"You're waiting on a train," Dr. Cooper droned. "A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope this train will take you, but—"
"Holy shit on a sandwich, do you ever shut up?"
"It's a reference to a historical work of fiction," Dr. Cooper told 121.
"And that's a no."
"An early twenty-first century vid, actually." He sniffed. "I wouldn't expect an uneducated lout to appreciate the allusion."
121 popped the seal on her helmet, pulled it off, and propped it on one knee. "Look," she said. "I get that you think I'm some kind of..."
"Gun-toting gorilla?" Dr. Cooper offered.
"First, you need to stop making up shit. Second, my job is to deliver you to the Office of Naval Intelligence alive, which leaves a lot of room for creative interpretation. You get what I'm saying, Doc?"
"No," Dr. Cooper said.
"Oh Jesus Christ," 121 said. "I'm saying that you shut your mouth or I make you shut your mouth, got it?"
Dr. Cooper frowned. "Are you threatening me?"
"Yes," 121 said. "Exactly. There we go."
Dr. Cooper's frown deepened; somehow, it managed to express his disapproval of 121's vocabulary, his skepticism that 121's armor provided more protection than a pie-tin, and his wish to be anywhere other than the 0900 shinkansen out of New Pretoria. It was a frown with a lot to say.
121 shook her hair back and said—
"What are you doing?"
"I'm writing, Sheldon," Penny said. "What does it look like?"
"I'm aware that you're writing. Although," Sheldon added, "one never knows if you're composing actual words or merely amusing yourself by banging on the keyboard."
"I once saw you amuse yourself by stress testing toilet paper. Glass houses."
"Glass houses what?"
Penny contemplated banging her forehead against Sheldon's keyboard. But, heck, he'd been nice enough to lend her his laptop for the long ride out to Wyoming; the least she could do was tolerate his...Sheldonness.
"People in glass houses shouldn't throw rocks," she said. "Hey, how do you think I'd look with a short haircut?"
Sheldon's eyebrows drew together. "Like yourself, I'd imagine, only with significantly less hair. Is this a guessing game?"
"No," Penny said.
121 ran a hand over her cropped hair and said, "What the hell is a gorilla, anyway?"
Dr. Cooper sniffed again. "A gorilla is
Penny stopped typing. "Hey, Sheldon."
He turned away from the train window and tipped his chin. "Yes?"
The magic words: "Tell me about gorillas. Please."
"The gorilla, a native of the tropical and subtropical forests of Africa, is the largest primate," he said promptly. "There are two main species: the Western Gorilla, known as Gorilla gorilla, and the Eastern Gorilla, Gorilla beringei." He laughed; Penny managed not to flinch, go her.
"I find the Linnaean nomenclature of the Western Gorilla amusing," Sheldon explained.
"Don't we all," Penny muttered.
"An interesting thing about the gorilla is that almost all individuals share the blood type B," Sheldon said.
"Really." Penny's attention was drifting back to the computer screen.
"The life of a gorilla begins with a thirty-four week gestation period. Infants stay with their mothers for approximately three years, at which time the animal will enter adolescence—"
Dr. Cooper sniffed again. "A gorilla is a now-extinct primate from Earth. The animal was quite large, and shared particular genetic similarities with humans."
"If it's extinct, why haven't they flash-cloned it?" 121 asked. "I never saw a gorilla in a zoo before." Of course, the only time she'd been to a zoo had been during a botched military exercise. It had been dark, and the idiotic civvie scientists running the test had thought playing war games on the outskirts of an inhabited city made for more realistic conditions.
"Flash-cloning is an expensive and delicate process," Dr. Cooper said.
"They contaminated the samples, didn't they."
"No true scientist would be half so careless," Dr. Cooper said. "No, the nervous system is simply too complex to yield a stable replication. You've heard of the problems with flash-cloned Homo sapiens, I'm sure."
121 was skeptical. "What did they look like, anyway?"
"Quadrupedal," Dr. Cooper said. "Covered in dark hair, larger than a man, with a facial structure characterized by mandibular pragnathism."
"Bigfoot," 121 concluded. "You're pissing on my leg and telling me it's raining."
Dr. Cooper's frown shifted to reflect his distaste. "I would do no such thing," he retorted. "Look it up on the extranets if you don't believe me."
"—whereas the subspecies Gorilla beringei beringei is the most severely threatened. I'm sorry, did you need something?"
Penny looked up and realized Sheldon was addressing not her, but a waiter. "Would you care for something to eat?" the waiter said. He was pushing a tall cart with one hand; the cart was piled high with sandwiches and chips and candy and little else.
"I'm kinda in the mood for a hunk of meat," Penny said. "Do you have steak or something?"
"I'm sorry, ma'am"—the force of that address knocked Penny back in her seat; when had she become a ma'am?—"but for that you'll have to go to the dining car."
"Thank random variables," Sheldon said under his breath, but not so quietly Penny didn't hear him.
"I heard that!" she said.
Sheldon smoothed the strap of his messenger bag over his chest, an action immanently suited to his prim tone. "The way you order your steak is nothing short of barbaric. Man discovered fire for a reason, and that reason is so nobody has to eat a bleeding chunk of beef still rife with pathological foodborne bacteria."
"I like it rare, okay? Sue me."
"You like it bleeding, and why ever would I do that? You've committed no legal transgression."
Penny turned back to the waiter. "Do you serve alcohol?"
121 rolled her eyes. "We're cut off from all external uplinks, Dr. Cooper. This bullet-train is officially property of High Command."
Her easy reminder seemed to reach him in a way the earlier briefing hadn't. "No extranet connection? Not even local?"
"Not even local," 121 confirmed.
"That's—how—barbaric! When I agreed to undertake this mission—"
"Doc, with all due respect"—yeah, right—"you came along knowing that we were delivering you to an intelligence base behind combatant lines. You are the leading expert on the enemy's ordinance. You really don't have a choice."
The appeal to his ego settled Dr. Cooper, at least as much as such a high-strung man could be settled. A flash of memory came to 121, too faint and far-off to grasp fully; she'd been taken from her family as a young child, but she thought that they must have owned a farm. A farm with...horses?
As if he could read her mind, Dr. Cooper said, "Have you always been a soldier?"
"Ever since I could remember," 121 admitted, and immediately regretted her ready answer. Dr. Cooper unsettled her. Her contact with civilians had been limited both by choice and by necessity, but this civilian engaged her effortlessly, despite being one of the least engaging individuals she'd ever encountered.
"Have you always been a scientist?" she asked.
"Have you always wanted to be a scientist?" Penny asked.
Sheldon wasn't bothering to tear his eyes away from the window even to eat now. "Excuse me?"
"A scientist," Penny said. "Have you always wanted to be one?"
"After I realized that 'superhero' wasn't a feasible career path and that archaeologists weren't really the whip-wielding scourges of Nazi armies," Sheldon said. He was a meticulous eater, taking small, almost delicate bites of his sandwich. Penny still halfway assumed that he would pick up a knife and a fork and cut his sandwich into pieces, but for all his neuroses, he ate with his fingers. "What are you writing?"
"Script," Penny said, scrambling. "Uh, a script treatment. Sort of. For a mini-series?"
"I didn't realize you were still interested in scriptwriting. Your current career seems to have eclipsed your former aspirations completely."
"You sound like my mom when you do that," Penny said.
"Psychoanalyze everything I choose to do and be. Look, I'm bored, okay, and you don't have solitaire on this weird-ass computer of yours."
"There is Age of Conan," Sheldon pointed out.
"No way, no how," Penny said. "We all know what happens when I go down that addictive, dark, addictive path."
"I've always wanted to be a scientist," Dr. Cooper said. "At least, once I realized that 'superhero' wasn't a feasible career path. Augmented strength, enhanced speed, doing great battle against the enemy..."
121 looked down, flexed her inhumanly strong hand, and tried not to think about doing great battle.
"Are you satisfied with your martial role?"
"I've never wanted to be anything other than what I am, if that's what you mean," she said, and then added wistfully, "I did used to think about recording audio books, though."
"Yeah. You know, go down to the studio, read for a couple of hours, take a long lunch, go home to the dog. It would be...nice." Dr. Cooper looked startled, an expression that fell oddly over his heavy-lidded eyes. "I wouldn't be happy doing it," 121 assured him. "Not enough explosions, you know? Still, it would've been nice."
"Your speaking voice does have a certain twangy charm," Dr. Cooper said.
"Thanks, Doc," said 121.
"Penny? Penny, I'm going to the restroom now. Please make sure none of my belongings are stolen."
"Sure, Sheldon, whatever."
Abruptly, 121 heard her radio crackle to life; she jammed her helmet back on in time to hear Captain Michaelson say, "We have multiple bogies incoming! Repeat, we have enemy fighters targeting your train—121, do you copy?"
"I copy, Captain," 121 said, already reaching for Dr. Cooper. "Doc, I need you to hang on to me and keep your head down, you understand?"
"What?" Dr. Cooper said, but his question was lost to the overhead screech of engines.
"Things are gonna get messy!" 121 shouted, and then the train exploded in a
Penny jumped at the thump of a glass being set beside her elbow. "Your jack and coke," the waiter explained.
"Oh, sorry, just—got a little distracted," Penny said, and wriggled her fingers over the keyboard. She hadn't noticed before, probably because she'd been too busy bickering with Sheldon, but their waiter was capital-H hot.
"No problem," the waiter said. "Listen, I don't want to be a nuisance, but do I know you from somewhere? Your voice sounds familiar."
"Do you listen to books on tape?" Penny asked.
The waiter's face cleared. "You did The Dark Tower!"
"All seven books," Penny said, "and let me tell you, after a couple thousand pages of Stephen King, my throat was too sore to swallow anything." Inwardly, she winced; too much? Yuck, she didn't want to be one of those ho-bags who came on like a freight train.
"I bet," the waiter said. "I'm halfway through Wolves of the Calla now. I listen between serving meals," he added, turning to show her the earbuds tucked in his pocket.
Penny took a sip of her drink and smiled coyly over the rim. It was a new thing she was trying out—the mysterious stranger. "Mmm," she said.
And then the waiter dumped an ocean of rain on her parade. "Does your husband need anything?"
"Your husband," the waiter said. "Something to drink for him?"
"Oh. Oh! He's not—we aren't—he's a friend, okay?" Zero to defensive in three seconds had to be a new record. "We wouldn't—I mean, I would never, not that he—he's too neurotic to take an airplane like a normal human, and if you have a problem with that—"
"I'm...sorry...just going to go now," the waiter said. "If you need me, you can..." He fled without ever explaining how to summon him.
Sheldon chose that moment to reappear from the bathroom. "I hope the hour I spent reading about the equestrian arts online was enough to master the fundamentals of riding," he said.
"Oh my god," said Penny. "How do you constantly manage to ruin my life choices when you aren't even around?"
Sheldon looked puzzled, but as usual refused to be distracted. "Are you worried you'll fall off? I can give you instruction if you're concerned about the horses, Penny."
The bullet-train exploded into fire and shrapnel.
Despite 121's best efforts, Dr. Cooper took a hard blow to the head.
"I have to question Leonard's decision to hold his wedding at a dude ranch," Sheldon added.
"I have to question a lot of Leonard's decisions," Penny said. "Also a lot of yours. In fact, I'm not actually sure why I'm friends with either of you right now."
"I wonder that myself, since you've never done a formal study."
"Do you think we act like a married couple?"
Sheldon eyed her suspiciously. "Are you propositioning me?"
"Definitely not," said Penny.
Dr. Cooper came-to with a scream. "It's the telepathically-controlled flying dolphins, I knew it! Shield my brain!"
"I wish it was whatever you just said," 121 muttered, chancing a look around the wreckage of the train car. "You have got to stop making up animals, Doc."
"The flying dolphin is as real as you or I," said Dr. Cooper. "Why are we dead?"
121 popped the seal on her helmet again—foolhardy, even stupid, but she disliked the way Dr. Cooper's eyes slid over and past her helmet. On the other hand, he might just be concussed. "Well," she said, "we've got what looks like an entire honor guard backed by an army of cannon-fodder and grunts on the other side of that train. What limited air support we have is engaged, we're cut off from our backup, and we're stranded in the most brutal territory on the face of the planet."
"What do we do?" Dr. Cooper wondered.
"Can you stand up?"
"You're gonna make a run for it," 121 said. "See that rock formation?"
She pointed over his shoulder; Dr. Cooper twisted around and then nodded. "You take off for those hills. Stick to the treeline where you're less visible, but don't get lost. I'll do my best to hold 'em off, and when I can I'll make a break and meet you there. Understood?"
"Understood, soldier," Dr. Cooper said.
121 took a step closer. He was an infuriating man, Dr. Cooper, but not unhandsome in the red light of
"Oh no," Penny said. "Oh no no no."
Sheldon peered at her. "Are you that opposed to dressage? It's one of the more difficult equestrian events, although my Meemaw always said that a horseman who didn't know how to rope a cow was no horseman at all."
"Sheldon, will you just shut up about the horses for—"
She looked at the keyboard.
She looked at Sheldon's expectant, familiar face.
She looked back at the keyboard.
"What the hell," she said.
121 took a step closer. He was an infuriating man, Dr. Cooper, but not unhandsome in the red light of the sun. Thanks to her armor, they were nearly of a height.
"Don't look back," she said, and pulled him in for a kiss.
It was a satisfying kiss indeed, although not as satisfying to 121 as the bug-eyed expression on Dr. Cooper's face when she pulled away.