Afternoon sunlight gleamed cheerfully off the hospital floor. It was Earth's afternoon and Earth's sunshine in an Earth-based hospital. There were tri-video cameras in every corner, but the area had been roped off from all nonessentials so there was very little human traffic. A two-meter-tall brown-skinned doctor turned from his charts and spoke to the Karthosian female towering above him. "Well, his chances look good, considering."
Dorsa wouldn't let him get away with only telling her that little. "Considering what?"
"Well, considering what those Karthosian surgeons did to put him in that metal shell. There was hardly any of him left in there — just his brain, his spinal cord, and a few peripheral nerves. No bones meant no bone marrow, which meant no blood. His builders used a nanoparticle cocktail to circulate the oxygen, nutrients, and waste. Worse, no lymph nodes meant no immune system; if a single common cold virus had gotten in there it could've killed him. Everything else inside there was electronics, motors, fusion containers, force field generators . . . I mean, if they had cut off his arms and legs, and maybe a few internal organs, we could regrow them with salamanderone; but he can't even keep himself alive without a lot of mechanical help. We're having to clone him one piece at a time and graft the parts on until he's functional, giving him full salamanderone treatment along the way. We're basically growing him a brand new body, one piece at a time. At least all that nerve tissue had plenty of stem cells in it for the salamanderone to work with."
The doctor smiled up at her. "But he's awake now, if you want to see him."
"What do you mean 'if'?" she said. "Let's go!"
She strode together with him toward Strangen's room, nervous with anticipation. Strangen had been laid up in this hospital, under heavy guard, for nearly a month now. Various police and even military forces had been stationed around his room or outside the hospital, but it hadn't been necessary. The Starlane Destroyer wasn't going to flare back into action again, ever; the best minds that Inner Worlds medicine and cybertech had to offer had made sure of that. Now, it was even safe enough to allow his first Karthosian visitor.
Karthosian cybertech could have saved them a lot of reverse-engineering effort, but there was no way any Inner Worlder would trust one of them. The offensive against Karthos had been in the build-up stages for months. The news that they might not have to go up against the Starlane Destroyer was all the impetus it took to set it off. What would happen to Karthos now was still up in the air. Some, fueled by vengeance, had wanted the whole Karthosian system dismantled and the whole planet put under permanent garrison. Others had favored a gentler approach to reconstruction now that the old government no longer held sway. The average Karthosian's sense of arrogant superiority would take a long time to undo, and the ominous phrase "re-education" had been mentioned in official circles more than once.
With the Karthosian Blockade at last broken, Dorsa figured, at least the Inner Worlds seemed more preoccupied with relief efforts to the colony worlds than with punishing Karthos. She only hoped it would last.
They came to his door and turned into the room. Dorsa had to stoop to avoid the door frame, clearly designed for Outsiders— oops, non-Karthosians — a meter shorter than she. A three-meter metal body lay stretched out on a platform, various panels now swung or forced open, exposing much of the Starlane Destroyer's inner workings to the naked eye. And at the top of this body, propped on a pillow, was a head.
A fully human, flesh-and-blood head. With a human face which, to Dorsa, was all too familiar.
"Strangen!" she blurted in joy. She bounded up to his side in two Karthosian-legged strides. "Is it okay to touch you?"
Strangen gazed at her, with real eyes, and smiled — the first real smile he'd gotten to make in the years since Karthos had first taken his body away. "Yes," he said. His lips moved, but his voice still came from a speaker nearby. "They say my head's fully regenerated. At least I've got this much back so far."
She pressed the back of her hand against his cheek and gently caressed it.
"Mmmmm," he cooed. Though he had no lungs to inhale with, the scent of her hand still managed to waft into his nose. It bore the barest hint of lilac perfume. "Oh, Dorsa! I've missed you so much." He turned his head to face her hand, and kissed it.
She beamed down at him. "You look so young."
"It's the salamanderone," Strangen said. "My genes only know how to make a face fresh out of the factory, as it were. I'm surprised I don't have baby fat." He grinned. "They tell me I might be all flesh-and-blood again by this time next year, though it might take longer before I can walk." He glanced down at his still-metal body, wistful. "I'm gonna miss flying in space without a ship." His gaze returned to her, soft and smiling. "But I'd much rather have you."
"And we're not on Karthos any more," she said, "So we don't need anyone's permission to have children. We can do all the things we'd planned on back then."
Strangen frowned. "Not all of them. The Starlane Destroyer was responsible for an awful lot of death, directly and indirectly. Orders from my Karthosian superiors or not, there's going to be a war crimes trial. At the very least. I may never be a free man again."
Dorsa closed her eyes and nodded. Deep down, she already knew this; but it hurt to hear him say it, to bring it out in the open. She grappled for something, anything, to say. "I . . . I hear Samuel returned to a hero's welcome on Shanaya Reyansh c."
"Good to know," Strangen said. "Did anybody tell you what they're doing with the Artifact? I've asked my caretakers about it a dozen times, and every time they either say they don't know or it's none of my business."
Dorsa chuckled, just a bit. "That little cylinder is getting more attention than you are. It seems Karthos kept a pretty tight lid on the whole existence of the planet's First Inhabitants. The Inner Worlds had only heard wild rumors; even the archaeologists and xenobiologists dismissed the accounts as too crazy. Now, they're all abuzz about massive archaeological expeditions to Karthos. Half of them want to hang the old Karthosian Archaeological Society for not sharing, and the other half want to beg the Karthosian Archaeological Society for help."
Yellowish light from the low sun streamed through the window, and lit Dorsa's face just as beautifully as he'd ever seen her. She'd be gone before that same sun set. He knew that. They wouldn't let her stay here. But for this one fleeting moment, she was here with him, and that was the most important thing in the universe.
My love! For all it's worth, I know we'll be together again someday.