"Answer as quickly as possible."
Lunch was bran in water, bland and tepid. It gurgled pathetically as he hunched and stirred it with his spoon. Flakes were sticking to his chin. "Black."
"That's not a color. That's a tone."
Vincent stared helplessly at his forearm. "Red?"
"Is that your favorite color, or just what you're wearing?"
He chuckled nervously. Re-l tapped her spoon against her bowl. "All right. Least favorite color."
"Blue," said Vincent, instantly.
Vincent realized what he'd just said. "But I really like your make up! That's very-"
Best to stop him there. "Favorite food?"
"Anything," said Vincent, flushed. Re-l believed that. She'd seen what he'd kept in his fridge. It didn't stop her from thinking: I am speaking to the most indistinct man in the world.
"Current place of residence." Here, the standard evaluation questions were beginning to fail. There was no point in stopping. After all it was about the speed and nature of the answers, not the form of the question.
A voice cut in. "The rabbit!" Re-l blinked. She'd forgotten about the autoreiv. It had been playing with flat stones in a corner. Vincent looked at it kindly.
"Oh, no, Pino. These are questions for me."
The autoreiv tipped its head to one side. One ear of its pink hood flopped over. "Can Pino have questions too?" If circumstances hadn't become bizarre enough, Vincent turned back to Re-l with an imploring gaze; as though this were important enough to require conference.
"Maybe later," said Re-l. "Occupation--never mind. Hobbies? List them. Quickly."
"Sleeping," said Vincent, happy to get one out. He stopped there. Re-l waited. When no other answers were forthcoming, she lay her spoon down next to the plate. She put her hand over the edge of the table. She resisted the urge to tap. It would do nothing to the table. It would ruin her nails.
"That's not a hobby. That's a biological process." She eyed him, severely. "And a sign of mental distress."
Vincent's face fell. His bran had been reduced to proper mush. He shoveled another despondent mouth-full and let the spoon stay there for a moment. It was a very bothersome moment.
"Playing with Pino," said the autoreiv.
Vincent sat up. "Oh, yeah."
"Fixing the rabbit!"
"That, too," said Vincent. He put the spoon down, at least. "And talking with Pino."
"And helping Pino find firewood!"
Vincent laughed. "You mean Pino helps me."
The autoreiv's facial application simulated an expression of pure delight. This was getting out of hand, Re-l realized. She set out to fix this. It might yet be salvageable.
"…you've misunderstood the question," she said. "Those aren't--"
"Staring into space," said the autoreiv, pushing a flat stone over the table. It clinked against his bowl.
"Collecting caterpillars," noted Vincent, pushing it back.
"This exercise is over," said Re-l.
“I’m not sure why you bothered with the eggs,” said Re-l, hearing the sizzle of whites on the hotplate. The open carton lay on the table. OPHELIAMART blared in blue letters along the side. “They’ll go bad.”
Vincent used the new spatula to give them a jab. He reached for the plastic packet on the opposite side. He laid the strips of bacon over the pan with surprising care. “We’ll enjoy them while we can,” he said, chuckling airily. It nearly turned into a cough. “A treat.”
“We’ll be eating them for days.”
“And they’re good for growing bodies.”
Re-l snorted. “High in cholesterol and—where did you even hear that?”
Vincent screwed his face up in the way that meant he was currently confronting the fact his head was about as empty as the shells next to the plate. He gave up with a sigh. It sounded thick. He still had some remnants of that cold. Swiping his nose with one of the extra checkered potholders (he’d taken five), he shrugged. “It’d be good to have something positive come out of that place.” He shuddered. “It seems like something should.” He poked the contents distractedly. Smoke rose.
“Experience and two weeks of supplies,” offered Re-l.
Vincent brightened, in a vague sort of way. Everything was vague, with him. “And the pan’s happy, at least.” He gestured over the plate. Re-l leaned over. ‘Happy’ meant the two eggs and the meat were arranged in a very strategic fashion. Re-l leaned back and closed her book.
“I’ve lost my appetite.” Re-l pushed off and stalked off to check out the scenery on deck. Who knew, maybe there’d be a few new snowdrifts on top of the snowdrifts. Vincent looked after her. He raised a hand, and then dropped it with a sigh.
“Ah, there’s no guessing is there,” he said. Wearily, he looked down at the pan.
The pan smiled up at him.
Vincent smiled back.
Pancakes. Thick dough-y ones, with purple smears of berry cooked into them. Vincent took the bottle of syrup in his fist and squeezed it all out over the plate. He was on his fourth glass of milk. It was the happiest he’d looked since before Moske and Re-l watched him slice through three layers of pancake before she put her glass down.
He almost heard her. He lifted his head slowly. The shadows were back again. The ones swimming behind his eyes. “Mm?”
“Something’s wrong about this place.”
Vincent tipped his head slowly. “Is there?”
“You don’t feel it?”
Re-l scowled and pushed her plate away. “Everything tastes like air.” Vincent stared at her so blankly, she suddenly understood: “It’s not the same for you?”
“I don’t think so?”
She pointed it to the table. It was a round café table, covered with a pink cloth and decorated by a little flower vase. “What about this?”
“It’s a nice color, isn’t it?”
“What about that woman.”
“Mrs. Bell?” He smiled slowly, dreamily. His eyes were darker than ever. The air felt thicker than ever. “She’s been very accommodating, hasn’t she?”
“I wouldn’t call this…”
He didn’t hear her. “It’s been good to be welcomed for a change.”
“As I thought,” said Re-l. She stood, reaching for her gun. Her gaze fixed over his shoulder, at the doors to the kitchens. “Vincent. We’re leav--”
She vanished from the picture with a faint ‘pop!’
“Huh,” said Vincent, softly.
Mrs. Bell came in carrying the next tray: waffles and hot cocoa. The cup was blue with little white clouds. The tray was impressively floral in design. She wore a lacey apron. “Hello, Mr. Law. You’re in luck. We still have just enough raspberries for…”
Ergo Proxy tapped his glass with a claw. “So,” he murmured. “Out of professional interest, how long did you plan to keep this up?”
Mrs. Bell smiled. Her pendant winked. “Only until you noticed, hon. Or the woman starved to death. Whichever came first.”
“Pity,” said Ergo Proxy. He crushed the glass with a flex of his palm.
Pino ran after a butterfly she’d found settled on a trash heap. They’d set up outside to eat. Beans, again. With ketchup, to make it a little fancier. She didn’t mind so much. She could barely taste it. The thrum of the nearby dome invaded all senses. She’d never known how sour its air tasted, even the exhausts of it. She’d never known what a constant sound it made, till she’d skimmed the blasted earth outside and discovered the lack of it. She put down her empty bowl. The bowl next to hers was empty, too. He ran a finger along the edge. He pushed it away. He pulled a glove back on, staring quietly at the hanging fingertips.
“A good last meal,” he said.
She looked sideways at him. “It won’t be the last.”
“It’s the last out here. The next will be in Romdo, probably.” He laughed, a little. “That’ll be good, won’t it? Food there is better than what’s left in the Centzon’s stocks, right? A real meal. You’ve been really roughing it.”
“I’m not. It’s really the end, isn’t it?”
Re-l turned on her knee. She pushed the gun against his head. The barrel rested snugly in the raised hair at the back of his neck. “Yeah. It is.”
He went quiet. It was a cocky kind of quiet. The kind that made it very clear what he thought of the pressure on his skull, the kind that made it no surprise when he reached back to put his gloved hands over the one that had the trigger. He didn’t fear this. He’d known about it from the start. “Do you keep your promises?”
“I’ll keep this one.”
“Do it,” he said. His hand squeezed hers, lightly. His thumb stroked her knuckles.
Her lip curled. “I will,” she swore, unshaken, “but first, tell me--”
He looked back over his shoulder. She saw pale eyes and the curl of something that was somewhere between a sad smile and a smirk. “You waited,” he said. He was gone in a blur of black and red. Re-l was left half kneeling in the dirt. In the distance, she heard drones wail.
Pino came running just then, crying out as she did: “Vince! Vince! Vince is leaving!”
“No, he’s not,” said Re-l. She stood up. Pino flung herself against her arm, trying to pull her in the direction her sensors must have told her the blur had gone. The autoreiv was heavier than she looked. She nearly tugged her off balance. Re-l kept her footing. “Bastard. He’s gone scouting ahead. No, we can’t go that way. Get on the ship.”
“Get on the ship, Pino.” Re-l pried the fingers off her sleeve and stuck her own in them instead. Programmed to respond to this, Pino stopped gripping quite so hard. That or she found it comforting. Re-l didn’t have the time to wonder. “We’ll find a place to dock.”
When Re-l came out of the shower, Vincent was still conscious and cleaning up what was left of their late lunch. The chairs were back upright and the dishes were stacked on the table. He squatted in the center of the cabin, scrubbing the floor. He was in his boxers, nothing else. Except for the pendant, Re-l noticed. It swung liberally, the imprint of the chain still a faint dotted line on either side of his neck. The matching marks on her fingers were gone, replaced by wrinkles from the shower. She’d been in there for awhile.
Still no sign of Pino or Kristeva. “They’re not back yet?”
Vincent sprung up so fast he banged his head. He’d been doing that a lot. Six extra inches on one’s height had required some getting used to. He swore, grabbed his head, turned around, saw Re-l, and grinned so broadly and stupidly that it looked like he might break his jaw.
“All yours, by the way,” she added.
“I wasn’t worried.”
“They’re probably on their way. You asked Pino to bring some of those flowers, right? She’ll probably bring a boatload. We should find places to put them. I should get this done.”
His hair was bent in all sorts of interesting ways and there were bruises up his arms. “You should shower.”
“I’m not sure how to explain what happened to lunch. Especially after she worked so hard to dig up those roots.”
It wasn’t a great loss in Re-l’s mind. The fact that the soil could produce them was a triumph. The fact that they’d been dark purple and tougher than stone made them less of one. “You should get dressed.”
“And there’s the other thing. I’m not sure how to explain that either. She’s a little young, isn’t she?”
“She’s an autoreiv.”
“But a young one! And the table. We broke the table. I broke the table? Who...” He couldn’t seem to continue. His thoughts had run ahead of him. He stared at her. The jaw cracking grin hadn’t vanished. Re-l pulled the towel off her shoulders and looped it over his head. It settled behind his neck.
“That,” she said. “Is an idiot’s face.” She took both ends of the towel and pulled, levering him down so that said face was easier to criticize.
“Probably…” He stared at her with large eyes. She could see her reflection in them. His lips moved once, and again, and then he shook himself. “Don’t care,” he breathed. He dropped his head into the crook of her shoulder. He stayed there for a long time.