HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL
I have never been so tired in all my life.
I feel like I've been hit by a ton of bricks. In fact, I am a ton of bricks. Whatever else you may hear let me for one assure you with authority and conviction: gravity sucks.
Ahem. We have arrived on Annapurna.
There was an opulent banquet on the night before we left, and Captain Gold insisted Fartles sit by him so that he might enjoy the high comedy of the dog's various effluvia working their magic to bend the pretentions of the upper crust. Pish and I were also seated at the captain's table, which earned us venomous looks from the two displaced Rouleighs throughout the night. When one of them swept past me to have a word with Captain Gold she hissed, "Improper!" in my ear.
The captain slapped the Rouleigh on her ass, which caused her to shriek. Fartles barked and farted simultaneously, which caused the captain to explode into laughter. He spilled his drink on Prandon Thrustworth, who assured everyone that everything was fine as he grabbed the nearest crimson robot and shouted that a thousand hours' worth of fine pant fabric was at stake lest he quickly receive some water and lemon.
Pish gasped between giggles, slapping his thigh. "I love Captain Gold!" he declared breathlessly.
The Pegasi maestro of the kitchen made a brief appearance wearing a plastic suit and a bubble around his head. He received a standing ovation from the crowd, and by the looks of rapture on their faces I could pick out the handful of people who truly knew what they were applauding. Pish and I smiled and waved, and the maestro nodded gracefully in our direction. I was tickled pink.
Corinthia Tag was nowhere to be seen at the banquet, but we did see her the next morning as the crowds gathered in the debarkation lobbies, queuing up for planetfall shuttles. I glimpsed her just for a fleeting moment with a tear in her eye as she witnessed Pish's great act of nobility.
"Captain Gold," said Pish, drifting before us and hugging his dog. "I think Fartles wants to stay with you."
The captain didn't know what to say. His mouth worked awkwardly for a moment, then he grabbed Pish and pulled him into a tight hug that sent them both bouncing gently off the nearest bulkhead. Fartles kicked after them and yipped. I felt my eyes tickle, then moisten. What a generous spirit the boy has!
That's when I saw Corinthia. She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and pushed off the wall, disappearing into the babbling crowd by the lock. I did not follow her.
Before we boarded our own shuttle the captain embraced me and held onto my hands. "It has been a real pleasure to know you, Simon. I can't tell you what it means to be shaken out of my stupor by you and your boy. I will never forget you."
I smiled. "Thank you for everything you've done, Tallum, especially for Pish. We're going to miss you."
He separated himself from me roughly and held me at arm's length. "Now get going before I make an ass out of myself and cry!"
Once seated within the hard bubble of the shuttle we leaned over in our chairs to catch one last glimpse of Captain Gold and Fartles as the lock irised shut. Everybody waved, and Fartles barked. "That was a very kind thing you did for him," I said.
"The captain hurts," Pish said simply.
The orb of our shuttle detached from the lock, and Castle Misne began to slowly diminish from a wall of glowing ports to a humble bead of glimmering shadow hung in the vast folds of her iridescent sail. In time that too was lost to sight.
But on the opposite side of the sphere the world of Annapurna grew enormous as the hours passed, stripes of blue clouds crossing continents of copper and umber. In many ways the globe resembled Samundra, the world we had just left; but in other ways it was very different -- less green, smaller seas, and a broader limb that hinted at the world's true size.
"You are not incorrect, sir," Jeremiah said in reply to my questions. "The terrestrial world of Annapurna is many times larger in diameter than the jovian world of Samundra."
"And yet it is younger. Why was Samundra developed before Annapurna?"
"Annapurna required substantially more processing, sir, to meet Solar requirements. Both worlds were established within decades of one another, but the open air of Annapurna has only recently been rendered breathable."
"Fifty-six years, sir."
"How many people live down there?"
"Approximately fourteen million human beings, sir."
"Why so few?"
"It is a pioneer world, sir. The standard of living is low, and hence desirable to only a select kind of personality. Also, the economy and ecosystem could not support a greater population at this time. The building of worlds is a slow process, sir."
By that point Annapurna filled our vision. Our trajectory changed and the stars spun above us. I noticed one small grey moon, and then another. The barely discernable thrum of the shuttle's engines changed slightly as we began our gentle descent. Within ten minutes the stars were enveloped in a purple-blue haze, and then lost altogether behind the sky.
An uncomfortable weight settled into my stomach. I gripped the arms of my chair, my hands too leaden to lift. My feet had become glued to the carpet, and my head felt as if it were made of solid rock. I moaned. "What's happening?"
"Sir, as the shuttle's speed decreases and we descend deeper into the gravity well we are feeling the influence of Annapurna's mass."
I gritted my teeth, my heart pumping in my chest. "Is it like this because the world is bigger?"
"Yes sir. Local gravity is two and a half times greater than at Samundra. I regret any discomfort you may be experiencing."
With a grunt of effort I turned my head toward Pish. "How are you doing?"
"Okay," he said, breathing deeply. "How about you, Simon?"
I tried to force a smile. "I think I just wet my pants."
It turned out that I had not wet my pants, it just felt that way because of the unusual sensation of having all my bodily fluids drawn so aggressively toward whichever parts of me where pointing down. My bum felt strangely warm, for instance, and my shoes became too tight. I felt dizzy, and had difficulty keeping my head off my shoulder.
By the time we landed I was exhausted. I wasn't the only one. After the shield snapped off and a cold breeze started reaching in at us many of the people who rushed for the exits did so supporting their weight against a robot. Pish sat up on Jeremiah's shoulders and I held his arm, and in this ungainly fashion we limped to the end of the queue and filed out of the windy shuttle core.
The interior of the terminal shocked me, for I had never before been presented with a space that so totally locked out the exterior world. Even aboard Castle Mine there were windows, but once the terminal lock closed behind us the cold air disappeared along with the sunlight, sealing us inside a wholly civilized shell.
While we waited for our bag I tapped my wallet-tip to a colourful till covered in images of smiling dogs so that Pish could get a handful of candy. I got another handful for myself, biting into the shockingly sweet little nuggets with uncertain curiosity. "They lack subtlety," I commented.
"Yup," agreed Pish, crunching away at a small blue ball. "Let's get more."
The remarkable thing about eating the candies is that it gave me a funny sort of boost of energy. I felt I could stand up, and even move my arms a bit without panting afterward. Pish skipped around the baggage reception lobby carelessly, and introduced himself to some guy's dog.
Jeremiah collected our bag from the conveyor and waited patiently at my side while I flashed my plate around. "So, property of Hellig Apples," I said, reading the label off my plate when it was pointed at him, "where do we buy our tickets for the gate?"
"Sir, Annapurna's Hyperspace Gate Hotel is located on the far side of the Thither Sea, by the city of Purandhi."
"On the far side of a sea?" I echoed, incredulous. "That's bloody inconvenient, isn't it?"
"It is the local government's desire that you engage the economy in more than one location, sir. Travel induces expenses."
"Bless the markets," I muttered darkly. "Alright, how do we get there? Can we take a taxi?"
"I imagine so, sir."
I nodded to myself, wheeling the plate around to my left until I saw a sign for taxicabs, the label reduced in size and blurred to represent distance. No matter how I played the screen about, however, I could not find a clear way to reach the cab bank. "Is this an attempt at further enforced consumerism?" I demanded finally.
"Yes and no, sir. It is not possible to leave the borders of the port without first purchasing a gun."
"A gun? Like a weapon?"
"Yes sir. All adult persons on Annapurna are obliged to carry a personal weapon. If one does not own a weapon meeting Annapurnese standards, a local gun must be purchased. It is the law."
And so with Pish riding again on Jeremiah's shoulders we passed into the gun shop nearest the taxi bank. We were greeted by a squat gentleman wrapped in layers of red leather, his long hair drawn up into a complicated figure atop his head. "Goodafternoon, good travellers: welcome to Annapurna! Are you shopping for modifications or fresh arms?"
Though it took me a moment to penetrate his accent I did grasp his basic meaning. "I need a gun, yes," I told him.
"And for the lad?"
"I think just the one gun for now, please."
"Very good! Right this way." He led us through a cluster of men in red leather longcoats with goggles on their foreheads to present a wall-sized display containing a bewildering assortment of guns on little pegs. The salesman gestured from one side to the other, explaining: "Toys and trinkets begin on the left, to serious pieces of military-grade hardware at the right. What's your rather, friend?"
"I should like something serviceable. I have to admit I really don't have a lot of experience with guns." As an afterthought I added, "Or with buying things."
He took me by the elbow and led me over toward the right side of the display. "Now this my friend is something no self-respecting Annapurnese dude would be caught dead without: the Kenning-Mantlewood Twin-Ion Repulso-Dagger Nine! I keep one of these gems in my very own bednest, I don't mind telling you. My wives say they sleep better, knowing it's there. And damn it, I do too."
"It seems awfully big," I noted.
"Not a problem, not a problem at all," he rushed ahead, pointing me toward another weapon a few columns to the left. "Over here we have one of the classics: the Smith-Shurtook Gentleman's Dueller. It's a looker and a fighter -- polished wood chassis, steel fixtures, totally liquid mechanism. My son keeps two of these over his mantel. Here: heft her."
He slipped the gun off its peg and ceremoniously handed it to me, butt first. I weighed it first in my left hand, and then in my right. "Which hand are you supposed to use it with?"
"Er, which handed are you?"
"I like my right hand a lot. I think it's smarter."
He licked his lips and flared his nostrils briefly. "If you don't mind my asking, how will you be paying for this?"
I slipped out my wallet, the look of which seemed to impress him. "How does it work?" I asked.
"You press the contact at your index finger. You can go ahead and press it now, friend. She isn't engaged."
I aimed the gun experimentally at the other guns is the display, depressing the little contact with my finger. It clicked in a snug, satisfying way. "So I just point it around and then something comes out of the end to hurt people?"
The salesman shifted awkwardly and blinked. "Er, yes. The rounds are generated back here, and then loaded into the magazine when they're mature. In summer you can usually squeeze off about a hundred before the gun needs to be watered. If you empty the chamber you'll have to wait a good ten minutes before the new bullets are hard."
"So they're all killing bullets, then? The gun has no other settings?"
"Settings?" he echoed, frowning. "Scat, boy! It wouldn't be a gun if it weren't for killing."
"I suppose not," I agreed, in order to be friendly.
Next I was outfitted with a red leather belt and holster, the end of which strapped around the top of my thigh to hold the gun securely. The salesman took me through engaging and disengaging the weapon's firing status, and showed me how to read the little floating bubble in the readout. "If you get stuck in the cold, inject a little antifreeze into the mix by squeezing this bulb," he explained, sliding back a lock on the top of the weapon and pointing inside.
"What about one of those coats? Do you sell coats like that?" I asked, indicating the red leather calf-length jackets worn by the other customers in the shop. They looked a lot like robes to me, though they lacked a sash to belt them.
"Sure thing, friend! I can fix you right up. Lift your arms so my robot can measure you."
And so we were outfitted for Annapurna: a red leather poncho and hood for Pish, and a red leather longcoat and hood for me. We also bought goggles, which the salesman assured us we would desire should we gain any taste of the outside. "If the glare doesn't get to you, the blowing sand will," he assured us. We got cool matching water canteens, too. And new boots.
I holstered my Smith-Shurtook and pushed the goggles up on my forehead. "Thank you very much for all your help, sir."
"I reckon the pleasure is all mine," said the salesman, grinning toothily.
I was all decked out but I felt less than a hero once the crushing combined weight of the gun, holster, goggles and longcoat sank into me. I propped myself up against Jeremiah while I negotiated payment, and then he more or less walked me out of the shop while Pish bobbed atop his shoulders.
The end of the terminal was bisected by an indoor glass-topped river. As we walked across its surface I saw that it churned not with water but rather millions upon millions of tiny insects. "What manner of river is this?" I asked Jeremiah.
"It is a highway for ants, sir, likely predating the construction of this port."
I stopped to marvel, as did other outlanders. A man lay down on the river's clear top and assumed a silly pose while his spouse held a camera out over him and laughed. A couple of kids were pressing their faces into the glass, mumbling to each other about what they saw. To Jeremiah I said, "Are they a revered animal on Annapurna?"
Jeremiah pointed to a wide banner hanging above the exit: a globe half-orange and half-blue, encircled by a fleet of ants on a bed of green. "That is the historical flag of Annapurna, sir. The ring of ants indicates pioneer status, in homage to the instrumental role their various species play in aerating the soil of new worlds. This flag is technically out of date as Annapurna has undomed, but history shows that new worlds often cling to their pioneer status for several generations until the open-air culture has matured." Seemingly as an afterthought he added, "The penalty for the purposeful destruction of ants is death."
"Death?" I echoed in disbelief.
"Here as elsewhere, the ant is a sacred creature, sir. Visible or not, they represent a massive share of any given Solar world's biomass, and are therefore among the most populous animals in the galaxy. The ant lies at the heart of a great deal of Solar symbolism, sir, dating back to Imperial Mars."
"Still...death," I murmured. "Goodness!"
We passed through the doors into the outside world and I reeled back against the sun, throwing my forearm up before my eyes as a shield. A frigid wind swirled around my head and roared in my ears, forcing me to hunch downward. Beneath my arm I saw Pish wearing his goggles. I reached up and pulled my own goggles down from my forehead and blinked with relief.
I raised my head again. The wind howled. Pish grabbed my arm and I grabbed Jeremiah. Flying sand swept in waves over the packed dirt ground, anyone further away than a few paces a blurry shadow behind the ochre veils of grit. I held up my plate and was thereby able to discern a row of taxicabs with glowing labels against the far side of a tarmac. They sat in a line in the lee of a row of craggy rocks, shown in an eerie green chiaroscuro on the screen.
"Warning," said the plate through my telephone, "visibility zero meters."
"Yeah," I grumbled, shivering. "Thanks."
Jeremiah limped us over to the first car in the line. The driver and I shouted over the gale back and forth until he understood we meant to hire him, then he opened the door and shouted that we should get in. With my teeth chattering I pushed Pish into the back and then gratefully dropped onto the soft, tattered seat beside him.
Then a monster ran up to me and ripped our luggage away, his hairy face peering at me behind yellow goggles as he hooted menacingly and flexed his fingers at me in what I could only assume was an insulting gesture. He slammed the door and vanished behind the car. "What was that?" I cried.
"Haven't you ever met any of the little people before?" asked the driver, closing his own door and pushing his goggles up onto his smudge-covered forehead as he drew back his hood. "Where are you fine folks flying in from?"
"Samundra?" He tousled his sand-coloured, sand-filled hair and then clapped his hands together to get the dust off them. "I have a nephew who moved to Samundra. I said, 'What's on Samundra that you can't get here?' and he said, 'Girls in bathing suits,' and I said, 'What can I say? You got me!' You know what I'm talking about, folks?"
"Um," I said. "Can you take us to the Hyperspace Gate Hotel?"
He chortled and grinned. "Where the hell else would you go? Okay: are we all harnessed in? Especially the kids now, the kids always have to be harnessed in. You harnessed in there, buckaroo? Pit and pat, we're halfway to hovering."
"How long will the journey take?"
"Cha, we'll get you to the oasis by bedtime and then it's just a hop, skip and jump beyond that tomorrow morning. You can be ready for gate-off before noon, as sure as sandwiches. Is your harness snug there, dude?"
"Yes, you already checked it."
"I won't apologize for being big on harnesses. They save lives, cha. Do you know what I'm talking about?"
"Okay," I agreed.
He leaned over and stuck his finger between my waist and the strap, and tugged. "Okay," he confirmed. "Let's rock and let's roll."
Jeremiah sat down in the passenger seat and told me our luggage had been stowed in the rear compartment, apparently by the "little person" who had menaced me moments ago. The driver hauled back on the steering bar and the taxicab lifted up into the sky with a graceless lurch, engines chortling loudly. All I could see beyond the windows were sheets of flying sand.
A buzzer sounded. "Imminent c-collision: evasive action re-recommended!" gurgled the dashboard in a wavery, stuttering voice.
The driver twisted the steering bar and we banked hard, a spherical shuttle orb sliding across our bow and showing our battered yellow car in its reflection. "Whoa-ho-ho!" sang the driver as he dove low, skirting the edge of the floating ferry and bouncing up on the other side of it. "That was close."
I wrapped my hands around my harness and pulled Pish closer to me.
After a few moments the flying grit outside the window thinned and we could glimpse the ground -- a maze of overlapping mesas of orange stone, coated in a slithering cob of swirling ochre sands. By pushing my head against the window I could just make out the shadowy cluster of buildings still engulfed in the storm behind us, the glint of passenger bubbles winking in the shifting light. All around us: nothing. Down below our diffuse shadow slipped over crags, canyons, piles of unfriendly rubble. "I thought we were flying over a sea," I said, raising my voice over the buzz of the engines.
"That's the Thither Sea," nodded the driver. "It should be wet any decade now."
I pushed my goggles up onto my forehead and blinked against the suddenly harsher sunlight. "What a world," I said.
"My name's Greskin Mile," said the driver, turning away from the dashboard and shaking my hand. "I'm a lawyer by trade, but I fly a cab on the side to make all the hours add up. It can be a long, lonely time between border disputes out here. You know what I'm talking about, folks?"
"Hello," I replied. "I'm He --"
I was cut off as the driver cried, "You're Nestor S. Fell, aren't you! Holy tuna, I knew I recognized your mug from somewheres."
"You...you know me?" I replied, stunned.
"Why, sure! I'm a shareholder in your corporation, Mr. Fell. I was a little concerned when you didn't show up to make your presentation at the annual general meeting last quarter, but I see now you're out in the worlds, laying low, no doubt sussing out the next big thing, eh? Am I right or am I right?"
I wiped my hand down my face, feeling numb. "So," I murmured aloud, "I'm real."
"Say again?" said Greskin.
"Tell me Mr. Mile, what does my corporation do?"
"Er -- make?" I guessed again.
"You're scaring me, Mr. Fell. Are you feeling okay?"
I leaned back in my seat. "I'll tell you in confidence, Mr. Mile: I've had a bit of an ordeal. I've been in a hospital on Samundra, and I'm now returning home to Maja."
"Why didn't you just gate-out at Thaumas?" he asked.
"Please don't pester me," I snapped. "My itinerary is complex, Mr. Mile."
"I'm sorry sir," said Greskin quickly. "My mouth gets carried away sometimes, yapping on of its own accord from a lonely habit. Sometimes it's a stretch between seeing faces around here, you know what I'm talking about?"
"Don't worry about it," I said, releasing him. I joined Pish in looking out the window, and allowed him to point out to me various amazing rock formations. The cab bucked a little in the wind, then settled again.
"Just over an hour til Xengai Oasis, folks," narrated Greskin, talking in the general direction of Jeremiah. "Darling place that is, I tell you. I bet lookers like you will have two girls on each elbow before supper, eh? Ladies for Mr. Fell and some fresh chicks for his young friend, cha. You're going to love it, lizards to lies."
At one point Pish spotted a cluster of tiny red dots, which Greskin identified for us as a herd of ruby cattle, a lichen-eating bovine engineered specifically for spreading germinating spores via its disproportionately large output of stool. "That explains the smell," I commented.
Far below, sand-dogs sprinted over the dunes and barked the cattle homeward. We flew on.
I was the first to spot the green spot up ahead -- a valley between cliffs exploding with trees and bushes, grass and fern. We circled over a cluster of green brass domes and puttered to a stop on a wide tarmac encircled by vine-covered walls. A squadron of squat, hairy fellows with long arms and pink faces ran over and erected a canopy over the cab as Greskin killed the engine.
I stepped out of the car. The air was chilly, and I pulled my longcoat tight. The hairy fellows ran up to me, each presenting a small patch of till on the sleeve of his jerkin. I looked back at Greskin inquiringly. "Am I to tip these...little people?"
"If you like service with a smile I'd advise it," nodded Greskin.
Each of the four little people's pink faces broke into a monstrously wide grin, exposing startlingly bestial teeth. I slipped my wallet over my finger and tapped each of their tills in turn, muttering subvocally into my telephone to negotiate the amounts. They flexed their fingers at me in a curious way and then bounded away, hooting. "Are they Solar?" I asked Jeremiah as he took our bag from the boot.
"Yes sir. Fellow apes. They are known as 'the little brothers of men.' Technically they are called Pan troglodytes sapiens."
"What was that funny thing they were doing with their fingers?"
"It a gestural language known as Common Sign Protocol, sir, used by the little people as they lack the vocal and neurological apparatus for speech."
"Are they intelligent? Or are they animals?"
Jeremiah paused, and seemed to consider this. "We are all of us animals, sir."
A rumble sounded behind me and I turned in time to see two great metal gates enclosing the far side of the tarmac begin slowly rolling apart, revealing a miniature sand-storm arising at the heels of forty tarnished robots, row upon row in yokes, leaning forward against the burden of a massive freight container with six giant wheels. At an invisible command the robots spun in concert and pushed on one another's backs, the final row pushing against the face of the freight container itself to fight its inertia. Tan clouds roiled out from the scene, obliterating it. When the dust settled forty robots stood before the parked freighter, waiting at their yokes.
I spotted the silhouette of a woman standing at the upper lip of the container. She yelped something into the breeze, and the robots all sat down cross-legged in perfect synchronicity. She then made for a tall ladder to begin her long climb down.
"Not a tourist, I take it," I said.
"No siree," agreed Greskin. "This oasis is a waystation for all kinds of business. There's always different sorts of folks around here, mixing around and mucking it up. Is your gun solid, dude?"
I tossed back one side of my longcoat and checked the gauge on the butt of the Smith-Shurtook. "It is indeed, Mr. Mile."
"So let's get gone like grasshoppers. This way, folks."
We passed within one of the great domes of the oasis, the bottom of which was open to the air but warmed by hot winds that came up through the tarnished green grilling that comprised the floor. Our boots clanged against the grille as it rang with the footfalls of the many others crossing the busy dome: men and women in red leather longcoats grabbing grub from canvas-stalled vendors, savage-looking wide-pawed dogs at their heels; little people scampering hither and yon burdened by luggage or trays of drinks; small knots of outlandishly dressed tourists holding closely together, looking nervously about and clutching tiny dogs to their breasts.
With Greskin Mile's help we arranged for hammocks hung in the updraft of a hot vent fed by an underground spring, and purchased paper sacks full of greasy, unidentifiable roots and beans topped with a reputedly nutritious but thoroughly repellent paste called boosk. Greskin pointed us down the path to our quarters and said, "I keep a shelf in the taxi bay; that's where I'll be if you need me. I'll be swinging by to pick you up once breakfast is wrapped tomorrow. Sleep well, folks!"
Pish and I ate our remaining candy in order to wash the foul waste of boosk out of our mouths, so we bid farewell to Greskin as we crunched. At the end of the path through the ferns we came to a column of open air surrounded by engineered trees with hammocks slung between them. Nests of vines interspersed between the layers of hammocking provided some small measure of privacy, and served as a net to catch lost personal articles. Of the sky I could see nothing.
We climbed a ladder to our assigned perch and settled into our hammocks. Jeremiah stood beside the ladder, arms at his sides, head slowly swivelling. Pish wanted to stay up and chat, but I was feeling enormously wearied after nearly a full day of fighting against Annapurna's merciless gravity.
Even my little diary was a cruel weight in my palm as I brought it up to lie in the hammock next to my face for easy dictation. Speaking of which, where was I? Right -- I was here. Here at the oasis hostel, hanging amid the vines and snores...
I was going to say something else, something that's been nagging at the back of my mind. Excuse my yawning. Mother of love I'm so tired!
I was going to say...