CONFERENCE WITH AN INCORPORATION
I dreamed that a bird, a terrible raptor, was eating my eyes. Needless to say I awoke somewhat discomfited.
Thus it was with a feeling of great relief that I looked around to see orange dappled light playing across the ceiling, and smelled the moist, hot air of Maja's equatorial balm. I was not blind, nor dead. Life chirped and whinnied beyond the windows. I heard the screech of a large bird and shuddered, gooseflesh rising on my arms. I sat up. I looked around the bed in which I had slept alone.
What morning was this? And why did it smell like afternoon?
With a nauseous flash the events of the day crystallized in my memory: Jia in a deep, sick sleep in one of Fellcorp's hospitals; Glory returned; my life either the invention of a cruel manipulator, or my shock his morbid plaything.
I remembered that I had pointed a gun at my wife's head, badgered her into incoherence, and watched Omar's colleague die. And then I remembered Yatti Olorio's unctuous smirk and his oily manner, his sing-song soliloquy about trust and madness and the way he had hung his meaty forepaw around me as he convinced me I was nothing more than short of rest.
And yet Jia and Omar were not the masters of their own memories. They bled through the nose when they tried to see through the haze. As Jeremiah surmised, they have been somehow tampered with, apparently in the name of divulging no inconsistency from the story I'd been sold.…
"Mr. Fell?" Omar called, sticking his head in the doorway.
"Don't call me that anymore," I said. "I told you: my name is Simon."
"Mr. Blighton's agreed to see you, sir. I thought you'd want to know."
"What time is it, Omar?"
"Nine bells, sir. Nearly supper." He coughed.
"Is there something else?"
Omar cast his eyes downward in a rare show of real nervousness. "The hospital's called, sir."
"And?" I asked, my heart already burning coldly at Omar's manner. My hands started to shake, and my bowels turned over liquidly inside me.
"Madam Fell has died, sir."
I took a silent moment to absorb that, using every ounce of my strength to will her cheerful face out of my mind's eye. I steeled myself against reaction, a tingling pain radiating through my guts. Olorio at the hospital -- it had to be. He had somehow murdered her. After a moment I began to nod slowly. "Omar. Please prepare an orb. Have everyone else join me downstairs. I just need to get dressed."
"Even the child, sir?"
"I don't want anybody I care about out of my sight. We're travelling as a unit from now on."
Omar turned to leave, but hesitated. "Are you...alright, sir?"
"No," I replied crisply, looking into his sad brown eyes. "Not at all. Now let's get moving."
Six minutes later I descended the great spiral staircase into the hall, my dusty red leather longcoat trailing out behind, the reassuring weight of the Smith-Shurtook bouncing against my leg. Pish, Glory, Omar and Jeremiah were waiting at the bottom of the stairs. "Sir, what is our destination?" asked the robot.
"Abermund Blighton's. We're going to get some answers."
"And something to eat?" asked Glory hopefully.
The day was wet and windless, the rain falling in tall, perfectly vertical sheets from a low ceiling of dense grey cloud, horizon to horizon. Pish held my hand silently as we watched the trees and hills and estates pass by beneath our orb. Glory sparked up one of her little orange sticks, inhaling it with a purposeful gasp. Omar stared at her and then looked at me worriedly, but I waved my hand dismissively. "So tell me about her," I said.
"Kissandra? Used to work together," said Glory, eyes heavy-lidded; "in a kind of show, on Aurealia. Pish says she said she was your wife."
"Coitus. Didn't fall for her, did you Simon? Aw, faeces. You did, didn't you?" Glory took a step closer, her hand reaching out to touch me but it dropped limply at her waist after a hovering hesitation. "Coitus."
After a moment of silence I asked, "Why did you come after us, Glory?"
"Because I knew you'd forgive me."
"Because I'm naïve?"
She snorted. "No, moron. Because you're good." She put her finger to my cheek and forced me to look at her. "You're still good, aren't you? Hasn't been beaten out of you yet, has it Simon?"
I did not answer.
Pish did. "Yeah Glory," he said seriously. "Simon's still good."
Glory leaned against the orb's central pillar and started playing with her braids absently. "So who's this Blighton pederast? Some rich fornicator?"
"He's a writer," I said shortly. "He claims he invented me, and that those who have met me previously met only Blighton in disguise."
"That's some pretty fornicated-up faeces, Simon."
"Indeed," I agreed.
"Think he's yanking your penis?"
I blinked. "Er, no. I believe the professional liar may be telling the truth."
"How do you figure?"
"Because he's the only one who isn't trying to pretend something isn't amiss." I sighed heavily, casting my gaze back out at the rain. "Your friend -- Kissandra? -- she's dead."
"What?" cried Glory. "She died from a nosebleed?"
"No," I replied, not looking at her. "I believe she died from being killed."
The rain petered out. We skimmed over an open-air sport court of some kind and then descended on Blighton's litter-sprinkled front lawn, which was being presided over by a fleet of little people stabbing the bits of trash on the ends of long spires and sticking them into bags hung over their shoulders. Some of them looked up at us as our orb settled and the shield vanished. I jumped off the platform and strode up to the columned porch, jogging briskly up the steps.
Abermund Blighton stood on the porch, his hands in the pockets of a high-necked silk robe. He took one of them out to pet his thin white moustache quickly before thrusting it out for me to shake. "Simon, my favourite muse," he smiled toothily.
I did not take up his outstretched hand. "I'm here for the truth, Abe."
"Of course you are," chuckled Blighton. "Truth is the only thing a man can be after when he's lost everything else, isn't it?"
"What about revenge?"
"Revenge is a form of truth," he replied without pause. "Please, do come in."
We were arrayed around a long rectangular diningroom table: Blighton at the end, myself at the tail, Pish at my right hand beside Glory, Omar across from them, Jeremiah standing against a wall, somewhat lost in the details of a dizzying mural depicting a storm-tossed ship painted thereupon, the hull splintered and sagging beneath an iron-coloured sea, the passengers thrashing between the waves. Two liveried little people brought in a tea service and began distributing cups and saucers. Blighton invited us to partake, and to warm up.
"After you," I said.
Blighton let a flash of irritation slide over his face before smiling toothily again. "Do you suspect poison?" he asked, raising his cup with an outstretched pinky.
"Jia's doctors did."
He sipped his tea. "But you and I know there's nothing to that theory, don't we Simon?" He put his cup down. "Whom our enemies did not kill, your robot took care of." He glanced sidelong at Jeremiah.
"Absurd," I objected.
"Nonsense," he retorted quickly. "You've left quite a trail of bodies in your wake, Simon, and I don't think you have that kind of blood on your hands. You don't have the look of it in your eyes." Blighton cleared his throat. "I've done my research. There is only one conclusion. The robot is a killer."
"If that were true, shouldn't you be afraid to accuse him now?"
Blighton shook his head. "All who oppose you do not die indiscriminantly. The pattern is more selective than that." He picked up his cup and sipped again, pinky extended. "I am confident that I have nothing to fear."
"Who are our enemies as you call them?"
"I have no idea, really," shrugged Blighton with a careless wave. "But surely it is no coincidence that after our conversation last night you ran home to confront your wife about my allegations, and things have ended up as they have. Unless you killed her yourself?"
"I did no such thing!"
"Very good, just checking. No doubt your colleague Mr. Olorio has suggested that I am a perverse liar, and that I have fed you this cock and bull story for my own amusement and profit." When I said nothing he continued: "Had you accepted this as the whole truth you would not be here now, wasting your time with a cruel fraudster. The fact that you are here now can mean only one thing: that something has happened that falls outside of Olorio's explanations, and that you are desperate to return to the font of knowledge who first clued you into the fact that things are not as they seem." He sipped his tea, and placed the empty cup on his saucer gingerly. "Is this not the case, Simon?"
I pursed my lips and frowned. "Yes."
"Unfortunately I have already blown my oracle -- I have nothing else up my sleeve. I've told you that your persona and image are my creation, assumed for the purposes of benefaction in disguise, and sold along with every other bit of Fellcorp Pharma property some two years in the past. Honestly my dear fellow, I'm as perplexed by your existence as you are."
I stared into my untouched tea miserably. "There's nothing you can tell us?"
Blighton smirked, his eyes flitting around the table. "Us indeed, eh Simon? You've amassed a small army of champions for truth. A motley crew, to be sure, but I think I detect in them the funk of moxie. Well done!" He folded his hands on the table before him. "There is one piece of advice I can give you and your valiant forces, Simon. In my own travels I have learned a certain credo when digging for the heart of a story: follow the money."
"Follow the money?" I echoed.
"Follow the money," he confirmed, "and at the end of that sordid path you'll find your rat."
I rubbed my temples pensively. "Olorio!" I hissed.
Blighton smiled. "Anyone for more tea?"
The sun was setting as our orb shot through the air over the wet countryside, the purple light shadowless. Lightning flashed, and a moment later thunder rolled. The glimmering lights of the metropolis of Padirac appeared before us behind a wash of rainy haze, orbs glowing with internal light winking like fireflies above the colourful roofs. We landed on top of Fellcorp's tower and scampered across the wet tarmac into the lift.
There was no reason to imagine Yatti Olorio would still be working past supper, but I also had no reason to imagine another interview would be productive. Our objective instead was the gathering of information about Fellcorp itself, which Jeremiah had told me how to procure.
The Incorporation of Fellcorp lived on the ninth floor.
The chamber was large and round, with elegant stone benches around the periphery of the reflective black walls, all facing the massive gleaming column of polished wood that occupied the core of the room. Pish, Glory and Jeremiah formed a small clot by the door while Omar and I strode in before the column, its face inscribed with the interlocked triangle crest of Fellcorp.
"Hello," I called out, my voice echoing off the hard walls, "my name is Simon."
A ring of heretofore invisible lights around the middle of the column illuminated, casting an eerie green glow up and down its wooden face and backlighting the crest. A mellow, sexless voice replied, "Hello, Simon."
"Are you the Incorporation of Fellcorp?" I asked.
"Yes, I am, Simon. I am obliged to tell you that I am one of three identical incorporated commercial entities. My siblings live at Eridani and Praxiteles."
I looked back at Jeremiah and he nodded to me. I called out, "I wish you to answer some questions about the ownership of Fellcorp. Will you answer truthfully?"
"As an incorporated commercial entity I am obliged to do so, Simon," answered the artificial mind inside the column.
"When was this corporation founded?"
"Sixteen years ago."
"Who founded it?"
"Maja Holding Corporation Five-five-three-two-seven-one-one-zero-three."
"Who is the owner of that holding corporation?"
"I'm sorry Simon, but for that information you would have to question the Incorporation of Maja Holding Corporation Five-five-three-two-seven-one-one-zero-three directly."
I paced in a small circle, considering. "Who was the first officer of Fellcorp?"
"Mr. Rodham Torrengaard."
"Is Rodham Torrengaard still affiliated with Fellcorp?"
I sighed, and thought again. "What does he do now?"
"I'm sorry Simon, but for that information you would have to question the Incorporation of Blighton Enterprises Interstellar directly."
"Ah ha!" I exclaimed, and then rubbed my chin thoughtfully and frowned. "What is the current relationship between Fellcorp and Blighton Enterprises?"
I paced again, hands behind my back, the red longcoat flying out behind me as I swept past Omar and around the back of the pillar again. I looked up at Omar, and considered the timing of his promotion. "What is the element of sharpest contrast between the historical operational parameters of Fellcorp, and the operational parameters of the last six months?"
The column answered smoothly: "Six months ago Fellcorp entered into a contract with the Citadel of the Recovery which has necessitated the revision of hundreds of operational parameters, chiefly the quantity of medicines under development for victims of the Kamari Horror, and the financing of this development process with Citadel funds."
"Who negotiated this contract?"
"On behalf of the Citadel of the Recovery: Madam Denchet Nox. On behalf of Fellcorp: Mr. Yatti Olorio."
"How long has Mr. Olorio been associated with Fellcorp?"
"Six months, Simon."
"What happened six months ago to initiate these changes?"
"I'm sorry, but I'm not qualified to speculate on the motivations of my officers."
"Whom did Olorio replace?"
"Chief Operational Officer Mr. Sook Moon Ti."
"What happened to Mr. Sook Moon Ti?"
"Mr. Sook Moon Ti was killed in a boating accident, to the great regret of colleagues and competitors alike."
"Have any other members of the board died during the last year?"
"Yes, Simon. Chief Financial Officer Margot Ving died of natural causes in her home with her beloved family. Chief Informatics Officer Petron Gelliwash-Def was killed in a tragic orb accident. Chief Personnel Officer Bick Tou disappeared while mountaineering on vacation, and is presumed dead."
"Isn't that unusual? So many deaths on the board in a single year?"
"I'm sorry, but I'm not qualified to assess statistical probabilities of this kind."
I stopped pacing and stood at Omar's shoulder, closing my eyes and thinking. "Incorporation, tell me this: what has been the effect of this new relationship with the Citadel of the Recovery?"
"Increased market penetration, enhanced efficacy of Fellcorp products, increased profitability."
I opened my eyes. "Why more efficacy?"
"Research by the Citadel of the Recovery complemented Fellcorp research, leading to a greater understanding of the effects of the Kamari Horror on brain physiology than would have been possible separately. This new understanding has formed the basis for Fellcorp's recent product lines."
"Who was responsible for generating this research at Fellcorp?"
"No one, Simon."
I scratched my head. "Who was responsible for bringing this research to Fellcorp, then?"
"Mr. Yatti Olorio."
I turned to Omar. "Olorio, Olorio, Olorio -- it all comes back to him. But what has any of this to do with me?"
"I don't know sir," admitted Omar, looking troubled.
I looked back at Jeremiah. His face was as impassive as ever. I faced the polished-wood pillar again, encircled by its ring of steady green lights. "Incorporation: how do Fellcorp's newest products work?"
"Fellcorp's newest lines of anti-Horror medications work by targeting specific traumatic memory sequences, and inhibiting their recall through a chemical computer created out of the patient's own neural network."
"Let me get this straight -- we make little computers in people's minds...made of medicine?"
"That is essentially straight, Simon."
"And these computers choose which memories to block, is that it?"
"That is essentially it, Simon."
"On what basis does the computer select?"
"The prescription and customization process is supervised by Fellcorp medical professionals, Simon. The computer merely executes a program tailored by the attending physician."
My blood ran cold. Suddenly, I had it! At Kamari Star the tyrant Volmash had unleashed the Nightmare Cannon upon the worlds, and then fled to Nsomeka Star in disguise as Yatti Olorio. He had somehow forced me and the Recovery into a deal to profit from his inside knowledge, and then used these novel anti-mnemonic drugs to clear my memories...and perhaps the memories of members of the Citadel, as well!
"Thank you, Incorporation."
As we left the chamber of the Incorporation I ran it all past Omar, who frowned. "That's pretty good, sir, except it doesn't explain Mr. Blighton's revelation at all, does it?"
My face fell. "No, I suppose it doesn't."
"So what do we do? Do we have that stuff in us, or don't we?"
I paused before the lift, considering his question as the doors split. "We need a doctor."
Jeremiah tilted his head. "Sir, the informatics console in your office will very likely be able to pinpoint the location of hundreds of Fellcorp physicians."
Omar leaned into me from the other side. "I don't trust that robot," he whispered.
"I do," I said.
We all piled into my office. As I turned around to close the door I spotted the sculpture of the bird again and recognized it from my dreams -- I screamed.
"Coitus, Simon! What's wrong?" cried Glory.
"That bird...I know that bird."
Jeremiah turned. "What do you remember about the bird?" he asked in a sharp, commanding tone.
I stared at him, a chill running down my spine. I regretted expressing my trust in him only moments before, and recalled how that trust was balanced on an edge of fear. "Nothing," I grunted. "I just don't like it."
"I think it's cool," said Pish, touching the sharp talons where they met the pedestal.
"Leave it alone," I barked. He jumped back. "I'm sorry," I said.
Glory walked over behind my desk, plopping down into my chair and putting her boots up. "Not bad, Simon. What do you sell again?"
Grateful to look away from the bird I followed her to the desk. Pish pressed his face against a window and looked out on the city. Omar and Jeremiah flanked the door. I tabbed the informatic console alive with my thumb after checking to make sure no one was lurking underneath the desk. "Are you trying to look up my dress?" asked Glory.
I flushed and turned away. The console illuminated with the Fellcorp crest, and I began tapping through the menus. In a matter of moments I had a map of the globe before me, shining with glowing points representing on-duty Fellcorp-affiliated physicians. One such point even glowed in the air around the planet. "What's with that?" I asked.
"Sir, it is a physician in orbit," replied Jeremiah from across the room, "most likely aboard a Fellcorp spacecraft."
"Spacecraft?" I repeated. "So physicians can take the slow boat around the Soshu Joviat?"
"No sir, the moving of materiel piecemeal through personnel or even cargo transmission gates was judged unfeasible for the needs of the Neighbourhood Navy during the defense of Cassiopeia against the Kamari Incursion. Since that time spacecraft duly authorized by the Citadel of the Recovery may use the naval gates to transmit themselves whole to a foreign star."
"And Fellcorp is so authorized?"
"Sir, evidently. You may wish to call up the ship's manifest and flight plan for confirmation, sir."
I did so. According to the ship's informatics: called Neago, it was bound for Praxiteles to take on relief workers for transport to Yasu. The relief workers were being trained on the world of Allatu -- identified as the home of the Citadel of the Recovery. When I drilled down for more detail about the organization I was presented with a brief history, as well as images of its founders and principals. I shook my head and smiled, pushing back from the desk.
"I want to get on that ship," I said, looking at Omar. "Can our orb take us there?"
"An orb is an orb sir," he nodded, "but what are you planning? You can't just waltz into the Citadel and start asking questions. They'll never admit you. Do you know how long the waiting list is to even get a chance to beg for an audience with Lady Aza?"
"Oh, she'll see me," I assured him.
"But how can you be sure?"
I looked down at the informatic image glowing out of the desk: healed and whole it had taken me a few seconds to recognize her, but there was no mistaking the line of her jaw, the twinkle of her eye, the fall of her silken locks -- the High Priestess of the Citadel of the Recovery, the famous and tireless Lady Aza of Allatu, was none other than Crushed Head Faeda.
"She's an old friend," I said. "Let's go."
Omar gaped. "You want to go now, sir?"
I nodded curtly. "I don't want to give anyone any time to stop us, or lull us to a false peace. I don't want to give Olorio another chance to interfere. We're going now."
I opened the door, keeping my back to the hideous bird sculpture. Pish took Glory's hand and pulled her toward me, Jeremiah turning to follow. Omar hesitated. "I can't leave sir. My -- my family's here. I mean, man oh man. I can't just run away now."
"You're involved in this," I reminded him.
"Then I'm counting on you to come back here and straighten out whatever they've done to me," he said, eyes on mine. "...Simon."
"Dear Omar," I nodded, shaking his hand, "you have my word. Jeremiah, can you fly the orb to orbit?"
"Sir, I have the co-ordinates of the Neago," he confirmed.
I looked into Omar's watering brown eyes. "Thank you for your loyal service," I told him, "and your friendship."
"About your kids," he said, "I couldn't find much. I got their full names and the name of the school. You'll find them in your plate's cache."
I nodded gratefully and we started to leave again but Omar caught my sleeve. "There's just one more thing. Could you hit me?"
"You want me to hit you?"
"I'd hit myself, but they can tell. I just want to be able to keep my job in the morning. So would you mind, you know, knocking me around a little?"
"My goodness, I don't know Omar..."
"Please, Simon. Don't think about it. Just wheel back and clock me. You'd be doing me a big favour, man."
I nodded, and he steeled himself. I wound back and punched him the cheek, his head rocketing around. Omar lost his balance and fell across the front of the desk with a grunt. "Are you okay?" I called.
He lifted his big brown head and grinned lopsidedly. "Perfect."
Moments later the lights of Padirac were disappearing beneath the edges of the orb's platform under our feet. We passed through a wall of heavy cloud and erupted into the starshine, the sky ablaze with hundreds of tiny points of light and the great blue face of Soshu whose reflected glow cast an eerie pall over the cloudscape.
Jeremiah unfolded three chairs from the platform floor. Glory, Pish and I sat down and strapped ourselves in. With mixed feelings I watched the horizon of Maja become a curved limb of cloud and inky ocean. I had almost let that world feel like a home to me, until the world and the life I was starting to believe in were so cruelly ripped out from under me. I turned away from Maja, preferring to stare instead at the hard stars, no longer twinkling.
"What's going to happen to us now, Simon?" asked Pish in a small voice.
I put my arm around him. "We're going to find out why Jia died, and why Omar gets headaches, and why I can't remember anything. We're going to get to the bottom of it all, I promise," I said, echoing the words the police officer had said to me that morning. "And I'm not going to let anything happen to you. Do you understand? We're a team, you and I."
"You and me and Jeremiah and Glory," corrected Pish.
"Yeah Pish," I said. "Yeah."
I pulled out my diary. As our bubble escaped gravity's grasp and flew into the void, I toggled it on and began to speak, my hands starting to shake as I recounted our trials. Glory stroked my hair compassionately, and said nothing.
Soshu loomed behind us, its great stripes twisted into whorls and spirals where cerulean met ultramarine. A speck grew before us, a steady pinprick shine of reflection against the canopy of stars: the Neago. "How long?" I asked Jeremiah.
"Seventy minutes," said the robot.
"Faeces," breathed Glory, crossing her legs. "I have to pee."