I awoke. This, in and of itself, was surprising.
I inhabited a hazy world of white light and soothing voices, defocused and meaningless. Nurse Randa patted my cheek at one point, and I tried to turn to kiss her hand but I was too weak. Nurse Wennel was laughing at something. A machine went ping!
Though I did not notice the transition, it became apparent to me that Nurse Hiwai was straddling me. I wondered if we were having sex. She was thrusting down upon my chest, her face pinched in effort. "Stay with me!" she sang. "Come on now, Simon -- don't let go!"
"Okay," I agreed, and the machine went ping! again.
This was followed by a dreamy period, in which I ran through the hospital cafeteria with no clothes on. I knew the nurses were stalking me so I cast about for a place to hide. Crushed Head Faeda turned toward me, offering to conceal me beneath her hospital chemise, half of her mouth smiling while the other drooled.
I tried to scream.
And then I found myself beneath the curved, glowing ceiling of the tiny, four-bed ward aboard the Neago. I tried to sit up but four gentle hands restrained me. "You are safe," I was informed, "do not panic."
"Very well," I conceded.
Dr. Pemma rushed into the ward, stepped up beside my bed and looked over a plate dangling from the headboard. "Congratulations Simon," she said tartly. "You're alive."
"I suppose you had something to do with that," I said.
"Rather, yes. You were quite a mess."
"Not at all. I have sworn an oath."
With her assistance I was able to sit up slightly, my chest bound in a network of somewhat constrictive bandages. "An oath to keep me alive until every last bit of useful information is extracted?" I asked bitingly.
She did not deny it. She pursed her lips. "A lot has happened while you were unconscious, Simon. Not the least of which is that I have tendered my resignation to Fellcorp Mercy."
"Who commands you now?" I scoffed.
"My conscience," she answered acidly, "and my oath to do no harm. There's more, but understand now that I am on your side. You need to sleep."
"I just woke up."
"The anaesthetic field has just been collapsed. Now you need real sleep."
I tried to object again but my head lolled over onto my shoulder and I fell into dream: bird-women with claws, beaks pecking at my heart, a flutter of bloody feathers, the scream of a child.
I awoke with the feeling that time had passed. Outside the porthole was a starless blackness. With the support of a medical robot I managed to shuffle across the ward and void my bladder. Pressing the muscles in my abdomen ached. My pee was clear.
"Where are the others?" I asked the robot. "Where are Glory and Pish?"
"Sir, Patient Pish is in the observation matrix."
"What?" I yelped, turning too quickly and sending a crackle of pain down my side. "Patient Pish? What happened? Take me to him immediately!" I grabbed the robot's arm and started to tug on it.
"You are safe, do not panic," suggested the robot.
I pulled on a hospital robe over my pajamas and belted the sash roughly as I stumbled out into the corridor and winced at the bright lights. "Coital fire!" I roared, throwing my forearm in front of my face and thereby causing pain to shoot across my chest. I howled, and slumped against the wall.
Dr. Pemma ran out into the corridor. "Simon! What are you doing out of bed?"
"Pish," I hissed through gritted teeth. "Take me to see Pish."
For the second time I saw the doctor's face soften. "Alright," she conceded. "You can hold on to me. Come on now."
I propped myself up against Dr. Pemma and put my arm around her shoulders. "Thank you," I murmured as we shuffled along. She led me back through the doorway through which she'd come, a round room with a clear tank in the centre. Glory was asleep, the side of her face pressed into the glass. The tank was filled with a pink, viscous fluid. Lying at its bottom was Pish.
He was nude, and a horrifying tear ran across his abdomen, an open gash whose loose edges waved lightly in the pink fluid's currents.
"What happened?" I asked hoarsely.
Dr. Pemma crossed her arms and sighed. "After I'd finished treating about a dozen people you panicked, I went to the Halcyon Hall to tear a strip off you. But you weren't there. The boy said you were in trouble. He said...he said he could smell your blood in the air. We tried to stop him but he took off, tearing through the Citadel to find you. We followed, of course. He found you -- Jeremiah forced the door. We -- saw you..."
She closed her eyes for a moment and continued. "Naturally, I started treating you on the spot. Security arrived seconds later, and saw Aza's body. Then -- everything just exploded."
"Citadelites started pouring into the room, wailing, screaming, tearing out their hair, weeping, praying, scratching themselves bloody. It was terrifying. Glory picked up Pish and Jeremiah and I carried you out, but they wanted to stop us. A Zorannite monk named Phi tried to stand between us and them, but they beat him to the floor."
She trailed off again, and then found her voice with effort. "It was madness. Their grief transformed into a riot. I thought we were escaping unscathed, but when we got outside into the snow Glory started screaming that someone had killed the boy. I went to him. I -- didn't know what to think."
She looked up at me, her yellow eyes moist.
"You didn't know what to think about what?" I prompted gently.
Dr. Pemma wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her labcoat. "You don't know, do you?"
"Is Pish going to die, Doctor?" I cut in, frowning.
"Come here," she said. I hobbled along beside her to the side of the tank. She tapped her fingers upon it, causing menus and labels to glow on the glass surface. A circle was drawn before us, and by looking through it we could see a grotesquely magnified image of Pish's slashed belly. I tried to turn away, bile rising in my throat. "Look," commanded Dr. Pemma. "Just watch."
I looked. And then I stared. With even a moment's study it was plain that the wound was moving. "Why is it doing that...?" I whispered, sickened. "Glory's fixers?"
"Not entirely incorrect," said Dr. Pemma, nodding. "There are fixers there, but they come from the boy himself. Look more closely."
She tapped a glowing control and the view within the circle jumped larger, defocused corpuscles of giant-sized air bubbles coasting through the foreground. In the background was the inside of Pish's abdomen. Despite my limited knowledge of human anatomy it was clear to me that I should have been seeing the pink, red and grey lumpiness of organic viscera -- not bands of shining filaments, knitting themselves together in a graceful ballet as mite-like fixers scurried around them. A lip of Pish's pelvis was exposed, and it was silver.
"How...how could you not see this?" I heard myself ask. "You must have seen this when you scanned us."
Dr. Pemma shook her head. "I was fooled. It's quite ingenious, actually. The pseudo-epidermic layer is scattered with microscopic projectors which collectively broadcast false tomology. Down to the smallest detail, every system." She smiled nervously. "A work of art, if you will."
"But why?" I wondered aloud. "Why go to so much trouble to disguise a robot?"
"That's no robot," pronounced the doctor seriously. "That's a human executive."
The words hung in the air heavily. I blinked. "A human executive?"
"Yes, of course," replied Dr. Pemma. "Just like him."
She turned around and pointed to a figure I had not noticed standing in the shadows beside the door. "Who is that?" I demanded, reaching out for the doctor's arm to support me.
Jeremiah stepped forward out the gloom, his blue-green carapace glinting with pink highlights from the bubbling tank. "Sir," he said.
I leaned heavily against Dr. Pemma, my legs feeling suddenly rubbery. As Jeremiah moved forward I saw that his carapace was scratched and marked in various places, including a rough crack that ran across the lower half of his face, exposing the glinting components within. "What's happened to you, Jeremiah?" I asked.
"Sir, it is time for us to have a talk."
Dr. Pemma showed us to her office. I sank gratefully into the chair on the patient's side of the desk, and Jeremiah sat down neatly in the chair on the doctor's side. The doctor disappeared into the corridor and the door slid shut with a soft chuff of air. I looked at Jeremiah.
Carefully and methodically, he felt around the edges of his cracked masque and disengaged the seals one by one. He removed the back of his head, and then pulled away the front pieces and placed them on the desk.
Though his head was now a mud of electronic devices and wires, he did not cease his strip tease.
Jeremiah next disengaged a catch beneath his chin, and peeled off a layer of components. He removed rings of functional-looking metal from around his black eyes, and then reached up and deftly cracked his own skull in half. He unfolded the sides and put them on the table next to the pieces of his masque.
And I saw Jeremiah's face.
Like the human executive I had glimpsed on Maja's World Train, his skin was both leathery and coppery at the same time, creased and wrinkled with the record of a range of expressions, crow's feet at the corner of his eyes and pinched in the corners of his mouth. Unlike the first human executive I had seen Jeremiah had no hair, though he did have faint traces of eyebrows composed of short, translucent fibres. His nostrils were mere slits, his ears faint parabolas of skin around similar slits. His neck was thin, and his face narrow. His hard black eyes were utterly unchanged.
"You have many questions Simon," he said, his voice warmer and more fluid but of the same basic timbre. "I am now in a position to answer some of them."
"Why?" I shot back quickly. "What's changed?"
"My true nature has been revealed. Further obfuscation would not be productive, particularly if you are to understand why Pish must not at this point learn the truth."
"You want me to lie to him?"
"I want you to co-operate with the imperatives of this program, lest I find myself obliged to end you."
I swallowed. "Okay," I said, nodding. "So what can you tell me?"
"What would you care to know?"
"You're a human executive," I said. "What does that mean? What are you?"
"We began as a form of robot, long ago at the Solar Star. But where robots are things which simulate consciousness, we were built to possess it."
"Built? By whom?"
"By Dr. Drago Tesla Zoran, the greatest mathematician history has ever known. It was his conviction that humanity was too fragile for galactic life, and he labored for many years to bring about a kind of human being with greater mettle; animals adaptable to a range of environments beyond Earth and her progeny. Animals who could stand alone, without a supporting infrastructure of teeming Solar ecosystems."
"You're a kind of superhuman, then?"
"Yes," replied Jeremiah seriously. "I am stronger and faster than the most athletic human being who has ever lived. My auto-immune system is orders of magnitude more sophisticated than yours, and can even repair near-mortal damage without assistance. I have at my disposal some seven hundred thousand times more knowledge than your brain could store at its maximum theoretical capacity. I am more fuel-efficient than you are. Should I find myself without resources, I am capable of living in stasis for nearly unlimited periods of time. I require neither gravity nor light, neither food as you know it nor drink. I am, in a way no human being could ever approach, self-reliant."
I chewed the inside of my lip thoughtfully. "Well," I quipped darkly, "that's pretty impressive. One wonders why you keep us lot around at all."
His features softened in a way not unlike Dr. Pemma's, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes unfolding as he smiled glumly. "Because we love you," he said.
"Love?" I echoed, furrowing my brow. "You are capable of love, then?"
"I am human," declared Jeremiah heavily.
"How can that be?" I argued. "Designed by a man, yes -- in imitation of a man's form, yes -- you're even self-aware, you claim...but how does any of that make you human?"
"Humanity is a concept of identity," explained Jeremiah patiently. "The creation of the human executive race was predicated on a foundation of human civilization, the gemstone of Solar life. Our context is human history. We define the universe in human terms. But we are not artifacts, for these connections mean something to us."
"So you're an alien thing in touch with its roots, what does that prove?" I shot back. "Can you feel the full panoply of emotion? Are human executives greedy? Lustful? Jealous?"
"We do not share your emotional palette, for we are different kinds of animals with a set of instincts appropriate to our way of life. For instance, I am currently craving carbon."
"An emotion is distinct from an instinct," I claimed.
Jeremiah shook his head curtly. "No. Your emotional palette is an expression of your instinctive infrastructure, honed by natural selection to serve you in the environmental and social context of your creation under Sol. Your altruism is a statistical gamble tuned to maximize kin selection. Beauty is an algorithm for evaluating health. Your feelings of jealousy alter the count of germ cells in your testicles. You cry when you are sad so that other primates can recognize and respond to your internal state, a trick learned before language."
"And yet your feelings lack those roots. How can you call them human?"
"It is a matter of orientation. When Dr. Zoran made us, he could have turned us out to the stars to abandon man for our own history -- but he didn't. He was convinced that the computer of Earth may have tested the human design in ways his own calculations could not match. He was certain that, to become a fuller organism, it was essential that our race live in kinship with our prototypes. So that we might continue to learn from you."
"You are our superior analogue. I'll grant you that. But you will forget us one day."
"Never," answered Jeremiah quickly, "you are a part of us."
"Would you miss us? Would it cause you heartache? Do you even feel a need for pain?"
Jeremiah reached out and touched my hand on the desk, the rubber on his fingertips warm. "You must understand, Simon," he said; "we do not feel pain as you do. We feel pain because you do."
"I don't follow."
"If I felt the pain of a human being, it would be an analogue as you describe -- a simulation of synthesized human experience, experienced in turn by me. What would be the purpose? However, the concept of pain -- both physical and psychological -- has value to a thinking organism. Thus, we have pain. Our pain."
I sat back and rubbed my chin. "It sounds perverse," I declared. "But I think I'm beginning to understand. You are not men, but you are created in the image of man's soul -- so you view yourselves as a kind of human offspring. Is this the source of your fealty to our fragile civilization?"
"Solar civilization is not fragile," countered Jeremiah smoothly. "On the contrary it is very robust, and its program of expansion promises to make it even more so."
"And yet there are barbarian worlds, and worlds of war, and repressive societies that generate monsters..." I trailed off, shuddering as I thought of Crushed Head Faeda. "What's so robust about this mess?"
"Variation," said Jeremiah, "is humanity's greatest asset. Solar worlds rise and fall, change and depopulate, invade and assimilate -- a constant roiling of culture generating new attempted matches for the human emotional-political landscape at a fantastic pace." Jeremiah smirked, which I found unnerving. He continued, "Can you imagine what a purely human executive world would be like? Dead, self-same, and eternal. Stability is our detriment, for we were born too rational." He held up his hands in a gesture of almost-theatrical helplessness. "The Solar computer retains a dynamism beyond the reach of human executive philosophy."
"So we can do something you can't?"
"There are many things you can do that we cannot. Parenting, for example."
"Parenting?" I echoed, baffled. Then I wondered aloud: "When were you born, Jeremiah?"
"Over fifty million hours ago. I doubt the calendrical date would have any meaning to you."
"Where were you born, then?"
"On Ares at Sol, before space was space." He paused, then added, "The same as the other fifteen."
"What does that mean? There are only sixteen human executives? I thought you said your kind were born, and raised and educated?"
"We have a population of millions. New bodies are synthesized, in which are seated a replication of one of the sixteen patterns of consciousness achieved by Dr. Zoran. These new iterations of the original patterns are then socialized and acclimatized to modern human executive existence."
"What does that mean -- patterns of consciousness?"
"Unlike human beings who have a common racial architecture for self-aware cognition, each human executive pattern was bred individually by Dr. Zoran's team -- the initial conditions before each phase transition to an auto-catalytic pattern were unique. Thus, while each of the sixteen patterns emerges as a self-aware system, they each do so via an idiosyncratic method of internal connectivity."
"So you clone these sixteen minds, over and over again?"
"We clone their initial conditions. Each consciousness is nurtured into existence as a unique event, with a unique history of interactions. I am of the Fifth Strain, named Jeremiah in honor of my line's ancestor whose memories I carry."
"Sounds like you've got parenting in the bag too, then," I said flippantly.
Jeremiah's face was grave. "Unfortunately not. The system as I have described it to you allows for no recombination of genetic material -- in short, no variation in the genome except changes in morphology protocols we approve via committee. Our evolution is static."
"That's a pity. Surely there must be scientists on dozens of worlds who could pick up Dr. Zoran's work, and come up with a better way for you to procreate."
"Unfortunately not. Dr. Zoran's work represents forbidden research."
I nodded slowly. "He used the Secret Mathematic, didn't he?"
"He created the Secret Mathematic," corrected Jeremiah with an unmistakable tone of pride. "And when he learned what use of it Solar men would make, he saw to it that the Math be made Secret."
"Not soon enough to save the Solar Star, though," I pointed out.
My saying this clearly hurt Jeremiah. He winced, and I felt instantly terrible. "That is another story," he said solemnly, "and may be told another time. Suffice it to say we have never failed in such a way again, and we never will."
"You failed? The human executives?"
Jeremiah nodded. "Sol died long after the time of Zoran."
"You had the Secret Math in your keeping?"
"No. We are the sole artefact of its application. My mind functions by way of it."
I shrank back involuntarily against my chair, a shiver running down my spine. The power to destroy a star lay encapsulated in Jeremiah's head! "How did you fail?"
"One of us betrayed Zoran."
"There were once seventeen?"
"Twenty," corrected Jeremiah. "Two fell from love and murder, and a whole line of another wasted from a cognitive disease. And one betrayed us all." He looked down. "I will not speak further on this matter."
I sniffed. "Alright. So why was Pish disguised as a human being?"
Jeremiah stood up stiffly and went to the small view-port, clasping his blue-green hands behind his robotic back. After an interval he said, "Our own research uncovered a method of sexual reproduction with a low but reliable yield of viable offspring patterns. This was a very recent development. I myself have been very active in the project for many centuries. Where Dr. Zoran had to fight against the brevity of his primate life-span, our own science can be more patient. We eventually found a way."
"What went wrong?" I asked.
A longer pause. "Kamari," he said at last, eyes still turned to the glass. "The Nightmare Cannon."
"Was it based on the Math?"
"No. But its signal reached our growing young, and was received by them even as they were nursed inside their placental computers."
I swallowed. "What happened?"
"They died," said Jeremiah flatly. He turned around to face me, his strange face radiating grief clearly enough for any primate to read. "All of them. All our young. Every last babe."
"Mother of love," I whispered.
"We had never encountered events from which they needed shelter," explained Jeremiah tonelessly. "For a day they lived in morbid apathy, and then faded. None of the sixteen nor any environmentally-varied subsequent in our lines discovered a solution in time. The queries of the horrified young could not be answered by us, for it required a manipulation of the image of reality in a way we have never practiced."
"But we do?"
"Yes. It is a reflex of parenting. Through trials largely inflicted upon yourselves, human beings have evolved ways to dilute the horrors to which we have no antidote, to mitigate the truth with mammal parleys to which we have no access. In short, to lie to the profit of a trusting mind."
"To lie? That's all?"
"You do not understand, Simon. The human beings who fell victim to the Nightmare Cannon suffered because it struck at their very cores as animals; in contrast, the young human executives suffered because through it they recognized fully and nakedly the reality of suffering."
I closed my eyes and sighed. "You've lost me again. I think I liked it better when all you said was 'sir'."
Continued Jeremiah, "Humankind has evolved mechanisms for processing suffering, inspired by visionaries and institutionalized by society. But the human executives have never had a Buddha, and without such lessons we had no solace to offer our tortured offspring. Their minds failed."
"What's the solution?"
"Pish," said Jeremiah, "and others like him. They are a second generation of recombined human executive patterns, and they are being raised as human beings in the hope that they shall learn lessons from within we cannot access from without. We hope they shall learn to be parents, and how to reconcile the universe as it is with the fragility of a growing consciousness."
Jeremiah sat down again, and I folded my hands on the desk. "Pish doesn't know?"
"Knowing would spoil the program?"
I scratched my head. "So Duncan is a human executive, too?"
Jeremiah shook his head firmly. "No. Duncan was chosen as a suitable surrogate parent for many reasons. One of those reasons is because his son was killed as a result of my actions, and thus Pish was given his son's form."
"Your actions?" I echoed, for some reason angry. Though I knew the Pish I knew had always been a human executive, I felt some connection with the organic child who was a stranger to me. "Why? How?"
"I am not at liberty to amplify."
"You're my enemy," I shot back. "You told me that yourself. But you wouldn't touch me as long as Pish was bonded to me as a parent, would you?"
"So why are we enemies?" I demanded. "What have I ever done to you?"
Jeremiah's mouth pinched briefly before he spoke. "I am not at liberty to amplify."
This time I stood up, pacing in a tight, angry circle. "So what is it you people do, then, when you're not hatching children? Just wander around dispensing justice? Killing those that don't suit your interests? What stops you from massacring us once they've learned what you want to know?"
"I told you Simon, we love you."
"That's bloody noble."
"We cherish you."
"Is that what you're thinking when you murder someone?"
"The importance of these missions cannot be overstressed. Sacrifices are essential."
"Missions? Pish's engineered childhood -- and what else, Jeremiah?" I demanded hotly.
He looked up at me sadly. "You already know the answer, Simon."
I plopped into the chair again, wincing at my aching body. I felt heavy and tired and weak. "We're going to find the Nightmare Cannon, aren't we?"
"I hold the key to the puzzle. That's what everyone wants, isn't it? Olorio, Faeda -- and now you. You're all waiting for me to cough up something from my butchered brain, so you can all rush to Kamari to fall over one another to possess the damned weapon." I pointed an accusing finger at him and shouted, "What do you want it for? Profit? Power? Perversion?"
"I will take it before the Queen of Space, so that all the worlds may witness its destruction."
"Is she your master, then?"
"She is our ward. An oath sworn to Zoran, to always keep the peace of Ares alive, and to keep the shadow of Mars from eclipsing all the Neighbourhood."
"Yinyang," I said dully.
"It's nothing," I said, waving my hand dismissively. "More poppycock from liars, petty players in the farce of my life."
Jeremiah placed his hands on mine again, and looked at me compassionately. "Do not let bitterness overwhelm you, Simon. You have faced much in a very short time, and you have shown yourself to be brave, resourceful, and merciful. Believe me when I tell you there is value in that. For you, as well as for Pish and the girl. Have you not seen how you have changed her?"
I sniffed. "What good is that? Dr. Pemma says she's doomed."
"No one is doomed until they are dead," said Jeremiah evenly, holding my eye. "Do not give up hope, even when you do not know what you hope for."
I sighed, and looked down into my lap. "That's very philosophical, but I can't shake the feeling that if I dare to hope again I only open myself up for a fresh betrayal."
He nodded seriously. "If that is your destiny," said Jeremiah, "how do you intend to meet it?"
I looked up and met his eye. He nodded almost imperceptibly. I nodded back to him, and felt myself smile. "Thank you, Jeremiah."
"Sir," he said.
When I hobbled down the stairs into the well of the bridge Captain Ting and Mr. Oliver snapped to crisp attention. I asked for a report on our situation, and the captain was happy to oblige me: "We're perked on the fer side of the Leona-Gemma esteroid, Mr. Fell sir. Citedel vessels are combing the system for us, so we can't stey here lung..."
He trailed off as he watched Jeremiah step into view, his human executive face exposed. "Captain," said Jeremiah curtly.
Captain Ting hovered in place for a moment, his stunned face inscrutable. Then he slowly lowered himself down on one knee and bowed. "By the grece of Zoren bless you, Executive."
"Do not bow before me, Good Zorannite," replied Jeremiah. "We must make haste."
"Sir yessir," answered Ting, getting to his feet and making an elaborate sign with his right hand. "Your orders?"
Jeremiah turned to look at me. I coughed. "We go to Kamari Star, Captain."
"Kemeri Sta?" he repeated, dumbfounded. "But the wey is closed, sir!"
"Not to me," said Jeremiah. We all stared at him.
I turned back to the captain. "Best speed to the transmission array, please."
Ting paused for a moment, eyes wide, then looked over his shoulder and bellowed, "Mr. Oliver! You heard the men: design for the arrey. Release ell moorings! Stendby thrusters!"
Mr. Oliver almost fell over himself as he jumped up from one console and launched himself upon another, hands flying over the controls. "Sir yes sir!" he called. The deck shuddered beneath our feet. "All moorings clear, sir!"
Glory appeared next, accompanied by Dr. Pemma. "What's going on?" demanded the doctor, frowning. "Where are we going?" She craned her head around to see the colourful whorls of gas visible through the stern windows panning by as we drifted free from the face of the asteroid.
"Kamari," I replied crisply.
"Kamari?" Glory and Dr. Pemma echoed in unison. "Coitus!" added Glory solo. "That's mad! The gate won't transmit us!" cried the doctor.
"Jeremiah says otherwise. You know all about him -- why does that surprise you?"
"I saw his scan. That's all I know. How can he get us through closed gates?"
"Ask him," I invited, gesturing to Jeremiah.
Dr. Pemma seemed to find it hard to look at the exposed human executive. "Every ship on Allatu has been launched after us. We'll never make it to the gate, Simon."
Captain Ting chuckled as he stood before the forward windows, which darkened as the great fiery disc of Praxiteles swept into view. He turned around to face us, a smug grin on his lips. "Leaf thet to me," he said.
"Estimated time to the array, Captain?" I asked.
"From here? Less than seven hours, Mr. Fell, sir."
"Very good," I said. "If you need me I'm going to the cafeteria. I am suddenly hungry enough to eat even this ship's food. I don't know that I've ever been so hungry in all my life."
"Me faecally too," said Glory, nodding wearily. Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy. It was plain to me she had been sitting vigil over Pish's convalescence for hours upon end.
As we headed for the stairs Dr. Pemma kept throwing her gaze in confusion back and forth between us, Jeremiah, and Captain Ting. "You're going to eat?" she blurted. "At a time like this? We could be killed!"
I shrugged. "Well, we can scarcely eat then, can we?"
Glory guffawed. Dr. Pemma stared at me wordlessly. She sat down heavily at the console beside Mr. Oliver, who jumped nervously. "Um, are you okay ma'am?" he asked, blushing.
"No," she said listlessly. "Everything I believed in is nonsense."
I walked over, bent down and smiled at her. "My dear doctor, that happens to me every other planet I visit. As our friend Jeremiah had to remind me earlier, we really haven't any choice but to chin up. Being frightened of being frightened is no help to anyone."
"Why are we going to Kamari?" she asked suddenly.
"To retrieve the Nightmare Cannon from its hiding place, before anyone else can." I looked up at Jeremiah significantly. "So that we can make sure it is destroyed, once and for all."
Dr. Pemma raised her eyes to look at Jeremiah, studying him intently for a moment and then turning back to me. "Honestly?"
I nodded. She bit her lip and looked around again. "I can get behind that," she said shortly. "Alright."
"Glad to have you on the team, Doctor."
I turned to leave but Dr. Pemma called out. "Simon, here!" She threw my little blue diary to me. "I fixed it for you."
"Yes. It no longer broadcasts a direct feed to Olorio's office."
I raised my eyebrows. "Indeed? Well, thank you."
Glory and I took our meal in relative silence, save for the unsavory smacking sound she made as she devoured bland dumplings slathered in orange sauce. I consumed enough food for three in a steady rhythm, pausing only to take water. When we were done we stumbled back to the ward and lay down on our beds, staring at the ceiling and belching.
We had a conversation of presence. Though neither of us spoke or looked at one another, the company was important. It was, I realized, a mammalian comfort alien to Jeremiah -- part of the solace his people could not offer one another.
Just before she fell asleep Glory asked blearily, "Pish is going to be okay, right Simon?"
"Right," I said.
A second later she was snoring loudly. I put my arms behind my head and considered the dim ceiling. Glory was not the only one who had changed. I was no longer concerned with who N. Simonithrat Fell had been, or was supposed to be. I thought instead about who I was now.
In a galaxy of lies and uncertainty, now is all I can count on.