A FACE OF GOD
I swear it felt like we would spend our lives in line.
Amid a garish clutch of gibbering tourists we shuffled slowly forward to be processed in turn by a customs agent, a reservations clerk, and a robot with inoculative needles for fingers. Everyone smiled, even the robot. At all times we were surrounded by dancing holographic characters, witness to staccato bursts of terrifying music, and intermittently sprayed with a sampling of promotional designer scents.
"Enjoy your flight, Mr. Apples."
"Say who? Oh, yes of course. Thank you."
Two dozen of us were corralled into a high-walled square with a grassy floor, where vendors hung around the rosebushes and proffered drinks and trinkets. It seemed like everybody had a giant hat and a small dog. Fartles comported himself admirably.
One white wall sported a wide screen carrying dense tables of departure times and destinations beside a bamboozling stream of flashing video imagery out of which I could occasionally catch glimpse of a car, a breast, or a celebration. Pish tugged on my sleeve and I realized firstly that I had been mesmerized, and secondly that I should probably consult Pallando Financial Services with regard to risk-managed interstellar investment before the close of the next tax season. Some restrictions may apply in certain jurisdictions.
"Funny sign," I said, craning my head around to look at it again.
"I'm hungry," said Pish, so I bought him some sort of pastry pocket stuffed with steaming goodies, the majority of which he would wear down the front of his shirt for the rest of the day.
I heard a high-pitched whirring and turned in time to see a great mirrored sphere gilded by a band of shining metal at its equator lift up above the port and proceed serenely into the azure sky like a giant bubble. "What was that?" I asked.
"That's a shuttle," answered Pish, mumbling around his food.
"We're going to ride on one of those?"
Pish nodded, hot stuffing dripping on his shoes. Fartles sauntered over and cleaned it up. "Yup," Pish added, once he'd swallowed.
"Have you ever been on one of those before?" I asked.
"Are you scared?"
"Not really. It's kind of like the bus."
I swallowed. "Okay."
Eventually we were funneled out of the courtyard in pairs and passed into another courtyard, this one occupied fully by a tall pillar in the middle of a great loop, seemingly suspended in space like a halo around the pillar's midpoint. The top and the bottom of the pillar were capped with wide dishes, both of which studded with comfy chairs. Some of our fellow passengers climbed a carpeted ladder on the side of the pillar and strapped themselves into the inverted chairs hanging from the upper cap, which I thought was a thoroughly baffling way for anyone to want to travel. I squinted in the sunshine, allowing Jeremiah to lead us to four seats near the outer edge of the lower cap.
A girl in a matching maroon skirt and hat advised us all to keep our places while the orb engaged. I jumped a moment later when a strange humming cycled up quickly, became briefly loud and then went suddenly silent; my ears popped and the air beyond the cap gained a faintly iridescent sheen. "It's quite safe to touch the orb now, ladies and gentlemen," announced the girl in maroon.
By looking carefully I could just barely discern a spherical barrier surrounding us, only really visible in our shadow against the far wall, the circular band and connecting cylinder opaque within a bubble of translucent grey.
"It keeps the air in," Pish explained. "There's no air in space."
"I know," I said, kneeling down where the barrier met the edge of the carpeted deck beneath our feet. I touched it. It was solid, and made no sound when I rapped on it. "What is it made of?" I asked.
Pish shrugged. "Science?"
A tone sounded. The girl in maroon announced that we were about to lift off, and advised all passengers to attach their safety belts. She also asked us not to use our plates or telephones until a certain little yellow light came on, which she pointed out. Then she sat down on a smaller seat that folded out of the side of the pillar, and strapped herself in.
"Now what happens?" I asked.
I felt a swoop in my belly, like riding the lift with Dr. Pent. The ground dropped away from us without noise, and within seconds we were drifting up above the port, looking down into the other pits where other orb shuttles sat in wait or settled in to land. In another blink the port was a grey smudge at the lip of the city, itself a linear array of smudges quickly vanishing at the line of rolling green land and sparkling blue sea. After the initial surge upward I detected almost no sensation of motion at all, but the view was enough to make me giddy and lightheaded.
Like silver fingers, the continent was filigreed with networks of rivers and streams. The World of Rivers indeed! I lost all sense of scale, and it seemed to me that the land was made of broccoli.
I looked up and suddenly gasped, casting my hands over my head as it appeared our shuttle was cruising directly into a solid barrier of grey whorls and white vapors. A dim, smoky shadow enveloped us. In another moment we emerged from the top of the thick bank of clouds and I realized how silly I was being.
Soon the clouds were tiny grains of white beneath us. The horizon had begun to bow, and the sky overhead had turned from deep blue to purple. "Look," said Pish, pointing straight up. "Stars."
A profound silence descended over the next moments. The sky faded, and the ground curved. The stars ceased to glimmer, and stood hard and fixed and plentiful in the sky like crystals of spilled sugar. I felt a tickling in my belly, and realized that my body felt even lighter than it had in Monkey's anti-well.
"Ladies and gentlemen, prepare for freefall," announced the girl in maroon. "Please ensure all personal belongings are secured."
And so barely a quarter hour after we had set off, we were in space. My arms hung lazily before me, and my head swam. Quiet music began to play from an unseen source, perhaps in an effort to offset the startlingly unnatural quiet. I looked up at the people who had sat opposite us in the high cap, but now without reference they looked as if they were sitting normally and it was I who was upsidown. "Oh my," I said, clutching the arms of my seat. Jeremiah caught my diary as it drifted out of my pocket.
I gasped in wonder, and then I threw up.
The girl in maroon was at my side quickly with a little vacuum that efficiently sucked away the lumps of vomit as they rolled leisurely up and away from my face. "I'm so sorry," I said, belching.
"Don't worry about it sir," smiled the girl. "It happens to the best of us."
As I recovered myself I looked around and noticed that several of the passengers had little cups on cables drawn from within their armrests. They held the cups over the mouths and winced every few moments. I realized firstly that I was not alone in my nausea, and secondly I appreciated what it was the ambient music was intended to be muffling -- retching, not silence.
"Are you okay, Pish?"
He nodded happily, leaning out of his seat to peer at the great frosted marble of Samundra beyond the orb's invisible skin. It looked close enough to touch, which I found unsettling.
"How many people live down there?" I whispered to Jeremiah.
"Some eight hundred million, sir."
I marvelled. Eight hundred million men and women and children, in a glorious aqua sphere I could make disappear by leaning back in my seat and hiding it behind Fartles' head. The dog seemed unconcerned and continued to pant happily, his dangling tongue intermittently occulting a mass of glaciers at Samundra's southern pole.
I noticed what seemed like an especially bright star off Samundra's limb. "What's that?" I asked, pointing it out for the robot.
"That's Pomona," interjected Pish. "My dad took me there once."
"Is Pomona the moon of Samundra?"
"No, they're both moons," he said, his tone implying that I was a little slow on the uptake.
"Moons of what?" I asked.
Just then the trajectory of our shuttle changed, and the view outside began to gently scroll aside as the shadows turned around us. "Moons of that," said Pish, pulling my arm and pointing away from Samundra. Steeling myself against vertigo I turned my head to see.
It was like staring into the face of a god.
Opposite the worlds of Samundra and Pomona stood a wall of phantasmagoric gas, frozen spirals of churning cloud locked in great bands that spanned my vision, gilding it from horizon to horizon in a hundred commingled shades of yellow, amber and copper. Lifting my gaze upward I could barely discern a strip of space, the lip of the god curved against it.
I realized that it was a world -- many thousands of times larger than Samundra.
"That's Aramaiti," said Pish.
"Mother of love!" I gasped. "Why have I never seen it before?"
"Because it's always on the other side of Samundra."
"How many people live there?" I needed to know. "It must be untold trillions!"
Pish laughed. "Nobody lives there, silly. It's a gas giant. There's just some weird fish and stuff -- no people."
The girl in maroon pointed out another sight visible from the far side of the orb: a bright smudge against the velvet -- our destination, apparently. "Castle Misne has been in continuous service on the Aramaiti-Annapurna Milk Run for over three hundred eighty-six years, making it one of the most distinguished castles in the Panstellar Neighbourhood. Castle Misne is run under the stewardship of the famous Captain Tallum Gold, who will happily receive you all for an intimate dinner on Day Two of our sixteen-day transit to Annapurna. We will be debarking at Castle Misne in two and one half hours. In the meantime, please enjoy some refreshing drinks and light snacks."
Over the next two hours the smudge steadily grew until we could plainly discern a long speck silhouetted against a gauzy oblong which Pish told me was probably the castle's stellar sail, a fabric designed to capture Aino's wind for power. The speck itself grew until we could see formation lights blinking on its exterior and the murky orange glow of wide windows. Several sections of the long castle were gracefully rotating. Jeremiah explained that this was to create a feeling of gravity throughout the voyage.
I had a pastry, and a sac of juice.
Soon our bubble was dwarfed by the enormous castle as we drew along its side and became secured to a port at our pole. We opened our harnesses and attempted to propel ourselves toward the central pillar where the rest of the passengers were queuing up to leave. Pish did fairly well, as did Fartles, but Jeremiah had to come and rescue me as I pinwheeled across the shuttle interior and rebounded off the opposite chairs.
"Sir," said Jeremiah, tugging me gently toward the pillar.
We manoeuvred along the corridor within the pillar, which opened into a hatch at its end, where the girl in maroon was waiting to bid us farewell. I over-pushed against the side of the hatch and careened out of the shuttle, spilling into a crowd of other passengers and causing them to drop their things. For a few moments the debarkation lobby was a cloud of handbags, hats, and small kicking dogs. "I'm very sorry," I called, coming to rest against a sign bearing directions to the washroom.
Proceeding to our cabin was similarly adventuresome, but I'll spare you the details. Suffice it to say that my freefalling skills were put to shame by the dog who somehow managed to kick off the bulkheads lightly like a dancer, emitting quiet chuffs of stinking gas in his wake.
And, for the record, it was Pish who fell against me at the mouth of the tube that admitted us into the rotating habitat hub. So, while everyone else rediscovered gravity gradually as they descended the ladder to the curved floor, I rediscovered it with a sickening lurch as I cartwheeled uncontrollably beside them.
"First time out of the well?" cracked some wiseacre on the ladder.
"Yes," I muttered darkly, striking the carpet with a dull thud.
I was able to relax a tad once safely ensconced in our cabin. The gravity was only slightly less than at Samundra's surface, and the presence of familiar sorts of furniture gave me a reassuring feeling of which way was up. A bank of ports looked out into the blackness.
I decided to tidy up in the washroom, and was shocked to see my face in the mirror. Not only was my lower jaw once again turning dark with little hairs, but many other spots on my face were purple or pink from yesterday's unpleasantness despite Jeremiah's ministrations this morning.
I peeled off my clothes and took a hot shower, using my stolen packet of hospital soap to cleanse me and to fill my nostrils with the smell of nostalgia. Afterwards I managed to use the washroom's razor with only a few instructions shouted through the door from Pish. I figured out the motorized toothbrush all by myself. I found a plush blue robe in the closet and put it on, then strode out with a grin. "So, when does this ship get underway?"
"It is a castle, sir," replied Jeremiah; "it is always underway, in a permanent circuit between the worlds. Shuttles dock with it as it passes."
"Oh? Well, good then."
We opted to take supper in our cabin, and this time when the steward hung around awkwardly I made him explain to me the concept of tipping. I thanked him for his indulgence and touched my wallet-tip to the till on his sleeve, my telephone and I negotiating the finer points sub-vocally. I was pretty pleased with myself afterward, but Pish didn't seem too impressed.
"Glory would've loved this place," he commented.
"Glory betrayed us," I hissed.
"Yeah," agreed Pish, kicking idly at the covers hanging off the bed, "but I kind of liked her anyway."
We ate quietly. Somberly, perhaps. We made no comment about the food.
After we had tucked in Pish I sat in my robe by the port-holes and looked out upon the canopy. As the rush of victory at leaving Samundra faded I quailed at the question of what precisely to do next. It is clear that we can't keep running forever. I'm too stupid and the boy deserves better.
Jeremiah walked out of the shadows and handed me my diary. "I have observed that this meditation benefits you, sir," he said.
I took the little blue bauble and turned it over in my hands. "Thank you, Jeremiah," I whispered.
The world is too big! How far can we get without an advisor? And whom would I dare trust again, after catching a glimpse of how illusory trust can be?
Black space and her hard stars had no answer for me.