AURORA MY WITNESS
I awoke to chanting. I opened my eyes and sat up. A few snoring pilgrims slept on around me, but most blankets were abandoned.
The predawn light was grey and meager, the plaza beneath the temple in which I had slept wass suffused with an unsettling, inconstant green cast from the slowly boiling aurora overhead. Dozens of people knelt in neat rows along the plaza, all pointed in same vaguely south-westerly direction, and sang.
I pulled on my longcoat and went down the steps to the ground level where a toothless crone with a wide smile handed me a steaming bowl of broth. I accepted it gratefully, sipping at it as I walked. I met Utopia, who had her own bowl of broth. She crinkled her nose at the contents. "You like fish?"
"Not me. Except octopus. Have you ever had octopus?"
"I don't know what an octopus is."
"People say you shouldn't eat them, because they're clever," Utopia said thoughtfully, stirring her finger absently in her bowl. "But of course I expect to be eaten when I die. It's only proper. And sometimes some people say I'm clever."
"I'm sure you're delicious," I said, and then flushed. "I didn't mean to suggest anything untoward."
"Missing your friend Glory?"
I was startled. "Are you being rude?"
"Maybe," she admitted. "Sorry."
I asked her about the chanters outside and she explained that they were aligning themselves with the last visible position in the sky of Centauri in order to guarantee that their prayers be received with the highest fidelity by their holy centres back home. "Are their prayers somehow transmitted technologically?" I asked.
"No, no," chuckled Utopia, pushing a lock of red hair behind her ear. "They're doing it the old fashioned way: singing out with their souls."
I sipped my broth. "Does direction matter with souls?"
"They're Centauric," she shrugged. "Centaurics are weird."
I could not argue, for at that moment the weirdest -- and only -- person I knew from Centauri pushed through the broth line with his ample belly leading the way. His face blossomed into a bright grin when he spotted me. "Bless the Earths, Simon!"
"Brother Phi!" I exclaimed. "You're not dead!"
He laughed uproariously, slapping Jeremiah's back affectionately as the copper-skinned and clothed human executive appeared beside him. Brother Phi wiped a wide hand over his balding pate and smiled again. "Not yet, hoo hoo! I knocked out of there by the skin of my teeth, to be sure, and from what I hear so did you. Thought the only fitting thing a good Zorannite could do given the circumstances was set out on a pilgrimage to bend the ear of Her Majesty. You know, let her know how terribly wrong things have gone over at you-know-where." He glanced around quickly. "Mixed company, don't you know," he added in a loud whisper. "I took you for dead, my dear lad, so I figured it was up to me. It's really wonderful that none of us is dead, isn't it? Wonderful!"
He buried me in a hug. His robes smelled quite catastrophic, but I didn't mind. It had obviously been a long, hard road for Phi. "It's good to see you," I told him.
"We'll walk together, I hope."
The sun rose and the aurora faded into a bright blue sky above us as we walked the Pilgram Way north. Lone, fat clouds sailed by high above us, wiping swaths of the land in a lake of cool shadow for a few moments. The road was wider here, and we walked among a loose cluster of others. Utopia hurried ahead and spoke with Jeremiah, and I ended up drifting behind with Brother Phi, the Nightmare Cannon sitting quietly on my shoulder, looking around with sharp, brief rotations of its head.
"You've been talking to Jeremiah..." I said to Phi.
"Yes, of course. Quite an amazing man. My goodness, had I known back on Allatu that he was executive all along I wouldn't have shot my mouth off as I did." He paused, and rubbed one of his chins. "Well, that's not likely, actually. I always shoot my mouth off."
"Did he tell you...why we're here?" I asked carefully.
He glanced over at the bird on my shoulder. "Yes, he did."
I started to open my mouth but he held up a hand and shook his head. "Jeremiah told me everything, Simon. Even that."
"You must despise me."
He smiled. "I am not your judge." He paused and then shifted the conversation, gesturing at the pilgrims walking around us. "You must have heard some interesting stories on this road."
"No...I," I muttered, then stopped and furrowed my brow. "I've been minding my own business. I didn't want to bother anyone."
"Nonsense!" crooned Phi. "You have to just ask." He caught the eye of a plump woman with brown skin we were about to pass. "My good woman!" Phi called. "What brings you to this road?"
And so with Brother Phi as the jolly interlocutor I discovered the stories of dozens of pilgrims: the brown woman was bringing her baby to be blessed; another man had a proposal to save a quake-traumatized city his planetary government had abandoned; there was a physician whose hospital for victims of the Kamari Horror had been forced to close by pressure from Fellcorp and the Citadel of the Recovery; a woman who had lost her entire family to disease, and wanted the Queen to grant her a plot of land and cow; an engineer who was certain his design for what he called a super-gate would draw the Panstellar Neighbourhood together; a woman who wanted a new identity in order to forever escape her abusive husband...
Many of those we spoke to had suffered terribly, at the hands of foes and fate. "Much of this sadness is mine," I told Brother Phi. "So many of these lives are ruined."
He nodded solemnly. "And yet so many of them smile."
He pointed out at the trees and fields around us, the shining spires of skyscrapers rising here and there between them. The cloud above us moved on and the road dazzled in the suddenly released sunlight. "Because it is a beautiful day, and the people on the road are kind," said Brother Phi. "The power of the present is its ability to dampen the past. You should ask someone else their story."
"I don't want to," I admitted. "I don't want to have to answer them in kind."
"But this is the Pilgrim Road," countered Phi. "If not here, then where? If not now, when?"
I did not reply. We walked on, listening to the random chatter around us. Another cloud moved in overhead, casting us in a mild gloom. I said, "Do you know anything about him? I mean, did he invent it?" I nodded at the bird.
"Him?" asked Phi gently. "Don't you mean you, my dear Simon?"
"Me, then," I amended shortly. "Was I some kind of engineer?"
"No. And I don't believe you invented it. Not alone, at any rate. It is almost certain you and Aro Frellis enjoyed the collusion of the Equivalency."
I frowned. "What is the Equivalency?"
"Pretenders to the Secret Mathematic," said Phi sadly. "They seek to replicate forbidden expressions by the artful assembly of lots of tiny bits of legitimate mathematics."
"So it is Secret," I breathed, looking at the bird out of the corner of my eye nervously.
"No," said Phi firmly. "But it may be Equivalent. Which would be, for the galaxy, much, much worse. If the Equivalency can arm a man like...you..."
I swallowed. "Then it's not really mine, is it? I mean, I was probably used."
Brother Phi shook his head. "Do not exploit context to justify what is done, Simon. Every act stands alone. In a series of individual moments you made certain choices. If you were used, you were used because you were in a position to make those choices. And you did. You made them. You made it happen."
"I thought you said you weren't my judge."
He touched me affectionately on the shoulder and looked into my eyes. "I afford you no illusions, out of respect for those who have suffered. I do this to arm you to judge yourself. This is the Pilgrim Way: lies fall away with each step."
"And leave what?"
He gave my shoulder a squeeze. "You. The present. The universe." He dropped his hand and gestured to the road. "Keep walking. Cry if you want to."
And though I thought his suggestion absurd I found myself before long weeping. An old woman offered me a kerchief, and dabbed at my face with a doleful smile. Would she be as sweet if she knew I had possibly caused whatever tragedy had brought her here? I started to cry harder and the old woman hugged me, which made me feel worse and better at the same time in a lumpy, nauseating dance.
We passed people who were not pilgrims, but who lived from their charity, half-starving at the side of the road, clustered around water fountains. Some of them were missing their legs, and sat on filthy blankets with their stumps presented before them. I asked Brother Phi what had injured them, and he replied that they had injured themselves in order to inflame the pity of those who passed. "Charity is their way of life."
"But that's perverse!" I cried. "Mother of love -- there are legless children!"
"The human animal is a liquid which flows to fill every crack," said Brother Phi significantly. "Niches nurse strange experimentation."
"But how can people be allowed to live like this? Can't the Queen of Space do something?" I begged, appalled as a legless teenage girl reached out at me with open, dirty palms and a mercilessly imploring look.
"What part of their behavior should she forbid?" Phi asked me heavily, holding my eye. "Adjustment of their own bodies? Asking for food? Loitering?"
I looked away, watching my feet. "The line has to drawn somewhere."
"By what authority?" he prompted. "They hurt only themselves. On what grounds would you curtail their freedom?"
"According to your standard."
"They're preying on the compassion of pilgrims!"
"So it's the pilgrims you're concerned about are you?" he asked slily, a little smile on his fleshy lips. "If that's the case, what decision would you make for your fellow pilgrims?"
"I'd say no one should give them anything. If pilgrims didn't give them hand-outs, their way of life wouldn't make sense anymore and they'd have to stop."
"And since you can affect the decisions of only one pilgrim on this road, I believe you are left with only one option."
I sighed. "I can choose not to give."
Phi nodded. "You can choose not to give. Your decision, in your present moment. Ultimately, that is all the real you ever have."
I looked up and was pinned by the eyes of a legless old man, wizened and bent, feebly holding a bowl out before him. I stopped walking, locked in his rheumy brown eyes, the whites of them turned yellow. I turned back to Phi with effort. "But when I look into his eyes it pains me. I want to give him something."
"Then give him something," nodded Phi.
I spread my arms helplessly. "I haven't anything to give."
"Give him whatever you can offer."
I faced the legless old man again and stepped closer. I looked into his eyes and swallowed. "You have my compassion," I said, a tear running down my scabbed cheek.
The old man raised his eyes, his head quivering slightly. He opened his toothless mouth and licked his gums. "Motherfornicator!" he spat.
I straightened up slowly, and backed away. Brother Phi smiled at the man and then took my arm and led me off along the road once more. "Everything you'd hoped for?" he asked me cheerfully.
"Er," I said. "Rather more vitriol than I'd expected, actually."
"Well," he agreed with a wan smirk, "it's a hard way of life." He looked behind at the legless old man, who made a rude gesture with his hand. Brother Phi sighed. "And, of course, some people are just anuses."
I walked a few more steps and then stopped again. I pulled off my tattered red leather longcoat and cautiously approached the legless beggar. He looked up at me and I handed it to him. He felt the fabric with his horny old fingers and wheezed out a laugh. "This is fine-fine Annapurnese!"
"Yeah," I said.
"I'm sorry about that. It's seen some action."
The old man nodded. "And your shirt. That's a nice-nice shirt."
I paused. "You want the shirt off my back?"
"Nice coat, nice shirt. Come on. Give-give." He licked his lips.
I looked to Brother Phi, but his expression was unreadable. People were jostling around me, pushing past my obstruction. I shook my head and sighed as I peeled off my shirt and handed it to the legless old man. He grabbed it from my fingers and stuffed it under the dirty blanket beneath his stumps.
"Okay?" I said to him.
"Okay," he agreed. "Good-good boots, huh? Give-give."
"You don't have legs! What are you going to do with boots?"
The old man hacked and coughed, then wiped the spittle from his lips with the back of his grimy hand. "Give-give, nice-nice boots. Come on, motherfornicator. Look at my life, rich man. Look-look, give-give."
I gave him my boots. And when he asked for my pants, rubbing his hands together and chortling with a repulsive excitement, I turned decisively and strode away. Brother Phi walked alongside me, my bare feet slapping against the warm stone as we passed into another stretch of sunshine. "That didn't help," I said.
"Help what?" asked Phi. "Improve his lot in life or atone for your sins?"
My heart ached. "Neither," I muttered. "I feel exploited."
Phi chuckled not unkindly. "And if you had succeeded in using him to assuage your guilt, should he not feel exploited by you?"
I didn't have an answer for that.
Patch One thickened around us as the day aged. Soon the Pilgrim Way was surrounded by a city as wide and as dense as any I had yet seen, towers of all finishes rising all around us. Just when it seemed all sign of the wilder world had vanished the road rose up over a long valley with sharp edges, a strip of green that bisected the metropolis. A deer skipped along the valley, and vanished under the bridge we trod. "A highway for beasts?" I asked.
"Their migratory paths were established here before the roads," said Phi. "Callicrates would disturb them to its detriment."
Further down the valley I saw larger, furrier forms. "Bears?" I guessed.
Phi squinted. "I think so."
"Are they dangerous?"
"Quite," he replied. "There are cubs. If you stood in their way you'd be slain in a heartbeat by the parent. Like the beggar, they would bite the hand that feeds them."
"Because it is their nature."
A large round plate was suspended over the road ahead, and as we neared tinny voices could be heard. The picture switched from a wide view of a gallery of people to a close up of an exquisitely beautiful, gleaming human being whose image arrested me in my tracks.
Somebody bumped into me from behind and apologized.
Her neck was long, her face narrow and her forehead high. Her skin was the colour of dark chocolate, her eyes jade. Her expression was one of an amazing dignity balanced precariously on an edge of pain, her brow furrowed and her proud mouth drawn tight. Her hair was short and black, largely hidden beneath a simple tiara of blue metal. She seemed to shine as if oiled, highlights sliding and dancing as she moved.
"Her Majesty," said Phi, tracing my gaze. "She's at the hearings."
"She...hurts," I concluded lamely.
"She hurts for us all," agreed Phi. He tugged on my arm and we resumed walking, catching up to Jeremiah and Utopia.
I was grateful to see Eridani heading for the western horizon, the skin on my chest and shoulders threatening to burn under its almost uninterrupted shine. Worms of pain were crawling in my hot shins, and pinching my bare feet. When I stumbled I was helped along by the nearest hands without prejudice.
We passed other round plates broadcasting the meetings over which the Queen of Space presided, and I craned my head to follow her face as I walked, hypnotized and humbled. When I saw the weight of responsibility and compassion drawn in those glistening, elegant features I quailed inside, for I felt I was moving forward to stand before a kind of god -- something the size of a planet reduced to the scale of a human being.
The sunset was lost in the aurora, its vibrant display spanning the sky in streaks of blue and gold, curtains of green and red. The buildings around us were washed in an ever-changing blend of colour, as were the faces as those who walked alongside us. While I noticed this I also noticed that all progress ahead had halted, and we stopped at the tail of a milling crowd who were busy frequenting food kiosks erected along the sides of the clogged road. The wallas advertised their wares in sing-song slogans, their voices overlapping and merging to invite us to partake. "Why are we stopped?" I asked.
"This is the end of the line," said Utopia.
"The line for what?"
I stood up on my aching toes and tried to peer over the heads of the multitudes. "How far away is the Solar Palace?"
"About five kilometers, by my reckoning," said Phi, looking at the city around him. The image of the Queen was being projected on the side of the building, her royal countenance stretched ten stories high. "I'm glad we got this far so fast, considering the hearings."
I blinked and looked away from the Queen. "What are these hearings I keep hearing about?"
Jeremiah said, "The Queen is presiding over an inquiry into the activities of the Equivalents, to ascertain their legality and to decide upon counter-measures that are constitutionally viable."
"The tedium of the proceedings takes away from her ability to hold open court," added Utopia. "It's a ploy of the Equivalency to turn public favor against the House of Ares."
I rubbed my raw foot and winced. "How long we will we have to wait?"
"Several days at least," said Phi solemnly.
"Indeed," agreed Jeremiah.
Utopia snorted. "You can't be serious, Jeremiah. We didn't actually come all this way to queue up like sheep. Why don't you scare up some special dispensation for us?"
Jeremiah shook his head. "We will wait our turn, like citizens."
"Forget that," she declared. "If I'm back, I'm back. The Princess of Callicrates doesn't have to wait in line."
Jeremiah shifted. "It is important that Simon experience --"
"Stuff it, Jerry," snapped Utopia. "I'm making this royal business now."
"Do not call me Jerry."
"Do you have a telephone?"
"I am a telephone."
"Then what are you waiting for, executive?" she demanded, hands on her hips and suddenly standing taller than I'd been aware she was able, her presence somehow amplified and her tone commanding. "Inform the Solar Crown we have returned, and that we carry Kamari's mistake."
Jeremiah closed his eyes briefly. "It is done."
For some reason I shuddered. Somebody eating a cone full of saucy rice bumped into me and apologized, and then a little person with a basket of fruit offered me a banana. I passed.
Brother Phi looked over my head and I turned to follow his gaze. A long silver car flanked by two black and white patrol cars swooped down over the Pilgrim Way, circling high and searching the road with lights. The silver car descended and the crowd parted beneath it.
The door opened and a human executive with white, lined skin and clothing stepped out and regarded our party, long white hair fanning over her shoulders. "Princess Utopia," she said with a curt nod. "Jeremiah."
She turned her black eyes on me. "Is this him?" she asked Jeremiah.
I was able to breathe again when she turned to Phi. "And the monk?"
"A fellow pilgrim," said Jeremiah.
"Is he to come?"
"No," said Phi. "I will wait."
"Very well," decided Yasmin. "Enter."
I felt numb during the ride. I thought nothing. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. My consciousness was barely penetrated by the sight of the soaring tower illuminated with blue lights as we swooped toward its base. The next thing I was really aware of was being led out of the silver car by Jeremiah. Utopia took my arm and we walked across a hangar full of all kinds of splendid craft, and then through a wide and crowded hall where busy people in fine suits stopped and made way for us. I stumbled and Jeremiah caught me, one of my feet now leaving bloody prints in my wake.
As we proceeded I found a new strength. I shook myself free of help, and strode out ahead. The Nightmare Cannon gripped the skin of my uninjured shoulder more tightly to regain its footing at my sudden movement, but I did not wince. A sense of urgency gripped me -- a sense of conclusion within my grasp. If I am for nothing else, I thought, at least I can be for this.
Utopia efficiently cleared the security guards before a set of double-doors, and then threw the doors open. Inside were the chambers we had seen televised on the road, filled by two dozen dignitaries in suits and robes who turned in concert to see who had intruded upon the hearings, peeking out from behind tall pillars, jostling one another aside to frown at us.
At the end of a long aisle was the raised box in which I had seen the Queen of Space sitting, though the post was now vacant. Beside it was a sectioned screen painted with images of leaves.
I froze at the threshold. "Where is the Queen?" I whispered.
"There," said Jeremiah softly, indicating the screen.
"The Queen has a…nervous condition," explained Utopia. "When she's under strain she fevers and sweats, and is gripped by monsterous headaches. These hearings are very hard on her, so she retires frequently in order that Her Majesty is never seen to fail in the public eye."
As she said this the Queen of Space stepped out from behind the screen and demurely resumed her post, her composure pristine though her gown was damp with perspiration. She was attended by two golden robots and a little person. The Queen slowly turned to follow the eyes of the others in the room, and fixed finally upon us. "What is the meaning of this?" she asked, her voice strong and crisp, her accent melodious.
"These proceedings cannot be interrupted," said a man with ponderous jowls near the front of the chamber. "Where is security?"
My eyes wandered to a row of standing figures dressed uniformly in long black cloaks. Their shaded eyes looked back and forth between the Queen and Jeremiah.
Utopia suddenly started forward a step and then stopped. Her shoulders were shaking. "I'm so sorry!" she bleated, her chin quaking as she fought back tears. "I'm so sorry I ran away."
The Queen regarded her levelly, her own sparkling eyes threatening to moisten. There was such steadfastness and sadness in her gaze, it made my heart constrict. Without comment her attention flicked over to Jeremiah. "Your majesty," he said simply, bowing.
And then her eyes were on me. All eyes were on me.
I stepped forward.
I walked down the aisle between the tiers of officials and stopped before the Queen's box, arrested there by her steady gaze. Her brown hands were held in her lap loosely before her, half-swallowed in the folds of her blue robes. She was like a dream, even though I could detect the earthy scent of her sweat on the air.
The Queen was salty and sour, but no one waved their hand before their nose. The regality of her presence would broker no shame. Even as her stink diffused through the chamber, the Queen projected only gravity and patience. I have never known such dignity. "Citizen," she said to me.
With a shaking hand I took the little brown bird from my shoulder and held it out.
The Queen extended her own faintly shaking hand, and the bird stepped upon her finger. She drew it closer, and examined it with a little smile on her lips. Her eyes turned expectantly back to mine, and my insides felt cold and windy. "A bird?" she pronounced liquidly.
I forced my mouth to work. "A nightmare, Your Majesty."
"I do not understand."
I took a deep breath, but it did not lend me strength. "This is the Nightmare Cannon of Kamari, Your Majesty, retrieved from the labyrinth on Metra."
A strange expression passed over her features, and then she closed her eyes and winced. "Is this true, executive?" she asked after a moment, a fresh glaze of sweat on her round brow.
"Yes, Your Majesty," answered Jeremiah from the back of the chamber, his voice reverberating hollowly.
A riot of babbling broke out, loudest of all from the black robed figures who started shaking their fists and yelling. The jowly man called for order and banged a little hammer until the din died down.
The Queen's gaze returned to me. I felt dizzy, but fought to remain erect. "We owe you our gratitude," she said kindly. "What is your name, Citizen?"
The chamber was deathly silent then. No one moved. I could hear my heart beating ponderously in my breast. Looking into the jewel-like eyes of the Queen of Space and reading the torture in her face I could fathom no lie.
I cleared my throat and blinked my burning eyes.
"Your Majesty," I said, "I am Terron Volmash."
Her expression remained unreadable for a moment before the pain registered in her eyes, and lines appeared in her glistening brow. Her mouth drew into a tighter line, and her stomach quaked audibly. "Mother of love..." she said hoarsely.
Everyone started to shout at once, and the room reverberated with the stomping of feet. I heard the doors burst open behind me and knew that security had failed to control the crowd watching the broadcast outside. The man with the hammer banged for order but no one could hear him.
My eyes remained locked on those of the Queen of Space, who slowly brought her ragged breathing under control. A drop of sweat ran down her noble nose and fell against her collarbone. The babble quieted somewhat as she seemed about to speak again, her lips parted mutely. After another try she said, "What would you ask of us?" She let the bird step off her finger. "With this bird in hand, you have the right to demand your pardon."
"You do not have the right to grant that pardon," I told her, my voice somehow stronger than I would have imagined possible, a surge of certainty buoyed upon the irrefutability of my words. "With respect, Your Majesty, my crimes are not one person's to forgive."
She held me steadily in her gaze. "What then would you ask of us, Terron Volmash?"
The thought had been brewing in my mind for days, ever since seeing Pish's drawing in the school on Metra. It had taken me right back to the statue garden at Duncan's Bliss, and the words we had shared over Renetian wine -- about responsibility. What kind of a lesson do I teach my son if I refuse to stand for my actions? Duncan had asked me. You can borrow time, but you can't take back the past, he said. And I considered, too, what Jeremiah had suggested to me, about this life belonging more to the galaxy than to me: it belongs to the kin of the dead, whose blood coated the resources the princes of Kamari used to raise you.
I knew that there was only one thing for me to do. I took another deep breath.
"I ask to stand trial."
The Queen looked down at me with great sorrow in her eyes, holding her quivering chin high with effort. "As you wish," she managed to pronounce, and then closed her eyes and winced, sweat running down her face.
There was no stifling the din this time. The gallery exploded into stomps and roars, and there was a wild scramble as recording devices were thrust up by desperate journalists over the heads of the crowd as it surged to its feet. A group near the back began chanting, "Justice! Justice! Justice!"
The Queen touched her temples and closed her eyes, her breathing shallow and laboured. Sweat ran down her fingers and beaded at her wrists.
"I do not wish to cause you more pain," I stammered.
She smiled, licking the perspiration from her own lips. "Pity not she who reacts to horror with horror, but she who does not. My body weeps for the galaxy. Every moment of pain for me is one fewer for the wounded."
"I don't understand," I whispered desperately.
"Only symbols can give catharsis in this way," she explained, her features glassy behind a nearly constant wash of moisture. "And so I judge you, Terron, will understand me soon enough."
My vision blurred and I lost all strength. I fell to my knees before the Queen's box, and was picked up by two security guards. I slumped between them, the room spinning. I lost sight of Jeremiah and Utopia. I was surrounded by a wall of people, many of whom with recording devices hanging before their eyes. Some of them were yelling questions at me, struggling as security guards tried to herd them away. Their overlapping voices became a sea of noise. I cast my head backward and saw for the first time that the ceiling of the chamber was a great skylight, and through it I found myself looking straight up into the hollow eye of the aurora's glowing filigree, and felt it looking back at me.
I closed my eyes and let myself be carried away, firm hands beneath my limbs and trunk, my every muscle turned slack.
This is my moment. I have chosen.
Aurora my witness, the galaxy shall have me.