THE FLYING CITADEL
"I don't feel any different," I said.
Dr. Pemma snapped off the little light she had been shining into my eyes and nodded to herself, tapping quickly on the plate she held in her other hand. "That's good," she pronounced.
"But when will the memories come back?
"It's hard to say, of course," she replied primly. "It depends where your thoughts range. The blocks have been removed, but the act of recall is still up to you."
"You can help me, though."
"Of course. As soon as anything comes to you, talk to me."
I walked out into the corridor and Pish hugged me. Even Glory smiled. Jeremiah said, "Sir?" with what I swear was a note of concern.
"Everything's fine," I reported.
This was largely true, up until I started weeping uncontrollably in the shower. I crouched into a little ball, my chest heaving with sobs. There was no image or thought of sadness in my mind, yet my soul quailed. It was a strange and terrifying experience, and I found myself shaken after its passing in a way that even the smell of hospital soap could not assuage.
For lunch: tuna, seaweed, rice and wretched little shrimp crackers.
Captain Ting greeted me warmly as I stepped down the stairs to the bridge in the early afternoon. The world of Allatu had grown to a great face of blue oceans and white cloud, nearly filling the view from the forward windows. "We'll be mecking plenetfell in about two hours, Mr. Fell sir," reported Ting brightly, hands behind his back; "Mr. Elorio hes made our lending errangements with the Recovery people, so we can put down streight in Citedel Perk."
"This ship can land? On the ground?"
Ting beamed. "Oh, yeh, Mr. Fell, sir, no problem. This is a real fine shep, like I told you, sir. The only bloody thing she's messing is a good set of c'nnons." He winked conspiratorily. "But thet's a problem I'll heff licked efore long, don't you werry sir."
Mr. Oliver looked nervous.
I looked over my shoulder to see Glory, Pish and Jeremiah coming down the carpeted steps to join us on the bridge. "So, Simon, this is where you've been hanging out," said Glory, sauntering down into the well and leaning her hip against Mr. Oliver's console.
"I like to look out the windows," I explained.
"Cool!" said Pish, plastering his face against the forward view, his breath periodically fogging a swath of desert belting one of Allatu's continents. "I can see mountains," he reported. "They look purple."
Glory, meanwhile, had become transfixed by the opposite view. She was staring out the rear windows with her mouth hung slightly ajar, lost in space, caught by a green veil of gas that bled yellow rivulets into blue swirls.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" I said to her.
She blinked, and snorted. "Whatever. Space is space."
"Why do you always pretend nothing affects you?" I asked.
"Shut up," suggested Glory.
I noticed that for the first time I could not see any of the larger hull around the habitat ring in which we turned, and asked Ting about it. "We're inset in the body of the shep now, sir," he told me, "end we'll stop spinning shortly -- there's no point fighting the plenet's grevity."
As if on cue Mr. Oliver's voice sounded twice: from right beside us and with a short delay over the ship's public address system: "Ahem. Um, all stations prepare for freefall please."
We each took a seat at a console, and strapped ourselves into the chairs. The view of Allatu's cloud studded ocean gradually ceased to revolve, and the now familiar cold, tickling sensation rose in the top of my belly: weightlessness. A wave of nausea passed over me but I managed to steel my gut against it, focusing on the now stable view outside and willing my bemused ears to stop tilting my head involuntarily. Glory belched wetly.
"Whee!" said Pish.
The Neago descended, and as an hour passed the wind began to sound outside the hull and we could feel gravity's tug on our bodies again (directed toward the forward -- now bottom -- windows). Our chairs and consoles tilted backward to compensate, and the suspended plate moved on its armatures to hang before our new orientation, illuminating with a view of the spaceship's forward trajectory as seen from just beneath its nose.
An indigo sky enfolded us briefly before we slipped beneath a high deck of frothy white cloud, steam streaming off the hull.
And then a strange thing happened: when the plate showed us the details of incoming queries from the Citadel of the Recovery's traffic authorities, Mr. Oliver did not answer but called instead for a robot. When a white medical robot arrived a brief exchange was concluded with a nervous approach to Captain Ting. "Um, it says Dr. Pemma has the alpha and the beta again, Cap'm."
Captain Ting made some inspired remarks, then added, "Why does thet bloody women heff to monopolize the only two robets on this shep with helf a brein between them?"
"You are safe," contributed the robot, sensing Ting's distress, "do not panic."
"You go on end melt, you!" the captain growled, raising his arm as if to backhand the thing. "Useless peremedic tresh. Couldn't trenslete Ellatu if the progremme was written on your eyelids."
"Captain," hailed Jeremiah. Everyone turned to look at him. "Sir, I am capable of performing that function."
"You can do Ellatu, yeh?"
"Sir," confirmed Jeremiah with a nod. "Is the transaction to be conducted in High Allat or Mechanical?"
"Um, Mechanical," supplied Mr. Oliver, indicating the console. He stepped back quickly as Jeremiah walked over and assumed the seat in a lithe motion, the edges of his blue-green carapace clicking quietly. He tapped upon the controls, and the image of young, serious-looking woman appeared on the console's face.
Jeremiah and the woman exchanged short bursts of terse-sounding language, after which Jeremiah told us that we were indeed cleared to land in Citadel Park, and had been assigned parking co-ordinates.
"Hed to get a lettle sherp with her, eh?" said Captain Ting.
"No sir," replied Jeremiah, "that is simply the sound of the Allasu oral language, termed Mechanical Allat."
Ting laughed, and slapped me on the back. "Hey, Simon, your robet thinks he's a professa. How do you lick thet?"
"I lick it just fine," I said, and then flushed. "That is to say I like it just fine. I would know even more of nothing about anything if it weren't for Jeremiah's willingness to volunteer his encyclopaedic knowledge." I coughed. "I owe him my life."
"Yeh yeh yeh," chuckled Captain Ting dismissively; "He's progremmed funny, is ell. My bretha hed a nennying robet that ren so smooth his ked thought it was a real boy. You don't see the robet softies in adults much, though. Meaning no offense, Mr. Fell, sir."
"The robot softies, huh?" I laughed.
"No offense, sir," repeated Ting soberly.
The Neago passed beneath a thicker deck of grey vapour and we descended over a drizzly sea, its angry grey face punctuated by white-capped waves. Land crawled into view ahead: a city of silver and grey with roofs of white, the tips of its towers glowing with red beacons to proclaim their height in a waste of fog. A glowing label on the plate identified it as METROPOLIS ANANKE-DO (POP: 8 923 432).
Mr. Oliver and Captain Ting were busier now, both of them pushing their chairs back between two tilted consoles each. Jeremiah adjusted his own chair to move along the console bank to assist them, which Ting accepted after shooting the robot a brief startled look as his blue-green fingers began tapping the controls.
"Very good, robet," acknowledged Ting.
"Sir," said Jeremiah.
In the middle of the city was a great circular park, its ground-level details lost to the trees, walled in on every side by proud skyscrapers. At the centre of the park a sole structure could be seen: a shining golden dome flanked by four tall minarets. I did not need the label on the plate to know it was the Citadel of the Recovery.
Mr. Oliver brought us around in a gently descending spiral until it seemed the green tree tops would strike the bottom windows beneath our dangling feet, then the youth deftly set us down in a small white clearing whose proximity made a signal buzz on the console into which Jeremiah had spoken. There was a slight double bump as the ship's struts absorbed our inertia and recovered.
The sound of the Neago's engines -- a steady thrum to which I had been so accustomed I had forgotten it -- died away leaving a stuffy silence. Everyone's harnesses clicked as they freed themselves from their chairs, feet thudding as they dropped down to stand on the transparent floor that had been the forward windows. The section of bulkhead dividing the ports down the middle suddenly made more sense to me: it was a walkway, with steps up to the exit.
As we proceeded through the habitat ring other aspects of its architecture that had previously struck me as perplexing gained evident functionality in this new context of gravitational orientation. Flanges around doorways that I had taken for decorative turned out to be ledges for feet; insets in the ceiling turned out to be ladders.
"Everything about this galaxy is a puzzle," I complained half-heartedly.
Pish smiled. "Puzzles are fun."
Captain Ting went off to prepare the debarkation bay with Mr. Oliver at his heels, and Glory, Pish and I returned to our tiny ward and changed clothes for the surface. Glory sniffed her red dress disdainfully. "Somebody washed my dress and now it smells like hospital," she grumbled.
When we came to the debarkation bay Dr. Pemma was waiting for us, her white labcoat crossed over by two shoulder bags. She was flanked by a guard of two white paramedic robots. "Ready to go?" she asked us.
"You're accompanying us?"
"If you're foolhardy enough to take a defenseless young woman and a child into whatever situation you're concocting for yourself, I am obliged to accompany you in order that they be in the care of at least one competent adult."
"What the mung do you mean defenseless, sphincter?" demanded Glory hotly.
I blinked. "What the mung do you mean one competent adult?" I asked in turn.
Dr. Pemma shook her head patronizingly. "What is it you hope to accomplish down there, on your idiotic man-child crusade?"
"I want to know the truth," I said through gritted teeth.
"An adolescent obsession," she declared shortly. "You're maturing at a remarkable rate, Simon, I give you that -- but you're inexperienced, and you lack informed perspective. I don't pretend to know what all of your business is, but just take a moment to think about what it is you plan to do, and whether it's something that makes sense, or simply something that promises to satisfy a selfish craving of your still developing ego."
"I have to go," I said.
"Which is of course the wrong decision," replied the doctor tartly, "which is why I'm coming with you."
I looked at Captain Ting in appeal and he rolled his eyes theatrically. Then he seemed to notice something behind me, and his face broke into a toothy grin. He pointed: "Look there! It's Terra Firma!"
I spun around to see a sleek grey cat with white stripes step gingerly across the bay to twist around Mr. Oliver's ankles. He leaned down and petted the cat which purred loudly.
"This ship has a cat?" Pish exclaimed. "I never even saw her!"
"Thet's because she enly comes out when we're lended. Etherwise she spends ell her time hiding -- damned if we know where."
"Um, that's why we call her Terra Firma," explained Mr. Oliver to Pish, who had come over to let the cat sniff his knuckles. Mr. Oliver brushed his dark hair off his pale brow sheepishly. "Um, yeah."
"She's good leck!" declared the captain triumphantly. "A bloody euspicious stert for your mission, eh, Mr. Fell, sir? Not even Decta Pemma should be eble to bring you down now!" He frowned at Dr. Pemma, who glowered back at him.
"Bloody misogynist wanker," she whispered.
"Gengwey descending!" bellowed Captain Ting by way of a subject change, engaging a series of controls on the wall beside him. In response the floor chuffed and vibrated. Mr. Oliver herded Pish and Terra Firma off of the middle section of the decking as it opened and dropped down at one end, admitting a gust of cold, dry wind that reeked of conifer needles.
It touched down on the ground with an odd crunching noise.
"Listen, Decta," said Ting, "you cen't teck both the elpha end the beta with you. Why don't you jest leave the elpha here with us? I have a lettle project --"
"I'll need assistance and interpreters," argued Dr. Pemma. "You can tinker with my ship later, Captain."
"Your shep?" scoffed Captain Ting. "Weit end see if I don't lock you out again until you learn up some polite. Remember lest time?"
They stared at each other for a moment.
"Fine," growled the doctor, eyes narrowed. "You can keep the beta onboard."
"The elpha," countered Ting quickly.
"Why in the name of all that's --" began Dr. Pemma, eyes widening and her cocoa skin flushing.
The captain chuckled. "Elright...don't explode yourself, gerl. Beta! Come here." He grinned with satisfaction as one of the white robots stepped up smartly beside him, and he then turned to me. "If you need enything, sir, just give us a heller," he said, tapping the tiny bead of his telephone on the side of his dark brown neck.
I nodded and walked down the inclined gangway toward the open air of Allatu. "Let's go Pish," I called, "Glory...Jeremiah."
Pish, Glory, and Jeremiah were followed by Dr. Pemma and the Neago's alpha robot.
I emerged beneath the belly of the ship and stepped into a crispy, muddy substance that turned to powder on the red leather of my Annapurnese boots. I paused, and knelt down. I reached out and touched the stuff: cold, and crystalline. It turned to water on my fingertips.
"It's snow, Simon," said Pish. He jumped off the gangway and planted both feet in the stuff, and then kicked it off his boots enthusiastically. Then he scooped up a handful and ate it.
"Mother of love!" I exclaimed against my will.
Pish grinned. "It's just frozen water, silly." Then he scooped up another handful, patted it into a rough ball, and threw it at me. I ducked but it splattered into frigid dust against the shoulder of my longcoat.
To my surprise the next ball of snow to strike me came from Glory, laughing hysterically as I sputtered and tried to wipe the ice from my eyes. Pish laughed too, until he took a slushy one right in the middle of his chest.
Inside of a minute we were all three slipping around and launching volleys of snowballs at one another. The ruthless efficiency with which Glory created and delivered her munitions was admirable, but she still could not stand up against Pish's merciless enthusiasm and impeccable aim. Glory was a quick study, however, and dodged behind a landing strut to fire from a place of cover.
I looked over at Dr. Pemma, who was standing on the end of the gangway with her robot, lips pursed with irritation. She didn't look like she was having fun, so I threw a snowball at her. Then I ran away.
I emerged from beneath the soft shadow of the Neago, a cloud-diffused and snow-reflected sunlight seeming to shine weakly from all directions. The sky was grey. The tips of the evergreen trees swayed in a light but biting wind. I saw a broad stone road along which hooded people walked. When the wind ebbed I could hear their somber song.
"Pilgrims," explained Jeremiah at my elbow, anticipating the question. "They come to pay homage, seek strength, and offer service to the Citadel in the name of the Recovery."
Dr. Pemma arrived behind us and without a word clapped an ampule to the side of my neck. I felt the curious sensation of medicine being released into my blood, colder than my body and tingling with foreignness. "What was that?" I cried, slapping her arm away.
"Standard inoculation package for Allatu," she grunted, rubbing her forearm ruefully. "You're welcome."
As Glory and Pish crunched up behind us, gasping for breath and giggling, Jeremiah pointed toward the trees: a tall woman was walking barefoot through the snow, her gait stately, her shoulders held broadly beneath her grey cowl. She removed her hood as she stopped before us, and bowed.
I bowed in turn. "Hello," I said brightly. "My name is Si --"
The woman hissed at me like a cat, her face a manifest of disgust. Jeremiah touched my bicep and said quietly, "Sir, do not speak aloud. Madam expects High Allat. I will endeavor to translate."
At that, Jeremiah turned to the woman and said nothing at all.
The grey-cowled woman, for her part, raised her brow briefly at Jeremiah, and then looked down at her fingers. Her mouth twitched.
Jeremiah made a subtle nod, then turned to me and conveyed in a very soft voice, "Madam Sister Rabbit welcomes you to this Holy Citadel, and confirms that you are expected. The Madam Sister invites you to be escorted by her to your cell, where you might care to wash and refresh before your meetings."
I looked toward our host to agree and to thank her, but before I could make any gesture her eyes flicked over to Jeremiah.
"The Madam Sister says you are welcome, Pilgrim Fell."
Led by the Citadel's nun in grey our party walked the road alongside the pilgrims, some in robes and some naked, some in elaborate costumes and some looking like the people I'd seen in everyday places: riding Maja's World Train, hailing taxicabs in Thaumas, waiting in lines in the lobby of Samundra General Hospital as I was escorted by Nurse Randa to freedom...
Many of the pilgrims smiled at us, even though some of them appeared to be grieving behind black veils. Many prayed aloud, and some joined one another in song. There was a sensation of human warmth and guileless comraderie pervading our slow parade and it penetrated me, allowing my breath to come easier.
By the time we reached the Citadel there were little flakes of snow falling out of the sky, cascading out of the clouds like little fluttering stars as if the park were cruising upward through space. Pish leaned his head back and caught bits of snow on his outstretched tongue. Glory did, too.
"Grew up on Creidne," she offered by way of defensive explanation when she caught me watching her. "Coitally cold there, Simon. Everlasting faecal winter, from Arkmonth to August."
Thinking about everlasting winter made me feel cold. I noticed then that my body was quivering. I raised my shaking hand before my face, marveling at my inability to control my trembling fingers. "What's happening to me, Glory?"
She rolled her eyes. "You're cold, idiot."
"I've felt cold before," I argued, my teeth clacking together involuntarily. "It wasn't l-like th-this."
"Simon: meet winter," she said darkly. "It totally fellates."
While the mob slowed and congregated before a wide stair, the nun in grey led us around to a smaller door behind a screen of needled hedges. There Dr. Pemma departed with her robot without explanation or adieu. The nun, Pish, Glory, Jeremiah and I passed through cavernous, ill-lit stone corridors, the sussurusses of human conversation seeming to echo from unlikely corners. We passed intricately geometric tapestries, and dozens upon dozens of statues carved in a matte black stone, arranged on lonely podia in niches bounding every archway.
We came to a small cell containing four beds and fat, jolly-looking fellow in a simple brown cassock who jumped up when he saw us to shake our hands with two of his and bow repeatedly.
He did not say a thing until the nun in grey had departed, then he let burst forth a waterfall of words. "Roommates, thank heavens -- bless you, friends -- I'm Brother Phi and I'm so delighted to meet you! Was your journey long? Come now, you're cold -- I have a fire started in the hearth. It's a small hearth but this is a small cell -- not that I'm complaining. My goodness, you're a big boy aren't you? What impressive boots, my girl! Oh ho -- Annapurnese leathers, smacking good! I used to have a pair of Annapurnese jodhpurs before I joined the order -- wonderful fit. Heavens! Isn't this grand?"
I couldn't help but laugh. "Hello, my name is Simon."
"Wonderful, Simon -- I'm Brother Phi, did I mention?" he crowed, and then went around the room and re-introduced himself to Glory and Pish in turn as he learned their names. Remarkably, he also introduced himself to Jeremiah. "Now that, my friend, is a truly splendid carapace. Quite striking! I'm a great admirer of carapaces, myself. I used to design Exo-Neo-Rococo plating for the Renetians until their hour-guilds started getting all uppity about alien craftsmen. Pah! Nevertheless, a wonderful period of my life, yes."
And so we warmed ourselves around the small hearth where a couple of square black bricks burned with cheerful orange flames. Outside the narrow window the grey sky pinkened and dimmed, while winking stars of snow continued to plunge down in a constant stream. Again I could not shake the feeling that the Citadel was flying upward through space. I lurched under the influence of a faint vertigo, and sat down on the end of one of the beds with a sigh.
Brother Phi gave us each a mug of water and some wafers and spoke at great and uninterruptible length about all of the wonderful people he had met along the way of his pilgrimage from Ishtar.
"Where's Ishtar?" I asked.
"Never been to Ishtar, pilgrim? Now that's a tragedy. Every man owes it to himself to visit the Second Earth at least once in his life. There's really nothing I can say that can convey the essence of the experience. It changes lives." He munched on a wafer. "In answer to your question, Ishtar orbits the great fat goddess Yasu, who is a ward of Centauri's holy primary."
"I haven't heard of Centauri before. It's a star system?"
"It is indeed." Brother Phi closed his eyes reverently. "Rigil Kentaurus Majoris was a great waystation for Solar life as it fled the calamity at Sol, and it was the eventual destination of the Wayward Ark whom all had taken for lost. When the civilization of Eridani and her hyperspace gates spread back to Centauri they found worlds already in blossom around two of her three stars. Hard-won worlds, torn from the unyielding elements rather than selected for compatibility, as elsewhere. I was blessed to be born under the light of Centauri Prime, Rigil Kentaurus Majoris herself, and it is my special joy to tell all who ask anything about her."
I smiled to myself, then ventured, "You're robot softies at Centauri?"
Brother Phi laughed uproariously. "Have you been keeping company with a Reull or an Ops?"
"Whech one tecks lick thes?" I asked, aping Captain Ting's thick accent.
"That's Reull," grinned Phi, his round cheeks dimpling. "Wonderful people, save for their Chauvinism. They can't seem to treat their robots as they should, bless their hearts -- nor each other, which is why they're always having such enthusiastic wars, I suppose." He laughed again and then took his own crack at Reullian pronunciation, exaggerated comically: "Ass es effident, I heff spent minny yeas deng relief werk in Reull! Ho ha!"
Everyone except Jeremiah cracked up laughing. Then Brother Phi held up a chubby finger and started nodding to himself. "Which brings up an interesting point -- at least to me, it's interesting. It's interesting that Reull is one of just a few worlds who have eschewed any local languages in favor of adopting the Common Verbal Protocol even in the home, and yet against their will they seem to be evolving their own dialect that will before too long be unintelligible to their neighbors. Have you heard their slang? It's like scat. Do you know what scat is? It's Reullian slang. That's a little joke." As an afterthought he added, "I'm sorry, I'm not very funny."
"I think you're hilarious!" cried Pish.
"Bless you, child," smiled Phi.
"What brings you to this Citadel, Brother?" I asked.
Phi sat back and became more serious. "There's always work to be done for the Recovery, dear Simon. So many lives were shattered, and lives continue to be shattered as families attempt to care for their deeply wounded kin. They need helpers. I'm a helper. My creed compels me to this work, but my compassion is my own. I go before Lady Aza to seek a new assignment." He cleared his throat and brightened his round face once more. "And what business brings you here, if I may ask, pilgrim?"
I considered the question, mulling over various summations. "To be candid, Brother Phi, I am a man created out of the void on a quest to discover the true mechanisms at work linking the pharmaceuticals of Fellcorp, the funding of the Citadel of the Recovery, and the forgery of my life."
Brother Phi whistled, his eyes wide. "Well, okay then," he said. "You can go first."