"So we've caught you at last," said Mikhail.
The body stretched out on his daughter's bed, palms up, eyes gently closed, said nothing. A cold breeze blowing in through the open window lifted a few strands of black hair from his forehead, but other than that Blues was still. As still as death. Not breathing. Even his artificial pulse had stopped.
Good. Phase One complete.
Meanwhile, the sleeping human girl squeezed up against the wall beside him shifted and mumbled. Mikhail wasn't nearly as happy to see that.
He glanced up at the clock on the wall and growled. 2:23 a.m. This meant that, right under his nose, Kalinka had spent nearly half the night snuggled up to this... boy.
But on the other hand Blues wasn't a real boy, and in shutdown mode, limp and inert, with his plasma cannon tucked deep away inside a smooth, flesh-colored, human left hand, he looked kind of like... like a large stuffed animal. Nothing to worry about, right?
...That is, a large, boy-shaped, anatomically-correct stuffed animal.
Mikhail took a deep breath. You, my silicon-based friend, are going downstairs to the lab where you belong. He lifted a tentative hand, hesitated, then pulled it back. He growled again.
Because Kalinka would pitch a fit if he tried to move Blues. Blues hates labs, Papa, she'd say. I promised I'd keep him here the whole time. It made no difference to her that Blues would never have to know he'd been moved. For reasons Mikhail couldn't grasp, Blues felt safe here among Kalinka's snow globes and nail polish collection and Botticelli posters and other regalia of tender thirteen-year-old girlhood. And that was enough for Kalinka to insist that the procedure to replace his failing power core was going to be done here.
Despite how much easier it would be for Light to do it there.
Scratching his beard, he narrowed his eyes at her. "If only you could be more... reasonable."
Why did it have to be her bedroom? The place where she slept? Especially since Blues, especially now, bare-faced and stripped of all his armor, looked exactly like a thirteen-year-old boy? With feet culminating in individual, human-looking toes. A pinkish candor in his cheeks. Black hair messy and furrowed, as though someone's fingers had not long ago been running through it.
Mikhail cleared his throat.
Kalinka stirred, turned in his direction, and inhaled one of those deep, windy breaths of the impenetrably asleep. And as she turned Mikhail saw, for the first time, two white trails of salt streaking out from the corners of her pink-lidded eyes.
Mikhail let out an exasperated sigh. Tonight, he feared, all the reason and common sense he could muster would be no match for his daughter and her tender heart.
Because Blues was dying again. This time, probably for good. The patch-up Wily had once put in to stabilize his power core, a calculated piece of planned obsolescence, had delayed the end for a while. But in recent weeks Blues had begun to have trouble holding a charge, and soon afterward an onslaught of crippling pain, stuttered speech, tics in his face and fingers, and vanished memories had followed: portents that the end was finally, unequivocally, here. All of which Kalinka had related to her father piece by piece between panicked sobs.
"Papa, what are we going to do?" she had asked.
"Tell Light, of course," he'd said.
Light had been ready for this for years. He'd already built a replacement core for Blues, and had long ago worked out how to safely redirect his source code and memory bank during the installation. He'd run multiple successful simulations of the procedure. He was absolutely certain Blues's mind, delicate thing though it was, would emerge intact.
The only problem had been getting Blues to go through with it. And although Kalinka had tried her best to persuade him, Blues hadn't agreed to go through with it—not, that is, if it meant letting Light replace his core.
Despite the fact that Light was the only person on earth who could.
Stubborn. Illogical. Mikhail crossed his arms. Selfish. Yes, that was it. Blues was selfish. He'd rather die than make peace with Light. Idiot. Didn't he understand how much his death would hurt Kalinka?
By almost allowing himself to die, Blues had been a selfish idiot.
And then most recently Light, in a fit of eleventh-hour desperation, had unveiled a Plan B which he had called "The White Lie."
The essence of "The White Lie" was: Kalinka would tell Blues that she would be the one to replace his power core. And once he was unconscious, they would call Light over.
And then Light would save Blues's life whether he liked it or not.
Gleaming on Kalinka's desk was the silvery fist-sized device, freshly assembled by 3-D printer according to Light's exact specifications, destined to become Blues's new core. Beside it was a copy of the installation schematics opened to a page near the middle, scrawled over in the margins with Light's handwritten notes. The old professor had tried, as convincingly as possible, to translate his instructions into layman's terms for her. Of course, Kalinka didn't have the first clue what to do with them.
But the point was that tonight, when Blues had teleported into her room for another one of his visits, she had announced to him that she did. And somehow, it seemed he had lain down obediently on the bed, closed his eyes, and allowed her to shut him down.
...After which she was supposed to have woken her father, not climbed into the bed with him and dozed off.
What the hell?
Blues's shirt and trousers were tidy, and his shades had been folded with care and placed on Kalinka's bedside table. His yellow scarf was rolled up and wedged neatly under one arm. Eyebrows slightly raised, mouth slightly open, his face was locked in a look of hopeful expectation. There was no sign of a struggle.
By God, "The White Lie" had worked.
But why? Blues knew Kalinka had flunked algebra last spring, didn't he?
And just then, as Mikhail struggled to make sense of the scene in front of him, Kalinka flung her arm around Blues's chest, nuzzled into his neck, and let out a long, low moan.
Oh, for God's sake.
Okay. Here was what he'd do. He'd pry Blues out of the bed, slowly, silently, so that Kalinka wouldn't notice. He'd carry him downstairs to the lab and deposit him on one of the stainless steel tables where he belonged. And when Kalinka came storming down the stairs the next morning demanding to know where Blues was, he would explain to her that there were rules in this household, and that among them was the rule that she was not to sleep next to any boys, or androids that looked like boys. Even if they were her closest friends. Even if they were dying.
Feeling strong, and absolutely sure of the rightness of his convictions, like a good father ought, he leaned forward and reached out with open hands. And then his hands came down and clasped themselves around Blues's chest, which was as cold as ice.
Startled by that cold, he shuddered and drew back. And then, like lightning strikes, a series of images flashed fully-formed across his mind's eye: of Kalinka shutting Blues down, feeling him gradually go cold, beholding him lying there still and unresponsive—exactly the way he would look and feel if he were dead—and then crying until her eyes were sore.
Of course she hadn't come to wake Mikhail up: the last thing she'd wanted then was the presence of her logical and hard-headed father who'd probably tell her that her crying was unreasonable. And so, exhausted, she had lain down and let sleep overtake her beside Blues who, despite being a selfish idiot, and looking too much like a boy, had rescued her from Wily when she was a little girl and ever since had been her true and steady friend.
Mikhail, astonished, felt his anger melt away.
He looked; there at Blues's side was his old scratched and dented generator, still tethered to the input in his umbilicus by a thermoplastic-sheathed cable. Too frightened these last few days to disconnect it, he had taken to carrying it in front of him like a ball and chain.
And there, lying forlorn in the middle of the floor, was Blues's red and white shield. It seemed to have been dropped, or even thrown down in frustration, as if its owner had at last conceded that it couldn't protect him anymore.
Mikhail had to admit it was a pitiful sight.
He let out a long sigh. Fine. He'd allow an exception in this case. For now, Blues could stay where he was.
He was dying, after all. And tonight, he didn't look like a machine, or a weapon, or the ex-commander of Wily's army of robots, or a hero. He looked only like a boy. A rather small one. Just a boy with messy black hair and an admittedly kind-looking face. A boy who was about to be given a second chance.
Who deserved one.
Mikhail leaned in close. "You'd better pull through, you bastard."
He went to Kalinka's closet, took out a blanket, and tucked Kalinka into it. And then, almost unable to believe what he was doing, he went back to the closet, took out a second blanket, and draped it over Blues. Somehow, it seemed like the right thing to do. Blues couldn't feel cold now, but it was the principle of the thing that mattered.
And tonight, anyway, considering the circumstances under which Mikhail had found him, Blues was lucky, very lucky, that he wasn't a real boy.
Mikhail squinted down at his work. Cocooned in their individual pods, with only their heads sticking out, the two sleepers at last seemed to be separated by a chaste and respectable distance.
Still unsatisfied, he wedged a pillow between their lower halves, but even that wasn't enough to put his mind completely at ease. With another sigh, he picked up Kalinka's desk chair, set it down beside the bed, crossed his arms, and settled in for a long vigil.
Despite a few minor... deviations from the original plan, Phase One was complete. Success. Time for Phase Two: get Light's butt over here.
"Call Thomas Light," he mumbled to the phone in his pocket, and a moment later the dial tone purred softly.
Light picked up within seconds. "Cossack," he said with a gasp. "Is Blues?..."
"Yes, we've caught him." He felt his eyes go misty in spite of himself. "Now, please tell me again this operation is going to work."