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The Rubber Shapeshifter Assimilation

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“Dubbie, pull on a parka and fluff up your best pair of earmuffs.  We’re going to Antarctica.”

“I don’t know what’s weirder—a surprise trip to Antarctica or your assumption that I own more than one pair of earmuffs.”

“Seven to ten percent of your body heat escapes through your head,” the Middleman said.  “Adequate cold weather gear is no laughing matter.”

“I’m not laughing!  Behold my serious face.”

Wendy did her best impression of the witchy American Gothic lady, trying to look like she’d just lost her only son in the Great War and goshdarnit, the corn just wasn’t coming in this year the way it had the last.  The pose seemed to pass muster.

“So once I get all bundled up, what’s with the trip to the South Pole?  Killer penguins?  Evil Santa?  Evil Santa with a tuxedo-clad army of evil penguins?”

“No, thank goodness.”  He did a small, dignified shudder.  “You can imagine the amount of suppression we had to do to ensure March of the Penguins was a moving nature study instead of a dread-filled, all-too-real account of how close the world came to an emperor penguin Napoleon.  No, Dubbie, there’s a research station in dire need of assistance.  They’ve unearthed a slab of ice.”

He stopped there.  Wendy blinked at him.

“Um, is there an illuminating postscript coming?  Because ice in Antarctica doesn’t feel like breaking news.”

“Ice that was the deep, red-veined black of igneous lava.”

“Kind of buried the lede on that one, didn’t you?”

The Middleman looked sheepish.  “Well, I haven’t finished double-checking the description with some of the paint chips we’ve cataloged in the HADAR.  You wouldn’t believe the trouble you can get into sometimes when you report something as amber when it’s really carnelian.”

“I can imagine,” Wendy said.  “All right, you stay here running down interior decorating tips.  I’ll go suit up for our winter wonderland.”

“Earmuffs!”

An hour later, they reassembled for the Middlejet, with Wendy in a parka, padded gloves, weather-resistant thermal-wear, hand-knitted-by-Noser beanie, and earmuffs that were (she’d already reassured Lacey of this five times) only faux fur.  The Middleman was likewise padded out like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, but he’d added the world’s dorkiest Elmer Fudd hat.

“Is it wabbit season?” Wendy said.

Ida glanced up.  “Cartoon nostalgia’s still a big pastime among reefer devotees, I see.”

“Yeah, because no one would recognize a Bugs Bunny reference without toking up.  Boss, what’s with the hat?”

“It’s a highly practical garment.  And I prefer to call it an ushanka-hat.”

“Ah, an ushanka.  Popularized by the Cossacks and the Soviet Army.”  Thank you, History Channel.

“Communism might have been both a scourge against the freedoms we hold dear and the failure of a beautiful dream, Dubbie, but no one ever said the Russians didn’t know how to design for the very harshest of winters.  Also—my father wore one much like this.”

Wendy fell in alongside him as they started off for the jet.  “You never really talk about your family.”

“I try to live daily by the principles they instilled within me.”

“I guess one of those principles was total reticence about your personal life.”

His mouth quirked.  “As a matter of fact, that’s true.  Would you like to do the honors of flying us to the Russell Institute for Glaciology?”

“I would.  Even if you’re only offering for the sake of changing the subject.”

“That would be cowardly.”  He climbed up the steps to the Middlejet, his boots thudding against the grated metal.  It wasn’t until he was buckling himself into the co-pilot’s seat that he added, “There are things I can’t tell you because of the demands of the job.  Anything outside of that, well—I may not be the proverbial open book, but if I hold anything back, it’s not because I don’t trust you.  It’s just because I’m not used to it.  I’d put my life in your hands any day of the week, and to me that entails more than just my survival.  I don’t intend to keep any secrets from you, Dubbie—aside from your next birthday present.”

Wendy swallowed.  She hadn’t been ready for to veer into emotional territory, and for some reason—maybe the sheer level of nylon padding they had between them—she didn’t feel like a hug was the answer here.

The Middleman said, “Actually, I suppose I just admitted that it is cowardice.  Although, for the record, I was always planning on asking you to fly.”

“Your wish is my command,” Wendy said.  She started takeoff sequence and kept her eyes on the dials.  “I’m not trying to pry, seriously.  I guess I’m just used to people at least having canned lines about their past—like I have about my dad.  You being silent, I don’t know.  Maybe in the end that’s more honest.”

He smiled.  “Or maybe I’m just out of practice when it comes to rapport.”

He was a little flushed, the tip of his nose and his cheeks both pinked by the cold and probably by embarrassment, and Wendy didn’t want to make him linger like that.  She cranked up the heat and left the subject alone.

Once they were up in the air, she said, “So were you right about the deep, red-veined black of igneous lava?”

He perked up.  “I was!  Ida matched it up with something by Sherwin-Williams.”

“I think I’ll skip repainting my bathroom that color.”

“Obviously the blending does make it more of a mucky brown, if it’s not done by qualified technicians.”

“Oh, well, if you’d led with mucky brown I’d have hopped down to the hardware store to pick some up right now.  Any idea what our igneous lava-colored ice could be?”

“None,” the Middleman said cheerfully.

Wendy scrutinized him and then decoded the chipper vibe: “You’re just glad it’s not penguins again, aren’t you?”

“Indescribably so.”

***

When the Russell Base’s doors opened, Wendy was hit in the face with a blast of optimized central heating so forceful it was like someone had turned on a hair dryer in her face.

“Come in, come in.  They won’t like this, you’re letting all the hot air out.”

“Doubtful,” Wendy muttered.  Not that she didn’t appreciate the nice sensation of her extremities starting to thaw.

They hurried in, and the door clanged behind them, bolts slamming into place.  Because that wasn’t an ominous sound at all.

The Middleman whipped out his badge, with Wendy following suit.

“Good afternoon.  I’m Agent Bottin and this is Agent MacReady.  We’re with the Department of Polar Phenomena.  We understand your researchers turned up some suspicious ice.”

The scientist who’d greeted them had a nervous, chipmunky smile that seemed to be frozen in place.  “We obviously have a lot of ice around here.  I’m not sure what part of it would interest the DPP.”

“This was the ice that was the deep, red-veined black of igneous lava,” Wendy said.

“Oh, yes, of course.”  She smacked her forehead and let out a little rill of high-pitched laughter.  “Honestly, that barely registered with me.  I’m color-blind.  Red ice and green ice are completely indistinguishable.”

“Kind of don’t feel like that would make a huge difference in this case, but okay.  And you are--?”

“Dr. Leigh Childs.”  She held out one gloved hand.  “Psychologist.  I study the long-term effects of profound isolation on the base’s researchers.”

“Any of them cracked up yet?” Wendy said.

Dr. Child’s smile just stiffened further, like a coat of igneous lava-colored paint.  “Are psychological ramifications of Arctic study covered by the Department of Polar Phenomena?”

“We have a broad mandate,” the Middleman said.

“Why don’t I just show you the ice?  I really have my own work to be getting back to.”

She took off down the hallway, the tail of her white lab coat swishing back and forth underneath her neon-blue parka.

“This could be interesting,” the Middleman said in a low voice.

“Are you talking about her incredibly suspicious demeanor?  Or the fact that they’ve got the heat in this base cranked up to sweltering and she’s apparently been hanging out indoors in full-on Hoth survival gear?”

“Both, but primarily the latter.  I expect the answer behind that to account for the mysteries of the former.  Stay sharp, Dubbie.  The Arctic has a way of dulling of the unprepared mind—soft, white snow cushioning the edges of human thought and enterprise.  We can’t afford to get sloppy.”

“Like, say, standing here having this conversation while Dr. Frosty the Snowman breaks 5k records getting away from us?”

The Middleman looked down the length of the hallway.  “Oh, phooey.”

They sprinted after her, their wet boots slip-sliding on the floor—you know, if you used it right, it gave you a little extra burst of propulsion—and caught up to her right before she darted behind the kind of steel door that looked like it should have been on a bank vault.

“What’s all this about, Dr. Childs?” the Middleman said.

She looked them over.  “You’re sweating,” she said.  Her voice was a low croak now, making her sound kind of like a sick cat.

“Yeah, it’s a hundred degrees in here and you didn’t exactly give us time to take our coats off,” Wendy said.  “Plus, boss man over here—sorry, Agent Bottin—doesn’t like to so much as tug down a zipper unless he knows there’s a high-quality mahogany hanger around.”

“Clothes don’t make the man, Agent MacReady, but they do serve to inform the world of the kind of man he is.  I try to present an unwrinkled and efficient exterior at all times.”

“You’re not sweating,” Dr. Childs repeated.  More loudly this time.  “You’re not—like them.”

Uh-oh.  “Not like who?”

Her eyes took on a distant glaze that Wendy was unfortunately all too familiar with.  She resigned herself to monologue time.

“They discovered the strange ice four days ago,” Dr. Childs said, staring off into the distant horizon.  “Usually, the procedure would to be notify DPP at once, but Dr. Carpenter—he runs the facility—inspected the ice first, alone, and the next time we saw him, he was strangely changed.  No matter how much we turned up the heat, he insisted on wearing layers after layer.  He even modified the heating to make the base hotter.  Then he began having ‘special conferences’ with other members of the team, and when they came back from meeting with him, they were—”

“Strangely changed,” Wendy and the Middleman said at the same time.

She nodded fervently.

“I hate to point this out to you,” Wendy said, “but you’re wearing about a billion layers there yourself.”

“Yes, and it’s about to give me heat stroke!  But I have to stay covered, no matter how much it’s killing me.  Because I walked by one of the ‘special conferences’ Dr. Carpenter was having, and I saw him reach out and touch Dr. Blair’s hand, and then a long, rubbery tentacle wormed out of Dr. Carpenter’s body and into Dr. Blair’s flesh, making Dr. Blair scream in agony.”

“Everybody’s burying the lede today,” Wendy said under her breath.  “Seriously, you couldn’t have started this whole thing off with ‘ahh, tentacle monster’?”

Dr. Childs ignored her.  “I think there was something parasitic caught in the ice Dr. Carpenter brought back.  It took over his body, and it’s been taking over the rest of the base scientist by scientist.  I may be the only one left.  It needs bare skin to infiltrate your system, and I’ve been staying covered.  I tried calling everyone I could think of, but no one responded.  I thought you might be infected like everyone else.”

The Middleman shook his head.  “No, ma’am.  I’m only sorry we didn’t get here sooner.  When you say that your friends came back strangely changed, was it just their need for excessive heat?”

“I don’t know that I’d really call them my friends,” Dr. Childs said.  “More like colleagues, really.  I’m probably closest to Linda, and—”

“Lady, the clock is ticking on this parasitic monster thing,” Wendy said.

“Right.  Sorry.  It’s not just the heat.  They seem to retain some memories of the host bodies, but only in a factual recall sense.  They’ll know the passwords to get into their computers, but they won’t care about choosing someone’s favorite food in the cafeteria.  They’re not good at keeping up the pretense that they’re actually who they say they are.  They know that I know something, but I’ve been able to avoid them until now.  They aren’t that interested in me.  Typical hard science bias.”

“Psychology is a very legitimate field of study,” the Middleman said.

“Thank you,” Dr. Childs said, sighing.  “I needed to hear someone acknowledge that.  It’s been a hard week.”

“I can only imagine.”

Wendy checked the charge on her weapon.  “Commiseration aside, we have a rubbery, tentacled body snatcher on our hands—thankfully not literally.  Dr. Childs, why don’t you barricade yourself in this apparently ridiculously fortified break room—”

“It dates back to the Cold War,” Dr. Childs said, almost apologetically.

“—and Agent Bottin and I will go all Men in Black on some wiggly parasites.”

“Whatever you do, don’t let them touch you.”

“I’ve never been the touchy-feely type anyway,” Wendy said.

Dr. Childs shut herself in the facility’s bomb shelter of a break room, and Wendy turned to the Middleman.

“Any ideas now about what our icy friend could be?”

“None.”  He sounded a little less sunshiney this time, like he was starting to think he maybe would have preferred foiling another penguin uprising.  “You never know what you’re going to find when you come to the ends of the earth, Dubbie.  Magic.  Aliens.  Magical aliens.  Our shape-snatching friends could be from anywhere, but until we know what they want—and how to stop them—they’re just going to keep killing these scientists and wearing their bodies like a cannibal’s raincoat.”

“Colorful.”

“This has really got my goat.  I don’t like the idea of roaming around this base waiting for tentacle-waving miscreants to descend on us, but I don’t know what choice we have.”  He tapped his watch.  “Ida?”

“Reading you loud and clear.”

“Ida, we’re dealing with some sort of possessing or possibly shapeshifting entity, found in strangely colored ice and equipped with rubbery, flesh-penetrating tentacles.  Does the HADAR have anything on that?”

“Maybe on DeviantArt?” Wendy suggested.  “Get your hentai on.”

“Don’t make me fly thousands of miles just to slap that saucy little smile off your face,” Ida said.

“Wendy’s smile is not saucy,” the Middleman said.  “And Ida, please, time is of the essence here.”

“Fine, fine.  Give me just a second.”  The watch fritzed out, and the Middleman sighed and lowered his hand.

“We might as well start wandering.”

“My smile has an element of sauciness to it,” Wendy said, looking at him.  “And you’ve never cared before about Ida insulting me.”

“I do care, Dubbie.  I just know Ida.  Keeping up a—vigorous rapport with you is partly her way of showing a certain kind of affection.  But in the middle of all this, with danger potentially around every corner, I don’t know, it just gets my dander up.”

“I’m strangely touched that I’ve had an effect on your dander.”

“Feel free to show your appreciation by turning your attention to the job.”

“Right, right.  Danger around every corner.”

They turned the corner.

Hello, danger, Wendy thought.

There was a scientist standing at the end of the hallway.  He was as bundled up as Dr. Childs had been, but unlike her, he was hunched over, shivering.  He looked at them, and Wendy thought she could actually see some kind of thought process there: Pretend to be human?  Nah, too hard.

Then his jaw lolled open and dozens of thin, six-foot long tentacles tumbled out of it and onto the floor, thrashing and leaving streaks of slime everywhere.

“Oh, there is not enough eww on the planet,” Wendy said, firing at one of them.  Her gloves were so thick that they were making it hard to get her finger in on the trigger.

“Thing from another world!  Make sure to stay clear and keep them from grabbing your ankles.”

“Because I was absolutely considering letting this thing dribble me like a basketball before that.  You take left, I take right?”

He nodded.  “Sensei Ping’s techniques might let us down here.  We can’t risk any direct contact, not when it might mange to whip our clothes off faster than a lascivious tornado.  Keep your distance.”

“I’ve gotta lose the gloves.  My fine motor skills are basically nil right now.”  She didn’t want to shift the gun around too much, so she bit the fingertip of one and pulled it off and then made the other quickly follow suit.  She just had to let them fall to the ground, where they were instantly chewed up by the thrashing tentacles.  Oh, good.  They had teeth.

The Middleman lost his gloves in their steady, gunfire-filled retreat down the hall, too.  They both kept shooting, even as the scientist seemed to dissolve into more and more tentacles.  He didn’t even have a torso anymore—he was just legs and writhing tentacles.  Wendy’s hands were slippery with sweat.  She wasn’t going to die like this, at the hands of something that didn’t even have hands, stuffed into a parka and a hat with a pom-pom on it.  And she wasn’t going to let him die in that—

She just wasn’t going to let him die.

They got backed up all the way to Dr. Childs’s bomb shelter before they were down to tentacles in a pair of snow boots, and then finally, fucking finally, the faux-scientist just seemed to melt into a big puddle of Slurpee-like goo.

It smelled a lot like Fritos.

“I know I said before that there already wasn’t enough eww, but somehow I find myself needing even more now.”

“At least this will let us get a sample,” the Middleman said.  His breathing was more ragged than usual.  He took a small metal cannister the size of a pen out of his coat and uncapped it, revealing a thin scoop, which he carefully dipped into the alien goo before closing it and pressing the cap down.  A blue light flashed.  “This will send the chemical composition to Ida.”

“Whose surly advice we could really use right now,” Wendy said.  She raised her watch.  “Ida, do you have anything for us yet?”

“Why yes, sweet cheeks,” Ida said, the words dripping with sarcasm.  “I have all the answers right here in front of me, I’ve just been holding off for dramatic effect.  I thought fighting the dental tentacle squad would really bring the two of you together as a team.  You know me, all about the motivation.”

“Ida,” the Middleman said.

Ida’s only known soft spot had to be for him.  She toned down the attitude a little.  “I genuinely don’t have anything.  I have queries trawling every archive in the history of human existence, plus a few loaned to us by some of our friendlier extraterrestrials.  I’ll get back to you when I get back to you.”

“I can’t say I like working in the dark,” the Middleman said.

Which, of course, was when all the power went out.

“You just had to say it, huh?” Wendy said, blinking in the futile hope that it would speed up her eyes’ adjustment to their newly pitch-black surroundings.  “Maybe Kevin Smith was right.  Maybe God really is like Alanis Morrisette, complete with the same warped sense of irony.”

“I don’t really keep up with popular music.”

Wendy smiled.  It was funny what a relief it was to hear his voice—saying something that completely in-character, no less—when they were stuck in the dark together.  He was like an auditory landmark.  Not popular music, sure, but like—a snatch of one of those wistful Western ballads he probably listened to.

Then come sit by my side if you love me, do not hasten to bid me adieu…

“You’re humming ‘Red River Valley,’” the Middleman said.

“Oh, sorry.”

“No, I like it.  Not ideal for us paying attention to our surroundings, I suppose, but—a really excellent song.”

Her smile became a grin.  “I knew you’d basically be a walking compendium of cowboy music.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I can do a solid rendition for you sometime of ‘Streets of Laredo,’ and—”

His voice cut off abruptly.

“Boss!”

A tentacle whipped against Wendy’s chest with an ear-splittingly loud, wet smack.  It threw her backwards against the wall, giving her a knock on the skull hard enough to make her ears ring.  That screwed up whatever badass echolocation strategy she could have possibly come up with, and she was left to just flail around, lashing out whenever something slimy rustled up against her.  She wasn’t going to start firing, not in close quarters with the Middleman maybe right next to her.

But why wasn’t he saying something?

Wendy shouted for him a few times, but if he answered her, she couldn’t hear it.  And then she was too busy to do anything but fight the constant barrage of tentacles coming at her from out of the darkness.

Fight your way back to the door.  You might not have any light in here, but it’s beautiful, broad, twenty-four-hour daylight out there.  You didn’t take that many turns to get to where you are.  Retrace your footsteps, keep the evil alien-infested scientist from eating you, and it’ll all be a piece of cake.

Yeah.  Piece of cake.

A thin tentacle wrapped around her bare hand, making her feel like she’d grabbed hold of a firework.  She wrenched herself backward, slashing blindly at whatever was holding her, and felt the thing loosen up enough for her to get away.

Thank God it had been her left hand instead of her right, because now it felt totally useless.  She couldn’t even get those fingers to twitch.

She backed up another step and hit something hard—with a handle on it.

Wendy flung the door open, letting in a blast of sunlight and freezing air.

The fleshy, orangey tentacles were all around her, waving around madly from their home base of the stumbling lower half of another scientist.  They shrieked as the frosty wind blew inside and touched them, and they recoiled rapidly, compressing themselves back into the scientist’s body like the world’s creepiest snake-in-a-can April Fool’s Day gag.  There was a squelching sound and then a mild-looking scientist with messy Einstein hair was looking at her.  He smiled.

Wendy could see some more of the little wormy things wriggling behind his teeth.

She drew her gun, holding it one-handed.  Her left hand looked mostly unmarked, just a little red-blue splotch, but it still felt like someone had tried to turn it inside-out.  She was benching it for a while.  No point in making it worse, especially when her ears burning with the cold was bad enough.  She must have lost those Middleman-prized earmuffs in the scuffle.  He’d have something to say about that, probably, and she was going to make damn sure she found him so he could say it.

“Where is my boss?”

“Can’t we talk about this?” the scientist-thing said, spreading his hands out.

“I feel like you’re going for an ingratiating vibe there, but seriously, it just makes you look like a televangelist.  Not gonna work on me.  And I just saw you shwoop back into yourself from being a massive, squirmy alien rubber band ball!  You’re not whoever’s body you’re wearing.  You came out of the ice, and you’re killing people, and you have my boss.  Where is he?”

The scientist thing twisted his head around at an impossible angle, like he was working on a particularly weird crick in his neck.  “You have no idea what it’s like to wake up from billions of years of cold storage just to find that these flimsy, poorly-heated, disposable monkey-bodies are the only thing available.”

“I weep for you.”  She gritted her teeth.  The Middleman would want her to get some kind of treaty with them, if that was even possible—she had to make some kind of attempt.  “What do you want?”

The scientist-thing stared at her unblinkingly.  “Your world.”

Oh, good.  It was going full-on supervillain.  That would speed things up.

“Whole world?  Soup-to-nuts kind of deal?”

“Our planet has grown too crowded.  We will infiltrate yours at the highest of levels, replacing your governments, and moving down from there, until every creature that walks or crawls on your world is our unstoppable, ceaseless flesh—”  He broke into a coughing fit, his gaze turning accusatory.  “Did you have to let in that kind of draft?  This body is more resistant, but that doesn’t make it comfortable.”

“Gosh, I’m sorry.  I wouldn’t want you to get the sniffles while trying to wipe out my planet.”  She’d relaxed her hand a little when she was semi-trying the negotiations, but now she straightened her aim again.  “I know this can kill you.  I left one of you guys splattered all over the wall already.  Where.  Is.  My.  Boss.”

The Middleman stumbled around the corner, his forehead bleeding, one bare hand outstretched.  “Dubbie—”

The scientist-thing took advantage of her moment of distraction to explode into a bunch of shivery tentacles again, but Wendy was able to shoot them with an enormous blast of energy right as they were blossoming out.  The lower half of the scientist ran around for a while like a headless chicken before colliding with the wall and falling over, twitching and melting.

Wendy ignored it the second it was out of her way.  She ran up to the Middleman and hugged him.

He hugged her back tightly.  “I’m sorry we got separated in that fracas, Dubbie.  But you seem to have acquitted yourself admirably.”

“If by ‘admirably’ you mean I succeeded in finding the door, then yes.”  She shivered as another icy gust blew through.  “I’d like to close it, but not until we get the power back on.  But yeah, at least I mostly scared Worm Man back into his flesh-suit.”

“Good, good.  I think flooding the base with cold air should prevent our enemies from mobilizing too much.  I’ll just locate the environmental controls and do some fiddling.”

“Easy for you to say, since you kept—”  She stopped.

Since you kept your earmuffs, she’d been about to say.  And he had.  He was still so padded-out with downy winter-wear that he looked like a marshmallow.

But he hadn’t commented on her missing earmuffs.

And he had his gloves back on.  They’d both ditched them fighting tentacle monster #1, but somewhere between tentacle monster #2 and trying to come help her, he’d—found his, stopped, and put them back on again.

Wendy backed up slowly, raising her gun again.  She felt like she was swallowing an icicle, like her throat was filling up with something cold and sharp.  It was pressing down into her chest.

“You’re not the Middleman,” she said.

“Dubbie—”

“Don’t call me Dubbie.  You’re not him.  You can look like him all you want, but I don’t believe you.”

He smiled a completely different smile from all the ones she knew.  It made his eyes glitter.  “I don’t know what gave it away,” he said.  His voice sounded silky.  “But it’s just as well.  It’s not like I wanted to go around freezing for hours just waiting for an opportunity to get the drop on you.  I mean, what if it had gotten cold enough for me to go back into hibernation while you were still right there?  That would have just been awkward.”

She was shaking.  There was no more pain in her left hand.  She might have been numb all the way through, except for the cold.  “What did you do to him?”

He ignored her.  “You know, he makes for a great body, on the sliding scale of what you people seem to have to offer.  Well-developed, finely-honed.  His mind had a lot of hard-data clutter—interesting planet you’ve got here, Dubbie—but you can’t have everything.”  He tilted his head.  “It’s funny—as I was absorbing his mind, he was actually in the middle of thinking that this wouldn’t work because you knew him too well.  I guess he was right.  But then, you don’t even know his real name.  I could tell you that.  And about his family.”

“I don’t want to hear any of that from you.”

“I could even tell you exactly how he feels about you.”  Little tendrils moved around his teeth.  “Doesn’t that sound appealing?  Don’t you want to know, Dubbie?  How I feel about you?”

Wendy shot him.

Her eyes were blurry with tears, but it was a good shot all the same.

He flew apart into the tentacled monstrosity, hitting her with everything he had even as the cold was making him shrink back, making him sluggish; Wendy lashed out at the damned thing with every ounce of strength left in her.

Wait.

She’d hit him before he’d changed into a bundle of fleshy tentacles, and the blood spattering the walls from that hit—from that hit to his human-looking body—was blue.

Bright blue blood.  Slurpee-like, Frito-smelling, just like before.

Yeah, she’d sometimes been a little rusty on biology, but she knew that you didn’t squeeze a tube of red paint and have turquoise come out at you like freaky toothpaste.  It was a little more significant than the amber/carnelian distinction.  It wasn’t like a billion tentacles had shimmied themselves into a Middleman-suit.  There was something fundamentally different about his body—about this body that had pretended to be his.  There was nothing left of the red-blooded, typical human body.  Nothing but the shape of it.

The ice inside her shattered, hit by a red-hot epiphany bomb.

“You motherfucker!” she yelled, grinning ear-to-ear.  She shot off another tentacle.  “That’s not actually his body, is it?  You’re not a parasite, you’re just a plagiarist!  You’re the alien Pip!”

The tentacled alien hissed at her, sounding like a thousand kettles letting off steam all at once.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, you’re an evil alien bent on conquering the world.  What did you do with the real Middleman?”

Ksssshhhhhaa!

“Okay, in retrospect, I can see how shooting off the part of your imitation body that actually had a tongue might have been a mistake.  That one’s on me.  Can’t you just, like, make another one?”

Skkkkkkaaaa!”

“Ska?  The eighties-nineties Jamaican-originated music craze?  You know what, never mind.  I’ll find it myself.  Have fun going kablooey, buddy.”

She put her weapon on maximum power and fired, making a mini-fireball light up where the tentacle-thing had been standing.  She looked away.

Yeah, you talk a good game, but you’re still not watching.  And that’s just with him having the Middleman’s boots and nothing else.

He can’t be dead.  He just can’t.  I mean, it could have killed him after it absorbed his DNA and his memories, or whatever it does, but maybe it didn’t.  Maybe he’s somewhere.  He’s got to be somewhere.

She waited until the flames had died down and then activated her watch.  “Ida?  Tell me you have something?”  There was a kind of desperate hopefulness in her voice she didn’t think she’d ever heard before.  “And tell me you know where the Middleman is?”

“You bet your sweet bippy I do,” Ida said.  “The knockoff made his Middlewatch jam the frequencies on yours, so I’ve only been trying to get through to you for the last fifteen minutes.  I guess now that you’ve done your usual aggressive problem-solving, the boss’s watch is just a couple of charred batteries.  Congratulations on stumbling your way to success.”

“Yeah, I’m glad to hear from you too.  Tell me where to go.”

“You’re going to have to go outside.”  Ida was falling into a different cadence now, more matter of fact.  “The shapeshifters are a radical faction of a species known as the Rioan-Kee.  Most of them are just happy living as moving plates of spaghetti, but this little merry band was sent into exile for corrupting their innate shapeshifting ability.  Usually they just work with what they have, like Gumby, but these ones started kidnapping other sentient beings and replicating their DNA and memories.  To do it, they have to keep them in a cocoon of natural Rioan-Kee excretions to maintain its vital signs.  The original subject acts like a battery.  As long as it’s alive, the shapeshifter can maintain that form.”

“Excretions?”

“The kind your momma never warned you about.”

“Well, I’m outside.”  The wind was blowing her hair around, and every inch of exposed skin—her hands, her ears, her face—felt like it was being sliced open with knives.  “Give me directions before I turn into a Popsicle.”

“Left forty paces, following the wall of the base—”

Ida’s direction seemed to go on for hours.  Wendy knew she wasn’t exaggerating the amount of trouble she was in, too, because in a stunning and downright mushy gesture, Ida had stopped mocking her.

“Am I there yet?” she said through chattering teeth.

“The Rioan-Kee can move over land faster than cheetahs,” Ida said.  “You’re still closer to the base door than you are to the boss.  It’s my professional opinion that you should turn around and go back.”

“No way.  I’m not leaving him in some sort of—weird alien condom, no matter how life-sustaining it is.  Who knows what kind of wear-and-tear the weather’s having on it?  Just tell me where to go.”  She balled her hands into fists inside her coat pockets—or she thought she did.  She couldn’t feel much of anything.  “I’m totally going to remember that you care, by the way.”

Oh, she was so going to die.  Ida didn’t even bother arguing with her.

“Straight ahead for a quarter-mile now.  I’ll tell you where to turn.”

By the time she came to the weird gray cocoon, there was so much frost in her eyelashes that she could barely see.  She rubbed at them with her stiff, burning hands, trying to clear them.

She could just make out the Middleman’s face through the cobweb-colored, latex-like skin of the cocoon.

“It’s him, Ida.  I’m going to tear it open.”

“Wendy, you’ll never make it back to the base.”

“Then it’s been a barrel of laughs,” Wendy said.  “You’ll hear from him.  He can use my watch.”

She couldn’t get any of the Swiss Army toolbelt equipment to work with her clumsy, frozen fingers, so she just had to tear at the cocoon stuff with her bare and aching hands.  It ripped apart easily, at least.  It had the consistency of chewed-up bubblegum, blown out thin and ready to pop.

And there he was.  He had a blue-and-red sucker wound on his neck where one of the tentacles must have latched on to take a big slurp of his DNA, but that was all.  His eyes were closed, golden-brown lashes down and untouched by the snow and ice all around her.  He even still had the damn Eisenhower jacket—the thing must have cloned his clothes, too.

Wendy leaned against him and pressed one cold hand to his face.

“Hey, Sleeping Beauty,” she said.

His eyes shot open.  “Ennio Morricone!” he said.

“Wait, you know who did the score for The Thing?” Wendy said, and then decided those were going to be her last words after all.  She tumbled forwards, blacking out with a profound sense of gratitude, like she was giving two thumbs up to the warm darkness waiting for her.

***

Wendy woke up just as her head was touching a pillow.

“WheresssamI?” she said in what was probably passable Rioan-Kee.

“It’s all right, Dubbie.”  The Middleman was working her snow-coated boots off her feet.  “We’re at a temperature-controlled outpost of the Russell Institute.”

And she was on some kind of really uncomfortable narrow cot.  What was this, the shack where they stowed the scientists who had pissed off the big boss by getting caught doing tarot card readings?  At least it was warm, even if the heat felt like it was barely touching her.

She said, “All the scientists—”

“Will unfortunately have to wait until we can get back to the main base without freezing up like a twelve-year-old at his first piano recital.  Fortunately, they’re as trapped as we are.”  He peeled off her socks and held each bare foot briefly in his shockingly warm hands.  “It shouldn’t be too long.  As soon as my devious imposter began blocking the signal to your watch, Ida sent the backup automated Middlejet—”

“We have a backup Middlejet?”

“Fully equipped with its own Interrodroid.  Once it gets here, it can suit us up with enough heat packs and extra padding to barrel through the snow with the carefree frivolity of two polar bears.  Dubbie, I’m sorry about this, but I think I’ll need to continue taking off your clothing.”

“You think you’re going to what now?”

“You’re suffering from hypothermia.  Your bare skin will warm up much more quickly, and I’m afraid time is of the essence.”

Wendy turned her head a little and something tickled her nose.  When she realized what it was, she felt something deep inside her relax, melting for good.

“You gave me your Elmer Fudd hat,” she said.

“Well, you’d somehow managed to lose your earmuffs.”  He sounded disapproving, which only made her smile more.

“Yeah, I know, I—oh, I’m going to wind up with frostbite, aren’t I?”  She tried to go ahead and start resigning herself to it immediately, but she couldn’t lie that she was relieved when he immediately shook his head.

“Not on my watch.  We have certain tissue-repair equipment that unfortunately hasn’t been able to be filtered out into general use yet.  I carry some for general first aid; I’ve already fixed the relevant problem areas.  But that can’t warm you up, and like I said—”

“You need to get me out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.  Yeah, be my guest.”

He blushed a little, and Wendy’s mind finally cleared enough for her to remember something his doppelganger had said: I can even tell you exactly how he feels about you.

And she could also, with kind of a blush of her own, remember saying, Hey, Sleeping Beauty.  And going out on her own little march of the penguins for him, just because she hadn’t been able to stand the thought of him being out there alone.  Because she hadn’t been able to take one unnecessary minute of not seeing for herself that he was okay.

She didn’t know that this was the exact thought process she needed to be having right when they were about to do a little good old-fashioned hypothermia treatment.

Wendy sat up while he unbuttoned her vest and shirt, which were soaked through with a particularly unpleasant combination of sweat and snow, and then he gave her a towel to wrap around herself while she peeled the rest of it off.  He had to unbutton her pants for her, since her hands were still too stiff.

He saw her looking at them.

“You don’t have to worry,” the Middleman said.  He touched her blanket-covered shoulder.

She forced a smile.  “But doctor, what if I can’t play the piano anymore?”

“You’re guaranteed a complete return of mobility and sensation.  You’ll still be able to paint—ah, and play the piano, if you actually can in fact do that now.”

“Just ‘Chopsticks.’”  She shed her pants and wriggled quickly under the blanket.  She still felt cold all the way down to her bones, like all that snow and wind had gone straight through her skin.  “Um, are you—are you also doing the undressing thing?  Or am I just burrito-ing myself in blankets?”

“It… would be more effective if I were able to share some of my body warmth with you,” he said awkwardly.

Right.  Of course it would be.

“I guess we did have to do that decontaminating scrub that one time,” she said.  She was really leaning into this one fake smile.  “This can’t be any weirder than that.”

Two minutes later, the Middleman was spooned up against her back, and Wendy was recalibrating her weirdness barometer.

His bare skin was flush against hers, his chin almost resting on her shoulder.  She was still wearing the ushanka-hat, so her peripheral vision couldn’t tell her anything about his facial expression, no matter how much she turned her head.  His knees were fitted into the insides of hers.  He was cold too—intellectually she knew that, but the Rioan-Kee cocoon goop, his much-vaunted ear coverings, and a shorter walk meant he was still warmer than she was, which made leaning back against him feel like relaxing into a hot tub.  She wanted to give in and just float.

“Do you mind if I put my arm around you?” the Middleman said.  “It would be a little more comfortable, and the extra points of contact would help with your body temperature.”

And that was why she wasn’t floating.  The non-dreamy, non-hypothermia-ridden part of her mind was still way too distracted by knowing that she could feel his boxer-briefs against her own underwear.  Which was ridiculous, because this was purely work-related first aid cuddling.  He would have done the exact same thing for Ida, if Ida had had, you know, skin or actual biology.

“Sure,” Wendy said lightly.  “Be my guest.”

He wrapped his arm around her, his palm flat against her belly.  Probably being very careful not to even slightly brush up against some bra-clad under-boob.

If she wasn’t going to get the happy, mindless sensation of dissolving into her new best friend warmth, she was at least going to find some way to get her mind off the rest of this.

“The other you,” Wendy said.  “He said he knew you thought I wouldn’t buy the impersonation.”

“And obviously you didn’t.”

“Only for about a second.  He was shockingly nonjudgmental about my cold weather ensemble, and you know that gave the game away.”  She cleared her throat.  “In all the shapeshifter movies I’ve ever seen, there’s always—there’s always this tension about whether or not you’re being duped.  I mean, I could be lying here saying, ‘If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think we’re in much shape to do anything about it.’  But in real life—our real life, anyway—I guess I’m just not worried about it all.  I know it’s you.  I think you know it’s me.”

“Yes, I do.”

“The other you said it was funny how much I didn’t know about you.  He offered to… tell me stuff.”

The Middleman shifted behind her.  “And did he?”

She laughed softly.  “Actually, I told him not to.  It’s one thing to take advantage of a truth bomb, but taking advantage of an evil alien doppelganger?  That’s just dirty pool.”

“I have to agree with you there.”  His warm breath stirred her hair.

Feeling was slowly leaching back into her extremities, bringing each cold, numb part of her body to a kind of painful, tingling life.  She couldn’t seem to stop shivering.  He held her a little more tightly.

“I don’t know why not dying of hypothermia has to hurt way more than the actually fatal version.  Actually, you’d like it, as far as deaths go.  They say it’s like sinking into a glass of warm milk.”

“I prefer my milk cold.”

“And your Wendy warm, apparently.”

“Yes.  Here.”  He closed his hand around her fingers, warming them.  “If you had died attempting to rescue me, I don’t know what I would have done.”

“I do.  You would have gone back to the base and kicked some alien ass.  You would have saved the world.”

“Maybe.  Or maybe I would have stayed out in the cold, knowing that one way or the other, I’d never be warm again.”

She shook her head, trying to ignore the feeling in her chest, which had gone full-on Alien xenomorph-bursting on her.  “No.  You’d fight.  You don’t give up on the world, no matter what happens.  And if rubbery tentacle monsters had killed you, I still would have gotten up off my ass and burned this base down before I let them get off it alive.”  She remembered Lacey saying that she’d gotten in the habit of putting just a couple fewer eggs in her Wendy basket, and maybe it was like that: if you were going to be the Middleman, working for something bigger than yourself, you had to always keep some of your eggs in the world’s basket.  You couldn’t just float.

Holy mixed metaphors, Batman.

The Middleman tightened his arms around her.  “I hope you’ll take this in the spirit it’s intended, Dubbie.”

“Hit me.”

“I’m extremely glad I framed you for arson.”

“Hey, me too.  It turned out to one of the nicest things anyone’s ever done for me.  Which ordinarily might say something bad, but—I actually have a pretty good life.  You’re just—”

You’re just the best thing in it.

“I’m afraid I’d only make a hash of it,” the Middleman said quietly.  “Trying to explain what you mean to me.”

“Yeah, the Middleganger offered to do the heavy lifting there too.”

Wow, all that careful not-talking and that was what she came out with?

“He… he did, did he?”  The Middleman gave the world’s most awkward-sounding chuckle.  “Distilled, of course, I’m sure it would be something about how there’s no one else like you.  Only one Wendy—”

“Oh, crap,” Wendy said.  She bolted upright, sliding out of his arms.  She was pretty sure that a mismatched bra and underwear combo—over a body this covered with goosebumps—didn’t make the greatest, most heroic impression, but they were too short on time for her to pull on clothes before she started explaining herself.  “One of those alien suckers got to the hand-holding equivalent of third base with me.”  She held up her left hand, letting him see the mark that was just a smaller version of the one on his neck.  “Other you is ker-splat, but there could totally be another Wendy running around back there.  I don’t know that the Rioan-Kee that took a slurp of my DNA is the same way that I wound up blowing away.  I mean, one of them must have driven you off and cloned himself an Eisenhower jacket, right?  That means there were at least two of them in that hallway fight.  You know, just saying, we should probably have night vision goggles as part of our standard gear.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.”  He sat up.  “I agree with your hypothesis: it’s possible there’s another Wendy back at Russell.  But our situation—”

“Has totally changed, in a completely batshit, balls-to-the-wall kind of way.  Because you know what else is back at the base?  The Middlejet.  The quick and easy way to the rest of a very populated planet—that can only be started by somebody with our fingerprints.”

“Which other Wendy would have,” the Middleman said slowly.

“Can I get an ‘oh, phooey’?”

“Play your cards right, Dubbie, and you might even get an ‘oh—’”  He grinned.  “Well, you know.”

“You are such a cocktease when it comes to the profanity.”  She grabbed her pants.  “I don’t suppose you have an extra pair of gloves on you by any chance?”

“No.”  He was already sliding off the bed and dressing too.  “But this shack appears to have some useful winter accessories.  Albeit ones that all seem to smell like tobacco and gasoline.”

Wendy shrugged.  “I can work with that.”  She was still woozy, so maybe sticking her nose in a scarf full of gasoline fumes wasn’t the greatest way to spend the afternoon, but what the hell.  It would get her out of the touchy-feely maybe-I-love-you conversation before that train derailed completely and she wound up saying more than she could really take back.

She tapped her wrist.  “Ida?”

“Right here, the unwilling attendant at your little peep show.”

“Cry me a river.  You know you can turn away, right?  Listen, can you reroute the automated Middlejet so that it goes straight to the main base?”

“Oh, that’s clever.  I was thinking I’d go on having it fly to a place where I already know the two of you won’t be anymore.  Thank God you were here to pull my keister out of the fire.”

“Hey, I said can you, not will you.  It was a technical possibility question!  Also, you were totally worried about me earlier!”

“Was not,” Ida said, with total android maturity.  “Technical possibility confirmed.  Now you two throw yourselves in gear before I wind up having to try to blow our priceless equipment out of the sky.”

“Great.  Good to know Ida thinks we’re worth less than a jet.”

“I’m sure she didn’t mean it,” the Middleman said.

Wendy took off her hat.  “Here, you can have this back.  I’ll make do with the one that’ll make everybody think I while away my hours hanging down at the filling station.”

He shook his head.  “No, you keep it.”

“But it’s your ushanka!”

“It looks better on you.”

Wendy toyed with one of the little buttons on the ear flap, making the furry inside of the hat rub lightly against her cheek.

Then come sit by my side if you love me, do not hasten to bid me adieu…

***

They slogged through the snow, each of them holding one end of a gasoline-reeking scarf so they wouldn’t get separated no matter how bad the whiteout got.  It was nice to know that she was walking towards trouble with company instead of towards total uncertainty all by herself.  And it was just good to have him back, no matter how disconcerting it was that she’d apparently developed a whole messy host of stomach-full-of-butterflies feelings for him.  She’d take awkward and alive over smooth and dead any day.

“We’d better bypass the base and go straight to the jet!” she yelled.

The Middleman gave her a bulkily gloved thumbs up.  “Agreed!”

Which of course made for a slightly longer walk, since they had to go around the base.  If they got out of this alive, she was totally shelling out for more comfortable snow boots.

They came into view of the jet, which was—

Already starting up.

“Is this where I get my ‘aw, fuck’ moment from you?” Wendy said.

“No,” the Middleman said gravely.  “This is where we run.”

They ran.

Gotta stop the aliens from taking over the world, gotta stop the aliens from taking over the world.  Your chances of getting hot chocolate and borrowing Lacey’s bathrobe for some serious couch and hypothermia-recovery time are down to zero if rubber spaghetti aliens wind up controlling the planet.

She grabbed the door of the jet and flung it open, hurling herself inside.

“You know,” she said, “I’ve actually done the whole ‘facing down my evil shadow self’ thing before.  You’re just a little bit yesterday’s news.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Other Wendy said.  She was smiling a white, wormy smile.

Wendy tapped her own teeth with her free hand, continuing to aim her gun with the other.  “Your makeup’s running a little bit there, buddy.”

“Eh, what’s a little wardrobe malfunction between friends?”

The Middleman stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her now, also calmly aiming at Other Wendy.

“The jig is up,” the Middleman said.  “You’ve stolen your last body.  We’re not going to let you get off this base alive.  We can return you to your home planet—”

“My home planet of boring, day-in-day-out sameness?  Of just wearing my own body until it wears down for good?  Do you realize that constant infusions of foreign DNA can help me basically live forever?  Why the hell would I trade that for a normal life-span in a body you think looks like a half-melted Slinky?”

“Well, for starters,” Wendy said, “you could trade it in because if you don’t, you’re not going to have a normal life-span.  You’re kind of leaving us short on options here.  Going home seems like a pretty sweet deal.”

“You should listen to her,” the Middleman said.  “If you’ve taken a look into Wendy’s mind, you have to know that we’re prepared to make this choice for the sake of saving the world.”

Other Wendy laughed.  “Oh, I’ve taken a look.  I popped the hood up and really got my hands dirty with this one, believe me.”  She looked at Wendy, her eyebrows raised.  “Just how many zombie movies have their deathless dialogue taking up room inside that pretty little skull of yours?  Because it’s insane.  Most of it’s not even words, just groaning sounds, but I had to dig through all that crap before I could figure out how to pilot this fucking plane!”

“If I’d known I was going to be having telepathic company, maybe I’d have straightened the place up a little.”  Wendy tightened her hands on her gun.  “Step away from the controls.  Now.”

“I don’t think so,” Other Wendy said, tilting her head.  “I think I’d rather just take the chance that I can kill the two of you before you can stop me.”

She erupted into twisting, vine-like tentacles, spraying them everywhere.  The first thing she did was smack tendrils against their hands and rip their guns away from them.

She’d absorbed all of Wendy’s usual fighting tactics and Sensei Ping-trained expertise, and that slowed things down to a crawl.  Tentacles bashed and slashed their way through the jet’s seating, tearing partly through the metal of the hull.  Wendy couldn’t so much as make a move without Other Wendy countering it.

“Boss?  Any bright ideas here?”

“Mostly I’m just thankful we’ve both remained very good at ducking,” the Middleman said.  He was panting.  One of the sharper-edged tentacles had torn through the Eisenhower jacket, shredding it.  Wendy wondered if mourning it like a fallen soldier would let them call a halt to this whole thing for a couple of minutes so they could all catch their breath.

Other Wendy’s tentacles sheared through the seats they’d taken cover behind.  The Middleman smiled at her.

“Back to work, Dubbie.”

He stood up, and a tentacle circled around his neck.

Wendy bolted upright.

“No,” she said.  “No, no, no way.”  She reached into her pocket and pulled out her dad’s lighter.  Her hands were still a little stiff, but it didn’t matter: they were moving on autopilot now.  “No, you don’t.”

Other Wendy hissed-shrieked something at her that probably translated to, What are you going to do about it?

The Middleman was choking, clawing at the tendril wrapped around his neck.

Wendy unwrapped her scarf.  “You’re working off stale info,” she said.  “New shit has come to light.”

She set the reeking scarf on fire and flung it at the central core of Other Wendy’s tentacles.

Other Wendy screeched and flailed, dropping the Middleman in the process, and Wendy rolled forwards, snagging one of the guns off the floor.  She stood up, looked down at the mass of burning tentacles coming out of a pretty good imitation of her boots, aimed, and fired.

Great.  Another explosion of blue goop.  She wiped it off her face.

The Middleman was sitting up now, rubbing at his throat.  More DNA suckers must have been on the fleshy side of the tentacle choking him, because he looked like he had a whole necklace full of hickeys from hell.

“You okay?” Wendy said.

“Now that the other you is out of the way, I’d go so far as to say I’m peachy keen.”  He dragged himself to his feet via one of the few remaining seats.  “Excellent work, Dubbie.  I have to admit I was expecting some kind of pre-trigger-pull zinger, but—”

Wendy shook her head.  “I was too angry,” she said quietly.

The Middlejet was smoked.  They sat around shivering in its wreckage until its replacement arrived.

***

After that, it was, if not a piece of cake, at least within the vicinity of your typical overpriced bakery.  They used the Interrodroid to infiltrate the research station and crank down the temperature until the Rioan-Kee invaders all returned to their icy hibernation.

They borrowed a dolly to move the slabs of red-and-black tentacle ice to the walk-in freezer.

Wendy unloaded her last hibernating alien and wiped sweat off her forehead.  “You ever have one of those days where your job seems indistinguishable from a way, way worse job?”

“I spent most of today either running for my life or hiding in a Cold War-era bomb shelter,” Dr. Childs said.  “I think I might have some inkling of what you’re talking about, yes.”

The Interrodroid bustled around them, carrying another melted-rubber-looking sack of fake human skin that the Rioan-Kee had sloughed off on their way to the big sleep.

“The robot does make it more interesting,” Dr. Childs admitted.  “And it’s handy for the cleanup.”

“The Interrodroid’s functions are mostly menial,” the Middleman said, “but it can be extremely useful in times like this.”  He patted it on the shoulder.  “Can’t you, my titanium alloy friend?”

“This thing is like your dog, isn’t it?” Wendy said.  “Ida’s your friend, but this one’s like your pet.”

“It’s true that our career doesn’t leave me with much time for a traditional dog, but I did have one as a boy and thought he made an excellent companion—”

Dr. Childs stared at them for a moment and then said, “I’m going to take a machete and go around looking for these cocoons you mentioned.  If my coworkers are still alive, I’d like to get them inside as soon as possible.”  She zipped her coat up.  “Wait until they find out someone in the social sciences saved their lives.  I’m going to rub this in for years.”

She strutted off.

“I like her,” Wendy said.  “I like the pettiness.  If I ever, say, saved Pip’s life, I’d totally rub his face in it.”

“And I assume, as a psychologist, she’ll be open to convincing her fellow scientists that their cocooned state was a delusion brought about by profound isolation.  Well, we’ll offer them the opportunity to believe that, anyway.  The best scientists are notoriously hard to persuade.  O2STK might wind up taking an interest in some of the more dogged ones.  I wouldn’t be surprised to one day find out Dr. Childs is behind the next iteration of our Middleman-in-training tests.”

“Aww, and we could talk to her at the totally nonexistent O2STK holiday potlucks.”

“It’s a lonely job, Dubbie.  But—melted rubber smell aside—I think you’ll agree it’s mostly a good one.  At least now that we’ve finished putting the Rioan-Kee on ice.”

“You called their planet?”

“Ida made contact.  They’ll send someone by to pick them up.”

“Have you ever been to an alien planet?” Wendy said.

“No, actually.  Maybe someday we’ll go together.”

Yeah, that would be nice.  Kind of more than nice.  There was probably a spaceship lurking somewhere in one of the sub-basements—

“We were lucky we only found the Molotov scarf after your encounter with the Rioan-Kee who sampled your DNA,” the Middleman said.  “Like you said, it was new information she couldn’t have copied from you.  I have to admit, I was starting to think that our fat might have really been in the fire.”

Was she going to go ahead and do the big declaration?

Yeah, she thought maybe she was.  Partly because of what he’d said about it being a surprising amount of trouble when you got your ambers mixed up with your carnelians—maybe it was important, in their line of work, to know exactly what was coloring your own motivations.  Partly it was because she was just too tired by now to make really smart decisions.  Mostly it was just because she was still wearing his ridiculous Elmer Fudd hat, and if she didn’t wind up telling him how she felt, she’d probably wind up getting all lip-quivery at the thought of taking it off.  And she wasn’t sure her sense of self could survive the phenomenon of having a lot of capital-f Feelings about an ushanka-hat.

“It wasn’t just the Molotov scarf,” Wendy said.  “She didn’t know the full extent of how much I’d lose it when she put that tentacle around your throat.  Because I didn’t know it.  You know.  Earlier today.”  She wrapped her arms around herself and looked way over to the side, so that all she could see was the furry, wooly flap of hat.  “And I would have told you this morning, no problem, that I love you.  So what I realized today—when I thought you were dead—”

“Dubbie.”  He touched her cheek.

“I know I said I’d still try to save the world even if it didn’t have you in it, and I would, but—I mean, right up to the limit of that, I would—”

“Dubbie.”  This time his voice made her look at him.  His eyes were completely serious.  “The only difference between what I feel and what you’re saying is that I knew it in time for my double to know it too.  You have to know that’s what he was offering to tell you.”  He smiled.  “Probably with a little more eloquence than this.  Not talking about things—well, like I said this morning, it gets to be a habit.”

Wendy felt herself smiling too.  Goofily wide.  “You did have me practically naked earlier.  That was pretty eloquent.”

“That was medicinal!”

“It was pretty cuddly for medicine.”

“Then I suppose it would be enlightening for you to find out what it’s like to be in bed with me in non-medicinal circumstances,” the Middleman said, which, one, had to be the strangest pick-up line ever, and which, two, was totally working for her.

But she needed to know first if she had to put up a wall or two inside herself.  She wasn’t saying she wouldn’t have some totally non-medicinal bedroom time with him either way, but she just—needed to know.

“From everything you’ve said, I always kind of got the impression you didn’t do relationships,” she said.  “Or at least not anymore.”

He brushed forward under one of the hat’s ear flaps and touched her hair.  Given the amount of snow and Rioan-Kee blue Slurpee splatter that had been in it today, Wendy couldn’t help but think that probably wasn’t a very rewarding experience for him.  But she had to hand it to him: he really didn’t look like he minded.

“People sometimes have trouble understanding what you were saying earlier,” the Middleman said.  “We can’t promise that we’ll always be free to have the people we love most as our top priorities.  We can’t say things like, ‘You’re my whole world,’ when we know how often the world is at stake.  But you know what that’s like, Dubbie.  You feel the same way.  That’s one thing your double already knew about you—you always move forward to do the right thing.”

Wendy stepped closer to him, and his fingers curved around her head, brushing against the nape of her neck.

“But not only the right thing,” she said.  “Sometimes we get a little space.  A couple of hours where we don’t need to save the world.”

“Sometimes we do.  I’d like to spend a lot of those hours with you, Dubbie.”

“I think you’ve got yourself a deal,” Wendy said.

She reached up, putting her arms around his shoulders, and kissed him.  By her estimate, they had about seven minutes before a bunch of confused, de-cocooned scientists turned up on their doorstep in need of some official story.  It wasn’t much, but it was enough time for both of them to get warm.  And right now, that sounded better than anything.