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Simon of Space
A novel from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
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Simon of Space, an original novel by Cheeseburger Brown, photo-illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 5
FOREST FLIGHT


Have you ever had one of those days? Well, I haven't. At least, not until today. Or yesterday, I suppose. I don't know what time it is.

It's very dark.

The day began with breakfast in bed. I was surprised and delighted. Nurse Randa fixed my tea just the way I like it, which is just the way she taught me to like it. I also had crumpets, pears, bambloss sticks, and a bowl of hot cocoa.

Dr. Pent arrived with a package. "These are your clothes," he explained. "And your bits."

I frowned and brushed crumbs off my lap. "A change of pajamas?"

"Well, not exactly," smiled Dr. Pent. He opened the package, presenting a square of folded grey fabric that looked uncomfortably coarse. Beneath it seemed to be a short chemise and a thin fabric diaper. "This is a pretty dapper suit, Simon," commented the doctor.

I shrugged suspiciously. "And...bits?"

"Yes of course. Your telephone, your wallet, your plate." He placed three small trinkets on the bed.

"Which is which?" I asked.

He furrowed his brow. "Right. Well, this little bit here, yes, you place that behind your ear. Let me help you. Right behind the -- ah, perfect. Does that feel all right? Here, I'll give you a call..."

A signal sounded in my head, startling me. I knocked over the tray containing the remains of my breakfast, which spattered against the wall spectacularly. Dr. Pent steadied me with a hand on my forearm. A quiet voice buzzed inside my skull, blathering on about an incoming missive from Dr. Pent. "Hello?" I cried.

"Relax Simon, it's just me calling," said Dr. Pent, and while I could see his lips move and hear him through the air, I could also feel his voice buzzing right into my bones. "Can you hear me now?"

"Yes," I whispered, eyes wide.

"Good, good," he nodded. "I'm receiving you, too." He mumbled something and the connection broke. The quiet voice inside my head commented on the fact.

"Who is she?" I asked.

"She who?" frowned Dr. Pent.

"The lady talking about you calling me."

"Um, that's your telephone, Simon." He patted my shoulder encouragingly. "Do you remember when we talked about telephones last week?"

"Sure I remember," I claimed.

My wallet was a smooth, silver, thimble-like device that was fitted to the index finger of my left hand. "I thought I understood the relationship between money and wallets, but it seems I have mistaken some element of it," I said, holding up my finger and looking at the light play across the shiny trinket.

"A wallet is a vessel for money," Dr. Pent said. "The authentication surface is on the inside, and the interfacing surface is on the outside."

"Oh, sure," I said.

"Basically, it means that the wallet will only let money flow if your living finger is present, and the other end is able to negotiate an interface with a till. There are all sorts of tills, so the best wallets have to be very flexible. This wallet, Simon, is of the finest kind."

He seemed to want to impress with this fact, but its significance was lost on me. "And the plate?" I picked up the palm-sized sheet of translucent plastic, the edges beveled smooth. It featured on its face only a thin line delineating a tiny circle of greater transparency in one corner.

"Turn it on," suggested Dr. Pent. "Touch the contact."

I did, and the plate became a window through which I could see boxes and stacks of words. As I moved the plate the view scrolled. When I pointed the plate toward the cafeteria I saw a menu, and when I pointed it toward Dr. Pent I saw his official hospital welcome message flash on screen. "Welcome to the Samundra General Hospital Brain Injury Ward. I'm Doctor Hevender Pent, head of..."

Dr. Pent winced. "That message is so old."

"You used to have more hair," I pointed out.

"Er, yes," he agreed. "Your plate will pick up on any open informatics in range, as well as giving you a readout for your others bits. You can use the plate in conjunction with your telephone for videoconferencing, for example."

"What's videoconferencing?"

"Well, you might want to see the face of whoever it is you're talking to on the telephone."

"Why?"

Dr. Pent seemed at a loss. "You can't learn it all in a day, Simon. I just thought having your bits might make you feel a little more like a normal person, a little less like a patient."

"Thank you for your consideration," I said. "Indeed, it's not your fault that it's overwhelming. Do you really think I'll need to telephone anyone on my way home?"

"Probably not. But your plate can display pictures of them, if you'd like."

"Pictures of whom?"

"Your family, Simon. I've already loaded them in your plate's cache. You can access them anytime."

"Oh," I said quietly.

"Would you like to see them now?"

"Maybe later."

"Very well," he pronounced crisply, straightening up and smoothing out his labcoat. "Why don't you get dressed and then we'll walk down to the lobby. Nurse Randa will accompany you to the spaceport."

So I put on the strange clothes. The suit roughly corresponded in form and function to my pajamas but lacked any kind of covering robe, leaving me feeling naked and vulnerable. I saw no alternative but to put my hospital robe back on, and belted it at the waist with a loose rabbit-ear knot. Everything was itchy. The boots were particularly uncomfortable, and caused me to limp. I dropped my bits into the pockets and then, in a fit of nostalgia, I stole a handful of soap pellets from beside the basin.

I hesitated before leaving, wondering if I shouldn't say my goodbyes. But then I remembered that everyone I knew had already gone. I turned my back on my once beloved ward and met up with Dr. Pent in the corridor. Together we stepped inside of a tiny room whose only doors yawned shut behind us.

"Lobby," said Dr. Pent, and my guts fluttered around inside of me.

I grabbed the wall. "Oh my! Are we being teleported somehow?"

"No, we're just moving downward. This is a lift."

"Why is it called a lift if we're going down?"

"It also goes up."

"Ah."

The doors parted and we walked out into the lobby -- a room many times more massive than any I had ever seen, with people of all kinds going to and fro, lining up at desks, waiting in chairs, monologuing into the air (or I suppose into their telephones). The ceiling was transparent and bright sunshine poured down, reflecting on the polished floor and dazzling me. I instinctively stepped back against the din, but Dr. Pent's hand was behind my back, keeping me firmly on course.

As Dr. Pent thumbed through a plate of release forms I stood at his side and craned my neck, trying to understand the monstrous scale of the white building visible through the glass. How many people must it take to build such a thing?

He shook my hand and deposited me with Nurse Randa, whose usual starched whites were swaddled in a brown cowl. "Good luck, Simon!" called Dr. Pent as he strode away. Always busy. I turned to Nurse Randa.

"You're wearing a thing," I said dumbly.

"It may rain," she said, and then glanced down at my robe. "That's one of our robes, isn't it?"

I tightened the sash indignantly. "It may rain," I reminded her.

Together we stepped outside.

It was the smell that struck me first: a wall, a blanket, an ocean of overlapping and commingling musks -- wet leaves, baked dirt, river air, the ozone fartings of machines -- flavors I had sampled through the window but never stood in the heady midst of.

"Oh my," I said again, grabbing Nurse Randa's arm. The sun was like a great eye in the sky, rays glowing from the stark white concrete of the curbs and the walls, disappearing into the rolling lawns so green they looked black, shimmering in a thousand winking stars off every metal surface.

A yellow car drew up beside us, and the side of it unfolded open into a hatchway and a small set of steps that knocked gently against the curb as the vehicle bobbed and swayed a few hand-spans off the ground. Nurse Randa held my arm as I negotiated the steps and sat down on one of the wide, soft seats inside. "Spaceport, please," she ordered.

"I'm not on the spaceport run," claimed the driver, shrugging. He needed a bath.

"But we called you here specifically to take us to the spaceport," said Nurse Randa, her ire rising instantly.

"Hey, what can I say?" said the driver, shrugging again. "My dispatcher is an anus."

"I'll be right back," promised Nurse Randa fiercely, pulling out of the car and storming into the hospital. I crossed my legs.

"So..." I said conversationally, "this is a car."

"Oh boy," muttered the driver.

A couple of moments passed. I watched a few other yellow cars pull up, drop off passengers, then fly away. A woman was walking up and down in front of the lobby, trying to get a tiny little red-faced person to stop crying. She was carrying the little person around and singing to it. I wondered if she realized that the little red man had soiled himself.

"Listen, do you mind if I get out, stretch my legs a tad?" I asked.

"Knock yourself out," the driver replied.

I hovered uncertainly. "So it's okay then?"

"What am I? Your mother?" he wanted to know.

"Possible but unlikely," I said.

"Get out of my cab," he suggested. So I did.

As I stepped out onto the curb the door slammed shut and the car began to push off, startling a bird that had settled on the hood and causing it to flap away into the nearby trees. I looked after it. When I turned back the car had gone.

I looked again to where the bird had disappeared. It had vanished quickly upon reaching the foliage.

Another moment passed. Through the entranceway I could see Nurse Randa at the front desk, gesturing emphatically. Reflected in the glass was the glen of trees across from the hospital.

In a moment she would return and put me in a different car, and we would proceed to the spaceport. I felt sick.

I found myself starting to walk. I left the curb and caused a car to jam to a sudden halt, the driver making loud but incomprehensible remarks as he passed behind me. The roadway was made of soft grass, but I could not feel it through my boots. I reached the opposite curb and strode across the field between two sets of bushes, my pace increasing and my heart hammering in my chest. I broke into a jog, and then a run. Finding coordination of their own accord my limbs beat against the ground in a wild tattoo that ate the distance to the glen. In seconds I had dashed into the cool shadows of the trees...

I came to a halt and turned around. The hospital looked very far away, which made it seem little. I could just make out Nurse Randa's brown cowl as she stood on the curb and swung around in search of me. The wind carried her voice faintly, "Simon?" Then her voice sounded in my ear as clear as a bell, "Simon?"

I turned around again and ran deeper into the woods.

A hill found me, and I met it by sliding down its face in a most inelegant fashion, coming to a tangled stop at the muddy bottom of a steep ravine amid a slurry of leaves and twigs. After a moment the plate bounced down after me, rebounding off my thigh and skittering into the bramble.

I spent a moment considering whether or not I had made a wise decision.

With a groan I sat up and pawed after the plate. It activated when I grabbed it. As I held it up before me I saw little words floating beside each of the trees and shrubs, identifying their species and world of origin. This was apparently a service provided by the Samundra Ministry of Parks, Reserves and Carbon Dioxide Sinks.

I turned around in a slow circle. Icons appeared on the plate tracking the location of the hospital. Turning east the plate identified an ocean. I continued panning until I saw a cluster of overlapping icons -- apparently the city of Thaumas, capital of this world. "But how far away is it?"

"The city centre is twenty six point two kilometers distant," said the plate.

"Thank you," I said.

It was then that Dr. Pent appeared on the plate, filling the surface. "Simon! Simon, where are you?" To someone offscreen he called, "I have his plate's signal, he's in the southern wood." He faced me again. "I realize you're feeling panicked right now, Simon. Please, just stay where you are."

I deactivated the plate with my thumb and threw it away. Then I thought better and crawled through the leaves until I found it again. I slipped it into the pocket of my robe, then took a deep breath and set off toward the city, uncertain what I would do when I reached it.

Within a few hours I had ceased to be concerned that far ahead, being occupied instead with a punishing thirst and a mounting exhaustion from tearing through the bramble, up one ravine and down another. I stopped at a gurgling stream and drank from my cupped hand and then lay down on the dirt beside it.

A bird flitted down to a nearby bush and nibbled off a few little red orbs. I crawled over and plucked one of them off between my fingers -- the surface was yielding but tough. I popped it into my mouth and bit down. The orb released a bitter juice which I swallowed with a grimace.

After a moment I ate thirty more.

Later, after the vomiting had subsided, I drank more water from the stream and then took a bit of a nap. When I woke up the shadows were slanted and the plants smelled different. I cleaned myself up as best I could and then continued toward Thaumas.

The sun began to set. I was climbing over a row of hedges and into a grassy expanse when I noticed that the trees had become very orderly, arranged in lines between swaths of field. Over the next rise I came across a beaten path with dried boot prints in the mud. I was nearing civilization!

It was at the edge of the next clearing that I found a tiny wooden house on a platform elevated into a tree. "Hello?" I called.

I climbed a set of wooden rungs nailed into the bark and looked up on the platform. No one. I hauled myself up and bent down to negotiate the tiny doorway into the shadowed cabin.

The animal launched itself at me from the ceiling.

It caught me on the shoulder and I went down hard and awkwardly, banging my head on the floor. The vicious, furry creature skittered over me with a terrifying hiss, striking out with talons when I tried to move my arm. I shouted in surprise and the thing bolted over me and disappeared into the tree.

Breathing hard, I pulled myself upright and sat on a small bench inside the wooden house. In the fading bronze light of the sun I could see blood welling from my arm where the animal had raked me with its claws. My head was throbbing and my belly was crawling.

The sky turned purple, then black. The air chilled. I drew my robe tighter around me and shivered, watching the stars. I was feeling very alone until I remembered this diary, and pulled it out. At least it's something to talk to.

So here we are. I'm afraid to fall asleep, in case the creature returns. But my eyes are burning, and my lids feel like they are made of lead. I try to reassure myself that at least I am in charge of this destiny, such as it is.

The wind susurruses through the leaves, carrying dank, night-time scents from the forest. It lulls me. I give up my vigil.

This fool retires. Good night.


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