LESSON IN LOYALTY
A bird woke me up.
It was brightly coloured and as large as my head. It sat on the sill of the open window, looking at me and emitting a soft cooing noise. Its eyes were amber and its curved bill was a plastic shade of yellow. Blinking and yawning I sat up in bed. The bird screamed like a woman in distress, startling me, and flapped away, its wings flashing in the bronze morning light.
"Wow. Did you see that bird?"
"Shut up," muttered Glory from beneath the covers, the edge of which was stained with a crust of sour vomit.
I got out of bed and met Pish in the sitting room. We rolled around on the floor tickling the dog for a while and then ran out to the terrace to spit over the side. I think I hit a taxi, but Pish claims I missed.
Breakfast arrived along with a table. The robots wished us good appetites as they departed. I had an awkward moment with the human steward while he hovered at my elbow expectantly. I patted him on the shoulder and told him he was doing a bang-up job, and he left without another word. Glory swept out of the washroom wrapped in a fluffy white robe bearing the crest of the hotel, a white towel around her dripping head. "Right on," she said, taking a seat and tearing in.
Pish and I also ate. I looked at him after a couple of mouthfuls, and he looked at me, chewing thoughtfully. I shrugged and he frowned. "It's edible," I told him, trying to look on the bright side.
"Barely," said Pish, sampling the spiced gams with disdain.
"Are you fornicating me?" Glory exclaimed, eggs tumbling from her mouth. "This is the best faeces I've ever eaten! Holy mung!"
"To each his own," I admitted, washing down another mouthful with tea. Pish looked dubious, but he cleaned his plate anyway. I could see his point: while the unadorned simplicity of fried vegetables in nut oil with salty bread at Nilo's could charm us with its humble nudity, the meal before us had been artlessly gussied up into something pretentious, indecisive, and slightly rude.
Glory actually licked her plate. I thought it was Fartles until I glanced over. "I'm having an orgasm," she claimed.
"What's an orgasm?" asked Pish.
"I'll tell you later," I said, my discomfort being only faintly appeased by the realization that for once it was not I who had to ask.
It was as we were gathering our bits to depart for the cruise that Pish suddenly started walking back and forth between the rooms, sweeping his head around with his face pinched in anxiety. "Where's Jeremiah?" he wailed when I stopped him and asked what was wrong.
I straightened. "Where is Jeremiah? Glory?"
"Fornicated if I know."
Pish followed me around while I thrashed through the bedrooms and the sitting room again, even peering over the edge of the terrace to see if I could see a robot's body smashed on the green rooftops below. Pish and I arrived back in the sitting room, Fartles at our heels. Glory was putting on her new shoes and adjusting the beads in her braids. "We've got to go," she declared.
"But we can't find Jeremiah."
"He's obviously not here. Maybe he's waiting for us in the lobby. Or at the shuttle dock. We're going to be late." She opened the door and waved us into the hall. "Come on."
I hesitated. Pish stood forlornly beside Fartles. He looked up at me in appeal. "We have to find him, Simon," he told me.
"Faeces," said Glory.
I turned around to explain it to her but realized that her commentary had not been addressing the missing robot situation so much as the situation with the gang of aggressive thugs pushing her aside and piling into the suite. They wore black clothing and wore black masques, each of the three men bearing a tiny black device in one hand. One swung around to train his device on Glory, and she screamed and begged him for mercy.
"What is the meaning of this?" I cried. The biggest of them shut the door and strode over into my face. Without hesitation he backhanded me and I toppled sideways over a chair.
Pish cowered in the corner but Fartles exploded forward, spittle flying from his jowls as be barked. He toppled the nearest intruder and clamped his jaws around his wrist, causing the shiny ovoid mechanism to skitter across the floor. But another such device was quickly leveled at the struggling pair by another of the intruders.
He touched and contact and both his comrade and Fartles began to twitch uncontrollably, their limbs jerking out from under them and causing them to bounce across the floor. In a second it was over, and both lay on their sides curled up like babies, panting and groaning softly.
The tallest one struck me across the head as I looked on, then pulled me over to him and roughly felt through my clothes. He extracted my plate and my diary, slipped them into one of his own pockets, then swore and stood up. "Please," I implored him, "leave me my plate -- it's my only picture of my children!"
For a moment I held his eyes. Then he kicked me savagely in the gut and stomped over to Pish, picking him up and then dropping him again once he had determined his pockets were empty.
I looked up to see the tall man rip Glory's precious handbag away from her. She clawed after it and he shoved her backward. She slid down the wall and started to cry. "Why are you doing this to me? Why, Verd? Nilo said I could go! I already gave you the fornicated robot -- why are you doing this to me now?"
"You gave them Jeremiah?" I exclaimed, my blood boiling in my ears and my voice pouring out of my mouth of its own accord. "How could you? How could you do this to us?"
"We're recouping all our losses," grunted the tallest man, Verd. "Shut up and get to the van and feel lucky I don't jazz you, whore. Move!"
Glory wept. "I'm not supposed to -- that wasn't part of the deal...you're fornicating me, Verd, you're coitally fornicating me! Why are you doing this?" she pled as she was hauled to her feet by another one of the black-garbed intruders.
I screamed out, "How do you dare ask him why he does this to you when you do this to us?"
Verd walked over and kicked me in the face with his heavy boot. This ended our dialogue for good, my tongue quickly swelling in my bloody mouth. I collapsed to the carpet, staining it.
"What about his wallet?" asked the third intruder, rubbing his mauled wrist.
"No good without his finger," grunted Verd. "Let's go."
"I'll take the finger with me," the other replied, and I felt my bowels quiver in terror. He walked over to me and took my hand in his, rudely prying away my other fingers until the index was exposed.
He drew out a long knife. I winced.
A buzzer sounded and a woman's voice called out: "This is hotel security. We have detected a crime in progress. Agents are en route to your suite."
I opened my eyes and the bandits had fled along with Glory, the pressure I still felt around my finger a phantom of panic. Pish was crying, so I stumbled over to him and picked him up. I carried over him to Fartles, who had urinated on the carpet but seemed otherwise undamaged. He licked Pish's face somberly and groaned.
My heart was hammering. The edges of my vision were pink and throbbing. How could people helping one another out do this? My sternum burned with a cold flame.
I put Pish down beside Fartles and looked at myself in the mirror, picking up Glory's towel from the floor to mop at my bloody chin. I spied Glory's similarly discarded hotel robe and put it on, flexing my shoulders and testing its weight -- feeling complete. Lastly I knelt down and retrieved the small, black, ovoid device that the intruder had dropped when Fartles bit him. I turned it over in my fingers, and gently wiped a greasy print off the contact.
Hotel security burst in. "Sir, are you injured?" they wanted to know.
"Yes," I said, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand and leaving a red smear there. "See to the boy. I'm going after the robot."
I pushed between them and into the hall. In another moment I was crossing the lobby briskly, the white robe flying out behind me.
Helplessness is a disease, I decided, and one of which I meant to purge myself finally. If my ignorance would make me a victim of vultures, I would make up the lack in strength of will. I would be a juggernaut.
I took a taxi to Nilo's garage, paying double fare for access to the low streets and suffering no insolence from the driver. The car hummed as it descended into the shadows between the white, vine-draped buildings of Thaumas.
I shouldered aside the door and strode into the workshop. Nilo and two of the men in black were loitering around the hull of an empty car, apparently eating their lunch. They looked up as I walked unhesitatingly toward them.
One of them rose and pointed his device at me, so I pointed mine at him and pressed the contact. He dropped to the floor, shaking. I was taking aim at the second man in black when he fired at me -- but as I was partially obscured by the chassis of a truck I felt only a vague tingling in one side of my body. When it stopped I leapt out and squarely jazzed him in turn.
I stepped over his jerking body and approached Nilo, who fixed me with a hard stare and let a smile crinkle one corner of his mouth. "You going to jazz me, Simon? After all I've done for you?"
"I'm here to take back the robot. Give him to me and I'll go in peace."
"It doesn't work like that, fool," he retorted, taking a step closer to me. "You're fornicating with Boss Preen now, sonny. That robot is for his summer house, and that's a fact you'd just have to learn to live with if it weren't for the fact that you're about to die."
I opened my mouth to respond and Nilo slapped the black device out of my hand. It bounced across the floor and shattered against a stair. We stared into each other's eyes a moment longer before engaging in a rude wrestling match as I grabbed his wrist and attempted to take his jazzer.
He were both grunting with effort with a loud pop sounded, after which Nilo staggered backward, clutching at his long, slender forearm. "You broke my arm!"
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Faeces Simon, you broke my arm!" He grimaced and leaned against the car behind him, knocking over the remains of his lunch. "Coitus!" He looked up slowly to watch me scoop up the fallen jazzer. "Are you going to jazz me, Simon?" he asked quietly. I shook my head. "Are you going to kill me, Simon?"
"Certainly not," I replied with a frown. "Who do you think I am?"
"The robot's in the back room," he told me, sighing and closing his eyes. "But there's like five guys in there with him, waiting until Boss Preen gets here. And then you're dead anyway."
I marched through the corridor to the back room and cast open the door, Nilo hanging sulkily behind me. He looked at me inquiringly. "See for yourself," I invited him.
Nilo shuffled over beside me, cradling his fracture. Inside the room stood Jeremiah in his blue-green metal carapace, calmly at ease amid the corpses of three men.
"Jeremiah," I said.
"Sir," he replied.
I tied the sash on my bathrobe and turned on heel. Jeremiah followed me as I crossed the workshop. One of the men I had attacked with the jazzer was standing up, leaning on an engine and panting heavily. I raised the device at him again and he scampered to the floor, cowering behind a workbench. I walked over to the workbench and picked up my plate and my diary, dropping them into the wide pockets of my white robe.
"Thanks for your hospitality," I muttered as we left.
We sprinted around several corners and kept sharp watch behind us. We somehow evaded pursuit. I found myself regarding the placid robot as we walked, unsure what to think. "You killed those men, didn't you Jeremiah?"
"Sir?" he replied opaquely with a polite tilt of his head.
"Don't play coy with me," I frowned. "You're an unusual robot, aren't you? Monkey knew as much as you killed him, too."
"Sir?" he said again.
I smirked resignedly. "I should just be grateful you're on our side, I guess. This is a mad, mad world."
"Sir," confirmed the robot, and despite his immobile features I could swear I could detect a smile.
For hours Jeremiah and I made our way across the low city in silence, working our way ever higher until we could repeat our feat at the tourist zone boundary once more. It was nightfall as we arrived at the elevated squares and markets of the foreigners' common, and I became too weary to press on.
Jeremiah and I surreptitiously crawled behind a row of hedges and found a perch of grass near the edge of the walkway, overlooking the harbor, hidden from view and unlit by lamps. We could hear the chatter and the footfalls of the tourists promenading on the other side of the hedges, which made our secret nook a little bit like a sheet-fort in a busy hospital ward.
"I wish we could tell Pish you're okay," I lamented.
"Why not use your telephone, sir?"
I asked my telephone to put me in touch with the hotel, and after chatting briefly with a courteous girl or robot from the front desk I was connected to our room. I assured Pish that we were well, and that he should have the hotel prepare dinner for himself and Fartles. We would be along in the morning.
Next, after more inquiries with the front desk, I managed to adjust our cruise reservation for tomorrow's shuttle by paying a re-scheduling fee. "I'm obliged to inform you that the fee is fifty-four hours," said the girl from the front desk, her voice sounding through my skull.
I hesitated. "Is that a lot?"
"I'm obliged to say that it's very reasonable," the girl told me.
"Okay. Do it."
The walkways became quiet as night settled in. I tightened my fluffy hotel robe around me and curled up on the cool grass. The stars were disappearing behind a fresh wave of thick cloud. "I hope it doesn't rain," I said. "This is such a very wet place."
"Samundra is known as the World of Rivers," contributed Jeremiah.
"Fantastic," I said, shivering.
"I can warm you, sir, if you'll allow me. I have the ability to control my surface temperature."
Jeremiah came and lay down behind me, clasping his metal arms around me. I detected a homey warmth emanating from him. I shifted position awkwardly, pressing myself against his hips and allowing the heat to suffuse me. "Listen, this doesn't mean there's anything between us," I quipped.
"Forget it." I pulled my diary out of my pocket, cleared my throat and after a moment of pained recollection pronounced, "A bird woke me up."
Tomorrow: to space!