A SUCCESSION OF CELLS
I spent many hours in a small white room, sitting on a narrow cot with my back against the wall and talking to my little blue plastic diary. "Your Majesty, I said," I said, "I am Terron Volmash." As I recited a lump formed in my throat around which I worked the words.
I was quiet for a few moments, and then roused the effort to conclude. I pushed the bauble back into the hip pocket of my tattered pants, their original grey lost under a patchwork of stains and grime.
Once or twice I gasped and looked over at my uninjured shoulder, certain I could feel the Nightmare Cannon alighted there. But it was gone. I was alone.
I was startled when a slot along the bottom of the wall snicked open and a tray of hot food was ejected, skidding across the floor. It bumped into my bare, raw feet and stopped there, the cup of water threatening to spill. I leaned down and caught it, then drained the cup into my mouth.
Later I picked at the unidentifiable coloured discs of warm jelly that comprised the rest of the meal, but they made me feel queasy. I flushed them down the small toilet in the corner to get rid of their aroma.
A few hours later the lights went out, so I lay down on the cot and stared into the scintillating darkness.
When the lights came back on another tray was shot into the room. I put it on top of the first tray and nibbled at something vaguely egg-like that tasted like old fish. I ate a roll of yellow bread and drank more water. Shortly thereafter I had explosive diarrhea, and while I sat on the toilet I briefly imagined myself regal and managed to giggle.
My voice was loud against the quiet, and it intimidated me to further silence.
Two golden robots entered through a door invisible when it was closed. I stood up, and they escorted me out into a long corridor. I did not see another soul. My only company were my footfalls, and the clicking heels of the guards. We turned down a narrower passage and I was loaded into a car with darkened windows. One robot sat beside me in the back while the second took the controls. When I felt my stomach dip I knew we were moving, and I wondered how the robot managed to drive without be able to see through the windscreen.
"Where are we going?" I asked. I received no reply or reaction.
When the car landed I was wordlessly escorted out into a hangar and loaded directly into a lunar tender. The golden robots strapped me down to an acceleration couch and then went to the controls. Through the transparent dome of the ceiling I watched the sky darken from a vivid cyan to a somber purple punctuated by hard, untwinkling stars. The tender pitched and I saw the crescent of Callicrates sweep by. And then just stars.
"Where are you taking me?" I essayed again, questioning the escorts I could no longer see from my harnessed position. They made no reply.
I was eventually freed to drift around the dome while the golden duo watched me with their expressionless black eyes. After a number of hours one of them produced a sac of water and a bag of wafers to me to eat. "Thank you," I said, out of habit.
It was not long before I could not tolerate their eyes upon me, and I took a position on the couch with my back to them. So seldom in my short life have I ever felt so isolated -- there was always Pish, or Jeremiah, or Glory...
I felt the urge to cry but lacked the will.
This petty failure suddenly filled me with a roiling anger, and I kicked off from the couch and sailed up the dome. I bounced off and careened against the couch again, ricocheting away to plant my feet against a bulkhead. The robots' heads turned to track me. I gave out a great yell, and then a dry sob, and then just let myself drift freely through the air.
Brother Phi's words to me about the present moment circled in my mind, and suddenly I knew there was no profit in grief.
I pushed off the wall and caught on to my couch harnesses again. I stretched out my punished limbs one by one and found, to my surprise, their pain was not so suffocating. I experimentally rotated the shoulder Jeremiah had repaired, feeling out how it was healing. Not so bad. I pushed my hand through my dirty, lengthening hair and realized: I had my health.
More than that: I could perceive and feel. The agony in my heart could either numb my mind into paralysis or shock it awake. I could be swallowed by the context of my moments, or I could exist in the present. And choose.
For the first time in days I felt like my eyes could open all the way, without being girdled by lids of aching lead. I took a deep breath that didn't hurt my chest, and as I exhaled I thought I could almost remember joy.
Another hour passed, and I did nothing but breathe.
Then I turned around to face my hosts. "Hello," I said. "My name is Simon."
They did not respond.
"Seeing as I am determined not to crawl up inside of myself and die during this detainment, I'm afraid I'm left with no choice but to use you as my mental foils. I hope that doesn't offend you."
Apparently it did not.
"Very well," I continued, slapping my thighs and pushing aside my harnesses. "Here's my theory: there must be some set of circumstances under which you will respond to my actions, or else this ship would be piloted by remote control. Given that, I intend to discover those boundaries of action. Are you ready?"
Neither robot moved.
"Okay then," I declared; "game on!"
It didn't take me long to establish that I was free to navigate nine tenths of the cabin, but if I encroached upon the space around the control pedestal the robots would deftly manuver their golden bodies to block my path. They did so gracefully, veterans of freefall and master calculators of the conservation of momentum. I really had to admire their efficiency.
I could not penetrate their concerted ballet, so I opted to poke around the rest of the cabin instead. I discovered the compartment containing the wafer packages. I learned that if I pulled all of the packages out and sent them spinning through the cabin, one of the golden robots would kick off from the deck and patiently collect them all. By careful experimentation I deduced the optimal pattern of dispersion that would take the robot the longest time to collect, and then I set to occupying one robot with cleanup as I made runs at the controls.
By feinting left and then right I was at last able to dodge the lone guard and reach the pedestal. I slapped its surface with my hand and hooted. "I win!"
The robots strapped me back into the acceleration couch and then gathered up all of the spinning wafer packages and put them back in the cabinet. I caught my breath and smiled. "Simon of Space: one," I counted; "Expressionless automatons: zero."
The tender began manuvering again, the reports of its thrusters sounding as a vague rumbling in the cabin. The stars cantered by outside, and the craters and lights of the moon of Amalasthuna came into view. We descended into the maw of a landing pit which closed overtop of us. The moorings locked into place with a series of dull thuds, and then hatch opened. The golden robots unbelted my harnesses, then walked gracefully on either side of me as I loped through the light lunar gravity.
I was deposited in a small green room full of little people, from whom I managed to wrestle my diary after they cut away my pants and underclothes. Gripping the blue bauble to my chest I was thrust into a stall and attacked by geysers of hot, stinging water. My face was shaven and so was my head, my hair falling on the green tiles around me and disappearing down the drain. I was shoved through an aperture into a darker cubicle and then doused with foul-smelling chemicals and air-dried by an unseen apparatus. I emerged out the other side to see my golden friends waiting for me.
"Don't I get any clothes?" I asked.
Naked and uninformed we proceeded through a series of doors until we finally stood in a barren gate-lobby before a slowly irising port. I stepped inside the reflective hemisphere, but the robots did not follow. I felt oddly heavier once inside, and wondered if I was bound for a particularly large world.
"Where are you sending me?" I demanded pointlessly.
The port irised shut.
An instant later it opened again, admitting a sterile white light. I walked out of the hyperspatial gate and into that light, met by two golden robots, nearly identical to the first two. "Where am I?" I asked. The wordlessly scanned me with a battery of hand-held devices, and then one of them plucked my diary away. "Please, no!" I cried. "Let me keep my diary."
I was led into a narrow cylindrical chamber in which I had to stand with my arms raised over my head. One of the robots spoke then, startling me. "Keep your eyes and your mouth closed," it said crisply and then retreated. The canister was sealed.
I stood in the pitch darkness wondering for a moment, and then the mechanism barked loudly and I felt a strange pressure tingling over my entire body. The cylinder opened and I stumbled out, disoriented and frightened.
My diary was handed back to me.
I looked at my hand as I took it. My skin was encased in a thin layer of transparent plastic that shone under the lights as if I were wet. I looked at the rest of my body. A translucent sac covered my genitals and disappeared between my legs, and I felt a bubble forming an air-pocket around my nose and mouth. I blinked, my eyes feeling gluey and strange. I could see and breathe freely, but the clinging second skin was making me feel never the less somewhat suffocated. I turned to the robots in wonderment. "What have you done to me?"
Another question launched into the void.
I was gently but firmly pushed through a second door and into another dark vestibule. The door closed behind me, and then another opened in front presenting yet another long corridor -- but this one was proportioned strangely, wide and low, with smooth curves where floor met wall. A strip of white fluorescence ran along the ceiling, suffusing the thick, hazy air with an unworldly glow.
At my feet was a white, spider-like creature about the size of a dog. It had a single bulging brown eye, which winked with rhythmic regularity. It also sported three sets of gently waving antennae about its head, one of which crackled with a burst of blue-white electricity, startling me.
The thing sprang to life and scurried down the corridor. I stepped out of the vestibule and followed it, the air palpably dense as it swam against my plastic-coated eyes. It paused before a second door, low and wide. When I arrived it opened and the spider-like creature and I walked into a brightly lit closet.
My stomach tickled. We were in a lift.
I followed the scampering thing down another corridor and finally into what I immediately recognized as a new prison cell despite its odd proportions: a cot against one wall, a little round mirror attached to the other. The door slid closed behind us, and locked with a click. The white creature leapt with startling springiness and landed on a small shelf exactly its size beside the door. Then it appeared to settle down to sleep, its antennae still.
"Okay..." I said to myself, my voice muffled and close inside the smooth bubble of plastic extruded over my mouth.
I sat down on the cot, the plastic between the cheeks of my behind wrinkling in an uncomfortable way. I had to shift around a bit before I hit a sweet spot. The soupy air moved languidly beneath the strip of light that ran down the centre of the ceiling. I looked over at the creature, who had not moved.
"So, what now Mr. Bug?" I asked.
"I shouldn't be surprised," I commented. "This hasn't been a very chatty process. Also, you don't seem to have a mouth."
I went and looked at my plastic-encased self in the little mirror. Upon close examination I could see nearly invisible filaments running from one part of the plastic to another, with a particular jumble by my ears and my neck on one side. "Built-in telephone?" I wondered.
Unlike the golden guards, my current host could not be disturbed no matter what I did. I was free to walk about every part of the cell. I could even take the mirror off the wall and chuck it around. It didn't break.
Eventually I tickled the creature itself, which caused its eye to open briefly and its antennae to whirl about for a few seconds. Then it would go back to sleep. "Some company you are," I chided it darkly. Then I asked, "What're you in for?" and made myself laugh.
Later, while I was sitting on the cot again, a quiet tone sounded in my ear and then the bubble before my mouth and nose filled up partway with cool water, somehow exuded directly out of the surface of the plastic itself. Since I was very thirsty I tilted my head back and drank it. A second later the space filled with water again, so I drank more.
I went back to the mirror to take another look at the second skin and saw that two little translucent nodules had formed on either side of my nose. As I watched they changed colour and became more substantial. They budded from the plastic surface and dropped hollowly into the bottom of the breathing bubble: two little red pills.
"Is this dinner?" I asked Mr. Bug.
I knocked my head back and bounced the little pills into my mouth. They dissolved as I swallowed them. Then the tone sounded again and I was given more water to drink. I felt the need to urinate, quickly reached the conclusion that I had few options, and then peed into the translucent sac girdling my loins. It turned yellow briefly and then slowly returned to colourlessness, absorbed into the body of the plastic.
"I hope that isn't tomorrow's breakfast," I mumbled.
As if cued by my quip the light strip dimmed and then died. I barked my shins on the edge of the cot as I wandered back across the cell. I lay down, and this time sleep found me.
I defined the next day as the period of uncountable hours between when the light strip came back to life and when it again extinguished. During this time two more batches of pills were precipitated from the plastic over my mouth. One of the pills was yellow, one was blue, and two were red. They all tasted the same.
Another day like that one passed. I invented a fanciful diary entry about a man named Simon who magically acquired god-like powers and flew away through space, beyond the nets or cries of all. Then I deleted it.
After the lights came up on the fourth day since my audience with the Queen of Space, Mr. Bug opened his eye and began to stir. I swallowed a yellow pill and a blue pill and washed them down with a half-bubble of water. "Something nigh, Mr. Bug?" I asked.
An arc of electricity crawled up between two of his bunches of antennae and then snapped and disappeared. Mr. Bug jumped down from his shelf and hunkered on the floor, his eye blinking quickly.
The door slid open.
I stood up before the cot, watching the doorway expectantly. Even so I jumped a little when four more white creatures like Mr. Bug scurried across the threshold. They arranged themselves equidistantly around the room, with Mr. Bug scuttling over nearest to me. Five blinking brown eyes fixed on me, and except for their waving antennae the creatures froze.
A shuffling sounded from the corridor, and I looked up as a Pegasi entered the room, its grasshopper-like legs taking just two long strides to bring the tall being into view. Suddenly the proportions of the doorway and the corridors made sense. Its four double-jointed arms were folded in a neat array beneath the chin of its long, horse-like head with two watery blue eyes set in front. Lids blinked over the eyes twice in quick succession, moving horizontally. The convolution of membranes at its mouth waved slowly, exuding little puffs of white steam.
An androgynous voice spoke in my ear: "Do not be afraid."
"Okay," I agreed uncertainly, and then jumped again as a strand of rusty vapour jetted out of my plastic suit near my neck.
The Pegasi inhaled deeply, then its spongy mouth again began to work and excrete streams of differently coloured gas. Again I heard the voice in my ear, "I am the Master Barrister for the Accused. It will be my privilege to represent your interests in the Panstellar Court."
"Um, thank you," I said, and a ring of green mist chuffed out of my neck. "Can you tell me where I am? What world is this?" A complex mixture of differently coloured jets drifted out across the cell.
The Pegasi held my eyes without blinking. "This is Pegasi Secundae."
"With all due respect, why am I being tried by the Pegasi?"
"I do not understand your query -- forgive me, I am not Solar," expressed the Master Barrister for the Accused, and then gestured with a set of two delicate-looking arms toward the door. "The Co-counsellor will explain the situation further."
"Greskin!" I exclaimed.
There was no mistaking my old Annapurnese friend, even with his head shaven and his nudity encased in a shining layer of intelligent plastic. He smiled broadly, his brown eyes twinkling. "Simon, Simon, Simon!" he laughed.
He manoeuvreed around one of the Pegasi's long, shaggy white legs and then stepped over two of the antennae-waving dog-sized bugs in order to reach me. We shook hands warmly and then he pulled me into a hug. "It's good to see a face, hear a voice," I gushed; "especially yours, Mr. Mile."
"Now don't you fret, Simon," said Greskin, taking a seat on the cot and tapping at his plate. He gestured to the Pegasi, who hovered patiently beside the door. "You've met our estimable Master Barrister," continued Greskin distractedly, still reading. "If you accept the offer I will serve as co-counsel."
"Of course I accept!"
He looked up from his plate. "Let's get you grounded a bit before we get down to the hard muffins, you know what I'm saying? You must have questions, cha."
"Number one," I said, holding up my index finger, "why am I being tried by the Pegasi?"
"You're not," answered Greskin quickly. "You're being tried by the Panstellar Court. The court is rotated between member states. It was on Callicrates until about a year ago. When I was a student it was on Hensphere. Now the court presides here on Pegasi Secundae, and if my hair doesn't grow back properly I'm going to sue somebody, cha," He touched his clean scalp through the shiny veneer of plastic. "Thumb-bummed Pegasi dillysuits are sensitive to keratin. If your fingertips don't feel stiff yet don't worry, they will -- the dilly is retarding the growth of your nails with pressure."
I looked at my glossy fingertips, and flexed them experimentally. "Okay so far," I reported, then looked up. "Number two: what are those spider-looking things?"
Greskin chuckled. "They're the Master Barrister's staff," he explained. "The Pegasi don't use robots."
"Staff?" I echoed.
The Master Barrister shifted on his bent legs and twiddled together the appendages of his four arms. "Yes of course," he breathed smokily. "There ought to be another or two anothers for all this work, but I am embarrassed to admit you have caught me right in the middle of budding." He made a half-turn and raised his torso, exposing a dwarfed, curled-up version of Mr. Bug being grown out of the flesh of his belly. "It is a bother, naturally, but I suppose if the staff it replaces had not been so stupid-unfortunate as to run out under a chariot it would have been stupid-unfortunate enough to do something equally inopportune. I need my most immaculate staff for a task such as this one. Thus, I am taking all the right vitamins."
"That's uncomfortable, is it?" I asked lightly, feeling a bit dizzy.
"It could be worse," communicated the Master Barrister. "At least I am not sexual this season."
Greskin laughed hollowly. "Lizards to lies, I've been saying that to myself for this past decade." He waved his hand dismissively. "What was I saying? Staff -- cha. They're a simplified sub-section of the Pegasi genome, more like flakes of skin than kids. Mature Pegasi generate them as they need them, but it's considered uncouth in most circles to have more than three or four. Our estimable Master Barrister is excused from such taboos, of course -- he's a very busy Pegasi."
"But what are they?" I asked again, confused.
"Vehicles of remote sense and action," supplied the Master Barrister in a coloured whorl. "Our armless hands."
"They're like external organs," clarified Greskin. "Redundant and expendible but capable of relaying whatever they see and smell back to their..." He trailed off and looked to the Master Barrister. "Parent --?"
"I prefer the translation 'estimable phenotypical centron'," claimed the Master Barrister.
"Rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?" chimed in Greskin, looking back at me. "Anything else tugging your navel?"
I licked my lips and looked from the human being to the Pegasi, the mass of lingering coloured gases disgorged from three directions slowly dissipating as it was sucked away into tiny ventilation pores on the ceiling. I swallowed. "What's going to happen to me?"
"Ah!" said Greskin brightly, and then his face slowly grew more sober. "Well." He tapped at his plate again. "You've been charged with seven hundred and twenty-three violations of the Panstellar Charter, and twenty-nine separate portfolios of crimes against Solarkind." He looked up from the plate and gazed at me steadily. "I'm thinking bail is out of the question, cha."
The Pegasi's spongy mouth quivered and emitted a series of varicoloured ringlets of fume. "You slather my entrails across the parkland," came the voice in my ear.
The Master Barrister's long face looked from one of us to the other, large blue eyes blinking rapidly. "Has misspeaking happened?" came the question. "The translator is frequently hilarious."
Greskin shrugged sheepishly. "I think the estimable master was trying to say I made him laugh."
I chuckled drily. "It's a riot in here."
"Forgive me," said the Master Barrister. "I am not Solar."
Greskin cleared his throat and put his plate aside, resting it on Mr. Bug's shelf. "The arraignment is tomorrow morning, first sparkles. We'll have to review each of the charges and consider your plea, item by item. After you plead things should get a little cozier for you, cha. You'll be moved into a long-term cell with more...human amenities -- breathable air, a toilet, you get the idea."
"Will I be able to see anyone?" I asked. "Have visitors, I mean?"
"No," puffed the Master Barrister.
"I'm working on it," maintained Greskin, giving me an encouraging nod. "I know there's a Zorannite monk who's burning to see you for one, and a brace of executives to boot." He picked up his plate again and rubbed his chin. "Now, as for the charges..." He looked up. "You should sit down," he advised. "This could take a while, cha. The first charge is six leaves long."
I dropped down on the cot. "Hit me," I said.
"Item one," orated Greskin Mile expressionlessly, "first degree violation of the Dzigai Clause part eight, section sixty-nine, sub-section two, on the interoperability of class two mimetic broadcast carriers across simultaneous informatic synchronisation events -- comma -- intrastellar."
"Um," I interrupted gently. "...You say there are seven hundred of these, Greskin?"
I leaned back against the wall heavily. "Mercy."
"Shall I continue? Time leaks, dude."
I nodded morosely and gestured invitingly. The Master Barrister's steady eyes blinked three times in rapid succession, tracking my hand though the dissipating blooms of fog.
"Continue," I said, my word umber steam.