Annapurna! I have never seen its like.
We are still four days from port and the world remains small to the naked eye, but two nice kids I met in the rotating observation gallery this afternoon showed me how to key up a magnification window on my plate. Within a ring of tiny numbers the blue-purple disc leapt forward to become a great globe: bronze continents outlined by rusty seas, girdled in a torn white blanket of clouds that turned blue toward the planet's limb. The poles were frosted white tinged with yellow.
"Why are the edges blue?" I asked. "Everything is so orange."
The kids shrugged. I looked over at their white and red robot, who returned my gaze impassively. "It may be a trick of the light, sir," it contributed lamely.
I frowned. I noticed next that while the burnished coin visible behind the circle of magnification was a half-orb, cast partly in shadow, the image displayed through my plate was lit on its face, Aino's light sparkling the reflections of hundreds of tiny copper lakes. Rivers ran green, mixing with the tawny oceans in cloudy whorls at wide deltas. The crinkles of mountains were gold and red, the plains between them a fungal confluence of amber and violet. There was nothing in the image to suggest the presence of Solar life beyond a crust of grey smudges gilded by vibrant green, a thin border fringing the continents.
When I carelessly let my plate fall off-target the image thereupon spun and wheeled, Annapurna cantering out of view and being replaced by what I can only gather my plate imagined to be the next most proximate object of interest: a star with a diffuse halo and a long, wet-looking tail spraying out behind it. "What's that?" I asked.
"You are looking at the Comet Busson, magnified one hundred times," replied my plate crisply.
"What's a comet?" The plate remained silent. The two kids were screwing around at the other end of the deck, so I turned my attention to their robot again. "Would you mind telling me what a comet is?"
"Sir, a comet is an astrophysical phenomenon."
I blinked. "Okay. Is it a star?"
"I beg your pardon sir, I do not know."
"Why does it have a tail?"
"I beg your pardon sir, I do not know."
"When was the world of Annapurna established?"
"I beg your pardon sir --"
I held up my hand. "Nevermind."
There was a lot on my mind. Over breakfast with Corinthia we had discussed the issue of Pish. I told her that I would give her anything to keep the secret of his identity. How could Pish's soul be darkened by events he never knew? What profit would there be in seizing him from my custody? What part of the Recovery benefitted from this piece of the puzzle?
"Enough Simon, enough," Corinthia had said wearily, pushing her meal away. "I know you love him. And I think you're a good man. I don't know what I'm supposed to do, but I know what I will do."
"I will turn my back." She swallowed. "We never met, you and I." She stood up and put down her napkin. "It has so charmed me to meet you, and I will remember our time together always," she said in a strained voice, and then fled my cabin.
I sat by myself for a long while. I used my plate to try to hail her, but all I got was a message saying, "Passenger Tag does not wish to be disturbed at this time."
I poked at cold eggs with my fork.
In the late afternoon I went to the gymnasium with Captain Gold, Pish and Fartles but I found their laughter only deepened my lugubrium. I waved and smiled each time Pish swooped by on the ferris wheel, his high-pitched giggles interspersed with cries of, "Look at me, Simon!" Birds fled from his yelps and congregated near the ceiling, chirping indignantly.
I slipped out my plate and spent some time looking at the images of my wife and my two children. I tried to look into their recorded eyes and feel the same thrill and bond I felt at Pish's careless smile. Suddenly the idea of meeting them and feeling that kind of love bloom for them did not seem so alien or intimidating to me anymore. Would they too, like Pish, look to me as protector and friend? Would they seek solace burying their faces in my neck as they slept?
It wouldn't be so bad, I reasoned.
I looked up to see Pish at my side. "Is that your family?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied, nodding and putting my arm around him. "I should think they will be very pleased to have you as their brother."
Pish stared into the picture for a while, returning my hug. "And then you're never going to go away right, Simon?"
"No sir," I told him. "I will always take care of you, Pish."
He ran away to join Fartles running through the grass near where the captain was lounging at the bar, ordering himself a drink. I waved to him and he saluted back at me comically. Because I could not see him anywhere else I knew that Jeremiah was standing at my elbow. I turned around.
"You're a sneaky one, Jeremiah," I said, putting away my plate.
"Sir," he replied evenly.
Birds chirped. I saw Pish, Fartles and the captain round the corner out of view, walking up the curved floor toward the merry-go-round. A moment later its gay calliope could be heard in the distance. "Jeremiah," I began, eyes still cast away from him, "would you mind telling me what a comet is?"
"A comet is a relatively small extraplanetary body consisting of a frozen mass of water and carbon dioxide, typically moving in a highly elliptical orbit after being plucked by gravitational shearing from the diffuse corona of debris that surrounds a star after its formation."
I nodded. "I see. And why does it have a tail?"
"The stellar wind vapourizes the outer layer of the comet at perihelion, drawing out the material in a long tail directed opposite the star."
I nodded again. "You're a very knowledgeable robot, Jeremiah. Are all robots as knowledgeable as you are?"
"Each according to his specialty, sir."
"Indeed," I agreed. "And what is your specialty, Jeremiah? Astrophysics?"
"My programming is general, sir, in order to better serve the curiosity of my young ward."
"So robots who look after children have access to lots of general information, so you can field their questions?"
"That is correct, sir." I pondered this for a moment. "And yet..." I chuckled drily. "And yet every robot with whom I've spoken on this castle seems to be an idiot -- even those who watch children."
Jeremiah said nothing.
"These are perhaps less expensive models than you?" I prompted, looking into his black eyes. "Inferior products?"
"Perhaps," said Jeremiah.
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
"I think that you are an unusual robot. Admit it!"
His black eyes remained fixed on mine. "Sir?"
"Are you really going to try to persuade me, Jeremiah, that your wide knowledge, your grasp of subtleties, and your habit of killing those who would oppose you, represents the normal state of servant robotics in the galaxy? Were I to go into the robot shop in the galleria and ask for a model with your abilities, would the sales staff laugh at me?"
"I don't know, sir."
"They would," I shot back. "In fact, they did." I played my fingers against each other pensively. "Perhaps you're malfunctioning. Perhaps I should have an engineer examine you." I looked at him inquiringly.
"Sir," the robot said after a pause. "You know I cannot allow that."
I nodded. "Yes, I do know that. Monkey knows that now too, doesn't he?"
Jeremiah shifted, but said nothing. "Speak!" I barked suddenly. "Or I swear we'll leave you behind."
There came an even longer pause. I looked back out across the gymnasium and saw Pish, Fartles and Captain Gold sauntering back toward us, eating ice cream cones. I started to get up to meet them but Jeremiah put his cool, blue-green hand on my forearm, the rubber pads of his palm resting on me with a gentle weight. "Sir," he said, "I am unusual."
"That much I know," I snapped. "Is that all you're willing to say?"
He hesitated again, in a very human way. "Know this if you must, sir," he said in a lower register, exerting a slight pressure on my arm. "I am your enemy."
My skin crawled beneath his grasp, and I wriggled free, a shiver running down my spine. "What do you mean?" I whispered.
"As long as you protect the child," he said evenly, "I cannot move against you."
Pish ran into our midst and hugged Jeremiah, spreading chocolate ice cream on his carapace and gushing about the kids he had met on the merry-go-round. Captain Gold was feeding the end of his ice cream to Fartles, who farted in enthusiastic appreciation and licked the captain's hands.
Throughout it all the black eyes of the robot remained locked on my own, a new dark understanding between us.