I spent the day moping in the cabin while Pish explored the castle with Jeremiah, but they finally managed to coerce me to come out in time for dinner with the captain. For the first time ever I opened up our luggage and dug around through the new clothes Glory had bought for us back in Thaumas. I found a clean set of duds for Pish and myself, and a heavy metal container which Jeremiah identified as a "black hole box" used to evade the scanners.
I opened it up and was less than surprised to find it filled with row upon row of Glory's little orange sticks. "Is it a narcotic?" I asked.
"Dilly chalk," answered Jeremiah with a nod. "Highly illegal to transport."
I snapped the lid shut and decided to deal with that little problem later. I reluctantly doffed my plush blue robe and we got changed for dinner.
To arrive at the dining room we had to pass out of our rotating habitat hub and into an adjacent hub, necessitating another embarrassing session of freefall gymnastics. Pish said I was doing much better, but I still couldn't keep up with the dog. It didn't help that the tunnel between the hubs was transparent, tempting me to distraction as I gaped at the castle spread fore and aft of us, space all around.
The dining hall for our "intimate dinner" was a vast auditorium filled with high-backed wooden chairs and mahogany tables spread with shining silverware. A chandelier lit by a thousand tiny points of light hung heavily over us, making me feel faintly uneasy. A maroon robot escorted us to our assigned seats one table over from the head table. Other maroon robots were escorting other guests, the buzz of unintelligible chatter drowning out the quiet music.
I saw two ladies with bright, saturated paint spread over their faces and feathers in their hair sit at the head table and begin craning their heads around as they tittered loudly to one another, "My goodness, we shall be nearly in the captain's lap, shan't we?" Twin robots stood mute at their elbows, their eyes black like Jeremiah's but their carapaces multicoloured and gaudy.
An elderly couple in densely embroidered, puffy-looking jackets and white tights arrived at our table and sat down. The lady had a tall head of elaborately wrapped white hair, and the gentleman had a bushy white moustache that covered most of his mouth. "Goodevening, my name is Prandon Thrustworth and this is my wife, Eve."
"How do you do?" asked Eve.
"I do very well thank you. I'm Hellig Apples, and this is my son Simon," I said without thinking. I glanced down at Pish uncertainly and he smiled. I smiled back.
Prandon slipped a sleek plate out of his inside pocket and looked at me through it briefly. "A Samundrite grower -- how delightful!" he exclaimed.
"Ooh yes," agreed Eve. "It's always nice to meet people who are close to the land. Grown food is so very important, of course."
After an awkward interval while they remained fixedly smiling it occurred to me to withdraw my own plate. I held it up before the couple and saw their welcome messages wink onscreen. I scanned the information quickly. "And how, uh, delightful to meet such a fine investment banker such as yourself, sir, and a distinguished editor such as yourself, madam."
"We're reliving our honeymoon cruise," Eve told me with a prim nod and a little smile.
"Well let's not barrage the boy, darling," interrupted Prandon smoothly. "What brings you out this way, my dear fellow?"
"Would you like a piece of candy?" Eve asked Pish. "I think I have a little piece of candy in my purse."
"Honestly, Eve," groaned Prandon, his white moustache bristling. "Now where was I? Yes, banking. I've been in banking for ninety-two years now, myself."
"Is that a matter of fact?" I said politely.
"Hush now, Prandon!" snapped Eve. "Here comes the captain. You'll spoil everything with your nattering."
I turned in my chair to follow the eyes of the room. All were seated now, robots standing stiff at elbows, dogs panting on laps, all looking to the main entrance as a corpulent, white-bearded gentleman in faux-military regalia pushed open the doors and began shuffling down the way toward the head table, piped in by a human steward with a whistle. Everyone began to applaud, so I applauded too.
The old man wearily took his place at the podium, and cleared his throat. "Goodevening ladies and gentlemen. Allow me to personally welcome you aboard Castle Misne, the grandest of all castles and my passionate mistress." More applause. The captain waited until it passed, and then entered into a harrowing tale from some battle in which he had personally piloted a heavily damaged vessel of refugees to safe planetfall amid flames and panic. After more applause he declared, "Dinner is served!"
Chimes sounded and a flotilla of robots and human stewards bearing gleaming platters erupted from hidden alcoves in the walls, descending among us in a horde to dispense salad and soup.
"The soup is delightful!" exclaimed Eve.
"Quite so," agreed Prandon.
"Hey Simon," whispered Pish. "They're right."
And they were. The main course was likewise excellent. Even the dog's meal smelled good enough to taste, though I didn't do so on Pish's advice. The Thrustworths asked me about farming on Samundra, and I muddled through my responses awkwardly. Their smiles were becoming increasingly strained. "My ways must seem very provincial to you, I apologize," I offered.
"Not at all," said Eve, smiling with her mouth but not her eyes. Her expression further faltered as she detected Fartles' latest contribution to the ambience.
"Bad dog," whispered Pish.
In fact, Fartles' rectal missives were travelling far beyond our own little table, their effects making their appreciation plain through the crinkled noses and waved hands at one table after another, describing the flow of blown air through the hall. As I observed the phenomenon I noticed how our aged captain and distinguished host seemed to relish the scandalized squawks of the acolytes crowding around him to talk as he ate. He chuckled around his fork and kept right on eating, nodding sympathetically to whoever had his ear.
Come dessert the Thrustworths suggested reluctantly that we join them for a cocktail in the lounge, and seemed enormously relieved when we declined. Pish and I were on a mission to meet the author of tonight's delicacies: as soon as our places were cleared and the crowd began to thin we dashed after one of the busboys into the byways behind the alcoves. Jeremiah followed at a patient distance.
When we came to the ante-kitchen a maroon robot held up his arm and declared that guests were not permitted beyond. "I want to see the chef!" I called until one of the human stewards intervened. "I want to see the chef," I told her.
"The chef is very busy," she replied curtly.
"We want to pay homage to an artist."
She sniffed. I opened my mouth to speak again but she turned on heel and muttered, "Won't you come this way?" as she disappeared around a corner. Pish, Fartles and I scampered after her. We were led through steaming kitchens and a massive pantry, finally presented before a great round tank from which extended a battery of metal arms lying relaxed against the polished floor. "The maestro," our hostess declared as she departed.
Inside the tank stood a creature covered in white hair, from its powerful-looking grasshopper-like legs to its twin sets of long, multi-jointed arms. Its face was much like the head of a horse, but with two wide, wet blue eyes set in front. In place of its mouth was a stretched, spongy-looking web of membranes which flexed as it breathed. The creature turned to gaze at me.
"Hello," I stammered. "My name is Simon." After a moment I added, "But my friends call me Hellig."
The creature blinked, its lids flitting horizontally twice in quick succession.
"My colleague and I wanted to compliment you on a masterful repast," I said, gesturing at Pish and smiling. Pish waved. Fartles farted. Jeremiah stood mutely by the wall. I continued, "You are an artist, er, sir, and it has been our privilege to partake."
The creature stirred. As it moved toward the glass it blinked quickly, its lashes resting once it settled closer to us. Its mouth flexed, exuding multiple streams of coloured vapour. A voice spoke from a speaker on the side of the tank: "My thanks are to you for troubling to mention your appreciation."
I glanced at the speaker and then looked back to the maestro. "May I ask you something? It may sound funny to you, but I've been through a bit of an ordeal and my memory isn't what it should be."
"I would be pleased to consider any question," said the speaker as the maestro jetted its coloured vapours into the tank's air.
"You're not a human being, of course."
"No. You call us Pegasi."
"Can you taste our food?"
"No, dear Hellig. I cannot even tolerate your atmosphere."
"So how, may I ask, do you perform your art?"
The maestro stirred and its membranous mouth quivered in a peculiar way. "To every art there is an aspect of science," pronounced the speaker; "and so to every science there is an aspect of instinct. Where the twain meet a mathematician might become a master chef, such as I have become: honored to please you."
"The honor is ours," I said reverently.
A coarse cackle sounded behind me. Captain Gold himself was leaning against one of the gleaming metal counters, fishing bits of chopped fruit out of a large bowl. "You're a courteous one, aren't you Mr. Apples?" said the captain, his mouth full of pulp. To the maestro he called, "The junnimeres were off a bit tonight, huh?"
"I'm sure you cleared your plate, fat man."
"Go to bed. You're getting cranky. You know damn well you used too much coriander."
"Sputter on my fumes, my friend," suggested the speaker while the maestro's mouth quivered again.
"Ah faeces," laughed Captain Gold. "He's the second best chef in the galaxy, that Pegasi bastard," he said to me.
"Who's the best?" asked Pish.
"Master Duncan Menteith, naturally," replied the captain without hesitation. "They tried to get him for us, but he wanted too much damn money."
Pish winked at me but I gestured at him to keep cool. Fartles farted again, and I apologized on his behalf.
Captain Gold laughed. "You don't have to apologize for that dog, Mr. Apples. He provided me with ample entertainment throughout my chore, making those buzzards cringe." He chuckled again as he shuffled over to Fartles and scratched him behind the ear. "Attaboy," said Captain Gold. Then he looked up. "Why don't you join me in my quarters for a drink?"
Jeremiah took Pish back to our cabin but Fartles and I elected to accompany the friendly old captain back to his rooms, which were ample and stuffed with trophies and holograms of younger versions of himself shaking hands with people of import. A great circular window looked out over the ship, the ruddy crescent of massive Aramaiti dominating the view.
"Yes, my view looks backward," the captain declared, intercepting my gaze as he crossed the room to tinkle glasses at his bar. "Fitting for a captain such as myself -- to see only where we've already been."
"Is this not a grand castle?" I asked as handed me a drink. I sipped it experimentally. "Forgive me, but I rather took it your post was highly esteemed."
The captain chortled. "Are you kidding me, Mr. Apples?"
"Please, call me Hellig."
"Hellig then, fine. Call me Tallum. Do you need another drink? I do. Listen, Hellig: my job here is to host the same insipid dinner parties over and over again. I make windy speeches about things that may or may not have ever happened...I honestly don't remember anymore which parts I've made up. I'm just a prop for the tourists. I don't even know the name of whoever it is that steers this damned hotel. I can assure you that I am never consulted on any issue, great or small."
I considered this for a moment. "How did you end up in this predicament, if I may ask, Captain?"
"An unlucky combination of famous and lazy," he grunted, winking at me as he upended a bottle into his glass. "What's your story, Hellig?"
"Would you believe that I lost my memory when I stepped through a hyperspatial gate?"
"No. Would you believe that I'm going to save the galaxy in an unlikely way with the help of a plucky companion?"
"Forget it. I don't even have a plucky companion anymore." He gestured vaguely toward a framed holograph of a running spotted dog. "Tell me my friend: did you really lose your memory? Like in the pictures?"
"Honestly, Tallum. I'm an idiot." I sipped my drink.
"So," he grinned. "You could be anyone, eh? Maybe you're March Peebles himself!"
"March Peebles!" crooned Captain Gold. "The wealthiest man in the galaxy, who spends his days in one disguise or another dispensing philanthropic surprises to those he deems most needy." He gave me a sidelong glance, "Ringing any bells, Hellig?"
I shrugged and smiled. "They tell me my name is Simon."
"Simon, huh? Maybe you're one of the Wandering Jews!"
"What's a Jew?"
The captain gaped at me melodramatically, rolled his eyes and then tossed back his drink. "What's a Jew? What's a Jew, he asks? I'm a Jew, Hellig -- or Simon, or March Peebles, or whoever you might be."
I smiled hesitantly. "It's a sort of space captain, then?"
He laughed uproariously, clapping me on the back and causing me to spill my drink. He apologized and poured me another. I already felt a tingling warmth spreading through my body but I accepted it anyway.
"The Jews are a people, sir," Captain Gold intoned as he regained himself. "One of the oldest peoples there is. I trace my blood to the tribes of Old Earth."
"Was Earth a world at the Solar star?"
"Was Earth a world at the Solar star?" he echoed incredulously, gesturing in the air. "Is down the direction my pants go when I unhitch my belt? My God Hellig, you really don't know a thing."
I shrugged. "My curse and my charm, sir."
"I'll drink to that," he announced, downing another. He rolled the empty glass between his fingers and cast his gaze out upon Aramaiti on the velvet. "You've got to find out who you are, my friend. A man is only as strong as his roots. And every man's roots go back to Old Earth, only most suffer in ignorance of it."
I sipped my drink again, the stars beyond the glass seeming to wheel around me. "Tell me something, will you Captain? What happened to the Solar star? How did it die?"
The captain poured himself another drink. "Men killed the star, with the Secret Mathematic." I looked at him inquiringly so he continued, "When all humankind still lived at Sol, a mathematical framework was developed which modelled the universe so accurately that figures described with its calculus had the unusual property of actualizing in real space. Do you follow me?"
"I'm afraid I don't."
"Imagine a man throws a ball, and you write a sentence about it. Now imagine if writing a sentence about it caused a man to throw a ball. To decree it is to create it: fiat lux!" He chuckled ruefully. "There was once a mighty empire at Sol, whose armies marched over the face of every planet and moon, bringing all people together under a common yoke of fear. That empire was called Mars, and the Secret Math was her brainchild."
"This power was misused?"
He sighed. "It's the human race, what do you think?"
"I rather took it that humans were largely a noble creature, that is until recently."
Captain Tallum Gold guffawed. "Only a man with no memory could I hear this from! My friend, we are dogs. We are beasts. We screw and we eat and we pray, we sin and we die. How do you think it is that a race rises to colonize a galaxy?"
"I don't know."
"We are predators, my dear Hellig, and never forget that. We conquered first one globe, and then another. How did we do this, you ask? We rose up among the other animals, and we ate them." He snorted. "Then we paved cities over their graves and flew away. The point is that no beast can escape his nature, and however you might dress it up, our race thrives on blood."
A chilling notion. I drained my glass. Fartles passed wind gustily and the captain laughed. I yawned and then caught myself before falling off my chair. "I think I should say good night," I said weakly.
"Promise me you'll come again, Mr. Apples," said the captain, standing up woozily and shaking my hand warmly. "I should very much like to chat again with someone who is not a rich corpse from Eridani or another foppish dilettante from Dzigai!"
I promised him I would, and them stumbled back to my cabin. Fartles helped me along through the freefall tunnel, and without too much injury I found my way to bed. I fumbled through my pockets and extracted my diary, propping it on the pillow for me to mutter into.
I go to dream. Might I be the like of March Peebles? Pish's breath blows away at Fartles' lingering gas. I'm giddy, and nothing I think makes sense. Is this what they call drunkenness? Grant me peace from getting out of bed to urinate again!