YOU ARE SAFE, DO NOT PANIC
I won't leave you in suspense; Glory found a washroom.
But she was still crossing her legs and grumbling as the Neago grew before us against the spangled velvet: a great rounded wedge of gleaming white metal with a slowly turning torus embedded in a midship cavity, like a canine tooth run through by an ivory ring. A set of blue formation lights winked on and off patiently at the extremes of the wings and nose, on which were painted the image of a human hand in red. We had just drawn close enough to discern the orange glow from the turning ring's portholes when my telephone buzzed in my ear.
"Hello?" I called out too loudly, making everyone in the orb jump.
Glory swore, and crossed her legs the other way.
"Fellcorp skiff Neago to approaching orb: please identify," said a crisp female voice through my skull.
I cleared my throat. "Um, yes. This is Nestor S. Fell. I'm coming aboard."
A pause. "That's not funny. Who is this? If this is Ditsu, you're early. What's going on?"
"I'm afraid this is not Ditsu, but as I indicated, Nestor Fell. I'm pretty sure I own the spaceship you're on now, so please just sit tight and my party and I will be there in a jiffy to explain in person." This with met with silence, so I asked in a commanding tone, "To whom am I speaking?"
"This...this is Doctor Fliothasse Pemma. Who is this really?"
"This is Nestor Fell," I repeated wearily. "Your boss's boss. Please prepare to receive us."
Jeremiah stood by the core of the orb and tapped upon the controls, slowing us by some invisible force as we drew around the rounded stern of the white vessel, toward the yawning mouth of a hold. We floated inside over a deck of black and orange stripes, and into a narrow parking bay which closed after us. A loud hissing sounded as the bay filled with air. Jeremiah disengaged the shield, and we drifted from our seats toward a hatch. It cycled open and a white robot with the Fellcorp crest on either shoulder and a red hand painted on his chest greeted us. "You are safe; do not panic. Please accompany me to the habitat ring."
"Okay," I said.
We slithered in freefall through a transparent plastic tunnel, conveniently tethered and marked in several different styles of writing. We were passing through the innards of the ship, the spacious internal cells busy with floating white robots whose activity made no sound. The majority of the ship was airless and shadowy. "Why is it so dark?" I whispered back to Jeremiah.
"Sir, infrared lighting is more efficient in purely robotic environments."
"Robots run the ship?"
"The robots comprise the crew. The officers are very likely human beings, sir."
We met our first such human beings just as the last of us, Glory, stepped off the ladder down to the curved floor of the torus, loaned the impression of gravity by its stately rotation. I had been looking around the strange space: all white walls and flooring, balconies over our heads leading to levels of lighter gravity, sealed doors before and behind presumably providing access to the rest of the circumference of the spinning ring.
One of the doors slid open, revealing two men flanked by two white robots. The first man was thin and muscular, with dark brown skin and flashing eyes. He wore a white turtleneck bearing a Fellcorp badge on the breast, and a little hat with gold piping around the edges. He stood with his chest pushed forward and his hands on his hips. He stared at us without expression for a moment and then, with a flicker of annoyance, elbowed his companion in the side.
The second fellow was a gangly youth with pale skin, black hair and a self-effacing, round-shouldered posture. When he was elbowed he juggled a metal whistle in his hands awkwardly and then blew a brief, melodious twitter. "Dignitaries aboard!" shouted the youth, his voice an indecisive mix of high and low registers.
The man in the hat nodded primly, and then saluted me. "Ceptain Miko Ting, Mr. Fell sir. It is my great pleasure to personelly welcome you aboard my hemble shep."
I decoded his thick accent with great effort, then blinked and smiled. "Oh -- hello, yes. Captain Ting, allow me to introduce Miss Glory, young Master Pish, and his robot Jeremiah." I made an attempt to salute.
The white robots with red hands on their chests approached us and seemed to be looking us over. One knelt down beside me and passed its open hand over my leg, and then straightened and passed its hand over my head. When it caught my eye the robot said, "You are safe; do not panic."
Both robots retreated and stood behind the human beings again. "No apparent injuries or contagion," they reported in eerie synchronization. Captain Ting nodded and stepped forward.
"Whet is it we can do for you and your compenions todey, Mr. Fell, sir?" he asked with a beaming white smile, arms extended wide.
I shook his thin, strong hand firmly. "First of all, the lady needs a latrine."
"Mr. Oliver!" shouted Captain Ting, causing everyone to jump. "Show thes ledy to the head emmedietly!"
"Yessir Cap'm sir!" the youth shouted back, saluting quickly and stealing a shy glance toward Glory. His pale skin turned pink. "If you'll follow me, ma'am," he squeaked, "I'll show you to our facilities."
At this point a new voice called into the fold: "You'll do no such thing, Oliver."
The youth froze. Everyone looked up to the balcony at the end of the chamber. A brown-haired woman in a white labcoat stood there, glaring down at us with her arms crossed across her bosom. Captain Ting took off his hat and scratched a mossy bed of tightly-curled black hair for a moment before calling up to her, "Do you know who thes is, Decta? Thes is Nest --"
"It doesn't matter who any of them may or may not be," the woman interrupted sharply. "If they're coming aboard this ship they've got to get scrubbed and scanned." She shifted her gaze to me. "Just like everybody else," she added acidly.
"Bet they're none of them enjured --" started Ting.
"This is a medical ship!" the woman overrode him roughly; "not a playboy's toy." She turned on heel and disappeared through a sliding door.
There was a moment of silence as we dropped our eyes back down to one another. Glory raised her brow at me inquiringly. Pish held on to Jeremiah's arm. The captain just looked uncomfortable. "Well," he declared with a reasonable facsimile of jocularity, "thet's Decta Pemma then. Thes is her mission."
"Faecally charming," mumbled Glory. Young Mr. Oliver started to snicker beside her, but stifled it as Captain Ting looked his way.
"Mr. Oliver!" he bellowed. "Let's get these people scrubbed end scenned, on the debble!"
What followed was not entirely unlike my indoctrination into prison on Annapurna: we were separated, stripped and showered by robots, examined in ways both gentle and unmentionable, and finally fed bodily into a large tube for high-resolution scanning. Being somewhat dehydrated I had some difficulty providing a urine sample, but I smiled to myself as I imagined Glory in some nearby chamber providing her own sample with great enthusiasm. The robots were also interested in my blood and spit, and wanted to know what colour my last faecal product had been, and whether or not it had floated.
At the conclusion of this process came my reward: the warm folded clothes presented by me by the last robot were hospital pajamas, and as I tugged them on I was handed a green robe. I belted it at the waist with satisfaction, and pushed my feet into a pair of paper slippers. "You are safe; do not panic," said the laundry robot. "Please pass through this door."
I was deposited in a small office, alone. It smelled like disinfectant, kindling in me a nostalgia for the ward of my birth on Samundra. A single round port looked out upon the stars and the white hull of the Neago, slowly turning. There was a metal desk with a chair on either side of it, so I chose one and sat down. As I watched out the window a slice of Soshu came into view, and then skimmed away. I was startled as the door opened behind me.
Dr. Pemma walked in briskly and took the seat on the opposite side of the table, her aquiline nose pointed at the data-plate she held. The colour of her eyes was obscured by thick black lashes as she looked down, reading. Her skin and her hair were the same remarkable colour of milky cocoa.
I cleared my throat. She frowned as she tapped on the face of the plate, studiously ignoring me it seemed. I said, "Thank you for the robe."
"You like it?" she asked darkly, without looking up.
"I do, rather."
"You can't keep it," she snapped. "The robes are for patients."
She put the plate aside and folded her hands together before her on the table, fixing me levelly with yellow eyes. "I've been reviewing the scans, Mr. Fell, and there are a few issues I'd like to discuss with you."
She waited. "Okay," I prompted.
"The girl you should've brought to me much earlier," she continued smoothly, eyes still locked on mine. "There isn't really much we can do at this point, beyond pain control. But she's already self-medicating with dilly chalk, which she would be unlikely to give up."
I blinked, and furrowed my brow. "What do you mean? Glory's sick?"
My agitation seemed to please her. Dr. Pemma let her brow move expressively as she replied pointedly, "It's up to you whether or not to maintain the fiction of your ignorance for the Maja feeds, but please don't practise on me."
"What?" I cried back in frustration, completely lost.
"Oh come now," preened Dr. Pemma with a maudlin look, "you cannot honestly expect me to believe you had some other reason for hauling your dying call-girl to this planet's most inconveniently located physician."
I didn't know what to say. I just gaped.
"I'll take your silence as affirmation, then," decided Dr. Pemma shortly.
"No!" I shouted. "I don't know what you're talking about. What's wrong with Glory?"
Dr. Pemma regarded me for a moment, pressing her lips together in a thin line not unlike Glory's own expression when pensive. "Ketsu's Bane," she said at last. "It is a sexually transmitted degenerative nerve disease. Curable in the early stages."
I was afraid to ask. "Is Glory in the early stages?"
Dr. Pemma frowned. "She is not. She is in nearly constant pain. It will not be long before she loses motor control, and succumbs."
I whispered, "Mother of love!"
"Mr. Fell," Pemma asked, addressing me for the first time by name. "Have you had anal intercourse with this girl within the last two years?"
After a brief explanation of anal intercourse I was able to answer, "No."
"If that's true," the doctor replied, giving me a long look, "you have nothing to worry about."
"Except that my friend is dying, you mean?" I shot back, and then felt my eyes burn. Did I somehow think of Glory as a friend, despite everything? I guess I did. I swallowed and wiped my eyes. "You have an admirable bedside manner, Doctor. If there isn't anything else, I'd like to see her now." I stood up.
Dr. Pemma's face softened. I saw her begin to object, then stop herself. She stood up as well. "This isn't what I expected. I'm -- behaving improperly. We can finish our conversation later."
"I don't understand."
She sighed, and suddenly looked on the verge of tears herself. "You weren't supposed to be more concerned with her than yourself. And you were supposed to be belittled sitting there in pajamas, not pleased. It was supposed to wipe that smug smile off your face."
"Am I smiling?" I asked.
"No," she decided after a long pause, searching my face, "nor so smug, either. So why did you bully your way aboard my ship?"
"Because I need your help. I need to get to Praxiteles. I need to see Lady Aza of the Citadel."
Dr. Pemma's breath caught. "You want me to take you to the Citadel? I can't do that. What about my mission? You're Nestor Fell, you can have any ship you want."
"I want this one," I said. "Please. You cannot understand how much this means to me. I will take all responsibility -- no one will blame you."
"I'm not concerned with blame," she replied acidly, her earlier glower returned in a heartbeat. "I'm concerned with the patients this mission was supposed to service. I am a physician, sir, not a bureaucrat."
"I did not mean to offend you," I hastened to say, raising my hands to implore for peace. "And please don't call me 'Mr. Fell.'" I offered my hand to shake. "My name is Simon."
She looked at my hand dubiously, and then shook it briefly. "Dr. Fliothasse Pemma, Fellcorp Medical, contracted in the service of the Citadel of the Recovery."
I smiled. "That's pretty long. Do you have some kind of nickname?"
"Dr. Pemma will do," she said pointedly. "You should know, Simon, that Captain Ting will never allow you to take this ship off-mission. He's ex-Navy, and he takes his duty very seriously."
"Then I will have to hope to persuade him this duty is greater," I told her. "Now please, before we are sidetracked again -- I want to see Glory."
Glory and Pish were lounging in their matching pajamas and robes in a tight white ward of four beds, arrayed in a narrow chamber on the inner level of the rotating ring where the pseudo-gravity was lighter. Jeremiah stood by the door, nodding subtly to acknowledge me as I walked in past him. "Are you okay, Pish?"
"Sure," said Pish sunnily, "but Glory won't play chess with me."
"Maybe Jeremiah will play," I suggested.
"Yeah, but he always wins," grumbled Pish.
I convinced Pish to play chess with Jeremiah on the furthest bed while I sat down where Glory sat, perched on a bed by the window with her knees drawn up to her chest. "So, you know now," she said before I could even open my mouth. I nodded. "Whatever," she shrugged, "spare me the faeces."
"But why did you come --"
"Come back? Eat faeces. Because I didn't want to be alone, okay? You anus."
"How did you even find us, how did you --"
"Don't ask me what I did to get to Maja," she whispered fiercely. "Don't ever talk about it again, okay?" She lashed out and grabbed my forearm in her long fingers, squeezing painfully and staring at me with red-rimmed eyes.
"Okay, Glory," I said. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
She took her arm back and wrapped it around her knees, looking out the window sullenly. "I just didn't want to be alone at the end, okay? And you're the only person I know who doesn't have faeces where his heart's supposed to be. Is that so coitally crazy? Why do you have to bother me about it?"
"I'm sorry," I said again.
"Stop feeling sorry for me!" she yelled, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Pish accidentally knock over the chessboard as he spun to look. Pawns spun across the floor. "Coitus," she added woefully.
I put my arms around Glory, and drew her to me. She resisted at first and then relented, allowing herself to be hugged. She started to cry, and I rocked her back and forth, petting her braids and making the beads click together. I never imagined that someone else might find solace in me, who has brought so much misery in my brief travels. My last traces of bitterness against Glory fell away, and I looked up at Pish.
"I told you, Simon," he said. "Glory's sad, not bad."
"Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference," I said.
"That's important to remember whenever you're sad."
In a transparent-doored cubbyhole over one of the beds were my folded clothes, my Annapurnese gun and leather longcoat, my boots, my bits, and my little blue diary. I put my diary in the pocket of my green robe, then called over one of the white robots from the hall. "Would you please let Captain Ting and Dr. Pemma know I'd like to speak with them?"
"I'm hungry," said Pish.
"One thing at a time," I replied, strapping my belt on over my pajamas and tying the end of the holster around my thigh. "First let's get this ship on course, then we can worry about eating."
I sank the Smith-Shurtook into its holster.
A moment later the robot offered to escort me to the bridge, so I allowed it to lead me along a balcony and down a set of carpeted stairs. We emerged into a broad chamber reaching from one side of the hub to the other, the stars shining in through wide windows on either side. Six unmanned consoles were ranged around the edges, while Captain Ting and his faithful yeoman Mr. Oliver stood within a shallow well in the middle behind a large transparent data-plate suspended from the glowing ceiling.
The captain looked up. "How can we help you, Mr. Fell sir?"
I kicked back the side of my green robe and showed him the Smith-Shurtook. "Captain, I regret to inform you that I'm commandeering this vessel."
"Thet's mervellous!" he exclaimed, breaking into a wide grin.
"Is it?" I asked, as Mr. Oliver looked shocked.
"Well of course," replied the captain; "it means something exciting is geng to heppen, doesn't it?" Then as an afterthought he grinned and added, "End it'll drive thet bloody woman med!"
"I quite appreciate your attitude," I said, retying the sash of my robe.
"Not et ell," grinned Captain Ting, rubbing his brown hands together; "where are we geng, then?"
His face fell. "Isn't thet where we were geng in the first plece, Mr. Fell sir?"
"Well, yes," I admitted. "But now we're in a great hurry."
"We shen't be weiting for the new officers then, sir? They're due tomerrow."
"If it is at all possible I'd like to get underway immediately."
Ting rubbed his chin. "Skeleton crew, eh? Good. I lick a chellenge." He turned around to the pale youth. "You heard the men, Mr. Oliver. Prepare ell systems for locomotion!" he yelled.
Mr. Oliver jumped to attention and saluted quickly before bustling from one console to another in a frenetic tangle of long limbs and nervous glances. Captain Ting looked meaningfully out the windows to the stars, so I looked that way, too. After a moment I asked out of the side of my mouth, "Should something be happening?"
"There's not really much to it, sir. We'll begin slengshoting around Soshu in enother eleven minutes -- you'll feel some ecceleration then." He shrugged. "Efter thet it's fifteen hours to the trensmission yard, Mr. Fell, sir."
Captain Ting cleared his throat significantly. "How shell I log our flightplen?"
"As a modification of the original. You've received your shipment of officers early, apparently, and will debark for Praxiteles without delay."
Ting showed me his rows of gleaming white teeth again. "Deshing, sir -- thy will be done." At my questioning look he explained, "You don't know whet it's lick, ferrying dectas around spece. They don't let me meck one damn decision, end even if they did the only ones to be mede are who's on wetch and where to perk." He puffed out his chest. "I wes in the Nevy, sir. I wes treined for ection."
"No promises, Captain, except for a break from routine."
"Thet," he said in an impassioned whisper, eyes flashing, "is ell I esk."
On my way back from the bridge I ran into Dr. Pemma in the corridor. She frowned and stopped up short. "What are you doing out here? Patients belong in the ward."
"I am not a patient, Dr. Pemma," I reminded her. "I'm a passenger."
"This isn't a tram, Simon. The Neago has no passen -- my god is that a gun?" Dr. Pemma leapt back from me, her face darkening in indignation and fury. "How dare you bring a gun aboard this ship!"
I tucked my robe in tighter quickly. "I am this ship's hijacker. But don't worry -- it's all on very friendly terms." I smiled. "I hope this doesn't put too much of a damper on our relationship."
Dr. Pemma's eyes bulged dangerously just before she slapped me across the face. She then pushed by and disappeared down the corridor. I stood there rubbing my stinging skin for a moment. Then a robot ran up to me and sprayed my cheek with a cooling mist jetted from the tip of its finger.
"You are safe," the robot cooed, "do not panic."