"How many, now?"
The ward's technician, distracted by something on his Pad and wanting Holbrooke to wait, held up a single finger. For a moment, Holbrooke thought the man meant it as an answer to his question, meant 'one' instead of 'hang on a minute, friend', meant that Holbrooke had one pulse left between him and oblivion.
But only for a moment, for that last pulse came, and then another, and Holbrooke continued to function. The technician eventually rose and sauntered over to him. "How are we doing?"
"How many pulses left, now?"
"Can you feel them getting weaker? Sometimes, they describe it as a gradual lessening of energy across the last few thousand—"
"Feels the same. How many?"
"Do you really want to know a number?"
Holbrooke nodded. "Please."
Holbrooke wore a pathetic expression, and the technician seemed to respond to it, though the man must have known the face was a conscious choice. "All right, let me hook up and we'll take a look."
There was nothing physical to 'hook up', of course, no hidden panel in his skin to open, no plug to insert: Holbrooke was broadcasting telemetry at all times, for the benefit of anyone with the correct encryption key. The technician found Holbrooke in his list and tapped his name with a fingertip.
"Mm-hm. Everything looks normal here. Pulse intensity holding steady, you're right about that. As for the numbers," he paused, as if to give Holbrooke an opportunity to change his mind, beg off, chicken out; when Holbrooke said nothing, he continued, "Looks like around a hundred and twenty."
"Well, one hundred and eighteen," he paused for the timing, and then finished, "now."
One hundred and eighteen. One hundred and eighteen pulses left. Now, one hundred and seventeen. One pulse every five seconds, that gave him almost ten minutes.
This qualified as the homestretch. "I shouldn't have asked."
"Try not to think about it. At least, not in those terms. I know it's hard. You're conditioned to—"
"You're programmed to be analytical, to look at the data, be exacting. But it's only going to make you anxious, now. Think about something else."
"Something you enjoy doing. Something that gives you pleasure. What do you like. In your work, maybe? What do you do?"
Holbrooke shrugged. "I drove freight-loaders."
"Did you like it?"
"Sure. Important work. Too dangerous for meat… for people." He was aware that he thought that because it's what he had been programmed to think. It didn't seem to matter. "I liked it all right. Out there, there's no atmosphere. The shadows are sharp. Jupiter's clear in the sky. Pretty. It never moves."
"We're tidally locked."
"No way out, I guess. How many now?"
The technician looked at the pad again. "One hundred and three. Two. Need anything else?"
"No, I'm fine."
The technician went back to the 'nurse's station'. Holbrooke wasted at least eight pulses wondering if the man ever thought of the dying androids as patients.