THE DEATH OF SIMON FELL
Constable Guillaume escorted me wordlessly back to the grey interview room. I sat down on the cold chair and appreciated the minimal insulation provided by my orange plastic jumpsuit, which rustled and squeaked as I moved.
I was experimenting with my newfound ability to whistle when Greskin Mile burst in and sat down opposite me. "Good news, Mr. Fell!"
"Lizards to lies," he nodded. "You and the boy'll be gating-out by lunch."
"You've done it, Mr. Mile!" I beamed, jumping from my chair and seizing his hand to shake it enthusiastically. "You're a genius!"
"Well," he sighed sheepishly, "not me, cha. Your legal team from Maja had a closed-beam conference with the prosecutor last night, and sure as sandwiches they made her see it their way. They're as sharp as they are solid, I reckon."
"I have a legal team?" I echoed.
"Cha, nine heartless ninjas with cufflinks that cost more than my car. You should've seen these dudes fly, Mr. Fell. I'm sure they're worth every hour you're paying them. To be frank, there wasn't much for a desert bug like me to do."
I shook my head in wonder. "You'll get your fee in full, of course."
"Oh Mr. Fell, I don't think I'd feel quite right about that, seeing as you've already bought me a new taxicab and everything."
"Nonsense. Now you can buy yourself some land. I insist."
Greskin's eyes actually started to water. "You're one sweet dude," he told me huskily. "Cha, look what you've done to me." He wiped his hand across his lids. "I swear you're as generous as March Peebles himself, Mr. Fell."
"You have been a good friend to me, Greskin," I told him.
Less than two hours later Pish was running into my arms wearing his red leather poncho, his freckled face split in a wide grin. Jeremiah stood impassively by. "Simon!" cheered Pish.
"Sir," said Jeremiah.
I nodded to the robot curtly and, carrying Pish in my arms, strode out of the security corridor into the passenger arcade of the Annapurna Hyperspace Gate Hotel from which we had been escorted yesterday. I turned around to wave again at Greskin Mile, the Smith-Shurtook bouncing against my thigh reassuringly.
A large brown man who resembled a bear stepped out and blocked our path. He held up one giant hand, like a chocolate oven-mitt. "Mr. Fell," he pronounced with a bass rumble.
"You don't remember me, do you sir?"
I blinked. "Should I?"
"They told me you may not remember things," he said, holding out his hand for me to shake. "My name is Omar, sir. I'm the head of your personal security force."
I shook his hand, wincing in his grasp. "It's a...pleasure to meet you, Mr. Omar."
"You just go ahead and call me plain Omar, Mr. Fell," he replied. "You always have, sir," he added quietly. He had a round spot of scarlet paint on either cheek, startling circles of gay colour in hard contrast to his somber expression.
I also noticed a crest on either shoulder of his black, woolen shirt: a shield emblazoned with a series of interlocked triangles amid a stylized letter f. Beneath the crest was written Fellcorp: Nsomeka - Eridani - Praxiteles in an upcurving line. I asked, "Is that my company? Fellcorp?"
"Yessir," rumbled Omar sadly. "You really don't remember anything, do you, sir?"
"I'm afraid not, Omar," I agreed, putting Pish down and patting his shoulder. "But I'm an apt pupil. I assume you're to accompany us back to Maja?"
"That's right, sir."
"I'll have some time to ask you questions, then?" He nodded. "Very well," I said, "then let's put it aside for the moment, because there is nothing I want more than to get off this wild world as quickly as possible."
"We have a private gate aligning for you now, sir," said Omar.
"A private gate?" I looked past him at the clots of assorted passengers queuing up before the rows of ports. "We won't travel with everyone else?"
"Man, you don't even know," replied Omar, risking a brief, toothy smile. "Please pardon me, sir, but I'm still amazed. Mr. Fell, you don't ever have to do anything with everyone else ever again."
I was quiet a moment while he gazed at me earnestly. I furrowed my brow. "And that's a good thing?"
"That's privilege, Mr. Fell. That's what you've earned. Man oh man."
That particular puzzle left my mind as I allowed our party to be led to a luxurious anteroom containing a bar and stools, a smattering of comfy chairs, a fireplace, and a large round metal port next to a narrow pedestal. A robot in hotel colours stood at the pedestal, tapping quickly on its face. The anteroom was otherwise filled only by us.
"How long?" Omar asked the robot.
"Two minutes, ten seconds," it reported flatly. "Passengers are advised to close all open tabs at the bar."
I stood before the closed portal, a strange weight in my gut. I felt jittery and chilled, yet at the same time overheated by my red leather longcoat. My feet felt like they were falling asleep as I stood on them. My heart beat quickly. I was afraid.
"One minute," reported the hotel robot.
In my mind I was transported back to Dr. Pent's ward, sitting in the semi-dark of the private room while Crushed Head Faeda warned me that my new life could be extinguished by my old one. I could step through that gate and emerge my old self, oblivious to any hiatus perhaps, or as a third new self, ignorant as a child. Either way my life as Simon, this Simon, might be undone.
I had the creepy sensation of living on borrowed time, stretched out of another man's life. Perhaps I am the secondary self, the parasitical self, the one undeserving of continuance. Sweat ran down my temples, and trickled over my ribs.
Have I lived a good life? I asked myself. Mother of love: it has been beautiful.
I tried to find courage in that thought. I steeled myself against destiny with the notion that I have tried to bring some good to those I could when they crossed my lost path. Maybe Glory even escaped her tormentors. Maybe Duncan wanted to be caught, to end Pish's underground existence. Maybe I gave as much as I received. Maybe this life was good.
But then why does Jeremiah hunt me?
"All passengers are advised to enter the gate," announced the hotel robot at the pedestal. "Now transmitting to Maja at Nsomeka via Array Five. Alignment is optimal."
The great silver port irised open, and inside was a featureless hemispherical chamber with seamless mirrored walls and flooring. A dim copper light of invisible origin suffused the chamber in a directionless feeble glow, reflective surfaces gleaming off one another into an infinite regress of inky sienna shadow.
Omar walked me inside. Jeremiah held Pish's hand. We turned around to face the open port, which seemed the only thing to do. I found it dizzying to try to look at the warped reflections of ourselves, smeared in strange curves all around us. I had a flashback of the synaesthesia that gripped me upon my birth, and I reached out for Omar's shoulder.
"Are you feeling okay, Mr. Fell?"
I nodded. "Let's get on with it."
Pish came over and nestled into my side, which caused me to sway. I held onto Omar's broad shoulder and straightened my back. As if in a trance I could not break my eyes away from the hotel robot outside the port as it tapped upon the pedestal's face. A ridiculous, panicked song rang through my mind, over and over again: So this is how it feels to die, so this is how it feels to die, so this is how it feels to die...
"All passengers please prepare for hyperspatial transit," announced the hotel robot dully. The port irised shut, leaving me staring into my own distorted reflection. My heart hammered in my chest and my ears roared.
In a matter of moments I would be unmade, and the universe forced to remake me in my own image, an unspeakable distance away. I wondered whether my transportation would be heralded by a flash of light, crawling forks of lightning, or the deafening thrum of some unholy engine, whining as it struggles to play sleight of hand with spacetime.
The port irised open again. The hotel robot stuck his head in. "We apologize for the delay. A slight recalibration was required. All passengers please now prepare for hyperspatial transit."
The port irised shut.
I closed my eyes, wincing.
One eye opened and then the other when I detected the gentle hum of the port irising open yet again. I wondered whether we should be entrusting our lives to such a damned contraption and its seemingly infinite delays.
A robot of vivid orange with painted flares on the sides of its face stepped into view. "Welcome to the Jovian World of Maja," it pronounced melodiously. "All passengers are advised to now disembark."
I blinked. "That's it?" I looked around the chamber, which seemed to have changed not at all.
"That's what?" asked Omar, taking my elbow.
"That's hyperspatial transit? I mean, it's over?" I stammered.
"Sir, the process is quite transparent," intoned Jeremiah at my opposite elbow.
"Ah," I said. I chewed my lip thoughtfully for a moment. "Well, that was a bit of a let down." I glanced out the mouth of the chamber, to a luxurious anteroom similar but not identical to the one we'd just left. "So that's a whole new world out there?"
"Well, in here, too, technically," said Omar.
With some trepidation I put my boot over the threshold and planted it on the soft, bright yellow carpeting. "Land ho," I muttered, and then walked fully into the room. It was only as I found myself noticing details of a melon sculpture behind the bar that I realized I had utterly failed to die.
"Mother of love!" I yelped. "I'm still Simon!"
Pish cheered and even serious Omar cracked a smile at my exuberance. I hopped around the room for a moment, crowing. Whether it was the lighter gravity or the fact of my continued existence I felt that I could leap from building top to building top, so energized and springy were my steps and deep and refreshing my breaths.
We emerged from Maja's Hyperspace Gate Hotel onto a wide plaza overlooking the city of Nyambe. The city could not have stood in sharper contrast to Purandhi: where the pioneer city was dense and tall and grey this seaside metropolis was wide and low and colourful. The people of Nyambe seemed to have a fondness for stripes, for many of the domes and roofs visible from the plaza were painted in bright alternating bands of yellow and black, red and white, blue and purple. The sky itself was a cheerful apple green, the sun a warm orange eye between banks of fluffy clouds. The air was hot and moist.
The people around us were all dressed in bright, primary hues and wore neat circles of rouge on each cheek, like Omar. Each cluster of folk appeared to be accompanied by a little person rather than a robot, and they too were dressed in sunny, multi-coloured little suits over their fur.
"The sky is green!" I exclaimed. Before anyone could explain this to me I had been distracted: instead of cars flying over the city there were fleets of orbs, much like the shuttles we had taken to and from Castle Misne, only smaller.
One of these personal-sized orbs drifted down to the terrace before us and vanished with a pop, revealing a young woman balancing on a pedestal. She folded the pedestal into a short length with a couple of efficient snaps, stuffed it into her rucksack and then strode into the hotel. An older couple with red-painted cheeks passed her on the way out, drawing their own twin-handled pedestal out of their baggage and setting it up at a practiced pace. The lady stepped up on the base of the pedestal and then the gentleman joined her. A spherical shield cracked on around them, and the bubble gently soared away into the green sky.
"My!" I exclaimed. "People come and go so quickly here."
Omar tried to pull my elbow to lead me somewhere but I was next taken in by a skinny fellow in a loose yellow shift who was leaning against the plaza's low stone wall, sawing away at a curly piece of wood pinched under his chin, emitting a kind of melodious, shifting keen almost like a sad, high voice. I ran up and watched the man work in fascination for a moment, and then asked him what the device was called.
"This is a viola," he told me without interrupting his bow.
"It's like a box that whistles!" I gasped. "A wonder!"
"You like to whistle, patron?"
"So why don't you whistle along with me for a spell?"
And so I did. While Pish, Jeremiah and Omar stood by I screwed up my face and did my best to whistle in tune with the meandering viola, slipping around its complex melody and experimenting playfully with slides. The viola player then did something wonderful: he played notes which were different from mine, but somehow complementary. "What do you call that?" I asked, transfixed. "Making the notes be friends like that?"
"Harmony," explained the man with a smile, tickling the viola's strings with his fingers so that it emitted a series plucky, staccato rings. "Musical rhymes," he added. "It's all about the wavelength."
"Thank you, maestro!" I said, inserting my finger into my wallet and tapping the till lying face-up at his feet.
"Thank you, patron!" he grinned, switching tunes and moving into something livelier with a quick, insistent rhythm.
I ran back over to Pish, Jeremiah and Omar, noticing as I moved through the thin crowd in the plaza that many of the people looked similar to me, with epicanthal folds over their almond-shaped, rather than lemon-shaped, eyes. I know there's no real rational basis for it, but this suddenly made me feel at home. "This place is amazing!" I declared.
Pish agreed. Omar looked worried. "Let's just move along to your car, Mr. Fell."
As we moved toward a broad and busy staircase down to a lower plaza Pish spotted a rigid line drawn across the cityscape and disappearing at the hilly horizon. "What's that?" he gasped in wonder.
"That's the World Train, kid," replied Omar.
"It is an equatorial rail," Jeremiah told me. "They are common on Jovian worlds, sir."
"Are we going to ride on it?" Pish wanted to know.
"Yes!" I cried.
"No," said Omar.
We turned to face each other on the steps. He said, "The Summer Festival is on now, Mr. Fell. The train will be very crowded, loud, and likely running slow. We wouldn't get to Padirac until tomorrow. But if we take a private car, sir, we can get there quickly, comfortably, and safely. You can sleep in your own bed tonight, sir."
I frowned. "Now that we're actually here I see no reason for haste, Omar. You don't know what we've been through -- I think a festival sounds like exactly what we need, wouldn't you say, Pish?"
"For sure," agreed Pish emphatically.
"It's also a matter of your safety --" started Omar, but Jeremiah interrupted him.
"We should ride the World Train."
Omar turned to stare at Jeremiah's impassive blue-green masque. "Thanks for the suggestion, robot," he sneered. "Now, as I was saying --"
"You will of course agree that the decision is for Mr. Fell," pushed Jeremiah sharply.
"What?" blinked Omar. "Is this the rudest robot alive? Of course it's Mr. Fell's decision --"
"Sir?" prompted Jeremiah, turning to me.
I stared at the two of them. What a strange power struggle. Omar was frowning, Jeremiah was unreadable. "World Train," I said. At Omar's shocked expression I added, "You'll find, Omar, that we take Jeremiah's opinion very seriously."
Omar licked his teeth and pursed his lips, but said nothing.
As the orange sun turned scarlet and began melting into the building tops we filed our way across the platform and aboard a carriage of the World Train: a sleek silvery worm bristling with wide windows along the sides and bubbles of observation decks along the spine. The rounded bottom of the carriage hovered a fingerspan away from the narrow, humming rail.
Inside the train the air was cooler, but riotously loud. Revelers in all sorts of psychedelic costumes were parading down the aisles, playing flutes and banging tambourines, sawing at viola-like instruments or tooting on horns. Flower petals were spread everywhere, and we had to duck as we passed through the car to avoid shiny holographic banners advertising various Summer Festival events: the Masqued Ball, the Fertility Opera, the Naked Parade...
Pish found our cabin and we pushed inside, Omar sliding the glass door shut after us to muffle the din. His pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes for a moment. "Okay, so we're here. Are you happy now, kid?"
Pish wasn't paying attention: he had his face pressed up against the window, watching a trio of clowns on tall stilts stepping through the crowd still on the platform as they blew rings of fire into the air. "How come they don't get burned?" he asked me. I shrugged happily. Pish turned back to the window.
The train began to move, slowly at first but accelerating smoothly and insistently. The platform slid away revealing a burst of flowered bushes followed by a spectacular view of the city's core -- low towers and wide amphitheatres, open plazas studded with trees and dense clusters of brightly-apparelled humanity, like rainbow ants. Soon they were a blur. The city thinned, but just as we passed through a green, hilly valley and I expected to see the open countryside, the metropolitan lichen resumed.
Unlike Annapurna where beyond the cities and waystations lay only the world's land, Maja hosted a landscape of denser humanity. The World Train passed not from place to place, but neighbourhood to neighbourhood. It was strange and somewhat discomfiting to think about so many people living together. I felt claustrophobic suddenly, and was reminded of a documentary I'd watched at the hospital about honeybees.
Twilight faded and the towns winked alive with dozens of glowing smears and racing lines. We sang through a copse of shadowy trees then passed within a mountain, leaving me staring at my own reflection.
We all jumped when the first woman smacked up against the door of our cabin, pressing her naked breasts flat against the glass. "Goodness!" I commented. It was not long before we became accustomed to it. "There's another one," I murmured, a rotund woman with a wide grin on her face lifting her chemise and falling forward into our door so as to present a flattened version of her belly, her bosom, and her face all at a stroke. "Happy Festival!" she offered, losing her balance and tumbling into the aisle.
Pish had fallen asleep, despite the fact that it was only midafternoon on Annapurna. I found myself yawning, too, curling up into the corner of my seat and using my gathered longcoat as a pillow. I had a lot of questions but I had to admit the idea of succumbing to rest was becoming more palatable by the second. I pulled my diary up next to my mouth and began my stream of subvocal dictation.
Sleepless, Jeremiah and Omar sat rigidly opposite one another, ever vigilant.