Terron Volmash had been a paranoid man.
His tunnels ran endlessly beneath the fallen city of Thallos. It seemed to me that a thousand thoughtless days and dreamless nights passed while we trudged those dim corridors, my strange family and I.
I was given fixers and water, medicinal wafers and an emergency ampule of wine. Glory worked in the dark beside me, milling about in a Fellcorp Mercy first-aid pouch. "So this fornicated bird is the faecal thing?" she asked.
"Thought it'd be bigger...you know -- badder."
"Common mistake," I assured her. "It seems, however, that this Volmash character had quite a thing for birds."
She changed the subject. "How's your shoulder?"
"Throbbing. Is that good?"
"Maybe. I'm not a medic."
We eventually emerged under a twilight sky glittering with the first bright stars. The air was motionless down below, but lumpy clouds sailed by overhead in swift clusters in an unfelt wind. Far to the east they were lining up in some sort of congregation, their edges folding under themselves and their dark heads rising like anvils against the dusk's red melt.
Jeremiah swiveled in place, casting his hard black eyes in every direction. "We are safe," he said.
"Do not panic?" I quipped. Glory laughed drily.
Jeremiah put Pish's limp body down on a flat face of broken concrete, and again examined the garish wound across his midriff. The Nightmare Cannon landed on the ground beside the slab and preened its feathers. "What will happen to him now?" I asked. "Can you help him?"
"No," said Jeremiah, shaking his head. "He will need true physicians in order to properly mend." Jeremiah arranged Pish's arms neatly at his sides, and pulled his torn shirt down over his torso. He then scanned the horizon again. "We cannot tarry," he said, beginning to walk.
"What do you mean?" I called, startled. "Isn't the Navy in our side?"
"Our cargo must not fall into the hands of another interstellar organism. Their instincts are too unrefined. Come now."
"We can't just leave him here!" I cried, gesturing at Pish.
Jeremiah stopped and turned around, the dying sunlight casting his blue-green armour in a bloody, sultry glow. "My people will come for him. They are already on their way."
"We must take the Nightmare Cannon to Eridani Star. To avoid complications, we should do so alone." He paused. "I ask you to trust me, Simon."
Someone had to be trusted. My ignorance was no compass. And when I looked into the lined, tan face of that being who had been for so long inscrutable, I could not help but see the pain worn into his features, the worry he carried in wrinkled ripples orbiting his islands of expression.
Despite everything, I did trust in him.
I moved to Pish's side and touched his unresponsive little hand. "We can't just leave him all alone," I said again, my eyes burning. The Nightmare Cannon cocked its head.
Glory said, "I will stay with him."
I looked at Jeremiah, who nodded solemnly. "They will be safe. They will both be taken care of."
Glory nodded in turn, touching my arm. "I'll make sure nothing happens to him, Simon. I promise."
"I know, Glory," I said.
She hugged me tightly and whispered in my ear, "Call me Vera."
"Thank you, Vera."
"Thank you. You don't even coitally know, Simon. But thank you."
Jeremiah told her to lie down on the concrete slab next to Pish, so she did. He indicated that I should step back, and then a spherical shield burst into existence surrounding the slab with a loud pop followed by a brief breeze. Its sides were perfectly reflective, leaving me staring at a warped reflection of Jeremiah and I standing against the purpling heavens. I saw little silver ants crawling along the shield's edges and forming marching lines over its face. It was perfectly silent, apart from the almost imperceptible clicking of the artificial insects' legs against the mirrored surface.
"They are both in stasis," said Jeremiah. "The beacon is engaged." Then he turned on heel and began walking away.
I limped after him quickly, grunting with the effort. The bird flitted off above me, and then swooped around past Jeremiah. He ignored it. "Will they help her?" I asked. "Will they heal her?"
"Yes," he said.
"Pish will grow up," said Jeremiah, "and come to understand his life. It is time."
We crunched along over small rocks for a few moments and I fell behind again. "And me?" I asked. "Now that Glory -- um, or Vera -- is watching over Pish, what stops you from taking this stupid little robotic bird from me and completing this mission alone?"
Jeremiah stopped and faced me. "You will go, because it is your burden to bear."
The night darkened around us. "I will go so that you do not have to go alone."
"Because," he replied seriously, "I believe in you, Simon."
Jeremiah turned away from me and continued walking. Once again I clumsily jogged to catch up, pebbles skittering at my heels as I wheezed. "So how are we going to get to Eridani?"
"We shall use a hyperspatial gate."
"But surely the terminal has been destroyed..." I gestured at the heaps of wrecked city around us, wincing as my raised arm ached.
"Gates are very resilient," said Jeremiah with confidence, accelerating his stride.
"They're Secret, aren't they?" I called, and his pace slackened again. I pushed ahead, "Human executives aren't the only products of the Secret Mathematic at all, are they?"
"That," said Jeremiah with a cool tone, "is an avenue of inquiry you dare not explore. Trust in my warning."
I was too exhausted to argue. As we proceeded we often spotted naval vessels on the horizon or flying between the hills with formation lights blinking in the haze, but Jeremiah seemed unconcerned. "With all of their resources...won't they find us?" I asked, nervously eyeing a dark saucer in the distance, searchlights panning from its belly.
"Not immediately. We are just two animals in a vast city they are not yet systematically searching."
"I haven't seen any other animals..." I said. "Beyond ants, that is."
"They are wary of men. They may have been culled for food by the last survivors of this holocaust. But they cannot hide from my vision: there are a thousand tiny things scurrying around us. And some not so tiny things, lying in wait for the hunting hour."
"Well," I admitted, pulling my coat tighter around me and glancing nervously into the dark ruins on either side of our path; "at least I'm no longer preoccupied with fearing the Navy. Thanks, I guess."
At midnight we entered a shattered catacomb of fallen archways and leaning pillars. We navigated through the dark by his superior senses until we came upon the remains of a mezzanine court, open to the night air. The remains of shattered skylights glimmered on the floor, and crunched and snapped under our feet. Jeremiah proceeded up a flight of steps to a bank of closed ports, and began tapping on the dark pedestal beside it.
"But there's no power..." I said, frowning.
"The gate will have power," he assured me, reaching beneath the face of the pedestal to adjust its innards.
I swear he winked at me in the shadows. "It is a secret."
The dataplate atop the pedestal came to life, and something beneath the floor began to hum. A little blue light beside the port winked on, and then the aperture irised open with a sound like knife against knife. The inside glowed with the now familiar ruddy light and strange reflections, the walls of the hemisphere self-reflecting into infinite warped regress.
"We will not have alignment for several hours," he reported, "but the array is online, targeted and powered."
"Several hours, eh?" I said, looking around the rubble. "Won't the Navy find us by then?"
"They may," agreed Jeremiah. "We shall deal with that eventuality if it arises."
I sat down wearily, my entire body aching and my wounded shoulder crawling with crackles of pain every time I took a breath. The burns on the backs of my hands and my neck were blistering, and even the movement of the air caused me to wince.
Elsewhere in the terminal something thumped, and echoed. I shifted uncomfortably. "Maybe you should light a fire, Jeremiah," I murmured. "We could sing songs."
Jeremiah crouched down beside a pit of cracked tiles, and ignited the ceramic with a touch from the end of his finger. It turned white and the air around it wavered with the sudden heat. Then the apparent robot scooped up a few armfuls of random burnable debris and piled it on top of the hot tile. It burst into cheerful flames, casting dancing shadows on the water-stained walls.
"Thank you," I said.
He sat down cross-legged on the floor before the fire and began disassembling the carapace from his limbs, pelvis and torso. Then he began picking off layers of false devices, methodically laying the pieces in a line beside him. At last he peeled away a suit of black, revealing his true body -- skin indistinguishable from clothing, robes vaguely taking shape out of one shoulder and billowing to a separate, flexible layer around his middle. His legs were hairless, and the big toe of each foot was opposable.
"I have been a robot far too long," he said.
"Yeah," I agreed; "looks stuffy in that thing."
"That is not my meaning," he replied heavily. He stretched out his appendages, one by one. "Human beings who lose their sense of duty wither. Human executives cannot lose their sense of duty, but their ability to feel its import in their bones can wane." He stretched his strange, coppery hand out and then snapped his long fingers loudly. "Another million hours go by and the senses become that much more brittle, and the spirit jaded."
"You've found new hope?"
"I have found new faith," he said. "Human beings are more malleable than we sometimes give you credit for. You are capable of leaps outside of the statistical envelope for a given genome. You are capable of surprising improbability, and improbability is the engine that makes atoms spin and mud sit up and think."
"You're becoming philosophical in your old age," I laughed, causing my bruised ribs to ache. "Maybe you need a tune-up."
"You have done just that," said Jeremiah. "For if Terron Volmash can be redeemed, anything is possible."
We considered that in silence for a moment, from opposite sides of the fire. I reached down with a grunt and picked up the broken frame of a skylight and tossed it on the pyre. The paint sizzled and hissed.
"What does give you the right?" I asked. "I mean, who decided your solution was the best one? Isn't the whole idea of enforcing your solution across the board contrary to your solution?"
"The Great Melange is not a solution to the human political question," he replied; "it is a dedication to keeping the question-space open to the formation of new solutions. It is not the best game, but a commitment to letting the best game be found."
"So what if someone else came up with a better meta-strategy? Could they displace the system the human executives keep in place?"
"It is unlikely. The human executive power structure in entrenched."
"Then it's true what Blighton said. The conservation of power becomes a goal unto itself. So by what real merit have you achieved dominion over the structure of Solar civilization?"
"It is not dominion, it is guidance."
"Guidance tooled by murder and scientific oppression sounds like dominion to me. What gives you the right to choose for us?"
"Like any right beyond suffering, we arrogate to assume it and defend it."
"How can you?"
"Because having the power to do so obliges us to make a choice." He paused, then added, "We did not ask for the Secret Mathematic. None of us did. Nor did we ask to become alive and sensible. But it was made to happen. With that kind of power in your hands, what would you do, Simon? Would you dare mold civilization according to your best models, and risk being wrong? Or would you elect instead to harness the engines of natural selection to do that work without bias? What would you do?"
"I...I don't know," I admitted, ashamed. "I didn't ask to become alive, either."
"No," argued Jeremiah. "You are wrong. You are probably the only person in the universe who has elected for his own existence."
I sighed. "I hadn't thought about it that way."
"With the last breath of his corrupt soul Terron Volmash made a gift unto the galaxy: you. And I think you understand now that as such this life does not belong to you. It belongs to the kin of the dead, whose blood coated the resources the princes of Kamari used to raise you. It belongs to those who still suffer Kamari's Horror, and the parasitical reign of insensible interstellar organisms like Fellcorp and the Citadel of the Recovery."
"That's true," I whispered, closing my eyes.
"I can relate," declared Jeremiah. I opened my eyes and looked at him across the flames. He said, "My life, too, is not my own. I belong to civilization. I yearn to just live. Simply that. Just live. I never had a childhood, but Pish has. And I will envy him that carelessness all my walking days."
I thought of the hospital on Samundra, and Nurse Randa's waggling ass. I remembered when birds were song-things I had no name for.
"Yeah," I agreed quietly. "Yeah."
I awoke hours later, a pale pink sky shining in through the open ceiling. My little blue plastic diary dropped out of my limp hand and rattled across the floor. Jeremiah was still sitting across from me, cross-legged. "How do you feel?" he asked.
My longcoat had been removed while I slept. I looked at my wounded shoulder through my torn shirt, and saw that it had been closed into a neat scarlet line crossed by almost invisible silver threads. I flexed my arm experimentally, and winced at the bruising along my side where I had been kicked. "Did you do this?" I asked, nodding at my shoulder with my chin.
"Yes," said Jeremiah. "You have several million micro-fixers in your system right now, repairing damage. The contusions should be healed shortly. Your burns will take a little more time."
I looked at the ugly welts on the back of my hands critically. "I'm quite the sight."
"You should see your face," said Jeremiah, with a hint of a smile on his copper lips. "Come, it is time to transmit ourselves to Eridani Star."
"Ourselves or someone much like us," I said darkly.
I rose slowly, checking my limbs for stabs of pain. I cautiously put on my longcoat, sighing critically at the various slashes, tears and burns that covered it. My Annapurnese Gentleman's Dueller had been lost in the fracas, so I unhitched the holster from around my waist and thigh, and dropped it. I drained my water flask into my mouth and then dropped that, too. "Let's get this bird caged. What was it the good doctor said? I can get behind that."
From a standing position I was able to see two soldiers in scarlet naval uniforms lying beside the far wall. "They are not dead," said Jeremiah before I had even opened my mouth. "I am keeping them unconscious with effort. It is time to leave."
I was hobbling over to the port when someone cried out, "Wait!"
Jeremiah and I spun around simultaneously.
Miss Tiger was making her way toward us, slogging exhaustedly through the rubble, her once sharp black suit now tattered, burnt and stained. Like mine her skin was covered in dozens of tiny cuts. Her red hair was plastered to her skull with sweat. "Please wait," she begged.
We waited. She collapsed a few paces away from us and I knelt at her side. "Utopia, are you okay?"
She opened her eyes briefly, her breathing ragged. "I told you," she wheezed, "to call me Freddie."
I looked up at Jeremiah imploringly. "She was hit by the Cannon. What should we do? I can't believe she followed us this far. I thought -- I thought we lost her the ship exploded."
To my surprise Jeremiah's face was not hard, but softened compassionately. "Utopia Pollux," he said softly. "How did you ever get mixed up in all this?"
She opened her eyes again, blood-shot and quivering. "Jeremiah?" she called weakly. "Oh, God, I knew it was you." She passed out, slumping against my thigh.
"Is she another executive?" I asked.
"No," said Jeremiah. "She is the Princess of Callicrates -- run away, her absence long mourned by the Aresu Houses."
"She...worked for Blighton," I said.
"Carry her," commanded Jeremiah. "The blast from the Nightmare Cannon will have shocked her system, but the ammunition was meagre. She's exhausted."
"I'm fairly exhausted myself," I said, trying to lift her. I groaned as my wounded shoulder rebelled. "I can't do it," I decided, releasing Utopia. "I'm too fornicated up, Jeremiah. Everything hurts."
Jeremiah nodded. "Carry her," he repeated. "This pain you have earned."
The ten paces between where she had fallen and the inside of the gate's hemisphere were the longest ten paces of my life, each twice as excruciating as the one before. The final two steps were unsteady as stars sparkled through my vision and the world turned grey. I stumbled, but Jeremiah caught my arm and helped me lay Utopia gently upon the reflective floor. The Nightmare Cannon landed next to her.
The port irised shut, and I closed my eyes. I saw red trees there, and they breathed.
I heard the sound of the port irising open again. The blades clicked as they locked in place. Then I heard the sound of chattering birds, in registers foreign to the Nightmare Cannon's sparrow-like repertoire. A warm but unwild air drifted in over me, and I began to discern a babble of human voices.
I opened my eyes, and Jeremiah helped me to stand. Then he knelt down and scooped up Utopia, who moaned quietly. Together we stepped out, the brown bird following silently.
A great transparent dome criss-crossed by heavy, curved struts of polished metal admitted a blaze of sunlight out of a black sky. The light sparkled off the metal railings which enclosed the dozens of circular and semi-circular platforms that were layered everywhere throughout the dome, each holding a bank of hyperspatial gates. Squadrons of white birds swooped and jabbered around the ceiling, roosting on the superstructure and -- while I watched it happen -- having their scat disintegrated in mid-air somehow before it could hit the heads of any of the hundreds of people going about their travelling business below, the paths they strode lined with indoor grasses and dwarfed trees.
"This is Amalasthuna," explained Jeremiah, "the moon of Callicrates and gateway to the capital."
"Why not just gate directly to Callicrates?" I asked.
"There are no gates on Callicrates," he replied. "All travellers are obliged to come through Amalasthuna."
"To lead by example," Jeremiah said. "To resist the greed for speed."
There were so many people. The crowd became a blur, and I leaned into Jeremiah. He supported me unquestioningly, and we proceeded down the way from one platform to the next. I could blearily see people making way for us, pointing as we passed. I don't know if they were staring at me (who looked like the walking dead), Utopia (who just looked dead), or Jeremiah (who looked very alien to me, but I had taken it for granted was a familiar sight to most non-self-created denizens of this galaxy). As he escorted us into a berth for planetfall tenders I saw the proprietor's eyes narrow as he tracked him, and I knew not everyone besides Olorio and Blighton loved the executive reign.
"I've been here before," I realized aloud.
"After my memory was wiped..."
"I was coming to Callicrates..." I frowned and rubbed my temples with my burned hands.
"You were coming before the Queen of Space," supplied Jeremiah.
"Why?" I asked.
"Only you can tell us that," he said, gesturing for me to proceed into the airlock.
The tender was small, and piloted by a simple robot with a yellow plastic carapace. I do not know what the vessel looked like from the outside, but from the inside we found ourselves in a hemispherical chamber with a transparent ceiling over four curved couches garnished with freefall tethers. The robot stood at a pedestal at one end of the room and ignored us once Jeremiah had issued his instructions.
He put Utopia down on one of the couches, and checked her over quickly after harnessing her in. He asked the robot for water and it fetched it. When it resumed the controls the sounds of the ship's unmooring echoed through the room. Then the starscape outside began to drift.
I pawed after a tether and pulled myself into a second couch. "How long until we land?" I asked hoarsely, my head feeling as if it were made of lead.
"Sir, seven point three hours," replied the yellow robot.
I looked at Jeremiah. "Sleep now, Simon. Tomorrow we walk upon the Third Earth, and it is holy ground."
My head spun with the faces of those we had left behind: Dr. Pemma, Mr. Oliver, Captain Ting, Glory and the impossible thing that was Pish. I wondered too about the runaway princess we had adopted, and what Callicrates, the capital of the Panstellar Neighbourhood, might hold. I watched the little brown bird sit on the end of my couch and clean its feathers, its bead-like eyes blinking in a way I could not distinguish from life.
I thumbed the contact on my blue plastic bauble. "Dear diary," I said wearily, "it has been a long day."