I have spent the whole of the last three days with my charming and wise friend Corinthia Tag, which is why I was surprised when she did not turn up for tea in the sun-lounge as has been our private custom. I came to her cabin and my plate told me she was there. I signalled, and was admitted.
Corinthia looked up at me amid a stack of plates and reams of wafers, disposable cups and tissues strewn about the floor. She seemed exhausted and was smiling bleakly. "Have I missed breakfast, dear Simon?"
"I've been up all night," she said, standing up slowly and brushing off the front of her baggy sweater. "I'm a mess," she said, and then laughed hollowly. Her voice was strained and rough.
"Are you well, Corinthia?"
She sighed and closed her eyes for a moment, then stood straighter and regarded me again. "I have made a surprising discovery. I had to confirm my hunch. It took a long time, but I'm right."
"Right about what?"
"Your friend. Duncan Menteith." She paced in a small circle with her hands on her hips before facing me again and grinning in a crooked, sad way. "It's him!"
"Corinthia, you're scaring me," I said, touching her shoulder. "Him who?"
Her eyes misted. "Volmash!" she cried. "Terron Volmash! Who else?"
Mother of love!
Corinthia stiffly begged off to perform her morning ablutions and returned a quarter hour later in a more composed state. She told me she should like to take breakfast as usual. She claimed having something in her belly would do her a world of good. I took her arm and escorted her. She bantered about trivia all the way, laughing nervously.
Over crumpets she suddenly blurted, "You've been a guest in his house!" and started to quietly cry. "You've touched him," she whispered with barely restrained revulsion.
It was the height of morning tea. The sun-lounge was packed. Many people turned to look at us, and to whisper at the lady's apparent breakdown. Corinthia noticed this and swallowed hard as she blinked, tucking back into her composure with white knuckles.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Saviour, Simon!" she breathed, piercing me with her green eyes. "I liked to play at being a noble part of the Recovery. I was titillated by feeling important when I rifled through foreign libraries, bent by a high cause." She laughed in an unhealthy way. "Vanity! When the real thing lands in my lap all I want to do is throw up."
I touched her forearm and in response she clutched my hand in both of hers, clammy and shaking. I didn't mean to speak but I found my mouth moving: "He was...just a man. I thought...I thought he was the most decent man I knew."
"The Citadel of the Recovery has made no statement, but if what you say is true -- if he's been taken by Militia Samundra -- they must know by now."
A wave of murmuring through the patrons behind me caused me to turn; Captain Gold was pushing hurriedly between the tables, his eyes fixed on me. "Hellig!" he mouthed quietly but beseechingly. "I need you! Come on! And your lady friend -- come now!"
"What's the matter, Tallum?" I asked as he propelled the two of us out of our seats and chased us toward the exit.
In the hall outside the sun-lounge he wheeled on us with wide eyes. "You have to help me! I can't face it alone!"
"What is it, Captain?" Corinthia asked, taking his hand, her grief and shock transformed to compassion in a blink.
Captain Gold threw up his hands dramatically. "Brunch with anuses!" he cried in an agonized voice.
We followed him across the hall to the anteroom of the Captain's Lounge into which he disappeared. Corinthia grabbed my arm as I moved to follow him. "Simon -- will...the boy be there?"
"Do you mean Pish? I doubt it. Why?"
She dropped her eyes.
"Mother of love, Corinthia!" I cried. "He's just a boy. Would you condemn him for his father's crimes?"
"I don't know. I'm sorry. I can't do this now."
"Okay," I said.
Just then Captain Gold threw open the door, grabbed us both by the elbows, and hauled us bodily into the hazy and babble-filled air of the mahogany-panelled lounge. We were immediately set upon by the Thrustworths. "Ah, the captain's returned -- splendid!" declared Prandon, his white moustache twitching.
"We're ever so glad we could arrange this delightful brunch," oozed Eve, clapping her gloved hands.
Captain Gold's head sagged back and he rolled his eyes at me comically before springing up before the Thrustworths like an excited puppy to pump their hands enthusiastically. "It's an honor to make time for such distinguished guests such as yourselves, my friends!" he cheered. To me he whispered: "Order one of those robots to mix my breakfast punch with vodka, please. Very strong."
When we were ranged around the oval table I counted seven: Captain Gold, Corinthia Tag, myself, Prandon and Eve Thrustworth and a couple introduced as the Rouleighs of Rouleigh: two bald women with tiny, twin round plates affixed before their eyes by a brass clasp on the bridge of the nose; through transparent from my point of view I could see the ghosts of the display reflected on their dark irises. Long, yellow wires dangled from their mouths, the drooping ends emitting steady streams of fume.
As food was served by a quintet of robots with polished wooden carapaces the Thrustworths begged the captain to regale us with a war story so, after casting a pained look at me hidden behind his cup as he drank, he cleared his throat and detailed an adventure in which he had purposefully driven the half-exploded carcass of a navy frigate into a Kamari space-station, and somehow lived to tell about it.
Eve's applause was muffled by her white gloves. "Oooh, how marvellous!"
"It was for that manoeuvre that you received the Twelvefold-spangled Star from Her Majesty Herself, was it not?" prompted Prandon with a wink.
The captain ceremoniously pointed to one of the sparkling baubles attached to his ridiculous uniform, stuffed somewhere between the golden braiding, the flares of his massive epaulettes, and a crust of other medals. The Rouleighs leaned in across the table, their cheeks glowing with the readout through their lenses. "Quite proper, quite proper," they twittered.
Over coffee the captain attempted to deflect attention from himself by asking the guests about their journeys. "You're a schoolteacher are you not, madam?" he said, and I noticed Corinthia flinch.
She cleared her throat. "Yes, Captain. I teach children on Annapurna."
"How wonderful!" declared Prandon. "If only more educators would take your initiative and work on a pioneer world -- for it is they who benefit the most, by feeding their growing culture with enlightenment instead of ignorance."
He winced then, and I believe Eve kicked him under the table. "Stop flirting!" she hissed.
"Quite proper," agreed one of the Rouleighs. "Just efforts need be applied to persuade the pioneer not to be overtaken by the rudeness of her life."
"Quite proper," agreed the second Rouleigh. "When one lives close to the ants one must endeavour not to forget the sky."
"What brought you to Samundra, madam?" asked the captain, draining his cup and signalling for the robot to pour him more punch.
"I..." Corinthia smiled nervously. "I was following some research for the Recovery."
Eve squealed. "How very noble! Prandon and I are also a part of the Recovery effort."
"Indeed," agreed Prandon, twirling one end of his moustache between his thumb and finger. "We give very generously. It's something that affects us all, naturally. There are some in my circles who consider the Recovery an extravagance, but Eve and I would have difficulty calling ourselves truly galactic-minded were we not contributors."
"An extravagance?" echoed Corinthia. "Is the healing of a civilization extravagant? Is the bringing to justice of -- of monsters extravagant?"
"My woman," said the first Rouleigh with a patronizing smirk, "there will always be monsters among men. One mustn't get caught up in any particular tragedy lest one desires to pass all her days with bile in her heart."
Corinthia blinked and shook her head. "With all respect, Rouleigh, what did the Horror mean to you?"
"We do not subscribe to telepresentations," replied the second Rouleigh haughtily. "While our hearts go out to those who suffered, to us it was largely a matter of economic inconvenience -- now at last self-correcting, thank goodness. Bless the market."
"Bless the market," agreed Prandon.
"Quite proper," said the first Rouleigh.
There was an awkward silence. Corinthia bowed her head, and I was worried about her. As I reached over to touch her shoulder she looked up with a new light in her eyes, her jaw set and her nostrils flared. "To me, ladies and gentlemen, the Horror demonstrated the depths of compassion this galaxy has to offer. To me the Horror demonstrated that the Solar organism can react to infection, and purge it through concerted will. To me the Horror showed me hope, by pitting us all against hopelessness."
"So it was a kind of blood-soaked blessing, in your view?" asked Prandon pointedly.
Captain Gold laughed uproariously. We all turned to stare. He stood up from the table shakily, clutching a cup of punch in each hand. He drained them one after the other as he shuffled around the length of the table, his chuckles becoming dry and forced. He paused at the door, shaking his head. "You people are fornicated," he pronounced loudly, spittle flying from his beard. "The only thing the Horror taught us was the depth of God's apathy."
He pushed through the door and was gone.
"Oh, dear," said Eve.
I escorted Corinthia back to her cabin in silence. She told me she wanted to lie down a while. I somehow found my way on autopilot back to our own cabins, where I discovered Pish and Jeremiah giving Fartles a bath in the washroom. Captain Gold was sitting on lid of the toilet, drinking from a tall bottle. "Hellig!" he greeted me, and then fell off the toilet.
We all helped scrub the dog for a while, bubbles drifting through the air when Fartles shook or wagged his tail. When the captain finished his bottle he rolled up his sleeves and started lathering the dog's belly. "Atta boy," the captain told him. "Who's a good dog?"
I wandered out into the sitting room and Pish followed me. "Are you okay, Simon?" he asked.
I sat down and he walked up next to me, a smear of soapy foam obscuring the freckles on one cheek. I tousled his hair affectionately. I was trying to reconcile two bits of information that had floated up together to the surface of my mind: how could it be that Duncan and Pish had been "on the run for nearly his whole life" if Pish was around nine years old and the Kamari Horror had taken place only five years ago?
"How old are you, Pish?"
"Where did you live before you lived on Samundra?"
"I've always lived on Samundra."
"On Duncan's farm?"
"Yeah. Ever since I was born. How come?"
I shook my head dismissively. "Nothing. Forget about it."
Pish skipped back to the washroom. I followed him with my gaze and found my eyes locked on Jeremiah, standing just outside the washroom door. A beat passed before the blue-green robot turned around and followed Pish inside.
I don't know what to think.
Could the greatest chef in the galaxy have somehow also been modern history's worst monster? Could the man I felt to be almost like my father be the devil himself? How does Pish fit into it all?
This day has drained me of life, and it's only now just past lunch.
One thing has been decided: I cannot drift, not in a galaxy so complicated and frightening. Every man needs an anchor. If the issue was ever really in doubt it has now been resolved -- when we reach Annapurna we will take a gate to Maja. On my own terms and in my own way, I mean to return Nestor Simonithrat Fell to his life.
If Pish truly is ignorant of his father's crimes, I mean to make sure he remains so sheltered forever.
Corinthia is right: the fruit of tragedy is our compassion. Great evil can be a catalyst for true nobility. In a galaxy Terron Volmash has rent asunder, I will do what I can to make sure one little boy's heart stays pure.
Home is where we're going now. Home.