MONKEYS & BORDERS
Let me tell you a little bit about Monkey.
He has hands for feet, and he lives in a room where the gravity's been dampened. His ears stick out further than mine and he's always smiling. His teeth are yellow and he speaks very loudly. He is enthusiastic about pretty much anything. He wears a blue coverall covered in grease stains, his name written across the breast in faded white. He smells like a toilet.
Never the less, he was one of the nicest people I've ever met.
I met him after waking up in our cramped room with Fartles nestled against me. I blinked and the dog licked my face, then farted. I left the small room in some haste and followed the sound of voices downstairs, Fartles loping at my heels.
"Good morning, Simon!" called Pish, floating through the air.
We were in a kind of workshop, and the better part of its space was devoted to cars in various states of undress. The end of the room was sealed off by glass, however, and crisscrossed by metal poles. Pish caught one of the poles lazily and swung himself around to face me.
"Good morning, Pish," I said. Glory sauntered over escorted by the willowy, pale giant who seemed to be in charge. "Madam Glory, Master Nilo," I bowed.
Glory snorted. Nilo, who turned out to be a very friendly fellow, introduced me to Monkey. "He's our human jackbot," said Nilo smoothly, pointing him out through the glass beyond Pish. I stepped closer and the veil of reflections parted: Monkey slithered between two sets of metal bars to dangle himself over a workbench, picking through the tools with one of his feet before leaping away to the other side of the tank, his lithe body falling with dreamy slowness.
"He's a Lagranger," explained Nilo. "His family lives in some rock halfway between Samundra and Pomona, all low gravities all the time. Got into some trouble, though, so he lives down here now."
"Does he have to stay in there all the time?" I asked.
"No, he comes out sometimes. But it makes him tired. Most of the Banished learn to adapt..." Nilo pointed down to his own wide, webbed-looking shoes. "...But Monkey's simple. He knows machines, and that's about all he knows. So he's happy as anything bouncing around in there so long as we give him stuff to fix, and so long as he's fixing things I don't mind feeding him and running the anti-well."
"Inside there, he feels very light?" I asked, trying to impress him with my limber knowledge of physics.
"See for yourself."
As I stepped over the threshold and into the tank I felt my stomach flutter. The pull on my bones couldn't have been more than a quarter normal. I took another step and found myself cartwheeling slowly into a table, the contents spilling off and spinning away to rebound against the glass with a series of dull thuds. "I'm terribly sorry," I said, upsidown.
Nilo chuckled from behind me. "That's why we have the glass," he explained.
Monkey scampered over and helped me up, tugging me briefly but firmly by the forearm and then catching me against his shoulder as I threatened to overspin. "You're Simon!" Monkey exclaimed, breathing hot monkey breath into my face. "You smell like the forest!"
He pumped my hand excitedly and then bounded back over to his workbench. I carefully picked my way after him, ducking to dodge Pish's feet as he turned around a pole near the ceiling. "I'm a car!" claimed Pish.
The far side of the tank was an overlapping mosaic of pint-sized dancing figures and scenes, standing off the wall and casting flickering holographic shadows on the floor. There were movies and documentaries, trance shapes and feeds from life, pornography and psychedelic cartoons.
"Look at this nice craft!" spat Monkey, jumping over to me with a curved piece of silver metal grasped in his foot. He turned it over and the light winked across the ornamental curlicues that were inscribed over most of Jeremiah's carapace. "This is Kamari Filigree!" Monkey told me, tracing a finger along the contours of the design. His eyes dropped and he mumbled something which I asked him to repeat, but he refused.
"He wants to know if he can keep it," called Nilo, lounging at the threshold beside Glory.
Monkey reached out to his workbench and pulled over a similarly shaped piece of metal, but with a plainer surface and a burnished blue-green sheen. "This new one is good too, but it isn't as good as this one. Monkey knows it's more good but Monkey wants to keep it anyway, nice Simon."
"I can't imagine that it's my decision to make, Monkey. I think you'd best ask Jeremiah."
Monkey flitted over to the silver robot, standing mute beside the tools. "Can Monkey?" he barked and then hid his face.
Jeremiah turned toward us, and it seemed to me that he cocked his head slightly and hesitated before he declared, "If the masters will it."
"What did he say?" asked Monkey, confused by the accent.
"He said 'okay'," reported Pish.
Monkey grinned and shook my hand again as he pet me on the back and rubbed my tummy. "Nice Simon!" he crooned.
Pish and I hung around with Monkey all morning while he carefully removed Jeremiah's silver exterior and replaced it with the new blue-green carapace. Monkey delighted in pointing out various doodads beneath the robot's skin and explaining to us how it might malfunction, and in that case how to best remedy the situation according to the oft-quoted wisdom of Monkey's dad. "If this juice ever starts coming out, give the robot salt says Dad," Monkey informed me, indicating a small pocket of turgid sacs within Jeremiah's armpit. "You still have to fix it, but not as soon."
"Thank you very much," I said.
"What does that do?" Pish asked, sticking his finger into one of the cavities in the torso and wiggling it around.
"That's a --" began Monkey, and then squinted closer. "It's probably a --" he started again, and then frowned. "Monkey doesn't know," he admitted. "Some funny model Dad and Monkey never heard of."
He began sniffing around the rest of Jeremiah's innards as Glory strode in and clapped her hands. "Gentlemen, let's go shopping!"
We bid Monkey adieu and thanked Nilo. Pish told Fartles to stay put and we strode out into the low streets, crowded in the day with rushing coats and faceless shawls. Glory took us to a small corner of stalls and dickered efficiently for our new fashions. I stood mutely by and stuck my wallet-thimbled finger to the till when instructed. On the way back to Nilo's workshop Pish ran ahead of us and jumped in puddles.
"Cute kid," said Glory. "How old is he?"
"I don't know. Three?"
"I think he's about nine."
"Good to see him play. He's kind of gloomy. Was bringing me down before."
"He just lost his father. I think he's quite chipper actually, given the circumstances."
"Coitus," said Glory. "That fellates."
Upon our return Nilo showed us to a stained and leaky washroom where we took turns rinsing away the layers of grime under a lukewarm shower, and then Glory showed me how to shave myself with Nilo's razor. When she was done she put Nilo's razor into her handbag.
We got dressed. Pish and Glory were very happy with their new duds, but I felt constricted and trapped inside the snug apparel. Also, I felt discomfitingly naked without a robe to wear. "Listen Simon," said Glory, rolling her eyes, "normal people don't wear pajamas all day. It's coitally retarded. Just cope."
"Cope, Simon," she snarled. "It's time to go."
She whisked us back across the workshop. Nilo emerged from beneath a long red car and wiped his brow. He made ridiculous, complimentary noises about our new clothes and demanded that Glory repeatedly pirouette for him, demonstrating the fly and the flow of her violet dress. He turned to me next so I spun around in place, and everybody cracked up laughing.
Still chuckling we walked together back toward Monkey's tank. Fartles was pacing before the door, whining. "What's wrong, boy?" asked Pish.
Through the glass I saw Monkey hanging oddly, folded between two metal rails. I rushed inside, steeling myself against the plunge in my stomach as I crossed the threshold into the low gravity tank. But it never came.
I stumbled forward in surprise. "The anti-well's fornicated!" Nilo shouted. "Monkey!" he then yelled, shoving me aside and rushing over to the simpleton. Nilo straightened after a moment, his white face turned waxen. "He's dead."
The tank had failed, and Monkey had fallen badly, snapping his neck.
The media screens continued to dance with holographic figures, close-ups of faces seeming to peer out of the wall at the grim scene before them.
Jeremiah stood as we had left him, but encased in green-blue metal. The designer flares and curves that defined his new face were different, but his black, reflective eyes were unchanged. "Jeremiah, what happened?" I asked.
"Sir," he replied, turning to face me. "I was deactivated at the time."
A beat. It dawned on me that Jeremiah had spoken clearly. Monkey had replaced the voice module before the accident, evidently. Nilo crumpled over the bent body of his friend and sobbed. "How could this happen?" he muttered into his long hands. "What will I tell his parents? Coitus, Monkey! Coitus!"
Glory tugged on my sleeve. She was backing out of the tank. I took Pish's hand and led him away, his head turning to stare at Monkey and Nilo. Fartles hung at our heels, his tail low.
"I bring misery wherever I go," I whispered aloud.
"Shut up," said Glory. "Come on."
She took us to a busy tram station. Outside on the street was a row of yellow cars. We piled into the back of one of them and Glory instructed the driver. A short negotiation ensued, after which Glory and the driver agreed to visit the interior of the station for a few moments for reasons I could not fathom. When they returned the driver engaged the vehicle and it lifted into the air with a low-pitched thrum.
Within moments we were deposited on a curving avenue of grass, a walkway running over the buildings of the low streets, though the streets themselves were obscured behind walls of shrubbery. In the distance to the north lay the Thaumas river valley, the rectilinear lichen of human urbanity crawling far up the hills on either side, a constant swarm of gnat-like cars mixing in the air above.
"This is the tourist highway," explained Glory. "If we can get back inside the foreign boundary we're golden."
We walked along the way until we came to a gate watched over by two white robots with fanciful designs of rivers on their broad chests. Glory explained to them that we had wandered out of the zone by an accident of curiosity, and we should like to be admitted again no matter the fine. They scanned my plate. We were asked several curt questions and then, to my surprise, allowed to pass beyond the gate. Glory grinned and strutted along the way.
We proceeded to a series of open squares, raised high above the river delta below, where couples and groups in bright costumes milled and tittered, pointing out the way the sun was melting into the ocean and engaging the proprietors of trinket stalls. Many of them cradled little tiny dog-like animals in the crooks of their elbows, which caused Fartles to whinny and start at my heels. When Pish scolded him for his obnoxiousness he hung his head and farted.
The twilight became deep and little lamps winked on within the shrubs. "Holy mung," sang Glory giddily, "stars."
Indeed the heavens were resplendent above us, the glittering velvet bisected by an undulating, smoky swath of brightness. I asked about it, and Pish told me it was the wheel of the galaxy, seen on its edge, from within one of its arms. "How many stars are there in the galaxy?" I asked.
Pish closed his eyes and consulted his memory. "An hundred and twenty-six billion."
I shook my head in awe. "And do people live at all of them?"
"Nope. Just a few."
Pish shrugged and stuck his hands into his pockets. "We haven't got there yet, I guess."
I thought about this for a long while as we made our way toward a harbourside quay of lanterns and animated signs, music reaching us tinnily over the water. Glory spoke to an agent at one of the many colourful kiosks for a few moments and then pulled me over to stick my wallet on the till. "We sail for Annapurna noon tomorrow," she reported. She handed me a small plastic receipt for our tickets: the Apples family plus pet, one-way, first class.
"Where do we stay tonight?"
"Hotel. Booked through the cruise. Come on."
The room made my jaw drop. It was the size of half a hospital ward, with two bedrooms and an opulent sitting room with a walk-out to a terrace overlooking the city of Thaumas. After Pish had been put to bed Glory and I stood out on the terrace. Glory inhaled another one of those flashing orange sticks and then called out, "Robot! Bring us something to drink."
"Yes mistress," said Jeremiah, bowing and attending to the bar.
"You should be nicer to Jeremiah," I said after he had handed us our glasses and retreated. "He's a bit like Pish's family, after all."
"He's a robot," returned Glory quickly. "Not a teddy bear. An expensive piece of hardware. An appliance."
"The child loves him."
"That's just my coital point, Simon," said Glory, throwing back her drink in a single gulp and tossing the glass out into the darkness. "You shouldn't let the kid get so attached to it like that. It'll just fornicate him up when the thing goes to scrap."
I considered this for a moment, sipping. "Glory, can I ask you something?"
"If people only live at some stars in the galaxy now, does that mean we all started at just one star?"
She snorted. "What in the name of faeces are you going on about now, Simon?"
"I was just wondering," I said, looking up at the sky. "I'd never thought about it before. But if finding new stars to live at is an ongoing process, it must have started somewhere, right?"
"Yeah," conceded Glory wearily. "Right, Simon."
"So where did everybody come from?"
"What by coitus do you mean?"
"What's the first star?"
Glory paced the terrace for a moment and then suddenly pressed herself up again me, pulling the neck of her dress down to expose her breast. "Listen Simon, I don't want to coitally yap all night. I'm just glad I'm free of all that faeces, and I want to get drunk and I want to know whether or not you're going to have intercourse with me."
"Oh!" I said.
"Forget it, retard," she shot back, turning on heel and stalking away into the sitting room. I heard the clinking of bottles, the jangle of ice cubes. A door slammed. I returned my gaze to the glowing maze of the city spread out below me.
"What was that?" I asked, turning around.
Jeremiah was standing still as a statue behind me, all but his feet lost in the shadows. "The first star was named Sol, sir." He stepped forward and extended his arm into the sky, training it on a pinkish smear between two glinting blue stars.
"What's that?" I asked.
"The Solar Nebula, sir."
I took a moment to marvel at the dim smudge. "And that's where the first star is?"
"Where it was, sir, yes," said Jeremiah solemnly. "The coloured gases are the sloughed off remains of the star, for Sol is dead."
For some reason this made me very sad. "Thank you, Jeremiah. Good night."
"Good night, sir," he pronounced crispy, then bowed his head and left the terrace, the soft rubber on the bottoms of his feet sighing against the stone.