Morning came with a gentle rocking.
I opened my eyes. The sky outside was red, and dotted with birds. The pool of ruby light opposite the window crawled back and forth in time to the motion of the carriage.
I straightened and peered outside through the glass: the World Train seemed to be moving across a narrow causeway now, a sparkling ocean extending from horizon to horizon on either side, its surface whipped by wind. In the east the scarlet eye of Nsomeka Star burned through a thin veil of cloud, the west presided over by the striped face of a gas giant called Soshu.
According to my plate, six of Soshu's three dozen moons were Solar worlds. The sea we were crossing was called the Eleven. Breakfast was already being served in the dining car, and there was a special on toast. Looking through my plate at the inside of our cabin I learned that Omar's surname was Palmellinbacchutourtanjard.
"How do you pronounce that?" I wondered.
"Just like it's spelled," said Omar, startling me. His eyes were closed.
"I thought you were asleep."
"I never sleep, sir," said Omar, lids still down.
I stretched and yawned, a stitch in my back. I stood up in the small cabin and commenced bending experimentally. Pish opened his eyes. "What are you doing, Simon?"
"Wishing the sleeper cars weren't full," I complained, wincing as my back shot me a spasm of pain.
"Here sir," called Omar, gesturing me over as his eyes snapped open. He stood up and placed one hand on my chest and one on my back, felt around with his fingertips for a moment, and then gave a hearty push. Something briefly painful but overwhelmingly refreshing happened to my muscles. "How is it with you now, Mr. Fell?" rumbled Omar.
"Very good, thank you," I said, smiling.
"I want breakfast!" announced Pish.
"Me too," I nodded. "Omar, we're to the dining car! Hungry, Jeremiah?"
"Sir," replied the robot.
The dining car was long and striped by tables, a narrow aisle running beside the windows along one side of the carriage. A little person made a series of elaborate motions with her fingers and hands which Omar interpreted for us as asking which menu we'd like to choose from. "Breakfast," I said, and Omar's fingers danced briefly. The little person nodded, and escorted us to our table.
"It's a shame you've lost your Sign, sir," said Omar. "Sign is big here. Not Praxiteles-big mind you, but pretty big. I'm surprised they didn't teach it to you at the hospital. How's your Soshi?"
Omar whistled. "Man, sir, I have to tell you that my briefing didn't cover this level of...re-education."
"Please don't misunderstand, Mr. Fell. I just -- all right, listen: Soshi is the national language of the Soshu Joviat. I mean, they speak it funny on Hito but they still speak it."
I furrowed my brow. "But I've heard everyone speaking...er," I lapsed off, suddenly confused; "...normally," I concluded lamely.
Jeremiah interjected smoothly, "Sir, it is called the Common Verbal Protocol."
Omar nodded. "Of course, sir, speaking Common Verbal in the streets is just civilized. But it would be considered...vulgar to use it in the home."
"I see," I said, picking up my hands from the table as the little person pushed steaming cups across the table, balancing deftly on just a single foot as she clutched a carafe in the other. "So...are there lessons available, then?"
Omar pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "Man oh man, Madam Fell is not going to like this. Not one bit."
The little person skipped away with a hoot and I sipped from my cup. The drink was brown, hot and rich. "Is the popularity of Sign related to the popularity of little people here?"
"Yes Mr. Fell," said Omar, spooning sugar into his cup. "We don't much care for robots on Maja sir," he added, casting a sidelong glance at Jeremiah. "We prefer the warmth of life."
Orders were placed with the little person and as our breakfast was arriving the World Train blasted over the land again, seaside resorts blossoming to bustling inland towns in a staccato flash of lines and light. The sun rose higher and disappeared behind a wall of cerulean cloud. We passed through a forest, a tunnel of green and yellow smears.
The Maja Summer Festival was still in evidence. As we ate, a parade of singing celebrants moved through the dining car waving streamers and throwing handfuls of flower petals. Each of them was a woman with a garland around her head, their bellies swollen grotesquely with inverted navels. Tracing my stare one of the women broke from the ranks and sallied over to our table. "Forgive me," I said, despite her wide smile.
"You can touch it, if you like," she offered, pulling up her loose chemise and presenting the taut, yellow flesh of her distended stomach. "You may feel him kick."
"My son," she said, taking my hand and placing it on her belly. It was surprisingly warm, and solid.
A felt a sharp jab against my palm and I drew away my hand, startled. The impression of knuckles pressed out from her skin for a fleeting moment, sinking as if into a sea. "I have heard of this," I whispered, the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. "There is a tiny child growing inside of you, isn't there?"
The woman nodded and smiled and took up the tail of the parade. She resumed singing and the merriment passed on into the next car. "Maja is a wonderful world!" I announced happily, turning back to my dining companions.
Another figure passed through the dining car then. Conversation dwindled at every table. Many sets of eyes followed his patient progress. He was a man different than anyone I had seen before. Though human in appearance he was stranger than the Pegasi, in his way. I was transfixed, and haunted.
For one thing, it was not apparent where his clothing ended and his flesh began. He was a uniform shade of tawny-brown, billowing out loosely along his limbs but tight and skin-like around his hands and face. His short, neat hair shone like umber satin. His eyes were black and bottomless like a robot's.
He passed his stern, imperious gaze over us only briefly as he went by the table, disappearing into the next car. "Was that man...human?" I asked quickly.
"He'd say so," muttered Omar.
"Yes," said Jeremiah crisply. "Sir, that man was a human executive."
I blinked. "A what?"
"As you are a human being, he is a human executive. A race of created men, sir. Where you arose out of insensible biology, they arose from intelligence."
"Like robots, then?"
"No," answered Jeremiah firmly. "Sir, a robot is a technological servant to sentient things. A human executive is himself a sentient thing, who might own robots. A robot is manufactured; a human executive is grown. A robot is programmed; a human executive is educated."
"And yet they're artificial life?"
"No," replied Jeremiah firmly again. "Sir, they are the natural descendants of the human race."
"'Descendants'," quoted Omar scornfully, "you sound like one of them, robot." He put his dark, meaty hands together on the table and faced me. "Mr. Fell, I suggest we go back to our cabin. We'll be pulling in at Padirac momentarily."
I swallowed and felt my stomach flutter. Nothing more stood between me and my reunion with my family. It's almost over, I thought. "Very well," I agreed, standing up and shaking my head briefly to rid myself of the vision of the human executive's hard black eyes.
An hour later we were crossing the platform at the city of Padirac after exiting the long metal worm of the World Train, my legs rubbery and my balance befuddled after travelling so long so fast. Above the striped domes of the station I could see the silver fingers of a few tall skyscrapers, their tips lost in a grey-green ceiling of cloud. Thunder rolled ominously. The air was thick with moisture, hot and close against our faces as we filed through the gay, loud crowds to step at last out into the streets.
Padirac's broad boulevard was crammed with fanciful floats of giant-sized animals covered in winking sequins, hemmed by clusters of uniformed men and women playing all sorts of different instruments -- some metallic, some wooden like the viola I had seen the day before. Teams of streamer-clad little people worked a giant wheeled drum, its slow march echoing across the many hued faces of the surrounding buildings.
"We're going to live here?" cried Pish joyously, grabbing my sleeve.
"Well, I don't think it's like this all the time," I said.
Omar nodded gratefully. "Indeed it is not. Come now, sir -- here's your orb." He pointed to a cadre of little people unfolding a large platform around a narrow pedestal core. We followed Omar down the steps toward them.
Lightning flashed, and thunder cracked loudly just a few seconds later. Many of the revelers eyed the increasingly leaden sky suspiciously. A clown blew up a dog-shaped balloon for Pish, and I tipped him as we passed. Omar stepped upon the unfolded round platform hovering a handspan from the ground and gestured us to us to do the same. We climbed aboard and it bobbed gently with the addition of each new weight.
There was no driver. "Home," pronounced Omar and the orb shield cracked into place, a faint iridescent spherical barrier between ourselves the outside. We were lifted gently as a curtain of rain swept over the boulevard, enveloping us.
The water swam down the sphere's sides in strange, swirling patterns, distorting the cityscape beyond. I thought about nothing, numbly watching gaily-hued buildings disappear in a blanket of mist as we travelled.
Pish was playing with his balloon dog, its parts squeaking as they rubbed against one another -- a strange, wiggly-farty noise whose persistence cut off my every interior monologue.
In the hills above the city were nestled mansions, peeking out between the tall spindly trees with leafy tops that looked like green and yellow flowers, whipping back and forth in the weather. We passed over an estate of orange buildings, and then descended over a grassy field before a blue castle with purple minarets. The orb passed under a sheltered port at the mouth of the great house, and settled between a set of cobalt pillars before the shield cracked off.
I took a breath, and stepped down upon the flagstones. Pish followed me, and took my hand. "This way, Mr. Fell," said Omar cordially, leading us to a set of broad mahogany doors that split silently before us. We passed through.
Thunder groaned as the doors slid closed again.
We were presented with a wide hall: mahogany wainscoting girdling high pale green walls; a matte tiled floor, describing an elaborate geometric pattern; white stone statues of people I did not recognize, standing in noble or tragic poses; a swarm of tiny yellow birds circling the mosaic ceiling made hazy by the fumes of perfume-burning lamps; and a great spiral staircase that wound down from the second-floor gallery, upon which stood a woman.
"Nestor!" she whispered.
As in the image stored in my plate's cache, my wife was tawny-skinned, with brown eyes and long, black hair wrapped into elaborate loops of braiding. Her mouth was small and neat, held now into a tight, almost invisible line. She wore a simple green wrap and no shoes. Her name was Jia Hazinnah Fell.
She started down the steps, her eyes on mine. She uttered a series of soft, lyrical sounds, but when I gave no response she cast a quick glance at Omar. She turned to me and said, "Do you remember me?" I shook my head. She crossed the tiled floor quickly and embraced me. "Will you squeeze me anyway, even though we're strangers?" I squeezed her.
"I'm sorry," I said.
She stepped back, still holding my shoulders. There were tears in her almond-shaped eyes. "Why are you sorry, Nestor?"
"I'm sorry I don't know you. I'm sorry this is all so strange." I swallowed. "Everybody's been calling me Simon."
"It's my middle name."
"I know it's your middle name, Nestor. Who started that?"
"Nurse Randa. She had six daughters. She'd always wanted a son named Simonithrat."
Jia frowned, her little mouth pursed. "Well you'll be Nestor from now on. That's your name, after all. That's what we've always called you, isn't it Omar?"
"Perhaps using it will help in recovering your memory, Nestor," said Jia, smiling again.
"I'm afraid I have no memory to recover," I replied. "I thought Dr. Pent would've explained it to you. My life is only a few months long. You must understand that I am a new man, a product of that life." I took her tawny hand tenderly. "That's why I'm sorry. I'm not Nestor, really. I haven't brought your husband back to you."
She looked at me imploringly, her eyes quivering. "I don't understand you," she moaned.
"First things first," I said, giving her an encouraging smile. "I'm willing to be open minded about all this if you are. My name is Simon. And it is my sincere pleasure to meet you."
She looked at me for a moment, and gazed down at our entwined hands. She pulled hers free, took a step back, and bowed formally, her head low. "Jia Hazinnah. Welcome to this house...Simon."
I bowed in turn. "Allow me to introduce my companion, Pish." I gestured at Pish, who jogged over and hugged my side, his balloon-dog squeaking loudly. I looked back at Jia, who was biting her lip, her cheeks rosy. "Pish will be...will staying with us," I said.
"Oh, yes," replied Jia dully, blinking. "Yes, of course. For how long, dear?"
"Well -- for good, I reckon." I smiled down at Pish. "As long as he likes."
Jia backed away from us, stumbling slightly as her heel hit the first riser of the spiral staircase. She tried to smile but it faltered. She cleared her throat and said, "I do hope Mr. Pish will join us for dinner," then turned around and fled upstairs.
I turned to look inquiringly at Omar, but as I opened my mouth to speak Jia reappeared, running down the stairs and making straight for me. She grabbed my shoulder and turned me around roughly. "How dare you?" she demanded, eyes wide and furious.
I flinched backward. "Which part?" I asked.
"All of it, you bastard! Which part? Damn you, Nestor. This is your family! You can't just change who you are because you've had some kind of fit. What will the children say? How can you do this to us? Who in the fire am I even married to?" When I didn't answer she tossed my shoulder the other way and crossed her arms over her chest. "It isn't fair!" she shrieked.
I furrowed my brow, my ire rising. "Listen," I said quietly but sharply, "I haven't had a fit, madam. I have been utterly severed from every memory that defined me. Can you appreciate that? Can you just stop to appreciate what that must be like for a moment?"
She didn't answer. "Who in the name of love are you?" I shot at her, circling around her and frowning. "What gives you the right to rage at me for how I've suffered? Who are you to me?"
"I'm the mother of your children you selfish idiot," she spat venomously, and then ran away back up the stairs again.
Pish's balloon-dog squeaked ominously.
My shoulders sank. I felt very tired, and ashamed. Omar looked at me inquiringly, as did Pish. I shrugged sadly, and allowed myself to be led up the staircase and shown to a guest room. Omar was trying to figure out where to place Pish but Pish insisted he would stay with me. While he settled in Omar asked me if I'd like to be shown to my study.
"Sure," I said dully.
He escorted me to a large office on the third floor with a set of wide bay windows that looked out over the wet treetops whipping in the wind, the world beyond a somber fog. Rain spattered against the glass from all angles, causing swimming shadows to stream down the length of the carpet and the wide oak desk. I walked in slowly and put my hands on the back of the high, winged chair. There was no fire in the hearth.
"Ringing any bells, Mr. Fell?" prompted Omar in a friendly way.
I looked around at the framed holographs along the panelled wall: images of me with Jia, images of me with the children, images of me shaking hands with fat people, grinning. "I'm afraid not," I said hollowly. I turned around to face the wide, brown man. "For so long I thought that getting here would give me some kind of satisfaction, at least a sense of completion. But now that I'm here -- it's just...it's just another place, isn't it?"
"Sir?" said Omar, doing a reasonable imitation of Jeremiah.
"It's just furniture, and things. My wife is yet another strange woman to whom I've been introduced...in some ways no different than anyone else. No different from you, Omar."
"You and Madam Fell have a shared history together," Omar pointed out kindly, "even if you can't remember your half of it. It still happened."
I considered this, looking at the rainy windows again. "Of course, you and I have a shared history too, don't we?"
"How do you mean, sir?"
"Well, you're the head of my personal security force, isn't that right? We worked together. This can hardly be the first time we've met, can it?"
"Oh no, sir, of course not," answered Omar. "We've met plenty of times."
"Did you...like me?"
"I'm sorry sir?"
"Was I a -- nice man, Omar? Please, be frank with me." I smiled slightly. "It's Nestor we're talking about, after all."
Omar allowed himself a nervous smile in turn, shifting his weight heavily from one foot to the other. "You've always been good to me, Mr. Fell. The last time I saw you, you even asked after my kids by name."
"You have kids?"
"Yessir. Two of them."
I winked. "Are they well?"
"They're great, sir," smiled Omar.
I nodded to myself, wandering along the row of holographs on the wall, the depicted scenes slanting out in weird perspective when the angle of viewing was too close and too shallow. "And when was that, by the way? When was the last time we met, you and I?"
Omar considered this, shrugging. "I don't know exactly, Mr. Fell. It has to have been about three years ago."
I stopped, and whirled to face him once more. "Come again? Three years?"
"Why sure, sir," replied Omar hastily. "You're a very busy man. You do business all over the Neighbourhood. You keep houses on I don't even know how many worlds, so it's natural you only end up in this particular house only now and again."
I stared at him. "And...when was the last time before that?"
"You came to the hospital when your people brought me flowers and bonus hours after I took a bullet for you at the Trade Summit on Annapurna five or six years ago. My wife thought that was real kind of you, sir, to visit me personally. I did, too."
I wiped my hand down my face and closed my eyes. "How many times have we met, Omar? What is plenty, anyway?"
"Five times," he said. "And it's been an honor every time, Mr. Fell."
I turned the winged chair around and slumped into it. "I came here for solidity," I told him quietly. "Do you know what I mean? I came here to find my foundation. And you're telling me you hardly know me. Does anybody know me?"
"Madam Fell knows you, sir," said Omar quietly, the circles of bright red colour on his cheeks against serving as strange contrast against his melancholy expression.
"Yeah," I said. "Yeah."
Come dinner a violet-liveried little person escorted us down to a large dining hall with a glass ceiling covered in vines. The rain continued to fall outside. Pish and I were seated at a round table, while Jeremiah stood beside a white statue in the corner by a small, gurgling fountain in which bathed two pint-sized green birds. There were a few small lizards on the walls that I took to be sculpture until one of them scampered a few paces higher.
Jia entered the dining hall in a long black dress, her eyelids shaded dark. She took her seat silently, her face down. I stood up. "Madam," I began, but she interrupted me with a tired wave.
"Sir," she said flatly, "allow me to mourn my husband in peace."
"I've been cruel to you," I interjected. She looked up. I rushed ahead, "I recognize that you have everything invested in this life. And I recognize that you have everything invested in me." I cleared my throat. "It was barbaric of me to foist my identity crisis upon you when you were seeking a reunion. If you can find it in your heart to indulge me, I beg that we begin again."
When I saw her expression soften I bowed deeply. She pushed her chair back gracefully and rose, then bowed to me in turn.
"Nestor Simonithrat, madam," I intoned.
"Jia Hazinnah, sir," she replied, her mouth a tight little smile.
"I regret that we cannot converse in Soshi. My ignorance embarrasses me."
"Please have no regrets at my table," she said. "Your ignorance should move me to compassion instead of frustration, and I am ashamed." She gestured ceremoniously to the table. "Please sit with me, Nestor Simonithrat."
We held each others' eyes for a moment, and I saw the warmth twinkle through her ritual. I smiled. We sat down. Violet-liveried little people appeared with trays of steaming food. Pish was looking back and forth between us, and then became caught up in the various dishes as they were unveiled: spicy noodles, stuffed fillos, thick soup, and fried cucumber pies.
"Where are the children?" I asked, looking around.
"They are at school, of course," replied Jia, dipping her hands into a bowl of water and then picking up her noodles with her fingertips. To Pish she said, "Don't worry, antling, it isn't rude to use fingers on Maja."
Pish had been picking the end of a metal bottle-opener into his cucumber pie experimentally. He seemed relieved at this news, and resumed his mission manually. He nodded appreciatively after the first mouthful, and then tried another dish after a sip of tea. "Not bad," he whispered to me.
"Did he say not bad?" asked Jia, letting herself laugh a little.
I laughed in turn. "Pish has a discerning palate."
"My dad's the greatest chef in the galaxy," explained Pish, his mouth full of noodles.
"Don't talk with your mouth full," I told him.
"Oh really?" said Jia, sounding delighted. "What is his name, dear?"
"Don't talk with your mouth full, Pish," I said again.
"But it isn't --"
"His father's name was Hellig Apples," I supplied. "Ever heard of him?"
Jia smiled uncertainly. "I'm afraid I haven't."
"He's all the talk on Pomona, apparently," I said enthusiastically. "Some kind of fruit genius."
"A fruit genius?"
"Well, a late fruit genius, actually. It's all very sad. Um."
"Oh, my goodness!" exclaimed Jia, looking at Pish with renewed openness. "You poor child. What happened?"
I risked a look at Pish, who had stopped eating and was looking at me darkly, his brow furrowed and his mouth set oddly. I rushed ahead: "Frankly madam, Pish has been through a bit of an ordeal, and it's not something we'd really want to be getting into over dinner."
Jia wasn't looking at me. She was looking at Pish, who had flushed beneath his freckles. "Why are you doing this, Simon?" he cried at me. "Why are you hiding things? Aren't we safe now? Don't we get to stop lying now?" He sniffed back a tear angrily. "Aren't we home now?"
Jia turned to me, her expression neutral.
"You're right, Pish," I said. "You're absolutely right. I'm sorry." I was silent until he met my eye, and then he nodded briefly. I addressed myself to Jia. "Pish's father is Duncan Menteith. When I ran away from the hospital I found my way to his farm, and then Militia Samundra came to arrest him. Duncan wanted me to protect his son."
Pish affirmed this to Jia with another nod, his colour returning to normal. "Well, Duncan Me --" began Jia.
"There's more," I said. She closed her mouth, and Pish looked up at me, surprised.
I cleared my throat. "A researcher named Corinthia Tag met Pish and heard my story, and she came to the conclusion that Duncan Menteith was...er, Terron Volmash."
Shock was what I expected on Jia's face, but instead she chuckled drily. "So, not only have you had your mind erased in a hyperspatial gate, Nestor, but you've also managed to accuse someone of secretly being Terron Volmash on the lam." Now she laughed openly, covering her mouth after a moment and regaining her composure. "If we're to follow this chain of events to its natural conclusion I believe we can safely assume you will shortly be outrunning a fireball as something very large explodes."
I blinked. "A fireball?"
"This Tag woman has been feeding you paranoid dung, Nestor Simonithrat," replied Jia smartly, picking up a slice of cucumber pie. "You sound like a bad movie. Unmasquing Volmash -- really!" She laughed again, and then ate some pie.
So, that particular moment of drama deflated around me. Pish was staring at me like a little person, his jaw hanging open and his eyes wide. "Simon," he said, "that is the stupidest thing I have ever heard." He started to laugh, too.
I licked my lips. "Well," I said, inconclusively. I sighed. "Hum."
At dinner's dusk we stood and said good night to go to our separate apartments -- Pish and I to the guest room, Jia to the master. We bowed formally to one another and then she touched my arm tenderly. "Let's go on a picnic together tomorrow, you and I," she said. "Like we used to."
"I would be honored and charmed," I told her. She smiled and swept out.
I retired troubled. After Jeremiah tucked in Pish for bed I asked him to join me outside on the narrow balcony. Though the rain had stopped the night resounded with the bangs and plops of stray drops striking broad leaves as the wind shook them free. Eerie, cyclic, mechanical-sounding buzzes overlapped from the darkness. I asked Jeremiah about the racket when he stepped out.
"Sir, I can discern eight species of frog, three species of lizard, three species of toad, two species of gamb, and sixty varieties of insect."
"Why are they making all that noise?"
"For the most part the sounds comprise routines in mating programs, sir."
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. Nature documentaries had been popular fare at the hospital. I wondered briefly whether there was some kind of croaking noise I was supposed to be making at Jia...or that she was supposed to be making at me. "Jeremiah, what do you make of all that at dinner? About Duncan, and about Volmash?"
Jeremiah hesitated. "Sir, you are soliciting my opinion?"
"It was never likely that Madam Tag's allegations were accurate. Her enthusiasm to contribute in a meaningful way to the cause of the Recovery distorted her reasoning."
"Why didn't you say that before?" I snapped.
"Sir, you did not ask me."
"Nonsense!" I growled. "You've said plenty of things without being directly prompted. Don't try that dumb robot stuff with me, Jeremiah. It won't wash anymore."
Jeremiah took a step toward me, and I could see myself reflected in the inscrutable lenses of his eyes. "Sir, you have lived a life free from constraint. You have been free, or have taken the freedom, to act as you felt fit. Only now are you gaining your first appreciation of duty, in your obligation to your kin. Only now do you recognize you are not free to define the boundaries of your existence without constraint."
My mouth was dry. "Yes," I whispered. "That's true."
"I, too, am bound by the restrictions of my duty."
I looked at him. "What does that mean, Jeremiah?"
"It means I cannot always say what I would like. It means I must govern myself according to my mission first, and my desires second."
"Do you have desires?"
He hesitated a long time, eyes fixed on mine. "Yes," he replied crisply. "But few decisions in this matter are mine to make."
"In this matter?" I echoed. "You mean me, this matter?"
But Jeremiah would say no more. He just regarded me levelly, hands at his sides. "Damn you then!" I shouted. "You know everything that's going on, you hold all the cards -- but you won't say a thing that means anything."
I strode over to the door to go to bed, then paused at the threshold. "Perhaps your usefulness has come to an end, Jeremiah," I warned. "You heard Omar: robots are eschewed on this world. Besides, Pish is safe now."
Jeremiah turned to face me, his carapace glinting in the lamps. "You know not of which you speak," he said icily. "...Sir."