To this day Diamonds Droog is not entirely sure how Spades heard about Aperture Laboratories. They didn’t advertise, and their main depot was miles outside of town. Droog hadn’t even seen their logo until Slick handed him a pamphlet one afternoon at the hideout and said “I need a ride next week.”
He flipped the brochure open. “What’s this?”
“The arm place.” Slick stalked off, back into his room, to do whatever it was he did in there. Plotted, sharpened knives, created elaborate scenarios and acted them out with licorice, all of the above. Droog wasn’t sure, but he was positive he didn’t want to be.
The pamphlet was white, unassuming, with a pale blue logo and gray text. Aperture. Inside the points made were cheerful, vague, and probably comforting. ‘Discover Aperture biomedical research!’ and ‘Thank you for choosing Aperture for your replacement body part – we are understanding that this is a difficult point in your life …’
Droog raised an eyebrow and lit another cigarette.
From what he worked out of Slick the next week, Droog was able to gather three facts:
1) Surgery was involved
2) There was no hospitalization or education associated with this to speak of
3) Slick was freaking the fuck out
Against his better judgment, he and Slick drove out into the desert the following Wednesday. After about forty minutes, a pristine white building crested the horizon and gleamed in the early morning sunlight. “That it?”
“Fucked if I know.”
“It occurs to me that you could have done more research on this, Slick.”
“Fuck you, Droog.”
They didn’t say another word until they got there, and Slick snapped at Droog for taking too long. Doing what, Droog wasn’t sure, but he tolerated it on the basis that Slick was his moirail and ultimately that meant letting him freak the fuck out sometimes and being the one to take it.
The inside was a white and pristine as the outside, and as the front desk girl’s teeth. She made sure they both got a good look at the latter, by smiling in a fairly deranged manner at them. Slick stopped, Droog prodded him in the shoulder. “Second thoughts?”
“Their fucking receptionist is batshit.”
“I’m sure she’s fine.” She continued to smile, even as the two watched her warily. “Totally sure.”
“HimynameisDanielleIhavesomepaperworkforyoutofilloutifyoujustwanttocomecloser,” she chirped, apparently without breathing. Droog grabbed Slick as he spun.
“I like not having an arm, it’s actually really nice, I feel like I lost a lot of weight, and you know it’s not that bad I mean I already had my car modified and everything so it’s not that inconvenient and Droog let the fuck go of me please they’re going to fucking kill me.” Droog looped his arm around Slick’s squirming, narrow shoulders and hauled him closer to HimynameisDanielle.
“Spades Slick,” Slick said, a little desperately, still struggling futilely against Droog.
The girl looked down at her list, tapped the yellow highlighter on the desk, and frowned. “I don’t –”
“Must be here the wrong fucking day then, whoops,” Slick twisted and almost bolted for it, but Droog caught him across the chest.
“Try Jack Noir,” he said, levelly, while Slick cussed him out.
“Oh! Yes, there. For an arm. Okay.” She scribbled the highlighter across the paper and grabbed a clipboard, gravid with forms. “Here’s the consent forms.” Her smile broadened, and Droog almost boggled; he wasn’t sure that was even physically possible. “In your own time.”
“I don’t consent to fucking anything,” Slick was saying, as Droog dragged him through the waiting room. “I consent to going the fuck home. Jack Noir isn’t even my godddamn name.”
“Sit. Legally, I think it is.” He pressed his boss into one of the white plastic chairs and foisted the clipboard into his lap. “This was your idea.” Droog flicked his cigarette lighter open, touched it to the end of the Cuestick, and blew out a stream of smoke while HimynameisDanielle glared at him. “But if you’ve changed your mind.” He shrugged.
“Well maybe I have.” He propped one foot up on the chair and flipped through the forms. “None of your fucking business.”
“Karkat will be thrilled.” Slick looked to him, presumably to start in on him about how the ungrateful little shit would be the very opposite of thrilled, when Droog cut him off. “We’ll need another pianist for the band, after all. He’s quite good.”
Slick’s eye went wide and then he snarled and clicked the pen. It was almost comically unthreatening. “Fuck you, Droog.”
Droog just smirked and smoked, subtly reading the consent forms over Slick’s shoulder. “Some interesting clauses in these,” he observed, around the sixth form.
“Fucking telling me,” Slick said weakly. “‘Your replacement limb will never threaten to stab you, and in fact cannot speak. If your limb does speak, please disregard its advice.’”
“Maybe you can just convince it to stab someone else.” He tapped the ash off the end of his cigarette. “A robotic limb with bloodlust might work out for you, though. Better than a pacifist arm.”
“You’re not fucking funny.” He flipped through the forms. “Legally this shit is airtight. Who the fuck is their lawyer?”
“Sure as shit isn’t from Derse – god, we would have killed to get someone like this. Maybe we tried, fucked if I know.” He was nervous; he only brought up Derse when he was either wasted or breaking down. Droog patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t fucking tell me it’ll be fine.”
“Fine.” Slick glared at him for a second before scrawling his signature across the bottom of the paper, shaky and wide; he’d gotten better at writing left-handed, Droog observed. He might have been at fourth-grade level penmanship now, rather than kindergarten.
After a time Droog noticed a couple of nurses lurking around HimynameisDanielle, watching them. To be fair, he wasn’t sure they were nurses, but he assumed so based on the scrubs and general expression of bored ambivalence. They waited for Slick to drop the clipboard back on the front desk with a clatter and stalk back to Droog before they disappeared.
“If I die, it’s fucking all on you.”
“I believe you just signed approximately forty forms stating otherwise.”
“Emotionally.” His shoulder brushed Droog’s, and it was hard not to notice he was shaking.
Droog frowned. “Slick, you’ve already arguably been through the worst part. Besides, this place is reputable, right?” He waited. “Right?”
“Well they’ve done some human testing shit but –”
A door swung open and a white-clad nurse looked up from a chart at them, raised an eyebrow, and snapped her gum. “Jack?”
Droog shoved him a little. The nurse sighed. “You too, sir. No smoking in pre-op.”
They were halfway to the door when Slick grabbed Droog’s tie. “Don’t let them fucking kill me,” he whispered, and Droog saw desperation and fear there. He extricated his tie, delicately, and put his hand back on Spades’ shoulder.
“Slick, I will do my level best.”
“I don’t give a shit if you have to flip the fuck out and murder the entire goddamn staff –”
“I am entirely certain that won’t be necessary.” He swiveled Slick back toward the nurse and pushed him along.
“Nervous?” she asked, with a not-at-all-comforting half-smile. “That’s alright, we’ll have you drugged up in no time. We just need you to take off your shirt and jacket.”
True to her word, she barely hesitated to jab a needle that Slick would later insist was the size of a fully-functional turkey baster into his hand. She fiddled with the machine – a pump – and it started up with a whirr. Then she said something about the doctor, and left them alone. “Don’t pull your IV out,” Droog sighed, reclining in the plastic chair and opening his newspaper. Subconsciously, he twitched for a cigarette and stopped himself halfway.
The only apparent reason the shorter man hadn’t done so already was because he couldn’t figure out how to get the tape off without gnawing through it and, consequently, his hand. “It’s poison.”
“It’s normal saline. Same thing I run on you at home.”
“It itches.” Droog ignored him. “Droog I’m fucking serious, what if they wait until I’m unconscious and then they fucking overdose me and kill me?”
“I assumed the reason you picked a warehouse in the desert to do your surgery over one of the city hospitals was precisely to avoid that.” He turned the page. Slick’s hand came down heavily on top of the paper and Droog looked up, into Slick’s panicked, pin-prick pupil. He blinked, slowly. “Spades, I swear I will not let them kill you.”
“You’re gonna watch the whole thing?”
Slick watched him for a long minute and then flopped down onto the stretcher, facing Droog, winding the IV cord through his fingers. He didn’t say anything else, just laid there, playing with the tubing and occasionally prodding at his stump of an arm. “Fucking better be worth it.”
“Oh, uh, well, um. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.” In tandem they looked to the intruder, a tall, harried-looking man in a long white coat. He glanced at the chart in his hands. “Jack Noir?”
“Allegedly.” Droog rolled his eyes and folded up his newspaper.
“Ah. Ahaha. Um.” The man held the chart up in front of himself like a flimsy manila shield. “I’m Doug Rattmann. The, uh, the surgeon.”
“Fucking perfect,” Slick groaned. The curtain twitched aside again and someone else stepped through – blonde, petite, knockout figure even in the pale blue scrubs. Droog watched appreciatively as she moved to Slick.
“Caroline, the anesthesiologist,” she announced, by way of introduction. “Dersite?”
“The fuck do you think,” Slick mumbled, sullen.
She smirked. “Nice teeth. Always makes intubation fun – try not to die on me.” She tugged the tubing away from him while Dr. Rattmann launched into an explanation of the procedure.
“So basically today we’re just going to fit the ports and the arm. We’ll send you home with everything – if you need, um, assistance you can, uh, call the hotline. Most people figure it out fine. Uh.”
“And just a little burning,” Caroline said, almost as a footnote, pushing the milky contents of an oversize syringe into the tubing. “Perfectly normal.”
“There’s some risks oh, uh, paralysis, I’m sure you read …” he trailed off when Droog fixed him with an even, silent stare. “Really rare! But, uh, as with any procedure with the nervous system there’s always the concern –”
“Fuck y’all,” Slick slurred, fighting to stay awake. “Fuckin’ … drugs.” Caroline pushed his arm into the stretcher.
“He’s a fighter,” she noted, with a grin directed to Droog. He just shrugged.
Dr. Rattmann had moved in, emboldened now that Slick seemed significantly less likely to assault anyone. He snapped on a pair of latex gloves and leaned over what was left of Slick’s right arm. Slick protested, almost unintelligible but certainly profane. Caroline was giggling.
“I like this guy.”
Dr. Rattmann was observing the path job Droog had done and Droog felt a twinge of … not defensiveness, but something close. “Do you happen to know the name of the surgeon that did this?”
“There wasn’t one,” Droog said, quietly. Dr. Rattmann looked up, surprised. “I did it. It was … an emergency.”
“Ah.” He raised an eyebrow. “Military training?” Droog nodded. “Nice field job.” He ran a finger along the scar where the stitching had been. “I can work with it.”
“I’d like to observe,” Droog told him, in a way that was more an order than a request.
“Fat chance,” Caroline smirked, flipping Slick onto his left side. Droog very definitely did not smile when Slick, barely even awake, sunk his teeth into her wrist. The only thing that saved her more than a few scratches were the meds.
“Just stay behind the sterile field,” Rattmann sighed. “Knock him out, Caroline, let’s roll.”
If Droog was surprised by anything they did, he didn’t say anything about it. He was a silent, dark shadow in the corner of the room, watching them bore holes – fine calcium dust spraying up as the drill and Slick’s humerus screamed – make incisions, pull out microscopes and tease forth threads of off-white nerves. Titanium ports were fixed, sutured into place.
He’d been in the war too long to flinch when they sliced the end of the arm open and dug down to the deformed, porous end of the bone – a lumpy cap that had filled in to protect the marrow. The drill came out again, and then a hammer and the long, narrow magnetic tube that Droog assumed the support stem of the arm would go into. The bone splintered – not as badly as some Droog had seen – and Rattmann wrapped some titanium wire around it to hold the fragments in place.
And then everything was sutured back up, angry, swollen, red – Caroline had already pulled the anesthesia mask off before they’d fully finished. The bored nurse from earlier bandaged everything up, fastening the last piece into place as Slick started with the garbled swearing.
Caroline picked at her own bandage, around her wrist, but her expression was amused. “He’s always like this, isn’t he?”
“He’s consistent,” Droog confirmed. The nurse left and returned with the original stretcher, butting it up against the operating table. Caroline waved Droog over and the tall man took Rattmann’s place – the doctor had left almost right away. “You get him to move over; I’m not getting my hands anywhere near him.”
Droog nodded. “Slick.” The other man cracked an eye and then grabbed at Droog’s coat. He missed by a mile, but Droog grabbed his wrist and pushed it back down onto the operating table. “Calm down. Surgery’s over.”
“M’fuck’r.” He stopped struggling and mumbled something else.
“Slick there’s a bed to your right. Get on it.”
“Ha.” He shifted his right arm and groaned. “Fuck.”
Droog looked around the OR. Save for the bored nurse, everyone else had abandoned them. She and he exchanged a look and then he braced his hands on the smaller man’s side and unceremoniously shoved him over onto the stretcher. Slick snarled.
The nurse shrugged and kicked the brakes off. “Whatever works.”
Two hours later, and Slick was in the passenger seat of Droog’s car, still a little dopey but more or less back to himself. Droog was weighing the benefits of however much Slick had damn well better plan on paying him against listening to the man’s bitching for the next several hours, until he could leave him under the dubious supervision of his kid.
“I need a fucking painkiller.”
“You have to wait another two hours.”
“Jesus Droog this is fucking agony.” He was twisted up in the seat, left hand clenched over his right shoulder, under the shirt and jacket, gingerly feeling along the ridge of bandages. “Fuck.”
“Stop touching it.” He glanced over to his boss and frowned. “I don’t know what you were expecting; they drilled into your actual bone.”
“Getting the fucking thing torn off wasn’t this fucking bad,” Slick hissed, as the car bounced over a pothole. He scrabbled around in the plastic bag of paperwork for the orange bottle of pills. “Fuck two hours.”
Without looking, Droog wrestled the pills away from him and pocketed them. “I am not letting you die, self-inflicted or otherwise.”
“I’m not going to die –”
“Shut up, Slick.”
When Karkat came home from school, Droog intercepted him in the hallway. “He’s asleep,” he half-whispered. “Let him.”
Karkat set his backpack down, eyeing Droog cautiously. “He alright?”
“As can be expected.” He extracted the pill bottle from his inside jacket pocket and pushed it into Karkat’s hand. “Guard these with your life. He can have one every four hours, starting at six. Don’t let him tell you otherwise.”
Karkat’s eyes narrowed. “He’s like that, huh?”
Droog brushed by Karkat and patted him on the shoulder. “Try and get him to eat when he wakes up. Good luck.”
Karkat glared at Droog’s back until the door closed. He shoved the pills into his jeans pocket and headed for the office, setting up camp on the couch, in front of the TV and within screaming distance of Slick’s room.
“Fucking ridiculous,” he muttered, as he flipped on Maury Trollvich and pulled out his history book.
It was three weeks before Slick’s arm was healed enough to try the prosthetic on. Droog met him at the hideout, and the thing was already out on the table, brushed titanium bright against the dark wood. Slick had somehow wriggled himself into the support harness on his own – good enough, since Droog wasn’t planning on being the on-call assist every day.
“Tell me you read the instructions,” Droog half-sighed as Slick warily picked it up. Slick shot him a look. “Thoroughly.”
Slick was just holding it, hesistant. “This is gonna fucking hurt like a bitch.”
“You know that?” Droog sat down across from him and tapped a cigarette out of the pack.
“I’m assuming.” He looked to Droog, concern flitting across his expression for a brief second. “I may need a fucking drink.”
Droog sighed and struck a match. “Just do it, Slick.”
The magnet rammed home like a cruise missile, and Slick howled. Droog was next to him in half a second, keeping him from tipping out of the chair. “Fucking fucker god fucking dammit.” He rocked forward, forehead thudding onto the table, shoulders hunched up, growling steadily. “Should have waited five weeks.”
“Following the post-op directions is generally a wise choice, yes.” Droog, curious, crouched down and snapped the clips of the collar shut. Slick panted while Droog selected the three loose connections out and studied them. “Can you move?”
“Well fuck, Droog, give me a minute.” He wheezed, and then sat up, paler, a little shaky, but more or less recovered. The arm was hanging loose, directionless but powered, orange LEDs blinking at the connections. He fumbled for the biggest wire and snapped it in, Droog following his lead for the next two – the lights at the connection points glowed blue for a second before fading off. “Jesus, Mom, thanks.”
“Shut up.” Droog stood up, hands in his pockets, cigarette hanging from his lips. “Does it work?”
Slick was just watching it, wary. “I dunno.”
Droog calmly tapped the ash off the end of his cigarette. “Perhaps it says in the directions.”
Slick snarled. “Listen, all it fucking said was to ‘use it as normal’ and then fucking adjust to it. The directions were basically fucking warnings and troubleshooting.” He glared at Droog and then at the arm. “Fine. Fuck.”
Just like that, the elbow whirred shut and the fist clenched. Slick jumped, Droog blinked. “What were you trying to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Alright.” Droog grabbed a mug from the sink – one of Boxcar’s hideous patterned possessions – and set it down on the table.
“Droog I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.”
The other gangster stood well back and took a drag off his cigarette. “Just go for it. Slow.” He had to admit, he thought the concept might be alien to Spades Slick, but the way the arm slowly unfolded and crept toward the mug was admirable. Short-lived, however, because Slick got impatient and ended up punching the thing into shards. Droog grabbed another mug. “Again.”
They were at it for three hours, eventually burning through Boxcars’ entire collection of awful mugs and moving on to Clubs’ kitten-patterned collection. Slick was able to grasp the stupid things after about an hour, hold them without dropping them after two – “can’t fucking feel the pieces of shit worth a damn” – and only hit himself in the face once with a beer bottle while trying to drink. And, they agreed, he managed to duck, so it was really just a glancing blow, and didn’t really count.
Five hours later, and they were both drunker than they probably should be for what Droog was hesitantly referring to as physical therapy. Drunker than they should be for most things, really. Certainly for Slick to try his hand – literally – at the piano.
Droog slumped back on the couch, half-heartedly tugging at his vest, having long ago shed his jacket, and swirled his gin martini. “Pick something easy,” he offered.
“Play whatever the fuck I want,” Slick said, swaying a little on the bench, gears whirring as he pointed in Droog’s general direction. “Shut the fuck up.” But, more or less obeying, his left hand started picking out a strong tune on the lower keys. “Been waiting for a long fucking time for this.” The right hand joined in, Slick cursing as he fumbled the notes, and then focusing more, through the bourbon. He played for a while, but eventually a song unfolded, slithered through the hideout, buoying up and filling the sewer, and Droog crawled over the arm of the couch to grab his sax.
Slick was still clumsy on the high notes, but neither of them really cared. Droog knew the song well enough – knew the words, had he cared to sing – and soon enough the two of them were being as loud as they possibly could, the words hanging unsung as they added their own flourishes, Slick jazzier and Droog hanging closer to the blues side of the song.
Please, swallow your pride
If I have things you need to borrow
For no one can fill those of your needs
That would won’t let show
A truck rumbled by overhead, and Droog found that he didn’t even remotely give a shit about whether or not anyone could hear them. Slick didn’t either, because he was pounding at the piano with ten months of pent-up frustration and want, and the words were spilling along with them, still not a single note sung out of either of them, but felt as easily as if they’d been brushed over the pair.
Just call on me, brother
When you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
The song rolled through the end, swelling and fading and almost unending, and then Slick dragged his hand down the keyboard, and Droog blasted a final note and it was over, Droog slumped back into the cushions, smiling his own quiet little smile. Slick flopped down next to him.
“I fuckin’ missed the shit outta that.”
“Sure.” He nestled the sax in some pillows and sat back, half a mind to put the TV on and check out the late-night movies, when Slick threw his arms – both of them, titanium and bone – around his chest. “Shit, Slick, really?”
Droog sat back. “Hey Slick,” he said, sipping at his drink, “know how I know you’re drunk as hell?”
“You play sappy music and then go all redrom all over me.”
“Fuck, Droog, please. This is the fuckin’ palest of all fucking hugs.”
Droog extricated his own arm and seized the remote. He clicked the TV on, and surfed through until the channel landed on My Cousin Vinny. “Hey Slick?”
Droog worked his hand between Slick’s chest and his own ribcage and pushed the man off him. “Take your arm off before you pass out.”
“Ngh. Fuckin’ brilliant.” Droog let him fumble with the wires for about ten seconds before he knocked Slick’s hands away and undid the connections, snaps, deactivated the magnet, and slid the thing off. The glowing lights faded, and Droog left it on the coffee table amongst the liquor bottles.
“Good Droog,” Slick mumbled, and Droog decided to leave him slumped against his shoulder for now, because as long as Slick was awake he’d continue attempting to latch on like a bony, drunken lamprey. “Best friend.”