telling everyone around him to do their job when they were already doing it. That seemed a rather pointless activity.
He turned his gaze to the large display covering the back wall of his small quarters. "Zim, I know it looks slow, but we've made progress. I can't simply swipe just any ship I see come in, you know. Plus I have to arrange for the overhauls, restocking of supplies, upkeep. Even an out of the way docking slip to keep each one until you're ready. You know I have to be careful about this."
The image of Zim looked rather cross and dejected too. "Zim knows," he said in a frustrated voice. "But General Grat cannot stay much longer, and he won't leave his convoy to make the return journey without an acceptable escort."
Skoodge nodded, accepting this at face value as he did everything. "The extras just have to show up, right? They don't have to actually do anything at Earth?"
Zim nodded. A female voice intruded from another channel.
"Zim? Where is Gir? Why haven't I seen him around?"
Zim pressed another button and spoke to one side. "He went out to take care of something. Tak is keeping an eye on him. If you need something, Zim will have someone go get it. Just try to go back to sleep, my love-pig."
The Irken cut the other channel. Then his green face flushed as he forgot he was speaking in front of someone else. "Anyway," Zim said as he scratched the back of his head, pretending Skoodge didn't see or hear that. "General Grat wants to know what you can line up."
Skoodge reviewed his Pads. "Well, it's really busy right now, Zim. Thirteen races have independently declared war against the Planet Jackers. Every one of their Planetary Tow Barges is a prime target for capture, and every planet with a ship is out there gunning for one. The Nhar-Gh'ok, Crystaloids, the Greys, the Greens and even the Meekrob have sent heavy battlegroups to blockade the Jacker's star system.
"They could get desperate, Zim. Any planet could be a jacking candidate, even in Irken space."
Zim's eyes narrowed. He hadn't forgiven the first time a Jacker crew had tried to steal Earth. "Could they be heading here?" he asked.
Skoodge shook his head. "You're too far away. If they don't bring in more planets to burn in their star, it will go supernova inside a year. This is all on our side of the galaxy, Zim."
"Anyway, the Tallests panicked and ordered our Fleets to redeploy. It would be really embarrassing if an Irken occupied planet was jacked as firewood. So everyone is scrambling to make sure we're secure on this end. Then the Tallest ordered our small ships to spread out and destroy every Tow Barge in existence so other planets can't escape conquest or slip into our territory. We're going to be spread so thin that conquest flotillas have been recalled to fill in the gaps, and I'm swamped refurbishing ships so old they were slated for recycling. So for the time being, we're on the defensive. Congratulations, Zim. You've crippled yet another attempt at Irken galactic conquest."
"But I didn't even do anything this time!" Zim protested. "I'm not even there!"
Skoodge brushed it off. "No matter. I'm sure we will start up again when this is over. But all the work does leave me with an opportunity. Will all the equipment we're replacing, there is a lot of systems laying around that are good for only a few more runs. And some of the hulls we're getting are on their last legs. So you'll have what you need, buddy."
The Irken paused for a moment. "So. How is your bondmate, Zim? Tak says she's awake now. You must be thrilled."
The image of Zim nodded. "Zim is. But Gaz-blossom is having difficulty in her mind. We tried stimulating her muscles today. But it turns out that it caused some sort of memory feedback from when she was attacked, and her PAK amplified the effect. She blames herself for a lot of things, which is not like her. Zim sees that there are some things that our technology can't fix. Gaz-blossom needs human treatment for her human mind."
Gaz sat in her wheelchair watching a mind numbing TV commercial insinuating that whiter teeth would result in female groupies swarming your car as you drove down the street. The chair had come yesterday afternoon, just after Membrane Lab's Friday lunch break. It was black with an open gap in the backrest for her PAK to fit snugly. On the right arm was a small camera with wires trailing down to the small computer under the seat. The new control system in turn was connected to the electric motor. It would allow Gaz to control the chair with eye movements and hard blinks to disengage the system to look at the scenery.
A stylized white skull decorated each side as she had coached Computer in painting with one of the base's many robotic arms. The seatbelt was probably unnecessary, but she preferred being strapped in than the thought of falling out helplessly. Zim was in the kitchen disintegrating the dirty dishes left over from breakfast with some sort of large ray gun that had extended down from the ceiling above the sink.
Zim turned his head as he heard a whir from the living room. Then snarled at himself as the disintegration emitter he was guiding slid away from the bowl resting in the sink and carved a groove into the counter. He shut down the device, muttering about how this was Gir's job to deal with kitchen duties. He quickly quieted himself as he remembered that the robot was still out on an important task. Not letting the humans responsible for harming Gaz-blossom escape. It was probably unnecessary now, given they had so many surveillance drones out that the survivors couldn't have evaded them if they left the country. Or the planet for that matter. But keeping them trapped also meant he didn't have to think about those specks of filth.
Zim ordered Computer to retract the deatomization ray back into the ceiling and turned back to where Gaz was now wheeling into the room in her chair. She wore a fresh and much heavier medical gown that could be pulled down over her head and tied around her back. Her purple hair was combed straight and hung around her shoulders as just subduing the 'morning hair' phenomenon taxed the Irken's abilities. Just mentioning the fact that it would be much easier to tame if it was shaved off earned him terrifying looks. But they never lasted long. Still, it showed that the old Gaz-blossom was still in there.
"Gaz-blossom?" Zim asked as he went to her. "It's almost time. Zim can still accompany you-"
Gaz shook her head with her eyes closed as the wheelchair came to a halt. "No, Zim. I need to do this without you."
Zim nodded, feeling a touch of shared sadness. Gaz-blossom had always been extremely independent, and had none since she woke up. As much as he wanted to remain with her, this was a necessary step in her recovery.
With only an eye movement, Gaz turned her motorized chair toward the open door where the toilet sat in its closet near the entrance to the living room. Zim moved to assist his human wife, but stopped when she gave him an eye of desiring self-determination. Gaz parked her chair before the door and extended her cybernetic limbs out of her PAK. She carefully raised her limp body up and carefully maneuvered herself into the small space with a gait like that of a half-paralyzed spider.
Zim watched as Gaz draped her body over the toilet seat as if she were a cloth being spread over it. Once securely positioned, her mechanical limbs retracted once more. She looked around, down at herself.
"Zim?" she asked. "I can't…"
The Irken came forward around the empty wheelchair and into the bathroom's doorway. "I've got it," he said simply.
Zim kneeled down and carefully pulled the hospital gown out from underneath his wife, letting the edges of the garment hang straight down around the occupied seat so that she wouldn't mess the cloth she wore. Then he unfastened the clean diaper she wore and pulled out from under her.
Gaz watched, and gave him a grateful smile that tried to hide sadness as well. "Thank you, Zim," she said as he took a step back out and closed the door.
Zim waited for several minutes. He leaned on the door as he waited some more. Then there was a tinkling sound within, followed by some sobbing.
"Gaz-blossom?" Zim asked cautiously.
He opened the door very slowly, unsure if he was supposed to or not. Inside Gaz was sitting there suppressing another sniffle. He knelt down to her. "What's wrong?" he asked.
Gaz looked at him, shaking her head. "I was feeling a sense of accomplishment from peeing by myself. As if I were some toddler. I just graduated, and now I have to teach myself to become pottie trained. I feel so pathetic, then I feel more so from whining to myself about it."
Zim kneeled down and took her chin in his hand, focusing into her eyes. "Gaz-blossom. You are NOT pathetic. You only had your body functions taken away for a time. You are astounding, and somewhere inside you is still the forceful and determined Gaz-blossom Zim remembers. Do you think the smeets of Zim could reside within anyone of any species lesser than you? You are greater than this entire planet. Not that is filth ball is worth much, but still…"
Gaz bobbed her head, accepting Zim's attempt at encouragement. "Okay, Zim. Stop it before you inflate your ego." But she said it with a thin smile of appreciation.
Gaz quizzed her PAK about the time. "Zim? I need you to… help me wipe. Then help me back in my chair. It's almost time for my appointment."
Gaz rolled down the new ramp outside the front door and halted at the monstrosity that was parked outside on the street. Mrs. Alpha was walking up to guide her along.
"Don't tell me that is my new ride," Gaz stammered as the older woman approached.
Mrs. Alpha glanced back as she took a stand next to the young girl. Four disguised Irkens were standing by the thick ramp running up to the back of the eight wheel drive Canadian LAV-3 armored personnel carrier. "Yes, it is a bit much. But then you're not just some girl, are you? You are a Lady. One of importance. That comes with accepting certain things. Like having a driver on staff and a security contingent in your proximity at all times. Because your people need you safe. Believe me. This was the least they would accept for you."
Mrs. Alpha felt sorrow for the young girl sitting in that wheelchair. She had been so independent and willful. Now she saw the expression on Gaz's face when she mentioned the need for security arrangements. She had learned that lesson the hard way, and paid a high price for it.
"Yeah, but-" Gaz started to protest.
No, her Irkens would see even Earth limos and town cars that disguised bullet and blast resistant armor as pitiful. Not when an energy beam would tear straight through it. An Irken shuttle would have been preferably from their standpoint, but fairly conspicuous if it had to pick her up every time she wanted to run some errands. They wouldn't have brought in a Governor's military skimmer from Irk either. Not with the PAKs' programming about high technology being imported to other species.
They wanted something that they felt would fit in among Earth vehicles. So someone suggested this to her Dad, and he had pulled some strings. Not to mention there was no way her Irken guard would have left it stock. She decided that she didn't really want to know what had been installed into the beast.
Mrs. Alpha began to push Gaz down the walk toward the waiting vehicle. Gaz pointed with her chin. "You really mean that paint job fools anyone?"
Gaz's chair was wheeled to the sidewalk and alongside the APC painted to resemble a regular limousine. If it had eight axles and was ten feet tall. It even had tinted windows painted along the sides.
One of the Irkens proudly pointed to the hulking shell of armor on wheels. "It even has diplomatic plates so authorities won't pull us over, Lady Gaz. If there is a traffic accident you won't feel the slightest bump."
Gaz just shook her head. Some things never changed. At least the new 'car' came with a wheelchair ramp as standard equipment.
She was loaded up into the back and the ramp was raised. As the disguised Irkens took their seats on the benches at either side of the passenger compartment, Gaz looked over at Mrs. Alpha who had also taken a seat.
"So we're going to the new base, then?" she asked.
The older human woman shook her head with a touch of compassion. "No, Lady Gaz. We could talk, or I could have brought one of the groups to your house. But we don't have what you really need. Nor could you let yourself let your hair hang down in front of us, if you know what I mean."
Gaz nodded. She had a hard enough time appearing weak in private, let alone in front of people she knew. But before those who she had authority over?
She looked around. Inside the cramped box-like compartment were view screens to simulate windows. So Gaz tried to relax and take in the scenery.
"So where are we going in this behemoth?" she asked.
Gaz guided her wheelchair through the corridors of the building as Mrs. Alpha walked beside her. The smell of antiseptic hung in the air. At least I fit in, Gaz thought as she eyed wandering patients who were dressed similarly to herself in hospital gowns. Even her two Irken guards, as short as they were, fit in with the green uniformed doctors and nurses as they wore grey urban fatigues. Knowing her species, Gaz figured they would be mistaken for kids imitating mommy or daddy.
The girl was guided through the tall building, up an elevator and through the halls. "Mrs. Alpha. When you said we were going to a hospital, you didn't mention it was a military hospital."
"No, I didn't. But I've been around military families for a while now. Including ones that had wounded come home. You won't find a support group you can open up to elsewhere. It wasn't like what happened was an accident. And you have to deal with some things most civilians wouldn't get."
Gaz quieted down at that. Everything was a constant reminder of that day. One she didn't want to think about.
They stopped outside a closed door. "Gaz. Most of these people were volunteers. Who knew that they wanted to be in the service most of their life. Who strove hard to earn their place. So much so that it is their identity. Then found themselves invalidated from injuries overnight. You found your whole existence changed in the blink of an eye. That would mess with anyone's sense of identity. Especially as one as defined as yours was."
The older woman nodded toward the door. "You go on now. We'll be right outside."
The door opened and a purple haired girl wearing a hospital gown, a tasteful black necklace along with a skull necklace around her neck, and a fancy wedding ring on her finger wheeled into the room. Her wheelchair was motorized, with some camera pointed at her face on one of the armrests. A quadriplegic he figured. She looked a bit too young to have been enlisted, but a lot of fresh kids did to his experienced eyes. No visible signs of scars, so whatever had happened must have been before even basic training was completed.
The others sitting in the few small rows of folding chairs eyed the newcomber as well. Unlike her, most of them wore relaxed T-shirts of their branch of service and blue jeans.
"Hey, Wheels," one of the females in the room said. The black haired woman sat at the front of three rows of chairs within the small conference room. She was lounged back so that her legs could stick way out. Or the steel poles protruding from her knees that had replaced them did. "The drag races are on the fourth floor. This is the mechanics convention."
He caught the eye of the woman behind the girl as she closed the door behind the wheelchair as it entered. She wasn't military, but belonged to the Community. Her expression carried one of experience in Community matters. A military wife, then. She knew who this support group was for, and there was no doubt in her eye as the door closed.
He turned to the black haired woman up front. "Stow it, Cortez."
"Oh, come on, Master Chief. Just because they have budget cuts for the wheelchair bowling group doesn't mean they get to pawn their extras on us."
The girl in the chair eyed the figures with squinted eyes. The man waved the comment off with a prosthetic right arm that had two light weight chrome clamps for grasping. "You'll have to forgive the Sargent. The paraplegics only appear to get more support as chairs and wheeling into a circle singing 'kumbaya' is cheaper than the replacement parts available to people like us. And deep down, she knows it."
The girl in the purple hair eyed Cortez back, not backing down. "My spine will recover eventually," she declared as the chair wheeled down the aisle. "The chair is just to get me by in the meantime."
The Master Chief raised his natural hand for attention. There were only ten people gathered, excluding the new girl. "Okay, let's go around the room and introduce our missing bits." He raised his artificial arm as he took a seat in front of the group. "Right arm. Fatigued tailhook snapped during a landing. Fragment took it clean off. Eight inches to my left and it would have been my head."
Cortez raised her hand reluctantly. "Two legs. Saw a kid playing inside a minefield. Rushed in like a damned fool. Turns out the whole village knew where the mines were laid years ago, so the kid got out fine. I ended up blowing both my legs off."
A red haired man in his twenties waved from across the room. He had two prostheses similar to the Chief's. "Got pulled into a jet intake while running up to attach the catapult gear for take-off. Safety harness snagged on the cowling before I got completely diced by the compressor blades."
Another man missing a hand. "Some grunts dropped a demolition charge's detonator from on top of a forklift in the ordinance yard. Someone had to catch the thing before the whole place went up, and I was the lucky guy walking underneath."
And around the room it went. Finally it was the new girl's turn. She eyed the rest of the humans.
"Unlike the rest of you, I still have all my original limbs," she said. "I was attacked in an alley. When I fought back I was shot in the chest. I remember dying there. A few days ago I woke up with life support grafted into my spine and wired into my nervous system. Without it my heart won't beat."
Her eyes reflected the lack of empathy of the others. "A pacemaker doesn't sound so bad," someone at the back row commented.
Fire blazed in the girl's eyes. "You have replacement arms and legs. I have an artificial brain wired in to me. It wasn't even supposed to be used on a human. It was just a last ditch idea that wasn't supposed to happen because I was seconds away from brain death. It has copies of all my memories, and it puts information in my thoughts if I ask myself about it. Like what time it is, if I'm getting a phone call, if I'm running a fever, answers to mathematical equations."
She looked down into her lap now. "I need classified technology that was never meant for a human running throughout my body or I die almost instantly. I have to be plugged in at night for maintenance like some appliance. Then there is all the extras inside my PAK."
Before their eyes, four metal limbs extended from behind her. She held them in front of her vision as if examining her own hands.
"I used to be human. Now half of me is artificial, and that's the only part of my body I can sense right now. It feels like I'm some sort of cyber-zombie with eight limbs like some freakish spider. And you know what? It's my fault."
The Chief watched as Cortez lifted herself up with her cane and hobbled on her steel 'legs' over to the girl staring at her robotic limbs. She took a seat next to her with a heavy thud, looking down at her own artificial legs.
"You know," Cortez said to the wounded girl next to her, "when I got my legs blown off by that mine, I blamed myself too. I should have known better than to rush out into a field of old explosives waiting for some fool to stomp on them. I should have picked up the lack of concern of the villagers because they had lived with that danger for so long it was just part of their lives. Easily avoided. But I didn't. It took me a long time to realize that I would have went out there anyway, because that kid could have tripped or stumbled. Or just plain forgot to look where he was stepping.
"I did what I had to do at the time without thinking about it," she told the girl. "It just didn't work out because I made the right call for the wrong situation. Now the real blame goes to your attacker. But it will take time for your mind to accept that you aren't at fault. That you didn't influence the cause of your injury. It will take time for you to sort it out, but you will. But your thoughts and feelings will be a bit… unregulated for a while."
"Yeah. Not to mention I'm having mood swings from my hormones on top of that. Just great."
The girl caught the woman's puzzled expression, so she nodded. "I also woke up to hear that I'm having twins."
"What's your name?" the woman asked after a few strangled sniffles from the girl.
The group looked at each other. Not long ago the news was blazing about an attack on a pregnant girl who was going to be on life support. And that girl had just walked in through their door.
"Hey," Cortez said as Gaz's artificial limbs retracted behind her and out of sight. "It's alright to let it out. We've all been there to some degree or another, no matter how tough we are. I still get angry or depressed, but I can let all those feelings and doubts out here. It's better than stuffing them away until I can't hold it back anymore and lash out at my husband and kids. It's okay to grieve."
The Chief looked at the others seated in the rows before him. There was no question at all in anyone's mind that this girl belonged in this room. He looked at his watch.
"Okay, two more hours of talky feely crap," he said. "So how about afterward we all go home, grab our gear, and take our fellow mechanic out for some real therapy." He looked over at Gaz. "Think you can stand a little target practice with these yahoos?"
There was a grin on that face. "Only if my bodyguards can come. They keep me on a short leash nowadays. And I'll have to let my husband know."