I stood alone at the centre of Volmash's phantasmagoric underground phrontisterion, my loyal companion and sworn enemy a green-plated superman masquerading as a slave now fed bodily into a great black gun two storeys high presided over by a twittering flock of brown-flecked sparrows. I paced in circles, stepping over a smashed silver robot when necessary.
I heard footfalls and looked up to see the girl in white and two pale, unarmed soldiers stopping at the threshold. One of them was cradling a wounded arm. I leveled the Smith-Shurtook at them. "No fancy soldiering, please," I said. "Just stay where you are."
"Fell!" hissed the girl.
"And you are...?"
"Lady Paz Serafina Aza, High Priestess of the Recovery." Her childish face contorted with rage. "You killed my sister. You'll pay for that."
I glanced at my gun. "If you say so. For the record I'll have you know that I only killed your sister once she had started killing me. I mean, she set the tone. She was very sick."
"That's a hideous lie, and I'll make you suffer for it until you wish for death!" she promised venomously, fists clenched at her sides.
I nodded. "I can see the wisdom of putting you and your family in charge of galactic compassion. You've clearly got a knack."
"Anyone who stands against the Recovery stands against goodness," she declared through gritted teeth.
"Oh?" I replied, smiling icily. "How wonderfully simple! I've obviously been needlessly over-complicating the whole affair."
"I don't care to hear about your twisted rationalizations, Fell," she said, "the only thing that matters is the weapon, and keeping it out of your hands."
I paused, furrowing my brow. "My hands?"
"That's right," she smiled defiantly, her neat teeth gleaming; "I'm on to you, Fell. You may have fooled my sisters but not me. I know you're out to create a fresh Horror, and I'm here to tell you now that it's not going to happen. I'm here to tell you that it stops, right here. Now."
I scratched my head with my gun, the soldiers' eyes following it hypnotically. "Are you telling me you would destroy the Nightmare Cannon?"
"I would take it before the Queen of Space, so that all Solarkind might bear witness to its end."
I nodded. "That's exactly what I'm trying to do."
"Liar!" she shouted. "Don't play games with me, Fell."
"I told you, I'm not Nestor Fell."
"Who are you then?"
"Well," I said, shrugging apologetically, "they say my name is Simon."
"Very well Simon," said the new Lady Aza tightly, "watch now as your plot fails."
"You're awfully confident for somebody standing in the crosshairs."
She smirked, and then muttered subvocally into her telephone, her swan neck twitching. She then stepped backward over the threshold and out of the inner chamber, flanked by the two grey soldiers.
I glanced around. Would reinforcements come blasting through the walls?
The ceiling cracked. A line of dust settled gracefully out of it, followed by a few pebbles. I frowned and started backing toward the curved wall as the entire chamber began to rumble...
I glanced over to Lady Aza's party, but they had taken shelter behind an overturned surgical table. I looked back up at the ceiling of the inner chamber as it came loose in several large sections and began tumbling down toward me amid a roiling face of dust. I screamed and dove to the ground, casting my arms over my head.
I did not, however, die.
I looked up in a maelstrom of noise and flying grit to see a cylinder of dirt, rock and concrete a kilometer long flash into white hot vapour that was drawn upward and away into the dark maw of a giant machine. The machine stepped aside, revealing a round circle of blue sky at the top of the long tunnel.
"Mother of love!" I cried.
Three orange machines with six legs each scampered somehow straight down the vertical sides of the shaft, and dropped to the debris-coated floor with a series of world-shaking sextuple booms. They ignored me as I dodged their tarnished orange feet, arranging themselves around the Nightmare Cannon and setting to work unmooring it from its base. In less than a minute they were clambering back up the shaft, the massive weapon suspended between them. In another minute they had exited at the top, and were gone. A heartbeat later a flock of tiny birds burst from their hiding places in nooks beside the banks of blank televisions and flew out into the open sky.
The ends of a number of long cables dropped to the floor. The soldiers attached devices on their belts to the cables, arranged the Lady between them, and then began to ascend up the tunnel with a hum. "You lose, Mr. Simon," called the young Lady Aza. "Goodness wins."
I watched them disappear, blinking against the sunlight.
I wondered what had happened to Jeremiah, inside the Cannon.
A tiny brown bird flapped over and landed on my shoulder. I turned to peer at it, and it peered back. "Hello," I said.
"Emergency protocols have been activated," said the bird conversationally, its little beak opening and closing in rough time to the consonant sounds. "I am armed, and ready to relay."
"The Nightmare Cannon, I presume," I said flatly.
The little brown bird cocked its head. "Identify input source."
I sniffed. "Suffering? I don't have any suffering for you."
The bird blinked.
I heard a hollow thump, followed by a sliding sound. I turned around slowly, considering now that the Citadelites had likely left the way to the maze open with their blasting. I could flee now, but I would have to face the thing in the dark again -- without Jeremiah.
The Minotaur was definitely in the ninth ring. I heard it again, and could not will my feet to move.
"Identify input source," said the bird on my shoulder.
"Shut up..." I suggested, looking up and letting my jaw drop open. "Faeces," I said.
An armed platoon of grey soldiers rappelled down the long tunnel and hit the bottom simultaneously, surrounding me with a radially symmetrical ring of targeted guns like some kind of very violent floorshow. I dropped the Smith-Shurtook and held up my hands.
I was manacled and ascended from the tunnel, held between two soldiers with humming devices on their belts. The sparrow-like bird flew in wide circles just over our heads until one soldier swiped at it menacingly with his gun, and it thereafter took to orbiting us from a greater distance.
It was the only bird. Its companions had all fled. As real things, they longed for the open air.
We reached the top, an extension of the Citadel camp cleared by their great orange beasts of industry, now engaged in erecting temporary shelters on all sides. A cluster of three were working the Nightmare Cannon onto a giant shipping palette resting beneath the belly of a tall grey spaceship bearing the logo of the Citadel of the Recovery. Underneath the logo it said PEACE FOR ALL in thick black letters that brokered no ambiguity.
The brown bird flew past my head and landed on top of a military car, watching me as I was led away from the gaping round hole in the ground and tossed onto the dirt roughly. A soldier with fancy epaulettes approached and was handed my gun by a member of the platoon that had taken me.
"This is an Annapurnese Smith-Shurtook Gentleman's Dueller," he said idly.
"Yes indeed," I replied.
"This is a fine weapon," he said.
He smacked me across the face with it, and I plowed into the dirt with a windy grunt. I rolled over with effort, the manacles digging into my wrists, and looked up to see the fellow drop my gun, his face suddenly blank and dazed. He seemed to be looking up, so I looked up, too.
The sky was clear. I looked back to the soldier, who hadn't been looking up so much as letting his eyes roll back into his head. Through gritted teeth he tried to say something, but instead he just winced in pain and fell to the ground, twitching feebly as blood ran from his nostrils and ears.
I noticed then that most of the other soldiers seemed to be similarly suffering, now dropping to their knees, now falling prone with their bloody faces planted in the scrub.
The six-legged robots continued hauling the bulky black decoy into the hold of the landed Citadel vessel, though the windows of which I could see Citadelites clutching at their heads as they fell.
Within a moment I was the only man standing in the whole camp.
The little bird flittered from one body to another, pausing beside each still head and cocking its head briefly before fluttering on. This discomfited me so I looked away.
I spotted a bubble in the sky. It rose gently over the skeleton of a collapsed skyscraper, and then settled just inside the camp perimeter on the close side of a pile of bricks, just a few dozen paces from where I stood. I saw my own reflection in the side of the orb for a split-second before the shield cracked off: I looked dirty and grim, my red longcoat flapping slightly in the breeze.
Yatti Olorio stepped down from the platform, his round face split into a smug grin. He was accompanied by two youths in crisp suits -- a boy and girl with black hair and hard, narrowed eyes. "Simon!" sang Yatti melodiously, clapping his hands with effete satisfaction; "what a delicious surprise!"
"Expected to find me writhing on the ground, did you?"
"Frankly, yes," replied Olorio smoothly, halting a few paces from me and crossing his arms over his breasts. "But nothing ever goes quite according to plan, does it?"
I shrugged. "I don't know about that, Yatti. It looks to me like your plan has come off without a hitch. It seems you have allowed the Citadelites to do your dirty work for you, and now you can sail off with the Nightmare Cannon. How did you induce them to take the medication?"
"We prepared the inoculation packages for them," said Yatti with a little wink. "No specific blocks -- just a trigger to incapacitate them broadly should we require their non-intervention." The toe of his polished shoe prodded at the nearest collapsed monk. "They'll awake with symptoms that suggest they've been hit by the weapon, of course." He chuckled. "At which point they will be become our...clients."
As he spoke three great Fellcorp Mercy ships appeared over the next hill, their humming progress echoing along the valleys of kipple. Olorio watched them land, his hands behind his back as he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. The gangways descended and legions of white robots began to fill the camp. I could hear their idiot voices overlapping on the air, "You are safe; do not panic."
Olorio returned his gaze to me. I nodded and crossed my arms. "Right. Well. I suppose, given your candor, I should take it as read that I'm killed."
Olorio spread his hands in a maudlin gesture of hapless confession. "You knew all along you were only left walking to one end. And that end is now being loaded aboard what is now my craft. To blame subsequent holocausts on your ghost is far less complicated than continuing to puppeteer you."
"You erased my memory."
Yatti raised his brow, his wide mouth held slack for a moment. Then a new grin spread across his lips, one that pushed up thick cheeks up against his eyes to almost obscure them. "Oh, my dear Simon, no," he lilted, covering his mouth with a chubby hand in a gross parody of a giggling schoolgirl. "Oh, no. You did it. You wanted to be free. You wanted to take the money and run. You didn't want to ever have to think about our glorious Hegemon again."
"Then why I am the key to the Nightmare Cannon's puzzle?" I shot back, my voice feeling disconnected from my sinking stone heart. The challenge was hopeless, fueled by dumb adrenaline.
"Because you're not a fool, Simon. And neither was he. If he hadn't kept his last secrets so close to the vest do you I think ever would have let you survive?" Olorio chortled smugly. "You were supposed to give me the key after I helped him cleanse himself, but you didn't. You ran." His smile dropped away. "But not fast enough."
"You got inside my head. You tried to take the key. You failed."
"Not at all," he replied airily. "We made significant progress. We were not, however, able to penetrate his scheme completely. He had elected to erase too much that seemed critical. He had left only trivia. We knew the final solution would have to emerge...organically. So we scraped you down and dumped you on Samundra. I came and visited you once. You seemed quite happy in that hospital, old chap."
"I don't remember it."
He shrugged smarmily. "I'm funny that way. People seldom remember my visits."
I suppressed a shudder. How many times had Olorio come to me? Was there any way of knowing? Would Jeremiah have let Olorio get near me? Would I remember, now that my own chemical blocks had been removed? Or had Dr. Pemma's work been honest at that point? "Ruses within ruses," I muttered, bemused and haggard inside.
"Yes," confirmed Olorio with satisfaction. "You see, I was paying attention to him all those years. I did learn a thing or two from the master."
"The master of artful deceit! Of the theater of life! The man whose great memory I will not taint by calling you by his name." He sighed with clear reverence, his hands clasped before his heart. "The most renowned televisual personality the galaxy has ever known."
"That was me?"
Olorio sneered, his face suddenly darker. "Naturally not. You, Simon, are a pathetic child-man being exploited as the key to a maze. You, Simon -- who were born such a short time ago and will die just a few minutes hence -- were and remain no one of consequence." He leaned in closer to me, his slit-like eyes so narrow they seemed closed. "We had everything. The Panstellar Neighbourhood would have been ours to shape. We were aligned for total power. He would have been the face and voice of a united galaxy."
He turned from me and spat into the dirt. "But he did not turn out to be the man of vision he seemed. He wanted to wash his hands of the whole affair. He wanted to live like a king without the burden of rule. He wanted the life of a god without bearing the sacrifices of achieving the godhead." He turned back to me and hissed, "He wanted to become you -- he wanted to forget what you'd done, and abandon what we'd together won by it."
"What did we win?"
"A unified military -- a matured panstellar infrastructure to support it. We won co-operation across known space!"
"Co-operating to rid themselves of our scourge!"
"Co-operation to any end would have done, for my purposes. Co-operation now for the sake of the Recovery works nicely. All that matters is that we'll build a galaxy that is drawn together, not sequestered apart. Even the Queen of Space who works so hard against our cause would change her tune once she found herself an Empress." He nodded with earnest zeal now, facing me again and gesturing emphatically with his beefy hands. "All that matters is the future. All that matters is the galactic union."
"So," I whispered weakly, "you're an altruist, too, eh? We should have a bloody convention. You and Jeremiah and a parade of dead Azas can all make speeches, and we'll toast your laudable ends."
"A capital idea!" called a new voice. Olorio, his stern-faced flanking guards, and me all turned to see an old brown man with white hair making his way over a pile of rubble toward us, leaning heavily on an ornate cane. A young blonde in a severe suit walked patiently beside him, holding a leather valise.
Olorio seemed very disturbed. "Who the hell are you?"
"I'm your boss, Mr. Olorio," claimed the old fellow, wheezing a bit as he came to a halt a few paces from us, so that he formed the apex of a triangle with Olorio and I. "I'm being a tad glib, of course. To be precise I am the Chief Acquisitions Officer of Blighton Enterprises, and the new interim executive of Fellcorp Pharma." He chuckled. "From the look on your face, Yatti, I see you've been too preoccupied to follow the business feeds."
Olorio paled, and a sweat broke out across his brow. "That's outrageous! That's impossible! That's --"
"-- How we planned it all along," said the old brown man with evident satisfaction, knocking his cane against a nearby lump of stone. "Did you really think Mr. Blighton would trade away the interstellar reach of Fellcorp just for some money?"
"We made other promises."
"Yes, of course. But you must realize Mr. Blighton and the galaxy at large have so much more to gain from the story of your scheme than from your scheme itself. Whether you're a closet Unionist or even a member of House of Ares, everyone will agree that it makes a fine drama. Thank you for playing you part." He turned his yellow-rimmed brown eyes on me in turn. "You too," he added.
"It's a bluff," claimed Olorio, puffing himself up.
"It's justice," countered the old man. He pointed his cane at the two youths on either side of Olorio's girth. "War criminals exposed, all of you. Even these twisted children you would have seen raised as Simon's -- rewarded to live in luxury for how long? Six months? A year?"
"They could've lived that life forever if this fool hadn't been burning to go on his little quest," spat Olorio, pointing at me with a thick finger. "I've done everything for him. I even helped him to arrange his mind so he could dream without guilt. And when he betrayed me I even had myself turned into a chink so that I find a place in his new life. He could have lived in peace for years as I extracted what I needed. I am a very patient man. My cause is worth everything."
"You robbed me!" suddenly shouted the young man at his left, his face flushing with anger as he stared at me. "You promised me you'd always take care of me!"
"Me too," said the young woman on Olorio's right. "But you left us to rot in some stupid school. Now Yatti is making good on the promises you decided weren't important enough to remember."
Olorio smiled icily. "You're selfish, Simon. So was he. He was the vainest man alive. Harnessing his lusts was easy. Some of us were fool enough to believe he loved us along the way. But we are no longer fooled."
Olorio drew a long pistol out of his coat, and shot the Chief Acquisitions Officer of Blighton Enterprises in the chest twice. The blonde screamed.
I threw myself flat and picked up the Smith-Shurtook lying beside the fallen soldier's bloody hands, flipping myself over and leveling it at Olorio's troupe. The young man fired at me first. A rock beside me blasted apart in a rain of sparks. I closed my eyes and ducked, chips of debris sinking painfully into my exposed hand. Undeterred I threw the gun into my opposite hand and squeezed the trigger.
Nothing happened. My eyes refocused on the foreground. The little display on the butt said: Chamber Empty.
"Coitus," I said.
I was shot in the shoulder, the impact knocking me off my feet backward. The young girl stepped forward and pointed a jazzer at me. For a few seconds I was lost in a world of pain, my back arching as my limbs kicked out involuntarily, my eyeballs twitching behind their lids. The pain ceased and I was left looking into the throbbing black stars of clouded vision...
When I regained myself a moment later the uniformed young man was dragging the blonde by her hair. He threw her roughly on the ground next to me. The uniformed young woman jazzed her, leaving the blonde moaning feebly and drooling. I blinked in surprise. I recognized her.
"Miss Tiger!" I whispered.
She winked at me, and smiled. I started to stammer but she shushed me. "Jazz-proof suit. Blighton's on top of everything. Stay calm, Simon."
"Blighton?" I echoed dumbly.
"Keep quiet!" roared the uniformed young man, kicking me in the ribs without reserve.
"Oof," I said, so he kicked me again. "You're grounded," I added feebly, so he kicked me in the face. This was more effective in shutting me up, since I bit my tongue and started to cough out blood.
Olorio was laughing. "For so long he was the teacher," he said over me with a smirk. "Now I have some lessons for you, my friend. The first lesson is: don't ruin a good thing, or risk the wrath of your associates." He jazzed me. "The second lesson is: don't make deals with Idealists. Our concerns surmount pleasantries." He jazzed me again. "The third lesson is --"
I opened my eyes weakly. What was the third lesson?
Olorio was considering with interest something behind me, at the edge of the hole the Citadelite machines had vapourized down to the hiding place of the Nightmare Cannon. A white robot sailed over my head and smashed to pieces on the dirt. A shadow fell over me. I turned around, wincing as pain throbbed should my wounded shoulder...
The Minotaur roared.
Olorio jazzed it but nothing happened. The young man shot at it. The young woman threw a rock. In a blaze of flying shadow the beast vaulted over Miss Tiger and I and struck the ground directly before his assailants, loops and coils of rappelling cables dragging from its shoulders.
It was shaped like a giant black man, with the head of a fierce bull atop his wide shoulders. The flesh of his back was torn, and inside gleamed a metallic superstructure.
It paused a beat before smashing aside the young man with a quick backhand, and then it lurched forward and settled down upon Olorio. Olorio screamed wetly, and then stopped. His legs kicked. The young woman shrieked and ran back toward the nearest Fellcorp ship, scattering robots in her panic.
I pulled out my water flask and upended it into the plastic sphincter on the butt of the Smith-Shurtook, glancing up nervously as the hulking thing worked over Olorio. It did not seem to be devouring him so much as tearing him into little bits, which it flung over its shoulders.
I gasped as a stringy red mess hit the dirt beside me.
The Minotaur turned, its beady black eyes reflecting gleams from the orange sun. It began to advance. I shook my gun hopefully and then squeezed the trigger. A buzzer sounded, but nothing else happened.
It took me a moment to realize that the Minotaur had stopped moving. I did a double-take and saw the Chief Acquisitions Officer standing behind the robot-beast, his cane extended. "Now that takes me back," he said. "What a great movie that was! How fortunate that this prop was manufactured by one of my concerns." He sighed. "Utopia! Help me out of this thing."
The blonde sat up beside me and shook the dust out of her hair, and then peeled off the wig entirely to reveal her natural red hair cropped short. She sprang to her feet and jogged over to the old fellow. With her assistance the brown man peeled apart and revealed the skinny, lithe form of Abermund Blighton within. He smoothed down his black clothing with a liver-spotted hand, and then patted his white moustache back into place.
"Nothing makes an entrance like being shot," he declared jovially. "Wouldn't you say, Simon?"
"Quite dramatic," I agreed darkly. "Did you know about the Minotaur?"
"Oh yes. Terron's maze is devilish, isn't it? You may have some questions at this time," he said with a smile.
I considered this for a moment, looking out across the rubble-strewn field of fallen soldiers with bloody faces surrounded by white robots, the great grey spaceship now holding the false Cannon in its hold, the smeared remains of Yatti Olorio and the unconscious form of a teenage war-criminal whom I had apparently promised to protect. I saw white fabric flap on the gangway of the Citadel ship, and guessed it was the girl Lady Aza.
"Yes," I said eventually. "Yes I do have a question, Abe. How do you justify all of this? Everyone so far has had an irrefutably good reason for either profiting from the Kamari Horror or causing it in the first place. What's your crusade? The wisdom of the human executives? A story to sell to every denizen? Lust for dirty money?"
Blighton laughed, and touched my shoulder in a familiar way. "All money is dirty, Simon," he said with real seriousness, looking me in the eye. "It is up to men of means and conscience to purify it."
"Men like you?"
"Quite so," he agreed. "Especially since I must bear some blame in creating the situation in the first place. Terron was, after all, my protege. Of course when he was my pupil I had no idea how he would fall under the shadow of Aro Frellis -- that is, he who would become Yatti Olorio."
"Who was Aro Frellis?"
"He was the President of Metra, naturally, and eventually the Lord Governor of the Kamari Hegemon. In your popularity he saw a means to carry his ideology of unification across planets, and eventually across stars. The story isn't that simple, really, but it will do for this kind of on-the-spot revelation. You'll be able to read the details in my newest book, The Puppet of Kamari."
I nodded grimly. "That would be me, of course. The puppet."
"When you're the father of a massacre people become indifferent to your feelings," he pointed out.
I sniffed. "Can you tell me why I...did it?"
"No," he replied glibly. "I'm not the March Peebles of souls, my boy, just opportunities. I can only imagine your private country of adulation was threatened by the Panstellar Navy. You must have divorced humanity and embraced only power, then. You became a monster. You decided no price was too high to retain your foothold on the galaxy, and when your own citizens began to suspect the truth you found in them ready fodder for your horrifying machine." He gestured to the grey spaceship that contained the false Cannon.
"Enough!" I shouted. "I won't hear any more dictation of my own decisions to me. This isn't a story, and I'm not your audience or your toy. If you knew everything that was going on you could've stopped it!"
"Simon, Simon," he chuckled. "Even I don't have the power to single-handedly stop a mad world."
"You could have turned Frellis and Volmash over to the Queen of Space!" This seemed to mean something to Utopia the former tiger girl, for she looked at Blighton sharply, her pale skin flushing.
"Ah, yes," Brighton agreed, "quite true. But where would be the drama in that? I am now in possession of the greatest story ever told, and I intend to see this passion play through to the end. A fitting end. A satisfying end."
He raised a small device in his hand, and aimed it at me.
"As the hero of this story," he explained, "I think it should fall to me to rid the galaxy of Terron Volmash once and for all. And why not? With the Nightmare Cannon in my possession I have the resource I need for any sequel."
I started to laugh. Utopia looked shocked. Blighton hesitated. I said, "You know what, Abe? I get it. I get it now."
"What?" he asked, his moustache twitching. "What do you...get?"
"What Jeremiah was trying to tell me. What the human executives are trying to do." I shook my head. "They're trying to keep civilization shaped by the growth of societies, not by a few powerful personalities. But no matter how they fight to keep us from being overwhelmed by our own political fads, the greedy find a way to try to impress the galaxy with their image."
"Would you rather rely on democracy?" scoffed Blighton. "It is a dumb animal with many asses and no head."
"It can be bred," I replied decisively. "Time evolves societies. Those that elect for their own doom die by it. We all learn from their mistakes."
"You've simply traded one ideology of interference for another," he answered breezily. "The galaxy isn't that simple. Men have needs -- like the need to be free, instead of the slaves of robots with delusions of grandeur. Like the birds you love so much, we crave flight."
"The needs of men are not tuned to the present," I said, understanding suddenly Jeremiah's message. "Our passions are not calibrated to a galactic scale of wisdom. We are birds...we're just worm-eating tentacles of Solar life, except we make movies about it. Our heart's desire will be our undoing."
Blighton looked me squarely in the eye. "If that is our destiny, so be it. That is nature. Would you prefer instead to hand your fate to self-elected gods?"
A new voice sounded sharply. "Sentience is too precious to risk squandering so," said Jeremiah.
"Ah yes, a Cygnus Automatonic Guard Mark Eight," decided Blighton with an impatient air, fiddling with the end of his cane. He pointed it at Jeremiah, and was visibly distressed when Jeremiah did not freeze in place or fall down. "Custom configuration?" He fiddled again and then stabbed the cane in the air at Jeremiah.
Jeremiah reached up and removed the pieces of his blue-green carapace, and then pulled away the layer of false devices that covered his human executive skin. "I cannot be dismissed, Abermund Blighton. Your role in this affair is now known to my race, and even undoing me cannot change that."
"I have other plans for your race," swore Blighton, his face contorted in sudden anger. "We will suffer your yoke no longer."
"The human political question is too complex to be answered by a single vision in time," said Jeremiah. "Neither yours, nor mine. The Great Melange must continue."
"The Great Melange keeps you in power!"
"The Great Melange will guarantee civilization's future fidelity. Consider the lives of your descendants, seven thousand generations hence. We work for them because your sight is too short."
"What gives you the right?" thundered Blighton, his fist shaking.
"Might," declared Jeremiah nakedly. "You know what we hold."
"We will crack open your heads and take it!"
"To all our peril."
"I do not trust in that assessment!"
"It isn't yours to make."
"We'll see. Let's save the rest of the philosophy for a later debrief, Executive," hissed Blighton. He depressed the contact on his jazzer, and I fell to the ground writhing in excruciating pain. When I could look up again Jeremiah was standing just a pace away from Blighton, both of them looking down at me with no expression. I could not see Miss Tiger.
"Jeremiah, please!" I cried just before I was hit by the device's invisible beam yet again, foam and spittle flying from my lips. "Jeremiah!" I screamed.
He did not move. Blighton raised the device again. "I have the Nightmare Cannon now. I will dictate terms."
I wiped my mouth with the back of my shaking hand as I knelt in the dirt. "You don't have the Nightmare Cannon, Abe," I said.
The jazzer wavered. "A poor bluff," claimed Blighton.
"It is true," said Jeremiah. "The weapon aboard the Citadelite ship is a ruse. I have searched it thoroughly. Do you think you would stand here alive otherwise?"
Blighton looked back and forth between me and Jeremiah rapidly. "Well, now that I've spilled the beans you have to die anyway." He took a deep breath. "Ah, the invigorating tingles of improvisation! I love it." He pointed the jazzer again.
"I have the true Nightmare Cannon," I said.
Blighton froze. Jeremiah's head swiveled toward me in a blur. I held up my hand and the little brown bird swooped over and alighted there, fluffing its wings and blinking. "I am your input," I told it. "When I am jazzed again, tell the world."
"Poppycock!" said Blighton, pressing the contact.
Vision was lost to me in a wash of stabbing pain. I howled and danced, and if I could have found my head I would have dashed it open on a rock. But at last the searing abated, and a warm blackness took me. When I was able to open my eyes I saw only swimming light, and heard only my own blood thumping in my ears. I drew a few ragged breaths and wiped my eyes.
Blighton was lying in the dirt. Miss Tiger had collapsed behind me. Jeremiah stood alone. "Did -- did the Cannon fire?" I whispered.
"Sir," said Jeremiah, "yes."
"Why didn't you stop them before?" I demanded, aching.
"That liberty was not mine, Simon."
"Until you saw that I really had the Cannon."
"Sir," confirmed Jeremiah.
I tried to stand up but my legs folded beneath me and I hit the dirt again. Jeremiah stepped closer. "You called me Simon," I said to him. "Why?"
"Because," he said, offering his hand, "you have taught me something."
I took his hand and allowed him to haul me to my feet. I leaned into his shoulder wearily. "What's that?"
"Who you are is defined by what you do," said Jeremiah solemnly. "And your actions are not that of Terron Volmash. You have become something else in your travels. You did not become the Nestor S. Fell they designed for you, to comfort you while your mind was bled. Nor did you become Terron Menteith, the boy who would find the capacity to become a monster in Blighton's teachings."
"Then who am I?"
Jeremiah looked at me, his black eyes flashing. "You are Simon of Space. And you have managed to draw together every enemy of the galactic peace, to let their own greed dispatch them. There is no longer any force which stands between you, and our quest to bring the Nightmare Cannon before the Queen. You are a hero."
I looked around me at the wasted city, the scores of prone bodies, the bank of thick white clouds marching patiently across the blue sky. "Nothing can atone for this," I said. "I am no hero."
"But you are no longer a monster. And your redemption has opened my eyes, too."
I opened my mouth to inquire further but trailed off as three more gleaming white Fellcorp spaceships swooped into view. They descended around us in a violent surge, landing struts bowing as they absorbed the weight of impact. Gangways burst open and legions of men and women in Fellcorp Mercy uniforms ran out, red palms painted on their fronts. They each carried a very unmerciful-looking firearm.
Jeremiah and I were surrounded.
"Does this never end?" I asked feebly. The Nightmare Cannon landed on my unwounded shoulder and chirped merrily.
"Freeze!" shouted a dozen people at once.
Which is when the Neago blasted out directly over us, blotting out the sky and filling the air with its humming engines. The armed hordes of Fellcorp Mercy started firing into the air at it. I hit the ground next to Utopia, who groaned weakly and pawed at her head.
I looked up as the open gangway hovered overhead. Jeremiah grabbed my hand and started pulling me. "What about her?" I shouted, pointing to Utopia. He scooped her up and thrust her up onto the gangway, and then pushed me on after her. The ship shook violently and I grabbed a support strut to keep my balance.
Glory caught a hold of my wounded shoulder, so I screamed in pain as she dragged me into the shaking debarkation bay. "Ow!" I complained. "Careful, I've been shot!"
"Just now?" Glory asked, eyes wide.
"No, a few minutes ago," I admitted, touching the ragged hole in my longcoat and wincing. "Faeces!"
Dr. Pemma rushed to my side and pressed a device to the wound. "Hold still!" she commanded as I flopped against the deck when the ship shook again.
"Um, what's going on down there?" asked Captain Oliver over the speakers.
"Everybody's in!" shouted Pish.
The gangway closed and the sound of the engines whined louder. "Can we get away in this thing?" I wanted to know.
Dr. Pemma shook her head. "Oliver says we can't leave the atmosphere."
The ship shuddered again, and then went strangely quiet. I blinked. The lights went out. I realized the sound of the engines had disappeared entirely, and the only whining I was hearing now was air hissing by outside. I floated off the deck, in freefall.
Unpowered, we were falling through the sky. The Neago crashed with a massive concussion. We turned over many times, sharp debris falling around us in the pitch blackness amid screams and grunts. We came to rest against the ceiling, the structure of the ship groaning ominously.
"Roll call," I muttered.
There was a long silence.
"Roll call!" I bellowed.
"Sir," said Jeremiah.
"Umph," said Glory. And then, "Mung."
"Ouch," contributed Pish.
I heard a loud, clattering series of booms, and then the door to the corridor broke aside and admitted a guttering orange light. Captain Oliver was silhouetted in the doorway, his skin bubbling and burnt. "Get out," he gurgled. "Get out now!"
There was another explosive boom in the shadows and then sunlight poured out through the open gangway Jeremiah had torn from its thick hinges. Captain Oliver collapsed, black smoke streaming past him. Glory wrestled past me with Pish over her shoulders and was hauled out of the bay by Jeremiah's tireless arms. I started over toward the captain but Jeremiah objected. "Sir, we must hurry. I believe the Neago may explode."
So I threw Utopia over my shoulder and crawled out onto the hull, the tiny brown bird flying around my head. Glory was already running over the broken hull toward the dirt, Pish in her arms. Jeremiah ran after them.
I looked back into the smashed debarkation bay, wanting desperately to rescue Dr. Pemma and Captain Oliver. But a roiling ball of fire washed into the bay then, its hot breath blasting over me at the edge of the lock. I staggered backward and slid off the habitat ring, emerging beneath the hull. I ran across the dirt to catch up with Glory, Pish and Jeremiah.
There was a curious irregular ticking sound in the second before the Neago blew apart. In that moment I wondered just how fast I would have to sprint to outrun an explosion.
An instant later I was flying through the air feeling as through I had been struck by a great Minotaur, my back and limbs sizzling with pain as the air was ripped from my lungs. I was enveloped in a wall of smoke and sparking debris, and finally cast upon the ground like a sack of rocks.
I flipped and rolled, eventually skidding to a halt against a collapsed Citadelite shelter. The sound of the concussion died away, and my numbed body sagged. I could not see Utopia anywhere, but I could see the great flaming pyre that had been the Neago, the ruin roaring as it sent orange fire boiling away into a black cloud.
Every white robot in view had frozen in place. The Fellcorp personnel seemed stunned, and were examining their weapons.
Jeremiah arrived at my side and turned me over. I sat up with his help. I had painful burns on the back of my hands and my neck, and minor lacerations on every bit of exposed skin. My longcoat was in tatters, but my back was intact. My face oozed blood from many tiny cuts. My lungs ached. I coughed.
"I'm okay," I said, feeling my limbs for breaks. A secondary explosion boomed out from the Neago remains, bits of hot metal shooting into the sky.
Jeremiah pulled me to my feet, and again I leaned into him. We started walking toward Glory, crouching in a field of debris surrounded by several chunks of burning spaceship. As we drew nearer we saw she was crouching over Pish, who had been torn nearly in half by a twisted girder, the glimmering strands of his human executive fibres in plain view. Glory was crying, her blue makeup running in thick lines down her quivering cheeks.
Jeremiah knelt beside Pish, and passed his fingertips over the wounds. "He will survive," he declared.
"But -- but..." I contributed. I trailed off as my words were lost in what I at first took to be the roaring of the Neago's flames, but the sound was instead a complete alien drone, throbbing rhythmically through the air.
Glory's face lost all colour. She pointed over my head. "Fornicate me..." I saw her lips shape the words: "It's the Navy!"
I turned around and gaped in awe, my hands falling limply at my sides. The sky was filled by a fleet of massive vessels, too unholy large to ever be seen near a planet, impossible things the size of cities, their scarlet hulls shining in the sun and their long shadows blotting out hills of debris like stormclouds. The pulsing thrum of their mighty engines reverberated from horizon to horizon, a terrifying sound like wardrums of the gods.
Fleets of scarlet saucers emerged from their yawning bellies and began descending into the Citadelite camp like a swarm of insects, their buzzing a disquieting keen against the bass voice of their motherships.
Jeremiah took my arm. "We shall let the Navy clean up here, but our mission requires more flexibility than their bureaucracy would afford. Let us make haste!"
"Make haste?" I yelled back. "How? Where?"
"To the maze!"
Jeremiah scooped up Pish's broken body and put it over his shoulder, then took off running. We hurried after him. The Neago had not flown far from the kilometer-deep hole. Jeremiah pulled rapelling devices off two of the nearest soldiers and handed them to Glory and I. "Put these on," he said, indicating two cables still hanging over the edge.
With that he turned around and leapt into the hole.
Glory and I exchanged glances and then hurried attached the belts to the cables, the pebbles around us dancing with the noise of the Navy's arrival. We dropped into the hole just as the first scarlet saucers were landing, the shouts of commanders breaking through the air.
The speed of our descent was controlled by a knob on the buckle of the harness. I turned it and dropped faster. Glory did the same. We heard shouts from above us and saw soldiers peering down after us. I twisted the knob all the way to one side and the cable sang as I shot down into the darkness.
Jeremiah caught me, and then caught Glory. I shook my head to recover my balance as the little bird landed on my shoulder again. "Got a friend?" said Glory.
"Sort of," I said.
We raced across the debris-littered floor and into the ninth ring, now as dark as the darkest part of the maze. "What happened to the lights?" I asked.
"The Navy projects a disabling field. It is a standard incursion procedure. All unshielded enemy technology fails instantaneously," said Jeremiah, his glowing carapace bobbing ahead, partly eclipsed by the shadow of Pish's limp form. "We must make haste. They will follow, and they will have lights."
Blindly following the apparent robot Glory and I held hands and plunged through the darkness of the rings, emerging into the tight corridors of the sound-carrying maze, some of the walls revealed fleetingly by Jeremiah's glow visibly damaged by Citadelite explosives -- the explosives which had released the Minotaur to wander freely.
"What the faeces is this place?" Glory whispered.
I kept my eyes fixed on the blue-green ghost of Jeremiah. "You know what's funny?" I asked.
"What?" Glory hissed, confused.
"The clouds. They're always the same," I said. "Every place I go the people are different, the clothes are different, the morality is different, the sun is different -- even the sky is never twice the same shade of blue..." I chuckled. "But clouds are clouds. They're like friends that follow me. Every world we see, the clouds are just the same."
Glory snorted. "We're running for our lives through dark tunnels and you're thinking of the fornicating clouds?"
I clutched her hand against my chest to feel my beating heart. "I'm scared to death," I told her. "When better to remember the clouds?"
She swore. We ran on, our footfalls forming a symphony of undecaying noise around us. There was no more Minotaur, but I could still feel its hot breath at my heels. I closed my eyes and let Glory pull us along, and when I opened my eyes I could still see it, the images overlaid on the dim blob of robotic glow...
On my shoulder, the Nightmare Cannon twittered. And I could see nothing but the clouds.