A CURIOUS MALADY
I crossed the hall in a blink, and took the stairs three at time. I threw open the doors of the master bedroom and strode over to the dark bed. I pawed through the covers savagely until I found Jia's arm, and then jerked her upright with a brutal thrust.
She let out a little scream and pulled the covers to her chest. "Simon?" she whispered, blinking.
"Who are you?" I roared.
"Who are you?" I repeated, feeling out for the lamp and knocking most of the contents of her nightstand upon the floor. The lamp winked on. Its mellow glow seemed harsh after the darkness. I stared into Jia's trembling eyes.
"I don't know what you mea --" she started.
"No more lies!" I bellowed and she flinched back, gasping.
Omar ran into the room, followed by Pish and Jeremiah. "What's wrong, Simon?" asked Pish, clutching the blue-green arm of the expressionless robot.
"Mr. Fell?" prompted Omar.
I looked back at Jia, tears running down her cheeks. "There's nothing I can say," she whispered. "I'm your wife, Simon. I'm your Jia Hazinnah."
With an incoherent shout of rage I plunged into the closet and tore through my clothes. I returned to the bedroom with the Smith-Shurtook in my grip. I walked straight up to the bed and levelled the silver barrel at Jia's forehead. "Tell me the truth," I commanded.
"Mr. Fell!" shouted Omar, dashing toward me.
I swivelled and pointed the gun at his chest. "Don't."
He stopped up short, then continued to advance slowly, his hands out before him. "Please, sir, just you go ahead and put that gun down now. I don't know what's going on here but I'm sure that if all we all just --" He trailed off as he spotted Jeremiah advancing on him from the corner of his eye. "Stay back, robot!" he shouted. "I can handle this."
"You cannot handle this," I argued sadly. "Omar, I'm warning you."
"I can disarm you before you kill me, sir. Even if I have to take a bullet in the process, I know I can do it." He licked his lips and tensed. "There's no question."
"The gun isn't what you should be worried about," I said, nodding toward Jeremiah. "You'll be dead before you hit the floor."
Omar risked a glance over his shoulder. "The robot won't hurt me."
"No," I agreed. "I expect it would be painless."
Jia and Pish both shrieked as I was blindsided by the security woman who had flown me home, both of us crashing spectacularly into a cabinet, its sides splintering and its contents spilling out onto the carpet. She twisted my forearm and the Smith-Shurtook dropped heavily.
I rolled out from under her grasp and jumped to my feet, arms raised to defend myself. But she lay unmoving, her open eyes fixed on the ceiling, her hand frozen in an interrupted reach across the floor toward my gun. The smell of her bowels reached us, loosened in death. I scrambled forward and picked up the Smith-Shurtook, wheeling around to point it at Omar again.
"Darrington?" he called urgently to the fallen woman. "Darrington! What did you do to her?"
I looked over to Jeremiah meaningfully, and then back at Omar. "Interference will not be tolerated," I pronounced coldly.
Omar gaped, and took a hesitant step backward, a film of sweat shining on his broad brown brow.
I turned back to Jia and she scrambled backward off the bed, falling to the floor. She gathered her nightgown around her and pressed back against the wall as she wept. My gaze did not flicker. "I loved you," I hissed. "I really did. I let myself fall in love with you." I began to cry, sputtering angrily around the words. "But it's all lies. It's all lies." I wiped my eyes with the back of my elephant sleeve and hardened my quivering mouth. "Speak now!"
"I --" she choked, sobbing. "I want to!" she wailed.
I crouched before her, dropping the gun and taking her shoulders in my hands. "Tell me everything," I said.
"I want to," she repeated pathetically, grabbing her head and moaning. "I love you, Simon! You have to believe that -- I love you. I didn't think I would but I do."
"No more lies!" I cried again, shaking her.
She moaned and winced, pressing her thumbs into her forehead. "I can't -- I can't, don't make me," she pled. Twin rivulets of blood appeared at her nostrils.
I dropped back away from her, shaking all over. "What's happening to her?" I whispered. Omar and Jeremiah flanked me, unreadable. Pish was cowering in the corner, pressed into the side of a wooden dresser, sobbing.
"I want to," blubbered Jia feebly, coughing as blood ran over her mouth.
Jeremiah's rubber-padded fingers touched my arm. "Sir, I do not believe she is able to speak freely. There is some factor of coercion at work. I do not believe there will be any profit in questioning her further."
"Yes," I agreed hollowly, watching her writhe weakly on the floor. I threw up into a potted plant. "Omar, call an ambulance," I said quietly, wiping a string of bile from my chin. In another part of the house an alarm sounded shrilly.
"Mr. Fell, I --"
"Do it now."
Omar began speaking quickly into his telephone. I sat down beside Jia and pulled her into my arms, smoothing the strands of black hair out of her sweaty face. "Hush now," I said. "You don't have to say anything right now, Jia, dear."
The alarm went quiet. The panicked hooting of little people could be heard from the hall, followed by footfalls pounding up the stairs. I looked up as Omar spun to face the door as a woman ran in and froze at the threshold, mouth dropping open as she surveyed the scene -- broken furniture, a gun on the floor, a corpse, a robot, a crying child and me cradling Jia's bloody face in my hands.
I felt like the breath had been ripped out of my chest, so that I could barely find the air to choke out with shock: "Glory!"
Jia's eyes snapped open, and she raised her head to take in the apparition standing over us: a skinny girl in a worn red shift with tall black boots, her dirty brown hair tied into rows of beaded braids. Glory's narrow eyes were locked on Jia. "What are you doing here?" Glory asked slowly, her brow crinkling.
"Don't," croaked Jia, her hands squeezing my arm. "Don't do it...I don't know you."
I gaped back and forth between the women. Glory seemed to decide something and stooped down closer. "Are you fornicating me?" she breathed. "Do you think I would ever forget you, dog-woman?"
"Don't," repeated Jia desperately, her nose bleeding anew. "Don't put the thoughts in my head, please...I can't!"
"I started your heart when you fished out! I dragged your faecal ass to the hospital when Bunny stuck you, and then you coitally robbed me. Don't you remember, Kissandra?"
Jia shook her head woefully and moaned, scratching at her scalp with her nails and shaking all over. "What are you doing to her?" I shouted helplessly. "Stop!"
"Who did she tell you she was?" hissed Glory viciously. "She's a liar, Simon. She's a whore."
Jia lost consciousness with a violent shudder, passing out across my lap with her hair fanned out over the carpet. A line of blood was running from her exposed ear. "Stop it!" I implored, and Glory compressed her mouth into a thin line and stood back.
"Kid," she called over her shoulder. "Still got those fixers?"
"Yeah Glory," he said, standing up to rush out of the room.
But Pish stopped short in the face of the medics: a man in green robes swept into the room flanked by two green robots and trailed by a little person in a green smock covered in pockets. They arrayed themselves around Jia, elbowing me efficiently out of the way. The man signed quickly to the little person who brought out an ampule from one of his pockets and stuck it in the side of Jia's neck. She twitched. At another signal from the man in green robes the twin robots bent down and made a bed of their arms. With a muted crack a stasis field snapped on between them, and the robots rose with Jia fixed floating at their waists.
"Where are you taking her?" I demanded hotly, my emotions in confusion.
"Sage Withan-Beck Hospital sir," the man replied evenly. "It's one of ours, Mr. Fell. Don't worry."
"Prepare my orb," I said shakily to Omar, who nodded curtly and followed the medics out. I looked back at Glory. "Hello again," I said.
"Hi, Simon." She crossed her arms and cocked her head to one side. "Sorry about fornicating you over before. Didn't mean to."
I nodded vaguely. "Are you coming to the hospital with us?"
No one spoke during the orb flight, all eyes fixed on the sphere we tailed, its surface pulsing rhythmically with red and blue St. Elmo's fire. When we neared strings of traffic in the starless sky the ambulance keened in alarm, wailing and warbling like a banshee in the night.
In the waiting room of the hospital I paced in circles on the polished tiled floor before the bank of chairs where Pish sat in his headless mouse outfit (the closest clothes to grab), Omar with his eyes shut and his fingers pinched on the brow of his fleshy nose, and Glory with her skinny, scabbed legs crossed, biting her nails with an intermittent click.
Jeremiah walked down the corridor and stopped before me. As a robot he had been required to submit to an interview immediately, to render an objective and truthful account of the events to which he had been witness. "Sir," he said.
I walked over to the windows overlooking the pre-dawn cityscape of Padirac, and Jeremiah followed. "What do they think?" I whispered.
"I believe they have hypothesized a common poison affecting both Madam Fell and Miss Darrington. An autopsy of Miss Darrington is proceeding now, sir."
"They believe the cases are connected, then."
Jeremiah paused. "A not unreasonable theory, given the information they have at hand," he said significantly, "sir."
I nodded. "What do you think, Jeremiah?"
"I believe Madam Fell has been tampered with, in an effort to make it impossible for her to discuss, or even consider, certain subjects."
"Tampered with?" I echoed. "What do you mean?"
Someone cleared her throat purposefully and I turned around. A police officer in a crisp blue uniform had entered the waiting room. She did not have little red circles painted on her cheeks. "Nestor Fell?"
The officer and I sat in a small office containing a desk, two chairs and a plastic model of a human skeleton. Through the frosted glass of the window I could see the blurry horizon lightening with the dawn. I was asked if I had any enemies ("Not that I know of,") and whether or not Jia had taken any food at Blighton's ball ("No, just punch I think,"). On the whole she seemed sympathetic.
"We'll get to the bottom of this, Mr. Fell," she promised me, touching my hand.
"Thank you," I said.
By the time I returned to the waiting room it was suffused with pale pink sunlight. Pish got up from his chair and hugged me. "I'm sorry I scared you," I mumbled into his hair.
It was not long after that I was admitted to see Jia. She was unconscious, and the nurse told me she may remain unconscious for some time. She looked small in the hospital bed. Her face had been cleaned but there remained a thin crust of blood around each nostril. As I watched a tiny fixer crawled out of one nostril and into the other. Her breathing was almost undetectable. A device at her bedside beeped periodically.
I sat in the chair beside the bed. My chest ached with pity, and shame. "I don't know if you can hear me, Jia Hazinnah," I said softly, "but I'm so sorry for what I've done to you. It's all my fault. I did not know what a monster I could become."
I dropped my head into my hands and wept.
When I emerged into the waiting room Omar told me that Jeremiah had taken Pish home. I nodded mutely. Glory was nowhere to be seen. After a long moment I said, "Are you a liar, too, Omar? Will you tell me? Will you take pity on me and just tell me?"
He licked his lips. "I am not a liar, sir," he rumbled.
"Then tell me: is that woman my wife?"
"I've never had cause to doubt it."
"But what cause have you had to believe it?"
"My job doesn't admit belief, sir."
"You dodge the question."
"I don't mean to. Man, I told you I took a bullet for you once. There is no secret I would keep from you. I'd tell you my Mama's cup size if I thought it would help you to know."
I wiped my hand over my face and sighed. "So when did you first meet Madam Fell?"
"Six months ago, sir, when I was re-assigned to Maja."
"Where were you before that?"
"The Third Earth, sir."
"I don't know what that is."
"Callicrates, Mr. Fell. The capital world at Eridani Star."
"You're head of my personal security force and you had never met my wife before six months ago?"
"I was promoted, sir."
"What happened to your predecessor?"
"I don't know, sir."
"Have you ever met my children?"
"No, sir," he said, and then he winced and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Headache," he muttered, taking a deep breath. "Anyway, I may have met your children briefly between terms."
"Are you sure?" I asked quickly.
He shrugged, and then winced again. "I think so. I can't really remember it all that clearly. A boy and girl, right?"
"Yes," I replied, watching him closely.
He massaged his temples and blinked. "I'm pretty sure..." He winced again. "Man, what's wrong with me?"
"You've been tampered with," I said softly.
"What does that mean?" he demanded, grimacing.
"I don't know exactly," I replied, "but I would suggest that your headache may grow worse the more you try to grasp the specifics of that slippery recollection."
He was silent for a moment, the muscles in his neck working. Then he cried out and grabbed his head, blood oozing from one flared nostril. He wobbled on his feet and I jumped up to steady him. He held on to my shoulder gratefully and lowered himself into a chair. "Man," he commented heavily. "What's going on, Mr. Fell?"
"That's what I'm going to find out," I promised him darkly.
He took a shuddering breath and reached out for my arm. "Tampered with -- are you saying that somebody's been messing around...with my mind?"
I nodded soberly, and Omar looked scared. "Come on," I said. "I think it's time we had another talk with Mr. Olorio."
"How very convenient," said Olorio liltingly, standing at the threshold of the waiting room. "My timing seems to be impeccable. Goodness, my friend, you look exhausted."
I had felt exhausted, but laying my eyes on the rotund countenance of Yatti Olorio inspired in me a rush of energy powered by anger. I wheeled on him menacingly. "I've got some questions for you, Olorio."
"Like what, my friend? It's tragic what's happened, of course --"
"Tell me about a prostitute named Kissandra, for starters."
"A prostitute?" he echoed, his brow knit. "I'm afraid I haven't the foggiest --"
"We've been friends ten years, you say?" I pushed ahead relentlessly. "Is that right?"
"Why yes, we met in university --"
"Then why does Abermund Blighton claim he invented me? Why does he have my likeness as a costume in his study? Why does my wife bleed when she tries to tell me the truth?"
"Simon, Simon," called Olorio, holding up his hands imploringly. "You've had a terrible shock tonight, I understand. But this is madness! Blighton claims he invented you? It's ridiculous! The man is a storyteller and a storymaker, Simon -- I'm sure he would've told you anything, to shock you for his ghoulish amusement."
I hesitated then, for there was the ring of truth in that.
Olorio seized his opportunity and plowed around, stepping closer and putting his heavy arm around my shoulders. "You live in a rare predicament, my friend," he sang soothingly. "You've been thrown into an adult world with the experience of a child. People have taken advantage of you, tricked you. People have abused you, and I understand how you've been burned too much to trust anymore."
"It wasn't --"
"Simon, Simon, Simon," he prattled, giving me an affectionate squeeze. "It's perfectly understandable that you should behave like this, like an animal cornered, after months underground. You're lashing out at what don't understand, your faith tested by a twisted man who would toy with you like a mouse for a cat. Blighton is a manipulator, Simon."
"He's heartless -- he loves stories, not people. But just stop to think about it for a moment: what kind of a grand ruse would have to be orchestrated to pull off such a fiction? To invent a man? Really! To what end, I ask you -- to what end?"
I nodded weakly. "Indeed."
Olorio grinned toothily. "You need rest, my friend. All of this will make more sense when you can pull yourself together a bit, I promise you." He turned to Omar. "Agent! See Mr. Fell home and to bed, will you?"
"Yessir Mr. Olorio."
I collected my tail and my tusks from the chair and Omar and I passed out into the hall, Olorio giving me a loathsome squeeze on the shoulder at the threshold. Glory was loitering just outside, her eyes glazed and distant. She slowly sauntered after us as we made briskly for the lift. When the doors had yawned shut I turned to Omar. "You know there's more to this. You know this isn't exhaustion."
"Yes," pronounced Omar evenly, his mouth tight.
"You know this involves you, too."
"What did I miss?" asked Glory.
"You told me you were not a liar, Omar," I said. "Tell me now: is your loyalty with me, with Fellcorp, or has it been altogether extinguished?"
"My loyalty is with you personally, sir."
"If that's the case you should stop calling me sir, and just call me Simon." I touched his shoulder reassuringly. "We are just two men who have been somehow exploited. We both mean to find out how. No one is the master of the other."
Omar paused a moment, and then nodded curtly. "I'll try to work on that, sir," he said with a little smile. "What's the next move?"
"Sleep. Olorio's right on that account. If I do not sleep soon I will become useless to the effort. We'll go back to the estate."
"Right on," agreed Glory; "I'm so coitally tired."
"I don't need to sleep," said Omar. "What can I do in the meantime?"
"I want to talk to Blighton again. Can you arrange it?"
"I can try, sir."
"And I want to know who my children are, if they even exist."
"I'll see what I can find out, sir."
The lift doors split and we were admitted into the busy hospital lobby. Glory grabbed my elbow as we started to walk. "Simon, what's going on?"
"I wish I knew."
"Aw, fornicate me," she grumbled. "What kind of a faecal answer is that?"
Despite it all I smiled. "It's good to have you back, Glory."
I said and thought nothing during the flight home over the striped domes and spires of Padirac. The sunny countryside passed beneath us in a blur, and soon we were descending toward the indigo castle of the Fell Estate.
Pish was sleeping in the guest bedroom, Jeremiah standing over him. "Hi, robot," said Glory, flopping down upon the bed after peeling off her boots. "I've been awake for like a million hours."
"Sir?" asked Jeremiah quietly.
"Omar is making inquiries. I am going to sleep a few hours. We will confront Blighton and come to the truth of all this." I spoke mechanically, with a determination I did not feel. "How is Pish?"
"Sir, he is concerned for you."
"He could've done better in the adoptive father department. Poor kid. I can't offer him the stability I thought I could." I rubbed my burning eyes.
"Sir," said Jeremiah, "you do not forget him in the midst of your own troubles. The stability you lend him is your love."
I had nothing to say to that. I just stared at the robot, feeling raw and boneless. "Thank you, Jeremiah," I said at last.
"Shut up," suggested Glory, pulling a pillow over her face.
I backed out the door. The master bedroom had been tidied up, and all signs of the night's events had been erased or removed. The Smith-Shurtook sat neatly atop a pile of my folded clothes. The bed had been made. I sat upon it and stared out the windows, unseeing.
Numbly, I toggled the contact on my diary and recounted this nightmare as I peeled off the grey elephant costume from my body. Naked and filled with hurt, I curled up atop the covers.
I don't know what to make of anything.
I hope I never wake up again.