LIONS & TIGERS & BEARS
Not for the first time, I felt the fool.
This time, however, it was not my fault: I was dressed as an elephant. I peered through the almond-shaped eyeholes of my masque into the mirror, appreciating how Jia's application of grey paint helped to blend my skin with the stylized visage of the long-nosed, wide-eared beast. The lower half of my face was exposed, and she was tickling my chin by painting it grey.
I looked over at Pish, who also seemed nonplussed. He was rubbing the white paint off his lips with a sneer, steadfastly refusing to catch a glimpse in the mirror of himself as a mouse. His whiskers twitched fretfully.
I couldn't help but smile when I looked at Jeremiah, though. After breaking up a terse argument between Jia and Pish we had decided that Jeremiah would indeed accompany us to be the ball, on condition that he wear a costume like everybody else. Jeremiah had not commented on this, but I knew he was not enjoying standing attired as he was, disguised as a reading lamp.
"There!" declared Jia, pulling away from me and squinting at her job. "You're the perfect petu, Simon."
Jia was a peacock, sporting a wide fan of glittering purple plumage in behind, and on her face a long, elegant beak framed by arcs of feathers around the eyeholes. With a final appraising look she laughed delightedly, used my plate to capture a holograph, and then herded us all downstairs and outside where Omar stood in his usual black woolen sweater watching two little people unfold an orb platform for us.
When the last panel snapped into place I caught the eye of one of the little people and wiggled my fingers at him purposefully, squinting with concentration as I attempted to mimic a series of signs I had observed Mr. Swinny this morning. The little person did not seem impressed.
"Why did you sign that, sir?" asked Omar with a curious frown as the little people stomped away.
"What do you mean?"
"You just compared him to dung."
"I thought it meant thank you," I mumbled, aghast. "Bloody Mr. Swinny!"
As our orb flew over the flower-like treetops the sun sunk toward the horizon, turning deep orange and then bloody as it melted behind the hills. The cloudless sky took on bruised purple glow. We moved away from the city, deeper into the countryside, soon coming upon an expansive estate of gardens, topiary labyrinths, fountains and pools. As we neared the main house we spotted dozens of orbs jockeying for position by the front terrace like a froth of bubbles, their long twilight shadows playing like fingers across the lawn.
We descended into the scrum and the shield winked off for just a few seconds as we scrambled down to the flagstones. Omar nodded and engaged the orb again, joining a roiling surge of upward traffic attempting to vacate the curb to let others land. Jia led us through the press of ornate costumes and startling masques, toward the columned front entrance from which issued the sounds of talk and music, breaking glasses and laughter.
We were accosted by a lion.
"Yatti!" cried Jia delightedly. "How are you?"
"Now now, madam," warned the large, lion-masqued man with a friendly chuckle and a toss of his mane. "We're supposed to be in disguise now, aren't we? How do you like it, Mr. Elephant? This is the big cat I was mentioning this morning."
"Yes, I looked it up," I said. "Quite fierce, Mr. Lion."
"Thank you, thank you," beamed Yatti, scanning the rest of our party. "And who do we have here?"
"I'm Pish!" said Pish.
Yatti froze, his lower lip hanging slack for a moment. "Indeed," he stammered, then added more smoothly, "and where do you come from, Mr. Mouse?"
"We're adopting him," I answered. "Pish is an orphan from Samundra."
"That's wonderful, lovely to see you -- I really must go," Yatti muttered quickly, touching Madam Fell on the shoulder in a friendly if hasty way as he sidled into a gap in the milling crowd of masques and vanished, waving as if he'd spotted a friend on the other side of the columns.
"Oh!" said Jia.
"Does Yatti not care for children?" I wondered. "How is he with our kids?"
"Let's get inside," suggested Jia, taking my arm and leading me. I turned to see Jeremiah escorting Pish behind us, his shade pushed askew by the antlers of a brown-snouted man. We managed our way up the steps into a large and gaily decorated foyer populated by chimeras of all kinds, from giraffes to beetles. A woman dressed as a seagull escorted Pish the mouse to the children's playroom, Jeremiah the lamp trailing behind. Jia carted me into a salon and began squealing with delight as she recognized her friends, flitting from costumed couple to costumed couple like a hummingbird after nectar, her tail plumage wagging behind. "Why don't you get us some drinks, Mr. Elephant, dear?" she suggested.
"Certainly, Madam Peacock."
I picked my way through the laughing beasts, ducking gesturing arms and sloshing drinks as the guests cavorted and played. I passed by a band of musicians with shiny brass instruments, and then cut through a ballroom where couples were dancing in a frenetic way to a grinding, rhythmic tune that pounded through the halls. Coloured lights flashed, revealing glimpses of foxes, horses, and dogs reared up upon their hind-legs, smoking cigarimemes and throwing back cups of punch.
I found a long buffet of punchbowls and glasses, and was selecting a flavor when a pair of hands clapped themselves over my eyes. "Guess who," whispered a soft voice in my ear.
I was released. A tiger wound around to the front of me, playing at grooming herself by pretending to lick her paw and then running it along her curves. I saw the smile on her stripe-painted lips as her face was briefly revealed in a wash of blue light. When another spotlight swept over us I saw that the locks of hair escaping from behind her masque were red. "It's you!" I shouted over the music -- the plump girl who had banged her head under my desk.
"Hi, Mr. Elephant," she said playfully, touching one of my flapping elephant ears and feeling the material between her fingers. "I was hoping we would get a chance to chat."
"I'm getting my wife a drink," I explained, holding up two cups apologetically and stepping behind a dancing couple. The tiger girl pouted in a maudlin way as I turned around and cut across the dance-floor to escape.
Jia already had a drink when I returned. She wanted to dance. We returned to the ballroom and she was mercifully indulgent as I stepped on her toes. As we turned I looked around for the tiger girl but didn't see her. The music became slower, composed of overlapping keening voices supporting by a syncopated crackle of soft percussion. Jia drew me closer and put her arms around me. "You never used to come to parties," she whispered in my ear. "You never used to dance." She bit my earlobe playfully. "I'm falling in love with you, Simon."
I held her closer. That love was my anchor of certainty in this world, and I cherished it. Hearing her talk about it made my kidneys tickle, and my heart feel cold and hilarious. I was giddy.
We had more drinks, until the room continued to spin a bit even when we broke from dancing. When Jia became caught up in conversation with one Mr. Badger and one Madam Solliroid Mantis I excused myself to seek some fresh air. I crossed the ballroom and steered around the punchbowls, stepping through an open alcove and onto a wide verandah overlooking a swimming pool, lit from beneath.
The night was clear, the sky alive with stars. I breathed deeply. A handful of other guests stood out on the verandah, mostly in clots of two and three, chatting and chuckling, swirling their drinks and making the ice clink against the glass. From the dark beyond the wavering light of the pool came the chirps and cries of life.
I was not entirely surprised to feel fur against my elbow: I had company.
"Miss Tiger," I said.
"Mr. Elephant," she replied. "I knew you'd come eventually."
She took a step back from the rail and emptied her drink before throwing the glass into the swimming pool. "Blighton's got cup-eaters everywhere," she explained.
"No doubt," I said. And then, "Tell me, who is Blighton exactly again?" I tried to sound casual, but failed.
"What's he dressed as, you mean? He's a bear."
"Right. Of course."
The tiger girl squinted at me, putting one paw on her striped hip. "You can't fool me, you know."
She paused, and chewed her lip thoughtfully. She crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the railing. "What's your name, Mr. Elephant?"
"You know who I am," I replied, furrowing my brow. "From...the office."
"Do you want me to call you Mr. Fell, then?"
"Like at the office?"
"Er, no," I answered, uncertain. "What is it exactly you wanted to chat with me about, Miss Tiger?"
"Please, call me Freddie," she said, touching my arm in a conversational way. "My real name's Utopia but who's going to go around calling themselves that?"
She offered her paw to shake, and I shook it. "Simon," I said automatically.
A smile flitted over her painted lips. "It must be weird returning to Fellcorp, eh?"
"Oh, it's good to be back," I told her heartily.
"Are you still feeling any effects from your accident?"
"Er, no. I feel great."
"There have been rumours that you'd lost your memory."
"Yes, I've heard. Nothing to it, of course."
"Of course, Simon." She turned out to face the pool again, her hands folded on the railing before her. Her stripes seemed to swim in the wavering, flicking underwater light. "I guess going through all this must give you a new appreciation of your daughter's disability." She glanced over at me sympathetically.
"Oh -- well, I suppose it has..." I stammered, trailing off as I spotted Omar and a thick, brutish fellow in a crimson uniform pushing their way out onto the verandah urgently. "Omar!" I called.
He ran right past me and tackled the tiger. The man in crimson was beside him an instant later, gazing through a plate with handgrips on its sides. "This is her," he pronounced. Omar pulled Miss Tiger to her feet roughly and frisked her efficiently, withdrawing a small device not unlike my own diary.
"There's no feedcasting on the premises. You're going to have to leave," rumbled Omar, taking her by the bicep. He handed the recorder to the man in crimson, who looked at it through his plate and then pocketed it. "Bloody reporters!"
"Nice talking to you, Simon," she called as she was led away.
I stood there for a moment, uncertain what to do with myself. People stopped watching and resumed their conversations. Miss Tiger was a reporter? What had she wanted from me?
"Simon, dear!" called Jia, stepping out onto the verandah and embracing me. "Omar said you'd been cornered by some horrible viper from the media."
"I'm okay," I reported.
"I'm going to take the child -- um, and his lamp -- home now. Omar will be back to pick you up later, of course."
"Oh, I think I've had enough too, actually."
"Nonsense! Blighton wants to talk to you, dear. He's been looking around for you all night." She patted my shoulder reassuringly and hooked her arm around my elbow, escorting me inside and back across the ballroom. "You should be flattered, dear. Blighton is a person of note."
And so with a twinge of vulnerability I watched Jeremiah turn away with Pish, following Jia and followed by Omar, disappearing into the milling crowd in the foyer. I walked along as I had been propelled, toward a clot of people beneath a chandelier, orbiting a great white bear. He was surrounded by alligators and ludos, roosters and gambs. I even saw Mr. Swinny, costumed as what was unmistakably a human executive. The bear spotted me approaching and the babble died as all masqued eyes swiveled to follow his gaze. "Mr. Elephant!" said the white bear.
"Mr. Bear," I replied with a bow.
"Mr. Polar Bear," he corrected kindly, shouldering through his inner circle and putting a broad, shaggy arm around me. "I was hoping you would consent to sit with me a moment, in my study. Dear Jia has told me ever so much about you."
We were already on the stairs, past the velvet ropes watched over by young little people with hard, beady eyes. I followed the hulking form of the polar bear through a set of double doors into a massive study, the stars visible through the many faces of the glass ceiling. The walls were lined with hundreds of individual data plates, as well as odd, paperboard boxes set vertically with phrases along their spines.
The bear stopped in the middle of the study and shrugged off his fur. A wiry, lithe man stepped out of the fat costume, reaching up with ropey, powerful-looking arms to remove his masque and ears. The white bear fell to into a loose pile at the feet of a tall old gentleman in black underclothes. His brow was high before a bowl of white hair, his green eyes wide and sharp. He wore a thin line of white moustaching above his grin. "Nestor S. Fell!" he declared, arms wide.
"Mr. Blighton, I presume," I said.
He shook my hand. "'I presume.' I like the sound of that, I can tell you. Yes, I'm Abermund Blighton -- your host and friend."
"Have we met before, sir?" I asked him as he swept past me to fix two drinks at a neat bar service.
Blighton shook his head. "Not at all, but even if we had you wouldn't remember, would you? Don't bother to deny it, I've had my girl on you. Miss Tiger?"
"But she was thrown out --"
"An amusing charade," smiled Blighton, passing me a short glass of amber liquid and directing me toward a set of fine chairs; "my glee comes in the details, naturally. That's where the sense of immersion engages: details. Cheers, Nestor!" He sat down and drank.
I sipped my drink politely, pursing my lips at its spice. "My name is Simon," I told him.
"Call me Abe!" he said. "You're probably wondering why I've brought you up here."
"That's true, Abe."
He rubbed his hands together and chuckled gleefully. "I'm interested in your story, Simon."
"Yes! You see I am a writer." He pointed to a row of gleaming, inscribed plates along the wall and smirked ruefully. "A rather fabulously successful one, as a point of fact. And it is my habit to collect select stories from the lives of people from all over the galaxy, so that I might populate my works with the stink of life. And I smell something delicious in you and your adventures, Simon, I really do."
"You do, Abe?"
"I do, Simon. For several reasons, several. Not the least of which being the adoption of the Samundran orphan. You don't understand how that sort of thing touches me. It's wonderful. A man in your position, confused and on the lam, with so little to give, sharing his life with a child who had less. You see I've done my research. Just amazing stuff. Page-forward tabbing stuff in my not inexperienced opinion. Worth a serious amount of money."
I sat back in my seat and drained my glass. "It is my understanding, Abe, that I already have a fairly serious amount of money. Why should I want for more?"
"Why?" the old man cackled, smoothing down his bowl of white hair with a bony hand. "You've already managed to brighten the life of one needy child. Imagine how it would feel to help a hundred thousand of them. That's what wealth is for after all." He paused on this point, his green eyes flashing. "Once we have slept and eaten and been watered, isn't it our duty to make things better for those around us if we can, Simon? I think that it is."
He seemed intent on some kind of concrete response at that point, so I said, "Yes."
"Yes!" he crowed, nodding emphatically and striking his open hand against his thigh. "Yes indeed. What is money for if not making things better? Besides," he added with a raised brow, "I have other inducements."
I turned my empty glass over in my fingers. "Inducements?" I echoed. The old man jumped out his chair, snapped the glass out of my hand and walked briskly over to the bar. He filled it, and then sauntered slowly back, his gait slowing with every step. "Do you know what this is?" he asked me.
I shook my head. He took another step, in comical slow motion. And then another. After five more ponderous paces he looked up and winked at me. "Suspense," he said.
Blighton took his seat once more and flipped open the arm of his chair to reveal a narrow groove studded with controls. "Let me show you something, Simon. Watch."
The lamps around the edges of the study winked off and we were plunged into a darkness penetrated only feebly by the starlight through the ceiling. I shifted in my chair, and then winced as a bright orange sphere appeared, floating in the middle of the air above the carpet. I squinted against the glare.
A hovering red label said NSOMEKA (BETA HYDRI).
The sphere began to shrink, slowly at first and then with increasing velocity. A pair of yellow stars blazed into view, seeming to float out of Blighton's desk, converging on the vanishing orange mote of Nsomeka. The view regressed further and other labels came into view: I spotted AINO (DELTA PAVONIS) and CASSIOPEIA (ETA CASSIOPEIA II). In a heartbeat several dozen red labels had converged into a ruddy glow at the centre of the projection, surrounded by a seas of other stars.
"The Neighbourhood," supplied Blighton.
Now it seemed that his study was enveloped in a blizzard, glowing white specks pouring out of the walls and plunging into the shrinking centre. I began to feel dizzy and grabbed the arms of my chair. The red labels of the Neighbourhood became nearly invisible in the flurry. After a moment stars ceased to appear at the fringes of the room, while the collection we already had continued to shrink into a flat, irregular oblong.
"Is that...is that the end of space?" I whispered.
"No, that is the Fluff. It is a branch of the Orion Galactic Arm. Watch."
Indeed as I returned my gaze to the projection I saw our view draw back until several great sweeping arms of stars and cloud could be clearly discerned, enspiraled about a great dome of light at the centre. In another moment the whole of the disc could be seen, shrinking majestically toward the centre of Blighton's study.
"Via Lactea," pronounced Blighton heavily. "Our living galaxy."
I shook my head, my mouth dry. "I had no idea space was so vast. I had no idea our pocket of stars was nothing more than a mote. Mother of love."
"The galaxy is not space, Simon. Watch."
A second giant wheel of stars came into view, dwarfing our galaxy. "Andromeda," narrated Blighton. The two spirals and a profusion of smaller glows became motes themselves, dangling off the side of a great blossom of discs and wheels. "Virgo Supercluster," he called. My hands were becoming sweaty, dampening the arms of my chair. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up on end and I found that I could not look away as the supercluster plunged away into the infinity, other blossoms of light fading in through the walls and floor and windows.
"Where does it stop?" I gasped.
"It doesn't," he said. "Watch."
The blistering clusters of light that represented so many millions of galaxies were arrayed in long strings, tendrils stretching around lakes of void to come together in blazing hubs. The glittering fibres and shining nodes became smaller and denser until it seemed that Blighton's study was filled with a great iridescent sponge, or the tangled neurones of some monstrous brain.
I closed my eyes against it. "Enough!"
When I looked up the warm gold lamplight had been restored and the holographic projection was gone. Blighton snapped closed the arm of his chair, covering the controls. He had a wide, satisfied smile on his face. "Did you sweat?" he asked me tartly.
"Did you perspire, Simon? Did you get gooseflesh? Did you think you'd glimpsed the eye of God?"
"Maybe," I coughed; "I admit that was a bit overwhelming."
"Yes," he agreed. "I couldn't resist, you understand -- watching the expression on the face of a man ignorant of space grasping for the first time the true scale of creation." He closed his eyes and hissed, "Priceless."
I walked over to the bar and brought back the bottle of amber liquor, topping up both our glasses. I placed the bottle on the floor by the foot of my chair with a shaking hand. I took a swallow. "You showed me that because you were interested in my reaction?"
"I showed you that in order to cause you to feel," he replied, sipping in turn. "Thank you. Isn't wonder wonderful? It is my profession to transmit it." He leaned forward and locked his eyes on mine. "Such wonders you must have known these past weeks, being new to it all! How I envy you!"
I shifted in my seat, and drank again. I closed my eyes and considered, and then recounted for Abermund Blighton the story of my flight through the forest by the hospital on Samundra, and my night in Pish's treehouse. I told about learning to fly a kite, and all of the stupid questions I asked had Pish ("How does it know to stay up there?" "It doesn't know anything, Simon -- it's just a thing!"). I stopped before we came to Duncan, and when I opened my eyes again Blighton wore a rapt expression his face. "I was right," he said, nodding. "I was very, very right. Simon, you must tell me your adventures, so that we might make a fortune together and cause the galaxy to see through your eyes."
I sighed and opened my mouth, but before I could speak he held up a sharp finger. "I want you to understand how much this means to me. I want to make a show of faith, to demonstrate my trust."
The wiry old gentleman sprang out of his chair and beckoned me to follow him. One of the platecases swung back to reveal an additional section of the room -- a long corridor of alcoves, each lit by a small white lamp from above. I caught up with Blighton at the mouth of the corridor, where he took my arm and whispered to me urgently, "I'm sure they've started to turn up already, haven't they? The hungry masses, banging on your door, asking for a favor, a hand-out, a miracle?"
I thought about what Omar had said about the woman in the Fellcorp lobby, and nodded. "Yes."
"Yes," agreed Blighton. "It's the curse of benefaction. As I hinted earlier I myself am deeply involved in granting dreams to those less fortunate, but to avoid being doubly mobbed I make my gifts in disguise."
He sauntered leisurely into the corridor and I followed him. The first alcove was filled by the body of a very fat woman, split down the middle and separated to show a largely hollow interior. "A costume?" I wondered aloud.
"An alias," explained Blighton. "That is Maxine Maxwell, the lovable public face of Maxwell's Teas. It is as Maxine that I dispense miracles to the tea growers on Unkei."
We passed on to another alcove, which contained the split pseudo-body of a brown skinned man with a braided beard. Next came a bisected Annapurnese complete with orange desert dust in his hair, then a slit-eyed crone with white locks and blue tattoos. Blighton was explaining how he enjoyed the freedom of walking among regular people, to choose without interference who was truly most in need.
"March Peebles!" I suddenly cried. "You're March Peebles, aren't you?"
Blighton plucked fussily at his white moustache and smirked, then bowed deeply and theatrically. "You have penetrated my true identity, Simon. I created the legend of March Peebles when I was twenty -- I fulfilled it by the time I was forty. Since the Horror I confess that I often lend my missions as Peebles more effort than my writing."
"You are a remarkable figure, sir," I told him.
He laughed. "And so are you, Simon. There is just one thing that bothers me about your story. A certain matter we must clear up, before any kind of sense can be made of your tale."
Blighton paused before the next alcove, scratching his chin thoughtfully. He bent down and placed his empty glass on the floor, and then raised himself and leaned against the wall. He looked up slowly. "Well you see...I made you up."
I furrowed my brow. "What do you mean?"
He moved back from the alcove, and looked inside. I stepped closer and peered in beside him. Mounted on the rack was another split body, twin halves supported by metal armatures. The expressionless face was mine.
"What --" I stammered, blood roaring in my ears. "I don't understand..."
"I made you up," Blighton said again, looking at me. "When I bought Fellcorp Pharma I figured there should be a Fell so I invented you, and used your form to meet the patients so I could Peeble them, if you'll forgive the expression."
"But I -- I run Fellcorp, don't I?" I argued, dizzy.
"Run it? You barely have anything to do with it. Yatti Olorio runs Fellcorp, Simon."
"So Olorio's your man, is he?" I demanded.
Irritatingly, Blighton chuckled. "Not at all, Mr. Elephant. I sold Fellcorp and all of its assets two years ago. That's why I'm so particularly intrigued to learn that their corporate mascot has somehow acquired...flesh and blood."
I stumbled backward and fell into one of the alcoves, half of a pearl-skinned woman with blonde curls sagging over me. I pushed the thing off of me with a grunt of repulsion, kicking backward out of the alcove and shattering Blighton's glass. I sat there on the floor, stunned and speechless.
Blighton looked down at me consolingly. He untucked a handkerchief from his pocket and offered it to me. "You're bleeding. You have glass in your hand."
"Coitus," I muttered.
A quarter-hour later one of Blighton's little people had sealed the wound with a spray and been dismissed. I sat back in my chair in his study, legs folded, trying to breathe at a steady rate and keep my mind numbed. I tossed back another drink. Blighton sat down opposite me. "I know this isn't easy for you. But I knew if I recognized that your story doesn't end here that surely you must be feeling the same thing."
"I don't know what I feel anymore," I grunted savagely, draining my glass.
"Of course, you have everything," he pointed out playfully. "You have a family and a fortune, a job and a reputation. You could want for nothing, all your days. And yet -- you will not be able to leave it be, will you? It won't be able to satisfy you now, will it?"
"No," I whispered. And then I cried, "Why not?"
"Because you deplore deception. Because everything that's pure in this world you've seen tainted by lies. Because you were born with a thirst for answers, and you'll go crazy trying to ignore all the parts that don't make sense." He paused, and examined his fingers. "...Or at least that's the way I've been building your character in the draft. You tell me."
I put my drink down and stood, picking up my discarded elephant masque and tucking it under my arm. "I can't quite bring myself to thank you, Mr. Polar Bear."
Blighton nodded soberly. "What will you do now, Simon?"
"I need to talk to my wife," I told him, striding through the doors. I jogged down the stairs and pushed quickly through the thinning crowd in the foyer. I arrived outside. Though Omar was nowhere to be seen I quickly spotted a tall, broad-shouldered woman wearing a woolen black sweater with the Fellcorp crest. "Can you take me home?" I asked her, my voice feeling detached and distant, as if operated by someone else.
"Of course, Mr. Fell, right away," she answered quickly, guiding me over to an orb pedestal and activating the shield once we'd stepped aboard. I hugged my shoulders and closed my eyes. "Is everything alright, sir?" she asked once we were in the air.
I did not answer. I slipped out my diary and clutched it near my mouth as I dictated the second part of this horrid day. The lights of estates passed below while I described the chimeras, the noise, the sickening revelations…
Now I see only trees. Wind-swept clouds have crossed the sky and blocked the stars. We're descending. In a matter of moments I will rouse Jia from sleep and I swear I will have the answers I seek.
I will know. The game is over. I swear.