A MEEK CANCER
A young maid woke me up to inform me in broken language it would now be my special privilege to be washed in dung.
"I'm sorry?" I said.
On the way outside the cave Greskin Mile the limping lawyer-cum-taxicab driver explained to me that the Ruffians had been moved by the recounting of my adventures last night, and that they wanted to make us all honorary members of their clan. This would involve several noxious rituals, including a ceremonial public bathing in the sanctified dung of a rare silver cow.
"It smells," complained Pish.
"Keep smiling," I reminded him. "If you need a laugh just look over at Jeremiah."
Indeed, there was something in the blue-green robot's posture that suggested his dignity was being tested by being slathered in manure by the painted hands of chanting desert Ruffians. Pish giggled.
When that unpleasantness was concluded we were escorted by the chief deep into the heart of their network of caves, an electric torch on the end of his spear casting a spotlight on a series of vast murals painted upon the face of the rock. He detailed a thoroughly incomprehensible history of various bloodlines, which concluded in the sad tale of a princess born sickly whom strangers were prophesied to heal.
"That's very interesting," I noted. The chief said nothing, waving us onward into a further chamber.
The air was cool, moist and clean. Beds of rosy mosses covered every section of the rock cavern, and water was running down the walls. Amidst a cluster of torches lay a thin, pale girl with her hands upon her breast as it rose and fell with a laboured rasp. Her arms and legs were discoloured by ugly bruises, her eyelids blue and jittering over her eyes. "My daughter," pronounced the chief solemnly.
"The princess?" I gaped, walking slowly toward the girl in the bed of red moss. As I tread upon the soft floor it exuded clouds of cool vapour. "What's wrong with her?"
Greskin slipped a small device from his bag and held it over her forehead. It chirped, and he withdrew it to examine its glowing screen.
"Is that the compass again?" I asked.
"No siree," said Greskin, removing a second device from his satchel and touching it against the girl's neck. She stirred, and it left a little red prick. "First aid kit," he said, head bent over the second device. He turned to the chief. "She has cancer," he said. "Leukemia, most likely."
"Cancer!" whispered the chief, making an elaborate sign with his fingers. "Perverse life."
Greskin put his devices away. "You have to get her to a hospital, in the city. You know what I'm saying? They can cure her, right as rain."
The chief shook his head. "No hospital."
Greskin sighed. "What I wouldn't do for a batch of fixers!"
In reply Pish pulled an oval green package out from under his poncho. "Will Glory's fixers do, Mister?"
"How do you have that?" I snapped.
"Glory said I should have them," he defended himself sullenly.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I just -- I'm just surprised she gave them to you."
"She said she was worried about me."
I said nothing.
"She said I might need them more badly than she would," he added, handing the box to Greskin.
Greskin opened the box and released the fleet of tiny metallic bugs upon the reclined girl's face. They dispersed over her body, some of them crawling inside her mouth and disappearing. Reminded of the thug dying under a blanket of ants yesterday, I was forced to look away.
"Will she be healed?" I asked.
"Cha, sure," shrugged Greskin. "What's a cancer to civilized folks? I have a pill for it at home."
An hour later when the princess revived she claimed she felt well and the chief rejoiced and hopped through the caves singing a loud and gay song. Pish laughed. "See Simon? You don't bring misery everywhere you go."
I put my hand on his shoulder and smiled, the chief's catcalls echoing away through the rocky corridors. "I guess not, Pish."
Attendants rushed to the side of the princess and cheered when she asked for some broth. Greskin, Pish, Jeremiah and I walked back toward the main chamber of the cave from which we could already discern the smell of breakfast. "Pish is right," I said to Greskin. "To these people we are magical."
Greskin snorted. "Their ignorance makes them suffer, hours to bones. They live like animals, dude. Of course a taste of civilization seems like magic to them. They should be living on Eden."
"A world without civilization: no science, no tea. The men and women on Eden live without knowledge of space, or culture. They die according to the seasons, like mice. They make religions out of tree stumps."
"Is it really so ignoble to die without television?" I said.
Greskin scoffed. "Ask that corpse of a girl what she'd be doing tomorrow, if we hadn't turned up and been sharp."
"They said it was a prophecy."
"They're primitives, dude. They have more prophecies than facts. Some poor lost loser probably gave one of their naked ancestors medicine four generations ago, and now they have a bloody legend about it. That's all there is to it. You know what I'm talking about?"
"I guess so," I conceded. "But one good turn deserves another. Perhaps these people can help us."
"Mr. Fell, these people can't even help themselves," declared Greskin with a wry smile. "There isn't anything on Annapurna's wide rusty horizon these Ruffians could do for me, lizards to lies."
Then he stopped short and I ran into him.
"My cab!" Greskin cried. He ran out across the bridge at the mouth of the cave, making a beeline for the carcass of his yellow car as it was drawn into the shallow canyon by a team of six four-footed, wooly animals with great arched humps on their backs. "Oh, thank you!" crooned Greskin, jumping up and down as the parade came to a halt in a blossom of dust.
Two young braves hopped down off the roof of the taxicab, taking a moment to inspect the state of the four large wheels and carriage upon which the car sat. "P-parking surface unstable," said the taxi.
The chief appeared and embraced Greskin, and then me. "We will see you to Purandhi. It is the least we can do, honored healers and adventurers Greskin the Negotiator and Simon of Space!"
And so that is the way that we ended up riding through the desert on the roof of Greskin Mile's battered taxicab, pulled by a train of furry beasts which I learned are called camels, who store fat in the humps on their backs as a form of mobile provision. They snorted and balked at first, but once we were underway the creatures settled into a steady if slow rhythm, leading the wooden-wheeled unflyable car between the dunes and across the Thither Sea.
The chief rode with us, as did an incantation-muttering crone who shook her beads at all we passed.
"One day all of this will be rolling green grassland," said Greskin, sweeping his hand across the dunes. He cast his sight at the horizon dreamily and added, "And my kids will go into real estate law."
The crone crossed her legs and leaned against the chief's back. I saw her pluck the mangled scrap of an ant from the bottom of her foot. She saw me staring. "Don't be troubled," she said. She wore a broad hat, and her eyes were hidden behind a narrow band of crystal framed by wicker.
"I thought the killing of an ant was a crime."
"All things die, Simon of Space. That is the way. One cannot hesitate to tread for fear of that which dies beneath one's feet. Willful killing is another matter altogether."
Greskin chuckled. "Intent. You're talking about intent. But you can't always know."
The crone arched her brow beneath the crystal. "The ants know."
"Ants are insensible things," argued Greskin. "There is no rationality, or judgement, cha."
"Ants are insensible things," she agreed; "but ant colonies are not. Some of the colonies here are thousands of years old. They can taste your air through their bodies, and thereby know your mind. I am a medicine woman, and these things have been demonstrated to me beyond doubt."
"Medicine?" echoed Greskin with a smirk. "Well, there's that and there's this. Just another tree stump so far as I'm concerned, ma'am. You can worship whatever fills your sail -- that's what makes the galaxy great."
"Faith is a hole that cannot be filled with artifacts," warned the crone. "Without it we are no better than robots."
"Faith makes lemmings jump off cliffs," he countered with a grunt. "And we are robots, only most of us are too wooly to know it." He tossed his feet over the side of the cab and turned decisively away.
The barren desertscape was broken after an hour by a pall of cloud that seemed to rise from the ground itself. As we plodded forward a great anvil-shaped structure rose beneath the roiling column of white smoke as it spread out with the wind in a long, blurry line. "What's that?" I asked.
"The big smoke, where the oxygen moss grows," said the chief. "Each season we clear it from the vents, and make an offering of calf."
"It is an atmospheric processing station, sir," supplied Jeremiah quietly. "There are hundreds such facilitaties spread over the surface of Annapurna, concentrated somewhat around the cities."
Indeed as the cold, bright day wore on we passed half a dozen more giant anvils at the base of flourishing trees of cloud. We passed through the wide shadows of the smoky pillars, shivering in the temporary drop in temperature. A crude road developed beneath us, hedged in by two sad rows of dead grass. Pish pointed out a car flying high above, and then another. We rounded a crest and suddenly the city of Purandhi was spread out before us -- a splatter of low, bright buildings girdling a dense, grey breast of urbanity. "Look," called Greskin. "You can still see where the post-dome construction begins. Quite a sight, eh, folks?"
Desert became countryside. Dunes gave way to the rectilinear paths of artificial rivers framing fields of green. Tall, splindly watering machines walked over the hills with seeming languor, passing their heads back and forth over the crops. Folk paused at the side of the road to watch us pass, marvelling as the Ruffians yelped ululating commands to drive on the camels, who snorted and farted and spat but carried on.
In this way we passed down the broad central boulevard of Purandhi, the grey towers rising like cliffs on either side of us. People stood at conifer-lined balconies to gape at our train, and children ran along beside us on the street. Some people eyed the Ruffians with open suspicion, kicking back the sides of their red leather longcoats and resting their hands on the butts of their guns. Most of the pedestrians simply stepped aside and smiled as we passed, shaking their heads in wonder.
We passed a burly, bearded man who was holding his finger up as if to hail a ride; a taxicab had landed behind him but he had not seen it as he turned to stare at our procession. Greskin called down to him, "I'm not taking fares right now. Maybe I can get you on the way back, cha?"
The camels stomped to an irritable halt before an open plaza, at the other end of which was the Annapurna Hyperspace Gate Hotel, a series of intricately overlapped green-streaked tarnished brass domes culminating in a great metal dish pointed into the sky, its shadow falling broadly across the square. Pish and I said, "Wow."
The chief wished us a good journey, and the crone promised to burn various charmed grasses while she prayed for our safe deliverance to Maja. With Jeremiah's help Pish, Greskin and I descended from the roof of the car. My legs felt wobbly after such a long time sitting. I approached Greskin sheepishly. "So...what do I owe you?"
One of the camels kicked suddenly backward, and the front fender of the cab fell off and clattered to the road. "F-forward f-fender f-failure," mentioned the dashboard.
Greskin pushed his goggles up on his forehead and scratched his ear. "Well, I reckon we left the meter somewhere back there in the sea, but I can usually be convinced to flat-rate this kind of ride for two hundred hours, to cover the standard nip, tuck and truck. Of course, I only end up with a bullet lodged in my thigh about a third of the time, so..."
I nodded. "Okay, if you can do the flat rate on the trip for me, I can pay for a new car."
Greskin blinked. "A new car? Are you honest pie serious, Mr. Fell?"
"It's the least I can do for a shareholder."
When everything was taken care of he climbed back on top of the car and tried to explain to the Ruffians how to best get out of downtown at noon. He wanted to be dropped off at a new car dealership in west midtown, near the undoming line. The chief nodded and cried out to his camels, who spat on the street and groaned but obliged him, shuffling slowly forward to haul the ruined taxicab and its riders down the boulevard. Pish and I waved.
A municipal robot walked up and took away the abandoned fender.
We crossed the busy plaza and pushed open the doors to the hotel's lobby, orange dust kicking off our leather boots and bouncing from our hair with every stride. Jeremiah's blue-green carapace was barely visible for the filth. Pish had Ruffian glyphs painted on his cheeks. We all stank of dung.
A hairy little person in an adorable little orange suit ran up, and then quailed at the periphery of our party, fanning his long hand before his snout. We moved past him to the front desk. I rang the bell and a human steward jogged over and did a magnificent job of controlling his features as he caught wind of us. "How can I help you today, sir?"
"We'd like to go to Maja, please."
"Maja at Nsomeka Star, cha? Let me see..." He tapped with strange, exaggerated daintiness at his console. "You're in luck for an alignment, sir. You can gate-out tomorrow morning." He smiled.
"Tomorrow morning?" I growled.
"Yes sir!" he replied, smile faltering.
"There's nothing today?"
"Today, sir?" he sniffed. "There's a star in the way today, sir."
"A little main sequence friend we call Aino, sir. The sun?"
Our room for the night seemed perverse when its luxury was contrasted with the beds we had awakened from. The lights of Purandhi's dome-shaped thrill of skyscrapers blazed through the windows, whose curtains were feeble. There were flower petals on our pillows, and floating in the toilet. I told Jeremiah to give Pish a bath, and then I went to the bar, chose one of the bottles at random and poured myself a stiff drink.
I looked at myself in the mirror over the vanity, and was startled to see how I have transformed since the last hotel mirror I knew.
My face was brown with smudged dirt, except around my eyes where my goggles had left me paler. My hair was grey with dust. I had a fresh scab on my brow, but most of my other bruises had either subsided or been covered over by grime. I felt my jaw, and it was abrasive with stubble. My eyes remain my eyes, however.
I backed into a chair and sat down heavily, holding my drink aloft. Everywhere I was stiff, and in several places I hurt. I took off my boots and wiggled my toes. I sipped and grimaced.
Pish laughed from the washroom, splashing.
Tomorrow I will bring him home. Together we will meet my wife, and my own children. Tomorrow I will face the gate, and rediscover who I am.
I rolled my diary over in my fingers. Tomorrow!