HITHER AND THITHER, BUGS AND A BEARD
I awoke to rain drooling down the window, the light blue and feeble. I stirred but Glory said, "Stay still."
"Where's Pish?" I muttered, my mouth dry and cottony.
"He's safe. He's eating. Stay still."
"My neck hurts."
"For the sake of faeces will you keep your anus still?"
I considered this brain-teaser for a moment, my eyes adjusting to the shadows. Glory sat on the bed beside me. Her brown hair was drawn into a series of beaded braids that clicked together as she moved. Her hard eyes were fixed on my neck. As I awoke fully the dull pain in the wounds there became a strange, persistent itch -- a writhing tickling that became more intense with every breath. "What's going on? What are you doing to me?" I gasped, reaching for my neck.
"Relax," Glory commanded, taking hold of my arm in her wiry, surprisingly strong hand.
Gripped by a sudden panic I twisted out of her grasp and vaulted out of bed, throwing myself before the cracked mirror. A ghost much like myself flew into view in the dingy reflection: his neck crawled with an iridescent mass of insects and the lower half of his face had turned black.
"Coitus!" screeched Glory, pushing me back onto the bed. "I told you to stay still, lummox. You knocked half of them off!"
"There are bugs on my neck!" I yelped, clawing at my shoulder.
"They're just fixers, you idiot!" she shouted back, grabbing both my arms and pushing me into the sheets. "Now. Stay. Still."
Out of the corner of my eye I could see them moving over my face and I steeled myself from panic as I felt their work. The burning in my neck was fading to a pleasant, buzzing numbness. After another moment the metallic little creatures began dropping off, skittering across the sheets and climbing into a round green vessel. When the last of them had crawled in Glory closed the lid and slipped the vessel into her bag.
Hesitantly I put my fingers to my neck and touched the welts. I flinched in anticipation but there was no pain. Nor were there welts. The skin was smooth and soft, the numbness slowly fading. I smiled, amazed to be introduced to yet another wonder unmentioned in my brief hospital education. "Thank you, Glory."
"It was infected," she shrugged. She pulled out a short orange cylinder and stuck it in her mouth. She flicked the end with her nail and it began to glow. She closed her eyes and drew in her breath sharply, the cylinder turning to ash with a crackling hiss and a flash. Glory reclined slowly into the bed beside me, the ash dissolving to a grey worm of soot that relaxed into powder across her bony chest as she sighed. An acrid fume hung in the air around her head.
"Is that some sort of snack?" I inquired.
She didn't say anything so I got out of bed again and stepped up to the mirror, transfixed by the bristly black hairs that were growing out of the lower half of my face, tickling my exploring fingers. The upper half of my face was quite normal -- dark brown eyes, gold skin, wide ears, and a crew of black hair unbrushed on my head -- but my jaw, cheeks and chin were lost in a forest of little uniform bristles. "I'm turning into Duncan!" I concluded, eyes wide. I turned to Glory. "Am I bearding now because Pish is in my charge?"
"Haven't you ever shaved before, Simon?" she asked huskily, her voice heavy and far away.
"Oh sure, shaving," I said, nodding. "The nurses used to shave me. You're saying that was to prevent this?"
Who knew? A second thought occurred to me. "Did you just call me Simon?"
"The kid calls you Simon."
"That's my nick-name. You should call me Hellig."
I touched the lamp and it came on, just like the ones at the hospital. Glory groaned and threw her forearm across her eyes. I asked, "Did you say Pish was eating?"
"Lou's grabbing him something."
"You paid big for it. Lou's a greedy son of a bitch. He didn't gouge you too bad, though. I was watching the whole time. The kid held your arm while your wallet interacted."
"What about the key?"
"Your robot took care of it."
She opened her eyes, the black paint around them smeared. "Listen Simon. The kid already told me you don't know faeces about nothing. You're fornicated without me. And I have reasons of my own for wanting to move along. So maybe we could help each other out."
"Help us to move along?"
"We could all move along together," she said. "Keep safe."
I moved my fingertips across my face and enjoyed the raspy sound they made against the stubble. "Yes," I said slowly. "We would be much obliged to have more of your help, Glory. Can we trust you?"
She snorted. "Kiss my ass." She rubbed her eyes with her knuckles and stood up, slipping on a pair of sandals. She patted down her tight little shift and looped her bag over her shoulder. "Let's get moving."
"Right now?" I turned away from the mirror. "Are we really in such a hurry as all that?"
"I am," she said gruffly, tossing my dirty but dry clothes at me. "Come on. We need a new place to stay tonight."
"What's wrong with this place? Lou seems nice."
I was knotting the tattered sash of my muddy hospital robe as she hustled me into the cramped lobby. Pish jumped up and hugged me. "Lou said he'll be out in a minute," he said into my chest. "Lou said we could pay for tonight, and maybe get you some supper." Fartles wagged his tail.
"Yeah, Lou's a hero. Let's go." Glory took Pish's hand and pulled him out into the street.
I shrugged at Jeremiah's expressionless black eyes and followed them.
We could still hear Lou shouting behind us as Glory rushed our party through a narrow alley and along a row of derelict shops. Pish pumped his little legs to keep up, Jeremiah jogging easily beside him with light, seemingly weightless steps. We hopped through the frame of a broken window and through several dark rooms, out the other side of the building and into a crowded square. I craned my head to look at the sad windows up above on all sides, but before I knew it Glory had whisked us down a winding street and then propelled us through a door into the face of a tall, thin giant with skin as white as a fish.
"Hello," I said.
Glory pushed in after us. "I'm calling in my favor, Nilo. We need to crash quietly, one night."
The giant nodded curtly and turned, leading us down a long corridor with rooms on either side, the strip of light along the ceiling blinking in some places, failed altogether in others. As we passed each closed door I detected a different symphony of grunts and groans beyond each, the air laden with human smells. We were let into a gloomy cubicle much like the one we had just left, except without the benefit of a window.
When Jeremiah stood in the corner behind the door we could all sit in the room with a minimum of discomfort, if Fartles lay under the bed. Something behind one of the walls thumped rhythmically for a while, and then quit with a yodel. Pish looked at me. "What are we going to do now, Simon?"
I crossed my legs, which made the lamp turn off. I knocked it again with my elbow until it re-illuminated. "I think we should leave Samundra. We will have no peace with the police after us. Glory, can you get us to the spaceport?"
"I'm all for getting off this wet rock," she agreed wearily. "But it would be stupid to travel from here. The situation is too hot. Youse'd be better off flying to Annapurna, walk the gate from there."
"Little orange planet. Bad food."
I licked my lips. "You would help us do this, Glory?"
"Get me off the low streets of Thaumas and I'll do anything for you."
"You're going to come with us?"
She shrugged and looked away. "Sort of defecated where I eat, here. Made some enemies. Overstayed my welcome. Doesn't matter. Bored of this ball, anyway."
"Okay," I nodded, my hand on Pish's shoulder. "What do we need to do?"
"We'll all need new clothes," said Glory. "Even your robot. My friend Monkey will take care of him, but we'll need to go shopping for you and the kid. You got a safe plate?"
"Yes," I said, petting Pish's head as he yawned and curled up on the bed beside me.
"I'll get us into the tourist zone. From there we can mix with the idiots and get on a cruise to Annapurna. They always have cruises out to see dumb faeces on Annapurna. I got off one of them and ended up here."
"Is Annapurna an important world?"
"No, it's a piece of faeces. They're pioneers. They only undomed like fifty years ago. The place is a coital backwater. But it's easy to get lost there, and they gate in to the Aino transmitter."
"Coitus," she muttered darkly. "You're retarded, Simon. Aino is the Sun. You know -- the big bright thing in the sky?"
Pish snored. Motioning to Glory for silence I carefully got up from the bed and backed up toward the door, knocking it against Jeremiah as I opened it. "Sorry," I whispered. Glory followed me out into the hall. "Poor kid has to be tired," I said. "It can't be noon yet."
"It's night, stupid," said Glory. "You were in a fever from the infection most of the day."
I nodded slowly. "I really need to get a watch."
Glory led me out to a narrow balcony overlooking the street. Green lamps glowed over the awnings of the shops, casting a dreary pall over the few huddled men and women that walked in the misty drizzle. A complaining animal pulled a creaking trailer filled with refuse. "Inspirational, isn't it?" sneered Glory, an orange cylinder hanging out of the corner of her mouth.
"Why do people live like this?"
She shrugged and pushed carelessly against the rail. "Government of Samundra has a lot of problems. They're not very good at dealing with people who are all fornicated up. Plus there's all the victims of the Horror. They have to go somewheres, too."
She tapped the end of the orange stick and inhaled, the ashes tumbling away in the slight breeze. When she opened her eyes again I asked, "What's the Horror?"
"Fornicated faeces polite people don't talk about, no matter what," she said, closing her eyes again and leaning against the rail.
"Are you polite, Glory?" I asked, smirking.
"Maybe not," she shrugged. "But I'm not sick."
A group of men started beating another man down on the street below, so we decided to retire. I wanted to know if we should try to help the man, to which Glory responded by asking how much I enjoyed having my teeth kicked out. Another poser from Glory.
I felt my teeth with my tongue nervously as we passed through the blinking corridor and into our room. Pish had curled up on the floor with a blanket and a pillow, wedged between the end of the bed and Jeremiah's feet. We stepped over him carefully and sat on the bed. "I just might pull this off," Glory said under her breath.
"Pull what off?"
"Get out of this town without getting murdered," she replied, arching one eyebrow. "It's my birthday wish."
"Is it your birthday?"
"I'm just saying it's a big deal to me, youse helping me out," Glory said, gathering her beaded braids and pushing them behind her shoulders.
"I feel we are in your debt," I told her seriously.
"You're wrong," she said, reaching out and taking my chin in her fingers. "Stop trying to be noble and just let me give you one. So I don't feel like such a heel, okay?"
"Give me one what?" I said, my head bobbing awkwardly with my jaw in her hand.
"You really don't know faeces, do you?" She let go of my chin and pulled her damp dress off over her head, tossing it aside. It landed on the lamp, which turned off.
"I'm not an expert on anything," I admitted to the dark.
She snorted. "So I guess I'm going to teach you a lesson."
"Shut up, Simon."
The ensuing time in the darkness was all about the smell of the skin behind her ear as she straddled my lap and embraced me. I became lost in the musk from the sweat on the nape of her neck as she danced. I cried out and she slapped her hands across my mouth at the end, shushing me and giggling.
I had never heard her laugh before. I didn't know she could, except as a derisive snort.
I must have slept for a while there but now I'm awake again. In this pitch cell the glow of the eye of this diary seems almost bright, casting just enough light for me to see the pin-point reflections in Jeremiah's unmoving eyes. I can hear Pish's steady breathing from the floor, and feel Glory's warm body beside me.
I am nursing a little pocket of contentment, blowing on the embers to keep it alive. Pish and I are okay for the moment, and we have found the company of a good woman who means to help us.
This can only bode well.