MASS OF THE HALCYONS
A white-skinned naked man with a shaved head appeared at the door of our cell and bowed low, his pale forehead actually touching the smooth stone floor with a muted thud. His drawn, expressionless face turned up. His eyes looked like they were made of glass, and I shivered. Before the prostrate naked man could say a word Brother Phi grinned and claimed, "He says he's here to escort me to the Halcyon Hall."
He then stared at the naked man, who stared back.
"I said you could go first," Brother Phi called to me, rushing at the bed and gathering up a handful of greasy, chipped-edged data-plates to stick into the wide, marsupial pocket of his brown cassock; "I've told him that -- and he's irritated -- but the poor thing can't think of a defensible way to refuse. So, if you wonderful people will follow me as I follow him, we'll all go down to the hall together. Ho ha!"
I tore my gaze away from the coloured marbles the slack-featured man stared into our cell with -- almost eye-like eyes. I grabbed Brother Phi's sleeve. "Is he reading our minds?" I whispered, awed.
"He who? He him?" replied Phi, squinting. "The robot?"
"What now? No -- our escort, dear Simon." Phi was pointing to the naked bald man, who continued to kneel in the doorway and peer up at us blankly. "He's a robot naturally. The Allasu prefer theirs fleshy."
"Oh, my," I said, feeling faintly ill. "Is it real skin?"
"Heavens, no! It's all a trick of industrial dilly, of course, and the crafty application of paint. Some people find flesh easier to talk to, especially people from robot-weak cultures."
"It's gruesome," I said. "Why is the skin white like a fish belly?"
"They're albino, hairless and nude to differentiate them from true human beings, lest one Allasu accidentally commit the cardinal error of treating a peer as a slave."
"Is it really to our betterment to treat anyone as a slave?" I asked him. "Even those entirely within our power?"
Brother Phi put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed affectionately. "You could have been a Zorannite, my dear Simon. Tell me, would you ever consider donating any of your progeny to the order?"
"I'm not entirely sure my actual children are real. It's on my list of matters that need looking into."
Brother Phi smiled consolingly. "Well, keep me apprised. Shall we get on with it?" He started toward the door.
"Wait. Is the robot reading our minds?"
"No no -- there's no telepathy to it, pilgrim," replied Phi with a friendly laugh; "the robot speaks High Allat. Aren't you acquainted? It is the pride and joy of the Allasu culture: a language so refined and subtle that speaking it aloud is considered crass in the extreme. Wonderfully curious, isn't it? Let us not dawdle now -- the Halcyons await."
In a long and silent line we trailed along the labyrinthine stone corridors until we came to a case of broad white steps, leading up to a higher level of the Citadel, out of the well of guest cells. I gestured for Glory to precede me but she shook her head. "No coital way; you go first, Simon."
Pish held my hand. We mounted the risers one by one, each step bringing another swath of a great gilded hall into view, beginning with a domed ceiling inset with mosaic patterns and continuing along wide golden pillars whose edges captured the light in bands of shining, greenish reflection.
I smelled incenses, and people.
We stood upon the threshold of a massive auditorium, tiers of kneeling men and women densely banding before a raised stage framed by tall plates whose faces crawled with a seemingly endless list of names. At the base of these tall plates men and women in various costumes wept theatrically. On the stage itself an elaborate rite was taking place: dancers dressed as blue and orange birds fawned fans over robed figures with feathered headdresses, flanked by naked and hairless slave robots with ivory, human-like skin.
No one spoke.
It was not silent in the auditorium, but what noise there was was unsettling: the random scrapes of leg against leg, foot on stone, hair on robes; the intermittent catching of breath, or cough; the impenetrable hiss of lesser sounds, a background of muted miscellany. Occasionally a sob spiked into audibility.
Then the air buzzed as the congregation mouthed a series of sacred syllables, following the exaggerated silent mouth movements of the onstage clergy, their wet tongues and teeth flashing under amber lights. The concerted motion swept through the ranks, like a message propagated through a sea of ants, causing the crowd to exude an aspect that was distinctly insectile.
Brother Phi took my shoulder and tugged me onward. Our destination lay beyond the auditorium. We passed through an arched doorway carved with the likeness of bodies, and crossed a bridge over a choir in a shallow stone well whose almost inaudible voices emanated not from their mouths but from instruments they held at their lips and plucked: a many-textured music that rustled gently against the quiet unlike anything I had ever heard. In a moment it was all reverberating into fuller silence behind us.
Glory held my arm on one side, Pish on the other. Only Brother Phi, the slave-man robot and Jeremiah seemed undisturbed at the heavy, alien atmosphere that weighed on this place like a wet blanket, making breathing difficult. Glory's hand was slick with sweat, and I could feel her pulse through her fingers.
We came upon a refectory. Its walls were high and carved into complex curlicues, each branching into a niche at the bottom housing the black matte visage of a solemn statue. Long tables were lined with nuns and monks in grey cassocks, each of them with a naked servant standing at one elbow and a line of patient petitioners at the other. We were invited to join the tail of one such line.
"What's going on?" whispered Pish, his quiet voice punctuating the muffled stillness of shuffling feet and clicking cutlery. Many people in the lines turned to stare.
"I think we're going to speak to one of the Citadel priests," I whispered back, straining to keep my voice confined to breath.
As the moments passed we slowly advanced. At the head of our line was an ancient-looking gentleman with a white beard and a liver-spotted head who was dottering over a bowl of broth, his rheumy eyes blinking at each supplicant in turn. The robot-girl at his elbow then leaned in to whisper his message into their ear.
The mechanisms of High Allat became plainer as I watched more exchanges. The language seemed to have phonemes, but rather than being voiced the lips and muscles of the face were gently twitched so as to suggest their imminent voicing. It was a language of almost spoken words, punctuated by a panoply of subtle half-winks, ticks, pursings and furrows that seemed to serve to disambiguate similar expressions.
If it had not been for my wordless time in the hospital just after my rebirth I might have lacked the sensitivity to appreciate the complexity of these nearly invisible signals, but I had gleaned the world of people through little else in those weeks and the experience left me sharpened.
Indeed, the clergy of the Citadel were not psychic -- they were master observers of human micro-expressions.
I leaned into Brother Phi and whispered in his ear, "Did you not say the Reull were nearly unique in their path to unintelligibility? How then do we explain High Allat?"
He started nodding before I'd finished speaking, his ear bobbing before me. He took my head gently and pulled my ear around to his own mouth, his breath breaking into barely discernable syllables: "The people of this world speak Mechanical in the home -- the audible version of Allat. Until a few years ago High Allat was strictly confined to Allasu courting rituals and ceremonies of marriage, oaths swearings, political speeches -- that sort of thing. It has only been with the rise of the Citadel that High Allat has taken a broader role."
"Think about it, pilgrim. Speakers of High Allat may be inscrutable to others, but to them every language is transparent. What is a foreign vocabulary when you can read the thoughts off a man's brow? It is the perfect vehicle for receiving the pain of multicultural multitudes."
"Receiving pain?" I echoed. "Is that what they do here?"
"They process pain, that's perhaps a better way to put it. They have helped thousands come to terms with their grief. They listen, and they assign duties to help cleanse each individual spirit. The priests design a cathartic program for each kind of victim, from the mother who lost her child to the child who cares for a psychopathic mother."
Our turn came. We advanced. Brother Phi looked into the old man's eyes and I caught glimpses of their exchange; I saw Brother Phi's lips twitch with my name. The old man's pink, gluey eyes turned to me and he searched my face. I flushed under his gaze.
After a long moment he released me to glance at his hairless servant. The robot whispered into my ear with cool, scentless breath: "You will follow Brother Phi to the Halcyon Hall, Pilgrim Fell. Go now."
At that the old man concluded his meal. The robot cleared his place and then held his arm as he slowly walked toward the exit of the refectory, the line of supplicants following at a discreet distance and trailing him out. Another ancient fellow emerged from a nearby lavatory, drying his wrinkled hands on his cassock as his line of supplicants filed out after him.
"Eighteen hours of a priest's day are spent receiving and advising supplicants -- while they eat, while they bathe, while they walk," Brother Phi breathed, tracing my gaze. "It is not an easy burden."
"Mother of love," I whispered. "But you do not do this?"
"I'm a Zorannite."
"Ah," I said, nodding as if this clarified anything.
We came into a round room with a fountain in the middle, under a high dome. Grey-robed monks and nuns of Recovery sat on marble benches in twos or threes. Our arriving footfalls were the only noise above the gurgling water in the fountain, and an odd rustling from above. Pish, Glory and I looked up to see compact, round-headed blue and orange birds fluttering about the apex.
A tall cleric with a ring of grey-streaked copper-coloured hair stepped up quickly and engaged in a silent exchange with Brother Phi. His skin was paler than Pish's -- almost as pale as his slave robot. The copper-haired cleric glanced briefly at his slave, who sidled over and bent to my ear, whispering: "Master Dove Benedict understands that you wish to take the audience of Brother Phi."
I looked to the copper-haired cleric, and started to shake my head. He held up a ring-studded hand, and again glanced at the robot.
"There are fifty-nine queued before you," translated the naked robot. "The wait may be many hours. Brother Phi has implored Dove Benedict to admit this, and he will if it is your wish."
I glanced at Brother Phi, who nodded. I nodded in turn to Dove Benedict.
"Very well," intoned his slave. "Your party holds the number sixty."
And we were left alone. When a party of nuns stood up and disappeared through a small, ornate door at the far end of the room Glory scurried over to snatch their bench. We followed and sat down beside her. She leaned into my shoulder and whispered, "How long is this going to faecally take? Aren't you a mover and shaker, Simon? Can't you do a fornicated thing?"
"I think we're all just pilgrims here," I whispered back with a sigh. "Money can't buy us grace."
Just then a nun with feathery epaulettes flanked by two male-looking robots swished across the room and rushed up to our bench. One of the robots bent toward my ear and said, "Mr. Fell, it is an honor and privilege to have an esteemed guest such as yourself here at our humble Citadel. The Mistress Sister Empathy bids you welcome, and entreats you to follow her to the special lounge."
Many eyes followed us as Pish, Jeremiah, Glory, Brother Phi, Mistress Sister Empathy, her two naked robots and myself formed a little parade weaving through the other supplicants as we crossed the chamber and went through the ornate little door. We took a long, oddly dark passage through to what was unmistakably a kind of royal court: an empty throne on an ornate dais surrounded by lesser seats occupied by silent clergy, the walls draped in rich tapestries of dizzying geometric designs and the floor a stylized map of the Panstellar Neighbourhood.
Brother Phi knelt down on one knee, so we did too. Even Jeremiah.
I heard a rustling of drapes, and then caught scent of a woman. I looked up to see a white-robed figure stepping out from the wing and ascending the throne with an ethereal grace. Her heavy-lashed eyes were almond-shaped, her lips full and drawn into a slight frown. Her dark hair was short and feathery, brushed forward like a bird, and ornamented with silver clasps.
She looked as achingly beautiful as I always thought she would, once her head was no longer crushed in. It was, of course, Faeda.
Jeremiah stepped up at my side and spoke quietly in my ear just after one of the flanking clergy stood briefly and struck a small gong, its muted report terrifying against the backdrop of profound silence. Translated Jeremiah: "Blessed are we in the presence of our queen of infinite compassion, the noble High Priestess of this Citadel of the Galactic Recovery, the great Lady Paz Faedaleen Aza."
Lady Aza fixed me with her gaze and bid me to stand with an almost imperceptible flick of her chin. I rose, and I saw the corners of her mouth pull in a micro-smile -- she was pleased that I could follow her. I noticed her gold-flecked brown eyes dart over to Jeremiah.
"Pray tell what brings you before us, Pilgrim Fell?"
Do you remember me, Lady? I voiced in my head, keeping my lips mute and letting the thoughts play out across my features.
"Should we, Cherished Pilgrim?" translated Jeremiah.
I knew you in a hospital. I thought I saw you smile, in remembrance.
"We did suffer a malady, but we have no memory of our recuperation," passed on Jeremiah, though I was starting to catch the gist of her meaning from the lady's face alone.
I did my best to let my face imitate the subtle pulses I had seen the clerics use: we were friends.
Lady Aza smiled noncommittally. "That is well," said Jeremiah.
A pause. I have come before you to understand the relationship between your efforts of mercy and those of my corporation.
A longer pause. Translated Jeremiah, "A clerk will be assigned for your interviewing convenience. Go in peace, Pilgrim Fell."
Lady Aza began to rise. "No, wait!" I blurted without thinking, causing everyone in the room to frown and one of the clerics near me to hiss like an angry cat. "I don't need a clerk -- Faeda, please! I'm telling you there's something rotten in all this! I need your help."
The nearest bald, naked robot to the lady placed his hands over her ears.
Our party was escorted brusquely from the throne room, back down the dark corridor, and returned to the Halcyon Hall. "That break from protocol may not have been profitable to your cause," mentioned Brother Phi quietly. The monk nearest him hissed.
"Oh, shut up!" shrieked Glory. "Curdled vomit! This is the most coitally repressive rectal stain of a society I've ever faecally seen!"
"Er, now now miss --" started Phi.
She advanced menacingly on a group of hissing nuns, who shrank back in horror. Glory swung her handbag and then repeatedly kicked the air in front of them with her tall black boots. "Take some of that!" she leered. "Freaks!"
The nuns blanched and gasped, falling over one another to flee the hall. One of them fell into the fountain, and she screamed. This primitive vocalization seemed to panic the other fifty, who stampeded and grunted their way toward a clot of robed humanity thrashing at the narrow exit.
"This is a hall of meditation and consolation," whispered a pale robot, touching Glory's shoulder.
She smacked it with a wicked whip of her handbag. "Speak up!" she yelled. "I can't fornicating hear you!"
One of the fleeing nuns fainted, and was picked up by two robots.
Glory's voice echoed away into silence. We all stood there for a moment, frozen. Then with a gasp the nun in the fountain peeked out of the water, saw us, and submerged again. Jeremiah walked over calmly and fished her out. When he tried to deposit her gently on a stone bench she scrambled out of his reach, slipping on the wet floor and skidding the length of the hall. With a squeak she got to her feet and vaulted through the doorway.
Pish cracked up laughing first.
It was contagious. Even Brother Phi was turning red in the face as he guffawed, his chins jiggling in sympathetic motion. Glory fell down and laughed on the floor. I closed my eyes and found myself laughing and crying at the same time.
"I know this is terrible," wheezed Phi. "I know we've just disturbed the sanctity of a great institution, but --" he paused, chuckled again. "It's just such a relief."
"Yeah," agreed Pish. "This place fellates."
This inspired a renewed round of riotous laughter. I was forced to sit down. I lay on my back and laughed at the domed ceiling. A feeling of great peace came over me, and I breathed in deeply. "You know what?" I heard myself saying. "Let's just go home."
There was no reply, so I leaned up on one elbow and looked at Pish. "How would you like that?" I asked him. "Do you want to go home?"
He shrugged, and smiled at me crookedly. "Yeah."
"Glory?" I called, looking over to where she was draped over a bench, lying on her side.
She snorted. "Where's home?"
"Anywhere we want, I imagine. Look at it this way, Yatti Olorio has gone to a lot of trouble to forge this life for me. I was prepared to sacrifice anything to find out why, when I thought I had nothing left." I chuckled. "I know that sounds stupid."
Glory and Pish were watching me. Jeremiah and Phi, too.
I continued, "So maybe Fellcorp has found a way to profit from the Kamari Horror, and just maybe the Citadel of the Recovery has, too. Maybe there's even something sick about how they've perverted the situation." I licked my lips. "But it's too big for me. I can't save the galaxy from men like Olorio. I can't even hope to understand people like these Citadelites."
I looked up at Pish. "It isn't true that I have nothing left. I've got friends." I looked at Glory. "Why don't we all just settle down somewhere, and let the galaxy sort itself out?" I looked back at Pish. "We'll eat nothing short of the second best food the worlds have to offer. I promise."
When no one said anything I flushed, and stood up. "This is what everyone wants, isn't it? This is what everyone's been trying to get me to do -- nothing at all. So why shouldn't I? If so many lives have been ruined, shouldn't we just count ourselves lucky for having what we do, and live on? Shouldn't we just lie on the floor and laugh?"
Glory looked me fully in the eyes, and pushed a stray braid out of her face. "That sounds really nice, Simon," she said.
But Pish shook his head.
"What is it?" I asked.
"You said it yourself, Simon. Something's wrong with what they're doing. And we're the only ones who have any idea." He blinked. "Don't we have to do something?"
I sat down again, my heart heavy. I thought of Duncan, and about the kinds of values he wanted his son to understand. I nodded sadly, and sighed. "You're right, Pish. We do."
"Don't worry. If we figure it out it'll all be worth it," added Pish.
"And if we don't they'll kill us," said Glory darkly.
I looked up at Jeremiah and narrowed my eyes. "No..." I said slowly. "I don't think they will."
At that moment a pale robot entered the hall and stopped beside me, leaning in to my ear. "The Lady Aza will receive Pilgrim Fell for a private supper. Come now."
I looked over at the others, my eyes wide. "Go on!" said Brother Phi. "If there's anything to your suspicions, this is your chance to ask the very heart of the Citadel! Don't worry -- I will see to your wards, pilgrim."
I nodded to the human-shaped robot and followed it through the small door again, down the dark corridor, and along an unseen branch that curved past a dozen other doors. I found myself in a windowed diningroom containing several niched statues and a long table with a setting at either end. The world outside was a liquid starscape of falling snow.
I removed my red leather longcoat and draped it over the back of one of the chairs. I slipped out my diary and began the day's narration, glancing toward the doorway every few moments. I left off as I saw a shadow cross the threshold.
Lady Aza entered and closed the door behind her by pressing a contact on the wall. She took her seat and demurely unfolded a napkin upon her lap. She looked up, held my eyes a moment, and then ceremoniously filled her glass from a tall, sweating bottle of clear fluid at her elbow. When she was finished she gingerly picked up a slim, silver fork and turned it over in her hands for a few moments, eyes cast downward.
A split second later the fork was filling my vision. I dodged sideways and ducked low. The little piece of silverware bounced off the back of my chair and tinkled to the floor.
"Hello, Simon," she said.
I straightened in my chair and cleared my throat. "Hello, Faeda."
She pinned me with her eyes. "Hearing my voice -- to you it's nothing, isn't it?"
I tried to smile. "You have a lovely speaking voice. Do you sing?"
"This is Allatu. Singing is pornography."
"I didn't mean to be impolite."
"But you should, Simon," she said with a teasing lilt. "You must be impolite."
"Why should I be impolite to you, Faeda?"
"Because," she said, "I wouldn't want to be the only one who's wet."
I blinked. "I'm sorry?"
Faeda squirmed in her chair in a strange way and smiled lopsidedly. "I think I had an orgasm today. Did you know that? I've had fantasies about the sound of shouting echoing off the walls of the court, but the reality was so much more -- violent."
I cringed in anticipation of another attack and she laughed. "Now now -- do not fret, Simon. I'm all better." She licked her lips and smiled strangely again. "Well, mostly better."
"You have your memories back, then?" I said, attempting to sound genial despite my unease.
She sipped from her glass. "Yes. And you yours?"
"I'm afraid not," I said. I poured my glass full from the bottle at my end of the table: a dry wine. Not bad. Pointy, but well angled. "Do you still read poetry?"
"No. I am instead a poet. I am a producer, a consumer no longer."
"That's wonderful!" I said, my voice an unconscious imitation of Brother Phi's jubilance.
Faeda smiled tightly. "It's novel."
We sat in silence as the slave-robot entered to serve our food -- a series of small silver bowls each filled with a differently textured paste, and a dish of steaming flatbread dusted with spice. I watched Faeda fill a round of bread with a scoop from each bowl, and then deftly roll it up before cutting into it with her fork and knife. Then I tried to copy her, with messier results.
After the servant had left Faeda giggled at my clumsiness. To derail any line of mocking inquiry I quickly asked, "What sort of poetry do you write?"
"I write in the medium of lives. I re-organize them until they are beautiful. I publish in the form of galactic history." She tilted her head coquettishly, her silver hair-clasps winking in the light.
I smiled, and pushed at my food without hunger. "That's quite a genre."
"I did not choose this cage," she replied with icy conviction. "When my elder sister died in the attack that wounded me, the stewardship of the Recovery came upon my unwilling shoulders."
"Who would attack Citadelites?"
"Enemies, idiots, heretics," she said dismissively. "It is no longer a matter of concern. My focus is on the future. I am charged with the mission of maintaining this movement, for it now sustains the whole of House Aza and our allies."
"I understand that you've helped a lot of people."
"Yes," she agreed. "And they in turn shall help us, for the religion we give them will crystallize our influence at Praxiteles Star -- and beyond. You see I am thinking first of my house, as any noble girl should."
She emptied her glass and then threw it at me. It shattered against the wall.
"What about Fellcorp?"
Faeda smiled, her cheeks rosy. "I'm so glad you asked, Simon. As you likely do not know my sister was engaged in a long battle against Fellcorp, arguing that your medicines were retarding rather than accelerating the healing process for victims of the Horror. She publicly denounced Fellcorp's pharmaceuticals, and declared their use anti-Recovery."
"And was it true? Did our medicines hinder rather than help?"
"Of course it was true, Simon. It's still true."
I dropped my fork. "How can that be? I heard it myself from the Incorporation that Citadel research helped Fellcorp create new products, designed specifically to help victims of the Horror."
She smiled tightly again. "When giants wrestle, villages are crushed. Do you understand me, Simon? The conflict between Fellcorp and the Citadel was destructive. It was essential that a way be sought to co-exist peacefully, lest we find our market of potential supplicants thinned by polarizing politics. So for the good of all we reached an arrangement."
"A mutually beneficial pact. You see the long term goals of this Citadel and Fellcorp are identical: we both require a steady supply of damaged human beings. We both do our truck in ruin."
My mouth was dry. I could not eat, or drink. "You hope to keep the victims suffering?"
"A means to an end," shrugged Faeda. "And, most unfortunately, an insufficient one. What we really need, of course, is fresh ruin."
"Fresh ruin?" I echoed dumbly.
She nodded, and smacked her dish against the corner of the table so that it broke apart. "You don't know what it's like in this cage. You don't know what it's like to be ever silent. You don't know what it's like to be this porcelain doll on parade for their solace -- forgetting the taste of meat, or noise, or sex."
"I don't follow you --"
"Poetry!" Faeda cried. "Point, counter-point! Harmony and rhythm: balance! Great works are wrought only accidentally by nature, but by design from those of vision! The great engines of the galaxy require fuel, elixir against stultifying stagnance. Look at the gift of the Recovery, a gift borne of blood!"
"You will author a new horror," I said slowly as it dawned on me.
"Yes!" agreed Faeda, her almond eyes wide. "And you are going to give it to me."
"Me?" I retorted, furrowing my brow. "How?"
She pushed her chair back and walked over to a transparent data-plate mounted on the wall opposite the windows. Her fingers danced over a corner of it and then its face illuminated with the image of row upon row of fierce-looking birds with hooked beaks and sharp talons.
I was overwhelmed by a feeling of vertigo, bile burning in my throat as I felt pinned by column after column of beady avian eyes, shiny and dark and bottomless like those of robots, ringed in flairs of feather, speckled in muted colours that simulated dappled moonlight or shining in unfettered primaries to declare a brazen fearlessness. In the lower left quadrant: the bird I knew. Images from my half-forgotten nightmares leered at me from just beneath the veil of my conscious mind, causing it to stretch and tear.
I shrank back and Faeda grinned. "So, Simon," she chanted in an eerie sing-song voice reminiscent of Olorio, "which one of these birds means something to you?"
I turned my face away but it had already betrayed me. Her expert skill could trace the line of my eye in a blink. "What does it mean?" I moaned miserably, staring at the carpet.
"It's the solution to a puzzle," gloated Faeda with evident satisfaction, fingertips skittering over the plate's controls before it went dark. "It's the final key we'll need when our expedition launches tomorrow."
"Expedition? To where?" I croaked.
She laughed. "Why -- to Kamari Star, naturally." She walked over to me and started kneading my shoulders, my tense muscles quivering under her strong fingers. She said, "I'm surprised at your surprise. I'd have thought you would have worked it out. I thought that's why you'd come."
"Olorio is Volmash, isn't he?" I barked suddenly, grabbing her wrist and turning around in my seat.
She stared at me for a long moment without resisting, and then gingerly bent down and planted her teeth cruelly into the fleshy part of my hand. I bellowed and yanked my arm away. She wiped a line of blood from her lip and licked her lips clean. "I suspected as much," she said. "I imagine that's what you found out before."
"Before he wiped your mind," she said.
"But if Olorio had my mind in his hands, why doesn't he have the key himself?"
"I have never known," she admitted. "But he knew you were close. He told me I'd be able to get it from you, once his doctor had softened you up."
"His doctor...?" I frowned. "Dr. Pemma?"
"I don't care," declared Faeda with a sniff, sweeping the rest of her dishes onto the floor and then draining her bottle of drink. "You've given me what I want, and now our expedition will have an easy time of it. The Nightmare Cannon will soon be in my hands, and the galaxy's need for the Recovery will never end."
I wilted in my chair. I thought I was going to throw up. "And now what?" I asked weakly. "You kill me?"
A bizarre expression crossed Faeda's face, and it was a moment before I realized she was starting to cry. "No," she sobbed with sudden violence. "No, Simon! Don't you realize why I'm telling you all of this? Don't you understand why I'm letting you hear...my perversion -- my voice?"
I shook my head.
"Because I love you, Simon. I loved you in the hospital back on Samundra, and I love you now. You can't hide anything from me. I can see through your face."
I held myself rigidly still by force of will, betraying nothing. Inside I was turning in nauseous loops, a cold feeling of unreality tingling up from my limbs and muffling my body, making my head feel disconnected and distant. "You're a monster," I said.
She smiled. "Yes. A beautiful, beautiful monster."
"And I'm involved. I was Olorio's man, and now you tell me I've given you all the cards. Will you destroy Olorio, too?"
"In time, yes. When the Citadel outgrows Fellcorp. You and I shall dance on his grave."
"You should kill me," I said.
"And you me," she replied. "But I won't and neither will you. I won't because I want to play with you, and you won't because I promise you that if you raise a hand to me I will assure that your ward's torture will resound through the ages as an acme of depravity."
"My ward? Do you mean Pish?" I cried, growing anxious as she inserted herself between me and the only exit.
"The screams of children are special to me," said Faeda dreamily, twisting a lock of her hair in her fingers. After a pause she yanked the hairs out of her head, and let them drift to the floor. "What's special to you, Simon?"
When I did not reply she moved forward and grabbed my face in her hand, twisting my cheeks viciously. "You see I am naked before you, Simon. That's the trust I'm willing to extend. I hide nothing from you. I spare nothing. Because what you and I have is pure."
"Yes," I mumbled between her fingers.
"I knew you would understand. I knew you would not wish to remain Olorio's puppet." She released my face and kissed my chin, whispering, "Together we will crush him, and floss with his sinews."
"Good," I murmured, eyes wide.
She pulled suddenly back to dash my dishes away with a sweep of her arm, then sat up on the table. "You will now fornicate me, you spit-sucking larva." She locked her legs around me and pulled me into the side of the table painfully. "You will now prove your love to me, Simon, or I will suck out your eyes."
Burning within from the effort of locking my thoughts out of my facial muscles, I nearly lost control as I tried for more time. "Not here," I said.
"Here," she declared, shaking her head. "Now," she insisted, nodding.
I tried to wrench aside her clamped thighs and duck through but she tightened the pressure and I got nowhere. I thrashed again and in response she knocked my torso viciously between her knees, causing me to sputter and slump.
"Playful," she cooed. I felt dizzy.
Faeda tore her white robes, and then ripped the seam of her underclothes down the front exposing tan curves. She twisted on the table, laying on her back with her legs still locked around me, arching her back and pushing her breasts into the air.
"Want me," she commanded.
"This is wrong," I said.
"Yes," she agreed lasciviously.
At her mercy we fornicated, there upon the dining table. The lights had somehow dimmed. The room was silent but for our noises. I felt disconnected from the rude event, numbed and broken. My body responded of its own accord. She keened like a beast and I saw her chin was bloody. I had not felt her bite me.
I wondered in a meandering way whether I had been drugged. I wondered how terrible had been the crimes of Volmash's accomplices. With my face pushed roughly into Crushed Head Faeda's armpit I wondered how long it had been apparent to me that I would not survive the night.
I felt fear but it did not scare me. Does that make any sense? It was like freezing without shivering, or burning without pain. I was calm.
And thus it was with a kind of homey expectation that I accepted the moment when Faeda took up my cutlery and repeatedly drove its pieces into my torso. I noticed placidly that each withdrawal was met with an arc of inky liquid that splashed up against Faeda's contorted face. I recognized dimly that under more ideal lighting conditions my blood would likely appear more red than black.
There did seem to be a terrific lot of it.
The world became misty.
And then a cold fire shot through my veins and I could feel my heart pumping, hear myself gasping, feel the icy pain in my lungs when I tried to draw deeply. I opened eyes that I had not realized were closed and saw Faeda's head lolling with glazed eyes, her limp neck clutched between my own spasmodically squeezing fingers.
I opened my hands and her head hit my sternum. Somewhere in the fog I had strangled Faeda until she died.
My hands ached.
This realization opened the door to other sensations: I was wet. My clothes, ripped aside as they had been, were also wet. The haze of winking stars in my vision as I tried to inhale was a product of a savage bramble of pain throbbing and bucking in my chest. My abdomen was throbbing beneath the weight of Faeda's body, my legs numb. I had been stabbed many, many times.
"Mother of love," I whispered, "I am killed."
This seemed like a dramatic thing to say, but I recognized that my ability to say it meant I had not actually expired. My wheezing continued to echo through the diningroom, which Faeda had no doubt ordered left undisturbed for a great long time while she...played with me.
I could not raise my head. I tried to activate my telephone, but it seemed to have been bitten off. I could feel a breeze inside of me.
And yet I did not die.
With a great effort I managed to feel out across the table surface, now slick with my blood, until I caught the edge of my longcoat. I removed the plastic blue diary and dropped it next to my head.
...Which pretty much catches us up to the present.
There are a few things I'd like to add, before I go.
First of all, I, Nestor Simonithrat Fell -- er, apparently -- being of sound mind and lacerated body, do hereby bequeath the whole of my worldly treasures to Piciatus Menteith...to do with as he sees fit.
Should laws curtail his freedom to transact due to his age, I place my trust in his proxy, Vera Tse Llatella-Bond, who is also known as Glory. If she cannot fulfill her duties then let his robot Jeremiah be his guardian. I don't care what your laws are with respect to that. I'm a robot softie.
The Citadel of the Recovery has been corrupted, and Fellcorp is a predator. Yatti Olorio is Terron Volmash, and he means to profit by the Horror. Why am I the only one who knows?
Let this diary come to whatever authority is best suited to investigate my testimony here. I don't know who that might be. The Navy? The Queen of Space? I don't know. I'm...having trouble concentrating...
Uh-oh, here we go.
So this is how it feels to die.