LICK A BET OUTTA HELL
I was back in the hospital, about to catch scent of Nurse Randa.
And then I wasn't, but the dreamy aftertaste inspired me with the will to open my sleep-stuck eyes without dread. Though I saw no sunlight, my body was telling me many hours had passed -- perhaps more than a usual night of sleep. For the first time in days my brain did not feel as if it were working through a haze, and my chest did not ache with worry.
The canopy of hard stars shining through the port was slowly revolving. I was in space.
An amber lamp glowed in the alcove above my bed. There were three other lamps, in a row. Thus eight tiny pinprick reflections gleamed in the eyes of Jeremiah, standing sentinel by the door. Now more familiar to me than Nurse Randa ever was, I took a moment to consider how the robot had ended up both my and Pish's keeper.
Corinthia Tag spoke in my ear, making me jump.
She said, "You have forty-two new messages."
The lamp brightened, lighting my bed. I sat up and rubbed my knuckles in my eyes. My telephone had never been so eager to tell me something before, so I asked it about the messages.
The first message was from the Soshu Space Office with some inquiries about the flightplan Captain Ting had issued, delivered with the dull courtesy of a robotic voice. The second message was a human being, an irate representative of something called the Volunteer Basket who was claiming she couldn't confirm the orbital station of the Neago as agreed. The third message was from Olorio. "Please contact me immediately, my friend," he simpered melodiously.
I began to skip through the messages faster: the Nsomeka Space Office; the Hyperspatial Scheduling Guild; again the Volunteer Basket; again Olorio; the Mission Secretary of Fellcorp Medical & Mercy; again the Soshu Space Office; the Maja Planetary Guard...
"Oh, dear," I muttered.
I pulled on my robe and stole past sleeping Pish and snoring Glory, nodded briefly to Jeremiah and then slipped out into the corridor to wince and stagger against the brightness of normal illumination. I squinted and felt my way along for a while until I bumped into one of the ship's innumerable white robots.
"I'm sorry," I said automatically, withdrawing my hand from the image of the red hand on its chest.
"You are safe; do not panic," the robot assured me. "Do you require assistance?"
I got lost on the way to the bridge. It wasn't my fault: all of the corridors look the same. I wandered through a darkened surgical theatre and stumbled into a supply cabinet before eventually asking a robot for directions. It might have been the same robot for all I know.
I hopped down the carpeted steps and around down into the well at the centre of the consoles, where Captain Ting was lecturing his yeoman in an animated fashion on the proper way to fold a coffee napkin. "I'll be expecting nothing short of tep netch service from you in thes regerd from now on, Mr. Oliver!" bellowed the captain, his accent characteristically thick, his white turtleneck stiff and spotless.
"Yessir Cap'm sir!" the dark-haired young man shouted back, eyes shining. He then refolded the captain's napkin nervously.
"Eccepteble," nodded Ting. He picked up his coffee and sipped it, noticing me for the first time. "Mr. Fell sir, Goodmorning. Ceffee?"
"Mr. Oliver!" shouted Captain Ting, startling both Mr. Oliver and myself. "A cup of ceffee for our destingueshed guest!" The youth hastened to do the captain's bidding, and within seconds a white cup, saucer and intricately folded napkin were pushed into my hands. All three bore the Fellcorp logo.
I sipped the coffee experimentally, feeling it trace a warm line down my gullet. It was richer than I had tasted before, with an almost cinnamon-like aftertaste. Quite remarkable. Captain Ting closed his eyes and nodded to himself as he drank. Mr. Oliver quietly prepared a cup for himself and tried to enjoy it without making any noise. I said, "So...how goes the -- flying?"
Ting snapped his long brown fingers and pointed out the tall windows behind me. "Jest ninety minutes from the yard, sir."
I turned around, and gasped. Space was hung with a stately array of metallic spheres, arranged in a cube of three spheres to a side. By focusing on the nearest such sphere I could detect the faintest traces of motion -- we were advancing on the array. Scale was difficult to judge but as we drew nearer it became apparent that any one of the spheres large enough to encompass our entire vessel, with room to spare.
"Quite a seat, eh?" whistled Ting.
"Oh? Oh, quite a sight indeed."
"The yardmester's a bit reffled, though."
"Desgrentled," clarified Ting. "Here, teck a listen. Mr. Oliver: pipe through the yard!" Mr. Oliver scrambled over to one of the six unmanned consoles and pounced upon its controls. A moment later a string of profanity erupted from unseen speakers. Mr. Oliver switched it off at a signal from the captain, who turned to look at me expectantly. "Shell we fight our wey in, Mr. Fell sir?"
"What? Goodness no. Things aren't that desperate yet." Ting's face fell. I continued, "I'd like to speak with Yatti Olorio at Fellcorp. Can we arrange that?"
Mr. Oliver pointed to the large suspended plate in the middle of the bridge, which illuminated almost instantly with the wide countenance of Olorio. He looked concerned. "Simon, thank goodness you've called. What's going on? What are you trying to do, my friend?"
"Relax Yatti," I said. "I'm just going for a bit of a cruise."
"But to what end?"
"I want to visit the Citadel of the Recovery. I want to understand our work. I can't just have everything explained to me -- I have to see things for myself. Can you understand that?"
"I can," admitted Olorio heavily, nodding so that his chins sank into one another liquidly. "And you're reminding me more and more of the Nestor we all miss. Always in the trenches, getting everything first-hand."
I hesitated, surprised. I had expected more resistance. "I'm glad you can appreciate my point of view."
"I'll just clear up this trouble with the transit licence then."
"I'd be much obliged, Yatti."
"Very good. But promise me, Simon -- when you've seen what you need to see, do come home to us again. It wouldn't be Fellcorp without you."
When the connection was broken Captain Ting was smiling. "Thet seemed to go well, sir, didn't it?"
"Too well," I agreed darkly. Having me offworld obviously did not present an obstacle to Olorio's plan -- could it even be a prerequisite?
I stayed on the bridge as Ting and Mr. Oliver busied themselves over the controls, chatting back and forth with yard control and each other. At one point I was asked to press a little green contact on a console near my elbow, which I did.
Mr. Oliver held several more ritualistic exchanges with voices representing various authorities, jumping up between conversations to hover over the helm control checking gauges. At one point he tapped on the console surface and I felt a slight tug as the ship decelerated. I looked over at Captain Ting, who stood as usual with hands on his hips, gaze cast out through the large suspended plate and into space. "Is it just me," I asked, "or is our orientation relative to the rest of the ship changing?"
Ting nodded. "The axes of the hebitet ring's rotetion chenges in response to inertial forces, Mr. Fell, sir." He pointed to a seam where the decking met a bulkhead. "Notice there, sir, how the engle between the well end the floors shefts a few degrees. Thet's to help keep things on a even keel, too. Thes is a quelity shep: ex-Nevy, jest lick me."
I stifled a giggle. "Is this the sort of ship you used to fly in the Navy, Captain?"
"No, no, no, sir," replied Ting seriously. "I flew a bettleshep."
A male baritone sounded from the speakers: "This is Navy Control at the Yardmaster's Office. Neago you are cleared for transit to Praxiteles Star via Bead Seven. Bead Seven, Neago to Praxiteles."
"Acknowledged," squeaked Mr. Oliver. Captain Ting nodded.
Beyond the forward windows a round aperture on the face of the nearest sphere was irising open, its yawning scale only becoming apparent as the whole of the Neago passed through it and into the cool murky glow of the reflective interior. I turned around to watch the blue crescent of Soshu disappear behind the closing aperture.
"Three," counted Mr. Oliver; "two, one: transit."
This time I had tensed myself, ready to detect even the slightest symptom of our transmission across lightyears of space: once again, however, I felt nothing. The warped sepia shadows outside the windows looked exactly as they had seconds ago, the image of the ship smeared into a series of rings. Mr. Oliver placidly tapped at his controls and we began to turn, making our way ponderously back toward the aperture.
It irised open, presenting a tiny circle of blue and green tendrils of gas strewn out from a diffuse, copper ring. I marveled. I had never seen its like -- the unearthly transition from hue to hue, the layering of gossamer sheets, the glow of the stars behind the veil...
As we drifted forward the borders of the round frame widened, revealing a wider and wider vista of amazing cosmic filigree. The Neago cleared the sphere and sunlight blasted in through the windows behind us, automatically darkened to shield us from being instantly baked: in that quarter the stars vanished and the gases became lurid and shadowy, a frozen halo around a massive yellow disc whose prominences of arcing fire reached far into space.
"Unbelievable!" I exclaimed.
"Never been to Prexiteles, sir?" asked Captain Ting genially.
"No -- it's beautiful."
He crossed his arms and squinted at the windows critically. "Hella lotta jetsam, yeh. Tourists go med for it, ebviously." He chuckled. "Elmost mecks it worth it heving to visit eny of their bloody werlds."
Ting grabbed an edge of the suspended plate and swung it over to hang before us. Informatic labels and menus appeared upon the transparent face of the plate, superimposed over our view out the windows. I spotted two golden discs off the limb of the fiery Praxiteles Star, and I was surprised to note that neither was a world: the first was a brown dwarf or unignited star called Black Dog, the second a superhot white dwarf star named White Dog.
"Where's Allatu?" I asked.
Captain Ting walked around to the other side of the plate and gestured for me to follow. He pointed through to the forward windows, opposite Praxiteles and her dwarf companions. The plate highlighted a small blue dot against an undulated sheet of violet and ruby gas. "Ellatu's there, just a day downwell." He took off his hat and scratched his head. "They keep their plenets fer from the sun here, because Prexiteles is an unholy hot."
"When Annapurna looked that small from Castle Misne we were still several days away," I commented, rubbing my chin.
He put his golden-braided cap back on, fixing it squarely over his forehead. "Well thet's a cestle for you, sir -- it's in orbit around the star. Thes, on the ether hend, is a self-propelled speceshep." Ting puffed out his chest and smirked smugly. "End she goes lick a bet outta hell, sir."
I grinned. "Best speed to Allatu then, Captain."
"Our flightplen's elready been logged, sir. Mr. Oliver! Men the helm, and look lively, led!" Ting beamed with evident pride as the Neago turned, clearing the hyperspatial transmission array and accelerating toward the tiny blue dot.
I made my farewells and returned to the ward. It was empty but a passing robot was happy to escort me to the cafeteria where Pish and Glory were taking breakfast. I nodded to Jeremiah as I passed, and then had a tray filled by a courteous talking wall with pictures of sad looking meals on it. I strode over to my friends jauntily and sat down, giving Pish an inquiring look as he put away a mouthful eggs. He shook his head sadly. I shrugged and dug in anyway.
"Where've you been?" asked Glory around a mouthful of toast.
"On the bridge. We've been transmitted to Praxiteles. We're en route to Allatu now." I chewed ruefully on a sausage of questionable quality.
"And what kind of faeces are we going to do there?"
"I'm going to question Lady Aza, and find out what she can tell me about Fellcorp, and Olorio." I stopped chewing. "This food is really terrible."
Pish nodded. Glory shrugged. "You're too picky. Who cares what the mung it tastes like if it fills you up and doesn't make you sick?"
Nobody had a satisfactory answer to that. I drank a glass of thick, pulpy juice. "You two should really try to take a look outside. This system is full of gas -- whorls and clouds of colourful gas. It's amazing."
"Yeah, Jeremiah told us," said Pish.
"Jeremiah knows this place?" I asked, glancing up at the robot in the blue-green carapace who stood across the cafeteria, by the entrance.
"Jeremiah knows every place."
Dr. Pemma entered the cafeteria. She noticed our party and pursed her lips irritably, turning her back to us as she ordered her tray loaded up with food selections. When she was done she reluctantly approached the bank of tables, looked over the empty ones lingeringly, and then seemed to decide with a sigh of resignation that sitting near us was the only really viable option. She clattered her tray down and kicked the bottom of her labcoat out of the way of her legs. "Goodmorning," she muttered.
"Goodmorning Dr. Pemma," I said. Glory leaned over and started eating my eggs. I cleared my throat. "Can I ask you something? It's just something I've been wondering about."
The doctor looked up, and nodded briefly as she cut up her potato cakes.
"You've never seriously questioned that I am who I say I am. Why?"
"I'm a doctor," she replied shortly, "and you're on file."
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"Your genes. We have your genes on file. When you were scanned your sampled code was matched up with the library file: Nestor Simonithrat Fell." She looked down the table at Glory. "Vera Tse Llatella-Bond," added Dr. Pemma, and Glory looked up with a shocked expression. "Piciatus Menteith," the doctor concluded, raising her chin in the direction of the child. "...Deceased."
It took me a moment to process that. I shook my head, confused. I put my elbow into Pish's left-over sauce as I echoed the doctor dumbly: "Deceased?"
Pish frowned. "Doesn't that mean dead?" he asked dubiously.
"Faeces, chick," quipped Glory darkly, "you've got to be the worst doctor in the galaxy. The kid is clearly alive."
"Clear," noted Dr. Pemma acidly, "is the last thing this is." She pushed her food aside, largely uneaten. "I told you there were a number of issues I wanted to discuss with regard to the scans, Simon," she said to me. "If you're going to hijack my mercy mission the least you can do is explain yourselves."
"I'll explain anything I can," I promised, "but I warn you that I'm a font of ignorance."
She did not smile. "You want to discuss it in front of the child?"
"No secrets are kept from Pish," I said firmly, putting my arm around him.
She sniffed. "There are no signs of prepubescent hormonal activity in the pituitary."
"I don't know what that means."
"It means this child's body is not preparing for sexual maturity."
Pish made a face. "What's sexual maturity?"
"I can't explain that," I said. "What else?"
Dr. Pemma hesitated. "Well, there's you, of course." She intertwined her fingers on the table before her. "First of all, you should be eating more calcium so soon after a replacement."
"A replacement what?"
"Leg. Your right leg, of course."
I could not help reaching down to touch my ankle, exposed beneath my pajamas on my crossed leg. Did the skin feel suddenly different? "It's...artificial?"
"Yes of course," she replied curtly, then adding in a low voice, "Were you not aware?"
"My leg is robotic?" I wondered, flexing my calf experimentally.
"Of course not. It's regenerated tissue and the bone density is characteristically a bit low. That's why I'm reminding you about taking in enough calcium."
"Yes, calcium, Simon."
"Is that a medicine?"
"Interesting question," she noted. Dr. Pemma took her hands off the table and sat back. "...Which brings us to the second issue: your brain. Obviously, the stories about your memory damage were based in fact."
I nodded. "I have to know: are there Fellcorp chemical computers executing inside of me?"
I licked my lips and took a deep breath. "Can you remove them?"
Glory belched loudly. I turned around to glare at her. "Coitus," she commented. "Sorry, Simon."
I looked back to Dr. Pemma, and held her yellow eyes. "And my memory will return?"
The doctor's brow softened, and when she spoke her voice had lost some of the usual edge. "I'm afraid not, Simon. Your memory has been systematically cleared. There's nothing there to find."
"Systematically? What does that mean?" I sagged back against my chair. "Dr. Pent told me I'd had an accident. I've been lied to, haven't I?"
"Yes. What happened to you was deliberate, particularly apparent at the borders between what's been left intact and what's been cleared. Did you experience some gaps in your basic knowledge?"
"Language failed me at first. Bladder control was...a challenge, initially." I coughed. Pish giggled, and then Glory burst out laughing. "I was a quick study, though."
"It's a wonder whoever did this to you didn't turn you into a vegetable," growled Dr. Pemma. "Your brain has been butchered, and it sickens me. Have any kind of early memories surfaced?"
I thought about the bird -- the statue and the dream: nothing but vague horror. "No," I said.
"You're lying," she said smoothly. "If I remove the blocks, you may remember more."
"That's what I want," I heard myself saying.
"If you're willing to talk to me about your memories, I can help you draw them out."
I looked around. Pish and Glory were staring at me, and across the cafeteria Jeremiah's face was slightly inclined toward our table. I licked my lips again. "What must I do?"
Dr. Pemma took me to one of the smaller surgical theatres, and told me to sit back in a large reclined chair. While she went into the next room to prepare her tools Pish sidled over to me. "Are you going to be okay?" he wanted to know.
"Sure. I'm not going to leave you, Pish." As I said this I looked over his head and caught Glory's eye. She nodded seriously and put her thin hands on the boy's shoulders.
The doctor returned accompanied by two white robots with red hands on their chests and chased everyone else out of the room. She fitted my head between two firm pillows, gave me a pill to eat, and told me we'd have to wait about twenty minutes before her computer designed a dissipation sequence to unlock the blocks. A scanning armature hovered over my skull, buzzing faintly.
"You are safe," the robots assured me each in turn; "do not panic."
Dr. Pemma whisked out again, leaving their expressionless rounded white faces watching over me. I fished my diary out of my pocket and thumbed the toggle, reciting the morning to keep me from thinking about what was happening inside my head. I paused when the doctor returned to affix two sticky little pads to my temples, and then picked up describing the coffee.
She has just now returned to tell me that I will have to be unconscious for the final phase of the unblocking. She's watching me say this with a look on her face that is the closest thing I have yet seen to amusement. That's it, Doctor: I didn't even know you could smile. Yes, I keep a diary. Okay, I'll put it away now. I'm ready.
My fate is in your hands.