SHOWDOWN WITH HYPERSPACE
Pish squeezed my hand. "It'll be okay, Simon."
I squeezed back and tried to chuckle with nonchalant confidence. Instead I coughed. "Of course it will, Pish. I'm sure it's...perfectly safe. Isn't that so, Jeremiah?"
"Sir," he said.
Descended from the Annapurna Hyperspace Gate Hotel, we stood in a row of three at the end of a long arcade whose terminus was a two-storey bank of little round doors flanked by helpful robots in hotel colours. Neat queues of travellers ranged themselves before the ports. Every few moments a group was led through one of the doors. None emerged.
Announcements echoed off the tiles. "Passengers bound for Nsomeka are asked to check in at gate eight. Gate eight, please, for all passengers bound for Nsomeka Star, including Maja, Mahuea, and all Ninurtan destinations."
"Well, boys," I declared jauntily, "that's us."
We had crossed the final barriers: we were standing before the gates, tickets in hand. We moved across the arcade too briskly. I felt I could sense the weight of the great dish above us, yawning at the sky. A cold sweat broke out on my back. What if I should step inside and awake erased again?
"Sir?" said Jeremiah, detecting my slackening pace.
"I'm okay," I said. Pish took my hand again and we continued walking, joining the queue of other travellers bound for Nsomeka Star. I gathered my red leather longcoat around me and tried to stand tall.
A gentleman in a hotel jacket stepped up and touched my elbow. "Passenger Apples, bound for Maja?"
"That's right," I replied. "Is there a problem?"
"Cha, actually," said the man, nodding soberly. "I'm afraid it has come to our attention that you're travelling under an assumed identity with a forged plate."
I tried to smile. "I'm sorry?"
"If you would be good enough to come with me, dude," intoned the man, pushing back the side of his jacket and resting his hand on the butt of his gun. A trio of little people approached from behind, each standing behind one of us.
"Is that really necessary?" I asked. "We'll miss our transmission."
The man eyed me dourly. "Regretfully, this is a fairly serious matter, Mr. Apples. Please: your co-operation is appreciated. Your gun, sir?"
I sighed. Pish held tightly to my arm. "Very well." I unholstered the Smith-Shurtook and handed it butt-first to the hotel man.
He smiled tightly. "This way, please."
We were separated, despite Pish's protests. I was man-handled down a long corridor by a duo of little people, who were possessed of a remarkable strength, their hands like manacles. I was shown into a bright room that smelled of disinfectant, then stripped and rinsed in a harsh chemical bath. An intimate search was performed by a robot with oily, rubber-coated fingers. I was fed bodily into a large scanning drum, and then given a pair of paper underpants to wear. Then I was deposited in a tiny, chilly metal cell occupied by a table and two chairs. After a frigid hour a man in a neat suit came in and sat down. He indicated that I should stop pacing and take the opposite chair. I sat down, hugging my arms and shivering.
The man spent several moments reading from a handful of small plates, their output invisible to me from the back. Like Pish his skin was pink, and his eyes round. He wore a burly red moustache under his nose and his head was bald. "My name is Constable Guillaume," he muttered, still squinting at one of the plates. "What should I call you, dude?"
"Simon," I said quietly.
"You've been moving through this system under the name of Hellig Apples. Is that right?" He looked up and stared at me, his brown eyes unfathomable.
"That's right," I confirmed.
"Samundran grower, born on Pomona?"
He tapped briefly on one of the plates, and then another. He then set them aside and knitted his fingers together. "You must understand how that's a bit of a problem for us. We're a pioneer world -- it's easy to gain a reputation as a place free and fancy with civilized laws. Easy, but undeserved. I don't know what somebody's told you, but Annapurna isn't here to launder your identity."
"Apparently not," I agreed.
"Indeed not," he nodded. "Now I can tell you now that this is all going to go a lot easier on you if you're honest with me. Saves me time, saves you time. I appreciate that you've given me a name. Is it your real name?"
"As far as I know, sir. My name is Nestor Simonithrat Fell, and I'm from Maja. That's what they told me at the hospital. You must understand I've been through a bit of an ordeal, and my memory's been damaged."
"What hospital?" he wanted to know. I told him. "And you fled their custody, why?"
"I was afraid."
"Where did the child and the robot come from?"
"I met the child on the streets of Thaumas. He's an orphan. I want to give him a home."
"And the robot?"
"I bought him. From a guy named Nilo. Lagranger."
"Where did you get the plate forged?"
"They said it would be safer. I trusted them. But they tried to rob us." I wiped my hand down my face. "It's very cold in here."
"Your discomfort is regrettable."
"Constable, are you putting Pish through all this, too? He's just a boy."
"He's being taken care of," said Constable Guillaume. He then asked me everything over again, but in a different order. Then he asked me about each item in detail. I did everything I could to avoid talking about Duncan. He asked me to confirm things I had never said, and then asked me questions that made no sense at all.
"What do you want from me?" I cried at last. "I'm sorry I took the advice of bad people, and I'm sorry I ran away. I'm sorry about everything. All I want is to get back home, with my family, and I want to be able to take Pish with me. Can we do that? Are we going to be able to do that? You have to tell me."
He leaned back in his chair, considering this for a long, painful moment. "We do have established procedures for adoption on this world, Simon. You understand that being convicted for travelling under a false identity would not exactly impress, however."
I slouched, the gravity seeming to be amplified a thousandfold.
Constable Guillaume picked at an invisible bit of grit on the table surface, then brushed at his moustache and cleared his throat. "I'm going to level with you, dude. Your story checks out. We've already been in contact with Dr. Pent, and he's sent us your case history." He shrugged. "I don't think you're a bad man, Simon, but you have broken the law here on Annapurna. That can't be ignored, you see. We're building a reputation here."
"I understand," I said.
The constable gathered up his plates and stood. "Your lawyer is already here. You may speak with him now, if you wish."
"I have a lawyer?"
Guillaume opened the cell door and admitted Greskin Mile, but a Greskin Mile transformed! He wore a dapper sienna suit with red leather lapelles and his sandy hair was brushed and oiled down to a neat sequence of comb-strokes. His face was washed and the tan-line of his goggles was barely discernable. He sat down opposite me, propped a plate up before him on the table, and then gestured dismissively at the constable. The cell door closed.
"Mr. Mile!" I exclaimed.
He smirked, eyes locked on the plate as he tapped at its surface. "Don't you fret now, Mr. Fell. We'll have this mess cleaned up tickety-boo, cha." He pawed through the data on his plate for a moment more, and then looked up. "My fee is astronomical. I'm being frank with you because we're pals."
"It is my understanding that I'm fabulously wealthy," I pointed out. "Do your worst, Mr. Mile."
He rubbed his chin and peered over his plates. "Getting you walking is easy like greased thighs. Getting the boy offworld is trickier, cha. I have my staff on it now."
"You have a staff?"
Greskin sniffed and looked at his watch. "Once they sober up, cha. Indeed I do. They've been working dead man's shifts at an air station, and they were celebrating after getting off. They're solid, friend. Don't you fret."
"I have a lot of forms to fill out," he said with a sigh. "I think I have all the elements of the case, rows of ducks and rows of ducks. I'll be back in to sniff you in the morning, cha." He started to stand up.
"Greskin, wait," I said. "There's something else."
He hesitated. "Something else?"
"Maybe you should know."
"Something you didn't tell...them?"
Greskin motioned at me for silence, and then withdrew a tiny grey box from his jacket and placed it on the table. He tapped its top and it began to emit a faint but persistent whine, almost too high to be heard. Greskin noted something on the box's readout and then looked up at me. "Now we can't be overheard," he explained. "Spill."
I coughed awkwardly. "Pish is the child of Terron Volmash."
Greskin's eyes widened and he sat crookedly back into his chair and thereby almost fell. He slammed his hands on the table to steady himself. "What!" he finally managed to reply.
I shifted in my paper undershorts. "Um."
In reply to his frenzied demands I told Greskin Mile about Corinthia Tag, and how her research had somehow led her to put two and two together with Pish and I. I told him about the ambrosia of Duncan Menteith, and how he had been taken by Militia Samundra. I did not, however, elaborate on the case of Jeremiah.
Greskin was hurriedly tapping notes into his plate, a film of sweat on his brow. "Jumping jackfowl, jumping jackfowl," he muttered into his folded hands, shaking his head and sighing. "This just doesn't make any sense, Mr. Fell. Duncan Menteith is one of the most famous chefs in the galaxy -- a hugely visible person until he disappeared. I don't see how it could be possible that he managed to lead a double-life as an interstellar tyrant, no siree."
"Perhaps he is not the real Duncan."
Greskin clucked sympathetically. "It's possible, of course, but then we would have to explain how in the name of the blue moon Volmash learned to become the greatest chef alive just by wearing another man's pants." He folded his hands before his face. "And there is the mystery of why Militia Samundra has kept mum, if they have him."
I considered this. "Perhaps they believe they could learn the secrets of the Nightmare Cannon themselves."
"Not likely, friend," argued Greskin. "No sane man would doom himself and his star to barbarism for that. The power of the ultimatum loses some of its get up and go if you're under the shadow of a greater ultimatum yourself. Samundra isn't out to stake an empire. Do you know what their major export is? Vegetables. Bloody vegetables, Mr. Fell."
"Perhaps," I reasoned, "they were not the real Militia Samundra."
Greskin opened his mouth to speak, and then paused. He frowned thoughtfully. "I reckon that might be a bit more interesting to disprove."
The cell door opened suddenly and Constable Guillaume reappeared, his thick red moustache twitching irritably. "We've detected a dampener running," he said sharply.
Greskin was already on his feet, his plates a neat stack under one arm. "Must be in the next cell," he suggested, turning to me and shaking my hand. "I'll keep you apprised, Mr. Fell. Remember to give sleeping a whirl. Tomorrow's bound to be a big day, lizards to lies."
"Thank you, Mr. Mile."
The constable gave the lawyer a round of stinkeye as he squeezed past him and out into the corridor. Guillaume watched him leave, then said to me, "Let's go."
He gave me an orange plastic jumpsuit to wear and then escorted me to an indoor pen populated by two or three dozen other men. They were chatting in small groups for the most part, though a few fellows were running slow laps around the pen. I dodged one of these joggers as I wandered across the floor, smiling uncertainly to anyone who met my eye.
They turned out to be a rather nice bunch, if somewhat excitable. They were sunburned and often scar-faced, the pale print of goggles around their eyes stark. As we chatted they often disagreed with what one another said, or how they said it, and ended up negotiating their quarrel with a brief bout of boxing.
"You're a chink-eye," one burly fellow informed me brusquely.
"A chink-eye saved my life once," claimed another, pushing between us.
"A chink-eye stole my cattle," retorted the first fellow.
"Eyes is eyes is eyes," opined a skinny gentleman with hollow cheeks and darting pupils. The two other fellows found his philosophical tone condescending, and challenged him on it. Later, they all wrestled together.
I sat down next to a rotund man with sad, baggy eyes and a sheepish grin on his face, lounging on a bench by the concrete wall. "Bit like giant kids, aren't they?" he said in a friendly way.
"They're very sporty," I observed.
He laughed, a sharp, staccato sound. "Hee-hee-hee, I reckon. Still, I'd feel a load safer if I weren't naked." He patted the top of his thigh. "Without some death on my hip I feel as helpless as a baby."
"If everyone had their guns, wouldn't they all just kill each other?" I asked him, crossing my leg and leaning back against the wall.
He pursed his lips and shook his head. "Hell no. That's just the point, isn't it? I mean, the whole reason they feel free to batter each other around is because nobody's got death." He patted his hip again and sighed. "If we all had our arms, like proper folk, nobody would dare cross another man so easily. Death is respect, and respect is peace."
I hummed pensively. "Is that a particularly Annapurnese notion?"
"I don't know. I haven't ever lived anywhere else. But it's sensible if you ask me, dude. Just look at those monkeys."
The wrestlers crashed into a table, snapping it in half. A fleet of little people rushed in and pulled them apart as if they were dolls. A tone sounded and a voice announced that dinner would now be served in the cafetorium. My companion slapped his thighs and stood up. "There's one good thing about this place though: the grub."
In this regard he was surely mistaken, but after dinner he did give me a wonderful gift: the fat man taught me to whistle. He laughed at me a lot but by the time we were called back to our cells for lights-out I had managed to create one squeaky, warbling note from my pursed lips. "Congratulations," he said. "Now you don't ever need to subscribe to radio again."
My cell contained four bunks and three men, a dirty toilet, a sink, and a family of round insects with enthusiastically gesticulating antennae who scurried back and forth across the floor to tickle my feet. I climbed into my bunk and lay on my back, staring at the dingy ceiling a handspan away from my nose.
I closed my eyes and composed this recounting, hoping that I would be able to render it into my little blue diary the next day with the help of Greskin Mile and his stalwart staff of hungover legal aces.
I wondered about poor Pish, and even spared a thought for strange old Jeremiah -- a thing enough like a man for me to think of as a kind of friend, even though he has warned that he stalks me. Append that to the list of things I don't understand about this world, no matter how I try.
It's a long list, and it's getting longer.